Time And Its Relatives by Peggy Aylsworth

Vinayak Harshvardhan_for Aylsworth


 

 TIME AND ITS RELATIVES

I hobble in the ruins of myself,
grateful as a bronco out to pasture.
Layers of dust find ways to hide
the glisten underneath.  Red, as in coral

thanks the longest waves of light.
I didn’t die at 24 as I once thought.
At 93 my wits remind – the bell

still tolls for me, even as my ears

have given in to half-closed doors.
This or that makes choice less

wobbly now – The sand keeps
temporary prints the sea will swallow.

Hosanna to the wheelchair and the cane.
Daylight wouldn’t be the same without them.


About the Author: Peggy Aylsworth’s poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals throughout the U.S. and abroad, including Beloit Poetry Journal, The MacGuffin,Poetry Salzberg Review, Yuan Yang (Hong Kong), White Rabbit (Chile). Her work was nominated for the 2012 Pushcart Prize.

Artwork: Vinayak Harshvardhan 

 

Oakland, California 94607 by Rebecca Chekouras

liberty

 


A clerk wielding a Remington Rand had pounded his full legal name, Earl Anthony Jones, Jr., onto the original 1969 business license fading on the wall by his chair, the window chair. In the double frame next to it, an old snapshot of his daughter, all arms and legs, was balanced by a recent, professional portrait showing the aspiring actress in New York. His grandfather, Anthony Jones, bought the Clay Street shop in 1923, the beginning of Jones & Sons, Barbers. Anthony was the confident sort—three chairs, one barber, no sons. Five years into the business, he’d acquired a second barber, a steady stream of juke jiving men who hit Oakland’s 7th Street clubs on Friday and Saturday nights, and a son he named Earl.

Earl took the business into the next generation, holding on to his father’s customers and adding, as they arrived by the score, their sons. He kept a pot of coffee going for men who arrived in the morning and left late in the afternoon, perhaps having refreshed their cup in the back room a time or two with a shot of bourbon. The big-voiced men dissected the world from Earl’s chairs, told stories and bragged on their war service, glad to be home.

On the day Mrs. Jones brought two-year-old Earl Jr. into the shop for his first haircut, Big Earl, as his customers now called him, was attending to a rotund man, combing pomade into hair cut close on the sides and back but piled high in front like the prow of a ship.

“Who that little shaver?” the man had asked.

“Oh, he local,” claimed a customer returning from his third trip to the back room. To his mother’s dismay, the odd retort wrapped its loving arms around her child and held on. By the time he was twenty, Local Jones worked the third chair in his father’s shop.

 

Local Jones put coffee on. It was for old farts like him. Young men today preferred energy drinks, chemo-green or blue as radiator fluid. Nothing you’d want to slip a shot into. The aroma of coffee, dark roasted and oily, threaded the shop, floating on the back of pomade and the astringent lotions that put the sting in a close shave. Jones took up his broom and swept through a big yellow butter pat morning sunlight had thrown on the floor. He tried a shop assistant once but the floor never looked right when someone else did it. When he reached the door, he flipped the sign from Closed to Open and waited while Officer James Boscana parked his black and white cruiser at the curb. Jones raised his hand to the beat cop and opened the door.

Boscana climbed out and called to Jones over the car’s roof. “You see any suspicious-looking types hanging around here yesterday?”

“Everybody come into my place a suspicious-looking type,” Jones replied. Bada-boom. Their favorite joke. Then he reached back inside for a bright pink box. “You want a donut?” He popped the lid on a dozen sugar-dusted, crispy-edged jelly donuts fat and snug as sleeping babies under a blanket of waxed paper. “Here,” he said pushing the box toward Boscana. “I’ll get you a coffee, too.”

“No, thank you,” Boscana said and held up his hands to ward off the persistent generosity of Local Jones. Five years ago, a rookie cop new to the beat, Boscana took routine shit from Old Oakland merchants. But not from Jones. Boscana was welcome in the little wormhole back to 1923. The chairs, white as hospital cabinets and upholstered in black leather, swiveled on shiny nickel stems bolted to red and white floor tiles. The original mirror ran the length of the shop and threw a broad bar of reflected sunlight against the opposite wall.

“You never take nuthin’?” Local asked. “Because I mean don’t let me hear you take a Coke and chips from some place up the street and don’t take nuthin’ from me.”

“Don’t make me haul you in, old man.” That was their oldest joke. That Jones, a man who’d worked every day of his adult life in the same 500 square feet, was unpredictable, the kind who’d fly off the rail in a minute.

“You want a haircut? I got time.”

Boscana removed his forage cap and checked the mirror. He ran his hand through the short bristles of his black hair. Crescent moons shone white above his ears. “Don’t think I need one just yet.” While Jones put his broom away, Boscana pulled a phone from the pocket of his black shirt. Jones had cut his hair ten days ago. Maybe he forgot.

“For real,” he said when Jones returned. “That Mexican place around the corner? It was hit yesterday in the afternoon. Lunch over, dinner still two hours out. Staff in the kitchen eating with the family. No gun. No confrontation. Guy jimmied the old wooden door and got the cash drawer out.”

“Neighborhood fella do it?”

“The cook came out when the drawer popped open; heard the bell. But the guy was halfway out the door and took off on a bike weaving through traffic. They couldn’t catch him on foot.”

“What he look like?”

“They only saw him from the back. Five ten maybe, thin, long legs. Short puff of coppery hair. All I know.”

“You sure it’s a man?” Jones asked.

“Well, you make a good point there.”

 

Dispatch was quiet. Boscana swung through the West Oakland BART station, taking the temperature of the neighborhood. Just people going to work on a summer morning. Doubles made for long days and he hoped this one would stay easy as he headed east on 5th into Jack London Square, a mixed bag of properties along the estuary and demarcated by crisscrossing freeways, rail lines, and the towering white cranes of the Port of Oakland. All of it shoulder-to-shoulder with low-end motels, the kind of bars that feature a small stage with a pole, cheap counters that served breakfast all day, and, sprinkled among the produce wholesalers, meat and fish distributors that supplied Chinatown restaurants.

There were signs the neighborhood was turning—a condo high rise, some pricier farm-to-table restaurants, a liquor store that catered to the tastes of hipsters who couldn’t afford San Francisco rents but knew Napa wines. Up and down the estuary, warehouses that had served the port a century ago were being converted one by oneintocavernous lofts. Just out of the academy, Boscana bought one in a red brick factory that had manufactured paper bags in the early 1900s. The area still had pockets of trouble. A recent murder at a club on 3rd. Sideshows in the small hours of the night that laid hot rubber on little used streets and sometimes put bullets in the air, one randomly catching a two year-old and ending his brief life. Boscana turned onto his street to do a drive by.

He found a body slumped near the curb. Female. Folded onto her knees. The hump of her rear end pointed at the sky, her head wedged under a parked car. As he approached, his worst fears were confirmed. It was his fiancé Noël trying to coax another stray dog into her arms. Things had been chill in the bedroom since he volunteered for double shifts a year ago. He needed another surgery and wanted it over and done before the wedding. Noël, alone much of the time, began rescuing soon after, starting with a pregnant bitch ready to deliver. They’d lived with at least one and as many as five miserable, flea-infested dogs since. Goodie Jackson, who drove the white ASPCA van, now made their loft a regular stop. Boscana parked and walked over.

“C’mon, baby.” Noël’s voice bounced around the hard surfaces under the Honda. “Who is mama’s baby love?” she cooed, so sugary that Boscana’s chest squeezed into a knot. He dropped to one knee and cleared his throat afraid that if he startled Noël she might crack her skull on the frame of the car she was now halfway beneath. “I’m your baby love,” he said.

“Jazz?” Noël wiggled back into daylight. A brown ball of matted fur burst free behind the Honda and raced away. “Now I’ve lost him.” Her tone proved nothing had changed since they’d gone to bed late the night before, depleted from their efforts to understand each other.

“I’m sorry,” he said. Apologies still hovered about his lips and tongue.

“No you’re not. If anything you’re glad.”

“We did just get the carpets cleaned and the space flea bombed.”

“Jazz. . .”

Boscana rose and pointed to his nameplate. “James,” he said. “When I’m in uniform it’s James. We agreed.”

“Jazz, look around this wasteland,” she opened her arms to encompass the warehouses and truck lots. “You see any people?” A symphonic funk of grating gears and loose bolts interrupted them. They both turned. Noël brushed dirt from her knees. The building’s garage door rolled up inch by grinding inch to reveal their neighbor Emilio, who gripped the laser-bright handlebars of a green, factory-perfect bike radiating outrageous brilliance from every spoke and bar. Had his grin been any bigger, it could’ve jumped off his face and lived on its own.

“Even the saddle bags have that new car smell,” he boasted, and kicked off into the street.

“You better get going, too,” Noël said, smiling at Boscana, Emilio, or the thought of getting back to her dog, it was hard to say; but when Boscana kissed her, she leaned into him before turning away.

 

Emilio flew through an industrial stretch, passing coffee roasters that put the sharp brown bite of their burn in the air. His tires buzzed like winged insects against the knobby asphalt. He came to California three years ago, just after college, to make his living teaching conversational Spanish to Anglos; halting, rudimentary conversations in beginning Spanish with people planning vacations. Students asked him, “¿Dónde vives?” in American accents hard enough to break his bones. When he answered Oeste Oakland, they always remarked in English about violence, startled that he lived there of all places and asking did he feel safe. “En español, por favor,” he reminded them. And they would retreat, asking, “¿Dónde vivió en México?”

He was from a small village in the mountains between Puerto Vallarta and Mexico City. He kept his voice lively despite the likelihood his conversational partner would then say he should never have left such a paradise and they had first gone when the kids were in school and what a difference it had made in their outlook on life, slowing down like that. He was wrong for leaving, had landed in the wrong neighborhood and no choice he could ever make would escape the laughing judgment they offered as evidence of their goodwill.

Emilio sailed along, hugging the curb, gliding in and out of tree shadows splattered todo morocho on the road like huge fried eggs, the new bike handling as smooth as the estuary at dawn. At Washington, he slipped left toward the freeway, leaning into the turn and taking it wide. He had good speed but the light turned red just as he hit 5th. Under the freeway, on the opposite corner, Goodie Jackson, who he’d gotten to know from her frequent stops to gather up Noël’s orphaned animals, waited out the same light in her white ASPCA van. He raised his arm and waved. She leaned out the driver’s side and yelled something that made her enormous, old-school sunnies bounce on her big-cheeked grin.

“Way to go, baby!” she shouted in passing when the light changed. She slapped out a series of beeps and kept the horn party going until she made the turn onto 2nd.

Emilio kicked forward. He had to keep his eyes on the road or risk losing his wheel gleam to the bird shit and gnarled vomit that paved the 880 underpass. When he first opened the studio, he formed the habit of naming out loud, in English, everything he saw on his daily commute. It was something he encouraged his students to do, too, to make a game of vocabulary building. If he saw something for which he had no words, he would look up a translation as soon as he got to his office and make a note on index cards that he reviewed between classes.

He had this stretch of Old Oakland down. The underpass never changed and he was able to say, without having to glance up and risk his wheels: huddled man wearing an enormous blue parka, its fur-trimmed hood pulled tight rain or shine, winter or summer; OPD headquarters and Superior Court, plain clothes detectives hurrying to Crown Vics, their Glocks clipped to their belts; TV news vans positioning their anchors and running up their antennas, knots of young men working the corners, handing out bail bond cards and key chains; and a queue of people called to jury duty.

He cleared the shadow of the freeway and slowed at 7th. He stood, gliding a minute before swinging his right leg over the seat so that he now balanced his full weight on the left pedal, his right foot tucked behind his left. Riding side saddle, he coasted up to the sawhorse barriers at 8th. Every Friday a little mercado sprang up at the intersection of Washington and 9th. From that axis the market radiated out one block in all four directions—to the Marriott on 10th at the edge of downtown, Broadway and Chinatown to the east, south to 8th, and west to Clay Street and Swan’s. He walked his bike through stalls of handmade soaps, long-stemmed flowers nodding in white buckets, smoky sweet incense, and jewelers bending wire and stringing beads. Housewives from Chinatown shopped for garlic, eggs, honey, olives, and almonds. He threaded through chocolatiers and pie bakers, and passed a tent selling kettle corn which was dreadful. Food trucks, just starting to heat their oil and chop vegetables, had taught him to love the sighing-vowel and soft consonant sounds of bahn mi, samosas, pad Thai, po’boys.

He made a breakfast from samples. Frutas y verduras were easy to remember: plums, oranges, apples, grapes, and strawberries from the Central Valley, picked by people who looked like him. Other produce had been harder to learn; especially the herbs—those pungent green, purple, and black leaves tied with string and labeled in kanji. The silver lining was he overcame his initial shyness about speaking English in the U.S. Emilio, blessed with persistence as well as intelligence, asked what things were and, in striking up conversations, he’d grown accustomed to street vernacular and idiom. He learned to joke. Among the amas de casa pushing fold-up wire shopping trolleys or strollers heaped with bags and bundles of fresh food, a baby in there somewhere, he’d met Xi and his new home opened to him through his first U.S. friend.

 

“Now there’s a stray ought to be picked up,” Goodie said as she brought the van to a stop behind the flashing red lights of a railroad crossing barrier. Her remark was directed at a young man standing on the opposite corner of Embarcadero & Clay among the thin string of reverse commutes just off the ferry from San Francisco. He was noticeable for his five-inch platform stilettos, a bit scuffed but otherwise looking fine. He wore what Goodie knew from shopping resale stores with a religious fervor to be a 1970s Diane von Fürstenberg jumpsuit of black and gold geometric patterns on a white ground, cinched at the waist with a gold lamé belt. His right hand held a burning cigarette and, swinging on the curled forefinger of his left, an auburn bubble wig, cut to fall just below the ear. Despite the shadow of a patchy beard, he’d taken the trouble to reapply a summery pink lipstick. The 7:45 AM Capitol Corridor, destination Sacramento and the business of state government, blasted its approach in one continuous wall of chest-convulsing horn. When the final car cleared the intersection, the stylish young man took a drag from his smoke, then ground it out and stepped into the crumbling intersection as sure-footed as a Billy goat in his toe peeps.

Goodie took a left onto Embarcadero. At Washington, an Oakland squad car hugged the curb opposite the Regal Cinema. Seeing it, Noël ducked low in her seat.

“Let’s skip Chicken-N-Waffle,” Goodie said with a frown. “Eat outside the Square.”

 

His beige Choos, already chipped at the heel, were taking a beating from the crumbling sidewalks. Though his wedged feet were rubbed raw, the thought of walking barefoot through the underpass at 5th gave his stomach, already queasy from the excesses of the previous evening, a threatening lurch. He should’ve come home when the Castro Street bars closed but he’d taken a Viagra and why waste a four-hour erection? He checked the front of the von Fürstenberg to make sure he wasn’t offending and hurried along, anxious to get to his office near Swan’s and switch to his mild mannered day job self. His grandparents and great aunts would still be at tai chi on Alice Street near the Post Office. No danger there. His brother, two years younger, would be BARTing north to Berkeley where he was in the Haas School of Business at Cal. The real danger was his mother or father running to the Friday market to pick up something for the restaurant.

To avoid that possibility, Xi jogged left to pick up Clay despite extra yardage on dogs already howling. He pulled himself up to his full five feet six as he approached the big window of Jones & Sons, winking at his barber where Mr. Jones stood guard over the neighborhood. Xi hoped at least his hair looked good as he hobbled past. Another half block to the housewives’ market. He ran the last few yards to Xi’s Travel and slid his key into the lock. He was one twist short of home free when he heard his name called by a familiar voice and froze.

“Herbert?”

His heart shrank to the size of a BB. Xi whipped around, caught his heel on the brick pavers of the little plaza and fell back against the door. “Emilio,” he cried with relief, forgetting he was wearing women’s cocktail pajamas, five inch heels, and Revlon Moisturizing Frost Lipstick in a shade called Peekaboo Pink.

“You are doing . . .?” Emilio’s English failed.

“The walk of shame,” Xi said hurrying inside. He stopped, facing the interior, placed his left hand on its corresponding hip, cocked it high in the air and shot a smoldering pout back over his shoulder, his lips a pink rosebud. With lowered his eyes, he threw his chin in the air and demanded, “Repite.

Walk. Of. Shame.” Emilio dutifully pronounced and then gave his friend the thumbs up.

Xi peeled a sticky note from the back of his door and slapped it on the front: Back in 5 minutes. He shut the door and, leaning against it, kicked off his Choos. Bullet dodged but—Oh. His. Head. The thing about Moscow Mules is they will kick your pretty ass all the way home.

 

“Depends on what you want.” Goodie pushed away what remained of the Chicken-Fried Steak and Eggs Special, mostly skid marks where her bulldozing biscuit had sought the last drop of everything. They’d gone only as far as Jingletown. “The dick or the vajayjay.”

“You know it’s more than that,” Noël said. She’d barely touched her Stubby, a comparatively modest platter of two wings, a waffle, biscuit, and the yellow eye of a fried egg.

“I got the vajayjay, s’all I’m saying.” Goodie helped herself to a wing from Noël’s plate.

 

Buenos Días Español didn’t face the street, one of its many charms—fewer distractions, less noise, and, important in summer, cooler. The L-shaped interior courtyard of the old housewives’ market was shaded by surrounding buildings. On opposite sides of the fountain at its center, the courtyard’s anchor tenants, Buenos Días Español and, across the brickwork, Xi’s Travel, represented in the fly-weight division of the service economy.

Emilio slipped his key into the lock on the aluminum frame and opened the door to colors that were, as one of his students had said, “Native bright!” With his bike tucked against the blood red wall behind his desk at the back of the room, he set about tidying a ring of white folding chairs that took up much of the interior. The coffee table held picture books and magazines from Mexico, Central America, and Spain. Low bookshelves kept dictionaries and phrase books within easy reach for Conversation Time. Wall maps allowed beginners to find and say a few words about where they were traveling. Week-old flowers drooped in vases scattered around the room. Emilio gathered these and wrapped them in newspaper. Once he had the vases washed and refilled, he set them about the room and left for the mercado to buy replacement bouquets in lively colors that would really pop against the primary blues, reds, and yellows of Native bright Buenos Días Español.

 

Officer Avilla, a two-year veteran to Boscana’s five, started the minute he buckled his seat belt and kept the riff at full throttle without much conversational help from his partner. The guy could ruin a small space faster than a mosquito. It made for a long second shift. Noël just had no idea.

“The Mayor has fucked us to pieces. You know that, Jimmy? Started with that Occupy shit. We had ’em.” Avilla watched the street as he spoke. “I mean we had those bastards flat out and what does she do?”

“Yeah, well,” Boscana replied, keeping it neutral.

“Hey, Blue Bottle. Cuppa joe?”

Boscana pulled up at the bean roaster and put the cruiser in neutral. “I’ll stay by the computer,” he said.

Avilla popped out of the cruiser and entered the big-windowed brick and steel shop famous for high octane shots and jived his way to the front of the line, a borderline abuse of uniform that irritated the hell out of Boscana, though it did bring Avilla back promptly.

“Look,” Avilla said, throwing a leg and hip into the front seat, the rest of him thudding in after. “Our line in the General coulda been saved if she hadn’t forced us to put helicopters in the air every night for months is what I’m saying.”

Boscana passed on the invitation to look at his partner’s argument and, instead, glanced left prior to turning. The Egyptian who sold shawarma and kabobs out of his blue-paneled truck on Webster waved. Boscana nodded and returned the vendor’s easy smile.

 

Local Jones cracked the snap on the cape tenting his customer and swung it away from the man’s neck and shoulders in a toreador move he’d perfected over forty plus years in the shop. A newer move, one for which he had as yet little practice, was concealing the persistent tremor in his hands. It was around the holidays, when he’d had so many clients back to back, that he first noticed a jangly little nerve cork-screwing from deep in his shoulder up through his neck. First, his right hand trembled. Then, a few weeks later, his left shared the same little shiver as though the two had discovered something exciting; a secret they kept from him. He tried cutting down on caffeine but to no effect.

Working the chair next to him, Bill Mason, his Tuesday/Thursday tattoo cut man, carved the Dubs logo into the back of a young man’s head. It was a precise business wielding a shaver to carve out a basketball bouncing over the Golden Gate Bridge. Jones turned his back to the second chair to clean and put away his combs and scissors. When he glanced to the mirror, Mason was looking right at him.

When he wasn’t with a customer, Jones stood at the window and made sure some version of shit did not trouble this section of Clay. Even standing still, he buzzed like Mason’s shaver. All the time now he could feel it, whatever “it” was, sizzling in his brain like white grease on a black skillet. On his fortieth birthday, he’d laughed along with everyone else, making old man jokes he didn’t really believe but the occasion called for them. He was still in his prime and his wife loved him. At fifty the jokes weren’t as funny and his back hurt at the end of the day. Crossing sixty, he could feel the needle flirting with Empty. His feet ached by noon; his back could go with one wrong move. He became cautious. He was afraid to go to the doctor and putting it off made it worse. Then she died; just okay one day and dead six months later from a fast-moving cancer nobody saw coming. Now he was terrified. He’d spent his entire working life in this one room. Not that it hadn’t been good to him, but . . . his entire life.

 

Hasta luego.” Emilio held the door for students who filed past shouting or murmuring adios. He shut the door and pumped his fist in the Friday air. A line of food trucks waited just around the corner. Throughout class whiffs of empanadas, grilled sausages, roasted chicken, some red-hot spicy thing—any of which would be excellent washed down with an icy horchata—teased his appetite. He slid a rubber band up over his pants cuff and walked his bike to the front where he leaned it against his leg and pulled the door open. He could easily walk the half block to market. He chose to ride for the sheer pleasure of owning a new bike. Across the courtyard, staring straight at him, Xi’s yellow note lied, Back in 5 minutes. Using a process he’d learned to call deductive logic, Emilio guessed Herbert was sleeping one off on the long, deep couch of Xi’s Travel. He settled his bike against the interior window wall, walked over, and tapped the glass.

From inside came a deep moan and the soft tumble of something falling to the floor. A single, blood shot eye appeared between slats of window blind. Emilio gave a little finger waggle. The door of Xi’s Travel opened just enough to permit one red eye sufficient orbit to swing to the left and then roll to the right before settling on Emilio.

“¡Ay!”he yelped, seeing the killer hangover in his friend’s face. “Man, you need anything?”

Xi’s voice was no more than a whisper, “I need a soda, baby.” After a few wet coughs to rearrange throat phlegm, he added, “A plate of chicken and rice wouldn’t hurt.”

“Will you be able to open today?” Emilio fingered the sticky note on the door.

“Emmie, nobody actually comes here.” Xi gripped the door with one hand and covered his eyes with the other. “That’s for my parents. My customers are on the phone or online. I’d probably faint if someone came through the door.” The speech deflated him like a balloon long after the party was over.

Emilio launched from Xi’s door with the determined wince of a man whose self-proclaimed mission was to set right the mistake of another. In the mercado, he bought chicken and rice and loaded the white Styrofoam square into his saddle bag along with a dozen artisanal tortillas. He ate a Vietnamese salad of fresh herbs and grilled shrimp sprinkled with chopped peanuts, the whole thing topped with green cilantro and orange carrot strips and dressed with a vinegary sauce. At Two Bois Bakery he let loose on a half-dozen chocolate-chip peanut butter cookies and then pedaled over to Mama Desta’s liquor store on Clay where he locked his bike to street sign and went in.

Emilio tugged a six pack of Coke from the cold case along the back wall. One can just was not going to do it for Señor Xi. At checkout, a young man, maybe sixteen and sporting a copper colored pouf of hair, stepped aside to let Emilio go first. From the relative safety of a Plexiglas box, the counter man rang up the Coke. Emilio added a phone card, meaning to call his mother in Mexico before heading home tonight. Outside, he arranged the last of his purchases in his saddle bags and kicked off from the curb.

 

From the window, where he watched the street but listened to the A’s game, Local Jones saw Herbert’s friend, the Spanish teacher, glide by. He was followed by a loping puff of copper hair atop a lanky frame and a pair of long legs. Jones pulled an ancient flip phone from his trouser pocket and, pausing only to scratch his ear, punched up his contact list, arriving almost immediately at Boscana, Officer J.

“Hey,” Jones said when Boscana picked up. “Duracell just go by.”

“Coppertop?”

“Could be. Five ten, skinny, long of leg.”

“What’s his 20?”

“He headed toward Swan’s. I think.”

Boscana pocketed his phone and said, “We have reliable eyeballs on a person wanted for questioning in the Mexican break in.”

“Your man Local Jones?” Avilla said. “The one barber Neighborhood Watch Team?”

“My man Jones,” Boscana replied, careful to keep his voice neutral.

 

Emilio dug through his saddle bags to resurrect the carton of chicken and rice and six-pack of carbonated brown sugar water known to have an ameliorating effect on the recently hammered. There was no answer to his knock at Xi Travel so he put his ear to the mail slot above the handle. The radio was on, good sign, and water ran. Emilio set the chicken and Coke close to the door and crossed the narrow plaza, pushing his bike along by the back of its seat. He opened his door and was greeted by a thin layer of sweet smelling rot, not at all unpleasant whiffs of green going to slime wrapped in newspaper. He’d forgotten to take the old flowers to the trash. He leaned the bike against the wall near the door and glanced over to Xi’s.

He was reluctant to leave the food there, especially at this hour when men from the rescue mission on Washington hovered around the edge of the mercado hoping to score a bite. It was another half hour before his afternoon group. He could run the soppy old flowers to the bins at the end of the alley, come back, knock again at Xi’s, eat a cookie, review some flash cards, and be ready to roll at 1:30. He scooped the flowers up out of the bathroom sink in back and sprinted into the plaza and down the alley, keeping one ear cocked toward Xi’s door.

Emilio sidestepped a trio of accordion, guitar, and violin tuning up prior to taking the tidy, hay bale stage at the mercado, leapt over a pair of generators supplying electricity to the trucks on 9th, and hoisted the lid on a 3-yard dumpster, tossing in the flowers and letting the lid slam. Perhaps this broad band of noise and confusion prevented him from identifying the substrata of screaming that was, in fact, Herbert Xi repitiendo, “He’sgotyourbikehe’sgotyourbike.” It was when Emilio turned and saw his friend Herbert, wet from the shower and clutching a towel to his waist, that random data inputs rearranged into the distinct impression that something was wrong. It took him another second to see a copper-haired youth run his new bike down the alleyway and hop on just as he made Clay Street.

“¡Ay, ay, ay!” Emilio took off running. In ten long strides he was at Xi’s Travel. “Herbert!” he begged in passing and Xi, still holding his towel and the chicken, joined the chase.

 

Jones stayed at the window, watching, his fingers wrapped around his phone, clutching it for no good reason except it connected him to Boscana and possibly because it kept his trembles from the prying attention of Bill Mason. The Spanish teacher raced into the frame, catching Jones by surprise. He was followed by Herbert Xi, the fingers of one hand digging into a clamshell of Styrofoam, the other hand holding a towel flapping at his waist.

Jones ran outside. “Whoa!” he called, his arms spread wide. “What’s going on?”

“He’s gone east on 7th,” the teacher yelled. He whipped left and right searching for something, anything that would help, a bolt of lightning, a rodeo lasso.

Jones turned to Herbert, the man he knew, to ask what was happening, but Xi was bent over the gutter heaving what looked to be a stream of maraschino cherries and lime rinds into the more drab refuse already sheltered there. Xi waved the attention away and handed the box of chicken to Mason, who’d come running out of the shop with a string of men.

“Uh, no thank you,” Mason said while Xi wiped his chin.

“He’s getting away.” It was the Spanish teacher, pained and fighting to hold onto hope.

The knot of men on the sidewalk looked to Jones, waiting for him to make a move, say something, tell them what to do. “My car,” he said and ran into the street toward the opposite curb and the Impala parked there. The teacher ran after him. “Emilio,” he said pointing at his heart. In the short space of two slams they were tearing up Clay, making the left onto 7th through a yellow light. At the red light on Washington, Jones pressed his lips tight and put his foot against the gas pedal hoping not to be noticed by any of the dozen officers coming in or out of the main OPD station.

“Left on B’way,” Emilio directed from the shotgun seat.

Jones blasted the horn as a general declaration of righteousness and took a tire-smoking left onto Broadway.

“There,” Emilio pointed to a flash of green making a right onto 9th. “Chinatown.”

The light changed and the crosswalk filled with old women pushing wire shopping baskets, their short dark hair peeking from under broad-brimmed hats, the cuffs of their cloth jackets rolled above the wrist, loose cotton pants flapping above black slippers. Young women with babies on their hips or strapped to their chests pulled empty red wagons they would load at market. Scattered among them all, men in gray slacks and tan cardigans, white shirts buttoned at the neck, brown spotted hands clasped behind bent backs tottered along. Emilio grabbed the dash just above the glove box and leaned forward in his seat as Jones inched the Impala through the intersection and into Chinatown on a Friday.

Cars at the curb were hemmed in by big, double-parked delivery trucks. Men in white aprons, an inch of cigarette in the corners of their mouths, rode rear lifts heaped with bins of fish packed in ice, melons still crusted with the dirt of the field, dark green okra, long and ridged, spiky durian, mangos, peanuts, and a hundred other things. On the ground, men in paper garrison caps wheeled red dollies back and forth, barking into their phones, taking orders, giving orders, shouting to the men on the lifts, everything rushed and slow at the same time. All of it choked the four-lane, one-way street down to one hotly contested center lane.

“I don’t have anywhere to go,” Local cried. He grabbed his cell phone and flicked it open. “The fuck’s redial?” he complained, punching around the little buttons with his big shaky thumb. Emilio jumped from the passenger side and ran into the crowd. The irate honking of horns and shouts in Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Korean needed no translation: Move your damned car. Local ripped the key from the ignition and burst from the driver’s side into the street. From somewhere around his waist he heard the smallest voice in the world shouting his name and realized he still held the mobile. “Running east on 9th between B’way and Webster, maybe Harrison,” he managed to gasp into the phone before a wave of nausea overtook him and he wheezed to a stop. He could no longer see Emilio.

 

They crept down 9th against traffic each watching the sidewalks. Boscana hit a few staccato bursts from the siren; Avilla used the PA to shout in Mandarin, “Clear the street, move it!” His accent so thick people stopped and stared. About hundred yards in, Boscana threw the car into park and both doors swung wide to the street. Avilla put his hand on his taser.

“Put it away,” Boscana shouted.

A crowd had formed and Boscana had to force his way through, shouting and shoving people aside. Emilio had a young man, coppery hair in a short Afro, by a wad of shirt in each fist. The kid, maybe sixteen, thrashed in broad hard movements to get free. The green bike lay at their feet as they scuffled. Emilio was hit in the upper lip and nose with a hard right. Stunned, he fell back, getting his feet caught up in the scarred and scraped bike frame. About to go down, he helicoptered his arms for balance. Avilla reached out and caught him. Freed, the youth tried to run but another pair of arms emerged from the crowd to encircle him.

Local Jones had him from behind. He’d gotten his arms around the boy’s chest and held on, pulling tight and squeezing the air from his lungs, stifling him. A grimace like the trace of a smile vanished from Jones’s mouth when Boscana cuffed the suspect. Avilla let go of Emilio.

“You okay?” Boscana said to Jones, who was breathing hard and shaking. “You want me to call for an EMT?”

“I’m good,” Jones said, bending low, hands on his knees to get his breath back. Then he shot up straight. “Shit! My car’s back in the street just hangin’ open.”

 

“Thank you,” Emilio said as Jones helped him lift his bike out of the Impala.

“New?” Local hardly needed to ask.

“One day!” Emilio said.

“I’m sorry about that,” Local said and meant it.

They stood on the sidewalk in front of Jones & Sons. There was nothing more to be done. “I should check on Herbert,” Emilio said. “He isn’t feeling well.”

“Yeah. Our Herbie need to find a good man.” Local offered his hand to Emilio. “Okay then,” he said.

“Are you alright?” Emilio asked folding both his hands around Local’s one. “You’re trembling.”

Local felt his wife so keenly he could’ve sworn the dead woman stood next to him. “I haven’t wanted to go to the doctor,” he said. He held onto Emilio. “Afraid what he might could say.”

“Do you need someone to go with you?”

“No,” Jones shot back. Then, looking at the sidewalk added, “Maybe.”

“Okay then,” Emilio said and pressed Local’s hands before releasing them.

 

Boscana tossed his duffel bag across the console of a vintage Mustang and dropped behind the wheel. He thought of Noël, dissatisfied and alone. But there was no going back. He’d been clear. “My body, my journey.” This wasn’t happening to her, so at home in her skin. She couldn’t know how he felt; she could only want to understand, never getting there, growing frustrated.

Their loft was sandwiched between 880 and Oakland’s industrial waterfront in an isolated spot where boom cranes offloaded cargo and the Southern Pacific Railroad ended its westward run. He loved the estuary; something always in motion as confirmed by a line of sails in silhouette like a row of black teeth against the orange horizon. Perhaps Noël would like something else, though. He resolved to ask her, then toggled the alarm and left the Mustang under a streetlight.

Noël’s dog habit had him trained to be cautious coming home. He pushed the door open just a crack and called, “I’m home.” Nothing. Police instincts are hard to shut off. He slipped into the loft. Its 15-foot ceiling and wall of towering windows allowed enough light to see in shades of gray but not color. Starting near the door, he scanned the kitchen, and then moved into the living area, looking for anything out of place or unusual. And there, at the back, in an area defined by a ring of pull curtains suspended from the ceiling, on the dresser by their neatly made bed, was an envelope bearing his birth name. Inside a note:

“Dearest Jasmine, my love. I know we started this together . . .” He dropped the letter to his side still holding it between his thumb and curled forefinger. It didn’t require police training to guess how this was going to end.

Goodie Jackson. The dog catcher. He almost laughed. He dropped the letter in the junk drawer, that one in every kitchen that holds the things that don’t belong anywhere in particular, and, not knowing what else to do, poured a drink. He stood at the floor-to-ceiling windows and watched the water. The Coast Starlight, lights blazing in the blue-black evening, blared past on the tracks below, close enough to jump on. “I love women,” her note said. If she walked through the door now, she’d see him as nothing more than a shape, a figure in shadow unidentifiable as male or female, young or old. The drink was gone. He felt nothing.

In the bathroom, he slipped off his uniform. He ran his fingers along the pale, half-moon scars where Jasmine’s breasts had been removed. The shower was empty. Noël had taken all her creams and rinses; all the many things a woman needs.

 

White polygons undulated across the dark ceiling, thrown there by the sodium vapor lights of the port. A slow-moving freight train labored through the night; the percussion of its wheels on uneven track as dull and rhythmic as a pulse. The sound receded to nothing. Boscana rolled onto his side and watched a ghostly crane unload cargo from China. Every three weeks the same freighter offloaded containers from Guangzhou then restocked with U.S. goods. In three weeks, it would do the mirror opposite on the far side of the Pacific. Back and forth; first one way, then the other.


About the Author: Rebecca Chekouras has appeared on the Tin House blog, in Narrative Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine, Curve Magazine, and the online zine Pure Slush. Her work has been anthologized by The University of Wisconsin Press and Pure Slush books. She is a 2013 Lambda Literary Foundation Fellow and was short listed for the Astraea Foundation Lesbian Writers Fund fiction prize. In 2014, Chekouras helped launch The Basement Series in San Francisco with writers from McSweeney’s and the San Francisco Writers Grotto. She was invited to the Tin House Writer’s Winter Workshop in 2015. She lives in the Port of Oakland.

Artwork: Michael J. 

 

Revel by Ana Maria Caballero

Carlos Luis Sánchez Becerra_Retrato de Chusmita_for Caballero


 

For Dr. S. Rueda

On the night Chavez died
I needed to feel drunk
So I called my son’s pediatrician
Told him I wanted to be happy
He said I should be happy
I didn’t mention the wine
Maybe he figured and it wasn’t the first time
So I mixed white formula with water
Then drank enough to sway
With the people on TV
Even a teat gets tired of being just a teat


About the Author: Ana Caballero received Colombia’s 2014 José Manuel Arango National Poetry Prize for her book Entre domingo y domingo (“From Sunday to Sunday”). Her work has appeared in Smoking Glue Gun Magazine, Pea River Review, Red Savina Review, Big River Poetry Review, CutBank, among others, and is forthcoming in Jai-Alai and The Potomac. Every week, she writes about poetry for Zeteo Journal’s “Zeteo is Reading” section. Her poetry and book thoughts can be read at www.thedrugstorenotebook.co.

Artwork: Carlos Luis Sánchez

 

Blue Dun by Jason Kapcala

IMG_7836


When the ice begins to thaw from the lakes and streams, my brother Drew and I put in for our vacations, leave our homes, and migrate north to Lakeville. It’s part of a promise we made back when we were still in high school: to return to the spawning grounds of our ancestors and work our grandfather’s bait and tackle shop on the opening weekend of trout season.

I know everything there is to know about fishing. I can tell you which lure colors work best in low light, which test monofilament line to use when casting into heavy cover, what the fish are biting on down at the river this week, and whether the weed beds on the lake are right for running a deep-diving crankbait. But I don’t fish. I’m a musician—classically trained at the Manhattan School of Music, one of the youngest ever to receive a doctorate in musical arts. I’ve served as a substitute clarinet for the Rochester Philharmonic and the Utica Symphony, and I’ve worked as a pit performer for the Syracuse Opera and various theater companies. By my colleagues’ standards, I’m actually quite accomplished for a guy in his twenties.

But I haven’t held a rod in nearly twenty years, not since the day Drew almost died.

*   *   *

Across the loosely-packed gravel lot, Alan Muchowski dangles his leg from the door of his beat-to-hell Chevy Blazer. He lights a cigarette in the cold and doesn’t say a word, doesn’t nod or wave, just watches me fumble with the lock, leaning expectantly forward and then back again into the darkness of the cab. When I finally open the doors and flip on the fluorescent lights, he steps from his truck and follows me inside.

“We’re here and Pennsylvania’s a better state for it,” he says, leaning against the doorframe, watching me unlock the cash register, his cigarette ash falling on the rubberized welcome mat.

“Mooch,” I say and point at the no-smoking sign by his head.

He looks over, inspects the sign as he smokes, pretends as though it’s the first time he’s seen it there, and then nods and shoots me a hangdog grin.

“Guess you didn’t see the sign,” I say. “There’s an ashtray outside.”

“I saw it,” he says, sniffing and flipping the butt behind him out the door.

Through the window, I can see his stepson sitting in the truck, rubbing his hands together and blowing into his palms. In all the years Mooch has been buying nightcrawlers from me, the kid has never set foot inside the shop. Not once. He’s about ten years old as far as I can tell, and I’ve never heard him called anything but “the kid.” His given name may be “the kid” for all I know. A few years ago, I overheard Mooch tell my grandfather that the kid’s old man was a General in the Army or something—not one of those loveable, softhearted White Christmas Generals either, but one who used to beat his wife and son something fierce whenever he came home hammered.

“Now, what can I get you?” I say, as Mooch ambles over to the polarized sunglasses display and checks his face in the mirror. The sunglasses we sell are specially designed to cut the glare on the water, and when you put them on a fish appears in the corner of the mirror to illustrate just how much you miss by not wearing them. But Mooch doesn’t try on the sunglasses. He opens his mouth instead and looks at his tongue, scraping it with his pinky.

“Three dozen crawlers,” he says, wiping his finger on his flannel shirt and wandering over to the rod rack. He pulls an expensive seven-foot graphite and swings it like a swashbuckler back and forth in front of his body.

“You sure you don’t want to try spoons this year?” I say as he slides the rod back into the holder. I am trying to help him. I happen to know that last year the locals slaughtered the stocked lake trout fishing spoons. But Mooch eyes me suspiciously, as though I’m trying to sell him anideology he’s got no use for.

“Just worms,” he says, and I go to the cooler and pull out three Styrofoam containers marked with the number twelve.

The fat, beige nightcrawlers scrunch down when I flip open the top of each container. I check to see that the artificial soil is moist and wipe a few clumps of it from the air holes my grandfather punched in the plastic lids. While I check the count, Mooch fingers a package of chartreuse soft bait. He reads the back of the plastic bag, smells its contents, and then tosses it in a bin of split shot as I return to the register.

“Much obliged,” he says when I ring up the sale.

From the porch, I watch his rusty trailer kick up rooster tails of stone and dust as it thunders out of the parking lot—the faded, yellow bumper sticker that reads: I’d Rather Be Fishing, disappearing around a bend in the service road that leads to Grady’s Lake. Back inside, I remove the soft bait packet from the split shot bin, and hang it back in aisle one where it belongs. Then I lean against the concrete bait tanks and wait for the influx of anglers.

When I was a kid, the Lakeville area was the honeymoon capital of the world. Presidents vacationed here. But now the only outsiders that regularly visit Lakeville are the fishermen. On this one weekend of the year, they roll into town, rumbling down the gravel side roads in dented Chevy Blazers and well-worn Jeep Cherokees, fishing rods propped across backseats, aluminum boats in tow. Men in brown canvas vests, waders, and baseball caps, trudge below bridges and along soybean fields to fish the native trout runs. Fathers take their children to the boat launch to pick up temporary permits. These men (they are mostly men) are reticent and pensive. If a bit rough around the edges, they appreciate the landscape for what it is. They are a non-invasive species. Nature poets. Even Mooch.

 

My grandfather keeps a six-foot spinning rod and a tackle box in the back of his truck at all times so that if the opportunity arises, he can toss a few casts. He took waders to my cousin’s wedding in New York, storing them in an army green duffle bag in the trunk, pulling them on over his tuxedo pants after the ceremony and sneaking away to fish Willowemoc Creek during the reception. He reads all the fishing magazines, analyzes the pictures and the charts, mumbling to himself and throwing fake casts at the trophies mounted on the walls of his den—a largemouth bass, all three of the native trout species, a Walleye set against driftwood, and one enormous Pike baring a mouthful of bone-white teeth. He reels in imaginary whoppers while he watches Bill Dance and Roland Martin on the twenty-four-hour Outdoor Life Network and can work a fishing platitude into any conversation.

“Well, if it isn’t the one that got away,” he says when I shamble down the steps and into the kitchen. I can smell bacon frying in the cast-iron skillet on the stove, and I pour myself a mug of coffee while my grandmother scrambles eggs.

At breakfast we listen to Drew tell stories about mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and ventricle defibrillation. Drew saves lives full time as an EMT with a small ambulance company in Latrobe. A respectable job for a man. His training has come in handy more than once on opening weekend. Just last year he removed a fishhook from Mooch’s eyebrow when the kid caught him on a back cast. I can still remember the look on Mooch’s face as Drew approached slowly with a pair of bolt-cutters in one hand and a bottle of rubbing alcohol in the other.

I sit down at the table and Drew gets up to fill his glass of orange juice. Standing at the counter, he places one hand on top of the other and performs CPR on the frozen chicken my grandmother plans to bake for dinner. He counts each compression aloud, and before my grandmother can snatch the bird away from him, yells “clear” to demonstrate exactly how vocal paramedics are. My grandfather laughs while my grandmother scolds Drew for beating up seven pounds of frozen fowl, mumbling “paskudny” under her breath and shuffling back to the oven.

“And how are they biting in the wide world of music, David?” my grandfather says.

I’ve never heard the word “music” used in a fishing metaphor before, but I play along. I talk about performing Beethoven’s symphony no. 3, the Eroica, and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite in front of a packed house on opening night and my grandfather gets up to refill his coffee mug. He knows I don’t make much money, knows I spend most of my time hopping from one orchestra to the next as positions open. He doesn’t ask when I’m going to settle into a stable job, when I am going to start thinking about my future—a home, a family, a 401k—not anymore, but the question hangs in the air regardless. He’s nearing eighty years old, and he still hopes that one of us, the grandchildren he and my grandmother raised, will take over the store when he dies. That’s not entirely true. He still hopes that I will take over. Drew already has a good job.

I don’t tell him that I turned down an opportunity to play with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra this weekend to sell Stren fishing line and Powerbait, because I don’t even understand the decision myself, and I know that I’d be speaking in a pitch he can’t hear. That’s not to say that he’s heartless; he just doesn’t understand the nature of my profession. In his mind, my frequent pay-as-you-play, substitute performer gigs rank somewhere just above walking dogs and babysitting—I’m another starving artist, pursuing a pipe dream. He doesn’t know that the orchestras I play in are funded by a council for the arts, has no sense of the thousands of patrons I perform to every year. He only knows he hasn’t seen me on television or in his iTunes library.

But for all his misgivings, I have sensed moments when he seemed eager to learn about what I do for a living. And in those moments, I haven’t made much of an attempt to explain my life to him.

 

The west bank of Grady’s Lake is dotted with homemade vinyl-sided shacks built atop cinder blocks. Shabby places you can rent cheap. My grandfather’s cabin is no exception, and every spring he rents it out to Mooch.

The interior sports an eclectic mix of nautical furnishings picked up at various yard sales and auctions: an amateur oil painting of a 19th-century clipper ship, two framed photographs of boats cut from a National Geographic magazine and glued to cardboard, and a two-year-old calendar featuring pencil drawings of different North American sport fish every month. A ratty bed sheet serves as a window blind, a rusty mushroom anchor doubles as a doorstop, and a thirty-year-old television set, jerry-rigged to a car antenna, sits atop the kitchen table.

“Spa package it ain’t, but it’s cheap,” my grandfather says, tossing the key to Mooch as he steps down off the porch. “David will help you get launched.”

“Much obliged,” Mooch says, lighting a cigarette in cupped hands, dropping his spent matchstick in the yard. “The kid’s real excited, aren’t you, kid?”

At the mention of his name, the kid jumps a little. Then he nods and shifts his weight from one foot to the other and back again. It’s easy to see how much his old man—his George Patton of a father—messed him up, and I wonder if that isn’t why he’s always so quiet. I’ve seen him fish. He tackles it with the restless determination of a child. But when he’s off the water without a pole in his hands, it’s like he’s hiding inside himself—like he’s hoping misfortune will miss him somehow if he keeps swimming with his mouth shut. He’s the kind of kid that needs sticking up for. I can appreciate that.

“They’ve been swimming with their mouths shut the past few weeks,” I say, resisting the urge to glance over at the kid. “Postfrontal conditions.”

Mooch looks at me and raises his eyebrows and smokes his cigarette. “You don’t say, hot shot,” he says, finally, resting his hand on the thirty-year-old Evinrude outboard that dangles from the stern of his boat. “Well, at least we’ll get to try out the new motor. I got her for a song.” He lowers his voice and, with his cigarette, gestures toward the kid, who is now sitting on the edge of the porch, picking splinters of wood from the steps. “I’ve been saving up some of his old man’s child support. If it turns out he’s not college material, I can maybe buy myself a new boat.”

“All we can do is pray,” I say.

Mooch drops his cigarette on the deck and crushes it out with his foot, and says, “Right, let’s hit it.”

From the outside, Mooch’s truck looks entirely inconspicuous amongst the other vehicles in the lot. Sure, it has a lot of miles on it, and plenty of wear to show for it—the antenna has been kinked by a low tree branch and it no longer retracts into the hood, the side view mirror is held on with gray duct tape, and the fenders are slowly being eaten by sandpapery patches of rust that flake off in amber-metallic clouds when you run your finger over them—but my grandfather isn’t exactly running a country club.

“Do me a favor and kick some of that mud off your feet before you get in,” Mooch says, climbing behind the wheel.

I swing my legs out the door and kick my heels together. Then I squirm to position myself around a seat coil that’s sprung through the ripped leather upholstery. My feet slide on the floor. If the exterior of the car has character, the inside is a nightmare. It’s sensory overload. Little balls of iridescent blue fishing spool, and split-shot lead sinkers, and red and white striped bobbers roll along the floorboards. Discarded 100 Grand bar wrappers and waxy blue McDonald’s wrappers fill the space beneath the seats, and silvery fish scales twinkle in greasy rainbows. The carpet is a mulch of cigarette butts and dried apple cores and stale sandwich crusts and mud and pinecones and wet leaves. Burnt coffee stains the dash, and a black Hefty bag plugs the space where a rear window belongs. The seat cushions reek with the permeated stench of spilled salmon roe.

“Don’t lean back too hard there; I’ll have a hell of a time getting the seat upright again,” Mooch says, fumbling for his lighter.

In the back, the kid sits quietly, staring out the window at the trailers and cabins as we drive the steep slope towards the boat launch. Low-hanging shade trees stretch out over the lake. Homemade plank-wood docks bob in the water, their white-wall-tire boat bumpers and galvanized pipe moorings dipping in and out of the green.

“Do me a favor and put your boot over that hole in the floorboard,” Mooch says, his cigarette hopping in his mouth.

I nod and reposition my foot. When we hit a rut, the glove compartment door pops open.

“Don’t mind that,” Mooch says, backing us down the ramp, the truck sliding a bit on the loose stone.

This year, the water is low—the DCNR drew down the lake twice this winter for spring runoff—and large slabs of concrete have broken from the bottom edge of the launch. It’s a two-foot drop off. What my grandfather would call an “axle breaker.”

“Holy shit,” Mooch says, as we pull closer.

“There’s no way you’re gonna get that trailer deep enough without swamping your truck. It’s too damn steep,” I say. “I’ll have to push you off, but I’d better call Drew to back us in.”

“The kid can do it,” Mooch says, glancing up in the rearview mirror. “You’re up to the task, right?”

I twist around in my seat to see the kid’s reaction, to see if any fear or hesitation registers on his face, but the kid is as impassive as ever. There’s no hint of excitement in his eyes as he crawls up from the back, positioning himself on the center console. I doubt his legs are even long enough to reach the pedals.

I start to say something, start to suggest that maybe we should think this through a bit, but Mooch steps from the truck, balancing himself on the trailer tongue, and scrambles over the bow. He primes the outboard and then signals for the kid to start backing the trailer into the water. The kid crawls over the seat, releases the brake, directing the rear of the trailer down into the lake. He does a good job of it, too. And when the truck is submerged to the wheel wells, Mooch calls over the drone of the motor, “Give me a shove.”

I curse softly and slosh my way to the back of the truck, straddle the trailer arm and inspect the front of the boat.

“You forgot to release the winch,” I say, reaching down and unclipping the tow hook from boat’s bow. I step up onto the trailer hitch, balancing myself by grabbing the nose of the boat with one hand and the fender of the Blazer with the other. Then I give the boat a good push and watch as Mooch backs it away, circling around towards the docks with a jaunty yachtsman’s salute.

“All right, now pull it out slowly, kiddo,” I say, leaning in through the rear window.

The kid nods and presses down on the gas. The engine wheezes a little and the tires spin in the soft ground at the bottom of the ramp, skidding and spraying gravel.

“Hold up,” I say, cupping my hand around my mouth. “Put it into 4-wheel.”

I lean down and watch through the back as the kid grips the knob on the floor and pulls it towards him, and for some reason, it doesn’t register with me that he’s grabbed the shift and not the four-wheel drive lever. The kid really guns it this time, too, and the truck jerks backwards, accelerating in reverse, kicking stone and mud into the water with a deep, throaty splash.

            “No, forward,” I say, but it’s too late. The trailer wheels have already broken free of the ramp and there’s no way we aren’t going in the lake.

            “Whoa!” I yell. “Whoa! Stop!” I lose my grip on the back of the tailgate, my right arm flailing as I grab for something to steady myself, but my hand hits only air. My feet slip on the trailer tongue, and I’m falling backward into space and landing with a perfect, reverse-belly-flop splash in the reeds along the side of the ramp.

            When I stand, putrid water drips from my hair and my clothing, and I’m covered in slimy green algae and silt. It’s clear that the truck has gone over the edge. The water is halfway up the door, and I’ll be surprised if the rear axle isn’t broken in half. I slog over to the driver’s side window and lean in and turn off the ignition. The kid chokes the steering wheel in both fists, gripping so hard that his knuckles turn white. Water pours into the truck through the door seals, and the junk food wrappers float like wax paper boats in the back.

“Okay, kid. You’re done,” I say.

The kid doesn’t cry, but it’s clear he’s nervous. He keeps drumming his fingers on the wheel, and when he looks at me, his eyes are so distant, so forlorn, that I think I just might be the one to cry.

 

 

 

I dry off in the back room of my grandfather’s store, throwing my jeans over the old clothesline strung for hanging waders and sitting my boots on top of the radiator to dry out. If someone were to come in now to buy bait, I’d look quite a sight ringing up the sale in my underwear, but at this point, I don’t care. I had to wait a half hour for the tow truck to come fish Mooch’s Blazer out of the drink. I’m wet. I’m cold. And I smell like the lake. I wrap an old towel around my shoulders and pad out into the store to grab some gear off the shelves.

In my grandfather’s store, everything has its place—soft baits in aisle one; Shad Raps, Hot ’N Tots, and all other crank bait in aisles two through four, arranged by brand and size; rods sprouting up from the holder by the door like tall, grassy cattails; and reels out on display in the glass case by the register. As kids, Drew and I used to unravel the long strands of cast-off monofilament from the dispensary bin labeled: Fishing Line is Not Biodegradable, Please Recycle. We’d sneak around, opening jars of salmon roe, wrinkling our noses at the different pungent scents.

Along the far wall hangs a poster of trout dry fly patterns—Quill Gordons, Tom Thumbs, Blue Duns—and an array of T-shirts stenciled with our logo: a trout jumping out of the water after a fly and the words Lakeville Pro Fishing. I grab a shirt and pull it on over my head. Then I grab a pair of neoprene waders and yank them up over my hips, letting the shoulder straps dangle behind my back. I look ridiculous—like I somehow stumbled out of the stream and into the shop—but it’s better than nothing, and it will have to do until Drew comes to relieve me after lunch.

That’s always been the arrangement. I manage the shop in the mornings while my grandfather and Drew fish down the Delaware River. Because I don’t fish, it works out well for everyone. I’m free all afternoon, and I can use that time to practice the clarinet. In fact, if it’s a slow day, I can also practice right there in the shop if I feel like competing with the constant hum of the aerators in the live bait tanks, which are a cool, sweaty acoustic nightmare.

Even though I only work this shop one weekend out of the year, I have the routine down. All through high school, Drew and I managed the store, so I know how to ring up sales, know most of the prices by heart, know when to expect the afternoon rush and what to do if I catch someone shoplifting. I’m the consummate professional. In that sense, it’s not that much different from playing in a pit orchestra. Sometimes, in the pit, you won’t play a note for over half an hour, but when it’s your cue, you’re on—front and center, exceptional—and you’d better know where you are, you’d better be ready to perform. There’s no worse feeling than silence, than watching your part pass unplayed. That’s why we all look out for each other down there in the dark. And once you have the feel for it, you could take a nap if you wanted to and not miss a single beat.

That professionalism is the kind of detail my grandfather might appreciate.

Early in my career, before I moved away, people would sometimes come up to me in the supermarket or on Main Street to compliment me for my performance in one of the community orchestras. Usually, they saw my name in the playbill. Or else, they recognized my face when the local jazz band I ran with here in the Water Gap serenaded them during dinner. When these people praised my playing, if my grandfather was with me, he would grow red in the face, nodding as they talked about my natural talent and skill, and he would agree that I was a fine soloist, even though he had no real way of knowing.

“He’s a keeper,” my grandfather would say proudly, offering some excuse like, “It’s a shame I couldn’t get away from the store.”

I knew my grandfather wouldn’t show up at my musical performances uninvited, but I never asked him to attend. It was as if we had an agreement—You stick to your interests, and I’ll stick to mine. And yet, I make it sound like he never took any interest in me. That isn’t fair at all. Or even true. He was a father when Drew and I needed one. He taught me how to throw a football so that it spirals and how to choke up on a baseball bat before swinging. He taught me that pool is a game of angles and that you can line up your shot by drawing an invisible line from the desired pocket through the ball you want to hit. He showed me the proper way to filet a fish to avoid getting bones in the meat—slitting it diagonally below the dorsal fin so that the cut runs along the backbone perpendicular to the gills. And, in one especially harrowing month, he taught me to drive stick on our old Dodge pick-up. But after Drew’s accident, my grandfather never invited me to go fishing again, and I never asked.

 

 

 

It was a morning expedition, early spring, the last time my grandfather took me fishing. Drew and I couldn’t have been much older than ten, and my grandmother had packed us a picnic lunch—bologna sandwiches, potato chips, and three cold cans of Coca-Cola. Before we left the house, she made us promise to wear our life jackets, but when we got out onto the lake, my grandfather took his off, and when Drew and I pulled ours over our heads and tossed them in the corner of the boat, he didn’t say anything.

We were out mid-lake, fishing a weed bed along Marcy shoal, and my grandfather was showing me how to tie a line. He didn’t make up any silly mnemonic devices about bunnies hopping around the bushes and down the rabbit hole, as he had when he taught me to tie my shoes. Instead, he sat behind me and put his hands on mine and showed me how to thread the line through the eye of the lure, then twist it on itself a half-dozen times before threading it back through the loop it made. I understood him, but I couldn’t get my small fingers to make the line do what I wanted, and when I tried to pull it taut with my teeth, the way he showed me, it fell apart.

“Not bad for a first try,” he said, fishing line clamped in his teeth, as he tied on an Eagle Claw for me.

Drew had already had a couple of hits by the time I got my line wet, but on my first cast, the fish that struck my lure hit so hard that it nearly pulled me into the water. It grabbed the bait only yards from the boat and started down lake, buzzing line out from my reel.

“Holy crow,” my grandfather said, jumping up and nearly spilling us, our gear, our lunch, and the life vests, into the lake. “Play her nice and easy, Davie,” he said, shuffling over to me and grabbing the braided net below the seat.

I could feel the fish jerking back and forth, the flutter of its tail as it nosed down toward the weeds, diving and zigzagging and doubling the rod over on itself so that the tip practically touched the water.

“Don’t horse it,” my grandfather said. “Get your rod tip down over the boat. Keep her out of the weeds.”

I strained against the rod, just trying to keep from losing that fish and trying not to drop the rod over the side, but my arms were starting to tire and my muscles were getting that jelly sensation. I managed to draw the fish close enough to see its greenish-yellow back, and then it saw the boat and went berserk and dove again. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold it. Still, I wanted to land it myself. It was my catch. Mine. And just when I thought I couldn’t pull any longer, the fish tired out. It went dead like a log, its weight solid and heavy as a snag, and nosed up onto its side along the edge of the boat where my grandfather scooped it in the net.

“Lordy, will you look . . . at . . . that,” he said, tugging the treble from the top of the fish’s head. He reached into the nylon netting and hooked his finger along the pink gills behind the fish’s jaw. “You false hooked it. Snagged her right in the dome. I’ll be damned. What a lucky catch. What a lucky, lucky catch.”

The walleye had to be close to eight pounds, speckled olive and gold across its back. It opened and closed its mouth a few times, exposing a small row of teeth, and swished its tail in the air. Its cloudy gray eyes focused on nothing as my grandfather pressed it down across the ruler on the live well and measured its length.

“Over twenty inches from snout to spot,” he said. “What do you want to do with her?”

I looked to Drew, but he already had his line in the water again, casting and retrieving at record pace, trying for a whopper of his own. “I don’t know,” I said. “Throw it back, I guess?”

My grandfather nodded and got down on a knee. “I wish we’d brought a camera,” he said, leaning over the edge of the boat and sliding the fish, that monster of the deep, back into the lake. He slipped a hand under its belly and held it upright, letting the water filter in and out through the fish’s gills. Then with a violent flick of its tail, the fish sprang to life, thrashed the water once, and disappeared into the murk.

“Hell of a catch,” my grandfather said, grinning, and for the moment, I was speechless. Just standing there in the bow smiling and proud, letting the adrenaline ebb from my body.

On the way back to shore, my grandfather let me drive the boat.

“Go on, Davie,” he said, sliding out from behind the helm and patting the faux-leather seat. “Biggest fish brings us home.”

He’d never asked me to do anything like that before, and I wasn’t really sure what to do. I felt a churning in my stomach, but I didn’t want to disappoint my grandfather, and I didn’t want Drew to know I was nervous. So I grabbed the wheel with both hands, and my grandfather showed me how to prime the motor.

“Okay, now give it some juice,” he said.

I pressed the throttle forward with some hesitation and the bow of the boat rose in the water, bouncing a bit on the chop.

“Give it a little more,” my grandfather said over the grumble of the motor. “Then she’ll level out.”

I did as he told me, and soon we were cruising at a flat plane, running across the surface of the water, the air blowing up through our T-shirts and across our faces. My grandfather grabbed the brim of my baseball cap and pulled it backwards on my head and gave me a thumbs-up. I nodded once and leaned back in the seat, taking a hand off the wheel. I was a real boatman, guiding us in across unchartered waters, those perfect green waves. My grandfather smiled, as though he knew what this meant, and then he turned back to Drew and said something I couldn’t hear.

He was still turned, telling Drew some pointer about fishing or boating, when a jet ski shot out of a cove ahead to our starboard side. Had I known something about boating, had this not been my very first time driving, I might have handled the situation better—I might have realized that in a crossing situation you should give way, let the stand on vessel clear your danger zone, and then pass astern. But there behind the wheel, with my grandfather’s back turned, I froze. My elation, my confidence and the joy I’d felt only seconds earlier disappeared. I knew we were seconds from collision, knew that the jet skier wasn’t paying attention, had no plans to alter his course, just as one knows when two cars are about to crash at an intersection.

When my grandfather turned back, he didn’t say anything. He didn’t yell or scream or order me starboard. He just sat for a second, staring. I like to think he realized his mistake in that moment. When he grabbed the wheel from my hands, he knocked me to the floor of the boat, jerking us sideways and pulling back on the throttle. We spun in a half circle, and I rolled toward the edge, smacking my head against the live well. Drew, sitting in back with his feet propped atop the gunwale, let out a small cry and then he was over the side, his heels disappearing beneath the transom, dipping smoothly into that dark water.

Then my grandfather was overboard—only he was diving. When he sloshed back to the surface in a singular clear burst of water and foam, his glasses and hat were gone, and his eyes were wide, panicked, helpless—the kind of stare that might drown all three of us. He called Drew’s name in a way I’d never heard it before, gasped and then dunked himself under again, his boots breaking the surface of the water once, and with trembling hands I pulled the floating life preserver out from the back and tied it off to one of the metal cleats on the side of the boat.

“Please,” I whispered, leaning over the side, staring down into the shadows. “Oh, God, please.” But the only thing I could see was my own reflection on the surface of the water. My grandfather was under for too long that second time, long enough for the water to go flat above him, and after a while I thought he might not come back up. But when he did, he had Drew with an arm around his neck, and he was holding him up in the water.

The jet skiers had stopped further down the lake and were watching us now.

“Get to the other side,” he said, pushing Drew’s limp body over the side, and once I’d pulled him across the seats, my grandfather slung a leg up and rolled himself back into our little boat.

Drew’s skin was cold and his lips were turning blue when my grandfather stretched him out on floor and pressed his mouth to Drew’s and started blowing.

“Come on, boy, please, come . . . on,” he said, pressing down on Drew with both hands, and then pressing his ear to his skinny chest. He looked up at me, pinching his eyebrows above the bridge of his nose, and then he pressed down again. Hard. And Drew started retching, cloudy water dribbling out of his mouth. My grandfather turned Drew’s head and hugged him, and said, “Oh, thank God,” over and over again.

When we reached the shoreline, my grandfather called our grandmother. She got to the lake just before the ambulance did, and she trembled as she asked questions and patted our bodies all over, as though to make sure we were all there—ten fingers, ten toes. And on that afternoon, Drew rode to the hospital in the back of the ambulance, though the EMTs assured my grandparents that it was only a precaution.

 

When Drew arrives for his shift at the shop, I’m just finishing up with a customer. He leans against the doorframe and watches me ring up the sale on the register, looks me up and down, taking in my getup—the waders and T-shirt—then he says, “That’s a good look for you, Dave. Really.”

“I hate this town,” I say. “I hate coming back here, and I hate working at this damn store.”

“You don’t mean that,” Drew says, buffing out a scuff mark on the floor with the toe of his sneaker.

“Yes, I do.”

“Then why do you come back?” Drew says.

It’s the million dollar question. Why do I come back? “Obligation,” I say. “Masochism.”

“It’s not obligation,” Drew says, moving around behind the register. “It’s not even really a two-man operation. I mean, we aren’t arming nuclear warheads or landing jumbo jet-liners here. I think you do it because you know it makes Pops happy.”

And to that, I have no response.

*   *   *

Bebe’s is a small diner less than ten miles outside of Lakeville. Actually it’s more or less a dive bar with some wooden tables in the back, but at Bebe’s the drinks are cheap and the food is even cheaper, and so the locals frequent the bar at night to trade fishing tales in the dim, smoky light over a pint of Yuengling. Inside, various photographs decorate the wall—pictures of men holding up Walleye, Pike, Bass, and in one case, a prehistoric-looking Musky. My grandfather, Drew, and I sit at one of the tables eating chili and sopping it up with sourdough bread, when Mooch approaches from the bar with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

“How’s the truck, Mooch?” my grandfather says, setting his spoon down in his bowl.

Mooch smokes his cigarette, and he rubs the two-day growth of beard on his chin, and then he says, “The whole damn thing is waterlogged.”

“Hook, line, and sinker,” my grandfather says.

“Could’ve been worse,” I say. “It’s easy for a kid his age to get confused with everyone yelling at him.”

“Way I heard it, you were the only one yelling,” Mooch says, taking a rubbery step backwards.

“I don’t think I was,” I say, offering up an easy smile. “I was just speaking loud so he could hear me. I thought he might swamp us.”

Drew looks down and pushes the beans around in his chili bowl. My grandfather leans back and presses his fist to his chest, puffing his cheeks and burping. If Mooch accepts my explanation, he shows no signs of it. He just continues his furious smoking and glances awkwardly around the room.

“Take a load off,” my grandfather says, pulling out the empty chair.

“Don’t mind if I do,” Mooch says, flopping down and sighing. He points at my grandfather’s chili with the butt of his cigarette. “You finished with that?”

My grandfather pushes the bowl toward Mooch, and Mooch drops his cigarette in the chili and crosses his arms in front of his chest. “I come to tell you, I think you should apologize to the kid,” he says.

“Apologize?” I say, laughing a little. But no one else is smiling. “For what?”

“For muckering him,” Mooch says. “He’s only eight years old, for Christ’s sake.”

“I wasn’t trying to mucker anyone,” I say, pressing my hands to the sticky tabletop. “I don’t even know what that means. I was just trying to keep him from sinking your damn truck, Mooch.”

“And I say he wouldn’t have sunk my truck, if you weren’t harping on him,” Mooch says, slapping the table.

“There’s logic for you,” I say, and I can feel my cheeks growing hot with anger. If anyone is to blame, it’s Mooch for having the kid launch the boat in the first place, for giving an eight year old that kind of responsibility. But Mooch’s doggedness defies reason. He’s drunk, and he’s angry, and above all else, he’s determined not to take the fall for this disaster.

“Where is the kid?” Drew asks.

“Back in the cabin,” Mooch says, lighting another cigarette.

“Well, we’re headed back soon,” my grandfather says, nodding to the waitress as she tops off our coffee mugs. “Why don’t we give you a ride?”

“Hell, I just got here. Let me finish my beer,” Mooch says, grabbing the waitress’s arm and ordering another round.

I’m just about to tell him how selfish he sounds, maybe lecture him on taking some responsibility for his actions, when Mooch points over at Drew with his cigarette and says, “You know, I designed those packets.”

Drew looks down at the pack of Sweet’N Low he’s dumping in his coffee mug.

“Yeah, that long, skinny one there you’re using. That’s my design. Saved the company a shit-ton of money, if you’d believe it.”

Drew and I exchange unsure looks, but Mooch doesn’t care. He’s on a roll, staring down into his pilsner glass as though we aren’t even there.

“A few weeks ago, my boss calls me in. Says, ‘Alan, you’ve done good work for us over the years. Here’s a little something extra for you.’ And he slowly slides this envelope across his desk and winks at me,” Mooch says, sliding his hand along the table in pantomime. “He’s being real damn debonair about the whole thing, so I figure it must be a thousand dollars or something. When I get home, I tear open the envelope, and you know what’s inside? A fifty-dollar gift certificate to the Lobster Bucket. I save them a quarter-million bucks and they give me a lousy, stinking gift card for assembly line seafood.”

I lean back in my chair and look over at my grandfather, who is shaking his head and staring at the ceiling. “We should head on back,” he says, placing a handful of quarters on the table for a tip. He hands Mooch his jacket from off the back of the chair, and says, “You know what they say: early to bed, early to rise. . . .” When Mooch doesn’t answer him, he adds, “Fish all day; make up lies.”

“I like spending time with the kid. He’s a real fishing machine. I hope he grows up to be a professional fisherman or something,” Mooch says without budging. “He’s a smart boy, but he gets kind of confused when people yell at him. Then he gets spooky quiet, and it’s like he’s staring right through you, like one of these beer glasses. And I start wondering if he’s ever going to speak again.”

Mooch clears his throat, stares hard at each of us as he reaches back for his coat and wrestles with one of the sleeves. “So are you going to apologize or what?”

“Listen, Mooch, if you feel that strongly about it, I’ll apologize to your son. But maybe you ought to be the one to talk to him,” I say. “You’re his father, after all, and you’re the one who put him in the driver’s seat.”

Mooch doesn’t say anything at first. He just draws little circles in the spilled beer with his finger. “You don’t seem to get me,” he says. “I already did apologize. Didn’t mean anything. In case you ain’t noticed, I fuck up—a lot. I’m not exactly father of the year.”

And there’s something beautiful about that—something humble and unconditional that makes my throat close up. And all of a sudden, Mooch doesn’t seem selfish anymore at all. He just seems like a father who’s in over his head.

Mooch looks at me a long time from the corner of his eye. He frowns. Then he takes a swig of his beer and says, “Okay, then. Glad we got that settled.”

 

Later that evening, after apologizing to the kid, I head down to the makeshift cleaning station—a carport with a sink beneath it that draws its water directly from the lake—and watch my grandfather fillet the day’s catch.

“That Mooch is something else,” he says, his back to me as he plugs in the electric knife.

“Sure,” I say, but somehow, standing there at the side of the lake, I envy the kid. He’d gotten the apology I always wanted. From my lips to his ears.

My grandfather turns the knife on and then turns it off again and says, “You know, I still have nightmares about killing Drew.” He shudders a little, and I can see that terrible, doomed look creeping back over his eyes, the way it did when he surfaced from the lake so many years ago. He looks down over the rims of glasses. “He had to practically beg me to take him fishing after that, and it still makes me nervous even today. And you,” my grandfather says, his shoulders slumping. “I could barely look you in the eye, I was so afraid you’d never forgive me.”

I open my mouth to say something—though I’m not sure what; I’ve already apologized once today. I must look stunned, like one of those glassy-eyed fish hanging in his den, because he says, “Hey, it worked out okay in the end, right?”

I nod and watch as he digs a fish out from the sink and lays it flopping on the cutting board. As he begins to slice, I slip out from the cleaning station and climb the hillside above the boat launch. I sit next to Drew and watch the sun set over the water, the red clouds and the deep purple shadows cast across the small crests of waves and the wind-whipped scumlines.

“It looks like blood,” Drew says.

“I think it looks like a crescendo,” I say.

The breeze coming off the lake puts a night chill in the air, and the sound of water lapping at the shoreline is far more peaceful than any of those nature tapes you can buy at the supermarket checkout. The yellow fluorescent telephone booth light clicks on with a faint buzz and, in minutes, the booth is filled with mosquitoes—mostly the large males that live only a short while.

Halfway up the road, Mooch and the kid sit at a picnic table, examining a tackle box. A pair of brook trout dangle from a metal stringer on the porch. They’re on the small side, but at least they are something to show for a day’s worth of fishing.

Drew and I catch snippets of their conversation on the wind.

“My dad gave me this box when I was your age. Told me the names of all of these flies. That’s the only thing he ever taught me. Like that one there—that’s a red zinger.”

“You know there’s no such thing as a red zinger, right?” Drew says, his eyes still focused on the last brilliant sliver of light as it disappears below the waterline.

“I know,” I say.

Down below, my grandfather’s electric knife registers a high E as it cuts through fish scale and pink flesh.

“What’s that hairy one?” the kid asks.

“That’s an azure-tailed buggy nymph,” Mooch replies.

“He’s just making it up as he goes,” Drew says, shaking his head and snorting a little.

I look over to where they sit together, studying the blue dun, the sides of their faces illuminated in the dying light. Mooch takes another fly out of his tackle box and holds it up by the hook so that the kid can take a closer look.

Down below, the light goes out in the fish cleaning station, and my grandfather emerges with a porcelain bowl of fillets in hand. He stops for a moment, staring out over the lake, and as the sun sets beyond the trees, he bobs his head a little as though admiring a tune only he can hear.


 

About the Author: Jason Kapcala’s writing has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Prime Number, Saw Palm, the Good Men Project, and elsewhere.

Artwork:

 

AUBADE by Simon Anton Nino Diego Baena

Maëlle Valantin_for Baena


Aubade

Breaths are slower, and nobody climbs mountains
just to hear a song. Creaking doors are ubiquitous,
as well as stains in the statues of saints in churches,
birds shit and grave faces. How do you welcome
epiphanies? Please tell me. An open window
is not enough for a mouth full of ruins. Of course,
the light inhabits each space but the world remains
anemic. I am not sure if I read the signs properly.
The end is not yet near. The herons are still flying
out of the mangrove forests. People are curious
about God. It is obvious. Heaven is unaware of
its own deficiencies when it deals with sinners.
Every plague is a phenomenon as the silence
I prefer after the rain. Aside from doing nothing,
I begin my day by rubbing these bloodshot eyes
of mine before I stare at the hues reflected
in the surface of a cracked mirror, then roam
the entire city and come home with its embers.
I remember the dead. Sometimes I feel their
presence in the crow of roosters. Mornings are
gloomy. I assure you, nobody walks on water.


About the Author: Simon Anton Nino Diego Baena currently lives in the Philippines. He spends most of his time on the road with his wife. Some of his works have already been published in The James Franco ReviewOff the CoastAfter the PauseEastlit, Mascara Literary ReviewThe Blue Hour MagazinePhilippines Free PressRed River Review, the forthcoming issue of The Bitter Oleander, The East Bay Review, and The Fox Chase Review.

Artwork: Maëlle Valantin

When the Lane Ends and Other True Memos by Kelsey Liebenson-Morse

Kristin Williamson_for Liebenson-Morse


Date: October Third, 2014
To: Hecklers of Morgantown
From: Enraged Female
Subject: Who Do You Think You Are?

Strike One:

First you leer at me, four of you out of a moving truck. You say something, but luckily I can’t hear because I am talking to my friend. I am still trying to forget last weekend when someone said I would fuck the shit out of that, any night as I walked by. When you drive past in the rusty truck, I am grateful for the cement barrier between us. I can see your round jeering faces, your red craning necks. I wonder if you think I cannot see you, seeing me.

Today is an unseasonably warm October day, so I wear a sundress because I don’t like to sweat walking to campus. My dress is an appropriate length and it covers my thighs. There is no cleavage, and I wear my hair pulled back in a ponytail. My hair is blonde. I realize it is bright. I realize you can spot it from far away. My hair causes me trouble. I did not spray myself with come hither perfume. I did not wear high heels or coat my face in makeup. Because signals like those are what attract you hecklers, right? Those are the signals that made it ok to say would you look at that fucking ass.

Later, when I am walking alone in my sundress, you beep at me. You beep so loudly and unexpectedly I jump out of my skin. I do not appreciate this. There is just one of you. This scares me more. You pull back around and drive past again. I hover somewhere between sheer terror and abject rage. I am holding a Tupperware container, for Chrissakes, a Tupperware container with remnants from my lunch: quinoa salad. I have the sudden and unexpected urge to throw my eco-friendly Kleen Kanteen through your car windshield. It would make a satisfying sound – loud as a gunshot. I probably couldn’t launch it with enough force or accuracy to shatter the glass, but I’d like to see the look of shock crossing your shadowed face. You all look the same: wolf eyes, hungry open mouths.

However, I was raised to be a polite woman, so I don’t turn around and chase your car screaming motherfucker, which is what I am thinking. Of course it isn’t safe to chase you back. This is unfair. What defense do I have? All I have is the ability to ignore you. I quicken my pace. Mercifully, you don’t come back. You make me feel unsafe on these streets, and for that I hate you. Sticks and stones may break my bones, and your words fucking enrage me.

I am writing this memo to politely request that you get the fucking fuck away from me. I would like to request that when I ride my bicycle you do not come alongside me and say things like you know you beautiful right? I’d suck that pussy. I wonder if you think I will stop what I am doing and acknowledge you. I wonder if you think I will put down my bike, take off my helmet and climb into your car. Will I unzip your pants? Will I let all four of you take a turn with me?

I hope you crash your car into a telephone pole, turning your head trying to look at me. Trying to take what isn’t yours. Trying to take what is not being offered. I hate you, for making me angry.

I wonder who your mother is, and how she allowed her son to grow up to become a heckler. Burn in hell, fuckers. I’d like to kick you in the ball sack.

***

Date: October Fourth, 2014
To: Marcus V. Canner 435 Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215
From: Kelsey A. Liebenson-Morse 276 Warren Street Morgantown, WV 26501
Subject: What I Didn’t Say To You & Never Will

Some Time Has Passed:

So maybe I am not as angry as I was a few weeks ago. That’s not true, actually. I am still really, really, angry. When we said goodbye in my parent’s kitchen this past July you looked right at me and said this isn’t goodbye. Why did you lie? Because it was goodbye. Is it fun to be a liar? You said I love you. Why did you bother? Did you mean to entrap me so you could give up on me as soon as I left the state? We knew it would be hard, because distance is hard, you dummy. But you didn’t try.

In my spare time I imagine you finding pieces of my hair all over your apartment, which is likely because I shed a lot. I picture you finding them, crying face-down on your meticulously clean floors or smoking lots of cigarettes even though we quit together. I actually quit. I haven’t cheated once since June. But you cheated a lot of times, even before I left. I should have known you weren’t to be trusted because you couldn’t follow through with a simple promise.

What else do we have to give to each other, but our promises?

I pretend not a single woman will talk to you at your new restaurant, a fancy steakhouse in Midtown. In fact, I imagine no females even come to your restaurant. You are cooking for a constant stream of men. Only men. Manhattan is made up only of men since I left. Anyways, what do I care that you’re going to trendy restaurant openings and glamorous glitzy socialite filled parties? I am down here in West Fucking Virginia trying for all the world to be happy, to avoid getting assaulted when I go running. I bought Mace last week. Mace. I imagine you getting home late, unpacking your groceries from Whole Foods: expensive fair trade coffee, half and half. You sit in silence listening to the ticking clock, missing me. A tear or two escapes. You are wretchedly, desperately lonely without me. The tears slide down your face. Your mouth holds a bitter flavor. Let me tell you, Chef, what you’re tasting is regret.

The Cold Hard Truth:

Remember the time? You were eating gummy bears in bed and one red bear escaped your mouth. When you woke up in the morning, I was gone. The gummy was in my place, like he’d been sleeping, too. We couldn’t stop laughing about it. That’s all you have now, Chef. Memories. Me, and the gummy are gone. Forever. We aren’t the coming back types.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any news to report in terms of dating. So far, so bleak. But I refuse to be deterred, and I remind myself that I did not, I repeat, did not plan on marrying you despite our various conversations about having a family. You said I would be a great mother. Well, duh. Women who have great mothers become great mothers, and you know just as well as I do that my Mom is a great one. Too bad. You snooze, you lose. You let me go, and I am lost to you. Lost without a return ticket. Do I sound melodramatic? Overwrought? I swear I’m not. I accept my nun-like existence and try to come up with reasons why I loved you in the first place.

Tonight, I roasted golden beets and chicken breast. I tried to learn how to French-braid my hair using a YouTube video. Mostly my arms got tired, and the braid kept coming undone, but I’ll keep practicing until I get it right. Tomorrow, I will hunt for new kitchen chairs to strip, sand, and repaint. Something bright, cheery. A fresh coat of paint masking scrapes and burns, covering over markings of the chair’s past life.

Somehow, between trying to stay happy and hating you, I find myself otherwise occupied.

I didn’t bother to say any of this to you, how hurt I was that you let me go so quickly. Love can be filled with trickery and treachery. I was made a fool. But I will survive you, yet. If you’re looking for me, I’ll be in the garden, sitting on my new chair, a striking shade of red

***

Date: October Fifth, 2014
To: New York-The Big Apple-The City That Never Sleeps
From: Former Brooklyn Resident
Subject: I miss you. Please, let me come home now.

Can’t Get You Out of My Mind:

This is the worst breakup I’ve ever had. And believe me, I’ve had some bad ones. The thing is, I can’t get you out of my mind. I can’t watch movies about you. I can’t read magazines talking about anything that’s going on with you. It is obvious you’ve moved on, without me. It’s obvious that you don’t even notice I’m gone.

But I fall asleep at night picturing walking down Fifth Avenue stopping at the pie shop, or walking down to the water, looking across the river at your breathtaking skyline. In my dreams I am riding the train, packed up against a stranger, and I’m so happy-can’t breathe-can’t sleep-can’t eat-I’m just so damn fucking happy to be part of it.

Why Does It Hurt so Bad?

If only you would let me come back. I swear I won’t complain this time about having a college degree and working as a nanny. I won’t say a word about my night job, taking people to their tables at a restaurant. They called me a hostess. I swear I won’t talk about graduate school anymore, or trying to be a writer. If you take me back, I will be yours, faithfully, forever. I’ll do anything you want if you just let me have one everything bagel toasted with cream cheese and one tiny cup of drip coffee. I’d like to go to the library and sit quietly in the stacks. I’d like to walk down the subway stairs to the screeching grinding metal-on-metal. That’s not asking too much, is it?

I’d like to rush down the subway steps, trying to catch the orange F train before the doors slam shut. I fall asleep recalling biking out to Coney Island to watch the ancient Russian men, shirts off, tanning. I fall asleep pretending I can have one single day in which everything isn’t exactly the same as it was, before. I want noise. I want honking, beeping, yelling. Vitality. I want life.

I want to know that it’s all happening, and that I am happening, too.

But I live in West Virginia where everything is slow, backwards, hot. The morning sky is pink, delicate, and I don’t hate everything for thirty seconds before the sun fully rises, illuminating the scarred land-now home.

Cycle Of Love:

I try to recall all the times you slapped me down, tried to break me. All the times I missed my train or walked home in the wrong shoes when it was only seventeen degrees or stood in line for hours to buy a stamp. It didn’t matter how many curveballs you threw at me because I kept fighting. You respected that.

In exchange for all my fighting, you let me call you home, and that kindness I will never forget. I want you to know I won’t give up, until you let me come home. Because the truth is New York-I love you.

What Have I Done?

With a sick jolt I remember I made the decision to leave you. You didn’t make me go. I’ll never forget what it felt like to pack up all my belongings, to close the door to apartment 2M, while you stood by silently. I can’t forget how much it hurt to drive away, leaving your hustle, your bustle, your tall, straight lined beauty.

Leaving you was leaving a party early, when I really, really wasn’t ready to go. I try to comfort myself with remembering all the good times we had. Long, luxurious Sunday brunches, bars with soft orb lanterns, you always meticulously dressed up in your bright lights, putting out your best shows for Christmas, dazzling everyone with your glimmer and magic glow. You know there isn’t anywhere else like you. They mention Paris, but they are fooling themselves. Your security in your own greatness makes you smug. You are magic. You are possibility and hope. You are refuge, fame, fortune and luck. E.B. White wrote about you, no one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky. 

I was so damn lucky. I see it now.


About the Author: Kelsey Liebenson-Morse is currently working on her M.F.A at West Virginia University. She is an amateur baker and avid runner. Most recently her work appears in The Rappahannock Review and is forthcoming in Wraparound South’s “Food and The South” issue.

Artwork: Kristin Williamson 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave Your Body Behind by Sandra Doller

Reviewed by Mia Fassero
Sandra-Doller-Leave-Your-Body-Behind-front-feature


 

Leave Your Body Behind
by Sandra Doller
Les Figues Press 2015
ISBN#978-1-934254-57-8

Sandra Doller’s new book “Leave Your Body Behind” is not a story told simply. This is not a straightforward confessional or memoir or book of prose poetry. Even Doller’s publisher refuses to slap the usual genre label on the back cover, opting for the simple yet broad description: Literature. Doller’s book is, in fact, the diary of a poet. “The poet demands” she says tellingly, of both herself and her readers, who must wade through her subtle clues and references to earn a deeper understanding of her story. The struggle brings a payoff: Doller smashes up her life and presents us with art beyond the typical framed work of literature. She reminds us that it’s possible to rewrite our histories, reinvent our memories. This is a book that demands attention, attention to detail on every page.

The first section reads like a collage of journal entries on acid. The voice is disembodied; time folds in half, images pop up from the absurd and perverse to the innocuous and innocent as Doller recaptures “the very security of a youth you have the privilege to not remember.” Throughout the book Doller allows herself the freedom to break all the rules when it comes to typical chapter formatting, punctuation, even spelling, as only a poet does, unapologetically. What surfaces is her ability to be both secretive and revelatory.

Doller is relentless at times, offering up a buffet of images and imperatives. “Nothing moves. Except white SUVs. All over California. All the sweet sheeping hackers. Love your fog. Was that a rat. Wasn’t it. So a dripping ceramic vase on a pedestal is supposed to make you feel better. So lots of glass. Petro product free. So corn. So you know what I’m talking about. So say it in English so we can all hate it together.” The accumulation of details could be overwhelming (and indeed this is the book’s only hazard). However Doller is smart, very smart (this is no secret). She is clever to package her prose in small doses, giving the reader a chance to regroup in the white spaces on the page.

The narrator is faintly sketched (I’m referring to Doller as “narrator” since it feels the most neutral in this genre-less space). She grew up in Virginia near a lake. She has a sister. Her mother was a less than nurturing nurse. Her father was a questionable character. She now lives on the west coast (San Diego as per her bio) and is a professor of creative writing. But these are not the details of interest. The interesting details are in the images she creates and the ideas she thrashes about on the page. It’s no surprise that Doller, the author of three books of poetry, is known for the haunting physicality of her work, the sparse yet precise language in her poems.

“I can’t do this…” Doller confesses, reminding us where this journey, the book, began. “It’s impossible to tell what will happen if we tell the truth.” As she examines her life in fragments, she infuses these fragments with imagination and then stacks them up alongside philosophical arguments within the context of modern times. It’s a compact and complete trip for the mind in a narrow 134-page book, roughly the size of a Zagat guide (a slightly sarcastic reference I believe Doller might appreciate).

Shifts in time, space and tone pull us along as Doller shifts techniques from small chunks of prose to longer riffs. Her story “begins in Omaha” but this particular memory is in fact set in a tropical place, Mexico, where the author luxuriates in the lightness of nostalgia. Over time we come to know our narrator through repetitive imagery that reveals her struggles growing up, her issues with her father, her career as a professor, always coming at you in an oblique manner. Her specificity of detail is grounding – “a photograph taped to the back of a painting” when talking about her father, for example. Spread amongst the shadowy imagery are admissions scattered throughout – “They say I have no theme.”

Doller becomes more transparent as we come to know her midway through the book, admitting in subtle and not so subtle passages the difficulty with nostalgia. As she yearns to remember the past, she dips her toe in – she recalls childhood summers at the lake, popsicles, teenage pranks – then she pulls away. Her technique reflects the issues inherent with memory. Doller introduces each new “chapter” with quotes from myriad sources – from scientific and online news journals to modern dance critics and punk rock lyrics. Using the sources as structure is remindful of what may have started as self-prompts. Her tone ranges from confidential to confrontational, her use of language is consistently unconventional and unrelenting. Doller doesn’t hesitate to use the word “rape” in one sentence followed immediately by the phrase “Christmas Day.” The contrasting imagery is meant to make us flinch. When the tone shifts from passive to reactive, her one-liners pack a punch: “you should be paying me not to procreate.” Doller delivers entire paragraphs of directives that you can’t turn away from, forcing the reader into a state of heightened awareness.

Whether Doller is recalling a teacup store in Mendocino County or a hobo by the beach, her personal sketches of memories are sparse but poignant and her language is anything but cliché. “Even the cobwebs are clean” she remarks, describing the interior of a house, “atmospheric, red berry ambiance.” Her analogies are witty and timely, citing Tom Cruise’s teeth and Madame Bovary in a “gold lamé onesie” on the same page. The accumulation of details is what makes this work potent.

Doller takes on the vegetarians, politicians, and teenagers. She jabs, pokes and jostles the reader then smooths things over again. Expect unorthodox word choices, spellings of words. Expect to Google a name or two or more (sorry Lesley Gore). She notes that we can “recollect and collage and forget it…” How do you forget being called “slut” or a mother not acting like a mother or a father not acting fatherly, Doller asks. But she doesn’t seem to be searching for an answer.

“Is that prose or poetry and why” Doller quotes Gertrude Stein, one of her influences. In the end, who really cares? And why worry if the story moves you. It’s Doller’s natural inclination toward the poetry that is the strength of this easy-to-hold, hard-to-describe novel. Yes, Leave Your Body Behind is a diary, a meditation. It is also a flood of form that defies classification. As former poet laureate Natasha Trethewey said “It’s one of poetry’s greatest gifts to show us ourselves through the intimate voice of another.” Doller’s DNA is wrapped around this authentic body of work.


 

 

 

 

 

 

Super Mario Brothers 2 by Jon Irwin

All the World’s a Stage: A Review of Jon Irwin’s Super Mario Brothers 2
Reviewed by: J. Scott Donahue

SMB2-cover-nospine-shadow-wide_1024x1024


 ISBN2 978-1-940535-05-0

The game begins with a tableau in red, blue and sepia.  Each character is frozen in a vaudevillian mélé. Press start and select one of the four characters–Mario, Luigi, Toad or Princess Peach–to begin one of the most bizarre dreams in videogame history.

In the same clever way a Super Mario Bros. 2 gamer chooses the right player for each world, Jon Irwin plays four different roles: a videogame journalist, a nostalgic fanboy, a personal essayist, and a player in life negotiating obstacles in death, existence and the absurd. Writing with reverence and good-natured snobbery, the prose oscillates between a doting blaison and a sleuthing inquiry.

We learn the origin story of SMB2, an exegesis of the game’s genesis.  Mario is traced back to his original role as “Jump Man,” the protagonist of Donkey Kong, and the ubiquitous “Video Man” in other early ’80’s Nintendo games.  Then came Mario Bros. in 1983 and Super Mario Bros. in 1985, games that prepared the way for Mario’s pop culture canonization. Fun fact from the book: Mario is now a more recognizable icon than Mickey Mouse.  An even funner fact: The Mario Bros. game franchise has since progenated over 200 games.

With Mario’s Methuselan genealogy in context, it’s a mystery as to why SMB2 stands out in history as this mutant limb, or maybe a super-glued limb, on the family tree.  Humorously, upon the games release in 1988, the jarring inconsistencies were inexplicably camouflaged before the transfixed player.  Even critics hailed the game as a “direct successor”, according to Irwin.

Irwin spends much of his book investigating that which many of us NES players only could sense was amiss about the game. So many questions arose: Why is Mario throwing tubers at quadrupedal Shyguys wearing masks; where are the Goombas and Koopa Troopas; and where are those iconic boxes with question marks?  Players absorb mushroom power just by lifting the thing up. Players vanquish enemies by overhead-throwing objects (or other enemies).  And instead of following the damsel in distress trope, the Princess can play to save her own damn self.  Such questions and disconnects that Irwin points out, compared to the original SMB, somehow evaporate more quickly than a moment in the game’s Sub-Space–if only for the game’s brilliance, mystery, theatrics, and adorable weirdness.  The game begs the questions aimed at the game, “Who are you, and what have you done to Mario?”

One could suspect foul play or fraud. The original sequel of Super Mario Bros. was first released in Japan.  “Masochistic,” in fact, is the word Irwin employs to describe the Japanese game, designed by Takashi Tazuka.  Poison mushrooms, levels of excruciating difficulty, not to mention words that flash on the screen that literally translate to “Unskilled crap”, reminding you of your failure–proved too much for any sane gamer to take.  In Irwin’s words, “It took a player’s confidence away, decimating self worth.”

Upon reading the book and realizing the true origin of SMB2, my nostalgic feelings toward the game admittedly took a rage spiral.  How did I not notice some clue of foul play?  And surely my seven-year-old self had been duped or worse–in the American suburban child’s case–handled with care.  From this book I learned that my childhood experience of playing NES had been censored for the safety of my mental health.

Yet somehow, American Nintendo Rep Howard Phillips found a way to satisfy the American addiction to winning, all while crafting a game that isn’t boring, and to do it as cheaply as possible.  Enter stage left: A Japanese game, called Doki Doki Panic,comprised of a family of four characters and aesthetics of One Thousand and One Nights.  Enter stage right: Nintendo’s ethos, striking a balance between the reused and the nuanced. SMB2 is, in every sense, Nintendo’s philosophy of adding nuance to the husk of a game.  The book answers the question early: Nintendo found it to be in its best interest to cater to Americans’ victor complex.  Take away the punishment from its predecessor, all while crafting an unforgettable game as cheaply as possible.  Nintendo’s ethos strikes a balance between the reused and the nuanced.  To that extent, SMB2 beloved to Mario Bros. fans and a profitable successor to the original, is nothing but a testament to Nintendo’s philosophy.

This book is hardly an indictment of Nintendo’s committing mass fraud to devoted Mario players, and more about how Nintendo saved the brand of Mario from going the direction of torture. Irwin earns the answers with some hard-won sleuthing, interviewing Nintendo pioneers like Tazuka, Phillips and other Nintendo pioneers.

Getting personal, Irwin’s obsession with the game breaks a wall between a third-person avatar.  He embodies the oft-chosen character, Toad, who wears turban-like mushroom headdress. The action of the player tapping the D-pad, and buttons A and B, sitting criss-cross applesauce on the carpet is nonexistent, while braided throughout the book are scenes in which author might as well be in the game.  The narration of each play field is performed in first-person, so much so that you almost imagine a minimized, digitized version of the protagonist; think Jeff Bridges in TRON. A crisp scene of the author sucked into the game in the final dramatic moments of game play. Toad isn’t battling the boss; the author is fighting the boss.

Of course, no book devoted to a retro ’80’s game should forgo an inevitable moment of the absurd.  After all, absurdism is as much a trait of the game as it is in existence.  SMB2 is like a ready-made game, a piece of dada art.  The connection between the game and existence is finally bridged, however, after Irwin witnesses the final moments of his grandmother’s life.  After which he returns to the game and, in a moment of sobriety, asks himself a question.

The author’s relationship to the game mirrors that of his Toad character struggling to keep a key above his head, while a demented flying mask zooms by.  This game, I agree, is too important to slip into a wrinkle in Nintendo’s canon of classic games. The author fights to keep SMB2 relevant as a Mario Game, to keep the book from disappearing from the collective consciousness of Mario Bros. aficionados.  In the words of former “speedrunning” world record holder of SMB2, the game’s has a lot of weird things in it.”  Weirdness, Irwin makes the case, is at the heart of the game’s worth.


 

Phoning Home by Jacob Appel

Reviewed by: Charlene Caruso

phone

 


Publisher: University of South Carolina Press
Language: English
ISBN-13: 978-1611173710

When read together, each of the thirteen pieces in Jacob Appel’s Phoning Home build upon the next, resulting in a multifaceted glimpse into the mind of Appel as he explores the ways in which identity can be consumed by illness and eroded by modern society’s response to approaching death. He is uniquely qualified to tackle these questions as he is both a physician and a bioethicist. Each essay is crafted to invite the reader into the author’s mind. The title essay introduces us to seven year old Jacob. His parents are being tormented by a crank caller who is never caught. Appel employs this experience to reflect on deceit, secrets and how little we know about ourselves or others. He manages to slip in and out of his past, admitting about his childhood self, “I still have no idea what made this creature tick,” peeling back the layers of time—as a grown man—sitting across from his aging parents wondering if he should confess the truth. He decides against it as he looks at them, “What they have gained in happiness, they have lost in joy.” He riffs on how confession reveals what strangers we are even to those close to us and that misbehavior is not always a predictor of pathology.

We follow him as he explores assumptions and beliefs about his own identity, those of his family members, and by extension each of us. He is a storyteller, a man full of important questions. In “The Man Who Was Not My Grandfather,” he reveals his grandmother Lillian’s refusal to marry a distant cousin, thereby denying her family their only opportunity to leave Latvia and come to America, a chance to escape the Nazis. This story is untold until an aunt tries to track down Lillian’s genealogy, finding an old photo of this handsome unnamed cousin with all his sisters. There is also a group portrait of three rows of the extended family taken at a wedding, rows of young children, many of them toddlers, unknown cousins, staring at the camera. They were among 16,000 Jews who lived in that region of Latvia before World War II. Less than one hundred survived. All the rest murdered, likely shot or starved, many before the end of 1942.

When asked about the man in the photo, Lillian admits he was the man her father wanted her to marry. “Why should I marry a man I’d never met?” This is a story Lillian doesn’t want to remember. She reminds Appel that if she had made the choice to marry that cousin, there would be no Jacob Appel to ask these questions. Instead, an entire branch of the family tree was destroyed. Who could predict such evil? Who can acknowledge its meaning, even now? A young girl’s decision, reflected back in time, can never answer these questions.

Another essay, “Caesura—Antwerp, 1938,” is a story about Grandpa Leo and a broken watch. Leo had emigrated with his parents from Belgium before the Nazi invasion. He met Lillian in the U.S. and they married. Decades later while in Spain on vacation, his prized watch stops working. The watch is old, and after asking around he is given the name of one man who possesses the skill to repair it. When Leo enters the shop he recognizes the man as a childhood friend from Antwerp. Their meeting is brief and they part without any promises to keep in touch. This man is one of the only survivors from their neighborhood. “Each had assumed the other was dead.”

Leo had told many stories about his life in New York but rarely discussed his early years in Antwerp or his boyhood friends. Appel finally realizes, “For my grandfather, time had stopped like a broken watch in 1938 Antwerp—and when it restarted in Manhattan, after a seven-day voyage across the Atlantic, it did so in a different continuum, its hours and minutes both identical to and, entirely unlike, the hours and minutes preceding his escape.”   Appel reads a letter written to his grandfather at the end of 1945, “Alas, the news from the East is not good. We have heard nothing from the following relatives, and we can only assume the worst.” The rest of the letter contains a handwritten list over two pages long of names of another branch of the family murdered in the Holocaust. Name after name, all memory of them erased. These two essays linger, acting as a refrain throughout the collection.

In “An Absence of Jell-O,” Appel draws us in by humorously describing a child’s anticipation of tasting his grandaunt’s Lime Jell-O, “a weapon of torture,” a forbidden treat secretly promised to him if he behaves himself while visiting his elderly great aunt. He uses humor to convey his overwhelming, childish disappointment as visit after visit, no matter how hard he tries to be good, he fails to secure any Jell-O. Looking back as an adult he realizes there never was any Jell-O. He sees her bizarre behavior and peculiar eccentricities as a form of dementia, often undiagnosed in those days. He concludes she may have suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Appel’s disarming use of humor nudges us past our fears and into examining the pros and cons of undergoing DNA testing to determine the presence of genes linked to Alzheimer’s disease. He presents facts in a conversational tone, and poses moral dilemmas in a personal framework. Appel makes the decision to get tested.

Appel’s voice is engaging and compassionate. We meet real people in his essays, people losing the battle with age and disease and losing the right to decide their fate, patients in hospitals and mental wards. We meet doctors who cannot heal them.  In “Dropping Dead—A Eulogy,” he makes a solid argument for dying with dignity instead of enduring the suffering a prolonged death imposes on us by advances in medicine. Many diseases which proved fatal not so long ago can now be managed and the mortality risk reduced. For Americans, sudden or swift death is now the exception rather than the rule.

Appel reminds us that the added years of life are not always a positive experience. Sometimes, surviving one illness leaves us vulnerable to developing other chronic diseases that rob us of our independence and prevent us from enjoying those extra years. It is an important discussion as technology and scientific discoveries rush far ahead in the ability to extend the length of our lives but often at the cost of significantly reducing its quality.  Whether discussing lost toys, lost loves, lost minds or lost lives he reminds us that our individual voice needs to be heard. It is rare when a collection of essays written and separately published over a span of almost a decade reads like cohesive chapters of a tightly constructed book. Phoning Home gives us that experience.


 

 

 

 

After Visiting Jack London’s Grave on the Day of his Death by Iris Jamahl Dunkle

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Dunkle by Brad Milhouse



Microsoft Word - Iris Dunkle_After Visiting Jack London’s Grav


About the Author: Iris Jamahl Dunkle’s debut poetry collection, Gold Passage, won the Trio Award and was published by Trio House Press in 2013. Her chapbooks Inheritance and The Flying Trolley were published by Finishing Line Press. Her poetry, essays and creative nonfiction have been published in Fence, Volt, The New Guard, Lake Effect, Sugar Mule, Calyx and many more. Dunkle teaches writing and literature at Napa Valley College. She received her BA from George Washington University, her MFA in Poetry from New York University, and her PhD in American Literature from Case Western Reserve University. She is on the staff of the Napa Valley Writers conference.

Bobby Fischer Goes to Hollywood by Ian R. Jacoby

For Jacoby


 

Opening

Los Angeles, 1971:

Craig curses at a white car that pulls in front of us outside the Knickerbocker Hotel. Craig looks good in a bitter, failed actor kind of way. That means it’s extra gross when he sneers at them. He’s also cursed with chronic perspiration. He told me they had to paint him with makeup over and over again on the set of Hula Hoop Massacre 3. Now he grows sweat stains around his armpits, around his thick neck whenever he yells at old men in LA traffic, which is often.

This old man doesn’t understand how much of a war crime it is to cut off the second lead from Alien Beach Party 2, Fun Daze, and My Girl, The Werewolf. The old man raises his tan, withered arm out the window and gently waves at Craig. Craig slams on his horn, and the old man obliviously leans his car into traffic—nearly causing a three-car-accident.

“Can you believe that a-hole?” Craig says through his perfect white horse teeth. He pulls both hands off the wheel to emphasize how big of an injustice it all is. “He pulled out right in front of me.”

“Classic king’s gambit open,” I say.

“What?” he says. It takes a second to snap out of his ape rage. “Oh, is that chess? Is that a chess move? You being smart?”

“I don’t know.” I blow my hair out of my eyes, but it falls right back into the same old spot. Craig hates that.

I get out and grab my suitcase from the back seat. It’s too big, but it’s the only luggage I have. They bought it for me, for when I have to go to my dad’s. Diane is my mom. She married this doofus six months ago. Craig is my step dad. He of the nice hair and growing teal Hawaiian sweat stains.

“I’ll be back tomorrow at seven,” he says.

“But the tournament’s done at four. What am I supposed to do ’til then?” I say. It’s not technically a tournament, but I’m not even going to attempt to get into that with him right now.

Craig spits out the window and puts his sunglasses on. My mom bought them for him when they “went away” to “wine country” last month. Craig reaches back and hands me a crumpled twenty.

“You’re seventeen. Jesus kid, figure it out.” He lights a cigarette. “Try not to call unless it’s an emergency,” he says.

“Yeah,” I say. “I’ll do my best.”

“Great,” he says, “Go get ’em, killer.”

Craig’s sedan peels into the green summer morning. My suitcase bumps against the curb when I try to pull it onto the sidewalk. The bushes outside The Knickerbocker push ragged branches through the iron grates that barely hold them in place. I bet they used to look nice when someone cared about them. Mr. Lazlo told us The Knickerbocker used to be a place where movie stars hung out. Jen said a bunch of them took weird drugs and killed themselves here, or whatever. I can kind of see why.

Jen and Kilby are already out front and mixing in with the other members of the Herman Steiner Chess Club. You can tell us apart from normal guests because we all have blue Herman Steiner blazers with little red Herman Steiner crests on them. Two maladjusted twelve-year-olds have a portable chess set out and are running through openings as fast as they can.

I was never like that, not even when Mr. Lazlo thought I was a prodigy. I remember when Mr. Lazlo first started tutoring me, trying to tell me about psychology and all that garbage. You know, you have to break your opponent’s ego, play with his emotions, play with your own emotions. All that crap. That’s all stupid, man.

It’s like Fischer said, “I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.”

Outside the hotel, the younger kids see how far up the side of the building they can spit. The older ones check the clipboard to see who’s rooming with who. This one junior high kid launches a loogie like twelve feet in the air. It’s so big that it casts a shadow on the way back down. Kilby jingles his keys to let me know we’re rooming together. Miracles abound.

“Was that your dad?” he says. He points to the skid marks in the road. He’s fat, red, and his dad is some big-time studio executive who lets Kilby wear clip-on ties even though he’s seventeen years old.

“Step dad,” I say.

“Lazlo says Bobby Fischer probably isn’t going to be here ’til tomorrow,” Kilby says, sweating.

“That sucks,” I say.

Kilby drones about something stupid while I stare over his shoulder at Jen. She’s laughing a lot with Whitney Carlson. She’s looking at me too, and I just wish I was over there. Not even doing anything, just over there existing.

Jen shrugs her travel bag over her shoulder. She’s got a perfect part down the middle of her perfect hair. We made out last week at Skate America under the speakers while “Jet” by Paul McCartney played. It was the best moment of my life.

She’s tall and smokes—and both of those things, along with her tight jeans, and the fact that she kissed me, probably make her the sexiest person in the world. I still can’t look her in the eyes. She’s got perfect teeth. She’s terrifying.

“You think you two will do it this weekend?” Kilby says, following my stare. I avert my gaze.

“Jesus man. Don’t be crass,” I say. “Maybe.”

“Yeah right,” he says. “Good luck, James Bond.”

He rubs my curly hair back and forth. It frizzes out even worse than usual. I hit Kilby in the arm. Mr. Lazlo gets us in a group, and we hustle into the shadow of the lobby. I have this one zit on the inside of my nose that hurts like hell, but I still can’t leave it alone. I think I’m going to name it Kilby.

*

I don’t want to give off the impression that I don’t like Mr. Lazlo. That’s not true. In fact, he’s about the only person who ever believed in me.

Three years ago, Mr. Lazlo’s yellow Volkswagen K70 crawled up our driveway. We had small glasses of lemonade, my parents sitting across the kitchen table treating chess not-at-all seriously. I hid in the hall, taking it all too seriously. I used to be real serious about everything.

“I don’t want him to be some kinda screwball,” dad said. He took a sip from his lemonade and made a face. “This doesn’t taste right.”

“Paul has so much natural ability. Let me assure you—” said Mr. Lazlo. He twisted his beard hairs whenever he spoke to my dad. A nervous twitch. My dad does that to people.

“I wish someone would assure me on this lemonade,” said my dad. His laugh flew across the table, and Mr. Lazlo flinched like it hit him in the face.

“He’ll be in great hands,” Mr. Lazlo said.

“We just want what’s best for Paul,” my mom said.

“What he needs is consistency!” said my dad. He dumped his drink in the sink. He grabbed for Mr. Lazlo’s cup. “You want me to take care of that for you?”

“No, thank you,” said Mr. Lazlo, and gulped it down. He made a face too. “Do you understand what it means for him to be ranked 1900 at thirteen years old?”

“That he has too much free time on his hands?” said dad, and smiled at mom.

She looked at the back of her hand.

“No, but seriously,” said dad.

“Many serious players never even reach that level,” said Mr. Lazlo. “Ever.”

“Dale,” said my mom.

“What?” said my dad.

“Please,” I said from the hallway.

“Fine,” said my dad.

Mr. Lazlo started coming Tuesday afternoons. He taught me some good opens, how to treat the middle game, where to take an endgame. Six months later, my parents divorced.

I have a rank of 1700 these days, comfortably not a genius. I try not to let Mr. Lazlo get too down about it though.

“It’s not like it’s anyone’s fault but my own,” I said one rainy Sunday at Fitzger’s. He was playing white again.

He pulled down his rook and cleaned house, two pawns and my bishop. I probably should have seen it coming, but whatever. I was lucky when I pulled out a draw ten moves later.

“It’s not anyone’s fault,” he said. “I think you’re improving, anyway.”

“Line ’em up again,” I say.

I’m black. I don’t mind being on the defensive one bit. Mr. Lazlo says it’s a habit I need to break.

*

Mr. Lazlo wears a wine colored suit with a bright yellow shirt underneath it. He’s fussing with a microphone and scratching his beard again. I try to get close to Jen, but some college kid with cool hair says something into her ear, and she starts giggling. He puts his hand on her back, and they sit at one of the card tables that have been arranged into a giant rectangle in the converted ballroom. It’s a coliseum for chess geeks.

Mr. Lazlo stands in the middle of the rectangle. It’s where Fischer will play. He clears his throat into the microphone. It’s attached to a portable speaker on his belt.

“I thank you all for attending the Tenth Annual Arthur Lazlo Memorial Chess Friendly,” Mr. Lazlo says. “My father would have been so happy to see chess in such high demand. From the very young, to our … more experienced players.”

He looks at a bunch of sour-faced old men that play in this lobby every week. There’s a couple of former masters, some ranked amateurs, whatever. Small fries.

“As you all know, no ranking will be altered at the end of this friendly. It’s all just for the joy of chess.”

The college guy is really talking Jen’s ear off about something, and they’re both smiling like it’s the best thing in the world. He’s good looking, like Craig is. I mean, he looks like the kind of guy who excuses himself to brush his teeth during a date.

“Don’t worry, you’ll all get a chance to play the great Bobby Fischer,” Mr. Lazlo says, “Half of you in the morning session, half in the afternoon. Two games, one hundred men. Each time, one versus fifty; Fischer versus the mob!”

The dramatic tension is ruined when the microphone begins to feedback, and Mr. Lazlo doesn’t know how to stop it. Some wet coughs from the old men join in. Eventually Mr. Lazlo flips the off switch and cups his thin hands together.

“Not that I think of you all as a mob, of course,” he shouts. “But yes, fifty matches at once, all timed. And to the winner—”

“When does Fischer get here?” a reporter in back says.

“Well, he’s not told us exactly, but he say that no one should ask him for pictures, autographs, or interviews,” Mr. Lazlo says. The audience begins to turn away. “He just wants it to be about chess! The reception will be in the—”

Fischer walks through the hotel doors, and the place erupts. He’s wearing a tan suit and wayfarers. He cuts through the lobby like there’s no one there; flashbulbs and cameras click like you imagine they do for Steve McQueen. God, he’s about the coolest guy in the world.

“James Bond,” Kilby says.

“Your breath smells horrible,” I say.

“Is it true your mom works for the Russians?” A reporter shouts at Fischer’s back.

Fischer jogs to the elevator while his driver blocks the reporter’s path. It’s a classic Steinitz Defense. There’s a lasting silence when the door shuts. The elevator ding unleashes a sudden torrent of conversation, and the room rings with fresh gossip.

“Wow,” says Kilby.

“Did you see him? Like a movie star or something,” Jen says. She walks up with the college guy still in tow. “This is Julian. He goes to Occidental.”

“You think anyone will give Fischer a run for his money?” Julian says. He shakes my hand. He smells really good. He holds my hand so I can’t return his strong grip. Jen must really like us all getting along so well. “I heard he hasn’t drawn in over a month.”

“Draws are for cowards,” I say.

“Still, it’d be quite the feat,” he says.

“Still, it’d be quite the feat for a coward,” I say.

“Julian says we can go up to his room,” Jen says. We get in the elevator behind a crowd still swirling in Fischer wake. “He brought cognac.”

“Great!” Kilby says.

“It’s from my family’s vineyard,” Julian says, “in France.”

Big whoop, I think.

*

Middlegame

Me and Kilby and Jen and a bunch of Julian’s college friends stay in his room and drink through dinner. We sit in a circle and shout about our favorite Gilligan’s Island episodes. Jen and I sit next to each other. We hold the bottle between us, laugh when the other person coughs a lung up after a big pull.

Julian puts on “Beggar’s Banquet,” and a couple people start dancing. They have marijuana cigarettes, but Julian says we should save ours for later. I’ve never smoked before, and that makes me nervous, but Jen seems into it. I feel the cognac buzz in my empty stomach. It makes Kilby’s jokes a lot funnier. Eventually, he starts dancing with a blonde girl, and it ends with them rolling around on the green shag carpet together.

Me and Kilby head down to the ballroom in a tiny brass service elevator that creaks when he gets in. I hold my breath most of the way down.

“I think Jen’s really into that guy, Julian,” he says.

“Yeah, thanks, Kilby,” I say.

“I just mean, their body language is off the charts.” He giggles and sways back and forth. “Off the charts,” he repeats to himself.

When we get to the lobby, he hits every button and jumps out before the door can shut. I do too, though my pants get stuck in the gate for one terrifying second. They rip at the bottom when I pull too hard. I told you; action was never my strong suit.

The tables have been pulled away from the ballroom, and the chandeliers cast specks of beautiful light all over the old people getting drunk. Mr. Lazlo used a big chunk of his money to hire the Paul Desmond quartet, and they’re all in the corner, smoking, drinking, and hacking away at the “Stray Cat Blues.”

My dad used to listen to Paul Desmond a lot when he played with Dave Brubeck, but that stopped when my dad moved in with Charlie, his personal trainer, because she said it made him seem old fashioned. That’s probably the one thing that me and Charlie agree on.

Mr. Lazlo pulls himself away from a troupe of fat men just as the piano player chops some really dissonant chords that don’t seem at all appropriate for the occasion.

“Are you boys having a good time?” he says.

“Ask us tomorrow morning, and we’ll let you know,” Kilby says.

He winks at Mr. Lazlo, who frowns and rubs his chin with the palm of his hand. The piano player settles down into a groove that actually sounds kind of nice. Jen and Julian float down the spiral staircase into the ballroom. She’s beaming, and he’s so nonchalant, like new Kennedys. Their energy spurs Paul Desmond into fits of hysteria all over again.

“Yeah, it’s OK,” I say.

“Paul Desmond,” Mr. Lazlo says. “I can’t believe we got him!”

He motions to Paul Desmond, who’s taking a break from the saxophone to drink a tall glass of whiskey and ice. He drinks it all in one gulp, sucking air from the sides of the glass before dropping it on the table. He sees Mr. Lazlo looking, gives him a drunk salute. When he plays again, it’s pretty squeaky.

“What a player. I just wish he wouldn’t drink so much,” Mr. Lazlo says.

“Yeah, my dad used to love Paul Desmond,” I say.

“He looks like he’s going to be sick all over his saxophone,” Kilby says, who is also pretty drunk.

Jen sees us and comes over. She’s wearing a green dress that ends just above her knees. It fits in all the right places and is not good for my imagination.

“Hey Mr. Lazlo,” she says.

“Good evening, Jennifer,” Mr. Lazlo says. “That’s a beautiful dress. I remember—”

Jen pulls me aside. We stand next to a punch bowl that’s the size of an upside-down Volkswagen. My heart is in my chest when she touches my arm. Imagine the best smell in the world, then double it. That’s what I’m experiencing.

“I need you,” she whispers.

I gulp.

“We’re going to the roof,” she says.

“Right now?” I say.

“Yeah,” she says.

“Just you and me?” I say.

Paul Desmond hits a sour note and tries to slide out of it, but just makes it worse in the end. Mr. Lazlo makes a throat slashing gesture to the bartender and points to the stage. Jen looks at me like I’m brain dead, which is probably true.

“Uh, no. You, me, Julian and Kilby, and the gang, the Occidental kids. We’re having a seance.” She unlocks arms and walks to the elevator. “C’mon, they’re up there already. Kilby, come!”

Kilby stands at the end of a long buffet table. He shovels a mound of tapenade onto a plate and litters its base with stuffed mushrooms. He jogs toward us while balancing his plate with one hand.

“Yeah, coming,” he says, licking his fingers.

*

The top of the building is dominated by huge wooden scaffolding that supports a giant neon HOTEL KNICKERBOCKER. The Occidental kids lean against the wood frames smoking cigarettes, lounging easy, watching us like pumas in the dark.

Jen takes us between two electrical boxes that create a big green Stonehenge in the middle of the roof. She’s got candles set up all around in a circle, and a brand new Parker Brothers Ouija Board. The plastic planchette is still inside its packaging. Jen tears the plastic open with her teeth while me and Kilby, Julian, and some of the gang sit down.

“It’s good because it protects us from the wind,” Jen says. She spits the plastic bag out, and it rolls away in a draft. She reads from a dark blue book with a silver moon on its cover.

In 1936, ten years after magician Harry Houdini died, his wife, Bess, bereft and helpless without him, took over the Knickerbocker’s rooftop and sought for a tenth and final time to summon his spirit on Halloween—the anniversary of his death—with the help of numerous mediums.

“So who’s going first?” Kilby says. He’s found the blonde girl from the carpet earlier and brought her along for the ride.

I can call spirits from the vasty deep. Shakespeare,” Julian says, sounding like a total dick.

“I’ll go,” Jen says.

She’s looking at Julian when she says it. Julian is looking off into the middle distance, probably trying to think of another great quote to wow us all with.

“Yeah, me too,” I say.

Jen arches her eyebrows in the witchy candlelight; she’s a terrible beauty—Yeats. Eat your heart out, Julian. We sit on our legs, side by side. She puts the planchette in the center of the board, and our hands touch. We breathe together. I wrack my brain for dead people to talk about.

“Can we talk to my dad?” I say.

Jen touches my hand and looks in my eyes. Technically, he’s not dead. He’s living in a condo in Arizona with Charlie. That seems close enough. I look to see if Kilby will say anything, but he’s too busy trying to teach his girl how to blow better spit bubbles.

“Of course,” Jen says. “What do you want to ask him?”

I can think of about a million things, and not one of them that I want to share in front of this group. Hey dad, are you happy now that you ruined everyone’s life? Hey dad, how’s the real estate business for dickheads?

“I just want to know if he’s happy now,” I say.

I bite the inside of my cheek so hard that I feel marks. Jen puts her other hand on top of mine and gives me a sad smile. Through a haze of marijuana smoke, I can feel Julian’s eyes burn in the back of my head. That feels just great.

“Dear Paul’s dad,” Jen says. “Have you found the peace in death that you sought in life?”

I start to nudge the plastic towards “yes,” but Jen stops me. She’s got my hand sandwiched between hers. It’s great, but not really conducive to fudging communication between me and my fake dead dad.

“I know it’s hard, but don’t nudge it,” she says. “Let him speak for himself.”

“OK,” I say.

We sit there for a long time. I imprint the feeling her hands make on mine into my brain forever. A breeze blows some of the candles out, and someone has a marijuana cough that won’t quit.

“Um,” Jen says. She touches my cheek. “Maybe he’s just not ready yet.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” I say.

“Let’s try my Aunt Norma,” Julian says. “She was hilarious—wrote articles for the American Nazi Party in the thirties.”

An employee of the hotel walks up the stairwell and onto the roof. He sighs and lights a cigarette. He switches on his flashlight. Everyone bolts, exploding in every direction.

“Hey!” the guy says, chasing in every direction with the cigarette dangling. “You can’t be up here! Stop!”

In the confusion, the Ouija board gets kicked over, and the candles upended. Jen and I run down the stairwell, all the way down to the third floor. We stop and collapse into each other’s arms. The light is warm and yellow from the light fixtures that go down the long green hallway. From the heating grates, you can barely hear Paul Desmond sweetly echo the chorus of “Strange Meadow Lark.” We slump and sigh together.

“You know, my dad named me after this guy,” I say.

She looks down at my chest. When she looks up, she has tears in her eyes. She kisses me slow and a lot. I walk her to her room, and we kiss goodnight all over again.

I collapse into my bed, and Kilby shows up ten minutes later. We don’t talk. He falls right to sleep, snoring the snores of someone unburdened by conscience. When I say my head is swimming, I mean it. A crummy old air conditioner pushes the drapes into phantom shapes around the window. Somewhere in the hotel, Bobby Fischer lies awake working on openings. I live drunk in that kiss for hours ’til I fall asleep.

*

Endgame

As part of our weekend, we’re supposed to get breakfast with Bobby Fischer, but no one is especially surprised when he doesn’t show. Jen and I get a seat in the corner of the dining room and share secret smiles over our food.

The hotel staff arranged it so all the chocolate and poppyseed muffins are playing each other on a chessboard. All the chocolate muffins get eaten first, so it looks like a route. A bad omen, as Fischer plays white today. We all play defense. I look at the spot where the king should be, but there’s only black crumbs and a torn piece of wax paper. Kilby spots us and makes his way diagonally through the round tables covered in white tablecloths, a classic Hodgson Attack.

We eat together. A natural trio, a fine team when Jen rolls her eyes at all the right parts of Kilby’s stories. Julian sits with some of his gang and watches our table. I can guess how he plays chess, waiting, probing for any weakness.

“We still on for next weekend?” Kilby says. He looks at Jen. “My dad got us tickets to the premiere of Dirty Harry.”

“I can’t,” I say. “I’m busy.”

My dad is coming to town, first time without Charlie in tow. Kilby knows because I told about it last week. He never remembers stuff like this, because he never remembers anything.

“What? C’mon man, Clint Eastwood. In the flesh. When else is that gonna happen?” Kilby says. “Tell your dad he can pick you up Saturday morning. He can come any old time.”

“What?” Jen says.

“Clint Eastwood,” Kilby says.

“Your dad’s coming?” Jen says. “Next week?”

“Um,” I say. “I was going to tell you.”

“Sure,” she says. “Right.”

“Jen,” I say. I don’t know what to say. I blurt out, “I still believe in magic.”

God, what does that mean? Jen stands up and grabs her orange juice. She looks like she’ll dump it on my head, but she puts the glass back down and looks over at Julian’s table. Now I’m the one staring at breakfast. The eggs I’ve been eating have an uncooked sheen that I didn’t notice before. I feel like I might barf.

“You know, you were a lot more interesting when your dad was dead,” Jen says. She gets up and walks away. Kilby takes some bacon off her plate.

“You finished?” he says.

She doesn’t turn around, doesn’t go to Julian’s table, she walks straight out. Julian and I follow her with our eyes, then he looks at me and smiles. Next to the crepe station, Mr. Lazlo turns on his microphone and clears his throat. He’s holding two pieces of paper in the other hand.

“The friendly starts in half an hour. Please check with me to see where and when you play. Good luck to everyone! I’ve never been so pr—”

“Can it, Janet!” somebody yells and everyone laughs.

We all rush around Mr. Lazlo. By the time I get to the piece of paper, it’s torn and there’s sausage grease all over it. I find my and Kilby’s names’ smudged in the afternoon session. Jen and Julian play in the morning with the rest of the stronger players. Mr. Lazlo comes up behind me and puts his hand on my shoulder.

“I couldn’t help it,” he says. “It’s just the luck of the draw. When you play doesn’t really mean anything.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I know.”

*

The shades are pulled back on the windows that reach to the ceiling of the ballroom. The sun beats down hot on the boards. Mr. Lazlo spent money on a velvet rope, so there’s a spectator area consisting of a few rows of folding chairs off in a corner.

There’s some press, but mostly it’s just wives, and moms, and little brothers, and put out girlfriends. Each seat around the circle has a number taped on back; Jen’s is 27. I imagine optimal sightlines and try to position myself accordingly. When she walks in, she doesn’t even look at me.

“Wow,” Kilby says. “She looks great.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I know.”

Everyone sits around for twenty minutes before Fischer finally shows up. When he does, the air gets sucked out of the room. He’s wearing a different suit and sunglasses. Per request, the clocks start when he enters the circle. They all tick a little off.

When he plays, Fischer doesn’t walk in a circle, but zigs and zags between games—creating new lines of evil geometry. He walks fast. The chandelier lights dim at random. It’s satanic—like chalking a pentagram to access the power of grandmasters past. It looks cool as hell.

It puts most of the players on edge. Ten moves in, and Fischer already has twelve of fifty in checkmate. One by one, they empty their pieces into a box, and Fischer touches their hand before turning sharply to the next game.

Jen stands strong. She’s controlling the middle section of her board by hemming in Fischer’s bishop with her pawns. They form an impenetrable wall around Fischer’s favorite piece. He bites his thumbnails at her board, he tugs on his tie.

Unfortunately, Julian plays well too—and after 25 rounds both he and Jen are two of only ten players left. He catches her eye and they share a long, shitty smile together. Fischer stares at both of their boards, his brow furrowed as the games devolve into petty skirmishes.

Fischer has to bleed them for every pawn, yielding board space only when pried from his fingers. Julian goes to a vending machine and comes back with two Cokes. He puts one on Jen’s board and one on his own. Some people clap at the chivalry. Jen opens it and drinks half the can down in one gulp. She burps loud and moves a pawn. The crowd goes nuts.

Everyone loves them. The mothers of the twelve-year-olds lean forward and talk about what a dashing figure Julian cuts at the board. The guys think Jen’s a real firecracker. Fischer sweats through his blazer. Kilby hits my arm whenever Fischer’s pieces get pinned farther back.

With a pained face, Fischer extends his hand for a draw, first to Julian, then to Jen. Everyone else is eliminated. A round of applause showers the room. Fischer storms into an adjoining unit. He slams the door; it’s punctuated by a howl. Violent animal pain from the other side of the wall. It’s exactly how I feel.

One of the masters brings out a giant green wreath like we’ve all seen at some tournament victories, and not just a couple of dumb “friendly” draws. He puts the wreath around Jen and Julian. They smile as photographers flash picture after picture.

“What’re the two young lovers’ names?” a reporter asks. Everyone laughs.

“Two draws!” Kilby says. “Can you believe it?”

I need some air. I pass Mr. Lazlo on my way outside. He’s pulling on his beard, walks by like he doesn’t see me at all. A bunch of his kids trail behind him like demented seven dwarves.

“Wow,” Mr. Lazlo says. “Wow.”

I walk outside, and the hotel employee who busted up our party is smoking a cigarette. He’s fat and less scary in daylight.

“Can I get one of those?” I say, pointing to his cigarette.

“Sure, kid,” he says.

He lights it for me, and I cough like crazy. It burns the back of my throat. My eyes won’t stop watering. I bend over on the sidewalk, almost wretch. He looks at me nervous.

“A natural,” he says.

“Know where I can get a sandwich around here?” I gag.

“Chester’s, two blocks that way. Might want to put that out though,” he points to my cigarette. “No smoking allowed.”

I gladly step on it; he seems relieved.

*

Chester’s is a sandwich shop and arcade. They have one just like it a block from where I go to school. What they don’t have is a Bobby Fischer sitting alone in the corner booth looking miserable. That’s unique to this one. I walk up to the counter, try to order a beer for him, but the guy behind the counter just laughs at my age.

I order a cheese sandwich and two root beers. I give the guy my twenty dollar bill and get back fourteen bucks, two of it in quarters. I point to Fischer’s table and tell him to send the sandwich over there.

“I know who you are,” I say.

I sit down in Fischer’s booth and hand him a root beer. He looks at me wild-eyed, like he might bolt for the door with my root beer in hand.

“Don’t worry, I won’t mention it if you don’t,” I say.

“OK,” he says.

I take a long drink of mine. I take some change out and drop it on the table. Fischer drums his fingers.

“You like pinball?” I say.

He looks up at me, then at the machine. He nods, and we go over and play. It’s space themed, so on the backbox there’s a cartoon of a hot lady astronaut about to get eaten by a giant green alien.

“You ever had a girlfriend?” I say.

He hits a triple score bumper, and the whole machine flashes, goes into fits. A plastic comet knocks against glass inside the machine.

“Um,” he says.

“Jeez, how old are you?” I say. “You never had a girlfriend?”

“How old are you?” he says.

“Seventeen,” I say.

“Well when I was your age, I’d been a grandmaster for two years,” he says. He turns back to the pinball machine and tries to keep playing, but his ball stalls. He slaps the machine like it did something really wrong to him.

“OK. The girl I’m talking about, she wasn’t my girlfriend per se,” I say. “I bet she could have been, though. If it had worked out.”

Fischer takes a swig.

“So?” he says.

“I don’t know. I guess, I don’t even really know her that well,” I say. “Plus, I think she just fell in love with some asshole freshman from Occidental college.”

“Oh those two,” he says. He looks even more miserable. Those draws take a toll on him. They add up over the years. I can relate.

I say, “It’s funny. Three years ago I wouldn’t have cared at all about any of this. The chess was the important thing. Now I don’t even think I want to play you. No offense.”

“None taken,” he says.

We walk out of the arcade and onto the street. I still have ten dollars, so I grab some hot dogs for the walk back. Fischer never offers to pay for anything. He gets two hot dogs for himself. Between that and the sandwich, I feel a little green.

“You know the Benoni Defence?” he says. He stuffs the end of the first dog in his mouth.

The modern Benoni Defense lines up a bunch of pawns on the queen’s side. It pushes black to make moves they don’t want to, makes everything real cramped and sweaty, closes up the game, forces it into live or die from the start. It forces a game into a win or lose for both players, no draws. In a way, it’s a suicide attack.

“Yeah,” I say.

“You know what it means? Benoni?” Fischer says. “It’s Hebrew. Son of sorrow. It’s from Reinganum’s book. 1825.”

Fischer pulls out a little manual from his pocket, barely a pamphlet. It’s been folded every which way. He takes off his sunglasses and reads.

Whenever I felt in a sorrowful mood and wanted to take refuge from melancholy, I sat over a chessboard, for one or two hours according to circumstances. Thus this book came into being, and its name, Ben-Oni, “Son of Sadness,” should indicate its origin.

“That’s a hell of a name,” I say.

“It’s the truth,” he says.

“So you’re saying I should play?” I say.

“I’m saying no matter what you do, that sadness is going to find you. Might as well use it for something,” he says.

He finishes his second hot dog, and we enter the hotel in silence.

*

The drapes are back in place per Fischer’s request, and the afternoon session starts more subdued than the morning’s. Most of the observers eat cake with Jen and Julian in the dining room, but eventually they trickle in—or don’t. The older players stay in the bar, licking their wounds and drinking free Lowenbrau. Nothing changes for Fischer, who storms into the room with purpose, exactly the same as before.

When he gets to my board, he impassively moves his queen’s pawn two spaces forward. He doesn’t place the piece, just flicks it across the table so it stands straight up on the board by itself, like telekinesis. I see his moves, recognize what he’s initiating. I can oblige. Jen and Julian come in with a couple of their moony-faced friends. Mr. Lazlo walks behind them with a colossal piece of cake, and they all sit down together to smile at me.

I skip my knight out to F6, just in front of my pawns, and Fischer sees it out of his peripheral vision. He walks over and flicks a second pawn next to his first.

Here it is, the suicide play. The Benoni Defense. I look at Fischer, and he smiles at me; I smile back. We both know someone has to win. He walks to the other side of the room and knocks a guy’s bishop clear off the table.

Kilby is checkmated by Fischer in his tenth move. He doesn’t seem too upset, but gets food on Fischer’s hand when they shake. It isn’t until the fifteenth that people realize what’s happening on my board. Fischer and I have been slugging it out for an hour, and somehow, I’m getting the better of him.

I take one of his rooks when he makes a boneheaded mistake in the corner, and from there I wrestle control of the center squares. Fischer takes off his sunglasses and rubs the bridge of his nose, he complains about the lights again; he doesn’t smile at me anymore.

There are more gasps when I take his queen in the twenty-third move. Whispered words travel through the hotel, and even sour old drunks stand in the hallway, craning their pale necks and spilling gin on their pants. Kilby leans back as Mr. Lazlo leans in to see the game. He slides the rest of Mr. Lazlo’s cake over with his foot, and stands up eating it. He points Mr. Lazlo’s fork at me.

“Hell yeah, Paul,” he says, spitting cake everywhere.

I checkmate Fischer in the thirty-third move. He finishes by beating everyone else at the table in a huff. When the last match finishes, he’s gone 97-1-2. Fischer stalks back into his room. I’m alone at the board, his king still tipped to me.

The place explodes. I’m put in a thicket of sweaty congratulations. I lift my hands over my head, and men with thick framed glasses hold their chins and study the list of our moves like it’s foreign policy. Jen heads off to Julian’s room with the rest of the Occidental crew, but everyone else surges toward the boards. They come for me, and I am carried away. I even get my own wreath. I wonder where all the wreaths are coming from.

*

Kilby’s dad shows up first, with his driver and Kilby’s new stepmom. Kilby offers me a ride, but I tell him that I’ll just see him next weekend. Kilby’s dad tells Kilby he looks like hell, and what’d he do all weekend, anyway? They vanish in a cloud of cologne.

Jen comes out with Julian. She’s wearing her wreath. Julian tries to get her to ride in the gang’s van back to Occidental, but she says she has to wait for her dad. A buzz starts on the roof. You can feel the hotel lights turn on before you see it happen. Julian sniffs sharply when he walks past us, gets in the van, and drives away.

The same hotel employee comes out for another smoke break, eyes me and Jen alone on the sidewalk, and walks across the street to buy a paper. Jen stands closer and touches my green wreath. She’s got a wreath, and I’ve got a wreath.

“Congratulations,” she says.

“Congratulations to you,” I say.

She pets hers; the buzz of the hotel lights are pretty loud now. They’re palpable.

“Thanks,” she says and looks at mine, “but I guess it doesn’t mean as much now, huh?”

“I don’t know,” I say.

“I really liked you,” she says.

“Me too,” I say. “Why do you think I said all that stuff? Some of it was true, anyway.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she says.

Her dad’s car arrives. It’s real beat up, and it coughs out a cloud of black smoke on a couple of lost tourists. He waves to us from the street.

“Ok, well,” I say. “See you around.”

She hugs me and our wreaths get tangled together for a second. Jen’s dad puts his hands up when two cars start honking behind him. She gets the strands undone and walks toward the car. She puts the wreath in the back and turns around.

“Yeah, anything is possible,” she says. “I mean, you’re the one who still believes in magic.”

The radio gets turned all the way up before they get past the end of the block. I’m the only one left. I spend two more dollars at Chester’s on cheese sandwiches and Coke.

I put the wreath on the stool next to me. When the place starts to fill up, the waiter tells me to put it behind the counter. I play pinball for one lonely hour, then two.

Craig comes in and tells me he’s been honking for the last five minutes, and do I realize what a little inconvenience I am becoming? When I grab the wreath, it’s been hit by an exploding bottle of whipped cream. I don’t let Craig see, and get it all over his interior when I sit with it in the backseat.

“You know you can sit up here,” he says.

The traffic isn’t too bad out to Crenshaw; most of it goes in the opposite direction toward the city. I look in the cars as they stand gridlocked in the other lane and imagine a million different Saturday nights.

“So did you win?” Craig asks when we pull in the driveway. He nods at my wreath. We park under the carport. I get out, leave the ailing laurel in the car. Craig stands in the shadows next to the garage by himself and looks in the back.

“Does the wreath mean you won something?” he says.


About the Author: Ian R. Jacoby is an MFA candidate at the University of San Francisco and an overnight librarian. His written work can be seen in Volume One Magazine, The Golden Record Poetry Broadcast, and NOTA. He is a current Zivic fellow and working on his first novel, The Sunset People, which is mostly about civil war reenactors in West Virginia. He played in an indie rock band called Laarks that was signed to Absolutely Kosher Records (Pinback, The Mountain Goats) and toured the US a few times. Laarks received a mediocre Pitchfork review.

 

Ballpoint Pens as a Point of Reference by Mercedes Lawry

For Lawry


Ballpoint Pens as a Point of Reference

Let’s talk ballpoint pens, and do they reproduce and how can one be found at a moment of critical need and do they resemble paper clips in some utilitarian matrix and what is their relationship to nostalgia? Ah, gibberish, the high notes, the low notes, such and much as might be animated, that is, drawn from life. Write it down, interpret, define, signify, elucidate, okay, time’s up. In a linear fashion, the sweet muck of ink is akin to blood. In a circular fashion, there is such harmony in scribble.


About the Author: Mercedes Lawry has been published widely in such journals as Poetry, Natural Bridge, Nimrod, and Prairie Schooner. She has published two chapbooks—There are Crows in My Blood and Happy Darkness—and has received honors from the Seattle Arts Commission, Jack Straw Foundation, Artist Trust and Richard Hugo House, been a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and held a residency at Hedgebrook. Mercedes has also published short fiction as well as stories and poems for children.

Truckee River Rock by Julia Park Tracey

IMG_7876


 

Truckee River Rock

 

Half moon floats in an empty sky,
Like a slice of lemon in a cool drink.
River calm and silent.
Water skeeter.
One small fish.

A tree carved by a bear,
And a bear carved from a tree.

The wind says shush
and whoa.

Shush and whoa.


About the Author:  Julia Park Tracey is an award-winning poet, author, blogger and journalist. She was named Poet Laureate for the city of Alameda (CA) in 2014. Her contemporary fiction is available through Booktrope. Her women’s history project, The Doris Diaries, has been lauded as a dynamic, exciting peek back at the Roaring Twenties. Her poetry collection, Amaryllis, came out in 2009 (Scarlet Letter Press). Julia’s poetry has appeared most recently online at SweatpantsandCoffee.com, and in print anthologies from New Rivers Press, Moorhouse, Augsburg Books and PEN West. She lives in Alameda and Forestville, CA.

 

 

Bullet Run by Mark Rapacz

mouserat


 

2/2/2014, 12:00 PM, Overcast 50°, 7.5 miles, 6:50 min/mile

Notes:

During the weekdays I run at lunch, and I run up the highest hill I can reach within my hour time allotted. I go up and then come back down. On weekends I run into the countryside and into the foothills, and I do it early in the morning when nobody is out, and the California fog still blots out its too-bright sun.

But there’s this thing I think about and it is, more or less, related to putting a bullet in my brain. I imagine there’d be some pressure, and I’d feel it tear through my head, so long as it’s not boring through that part of the brain that tells you what a bullet through the brain feels like. I imagine it’d be a moment that happens both too slow and too fast, like most life-changing events. I can’t decide what color you’d see. Probably a flash of the brightest white or darkest black. It has got to be one of those extremes.

I don’t want to kill myself. What runner does? What runner who so carefully cares for his health really wants to die? A runner who not only runs an hour over lunch on the weekdays, scampering up and down the largest hill within striking distance of the office, but one who eats spinach by the handful and carries a bag of carrots to meetings. One who started drinking tea.

Spinach and carrot eaters who run are not at risk of committing suicide. Tea-drinkers less so.

So I’m allowed to do this kind of thinking. In fact, being so health-conscious is exactly why I can do this kind of thinking. It helps me sleep. The running and the healthy eating and thoughts of bullets in the brain, it all helps me sleep.

Because when I lie down and those thoughts are going through my head, nothing quiets them quite like imagining what it’d be like to cease them forever. You could do it quickly too.

And to me, at least, when I’m on the run or drifting to sleep, this is the most interesting part of the day. It’s risky somehow. Somehow there’s this feeling that the thought will make it so, perhaps by way of lucid dreaming or astral planing, one of those moments of intense prayer—or meditation—that brings you, the thinker, the imaginer, the thought-experimenter and spinach-eater to the threshold of that other place where those who have done and thought this before have already left behind all those others who were not so brave.

There’s courage to it. There is bravery. Like those flatliners from that movie. Stop the heart, go to that place, but instead of coming back, you just keep heading on. Heading on the way I wish I could when I’m on my lunchtime run at the top of the largest hill within striking distance of the office and I’m looking over the landscape and seeing all the places I could go, but can’t, because I have the job and responsibilities and a wife who wants children.

No landscape looks more beautiful than the one you will never step one foot into.

2/26/2014, 12:00 PM, Clear 55°, 7.5 miles, 7:10 min/mile
Notes:

“Maybe you should go to a therapist,” she says. She tells me this almost daily and she’s not the only one. It’s not mean-spirited, it’s not in the middle of a fight, it’s just stated plainly as if it’s a board game we might play.

We are on the couch, but we are always on the couch. We are always on the couch and we are always eating dinner. This is how we live out here, forever the couch-dwellers and eaters of the quickly-made dinner. From what we can tell, this is how everybody lives in California. This is how every person who has yet to have kids lives. It’s the necessary step before the kids because there needs to be a certain amount of pathetic before you both make the leap.

“My supervisor said the same thing today,” I say because she did. She also told me that the pressures I’m experiencing on the job do not go away for long since inevitably some other project will come down the line that’s just as directionless and meaningless, and the best thing to do is not dwell on it.

But I am a dweller. I dwell on all things.

I was also told not to take it too personally.

In fact, she said, “Don’t take anything personally.”

But I take all things personally.

And I think it’s because I haven’t had a haircut or a shave for a while, and my supervisor might think the pressures of the job are mounting, and I’m letting certain things slip—like haircuts and shaving and a few other things. And I think it also has something to do with her mistaking that I’m at the beginning of my career. When does a career begin? Does it start at 32? Careers don’t begin for those who aren’t pursuing one. At no point does someone come to you and say, “Now, young apprentice, your career has thus begun.”

You get a job and then another job and then another job, and they are all, more or less, related, and you can’t really remember why you took any of them except that they and you were available at the same time so you said yes. Eventually one goes away and another comes up, and they all involve a desk and a computer and too many birthday cakes to really give a damn.

Most things work this way. They begin and end in some nebulous fashion that becomes a blur. There’s no definition. It’s the morning fog and the cries of morning birds.

 

3/14/2014, 12:00 PM, Windy 62°, 7.5 miles, 7:05 min/mile
Notes:

I tried to be a standup comic for a week. I would come to work, and I would write my jokes and only one joke was sexual, but most were about Catholicism.

I haven’t thought about Catholicism for ages. But I had all these jokes. One long joke was about the Nazi pope, but I never cared enough to figure out his real name. I just called him Nazi Pope, and that was pretty much the punch line. I had another series of narrative jokes that were about a priest and an altar boy, but they had nothing to do with pedophilia or rape, which was the point of the jokes. The priest and altar boy would get into all sorts of unsavory situations in which they were doing the most immoral things to corpses, prostitutes, and the corpses of prostitutes, with knives and rope and chains, and they did it all with glee, like it was some kind of Frank Miller world where all the priests and altar boys terrorized the seedy underbelly. In this was the humor.

I had a bunch of Hitler bits as well and I realized that I really hate Nazis. More than I expected. I knew I hated Nazis with some passion, but I really, really hate Nazis.

Might be from the movies. I don’t know.

After a week of writing my routine, I convinced my coworker and only friend in California, Big Jon, to listen to the set. Big Jon is a man who loves to laugh, and he is a man who laughs easily and readily to any anecdote I might share. On top of this, my enthusiasm for this craft was such that I convinced Jon to also write his own five minutes. He cleared it with his therapist during his Monday morning session and after telling me how great his therapist is, he said, “Let’s do this.”

We spent the week going back and forth, never fully divulging our jokes, but telling each other our premises and convincing one another how promising they were. When Friday rolled around, we left work, drank a few beers, smoked some weed, ate burgers and then it was time for our sets.

“Cum dumpster,” I said. It was the punch line to my first joke. This made Big Jon laugh.

Confident, I rolled into my Nazi Pope bit. It went on a little too long, and Jon got confused. I got confused. I got polite laughs near the end and Big Jon was kind enough to provide a few working notes.

When I launched into the priest and altar boy material, I had to abandon it halfway through because I had to explain why it was funny that the priest and altar boy were doing such horrendous things to dead prostitutes. I further explained that it should be funny because they were not doing the one horrendous thing we all think of when we think of Catholic priests and altar boys.

It did not get a laugh. It actually got whatever is worse than a laugh because all joy was sucked out of the evening, so much so that Big Jon didn’t want to do his set and neither he nor I have mentioned stand-up comedy again.

 

3/23/2014, 7:00 AM, Marine Layer 43°, 19 miles, 7:20 min/mile
Notes:

Years ago I made a project called a BeerBox Narrative. It’s twenty-four micro stories on beer labels affixed to beer bottles. It can be read in any order and people get the general idea of what the story is about. This story was about a rock and roll band coming up in the 70s that rose fast and died early. It was based on any number of rock bands that have done just that in the 70s, prior to the 70s, and since. I spent time designing the labels. I spent a lot of time writing the words. I made invitations for people to come and see the performance of this “Jamboreading.” There was music, live music that I also played in the style of the band in the story, though I only knew three chords and thought passion and determination would fill in the rest.

Three buddies came and they all left early, before the twenty-four bottles were drank. They all had places to be. My wife was gone for the evening. At her mother’s. I finished the case and then whatever the guys left in the fridge.

When I woke the next morning, my wife had already come and gone, apparently to the farmer’s market. It was spring and beautiful outside, so I went out, down our apartment steps, and saw the parking lot glittering with little brown jewels of light, and I realized then, at that moment, my head pounding and feeling close to retching, that my only audience was myself, hungover, replaying a scene I barely recollected where I was smashing bottle after bottle.

I couldn’t tell if this made it a better art project. The ambiguity and the fact it was seen by no one. The fact that those who might’ve seen it—my neighbors—might have mistook it for a moment of drunken rage in the poorer part of the city.

 

3/29/2014, 7:00 AM, Light Rain 51°, 11 miles, 6:55 min/mile
Notes:

I listen to a famous comedian’s podcast at work. He’s the one who got me thinking about nightly thought routines. His involves being a sniper in a tree, and he finds being weaponized in relative safety makes him feel safe, so he falls right asleep. Other times he says he likes to think of himself being lowered into one of those science fiction deep sleep chambers and set adrift through space.

I’ve tried both of these.

The only thing that works is the bullet through the brain. My thoughts stop instantly.

 

4/08/2014, 12:00 PM, Light Rain 58°, 7.5 miles, 7:20 min/mile
Notes:

My memory is beginning to get worse, and I’m trying less hard to pull details from the fog.

On the bus on my way to work, one of my coworkers was on the bus, and she asked what I did for my vacation. I told her we went to New Orleans, but I couldn’t remember the dates, and I knew we were only in New Orleans two days out of the seven or eight we were along the Gulf Coast. The rest of it, we stayed in a vacation town an hour away.

“It was … The town was called …” I stammered.

And she was friendly and helpful enough. Citing the few names she knew in the region.

“I’m sorry, but I’ve never been there before,” she said.

“Not many have anymore,” I told her.

Then I told her a few things I remembered. The white sand on brackish waters. The long stretches of beachfront property with just spare, old footings standing tall. The quiet streets.

“Like a retirement community or something,” I said.

“Because it was ground zero,” I said.

“Katrina,” I said.

And it wasn’t until that moment that I felt that gentle pull of forgiveness for forgetting the names of the places I had been two weeks prior because a place that has relented to disaster can also relent to memory.

And I saw this understanding in her face, and she changed the subject to ask me about the death of my wife’s father.

 

4/19/2014, 8:00 AM, Rain 47°, 14 miles, 6:40 min/mile
Notes:

A friend came out for a medical conference the other week. He went to residency out here, and we’re good friends from way back. College. He told me months ago he was coming, and I made plans. My wife could sense my excitement.

“You excited for Mike coming?” she’d say, as if to a child or a dog, but not in a belittling way. After so many years, communication doesn’t need much more than these rudimentaries, and in a way, how else do you speak to a man who rarely speaks back?

“It’s gonna be sweet,” I’d say.

And not that I did anything to prepare except keep up on Mike’s text messages and Facebook messages and emails. He had a lot of folks to touch base with out here. He went to residency. He had a completely new set of friends in San Francisco. People he knew as well as he knew me.

It was one of those friends meeting friends things that never goes well.

On Friday evening I packed my bag to crash on his hotel floor like old times and headed to Union Square where his hotel was. Once there I gave him a call.

“Oh, yeah, dude, we’re not there anymore. We’re out in Sunset.”

“Where’s Sunset?”

“You could catch the Muni.”

“I’m not near the Muni. I’m at your hotel. Weren’t we getting dinner?”

“Didn’t I send you a text?”

“Yes, it said meet at Union Square.”

“Jeez, man, I’m sorry. You can either catch the Muni or take a cab. Don’t worry about it. We’re eating dinner now.”

“I got all my crap.”

“What did you bring?”

I took a cab. I am employed. I am more gainfully employed than I’ve ever been, but these things are relative. I am employed enough to afford public transport through the city. I am not employed enough to afford taxi cabs across the city.

They were at a brew/pub. One of those places that is caught between trying to be the neighborhood watering hole and being some upscale fusion restaurant. The building itself was confused. I had trouble getting through the door. My backpack was too big. My work satchel too full, but I had a book in there that I enjoyed reading. It was about World War II and speaks forthrightly about cowardice and homosexuality. These things make war seem more real to me, a guy who will never see it.

Mike and I hugged. I shook hands with Stephanie, a doctor, and Brad, another doctor. They all were sitting near plates with scraps of half-eaten entree on them, all of it looking unappetizing and plastic and smelling of ketchup. Napkins were over the French fries. I sloughed my packs and went straight to the restroom because I had just spent two hours on public transport and then another twenty in a cab. I was counting costs at that moment because I’m always counting costs, and I had now already doubled the weekend parking rate I would have been charged had I drove, and to which Mike said was completely unnecessary.

When I returned, I was introduced.

“This is Mark. He’s a secretary at Stanford,” Mike said.

“Well, I work administration,” I said.

This introduction sparked no further interest, and I sat in a seat that was still warm and took a sip of water.

“Somebody sitting here?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s Rog.”

I do not know Rog.

“Don’t worry about it, he took off, but he drank out of that water.”

“Oh.” I said.

“You want food?”

“Nah, just beer.”

They talked doctor things while I thought non-doctor thoughts.

Eventually I mentioned something about puppies.

 

5/03/2014, 7:00 PM, Overcast 59°, 10 miles, 6:55 min/mile
Notes:

I’ve been seeing a therapist. His name is Steve, he will only drive BMWs, he’s never once gotten my name right, he wants me to meditate with this guru he knows, and during every session he has told me the same story of Chicken Little. Explaining, as if for an eight-year-old, how the sky isn’t actually falling, how Chicken Little is blowing things out of proportion, how if Chicken Little were just able to realize that it was an acorn that fell, and not the sky, most of his troubles would just go way.

Steve is not a Ph.D. He’s not even a doctor. I think he has a master’s degree in something. I have a master’s degree in something as well. This makes me falsely believe we’re on equal footing.

But we’re not. He’s drives a BMW. I ride the bus. He’s a professional meditator. I run in the hills. He relieves his anxiety by driving down the freeway in his BMW at unsafe speeds. He told me this. With a straight face. “I have to keep my speed up on the freeway, otherwise I get tense. This is a thing I learned about myself. You need to have similar self-discoveries. It helps me see the world as an acorn, not as a falling sky.”

He loves the callback. Reiterating. The acorn sky. Raining acorns. Acorns everywhere. Acorns are safe. The sky is not.

And it had me seeing a world filled with acorns and how disastrous this might be. The infrastructure that would be needed to clear the acorns from the streets. The plows, the bulldozers. Where would you put them? They would rot and ferment. There would be an insane problem with pests, and you’d hope they’d be friendly chipmunks or squirrels, but logic tells me it’d be rats and cockroaches. Real pests. Diseases infected everything in Steve’s acorn world where he could race down the Autobahn at insane speeds on his way to Nirvana.

Because I wanted my hills. I wanted my run. I wanted to think about bullets and brains and thoughts ceasing forever. I wanted the sky to fall because how exactly could that be worse than acorn hurricanes? And, technically, the sky is always falling. We’re falling through space on starship Earth. It’s called fucking gravity. The universe is bound together because it is all falling apart. This is, like, physics. It’s the same goddamn force that pulled the acorn from the oak and plunked it onto the rat’s head. Laws of nature.

Steve, I decided, was an idiot, but I asked him if I could join his Men’s Group group-therapy sessions anyway because I knew I needed help. I knew my conversations with Steve weren’t helping. I thought perhaps I would meet a mentor/fatherly figure in his group who would actually give me advice. He said I was too young.

“Is it because I don’t have prostate issues yet?” I asked because I thought maybe that’s what they talked about. That, or golf.

He chuckled, said, “No,” and told me about Chicken Little.

“It’s the not the sky, Joe. It’s an acorn. You know. A little, itty-bitty acorn. Fell from a tree. Chicken Little went running.”

My name isn’t Joe.

 

5/11/2014, 12:00 PM, Clear 63°, 7.5 miles, 7:10 min/mile
Notes:

I went to a church in a small town. The building was red brick and had a white steeple. The church was beautiful. As I recall it, the congregants and the priest, Father Kapala, were too. Everything was beautiful. It was always spring, which is impossible in Minnesota. Spring in Minnesota lasts two weeks. But in my head, it was always spring, and Father Kapala was always smiling, and the small church was always packed, and the darkness and coolness was always perfect. It was cramped, and the perfumes were strong and the body odor tolerable. The organ was loud and it defined what I came to know as being Catholic, and even as a young kid I admired the altar boys and how they had serious responsibilities. My father told me he was an altar boy, and at that time I wanted to be my father.

I wanted to be an altar boy just like him. I didn’t want to be a low-level administrator just like him who died too young at his desk.

But this isn’t the joke. This wasn’t part of my routine. Still it has a punch line because they demolished that church, and they sent Father Kapala to some small farm community in western Minnesota, and none of us knew why. It was so surprising. He was so nice. He was kind. He was old. He smelled like a priest, and he told funny jokes, and we all respected him. But then they built this beige monstrosity and put that steeple on top of a used car dealership and everything about Catholicism after that became one long cartoon until I was an adult, in my thirties, doing the things my dad would do in the office, on the runs, with the spreadsheets and the rage, when my brother sent me an exceedingly rare text message.

Remember Father Kapala?, it said.

Of course, I replied. He was awesome.

Paper said he was a pederast. They just put it out today.

Neither of us even texted a seeya l8tr, or how are things. We just don’t text that much.

5/12/2014, 7:00 AM, Overcast 51°, 11 miles, 7:30 min/mile
Notes:

A priest and an altar boy are driving around looking for a place to bury the dead prostitute in their trunk. The altar boy pulls up to a warehouse and the priest says, “Nah, no good. They got security cameras. Besides, the pavement would hurt my knees.”

The altar boy shrugs, says, “I know another place. Not a problem.”

They pull up to the wharf and drive under the docks. The black waters of the sea are lapping up against the shore.

The priest, again, says, “Nah, no good. One of these hobos might be an undercover cop, and I just don’t like the idea of sand in my robes.” The altar boy shrugs again and drives on.

They end up in the wilderness, and it’s getting toward dawn, and they’re in the middle of a forest. No people, no anything is around for miles and miles. The altar boy drags the prostitute over to a tree and props her up and says, “Will this do?”

“Well, this is embarrassing,” the priest says. “I forgot my Viagra.”

 

5/13/2014, 8:00 AM, Mist/Rain 54°, 22 miles, 7:40 min/mile
Notes:

On the rare occasion I’m up and motivated, I drive to the Golden Gate Bridge to run through the Golden Gate Recreation Area on the north side. I hate running across the bridge, but I do it anyway. I don’t know why.

At no moment do I think it’s a good idea to huck my body off like so many others. That’s just not a way to go.

I run across the bridge for some sort of penance and because to not run across it would seem strange when so near it. But it’s a miserable journey. It’s windy, cold, crowded. You can’t so much run as jaunt a few paces and then breathe loudly and aggressively behind whatever lollygaggers are trying to enjoy the frigid mist.

Frigid mist is perfect to run in.

Once in the park I am free. There valleys and hills and a labyrinth network of trails cut through these things. There are copses of forests and open fields. When the skies are clear you see the ocean. When the skies are not clear you get lost.

It is grey and misty, and figures emerge from this mist, and sometimes they are like you—a haggard runner, long hair, bad skin, eyes that somehow look like they have light. They are not dark. They are not like black holes. And they don’t look through or past and beyond or whatever it is people say about eyes not quite dead. They see everything. They are like the candles that have burned so long that you can only see the palest flame guttering through the wax, yet, oddly, when you go to blow it out, you find there’s no flame there at all.

Mists and lonely figures in the mists always make you think of ghosts. Networks of trails that lead in circles and nowhere at all also make you think of ghosts. Being lost makes you think of ghosts.

And I’m a scientific-minded man. I lost my religion because I believe so strongly in the tenets of physics and calculus and those things Einstein discovered that I do not understand. My math skills aren’t up to par.

But I know the cosmos are expanding.

The universe will collapse.

And it will happen again and again.

And we primal men will die and go away, losing our way on trails near an ocean we cannot see.


About the Author: Mark Rapacz is an editor and partner with the neo-pulp press Burnt Bridge and the founder of its imprint Blastgun Books. His short stories have appeared in a number of publications, including Water~Stone ReviewSouthern Humanities ReviewThe BookedAnthology, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. His novella Buffalo Bill in the Gallery of the Machines was recently re-issued as a historically accurate dime novel and is available through IndyPlanet.  He and his wife currently live in the Bay Area, where he works at Stanford University and continues to write stories.

Etched Indigo Blood by M.O. Mc

For M.O. Mc


 

Etched Indigo Blood

Seen series of an afterlife
when I walked through the catacombs
It was June, scorched
un-nameable animals & dye skirted the walls

I saw how Osiris cut successors’ way
walked a few feet in the dark
towards an Egyptian Syria using deadly combination of
expertise brutality classically associated with
disturbing videos of mummy-wrapped,
when I noticed his sister doing the same thing

ISIS taunting distinctive scores of former crowns
official seniors clad like ostrich feathers served resembling
symbolic trained forces that ISIS flails to take, on time

Flashbacks bring me to the tunnels of the tombs
where a fair fight in some areas ensues
—Iraq corps texts retained new Sunni documents—
that’s what it’s like

I’m sucked out of the scene when
commotions of Kurdish carting vegetation
an aggressive aero blue rug is thrown
over the threshold as a dust storm floods alarm for an hour,
waiting off  the Nile river infrastructure
reminds me of al-U.S describing love
before missiles

Regional ambitions permanently have prominent Utterances
Osiris once said in my dreams
spells, pushing out my sage marbled eyes that I
affectionately termed trifocals after the one on my forehead
shattered glass

The forecast in 2016:
the pyramid dam will crack open of
concern over video protesting Pharaohs’
rouge evidenced journalist follows the body
addressed after death immortelle

Which president will rescind retaliation?
Revenge doesn’t smell as sweet as cinnabar & cloves,
there will only be heaping helpings of airstrike skinned roots of chicory
that Osiris will use as oil

Beware for the death god blows willingly
with the east African wind traveling in mid-hymn
onyx and juniper berry were gifts of protection
from the gods, situations etched into the walls
are proof, I can prove it

Ritual civilians bazaar like during fifth dynasty in a country as the old kingdom
where paying camel homage
becomes part of anthology history
was written in electric indigo blood
on the walls, permanently
I read each scene and wept a storybook


About the Author: M. O. Mc is the co-founding editor of (Re)Vision: A journal of literary transformation. She is currently completing her MFA in poetry at SDSU.

 

 

 

 

Bats in the Attic by Clare Fitzpatrick

ken and barbie


We were on our way to Annie’s funeral on a cold morning in the pit of December. Sky heavy with rain and aching. I had just turned on the defroster. Jay was in the passenger seat, sipping his coffee. We were waiting for the rain.

From the corner of my eye I watched Jay’s fingers sliding against the paper cup. Side to side. The giant fingers tentative and light.

“Thanks for driving,” he said.

I shrugged my shoulders. “It’ll be easier than jamming up the parking lot with both of our cars.”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s going to be packed.”

My iPod was on some random playlist with the volume low. He picked it up and switched it over to City and Colour. The quiet melodic hum drifting in and out of our bones.

“You look nice, by the way,” he said.

I looked down at my black dress. I used my other hand to bunch my coat closer.

We were silent. The song hummed onward, painful awareness, filling me up to burst. I took occasional glances at Jay. He stared straight ahead. His normally unkempt red hair and beard were combed and trimmed. His coat was still dusty.

“I don’t even know what an aneurysm is,” he said.

“It’s like a blood clot, I think. You don’t feel it, and there’s no symptoms. A built up bubble of blood bursts, and you die instantly.”

“I didn’t know you could get one in your 20s,” he said.

“Anyone can get one anytime.”

“Oh.”

We were quiet again. The freeway was clear. Jay had the back of his hand against the window, tapping at each tree as it whipped past us.

“I hope it didn’t hurt.”

“It’s painless,” I said. “She didn’t feel anything.”

He put his coffee back in the cup holder and said nothing. I pressed my thumbs into the steering wheel.

“I didn’t think you would respond,” I said.

He exhaled a quiet laugh. “I didn’t either.”

“Why did you?”

“I don’t know.”

He was unreadable in the overcast light. His head swayed with the current as we drove. When he looked back at me, his eyes were narrow and focused. “I don’t think you’re ever going to be satisfied with how things went.”

“How could I be?”

“Can we just drop it?”

“Okay.”

“It’s Annie’s funeral.”

“I said okay.”

“Okay.”

In the silence I remembered the phone call at 7pm on a Friday night that changed a lot of things. Nicole on the other line, her voice careful and soft, a distinct mumble and the word “dead” hanging between us. How I sat in front of my computer in the bank of the quiet. Stared at Annie’s number in my phone. Watched her Facebook swell and burst with photos and words. By the time I’d mustered the courage to call her and hope she would pick up, knowing she wouldn’t, I was mostly drunk and slurring a voicemail from the floor at the foot of my bed with 10% battery life and a half empty bottle of Bushmills. The deep sleep when all I wanted was to be awake.

Jay ran a hand through his beard. “When did you last talk to her?”

“Couple months ago.”

“Did she know about us?” he asked.

“She always knew.”

He nodded. Slow but assured. Straight ahead staring and bleeding the dashboard.

I felt like I was chasing the road somewhere. All that big gray sky. But all either of us was chasing was a church and a casket and a spray of flowers no one would notice was there. One big show.

“Sometimes it feels like we just got caught up in one giant clusterfuck mistake, and we just need to start over,” I said.

“Why would we start over?” he asked.

“Because you loved Annie. Before you loved me.”

“But she didn’t love me.”

“What difference does that make? Doesn’t change how you feel. How it went for us.”

“Maybe if we had been more open. Weren’t ashamed of it. Maybe if I hadn’t been ashamed of it.”

“Maybe,” I said.

I had told Annie all of these things over many days and months and glasses of wine and maybe whiskey. The truth of it was that she knew it all and wanted it for us as much as I did, and more than Jay did. More than Jay ever did. I remembered her face in the dim light of my apartment one night over Christmas break when she was home visiting from her college up north. Assured and knowing.

“Hey,” she’d said. She swirled her glass of cabernet without taking her eyes off me. “You deserve to be happy. And so does Jay.”

“I don’t think either of us will ever believe it,” I’d said. I downed the glass.

She smiled a sad smile. “I hope someday you do.”

She had been echoing in my head in the days since she died. Loud and wavering in my line of sight, vague. I slept with the uncertain hope that she was next to me with a hand on my head saying it over and over and over, that I deserved to be happy.

I wanted to tell Jay this. Instead I asked him if he remembered that night that a bunch of us got drunk in his garage junior year and took his dad’s Cadillac and did donuts in the court. Jay throwing his head back and howling as I grabbed the bottle of Stoli from his lap and took a swig. Annie and Molly singing a Something Corporate song. The night in its patterns and a glimmering starlight we traced with our fingertips. When Jay’s beard only grew in clumps on his chin and left cheek.

He smiled. I laughed a little. There was so much we didn’t know.

“I hadn’t heard from you in almost a year,” I said.

He looked down at his coffee. “I had a lot of thinking to do.”

“Not even a text?”

“What good would it have done?”

But I didn’t answer him. We were just 21 again, laying out on the golf course a block from my house, trading a bottle of whiskey back and forth, and I was tucked under his arm. Even in that moment I remembered being warm and knowing it wasn’t the whiskey and thinking, “Yeah, we can do this; we always could.”

The rain came down harder. In the shadows cast off by the passing trees I swore I saw Annie standing there, and for a second, she wasn’t dead, just missing. Just missing and we were on a mission to find her. And when we found her we would hug, and I would tell her that I was so sorry for everything and for not calling and that it wasn’t because I was busy; it was because I hated Jay, and it was always easier when things were his fault. And then we would all laugh about it, and I’d give her the keys to my car, and she’d drive the three of us north, and God knows where we’d go but wherever it was, it’d be home.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Jay said.

“Do you?”

“Sometimes people just die, and sometimes the only thing we can do is acknowledge that it happened.”

“It’s not going to make things better.”

“No. But maybe it’ll make you braver.”

Annie always thought that we were going to fly off into the sunset when we died, after we crash landed with whatever fucked up ideal we were pushing when the time finally came. No quiet sleep. Never.

“We aren’t quiet people,” she’d said. “We’re loud. And loud people go out as loud as you can possibly get.”

And I cried then because Annie went out quiet and alone.

I held the ache in my throat to a choke. I was the one who had called Jay at three in the morning a few days before, voice a timid whisper, to tell him what no one ever wants to tell anyone. And I lay on that floor expecting voicemail, and instead got a hello. The hello that gave me permission to be brave.

I didn’t realize how tight my hand was gripping the armrest until I felt his hand come over mine. At first it was light, cautious. His skin was rough and callused. But it held mine, tight enough to remind me he once loved me, loose enough to assure that we were different people in a bigger world and things were new here. And whether we got out of it was its own to him as it was to me.

If there was something that needed to be said, it was said there in the hollow of his hand, warm and tensed. I felt his fingers in the crooks of my knuckles and eased them into his hold. We were careful, marking our steps and waiting.

In the end, Annie with her end cast a glow in our darkened corners, and we followed that glow up the stairs where it lit us up and we could see the bats in the attic we had spent too long ignoring. Hanging upside down and gnawing at us internally. Jay is holding up his candle, and I’m standing still because their meaty eyes are crooked, and if they rush us, they may blow the light out. So we stand there silent and maybe a little aware. Maybe in the end we will laugh.

He moved his hand away from mine, back to his lap. I watched his eyes from the corner of mine as they followed the trail of the windshield wipers.

We had agreed that we should get to the church early, and we were right. The parking lot was nearly full. We found a spot near the back, and through the rearview mirror I could see the hearse, a black stain at the foot of the church. There was a trickling of people on their way in, long coats and black umbrellas swimming along the blacktop against the current of rain.

“Do you think maybe,” I asked, “if we get through today, we’ll feel better about how it ended? Even a little?”

He took a deep breath. “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

“Will you be ok?”

He smiled. Another soft laugh. “Will you?”

In my mind, I waited for Annie to tell us both yes. But there was nothing from her. Any more than from us.

I opened my door and stepped out. The heels of my shoes fell into a splash of rain water as I shut the door and bunched up my coat. Jay came around and leaned over with his umbrella, covering us both, and I caught the ends of his mouth tipping upward in the slightest smile. I smiled back.

We stood in the parking lot staring up at the church for a moment before either of us was brave enough to take that first step. And even then I was a step behind Jay, who had one hand in his pocket and the other gripping the umbrella. But he was still smiling, slight, just enough for me to notice, and I stayed close to him.

The rain came down harder, then. It fell around us as we ascended the steps; it fell in splashes over the black hearse; it fell in speckled bursts over the steeple and spilled over the holy crucifix; it fell like a fist. And in those moments, in the spaces between us and the rain and God and our most precious dead, there was silence.


About the Author: Clare FitzPatrick started writing Lion King spinoffs when she was six, and hasn’t stopped. She’s still waiting for Disney to call her back regarding any one of her 47 sequel or prequel pitches. She graduated from Saint Mary’s College of California with her MFA in Fiction in 2013. After spending a couple of years working at a funeral home and getting reprimanded for making terrible death jokes at parties, she found her way into the tech industry, where she still makes terrible death jokes. Her written work has appeared in The White Stag Journal, St. Mary’s Magazine, and riverrun. When she’s not writing masterpieces, you can often find Clare playing video games, sleeping, or speaking at length about the problems with the Oakland A’s ownership. She currently works at Google and lives in a tiny apartment with an awful dog

Carrying the One by Kevin Brown

2015-04-19 12.48.14-1



Carrying the One

 

We both learned languages—you started
Latin in sixth grade, row after ordered row
of declensions, while I was forced into French
my freshman year, rules so random they seem
pieced together by three teenage boys

in a basement passing the time until
the rain stops.  Our brains are built for words,
not numbers.  We count in three categories:
one, two, and many.  We can tell if a cartoon
character has two or three hairs
on his head at a glance, but four or five

fingers force us to focus.  You used
those categories, told me I told one
too many jokes, made one too many
mentions of how you laughed at co-workers’
comments:  louder and longer.  You said
you were different, the exception

that proves the rule; you knew if you had said
something once or one thousand four hundred
and two times.  You could move decimal places
in your mind. You knew what the remainder
would be when it came time to divide.


 

About the Author: Kevin Brown is a Professor at Lee University. He has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (forthcoming from Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press, 2009). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. He received his MFA from Murray State University. You can find out more about him and his work at http://www.kevinbrownwrites.com/

 

 

A Comic Strip in Ten Panels by Barry Blitstein

Ignacio Pena_For Blitstein


 

  1. A comic strip in ten panels: In the first panel, there is a crescent moon. In the second, a cow. In the third, the cow spins its tail and inflates its udders. In the fourth, the cow rises and in the fifth, reaches the clouds. In the sixth, the cow appears below the moon; in the seventh, above. In the eighth the moon wrinkles; in the ninth, it pierces an inflated udder and there is an explosion. In the tenth and last, the cow is shown falling through space.
  2. The backstory: When it was a calf this cow experienced a trauma when her father was killed in the bullring. Without advice, without therapy or emotional support, this cow was left to heal as best she could; and she conceived, during this period, which lasted into adulthood, a dream of flight. Through an act of will and a special kind of genius, she discovered that she could make her tail spin like a propeller and her udders inflate with hot air. This made her rise and move low over the meadows, which gave her the serenity she lacked in her daily life. One day on one of her flights, misdirecting her heat energy away from her inflated udders, she farted and rose like a rocket into the upper atmosphere, in the vicinity of the moon in its crescent phase. To the cow’s perpetually fevered brain and inappropriately applied imagination, the moon took on the person of her father, with his horns. As traumatized creatures will, she fell into an obsessive condition which compelled her, at each crescent moon, to fly above the crescent, expressing with all manner of cow noises her love for her father. To call this a habit is to undervalue it. It was one of the great obsessions, to be memorialized in all media from Norse epic to Pixar blockbuster. At last, the cow’s pathetic history reached a newly independent Kyrgyzstan, whose formerly state-owned newspaper soon initiated a popular cartoon series in the first flush of capitalist enterprise.
  3. The Dénouement: Why, then, did the moon act in so reprehensible a manner? I believe, month after month, in all innocence, the moon, being only half-bright, came to think of itself as the cow’s father, a bull. All well and good for the cow, who doubtless sensed the moon’s empathy and bathed in its glow. But one night, the moon rose blue, and in a fit of depressive delusion, saw the cow as a matador and seized the chance to take a father’s revenge for having been lost to his daughter all those years ago.
  4. The Lesson: If you are going to jump over the moon, and you are a cow, make sure you have a cat to comfort and a fiddle to soothe a deranged crescent moon.

About the Author: Barry Blitstein began in theater (MFA); he has lived in New York, The San Gabriel Mountains, Los Angeles, and Berlin, Germany.  He feels very much at home wherever he is. Most recently his poems have appeared in Off The Rocks, Hartskill Review and The Inflectionist Review. His objective is to make each poem’s form and content inseparable and has no fixed ideas about either.