A Blue Jay Screams by Cassandra Dallett

bluebird by M. Avery


bluejay

About the Author: Cassandra Dallett lives in Oakland, CA. Cassandra is a Pushcart nominee and reads often around the San Francisco Bay Area. She has published online and in many print magazines such as Slip Stream, Sparkle and Blink, The Bicycle Review, Chiron Review, River Babble, and Up The River. A full-length book of poetry, Wet Reckless, was released to good review from Manic D Press in May 2014. A new book of poems, Bad Sandy, was released in spring 2015, and a book of short memoir is due in the fall on Punk Hostage Press.

Artwork: M. Avery

Jungles of America by Jessica Barksdale

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After Evelyn Scrimshaw had her hip replaced, her husband Dave carted her off to the rehab facility instead of bringing her right home to recuperate in her own bed.

“I’ve got to work! Someone has to. How can I take care of you on top of everything else?” he asked. Before she could think of the answer, all she saw was his back, his bear-hunched walk as he skedaddled down the hospital hall.

Her unasked question, of course, was how had he been taking care of her in general. Had he? But since there was no one else—her daughter Caryn in Hong Kong and her mother long dead—Evelyn went, languishing amongst the other broken and aged until she could move without a walker, a full two weeks after the surgery. By the time she returned, he’d pulled down the wallpaper in the kitchen and gotten a dog.

“A dog? How can I take care of a dog like this?” She rattled her walker.

Dave had given her a look, and Evelyn had looked away into the strangeness of her own home. Everything had changed and gone on just fine without her. When Evelyn made it down the hall and looked into her room, she noticed her side of the bed was perfectly made, the pillows fully fluffed. He’d not once even snaked a foot toward her memory. Later, she realized he’d moved into the guest room, and due to the fact that his clothes were hanging in the spare closet, she had a feeling he wasn’t coming back.

Every day, Evelyn walked a little farther. First to the end of the block, the new dog—Spiffy, a rescue, part rat terrier part something else, pointy nose, big ears, spots—on a leash at her side. Spiffy was as terrified as Evelyn, both of them only recently released from incarceration. But at least Evelyn hadn’t faced the threat of death, except from anesthesia.

Spiffy walked perfectly at Evelyn’s slow heel, stopping when Evelyn wobbled to stillness. Her walker at home by the front door, her new cane ground into the sidewalk. Spiffy sniffed the air, turned his head, gazed up at Evelyn with his dark black eyes.

It was love.

Pretty soon, Evelyn and Spiffy were up to two miles. All flat, save the driveway dips. Big sidewalk blocks around the suburban neighborhood. Dave would leave for work, and after a cup of coffee, out they went, Spiffy’s tail wagging.

“You go, Evelyn,” Delia Saddle called from her Toyota.

“That’s the spirt!” said the replacement postwoman. Sam or Sue. Evelyn could remember.

She waved her cane hand, raising the stick in her clenched palm, shaking it a bit, wobbling sometimes as she did. Spiffy slowed, sniffed Evelyn’s ankle. They both panted and then moved on.

 

“Don’t you want to kill him?” Evelyn’s college friend May asked.

“Every day,” Evelyn said. She held the phone out in front of her, having pressed the round speaker button. May’s whine filled the living room air.

May lived in Minneapolis, only just thawed out from a long and freezing spring. Evelyn imagined her friend’s round moon face peering out from a round moon window. An Inuit in her igloo. Jack Spratt’s wife with no Jack Spratt.

“So why do you stay?”

“May, where do you think I should shuffle to?” Evelyn sipped her ice tea, the bottle slick in her hand. Diet, this one. The end of the sip tasted like poison.

There was silence at the end of the line, a big pause where “You could come up here and live with me should be.” But Evelyn didn’t blame May for not saying it. No one had ever really said something like that and meant it. At least, not for long. She and Dave had only been married five years when he stopped touching her. Now she remembered each and every seemingly last time he put a hand on her skin. The latest: Wednesday, her wrist as he helped her out of the car. Their only child had moved across the world. Even her mother had escaped through death. There was something cataclysmic and disastrous about her. Of this Evelyn was sure. But what? She’d eliminated the easy things. Breath, for one. A strong peppermint in every pocket. Her person was reasonable if not glamorous. Or even pretty. Her now graying hair was cut and shaped in what should be a pleasing fashion, short but not too, long but not wild. Her fat limited to her backside and triceps (such as they were) and she kept both under literal wraps: pants and those long-sleeved t-shirts from Target. Otherwise, she looked slim. She was cleaned and pressed. She wore a tiny bit of mascara and blush. Sometimes a pale glow of lipstick. Her shoelaces were tied and unfrayed. She smiled and said hello when appropriate. She returned her library books on time and paid her debts. She mowed (well, used to before the damn hip) her lawn and trimmed the hedges. She picked up the free newspapers that would otherwise gather at the end of the driveway in molten clumps. She brought reusable grocery bags every time she went to the store. She didn’t stutter, say “Um” very often. Mostly. More importantly, she didn’t start her sentences with “You know what I mean?”

No spitting, swearing, gossiping, tale-telling, or burping, at least out in public. She sat quietly when necessary (doctors’ offices, plays, school board meetings, graduations). Whatever else she could do, she didn’t know, though she’d never really asked anyone.

Only people who didn’t know her well were nice to her. The checkout clerks. The postal workers. The meter man in his blue shorts and work boots and the big tan. In her real life, just Dave, Caryn, and May remained. And not by much. With May and Caryn, Evelyn knew it was only possible because of the thousands of miles between them. With Dave, it was a vague feeling of responsibility. Otherwise, it would be just her and Spiffy. And who knows? Maybe Spiffy would run away and join the circus the moment Dave’s car pulled out of the driveway for the last time.

But as May talked, Evelyn looked down at her feet. In between her feet, nestled against her sensible walking shoes, Spiffy lay in a tiny dog circle, his tail wagging.

 

After talking with May, Evelyn took her time arranging her feet, readying her thighs and then slowly stood up, put Spiffy on his leash, and headed out for their afternoon walks, which had been getting longer now that Dave was coming home later and later. Just the night before, he showed up about 10.30.

“Had a meeting,” he’d said.

For a long while, Evelyn was silent, trying to determine how to answer. Dave worked for Pacific Gas and Electric in cost analysis, and most of the meetings were during the day. This she knew from having been married to him for twenty-seven years. As he hung up his jacket and took off his shoes, she suddenly wondered if he was going to AA. He was close to retirement, his marriage was a mess, and his wife was hobbled. All that was left to him was drink. No wonder he’d been forced to put her in the rehab facility.

Before he left this morning (Early, again. Strange tie and that odd brown sweater he bought last year), he’d said, “Don’t wait up.”

At her side, Spiffy waited and wagged. Evelyn put on her jacket, loaded her pockets with doggie treats and poop bags. She packed essentials in the fanny pack she’d asked Dave to scrounge up from the basement, something she’d bought when Caryn was little and they’d gone on walks in the Regional parks. Evelyn had loaded up the car with hiking boots and the first aid kit and butterfly nets. Back then, it hadn’t been doggie treats but animal crackers, Pepperidge farm fish, and juice boxes. Lots of extra Band-Aids. Caryn had been adventurous (thus Hong Kong) climbing up trees and sliding down rough back. Oh, that time with the splinters! Polysporin. Snake bite kit. Where was that old thing?

But now, she bagged up some raisins and nuts. Two bottles of water. Emergency cash. Just in case, she put in the pepper spray May had sent her, a promotional canister for “Take Back the Night” in Minneapolis.

“Can’t be too safe,” May told her later on the phone.

“Are you supposed to send that in the mail?” Evelyn had asked. She still didn’t know the answer. Maybe it was just about airplanes. Safety items couldn’t travel.

Despite himself, Spiffy whined and then sat, ashamed, looking up at her with pleading eyes.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if it was just the two of us?” Evelyn asked as she opened the front door.

Spiffy, the world in front of him, rushed out. But didn’t pull the leash. Spiffy waited, butt barely on the porch, tail a thumping wag.

 

The day was perfect, not to hot, not too cold, a Baby Bear kind of day. At least, that’s what Evelyn used to tell Caryn, back when Caryn listened. But now, Caryn talked on the phone. Told. Described. Explained. Held forth. And hung up. Never asked a question.

“Have you ever heard of Cassandra?” a therapist once asked, the one she went to at May’s prodding.

Evelyn wanted to nod as she did to most things, but she’d never be able to fake her way through.

The therapist waited and then went on. “She was a prophet. She was always right. Knew what would happen in the Trojan War. But her family only believed her once.”

Evelyn listened. Had anyone believed her? Even once? Maybe she hadn’t said anything anyone could believe in.

“What did they believe?”

“They believed her about how the war started. But after that. Nothing. My point is—“

“What happened to her?” Evelyn had asked, wondering what happened to those who were ignored and forgotten.

The therapist looked up, fiddled with her glasses, bit the corner of her lower lip. “The point is that sometimes people can’t make themselves known. Sometimes, no one will listen. No one will bat an eye, no matter what happens.”

Later, Evelyn had looked up poor Cassandra, raped and defiled during the sack of Troy by those terrible Greek warriors. But Evelyn didn’t worry. Nothing like that would ever happen to her, no matter who didn’t listen to her. Eventually, she stopped going to the therapist because no matter all the Cassandra stories and the “Yes, go ons,” Evelyn didn’t think the doctor was paying much attention.

The morning light dappled the sidewalk, the sway of leaves’ light shadows flickering as Evelyn stepped one foot and then the other. Spiffy trotted his small dog trot, stopped for periods of time to pull in scent from yellowed half-moons on the grass or invisible messages on fences and decorative rocks. The breeze was cool, and for the first time in weeks, Evelyn didn’t feel the hitch in her gait, her strides short but smooth. In fact, she’d actually gotten into shape, even though she’d been walking at a snail’s pace. But every day, sometimes up to three times, she strolled, her body moving more than it had in twenty, twenty-five years, all the back to those days when Caryn was a little girl hunting for wild ladybugs.

“What a cute doggie!” a woman at a corner said, her head turned over her shoulder as she stepped into the crosswalk. Evelyn stopped moving, her breath in her last stride. But no car. All was safe. The woman smiled, waved, and hopped ran across the street into the next block. She had three empty shopping bags clenched in her hand, and Evelyn realized she and Spiffy had walked eight blocks.

Juggling the leash, she pulled out a bottle of water, carefully cracked it open, and poured some into the cap for Spiffy. Bending down slowly, she held it out for Spiffy who lapped it up. They repeated this a couple of times, and then Evelyn put away the water and gave Spiffy a doggie treat, a little round pellet of ground up animal goodness. Turkey. Or Salmon. She couldn’t remember.

After looking both ways, they set out across the crosswalk, the woman who’d spoken to them almost out of sight.

How long had it been since she’d gone into town by herself? Somehow, she’d let Dave just pick up milk, bananas, and pork chops on his way home from work. And then there was that Safeway van, the man bringing her groceries to the step. How humiliating. She’d taken to putting out a cooler and hiding behind the half-pulled curtains. Then she’d lug in the cooler, unpack everything and put it away, letting Dave think she’d done the shopping all herself.

Then he’d found out, ranting about service charges and her laziness. Just last week, he’d told her, “It’s a miracle you busted your hip. You never used it for anything.”

Tears pressed behind her cheeks as she thought of his face when he’d said that, the way he looked at her like she was a person who just walked in the house. A stranger. A person he’d never known at all.

At the next block, the street opened up wide, pushing into a larger, vast space, making way for rows of parking spaces. The grocery store—not Safeway. That was near the mall—was the one she used to come to with Caryn on hot summer evenings to buy Eskimo Pies (were they still called that?) and creamsicles. Back then, the employees knew Caryn’s name, Evelyn’s too. Caryn, with her necklace made of Evelyn’s many old necklaces all twirled together, jangled around the store, skipping up and down the aisles in her knee-high socks and black patent leather shoes. Clickity, clack, Evelyn used to sing. Clickity clack.

At the front of the store, displays disgorged tumbrels of orange, yellow, and green summer fruits and vegetables. Zucchini, Meyer lemons, avocados, peaches. The electric double doors opened and shuffled closed. A faint whine of pleasant music spilled out with each customer.

“Who’s this?” a man in a green apron asked, his hands on cantaloupes as if they were wayward children’s heads.

Evelyn almost said, “Evelyn,” but then she realized he was asking about the dog. “Spiffy.”

The man bent away from his fruit and squatted, holding out his hand for Spiffy to smell. Spiffy trotted close, tail wagging, scared but eager.

“Spiffy indeed.” The man—his gold name tag read Earl—scratched behind Spiffy’s left ear.

He stood and smiled, and Evelyn walked on, her stomach growling. Suddenly her packed up raisins didn’t seem like enough. In fact, she was starving, wanting the real breakfast she didn’t eat—the real breakfast she hadn’t eaten for years. Eggs, over-easy, cooked to crispness in butter. Whole wheat toast dotted with pats of yellow spring butter. Sausage and bacon and red-faced grapefruit halves. Orange juice and a café latte. Or hot chocolate. The kind Caryn used to like, tiny marshmallows floating on the top life like preservers.

She walked past the mounds of produce and picked up a shopping basket, freezing for a second. Had she brought her wallet? Did she have any money? Shame flowed through her like water. She’d have to put down the basket and back away from the warm ripe fruit like a caught thief. She closed her eyes as she imagined in the contents of her fanny pack. Keys, water. And yes. Of course! Her emergency money. Two twenties folded into a rectangle in the secret pocket nearest her body.

“Got it, Spiffy,” she said, opening her eyes and walking toward the whooshing doors. “We can get a snack.”

Evelyn looked down at Spiffy. Her dog. That was true. Her dog. Who looked up at her with his black beady eyes. As if she knew what she was doing. And had she ever? That long-ago therapist had once asked her, “So if you were going to a desert island, what five foods would you bring?”

Evelyn had blinked, questions struggling at the back of her mouth. How long was she going to be on the island? Did the food have to last? Was there water? Was the food a singular food like milk or a food like pizza, loaded with pineapple, ham, mushrooms, tomato sauce, and cheese?

Her therapist tapped her fingernail on her notepad. Evelyn couldn’t imagine what she liked enough to take with her. She had no idea, really, what kept her alive.

“Bread?” she said finally.

“Good. What else?”

The bread would go stale, but maybe a pumpkin would last. She could roast it over the fire she’d never be able to start. Or maybe camping supplies. Dried fruit. Nuts. Powdered milk. Canned chili. Canned corn. She told the therapist all those things, and she knew she’d failed the test by the way the light went out of her therapist’s eyes. Clearly, Evelyn was supposed to say Champagne, olives, marcona almonds, Brie, and caviar. Or basmati rice, pesto, blood orange juice, broccoli, and Spanish peanuts. But no. Once again, Evelyn managed to disappoint.

But now, Spiffy was swinging his cute little rump around the store, employees and customers smiling as Evelyn and he made their way up the deli aisle. Even the canned music seemed jaunty, a fast piano, a waft of violin. Yes, the deli aisle. That’s what she wanted for today’s desert island. A sandwich with turkey, Swiss, tomato, and lettuce. On sourdough with a pickle. And in the pet aisle, a little chew bone for Spiffy. That was it. That’s what she’d tell that damn therapist if she could. So damn what if that was six foods. So damn what.

 

In the shade of a broadleaf maple, Evelyn sat on a metal bench, her cane propped against the seat back. Near a paper bowl of water, Spiffy chewed his bone. His leash was wound around her good leg, though Spiffy put not once ounce of pressure on it. Now and then, when a child ran up to find a ball or a person walked by on the path, Spiffy wagged his tail but never took his mouth from the chew. Her sandwich gone, she sat back, a can of something fruity in her hand (“A total energy drink” the girl at the deli counter had said). It felt like drinking chemicals, the fruit forward and then gone in a wash of molecules with names Evelyn knew she couldn’t pronounce. But now and again, she took small metallish sips, breathing in the fragrance of imaginary pink fruit.

The early afternoon cupped the park in warming hands. School must be out already, the world running on a schedule that no longer required Evelyn’s permission.  Now summer was like every other season, only warmer. But under the maple, the air was cool and smelled like wet dirt. Like the dirt in the garden boxes she and Caryn used to tend. Pole beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, pumpkins, all staggered and staked, dinner full of things they’d grown themselves. A couple of years ago, Evelyn noticed the wire tomatoes cages crammed at the back of the garage, thick with cobweb meshing.

“Nice day,” a voice said.

Evelyn turned, blinked, a person standing against the light, underneath the tree, her eyes adjusting slowly.

“It is.” She turned back toward the field, hoping that once acknowledged, the man would go away. But he only moved closer, sat on the far edge of the bench. Spiffy stirred, something like a tiny growl in his throat.

The man seemed undeterred, settling himself, patting his knees and leaning forward as if he were watching a soccer match.

Seeing him clearly now, Evelyn took in the long coat, the hat, the bottle-shaped bag in his hands. Fingernails oily crescent moons. Face pallid, streaked with ash or dirt. Shoes old and untied. No laces actually. Or socks for that matter.

“Nice to be out,” he said.

“It is,” she said, but in a lighter more vague way, hoping he’d get her message.

“Lots to do on a sunny day. At least in the shady spots. Lots.”

Evelyn swallowed, unsure what to say. Unsure about what she was hearing. It had been decades since she’d talked to a man not Dave. At least alone. Maybe in college, young men had sidled up to her at the library or cafeteria, smiling, holding books or a food tray. She’d been okay with that. Okay with Dave coming to her desk at the insurance company they’d both worked at, sitting on the edge of her desk, asking her to go to the movies. Okay with the way he’d put his hand at the small of her back as they left for the day. Okay enough to say yes when he asked to marry her. And a man had actually asked. Her of all people. For a while, she’d been a part of a family, a unit. She had things to do and people to take care of. Where had it all gone?

It was a life ago. Maybe two.

Her life had been like her hip. It hadn’t broken but just wore down to the nub.

“Hmmm.” Evelyn let the sound play out on her lips.

“Yes, and I know you have some fun fun fun in that fanny pack of yours. Need that fun to do anything. No matter the day.”

Evelyn’s heart and lungs heard the words before her ears did. At first, his face and smile were pleasant, as if he were offering her a cookie or a ride on a Ferris wheel or a seat on a riverboat. But then her ears caught up, hearing his want. His need. His ready-to-take.

“Just some doggie treats,” she said, forgetting and then remembering her change from the store. One whole twenty and a few ones. A quarter or two. A nickel. She looked out to the field. The children had left their games, the mothers packed up their babies and bags. No one around to call out to. And she’d never figured out a cell phone. Dave had thrown up his hands. “Hopeless,” he’d said. More than once.

“You don’t say.” The man scooted toward her, his smell preceding him. Dark oily clothes. Rot and sweat and wet.

“Maybe,” she began, swatting away crumbs and pulling Spiffy toward her. The dog stopped chewing, stilled, growled.

“Vicious beast,” the man said. He was smiling under his beard. At least, it seemed like a smile. Maybe it was a slash of grimace. “Needs to go.”

“We’re just about to do that.” Evelyn patted her fanny pack, pulled on Spiffy’s leash a bit. Gripping his bone in his teeth, he stood up, his tail down between his legs, ears pricked.

“Not until I know your name.” He gave her the grimace-y smile again, his brown eyes like glittering dark marbles under the shade of the tree.

“Evelyn,” she said, moving herself to the edge of the bench, just barely resting on the wood, ready to move. She thought of her cane, felt in against her palm, heard it slap his shoulder, crack his head.

He leaned closer. “Do you want to know my name?”

Evelyn clasp her hands, the leash between her palms. How to say no and not offend him. If she could run, she’d be out of here, now, dashing to the middle of the field with Spiffy, yelling her head off.

“Sure,” she said, the word like an anchor in her throat.

“That’s good! Just fine. So call me Nick. Just like Santa Claus. But you’re the one with the pack, huh?” he laughed, a thick, deep sound that came from his chest. Why wasn’t anyone else hearing this? She looked to her left, hoping to see a child on a bike. But the world outside the maple’s shade was a hot flat empty disc.

“Nice to meet you, Nick,” she said. “We need to go now.”

“Not so fast, Evelyn, and not without a goodbye kiss.”

She started, stood, her eyes on Spiffy, hand reaching for her cane. “Why are you doing this to me?”

“Doing it to you?” He stepped closer, the sound of his clothes flapping like waves.

“Yes,” she whispered. “Who else?”

“Why you doing this to me?” His voice hard, angry. She glanced up and in a second, he was on her, one strong hand on each shoulder. Alcohol and badness surrounded her. She wanted to close her eyes and pull into herself, but Spiffy needed her. Dropping the leash and using a move from a YouTube video May had sent her, she brought her hands up between Nick’s arms, pushing with all her strength with her forearms, breaking his grasp.

“God damn!” He bent down and grabbed the leash, swinging Spiffy around like a toy. The dog yelped, and then screamed when Nick kicked him.

“Don’t do that!” she yelled.

“Ugly useless old bat.”

“Stop!” she cried running at Nick with her fists, and that’s when he grabbed the fanny pack belt, yanking her hard, yanking her whole body to the edge of the field. Pulling her toward the creek that ran below. Her hip ached. Her breath shot out of her lungs. He hit her on the head with the flat of his hand. He hit her face. She tried to duck, but he was yanking again, pushing her toward the edge, pushing, and then the belt popped open, and she was falling, rolling down the embankment, the world whirling, whirling, dark.

 

Evelyn sputtered awake, a deep pain in her head and on her side. Her eyes still closed, she reached down to find something hard and wet jammed against her waist. What was it? A rock? She opened her eyes, blinking back the dusk and water. Where was she?

Her side throbbed. Her hip. The man. Nick.

“Spiffy,” she cried, pushing to all fours and then falling down on her hands and knees. She tried again, crawling through the grass. Weeds hard as wires slapped her face. Rocks under her palms, on her shins. With each sobbing move, hand, knee, hand, knee, she called out her dog’s name. Evening hummed with mosquitos and frogs. Mud pushed up between her fingers. Vines caught her around the arms, wrapped slick green fingers across her forehead. Twice, she lurched, falling on her cheek, her forehead, struggling up each time to call out again.

She didn’t dare stop. She had to get back. All around her, life was moving on. Minutes and hours since Spiffy was at her feet drinking his water and chewing his bone. Soon it would be another day, more of the life where she could take care of nothing. Not even herself. But she’d have to. What had Nick said as he staggered toward her?

“Ugly useless old bat.”

Useless. Unable to take care of even one small creature.

Oh, Spiffy.

Evelyn pushed herself up again, staggering, lunging as she found her footing in the muck, and called until she was hoarse. Crying, wiping her eyes of tears, her face gritty and slick, she pulled herself up to the field with her hands. Digging into the hill with her feet. Grass in her mouth, her hair, under her nails. Her pockets full of mud. Soaked socks. No one who’d even know or care that she was late. Gone, even. If she died here like a terrible trout, Evelyn didn’t even have her fanny pack with her careful address written in Sharpie on the inside tag to identify her. Nick had taken it. But did it matter now? She rubbed her face with her sleeve, her breath ragged, her legs aching. Nothing was left of anything. Or maybe. Spiffy. In place of nothing, something else, if she could only keep slogging forward.

Bugs zirred past her ears, pinged her cheeks. Somewhere, the whoosh of an irrigation system. The bloom of wet pulsing up from soggy ground. And then out from under the canopy of maple and oak branches—shiny and bright under the glowing park light—Spiffy, wagging his tail. Jumping on her legs. Licking her nose, eyes, chin. His tongue, soft and red even in the twilight. And Evelyn, holding him tight, feeling his soft live warm body against hers, both of them shaking.

“It’s okay,” she whispered. “We’ll be okay.”

Dave would leave her, moving from the guest room to wherever he was most of the time. They would agree on terms. They would sell the house. She would pack up what remained of a life. Day by day, she’d keep practicing how to walk.

Spiffy’s panting breath warmed her face. In the distance, a call out. A man in a dark uniform, waving. “Ma’am! Hey, Ma’am!”

Dog in her nose, on her skin, his small pounding heart against her chest. Evelyn wailed for all that she’d lost. For everything she’d found.


About the Author: Jessica Barksdale is the author of thirteen novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and When You Believe. Her latest, The Burning Hour, is forthcoming from Urban Farmhouse Press. A Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Compose, Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension. She has an MFA from the Rainer Writers Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.

 

 

 

“The right to be forgotten” by Mindela Ruby

black-and-white-road-beach-sign-large


Being bad in a fun way is cool when I’m young
Dropping sugar cube acid with a poet at Mantara Beach
Grooving on pelicans, breakers, sand dunes
‘til we’re scared off by the cold and dark
and a seaside lurker we suspect of ill will
By sheer luck we escape both car crash and DUI

My blotter-paper venture with a different young man
includes no driving. We ingest our doses in his flat
with Stevie Wonder on vinyl, a magic mirror on the wall
and a bed for altered state sex (which proceeds poorly)
As compensation, we stroll to the corner grocery
and in states of sublimity drink apricot nectar from cans
My short, idealized, hallucinogen-curious past

But the past won’t stay obliviously gone
My blotter paper partner-in-mischief and I
exchange notes on LinkedIn, neither mentioning
“sex,” “LSD” or “mirror,” the burning question unasked:
Did I lie down in the market’s laundry aisle
tripping on engineered detergent smells,
making a joyous spectacle of myself?

The day after Mantara Beach, the poet and I awoke
to flashing patrol cars under my window
A suspect ran from the kitty-corner house
and was gunned down by automatic weapons
–a scenario we later learned involved hostages
If I could remember the poet’s name I’d Facebook him
and ask: Did we drive psychedelicized on freeways
at night–were we blithely that bad?
Did we watch a man get obliterated and think it a dream?

Or not friend. Not link. Not message. Not ask. Not recall.
Just let our past deeds go.
Fun in a bad way? No.


About the Author: Mindela Ruby is a writer of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and hybrid forms. Her novel Mosh It Up (Pen-L 2014) continues to garner literary reviews. Her short pieces have appeared in FRiGG, Melusine, Arcadia, Bound-Off, r.kv.r.y. Quarterly, Connotation Press and several other publications. A poem she wrote about brain cancer appears in the current volume of the anthology Puff, Puff Poetry & Prose. Her chapbook of prose poem-microfiction hybrids was a semi-finalist in a Slash Pine Press competition. Ruby’s poetry has won Emily Chamberlain Cook and Joan Lee Yang Memorial poetry writing prizes. She holds an M.A. from the University of Michigan and a PhD from the University of California. She currently teaches writing at a hard scrabble urban community college in the Bay Area.

BECOMING OUR FATHERS by Lisa Mae DeMasi

Harriet Poznansky Death Through a Child's Eyes


The biggest influence on the child is the unmet dreams of their parents.

–Carl Jung

Every reader has a secret obsession. Besides masters like Tolstoy, Austen and Marquez, bedtime often finds me curled up with books by those wily women who somehow make it up the ladder to the c-suite. What strikes me most about these recent missives about corporate America including Lean In and Thrive is how utterly clean these books seem, discussing good-girl themes like balance and self-esteem. Back in the 80’s when all this corporate madness began, we had precious time for aspirations on the small end of Maslow’s hierarchy. Those of us who paved the way for Sandberg and friends had to contend with a sort of schizophrenic messiness. In fact, it might still be messy, but that doesn’t always make a great book. A recent Monster poll, released in conjunction with the anniversary of the film Working Girl, shows that 44 percent of women and 28 percent of men think nothing has really changed since the 80’s. In which case, whatever we were doing back then, stuck.

I was born in Feb. ’65, a few years before Steinem published After Black Power, Women’s Liberation. Surely some mothers were having their babies on Ina May Gaskin’s bus and picketing for abortion rights, but mine and the others I came to know in Wellesley, MA had mostly worked as secretaries and then gotten married. My mother’s aspirations involved clubs and Jaguars.

The year I graduated from college, the microchip was on the rise. The iron curtain was collapsing, and the first American test-tube baby had just been born. Trailblazing was in order, and yet the gender situation was schizophrenic at best. The forerunners of the current lean-in frenzy were tottering around in nine-inch heels with sprayed hair that sometimes caught fire when someone lit a cigarette in the boardroom. I was confused. To remedy this confusion, I swam a lot senior year, plunging deep to the pool’s bottom and blotting out the world. When my lungs felt ready to implode, I hauled myself out the pool and returned to my room where I made pots of black coffee and smoked Eve 120 Menthols until class time rolled around. In the late spring of ’87, starting to despair my future, I decided to get married.

I met my future husband through Melinda, a girl in my dorm with unharnessed pendulum breasts, who was frequently found in the living room, watching TV in a threadbare nightgown and chewing on her hair. The boys congregated like bees to honey smeared on, well, unharnessed pendulum breasts. Tristan was one of these boys, cute, reserved and naïve. I wanted him and figured eventually, I would get him. But he’d enlisted in the air force two months prior and before long shipped out to Texas and then to another planet called Guam. In his absence, I grew intimately close to his best friend, Tom Flowers.

The summer I graduated, Tom proposed to me. We were vacationing in Ocean City, Maryland, and I said yes because Tom was ambitious and career-oriented, like my father. Also like my father, he was understanding and tolerant when it came to his wife holding down a full time job. This came in handy since I’d graduated from a curriculum representing “a sound liberal arts base” targeted to “instilling a woman with a little bit of knowledge about a lot of things” and thereby rendering her incapable of pursuing a given discipline.

I stood beside Tom in late May of ’90 at the altar of Regis’s chapel wearing my mother’s gown armed with a sundae spoon in which to consume the best man, Tristan. (Despite my attempts to indulge after Tom and I were married, the sundae never allowed me even a taste.)

Tom wore glasses and had a twenty-seven inch waistline, which was interesting since the only things he ate were toasted raviolis, Little Debbie Marshmallow Supremes and homemade whoopie pies. Tom was plain, predictable. Once, to spruce him up, I brushed on eye shadow as he stoically sat on the closed lid of the toilet. He hated this, even in jest, and washed it off after a glimpse in the mirror. In all actuality, he should have married my roommate, Prudence Dearheart—she weighed less than him, I had introduced her to the benefits of falsies and waxing and her acne eventually cleared up. Tom needed a wife, and unbeknownst to both of us, I was about to plunge head long into non-wifehood, a dive that would finally seem to pave the way for every working millennial gal in corporate America today.

That first year with Tom, I found myself staring into space, remembering my wild days at Regis and contemplating the perfect boredom that was marriage. While my mother found satisfaction in getting into certain suburban clubs, I could hardly find the gumption to make chicken casserole. I was worried I would turn into my mother. Or Tom’s. His mother, a warm, kind woman from a working class city just west of Boston, had been enslaved into servitude by her five children and a husband. She called trash “rubbish,” soda “tonic,” potatoes “b’daydas,” the day after Friday “Saddadee,” and the numbah aftah thirdy-nine “foddy.” Tom’s father, on the other hand, didn’t spare many words but when he did, over Sunday’s roast beef and turnip dinner, he’d say, “Mama, pass the blood” and “Mama, I’m ready for my tea, now.”

It was my father, out of this crowd of Tom’s parents and mine, who seemed to have the most fun. My father was both powerful and amenable. Aside from cucumbers, he didn’t appear to be disagreeable about anything. Perhaps being the only child born to second-generation Italians made him docile for survival. His parents did all things Italian, besides cooking an amount of spaghetti that could have extended from their home in Bridgeport, CT to Sicily, they did a whole lot of yelling and dictating. My grandfather would often crack walnuts between his fingers and say, “Aw, Frank, you did the best you could with what you had to work with.” A pistol shot, disguised by complimentary overtones.

Despite this winning assessment, my father’s self-esteem never seemed particularly bothered.  He was full of initiative. A mechanical engineer by trade, he could explain highly technical things as if he were talking about a recipe for meatloaf. At AVCO Lycoming Engines and Sikorsky Aircraft in Stratford, Connecticut, he labored on engines—taking them apart down to their washers, re-assembling them with his eyes closed, testing them, and making them better. He’d met my mother at AVCO–she was beautiful then, before pacifying her hurt with food—and the initial encounter of the two meeting was, according to my mother, “love at first sight.” Quite different from my father’s first impression—“she was stacked!” What kept coming back to me during those bored first years of marriage was that somewhere in my adolescent years, Dad’s career had  allowed him to pull out of the whole family thing. He’d taken a hiatus at Cornell’s two-year graduate program and lived in a high rise dorm infected with roaches.

That’s when the plan to become my father began to formulate. He had always wanted to work for the Department of Defense, and about two years into marriage, I applied for a job at PB&J Corporation in Wellesley, a Fortune 100 conglomerate that served as a top-tier contractor to the Department of Defense, NASA and other federal agencies. They put me to work in the corporate office; a plush location where women remained confined to traditional roles and were frequently seen carrying pots of coffee in the wake of some suit-wearing executive.

Situated in mahogany row, I reported to a division controller in an administrative capacity and readily developed a knack for building Lotus 1-2-3 macro-run spreadsheets and a chronic intolerance for bean counters. My boss, a nervous CPA afflicted with twitches and a lightning speed gait, was an expert at creating a tension-filled monotony. Consequently, I befriended my neighbor, an elderly secretary who reported to a well-respected Executive Vice President, Max Powers. Max was a master at operations strategy.

When special occasions arose, I celebrated offsite with Max, his controller, and his secretary. Once, driving back to the office, Max asked me out to dinner. I thought it was odd—we were both married and there was quite an age difference between us—I was in my mid-twenties, and he was well into his fifties. But he drove a Mercedes, so I agreed.

Max wasn’t a player—he was content in his stale second marriage and active in his daughter and sons’ lives. And yet here I was fresh out of college and not wanting to be a housewife. I brought some life into the nearly geriatric office. He was attracted to that quality along with some of my other features, like breast size. And age.

In turn, I was attracted to him because unlike Tom, Max’s middle boasted something I could grab hold of—a 42” waistline. As well, when Max passed by me in the office, if the coast was clear, he’d look me up and down, bug out his eyes and waggle his eyebrows. Tom never did that sort of thing—even when we first met. Max was also tall, Italian, mature, successful, a personable no-nonsense type. Kind of like my father. Back in the 80’s when the working girl movement truly began, you were trying to be your father, and your boss was also your father (or at least someone like him), and you were, inevitably, sleeping with him. This was all mildly disorienting. Jane Miller’s new book Sleep Your Way to the Top (and other myths about business success), another bedtime obsession, nails all this right down and actually gives you some guidelines about sleeping, or not sleeping, with some senior level execs.
Aside from this ogling, Max and I were discreet about our infidelity; he had a great deal at risk. And though I did too, I didn’t consider carrying on with him such a terrible thing—the relationship was well rounded, and I loved the attention. This line of thinking, however vile was par for the course. While riding around in Max’s Mercedes, I sometimes remembered my Dad inviting two young women from work to the beach near our house. They showed up wearing bikinis. I was in the water next to the blond at one point and her nipple was exposed and I remember feeling so embarrassed and plunging below the water’s surface. Why would Dad invite two young women to the beach? He was also seen driving his ’54 Corvette through town with some woman at his side. And now perhaps I had become the woman in the Corvette, just exactly at the same time I was trying to become my father.

Some weeks later, after we had regularly steamed up the Benz’s windows, I indulged in a couple of cocktails at one of our group luncheons. Upon returning to work and feeling frisky, I bypassed my desk for Max’s and entered his large corner office. Nowhere in Lean In does Sheryl Sandberg talk about plopping into an oversized leather chair and placing one’s heels and legs up on the boss’s desk. When he crossed the threshold to his office and found me stationed at his desk, he drew a few steps backward and glanced at the door. “Lisa,” he whispered. “Get out of that chair.”

I crossed one leg over the other. “I kind of like this chair.”

He checked behind him. “Lisa,” he repeated. “This isn’t funny. Get out the chair now.”
And there ensued a dialogue much like ones I might have had with my dad when I was young:

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Now.”

“Oh, alright.” Pretending to submit, I placed my feet on the floor but then changed course and gleefully spun around.

“Lisa!” he hissed. His face was the hue of a Detroit Dark Red beet.
Finally I popped up and out of the chair and sauntered past him. He avoided eye contact the remainder of the day.

“Just what did you think you were doing?” he scowled the following night.

“Playing,” I answered. Play girl, married girl, working girl, daughter, who was I?

“Well, don’t do it again,” he said. The corner of his mouth curled into a smile.

 

I didn’t want to sit around with Max and the elderly secretary all my life, and when the opportunity arose, I left my job to report to the V.P of Management Information Systems (the dawning of IT). After assimilating quickly into the admin position by working with a networking guru to transition staff from the use of dumb terminals to PCs, I became a valued resource and my training skills were in constant demand. Just as my father did when he left us for Cornell, I began to consider an MBA as a fast track to management.

Similarly, all my male counterparts were getting their MBAs part time at Babson College, a school that had previously been predominated by men. This, I figured, was the ticket to my future. My father had wanted the MBA, too, but because of a family curse in accounting, he had decided to audit a course and so got a certificate instead.  I had struggled with accounting at Regis, too, but managed it. I was not only going to become my father, I was going to surpass his wildest expectations.

The only thing standing in the way of graduate admissions was the GMAT, an entry exam designed to quantify and humiliate all those who fall below a superior level of intelligence.  I prepared for it for weeks. When it came to taking the exam, though, I panicked halfway through and handed in more empty circles than filled-in. When I later mustered the courage to try again, I completed half the exam to the best of my ability and then overwrought with anxiety, filled in “C” for “correct” throughout the remainder. To my dismay, the test results again fell short of the admission standard. It fell below any standard. Anywhere. For anything.

FairTest, the national center for open and fair testing, claims that this single 3-hour test wields a tremendous amount of power. Many B-school admissions officers use GMAT cut-off scores of 550 and higher but women average only 503. Although we make up more than half of all college graduates and post higher undergraduate GPAs than our male peers, two-fifths never attempt the GMAT. Determined to get into Babson, I made an appointment to see the dean, who unlike the Regis dean, was male. Leveraging the traits Max found attractive, and the make-it-happen mentality that both he and my father instilled in me, I walked into the Dean’s office, hand extended, wearing a cinch-waisted suit and crippling high heels.

When he stood up to make my acquaintance, I intercepted his hand over a copy of my rejection letter.  “Good Afternoon, Dean,” I began enthusiastically. “Thank you so much for seeing me. I realize how valuable your time is.”

He smiled at my chest. “Good Afternoon, Ms. DeMasi, the pleasure is all mine.”

I assumed the chair opposite his desk and launched into my agenda. “I was extremely disappointed to receive that rejection letter. Although I scored a tad low on the GMATs,” really my brain shut down completely at the ghastly sight of it, “I assure you that I’m an ambitious professional and require Babson’s MBA as a platform for a career in executive management.” I paused to cross my legs and flutter my lashes. “In turn, I would serve as a critical value-add and fitting member of the student body.”

Shifting his weight forward in his button-tufted high leather chair, the Dean placed his elbows on his desk, formed a bridge with his fingers and studied my face. Moments expired. He inhaled deeply, and flexing his eyebrow said, “I like your style.”

“Thank you, Dean,” I smiled back and reinforced my intention. “I’d certainly appreciate it if you would give me the opportunity to prove myself and reconsider my acceptance to the program.” Lash flutter.

As if engaged in a game of dorm room hoops, the Dean picked up my rejection letter, crumpled it into a ball and discarded it into his wastebasket. “Consider yourself in,” he said. A feat of feminine wiles (a la my mother) and business go-get-em (a la my father) and I was on my way.

The Babson College campus was less than three miles from work and twenty minutes from our home in Westwood. Tom was supportive (at first), my father was thrilled, and Max was impressed. And because my studies were complementary to my responsibilities in the office, my department extended a lot of flexibility and reimbursed the steep tuition costs. Financial Accounting, the barrier that had turned my dad’s academic status at Cornell from graded to auditing, was one of the initial requisites. I put it off.

The first night on campus, I sat in a state-of-the-art multi-tiered hi-tech classroom—a far cry from Regis’s cozy classrooms with heat hissing out of old steam radiators. My peers were not giddy freshwomen, but experienced businesspeople, mostly men. I didn’t feel intimidated. I’d work extra hard to keep up and soon I’d be just like one of them—on my way to making an impact as an executive.

The first thing I did when I started the MBA program was change back to my maiden name, something that was just starting to happen in the 80’s. When the judge was perplexed because it didn’t involve a marital dispute, I explained it had to do with a hear-me-roar type of thing. I also became an early bird. At 5:30, I rolled out of bed, tugged on some sweats and arrived at the gym around 6:00. Energy begets more energy. I got to work around 8:00, studied or exercised some more at lunchtime and left for campus by 5:30. I didn’t get home before 9:30 at night. And an entire weekend day was consumed in relative effort.

Halfway through the MBA, my marriage came undone. Tom wanted kids. I didn’t. My schedule left no time for them. Nor would it ever, it seemed. Vaguely I remembered visiting my father at Cornell on the weekend. He’d made friends in grad school. Namely, “Barbara,” a pimply-faced woman maybe 10 years his junior.  My mother was suspicious of her, and I can see why. “Barbara this and Barbara that.” Why is Dad always talking about this Barbara? Dad also made friends with a tall Russian man named Sasha who gave us Olympic pins from Russia (Olympics were in Lake Placid during that time). I remember him being very friendly while Barbara seemed aloof.  I can’t imagine Mom was happy about it; home by herself raising three kids.  Years later, it wasn’t a surprise to me when Slaughter’s article on having it all in The Atlantic went viral and created backlash and hate mail. The truth hurts. I couldn’t have kids because I wanted to become Executive Vice President of ABC Widget & Co. Finally, Tom and me filed for divorce, divided our possessions and sold the house we acquired from an elderly couple that had decorated the kitchen with avocado-colored wallpaper and orange countertops.

 

I was a new person; re-engineered and overhauled and single. I had done away with the ultimate setback that would have placed my career on hold—becoming a vessel of reproduction.

By this time, my helpdesk job at PB&J had slowed down. Personnel had been long trained on Windows and aside from the occasionally challenging “how would you do this” scenario, I was ready to take on equal opportunity in an environment that wasn’t engaged in producing weapons of mass destruction (I let my father down gently).

I became a financial analyst reporting to a Vice President of Marketing in a work hard/play hard software company, called Cold Boot, Inc., which was growing rapidly. I figured once I got my foot in the door as a prospective MBA, a management opportunity would crop up. Cold Boot was located in an office park in Concord, Massachusetts. A week before my start date, I found a charming apartment inside a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse and bid farewell to Max Powers who once asked me “why didn’t I meet you thirteen years ago before I remarried,” and laughed when I answered “because I was fourteen.”

The Cold Boot job was a great step up and my enthusiasm soared. As it was in the 80’s when we were all getting our corporate heels wet, sales were skyrocketing and the fifty-person marketing team pushed to keep the numbers off the charts by wildly promoting the company’s product. As a result of this spending frenzy, invoices by the hundreds—many in the form of credit card statements and expenses scratched down on cocktail napkins—flooded Accounting and the staff couldn’t deal.

Consequently I developed and evangelized the use of a simple software application I called, “The KISS Initiative,” based on the design principle “Keep It Simple Stupid.” In short I was an accounting genius. With just eight out of the twenty MBA courses remaining, and feeling superior, I bit the bullet and enrolled in the initial requisite of financial accounting.

Cold Boot, like PB&J, picked up my tuition costs as long as I made a B or better. I’d earned a mix of B’s and low A’s. By taking summer sessions, I’d planned to complete the masters six months before the usual four-year turnout. By then, I’d be carrying out significant management responsibilities.

Then, a couple months into the horrid accounting course, Cold Boot was acquired for millions. I wasn’t certain how it would impact my job, but things looked promising. In fact, to demonstrate how promising it looked, the company hosted a ridiculously expensive affair at The Sheraton Tara in Boston. Naturally, it materialized into a rave.

After a two-hour workout in the hotel’s gym, I skipped dinner and for the next few hours, the product manager and his cohorts seasoned various parts of my body, doing shots of tequila and licking the salt from wherever. The only thing I remember is the D.J. finishing up with “Stairway to Heaven” while Bill, the Sales V.P. and Ian—a guy from accounting who I dated until I found out he was married and had a newborn—played a tug of war with me over the threshold of Bill’s hotel room. At some point, they noticed my arms had grown considerably in length and became civil. They escorted me downstairs to reception. Bill, at his own expense or quite possibly the company’s, checked me into my own room. If you think this is very un-modern and slutty of me, you must have been born after 1975 or so, so you couldn’t possibly see behind Oz’s curtain to what was really happening whilst paving the corporate woman’s yellow brick road.

After that, I passed out in bed, alone. I think.

After developing this new kick-ass accounting system that had saved the company, this new company purchased a different requisition system and phased out my job. I was not offered my dream management role, but a lateral position with an ambiguous job description working for a peer. This disconcerting news was delivered just hours prior to my accounting final exam. I kept mindfully clear and calm throughout the day, however, and found myself feeling confident when I arrived to campus that night.

The air was mild and hinted at spring. Everything was going to be okay, I reassured myself—the job would work out, and before the night was over, I’d have conquered the family curse in financial accounting. Settling into my usual seat along the back row of the classroom, I set two pencils, a sharpener and calculator before me. Standing militantly at attention before us was the professor, the Accounting and Finance Department Chair, a woman who reminded me of those terrible educators in Pink Floyd’s movie The Wall. She fixated on some invisible point above our heads and clutched a bunch of crisp blue booklets to her bosom.  Counting with her eyeballs and curt nods, she distributed the exam.

Four words in ticker tape fashion tracked into my cerebral processor:  … School … Divorce … Career … Freedom … I whispered aloud, “Not now.” But the tape tracked in again: … Cost of freedom … No babies … Lousy lateral … Body shots …

The person in front of me held the exam and booklet behind his head awaiting my receipt.  I took it and set them down on my desk.

“You have two hours,” the professor announced.

I stared at the ridiculous elementary school booklet for several minutes before managing to pick up a pencil. I inscribed my name on the cover—tracing over it again and again. About a half hour into the exam, I managed to open the booklet. While the other students bit on ends of pencils and vigorously managed calculations, I remained fixed on the first blank page in a debilitating state of, well, debilitation. “Lisa?” I called inside my head.

No one was home. Up front Max wasn’t at the helm. Nor the dean who had looked at my boobs, not anyone but a woman who looked like she played by the rules. Every single rule that had ever been put in front of her.  Everyone had their own way of rising. And this woman had found hers. This woman who’d probably had to work harder than anyone I had ever known to get a professorship at Babson College.

I made my approach.  “Professor?”

“Yes,” she snapped, never glancing up as she bore down to inscribe another red X on some sorry soul’s exam.

I opened my mouth to speak.

“Realize I can’t help you,” she interjected. “The problems are self-explanatory.”

“Professor,” I began graciously. “I can’t concentrate. I’m going through a divorce and my job was eliminated today.”

No response.

I tried again. “Could I please take a makeup exam? I just need a couple of weeks to get over favoring my freedom instead of having a baby and reporting to someone younger than me with no supervisory experience.”

“You have to take the exam now or you’ll fail the course,” she looked up at me with her reptilian eyes. “Take it or leave it.”

I lingered there, wringing the booklet in my hands. Puddles of napalm burned on her desk and singed the exam in front of her and then wafted over to me. I observed the crown of her head and thought about the culminating events that had made her so nasty. There wasn’t a fiber of soul-sister-I-got-your-back in her. Maybe a long time ago before her bun got so tight and her mouth got so small she might have tried that. And it didn’t work. If only I could get hit with a heart attack and dramatically plummet to the floor, I thought. That might bring out the compassion. Mountains crumbled, seas receded, hills burned, the stage curtain cascaded closed.  There was to be no quarter. My heart just continued to thump blood through the appropriate channels, enduring the crucible of my accounting professor. I regarded the booklet in my hands and then gesturing forfeit, offered the measly thing for her receipt.

She ignored it.

Finally, I let the booklet disengage from my sweaty grip. The damp crinkled cigar toppled to the desk and swayed back and forth before coming to rest.

“Then, I leave it,” I said.

In a buckling state of doom, I turned away, gathered my things and the entire class launched into a panic, assuming I quickly mastered the exam.

When I eased into the seat of my car that was parked in Never Never Land—because student parking is designed to taunt those who work all day then come to school stressed, exhausted and late—I gazed out over the hood dumbfounded. I don’t know how long I sat there, envisioning the scene from Apocalypse Now when the villagers slaughter a water buffalo (an authentic no-PETA-interference sequence) and Willard attacks crazy Kurtz with a machete.  Lying bloody and dying on the ground, Kurtz whispers, “The horror…the horror…”

I had no way to approach the Dean for resolve because then I would risk Professor McNasty, learning of my “unorthodox” acceptance into the program; ammo to further enforce my ineligibility for a makeup exam. Moreover, I couldn’t submit for reimbursement at work, having failed a course. The lack thereof would raise a red flag, suggesting weakness and incapability in light of my ability. On that particularly eventful evening, I had crashed into the invisible barrier Carol Hymowitz and Timothy Schellhardt had aptly termed in the 1986 Wall Street Journal article:  the glass ceiling. In a quandary and feeling sick, I headed home.

In college, my father, having performed frightfully in his accounting throughout the semester (not intentionally, it’s the family curse), needed a C to pass the course. He’d been running late for an accounting exam, a requisite for getting his B.S. degree. With heightened anxiety brought on by habitual procrastination, he ended up racing to make it in time, passed all the vehicles in a single lane of traffic, lost control of his car, and crashed it into an eighteen wheeler. He totaled his car, walked away from the accident, and didn’t take the makeup exam until a month later. He ended up scoring lousy on the exam, but the professor realized he did the best he could with what he had to work with. He was passed without the big hair, without the boobs, without fogging up the Benz’s windows. He was passed by another guy who believed him when he said he was too much of a wreck to do well on an accounting exam.

 

The following morning, I woke up feeling like a machete was splitting my face in two. I thought of the woman at the front of the class. And the ticker tape ran its course. And then I thought:  I should do something compassionate, someplace new and sunny and warm all year round. Surely by now, my vile deeds have been paid in full, and by focusing on others, good things will come my way.

I typed up my resignation and despite my boss’ nudge to stay, tendered my two-week notice. The next morning, making coffee and trying not to look at the accounting book still spread out on the dining room table, I again routed around for someone’s footsteps to follow.  Except I wanted the footsteps to be far away, in a place that didn’t hold the broken shards of all I hadn’t achieved. My father had always wanted to go to California, but his mother had wanted more kids, and when she couldn’t have them put a load the size of the world on Dad in terms of him being around to be part of their lives to take care of them.

I could go to California myself, I thought. My father had been a terrible manager and communicator at work, perhaps there he found some semblance of power he hadn’t had with his parents. He hardly ever erupted at us kids and only in a blue moon, at my mother. The latter was prefaced with Italian expletives that to this day, I’ve never repeated. But with the 500-something staff under his wings he often erupted at his employees if they exhibited even a semblance of laziness, which he hated. Congruently, he had an enormous soft spot for any Affirmative Action sponsored disabled person that shared the workspace. I suppose he liked “the cripples” as he called them, mimicking my grandfather, because he figured they were trying hard to overcome their challenges. That’s it, I thought, closing the accounting book and trying to figure out how to burn it. I’d start a fundraising effort for the disabled among the wealthy and glamorous residents of Southern California.

Over the weekend, I announced to family and friends I was heading west like so many hopeful pioneers before me. Though I didn’t know it yet, I would stop first in Wyoming and, seeing the power of the boys who handled horses, would take a brief hiatus trying to become a cowboy. And there, too, would run into myriad ways we look for power and run into strange bedfellows and wild borders. But that’s a story for another time.

In May 2006, I finally did finish my MBA. Was the Monster Poll right? Have we transcended the 80’s? Can we start aspiring to higher elements of Maslow’s hierarchy? I got a job working at the Boston Ballet, reporting to the Executive Director in a financial support capacity, but all I did was type her handwritten notes of meetings. So I quit and became a project manager for a Cambridge consultancy. I put in 60+ hour weeks, traveling to and from the San Fran office and developed an application to manage our 1M-dollar client. Thank goodness I didn’t have kids. About three months into it, I was let go. The CEO’s hubby had started showing up at the office, asking me about how I used the project management tool I developed. When they let me go, they offered me two weeks severance if I supported the CEO’s hubby for two weeks, while he “learned the ropes.” That’s when I met a very odd cardiologist who said he wanted me to help him write a book. And that’s when I started writing.

My parents just celebrated their 50th anniversary. They said it was us kids that kept them together. I think if my mother had the choice and the security, she might have left my father a long time ago. By staying married and having children, my mother gained some semblance of security (and a Jag or two). But she doesn’t know what I know. When I cuddle up at night next to my boyfriend and my cat and open those books by women on the fast track to the c-suite, between the words, I see the body shots, the men named Max, the business school deans. I also find compassion. I see an accounting professor at her desk, bearing down to mark her papers, a woman who can’t quite find it in her to reach out to the person on the other side. That someone being another woman who was, at one moment, feeling powerless as she tried hard to pave the way for others the only way she knew how: by becoming her father.


About the Author: Lisa Mae DeMasi has been shortlisted for the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards and last summer Shark Reef published her essay, “Subversive Writer on the Writing Life.” Her work has also been published in HuffPost, Elephant Journal, Rebelle Society and Midlife Boulevard.

Artwork: Harriet Poznansky is a visual artist, writer and musician from the UK based between Oakland, London and Cornwall. She studied at the Slade School of Art London and School of the Art Institute Chicago, SAIC. She currently works from her studio in Oakland’s Fruitvale district where she is part of a vibrant literary and arts community. Poznanksy’s artistic practice predominately gravitates towards painting, however, she also makes electro/classical music and writes short stories. Poznansky’s is represented by the dynamic central london gallery The Kopple Project and her most recent past exhibitions include a solo show at The Nomadic Press Workspace Oakland (2015), Waterbody at London’s Hardy Tree Gallery and Death and Dying, at MAG3 Gallery Vienna. Her work can also be seen at the Australian House London by appointment, and in the Nomadic Press 2015 Journal, where Poznansky is this year’s featured Artist. She is a member of Grace God Collective and her music and drawings have been used for many of the collective’s audio-visual and/or fashion projects. Poznansky’s most recent work can be seen in the group show “Pandiculate! ” The joy of stretching, opening at The Kopple Project, March 15, 2015 and in September 2015 The Kopple Project will proudly present Poznansky’s inaugural solo show in London.

http://www.thekoppelproject.com/pandiculate_exhibition.html

http://www.harrietpoznansky.com/

http://www.gracegodcollective.com/

http://www.nomadicpress.org/

Ode to MRE No. 08 Beef Patty by Aaron Graham

black bird


 

Out of sky
or stratocumulus
you drop
sailing
like a segmented, rotting lemon
once cool yellow hemispheres
matte brown.
Rhinoceros hide,
you
remained
there
attached to nothing.
Bird beaks
cannot gash
jaws of jackals
never puncture
your Internal organs.
Your life
your death
your sand
falling, moveable feast
My ka-bar scalpel
measures you
and empties you
in the air,
in the smoke,
the rending
tearing
teeth
the meticulous
surgical
incision,
in the broken alley
of summer,
reveals
some assembly
is required—
grey sheathed
patty coated
by greying
solidified lipids
smooth slicken
flow
after submerged
in the water
that is plutonium
of a magical
nuclear fusion
furnace that little
fucking phosphorous
heater and two
wheat snack breads.
spoke place.
Words here make
sense only if kept
aside myths
in your head.
Camel rides, bouncing
in a pickup truck bed
as it passes.


About the Author: Aaron Graham hails from Glenrock, Wyoming, population 1159, which boasts seven bars, six churches, a single 4-way stop sign and no stoplights. His work explores the relationship of desire and violence currently ostensibly through juxtaposing Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with classical exilic figures. He is an alumnus of Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Ashbury Home School. He is a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he served with Marine Corps Intelligence as an Arabic linguist. Aaron is currently finishing his PhD at Emory University; specializing in modernist poetics, Arabic language poetry, continental philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience.

 

What God Said by Shruti Swamy

Husk by Mia Margaret


I slept all day and when I awoke, it seemed as though my bed tilted itself, dipping up and down in my room like a little boat, and I was awash in the river of evening. I could hardly sit up. There was a burning in my body, and a fuzziness of vision, a blur at the corners of things, and bright shapes of light and color I had never seen before and which I spent some time studying. All through it was the feeling of a heaviness of air, in my chest, as though some invisible thing had crouched on me, like a jackal with the weight of an elephant, or an incredibly heavy cat.

Yet, I had no idea of death, and no fear of it either. My mother’s brother, my uncle had died last summer, but he was in India, the idea that he was gone doubly abstracted; he was already gone, most of the time. He was my favorite uncle. He had taken me and my cousin to the beach on his motorcycle, we gripped onto him like monkeys, I was balanced on the lip of terror and excitement the entire ride. I had to pull my legs up, so my feet would not brush the tube of burning metal fastened to the side of the beast—once, my toe dipped down, sheathed in sock and sandal, and it had burned a hole clear through the fabric. We rode elephants—real elephants—on the beach. Their foreheads were painted, their tails batted away flies, and to sit up on their backs you felt enormous in a way that was unparalleled, taller than grownups, riding a creature as big a ship, who walked in a rolling motion from side to side.

My dad sat in the room with me and his face was gloomy. He read me a story. I wondered if he ever cried. I had never seen him cry. I could hear my mom talking on the phone downstairs in Gujarati, which held the comforting sound of nonsense, the nonsense of my nursery rhymes. Poor dad was bobbing in the ocean, it pooled around him and I felt lonely for him.

“Will you come on the boat with me?”

“What boat?”

“This one,” I said. He climbed up. He put a hand on my head. Then downstairs the nonsense stopped, and I could hear my mother singing. She didn’t sing very much, and her voice rose and fell with the strange words she was singing as though she was casting a spell.

“You’re boiling,” my dad said, and wiped the sweat away on his pant.

“You’re a monkey’s uncle,” I said.

“You’re the monkey, little lobster,” said my dad.

“What is that sound? Is mom singing?”

“She’s praying,” he said.

“Talking to God,” I said. “Is that what you mean?”

“Yes.”

We sat on the boat. I could hear the sound of the water all around us, running water, and my dad began to row, using his arms to cut through the water. It was a black night when all the stars were drowned twice, in the sky that looked like the water, and the water that looked like the sky.

“What is she saying to God?”

“I don’t know,” said my dad. We were cold, and hot, the winds blew on us, the boat tilted, we were filled with the white heat. The heat moved up inside us and stood right between our eyes. I wanted to claw back inside my father, where I curled for months in a star shape before I was born, and which I remembered, his heartbeat, his hunger, his fear.

“I know what God looks like,” I whispered. I had seen It at night. It was larger than an elephant and it kissed me with its cool mouth. A funny creature, both familiar and strange, and it felt sort of warm to be close to it, to smell it and you always wanted to touch it when it was near. But I heard my grandma talk about God once and in her mind God was a terrible meanie, who saw everything, who knew everything, and didn’t like Muslims. I asked her why God made Muslims if It didn’t like them but she told me to stop bothering her with questions because she was feeling tired because of jet-lag and went to go lie down. I wonder who my grandmother met, but I was sure it wasn’t God.

“What does God look like?” my dad said.

“Big, big, big,” I said. I was panting. We had come to a storm and the boat wheeled around in the water. I held on to the sides of the boat and closed my eyes in case there would be lightening. I was dizzy and the turbulence of the water began to make me feel like barfing.

Then I died. It was falling down a tube. My uncle was sitting on the beach and smoking a cigarette. The elephant came thundering, and there was Yama. “You’re tiny,” he said, and his voice smelled of honey, “no bigger than a napkin,” he said. “Are you also God?” I said.

“Sort of,” said Yama.

“Where are we going?” I asked my uncle. He smiled at me and shrugged his shoulders. I thought I would miss my mother and father very much and said so. “Of course you will,” said my uncle. It was nice to hear the waves moving against the shore and against each other. Yama lifted me onto the elephant, but it was a bull this time. We had to be careful not to touch the burning metal fastened on the sides. I held on to Yama, my uncle held on to me. We four thundered into the ocean. It was a good time, like a party. When I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more, I closed them.


About the Author: Shruti Swamy lives and writes in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Her work has been published in AGNI, Black Warrior Review, PANK, and is forthcoming from Prairie Schooner. In 2012, she was named Vassar College’s 50th W.K. Rose Fellow in the Creative Arts, and has been awarded residencies at the Millay Colony for the Arts and Hedgebrook. She holds an MFA in fiction from San Francisco State and is a Kundiman fiction fellow.

 

Pour Marcel by Allan Tinker

Rishikesh Maskar_Untitled


“Et avoir un corps, c’est la grande menace pour l’esprit.” – Marcel Proust

The absence of Proust’s brother while his mother’s split in two, good granny and rival mama, suggests the anxious splintering of an imaginal if not wholly conscious fratricide, as in the cage with two fighting rats brought into the room of the whorehouse he buys (remember the policeman who in ISOLT is brought by the parents of the young girl that Marcel brings home to salve his broken heart after Albertine leaves him for good, this policeman, after the family-not-much-appeased-but-paid departs, tells him there are better places, safe houses, for assignations with little girls, a taste the policeman confides he shares despite Marcel’s protestations of innocence) and wherein he would lie beneath starched yet softest of cotton, brilliantly white and giving off the faint if reassuring odor of antiseptic, that is, bleached sheets he meticulously tucks up to his neck appearing as if from the height of some mythically giant beanstalk a napkin huge as a cloud has floated down over Marcel’s bent and upstanding knees transformed by his childlike imagination into a lofty Alpine peak he expectantly peers over at a spot across the room no longer occupied by the muscle-bound day laborer who, instructed to strip naked, remain upright and fondle himself, does so before fruitlessly exiting the space at the foot of the bed which gives way to a masked man who holds aloft an iron cage wherein two rats (not as moments before, two cages each with  a fat rat complacently sprawled across wood shavings, motionless as if injected with morphine, so tranquil, so still is each in its isolation until united in one cage two rabid combatants) lock tooth and claw in a raging ball of hair-on-end and raw flesh rolling about the now wildly swinging cage elevated like a lamp over the sickly despair of Marcel achieving a visceral response sufficient to move his fanatically germ-phobic, fragile, hysterically enervated, aged-and-ailing, dysmorphic, dysphoric body pinioned for a fleeting flash beneath the phantasm of two huge (don’t-say-Jew) Persian eyes lit with the fire of an otherwise perfect brother’s fratricidal desire when, one rat dead, the other raised its gory head and anticlimactically said:  “Do tell, for Marcel.”


About the Author: HSD, Oakland High School, BA & MA, San Francisco State University, ABD aka CPhil, University of California, Berkeley, Allan Tinker taught in the Creative Writing Department, SFSU, and the Rhetoric Department, UCB, then with California Poets in the Schools, Poetry for the People and lastly, before retiring at age 65, The Beat Within, having raised two remarkable children with civil-rights-lawyer wife, Arlene Mayerson.

Artwork: Rishekesh Maskar

Mr. Wonderful Knows All (But Won’t Tell You Shit) by Rochelle Spencer

Photo by Shira Bezalel (HQ IMAGE TO COME)


When the sun sets on San Pablo avenue and the sky melts into a series of fluorescent and baby-blanket pinks, Mr. Wonderful, the most famous street hustler in all of Oakland, comes out to play. Mr. Wonderful is one of those men who’d been handsome once, and is, truth told, handsome now–even in his dirty clothes, smudged with oil or food or maybe something worse. With those narrow eyes that slant up and the smile tucking his dimples deep into his cheeks, you know at once that he’s teasing you, that he finds both life and his circumstances in it to be something of a miracle.

Mr. Wonderful crumples up the newspaper he’d been reading, glances over his shoulder, and sees a woman, an awkward redhead, walk towards him. She has crisscrossed from the Bank of America to the local bakery and back again. She looks as though she’s tumbled down the rabbit hole and has absolutely no idea where she’s going. This is a quality Mr. Wonderful finds attractive in a woman.

“Hey Princess! Can I bother you for a dollar?” Mr. Wonderful doesn’t speak until the woman is half a foot away.

The woman turns—clumsily, just as Mr. Wonderful knew she would—and scatters the contents of her half-open purse. Along with a chewed-up tube of lipstick, a fiver and some loose change bounce against the sidewalk; now the woman can’t say she doesn’t have any money. She dumps the contents back in her purse and hands Mr. Wonderful the five.

“Was that so bad?” Mr. Wonderful’s dimples make it seem as though he’s just laughed, but he hasn’t. The unreleased chuckle slurs the edges of his words. “What’s your name? I know you got a name, Princess.”

“I’m in a hurry,” the woman says, yet slows her movements. One of Mr. Wonderful’s three talents is his ability to hypnotize any woman he meets for exactly two and a half minutes. He’s begun to hypnotize this woman.

“You go to school around here?”

“I’m in a hurry,” the woman repeats.

“What you’d say your name was?”

“Puddin’ Tame.”

Mr. Wonderful laughs and glances at his watch, the only nice thing he owns, given to him years ago by one of his women, the one he both most dislikes–and most respects–because she’d told him once and for all she wasn’t dealing with any more of his foolishness. According to the watch, he has only forty-five seconds left before his first talent runs out. “Okay, Puddin’. I know you in a rush and you’ve been generous and all with your money and time,” and here Mr. Wonderful pauses, long enough to let a Barry White-esq purr seep into his voice (this is his second talent), “but this may be the only meal I have all day. I’d like to share it with someone real.”

The woman sighs because she knows everything Mr. Wonderful says is bullshit but she’s a nice girl in a semi-good mood who, up until this moment, has walked along flat soft earth–the pliable soil where things are meant to grow–and she sometimes wonders what kind of person she might have been had her years been punctured with some of the hills and rocks she’s certain have roughened Mr. Wonderful’s skin and given texture to his voice.

They walk into the bakery together.

*

But they take their food to go. The bakery is famous for its rolls and pillow-soft pizza crust, and also for its coffee, its aggressive taste. You take a sip and when that smoky liquid chokes your tongue, you either fall in love or collapse into hate–but no matter your reaction, you know you’ve had an experience, you realize you are alive.

They buy the life-affirming coffee and a half-dozen bagels, cheap because the place is closing, and walk to the park. There, some kids play baseball in the dim evening light, their bodies fluid and happy, like fistfuls of soap bubbles flung into the air.

Mr. Wonderful looks at the kids and knows instantly who has friends and who doesn’t, who still wets the bed, and whose father has left, and whose mother has just had an affair. He sees their pain and identifies the strong ones and those who are victims. This skill is not one of Mr. Wonderful’s unique talents. Anyone could have figured this out just by observing: the strong ones, the ones who have learned to gloss over their pain with multiple friendships and their peers’ respect, have command of their bodies, have learned–even as children–how to control their movements, how to walk and run with grace.  The well-liked kids drive into bases, knock balls into outfield, swing their arms and legs as though they are part of some well-controlled yo-yo. Some of the popular kids are in more pain than others and you can see it in their faces, a painful thing to observe in a twelve-year-old. But they share that one attribute, that bodily control, and that one trait separates them from the kids who are or who have been victims, because control over your body means you have some kind of power, even if it is only over yourself.  And that bodily control gives them an advantage; no longer concerned with manipulating their bodies, their brains are free to analyze social situations and other power dynamics. The victimized, the bullied kids, they learn these lessons much later in life. All of their energy, the totality of their brain power, is directed at forcing their bodies to behave, to create motions that are at least somewhat coordinated.  They move with hesitation, these kids, and all of their dreams, all of their attention and ambition, is directed at eliminating–or at least reducing–their own clumsiness.

Mr. Wonderful shrugs and spreads butter on his bagel. “You kept saying you were in a hurry. So what brought you out here?”

“I had a lesson. I’m learning to tell people off in five different languages.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“I didn’t want to. Ahora vaya a la mierda a tu madre. Or you can xiànzài qù tā mā de nǐ de mǔqīn. Or maybe you should maintenant, allez baiser ta mère.  And if that doesn’t work, ora vai cazzo tua madre.”

“That’s only four languages–Spanish, Chinese, French, and could be Italian, I think.”

“I’m still learning.” The woman swallows some of that slap-you-in-the-tongue coffee. “Still working on the German.”

The woman looks back at the children, and Mr. Wonderful thinks she’ll say more but she doesn’t. Her eyes dart towards the ball, which seems to be flying towards them, though it’s hard to see as the sky darkens. And the dark sky, the fast-soaring ball, and even Mr. Wonderful’s warm and easy self-absorption–all this is to the woman’s misfortune. Being one of those people who’s never had much control over her body,  who was always unable to make it leap and glide just the way she wanted it to, when the woman jumps up to catch the ball, it lands smack against her face. Mr. Wonderful, though of unnaturally quick and catlike reflexes (this was his third talent), is himself astonished by the last-minute jerkiness of the woman’s body. She thuds to the ground.

*

Cleanliness invades the inside of the hospital room: the scent of antiseptic cleaners clogs the air and weighs down the sheets.  The woman lays on the bed, her hand pressed against her new stitches. The stitches aren’t entirely a bad look; the Frankenstein-like scar gives her forehead, if not the rest of her, the direction she’d always seemed to lack.

Mr. Wonderful, who has used his first talent to hypnotize the hospital administrators into letting him inside the room, pulls up a chair next to her bed.

“You’d get more done,” he says, “if you didn’t try to overachieve.”

She wants to ask what he means but she knows. It’s that need to learn five languages to tell somebody off when you are still struggling to speak fluently in one.  And it’s the reason her purse overflows with change but she never has bus fare. It’s the feeling of always having to be “extra” because you never feel you are enough. But the thought embarrasses her, and she turns her face towards the antiseptic pillow, to avoid looking at him.

“Who are you, Mr. Wonderful? What’s your real name? The real you?”

At first he doesn’t answer. But when she turns back to face him, she realizes how he’s looking at her, how he sees her, and she knows, somehow, that he’s thinking she resembles Alice from Alice in Wonderland. But if she looks like Alice, then what do you say about a man who makes his living from women, those strong yet somehow not fully formed women?  Was he not fully formed as well, and if so, was he okay with that? With being a strange, scattered man with a large and mysterious smile?

“We’re all a little odd, a little messed up inside,” Mr. Wonderful finally explains, “but we become who we are, get to where we want to be, if we just walk around long enough.”

“So you’re who you want to become? We all are?” And just as she says this, just as the words float from her mouth and into the ether, she discovers Mr. Wonderful’s fourth talent, one even he doesn’t know he has. As she looks at him, still dizzy from her concussion, she sees him vanish slowly, beginning with his feet, his hardened legs and chest, and ending with his grin–his magnificent teeth, and his dimples, those famous dimples, disappearing last.


Artwork: Shira Bezalel

 

 

Something to Talk About, Something to Say by Hugh Behm-Steinberg

 

black-and-white-businessman-man-suit-medium


I’m sitting by myself, trying to get some work done on a project while I’m on my break, when a gentleman in a nice suit sits down across from me.

“How much is your time worth?” he pitches me.

I’m bored, so I catch, but before I can say anything he puts his finger up. “Wait,” he says. “You don’t know it yet, but what you need is a spokesperson. Someone who will convey your needs and interests with both eloquence and effectiveness. It has been shown in numerous studies that individuals with professional spokespeople are 37% more successful in their professional endeavors.”

“One second,” I say, and I nudge awake the spokesperson I already have.

“On behalf of my client,” she says, “we are no longer seeking spokespeople. Have a nice day.”

“But I’m a really good spokesperson!” he says, “And I’ll never sleep on the job.”

The other spokespeople pick their heads up. They look at us with glimmer in their eyes; an opening, a chance to jump ship? To speak for someone else, anyone else?

“No,” I say, when my watch buzzes. Breaktime over, I go behind the counter and stand next to the cashier, resuming my shift as her spokesperson. With all the people she has to interact with, the job keeps me super busy.

But the other guy doesn’t quit; he starts hitting up my spokesperson.

So she nudges her spokesperson, “On behalf of my client,” he says, “we are no longer seeking spokespeople. Have a nice day.”

“Is there anyone here who isn’t a spokesperson of someone who is also here?” he cries.

No one says anything. It’s a cozy café.

The door jingles and the embodiment of my heart’s desire walks in. “There you are,” she says to the guy. “You really need to stop talking so much and let your spokesperson do her job.”

She walks up to my cashier and says, “pardon me, you don’t know it yet, but what you need is a spokesperson. Someone who will convey your needs and interests with both eloquence and effectiveness. It has been shown in numerous studies that individuals with professional spokespeople are 43% more successful in their professional endeavors.”

“My client is intrigued,” I say, wondering if there’s enough room for two of us behind the counter.


About the Author: Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in The Fabulist, *82 Review, Gone Lawn and Gigantic. His short story “Taylor Swift” won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast. He is a member of the non-ranked faculty collective bargaining team at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

 

chairs by philip kobylarz

Stock Photo for Kobylarz


chairs are publicly accepted skeletons, this being more evident when they are paint-peeling white. At best they are architecturally concealed plates for the ass and genitals. Like horses, we dispose of them if they have even one fractured leg. They are the unsung heroes of any meeting or gathering. Skyscrapers as compared to toilet seats. Secretly, they are wombs made of plastic, metal, wood.


About the Author: Philip Kobylarz is a teacher and writer of fiction, poetry, book reviews, and essays. He has worked as a journalist and film critic for newspapers in Memphis, TN. His work appears in such publications as Paris Review, Poetry, and The Best American Poetry series. The author of a book of poems concerning life in the south of France, he has a collection of short fiction and a book-length essay forthcoming.

One Day in Pleasant Park by Jake Fuchs

Marie Dunne_Jack


Leaning on his cane, his broad back turned toward us, Mr. Russell considers me over his left shoulder. I don’t know how to interpret that steady look.  Oh, certainly he was upset by what I said. I know that much. He’d stopped in mid-stride, stopped dead. And now he turns. And what he says completely baffles me.

“Valdosta, Georgia. 1934.”

It did then. It still does. Well, I know what it must mean. His southern city of origin, his birth year. What else? But what did he mean by it? Trying to replay what happened, to see it in my imagination, hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I could go back physically and ask Mr. Russell what he meant, the city and the date; but that would be disappointing for both of us, me more than him. I just don’t get it. I can’t. Of course, anything that happens in Pleasant Park would be hard for me to get, since it isn’t part of the real world, the one I’m living in, acting in. Thus I excuse myself.

Consider what this place is called, this last stop for seniors. Though it derives from Pleasant Street, the unpleasantly urban thoroughfare it fronts on in Oakland, California, the name turns out to be remarkably appropriate. For it’s quite remarkable when anything of Oakland’s noise and stress and life filters through the wire fence surrounding Pleasant Park. In comparison to what’s cooking out there in the great, gray city—hollering drunks and druggies, smelly taco joints, siren-screeching cop cars– it’s a regular little Eden. No gas-driven vehicles allowed, which surely helps. And no one can live there who isn’t at least sixty; that must make a major difference. Finally, there’s a fair amount of open space in Pleasant Park and some trees and bushes, along with a twenty-hours a week female gardener, the only other white person in the place besides us, when we come there.

These lucky seniors live in a scattering of “garden units”: little boxes one up, one down, constructed neatly of redwood. All units have porches, and in good weather the inhabitants sit out on them for hours. They call out to one another, porch to porch, like birds in a big tree. The mobile ones toddle around the place in little groups, assemble in the recreation hall for merry games of bingo. Everything’s, you know, pleasant. I’m glad they enjoy the place, but I would never want to live here, even though well past sixty myself. Bingo? No thank you. Unlike them, I do things. I volunteer.

For instance, with Jen, my wife, I volunteer for Meals on Wheels, which brings us to Pleasant Park two mornings a week.  Each senior client gets a cold lunch and a dinner we’ve kept warm in a padded bag. The latter meal is to be thrust into oven or micro and kept warm until evening. Or maybe some like the lunch hot and the dinner cold, just for a change. What do I know? What do I know about them?

Not much. They talk to us when we appear at their doors, but it’s always about the present state of their health, not their lives pre-Pleasant Park, which might be more interesting. As things are, while Jen may actually care about their physical malfunctions, I pretend interest. But I’ve never had to with Mr. Russell, who never talks about his health. For that I respect him. He must feel as I do. When you get old, you start falling apart, like a cranky old car. That’s not exactly news, so why drone on about your own particular disabilities?  Because you have nothing else to talk about? Anyway, the rest of them at Pleasant Park give us health updates nearly every time we see them. Not him. In fact, Mr. Russell gives the impression of having no disabilities. He’s a big old man, and rather than toddle, he takes long strides. Now I know what an effort they must cost him.

So, no health updates from Mr. Russell. What does he talk about? Well, until last week he never said anything except good morning and thank you. But he interested me.

One big difference between Mr. Russell and the rest (I’m thinking this now) is that he isn’t cute, the last defense of old age. It obliges people to do things for you and act like they enjoy it. The others here, little old men and little old ladies—wow, are they cute. Not Mr. Russell, and I wouldn’t want to be the one who treated him as if he were; he would not care for that at all.  It annoys the shit out of me that our kids have trained their kids, our grandkids, to think of grandma Jen and grandpa Joe as cute. I can’t do or say anything about it, for fear of angering Jen.

Okay. Now I understand more about why Mr. Russell interested me. Impressed me. But I still don’t understand why he said what he said. So try it again, good old present tense.

He’s eying me in oddly speculative fashion, and my eyes are fixed on him. Leaning heavily on that cane, he’s managed to twist his body around it and seems none too stable. Involuntarily, I take a step in his direction and might have taken another and another, to catch him if he starts to fall, but Jennifer grabs me and whispers “Joe, no.” Since I’d already upset him I’d be the last person he’d ever want help from. That’s what she thinks, but, reading his face, I’m not sure I agree. Or is that what I’m feeling now, in recollection?  At the time, anyway, I chose to do nothing but stand and be silent, firmly gripping a bag half full of rejected tuna salad sandwiches. Nobody likes them.

Now Mr. Russell straightens himself without visible effort. Is he smiling or is that just a grimace?  Could he joking around with me, pretending to be weak and old? Doubt it. He was always polite, but I never suspected him of playfulness.

And then the message, place and year. His place, his year.

“Valdosta, Georgia, 1934.”

Somehow this called for a reply—I think I sensed it then–but being flummoxed, buffaloed, flustered, I could think of nothing.  He shook his head, turned his body, and resumed movement, going slow. Jen seized my arm. I realized that I was squeezing the tuna sandwiches, smushing them. The seniors, gazing at us from their porches, began a slow withdrawal. I heard them twittering and felt I’d let them down and, worse, much worse, failed Mr. Russell. Yesterday Jen went back to Pleasant Park by herself. He didn’t ask where I was, she said. She was about to say something else, but then she turned away from me.

Jennifer says next week when we’re due at Pleasant Park she’s not going alone. So if we see him, maybe he’ll say it again and I’d better have something to say back. It’s taken on the form of a challenge, like a chess move, requiring a countermove so that the game can go on.

Valdosta, Georgia, 1934. Place and year of birth. How was I supposed to interpret that? That he was an old man who grew up in hard times in a bad place for black people, so that it was cruel of me to say that about his legs, the disability that he’d always concealed from me? I doubt it. He isn’t a man who courts pity.

Valdosta, Georgia, 1934? Does that sound like a request for any sort of apology? It doesn’t strike me that way, not at all. And what I said—being startled, perhaps I said it too loud—wasn’t so terrible, anyway.  Now, having just written it down, I don’t think it looks terrible. It just looks stupid.

“His legs, they’re like sticks.” That’s what I said. That’s all.

Or maybe my exclamation, which is all it was, should be written, “His legs, they’re . . . they’re . . . like sticks!!” In the drama of the moment. But, in fact, I’m not convinced that I actually shouted or even raised my voice at all, even though I was startled. How did he hear it, then? The wind. Did it bring what he said back to me? Yes, blame it on the wind, the rude Oakland wind that violated the boundary between Pleasant Park and outside.

That’s the core of my explanation, not an apology, if he wants one. I would begin by pointing out that on several previous missions to Pleasant Park I’d seen Mr. Russell ambling around the grounds but had never noticed the slightest hitch in his gait. He strode, that man, and he carried his cane and flourished it more than he leaned on it. I wondered why he even bothered with that piece of wood. How could I not be surprised when the wind blew in?

See Mr. Russell striding, no doubt in a rush to outrun the Pleasant Park squirrels to the food Jen and I left by his door. Standing with Jen, packing up before returning to Meals HQ with the rejected sandwiches, I idly watch him, his broad back swaying as he goes. And then, without a whisper of warning, a freakish gust roars into Pleasant Park from unpleasant Pleasant Avenue. Hurtling into Jen and me, it nearly whisks the tuna bag from my grasp. And then the rude, revealing wind slams into Mr. Russell, causing his pants to billow out in front of him. As a result, the thin blue fabric outlines the size and shape of the old man’s legs. They’re sticks, thin sticks. His cane is thicker. With this disability, it’s a wonder that he can even take more than a few cautious steps, let alone stride,

Startled, I said what I said. That’s my explanation if one is required. But it won’t be. What happened. Just say what happened, one last time.

First he quickens his pace, then abruptly stops and almost collapses on his cane, if that isn’t an act. And he says it.

Valdosta, Georgia. 1934.

And he waited there until it was clear that I had nothing to say in return. Now . . . now, you know what I’m thinking about? My legs, my own legs and the stairs I struggle to climb, even in my own house. The legs go first, don’t they? Everyone knows that. Had Mr. Russell noticed my slow progress mounting the stairs to one of the upper garden units? All he had to do was look. It’s obvious. It’s obvious what I am.

Yes, you could just as well say it of me. “His legs, like sticks.” Two old men, thirties born, in Pleasant Park. What can they make of their lives?

His was an opening move. And to what, what game? I’ll find out, we both will. Listen to me, Mr. Russell.

Mt. Kisko, New York. 1936. Your move, now.


About the Author: Jake Fuchs was born in New York City but grew up in Beverly Hills in a family headed by his father, the novelist and screenwriter, Daniel Fuchs. He now lives in Berkeley with Freya, his wife of fifty years. They have three children and a delightful little grandson. From 1971 to 2005 Jake taught English at CSU East Bay, specializing in 18th-century British literature. He began writing fiction in the late ’90s and has been fascinated and tortured by the craft ever since. His short fiction has appeared in journals, and he has three published novels. Death of a Dad and Death of a Prof are both satyric mysteries. The third book is the more or less autobiographical fiction, Conrad in Beverly Hills. A fourth novel, the academic satire Posterior Trumpets is presently in the final throes of revision.

Artwork: Marie Dunne

Habit by Danna Ephland

fashion-man-person-winter


Halfway through the evening he reaches across his chest for the soft hem of his shirt sleeve, rolls it up over smooth bicep, pulls it past rising deltoid just short of the clavicle. His beautiful habit. Needle comes to her senses, falls out of her head into her own muscle and reach. Her hands fold as she charts the path of hardwood on its way to the opposite wall, imagines cool glass beneath magazines against her forehead, counts how many lamps are in the room, which are lit. Needle draws a deliberate breath, exhales. He pulls again, long hair off the back of his neck. Needle wants to trace his chin line, an ear, add commas to passing thoughts, tiny caves, brown curls around her busy fingers. She takes a number, her own sleeve, fingers its ribs asking: whose reach is it anyway? whose eye? blood and breath rush through bellows and fist-sized pumps in the small room where a dog, roused from sleep, wanders to where Needle sits cross-legged on the carpet, open like the unabridged. He puts his chin in her hand, disappears. Needle locates perfect words in the details of a man, this room, her own soft palm, its hot skin, like alphabet soup or an eight ball with all its answers bobbing.


About the Author:Danna Ephland was born in Buffalo NY, danced in Toronto, taught and danced in Berkeley, fell madly in love with poetry in Chicago, and lives now in Kalamazoo, where she teaches writing workshops called The Left Margin. Ephland’s poems have appeared in Rhino, Indiana Review, Folio, and the anthologies Saints of Hysteria, and Villanelles.

 

David, the cephalopod by Ploi Pirapokin

Ubbu Ubbu Artifact 1_by David Hevel
“Ubbu Ubbu Artifact 1” by David Hevel

1. At the California Academy of Arts and Sciences, a sign above the octopus exhibition said: No flash photography allowed at the octopus tank. I wouldn’t want to be on display for the world to see either – it would be too much like high school, where word spread like rain clouds in the sky and judgment came down like flashes of light. Octopuses can change colors to blend into the background, I read in the little information box on the side. I thought of how cool it must be to blend into the background at whim; the cells in my body expanding to camouflage me, my cells responding quicker than my heart would. At twenty-seven, I had slept with a hundred men and I could sleep with a hundred more. I guess my body did respond quicker than my heart.

 

2. The octopus is an amazing creature with three hearts, two branchial ones that pump blood through each of its two gills, while the third is a systemic one that pushes blood through the body. When I was thirteen, my French teacher David asked me if I would have coffee with him after school. We met on a humid September afternoon at Mido Café where the shutters were always down, and sunlight shone through in stripes. He was tall, gangly, and smelled like coffee. I liked the way his pale hand looked against mine, the way his yellow beard looked coarse but was soft to the touch, and the way our eyes were open when we kissed. Octopuses don’t have eyelids, so they have no choice but to kiss staring at one another’s pupils.

 

3. Two-third of an octopus’ neurons reside in its arms, not its head. As a result, the arms can problem-solve how to open a shellfish while their owners are busy doing something else. The arms can even react after they’ve been completely severed. When David asked me to buy Trojans from 7-11, I tried to tell him my body wanted something my neurons could not get together fast enough to object. He asked me if I had been with any other man before and I said, “Sure.” I wasn’t sure if being finger-banged by another thirteen year old, Jack Whitson, who had announced to his entire rugby team that I was his girlfriend, counted. But I was sure that if I had been with any other man, he wouldn’t have mattered then.

 

4. The octopus is a social cephalopod; when isolated from their own kind, they will sometimes shoal with fish. At school, David spent lunchtimes in the staffroom. I spent lunchtimes watching Jack play rugby on the field. David would ask me in the evenings if I wanted to go to the movies for once, instead of hiding in his cave-of-a-studio. “What would Jack say if he saw us?” I asked. “What could your boy say?” David said. “No one would suspect an older gwai-lo with his young Chinese wife,” I said. Octopuses love roaming around the seabed, collecting discarded shell halves and carrying them back to their corner. Whenever they got scared or threatened, they would enclose themselves inside these shells. The truth made us retreat.

 

5. After a long day of foraging for food, octopuses can follow their own mucus trail back home, but they generally use visual landmarks to navigate around their environments. By November, I had learned how to make David smile. Learning how to make David smile meant I knew how to make men smile. I had complete control when I put the tip of my tongue gently in his opening, and when I slapped his chest while sitting on top of him, and when he laid across my bare chest to fall asleep. Then I would slip my panties back on, my bra, my white collared shirt, my beige skirt, and my leather shoes and walk home undistinguished in my uniform. At dinner with my parents, I stopped serving my father first. I claimed the first helping of sea bass, the meat white and juice running down the sides, breaking the skin with my spoon.

 

6. Humans, like octopuses, have almost entirely soft bodies. The only difference between an octopus and a human being is that an octopus has a beak. But I would like to argue that even a human’s mouth could turn into a beak when angry. He can snap, draw blood, and break things with his teeth. Jack asked me why I didn’t hurt when he entered. I told him he wasn’t the first. “You slut,” he snapped. “Such a slut.” He drew blood. He broke things in his room that night, like staplers, his computer screen, his shelves, his heart.

 

7. At school, five girls in the bathroom cornered me to ask how sex felt. I told them that sex with someone you love felt soothing, like swimming in the Pacific Ocean, but then they laughed. Their shrill laughter severed my nerves. Octopuses don’t have any internal temperature regulation, so if you freeze them, you can get them to the point where they fall unconscious. When the principal asked me what had happened; since September, in the café, in the movie theaters, at his house, my veins turned into ice. He asked me many things like, “Did he make you do it?” “Did he make you – ” I heard them all laughing at the girl who couldn’t keep her legs closed, their laughter hacking my limbs.

 

8. After mating, it’s game over for octopuses. Males wander off to die. The female’s body undertakes a cascade of cellular suicide, rippling from her optic glands through her tissues and organs. It was 4 p.m. on a cold December Tuesday, and everyone knew why David had been fired. “Come with me,” he said at the school gate. “We can go somewhere – anywhere, but here.” He put both hands on my shoulders, his tentacles wrapped around me, blowing soft, wet kisses on my arms. I wanted the circular suckers to take me and leave a comatose body behind. Maybe the suckers, too gelatinous, wouldn’t hold, and I would have to shove the entire arm down my throat. I felt sorry saying no. I was sorry that he got fired. I watched him walk away, my two branchial hearts pumped blood through heaving breaths while the third one pushed sorries through my body.


About the Author: Ploi Pirapokin‘s work is featured in the Griffith Review, HYPHEN Magazine, the Asia Literary Review, the Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong, and Transfer magazine. Winner of the 2014 Leo Litwak award in fiction, her writing has been supported by the Ragdale Fundation, the Brush Creek Foundation, the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center, Kundiman, Writers on Writing Workshop at Tomales Bay, and the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She holds an MFA from San Francisco State University where she is currently a lecturer in the creative writing department.

Artwork: David Hevel

Et cetera. by MK Chavez

Tisah Kårstad_Untitled_for MK Chavez


mk


 

About the Author: MK Chavez is the author of Virgin Eyes (Zeitgeist Press) Visitation, Next Exit #9 and Pinnacle (Kendra Steiner Editions). Recent and upcoming work can be found in Eleven Eleven and Sparkle & Blink and Rivet. She has been a fellow at Squaw Valley Writers Conference, Antioch Writers Workshop and VONA. She is co-founder and co-curator of the Berkeley based monthly reading series Lyrics & Dirges and co-directs the yearly Berkeley Poetry Festival. She is also an organizer with Association of Brown & Black Writers (ABBW).

Artwork: Tisah Kårstad

 

House Cleaning by Bill Schillaci

Stock Photo for Schillaci


He turned into our driveway in a dinged Mazda pickup with power washing equipment in the bed.  There was a pump attached to an upright heat exchanger tank, a black hose rolled up onto a yellow reel, and a cluster of spray wands bundled together like Roman fasces with a length of clothesline.  “Victory in Space” was stenciled in white block letters on both blue doors.  When I asked him about that, he said he had let his son name the business as a birthday present.

“How old is your son?” I asked

“Twenty-five.”

That threw me.  I assumed that his son must be suffering from a severe developmental condition.  He noticed my confusion.

“We’re talking about his eighth birthday,” he said.  “He just got his ME from Cooper Union and an entry position with the Port Authority.  He got Victory from Victor.  That’s me.”

I laughed.  Laughter is what I resorted to then, when my mind made stupendous leaps over the obvious possibilities before me.  That, I was told by Brother Salerno, was critical.  As long as you can join in on the amusement when life plays tricks on you, he said, you’re okay, or at least still on the right side of dotage.  Seemed sensible.  So I laughed a lot, with a force and bluster that bounced off the ceilings and walls of the hundred year-old white craftsman house with forest green shutters the four of us lived in.  Four seemed to be the minimum number of inhabitants needed to keep the diocese from selling the house and farming us out to assisted living.

Salerno managed the few domestic business matters the diocese couldn’t be bothered with.  Not quite seventy, he was also the youngest of our coven of four, and the sharpest.  He was away when Victor of Victory in Space arrived, in Conshohocken visiting his sister Allison, who had broken her wrist in bathtub fall.  I was next in command, so to speak.  Salerno had told me nothing about a power washing.  But of course it was also possible that he had and also possible that he had handed that information to me on a slip of paper that was posted under a magnet on the refrigerator door.

I quickly lost my way in these crisscrossing matters.

“It’s a freebee,” Victor said.

“Pardon?”

“Somebody called in and paid up front to power wash your house.  He said he was an old student.”

“Who’s student.”

“That he didn’t tell me.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a power washing,” I said.  “I’m afraid it might knock the siding right off.”

He was dismissive.  “I’ve done older houses.  Never happened.”

As retired men of the cloth, it was not uncommon for gifts to arrive unexpectedly.  Mostly they were casseroles and holiday pies from the local Women of Grace chapter and sometimes a grass cutting by one of their sons.  But power washing?  It was the chore that confused me, not the man offering it.

I went back inside, feeling I’d accomplished something by not embarrassing myself further.  Father Cepheus was clattering through the kitchen.  He already had breakfast, a couple of bananas and yogurt, the remains of which, peels and empty America’s Choice yogurt cup, were left centrally on the kitchen table.  And now he was itching for breakfast again because he didn’t remember the first one.  Cepheus was holding a carton of eggs he had extracted from the refrigerator.   I was curious to see what he was going to do with these.  There were several precedents.  Once, he just cracked one open over a slice of rye bread, splashed it with mustard and made a sandwich.  Most of the egg spilled onto the counter before it reached his mouth.  On another occasion, he placed two unbroken in a pot and fired up the burner; no water, no nothing, just two eggs in a pot.

Cepheus had taught biology, actually the last of us to teach, still going strong years after I ceased trying to excite hormone-inflamed youths about the Teapot Dome Scandal.  He was a squat barrel chested man with a Marine buzz cut who wrestled in college.  He was also an all-star intellect with a PhD in cellular biology from Johns Hopkins, who had coached multiple young men to the finals of the International BioGENEius Challenge.  Salerno had taught math, mostly geometry, and Father Solomon French.  Solomon still tutored although he needed help to get down from his bedroom to the parlor where he met his students.  They were mainly the kids and a few grandkids of young men Solomon taught in the classroom.  Solomon was from Jamaica and spoke French with an island inflection.  The music of it seemed to have a hypnotic and indelible effect on listeners and kept Solomon in the game.  It was likely that the few sessions a week empowered him past the osteoarthritis that turned every trip from floor to floor into an Olympic field event.  Each day one of us would help him settle into the comfortable chair near his third floor window that looks out on the harbor and Storm King Mountain.  There he read Mark Twain and Dostoyevsky and the Times, pecked out French quatrains ala Apollinaire on his laptop and snapped photos of the mountain’s changing façade.

I walked up cautiously beside Cepheus.

“You know, Father, I was just thinking about eggs,” I said.

Cepheus looked at me as if I had just tossed ice water onto his face.  I was ready for this and had my hands positioned to grab the egg carton before it slipped to the floor.  His shoulders jerked and I was also prepared to duck.  But this time he did not swing.

I suggested we collaborate on an egg salad for lunch.  His eyes cast about, skimming over me, the four peeling chairs pushed against the round kitchen table, other parts of the room where the bright red devil that plagued him might be hiding.  I always feared that this image that came to me was an injustice to the sybaritic imp in Joni Mitchell’s sublime idyll.  But Cepheus was born in Matala, and once I had made the connection, it couldn’t be unstuck.

I put six eggs in a pot, covered them with water, and took them to the stove.

“Steve,” I said, “please go into the basement and get the new jar of pickles.”

He looked at me sharply.  We were all pre-Vatican II and mainly stuck to the traditional appellations.  But with Cepheus traditions held no meaning, most of the time anyway.  Hearing his given name sometimes had a restorative effect, on his posture in any event.  Did it remind him of his mother’s voice, telling tell him to sit up straight or take out the garbage in Pittsburg as the Third Reich crumbled?  Was that more immediate to him than a lifetime of Father this and Father that?  I pointed to the door that opened to the basement stairs.  Cepheus nodded sternly and crossed the kitchen floor.  There was no telling what would occur in the basement, but he was less dangerous when he had a purpose.

I was waiting for the water to boil when Mr. Victory in Space came to the door.  He said he was ready and asked that all the windows be shut.

“I was thinking I should check with the house manager,” I said, “before you begin.”

He shrugged.  “How long will that take?  I have other appointments.”

I invited him inside, offered a mug of coffee and trudged up to my bedroom for my cell, hoping it would be clearly in sight and that I would not have to pick up the land line and call myself, which I had to do at least once a day despite my verbal aid of pronouncing out loud where I placed it.  Cell on desk.  Cell on floor near bathroom sink.  Cell in back pocket of pants you are wearing.

Don Giovanni, the latest stop in Solomon’s cultural odyssey, was filling his half-open doorway.  It was the Zefferelli film, Terfel and Fleming.  Several nights ago, I checked the DVD out of the local library and we watched it on Solomon’s computer.  Beyond the liturgical requirements, I am a musical lost cause.  I dozed off continually, each time waking to see Solomon leaning forward, his face ablaze with the music.

My room is neat, less a consequence of ecclesiastical discipline than two tours as a chaplain in Vietnam.  It was that experience that convinced the diocese that I could be a caretaker to Father Cepheus.  It’s not that the curia are opposed to institutionalization, but given Cepheus’ destructive tendencies, it was determined that he is best kept under home rule.  That was the nominal explanation.  Salerno latter confided that the real concern had to do with how the disintegration of a great mind would reflect on our institution.  It was also somehow determined that a person who more than forty years ago spent his days in a Da Nang hospital jotting down the tortured utterances mortally wounded twenty-year-olds wished to have sent home to their families was well suited to the job of watching over someone with violent dementia.

I located my phone in a jacket pocket just as a commotion rattled through the hall.  Giovanni pummeling Masetto?  Sitting on my bed, I reviewed the directory with Salerno’s numbers.  There were three for him, all adjacent to the same placid countenance, all infuriatingly similar.  As I puzzled over which to dial, Solomon appeared in the doorway, gripping the jamb.  Mozart was silent, but the house was not.

“Downstairs,” Solomon shouted at me.  He insisted that I help him to the first floor despite my assurances that there was a reasonable explanation for mixture of crashes and language not typically heard in a quasi-monastic domicile.  Solomon shook his head, taking a handful of my shirt as we descended.

“And you were in Indo-China.”

When we arrived at the scene, Victor was prone, trying to prop himself on an elbow in a kitchen corner.   The kitchen itself was a pickle disaster, the pungent aroma thick in the air, pickle juice soaking Victor’s Nirvana tee shirt.  A single miniature gherkin was embedded in his curly hair while others slid down the side of the counter to our lime green linoleum.   I turned off the flame under the pot, where the water had half-evaporated around the eggs.  This, my forgetfulness, frightened me more than the semi-conscious man on the floor.

Solomon and I helped Victor into a chair and pressed a bag of frozen lima beans to the pink crescent moon mounding on his temple.  Neither of us needed an explanation.

“Where’s Cephus?” I asked.  Victor seemed ill-prepared to reply so I turned to Solomon, whose eyes were darting between Victor and me.  His hands were flat on the table, but his legs gave up and he dropped hard into a chair.  It was all more than I could process.  I walked out to the front porch.

Beside the pickup, Victor had set up his equipment, the hose of the power washer already connected to the spout projecting from the house foundation. There was a substantial leak geysering midway in the hose.  Wasted water trips something primal in me and I hurried over and closed the valve.

“Father Cepheus,” I called somewhat in the voice I employed for sermons on the occasional Sundays I was asked to say mass at Our Lady of Loretto.  I was typically a last resort when no one else was available during the summer, but it was summer and no requests had arrived.  Boxwood bushes were bunched together along one side of the house, and I looked behind them for Cepheus as I might look a lost gardening tool.  In the rear I lifted the garage door.  The garage housed a twenty-year old Crown Vic waiting for new shocks.  The Crown Vic was unoccupied.  I opened the door anyway and stared inside for a while before taking the path along the other side of the house to the sidewalk.  Our neighbor Jim was heading toward the bus stop with a shoulder bag and a travel mug.  I tried to catch up, so I could ask if he had seen Cepheus.   Despite my exertions, his form diminished as he neared the county road.  My cell hummed.

“Where are you?” said Salerno.

“I’m outside, looking for Cepheus.”

“He’s was in the basement.  Get back there.  The police are on the way.”

“The police?”

“He attacked a man.  It ends here.”

In the time it had taken me to walk a single long block and back, two police cruisers and an ambulance had parked in front of our house.  All these vehicles were unoccupied, which meant all the personnel they were carrying were inside.  I wanted to call back Salerno immediately and ask him if he had any mental images about how Cepheus would react to such an invasion.  But this is where the priestly training kicks in and compels me to consider how Salerno was trying to deal with a serious emergency while in North Philadelphia trying to talk his ally cat of a sister into letting a health care worker come to her home in the mornings and make sure she can take a shower with low potential for catastrophe.  That, I was taught so long ago, is how one is supposed to manage anger, by forcing oneself into the mind of the other to choke back one’s own choler.  This is precisely what I was doing, but it was occurring in Cepheus’ mind, which typically sent me down the gloriously expressionist, wholly imbalanced strassen of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

In fact the scene I encountered inside was cinematic in the fashion of police procedurals, with the perp, Cepheus, flat on his face on the kitchen floor, his wrists bound with nylon handcuffs in the small of his back, and one officer’s hand clamped on his neck to constrain movement.  An EMT had squatted down in front of Victor and was waving a penlight in front of his pupils.  Two other officers were taking notes from Solomon, and still another was talking copspeak into a radio, and appeared to be in charge.

“That man is a priest and seventy five years old,” I said approaching Cepheus.  A hand placed squarely in the center of center of my chest aborted my progress.  In fact, I had no doubt that it was best to restrain Cepheus.  But the sight of him trussed on the floor was visual confirmation of what Salerno had said.  It was over, something was over, maybe everything was over.  Cepheus’ face was fixed in a silent scream.

“And he has dementia,” I added.

I identified myself and asked if I could just sit beside him.  The officer on the radio, who had a distinctly asymmetrical mustache, nodded.

“It’s alright, Steve,” I said, lowering myself to one knee.  “It’s over now.”  I said it again and again until he finally seemed to hear me and the rictus softened and he closed his eyes.

Salerno got back on the line and persuaded the police that Cepheus needed to be taken to a hospital.  After tending to Victor, the EMTs secured Cepheus to a gurney and rolled him outside.  A small crowd of onlookers had gathered, including Jim’s wife, Avon, whose very long and striking red hair seemed to glow even brighter near the flashing lights of the cruisers.  The news would spread, perhaps even to the media – Lunatic Priest Overpowers Power Washer.  My cell hummed again.

“Is he still there?” said Salerno.

“Who?”

“The power wash guy.”

“His name is Victor.”

“Is Victor still there?”

Victor was, standing by his truck, looking uncertain as an officer spoke.  I could hear the officer urging him to go to the hospital, and Victor was slowly explaining that he couldn’t leave his equipment.

“Should I apologize?”

“Probably best to say nothing.  I’ll be on the next train.”

The ambulance left followed by one cruiser and then the second.  Inside, Solomon sat at the table looking at his European loafers.  I began to clean the pickle remnants.

“What now?” he said, slowly rising.  I moved to assist.  He lifted his hand to keep me at a distance and shuffled out of the kitchen.   I swept up the remnants of glass, put water and ammonia into a bucket and started mopping.  A boom rocked the kitchen wall and a sheet of water covered the window above the sink and then progressed laterally in a drum roll along the outside wall of the house.  I hurried out the door, turned off the water again, and followed the hose to the side of the house where Victor held the wand from which water fell in droplets.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“I was paid to power wash your house,” he slurred.

“Given the circumstance, I would say you get a pass.  At least today.”

“What circumstances?”

“Oh, that you just got knocked unconscious.”

Victor scrunched up his eyebrows.

“Is it very windy today?” he asked.

“Yes, it’s gusty,” I said, even though it wasn’t.

“Not good for house washing.”

He reeled his hose into the bed of the pickup and then braced himself with both hands on the tailgate.  It took some persuading, but I got him to come back inside, where I sat him at the table again and brewed a cup of black tea.  Victor gazed into the dark liquid then lowered his head into his arms.

“I just need a minute.”

“Sit up,” I said.  “You shouldn’t fall asleep.”

He cast himself backward in the chair, his arms wide.

“Jesus Christ,” he said softly, then managed a weak grin.

“I should get the ambulance back here.”

His waved this away.

“What’s wrong with him?  Alzheimer’s?”

“That’s part of it probably.  But there’s more.  It’s called mixed dementia.  His symptoms are inconsistent.  Physically he hasn’t declined.”

“I can see that.”  With his fingertips he scanned the bruise on his temple, now purple and closer to a half moon.

“I am deeply sorry,” I said, remembering Salerno’s advice too late.  But since it was out, I decided to dig myself deeper.  “I probably shouldn’t say this, but you would be in your rights to pursue this.”

“What do you mean?”

“To press charges,” I said.  “If you wanted to.”

Victor considered me.  “You’re a priest?”

I nodded.

“I won’t be pursuing this,” he said.

“No?”

“No.  Would you like to know why?”

 

After multiple additional phone exchanges with Salerno, who was sitting in the waiting area of the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, obsessing unpleasantly, he later confessed, on the restroom murder scene from Witness, it was agreed that I would take a cab to the hospital and wait until he arrived.  I informed Solomon, who insisted on accompanying me.  This involved unfolding Solomon’s walker and taking along his tachycardia medication.  It would have been a good time for the Crown Vic to be operational.   Salerno sent a letter to the diocese which included a table showing how our transportation expenses, mainly buses and cabs, had quadrupled the estimated cost of new shocks.  There was no response.  Over wine one evening we concocted an appeal to Pope Francis, who, we conceded, would come out on the side of public transportation.

We found Cepheus in bed under a restraining net in a private room in the psychiatric ward on the hospital’s top floor.  He was awake but so immobilized by sedatives he could have been taken for dead, except for the faint, phlegmy breaths struggling to be free of his throat.  Solomon sat close, placed his stole across Cepheus’s chest and closed his eyes in silent prayer.  I reached for Cepheus’s hand under the net, but could not bring myself to join in.  It was a familiar tableau, although in Nam I had forced out the words, and sometimes believed in them, in their power.  I wondered if Cepheus’s still prayed.  When the four of us gathered in the mornings and evenings for a group recitation of the liturgy before the modest altar we constructed in our finished basement, he would join us.  Even though words eluded him, he was uncommonly still, and this, we all enthusiastically agreed, was Cepheus’s way of remaining a priest.  Under the indifferent walls and window of modern medical care that made no attempt to deceive or distract us about where we were and where we were heading, I hoped that in the deepest parts of his mind, Cepheus was reliving his expertise in the lab at John Hopkins or walking the shore of Lake Pontchartrain where he attended St. Joseph’s Seminary.  In fact, I wondered constantly what was going on in Cepheus’ mind.
In time a nurse strode in and took Cepheus’s blood pressure.  He hadn’t stirred in the least.

“What did you give him?” said Solomon.

“He was quite agitated when he arrived,” the nurse said, looking at the chart.  She wrote down the reading and left.

“So much for your Gallic charm,” I said.

“Seulement en français.”

Hours later we heard Salerno’s voice in the hall.  With him was Regina, the secretary from the diocese office.  Regina drove a purple Prius, and Salerno said she would take Solomon and me home and he would stay.

“I’ll stay too,” I said.

Salerno was a wiry man, his head full of short hair almost entirely ungrayed.  Another former athlete, he was told to coach varsity basketball and then, based perhaps on the team’s winning records, to be principal of the high school.  Whether he wanted these assignments or even if he was qualified was irrelevant.  Salerno distributed himself in the chair at unnatural angles, a human zigzag.  Either the day had caught up with him or I was hallucinating.  As principal, he had supported Cepheus for a time, but then advocated for full retirement as the outbursts reoccurred.  The diocese opted for a one-week “evaluation” at St. Luke’s in Silver Springs.   Cepheus returned coherent and serene, lulling Salerno with false hope.

“Did he say anything about what happened?”

“Who, Victor?”

“No, our brethren here.”

Cepheus still talked, but infrequently and then typically about foot-long caterpillars he was certain were consuming the insides of the walls in his bedroom.  He would grab my forearm and take me inside.

“Hear them?” he said.

I moved my head closer.

“I think so.”

He looked at me with approval and said it was time for an exterminator, although it came out as “experimenter.”

 

The next day, Regina ferried us back to the hospital absent Solomon, who clung to his window view, anticipating it being ripped from his life.  Cepheus was sitting up in the bed, though still restrained, his wrists bandaged under heavy straps.  There was a yellow glaze of sweat on his forehead though the room was arctic.  I took a towel from the toilet and wiped away the glaze, which reformed almost instantaneously.  Salerno stationed his face inches from Cepheus’s and asked a couple of pro forma questions.  Cepheus’s eyes shifted a bit and his lips trembled but no sound emerged.  A doctor arrived and talked with Salerno about changing the meds.  Salerno listened carefully, not bothering to say that he had already arranged that morning to ship Cepheus to Maryland.  The diocese agreed to an air ambulance out of Stewart.  The cost was frightening.  But having decided that Cepheus should go, they wanted him gone quickly.  The next day, when the three of us sat down to our evening meal, Cepheus was two-hundred fifty miles south, securely at the front end of permanent incarceration.

That evening Solomon dialed up Bergman’s Trollflöjten on YouTube.  This time I was kept awake, less by the performance than by a nagging question.

After the finale, I asked Solomon, “Have you ever been unsure if you were hearing a confession?”

“Of course.”

“But it doesn’t matter, right?”

“That is correct, Father,” he said suspiciously.

To reassure him, I added, “It doesn’t matter because if there is any possibility that it is a confession, it must be sanctified.”

Solomon nodded slowly.

“Alright, just take this abstract example.”

But Solomon stopped me.  “I know what you are doing, Father, and I won’t be part of it.”

I went downstairs to see if Salerno would listen or also keep me from abandoning my vow of silence.  But Salerno was on the phone, as he had been most of the day, futilely proposing alternatives to the dissolution of our communal home.

Outside I sat on the top step of the porch remembering Victor speaking to the officer, the image of it seared into my mind along with all the other images of the previous day.  What did it matter, anyway?  The truth?  Cepheus was where he should be, where he should have been for a long time.

It didn’t matter that Victor of Victory in Space was Victor Suarez, the father of Mark Suarez, the last student victim of Cepheus’ unaccountable rage.  The attacks occurred over several years.  The initial assaults for minor slights were mainly blows to the back and shoulders.   The next incident was almost a year after the first psych evaluation.  It involved a cafeteria worker who Cepheus believed was spitting into the soup pots.  Cepheus marched into the kitchen, flung the man to the floor and was poised to pounce before the head cook intervened.  A settlement ensued and then a second evaluation.  Once again, the diocese refused to recognize that they could be wrong, and Cepheus was back at work commenting brilliantly on videos of mesencephalon development.

And then, finally, there was poor Mark Suarez, and the trail turned red.  Cepheus claimed Mark was shouting profanities about the Virgin Mary although not a single student in the honors bio class could confirm this.  Cepheus demanded that Mark stop – also unverified – and, when this did not occur, drove his knuckles straight into Mark’s nose, causing multiple fractures and the attendant blood gush.  Cepheus was actually arrested, but the diocese machinery went to work on Victor, who declined to either press charges or sue provided Cepheus never taught again and certain monetary arrangements were made.

Victor used the settlement to place a downpayment for a house in Beacon, and Cepheus, assigned now to three elderly caretakers, tumbled headfirst into madness.  And there it seemed to rest.

The diocese suppressed information about the assault on Mark, and since I was already long offsite, the story reached me only in the vaguest outline.  It was also possible that I just excised the memory of what occurred years before.  Tales about Cepheus abounded, too many to be true.  But Victor I believed.

Gazing into the teacup, Victor filled in the left-over details about his son.  Even with Cepheus ejected, Mark began to dread going to school.  Illnesses, maybe phantom, kept him home with regularity.  Eventually, Victor and his wife transferred Mark to another school where he fared a little better, but he was still declining physically.  Therapy became a constant in their lives.

“But he has a job now?” I said.

Victor finally took a long swallow of my tea.  His face compressed so hard that the tendons in his neck bulged.

“Yes, he does,” he rasped, “and he still lives at home.”

“What about the free power wash?” I asked.

“Legitimate.  One of your neighbors called and said your house was filthy and depressing his home value.  But he didn’t want to insult you.  So we agreed on the story about a gift from an old student.”

Victor said he had entered the kitchen to wait on the okay from Salerno and there was Cepheus.

“This is something I had dreamed about,” he said.

“What did you dream?”

“To show him what it feels like.”

“And?”

“I said a few things and then I went after him. But I don’t think I actually made any contact.
The next thing I saw was you and the African looking down at me. ”

“He’s from Jamaica.”

Victor rose from the chair with extreme deliberation as if one bad move would result in total structural collapse. Once upright, he said, “So now it’s crazy priest two and team Suarez zero.” He paused at the kitchen door, framed by the morning light passing through the glass upper half.

“There’s one thing I remember him saying before I started swinging,” he said.

“Yes?”

“He said, ‘Here’s the pickles.’”


About the Author: In his day job, Bill Schillaci is a freelance environmental journalist. At night, he writes short fiction, which has been published this year in Printers Row and 34th Parallel Magazine. On the weekends, he is an amateur cabinetmaker and claims to have built most of the furniture in his home in Ridgewood, New Jersey. He is also a former resident of Oakland and is delighted to reconnect with the Bay Area through The East Bay Review.

Fuck You by Riss Rosado

run the j


Fuck the lower back pain I got
Bending over backwards for you.

Fuck your Oedipal complex
Your mom is out of her fucking mind.

Fuck whatever she did
I’m not her.

Fuck every night you were too stressed out about work
To get it up.

Fuck you for not leaving work at work
And thinking about it during sex.

Fuck you for making pillow talk about work
Too.

Fuck you for saying you felt like you were about to cheat on me
Go ahead. Fuck you.

Fuck you for saying I’d look great
If I worked out more.

Fuck you for saying you knew you
Couldn’t trust a bi girl.

Fuck you for moving to Oakland
After I moved to Oakland
And never answering me.

Fuck every piece I ever wrote Because of or in spite of you
Including this. Fuck this poem.

Fuck every time I let you flake with no notice
Playing it super cool to your cold shoulder

Fuck every orgasm I let you give me
Don’t flatter yourself: i’ve been making myself come since I was 10.

Fuck you for barring me from a public space
For the first time in my life.

Fuck you for lifting the ban
Then reinstating it with no explanation.

Fuck you for making me be the bigger person
Every time you disrespected me.

Fuck you for making me feel
Twice my age.

Fuck you for letting me down
Then worming your way back into my good graces
And letting me down

Fuck you for fucking me over
And over and over and over again

Fuck your radio silence
It’s 2015 send a goddamn text every once in awhile.

Fuck the breadcrumbs you left
Leading me back to you

Fuck you for leaving 9 months of graphic messages to her on your phone
And not having the balls to break up with me

Fuck you for not knowing yourself enough
To love yourself enough
To even remotely love me

Fuck you.


About the Author: Riss is bad with names but she still wants to know yours. She has been described as “absurd”, a “rainbow-infused space unicorn”, and “a hot piece with brains to match”. She writes poetry, prose, short stories, and hand-written letters and has been a feature at You’re Going to Die, Berkeley Poetry Express, Lyrics & Dirges, and the Crow Show. She lives in Oakland with her partner, a three-legged dog, and a snake named Kisses.

Artwork: Alexandra Herrington

Pancakes on the Ice by Melissa Wiley

pexels-photo-medium


Did she know I might be in love with her husband? She did, I was certain. The love usually lasted for only twenty-four hours in succession, enough for me to dream of him the night after I’d just seen him. Each time I saw him again, however, the dream lengthened.

As Kirsten looked at me, glimpsing all the erotic visions I’d had and soon forgotten, her eyes could hardly have been browner, the same as my own color. Only mine felt blue in comparison, because love or something approximate forever alters your appearance, leaving marks on your face and reconfiguring your fingerprint patterns. Without me looking in a mirror, I knew my irises had dissolved into pellucid water. She had clearly seen the abalone shells so many mollusks had abandoned shining throughout my interior.

The wife of my gamelan teacher, Kirsten came to class because today was Alex’s birthday and this was her present to him, though someone else brought cupcakes she couldn’t eat because she was allergic to gluten. He was, I later learned, allergic as well and turning thirty-seven.

At first, I thought she was older than I was when I saw her from across the carpet, woven into a mandala long faded by no sun within this room inside this basement. It was only when I came home and washed my face free of makeup that I realized I was likely the older woman. So much longing has overstretched my epidermis, while her forehead was smooth as marble with real blue veins holding real red blood that kept far from the surface. Had she not looked at me with such lapidary focus, I would have thought her oblivious to the desire of another woman. I would have taken her skin’s tautness as confirmation.

Logically too, I see no reason for my face to fulfill an aesthetic function. Unless I’m trying to pull other human beings closer, men only to be honest, despite the fact I have a husband. Were this face better at attracting men to examine it, I’d likely never have studied Buddhism. Were I only beautiful enough, I’d have no need for Eastern wisdom.

Yet when I first wake up, I don’t know that I’m a person. I have no memory of any pain or problems but am effortlessly enlightened. The space around my body’s edges clings to me with the warmth of a cocoon before cooling like a cake taken from the oven. My breathing feels so much like flying as yet that I do nothing except lie in bed and wait for my ribs to open, to unburden themselves of heart and lungs and other internal organs. I close my eyes to the sunlight filtering through the curtains, waiting for my lungs to leave me breathless. That they will fly blind without the eyes in my head they intend to abandon I let them forget during these moments.

This is the way, I think, to live with an emptiness filled by only the one phallus. Keeping the mind all but empty, breathing all but lungless. Keeping memory something consciously summoned. Because you cannot love someone without carrying the weight of his image behind your retinas and making them burn on occasion. Not while you’re lying in bed beneath a blanket feeling the warmth between your legs begin to moisten from the light of a face your mind has almost but not quite forgotten.

Yet not all of life is an eroticism. And after my night’s dreaming of Alex was done with, I returned to deeper emotions, preferring to see the two faces of my parents before they stopped breathing once I fell unconscious, more than my teacher of Indonesian music. Even in dreams now, though, their faces look hazy, and I believe in no afterlife, at least one with no bodies. Belief alone too guarantees nothing. It is only the ego’s wishing.

Kirsten told me Alex hated being wished happy birthday but that she liked to say it anyway. “Me too,” I started chirping. Then, “Happy birthday, Alex! Happy, happy birthday!” I said laughing. The only thing worse than having someone repeat something so inane, I told him once he hushed me, is having no one to say it in the first place.

He looked at me a little sadly, when I admitted I’d once wanted someone to wish me happy birthday so badly that first I told my bus driver in the morning then a woman I’d never met before in my apartment building doing her laundry later that evening. Both wished me happy birthday reluctantly, when I felt I’d made them say it to me, as of course I’d done all but intentionally. Whereas I would have leapt naked into Alex’s arms as a present if he’d have let me. I’d have arched my back while licking the salt from his neck begun to lengthen. Even without him touching me, I was a burning candle with its bottom half steeped in icing.

There is no one left now who remembers me as a baby, no one who still in her mind’s eye can see when mine were blue as the ocean over which my lungs will soon go flying. No one is alive who looked into my eyes before melanin seeped in and made them dark as cow paddies, which a farm girl a farm girl no longer knows all too intimately. I slipped on more than can be worth telling while herding cattle with my father, a farmer no one now remembers except for myself and my sister.

I’m a little tired, however, of the same memories, even if they have begun fading. So rather than trying to see them more clearly, I’m trying to live more like a person just waking, a person whose sex dreams of no one worth recalling are all she knows of reality. I’m trying to live like someone who expects nothing of life except for certain responses from her body when a beautiful man is approaching.

My husband I still find attractive, he whose eyes grow blue when he’s happy and turn greener when he’s angry, when I don’t wash dishes or do something similar about which I care nothing. He who met me an hour before my gamelan class for a hamburger and a glass of something alcoholic. He who wanted to come to class with me but whom I told, “No, leave please, honey.”

Before we begin playing a little after eight of a Wednesday evening, our teacher asks us each to share a thought we’ve had the past week related to this music. So I told Alex I was reading Two Serious Ladies, a novel in which respectable women descend into debauchery. Only I left out its central theme, instead mentioning that a Miss Gamelon—like the music but with a variant spelling—preys upon the richer of the serious ladies, who aren’t very serious at all from my perspective. Because serious people assume life means more than the passing brush of a stranger in a hallway, whereas I have always felt differently.

In the passage I’d read the previous evening, one of the serious ladies asserts she has always been a body worshipper while her acquaintance says she likes men for their brains. And reading in an armchair as my husband reminded me to vacuum the stairway, I realized I was the same. I realized with the force of a past life memory that men’s bodies are everything to me, that I wanted nothing in life except for beautiful male bodies to rub themselves against me. Instead of vacuuming, I shut the bedroom door as my husband watched TV. I lay down on our bed and started masturbating.

Neither my teacher nor his wife had read the novel, I’m guessing. And while I sat on the mandala rug expatiating on Miss Gamelon’s antics, I stared at my teacher as much as I had stared at another man on a barstool an hour earlier while I ate my hamburger and listened to my husband analyze stock market vagaries. I listened while nothing could mean less to me than money so long as male arms were outstretched in front of me.

During class, Kirsten played the instrument I normally prefer playing, the gong and a series of mini gongs tied along a truss like a swing to a tree. It was her first time, Alex told us, but she played better than me already. And my voice sounds sweet, more than a few people have told me, but hers sounded like bubbles full to bursting. All her movements were graceful as a giraffe’s on the verge of dying, an animal separating itself from the herd and walking regally into the savannah where lions lay in wait.

Her body looked so lissome too I wondered whether she ever ate anything. Meanwhile, my husband had just complained I’d eaten half his hamburger when he left the table to pee, when I’d already eaten mine along with his mashed potatoes because he ate too slowly. He should have known better, I told him, than to leave his plate with me half empty, because he knows better than anyone that I’m always hungry. I could have eaten two hamburgers easily. Some ketchup had stained my teeth, he only said in response to me.

Kirsten, though, was a bath of a woman with no meat on her bones that anyone could eat. She was a bath that would clean your fingernails of dirt beneath while wrinkling the pads of your fingers so they deadened your nerve endings, because there is such a thing as being too clean. Watching Alex’s face watch hers as she played my favorite instrument flawlessly, it was clear she bathed him regularly.

Had she dried him, though? I wondered. Did she stand with her own clothes on the rug in a heap while wiping his back with a towel the color of butter just warm from the dryer? Were she naked, all her ribs would be visible, arranged in perfect symmetry, sealed so her lungs would not escape her body. She would have never eaten another person’s hamburger, would never have eaten anything so red and thick. Then if you were a bath pretending to be a person thin as a flute with only a few holes punched inside it, you wouldn’t.

And while Kirsten adjusted her legs in preparation to play the gong I would have banged harder had I only the option, while she folded her skirt over knees looking like door knobs I wanted to twist off her so the door would close completely, I felt myself begin to cry then tried to make myself sneeze, as if I were allergic too to something. Because my own husband was a boulder and I was a grain of sand in comparison, because he stood still always while I tried wriggling free of him. Yet wind kept whipping me against him. For the weather between us, I tried not to blame him, as every fresh abrasion pained me yet also eroded some of my corners. The wind rounded me, I told myself by way of consolation, smoothening me so someday I would be the softest of sand. Only by then I’d be an old woman.

When I first walked inside the basement where we practice, Alex, Kirsten, and a Vietnam veteran who lived in Java for several years, he once mentioned, were arranging the instruments. Kirsten looked at me at first, I thought, as I would another woman I sensed my husband wanted to have sex with. I saw her face register some shock when I unzipped my coat, perhaps seeing I was not as fat as she had thought when wearing it.

Then she walked toward me and introduced herself while holding out her hand. I told her Alex had spoken about her often, though he hadn’t. Her face relaxed at once, I noticed, perhaps because she also saw the weather-beaten marks on my face from being flung up against a much larger rock than she could imagine.

Her hair was darker than mine, her face a clamshell with its ridges still in formation. I was shorter and had twenty pounds on her, because she was as thin as Alex, maybe thinner. She was less of a person altogether than someone who ate so much hamburger.

And were my head swept clean of memory either by some car accident or enlightenment reached through meditation, I would remember her now no more than my husband. I would no more see Alex’s eyes sparkle either when I reached for my mallets, when I began to play my thigh to no particular rhythm.

Kirsten emitted a smell of stale lavender as she replied to Alex’s questions regarding theories of music in Java while I stayed silent. Her laugh’s high timbre also made me hold my breath a moment, because it was so delicate and I didn’t want to break it. And because I had also begun to love her a little by then, I wanted nothing more than for her to be a happy person, though she was happier already than I could fathom. Of all things to pray for, Kirsten’s happiness would be most redundant. Better to beg the gods for amnesia. Forget all thoughts of Alex giving her orgasms.

To think the gods liked her better, however, making her life easier as a reward for being a person already closer to a bird with lungs for feathers, was only my ego growing stronger. I was only making myself larger by feeling smaller rather than nothing altogether. I told myself this over and over.

And after class while Kirsten checked her phone for messages, I asked Alex what he was doing for his birthday by way of celebration. He said he was spending the weekend at a cabin Kirsten’s parents loaned them. So Kirsten also had parents, a man and a woman she resembles who may have hunted animals and hung their heads above their mantle, parents who considered her beautiful when she was in truth only thin with a voice I’d want soak in when reading a novel. The only real thing I had on her was sadness. A faux fur scarf also.

When I put it on before I zipped my coat on again, she told me how elegant I looked then reached out to stroke as it as if to tame it and me in the process. “This squirrel I slaughtered?” I said. Then, “I’m joking,” I told her as her jaw dropped wide as a drain pipe funneling rain water. “This,” I add, “I bought in the gift shop of the National Portrait Gallery in London instead of a biography of the Bronte sisters.” Anne, Emily, and Charlotte all had gray-green eyes that might have been bluer too when they were younger.

Then looking into Kirsten’s eyes for the final time that night and likely ever, I palpated the seam of my scarf, sewn into a circle so I could slip it over my head as if it were a fallen, fuzzy halo. Were this fake piece of fur more natural, it would lie across my shoulders like a small, flayed animal. As it was, I fingered the thread tying one end to the other into something whole.

Had Kirsten’s eyes been blue when she was born also? Very possible. If so, they had darkened by the time she turned one or two years old. That had been, I told myself, all the darkness she had known.

Most parents with blue-eyed babies never want them to change color. It’s something you don’t realize as a brown-eyed child until later, discovering that an essential part of human nature doesn’t like things growing darker. It’s the same part, I suppose, as finds older women uglier. My husband says my own eyes are golden as an eagle’s, less brown than yellow, that the right one squints when I smile or giggle. Sometimes he asks me if I can see out of them—they’re so pretty when they’re wider open, usually when I’m sad or frightened—but that’s only when his own eyes are blue as the ocean becoming frozen. When the wind picks up and he’s bristling with irritation, they look more like algae overspreading water starved of oxygen.

Eye color can also alter with age. My eyes are lighter now than they were a couple years ago, though my parents are likely the only people who would have noticed the difference. “Are you going through the change of life too early, perhaps because you had no children?” they may have wondered. “Nothing’s wrong,” I would have had to tell them. It’s the only way I can become less of a person. To keep from loving men besides my husband.

Had I not seen the woman Alex makes love to most often and to whom I imagine he’s faithful, I would have left class happier if less enlightened, feeling myself more of a woman. Because however much I try to empty my mind of all memory, of times when my irises were bluer, however much I may try to eat less hamburger, the lower half of my body remains a phallus glutton. It grows hungrier and hungrier.

I have a friend I meet every few weeks at a coffee shop where the barista makes conversation, particularly with me, my friend observes often. One day while we sat there sharing a scone and I admitted I was feeling weepy from some argument I’d had with my husband, she told me that coming here should be good for my ego. In response, I stared out the window and watched a winter bird attempt to extract a snail from its carapace.

As a way of shifting her to a new subject, as a way of trying to become less of a person and more enlightened, I told her the organs of mollusks each serve several functions. The heart and kidneys aid in reproduction while the gills assist excretion. The brain neatly encircles the esophagus.

But in this she had no interest. She only pointed to the barista now circling us with a broom, saying this was for my benefit. The bird, meanwhile, was eating all the snail’s softness, digesting the brain woven around its windpipe like a nerve-ending necklace. Then I wanted to leave, I told her, because I was growing cold sitting so close to the window, which was leaking coldness.

I live in Chicago, where the river’s ice is melting in a mild late January. Only it doesn’t melt evenly but in patches. It shatters like a windshield broken by a bat, and the ice is melting all across the planet. This world is growing hotter, and there’s little we can do to keep it from thawing altogether, because the gods prefer the tropics. The gods make love among the palm fronds and don’t bother dressing afterward. They keep those of us less than beautiful living in northern climates from spending as much time naked in our beds as we would were we warmer. Desire heats all bodies, though. Someday my desire is sure to cool like a tree in snow, or so I’m told by those who are older.

Given the right conditions, ice contracts into lily pads scientists call pancakes, for obvious reason given their shape when you see them. It dissolves into shards of wholeness. But to me they look more like eyes stricken with blindness. They are evidence of the ice aging into colorless irises.

Pancake ice on a Scottish river made headlines when scientists photographed round discs normally observed exclusively in the Arctic. Only the pancakes with raised edges, abutting each other like checkers on a board of water, don’t form on their own. It is the waves that flow against an icy abrasion that create them, waves uncommonly gentle if also cold. Waves that jostle the edges of what were once pointed arrows.

Yet even pancakes filling rivers melt sometime. Even pancakes on ice are eventually eaten. Not by the frogs who might sleep on them but by the water that made them. And however peaceful, this dying should surprise no one who is not entirely beautiful. I am aware I am dying little by little more often than most, and at times almost feel I am one of the few people alive who can say so. At the moment, I am dying a hot death, though.

The Vietnam veteran asked me to help lift him from the carpet at the end of the song we had been playing for well over an hour, at a faster and faster tempo. All the songs we play tell stories indigenous to Indonesia, and at the beginning of class Alex typically relays some sense of the song’s narrative so we can envision some human imbroglio. Yet this time he told us nothing of the lyrics. The Vietnam veteran sang them softly regardless.

When Alex saw me supporting him beneath his shoulder, he came and helped me heft him higher, when I asked the veteran for a translation of what he had been singing. “The lyrics are erotic. I’m not sure I should tell you,” he murmured. I felt my face and neck flush, as if a dragon were winding its tail around my esophagus like the brain of a mollusk while Alex turned his head toward Kirsten. “Love among the birds,” the veteran clarified, as if to calm us. The coitus was in flight and lasted no longer than a few seconds.

The body cannot distinguish between truth and its opposite. You cannot expect it to decipher reality among mirages and not to cry at movies, for instance. So you should expect it to love every beautiful body you witness. And if you still have parents, expect ungodly tolerance, knowing it’s no reflection of your attractiveness. Know the barista at the coffee shop would sleep with you if only you gave him encouragement. Know he would tell you you’re beautiful as he undressed a body that hardly knows reality from illusion.

Remember too that when Kirsten asked you how long you’d been taking gamelan lessons, you responded, “Three times or more with your husband.” When she said, “Really?” and you nodded then asked how long she and Alex had been married. You cannot remember the number but asked only to hear her voice once more, to feel her waves wash over all your body’s contours, cleaning and smoothing all your edges as if you were no more than rocks piled inside a bathtub, kept clean and protected from all the winds outdoors.


About the Author: Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in literary magazines including DIAGRAM, Superstition Review, PANK, Prick of the Spindle, Tin House Open Bar, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Poydras Review, Gravel, Pinball, Eclectica Magazine, Gone Lawn, Split Lip Magazine, Menacing Hedge, Specter, Lowestoft Chronicle, Midway Journal, Pithead Chapel, Great Lakes Review, and pioneertown. She also serves as assistant editor for Sundog Lit.