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


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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.