Review: Witch Wife by Kiki Petrosino

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Witch Wife
by Kiki Petrosino
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$16.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1946448033

By Luiza Flynn-Goodlett

Witch Wife gets power and momentum from a few sources, the most striking of which is repetition. Echoing (and even explicitly referencing) Anne Sexton, phrases (sometimes whole lines) reappear, and upon each usage, deepen, expand, and echo outwards, enlarging the space within each poem while drilling deeper toward its core. It’s more than form, though there’s plenty of that; these poems unfold like incantatory, irresistible spells.

Voice is another huge driver here, and the speaker is full of contradictions—prickly and tender, intelligent and childish, cruel and guileless—that keep the reader perpetually unsettled and engaged. The voice is also intimate, using short, simple words and a nursery-rhyme cadence that balances the poems’ lyric intensity as acid does salt, resulting in something more delicious than either element alone.

The book is split into four numbered sections, the poems in each loosely correlating to a phase in the speaker’s life. And the tension of domesticity (wife) vs. wildness (witch) is carried through each section, though it manifests in different ways. The first two sections take us through childhood, and subsequently, a young adulthood of travel, sexuality, and heartbreak. Especially in the first section, the speaker expresses a real disgust toward the physical self that’s recognizable to any woman/femme who’s grown up in this world where their body is considered an unfixable problem, and their desire a hushed mystery. It’s especially biting in poems like “Young” where the speaker refers to her “runny custard body / with its buried corkscrew of hate.”

Early in the book, the speaker also reflects on lineage and how she has been shaped by the women who came before her, as evidenced in “New South”:

I’m always marching
my hair cropped close
my mothers beside me
in robes & crowns so
I go back, go forth
light girl, light girl
crammed with light

The self is subsequently cast into the world, with all the complications that entails. There’s also a purposeful, sincere messiness that mimics the inevitable collisions between the speaker and others in poems like “Europe”: “My age / is a seed-pearl under my tongue. Was I wrong / to weep in my clothes on the street?” The contrast between the imagined and the real, the wildly lyrical and quotidian in these lines generates a deeply bewildered feeling that mimics the emotional terrain of young adulthood.

The book’s concerns then transition into those of adulthood, with the attendant realities of living as a black woman in America, as in “Letter to Monticello”: “Every month brought / me closer to Mars, a planet ruled by black women astronauts.” There’s also the splendid “Political Poem,” which uses Martin Luther King’s words as its refrain:

Now the moral
autobus kneels like a camel at the curb. It bends
& I climb into the sinking dark. I climb. It bends.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Let it curl up like the moral
fortune still inside the cookie, the moral
border dissolving in cold milk.

The cyclical emphasis placed on this quoted phrase reflects how civil rights struggles are ongoing, repetitive, and oftentimes frustrating, leaving each generation to go back over the same ground, using their limited energy bending the same arc.

Witch Wife reveals growing anxiety around family and motherhood, which begins with “Little Gals,” (“One says You know / it’s past time you bred / & opens her mouth / full of egg teeth.”) and continues with “Vigil” (“I glimpse a momentary face, a tiny zero snugged within / my elbow’s dark”). We see a familiar tension of simultaneously wanting and not wanting children in poems like “Nursery”: “They had no faces yet. We spoke / into their quince-bud ears.” This is complicated by the external voices the speaker is exposed to in poems like “Prophecy”: “I can see you / at thirty weeks, your skin bright as automotive paint.” By the end of the book, a détente has been reached, as articulated in “Confession”: “Every month I decide not to try / is a lungful of gold I can keep for myself.” It’s not a harmonious resolution, but an awareness of how society places women in an impossible bind when it comes to choices around making (or not making) family.

Witch Wife asks, can one be both a witch and a wife? In other words, is it possible to preserve deep wildness, what in us is most inexplicable and essential, while choosing to inhabit the quotidian confines of domesticity? Petrosino doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but she does ask unceasingly interesting questions. And, by giving attention to the questions that occupy her speaker, she elevates and illuminates them, holds them up to the light like precious stones and lets their facets cast an astonishing lyrical light.

2017 in Books: Year-End Roundup

Prose

 

I wish I had something more profound to say about 2017, about my first year as a book reviewer coming to a close, about the state of the world and the power of literature to expose it and to remind us that as dark as it seems there has to be a light on somewhere, but somehow, I don’t. It’s been a rough year, for all of us I imagine, and books have been my lifeline, the inflatable donut in the shitstorm of 2017, the one thing I knew I could always reach out to and find solace, or escape, or pure emotional release. Sometimes it was subject matter, sometimes it was just the sheer talent flitting off the page, but the books that got me this year approached the grim state of things from angles that surprised me, shocked me and somehow, in the thick of so much shit, gave me a little hope.

 

Best Books of 2017 (in no particular order):

 

Imagine Wanting Only This / Kristen Radtke (review)

Kristen Radtke’s debut graphic novel is a one-two punch, a beautifully drawn look at the past we try to hold on to and what it does to the futures we’re trying to find. It’s a beautifully drawn book, Radtke’s inky blacks and crystalline whites cutting into the detailed landscapes of ruin and forgetting she invokes.

 

A Loving, Faithful Animal / Josephine Rowe (review)

I keep telling people that A Loving, Faithful Animal is like Denis Johnson had a lovechild with Stephen King, and I mean it. Josephine Rowe’s tale of a very broken family trying to define themselves in the wake of the departure of their ultra-violent father reads almost like a horror novel, but with the propulsive thrust of Johnson’s shorter work. It’s a brutal book set in an impoverished wasteland, but Rowe manages to mine levity regardless. No debut this year stuck around longer in my mind.

 

Exit West / Mohsin Hamid514KmtX+MGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

If Exit West is indicative of Mohsin Hamid’s work (past, present and future) then he has all the makings of being a modern master of the form. Set in an unnamed refugee crisis in a near future, Hamid ties the lives of two refugees together, exploring the relationships we build in times of ultimate duress. There’s a sparse, lyrical tone to the novel and even though the subject matter is stark, Hamid manages to infuse it with humor, truth and loving warmth.Also, magic teleportation doors.

 

Chemistry / Weike Wang (review)

No book surprised me more than Weike Wang’s Chemistry, the story of an emotionally stunted former grad-student falling apart in slow-motion. Wang’s writing is bluntly descriptive, clipped in a way that pulls you forward, but once you’re locked in, she pulls back the curtain, revealing a dramatic heft just beneath the quirkiness.

 

Sirens / Joshua Mohr (review)

It’s reductive to call Joshua Mohr’s Sirens an addiction memoir. Yes, the crux of the book is Mohr’s battle with drugs and alcohol, but more so it’s about the author circling his past and his present to try and rewrite his future. It’s about Mohr discovering who he is without addiction to hide behind. There’s no padding in Sirens, this is Mohr at his most honest, and it’s a captivating ride.

 

Universal Harvester / John Darnelle9780374282103

It makes me angry that John Darnelle – lead singer of The Mountain Goats – is as good at writing books as he at writing songs. A kid finds a weird VHS tape at the small town video store he’s wasting his life away in and slowly pulled down into the darkness of what he sees. Darnelle has a singular voice – somehow warm and vibrantly creepy at the same time – and even in the most harmless of moments, tension crackles in the background.

 

Honorable Mentions:

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An Arrangement of Skin / Anna Journey (review)
Killers of the Flower Moon / David Grann
The Flowers In My Mother’s Name / Philip Harris (review)
Borne / Jeff Vandermeer
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us / Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
The Book of Resting Places / Thomas Mira y Lopez (review)
The Misfortune of Marion Palm / Emily Culliton (review)
The Animators / Kayla Rae Whitaker
A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause / Shawn Wen (review)

 

 

by Noah Sanders


 

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2017 was a shining year for essay collections and short stories by women. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Petersen takes a magnifying glass to the way female celebrities are criticized and punished for crossing over invisible boundaries of behavior. In The Mother of All Questions Rebecca Solnit continues her patient, meticulous exploration of the way that gender shapes and limits women’s lives.

Carmen Maria Machado’s stunning fiction collection Her Body and Other Parties (review) uses fairy tale and horror influences to outline the experience of being a woman today with terror, tenderness, and humor. Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth is filled with short, sharp stories, brutal and funny; check out “Voltaire Night” at the Paris Review for a taste. At the end of 2017, Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person,” describing a female college student’s awkward sexual encounter with an older man, generated a huge conversation about the short story as as form and won Roupenian a seven-figure book deal.

41pBtH0x6GL._SX349_BO1,204,203,200_Reading these nonfiction collections, I stopped frequently when Petersen or Solnit crystallized some aspect of my experience that had never been described to me or named. Women who read these essays will find themselves setting their books down for a moment and wondering at seeing the secret rules and pressures of their lives suddenly made explicit on the page.

Machado, Unferth, and Roupenian’s short stories feel insistent, uncomfortable, and difficult to pin down. In a conversation with a friend about Her Body and Other Parties, we both acknowledged that there were several stories in the collection that we were unable to summarize, as they ended with no clear sense of what was metaphor and what truth, of which events were delusion and which were real. Wait Till You See9781555977689 Me Dance has stories which I adored and which I can’t stop thinking about, months later, and that I nearly wish I could un-read, so bleak are their declarations about human nature. The experience of reading these books, and the universal female cringe response to “Cat Person,” feels a lot like reading the news in this moment when we are reckoning with the horrifying ubiquity of sexual harassment and assault. In these stories the truth is tricky, and slippery, and often unbearably ugly, but we cannot look away. 

In the news, and in their writings, women used 2017 to capture with greater honesty the shape of our world. Hopefully in 2018 the world will continue to learn how to listen.

by Wesley Cohen


Poetry

 

9781555977856This was such a remarkable year for poetry that it’s hard to mention only five books, but the most stunning book of the year was Danez Smith’s second collection, Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press). Smith, as Orpheus, travels through various underworlds of poverty, disease, and state-sanctioned murder to enact lush, lyric resurrection. Lessons on Expulsion, by Erika L. Sánchez (Graywolf Press), is another bright spot, a vivid, muscular work that blooms wildly over borders of nation, family, and womanhood, illuminating shifting territories of danger and desire. In Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar (Alice James Books), Electric-Arches-051117-for-thumbnailaddiction’s voracious appetites are redirected outward to exalt the sensual and spiritual realms with the gift of obsessive, loving attention. Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child (Graywolf Press) is by turns a gutting and hilarious look at motherhood and how the journey through that terrain reshapes the self. Finally, Electric Arches by Eve Ewing (Haymarket Books) is a fitting book to end this list on, as it conjures the future most clearly. Through a hybrid of poetry, prose, and visual art, Ewing’s generous eye enriches all it settles on, surreally enlarging the possibilities of blackness, girlhood, and the city in strangeness and beauty.

by Luiza Flynn-Goodlett

Atomic Dog by Cassandra Dallett

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Atomic Dog

What is there to write
when summer has turned cold
the sky pressing gloomily down
Tiki torch lynch mobs
plan rallies near you
a thousand posts
on what you should do, can do,
won’t do
guts knotted and afraid to leave the bathroom
this is no surprise
just a campaign promise
the unveiling
of the pale sick country
we belong to
now you know
the white kid handing you a hot dog
an aspiring Klans-men,
oh you’ve known some
skinheads, and white boys
who joined the Brotherhood behind bars
can wish them nothing
but boots upside the head
you’ve heard the ridiculous
rationalizations
freedom of speech arguments
typed madly to the Alt Right abyss
too many masters
manipulating
stirring up fear and paranoia
Othering Othering Othering
we should all be
terrified of the terrorists among us
white dudes talking take back
shit that was stolen in the first place
we all pointing fingers and wringing hands
it’s here
the year they promised
at all those rallies
all the red hats
telling you it was this
birther bullshit
go back to Africa
calling slaves migrants
migrants criminal
vegetables rotting on the vine
stop the rewriting
the propaganda
fueling painful flames
stop protesting Top Dog
and listen to your God
or your Dog
my God,
we might be busy killing each other
when they drop the bomb
My Dog,
hand me my machete
these white boys might be the zombie apocalypse
we’ve been preparing for all along.


About the Author: Cassandra Dallett is out here trying to function. She has been published online and in many print magazines. Cassandra reads often around the San Francisco Bay Area, she
hosts the monthly writing workshop OnTwoSix, and the quarterly reading series Moon
Drop Productions. Her first full-length book of poetry Wet Reckless (Manic D Press) was
released in 2014. In 2015, she authored five chapbooks one of them, On Sunday, A Finch
(Nomadic Press) was nominated for a California Book Award, look for her full-length
collection Collapse (Nomadic Press) in early 2018.

 

CONFESSIONS OF A RELUCTANT WHORE by Christine Ma-Kellams

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The security at Webb School requires all cars to drive counter-clockwise; if you don’t, an ethnically-indiscriminate man will run after you with his walk-talky tangling from his hips like an uncomfortable erection. Josiah and you show up every Tuesday for classes hosted by a co-op on meetup.com. When you login in, you’ll find them next to the Valley Swingers Club and Cyber Moms, neither of which you’ve joined, though you’ve thought about it.

Peter shows up with his two albino children. By albino you just mean Standard White, but in matters of sex people tend to exaggerate. But don’t worry, there will be no sex with children in this story, because whores are always made, whereas pedophiles are typically born, and thereby less interesting.

The following Tuesday Peter is hosting a playdate. When you show up, Melanie’s son—Wolf—is sucking on his thumb while making centripetal circles on the carpet, dispersing Legos in concentric waves. A yellow one lands in the tunnel between Peter’s shorts and his legs. You offer to retrieve it, but no one hears you over the hum of Wolf’s fierce rug burn. You ask Mel how she does it, homeschooling her kids. She tells you it all depends on your teaching philosophy. You think about the hand job joke you told your undergraduates yesterday. You decide you must have a different teaching philosophy that may not work with children. For this reason your husband says you guys are “one and done.”

You married Luke for the sex; this much is certain. You were a virgin up until your brief courtship, so Luke always tells you that this otherwise enormous compliment to his dick lacks gravitas. You tell him he can always let you sleep with other men now to make up for your lack of experience and sample size. He smiles and says he would never stop you from what you want. For this reason you two still have the kind of sex that gives toe spasms and nerve damage. Still, even the best sex makes you wonder, what else is out there?

By Spring, Peter has started gunning for Josiah’s heart. At a pool party he shows Josiah how to swim, ignoring his own kids who are floating like centipedes in the shallow end. You sit with his wife and the other bikinied mothers, where everyone can tell each other’s worldviews based on the size of the Lycra triangles hugging their boobs.

By the Tuesday before Halloween, Josiah is referring to Peter as “Luke”; he refers to Luke also as “Luke,” and on occasion, “Dad.”  

“I want to meet this guy,” Luke says.

“Don’t embarrass me,” you say.

“I’ll be good,” he promises. You don’t believe him, but let him come with you to the Halloween party at Peter’s place anyway, because you too are an instigator.

When you and Josiah show up in matching Stormtrooper outfits, Luke asks if you can be any more of a whore. He is smiling though. You remind him this is the second Stormtrooper dress you bought and that the first one made this one look like a nun’s habit. He doesn’t believe you but only because he has never shopped for women’s Halloween costumes.

Peter and his wife are in matching homemade disguises, him, Bob the Builder and her, sexy toolbox? She is wearing short overalls and a large container hanging on her like a bib. Your husband will later refer to her as statuesque.

“Tell me something good,” Luke says to you when he is on top. You must devise  something that will make him leave you alone until you come, although you never take that long, and for this reason he calls you “champ.” Luke doesn’t like the scripted or the porno stuff, which leaves you with a limited repertoire. When he was the only man you had ever slept with, this made you mad because even the nastiest minds require inspiration. You drew your fiction from RedTube and the “missed connections” section of Craigslist. Now you can tell him what really happened. The only questions is: would he know the difference?

Your childhood dream of sex involved rolling around naked and kissing. In high school, your friend Karen informed you that dick and balls were two separate entities, which was news to you. In college you and your boyfriend held hands and listened to each other’s hearts beating before he broke up with you for not playing Halo with him. When you were twenty-three you finally googled g-spot on Thanksgiving eve, when all the other postgraduates had left for home and you were waiting for traffic to die down. It took you all of Thanksgiving break and a hand mirror for you to find yours.

After that, you started thinking you need to have real sex, pronto. Then Luke came along and you discovered that you were a fast learner.   

***

You and Peter make plans to go to the zoo with the kiddos on a Tuesday to ensure none of the other parents will join and cockblock your agenda. You arrive when the zoo opens, make the kids run laps around the lion’s den all morning, carbo-load them with two sandwiches apiece at lunch, and aim for a long, imperturbable nap on the drive home. When you pull into his garage, Peter tells you to leave the car windows open and come inside. You have your long game in sight. A good blow job is like candy that begs for a meal. You know this because Luke proposed to you after nine weeks and has stayed with you for seven years, even though you dragged him to Boston, where the weather rationed his golfing to three months each year, and even though you have a habit of brandishing kitchen knives during fights. Your mouth has bought you this leeway, and you intend to use it.

Only afterwards do you understand that it could have ended another way.


About the Author: When she isn’t writing, Christine Ma-Kellams teaches psychology. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Zyzzyva, the Kenyon Review, and Gargoyle, among others.

All the Ways I Am Tired by Kristina Ten

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All the Ways I Am Tired

I’m tired.

I’m skin tired, I’m bone tired, I’m head tired, I’m brain tired, my fingers are tired, my knees are tired, my breasts are tired, my eyes are tired, my toes are tired from gripping the ground, my hair is tired, my mouth is tired, my teeth are tired, my throat is tired, I’m tired.

I’m tired. I’m wake up late tired. I’m miss the bus tired. I’m call in sick tired. I’m stay in bed tired. I’m forgetting to feed the dog tired. I’m dog tired. I’m remembering to feed the dog tired but not myself tired. I’m remembering to feed myself but not to chew.

I’m tired. I’m you don’t look yourself today tired. Too much makeup tired or not enough tired. I’m couch potato tired. I’m armchair broccoli tired. I’m every piece of furniture plus every kind of vegetable tired. I’m too tired for your thing about how potatoes aren’t vegetables tired. I’m waiting for a fight tired, just try me.

I’m tired. I’m crying at Google commercials tired. I’m the dog doesn’t love me tired. I’m staring at screens unable to sleep tired. I’m feeling your tiredness from across the room at the party and it’s making me so tired tired. I’m not really wanting to hear about how your pain is like my pain tired, but also I think I need it, also I think it’s the medicine that’s bad going down but better making for four to six hours. I’m crying at Subaru commercials tired. How does that joke go: When is a person like a car?

I’m tired like it’s my name: Tired.

I’m skin tired, I’m bone tired, I’m head tired, I’m brain tired, my fingers are tired, my knees are tired, tired is my euphemism, what’s your euphemism, what’s your metaphor, I’m like new denim that knows it has a long way to go before it can break in, be comfortable, a little less stiff.


About the Author: Kristina Ten is a Russian-American writer living in Oakland, California. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has appeared or is forthcoming in b(OINK)Word RiotThe AwlJellyfish Review, and elsewhere. 

Gethsemane by Miah Jeffra

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So, this is the house I’m most excited to show you. It’s a real jewel of the neighborhood. Built in 1900, it is what they call the Stick Eastlake style. You know what that is? It’s Victorian. I have no idea why it’s called Stick, though, but this is definitely Victorian—not one of those knock-offs trying to look Victorian with the prefab gingerbread that you see in the suburbs of Atlanta, or Western Massachusetts. This is the real deal. All original exterior crownings. Real wood. Look at this porch! Isn’t it something? And the stoop here? All marble finishes. Watch your step coming up.

What an entrance, right? And this isn’t even the living room. In these turn of the century places, there was always a receiving room. Some people refer to it as a parlor? Of course, we don’t have that kind of ceremony, anymore, where we call upon people with cards, and need to figure out if hats and gloves stay on or are removed in-hand. Now, we shake, we hug. So sweet, isn’t it? How intimate we’ve become? And now this space has no purpose, really. It’s a bonus room. Think of what you can do with it! Everyone likes a bonus.

The hardwood is refurbished walnut and ash throughout—none of that pine nonsense that gets all dinged, slashed, gashed up, gutted. Ash is what they make baseball bats from. Kid-proof. If you have kids, you won’t have to worry about them dropping dishes or scraping up the floor with their toys. Ah, no kids yet? But do you want them? How long have you two been together? Ten years? Well, it’ll happen, when the time is right. I’m sure you all are so busy. Careers, am I right?

Look at these ceilings. 11 feet 3 inches on the first floor. Doesn’t it make the rooms look even bigger? And this living room is to die for. Perfect for entertaining. I always prefer an oblong shape for parties, don’t you? That way not everyone has to face one another; so awkward. That over there is a fully functioning fireplace. It’s original, and, except when the previous owners blocked it up—don’t get me started on that—has burned wood for over 100 years. Isn’t that something? Imagine how many pieces of wood have burned up in that thing? And what else? Pocket lint, gum wrappers, discarded mail, postcards, receipts, letters from old lovers, important tax documents, divorce papers.

The kitchen is a real centerpiece of this house. Completely updated, modern, all granite countertops. The island? Oh, that’s not original. None of this kitchen is original, actually. But this is way better, you know, the modern kitchen design? The open concept flowing right into the dining room is Zen, gives you good Chi. So much better than those old, dark, closed in boxes that kitchens used to be. You know, those old kitchens were made like that to prevent fire from spreading too fast. You can imagine why that would be a big deal. Like, half of all our great cities were destroyed by blazes right around the same time kitchens were integrated with the main house: The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Boston fire a year later, the 1906 earthquake fire that ended just down the street from here, the sewing factory fires in New York City, not to mention the one in Wisconsin that killed a whole township. Imagine how many people burned up in those things, how many bodies jumped from upper-story windows, only to shatter their organs on pavement below. They didn’t want to smell their flesh searing in the heat. Hell, I’d jump too.

When I was a little girl, I was terrified by the stove. No cooking for me. Oh, it was one of those things, you know, where one diddly memory will just ruin the whole shebang forever. I was trying to cook pancakes for my mother’s birthday, I must have been six. It was a small Cape Cod in New Jersey, white with black shutters. So typical. And, silly me, I didn’t know how to cook pancakes, but I was certain I could learn simply by looking at the pictures in the cookbook. As you can expect, I had flour everywhere. On the floor, all over the counter, in my hair. My father came home that morning—he worked the night shift at the trucking company—and saw the mess, like the whole kitchen had been whited out. You know he was tired. When he grabbed my hand and stuck it on the burner I hadn’t felt anything that sharp before. I had been stung by a bee, and had sprained my ankle playing freeze tag with my brothers, but nothing like this. A burn doesn’t feel like what you think; it’s more like a bread knife slicing your hand. And the smell? Like charcoal and hair in a curling iron, something like that. I remember the smell more than anything. To this day I still can’t abide the scent of a barbeque grill. Isn’t it funny how a single memory can do that to you? You know he was tired. Imagine coming home to that kind of mess after a long, grueling shift. I could never do a job that required me to work nights. Could you?

Just through this hallway is the master bedroom. You can see that a lot of care was taken to make this the epitome of luxury. When they refurbished the home they added the en-suite bathroom. Look at this 62” stone resin freestanding bathtub. What a dream. Imagine after a long day at the office coming home to this beauty. Light some candles, pour yourself a glass of pinot. Calgon, take me away! The double sink is a touch I particularly like. A must for a couple, to keep the marriage happy, am I right? And there is a rainfall shower with three heads. See, it comes from the top and from the sides. Look at this water pressure. And, big enough for two, to keep the marriage happy, am I right? With this shower, you’ll have kids in no time, you two!

This bedroom gets the best light. South-facing, with no bulkheads. One of the great things about San Francisco Victorians are the bay windows. The ones in this room are so deep you could have a little sitting area. Throw some pillows on it, grab a book, a perfect reading nook. This room is so much brighter than it was before the renovation. It was sad how dark the former owners kept it. They had painted it a navy blue. With brocade curtains, closed all the time. Can you imagine? Of course, the old man who died of cancer in this room probably wasn’t interested in seeing much of the outside. It took six years to take him. The esophagus. It couldn’t have been pleasant, the malignancy slowly lumping around his throat, cells replicating until it choked out his ability to swallow, sort of like marbles globbing his gullet until all he could do was pull blended Brussel sprouts through a straw. And then the metastasis, to his lungs, the white mutated nodes pulling on his alveoli like a boat anchor. Inhaling was a slow dry rattle, but exhaling was wet, like stewing molasses, until both stopped altogether, and there was only the body on the bed, and brocade curtains and closed out light. This bed? No, silly! This is all staging. His two grandkids, the ones who inherited the place, sold the bed in an estate sale, along with everything else. It was one of those lovely four-poster mahogany beds, but it had deep scratches on the headboard posts—have no idea where those came from, almost looked like animal claws. Such a lovely piece of craftsmanship. You’d think one of the grandkids would want to keep it, but maybe the scratches told them something they didn’t want to remember, or maybe they suggested something about the mystery of their grandfather. And the bed, like mystery—Hell, like memory!—could never be fully theirs, anyway.

Now, this staircase. Isn’t it dramatic? I love the way it ascends up to the second floor like a bird tilting westwards. Of course, it isn’t the original staircase, which would have been located along the parlor wall, like most Stick Victorians. It had already been removed when we bought the place. We had to completely replace the stairs. Can you believe that this house was turned into a church for a while? Gethsemane Baptist. Can you imagine? And Gethsemane obviously didn’t have much success in the way of a donation bucket, know what I mean? And not much imagination, either! They built these little clapper steps in the back by the kitchen, to make more space for the congregation room. Super narrow, just plywood boards. Who knows what they did with the staircase they removed. Probably a rich maple railing. It’s such a shame. You can just imagine how much a church setup would have ruined the architectural integrity of this place. It took so much ingenuity for the flippers to restore it back to any semblance of its original glory, what, with all the cut-ups and wall-chops. And what did the church do with the stairs!? Look, I have nothing against making a house of God wherever you please, but could they not use a little inspiration when they remodeled—if you can call it that—for worship? You should have seen how they gutted this baby. I’d show you pictures, but it’d ruin you for life, I tell you. Sure, the church was poor and needed to make due, but you don’t have to be rich to see the beauty in things, am I right? Can I get an Amen?

The second floor has three full bedrooms and two full baths, all with ample closet space, polished hardwood floors, and newly installed recessed lighting. This one on the left, though, is the most charming. Isn’t this adorable? The window alcoves are just precious. This was definitely a child’s room, for multiple generations even. When we first inspected the place the walls were purple, and then when we began stripping we discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder wallpaper, you know those Little House books? Apparently, that wallpaper was all the rage in the 40’s, so this must have been a girl’s room through the ages. It’s not a big room, but the closet is disproportionately large. Big enough to hide a full-grown woman, yes? In fact, that is exactly what it did, in various instances, from September 1951-March 1952. Sophie Mears, wife of Ernest, began to hide in this closet when her husband would come home drunk, convinced his lovely, amply built wife was sleeping with other men while he was out looking for work. He lost his job at the shipyard when the industry slowed down after the war, and it made him mean, you know, in that way that men were allowed to be back then. The very first time he came home drunk with the accusations, Sophie sported a generous shiner around her left eye that Ernest said guaranteed no man would look twice at her. It was their daughter, Rosie, who suggested her closet as a hiding spot. And, it worked. Ernest never did find her in there before he’d pass out, his anger always quitting once he fell asleep, but not before he stumbled around the house yelling her name, turning over chairs and slamming drawers. Sophie made a little nest of blankets and coats on the closet floor for these nights. It wasn’t too bad, at the end of the day. And when Ernest left for job-hunting in the morning, Rosie opened the closet door, and Sophie crawled out and made her and her daughter their ritual biscuits and scrambled eggs. Not a bad little cubby spot, huh?

Take a look at this attic. Isn’t it spectacular? The roof pitch goes up to nine feet at the center, so there’s lots of space to turn this into an office or study, maybe even a craft room. Unfortunately, because of the angle of the roof, the square footage can’t be included in the overall appraisal of the home. According to the American National Standards Institute, square footage can only be calculated if over half of the floor space is met with ceilings of at least seven feet. So, even though this is a functional 450 square foot room, the roof slant makes the room just shy of meeting that requirement. Isn’t that a shame? This standard is the reason why we don’t build houses like this anymore, with this kind of dramatic pitch. But this definitely served as a bedroom back in the day. Two folks met their death here: a woman died during childbirth in 1908, and a little boy in 1919, Spanish Flu. Did you know more people died of flu in 1919 than from the Great War? The woman and the boy were not related. Wouldn’t that have been tragic if they were?

Take a look at those beams. I bet you’re wondering—because you would be absolutely right; those indeed are redwood. In fact, the whole house frame is redwood. It’s the most durable. Many San Francisco houses were framed in it, especially before everyone got all environmental. The wood is naturally fire resistant—did you know that?—and is virtually termite and rot-proof. It’s the perfect material for building a city. But back then, it wasn’t an easy task to fell one of these giants, when all they had were men and axes. These are the tallest trees in the world, 300 feet tall, a dozen feet wide. The loggers would basically chop a pie wedge into the base of the tree, with the bottom cut perfectly horizontal. Then, to guarantee the tree fell in the right direction, they’d make sure the back of the face cut was perfectly perpendicular to the direction of the fall. Can you imagine getting the calculations on that wrong? Even just a hair off and that tree would fall over a hundred miles per hour across the forest floor. And, splat.

As a matter of fact, a man died felling the very tree that frames this house, including this beam here. His name was Burt Tyler. He was 21, with his first baby on the way. He and Dorothy moved from Indiana four months prior, lured by the logging boom. Sure enough, he was resting for lunch, smoking a freshly rolled-up cigarette on an old stump, when he heard screams from high up the hill, grown men shrieking high-pitched like women, and then the familiar thunder-crack of the tree splintering before the fall. You’d think it would have happened in slow-motion, you know, like the movies? But all Burt caught was the sound, then the metallic chill of his own veins, and then a flash of darkness, the hurled body of the giant tree blocking out the sun just before the more permanent darkness. And the other trees in the grove screamed, as well. No kidding! I’m serious! Redwoods have shallow roots, but they creep along the forest floor for hundreds of feet. And, different trees will link their roots together, like they’re all holding hands forming a chain. Biologists know now that once they intertwine, they communicate with one another, a sort of telepathy. So, when one tree is cut, they all feel it. And when we are cut, we scream. So. Isn’t that something? Screaming trees.

Have you seen the redwoods? No?! They are a must-see if you’re moving to Northern California. So impressive. Muir Woods is nice, but really touristy, lots of fanny packs and selfie sticks. I recommend going south to Big Basin in the Santa Cruz mountains. Much less people, you can really take some terrific pictures without being photo-bombed. No filter, am I right?

Watch your step coming on to the back porch. Isn’t this nice? So private. No one can see you back here. A little oasis, yet everything just beyond the wall-high wood fence—the most current design in sound deflection technology. It’s like you don’t even live in a city, right? You can enjoy the perks of what urban neighborhoods offer without exposing yourself to the unseemly elements, all while you enjoy your morning coffee.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The neighborhood is very safe. Back in the day, maybe not so much. When this property served as Gethsemane Baptist, let’s just be honest: it was rough. 30 years ago, no one wanted to live here, except for the artists and the gays. Well, others lived here, but, you know. Well, I mean, people did. It just wasn’t much of a market back then, is what I mean. Before the neighborhood was called NoPa, it was known as The Western Addition. Well, there still is a part of the city called the Western Addition, but that is way over there. It’s so different than this part of town. But back when this was still part of the Western Addition…well, let’s just say people like you wouldn’t be looking for a home here, know what I mean? And such a shame, right? These homes are beautiful! So, when people began noticing the potential—again, the gays; they always have their pulse on what’s hot, right? (my motto in real estate: invest wherever you see women walking around in combat boots, no matter how scary it is to drive through)—they thought to change the name of the neighborhood, to make it reflect the improvement taking place. I’m sure you know, there’s power in a name. Renaming a thing does something to it. Born again Christians do it. Women do it when they get married. Slaves before they were sold. Of course, we don’t do that anymore. Goodness.

Don’t worry, between you and me, only the right element is moving in. How do I know? The Dollar Store down the street closed, and the most adorable sportswear boutique moved in. On the corner, a gourmet coffee shop opened in an old auto-body garage. And did you see that really nice BBQ place opening across from the park, with the raw wood panels and the Edison bulbs hanging from the ceiling? It used to be this ratty old restaurant called Da Pit. Can you imagine naming your restaurant Da Pit? Who would want to go there? See, a name change has power.

The value of this property will only increase, I guarantee, so you can maximize your upward mobility when you decide to move on to the next best place, and then the next best place. They say that cashing out here will be smart in about three years, and then you can buy a house in West Oakland, or maybe even in Portland or Austin outright with the profit! You could even do what we did here and flip it—a little gingerbread here and there—and make a killing. I mean, that’s what property is, right? An investment for your future? A killing?

Oh, don’t let the graffiti unnerve you. It’s merely vestiges of the old guard. I know what it says, but you can’t be intimidated by meager threats. Besides, they don’t know you personally, that you’re really nice people working for a living, just like everyone else. I mean, isn’t that tag sort of reverse racism? Don’t you think that’s a bit hypocritical? You know, so many people resist progress, even if the change benefits them. This neighborhood is so much safer now. And, there’s lots of great restaurants and shops. Before, we’re talking just ten years ago, no one visited this neighborhood. It was full of places that only the locals frequented. There was no allure, no intrigue, only people. If you’re going to buy property, you want it to be a destination, right?

The former residents? Oh, you can’t be thinking about that. I can tell you, the people who owned this house are lucky they could sell it in the first place, considering the shape it was in. And, they got a pretty penny, way more than they paid for it. They probably bought a big house in Antioch or one of those other outer Bay Area suburbs, probably welcomed the change to something quieter. They probably are swimming in their newly installed backyard saltwater pool right now. They wanted to leave. We didn’t put a gun to their head. They had a choice. You can’t be thinking about them. You need to think about your future. You know, progress. That’s how it works, right?


About the Author: Miah Jeffra is author of the essay collection The First Church of What’s Happening (Nomadic Press). Miah has been awarded the New Millennium Prize for fiction, the Sidney Lanier Prize for fiction, the Clark-Gross Novel Award, and a Lambda Literary Fellowship for nonfiction. Residencies include Ragdale, Hub City Writers Project, Arteles and Red Gate. Miah is editor of queer literary collaborative, Foglifter Press.

Great, Greater, Greatest by Fordy Shoor

Amber Parker 2


GREAT, GREATER, GREATEST

Sure, you can call it a Recession,
if that allays your depression.
Not to despoil the legacy of
The Greatest.

Can’t betray collective memory, so
let’s keep it fuzzy; soft focus on
our great edifying atrocities. History
of good works.

A positive country; nobody was
The Worst Generation, since Great in
the absence of greatness portends
only “great

Then if the “nothing” quotient rises,
my “something” axis should
move accordingly, my output
always  > .

Now for a generation to own a title
requires an ownership of cars,
houses, sufficiency to supercede
marketability.

No. No time to destabilize a chat,
only connect, only collect. No
positive life to report, only TV’s
great episodes.

How about call it a regression,
Delayed progression toward
Superheroes, coloring books, the
Greatest games:

Bonded stock, the legal gamble,
we shop in manic markets, ill
but not illegal, only < legal. No
greater timing

for > popular economic systems
to continue operating at greatest
viable longevity. It’s time to call it:
The Great Possession.


About the Author: Fordy Shoor studied at Sarah Lawrence College before graduating from UC Berkeley. He is a graduate student at CSU East Bay. His work has received the 2015 Elizabeth Mills Crothers and 2016 Markos Prizes. His writing has been featured in Atom Magazine, CLAM, Shotgun Honey, and debuting in The East Bay Review.

Artwork: Amber Parker

What We Become by Erica L. Williams


IMG_0669                  


 The walls in Dr. Michael’s office were the color of sunflowers, a mark of optimism deceptively covering them like glimmers of sunshine in a storm. Outside, the pop of lightening and deafening rumble from the downpour provided a more fitting atmosphere. Dr. Michael’s ceased talking when the thunder clapped, as if paying homage to a God of nature known for playing unfair in these parts of the Deep South.  Mom had insisted I stay in the room although Dr. Michael’s advised otherwise.  I was only thirteen-years-old, but Mom knew I could handle whatever he would say about Pops.  In our family there weren’t any secrets about who my father was, and who he had become.

“Winston is sick,” Dr. Michael’s said, flipping through the papers in his hand. “In the head,” he clarified, as if we didn’t already know.  Dr. Michael’s had evaluated Pops and sent him to take a battery of tests while he spoke with us. He inhaled deeply, then breathed out through his nostrils, forceful, like steam gusting from a tea kettle.

“This describe his episodes,” he said

Pops’ episodes had become as routine as King Cakes at Mardi Gras.  I thought of the time he’d holed up in the bedroom, refusing to come out.  Any interaction by Mom or I greeted with stares into nowhere, the smell of Gin coating his breath like Tic Tacs. When he’d finally emerged from the bedroom, Mom stood outside talking to our neighbor, Mr. Bill.  After all, how could Mr. Bill resist walking over to talk to pretty Mildred Sloan dressed in a waist fitting pink shirt and matching bottoms that snuggled her in all the right places.  Peeping through the window Pops saw Mom smiling as Mr. Bill complimented her on how lovely the philodendrons and tulips had blossomed.  Mr. Bill spouted off a few corny jokes in between, and Mom, ever so hospitable, laughed, while wiping the sweat cradling her brow, brushing her bangs to the side to do so.  Mr. Bill’s pot belly quivered as he chuckled at his own wit. Pops had busted out the door, still in boxers and a T-shirt, running wild-eyed, full speed at Mr. Bill.  Before we’d realized it he’d knocked Mr. Bill to the ground, alarming the neighborhood, screaming ‘stay away from my wife, you can’t take her from me, you can’t take her from me.’  

Mom convinced Mr. Bill to not file charges, explaining that since my brother had died, Pops hadn’t been himself, and of course Hurricane Katrina hadn’t helped.  Five years had passed since we’d moved to Baton Rouge from New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina and the neighbors still pitied us like refugees.

Dr. Michael’s studied his chart notes, talking to Mom, words like PTSD and trauma spewing out like bullets.  He stretched his long legs under the cherry wood desk that separated us. Black voluminous curls, with slivers of gray dotted throughout, spiraled from his scalp like a spider’s tentacles.  He looked up.  “Who’s James?”

“My son,” Mom said, her fingers clasped together in a praying position.  

He looked at me, knowing I was Winston Jr.

“My oldest son,” Mom said. “The one who died.”  

Pop’s latest episode happened a week ago.  He’d left the house and hadn’t returned for two days. Mom didn’t file a missing person’s report.  She’d said “To be found, you have to be lost.”  When Pops returned, he explained he’d went to New Orleans to play a gig.  He’d pulled five crumpled twenty-dollar bills from his pocket and placed it on the table as penance. Although Pops stood a little over six feet, that day, smelling like stale cigarette smoke, he slouched  in stature, contrite, dressed in a wrinkled blue long sleeve shirt and matching navy pants with ragged cuffs.  His eyes, flitting between Mom and I, looked empty, confused as he mumbled explanations about why he hadn’t called. When we’d lived in New Orleans, Pops would come home at all hours of the night after a gig, the fragrance of women’s perfume introducing him, the scent of Vodka seeping from his skin like crude oil.  After James died sometimes he didn’t come home at all.

Mom must wonder what happened to the man who’d bought her roses every day the first month of them dating.  The man who took her to picnics in the park on the Northshore, where they’d eat fried fish and fresh boudin with crackers, and drink hurricanes from the drive thru daiquiri shop where Pops would splash extra rum in his, and extra fruit juice in hers.  She’d acknowledged long ago that Pops wasn’t the same man she’d married in front of a justice of the peace twenty years ago at a dump in the French Quarter that reeked of urine and marijuana. The man she’d declared to love in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, and worse, and worse, as he’d become.

Mom’s sister, Aunt Vivian, was the one who’d convinced her to take Pop’s to the doctor.  For some time now Aunt Vivian had urged Mom to leave Pops, insisting we come and live with her in Baltimore. I knew that Mom had considered it, especially after Pop’s latest episodes.  

“It’s something mentally wrong with Winston.  Didn’t the same thing happen to his mama?” Aunt Vivian had said, her voice vibrating through the speaker phone.

Mom had glanced at Pop’s penance and then regarded me. The creased muscles in her forehead told me she’d had enough and was ready to take Aunt Vivian up on her offer.  I’d held my breath, my face hard as a slab of concrete.  She’d picked up his atonement knowing it wouldn’t wash away his sins. As she’d accepted him back into the fold, I’d exhaled slowly.  I wasn’t ready to leave Pops. And I wasn’t ready for him to leave me.  

“This medicine we’re prescribing will help balance the chemicals in his brain,” Dr. Michael’s said, jolting me from the memory.

“What if he refuses to take it?” Mom asked.

“He’ll experience dark places,” Dr. Michael’s said handing the prescription to Mom.  “Some he may not be able to recover from.”     

 

When Hurricane Katrina approached Pops had insisted we stay in New Orleans, even after Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a mandatory evacuation.  Aunt Vivian in Baltimore, and Pops sister, Aunt Cathy, who’d lived in Baton Rouge, had offered places of refuge. The prior year we’d fled Hurricane Ivan, only to return to a few sprinkles.  Convinced that would be the case this time, Pop’s had proclaimed that ‘we’d ride this one out.’   Mom hadn’t wanted to leave Pops alone who still reeled from the death of my brother James.  Who knows what Pops would do all alone, left to his own devices, in the likes of a storm?  He’d insisted we would be okay, and initially, we were.  I remember Pops triumphantly beating his chest as if he was Tarzan solidifying his role as the king of his castle.  His victory was short-lived.  When the 17th St. Canal levee breached, we only had minutes to dash into the attic before water from Lake Pontchartrain consumed the house like a monsoon.   We’d survived off of bottled water and a box of crackers Pops had grabbed.  He’d hammered a hole in the attic ceiling allowing us to squeeze onto the roof where we hoped to be rescued by helicopters plucking people off like grapes from a vineyard. Pops had apologized nonstop to Mom who stayed unresponsive to his regrets. Daunting days tangled into long nights as we watched the ninth ward transform into the apocalypse.  Everything from televisions to mattresses to bodies floated down Claiborne Avenue like dead fish.   My classmate Anya who’d kissed me once and told me my hair was fine as a china doll, drifted in the water, looking like an eight-year-old life-sized doll.  Her kiss had shocked me so much that I didn’t even realize it had happened until she’d walked away, shyly looking back with a finger over her mouth.   

Pop’s friend, Dale Allen, planned to evacuate to Atlanta to his daughter’s. But Pops had reminded him of the hullabaloo made over Hurricane Ivan and he’d stayed.  When Pops saw Mr. Allen’s body wafting in the water he’d dropped his head in his hands and sobbed.  

“The decision to stay was ultimately his,” Mom had said, breaking her silence towards Pops. “As was mine.”

We gained the attention of a Coast Guard helicopter after being stranded for two days.  I refused to open my eyes as they lifted me up in the rescues basket. Instead, I pretended that I was drifting on a ride at Disney World. Pops had promised to take me and James one day.  I could still go if only in my dreams.    

 

The day after Pop’s saw Dr. Michael’s he was headed out the door when Mom insisted he take me with him.   I believe it was her way of assuring his return.  When Pops didn’t convince her otherwise, he’d barked at me to put on my tennis shoes.  We zoomed down the I10 interstate, driving across town navigating the Louise Street exit into the heart of Old South Baton Rouge, the neighborhood known as The Bottom.  The Bottom stood shoulder to shoulder with Louisiana State University in distance, but was as far away as the east from the west. The first bus boycott in the civil rights movement had sprouted in The Bottom, a neighborhood that housed McKinley High School, the first black public school in Baton Rouge.  Once a blossoming core in the city, The Bottom quickly became a rotten apple, destroyed when city officials built an interstate through its heart upending homes and businesses.  Now dilapidated shot gun houses and run down convenience stores plagued the neighborhood like cancer.  Pops parked in front of one of those shot gun houses.  He reached into the glove box and pulled out a bottle of cologne, spraying two whiffs on his shirt and underarms.  I recognized the outdoorsy odor mixed with the smell of the sea as the cologne Mom had given him for Christmas.  He placed the bottle back in the glove box and dropped a mint in his mouth.  

He smoothed out the wrinkles on my shirt and then placed the palm of his hand on my head. “Time for you to get another haircut,” he said.  Pops and I mirrored each other. Our skin, the color of caramel. Our noses, broad, prominent. Eyes, light brown tinged with green when reflected by the sun.      

Pops hands couldn’t keep still, fidgeting with my shirt once more, then my hair.  Mom reckoned his twitching a side effect of the medicine.  He looked in the mirror and smoothed out his shirt and hair, then reached across my seat and opened the door.  

The wet air stuck to my skin like a magnet, causing August to feel more like a damp May. An eerie lopsided smile formed on Pop’s face as he knocked on the door.  A woman wearing a red satin robe, tied around the waist, opened the door.  A mass of curly red hair with black roots peeking through sat atop her head.     

 “How’s my BeASStrice?” Pops said so steamy the ss’s got caught in his throat.  She let us in, giggling like the stupid girls at school.  Pops hugged Beatrice, I’d learned was her name.  Although we’d never met, she hugged me tight and said, “You will be tall and handsome just like your daddy.”

 ‘Living Just Enough for the City, by Stevie Wonder blasted on the stereo.  Scented candles of citrus odors lined the counter like an altar.  A picture of a black Jesus hung above on the wall.  His hands folded, his eyes red as if tired of bearing our burdens and picking up our crosses.  A bottle of Smirnoff Vodka sat in the middle of the kitchen table. Pops pulled out a glass from the cabinet and helped himself.  He acted like the man of the house, handing me a soft drink and shooing me towards the living room.  They stayed in the kitchen, siting knee to knee, so close their foreheads nearly touching. Mom was cooking a pot of Camilla red beans when we left.  She’d told Pops not to tarry long since the beans were almost done, having soaked overnight.  Pops talked so low his mouth barely moved. Whatever he’d said made Beatrice turn the color of her robe and caused her to flash all of her teeth. He glanced in my direction, and I looked at the TV as a rerun of The Cosby Show played.

Yesterday, Aunt Vivian had told Mom about the schools in Baltimore.  “They’re better than the one’s down there,” Aunt Vivian had said referring to the Baton Rouge schools overrun with charter systems.  “And Baltimore have some of the best debate teams. I know you heard of Central High.”

A year ago Mom had told me that she and Pops were separating, and we were moving to Baltimore.  We were sitting outside Poor Boy Lloyd’s restaurant in downtown.  She’d said it as she chewed on her roast beef po’boy.   

I bit into my shrimp po’boy, and let the remains digest before speaking.  “If we move I will kill myself,” I’d said.  The words rolled off my tongue as calm as the waves of the Mississippi River, shocking us both.   

“You don’t mean that,” Mom had said, placing her sandwich down, drippings from the roast beef fixed in the corners of her mouth.  She’d tried to stay calm, but her trembling lips and water that settled in the slits of her eyes hadn’t let her.  

She’d clasped her fingers together and cupped her bowed head.  Mom’s prayers rivaled a Baptist preacher.  She’d asked the Lord to give me clarity of mind, strength, and then blurted out a few unintelligible words, which I’d recognized as her speaking in tongues.   

The next day she’d taken me to a therapist, Dr. Smithers, a petite lady with a distracting overbite, who stood no taller than five feet.  Mom’s eyes were bloodshot as Dr. Smithers prodded me to discuss my feelings.  I had little to say except that Pops wouldn’t make it without us.  He’d barely made it with us.  Mom never spoke of moving again.  

 

On the ride home from Beatrice’ Pop’s explained the Man Code was in effect.  “Tonight is to stay a secret between just us men.”  The veins in his temple bulged.  His eyes begging.

“Man Code, you got it,” he said.       

My heart pounded as hard as his pleadings. This was the first time he’d ever spoke of such a code.  “Got it,” I said.  

At home Pops sped past Mom, his cheek grazing her stuck out lips.  He went into the bathroom, closing the door.  

“Winston Jr. where have you and your father been all this time?” she asked. We’d left at noon, and it was a half-past six o’clock.  Mom stood a little over five feet. Her flesh carrying more firmness than fat.     

 She only called me Winston Jr. when she meant serious business. Otherwise she called me Winston and referred to Pops as Winston Senior.    

I looked towards the closed bathroom door.  I heard water running.  

“Don’t worry about your father,” she said loud enough for him to hear.  “I know you’ll tell me truth.”

The bathroom door now slightly opened, water no longer running.  The whiff of red beans and hot water cornbread causing the hunger pains in my stomach to flip flop.     

“We went to Mr. Eddie Lee’s house in The Bottom and watched the football game.”  Pops had already rehearsed me on what to say.  Usually when I lied my eyes blinked nonstop.   Mom knew this and stared a hole through me.  I attempted to glare back, wide-eyed. Had she asked me what game, I would’ve fallen apart.

She pursed her lips.  “Fine example he’s setting for you, bringing you around his no-good friends.  Go wash up for dinner.”

At the table Pops sopped his cornbread in the red bean gravy before dunking it in his mouth.  Every question Mom asked he answered blade sharp.  That weird smile plastered on his face, him nodding in my direction, thanking me for honoring the man code.   

 

Pops’ father James “Jimmy Red” Sloan helped organized the first bus boycott in Baton Rouge along with Reverend T.J. Jemison.   Pop’s often told stories of how Jimmy Red would say ‘The boycott in Montgomery might’ve been more famous, but it wasn’t the first.’  A large, gangly man with personality to boot, Jimmy Red’s skin tone matched the color of the clay dirt roads he’d grown up on in Avoyelles parish.  He’d graduated from the historically black college Southern University and had expected Pops and Aunt Cathy to do the same.  No kid of his would ever attend the majority white Louisiana State University, he’d vowed.  ‘They act like LSU is the only college in Baton Rouge,’ Pops often mimicked Jimmy Red.  Pops argued that when LSU won the national championship, and Southern won the national black championship the same year, LSU had received the majority of coverage from the local press.

‘You would’ve thought Southern didn’t even win a game,’ Pops had said.  Pops believed the media’s treatment of the two colleges represented a miniature version of the city at large.

Anything of minority importance relegated to the sidelines.  

 Baton Rouge had flailed as a city until the early 20th century when Standard Oil constructed a refinery in the river town causing a prosperous resurgence lasting for decades.  Now, unofficially divided into southern and northern territories by a street bearing the same name as the sunshine state, the southernmost part of the city near LSU housed some of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city.  North Baton Rouge consisting mostly of minorities had experienced rising crime and a steady decline in neighborhood upkeep, largely ignored by city leaders who focused more on developing downtown.  A city slick with more than just oil, Pops always said.

Pops learned to play the trumpet at seven-years-old.  Jimmy Red hoped that Pops would attend Southern University and join Southern’s world renowned Human Juke Box band.  But Pops had gone to Xavier University in New Orleans, flunking out after two semesters, spending more time playing in French quarter dives than studying.  He’d met Mom in one of those joints.

“And the rest is history,” he would say, while re-telling the story with a grin on his face as wide as the mouth of the Mississippi River.      

Pops had wanted me to take trumpet lessons, but I was more interested in playing basketball until I’d met Trevor Mitchell, founder of the Urban Debate Club.  After hearing me read a book report in the sixth grade, Trevor had convinced me to give up basketball and join his debate team.  

Pops would sit in the back of the auditorium, the brim of his wide brown hat tipped below his eyes when he’d attend my tournaments.  He appeared sleep through most of the rounds, but he’d later discuss with me in great detail the arguments I’d made.  He especially liked the debate on who was a better boxer: Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson?  Pops loved boxing.  He often argued with his friends, contending Ali’s speed and defense overshadowed Tyson’s power and menace.  He knew I’d used some of his views and had grinned so wide I could see his molars.  

Unlike our competitors who’d practiced debating flimsy current events such as ‘do beauty pageants do more harm than good?’ or ‘should certain foods have warning labels,’ our team argued topics such as ‘who was to blame for the inefficient handling of Hurricane Katrina: local officials or George W. Bush?  Or was it necessary to turn the schools over to the state after the hurricane, or should it have remained under local supervision?’

Although Trevor taught American History, he was also a licensed counselor and could understand what I was saying, even when words escaped me.  Usually it was after one of Pops episodes.  Trevor would slice through the silence telling stories about his boys, seven and nine years- old.  He’d talk of their trips to Disneyland or Southern University football games.  I remember Pops, James and I going to the Bayou Classic, the famous football game between Southern and Grambling State in New Orleans.  Pops loved the battle of the bands, the halftime showdown between the rivals, always reminiscing on the times he’d gone with Jimmy Red.    

Once, I’d asked Trevor if he’d established a Man Code with his sons.  His eye lids had tightened, his lips pressed together when I’d explained the meaning.  He’d switched into counselor mode, persistent with questions about the secrets Pops and I shared, becoming frustrated when I didn’t answer.     

Considered handsome by most girl’s accounts, showed by the silliness they’d display when finding out he would be their teacher, the tattoo on his left forearm read survivor.    

“You ready for nationals, son?” Trevor asked.  He called the boys on his team son.  

He and I were in the practice room. I was one of two members from the team chosen to compete at the national tournament in Atlanta three weeks away.

“We could have it today,” I said half-bragging.   I had proven to be a worthy debater. I was only in the seventh grade and private high schools and colleges were scouting me.

“I like that confidence young man,” Trevor said slapping me playfully on my back.

When I’d joined the team, he’d given me a stack of books to read written by the likes of James Baldwin and Malcolm X, Shakespeare and Tolstoy, the purpose he’d said to expand my mind and vocabulary. Pictures of famous philosophers including Plato and Aristotle, and the likes of Nelson Mandela, Marcus Garvey, Steve Biko, and Malcom X covered the walls in the practice room.

During practice Trevor liked to pitch a topic, one he’d have me research prior.  Today it was if juveniles should be tried as adults.  He beckoned for me to stand straight and pretend as if I was speaking to an audience.  

“Just because a kid committed a crime doesn’t mean it will lead to a life of delinquency,” I said flipping through index cards, reciting facts from research and memory as if I was spitting fire. Trevor smiled. I knew I had made him proud.  I spoke of my friend Bobby.  An A student whose life changed after his parents divorced, and his father moved to Houston.  He hung out with the wrong crowd and ended up in a gang.  At fifteen-years-old he robbed and shot a rival gang member.  The guy lived, and Bobby was charged with aggravated robbery, attempted murder, and possession of drugs.  I argued that if his father had stayed in his life, maybe things would’ve turned out different, reasoning that with the right rehabilitation measures he could still become a productive citizen.  

I took mental notes as Trevor opposed me.   Speaking as eloquent as Barak Obama with the poeticism of Tupac Shakur, he argued that a crime is still a crime no matter the age of the perpetrator.  He’d cited an equally compelling example of a teenaged friend who’d murdered a mother of three in cold blood over a dare.  The friend, tried as an adult, received life in prison. “Rightly so,” Trevor had said, nodding to a fake crowd for emphasis, “Rightly so.”

On the ride home Trevor and I listened to Max 94.1 radio station, nodding our heads to All I Do Is Win by DJ Khaled. Pops usually played CD’s of Thelonious Monk or Charles Mingus when in the car.  Or he kept the station on Q106.5 which played everything from melodious rhythm tunes to hard core bluesman such as Bobby “Blue” Bland.  Trevor pulled into the driveway, hugging me as I exited the car. “Take care son,” he whispered in my ear.  

Pop’s image reflected in the front window of the house.  He pulled the curtain half back.  A Newport cigarette dangled from his mouth, and he wore a white sleeveless T-shirt, the one he’d referred to as a wife beater.  

When I opened the door the aroma of a ‘poor man’s gumbo greeted me. Typically the creole dish was chock full of fresh seafood like shrimp and crab, and oysters.  But when money was scarce Mom substituted the seafood with chicken and sausage instead.  The other day I’d overheard Mom tell Aunt Vivian that Pop’s had stopped taking his medicine.  “It might be best for us to come that way,” she’d told Aunt Vivian, refusing to meet my stare.       

“Why didn’t you call me to pick you up?” Pops said, cracking open a Bud Light.  Based on his glassy eyes, and heavy tongue, I could tell it wasn’t his first.  

Trevor always dropped me off after practice.  I reminded him of that.  

“Next time call me,” he said. He punched his chest for emphasis.  

Mom glanced in his direction and then filled the bowls with steaming rice before saturating them with gumbo.  She set crackers on the table.  Even though she wore no makeup, except for shiny pink lip gloss, Mom radiated beauty.  She worked as a baker’s assistant, taking on extra shifts, going in at seven in the morning, sometimes working eleven or twelve hours.      

Of late she’d hinted for Pops to apply for disability.  Pops hadn’t been able to keep steady employment, due to his constant quitting to take a gig somewhere.  At least it would provide income, she’d reasoned, and since he’d gotten an official diagnosis of PTSD, the paperwork should be hassle free.  

“Who the hell disabled?” Pop’s had yelled.  To prove a point he’d taken his medicine and emptied the pills in the garbage can, yelling “I don’t need this shit.”

 Mom had tried to grab as many as she could before they’d landed in the trash.  It hadn’t helped that on that same day the local news had reported an officer had killed a black boy on Florida Street.  Any shooting of a black man by a cop brought up grim memories of James.

I ate my gumbo while listening to the music from the AM 1460 gospel station Mom kept it on.   A pleasant breeze circulated through the window screens, carrying the smell of fresh cut grass and the melody of crickets with it.  

“You talked to Cathy yet?” Mom asked Pops.  

The muscles in his face tightened as he crumbled crackers in his gumbo.  

“What did she say?” Mom asked, her voice anxious.  

“What she always say?” Pops said, placing a spoonful of food in his mouth, then chasing it with a swig of beer.      

“When you going?” Mom asked.     

“When I damn well please,” was Pops reply.    

 

The following day Pops and I walked up Aunt Cathy’s driveway as beads of sweat dotted his face, although fall had now ushered temperatures languishing in the seventies.  Aunt Cathy lived in the Plantation Trace subdivision, off of Highland Road, a stone’s throw from Louisiana State University. She opened the door and hugged me as if both of our lives depended on it. She wore sweatpants comfortably fitting her full figure, and an oversized LSU T-shirt. Like Pops, she stood tall, square shouldered.    

“Hey Brother,” she said to Pops, casually rubbing his shoulder.  Her black, afro hair twisted out into springy coils.  A gray spot sprouted in the front like a patch of snow on otherwise green grass.  Dimples so deep they looked like carvings set on both sides of her cheek.  She focused her attention on me, commenting on how handsome and tall I’d gotten, jabbering non-stop, asking about everything from the debate team, to girls, to school, barely waiting for an answer before moving to the next question.  Pops took in the place as if his first time there.  His eyes landed on a painting in the living room of Aunt Cathy that my brother James had painted.  She’d framed it years ago telling James, then ten-years-old, that it would be worth money one day. In the picture her soft curly afro flourished.  Her dimples, looked deep and magical, transporting you into her soul.  I envisioned Pops removing it from the frame, touching, even smelling it.  Aunt Cathy would understand.  That’s the only painting we had left from James, the other’s destroyed in the hurricane.   

Self-taught, he’d started painting at seven-years-old, the same age Pop’s had taken up the trumpet, Pop’s had always boasted.  By the time James was twelve, patrons were commissioning him for his work.  James had specialized in making your imperfections perfect.  In his paintings the mole on Mom’s right cheek became regal, the scar under Pops eye mysterious.     

A week after James’ twelfth birthday he’d went outside to play with his friend David, who’d lived at the end of Claiborne Street.  On the way out the door, he’d hugged me and kissed the birthmark on my forehead. Usually his only form of affection towards me was a punch in the arm.  He never made it to David’s.  When we’d arrived at the scene, two blocks from the house, James’ looked as if he was sleeping, his body draped by a white sheet, lay in the middle of Claiborne Avenue.  Sirens and Mom’s screams morphed into one.  Pops fought through the army of officers and yellow tape to get to James’ blood soaked body.  We’d learned that a police officer had stopped James because he fit the description of a young black male who’d just robbed a store. When James tried to run home, the officer shot him in the back, never indicted for the murder.

 Pops eyes shifted across the rest of Aunt Cathy’s place.  Although she’d appeased Jimmy Red before he’d died by getting her bachelor’s degree from Southern, Aunt Cathy had gotten her masters and law degrees from LSU.  Her house could’ve served as an LSU exhibition.  Her degrees adorned the wall like cake toppings.  Purple and gold knick knacks graced open spaces along with pictures commemorating LSU’s national championships.   

“Jimmy Red is turning over in his grave,” Pops said to Aunt Cathy, shaking his head staring at the purple and gold spectacle.   

Aunt Cathy glared back at him.  “Yes he is,” she said emphasizing each word, eyeing Pops top to bottom.   

A dog no bigger than my forearm greeted us with a growl better suited on a pit bull.  Aunt Cathy smiled and nuzzled the beagle she called Tyrone.  The wood floors gleamed as if newly waxed. Everything from African art to family pictures hung in perfect symmetry in the living and dining rooms.  The cream-colored furniture bore no stains, the pillows on the sofa looking untouched.  Mom had always complimented Aunt Cathy on her tidiness.  Pops would look as if he’d bitten into a lemon.    

“I bet the areas you can’t see are a mess,” he always told Mom on the ride home.

“At least she has the decency to hide her junk,” Mom would say back, scowling at Pops, “unlike some who leave theirs wide open for the world to see.”  

Aunt Cathy had picked up Chinese takeout, insisting we help ourselves. She sat plates on the wooden kitchen table, topping glasses with ice and Coca-Cola.    

“You been taking care of yourself, Brother?”  She said, digging her fork into the shrimp fried rice. No doubt, Mom had given her the latest on Pop’s episodes.  

Pops hadn’t come for food or small talk, but knew it was the price he’d have to pay.   

“As well as I can,” he said, adding, “Could always be better.”  

She waited for him to ask how she was doing. When he didn’t she said, “I’m good, business is good.” He didn’t have to ask.  He knew how Aunt Cathy was doing.  With her fancy lawyer friends. Always in the paper’s society section, attending board meetings and whatnot at LSU.  Kissing white folks behinds every chance she got.  Yes, she was doing just fine.   

Appetites gave way to silence until Aunt Cathy said, “Remember how Mom would be so

excited to see us when we visited her at Oakwood?”

I looked at the photo of Pops, Aunt Cathy, Jimmy Red and my grandma Maggie that hung on the wall. Pops never spoke of his mother.    

Aunt Cathy pulled a pan of banana pudding from the refrigerator and sat it on the table.  

“Remember when you meddled the man at Oakwood who spoke in tongues nonstop and Daddy made you apologize to him back by speaking in tongues to make sure he understood you?”  Aunt Cathy teared up from laughing so hard. “The made up gibberish that came out of your mouth I still remember to this day.”   

Pop’s jaw went slack, his lips forming into a smile, at the memory.

Oakwood Hospital, located right outside of Baton Rouge, I’d learned was a hospital that people with mental problems went for treatment.  The hospital Grandma Maggie had died in. The hospital where people went in and never came out.   

“I was ten,” Aunt Cathy said, “so you must have been…”

“Thirteen.”   Pops said, looking at me, his smile fading.  

Aunt Cathy walked to the cabinet and returned with three bowls, placing nice helpings of banana pudding in each.  “Then if we got back to Baton Rouge in time Jimmy Red would take us to Fun Fair Park,” she said.   

“What was Pops like as a kid,” I asked dipping my spoon into the pudding.   

She looked at Pops.  Her face lined with confusion.   “He argued, well debated everything, even as a kid,” she said.  “He should’ve been a lawyer.”  

Pop’s face hardened again.

“If you said the sky was blue he’d prove it was red.  Or if you hated cats he’d find a million reasons you should love them.”  She piled more banana pudding in her bowl.  I guess you can say you got your debate skills honestly.”  She chewed the pudding as if pondering what to say next.  “He always acted as if the world was against him, but so did Mom.” She hunched her shoulders.  “We never knew why.”

Pops scrunched the muscles his face, looking as if he’d burst a blood vessel. I finished the last eggroll, washing it down with a gulp of coke, deliberately making a fake mustache from the liquid.

Aunt Cathy reached into her purse and pulled out four one-hundred dollar bills, placing them in the palm of Pop’s hand.  She placed hers on top of his and squeezed it tight.  

“We gonna get this back to you in a weeks’ time,” Pops said, removing his hand from Aunt Cathy’s embrace.  “I got a gig coming up this weekend.”

“I don’t need it back,” she said.   

Pops frowned.  He’d never paid her back, but she didn’t have to be so got damn smug about not needing it, I’d supposed him thinking.  

“You’re going to get it back,” he said, his voice rising an octave.  “Gigs in Baton Rouge not like they are in New Orleans. Nobody hires trumpet players.”

Aunt Cathy rolled her eyes.  “I have a friend that works at Exxon Chemical Plant,” she said. “I can make some calls.”

Once, Pop’s had said that New Orleans smelled of energy, and guilty pleasures, and boudin.  

“What does Baton Rouge smell like?” I’d asked.   

“Purple and gold,” he’d said.  “And oil.”  

Pops cut his eyes at Aunt Cathy.  Having to borrow money was humiliating enough.  He was the big brother who should’ve been helping her out, not the other way around.

“I already put in an application at the casino.”  He drank the coke in his glass in one swallow.  

“Casino money doesn’t compare to oil money,” Aunt Cathy said. “Mildred told me she working at the bakery ten, twelve hours a day now.”  

Pops let the sting of what Aunt Cathy said digest before saying, “You got a man yet other than Tyrone?”

Aunt Cathy bit her lip in anger.  Pops always told Mom if Aunt Cathy would get the stick out of her ass and learn how to have some fun she could keep a man.  

Pops stood.  He hadn’t planned to stay this long.   

Aunt Cathy embraced me. She turned to Pops. “Good to see you, Brother,” she said, hugging him.  “You’re looking good.”

As Pops walked out the door, to no one in particular, she said, “Then again, looks can be deceiving.”    

   

 

At home Pops handed Aunt Cathy’s crisp hundred-dollar bills to Mom.  Relief flooded her face as she’d tucked away the money she would hand over to the landlord in her purse.     

“What’s all this?” Pop’s asked.  Mom and my clothes were stacked in piles across the living room.  

“Spring cleaning,” Mom said, averting her eyes from anyone’s gaze.      

“In September?” Pop’s asked.   

“Never too late to start,” Mom said.  She turned to me.  “How was your visit sweetie?”

I glanced at our belongings, neatly folded in stacks, and then noticed the suitcases tucked away in the corner.  When Pops walked into the bedroom, I said, “I’m not going anywhere,” my voice occupying a bass I didn’t know existed.  

Mom stood in front of me. Her gaze, solid, distant.      

“I’m glad you saw Cathy,” she said. “You need to visit your aunts more often.”       

 

The next day as Calvin, my teammate and I, were finishing up practice Pops walked into the debate room.  

“I came to pick you up,” he said.  His shirt half tucked in his pants as if he’d rushed.

Trevor looked at his watch, then walked over to Pops extending his hand.  Pops, sporting a sour look, left him hanging.  

“I was going to bring him home, Mr. Sloan,” Trevor said, his hand now dangling by his side.  “You didn’t have to come.”

Pops scanned Trevor from bottom to top, starting with the black Converse Chuck Taylor’s he wore to the tan fedora hat that sat atop his head.  

“You can’t have him he’s my son,” Pops said so low Trevor had to lean in to hear him.   

When Trevor remained silent Pops repeated it, this time for the world to hear. Startled, Trevor stumbled back so hard his fedora fell off.      

“Calvin call your Mom and tell her to come pick you up,” Trevor said, looking around the room haphazardly, then picking his hat up off of the floor.   “I will take care of the Sloan’s.  Mr. Sloan doesn’t appear to be feeling well,” he said gradually, glancing over Pops, his eyebrows cocked.   

“I hear how you call my son, son,” Pops said breathing as if he’d completed a hundred yard dash.  His eyes empty, lethal.  I’d seen this look before.  The one that made him unrecognizable.  Dread covered Pop’s face, as if wishing whatever was about to overtake him would stop, because he couldn’t control its impulse no matter how destructive it made him become.  He lunged towards Trevor with a barrage of punches causing Trevor to hit the ground instantly. I didn’t move. Instead, I watched, blow after blow, Trevor wincing with each hit, any attempt to block them thwarted by quick, vicious jabs.  When finally free, Trevor stumbled across the room and picked up his cell phone.  But Calvin must’ve called the police and Mom because little time had passed before a swarm of cops and first responders arrived. Pops mumbled incoherently, perhaps trying to tame the demons that haunted him.  Mom rattled off short, static sentences to the cops and EMS technicians: “not taking his medicine, PTSD, breaks from reality, unexplained bouts of anger.”

At that moment she looked at me.  I knew then that our bags were packed and we’d be in Baltimore before long.   

“I meant what I said,” I told her, watching as they lifted Pops onto a gurney.    

Tears streaked her face.   “I will get you some help,” she said.  “Like your father.”

Pops lay still, straps doubled across his chest and legs.   His eyes darting back and forth, but not seeming to notice anyone.

“Where are they taking him?” I asked.  

Mom sighed and lightly touched my cheek.  “Oakwood,” she said.


About the Author: Erica L. Williams received an MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from  Kansas City Voices,  Necessary Fiction,  Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Blood Orange Review.  She tweets @ EricaLWilliams3 and Instagrams @ ericalwilliams3.  She lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Maybe I Believe Too Much in Signs By Laryssa Wirstiuk

Woman in Chair_Brittany Bobois


Maybe I Believe Too Much in Signs

Tell me the dumbest story you know. No,
I’m serious. I’ll get this conversation going
with a confession: I don’t ever want to feel
like I did that day I was told, “You’re the most
self-obsessed girl in the world.” I won’t give
more clues about what happened on New Street
or why eye contact is so intermittent. Do you see
what I think I’m giving away? I had to prove I wasn’t
an egomaniac by following a narcissist across
a landmass. But tonight instead I’m documenting
what I look like when I’m content. I’ll forget
on Friday morning that my camera roll is full
of blurry, rye-soaked smirks, all because
you only sometimes give me your best
smile. Are you ready with a story yet?
Or are we still referring to this as “adventure”?
Don’t apologize in advance. Put your head
on my thigh to offset the bourbon. Sweet
man. I approach all with single mind, but shit
I’m always surprised when one man wants to get
to the good part, while another is a rock moving
across Death Valley. It’s all just selfies now,
no texting my ex-boyfriend to explain I miss
the heightened hope he’d help himself. If
only I didn’t have to listen, wishes are valid.
I’m sorry we won’t spend the longest day
of the year together, but I’m not ready to replace
that memory: Harlem in June with a best friend,
the now-ex, and a Cuban cigar. Holding his hand
was everything I wanted for an entire train ride.
It’s dumb, right? How far we’ve come from Times
Square meat signs to observatories named for men
with two first names. I don’t know if I could handle
another trial kiss. The photos are tilted and too dark
to know if it’s me or some other bitch who’s handled
one too many drinks. Have I mentioned your smile?
Are we there yet? And by “there,” I mean, is it over?
I’ve seen a closing, a hardening, a narrow space
that can barely fit anything more than a hand
on your knee and a kiss on your cheek. I’m focused
on the moment, and the best news is I can breathe.


About the Author: Laryssa Wirstiuk is a poet and writer based in Los Angeles, where she lives with her miniature dachshund Charlotte Moo. Her self-published collection of short stories The Prescribed Burn won Honorable Mention in the 21st Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. Laryssa was born and raised in New Jersey, and she spent a few years teaching creative writing at Rutgers. But now that she’s in LA, she can safely say that she’ll be okay if she never sees snow again. http://www.laryssawirstiuk.comTwitter: @ryssiebee

Artwork: Brittany Bobois

The Mental Ward: A User’s Guide by Laura A. Zink

IMG_0663


When the intake nurse asks you for your shoelaces and your belt, do not look surprised. Hand them to her calmly. Doing so will lower her suspicions about you. Lower. Not erase. After all, she’s not the one getting committed.

When the nurse hands you off to the orderly, do not show any sign of resistance. The situation, ostensibly, is quite awkward for him too, so avoid conversation. And crying. You definitely do not want to cry in front of him. Any emotional outburst could lead to a dose of Midazolam or Haldol. If you don’t feel like a mental patient already, you definitely will after a shot of one of those.

You notice that the walk to the ward is rather long and circuitous. As you progress, the doors start to require key card swipes, codes, large keys, and other kinds of advanced unlocking mechanisms. At the seventh door, the orderly picks up a phone and requests entry. There will be a loud buzzing sound when the door opens. Don’t let it startle you. They keep notes of everything here.

See? They are already taking notes. The nurses and the orderly pass various papers back and forth. After scratching down a few words, the orderly leads you to the final door. It is white with a large steel latch. It reminds you of a meat locker. The nurse presses a button, and the door opens. You step through and hear it close behind you. It’s not particularly loud or ominous sounding, which you feel is strange given the circumstances. Maybe even a little disappointing.

Either way, you are now officially a patient in a mental hospital.

Try not to take this personally. Whether you ended up here because someone sent you, or the police forced you, or the court ordered you, or you answered the suicide question wrong on the rehab intake form, it doesn’t matter.

Really, this situation says more about them than you. Think about it. You have to be pretty BAT SHIT to want to be in a mental hospital. They work in one. By choice. Now, that is crazy. So basically, you are being told you are crazy by crazy people. You find this to be crazy. It’s ALL crazy…

But now, you stare down the grey and white, door-lined hallway, and you realize for the first time that this is your home. And for how long, you have no idea.

Only two concerns remain:

  1. Finding out as much as you can about your roommate, and
  2. Planning your sleep schedule.

You ponder this as the orderly leads you to your room. He tells you your roommate’s name: Betty. You want to know her diagnosis, but don’t ask the orderly. That will seem weird. There are not many personal effects in the room either, so you will have to get the information from Betty herself. Ask her a question that elicits a revealing answer. For example:

Is there anyone here I should look out for?

You may get answers like:

  • “Everyone here is stupid. The rules are stupid. Oh, and fuck you.” – Sociopath
  • “I’m going to leave now because someone is trying to kill me.” – Schizophrenic
  • “You can trust me.” – Psychopath
  • “You’re sick with something, aren’t you? AREN’T you!?!” – Hypochondriac

You get the hypochondriac. Go to the staff window and ask for something innocuous, like diarrhea medication. When the nurse turns her back to check your medication schedule, crane your neck to view the staff “notes” (usually on a whiteboard on a side wall way behind the main desk). You notice that something about your room requires the staff to look out for “eating utensils.” When the nurse turns back around, appear disinterested. Swallow the medication – Pepto, Imodium, whatever – and walk back to your room.

You find Betty sitting on her bed. Something is peeking out from underneath her mattress. Small. White. Plastic. It is a spork. She notices you eyeing her bed. She doesn’t seem to like this.

You are one big germ to her. Accept it. She hates you.

AND she will try to defend herself. This could interfere with your sleep schedule. You should not sleep while she is awake. In fact, you should not sleep at all if she is in the room. You think about the fragility of your eyelids. Thin. Stretchy. Indefensible against the prongs of a spork. Betty eyes you, hand hanging over the side of the mattress by the little piece of protruding plastic. She fingers it. Take this threat seriously. She is not going to wait until you sleep. She’s probably psychotic. Paranoid.

Germs. Psychosis. Paranoia. You must prey on her weaknesses.

But she can’t know. Act casually.

Sit on your bed and start scratching yourself. Stare at her intently while you do this. Tuck your chin into your chest and smirk. If you can raise just one eyebrow, do so now. Then, cough. Loudly.

Cough. Hack. Cough. Cough.

She pulls in her limbs like a dying spider. She tenses. Growls.

Brace yourself.

Betty thrusts her hands under the mattress. They come out with sporks. Fists full of sporks. Sporks scattering across the linoleum floor. Use both hands and forearms to block the incoming spork missiles. As they peck and scrape at your arms, you hear squealing. Grunting. Feet pattering back and forth in furious pacing and then…

…silence.

You look up. She is empty-handed. And terrified.

Reach down and pick up two sporks. Scratch your neck and head with one of them. Stick it down your pants and scratch. Front or back, it doesn’t matter. Both sides are a plague to her. Put the other spork in your mouth. Alternate between licking one spork and scratching yourself with the other. Take two slow steps toward her. Wave the sporks as close to her face as possible while maintaining an arm’s length distance. Don’t take your eyes off her. Keep watching. Keep waving. She’s effervescent. Vibrating, throbbing, gnashing her teeth, bursting into tears.

Toss sporks at Betty and run to other side of the room. Cower in the corner with your arms covering your head.

Scream once.

You hear the sound of moving furniture. A metal bed scraping against the linoleum. She is barricading the door. The orderlies are coming. Hearty pounds come from the other side of the door.

Scream, “help.”

The door bursts open. Appear as helpless as possible. Shiver for effect. Watch Betty fight the orderlies. Watch her writhe as they grab her limb-by-limb and pin her to the ground. Watch them inject her. Watch her go limp. Watch them heave her sack-like body in a wheelchair and roll her away. You watch ALL this happen.

But one orderly remains. He asks you what happened.

Using phrases like “from out of nowhere,” “unprovoked,” and “by complete surprise,” blame everything on Betty. When he asks you if you need to see a counselor, listen carefully to the tone of his voice. It is soft. Almost whispery. This means he believes you.

Shake your head weakly in response. When he offers his hand, take it and stand up slowly. Keep your eyes down (you ARE the victim here). Pout a little and thank him for his concern.

He turns and walks out of the room. You hear his sneakers padding against the linoleum. He’s down the hallway. A little echo. A tiny squeak. And then, he is gone.

Walk over to your bed. Lie down. Place your spork-scraped hands behind your head and savor the silent solitude.

Congratulations. Your eyelids are safe. You can close your eyes. Now, you can sleep.

Enjoy it while it lasts. Another roommate will come. And when she does, check the staff “notes” and plan your sleep schedule accordingly.


About the Author: Laura A. Zink lives in Oakland, California. She is a Beast Crawl Literary Festival organizer and an editor for MARY: A Journal of New Writing. Her fiction has appeared in Broad River Review, Full of Crow, sPARKLE & bLINK, Naked Bulb 2016 Summer Anthology, and Literally Stories.

 

Friends Don’t Fuck By Madison Silva

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Friends Don’t Fuck

I’m remembering the first
time you threw down
your dress in front of me
reminding myself, don’t look

Yet I still want
to count the moles
on the insides
of your thighs

I want the hard
wood floors to feel
your back against them,
while I’m against you

I won’t think about
a kiss, that goes
from cheek to mouth

I won’t think of
the way your bed
feels with the both
of us in it,
or a better way
to keep ourselves warm


About the Author: Madison Silva is a 21 year old writer living in Oakland, California. She began writing poems back in 2014, mainly focusing on discovering her queerness and her experiences as a young woman. She’s currently studying journalism while interning for a local publication, and writing poetry in her spare time. 

 

 

For Lucky by Brendan Stephens

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When I was twelve, every Sunday my mother and I visited my grandfather. He lived on the other side of the mountain. I was his only grandchild. As often as I could, I put off homework until minutes before my mother came to get me, hoping that she’d let me stay home because school work trumped almost everything for her. Everything but family. My plan never worked.

Those visits were a blur of pictures of golf courses, casual racism, and ginger ale. The shag carpet at my grandfather’s looked like moss, and the air smelled stale and swirled with dust. He sat in his recliner. Whenever he left the chair, I stared at the cracked, stretched leather, imagining that some specter of him lingered seated. My mother sat in what was once my grandmother’s chair—the blue fabric bunched where the cushions had worn down. They watched game shows. I brought over a Gameboy, hoping they’d ignore me so I could ignore them.

Once, during a commercial promoting a vacation to Las Vegas—the screen flickering with cash payouts in tall stacks of hundreds—my grandfather asked my mother, “Did I ever tell you about the time Lucky and I gunned down a fleet of Kamikaze? Not a single one hit their mark.”

“Yeah. You told us earlier,” she said. For most of his life he refused to talk about the war, but after my grandmother passed, he forced every memory onto us.

I wished she would have pretended it was the first time hearing the Lucky story. It seemed more humane to treat each repeated story as a dress rehearsal. That’s what I would have wanted.

“Really?” he said.

“Yes.” She glanced over at me. There was the faintest up-turn in her lips, as if to say forgetting is funny. “We’d love to hear it again.”

He blinked hard, trying to conjure up the memory, but nothing came to the surface.

“You can tell us.”

“No. No. I don’t want to be the old fart that tells the same stories over and over.”

I didn’t quite believe him. All my life I’d heard the same stories. Once, I had my mother in hysterics repeating word for word, the same comic timing, my grandfather’s story of the hiding he took for napping in the men’s room during church back when he was a kid.

I felt his gaze land on me even though I never looked up from my small square screen. He said, “Josh, is there any fighting in that game?”

I said, “Yeah.” I was actually stacking Tetris blocks, but I knew where this was headed regardless. My only choice was whether I wanted to get to the point fast or slow.

“You like those killing games, huh?”

“I guess.”

He turned to my mother and said, “And you allow this?”

“It’s just a game.”

“No, it’s not. Everyone forgets that. Those games aren’t going to teach you how to respect life even when you have to take it.” I didn’t look up, but the chair creaked from his wild gestures. “Say what you want about the Kamikaze, but they knew a thing or two about life and death. I’ll give them that. But that didn’t mean that me and Lucky could just let them crash into our aircraft carriers. They fell like hail,” he said, bringing his hand down on his armrest with a thud. “Most of the time one or two would sneak past the defenses, but there was one time where Lucky and I managed to get each one. It was like—”

“Dad, you’ve already told us that story today.” She looked over at me with her eyebrows peaked. His memory lapses before this were over the course of weeks, but never before had he blanked before the end of a commercial break.

I let the blocks in my game pile off the screen. All three of us triangulated our gazes, but never quite looking anyone in the eye.

He blushed, his ears turned brick red. “You know this old gray horse ain’t what he used to be.”

Whenever he said that, I imagined a horse with droopy jowls, joints swollen with arthritis, moon-like cataracts swirling in bulging eyes—a near-death show horse now only good for glue. Yet, my grandfather still seemed young. At the driving range, he’d rocket golf balls further than I thought possible. He still had a Playboy subscription and didn’t even need reading glasses. Age to me meant physical deterioration, and it seemed to barely touch him. How could he be on the decline?

That night, my mother called a family meeting even though it was just the two of us. Around the kitchen table, with the lights turned low, I knew what was coming. Off and on, they’d talked about the day when it’d no longer be safe for my grandfather to live alone. My mother was still shaken by his forgetfulness. She asked me to vote whether to put my grandfather in a nursing home or in the guest room. I voted to take him in. Even at that age, I knew that my vote was symbolic—she’d made the decision long ago, so why bother?

#

My grandfather’s new room, previously a guest room that went years between uses, was separated from mine by a narrow hallway. Nothing felt normal anymore. He spent his time napping on the living room couch, inquiring about his next doctor’s visit, sneaking handfuls of chocolate chip cookies between meals, watching James Bond movies he taped from cable—complete with commercials. Neither of us had grown more comfortable with the other. Every day felt like an expectation, as if an uncomfortable silence was waiting to be broken, but we lacked the words, as if we were trying to ignore a hanging scab.

Before, when the visits were weekly, I could get by just being in the same room. Now I felt like I was either going to enter a self-imposed exile into my room or we’d have to build some sort of grandson-grandfather relationship no matter how flimsy. When I couldn’t handle it anymore, I went over to his room and knocked on the door. He answered wearing a yellowed undershirt, his belly bulging over his slacks. He gave me a hug as I just stood there. I never understood how his ballooned-out stomach felt so muscular.

“I’m bored,” I lied, “Do you want to play checkers?” I hadn’t played him in years because within our family he was a checkers legend. He’d never lost a match as far as my family was concerned. It sucked all the fun out of playing, but I knew he’d enjoy it.

He said, “You think you can take down your Pap?”

“Maybe.”

I took time assessing moves, picking the red plastic circle up and hovering it over a square before putting it back where it had been. All the while he whistled big band melodies. The second my finger left a piece, he’d make his own move, slamming it against the cardboard so hard that all of the pieces shifted millimeters. Then he’d go back to whistling.

He gloated after he won. I expected him to win by a landslide, but he barely beat me. I wondered if he was really as good as I remembered, if I was just better, or if the misfired neurons made his legendary gameplay more human.

Later, from the dinner table, when my grandfather noticed the checker board on the counter, he said, “Checkers—now there’s a game I haven’t played in years.”

#

Over the next few months, my grandfather kept forgetting, and he grew more frustrated with forgetting. Every time we played checkers he won by shrinking margins.

That autumn I spent a lot of time piecing together plastic model kits of different anime mechs. It helped distract me from wondering whether a moment could slide its way into his long-term memory.  Sure something would stick for a day or two, but in the end it was defragged in no-time. Repetition didn’t even work. I found myself wanting to make an impact that would stay. Something between us that he’d remember a week later. Was it too late?

“You like models?” my grandfather asked from the hallway. He peered in through my cracked door.

I said that I did.

He wandered off to the living room where he watched Family Feud until he fell asleep, drooling, on the couch.

When I got home from school the next day, I found a large model airplane kit in my room. My grandfather had recently had his driver’s license revoked. He must have had my mother pick it up for him. A P-51 Mustang, the type that really flew. The models I had built were pre-painted plastic bits; after an hour of connecting the pieces, it was just a few stickers and then it was finished. The P-51, the fuselage was just a few pieces. Yet the instructions seemed too sparse to complete the electronics. I’d need a set of watch screwdrivers and a crescent wrench, and I didn’t know what either was. The only piece that came intact was the remote control to pilot it. Before even trying, I gave up.

“What do you think?” my grandfather called from his room across the hall.

I stammered for a bit and said, “It’s great. Thanks.”

“When you finish it, we’ll go out to a field and fly it.”

“That may take a while.”

“I got time.”

That night, just to confirm it’d be as impossible as I thought to put together, I pulled out all the parts. Each piece was sealed in shrink wrap. Using a rusty X-acto knife, I made a pile of parts and useless plastic bags on my bed. Using the instructions, I pieced together some of the fuselage until I came to a step that required soldering. I put everything on my desk.

Later my grandfather asked, “What’s that?”

“The P-51 you got me.”

He narrowed his eyes, trying to claw up the memory. Instead, he said, “God damn it.”

I’d never heard him curse before.

“I can’t keep doing this. Anymore, thinking feels like I’m breathing through a wet towel. I get just a little air and a lot of water.”

I didn’t understand quite what he meant. He shook his head and ran his hand down his face.

He picked up the wing and, with frustration still in his voice, said, “This isn’t right. The silver, it’s wrong. Too dark.”

“Looks fine to me.”

“You always say that, Lucky.”

I didn’t correct him. I didn’t know if he was trying to be funny or had slipped into the past, merging me with his old partner.

“Whatever happened to me?” I asked.

His face twitched as if something had short-circuited.

“To Lucky?” I said.

My grandfather gulped a few times and said, “He died, didn’t he? Like everyone.”

“When?”

“Disappeared in a storm. We didn’t have visibility. His radio had been acting up, and then it went silent.”

“Maybe he landed on an island somewhere.”

“That sort of thing doesn’t happen in real life.”

Later, I had my mom buy a couple of different shades of silver paint for him to compare, and I coated the plane.

After school, I worked on the model until I finished the final step of the instructions. I was too afraid to fly it though. Too many things could go wrong: electronic malfunctions, robin collisions, lightning strikes, acts of God. Even after the P-51 was finished, I spent days reading the manual trying to wrap my head around radio frequency, adjusting the high-speed needle, and how to nail a landing.

One Saturday, my grandfather said, “Are you going to fly that thing or what?”

I tried to determine if he even remembered that he bought it for me, but I couldn’t.

“The conditions aren’t right,” I said. It was too wet and foggy.

“It’s always going to be something. Come on.”

My mother drove us down far enough down the mountain that the fog that had blotted out the sky had become low hanging clouds. She pulled into the sparse driveway of a one-room church that’d been nothing more than a historical marker for as long as I could remember. She waited in the car listening to songs on the radio that were fuzzy with static in the valley. Before liftoff, he picked up a blade of grass and dropped it. It drifted lazily without a single gust of wind pushing the blade off its downward course.

Now that we were out here, I had trouble trying to remain calm. The uncertainty and recklessness of leaving the ground was like a shot of pure adrenaline jammed into my heart. I used the rough blacktop road as a runway. The sound of the model’s engine sounded like an electric toothbrush, but it slid from the blacktop into the air as if flight was effortless.

He mussed up my hair and said, “Who would have thought you’d get that pile of parts to fly?”

I flew the plane in tight figure eights in the clear below the looming stratus clouds. Despite my excitement, I wanted to enjoy it more than I did. With all the theoretical freedom of the atmosphere, the blanket of fog ceilinged the tiny plane in. In minutes, I grew bored, like I was watching a fly trapped between a screen and a closed window—predictably flying from corner to corner without variation.

“Do you want to try?” I asked.

He chuckled without smiling. “Are you sure?”

“Sure.”

With my eyes still to the fog cage, I gave a tutorial. A tutorial I repeated in full three times.

I passed the receiver off to him. It quivered in his hands, made more noticeable by the dancing of the two foot antennae. Overhead, the plane sputtered erratically like a cricket in a snake pit. If flying a plane with his grandson didn’t drive an icepick into his long term memory, I doubted anything would.

“What do I do?” he said, looking down at the controller as if he didn’t understand how the plastic with all its buttons and levers ever got into his hands. He thumbed the buttons and levers with increasing frustration.

And then the plane vanished with a puff into the fog. I pulled the controller from his hands and tried to steer it back into the clear, but all I heard was the buzz of the motor growing fainter. I should have known this would happen. The back of my throat burned, and it felt impossible to swallow.

When I couldn’t hear anything anymore, I said. “Let’s head home.”

“When are we going to fly that plane?”

#

Within a year, he passed. Over that time, I couldn’t determine whether my grandfather’s decline came fast or slow, but still he declined. He slept more than he was awake and forgot who we were for long stretches, even forgetting he was ever a father. Bad days eventually outnumbered good ones. I never built another model; he never even mentioned it. Occasionally, we’d still play checkers. I beat him more and more often as he attempted more illegal moves. When I pointed them out, he’d grow so frustrated that he’d swipe the pieces off the board rather than lose. The memory of the model plane he seemed to have forgotten entirely and to me it already seemed distant and fuzzy, like something from a movie that I couldn’t quite place.

Later, I was stuffing his clothes into garbage bags when I found in his closet a cardboard box. Inside the box, wrapped in a bathrobe, was the P-51 covered in scratches, held together with big globs of super glue. It felt delicate and liable to fall apart. At the time, I couldn’t comprehend the hours he must have spent searching. To me, the model was like all the other tchotchkes and mementos of his that I’d thrown out. I stuffed it into the trash bag with the over-starched clothes, with the pictures I found of him and Lucky that had yellowed with age: two uniformed pilots, young and smooth, smirking invincibly in front of their Mustangs, overcome with confidence that their lives were bound together for long years, unable to fathom the future, the fog.


About the Author:

Bye Bye Baby, Don’t Be Blue by Joel Landmine

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Bye Bye Baby, Don’t Be Blue

While peeing
I blew a spider
off of a porcelain clown
and out the open window.

For a moment
it made me feel
like a God.

A casually angry, vengeful God,
reveling in the arbitrary violence
and senseless chaos
of a world I’d created by accident,
and had long lost any real control over.


About the Author: Oakland poet and filmmaker Joel Landmine’s work has never been nominated for a pushcart prize. Yeah, Well…, his first collection of poetry, is available from Punk Hostage Press.

Fuku by Sayuri Yamada

Amber Parker


Oh, thanks. I’ll have a pint of Foster, please.

    Yes, we had an international student, called Fuku, staying here for a while. Her real name was Fukuko and that means a lucky child, she told me. Isn’t it nice? We called her Fuku. My small daughter, Cathy, couldn’t pronounce it and started calling her Fuku, which stuck to us as well. No, she didn’t mind at all and even said, ‘You can call me whatever you want.’ Wasn’t it nice? So generous. Yes, she was a nice lady, gentle and kind, too.

     Oh, you’ve heard of her? Yes, everybody knows about her somehow. She was the only survivor in the hideous bus accident. But I don’t want to talk about such a bad thing right now, if it’s all right with you.

     She cooked for us one day. Fried eggs and rice. She explained to me that the fried eggs were layers of a thin fried egg and the rice was sticky. She broke the eggs, stirred them and put a bit into a frying pan and almost right away rolled it to the end. Then she put a bit more and rolled it, starting from the first one, so that the two were rolled together. Then she put another bit in and rolled it in the same way. She repeated the process several times until all the eggs were used. It was such an intricate cooking method. I thought it was a special meal for a celebration or something, but she said it’s a very common breakfast. Can you believe it? Could you cook that in the morning with our eyes still bleary and the hair sticking up every which way? She was surprised that I was surprised.

     Then she measured rice and water, which were the same amount. You know, we put a lot more water when we cook rice, or rather boil rice. But she said her way would make the rice sticky.

     You know, she paid for the room and two meals a day, but she spent her own money to buy those ingredients. I was touched.

     We’d had some international students before, but she was the best: so generous and gentle and kind.

     Do you know Eric, a friend of my son, Ben? No? He isn’t around anymore. He moved to a different city, well, just before Fuku left for back home. He was fifteen when Fuku was with us. I think she had a crush on him. I sometimes noticed her watching him when he visited Ben. I didn’t tell her. I didn’t want to embarrass her. She was such a delicate lady. If I’d told her, she might’ve cried or something. Eric was a neat-looking boy. I think it was her first time abroad and he must’ve been the first young man who talked to her. You know, when she first came to our place, Eric happened to be there and offered jokingly, ‘Can I take your bags to you room, Madame?’ She got red and just nodded. It was kind of natural for her to have feelings for him. It could’ve been somebody else, you know. I didn’t tell her that he had a girlfriend then. She might’ve, no, would’ve been hurt a lot. She was so vulnerable like a Victorian lady. I wanted her to stay and be happy at my place from the beginning to the end. You know, she was staying with us only for six months to study English. His girlfriend, Portia, had noticed and told Eric, who told me. They, Eric and Portia, didn’t mind. They were rather amused that a foreign lady had a crush on him. Of course I told my husband and Cathy overheard it, or rather eavesdropped on our conversation. Cheeky one, she was. I gravely told her not to tell Fuku that we knew. So, although everybody in my family knew about her crush, she didn’t know that we knew.

     When we were watching TV one evening when Eric was there (he often came to our house and he was like our second son), Fuku started sneezing and couldn’t stop. I don’t think she had any kind of allergy, but she just sneezed and sneezed. Then Eric stood up and asked her if she wanted some water to drink. She said, ‘Yes. Thank you,’ with a red face. When he gave it to her, her hand was trembling and she said, ‘Thank you very much. Thank you very much,’ bowed to him many times. You know, nobody thanks people that much nowadays. She knew how to appreciate other people’s kindness. We were lucky that we had such a nice lady at home.    

     Yeah, the English school was five days a week, just like all the other ones. She went there every day, never skipped a day. I knew Ben did a couple of times but Cathy hasn’t done it so far. She is only ten. I hope she’d learn from her.  

     Fuku did homework every day, right after coming back from school. She kept to herself in her room and didn’t come until it was done. She was a great example to the students.

     You want a top up? What was it? Carling? All right. I won’t be a sec. Woops. I’m a bit tipsy already. I’ll get some crisps as well.   

     And she helped with the housework. She didn’t have to do it at all. But she cleaned her room every now and then. She even helped with the washing-up sometimes. I said, ‘Oh, no. You don’t have to do it, Fuku.’ But she said, ‘It’s all right. Don’t worry,’ and kept drying the dishes I’d washed. So generous of her time after working hard at school and the homework in her room. She sometimes, only occasionally mind you, dropped a dish on the floor. It wasn’t intentional or anything. Oh, no. Nice Fuku wouldn’t do such a thing. When she first did it, she apologised in tears. ‘I am sorry. I am very sorry.’ ‘Don’t worry. It’s just a cheap plate. Don’t touch it. I’ll get a dustpan,’ I said and cleaned it up. It was actually one of the dinner set my best friend gave us for our twentieth our anniversary. But never mind.

     Oh, I know, you wanted me to tell you about the bus accident. Yeah, your face has been yelling it since the beginning. All right, all right, I’ll tell you some of it, but only a bit for now. I’ll skip how the accident happened, because you must know very well by now from all those TV reports and radio news and papers and gossip. While Fuku was still in hospital after the accident, she had lots of presents from her classmates and my neighbours and even some strangers. Around her bed in her hospital room with other five patients were teddy bears and flowers and boxes of chocolate and cards. It was like a bright gift shop in sterilised hospital room. Every time a nurse brought a present to her, she looked as if she wanted to hide under the bed or disappear into thin air. The first time, she was happy like a small kid, all smiles and laughter and everything. But after the second present, the third one, the fourth, the fifth, she became different. I asked her why. She said, ‘It is not good that I am the only one who gets presents. The other five people don’t get so many. It is not good.’ It was a bit of strange logic. It wasn’t her fault that she had so many presents, you know. The accident had been broadcasted on TV and radio, so everybody knew about it. I suggested that she should give some of the presents to the other people in her room. But she said, ‘Oh, no. They might think I look down on them.’ It was another strange theory. I don’t know much about Japan, yes that was where she was from, haven’t I told you? Anyway, We’d had homestay students only  from European countries. She was the only one out of the EU. It’s not that we avoided other countries. It just happened. So, as I said, I didn’t know much about Japanese culture, but it was very, very strange to me. I didn’t say anything to her about it. She was such a delicate lady, easily hurt. She begged me to take to the presents to her room in our house and I did.   

     She taught Cathy how to count in Japanese. One morning, she, my Cathy, came running to the kitchen and said one two three in Japanese with Fuku behind her, smiling. Isn’t it nice? She gave my daughter a free foreign language lesson. I don’t quite remember what she said. It was something like itchy for one and knee or elbow for two, and well, son for three, maybe. Isn’t it a funny language, Japanese? I don’t think Cathy still remembers it now. She has to study hard to get good marks, so her brain doesn’t have room for a language that isn’t to useful in this country. We had a French boy at home before, but he didn’t teach French to Cathy or Ben. Oh, well. Never mind.

     Oh, thanks. I think I’ve finished this pint a bit too quickly. But so what? We’re here to drink, aren’t we?

     I didn’t say what she’d cooked for us was good, because it wasn’t. It was actually a disaster.

     The fried eggs ended up something like a yellow blob and the bottom of the rice burnt and stuck to the pan. I had a very hard time to get rid of it. It wouldn’t come off. It was like cemented there. Anyway, both were still edible and we ate them. The taste? She’d forgotten to add salt to the eggs, so they actually had no taste. Still edible and still fried eggs. The rice was, well, we had the un-burnt part. It was all right. Fuku apologised in tears. ‘I am so solly. I am so solly. When I cooked zem before, zey were fine, but I don’t know what happened today. I am so solly.’ She bowed over and over again. Such a sense of responsibility! She was a nice lady. We all had to console her, patting her back, saying they were all right, smiling, and so on. Still, or rather because of that, she started crying in earnest. We didn’t know what to do. Nobody in this country at her age cries like that in front of people. She was from a different culture. Maybe, it’s a normal thing to do in her country. Anyway, when she finally started hiccuping and showing signs of subsiding, I said, ‘Well, let’s eat the food Fuku cooked for us. It must be very delicious.’ We ate, swallowed, chewed, swallowed, munched, swallowed. We ate everything. Well, Cathy couldn’t eat much of the rice. I just gathered it into a plastic bag under the table while Fuku was looking down and later I threw it into the bin. The kitchen was a smoky from the burnt rice. But never mind. It had cleared some time later. Fuku nibbled some and said, ‘Sank you. Sank you. You are bery kind. Sank you. Sank you.’ She didn’t eat it all. Well, I thought, we didn’t have to eat all either, then.

     You see, she had a strong accent and pronounced things wrong. But still understandably, usually. Sometimes we had to ask her to repeat it. Sometimes she couldn’t make us get what she wanted to say at all. But usually we could communicate.

     While we were eating the food, the kettle whistled. Fuku jumped up from the chair and upset a glass salt pot, which fell on the floor and broke. ‘I am solly. I am solly. I will pay for it. I am solly. I am solly.’ Fuku started weeping again. I hurried to her side and said, ‘Don’t worry. It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it, all right?’ I patted her back and got her to sit down in the chair. ‘I am solly. I am solly.’ She kept saying for a while. I went back to my chair. I was sick of hearing, ‘I am solly. I am solly.’ Why did she apologise so much? Was it her culture? Was she normal in Japan? I didn’t know and I still don’t and I don’t care. She’s gone now. But at that time it was annoying. Every time, every single time, she did something slightly wrong, she said, ‘Solly. Solly.’ And was often crying with a runny nose. She was thirty four then, for God’s sake. Grow up, I wanted to shout at her. But, you know, she’d cry harder and apologise more if I’d yelled at her, I knew that.

     Yeah, at that time her eyes were red and her nose was running. Some mucus started dangling from her nostrils and was about to reach her rice. She breathed it in noisily and it went all the way back her nose. It was amazing to see how her small nose could hold that much mucus. After that she kept breathing in the mucus to keep it in her nose. If it were Cathy, I’d send her to the bathroom to blow her nose. It was actually disgusting while eating, especially the food she’d cooked.  

     And she was so meek like a stupid sheep. Every time I asked her to do something, she did it right away as if I were her master and she were my slave. I thought it was nice at first, you know, she was so obliging. But gradually I started feeling strange. She was staying with us in our house and paying for her board. But that didn’t mean she was beneath us, you know. Still she acted as if she was. She never said no. Not once. She was like a small dog that was always ready to please people with its tongue out and its tail wagging. When she first came to our place, I asked her not to drink milk directly from the bottle. You know, I never allow my family to do that. The mouth of the bottle should be kept clean all the time. When I asked her about it, she said, ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’ So naturally I believed she’d understood me. Then after for a while when we’d been talking about food, she asked, ‘Is it all light to dlink some milk flom the bottle?’ I couldn’t say anything for a second or two. I thought, ‘She actually didn’t like what I’d asked her and just pretended she’d understood me.’ It was a bit offensive, you know. But I said nicely, ‘No. Please don’t do it.’ She said, ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’ I wasn’t sure if she’d got it. Later I realised that she often said, ‘Yes. Yes, Yes,’ even when she didn’t understand what she was asked. Like a couple weeks later, I asked her not to open the window while I was making cake. You know, it was very windy outside and the mixture of wholemeal flour and white flour I was using would be blown away if the window was open. But she opened it saying, ‘I am hot.’ The flours flew everywhere in the kitchen. I yelled, ‘Fuku! I told you not to open the window! Why did you do that?’ I couldn’t help it. And naturally, she started crying and apologising, ‘Solly. Solly. Solly.’ The same kind of things happened again for a couple of times. After that I had to get her repeat what she thought she’d understood, or she might have caused disasters, you know.

     Once when I was trimming the front hedge, she came back, crying. She was crying on the public street in broad daylight. She wasn’t a six-year-old kid but a thirty-four-year-old adult. I asked her after she’d calmed down. Can you believe what’d  made her cry walking in the street? She’d gone to her classmate’s house. A son of her host family, about twenty five, opened the door and said her friend wasn’t home, but she could wait for her inside and invited her in and said she looked nice and kissed her hand. That made her cry, she said. Can you believe it? A thirty-four-year-old woman cried when she was kissed on her hand. I know, that man wasn’t quite proper, but I was sure he was joking, you know. She cried walking in the street as if some kind of the end of the world was coming. Her friend’s place was on Woodside Avenue, so she’d been walking and crying all the way to my house on Munro Close. It was a quiet afternoon, but people were out walking everywhere. A couple of my neighbours asked me after her later. I was too embarrassed to tell the truth.

     Oh, almost forgot. I did have a non-EU student before her. She was a married woman from China with cute small nose and cute little dark eyes. She was also modest, but firm; she said no when she wanted and didn’t cry. She cooked beautiful Chinese food for us one evening. It was so delicious. You know, China and Japan are the same Asian countries, but they are so different. Amazing.

     Yeah, the accident. On the way back from the church retreat. She was the only survivor. All the others died, including my Ben. He was only fifteen. He went to Sunday school every Sunday and prayed every night. He wanted to study theology at uni. But he’s gone. And Fuku came back. I don’t know if Asians can be real Christians. They’re different people altogether, you know. She cried for Ben with me, but I was sick of her tears and stupid voice. I felt his death was dirtied by her crying. I didn’t visit her only once while she was in hospital, I was too much to do and I had too much to think about. My Ben.

     When she came back, I told her her room was occupied by my niece, so we couldn’t take her anymore. I just couldn’t have her in my place. Her stupid tears and her stupid face. My Ben’s smile wouldn’t come back. I just gave her her bags and all those presents in a rubbish bag at the door and shut it on her. I don’t where she went after that. Who cares?  

     Do you want one more round?


About the Author: Sayuri was born in Japan and came to England in 2003 after searching a country to live permanently in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and French Polynesia for ten years. She finished studying Creative and Critical Writing in a postgraduate course at the University of Winchester in September, 2011.

Artwork: Amber Parker

Review: Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw

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Ultraluminous
by Katherine Faw
Published 2017 by MCD
$25.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0374279660

By Noah Sanders

There is a drum-like rhythm to Katherine Faw’s cold-hearted thriller, Ultraluminous, a repetitive pounding of stick to skin that builds bit by bit in speed and fervor, the tension drawing tighter and tighter until it implodes upon itself. In breathless, staccato paragraphs, Faw draws the world of K.—a high-end sex worker recently returned to New York from the Middle East—and her interactions with a quartet of ultra-rich clients. The reader is given little about K. aside from her profession and the robotic way she interacts with the world and the men she sleeps with. She is a jumble of broken glass insides held just barely in place by the strange, almost inhuman repetition of her life. The book is purposefully repetitive, similar scenes of sex and drug use played over and over again, a pattern of self-abuse subtly altered over the course of the book as K. slowly comes apart at the seams. Yet, Faw isn’t content to merely pull her character apart in glorious slow-motion, instead she injects a wavering line of mystery into the proceedings, a looming series of questions regarding K.’s past and what her ultimate goal, if any, actually is. The mystery does add a sense of urgency, but in the end, as the story jumps the tracks and everything gets suddenly bigger and brighter, the simple beauty of K.’s sluggish unwinding is lost in all the clamor.

K. is more than a creature of habit, she is a woman made real by simple, mundane order. She fucks a different man each week for money, she eats cheap Duane Reade sushi, she snorts a certain number of bags of heroin, and in the cracks between she attempts to exist as a real person. She is obsessed with patterns—in dancing, on her nails, in the men she sleeps with—because containing herself within a tightly structured way of living allows her some conceit that she actually exists. If K. performs these tasks she’s given herself—eat, drink, fuck, sleep—then she has choices, and if she choices she’s still alive. “In my life, I have choices,” K. says, “Everything is going fine.”

This is a book rife with intense sexual experience, but Faw doesn’t ever sugar-coat it, doesn’t add even a lick of romance to the proceedings. Sex for K. is a way of giving up her control, of becoming a reflection of whomever she’s sleeping with at the time, throwing her own will out the window and fully giving herself up. None of her lovers have names, merely descriptions, as if giving them human attributes would reflect back on her, forcing her to engage in the emotional side of her being. She sets rules for each of her lovers, routines and patterns that dictate the sex they have, but as K. begins to fall apart, the rules breakdown and the sexual episodes become stranger, more violent. K. is defined by her routines—sexual or otherwise—and in the moments where she interacts outside of either element of her life, Faw writes as if K. is an alien, and the small details of life are strange, potentially wonderful moments held under glass. “I eat a plain slice on a bench beside two white-haired women who are bitching about their mailman, who steals packages,” K. says, “and I almost start crying.”

Faw’s ability to use repetition as a tool is beautiful thing to withhold. Though Ultraluminous hums along with a speed-addled sort of energy, faster and faster as the reader becomes attuned to the rhythm of K.’s world, Faw uses the pace, and her blunt style of writing to create a false sense of, albeit bizarre, security. K.’s patterns become ingrained in the reading experience and as Faw slowly subverts—slight breaks here, small tweaks there—the comfort starts to fray, and though it always seemed inevitable, the dissolution of the narrator’s life, her routine, becomes apparent in the most nerve-pounding of fashions. A sick sense of enjoyment is derived from not only experiencing the ordered chaos of K.’s life, but watching it fall apart. “There is no grand pattern,” K. realizes late in the book, “Only the small, negotiable, meaningless patterns I have created that have not kept me safe.”

If Faw was willing to simply chronicle K.’s attempts at holding herself together, this could be a gritty classic, a pitch black character study of a woman clawing at the walls in an attempt to stop her own decline. Faw’s unyielding writing style, her tight rein over the book’s pace is breathtaking, and K. is a fascinating character, but Faw stumbles when she starts trying to answer the questions of why and what comes next. The end of the book, twenty pages of violent reckoning, blows up the pattern, but it feels unnecessary, a garish extroverted end to a book that reads best when it resides solely in the mind of its engrossing protagonist.

Review: The Book of Resting Places by Thomas Mira y Lopez

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The Book of Resting Places
by Thomas Mira y Lopez
Published 2017 by Counterpoint
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1619021235

By Noah Sanders

It is a true pleasure to engage with a book like Thomas Mira y Lopez’s The Book of Resting Places, a collection of essays that chronicles—in the wake of his father’s passing—his obsession with where our dead are laid to rest. Where so much writing on death piles on saccharine platitudes, Mira y Lopez’s writing is fueled by both sadness and a sly, caustic anger burning just beneath the surface. Coupled with his keen eye for observation and a fascinating breadth of subject matter, The Book of Resting Places becomes a refreshingly honest and critical look at death, grieving, and how burial becomes a our means to remembering, and forgetting, those we’ve lost.

The impetus for Mira y Lopez’s deep exploration of how we bury our dead and what exactly it means is the death of his father from a series of strokes in 2006. The opening essay, “Memory, Memorial” sets the tone for the entirety of the book. Mira y Lopez visits his mother in the rural Pennsylvania home she now lives alone in with only her poodle for company. They visit his “dad’s tree”—an Ohio buckeye planted by his parents when they purchased the home, now repurposed as a memorial to his deceased father. The simple ritual—walking to the tree, admiring the tree, mourning his father—one Mira y Lopez in his cynical way immediately admits to caring little for. The tree has become a symbol of the healthy man his father was in life, not the shriveled husk he became as death inched closer and closer. In enshrining his memory within the healthy tree, Mira y Lopez believes his mother is choosing to “remember him as she prefers: as strong and healthy instead of decaying.”

The Book of Resting Places is about death but approached from the angle of how we, the grieving survivors, use burial as a means to memorialize, to remember, to forget those we’ve lost. The author explores catacombs in Rome, an unearthed cemetery in Tucson, a death artifact collector’s store in the desert—each subject a catalyst for Mira y Lopez to intertwine his knowledge of classic literature, history and the sharp pangs of his own grief into keen, if not occasionally abrasive interpretations of what it means to be “put to rest.” In “The Eternal Comeback” Mira y Lopez and a friend visit Alcor, a cryogenics storage vault in Scottsdale, AZ. The author never dabbles in the platitudes so often associated with death, and though an essay on cryogenics could quickly devolve into “how weird is this shit” (and the essay certainly entertains the notion) Mira y Lopez puts his hangups on the shelf and writes a stunning piece on what it means to accept, even want the possibility of living forever. “To delay the acceptance of what’s lost harms the lives that survive that loss,” he writes, “Death remains one of the words I can think of for which the adjective universal actually holds. How lonely would it be to want to exist outside of that?”

Mira y Lopez’s honesty about death, about his own failures as a son, as a man struggling to remember his father for who he was and not what he became physically allows it to transcend so much of the cotton-candy fluff that gets written about dying. His father’s death has left him angry, cynical even, with himself and his actions in the months that preceded his passing. The Book of Resting Places is the author’s attempt to grapple with his own regrets and his own sadness. As with death, there’s no sunshine-y ending to these essays, rather just the grim realization that no matter how many trees, or catacombs or frozen bodies with throw out in the hope that our loved ones will exist, somehow, after they’ve passed, in the end, all we’re left with is scant, almost arbitrary memories. “I have learned the hard way,” he writes, “that when someone you love dies, the real shame is that your memory of them dies as well.” We bury, cremate, build memorials for the dead because we want to keep them in our minds in a certain way. Death is hard on the living, and though Mira y Lopez might be too cynical, too educated to buy into the human need to immortalize some aspects of our loved ones, he comes to a simple understanding of just why we do: “When it comes down to it, you do what you do to survive.”