Snow Globe by Monica Wesolowska

B. Ellis Williams_ For Snow Globe


From his hospital bed, he could not feel the heat of the day, but he could see the wind tearing the last, wrinkled leaves from the silver branches of a tree and bending the top of an evergreen beyond. He thought he should ask her the day.

“Tuesday,” Helen said.

But what he had meant was the date.

Beyond the evergreen, three palm trees bent in unison beneath a blast, then sprang up, brushing and slashing at the sky with their fronds, and then he remembered. Almost time for her holiday bash. Was that it? In fact, there was Santa, a man dressed as Santa, napping on the hospital lawn across the street. She would be amused by that. “Santa,” he said, lifting what felt like his arm but turned out to be no more than a finger to point in that direction. But perhaps Santa wasn’t the right topic after all. He wished she had told him the date.

“Jesus,” Helen said, not looking at the Santa. “This is no time for jokes.”

“Name’s Harold,” Harold mumbled. It was an old joke, a reflex; if he had the strength, he might tease her that Jesus might be the guy in the next bed, but Helen suddenly stood and went to the window. She’d been sitting for hours, for days, next to his bed it seemed, but now she was standing with her back to him. What day was it anyway? he wondered. From the nibbling pain at his side, he knew he needed to straighten this out fast.

“Goddamn it,” Helen said, “I’m only doing this for you.”

Too late, Helen realized she should have smiled at him when he made that old joke about Jesus; turning back from the sealed window, she tried to smile at him now and was embarrassed to be caught by the wife at the next bed. Always there were visitors there, hovering, a wife, a sister, children, grandchildren, always ready to give Helen a sympathetic smile as if they were all in this together. The man there had been given a month to live, she’d overheard the wife telling a visitor that, as if one could ever know how long someone had left. “It’s warm out there,” Helen said at last. “Bone dry. No snow at Tahoe. It’ll be a smooth ride up.” She returned to her chair by his bed. “All I’m asking is a day or two, Harold. We can drive back whenever you want. We can leave your family up there and come back to the hospital. Just put yourself in my shoes, Harold. I’m just trying to do what’s best.”

She tried to smile again, but now a nurse was in the way, rushing in and bending over him, saying, “Hello, Harry.” Yesterday Helen had reminded this nurse that Harold was still a doctor in the hospital and should be addressed as such but here she was again, saying, “Of course, Harry,” almost giggling with helpful pleasure as she adjusted something on his drip. Yesterday, this nurse had also tried to talk to Helen about hospice, and Helen had roundly told her off for losing faith in Harold’s recovery.

“She looks fourteen,” Helen said bitterly as soon as the nurse had left off fiddling and drifted to the other bed. “You’d be better off with me. We’ll set you up…” When Harold looked as if he were about to speak, Helen stopped, but then he didn’t so she went on, “We’ll set you up in your La-Z-Boy. We’ll bring it to the head of the table.”

Again Harold tried to speak. “The catheter,” he began.

“I’ve asked Dr. Carey about that,” Helen said triumphantly. At least Dr. Carey had agreed with Helen on this. “Traveling to the cabin is fine. She’ll set you up with a portable catheter, make you comfortable. She said champagne is fine, brandy butter, it’s all fine. She said this party is just what you, just what we need to lift our spirits.” She laughed hollowly and then waited.

For some reason she did not remind him about the unveiling of his mother’s gravestone. It was the party afterwards that she wanted him to come for, she wanted the relief after the unveiling of a party in his mother’s winter cabin. The relief of his mother being gone. A year she had been dead, a year it would be, the day after tomorrow. For a year Harold had planned the unveiling, and for a year Helen had imagined the party afterwards, the party when finally she would have Harold all to herself. The first holiday party in years where his mother would not be there, poisoning the fun, making them nervous about what she would do next to grab their attention, smashing a champagne glass, swallowing a silver charm from the pudding, her charisma, her wit suddenly going too far, leaving her naked in the snow singing something from Carmen while Harold tried to pull her back inside.

Harold looked past Helen, out the window at the wind in the trees. “You go…” he said. He was thinking of a time when he was young and had a kite. A summer on Fire Island. He and Bill and his mother together. The kite was gray with pink ears.

Helen laughed again. “I’m not going without you. I’m doing it for you. You’re just being stubborn. Think about it. Bill and Ruth are bringing all eight kids, even Shoshana. Shoshana is interrupting her junior year abroad to come. Maybe she’s in the air already. How long does it take to come from Israel? You can’t let your brother collect his family from all the corners of the globe and then refuse to budge because of a catheter. I don’t buy it.”

When Harold still said nothing, she looked back out the window at the tossing trees. It was unnatural, she thought. After thirty-two years in California, she still found the seasons wrong. Today the wind was actually warm, a warm wind that refused to let the cold of winter start. She wanted to take that blue sky and shake it, shake it like the snow globe Harold had given her just a few weeks ago for her collection. To get you into the holiday spirit, he’d said, in his generous way. He hated Santa, he hated Christmas, he hated blind Christian hegemony – together they’d moved away from any semblance of the religious practices of their youth – but every year he’d given her a snow globe for Christmas because he understood her nostalgia for the joy of childhood holidays. They’d gone to a play that night, getting out their season tickets without looking at what was on, but when the play turned out to be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he’d insisted they leave at intermission. She’d never seen the play before and all he would tell her was that the madness of it continued, that it had something to do with having children or with not having children. He’d given her the snow globe afterwards, in the car, straight from the bag from the store where he’d bought it earlier that day. Go ahead, he’d said, play God, shake it. And when she’d shaken it, it wasn’t snow that lifted up but a flurry of little kites with tiny tails. It was something entirely knew to her collection. As good as the one with umbrellas falling around the Eiffel Tower. He’d kissed her warmly in the car. Then he’d told her about his diagnosis, that the cancer had already spread, though he wouldn’t tell her more.

“I’ve already ordered the beef from Magnani’s,” she said unsteadily.

His eyes rolled from the window to his morphine drip sailing at the top of its pole. The kite had belonged to him but Bill had flown it, and it got caught in a pine tree, and his mother had made them leave it there, stuck in a tree on Fire Island, because she was in one of her moods; and when he asked months later if Santa could bring him a new kite, she’d yelled at him because they were Jewish and Santa didn’t come to their house. He should tell Helen about the kite. He’d never told her that story about his mother and the kite. He used to call Helen, “my sweet kite,” he used to tell her that he’d hold her to the earth while she sailed free above him. He opened his mouth to speak, but a little mouse stopped him.

“But you can weigh in on the side dishes,” Helen went on, regaining her footing. “I was thinking mashed potatoes but then I saw a recipe for potatoes mashed with parsnips. They have nice parsnips at the Berkeley Bowl. We haven’t had parsnips since…”

The mouse had little pink ears like his kite, but it had real teeth and claws, and it had finally eaten through his skin and was inside now, trembling and gnawing.

“I’ve asked Dr. Carey,” Helen tried again. “I’ve got the equipment…”

Now that one had gotten in, he could feel a stream of them slipping in. He could feel them in his veins, his organs, nibbling, gnawing. His liver, his kidney. He had to tell Helen something fast. Why couldn’t he remember? The words. Were they leaking out the mouse hole? At the mouse house, Helen’s face loomed and he knew he had to say something, to convince her that she would be fine, that she had never needed him as much as she thought, and he felt his mouth moving and thought he said, “Helen.”

But Helen had turned from him to the commotion around the next bed.

The man there wanted to get up. “Where’s my Gucci bag?” the man asked.

“It’s right here. Everything’s okay,” his wife said soothingly, and then they surrounded him, two teen-aged boys, a girl of six, a skinny young man with a tie on, lifting his tubes, swinging his legs to the edge of the bed, closing his gown in back, heaving him up and into his wheelchair. Helen though it was ghastly. But at last they were setting off, all of them attached in some way, wheeling his oxygen, holding up a tube, jingling like a sleigh – his wheelchair had been hung with bells and holly – and as they passed, the wife said to Helen, “Harry started that, calling their catheter bags Gucci bags which is a hoot, your husband’s a hoot. Thank God Robert’s had Harry, that they’ve had each other to laugh with at the end, you know?”

“God better have a sense of humor,” the man called Robert said to the young man with the tie who was pushing his wheelchair.

“Robert said he’s not going to heaven unless Harry gets in,” the wife said to Helen.

“Damn straight. If humor doesn’t count for something, I’m not sure how I’ll get in,” Robert said and lifted his hand to swat at the bells attached to his IV pole.

The wife looked back at Helen. “Don’t listen to him,” she said. “I have full faith that we’ll all be reunited some day, all people, no matter what we believe,” and she smiled her sympathetic smile at Helen again, before turning with her family out of the room, the sound of their sleigh bells and laughter slowly fading as they moved together down the hall.

In their absence, Helen heard the silence of the room, a sickening silence, a whirring, a ticking, as if mice ran in the walls. In the cabin, sometimes, there were mice. They ate a tunnel through the bread one year. If Harold refused to budge, she’d have to deal with the mice herself, and sit at the head of the table, carving roast beef with the candles all lit, and say what? They would ply her with questions, and what would she say? Harold had always been the healthy one, the tough one, the stoic, ever since her parents’ funeral, all those years ago, Harold, not even married to her yet but flying all the way to Milwaukee to sit there at the wake like a tough Midwesterner, trying to cheer everyone. She saw again the foil-wrapped lasagnas and cakes left overnight on the porch by parishioners. Snow all over everything. No, too early for snow. That was her grandmother’s funeral, most funerals it seemed; at her parents’ there’d been rain, of course, that week of torrential rain, blamed for the car accident. So much rain that snails left their trails on the foil-wrapped food left on the porch, which Harold pointed out, making her laugh, everyone laughing, the house full of stunned, wet, laughing Midwesterners who were nice. Just so nice, Harold had said, even though he’d feared being in a room with that many Catholics. “Take comfort in your parents’ faith, Helen,” Father Marek had said, Father Marek who’d been a young priest when he’d first passed through the parish, when she was a teenager and susceptible to crushes on young, Polish priests. “Our Father,” Father Marek had nudged her, “who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name…” and she had tried with him for a minute to find comfort in thinking of our Father, all hallowed, up in heaven until Harold reminded her that there were other ways of finding comfort.

Making love on her parents’ bed, for instance. That had been comforting.

“Ignore them,” Harold had said, when her cousins caught them coming out of the bedroom and called her crazy. That’s what he always said. “Ignore them.” He didn’t care what other people thought. He didn’t care about having children. People always blamed the woman, but he was the one. That was the deal. No children. Children only brought out the craziness in parents, he said, and she had believed him; she had believed that it was better to love only each other. But now? How could she bear her own holiday party, all the children tearing her beautiful wrapping paper to shreds, ravishing her roast beef, Bill sidling up to her to say as he always did, as if this were a revelation, that his mother had been wrong, that Helen wasn’t a crazy shiksa after all? Would she have to stand there, trying to feel complete, while Bill stood there smirking about his generous, fecund, respectable life? No, this time she would say…

“Is it time?” he asked.

“For what, dear?”

“It’s time.”

“You’ve got to come. You can’t do this to me,” she said.

It was time. He wanted more morphine, but it wasn’t time yet. Was it time yet? There was a family of mice named Bill and Ruth, and Shoshana, and Bill had eaten almost all his insides out but where was his mother? His mother needed to be here. He needed to make sure that his mother was all right. Had he not promised? To live a long life since there would be nothing after death. Or was that Helen whom he’d promised to stay with until the very end?

“You promised,” Helen said, not knowing what he’d promised anymore. As his eyelids fluttered, she realized the damned nurse had given him more morphine in his drip when he didn’t need it yet. They should give it to him only when he was in pain. He would tell her when. With morphine, he couldn’t tell her anything. With the morphine, he was drifting away, further each time, leaving a rope, a string, a thread between them. She had told him when he came around, last time, that she wasn’t ready for a thread. They had not planned for a thread. If he would just say yes, just nod, she could whisk him away from all this, get him alone. So he could remember why he needed to stay here for her.

“Please,” she said, “just tell me what you need.”

He struggled, his face a mass of struggling wrinkles. “My kite…”

“Your kite?” she asked.

After a while he said, “I want…”

“Yes, just tell me what you want.”

“Bill.”

“Do you want to see Bill?”

He said something that sounded like “fly.”

“Do you want to fly to Tahoe? Would you like that better than driving?” she asked, unable to stop herself. When he said nothing more, she followed his eyes to the window. Outside, beyond the whirring of the room, the wind had stilled and the trees stood to attention, as stiff as plastic trees beneath the blue-domed sky.

 


Author Bio: Monica Wesolowska is the author of the memoir Holding Silvan: A Brief Life. Named a “Best Book” of 2013 by The Boston Globe and Library JournalHolding Silvan is forthcoming in German and Polish. A long-time teacher of writing at UC Berkeley Extension, Wesolowska has published both essays and fiction in many other venues including The New York Times. Read more at www.monicawesolowska.com

Artwork: B. Ellis Williams is a poet, visual artist, spiritual counselor, occasional philosopher, aspiring psychopomp, and priest-in-training. He holds an MFA in poetry from St. Mary’s College of California, and presently studies and resides at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

 


 

In Paris by Charles Bane Jr.

photo (7)


 

In Paris
In Paris, all the streets
were rained and magpies
in the shadows of Notre Dame
poured tunes. The cafes dripped
and all the city was wet that
afternoon; you said, look
at the long haired Seine; do you want
to walk in the Jardins des Plantes ?
No, I said, let’s hold Mass in your room.
You lay and I heard bells at the lifting
of the moon. A thousand souls somewhere
in the dark of France flew.


Author Bio: Charles Bane, Jr. is the American author of The Chapbook (Curbside Splendor, 2011) and Love Poems (Kelsay Books, 2014). His work was described by The Huffington Post as, “not only standing on the shoulders of giants, but shrinking them.” Creator of The Meaning of Poetry series for The Gutenberg Project, he is a current nominee as Poet Laureate of Florida. “In Paris,” is from his new release.

Artwork: Justin Schapker is an artist living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Green to Blue by Rebecca A Eckland

Eckland_For Green to Blue


 

When my partner of seven years begins to see another woman, he will buy me a small, calico cat.
        It’s a Saturday in November, and we’re out together when I see the cat in a cage in a PetCo. He immediately offers to buy her for me, and I won’t think that there’s anything unusual in this. Instead, I’m fixated on how shy she is—dashing beneath the bed and remaining there for weeks—and I worry I’ll have a new cat in this small family of ours who is scared of most people and by extension, the world.
        But the cat will come out at the same time he does: “I’ve decided I don’t love you anymore,” he’ll say.
        And, I will think it’s me.
        We had just discovered we were pregnant, and I’d lost my adjunct teaching position for the spring (budget concerns, I was told), to which he said: “I can’t spend my life waiting for you to amount to something.”
        So, I’ll think of drowning myself in the dark Truckee river downtown at ten o’clock on a Tuesday night in late December when it hits me that he’s really gone; our life is gone and it is because I’m not enough. But then I will remember I am an elite triathlete, and I swim too well for drowning. And so, I wander home under flickering street lamps to our—I mean, my—loft where I push my nose into the living room carpet to muffle my sobbing.
        When I return to sanity, I realize all of this has nothing to do with me not being enough. Instead, I think it has something to do with honesty, with newness and the disguises we wear around the people we don’t know, and the ones we forget to wear when we think we do.

*
        There’s a mural in downtown Reno that depicts a sky filled with clouds at either dusk or sunrise. There’s no horizon line and no depth, really, just the figure of clouds colored with the faintest trace of growing or fading light on a pale blue background. There have been days when I’ve walked along the Truckee River and looked up at the stone building, and I found myself thinking that the mural serves as some sort of camouflage.
        It’s one of those Sundays in January after my ceiling collapsed, when it hadn’t snowed in quite a while, and it’s too cold, that I decide to go downtown. And I know I’m completely alone in the world. The ice skating rink is filled with young families, and the hip bars are filled with jersey-wearing twenty-somethings rooting for their favorite team in the playoffs. I don’t follow football (I used to, when I lived with a man who cared about the game), so I walk past the hip bars and the ice rink and wander into a dive next to the mural.

*
        I call the cat Sanchia. This was name of the third daughter of a not-so-wealthy 13th century Baron in Provence, France, who married a man who didn’t love her, who left her for a campaign in Germany after their only child died.  She died alone of the flu.  He remarried shortly thereafter.
        She has abandonment issues, the woman from the shelter tells me on the phone when she calls weeks later to make sure I still want the cat. She’ll reach out with her paw and hold you there and grab you with her mouth, like she’s biting.
        She’ll do this with me. Fall into rapturous purring and then a swipe when I pull my hand away. But only briefly—a week or two—until she discovers I’m not going anywhere.

*
        He’s the only figure in the dive bar, a short sixty-something Caucasian man with wire-rim glasses and hair that’s more gray than blonde. He’s got a half-finished glass of Chardonnay in front of him, and he doesn’t notice me, at first, sitting as far away from him as possible next to the brick wall.
        I can tell he’s been there a while by the way he slouch-sits and the way the word “fucking” seems to make it into every sentence as he chats with the bartender. But I know what I’m there for—to not be alone in my loft—so I tell myself again and again that it’s OK to be in a bar; it’s OK to have a glass of wine; it’s OK to pretend to watch the game as the clouds mimic the mural, outside.
        But then the sixty-year-old, glasses-wearing man asks me what I do. And I don’t want to talk about myself—about my unemployment status, the hole in my ceiling, how I became alone. So I say the only thing that comes to mind: I’m a writer.
        He moves a few stools closer and says: I’m an artistYou want to see my work?
       Fuck yeah, you do, he says and reaches into what looks like a laptop bag (without a laptop) and pulls out snapshots of the mural. He points and says: I did that.
        I don’t believe him, at first.
        He says: I stood on a fucking crane and pissed on that fucking wall and said: fuck you, Reno, and painted a mural.  I laugh at this (pissing on something you’ve painted seems funny to me, somehow. Or, it approximates how I feel about certain things in my life. The wreckage of the past few months, for instance.)

*
        Later that night when the muralist sits on the stool next to me:
        Green to Blue? That’s fucking brilliant!
        He’d just asked me what the name of the song was playing in the bar, and I knew it was Miles Davis, and it was from the album Some Kind of Blue, but the words mixed themselves up and I’d said: It’s Green to Blue.
        You know why that’s so great, darlin’? He doesn’t wait for me to respond. Because that’s fucking impossible!
        Because blue’s a primary color?
       Because you can’t turn Green to Blue, darlin’. That’s fucking brilliant.

*
        When things fall apart it’s hard not to call it a tragedy. The cracks and fissures reveal the empty spaces in what had once been a life. My partner was in my life for seven years, and the size of the hole that much absence leaves is vast and dark, much bigger than the hole in my ceiling when it gave way on New Year’s Eve, the 80-year old plaster crushing my office chair where I had been sitting minutes before, writing.
        And when one person is your life for seven years, you miss out on a lot like adopting rescue cats and pissing on walls and meeting really drunk muralists at a bar in downtown Reno on a Sunday in January. Or, you stop calling the people you loved once, and they end up dying, and you miss their funeral, and you forget how much you miss them now that they are gone.
        Now that you are alone.
        And the silence, instead.
        So, when I reach for my phone these days, who can I call? I can’t call the one person whose number I have memorized.  After all, he doesn’t love me.
        But there are names saved in my cell phone of friends who’ve passed.
        I put my phone on speaker and expect the monotone beep of nonexistence after I dial these numbers that can’t, possibly, exist since it’s been at least eight years since I’ve dialed any of them. Instead, I hang up when the expected silence of a disconnected number turns into a ring.
        I wonder, at the other end, about the puzzled faces who read the 775 area code and ask themselves if they know anyone who lives in Reno. 

*
        The cat’s name’s Sanchia but I call her Sanchilla.
        Sanchilla like Godzilla, stomping across my chest when I’m trying to sleep. Sanchilla with her monotone voice which says: “Get up. Feed me. I’m here.”
        But also Sanchilla, soft as a Chinchilla and just about the same size. Gentle and delicate, a creature who, above all, needs me.
        She stops hiding under the bed around the time I saddle up to the bar next to a muralist who says “fuck” a lot. 

*
        The muralist tucks my hair behind my ear and leans too close, as if to kiss me.
        You’re fucking brilliant. His Chardonnay-breath says. You’re a fucking writer.
        I try to back pedal but my back’s already against a brick wall. I didn’t ask for this. I wanted a distraction. To feel like I wasn’t alone in the world. Not admiration or attention.
        He buys me another glass even though I tell him to stop, and I get up to leave. He grabs my hands, pleads with me to stay in a way that makes me embarrassed.
        Come back another night, he says.
        So, I give him my number, scribbled on a cocktail napkin. Before I walk out the door, he’ll claim he lost it.  I sigh, relief, and silently thank fate or God for watching out for me. 

*
        But it happens like I feared it would: the repeated calls, the shrill ring of my phone on another Saturday in January. It’s the muralist, and he’s just gotten out of a meeting with another writer who’s brilliant, and he’s stopped by the Tap House in downtown Reno for a glass of wine. It’s two o’clock in the afternoon.
        The fucks haven’t started yet, but I can hear them building in the back of his throat with each audible sip. The bar behind him sounds empty, and I tell him I don’t want to join him because I’m floored with the flu (really), and when he starts slur into something mildly pornographic I’m not calling for your cooch, darlin’ I tell him I have to go.
        He calls back: five, seven, eight, eleven, twenty, twenty-two and twenty-nine minutes later. Each time I hear the tingle of my ringtone, I half-hope it’s any other number than the one I’ve come to recognize.  My parents, the tax guy, my ex. But no: it’s the muralist, again and again, his calls like the heartbeat of some medieval monster which lives in my loft with me.
        He continues calling throughout the night, and I bury my cellphone under a pillow in the couch, and I dream, briefly, of the man who left me. But then I hear the rings from my phone which wake me, muffling into the early morning: 4:38 am, 4:47 am, 5:14 am, 6:45 am.
        The messages, the few words of each I listen to before hitting the delete key, begin the same: You’re a brilliant fucking writer. But you know what? You’re pathetic!           You need somebody. You don’t fucking need anybody, darlin’. Except for an asshole like me. Yeah, I’d marry you. Let’s get married, and I’ll take that sweet cooch…
         I boil water to make tea as the Sanchilla dances around my legs, demanding food. 

*
        It is eight o’clock on a Thursday night in February, and after another call from the muralist, I lose myself; all those messages I have no desire to answer weigh against the heavy silence of my new life.
        In the darkness, I hold myself in my arms while the headlights from passing cars flicker, casting my body on the wall. I’m alone, and it’s cold, but I force myself to feel an arm I can’t feel and the exhale of a breath that isn’t mine.
        Then, I feel the brush of a softness at my ankles, rubbing because of instinct and desire, a feeling beyond the painted walls of propriety I have abandoned. The newness of this silence renders me the most me I’ve been this snowless winter when my ceiling gives me access to the nighttime stars. And as I’m about to withdraw into illusion—into a life that no longer exists—the spell is broken by something small and innocent as the light fades from green to blue.
        “Mew,” the Sachilla demands, calling me back into the world, again.


Author Bio: Rebecca A Eckland holds an MFA in Nonfiction writing from Saint Mary’s College. She also has two Master of Arts degrees in both English and French awarded by the University of Nevada, Reno where she has taught in the Core Writing and Core Humanities Departments. Additionally, she freelances for local periodicals as well as for longer ghost writing projects. Her work has appeared in The Barnstormer, Caught in the Carousel, 3/Go Magazine, and The Rudder Magazine; she has forthcoming work in Weber: The Contemporary West, TAYO Literary Magazine and Hotel Amerika. She is the creator and organizer of “Literary Arts & Wine,” a reading series held every third Sunday of the month in Truckee, California. She is also the winner of the 2014 Boise 70.3 Ironman, the 2014 Lake Tahoe Triathlon and plans to compete in the Ironman World Championships in 2016.

Artwork: Rebecca A Eckland

 

 

doxology from a barroom window by Leland Seese

Colin Farstad_FOR SEESE-2


 

doxology from a barroom window

the fire engine blasts its horn and siren
southbound toward an elsewhere accident

two women in their twenties drinking vodka
flit about the edges of their readiness to kiss

a cough drop wrapper gold and black
blows up from the gutter to the sidewalk near a tree

a zillion other things in endless rearrangement
these three arranged like this are all i see


Author Bio: Leland Seese lives in Seattle. He began writing poetry after a bout of cancer finally convinced him to put his English/Creative Writing degree from the University of Washington to use. He has published poems in Pyrokinection and The Christian Century

Artwork: Colin Farstad has been at one point or another a teacher, editor, writer, photographer, event coordinator and connoisseur of classic cocktails. Currently he lives in Brooklyn and works at DeFiore and Company. For more information check out colinfarstad.com

A Tight Spot by Jacqueline Doyle

 Herrington_ FOR DOYLE_A Tight Spot


Sure I felt like an asshole. We’ve all been in tight spots made us think about what assholes we are, gave us time to ponder. I had all night, and then some.
        Seasonal work was the best I done last year, working for Mel’s Electronics for the Christmas rush. Black pants, black shoes, white shirt, a Santa Claus hat and red vest from Mel’s with a nametag read, “Happy Holidays! My name is Dean. Ask me a question!” Mel said a year ago was better, but far as I could see, they were raking it in.
        It was late afternoon on December 23 that I rung up this lady’s purchase, almost $4000 mind you, and just happened to notice the address on her ID, 1255 Cold Canyon Road, because I used to live in an apartment at 1255 Canyon Boulevard, a different neighborhood altogether, believe you me. I hauled this big-ass flat screen Toshiba TV out to the lady’s Lexus SUV, which was chock-full of presents, and she says, “I got my shopping done just in time. We’re leaving tonight for a party at my in-laws and won’t be back ‘til late tomorrow. I’ve barely got time to wrap.” She gave me a two dollar tip, even though they’re not supposed to.
        That night I couldn’t help thinking about all those presents. Mel’s gives seasonal staff a 10% discount, whoop-dee-do, and I bought my girlfriend Jolene an itty bitty Coby TV for our bedroom, but it didn’t amount to much, and that big Toshiba sure would look good on the living room wall, you know how people hang them up like pictures now? And I was thinking this lady’s got insurance for sure, and it’s not like the TV belongs to anyone yet. Or the iPods with Memorex Speaker Systems for her kids, or the Sony HD Camcorder for her husband. That was just what she bought at Mel’s. Who knows what else was in the car. I’m figuring, they haven’t even opened their presents and got time to get attached to anything. They can’t miss what they don’t even know they’ve got.
        So I decide just to swing by and look at 1255 Cold Canyon Road, just take a look at the house and the neighborhood. I wasn’t planning nothing, just thinking on it, taking a drive.
        Well you wouldn’t believe all the Christmas lights and decorations. Deer made out of lights in the front yards, Santa in his sleigh with a load of presents, all lit up red and green. Long paths lined with giant light-up candy canes. Big houses. Big yards. Lots of trees. 1255 Cold Canyon was set way back from the road, and without thinking I just zipped up the driveway with my headlights off, figured I could always say I had the wrong address, that I was in the neighborhood to hook up someone’s new TV. They’ve got that service at Mel’s and other places, and some of the help do it on the side, slip the customer their phone number when they load stuff in their cars. “If you have any trouble at all with installation, please just give me a call, ma’am. I can fix you up for less than Mel’s will charge you.” I never done that, mostly because I wasn’t sure I could handle all those cables and directions.
        I sit in the car for a spell, drinking a beer.
        After a while I open the car door real quiet, then freeze, wondering was there a dog. But I didn’t hear nothing. The house was dark, with just one little light in the entry hallway, shining through the thick glass panes in the door. No porch light, no lights anywhere else. I walk through the unlocked side gate into the back yard, just cogitating, scoping it out. I bang into the recycling bin, which gives me a scare. But the neighbors are much too far away to hear or see anything so I figure I’m safe. Someone down the street’s got a repeating tape of Christmas music to go with their Christmas decorations, “Jingle Bells” to “White Christmas” to “Deck the Halls” to “Silent Night” back to “Jingle Bells,” where it starts up all over again. That would drive me crazy. I’m just as glad I don’t live in this fancy neighborhood.
        House this big must have a burglar alarm. I’m thinking how would you get into a house like this without using a door or a window. It’s not like I wanted to rob the whole place. I just wanted to scoop up those presents and run, wouldn’t take more than a few minutes tops.
        Well Santa must have been on my mind, because it just come to me. Why not the chimney? Chances are the tree’s set up right by the fireplace and the presents are all there for the taking. I was always a good tree climber when I was a kid, and I look around, and sure enough there’s a tall pine tree I knew I could climb. I’d already had a few beers and a peppermint schnapps at home and probably wasn’t thinking my clearest. Hadn’t really thought about how I’d get the presents out without opening a door or window.
        I climb the tree. The bark’s all rough, and I get sap on my hands and scratches on my face from the twigs and needles. But it’s also kind of fun. It smells good, makes me feel like a kid again. When I get up there, it’s just a short jump onto the roof.
        So I’m up there feeling on top of the world, congratulating myself on my climbing abilities and great idea. It’s a cold night, but not too cold, and the sky’s clear. You can see stars everywhere, and way far off, the lights of the city.
        The chimney’s got some kind of grate on top, and at first I think I’ll have to give up my plan. Wondered for a bit if I could saw a hole in the roof instead, but of course I don’t have a saw. But then I feel around, and the grate’s got four screws on the corners and it turns out you can unscrew them with a quarter, which I do, feeling pretty smart. Looking down, the chimney is kind of scary dark, but the opening looks big enough, and I figure I’ll feel fine once I’m in the living room looking at all those presents.
        I picture Jolene watching “American Idol” on this big screen Toshiba in our living room, painting her toenails like she does, calling out to me, “Come in here. You got to see this, Dean.” The two of us cuddling on the couch, her sitting with her feet across my lap, cotton balls between her pretty toes.
        Or me kicking back with some of the guys for a football game, pizza boxes and beer bottles all over the coffee table.
        “Jeez man, where’d you get it?”
        “It was a floor model at Mel’s,” I’ll say all modest. “Discontinued. You just got to be in the right place at the right time for a deal like that.”
        I get a good grip on the sides and lower myself into the chimney. Turns out there’s a ledge not too far down where I can rest my feet. I angle my butt against the side and reach down to grip the ledge. Wish I’d thought to bring a flashlight, but none of this was exactly planned, know what I mean? I can feel soot rubbing off on me, especially where I’m all sticky from the sap. I don’t know how I’m going to explain that to Jolene, and it’s getting darker as I look down. There’s a goddamn bird nest on one corner of the ledge, but at least there’s no birds. I’m farther down, barely holding onto the ledge with my fingers now, squeezed inside the chimney, feeling around with one foot, then the other, for another toehold. The chimney’s narrower below the ledge. I’m wondering how far down it will be if I just let go.
        So you know what happened. I slipped and got stuck in the chimney.
        Newspapers say I was wedged in there for ten to twelve hours. I don’t know about that. I only know it was a fucking long time, and for hours and hours all I could see was a small square of night sky and stars above me, and only if I bent my head back, which gave me a crick in my neck but was worth it, since otherwise everything was black. I knew Jolene must be wondering where I was at, and my cell phone was in the car between the seats. Not sure what I would have said if I’d had it. “Honey, I’m stuck in a chimney?” I was thinking about all the dumb things I done, mostly with my high school buddy Roger, thinking this was a two-man operation, and if he’d been along, things might not have played out this way. And thinking how Jolene says I should grow up and maybe it was time.
        The stars started to disappear as the light got gray, and then lighter, and then kind of washed-out blue with wispy clouds. By now I’m sober as a judge. Leaving the car in the driveway was a dumbass move, but at least they’d know someone was here, so it was a good dumbass move. “You won’t be here forever,” I kept telling myself, trying to keep my spirits up. Especially when I felt like I couldn’t breathe, with my elbows jammed against my rib cage like they were, and me fearing the worst. I’d suffocate. I’d fall asleep and crash down into the fireplace. Or they’d light a fire and I’d cook to death before anyone heard me calling out. Or the family would die in a car crash, and I’d starve to death here waiting for someone to find me. I closed my eyes sometimes, did this yoga breathing thing Jolene taught me. “Long exhales,” she said, “long slow breaths,” and I think that saved me much as anything. A few times I heard cars on the street and tried to yell “Help,” but it was like my voice didn’t work, and they were too far away anyway.
        Finally, after what felt like days, I hear car doors slamming in the driveway and then kids’ voices in the living room. “Ho ho ho,” I shout out, my voice kind of squeaky. The kids are shrieking “Mom, Dad, Santa’s in the chimney!” and the lady from Mel’s is saying “Oh my God! Get out of there!” Everything’s quiet again.
        It takes a while, but there’s sirens, then clomping on the roof. Two cops silhouetted against the sky, shining flashlights down the chimney. I was never so glad to see cops in my life.
        The whole family’s outside on the front porch when they lead me to the squad car in cuffs. I couldn’t look that lady in the eyes. All I can think about is that two dollar tip and, “You really screwed up this time, Deano.”
        “You have the right to remain silent.” Well I didn’t have much to say, did I? All night to think about it, and ponder other mistakes I’d made in my life, and I couldn’t even come up with an excuse for this one.
        Jolene visits weekends, says she really likes snuggling in bed and watching that Coby TV I gave her. I hope she’s snuggling alone, that’s all. We’re aiming to marry when I get out, have kids, do the whole grownup thing. It’s time.


Author Bio: Jacqueline Doyle lives in the East Bay. Her work has appeared in South Dakota Review, Ninth Letter online, South Loop Review, Southern Indiana Review, and Confrontation. A recent Pushcart nominee, she also has a “Notable Essay” listed in Best American Essays 2013. She teaches at California State University, East Bay and can be found online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.

Artwork: Alexandra Herrington

Just how we say what we say is what we say. by Julia Tranchina

Herrington_(Untitled Photo)_FOR TRANCHINA


 

Just how we say what we say is what we say.

This valley. Death shall be at the start. Drown the object in its history. Sank after it capsized; exploded in a ball of fire; derailed and plunged into a canyon; died at 97 of pneumonia. Tell the truth gradually, carefully. I’ve never met a man my age I wouldn’t have to carry around. It drained to the current level after a prehistoric earthquake. Erfam will go thirsty without clean water. The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood. I may go wrong and lose my way. Agua de Jamaica laced with white rum. Here then, was her liquid illusion of happiness. She over kissed. Your advice is truly profound when you’re snockered. Clear all the jelly! It was part of a cosmic order. Pain and suffering are the most fruitful sources of noble deeds. I just saw the police with a dump truck clearing out the homeless encampments down in the creek. Drought. A return to rambling. She taught me to tie my shoe laces with an unnecessary loop. Our dining room table is covered in lead. In Yugoslavian it means dirty drunk and dirty pig. A noun is the name of anything. Meta is conceit. The borders of my memory are shifting. How near winter death is. She is overcome. My father spends his mornings—after his wife died and I’m certain before—at the bar, where he’s able to buy cheap Gallo salami chubs from the bartender. All knowing is remembering. She is in no shape to drive. Gravity is a law of nature that controls all construction. The glass shattered under the weight of my wife and son. I will always be their second choice. The invisible monsters descend upon our human hearts. Side by side. We sleep in your shade. I took off his clothes to find the source of the bleeding. I love her but I don’t like her. Seeing his dead grandmother crawling up his leg, with a knife in her teeth. The emergency room was surprisingly quiet on New Year’s Eve. Where is mama’s bocchino? The gout makes him move like a weeble. I am quiet and keep myself to myself. Her history ended in Gridley. They like their martinis wet. Maybe this year will be better than the last. National Thank You Month! I’m joining our gene pool with theirs on paper. Your mother’s honesty borders the brutal. She looked great in a leotard. Drink lots of water and don’t eat fried foods. In a home she designed and had built in 1929. The resentment lingers. It’s the same season every day! The great arm of the sea. They dropped her to the ground, breaking both of her legs. I’m nervous. Giant black butterflies cover the sun. Tell all the truth but tell it slant. In her private life she was a popular hostess. That’s not her, she disappeared. They came for her in a windowless, white minivan on Super Bowl Sunday. Enough about the Filipino appetizers already.


Author Bio: Julia Tranchina is currently working on a series of 27 language poems. Her writing has also appeared in Barrelhouse, Monkeybicycle, Ohio Edits and Literary Orphans. She lives with her wife and two-year-old twins in San Jose, California. 

Artwork:

The Tricycle by Stephen D. Gutierrez

prints


        My dad picked up the tricycle for me from the Martinez’s around the corner.  I was afraid for him because my dad was sick, and the Martinez’s were tough, and I feared something wrong happening, something violent, something bad.  I watched him walk out of our yard through the gate at the sidewalk and limp across the street with the orange sunset filling up the ivy embankment of the Long Beach Freeway that slanted before him, filling it up in squares and chunks of orange, and below it, my dad an insignificant figure.  I kept my eye on him, my dad making his way to that weedy, overgrown yard where my tricycle lay on its side next to the older brother’s bike, who said he was keeping it, come and get it if I wanted it.  So I left.
        I had come home in tears.  And now my dad was on his way there in the pre-dinner hour when the street quieted and nobody went outside but for trouble.  I saw it that way.  I had seen a fight in the street once.
        But now my dad came back with my tricycle dragged in his hands, half-rolling, half-carrying it.  And he lifted it over the white picket fence that ran along the front of our small house in Los Angeles.  And he opened the gate and limped up the walk and made it to the front door.  He wiped his shoes on the mat and came in.
        “I got your bike.  Mr. Martinez was nice.  He said why didn’t you take it home?”
        I couldn’t tell him any of it.  I just turned away with a broken smile.


Author Bio: Stephen D. Gutierrez is the author of The Mexican Man in His Backyard, Stories & Essays, recently published by Roan Press. His two previous books are Elements and Live From Fresno y Los, which won the Nilon Award sponsored by FC2 and an American Book Award, respectively. He is well published in anthologies and magazines in both creative nonfiction and fiction, and has had award-winning plays produced. He teaches at California State University East Bay. Learn more about him at stephendgutierrez.com.

Artwork: Dan Stuckey is a Bay Area graphic designer and screenprint artist. For more visit www.dstuck.com.

 

“Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows by Larry O. Dean

Christopher Coffey_DUHRITZ_for Mr. Jones


 “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows

I heard it in the grocery store,
piped in so clear, there
in the canned food aisle; my hand
hovered in mind-reach
for eight ounces of tinned peaches
I planned to cook into a pie.
So taken was I my peach-search
was abandoned and I ran,
frantic and alive, to find

an employee crouched, shelving
toilet paper two rows away.
“No problem,” he said, even if
I had disrupted his task,
in truth, probably happy to take
an unplanned break, and because
he could not hear so clearly
with a mother and bawling newborn
nearby, we went back

to the stacked cans and stood
close to the speaker, tilting ears
toward the tinny sound
piping in through industrial
speakers. “That’s ‘Mr. Jones’
by Counting Crows,” he said,
and my first thought was,
“Who is this ‘Mr. Jones’?”
but I did not betray

the depth of my curiosity
and instead thanked him
for his help, relieving him
from customer service
to return freely and forthwith
to the squeezably-soft
Charmin previously assigned,
“Mr. Jones” la la la la-ing
in the air above every aisle now

as I jogged briskly
to the Customer Service desk
at the other end of the store,
where there was no wait
and a manager labeled Jeff
on a tilted white name tag
asked with a smile
just beneath his neat
mustache, “How can I help you?”
as I practically begged, “Can
you shut that horseshit off?”


Author Bio: Larry O. Dean was born and raised in Flint, Michigan. He attended the University of Michigan, where he won three Hopwood Awards in Creative Writing, an honor shared with fellow poets Robert Hayden, Jane Kenyon, and Frank O’Hara, among others; and Murray State University’s low-residency MFA program. He is author of the full-length collection, Brief Nudity (2013), as well as numerous chapbooks, including I Am Spam (2004); abbrev (2011); About the Author (2011); and Basic Cable Couplets (2012). His poetry has also been internationally translated and anthologized. In addition, he is a singer-songwriter, performing solo as well as with his current band, The Injured Parties; he has released many critically-acclaimed CD’s, including Fables in Slang (2001) with Post Office, Gentrification Is Theft (2002) with The Me Decade, and Fun with a Purpose (2009). Dean was a 2004 recipient of the Hands on Stanzas Gwendolyn Brooks Award, presented by the Poetry Center of Chicago. Contact him at larryodean.com

Artwork: Christopher Coffey 

Payback by Jacqueline Berkman

 Jessica Herrera_(Untitled)_FOR BERKMAN


            Tamara was yelling at Peter to get in the car, but her mind was on the garden of the Malibu house, sensing that everything could begin or end there. As Peter shuffled down the stairs with a morose gait, she envisioned a pebbled entryway and bougainvillea everywhere. It was all in the sketch she had meticulously detailed the night before, the sketch she would present to the new clients today, and she hoped, as she always hoped, she would appear cool and collected. The key, she figured, was to appear immersed in the wildlife of her work, oblivious to the aridness of the recession that had infected everyone else.
            “I didn’t have breakfast,” Peter said.
            “Your loss, buddy. Get in the car. Now.”
            They walked down the driveway to the Honda Civic that was parked under the hot morning sun. Peter shuffled to the backseat, his Spongebob backpack splayed out next to him, and Tamara, squinting into the rearview mirror, evaluated the state of her lipstick before pressing on the accelerator and driving off. She had to present her landscaping vision to Bradley and Julia Chapman, a cinematographer and his fashion model wife who were looking for the perfect landscape architect to complete their “rustic on the beach” utopia in Malibu. Tamara knew that to be that person she had to be prepared, and persuasive, had to imply that only by following the plans in her sketches would this couple be able to successfully pave their way towards beauty and truth.
            “I really don’t want to go to school today,” Peter said.
            Tamara squinted as she made a right onto Ventura Boulevard, shielding her eyes from the sun’s glare as she mentally reviewed how the hydrangeas and trellises would adorn the water fountain in the Chapman’s courtyard.
            “Please don’t make me go,” Peter said.
            Tamara sighed. “I thought you liked school, honey.”
            “I don’t like Max Wilburn.”
            What if they don’t like hydrangeas? Tamara thought. What if they think they’re overdone, tacky, and completely obvious? To Peter she said, “Who’s Max Wilburn?”
            “This kid in the grade above me. We got in a fight yesterday at recess. He pushed me really hard.”
            “What did you get in a fight about?”
            “He said I was hogging the jungle gym, and when I was walking back to class he pushed me.”
            Tamara sighed, turning left into the parking lot of John Burroughs Elementary School. “Well hon, you can’t hog the jungle gym. That’s for everyone to play on.”
            “But that’s the thing, mom. Everyone does play on it. I was playing on it with everyone else, and he kept telling me I was hogging it, but I wasn’t.”
            Tamara pulled up to the drop off curb and turned around to look at Peter. He was small boned just like her, and pale and wide eyed. His eyes were especially wide right now, in the telling of the story. And Tamara felt worried for her son, worried about the wide-eyed look that would inevitably make him seem too vulnerable, a “pansy,” a target for elementary school punks like Max Wilburn. Christ, she thought. Why couldn’t he inherit more of Raymond’s genes?
            “Honey, don’t let anyone push you around,” Tamara said. “You’ve got to be strong.”
            “But he’s bigger than me, mom.”
            “Well stay away from him, then.”
            Peter didn’t say anything. Tamara checked the time, fluttered her fingers against the steering wheel, and looked resolutely into the rearview mirror. “Peter, you need to tough this out. Stand your ground. Don’t let that jerk get to you.” When Peter sad nothing in return she said, “I have to go, buddy. I’ve got a big day ahead. But I’ll see you right after school. Try to have a good day, okay?”
            Peter slung his backpack around his shoulder, and she could see him take a deep breath and close his eyes, as if mentally preparing himself.
            “Just stay out of trouble. I’ll see you after school.”
            “Bye,” Peter said. He shut the door and walked over to the blacktop driveway where all the kids were standing, backpacks swinging, walking to their classrooms. Driving away, Tamara saw from the corner of her eye that Peter was still standing on the pavement, as if waiting for her.

            One hour and one freeway later, Tamara was over at the Malibu house, where Julia Chapman whipped up lattes on the espresso machine and listened attentively to the script that Tamara recited from memory about the potential of hydrangeas and bougainvillea.
            “I really do believe that with all of these plants working in tandem you’re going to achieve your authentically rustic California garden,” Tamara said, her face flush with nerves. “But, as with any garden, it’s going to take time and care. You’re going to need to be watchful and attentive, especially of the Mexican evening primrose. The roots grow fast in the warmer months, and you don’t want it to overpower everything else in your lovely garden.”
            “Of course not,” Julia said. “We just have to pay attention.” Julia nudged her husband, who looked increasingly perturbed by a recent text. “Honey, are you even listening?”
            “What? Yes. We have to make sure that plant doesn’t grow like crazy,” Bradley said, looking up. “I’ve gotta run back to the studio. The post production people are having issues with some of the footage.”
            “But honey—”
            “You just let Tamara take care of things, okay dear? You can trust her,” Bradley said, in a tone that Tamara thought was a more than a little condescending, the tone of someone who was used to used to jumping up at a moment’s notice and escaping from things.
            “Men,” Julia said, sighing, loud enough for Bradley to hear as he walked over to the Porsche parked in the driveway, his car keys jingling with each step he took. Tamara smiled, for lack of knowing what else to do, and it struck her for the first time that perhaps she had been only one of many landscape architects that they had consulted with, and that Bradley’s abrupt departure had signified that she had somehow failed their screening test. In the quiet of the kitchen, Julia Chapman cradled her espresso and studied Tamara’s sketches, a neutral expression on her face, and Tamara, clinging to her own espresso cup, wished she could read Julia’s mind to such an extent that it embarrassed her, in the way that all of her feelings embarrassed her when she felt them too strongly. When her cell phone lit up and an unfamiliar number flashed across the screen, she sprang up instinctively, glad, at least, for a physical action to divert her from sitting at that table. “Excuse me for a moment,” Tamara said, stepping out of the French doors onto the terrace, before answering her phone. “Hello, this is Tamara.”
            “Hello Tamara, this is Jeanne calling from John Burroughs Elementary School.”
            “Hi.”
            “There’s been an incident on the playground concerning your son, Peter.”
            “What happened?”
            “He was involved in a fight with another boy. We think he may have broken his arm. The paramedics are on their way. I just notified your husband, and he said that he would meet you at Providence Tarzana Medical Center.”
            Tamara felt a surge of nausea rise up her throat. “I’ll be there as soon as I can,” she said. She hung up and walked back into the kitchen, where Julia was still cradling her espresso and studying the plans. Tamara was momentarily glad that she could at least break this stretch of intolerable silence, that she had a mission that was completely independent of Julia’s aesthetic preferences. “I’m sorry, Julia,” she said. “I just got a call from my son’s school. They told me he may have broken his arm. I’ve got to go to the hospital. We’ll talk later.”
            “Yes, of course,” Julia said, “I hope everything is alright.” Her furrowed eyebrows were in the pose of concern, and Tamara sprinted to the car, leaving behind a memo that emphasized what a difference a chrysanthemum bed could make.

            I’m a stupid idiot, Tamara thought as she made a sharp left onto Malibu Canyon Road, a goddamn stupid idiot. Pieces of the conversation from the car ride that morning came back in fragments. Bully. Max. Pushed me. She had been indisputably distracted, yes, overwhelmed by her first major referral in God knows how long, but she had also been concerned about Peter’s meekness more than anything else, his vulnerability that made it so easy for him to get singled out and targeted by bullies. There had been that incident at Sam Stouffer’s eighth birthday party at the miniature golf course, where Peter repeatedly had trouble hitting the golf ball, swinging the club back only to come up with air. There had been those gaps of silence between the missed swings, followed by other boys’ laughter, and then Sam’s father’s gentle suggestion that it might be a good idea to get Peter’s hand-eye coordination looked at as they were leaving, party favors in hand.
            Tamara had thanked him for the advice, but what she remembered more was her difficulty trying to read that night before bed, how the words seemed to swim around in a blur on the page. She remembered turning to Raymond and telling him that she was worried about Peter and his meekness, his lack of coordination and his inability to relate to other boys. But Raymond, of course, had managed to dismiss her anxiety with a cool detachment, his signature inability to get worked up about anything. “So he’s a little clumsy,” he said. “Maybe he’s not destined to be a neurosurgeon, but he’ll figure things out.” He turned off his light. “Christ, Tam,” he had said. “He’s only eight.”
            It was easy for Raymond to say that Tamara thought, pressing on the accelerator as she snaked her way up the winding canyon. He had never been one to struggle with those sorts of things. Raymond was six foot two and raised in a family of meat and potato eating athletes. He had played varsity football and ran track in high school and now in his forties seemed to move with a relaxed and self-satisfied gait, as though he had nothing else, really, to prove.
            And even though she kind of resented his assuredness, about Peter’s well being, about everything else, she also envied it, because it was his confident ability to brush things away with a dismissive wave of the hand that she had never been able to master. All of the nights that Raymond had said, “Let it go,” and had fallen asleep the moment his head had hit the pillow, Tamara spent lying awake, involuntarily enabling thoughts to link up to other thoughts, as though she were constructing some sort of cerebral daisy chain.
            She merged onto the 101 South, turning up the radio in an attempt to ignore her heart’s angry thud and the intrusive images of Peter recoiling in pain, his arm bloody, his bones protruding.

            When she saw Raymond standing tall and composed in the waiting room of the orthopedics pediatric ward she burst into tears, all of that anxious energy and teeth grinding that had carried her through Malibu Canyon finally breaking down into untamed sobs.
            “I came here as fast as I could,” she said. “As fast as I could.”
            “Shh,” he said, running his hands over her back, her head nestled into the crook of his shoulder. She smelled the faint scent of his cologne, crisp and smooth, mingle with the staleness of the hospital.
            “Where is he? How is he?”
            “He’s sedated,” Raymond said. “They gave him morphine for the pain, and they’re about to operate. He fractured his arm.”
            “Morphine?” Tamara said. She associated morphine with her father during his losing battle with cancer, his rattling breath thin like a whistle, as his EKG flattened and his breaths grew smaller, imprints of the ones before them.
            “You need to sign some forms before they operate.”
            Tamara started walking to the reception desk before she turned to face her husband, her sturdy husband with his cornflower hair and pale blue eyes, and said “Did you know that a bully did this to him?”
            “The school mentioned that he got into a fight with someone.”
            “It was some kid named Max Wilburn,” Tamara said. “Peter was telling me about the kid this morning, how he’s always giving him a hard time, and I was too busy thinking about flower arrangements for the new clients because I am a terrible mother.”
            “No you’re not,” Raymond said. “Christ, you didn’t know this would happen.”
            “I should have known. I should have done something when he told me.” She wiped a tear from her eye. “I told him to tough it out. I’m such an idiot.”
            “Just sign the forms, Tam,” he said. “We will talk about all of this later.”
            So she went to the desk and signed the consent forms, and then they walked back to the waiting room, hand in hand. “We’re going to make the Wilburns cough up more than they’re worth,” Raymond said. “Those fuckers are going to pay.”
            Tamara blinked at him. Everything he said was right, but his voice was too calm, too steady, his hand too cool and smooth against her hot, clammy one.

            It was three AM, and she had just woken up from a nightmare where she was on a small boat with a bunch of people she didn’t recognize. There was a storm, and the boat was bobbing unsettlingly over waves. The captain was some kind of quiz show host, and he walked from one person to another asking trivia questions, and when a person didn’t know an answer he threw them overboard, tossing them into the choppy blue waves where the sheer weight of their exhaustion would drag them down, never to be seen again. In the dream Tamara kept thinking about how seasick she was, how her nausea would make focusing impossible, how she was bound to be tossed over any minute.
            When she awoke her heart was racing, and her skin was cold. She was in a sleeping bag on the floor of Peter’s room, and when she abruptly sat up she could feel the coiled muscles in her neck stiffen from curling up on the floor. She stretched her legs and listened to the rhythm of her son’s breathing, which, to her relief, sounded deep and even, not the breathing of someone who had been drugged by morphine. She stood up, grimacing at the sound of the creaking floorboards, and looked at Peter for any signs of pain, but he appeared to be in the midst of a deep sleep. His left arm was thickly bandaged, and his right arm was outstretched, dangling off the pillow, as if looking for some comfort that the parameter of the bed could not provide.
            Tamara sat next to him and combed her fingers through his hair, finally resting her hand on the bony crevice of his shoulder blade. She leaned against his bedpost and closed her eyes, trying to will herself to go back to sleep. But in that quiet moment in the dark she felt her mind carrying her back to a place she didn’t want to go, a window of time she had closed off and which, involuntary, she felt herself revisiting again.
            She was not much older than eight of nine, and she had accompanied her parents to a Fourth of July party at their friends’ house, the Whitby’s. Her parents had gone to the Whitby’s every Fourth of July, and she had always stayed at home, preferring to feign sickness rather than watch her parents mingle with all of the other adults, who seemed stuffy just by virtue of being adults. But there had been something different about that year. Her parents told her that the Whitby’s daughter Sophie was in town, having postponed her annual summer trip up to her grandparents’ beachside cottage in Santa Barbara, and that she was Tamara’s age, and that Tamara should start going to these parties and developing social skills anyway. And Tamara had felt a change within herself, too: when that Fourth of July came around she felt a kind of emerging restlessness, and she didn’t want to spend another languid summer day by herself, hitting a handball against the screen door while her depressed babysitter ate bonbons and watched reruns on TV. So she had joined her parents in attending the party at the massive Beverly Hills estate, and after being introduced to Sophie, who was actually two years older than her and a big boned mare of a girl, they broke off from the crowd and jumped into the pool. Their conversation was brusque, fragmented. They made no effort to get to know one another, but rather, in that primal elementary school way, assumed they were already on the same wavelength. After revealing a mutual dislike of Marco Polo Sophie demanded they play her favorite pool game, Colors, where one person stands in the shallow end of the pool with their eyes closed while calling out the names of various colors in the rainbow. The other person stands on the same side of the pool as the color announcer, and upon hearing the name of their color called, has to dash underwater and paddle like a silent warrior to the other side, all in the hopes that the first player will not hear movement and tag her.
            Tamara had played Colors before and had vehemently disliked it, having found the concept of being chased underwater far more frightening than being chased on land. But she wanted to get along with Sophie. And if nothing else, the game seemed a viable enough distraction from the world of the grown ups, who stood around talking about traffic and movie scripts, the husbands stuffing their faces with ribs while the wives daintily picked at their potato salad with patriotic toothpicks.
            Before she had tried to submerge the memory altogether, Tamara used to blame herself for what had happened. But in that moment in the middle of the night, with her son’s arm wrapped in a cast next to her, the facts of that day returned to her, in their unbiased, unadulterated form. She had picked indigo as her color. Admittedly, she realized now, as she must have then, that that was probably considered cheating by anyone who adhered to the Colors handbook, as anything outside the typical rainbow spectrum was considered a “stretch” or “unfair.” But something about Sophie had unsettled her from the moment they met. Maybe it was her physical largeness or her loud, boorish voice, but when Sophie naturally assigned herself to the role of color announcer while subjugating Tamara to be the floundering color with the assigned task of swimming to the other side untagged, Tamara felt doubly terrified. And so in some kind of absurd and indirect form of self-protection she had picked the most obscure color she could think of, a color she had only seen once in a 64 set Crayola box.
            “You cheated,” Sophie said at the end of the first round, after she looked over and saw that Tamara was still standing right where she started.
            “You didn’t call out my color,” Tamara said. She wiped drops of water off her face and felt herself break into a triumphant flush. Her adrenaline rose and in the empowering haze of the moment Sophie didn’t look like a mare but a chipmunk, dumb with her overbite, and Tamara felt released from fear, soaking in the sensation of lightness.
            “What are you talking about,” Sophie said. “I called out every color in the rainbow.” Her eyes squinted at Tamara, scrutinizing and cruel.
“Unless you picked emerald green.” She splashed Tamara.
            “Nope.”
            “Or magenta red.” Another splash.
            “No,” Tamara said, swallowing a mouthful of chlorinated water. “Cut it out, will you?”
            “Or let me guess, turquoise blue.” Another splash.
            “Cut it out,” Tamara said, and in a moment of fury so particular to an eight year old, she pulled a strand of Sophie’s dirty blonde hair, to which Sophie kicked her in the stomach and pushed her underwater, both of her hands clamping down on Tamara’s head, while Tamara’s eyes, opened wide, burned in the chlorinated depths of the pool.
            Plunked underwater, she couldn’t see anything but the flailing of her own arms, and bubbles, tons of them, produced by her gasping mouth as she kicked and pushed and fought for air. The more she struggled upwards the stronger Sophie’s hands pushed her down, and she felt her lungs start to burn. For a frantic moment she wondered if she would die. The alternative afternoon option of staying home and playing handball, overcome with heat and the numbness of boredom, was a longing that seemed, the longer she was underwater, to grow increasingly distant, a moment in time so delicious in its blandness that she would never be able to appreciate again. But, then, just as she began to feel faint, Sophie’s hands let her go, and she surfaced up to the world, gobbling up mouthfuls of air in between coughing up water.
            “What’s going on over there?” a woman with a large hat and sunglasses asked, a woman who Tamara didn’t recognize.
            “We were just playing a game, weren’t we Tammy?” Sophie said, to which the woman shook her head as if to say, “Kids.” Tamara, seizing this as her moment of escape, glided over to the tip of the shallow end, ran up the steps of the pool, and still coughing up water, ran out of the pool and through the throngs of mingling adults and past the field of grass, the sun hitting her back, never wanting to look at another body of water again. That was her first and last Fourth of July at the Whitby’s, and when the next summer rolled around she resumed making excuses about why she couldn’t go. She never told her parents about what happened, but she had swam hundreds of time since then, was decidedly over it, as she had told herself many times before.
             “Mommy?” Peter said.
             She opened her eyes. Peter was looking at her in the dark.
             “Hi, baby,” she said. “Go back to sleep.”
             “I don’t want to have any bad dreams,” he said.
             “You won’t,” she said. “I’ll protect you.”
             And he, taking that as sufficient enough proof, or too tired to say otherwise, closed his eyes and fell back asleep.

She could hear Raymond getting ready for work in the morning, fiddling in the kitchen, likely burning his toast, as she woke up and helped Peter out of bed. She walked him to the bathroom where she helped him brush his teeth and after, in an attempt to appease him, asked if he wanted to watch cartoons. He nodded, reaching over instinctively to change the channel, but the sudden movement caused him to wince, and when Tamara looked at him and asked, “How do you feel?” he only grimaced.
             They sat watching the bright, animated characters flash across the TV screen, the curtains filtering out the haze of a smoggy morning, while Tamara braced herself to ask the question she didn’t want to ask.
            “What exactly happened, honey?”
            “Max did it,” he said. His voice was constrained, as if it pained him to move his lips.
            “I know he did, but what happened?”
            “I was doing a flip on the jungle gym, and he said I was hogging, and I told him to go away, and he pushed me off.”
            “While you were in the middle of a flip?”
            “Yes.”
            She looked away. The thought of Peter getting pushed off the jungle gym, when he wanted nothing more than to rise above the tumult of the playground and find a moment of peace, made her sick.
            “Honey, I’m sorry I didn’t listen more carefully yesterday. I was really distracted. It was stupid of me.”
            He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter now.”
            They sat in silence, Peter absorbed in cartoons. Tamara grew increasingly upset by Peter’s frailness, how his cast overwhelmed his frame, how he seemed to almost disappear amongst the oversized pillows. She feared that already, at this young age, he was accepting the role of a victim, allowing defeatism to mingle with his blood.
            From the other room, she heard the phone ring. Let Raymond get it, she thought. She sank into the pillows and watched cartoon vegetables dance across the screen, stroking Peter’s hair as he leaned against her shoulder.
            Raymond picked up the phone on the third ring, answering with his typical, non-committal, “Hello.” She could hear him say, “He fractured his arm. How do you think he’s doing?” And then, “Honestly, what’s wrong with you people? Are budget cuts so bad that you can’t have a goddamn chaperone on the playground?” Peter seemed not to hear, out of either lethargy or pure absorption in the program, but Tamara, her fingers smoothing out Peter’s curls, felt her heart begin to pound as she strained to hear what was next.
           “You bet your ass I’m angry—” He was cut off abruptly, undoubtedly tapping his foot on the ground, before jumping in and saying: “Good, well I guess that makes you the expert witness then. I’ll see you and the Wilburns in court.” He slammed the phone down, and moments later, burst through the door. He looked relaxed, enlightened really, as he leaned against the doorpost in all of his masculine glory.
           “That was the Principal,” he said. “I gave her a piece of my mind.”
           “Good,” Tamara said.
           “Yes, it is good. These public schools are so inefficient. How about we sign you up for some karate lessons, Pete, so that something like this never happens again?”
           “Raymond,” Tamara said, lowering her eyes. Typical Raymond. Peter was just out of surgery one day, and Raymond was already thinking about self-defense classes, preventative measures, always having to be the problem solver. She was surprisingly angered by the gleam in his eye, the sense of satisfaction he derived from commanding the family in this way, as if he were some kind of sergeant. And yet, she was also amazed, because she could tell when he said, “I’ve got to run to the office now,” that he genuinely felt better, lighter, as if by expressing his anger in a three minute conversation he had really made a difference. He was a simple man, Tamara thought, calm until he got angry, and when he got angry he let it all out, like a steam engine, before ambling on, completely back on track.
            The little engine that could, she thought. She smiled a small, tight-lipped smile as she watched Raymond, briefcase in hand, whistle a tune as he climbed into his black Audi. Then she closed the blinds and turned back towards the television. Peter had changed the channel and an old Looney Tunes episode was playing, the Tasmanian Devil never ceasing in his quest to give Bugs Bunny some hell.

            It wasn’t until later that afternoon, after Tamara had given Peter his afternoon dose of extra strength Tylenol, and he was napping on the couch, that the quietness of the day caught up to her. She thought, again, about her visit to the Chapman’s house the day before: frantically driving to Malibu, her overly rehearsed presentation about the garden’s potential, Bradley’s sudden departure, Julia’s enigmatic aura, the abrupt call from the school. It had all happened less than 24 hours ago, but already it seemed like some kind of foggy, half-conceived dream. The unresolved nature of the meeting gnawed at her, and Tamara, despite her best efforts, was overcome by the desire to hear some sort of verdict.
            She called the Chapman’s at home, expecting that Julia might answer, which she did. She picked up on the third ring, her voice soft and almost musical. This time, Tamara’s speech came easily, no script required. “Hi, Julia, it’s Tamara. Listen, I’m really sorry about yesterday. My son fell on the playground and broke his arm, and I need to take a week or so off to take care of him. Can I check in with you next week?”
            “Oh,” Julia said. “I’m so sorry to hear that. But I think we’re going to have to put the landscaping project on pause for at least a few weeks. Bradley has to go back to Rome to do some reshoots, and he won’t go ahead with any design plans until he approves it all first.”
            Tamara paused for a moment, allowing that to sink in. “I see,” she said.
            “I love your ideas,” Julia said. “But Bradley’s got all kinds of his own opinions, so we’ll just have to wait until he’s back in town to see what he wants to do.”
            “I understand,” Tamara said.
            “I’m sorry again to hear about your son. Take care,” Julia said, adding, “I’ll be in touch.” And then her soft lilt clicked off, and Tamara listened to the dial tone, wondering if this time, perhaps, Julia had been the one reciting a script.

            That night, Raymond tucked Peter into bed, promising him plenty of ball games once he healed. Tamara figured that Peter’s enthusiasm was due to the fact that his father was talking to him and seemingly not preoccupied by the days work, even though Peter never really liked baseball and probably never would.
            She pretended to be asleep when Raymond walked into the bedroom, but later in the night, after he was long asleep, and she had been staring at the ceiling for hours looking for answers to an unformulated question, she tiptoed downstairs to her study and powered up her laptop. She found herself typing Sophie Whitby into Google, just to see what would turn up. After scrolling through a few miscellaneous images, including a picture of what looked like a grandmother focused at her needlepoint, and a woman standing in front of a palm tree holding a huge pair of overalls with a caption underneath that read, “Look how much weight I lost,” she saw a picture of a woman with blondish, reddish hair and a smile with teeth that were too large for her mouth. Underneath was an ad that said, “Need to sell your home? Contact Sophie Whitby, connecting buyers and sellers in the Tucson area since 1994”. With a sense of familiarity that produced a kind of nausea, she saw in the eyes of the woman the same squinting cruelty of the girl who had held her down in the pool. Her hair had clearly been through the ringer of dye regiments, and was now a battered looking copper color. And what had been the butch, intimidating quality she had carried in childhood had now morphed into an ordinary adult homeliness. For a moment, Tamara was tempted to call her, wanted to leave a voicemail pretending to be a prospective buyer and have this woman show up at some random house, primly dressed and roasting in her arid desert city, only to be greeted by silence. But then Tamara sighed, knowing that she was too old for such pranks. So she powered off her computer and stared at the black screen, a tingling energy brewing through her veins.

            Just two days post-surgery, on an overcast Thursday afternoon, Peter’s classmates and their parents started dropping by with get well cards and cookies. There was Dan Persky and his chatty mother Myra, socially awkward Jimmy Leavitt and his apologetic mother Patricia, even Sam Stouffer and his good-natured father Eric stopped by. The kids signed Peter’s casts, and Tamara could tell, from the emphatic voices of the boys gabbing in Peter’s room after he told them stories about getting wheeled through the emergency room, that he was receiving the kind of all-encompassing, devoted attention from his peers he had never received before. During a quiet moment when Myra and Patricia were talking amongst themselves in the hallway, Eric Stouffer turned to Tamara in the kitchen.
            “How are you doing?” he said.
             Tamara shrugged. “Fine I guess. Thrown for a loop.”
            “Sam tells me that kid Max is awful, a real bully. I hope they expel him.”
            “Yes, well,” Tamara said, drumming her fingers against the counter. “Fingers crossed.”
            Eric looked at her, as if really studying her. Tamara looked back into his big blue eyes, realizing, for the first time, that he looked a little bit like Raymond.
            “Have they apologized?” he asked. “The Wilburns?”
            “No,” she said. “Not yet.”
            Eric shook his head. “Unbelievable,” he said. “Makes me want to give them a piece of my mind.”
            “Raymond and I are pursuing it,” Tamara said, her face flushed. “We are going to take them to small claims court.” And then she added, “That boy Jimmy saw the whole thing. Patricia said she’d be willing to have him testify in court as a witness.”
            “Good,” Eric said. He dug into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small red book. John Burroughs Elementary School, it read. “All of the kids got this student directory at school today with everybody’s contact info, and I asked Sam to pick one up for you guys. Let us know if you need anything,” he said. “We’re just a phone call away.”
            “Thank you,” Tamara said. She looked down at the book, and then back up at Eric. “That’s very kind of you.”
             He shrugged. “Just trying to do the right thing,” he said. “For what that’s worth.”

            On Sunday night Tamara was perched upright in bed, stuck on the same paragraph of an article for nearly twenty minutes, when Raymond turned to her and said, “I think Peter’s ready to go back to school this week. Maybe Tuesday.”
            Tamara looked back into his unblinking eyes. He was serious. “Tuesday? You can’t be serious. He just broke his arm last Tuesday.”
            “Exactly, it’ll have been nearly a week of recovery time. He’s got his cast and his sling. He’s got energy. He’s feeling well. Obviously he’ll stay away from the playground, but I think going back will be good for him, show him there’s nothing to be afraid of. We need to show him that he can bounce back from this.”
            “Bouncing back is one thing, sending him back to school before he’s ready is another.”
            “Come on, Tamara, it’s for the best. We can drop him off, and then I can take the morning off work, and we can go talk to my friend Geoffrey who works at the firm down the street from my office. I’m sure once he hears what we have to say and that there were witnesses who saw Max push Peter, he can give us some solid advice about when we can take the Wilburn’s to court. Plus, he already said he could meet with us that morning at ten.”
            “You already asked for a time to meet with him?” Tamara said. “Why would you schedule a meeting without asking me first? Peter can’t go back to school on Tuesday, he’s not ready. This doesn’t feel right.”
            “What doesn’t feel right?” Raymond put his hand on her leg, letting it graze up her thigh. “Come on, Tamara,” he said, whispering into her ear. “You need to relax.”“I can’t.”
            “Just try.” He kissed her on the cheek, and then hard on the mouth, and as he climbed on top of her, his mouth traveling down to her neck, and then to her breasts, she felt her chest tighten.
            “Not tonight,” she said. She turned to her other side.
            “What’s the matter?”
            “Nothing,” she said. But knowing that that wasn’t enough, that there was a space growing between them, she added, “I feel like I can’t breathe.”
            “Take a Valium,” he said, and turned off his light.

            That Tuesday she got takeout Chinese for dinner, greasy noodles and orange chicken smothered in MSG, because she didn’t have the heart to stand in front of her kitchen and mix ingredients together. Somehow Raymond worked on her the past two days with the same hyper rationality that enabled his clients to trust him with managing their money. Tamara and Raymond had dropped Peter off at school that morning, his first day back, and then went to talk to Raymond’s friend Geoffrey, as scheduled, at ten AM. Geoffrey, who was composed and assured like Raymond, told them that, given they had all of the proper documentation and witness statements, they could have the Wilburns in small claims court within three to four months.
            Tamara kept thinking that she should have felt better, should have felt that things were progressing, but instead she had spent the day in a kind of anxious daze, repeatedly opening her curtains out onto the smoggy morning. She was momentarily relieved when she picked Peter up from school and saw that he was smiling, and his cast, just as he wanted, was completely covered by designs, but that relief subsided quickly, giving away to a lingering, insatiable knot inside of her.
            At dinner, she was nauseated by the sight of the greasy chow mein noodles that Raymond and Peter devoured, and she picked at her plate. She listened to Peter talk about how one of his classmates brought in cookies and ice cream for his welcome back party, how his teacher doted on him and let him sit on the cushioned couch instead of at his wooden desk, and she felt, under his falsely cheerful expression, that there must have been something darker, a burst of anger that would come bounding outward when they’d least expect it.
            “You’re not hungry?” Raymond said.
            “Not particularly,” Tamara said. “In fact, I don’t really feel very well at all.”
            Raymond looked up at her, his earnest blue eyes showing concern. “What’s wrong?
            Tamara struggled to explain what was wrong, racking her brain to try and think of the right word that would fit. “Nausea,” she said. “I think I’ll go to Walgreens and pick up some Advil.”
            “Okay,” Raymond said.
            She stood up and felt dizzy, pressing a hand to the table to steady herself. “Okay,” she said. She grabbed her car keys. “Be back soon.”

            She was in the car, her right turn signal tick-ticking, waiting at a red light before turning onto Ventura Boulevard towards Walgreens. But it was while she was sitting there, waiting for cars to pass, that she realized ginger ale and Advil weren’t going to help that dark, queasy feeling she had in the pit of her stomach. Sighing, her breath shaky, she fished in her glove compartment, past her registration and insurance forms, past a Joni Mitchell CD covered in dust, past a PTA newsletter, until she found what she was looking for: the John Burroughs Elementary School student directory. Flipping past the s’s, the t’s, the u’s, and the v’s, she found the name that she was looking for, and on the green light she made a left turn instead of a right.

           She told herself, as she drove over, that she wasn’t making a mistake. It had been a week since the incident and she had heard nothing, and she wanted to know why. She wanted face-to-face interaction, pure, not tainted by the formalities of court procedure, or by the second hand opinions of her husband and Eric Stouffer. She wanted to look Mrs. Wilburn in the eye and ask her how she could raise a boy who would think of pushing another boy off of a jungle gym, and then not even have the decency to call and apologize. Isn’t the point of child-rearing to raise your kid to be a decent person, she wanted to ask Mrs. Wilburn. Isn’t that what all of this is about?

            The Wilburns lived further into the valley, deep into Woodland Hills. By the time she got there the half moon had risen higher in the smog filled sky, which had morphed from a washed out denim color to a darker, richer blue. They lived on a quiet side street with only a few modest one-story tract homes. The rest of the street was barren. A bunch of houses were likely waiting to be developed, but currently there was nothing to show for it but a vacant lot covered by a chain link fence, filled only with a giant dirt mound.
            The addresses were hard to read, but she finally found their house, a crumbling stucco one story with peeling brown paint and shut blinds. She parked the car and was about to cross the street, but was jarred by the sight of a boy, around Peter’s age, emerging from the side door with a stuffed trash bag. Small, pale, head down and feet shuffling, he seemed almost pitiable. But as he hoisted the trash bag over his shoulder, his blank face morphed into a horrible grimace, and Tamara instinctively jumped back as the bag landed with a thud and the bin rattled, a plastic shout reverberating through the quiet dark.


Author Bio: Jacqueline Berkman is a writer based in Los Angeles with a background in publishing and public relations. She has a forthcoming piece of fiction that will appear in the Winter 2014 edition of the online literary journal The Writing Disorder.
Artwork: Jessica Herrera 

 

Wanting What You Can’t Have Anymore by Jason Bayani

Sara Haase_ FOR BAYANI_Wanting What You Can't Have Anymore



Wanting What You Can’t Have Anymore
We were long and far away from the old city. When everyone
grew above the wild stalk. We grew wild and then grew into
our bodies. We named and then named ourselves again. We learned
to be weightless and floated above the ground. We danced
until the sun came up and waited for the next bar to open at 6am
so we could start dancing again. We fell into each others arms
and walked home with enough music to last us the rest of our lives.
We fell apart at the same time and never together. We got jobs. We lost friends.
We failed horribly at love. We learned gravity and walked heavier
across the concrete. We were left wanting all that was behind.
We don’t dance as good no more. Maybe once in a while we can
find our legs. We tried and then tried at love again. We tried to be more
of someone’s good memories than their bad. We accumulated so many things:
bills, books, new ailments, regrets. We went to clubs and spent the night
watching people dancing. We listened to clothes in the dryer
or a loose fan knocking on rotation. We lost all of our CD’s.
We don’t look for the old cities. We looked for them and never saw
the same places. Sometimes we forget we were ever those people.
Sometimes we remember them too much. We stayed up until morning
and thought of each other. We thought of when we never saw endings.


Author Bio: Jason Bayani is the author of Amulet, from Write Bloody Press. He’s an MFA grad from Saint Mary’s College, a Kundiman fellow, and a longtime veteran of the National Poetry Slam Scene. He’s currently the program manager for Kearny Street Workshop in San Francisco and continues to perform regularly.

Artwork: Sara Hasse

The Tenderloin by Vincent Chu

Anthony Fassero_For The Tenderloin


The smell of urine was almost unbearable, but by the corner it passed, replaced by the smell of wet vegetables from the curb. The restaurants, hip ethnic ones included, had closed up shop and pulled shut their iron accordion gates, and it was getting to about that time in the night when the population shifted, and the faces changed, and the passers through became outnumbered by the all-nighters. The street was freshly coated in the first rain of summer, and with it came all the smells that had baked into the concrete during June. The piss and bok choi were just surface level, Dean knew, the real smells would need until morning to be reactivated—if the rain kept on.

With a few in him, Dean kept his head low and walked fast, his fists deep inside a black workman’s jacket that was just humble enough not to draw additional attention. He liked to believe that on a good day he could pass for a drifter or weekend junkie and he felt a sense of pride whenever he walked past a bum and wasn’t pressed for change or conversation, though deep down he knew he was never fooling anyone.

As Dean turned onto Eddy, his thoughts came back to Mina. Three years, he reminded himself. Three years thrown away. A drunken one night stand was worse than an ongoing affair, Dean told himself, it suggested impulse and desire, excitement. Coming on Hyde, Dean caught himself thinking these sorts of thoughts and immediately removed them from his head, an act he had been performing with greater and greater ease as the evening went on.

Dean made a stop at the liquor store before arriving at All Star Donuts and Chinese Food. He had called Bud rather out of the blue and anyway, Dean knew, it was always polite to bring something when meeting a friend.

Bud sat at a window booth, a rain jacket around his bathrobe and a donut and two tall boys already on his table. He stood up when Dean walked in.

“The man himself,” said Bud.

“How are you, old pal?” asked Dean. He pulled out two more tall boys, Country Clubs, from a paper bag and added them to the table.

“You’re a fine friend,” said Bud.

“Kampai.” Dean cracked open his can. He pulled off his jacket which was soaked through. He had been walking for longer than expected.

“What are you doing slumming round these parts?” asked Bud.

“I met a coworker, for a drink. Then decided to take a walk. This place always clears my head,” said Dean.

“This place. It does something for everyone. Take take take, you got to give, brother. Eventually everyone gives something to the Tenderloin, you know.”

An underslept woman with silver hair stood at their table.

“Order something,” said Bud.

Dean wasn’t planning to eat, but it would be rude to drink for free. “Got any bear claws?”

The old woman said nothing and disappeared behind the counter.

“Problems with Mina again?” asked Bud.

“No,” said Dean. As much as Dean wanted to talk about Mina, it was a long, unrevelatory story, and he knew it wouldn’t help matters in the slightest. Anyway, that’s not why he called Bud tonight.

“Seriously, if you dragged me out of bed at this hour to listen to you piss and moan about this poor woman again—”

“We’re fine,” said Dean. “Since when do you sleep so early?”

“Where’d you go for a drink, anyway?”

“Over at Jonell’s Lounge, know it?”

“Jesus! What a shit hole. What kind of coworker takes you there?”

“He’s from Arizona. Gets a kick out of coming down here.”

“Of course. The crackheads, hookers, dope boys, homeless people. It’s not all like that Will Smith movie though, he should know. I never saw a bum round here that looks like Will Smith,” said Bud.

“I told him. He digs irony, like you. Right in the heart of beautiful San Francisco this refugee camp of addicts and have nots,” said Dean.

“I get it. There couldn’t be a Tenderloin in Phoenix. The methheads would melt the first summer.”

“So how’s everything, Bud?”

“I haven’t taken a shit in five days.”

“That’s awful.”

“We’re a generation plagued by stomach problems.”

Dean looked down at Bud’s jelly donut and malt liquor. “You should see a doctor.”

“I can’t afford one on my artist’s salary.”

“If I told one of these corner boys what you pay for your studio, you wouldn’t make it to sunrise,” Dean said.

“My apartment’s 300 square feet and above a massage parlor.”

“Your rent is more than a mortgage.”

“I’m still a starving artist.”

“And tuition at Academy of Art costs more than Ivy Leagues.”

“Some people think you can’t teach art. Not my folks,” said Bud.

“If I had your parents,” said Dean.

Bud laughed and took a healthy swig. “From what I hear, you’re the man with the paycheck on the way.”

“What does that mean?”

“Everyone knows.”

“What do you mean, everyone?”

“Don’t be like that, how much is it?”

Dean sighed, looking around. “Ten thousand.”

“Jesus! Ten stacks to move out so a museum can turn your building into its new east wing.”

“Hey, I loved that apartment. So did Mina. And I hate moving, it’s no small thing, you know.”

“If I ever get in bad at the card rooms, I know whose door I’m knocking on at five in the morning,” Bud said.

“Jesus, you’re not playing again, are you?”

“I do have some willpower over temptation, you know. How else do you think I live around here.”

“Just try not to tell anyone else, Mina thinks we shouldn’t.”

“You were always the lucky one, Dean. Straight-laced and lucky, even back in school,” said Bud.

“That’s not true,” said Dean.

The silver haired woman dropped off Dean’s bear claw on a warped tray that spun on the table. She went back into the kitchen. Aside from the old man motionless near the pay phone, Dean and Bud were the only customers left, and anyway, there was a bell hanging from the front door.

“I’ve got to confess something,” said Dean. He cracked open a second can. “There’s a reason I called you tonight.”

“So it wasn’t just the beer and Berliners,” said Bud.

“Your jelly donut?”

“They call it a Berliner, and they charge double for it, and I don’t mind, so long as I get to call it a Berliner.”

“It wasn’t just the beer and Berliners,” said Dean.

“Talk already.”

“Tonight, after I met my coworker for a drink, when I was taking my walk through the neighborhood, not half an hour ago—well, I think I saw the strangest thing.”

“Go on.”

Dean leaned in close. “I think I saw a prostitute get kidnapped.”

Bud paused. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well I saw this girl. She was a hooker, definitely. She was arguing for a moment with this man, this creepy looking guy, and all of a sudden, he forced her into his minivan.”

“Hookers don’t get kidnapped,” said Bud. “That’s their job, to get into strange cars with strange men.”

“But she didn’t want to,” said Dean.

“Now you know what some streetwalker wanted?”

“She looked right at me. I saw her face.”

“Jesus.”

“She was scared. And it looked like she didn’t trust this guy—this wasn’t like a pimp-hoe situation.”

“Was anyone else around?”

“I was alone.”

“Where was it?”

“Up Polk, that alley behind the old auto shop,” said Dean.

“Was she a tranny? Because nobody kidnaps a tranny.”

“She wasn’t a tranny.”

“How do you know?”

“I could tell, without a doubt.”

“Famous last words,” said Bud.

“She was young.”

“I saw a documentary about a transgender who started her hormone treatment before puberty—she was 12.”

“She looked like a regular girl from the East Bay, maybe Berkeley or Richmond. No older than 21,” said Dean, taking a pull from his beer.

“So what happened next?”

“The minivan drove off.”

“And I have a feeling you didn’t go to the police.”

“I found something on the ground.” Dean reached into his pocket and pulled out a cheap, beat-up smart phone. There was an iced-out Hello Kitty pendant dangling from the corner and the name Delilah stenciled in tattoo lettering on the back of the pink case.

“Oh shit,” said Bud. “What’s on it?”

“It’s off,” said Dean.

“Well, turn it on.”

“I was thinking, maybe that’s not a good idea. What if this is evidence. This girl Delilah turns up missing, and I have her phone.”

“You already took the damn thing and didn’t go to the police.”

“Should I go now?”

“You should see what’s on that phone now,” said Bud.

“What if there’s something weird on it?”

“Like what?”

“Pictures, videos—I don’t know, stuff I don’t want to see.”

“What if it’s stuff you do want to see. She’s a damn hooker after all.”

“What if it’s not even her phone,” said Dean. “It was lying there really conveniently.”

“You’re right. Someone could have put a tracking device on it—like one of those tracking apps.”

“Yeah.” Dean drew a long sip of his beer as he stared out into the dark and wet and windy street, a sea of black beating against the hull of their small but safe ship. “But why would someone do that?”

Bud glanced suspiciously around the room. “Maybe it’s some kind of scam, maybe you’re framed or blackmailed—maybe you’re kidnapped too. Maybe it’s like a Korean horror movie, and whoever turns on the pink phone gets kidnapped and thrown into a minivan. Then raped.”

Bud held a solemn expression on his face for a commendable amount of time before folding and showing his big crooked grin. Dean reached for his bear claw. “I called you because you live here,” said Dean. “And I thought you might have more insight into this type of thing.”

“The TL is my muse,” said Bud.

“Then what should we do, Frida?” asked Dean.

“Well, I have class at noon. So you should either turn on that phone or I’m going to bed.”

Without further discussion, Dean pressed down on the corner of the phone. After a few seconds, the screen lit up bright and then settled in to a softer operational glow. It was on now, like any phone.

Dean swiped and tapped as Bud watched patiently enough.

“There’s nothing on it,” said Dean.

“There must be something.”

“A few apps. No Facebook, no Gmail, no WhatsApp.”

“Recent calls?”

“Some privates. One received.”

“Picture gallery?”

“One picture. It’s her.”

“—Let me see!” Bud stole the phone out of Dean’s fingers. “She is a girl,” said Bud. “Pretty too. Too pretty to be out here.”

Dean snatched the phone back. “Now what?”

“Now, old friend, I’m going to smoke a bowl, rub one out and go to bed.” Bud tilted his 24-ounce can to the fluorescent light tubes hanging above. When it was empty, he squeezed the can just enough to put an identifiable dent in it, then he stood up, tightened the terrycloth belt around his waist with dignity, and zipped his rain jacket all the way up. “How’re you getting home?”

Dean sat back, dissatisfied, and rubbed his eyes. “My bus comes in 20 minutes. I’ll start walking soon as I finish my beer.”

“I can walk you to the corner.”

“I’m a big boy.”

Bud grinned. “I always forget. And the phone?”

“I’ll call the police tomorrow morning and report what I saw. Ask if I should bring it in.”

“Smart move.”

“Nothing else to do, right?”

“It was good seeing you, Dean. We should do this more often, really.”

“Yes, we should.”

“I mean it.”

“Enjoy your class tomorrow.”

“Oh, almost forgot.” Bud reached into his jacket and pulled out his leather-bound flask that he always carried with him at night. “For the road, like the old days.” He tossed one back then held it out for Dean.

“Why not?” Dean took a long drink from it then shut his eyes. He knew it was going to be cheap whiskey, but it made no difference.

“Give Mina my best.”

“Take care of yourself, Bud.”

Bud started for the door. “Dean, I know I’m not much for relationship advice, but get home already. It’s probably not as bad as you think.”

“Good night, Bud,” said Dean.

Bud was gone, and the door swung closed, and the bell jingled loudly, but the silver haired woman did not come out of the kitchen. Dean hadn’t eaten since lunch, but every time he looked at the bear claw, it only made him nauseous. He dropped his napkin over it and picked up the pace of his drinking.

It was only 2am. Mina would still be awake.

Like many men, Dean had always considered himself the type of guy that would leave his girlfriend if he ever found out she cheated on him, no questions asked, but now that it really happened, to him, it didn’t feel the way he thought it would. It had been a long day, the conversation in the morning, the tears, the explanation, the full day of work and now, the drinking. Still, he couldn’t go home and see Mina. He had nothing to say yet. Could a single action make you not love someone anymore? Once again Dean caught himself thinking these sorts of thoughts and removed them from his head, even more effortlessly and efficiently than the last time.

Dean took out the pink phone. The girl, Delilah, was pretty. She had dark eyes and big dimples and soft shoulders that, on their own, were able to suggest the type of body underneath, just out of frame. He thought it childish to think a thought like she’s too pretty to be a prostitute, so he came to the conclusion that she was too pretty to be a streetwalker, but not too pretty to be a stripper or online escort. He looked at his watch. It was over an hour ago now that he saw her. He left some cash on the table and found his wet jacket.

Outside, the rain was heavier, and the street was emptier than before. Dean rummaged through his jacket pocket and found an old cigarette he had acquired at a party with Mina two weekends before. He lit it and walked toward his bus, feeling like a nomad passing through a strange new city under the protective cover of dark. Despite the wind and rain, the night was not unpleasant, and Dean walked with confidence. But after a block, he stopped. Rather naturally, he stepped down into the entrance of an old laundromat, below street level. He then took out the pink phone again. He found the most recent received number, and without letting himself think twice, pressed it. He didn’t want to go home yet.

As the phone rang, Dean got down low, watching the street from a new perspective, that of a feeding pigeon or a sewer rat. After five long rings, a young sounding woman answered the phone.

“Hello?” she said.

“Hi,” said Dean.

“Hi baby, who’s this?”

Dean cleared his throat. “Do you know Delilah?”

The woman laughed, a soft, sensual one. “Sure, I know Delilah. Do you know Delilah?” She had a touch of Southern in her voice that he guessed she could dial up or down depending on the situation. He guessed she was currently dialing it up.

“I sort of met her tonight,” said Dean.

“She’s certainly not one you forget meeting,” she said.

“Are you a friend or relative?”

She laughed softly again. “You’re funny. I’m a lot prettier, but people do confuse us for sisters.”

“Have you happened to talk to Delilah tonight?”

“You tell me, baby. You’re calling me on her phone.”

Dean turned warm in the face. He put down the cigarette. “I found Delilah’s phone tonight, on accident. I called you to tell you I think your friend is in trouble.”

“What do you mean, trouble?”

“I saw Delilah an hour ago. This strange man picked her up in his minivan, but it didn’t look consensual. I was going to go to the police, honest, but I saw your phone number and thought—”

“Was it gold?”

“Was what gold?”

“The minivan, crazy.”

Dean stood up straight and looked around the street for some reason. “How did you know?”

The young woman laughed again. “Don’t worry, baby, that’s just Barry.”

“Her pimp?”

“Her fiancé. And as ugly as that creep is, Barry couldn’t hurt a fly.”

“Oh.” A car alarm went off nearby. Embarrassed, Dean chuckled. “Well, I guess that’s a relief to hear.”

“You sound all worked up.”

“I was assuming the worst, I suppose.”

“I think you watch too many movies,” she said.

“You might be right.”

“Let me guess, you thought some serial killer in a minivan was out rounding up hookers in the TL?” She laughed again, loud and hard, almost breaking character.

“Of course not.”

“Those lovebirds are always squabbling.”

“Fiancé or not, maybe you could still check on her,” Dean said.

“Delilah’s got three phones. I’ll call her right after I’m done with you. She’s a klutz, but even she can’t lose three phones in one night.”

“Thanks.” Dean looked at his watch. He missed his bus. “I’m sorry for calling so late.”

“It’s okay. I’m sort of a night person anyway. I’m Tiffany.”

“Dean.” He thought he could hear her smile through the phone. “So, do you know Delilah well?”

“I guess you could say we’re colleagues,” said Tiffany. “In fact, I guess you could say we’re both on the clock now.”

“Oh,” said Dean. “I don’t mean to take much more of your time, maybe you could tell me where Delilah hangs out. I’d like to return the phone personally.”

“I’ve got an idea.” Tiffany said. “Why don’t you come to my place and give me the phone. Then, I can give it to Delilah.”

“Now?”

“Yes.”

“I’d feel better giving her the phone myself,” he said.

“Thing is, baby, I could tell you a million places Delilah hangs out, but it doesn’t mean you’re gonna find her.”

“I guess you’ve got a point.”

“Besides, you sound lonely,” said Tiffany.

Dean laughed too loudly. “I’m not lonely.”

“Then why are you drinking alone at this hour?”

“I’m not drinking alone. I met a friend—I met two friends earlier for drinks. Now, I’m going home.”

“Did you think Delilah was pretty?”

“Of course.”

“Then you won’t be disappointed when you see me.”

Of course this woman could be lying, Dean knew, but it didn’t make a difference. He had already matched her voice with Delilah’s face.

“Come over,” said Tiffany. “We’ll have fun.”

“I can’t,” said Dean.

“I’ll take care of you, promise.”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No,” said Dean.

“Are you a priest?” asked Tiffany.

The phone vibrated. Dean looked at the screen, the battery was almost dead. “I don’t have a car.”

“If you say you saw Delilah an hour ago, my bet’s you’re still in the neighborhood. I’m staying at the Pacific Hotel, past Ellis down Jones.”

“That’s pretty far in there.”

“Far in where?”

“There.”

“You sound like a big boy.”

“I just wasn’t planning to walk in that direction,” Dean said.

“What direction were you planning to walk in?”

“The other one, home.”

“Well, now you can come to my home.” They both remained silent for a long moment. Then Tiffany asked, “So, what’s it going to be, sailor?”

“Okay.”

“Okay, what?”

Dean stepped all the way up onto the sidewalk and pulled his jacket tight, against the wind. “Sure, I’ll start walking.”

“How lovely,” said Tiffany. “Fifteen minutes it is.”

“Bye.”

“Wait, Dean.”

“Yes?”

“I need to ask you a favor.”

“What is it?”

“Can you pick me up some roses on the way?”

“At this hour?”

Roses, you know,” she said.

“Oh. How many roses?”

“Whatever you think’s appropriate. I usually ask my clients a dozen to fifteen for the hour.”

“Okay, then.”

“And when you get here, you need to ask the front desk guy for Tina.”

“Okay, I will.”

“And don’t take too long, baby. I have to be somewhere at four.”

“Okay.” Dean hung up the pink phone. He put it back in his pocket, turned around, and started walking in the direction of Jones Street.

One block from the Pacific Hotel, a man on a bicycle pulled up beside Dean. Dean was too busy struggling to remember if his bank statements showed the time and location of withdrawals to notice the man. It made no difference, but Dean felt an odd comfort knowing it would be an interesting clue for the police if, say, he were to disappear tonight. For the length of several cars, this man on the bicycle cruised silently alongside Dean, hunched over, one foot on his pedal, one foot floating over the sidewalk like an anticipatory kickstand.

The man on the bicycle suddenly asked, “My man, can you spot me ten bucks?” His voice was high and coarse.

Dean looked up. The man came close to him. He was older than Dean. He looked too clean to be a drug addict, but too bizarre to be completely sober. Dean told the man he had no money.

Casually, as if pulling out a map for directions, the man took out a tiny black pistol from the front pocket of his hooded sweatshirt and struck Dean in the face, right above his eyebrow, with the butt of it. In his life, Dean had never been hit in the face, let alone pistolwhipped, and he was confused. He stumbled to the ground. Once there, Dean felt kicks to his stomach and ribs, and it was only when he stopped moving that they seemed to stop. He then felt heavy hands dig forcefully through each of his pockets, back pant left and right, front pant left and right, jacket left and right. After one last kick, it all stopped.

Dean kept still on the sidewalk. He thought he heard a woman shout something from across the street, but when he opened his eyes the man on the bicycle was gone, and nobody else was around. Dean lifted his head a few inches off the cement and saw several tiny drops of blood drip to the ground. He crawled to the wall and rested his shoulder against it. His face was beginning to swell, and his head pounded. It was as if Dean’s body had never felt pain, and he was experiencing this new sensation as a researcher or spectator or tourist.

Dean felt his pockets. They were empty. His keys, his wallet, his phone, the pink phone, the $150 he had just withdrawn from the cash machine—everything was gone. His clothes smelled, and he was sitting in something wet. The man on the bicycle had taken everything. The man on the bicycle now knew the exact address of Dean’s apartment, and had the keys. Dean felt like throwing up.

When Dean got to his feet, he had to put a hand on the wall. He was still dizzy. He tried to walk, slowly, back toward Hyde. As his limbs moved, he felt like he could think clear thoughts again. He had to find a telephone. All Star Donuts and Chinese Food had a pay phone, he recalled. Or perhaps Bud would still be awake. You always give something to the Tenderloin, Dean remembered. That’s what Bud had said earlier. Dean began to jog. Then Dean ran, faster and more effectively than he thought he’d be able to. He had to hurry. There wasn’t much time. He had to tell Mina to put the deadbolt on the door.


Author Bio: Vincent Chu was born and raised in the Bay Area. His short stories have appeared in The Tethered by Letters Quarterly Journal, Bookends Review, Saturday Night Reader and WhiskeyPaper Magazine. He currently lives in Cologne, Germany.

Artwork: Anthony Fassero studied Architecture at UC Berkeley, founded a company called earthmine that I sold to Nokia in Nov 2012, and work at HERE currently. I live in Jack London square, and take lots of pictures. Some of them have been published before (including a magazine cover, album cover, etc.)

Open Reading by Trina Gaynon

ML Bain_For Open Reading


 

  Open Reading
Shattuck Avenue Bakery 

The new manager is atwitter
with reminders
to exercise caution
going down the back stairs
to the bathroom in the corner
of the working bakery
that turns out
10,000 croissants a day
and gallons of coffee
for the free refills.
The chest beneath
the Yale sweatshirt
decompresses
when he is assured
that the customers don’t bite
or slide down banisters.
This blessing and this curse:
May your house be filled
with poets
with their large hungers
and lean purses.


Author Bio: Trina Gaynon, a graduate of the writing program at University of San Francisco, currently lives in Southern California, has poems in the anthologies Saint Peter’s B-list: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints, Obsession: Sestinas for the 21st Century, A Ritual to Read Together: Poems in Conversation with William Stafford, PhoenixRising from the Ashes: Anthology of Sonnets of the Early Third Millennium, Bombshells, and Knocking at the Door, as well as numerous journals including Natural Bridge, Reed and the final issue of Runes. Her chapbook, An Alphabet of Romance, is available from Finishing Line Press. Southern California Miles: Trina Gaynon

Artwork: M.L. Bain

Aggressive Fiction by Justin McFarr

Rachel Shields_For Wesolowska-2


             Burton Fielding entered the classroom on the first day of school, more uncertain of himself and his future than he had been in eight years of teaching. More than uncertain, he was terrified. His soul had yet to recover from the drubbing, both physical and psychological, he had received the year before. Did he really think he was qualified to teach English to underprivileged, urban high school kids?

             This marked the beginning of his second year at the brick-and-mortar facility the students—a mix of African-American, Latino, Asian and Caucasian—called Oakland Tech. Nattily dressed in his weathered sports jacket, a navy Oxford button-up, tan khakis and cinnamon brown loafers, he peered up at the industrial-sized analog clock. The minute hand lay firm against the bubble-curved background, before abruptly stomping downward. It arrived above the sharpie-thick one with a sonorous clack.

             The six a.m. light of the classroom filtered through the half-parted blinds. Burton—thirty-two, black, with bony arms and a sharp mind—settled behind his desk. It was the same one from last year, with the top left drawer that always stuck. He gave it a tug, rattled the wooden handle for a few shakes. It wouldn’t budge. He slapped his hand on the top of the desk, pulled again on the handle and felt it fluidly slide open, peeked inside to discover a thin paperback, a Dover version of American verse that he had utilized for two of last semester’s classes. He flipped through it until his eyes fell to a poem by Longfellow, with its meaningful, weighted title: My Lost Youth. He read off the page, yet by the time he reached the last lines, his eyes had lifted and he was reciting aloud by memory.

              “I remember the gleams and glooms that dart / Across the school-boy’s brain; / The song and the silence in the heart, / That in part are prophecies, and in part / Are longings wild and vain. / And the voice of that fitful song / Sings on, and is never still: / ‘A boy’s will is the wind’s will, / And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.’”

             “Aw, shit, look who I got again this year,” said a husky voice two hours later, the booming declaration cascading off the final echoes of first bell. Terry Larsen, a heavy-set junior who had scored sixteen touchdowns for the Tech Bulldogs the prior year, drifted toward Burton from the busy hallway with his red-topped, silently brooding best friend Neal Flynn in tow. “Mr. Fielding, what up?”

             The teacher’s insecurity regarding his purpose at the school returned, and gradually smothered him like a textbook pressed against an exposed throat. Yet he managed a friendly smile. “Mr. Larsen, glad to see you here bright and early,” Burton said. “Bodes well for the semester.”

            “Yo, don’t get all excited, me being on time this once. Moms wanted me to make a good impression, right out the box. But, you know, ain’t making no promises we get past day one.” He laughed, moved to a seat in the back of the class, the servile Neal shadowing him all the way.

            Burton, from the security of his desk, watched the teenagers stream into his class, reminded that his transfer to one of Oakland’s most dangerous schools had been foisted upon him without his total buy-in. He had been teaching fourth-graders, quite happily and most contentedly, when the call came from the superintendent herself. She was well aware of his teaching style: subtle yet effective. That approach had yielded superior test scores for his Thornhill Elementary School students, who tackled their studies with uncanny determination and verve. The superintendent found she had little choice—as the years went by and the test scores increased and the accolades from parents and fellow teachers reached something akin to a fever pitch—but to send Burton somewhere he would truly be needed.

            Burton, after a full year of following the state-mandated curriculum and offering himself up as tutor, mentor, and sage to any and all willing protégés, realized there was nothing these teenagers needed that he could offer them. He wanted to reach out to them, motivate and help lead these disenfranchised youth toward academic success and a prosperous life beyond high school. The road he had traveled thus far to reach that goal, however, had veered off into bog country, an uninhabited wasteland where the silence was deafening and he was alone with his personal ambitions. The signs read, Abandon hope, all ye who enter here, yet despite the warnings he was stubborn and knew that to forge on was his only option. It wasn’t as if he was trapped in Dante’s Hell. It was only Oakland.

            The second bell rang, Burton glanced down at his lesson plan for the day, then stood and addressed his first class of the new year.

 #

             The end of seventh period found Burton working out a sore spot in his bony right shoulder, kneading his left knuckles into the muscle.

            “Tough getting back into the groove, isn’t it?” Harold Foster, a physics teacher who had spent nine years at Tech, ambled into the classroom sporting a friendly smile. Burton smiled back, gave his colleague a small shrug. “I’m afraid I missed the faculty meeting where they initially passed all that groove out,” he said. “How did you fare?”

            Foster leaned his prodigious frame—six-four, arms large and muscular, skin a deep, burnt umber, his bald pate and full, unkempt beard emphasizing his massive shoulders—against a clean surface of the cloudy green chalkboard and absently stroked his beard. “‘Bout average. Got the same bunch of little assholes and assorted odd ducks as I do every year. Could be there’s a decent scientist or mathematician set to bloom forth out of one of my classes this semester. I’m all about keeping an open mind, you know?”

            “Yes, you’re nothing if not open-minded, Harold. Do you still start everybody with an ‘F’ and work up from there during the semester? Or have you decided on a more optimistic track this year?”

            “Guilty until proven innocent. That’s the motto I live by, and one that hasn’t failed me yet.”

            “At least you have a motto, however cynical it may be,” Burton said. “Harold, I have no idea what I’m doing here. How am I supposed to connect with these kids on anything but an extremely superficial level? I went from thirty fairly attentive kids all day, every day, to more than two hundred restless teenagers over six periods. I’m completely out of my league.”

            “You’re not out of your league, Burton. You just need to radically accept your circumstances. Fifty minutes at a shot is simply not a lot of time to do anything all that meaningful. You just gotta teach to the ones that possess the brains and fortitude to hop on board your program, and allow the other little fuckers to miss that train and walk the damn tracks.” Harold’s arm dropped from his chin and joined the other cannon resting over his protruding stomach. “What is it you didn’t figure out last year that suddenly you’re going to receive an epiphany about this year?”

            “Nothing that I can exactly qualify. I’d just like to be more…I’m not sure…involved in the lives of my students. More hands-on, more mentoring, more helpful than simply following a lesson plan and fielding the occasional raised-hand query.”

            “Then that’s what you have to do: more. Why don’t you come up with a project, some kind of activity that’ll get the little bastards inspired enough to spend some time with you? Get them motivated so they’ll line up outside your class before first bell and after school, begging for you to Obi-Wan their Skywalking asses. Last thing in the world I’d want, a bunch of brown-nosers coming to me for guidance or supportive platitudes. But, hey, you’ve won Teacher of the Year and I haven’t won jack, so…I can see how you’d thrive on that mentoring bullshit.”

            Harold grinned and Burton realized that he was suddenly energized. This big bear of a man, with his proclivity for fast food drive-thrus and ample quantities of Trader Joe’s two-buck Chuck, had started wheels turning. A passage by Leslie Pinckney Hill entered his mind and without thinking he burst into recitation: “Lord, who am I to teach the way / To little children day by day, / So prone myself to go astray? / I teach them KNOWLEDGE, but I know / How faint they flicker and –”

            “How little I care.” Harold shook his head and pushed off from the blackboard. “Once you English prof-types start spouting poetry off the top of your beans, it’s high time to make for the exits. Adieu to you.” He backpedaled to the door, shooting Burton a sly grin before he disappeared.

            From the hallway, Harold yelled, “And good luck, you goddamn Pollyanna.”

#

            Luck had nothing to do with Burton’s transformation from insignificant outsider to Teacher of the Year: will and determination lit his path. Raised by a single mother in Vacaville, the poor black boy was stigmatized early on by his welfare-class standing. Later, he discovered his intelligence could be wielded as a formidable weapon to fight his way out of poverty. He was black, smart and weak, a deadly combination in an atmosphere of C-minus, white, bruiser types. But he was also a survivor and a bit of an idealist, who believed that taking full advantage of the education offered in the primarily Anglo, backwater California town was his ticket to the outside world.

            He had managed to get out, guided by certain high school teachers who had recognized that he was a born educator. They responded most favorably to his drive, discipline, honesty and tremendous love of learning. One mentor in particular, his freshman English teacher Mr. Kelsey, had helped channel the knowledge-hungry spirit within the teenager. The white lecturer introduced him to poetry, the spectrum of black bards from Phillis Wheatley to Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen to Maya Angelou. Privately, he encouraged him to craft his own verse, to find the creative expression that would allow Burton to embrace his own dreams, explore his singular struggles and triumphs.

           He escaped the oppression of Vacaville for the freedoms of UC Berkeley, where he spent four solid years immersed in the pursuit of academic knowledge before acquiring his teaching certificate, which led him to seven years at Thornhill Elementary and innumerable professional accomplishments and personal satisfactions. Now he was here at Oakland Tech, stuck in a hole of academic despair, struggling to escape yet again.

           The lack of effect he had incurred on the student body, fused with the school’s atmosphere of anger, aggression and fear, had beaten him down. He thought about Harold Foster’s suggestion—an extracurricular project designed to allow Mr. Kelsey’s mentoring spirit to live through Burton—and perceived it as a possible way out of the disillusionment he felt. He mused about the poetry and prose he had written in his own high school years, then flashed on the race wars and gang violence that permeated his current academic home. He summoned the feelings his creativity had engendered in him, the writing that had fueled his ascent from the land of repressed dreams into the world of his own making, before they were replaced with thoughts of random knifings, beatings and the occasional impromptu blasts of gunfire that occurred on school grounds.

            His brain stumbled onto the accord between the two poles of thought, and suddenly Burton took his first steps out of the hole.

#

            Three weeks later, Burton had secured the backing of Principal Genotti for his Aggressive Fiction contest, and lined up three judges to select the winners. He posted flyers on the scant bulletin boards that dotted the campus, but knew his best shot at entries and protege-willingness rested with his own students. So Burton focused his recruitment efforts on those whom he saw nearly every day.

            “It’s not ‘aggressive’ necessarily meaning violent or dangerous,” began the pitch to all his classes, “but more along the lines of meaty, with some real substance and emotion to it. But it can be raw, too. In your face and without limitations. You may submit anything that would be considered fictive: short stories, poetry, screenplays, song lyrics, comedic essays, graphic novels, virtually anything. I’ll impose absolutely no boundaries on subject matter, language, format or style. I welcome each and every one of you to participate and to approach me—before class, after class—with any questions, any issues or ideas, absolutely anything that you wish to talk about.”

            The deadline for entries was the Friday after the Thanksgiving holiday, two months away. Burton knew that the majority of students would begin writing shortly before the due date, and not a week or a day sooner. He did, however, remain hopeful that a select few would seek him out earlier rather than later.

            “Mr. Fielding,” a male voice ventured from his office doorway, “do you have a minute?”

            Burton heard the flat but unmistakable native California accent and looked up from his current project: grading a pile of essays on Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams short stories. His eyes blurred before focusing on an unfamiliar face, attached to a body that was halfway in the hallway and halfway in the classroom.

            “Can I help you with something?”

            “I, uh… I came about your contest. I want to win it, you know?”

            Burton chuckled inwardly, the cockiness of the student in scuffed blue jeans, hundred-dollar kicks and an ironic-seeming t-shirt (‘Where’s the beef?’) awakening his curiosity. He found it peculiar that the boy wasn’t from any of his classes, yet was the first student to show any interest in the contest.

            “You want to win, that’s a good attitude.” Burton gave him a welcoming smile. “Come on in. What’s your name?”

            “Byung Tranh, but everyone calls me Brian. I’m a sophomore, you know, and I heard about the writing contest, so…” The boy trailed off, his thought unfinished, like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

            “What can I do to help?”

            “You want to help me? To win? That would be fantastic.”

            “Well, I can’t help you win, exactly, but I’m happy to provide any guidance you may be looking for. Have you started writing anything yet?”

            Brian shuffled his feet to Burton’s desk, slid his backpack off his shoulder and dropped it to the floor. He rummaged through it, wrestled a science textbook from the bottom of the bag before removing a stapled set of notebook paper. With an odd ceremonial flourish, he placed it on the desk.

            “That’s only part of it,” Brian said. “I’m still working on it. And I’m planning to write more, you know. Maybe a lot more. We can enter more than one thing, that’s what the rules thing said, right?”

            Burton regarded Brian’s offering but left it untouched, aware of its array of possibilities, like a festively wrapped present from a mysterious stranger. “You can turn in as many submissions as you’d like. No limit, that’s correct. But I would advise going for quality over quantity. Your best work is really what we’re looking for with the contest.”

            “Yeah, okay. But we can enter more than one thing, that’s what you said, right?”

            “Yes. Brian, is it? You can enter as many pieces of writing as you’d like.”

            “Okay,” said Brian, standing to the side of the desk. He suddenly whipped his backpack over his left shoulder, said, “Bye,” and was gone.

            Unsettled by the abrupt departure, Burton thought that the boy was an oddity to be sure, awkward and peculiar. But then, he had imagined himself inelegant and ungainly the first time he appeared in Mr. Kelsey’s class, so who was he to judge based on a single impression. Besides, Brian’s interest in the contest appeared genuine.

            With no plans for the evening, Burton envisioned reading Brian’s unfinished work later that night, possibly with a glass of Shiraz and Art Blakey on the turntable. Perfection. For the first time since the contest began, he found himself hopeful and enthusiastic about the entire endeavor.

 #

            Weeks passed, with Burton feeling less hopeful and less enthusiastic about the contest. There had been barely a trickle of entries so far with even less interest from the students he had approached privately. The prize was substantial: a thousand-dollar college scholarship that W.W. Norton had ponied up, compliments of an editor friend of Burton’s. There was also a promise of publication for the winning entry in a future Sunday edition of the Oakland Tribune. Both prizes were ideal for the type of student he had initially dreamed up the contest for. He was eager to help those bright and talented writers—so much like him, if only they could see that—who needed the push to convince themselves of their literary skills and creative worth. A tiny sum of financial aid and the opportunity to see their work in print might be enough to make a positive impact on their lives, to allow them the path that Burton had forged for himself.

            But one by one, his star students had rejected his advances, citing, “Too much homework already, Mr. Fielding,” as well as, “I’ve got an after school job and my grandma to take care of after that,” or the soul-crushing, “I’m not even sure I’m going to college, so what’s a scholarship gonna do for me then?” Mostly, Burton faced general disinterest and even a measure of disdain for the project. The smartest girl in his fourth period American Literature class, Vanessa Johnson, wrote delicate, yet stunningly beautiful prose, and was genuinely hurt that her favorite teacher had constructed a contest that was so masculine in nature. Her writing was anything but aggressive, she argued. He disagreed with her, encouraged Vanessa to submit something, anything, and leave it to the judges to decide the merits of the submission. She passed, as did the majority of his most promising student writers.

            Brian Tranh, who had to date submitted twelve pieces of fiction, was one of the few students who took the contest seriously. The first piece Burton had read he thought dreadful, and the submissions got increasingly worse as they filled up his office in-box. Any hope he held out for the prolific sophomore had been dashed repeatedly over the past few weeks. At one of their first meetings, Burton had asked what had drawn him to the contest, what motivated him to write.

            “I dunno. A teacher of mine, back when I was a lot younger, like three years ago, told me he thought I was really creative and, you know, had a good imagination. I wrote a story I guess he liked and told me that I was good and should keep at it. There’s nothing else I can really do, no good at sports or even math, like I should be, I guess, so I’m thinking writing stories and stuff will make me famous or something.”

            Burton thought at first that he had perhaps found a kindred spirit, a boy whose family story subtly reflected his own upbringing. Brian’s parents were working farmers who had emigrated from Vietnam and landed in the Bay Area shortly before his mother entered her second trimester. They were of poor stock, barely spoke or even understood the language, yet struggled valiantly for the assimilation of their Asian boy into American culture, desperate for him to become a western boy in a western world. Their only son, the living legacy they pinned their own idealized hopes and dreams on.

            Determined to create a rich mentor-mentee relationship for the both of them, Burton had encouraged the apprentice scribe to write his stories and stuff, to follow his bliss, create his own fantastic worlds and personal triumphs on the page. Subsequent meetings with Brian, however, resembled horrific car crashes, head-on collisions that stopped traffic for miles, all of them handily avoided if not for a student driver who never should have been allowed on the road in the first place. At the last, particularly disheartening after-school meeting with Brian, Burton’s own idealistic hopes for the Tranhs’ singular child waned and he sincerely wished that the boy would just stop trying.

            “I just get rid of all those extra words and then the story’s good, right?”

            Brian had been seated in the classroom after last bell, fingering a heavily marked sheaf of papers, red pen scribbles covering most of each page.

            “Brian, it’s not that simple. What happened to the exercise I suggested?”

            “I don’t remember any exercise. What was it?”

            Burton took a breath. Held it, followed by a slow release before he spoke again. “I suggested that you take a short story, one that you particularly liked, by an author you respect, and transcribe it word for word. I said I preferred you to write it down by hand, rather than type it into a computer, but either method would give you the same result.”

            “Oh, yeah, now I remember. Nah, I didn’t do that.”

            “Well, Brian, I’d suggest…again, that you try it. Copying a story down like that gives you a sense of the author’s writing style. The rhythms of his sentences, the feel of his language, how his words mesh together with one another to create something stylistic and precise. The point is that you learn about how writers construct their stories, physically, so that you can then use those lessons to create your own story. You can even borrow similar themes, perhaps, or a structure, a shape that binds the plot and characters together into a compelling piece of literature.”

            “I can do that. Copy it down, change some names and stuff, then submit it to the contest, right?”

            Burton eyes widened, then tightly closed. It was at this point that he figuratively threw up his hands and wrote Brian off. He had no idea how to help this student who was, to his mind, utterly lacking in skill and imagination. Not to mention that he seemed to be a complete fucking idiot. It was becoming excruciating for the teacher to even be in the same proximity with this kid who just didn’t get it.

            “Brian, I think that’s all the time we can devote to this right now. Why don’t you go home, read over my notes and…think about them, okay. Just…think about the stories, your stories, and we’ll talk again. Later.”

            The boy left his office and Burton realized that with less than two weeks before the contest deadline, not a solitary student other than Brian had found the desire to petition him for guidance or help with the contest. He did have the occasional impromptu entry, however, given orally and with mock seriousness. Terry Larsen, the star receiver from first period, spent a week bombarding him with tongue-in-cheek poems and rap lyrics. The ever-present Neal Flynn stood by his side as an accompanying human beat box.

            “Stop lights are red / My contacts are blue / Loving the jail-bait ladies / Mr. Fielding how ‘bout you?”

            “All right, Terry, that’s enough for today, thank you for playing.”

            “Aw, come on, me and Neal just getting warmed up. You gonna love this next one.”

            At the end of the day, his mind stumbled upon the idea of reading a bit of Longfellow, for much-needed inspiration in the face of wasted effort and a thoroughly depleted sense of self-accomplishment. He pulled the handle of the left drawer that always stuck and wasn’t surprised when it failed to open at his initial tug. Burton wrestled with it for close to sixty seconds, jostling and tapping both the drawer and the desk itself until he decided the dead poet wasn’t worth it, and he went back to grading that day’s quizzes.

#

           Burton was in the empty Teachers’ Lounge, pouring a cup of lukewarm coffee into his psychedelic-hued KFOG mug, when Bhavya Narayan entered. Wearing a traditional salmar kameez—embroidered with gold and beading of pearl—that complemented the red, tear drop-shaped bindi on her forehead, the social studies teacher sidled up beside Burton conspiratorially.

            He inhaled an imperceptible breath, smelled the jasmine and sandalwood that emanated from her; it was a freshly scrubbed, clean smell. A devout Hindu, in her early twenties, she reminded him of the beautiful Indian actress he had seen years before in the movie Kama Sutra.

           “It appears one of my students has taken quite a shine to you and your contest.” There was mischief in her eyes.

            “Now who would that be?” he smiled. Then stopped. “You mean Brian Tranh?”

            “Yes, he is the one. He barely listens to my lectures anymore, so busy writing all of those ‘aggressive’ pieces of fiction at his desk. Are they quite good?” She filled her own mug with tap water, placing it with measured delicacy into the microwave oven.

            “As a matter of fact, they’re quite bad. Is that… surprising to you?”

            “Not surprising, no. Honestly, I do not think much of him as a writer. I brought him up only to tease you, if I am to be frank. Mr. Tranh is actually one of my poorest students. He did, however, at least feign an interest in the classroom material prior to the appearance of your contest.”

            Burton reddened, set his coffee down on the counter. “I’m sorry for that, I never intended it to—”

            “No apologies. It does not matter, really. He is but one of two hundred students who come to my subject. One can only serve those who wish to learn, as you understand quite well, yes?”

            Burton gingerly nodded, wanting without restraint to agree with her, but finding himself uneasy with the prospect of embracing this particular pedagogical view.

            “There is no use in overly concerning yourself with mediocrity and the merely adequate students,” she continued. “The exemplary ones, the boys and girls who display the capacity and skills to succeed, those are the students we are truly here to serve. The rest we merely babysit for eight hours a day. Do you not agree?”

            Burton did not respond immediately. Bhavya’s eyes, the color of Himalayan blue poppies, searched his own loamy brown irises for the reason behind his reticence. “I’m sorry,” he finally managed, “but I can’t say that I agree. Not that I’ve been here very long, but if that were true, it would be…well, sad. Wouldn’t it? For the rest of them, I mean.”

            “Ignorance is sad, Burton. Low test scores, very sad. Students with desire yet without talent…that is a special kind of sadness.” Bhavya paused to slip a tea bag into her microwave-heated mug. “Mr. Tranh, he is of the harmless sort. However, it appears that he is engaged in proving something by entering your contest so continuously. I trust that he will not be rewarded for his persistence if the merit of his work is not present. That would be sad for us all, quantity trumping quality for its own sake.”

            Burton, at a loss for exactly how to respond, simply took another sip of his coffee and waited for Bhavya’s tea to steep and the fourth period bell to ring.

#

            His classes had ended hours before, the sun was almost down, and Burton found himself planted on a swing in the abandoned playground of Thornhill Elementary. The Aggressive Fiction contest was over, the winner had been announced, and Burton was despondent. “The Stoop,” a short story written by one of Harold Foster’s ace science students, had won the prize, and rightly so. The nerdy, diminutive black sophomore—a kid just like him but one who Burton never met or counseled on the contest—had chosen to write about the darker side of urban life, with language that was raw and actions that were violent as well as emotionally unexpected. It was the best of a very small lot, if Burton discounted the twenty-three submissions belonging to Brian Tranh, and he had had absolutely no hand in its origin or development.

            He missed his elementary school students, had grown disdainful of his teenage wards, and was sick in his gut that the contest had been a personal failure. The only student who showed any motivation, allowing Burton to dabble in the role of mentor, was the prolific young Brian. Not, as the teacher had hoped and planned, the smart and talented kids, the low-income wunderkinds who would have ignited his powers of creative propulsion and surely catapulted those few brilliant students into the stratosphere and out of their hopeless lives. No, not them. Only Brian had cornered him day after day, to suck Burton dry with his inane questions and endless but unjustified reservoir of enthusiasm.

            “I think my favorite entry from the ever-prolific Brian was actually a close tie,” Harold had said to him earlier in the day, once the contest was officially concluded. “It’s between the TV script that was a literal scene-for-scene transcription of an old ‘Star Trek’ episode—”

            “Oh, you mean the one where he changed Spock to Bock and Kirk to Kent? I’m afraid I may have inadvertently inspired that bit of plagiaristic whimsy.”

           “Really? Well, kudos to you. Did you also have a hand in my other favorite, the haiku ode to Captain Crunch? Twenty lines long, I believe it was, masterfully fitting the form like a piano in an envelope.”

           Burton chuckled mirthlessly at the memory while his body swayed on the creaky swing. He wondered how, or if, he would last out the year.

 #

            “Mr. Fielding, I didn’t win,” Brian Tranh blurted from outside Burton’s front door. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, like a coiled spring anxious to leap. “I was supposed to win.”

             A Saturday morning, it was the first day of Holiday Break, two days since the top three contest winners’ names had been posted around the school. Burton had been cowardly but successful in his attempts to avoid Brian on school grounds, but now the teenager stood before him, his face grotesquely fixed into a mask of agitation and distress.

            “Brian, this isn’t okay, your coming—”

            “You told me if I kept writing, I’d win. That’s what you told me, right?” Brian’s voice took on a nasal, whiny quality that made Burton cringe. He didn’t know this boy, not really, and had no idea if he was capable of violence, so he treaded carefully. He refused, however, to relinquish control over the situation.

            “I’m not going to have this conversation with you here, Brian.” Burton spoke to him calmly, yet with the firmest undertones he could muster. “You come to my classroom after school, once we’re back in session at the new year, and we’ll discuss all of this. But we cannot… I will not… have this conversation now.”

            Brian looked at him with a mixture of confusion, hurt and despair.

            “I’m going to close the door now. Goodbye.” As he stepped back into the apartment and shut the door, Brian dropped onto the exterior passageway and cried.

“You said you’d help me, Mr. Fielding. Why didn’t you help me?”

            Burton threw the bolt on the door, his nerves rattled, then retreated to the back room where the stereo was turned low to the local NPR station. He struggled to engage himself in the program, even raised the volume for a story about migratory habits of the mayfly, but was distracted by the muffled sounds of crying that continued outside.

            By the time he decided to face his fears and console the troubled student, the radio piece ended and the sounds of crying had ceased. Burton peeked out the kitchen window and scanned the passageway for signs of Brian. The boy was gone and Burton stood alone at the door. He wondered if he should do something, all the while hoping that if he just did nothing at all, the problem would somehow disappear completely.

#

            Burton ran off to Boston shortly after Brian’s appearance to spend Christmas with a dorm buddy from Berkeley whom he had kept in fairly close touch with over the years. He never once mentioned Brian, or the fiasco of a contest he had devised, forcibly keeping the weekend visit light and laser-focused on his friend and new wife. He returned to Oakland on New Year’s Eve, and within hours found himself back in his classroom at Tech, sitting at his desk with the left drawer that always stuck.

            The school was deserted, the official start of the new semester still days away. Burton sifted through the pile of flyers, mail, and school notices wrapped in a bundle that had come from his in-box. Searching his desk for a letter opener, he continually failed to redirect his mind away from Brian. He was frustrated with himself for being so indecisive and outright scared during what could hardly have been considered a confrontation. But it was a violation. He knew Brian was severely lacking in literary skills, but expected there would have been at least a low-level strain of common sense in that brain to keep him from ambushing teachers on their own doorsteps.

            Added to Burton’s level of frustration: the phone message he discovered upon his return from New England. Humberto Numado, a Sunday editor at the Oakland Tribune, had received the winning story—“Thank you very much, it was a very invigorating read”—but was sorry to say that it would not be published. He cited its excessive use of the word “fuck,” and the extreme violence of the piece as reasons for their refusal. He apologized, wished his best to the winner and left the door open for next year’s winner.

            Why would there be a next year? Burton thought as his left hand fell to the handle of the problem drawer and yanked it toward himself. It refused to give, despite all his tugging and cajoling. Burton banged his right fist on the top of the desk, tugged at the handle again, and then pounded the worn oak furniture with both hands. Fury, impotent rage, coursed through his bony arms until, after nearly ninety seconds of violence, he was spent. He crumpled backward into his chair and stared dumbly at his throbbing hands.

            Burton slowly composed himself then reached for the pile of papers from his in-box. Among the official paperwork, two front-page sections of the Oakland Tribune jutted out, yellow post-it notes sticking upward from each newspaper. He opened the first one, dated December 26, and found an article about a Tech student who had broken into the school, climbed up the roof of the front building, and leapt to the ground below. The student’s name was Byung Tranh, ruled another casualty of the Christmas blues, a season when suicide attempts among young men flourished.

            Burton had to read until nearly the end of the two-column article to learn that Brian had survived the fall and was at Oakland’s Kaiser Hospital. Below the story another yellow postie was attached, in Harold Foster’s distinctive handwriting, which read: Don’t you dare try to place the blame of what he did on your contest or anything you did or didn’t do, because I know you will. This was all him. Not you!!!

            The other front page section, this one dated December 28, contained a six-column article about Brian’s suicide attempt. It took up most of the page. Mostly regurgitated information from the previous article, with the inclusion of extended passages from five stories Brian had submitted to the Aggressive Fiction contest. Burton wasn’t sure if he was stunned more by the news of Brian’s eagerness to take his own life, or by the fact that this noxious prose was staring back at him from a major metropolitan newspaper.

            A final post-it from Harold mirrored Burton’s astonishment. Unbelievable, it read, the kid’s now a published author. He’s got bona fide clips to show the world. Twenty bucks says he gets a book deal out of this whole thing. Holy hell!

            Burton stared at the newspaper, struggled to feel something for the student. Something emotional, caring, substantive. All he felt was numb.

#

            A few days later, school had resumed and Burton, back in his classroom, listened to the hall bells ringing like a toll struck specifically for thee. Terry Larsen, the star receiver for the Tech Bulldogs, with Neal Flynn ever in tow, strutted into Burton Fielding’s first period Literature class. He flashed a grin.

            “Mr. Fielding, how’s it going?”

            “It’s going, Mr. Larsen.”

            “So I guess I didn’t win your contest, huh? Thought my rhymes were pretty tight. Aggressive, too, with a capital ‘A.’ Maybe next year, huh? I’m ’a keep at it.”

            “Please do.”

            The football player headed to his seat, but this time Neal didn’t shadow him. Instead, he approached Burton. “Mr. Fielding, have you heard anything about that Vietnamese kid, the one who tried to do himself in? I’ve got a couple of classes with him, just wondering if he’s okay or not.”

            Burton looked up, surprised. “Brian Tranh? You knew him? Know him?”

            “Yeah. I mean, we didn’t hang out or anything, but he was always asking me about you in our other classes. I figured since he was writing all the things for your contest, you know, maybe you visited him in the hospital or something.”

            “No, Neal. No, I haven’t done that.”

            “Oh. Okay then. Just wondering.”

            Neal loped to his seat behind Terry, who play-checked him with a forearm to the chest. The second bell rang and Burton suddenly felt something stronger than numbness for Brian Tranh. He felt shame.

#

            Burton spent his night wrestling with those feelings of shame, mixed with guilt and regret. He wandered the small apartment trying to grasp onto something solid within himself, some truth about the goodness of his character that he could believe in. That he could respect. Neal Flynn, a kid he had considered—if he considered him at all—a dumb jock, had shown more humanity, more sense than Burton could even attempt to muster for Brian Tranh. He was sick with himself.

             In front of his faux fireplace, he stared at a framed certificate nailed above the mantle. It was a token of his hard work and determination, an honor that had been bestowed upon him after only four years of teaching elementary school.

            “Teacher of the Year,” the parchment touted, “awarded to Burton Aaron Fielding, on this day February 10, 2010, for his generosity of spirit, selflessness of mind and the continuous encouragement of all his students to succeed, regardless of personal limitation or academic shortcomings. One of Oakland Unified School District’s finest educators and a crusader for those who wish only to learn and to be taught.”

            It’s a lie, was his first thought upon re-reading the certificate. I’m a hypocritical elitist was his second thought, another overeducated snob, a fraud. An asshole. He lifted the glass frame off the wall and stashed it under a tidy pile of New Yorkers and Architectural Digests. He sat with his shaming thoughts and feelings of well-deserved guilt until he finally decided what to do next.

            On his lunch period the following day, Burton ran into Safeway to obtain a token of his sympathy—balloons wouldn’t do, a teddy bear was too childish, roses or tulips felt inappropriate for a teenage boy’s recovery room—and settled on a bouquet of wildflowers. He sailed down the hospital corridor until he stopped at Brian’s door, which was slightly ajar. He spied the boy under a hazy, over-washed white blanket. The face was somber, eyes downcast. Burton heard the low chatter of a daytime program from a TV he assumed was mounted across from Brian’s bed.

            He knocked, slowly entered the room. “Brian?”

            The boy glanced upward, his face transforming, his mood elevated instantly. “Mr. Fielding, hey, you’re here.”

“I should have come sooner, Brian. As soon…well, as soon as I heard.”

            Brian shifted in his bed, allowed Burton to observe his left arm, chest and both legs concealed in hard plaster casts. “Did you read about me in the paper?”

            “I did. And I’m sorry if—”

            “Did you see they published my stuff? Wasn’t that cool?”

            “It was, yes…cool.” Burton placed the vase on a table.

            “Hey, will you sign my cast?”

            “I don’t…I didn’t bring a pen. Is there one—”

           Brian grimaced then did a weird little shrug move, like he was embarrassed. “They don’t let me have anything in here I could hurt myself with. You know, on account of me trying to off myself.”

           Burton was at a loss for words, but his heart poured out, finally, he thought, for this young boy. So young, not a burgeoning adult but barely an adolescent. A hurt little child.

           He stared at Brian, not sure what to say or do until he remembered something. “Wait, I have it…yes, here it is.” He pulled a fountain pen from the front of his pea coat and held it out. “What would you like me to write?”

            Burton watched Brian raise his plaster arm from under the thin white sheet.

            “Write down what the secret is to winning your contest next year.”

            A poem by Wordsworth, one of the Romantic poets who had sparked a passion in Burton for transcendent and sublime verse, had been stirring around in his brain. He had thought of sharing it with Brian, reciting it aloud, but now dallied with the idea of writing out a few lines on the cast. Inspiration for the boy during his recovery.

            Set to write the first line of Wordsworth’s meaningful stanza, a realization hit. The poem represented something that Burton would want, a gesture and a sentiment that he would cherish from one of his teachers, one of his mentors.

            But Brian wasn’t him.

            What would Brian choose to have embedded in his cast? What words would spur him on, encourage and uplift his damaged spirit?

            Burton paused a moment more, then wrote: Get better soon. Then come to my office. I’m here to help. Mr. Fielding.

            Brian scanned the message, a rush of sanguinity flooded his humor and his smile. “To help me win, right?”

            “To help you win,” Burton said.

            He was unsure of what he’d just promised. He knew, certainly, that even if it wasn’t true, it was what the student needed to hear. Despite what he felt, staring at this dullard who would never win anything for as long as he managed to keep himself alive, it was what he needed to say.


Author Bio:  Justin McFarr was born and raised in the Bay Area. He received his undergraduate degree from UCLA, and his master’s degree from USC’s MPW program. His work has appeared in Scribendi Magazine, Flask and Pen, AlienSkin Magazine, Verdad, Wild Quarterly, and on the Controlled Chaos blog. He is currently at work on a novel that is set in Berkeley during the summer of ’76.

Artwork:

Once the Conundrum is Dispelled by A.J. Huffman

Photo-2


Once the Conundrum is Dispelled

It comes like this sometimes.  In waves
of grief higher than my head.  I hold
my breath and hope it will not consume
me.  More often I hope it will.  Why
can’t the breaking be complete?
The pain is severe.  But what is enough?
My mind slips out for a dip.  Sliding
along salty-lash[ed] planks.  I dive
into sleep.  For comfort and coma.
Black.  Black.  Empty.
Are these the empathies I covet?
I swallow them like pills.  Gulping
and gasping.  And glad that ultimately
they will help me.  Embody gone.


Author Bio: A.J. Huffman has published seven solo chapbooks and one joint chapbook through various small presses. Her eighth solo chapbook, Drippings from a Painted Mind, won the 2013 Two Wolves Chapbook Contest. She also has a full-length poetry collection scheduled for release in June 2015, titled, A Few Bullets Short of Home (mgv2>publishing). She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, and her poetry, fiction, and haiku have appeared in hundreds of national and international journals, including Labletter, The James Dickey Review, Bone Orchard, EgoPHobia, Kritya, and Offerta Speciale, in which her work appeared in both English and Italian translation. She is also the founding editor of Kind of a Hurricane Press. www.kindofahurricanepress.com

Artwork: Justin Schapker is an artist living in Cincinnati, Ohio. 

Ten Dollars and Detroit by Kenneth Radu

Kolongowski_The Ambassador Bridge_FOR RADU


Our friendship occurred years before Detroit burned. Years later I learned the word that describes what my best friend liked doing to me, or perhaps doing to himself. A telephone pole may have served as well, although now I understand that something like willing flesh was his preferred choice. I never said no, although willing may be overstating it, but he was my necessary friend, and his father lived in Detroit, the fabulous city across the river from Windsor. Whatever he wanted, I wanted, or at least, swilling in a hot fudge of emotions, allowed. Friends were hard to come by, and his father, a big man about town, so Daniel kept repeating, drove his Detroit boat of car over the Ambassador Bridge or through the Windsor-Detroit tunnel under the river on his monthly visit. When he stepped out of his white Cadillac convertible in his black suit, he stood bulky and tall, his eyes always hidden behind dark glasses with gold threads in the frame, rings flashing on several fingers as he opened his wallet to give a substantial allowance to his son, and Daniel disappeared for a day after winking at me. Left on the curb I caressed the shark fins of the car and wondered how many Detroit dollar bills made a wallet fat.

My large family (parents, six siblings, boarders) managed their chaotic lives in shabby houses, one not far from the open-air market where farmers sold their produce of the season, clucking chickens in wire and wood cages, hunks of bloody meat dripping like truncated corpses from terrifying hooks, and carp gasping in a barrel of water, which they’d kill by slamming a wooden mallet over their heads on a butcher’s block. People travelled from Detroit to shop at the Windsor market where Daniel and I often wedged ourselves between shoppers, looking out for the opportune moment to snatch fruit off a farmer’s stall on a Saturday morning. You could always tell Detroiters: something about the way they took possession of public space with their movie clothes, relaxed gait, twangy voices proclaiming the merits of peaches and potatoes, excessive friendliness with people they didn’t know from Adam, and money that all looked the same. Canadian money had a different colour for each denomination, including an orange two-dollar bill, terra cotta to be accurate, but my youthful perception couldn’t distinguish the difference.

In those days the words coloured and Negro were common, not Afro-Canadian or Afro-American. Or black, a term sometimes heard in the background, usually with pejorative intent, but not gaining general favour until the Black is Beautiful mantra repeated throughout the sixties. Because I hankered after Daniel and followed his lead wherever he chose to go, he was beautiful in my eyes—although I’m sure I wouldn’t have expressed my feelings in those terms. Because his father glinted in the sun and amazed me with cash and rings, I believed that Detroit was populated with beautiful black people, more beautiful than Windsor’s coloured people in my neighbourhood who were as poor as my parents and got clothes from the St. Vincent de Paul outlets or the reduced to clear bargain basement bins. My boyfriend Daniel, often sporting outfits from Detroit, was therefore beautiful. His father was beautiful. The Americans who came to the market, white and black, seemed to me easy and lovely, if also loud, and semi-divine: if not immortal, at least enlivened by good fortune. They lived in Detroit! I didn’t regard myself as beautiful—although during puberty, like every boy I became self-conscious about the shape and independent urges of my body.

Of course, other words could be ripped out of the lexicon of racism, and I remember when some kids called my sister a nigger. I never really understood the word, but knew it was so insulting and wrong that I blushed when boys in the schoolyard spat it out like diarrhea in a parking lot. Had they no manners? Were they brought up in a cowshed? We were all poor, yes, but my mother had warned me often enough, “If I ever hear you talk like that….” Well, you get the picture. Daniel, whose mother was white, hated the word, and once smacked me hard. We were tussling in the kitchen and he hurt me, so I threw it like a stone at his head. The look on his face made me fold into a cringe and I accepted his mother’s slap as just and proper, the sense of humiliation so deep I could hardly walk home, but I never used the word again. Following Daniel around after school the next day like a remorseful dog on a leash, wondering what he was thinking because he didn’t say much, tolerating my companionship, I remained silent, afraid of my own speech. I learned then not only how words could make the mind bleed and the heart sore, but also how I could never really get inside Daniel’s skin and feel the world the way he did.

Everyone was poor on my street and I was old enough then to understand the limitations of poverty. Poor but not like The Waltons. No wise elders spouted philosophical insights or consoling anodynes from their rocking chairs on porches. Fuck, bugger, bitch, cocksucker, get your shit outta here, fucking bastard, ass wipe: I heard those a lot, but like Oliver Twist did not repeat obscenities. The turmoil and rages of family life kept most of the neighbourhood kids out of doors and away from our overworked and underpaid parents. I don’t remember anyone spending much time in front of their black and white television sets with rabbit ear antennae. Our playgrounds were the streets, hydro fields, railway tracks, parking lots, alleys and riverbanks opposite the looming city of fables and big men. Because of Daniel’s Dad, I associated Detroit with rich people, oblivious to its actual economic conditions and racial tensions. Didn’t his father drive a Cadillac and own a fat wallet? Couldn’t I see phenomenal buildings thrusting up and bursting through the clouds, a city of great fortunes and Pashas on silken pillows? I didn’t know any wealthy people in Windsor, but of course they existed, just not in my neighbourhood or fields of investigation.

When not in school, I belonged to Daniel, he owned me. Often we climbed through broken windows into the abandoned house redolent with the stench of mouldy carpets, cat piss, clogged drains, and emptied bottles of drugstore rubbing alcohol consumed by hobos, rubbydubs as they were locally called, who often squatted in the premises until chased off by police. We explored the rooms, stripped water-stained paper off the walls, or wrestled in a second floor bedroom where a rusty bedspring leaned against one wall. He always wanted to win and get on top of me. And that’s where Daniel acted out his erotic urges and expanded my vocabulary although he didn’t use the word. He forbade anyone, even his mother, to call him Danny which he claimed was “a fucking baby’s name,” and he “wasn’t no baby.” He got me in a sleeper hold, wrapped his legs around my thighs to immobilize resistance as he manipulated my body flat down to the splintered hard wood floor. He rubbed against my buttocks or thighs or up and down my prone body. I could feel the boner under his jeans. Uncomfortable and hurting, anxious and close to panic, I nonetheless did not yell out. His breathing became faster and shorter, more like miniature explosions as intermittent syllables of broken words, the occasional fuck and yeah blurted out of his mouth, as he pressed and rubbed, then stiffened, shuddered, tightened his clutch around my neck as if he wanted to choke me to death, and came in his underwear. Frottage.

He rolled off and I remained face down, watching a spider tumble about a dust ball, uncertain of what I was feeling, but knowing from the sound of Daniel’s voice that he was happy. I remember wanting to call him Danny then, but I dared not rub him the wrong way and risk his rage. His hand on my buttock, he announced that his dad was coming for his monthly visit tomorrow, and I could stop by to see the Cadillac if I wanted, but I wasn’t to say anything about what just happened. He knew I liked it, didn’t I? I said yes, but I wasn’t certain what it was I liked. I didn’t have a boner myself on this occasion although I had been masturbating for a year already, had seen sexual episodes of one kind or another, so I knew what pleasant sensations a boner could lead to.

When we stood side by side on the river banks at sunset, watching the last rays of the sun splatter in ethereal rose and gold against the Detroit skyscrapers, particularly the Penobscot building rising above the dirty water like a Martian tower in a comic book, my face flushed and my breathing labored like Daniel’s during an episode of frottage. My mind stupid with fantasies, I wanted something to happen without fully knowing what. My hands delved into my pockets. Detroit gave me a boner. In my searches through paraphilia fixations, I have never come across a word to describe the erotic fascination a pubescent boy might develop for the unattainable city, a kind of longing for an ill-understood, maybe illicit paradise causing a hard-on. The immensity of the city stretched as far as the eye could see on the riverbank opposite, its cosmic splendor at night infiltrating my imagination and wet dreams of girls I knew in my class, especially red-haired Sophie who always wore huge ribbons pinned on the top of her head. Not only girls, but Daniel as well, and Batman who swooped me up between the towers that became a mesmerizing blend of Metropolis and Gotham City. Both Daniel and I ate up Batman and Superman comics although I retained a secret love of Classics Illustrated that I sometimes stole from the corner store. They cost more than Batman. Gulliver or Crusoe or Quasimodo, however, didn’t give me wet dreams.

In addition to plentiful cash and fancy clothes (I never met a poor person, black or white, from Detroit), I believed that Detroit had something to do with the unspoken and forbidden, the daring and even the criminal. Aside from shoplifting trinkets from the local Kresge’s or Woolworth’s and sneaking into the movies, I couldn’t define what the criminal meant. Snitching plums off a farmer’s stall or sneaking into a movie didn’t count, for that is what boys did. Perhaps Daniel’s father had something to do with the criminal, and I fell into his son’s way of admiring the big man from the big city across the river. Put a cape on his back and he’d be our very own Super Hero. Wondrous in his abilities, Superman nevertheless always seemed to me a kind of soft man, a marshmallow on steroids, a word unknown to me then, an essentially mild-mannered Canadian (Clark Kent) who wouldn’t look at you cross-eyed or take you into abandoned houses for a private wrestling match. Did he even get boners? It’s surprising to learn that the Canadian Joe Shuster, co-creator of the American hero, also produced a series of erotic sadomasochistic illustrations and stories (e.g. Nights of Horror, c. 1954). Unlike Superman, Batman simmered with subterranean passions and belonged to the night of the city, much like Daniel’s father who was as big as the dark, caped, masked superhero.

Daytime Detroit meant music studios, thousands of workers in busy car plants, baseball games, and cross border shoppers. Even in Windsor when Daniel and I bought cherry cokes, we inserted our nickels and dimes in a jukebox attached to the wall over each booth to hear music produced in Detroit studios. Daniel’s father owned a nightclub, so he said, which the son was forbidden to enter, and the father never went to bed before dawn, because “he had things to do after midnight,” the things never explained. Daniel’s conspiratorial whisper persuaded me that he, Daniel, knew “things” I didn’t, and not just because he was two years older than I. Windsorites often crossed the river to shop, returning home with goods they smuggled through customs. My oldest sister donned loose clothing so she could wear two new blouses and skirts under them, purchased at Detroit department stories for much less than she would have paid in Windsor, and not declare them. Everyone knew someone who spent Saturday night in Detroit, for the city’s skyscrapers and streets flamed with electricity and the beacon of the Penobscot Building not only warned low-flying planes to fly higher, but they also lured Canadian would-be revelers to join the party. Many parties. The same streets ruptured by riots, and their houses set on fire in 1967, and buildings I once passed by as a boy to this day stand in ruins.

Daniel took to splashing himself with cologne. I could smell his cologne, the same aroma exuding from his daddy’s well-suited body, as he pointed across the river and said his father lived somewhere in the shadow of skyscrapers, and he had a lot of friends and was too busy with his businesses to spend much time in a shithole like Windsor. Well, true, Windsor didn’t have high buildings that cut through clouds and tickled God’s ass, and the adults in my life didn’t pull out wallets thickened with cash, and the men didn’t wear rings with stones as big as my grandmother’s warts or the blue and red marbles on the Bible the Orthodox priest made me kiss when he came by to bless our impoverished circumstances.

Windsor didn’t have the Tigers or the baseball stadium where twice I ate American hot dogs loaded with chili sauce, paying little attention to the game, but dumbfounded by the countless number of people and the endless rush of sensations pounding my eyes and ears as Daniel screamed out his approval or disapproval over a player’s actions. His daddy had driven us over for a Sunday afternoon match in what then called Briggs Stadium, on the corner of Michigan and Trumbull, before the name change to Tiger Stadium, decades before the demolition. What remains today is a field of weeds and memories and the hopes of civic groups to do something with the grounds. His Father gave us both a ten-dollar bill to buy food. Ten dollars bought a lot. When Daniel and I went to Saturday matinées at Windsor’s Palace Theatre, we never needed more than a dollar for ticket (when we paid, for sometimes we sneaked in), popcorn, pop, and licorice. And we could frottage in the middle seats of the very last row, if no one sat next to us. Daniel rubbed my hand rubbing his seemingly permanent boner under his jacket as we popped popcorn into our mouth with our free hand while watching Disney cartoons or the newsreel before the second feature. We kept rubbing until Daniel either pushed my hand away or shuddered in his seat. We had to watch out for the usher with his flashlight. I remember thinking his boner was big because his father was big man in Detroit, the big city of sky high buildings, and Daniel was also American, it had to be big.

Detroit became a city of fantasies: unattainable, inchoate, alluring and dangerous, even if I didn’t understand it in those terms. When I masturbated or rubbed myself against the metal bedstead as brown as Daniel’s skin, I sometimes visualized frottage with Daniel in the abandoned house or movie theatre, but I also imagined his father picking me up over his shoulder and carrying me to the white Cadillac and driving me over the bridge or through the tunnel to Detroit. I’d be dropped off in front of the Penobscot building which towered above me and glittered in the sun, knowing that at any moment something tremendous and unimaginable could occur if only I waited. I stood like a supplicant under the arch of the entrance, waiting for permission to enter the hallowed precincts since the doors presented a rather forbidding religious aspect. Nothing ever happened in those dreams, which only exacerbated my longing for the otherworldly event. Or I trudged along Woodward Avenue, forever lengthening and widening the way streets do in dreams, or down side streets away from the main thoroughfare, streets of flames and riots, trying to find the address of a house that would open its doors for me and reveal an Ali Baba’s cave of jewels and red licorice sticks, big boners, and bottles of Wishing Well cream soda or cases of Coca-Cola in small glass bottles.

It was a city of tremendous buildings, beauteous caverns, humming factories that went on for miles, libraries whose shelves bent under the weight of books, of thousands of noisy fans standing for the seventh inning stretch in the Briggs Stadium. Something had to happen to me here. Or he carried me, always Daniel’s dad was carrying me, never my own father who sat glum as a toadstool at the kitchen table after work, staring at a newspaper and drinking a bottle of beer. He rarely spoke, and when he noticed my existence at all it was only to command me to go buy cigarettes, Player’s. My two half-sisters came in for a lot of stares as if he wondered who they were, and yes, there’s a story there, which I didn’t discover until I was older and wrote a novel about my complicated family.

Daniel once called me a “kind of brother,” and his mother Angie, whose hip slung out so out of kilter as a consequence of scoliosis that her left hand could scrape the ground as she walked, seemed especially loving towards me. She had worked as a housekeeper for a Detroit manufacturer in her youth before returning to Windsor to give birth to her son. Once, after riding over the Ambassador Bridge in the back seat of the Cadillac, Daniel sitting proud as a prince in the front next to his big father who drove with one had lightly resting on the bottom of the steering wheel, he took us to Michigan Central Station where he had to meet business associates delivering a package. I didn’t see the associates or the package, but I sat on a bench, agape at the interior. Compared with this magnificence, Windsor had a poky little hut of a train depot, but here I sat beneath the vault of a veritable palace, half-dazed with desire to be transported to a fabulous realm, and then return to Detroit to be greeted and embraced by Daniel’s father the way he embraced his son, loud and laughing, fingers flashing, a big man of a big town with loads of cash.

Windsor, as I’ve mentioned, had a substantial population of Afro-Canadians, or coloureds or Negroes, to use the epithets of the day, including my two half-sisters, but a child playing is more conscious of the action of the game than he is of complexion of the players. I sensed that only bad people somehow felt differently about black people than they did about white, except good people, as I knew, from the depths of their goodness dredged up and spat racial obscenities with shocking ease. With one or two neighbouring towns in the county, Windsor was the destination point of the Underground Railroad, and most of the coloured population descended from escaped slaves, and they all had relatives in Detroit, including my half-sisters as I later discovered. When the city caught fire and the sound of gunshots zinged over the river to the stunned crowds lined on the banks, we all thought about people who knew people, relatives, friends, countless associations and interrelationships, and perhaps congratulated ourselves in that self-righteous Canadian way that Windsor had not yet exploded in a civil war between the blacks and the whites. I was a university student in 1967, visiting my sister. Daniel had crossed over to join his father in Detroit not long after my family moved away from Windsor, except for one married half-sister whose skin was the colour of ripe chestnuts and who married a black farmer. I hadn’t seen Daniel in several years.

Although I am told it is making strides to recover from the devastations of the decades, we are mostly familiar with Detroit as a destitute city, its inner core bereft, many of its impressive palaces of capitalism now dilapidated, its public buildings victims of economic collapse, and the predation of vandals and weather, great factories hollowed out, residences burned, boarded, and otherwise abandoned. One has only to troll through various Internet sites or, even better, peruse the excruciating and fabulous collection of contemporary photographs, The Ruins of Detroit, by Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre, a sorrowful depiction of the emptied buildings of a ruined city, the skeletons of Detroit. They compare the city’s dereliction to the collapse of ancient empires, and such monumental urban edifices like the Michigan Central Station to the ruins of Athens and Rome. They even use the word “mummification” to describe the process of urban decay. Before and after the great and deadly riots of 1967, Detroit was and is an inseparable part of American mythology, just as it is an inextricable part of mine.

It is saying the obvious that nothing lasts, that friends go their individual ways and lose forever what they had once possessed like the city of my childhood fantasies. Daniel, I believe, stayed in Michigan with his father. I don’t know what happened to him. The Central Station, the Book Depository, theatres, schools, residences are stunning and hopeless in their devastation, but once, at the height of empire, an empire torn apart and ravaged from within (no barbarians at the gates), the grandeur of Detroit fed into and stimulated a young pubescent boy whose hands played in his pockets on the riverbank. He stood almost hip-to-hip next to a beloved friend whose father paid our way into the Brigg’s Stadium and gave us ten dollars each. His nightclub apparently burned to the ground on the second night of the riots, my sister informed me, and his head cracked under the blow of a policeman’s baton. Like my favourite superhero, the dark Batman, he survived bodily harm.

To this day I have an “orange” two-dollar bill, no longer legal tender, as it has been replaced in Canada by a bright and shiny coin.

 


Author Bio: Kenneth Radu’s most recent book is Butterfly in Amber, a novel set in Montreal and Russia, released by in the spring of 2014 by DC Books. Radu has also published several collections of stories, including Earthbound, and Sex in Russia. He has twice received the Quebec Writers’ Federation Award for best fiction. He lives in a village where his neighbours don’t know that he’s an obsessive writer of English. Working on new stories, he has also discovered the charms of the personal essay.  

Artwork: Jill Kolongowski 

Doomed Romance by Jan Steckel

Red Sea Merman


Doomed Romance

I met a blond man
in an erotic bookstore.
We stood overlooking
the Pacific Coast Highway.

He said, “Night is for man
to press pedal to metal.
Night is for woman
to be safe at home.

I pressed his hand
so he’d know how I felt.
Then I unhitched my girdle,
dove into the headlight stream.

I flippered and breast-stroked
like a gefilte-fish mermaid.
Malibu selkies sang to me
sagas of pacific Vikings.


Author Bio: Jan Steckel’s poetry book, The Horizontal Poet (Zeitgeist Press, 2011), won a Lambda Literary Award. Her fiction chapbook, Mixing Tracks (Gertrude Press, 2009), and poetry chapbook, The Underwater Hospital (Zeitgeist Press, 2006), also won awards. Her short story collection, Ghosts and Oceans, is seeking a publisher. She lives in East Oakland.

Artwork: John Smiddy was born San Jose, CA in 1966. He received his BA from UCSC in 1989 and his MA from SFSU in 1998. He lives and works in Oakland, CA.