[johnny appleseed] by July Westhale

Nora Ellis_for_[johnny appleseed]


 

[johnny appleseed]

Look. I lived a life of pure good.
Even the animals loved me, & the savages, too.
I wed no wife, just the hills of colonies.
They gave me children of knotted wood, spines
of pines, the personal luxury of shade.

I know a man who gave up the ghost, once
he lost his potency. That man will never be me.
I am kind & good, the bringer of truth & sustenance,
a sometimes-pollinator, scatter-er of seed.
I said, the woods are dark that refuse generosity,
& that darkness moves through the body & unselves us.
I say, I know an America unshaved & passive,
I fought battles only with the soil, to accept
a foreign thing, to take it inside & grow it.
I have seen the glory of the apple and the ghost.


About the Author: July Westhale is a Fulbright-nominated poet, activist, and journalist. She has been awarded residencies from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Sewanee, Napa Valley, Tin House and Bread Loaf. Her poetry has most recently been published in Adrienne, burntdistrict, Eleven Eleven, WordRiot, 580 Split, Quarterly West, and PRISM International. She is the 2014 Tomales Bay Poetry Fellow. www.julywesthale.com

Artwork: Nora Ellis

Verdaderos Peruanos by Nicolas Poynter

Cybelle Dabner_for_Verdaderos Peruanos


The traffic here is like some type of perpetual-motion machine, spinning and flowing with a complete disregard for the laws of physics, incessant honking, rabid lane changing and no hesitations to drive the wrong way down a one-way street. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of near accidents every moment but, as far as I have seen anyway, no actual accidents, which implies that Peruvians are really good at chaos. Instead of taking turns, Peruvian cars use their horns to claim the right of way as they approach each other at intersections, an intricate honking code that, on the surface anyway, does not seem sufficient. But then just when you are certain there is going to be a horrible collision, they modulate their velocities slightly so that they miss one other, however usually only by a few feet, never coming to a complete stop. I don’t think I have ever seen a car actually stop moving in Peru until, of course, it has reached its destination.

I have quickly learned not to be the first one to step into the street, to wait for someone else and then to keep their body between me and the on-coming traffic. That one, the first one, will die if someone needs to die, if someone needs to be sacrificed to the taxistas, and the rest of us will live. On the other side those of us that have survived will exchange grateful looks, exhale, and then gather ourselves and approach the next intersection, still alive in Lima.

She crosses such traffic effortlessly, as easily as she breathes, always the first one off the curb, and then makes fun of me for my horrific facial expressions as I try to keep up with her and not die at the same time. Watching her makes me imagine a female super hero or maybe a ninja, as she moves, even when confronted by speeding cars barreling down upon her like bullets, with statuesque posture, her body skinny and strong and exceedingly feminine all at the same time. “Verdaderos Peruanos cross whenever they want and wherever they want,” she tells me, and then I want nothing more than to be a verdadero Peruano, a true Peruvian, in her eyes. This is probably how I will die, running into a Peruvian truck to prove myself to her. The truck will probably slow down after killing me, but not stop.

This is my mother’s city. She is the last of twelve children, the last one born as well as the last one living, meaning I have no uncles here anymore but I have more cousins than I can count, all of whom are older than me, more like uncles. I have to keep reminding myself that they are cousins and that all my uncles are dead, most of them long dead. Because they are older than me they remember me from when I was a little boy in Peru, but I can’t remember them. I remember Inca Kola and tall walls with glass shards embedded along their tops and poor people washing clothes in the Rimac River and not much else. I don’t remember Sendero Luminoso, but my cousins, because they are older, remember them. We walk down the streets of Miraflores together, and they point to this building or that building and tell me, that is where I was when the bomb went off. They must sense that I am fascinated by them, the terrorists, but I am sure that if it were not for me they would rather not talk about it. Sendero Luminoso was the reason we stopped coming to Peru when I was a little boy, or so my mom says, and now I have to start all over again with this place, as a stranger. Those were bad times for Peru one cousin after another tells me, meaning the eighties. Dangerous, dangerous times.

But I am starting to think my family may be more dangerous than Sendero Luminoso ever was. They keep telling me I have to eat different things if I want to be a true Peruvian, some of these things I doubt are even food. I have eaten raw octopus, purple tentacles and all, twice now, and the heart of something, a cow I think, more times than I can count. Yesterday my cousin told me, when his wife left the table, that I had to eat a whole tomato quickly, if you want to be a verdadero Peruano, except the tomato was not a tomato at all but a obscenely hot pepper called rocoto, which, for a reason known only to God, looks exactly like a fucking tomato. I took a giant bite and then asked my cousin if he could call an ambulance for me, but he assured me that I would not need a doctor. “You will be okay. Maybe ten minutes,” he said, pushing his beer across the table to me. “Twenty at the most.” I have since learned that this is a common trick Peruvians play on tourists.

“Who is the girl?” My boss asks me. I imagine him sitting at his desk and scrolling through the images I sent him and then freezing, of course, on her image.

“My guide.”

There is silence as he digests this information—that with the money he gave me, rather than hire some thuggish body guard, I have hired a beautiful woman. “Her face is interesting,” he finally says.

“I guess. Sure.” I am thinking that as a writer he has failed miserably. Interesting? Intoxicating maybe.At least that much. He has not even seen the ones I took recently, after she had a little too much pisco and started telling secrets. We were at a ceviche place on the cliff, and she turned from the ocean, looked right at me and, out of the nowhere, told me that there are places in Lima where she is not welcome. The breeze from the ocean was tossing her hair across her eyes intermittently so that I couldn’t get a good look at her. She told me they will tell her they are full, but then if a blonde, or at least a less indigenous-looking woman, arrives, there is always room. It was kind of a joke—that a country with so few blondes would have this thing for blondes. It was a funny, absurd joke, and we laughed about it, but then it also was not a joke because there was nothing she could ever do about it. While she was explaining this to me something was suddenly right there at the table with us, as if it had arrived late and then sat down without anyone noticing. I couldn’t see it, but I am sure it was really there because I felt it. She told me it didn’t matter how educated she was, how nice she dressed or even if she was beautiful. That was the secret—that there was a wrong type of beautiful. Then she smiled at me and shifted her jaw a little to the side to make me laugh, and that is when I took her picture.

“What is her name?”

Another cousin has an apartment which compromises an entire floor of his building, the elevator opening up to his living room. He is so proud of his views, straight down onto the cliffs. He holds me there with his gigantic hand on my shoulder, demanding I look even though I explained to him that I am terrified of heights. “Look down,” he insists. “When the earthquake hits, this is where I will stand. I will stand here and wait for everything to fall into the sea.”

I look, I guess I have to look, and am immediately left breathless by the coastline of the city. Lima is both next to the ocean and also somehow very far away from it at the same time, an impossible wall of rock separating them, as if maybe the Earth is flat after all and Lima is the last stop before going over. I feel a sense of pride well up inside me. This is my mother’s city but surely some partial ownership passes to me. Some small piece of this must be mine too. For a moment, all my fears subside, until I look closer and realize there is nothing there between me and the outside. My hand carefully probes the area, passing through the line of the building as if I am trying to push some imaginary button suspended in the Lima sky. There is a fucking hole in the side of this man’s apartment! And it is big enough for two people to jump through at the same time, no screen, no guard rail, no nothing, only cold, black rocks a few hundred feet below. What the fuck! Is this supposed to be a window? Is this some sort of patio door? Who the hell constructs a patio door without a fucking patio?Is there no Peruvian OSHA? Are there no safety codes? Is there no government agency to help me stay alive in Peru? He pounds my back with his palm, perhaps trying to knock me out of his apartment, and I collapse to the floor and hug his kitchen linoleum for safety.

She took me to a bar for lunch on the very first day, ordering some special Peruvian beer from Cusco, matching me swig for swig, each drink affecting me like a roller coaster. When she had suggested beer I had told her I usually prefer something stronger, like whiskey, but she had only laughed and ordered the beer anyway, leaving me with the thought that maybe she had meant it was too early for such serious drinking. But that was not what she had meant. At first I was terrified she was going to be able to drink more than me, and then I was terrified she was smarter than me, and then I was just terrified. After the second beer, my mind spinning like a top, she leaned in close to say something to me and, as her face neared mine, her eyes suddenly catching the reflection of the brightly-colored pisco bottles behind the bar, I felt like someone was putting a knife into my side and twisting it there. It sometimes hurts to admire art that much.

They have collected the photographs from the time when Sendero Luminoso was setting off bombs and they have them on permanent display in the national museum. I was there yesterday looking at them, being punched in the stomach by them. It bothers me that the poor suffer the most in war. You would think that if you had nothing to begin with, if you were living in a shack built out of thrown away materials and on the side of a mountain so steep that one good rain, although it never rains in Lima, would wash you into the Rimac River that that would be enough and they could fight their wars without bothering you too much. But Sendero Luminoso wrapped themselves in that poverty, planted their communist flag on top of those steep mountains, and then the army went in there to sort them all out and everybody looked like Sendero Luminoso to them so there you go. The poor of Peru, living on dirt floors and in between cardboard walls, were getting the horrid worst of some obscene three-way. And there are photographs.

There was a photo of a group of dead reporters that Sendero Luminoso had murdered. They were stripped down to their underwear, their arms still bound behind their backs, their flabby bodies pale and muddy like slaughtered pigs, cameras lying broken everywhere. This photograph almost made me vomit right there in the museum, but I think it was brilliant to leave them like this, in their underwear, I really do, somehow much more horrific than either fully naked or fully clothed. Those guys really knew what the hell they were doing. Maybe my mom saw that photo so many years ago. Maybe she talked to my uncles, all of whom are dead now, and made a decision never to return to Peru and to this day she has not been back.

My cousin, more like an aunt really, takes me out to Chorillos, to a seafood restaurant that sits in a horseshoe-shaped curve of the Pacific Ocean. Our waiter appears to be one hundred years old and half blind. He keeps walking off while she is in the middle of ordering. “Hey!” She calls him back and calmly explains that she was not done speaking. “I would like—” But he walks off again, and she looks at me incredulously, her mouth dropping open. I take her picture. This is Peru. I know that much. We will simply wait and hope he returns.

My cousin scoops the whipped cream off of her coffee with a spoon and stretches it across the table, offering it to me, and then some long, lost memory of mine jumps back into my head as clear as water. I tell her about it, that I can remember her doing just that very same thing when I was a little boy.

“But that’s all I remember,” I admit. “It’s strange I remember so little from then.”

She smiles but doesn’t look up, stirring, the soft dinging of the metal spoon on the cup like a bell from a far away church. “You were a little boy turned inside yourself… You never paid any attention to what was going on around you. If you don’t pay attention, you don’t make memories.”

This gives me an idea. I close my eyes tight and grunt, trying to turn back inside myself. If I can manage to turn back inside myself then twenty years from now I won’t still be haunted by the shape of her face. Maybe I can burn all the photos too, pry them from my bosses hands, incinerate his hard drive while he looks on in horror. Of course I will have to kill him as well, and everyone else that has seen the photographs. I can’t have some fucker bringing up her smile as conversation over beers in the future.

“Do you think you will remember Peru this time?”

“… I think so.”

After lunch I have my cousin drop me off at the park and I go marching through Lima, making wider and wider circles, to the point where I don’t even know where I’m at anymore except that it is somewhere I have certainly never been before. I am certainly walking through some district that I have been advised to never walk through. I walk until there are no more taxis blinking their lights at me or giving me that quick honk that asks if I need them, or maybe warns me that I am in the wrong place. The streets seem strange without them, the taxis. Everything is now coated in some dusty, yellow haze that makes me think I’m looking through a camera filter. I keep going, marching like them, mimicking them, adoring them. I am getting really thirsty and hungry again but the restaurants seem to have all vanished with the taxis, and the cold beer, and the ceviche, and the secrets. All of it gone, replaced with poverty.

But this street is my mother’s city too. If I own a tiny piece of this city then I own a tiny piece of all of it, not just the sushi bars. It is this idea that keeps me walking, or maybe it is all the drinks I had at lunch. Regardless, I don’t put my head down, spin around and walk fast for the sunset to have a nice meal at the edge of the Earth. I keep marching, the landscape becoming increasingly more hellish, my expensive cameras bouncing off my shoulder. It’s afternoon, but still, this is what the Peruvians call begging to be murdered. But I’m not afraid. And who knows? Maybe if they beat and rob me and leave me for dead on this street, I will really be a true Peruvian, much, much closer to her somehow.

I buy a pork sandwich from a street vendor and he hands it to me with a strange expression on his face, as if I am a thief and he is passing me his wallet. My cousins have warned me not to eat from the street carts, no matter how good the food smells. It was the last thing my mother said to me before I left for the airport, be careful what you eat! She told me I would die if I ate from a street cart but I think she might have been exaggerating. Of course, tourists don’t have the defenses in their body that Peruvians, people that belong here, have and they will almost certainly get sick if they try to eat like Peruvians. Stick to the tourist places, the whole world has told me. I understand what they are saying, but I just don’t think I am a tourist anymore.

I start taking pictures. The Peruvian foot traffic stops and smiles at me for a moment as if maybe this is some sort of joke and that they are being secretly filmed. A few of them look around, maybe searching for film crews that don’t exist. The light is almost perfect, another fifteen minutes and it will be perfect. I’m moving back and forth from one side of the street to the other, navigating the traffic like an expert, like a Peruvian, crossing wherever I want to cross, changing lenses quickly so I can get in real close. I’m only interested in faces now, faces of women. I want to find a face that is long and dark and filled to the brim with secrets, and with bloodshot eyes that stare into empty beer glasses for long periods of time. And what about that ferocious shadow that appears when she is sad? Do other women have such ghosts following them around too? I keep looking, but I know it’s hopeless.

When I get back to my apartment, there is a message from my editor. He says they are replacing me and that I have three days to get back before they cancel my expense account. He doesn’t say why. He just says everything is going to be okay, that he has been through it all before and all I need to do is get back, and I will be right as rain. He reminds me he was in Vietnam. He says he understands everything and that it was his fault because I wasn’t ready to go solo. He had just thought that because I had family here he would give me a shot. He promises that he will give me another shot, when I’m ready, but repeats that I have to be in New York within three days. “Settle up,” he says. “Come home,” he says without understanding anything that has happened to me here. Anyway, I think he’s lying. I think he just doesn’t want to look at the photos of her anymore. They hurt too much.

“What is her name? We want to run a few of your shots, the ones with her in them. Make sure you get a release from her before you leave… What is her name?”

I ask her to meet me in Barranco, at a bar across from the famous foot bridge which hangs there over a giant crack in the earth. The crack, surely a scar from some long ago earthquake, cuts through the cliffs all the way to the beach, slightly left and then slightly right all the way down. Although I don’t like heights, I like to stand on this bridge and look at this path spilling into the sea, a secret passage to avoid going off the end of the Earth, if that is what you really want. You are supposed to make a wish and then cross the bridge without breathing and then your wish will come true. I cross it fifteen times while waiting for her, just in case. I even manage to cross it both directions once with the same breath hold… La Puente de Los Aspiros. La Puente de Los Aspiros… La Puente de Los Aspiros. I sound just like fucking Dorothy, except I don’t want to go back home.

She looks genuinely sad when I tell her I’m leaving and then takes a swig of pisco and then holds the glass to my mouth so that I can drink from her glass. The knife twists.

“You will come back one day?”

This question punches me in the face so hard that the bartender turns to look at me. I have not even thought about this reality—that this may be the very last time I ever see this woman.

“I hope you come back. I will miss you.”

I am still not one-hundred percent certain she is sincere or if maybe this is all some game she has been able to play because she is so much smarter than me. I hope it’s a game. If it’s a game it means that she is not the person I think she is, and I don’t have to miss her when I am back in New York… But it’s not a game.

“Do you want to know one last secret?”

I hold my breath again, out of reflex, thinking she might tell me she loves me, thinking maybe all that crap about the bridge is true. That would change everything. If she tells me she loves me I will take out my passport, tear it into pieces and then eat the pieces with a smile on my face in between swigs of that special, crazy-strong beer she likes so much. But I know that is not what she is going to say.

“My family was in the revolution,” she tells me, taking another drink and then putting the glass to my lips again so I can have one more tiny taste of her again, all I am allowed. “Sendero Luminoso. Both my mother and father were with Sendero Luminoso. My father died in jail… murdered… A million years ago.”

The traffic is horrific on the way to the airport. I get nauseas and yell at the driver to stop, but he only slows down, and I spill out of the taxi while it is still moving and start vomiting onto the street, on my knees, my stomach convulsing. The cab driver arrives and starts screaming at me, gently kicking my shoes with his shoes. I can’t understand him. Certainly he is irate that he is no longer in motion. Sorry. I think he is explaining to me, in a very nasty way, that I should have just stuck my head out of the window, like any normal person, and that now we are trapped here not advancing towards the airport. He’s really upset.

I will tell everyone about this later. I will lie and tell them my cousin took me to a questionable seafood place in Chorillos, which of course she actually did, and that I got food poisoning the night of my flight… But I don’t have food poisoning.

I have been told that after the Titanic hit that ice berg it continued to move for quite some time, as if everything was fine. But everything was not fine. That little twist of fate, that little bump, that little knife in the side had sealed its fate and there was no way that ship was going to survive, even though it would continue to move forward as if everything was fine, which it most certainly was not. I am that ship. My editor insists I will be right as rain… but he is a big, fat fucking liar. My body, the shell, may leave this place, but everything else will sink here on this filthy street and remain here in some murky grave forever. My only hope is that one day the sun might explode or go cold, whichever, or that an asteroid might hit the Earth, purge everything the universe and the CIA has on me into nothingness, erase all record that I was ever here at all and ever met her, a woman with long dark hair that falls to her waist, a woman who’s name I will keep secret and carry with me to the ocean floor.


About the Author: Nicolas Poynter has a MFA in creative writing from Oklahoma City University. His work has appeared in numerous publications including North American Review and Fiction Fix. In 2013 he won the Vuong Short-Story Prize sponsored by the South-Central MLA. He is a high-school drop-out (not quite finishing the tenth grade) who now teaches physics and engineering.

Artwork: Cybelle Dabner 

The Best Pozole in Santa Cruz by Shane Book

Paul Valadez_for_The Best Pozoles in Santa Cruz



Essay written for broadcast on the radio show This I Believe

The Best Pozole In Santa Cruz

That big other
was like my big other
from another.

Was all,
“I’m a kidnap your kid,
make him feel like a kid again”

made it             easy      to work over
the No Knock Police Raid

(with the faulty funnel
for hazing trainees
stashed in the back room).

Bear. Hugged. Me.

Above the tiny trees
in the clamp-on forest, it ran

a biplane sky-banner reading:
get that new rug baby, we may be here a while…

That big other cold.
Its ringtone, the old hit:
Double cup love, you the one I lean on.

It was like it.

That big other needed
to get
born again—
Liberté, Egalité, Beyoncé,
or something

kept sending me out
to clean the display,
or something—

which was        incidentally,
my other
part-time job.


About the author: Shane Book’s first collection, Ceiling of Sticks, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. His second collection, Congotronic, a University of Iowa Press Kuhl House Poets Selection, was published in 2014. He is a graduate of New York University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. He is also a filmmaker whose award-winning work has screened in festivals and on television around the world.

Artwork: Paul Valadez

 

 

The Art of Disappearing by Marion de Booy Wentzien

(USE PSEUDONYM)_for_The Art of Disappearing


Mom is dead. The cop who tells me this early Monday morning is so blond his face has a peeled look. I hear the words but I can’t understand them. He repeats what he’s just said. From far away I hear those awful words again: Car. High speed. Cliff.

To keep from screaming, I stare at him, memorize his face. I thought cops were tough guys. He doesn’t look so tough

“Is there someone you can call, Laura? A relative?” The gold metal frames of his sunglasses click between his fingers.

There’s no one.

“Lie, kiddo.” Mom would say. She builds stories around stories until things get so complicated we have to move to a new town. She calls it the art of disappearing.

The cop moves closer, speaks louder as if I’ve gone deaf. “Is there a family member I can speak to?”

“My father,” I blurt out. I don’t have a father. There’s only Mom’s boyfriend Bill.

He pulls out a notepad. What’s his number?”

“I’ll have to find it.”

He stares at me with clear round blue eyes that I can’t look into for very long. I glance down at my bare feet—at the glittery pink I put on my toenails last night.

I make myself look up at him, not into his eyes, but at the narrow space between his blond eyebrows. “I’ll call him. He’ll come. Get me. You can go.” I try to shut the door, but he grabs hold.

“You look. I’ll wait.” He follows me into the house.

I open the first drawer of the beat-up brown desk, scarred from cigarette burns. It’s stuffed with unopened bills. The first month’s rent and a cleaning deposit on this new place swallowed Mom’s savings. I know the number isn’t here. The last time Mom was mad at Bill, she ripped it up and said good riddance.

“Where does your dad work?”

“Greyhound,” I say, latching onto Bill’s last job. I’m flipping through envelopes fast, trying to hide all the red FINAL notices.

“Then Greyhound ought to know how to reach him.”

I slam the drawer shut. “I forgot. He quit that job.”

“So there’s no way you can reach him?”

I shake my head.

He says he’s going to have to take me to the Children’s Shelter.

“Mom will be back. She pulls stuff like this all the time. As soon as you leave, she’ll walk in the door.”

“Your mother—

“Don’t say it again!” I wait a second, unable to speak. Then I say, in a tight voice that doesn’t sound like mine, “If Mom sees you—sees the cop car out front—we’ll have to move again. I don’t want to move. I love it here. Just go. Please! Go away.”

How can I make him understand that this is the best place we’ve been? We’re only a block from the ocean. Mom has good job prospects. She hasn’t been drinking–not since Bill disappeared. Well, last night she drank. I knew that as soon as I got up this morning. The curtains were closed—a bad sign. Then there was that dark, sad leftover booze smell. I’d crept around the house making my cereal so I wouldn’t wake her up.

What I shouldn’t have done was open the door to a cop.

“Your mother was in an accident last night and she died,” he says again, in a quiet, firm voice.

Just give him a good kick in the balls and run, Mom’s voice whispers inside my head. Then run like hell.

“You are fourteen years old. I can’t just leave you here, Laura. I have to do my job. I need to take you with me.”

“What are you going to do if I won’t go? Shoot me?” I start to back away. For every step I take, he takes one, too. “Maybe I don’t care. Go ahead. Shoot. Try to kill me with one shot.”

“I’m not going to shoot you, but I have to stop you. Then I’ll call for a female officer. My partner’s out sick today; otherwise she’d be here with me. We’re understaffed, but I can call. I will call if we’re in a stalemate. Are we?”

“Are we what?”

“In a stalemate?”

I can feel tears welling up behind my eyes. “I can’t go in pajamas. I have to get dressed.” I turn and head for my bedroom.

“No door slamming.” He’s right on my heels.

We’ve reached my bedroom. “You’re going to watch me get dressed?”

“No. Get whatever you want to wear. You can dress in the bathroom. Someone will bring the rest of your stuff later.”

I go through the chipped green dresser and pull out clothes, stuffing them into a paper bag. When I’m finished, I hold my faded jeans and a yellow sweatshirt with clean underwear tucked beneath them against my chest. My white sandals dangle from my other hand.

He checks the bathroom, sees I’d have to be part chimp to get through the window. Even so he cranks it shut. “I knew a guy once who had no collarbone,” he says. “He could squeeze through the tiniest places. You can’t imagine how small he could make himself.”

“I’ve got a collarbone.”

“Leave the door ajar.”

“I won’t lock the damn door.”

We stare at each other. He blinks first. “Promise? Girl Scout honor?”

Like I was ever a Girl Scout. I glare at him. Promise. It’s a hard promise to keep. I close the door. I look at the lock until it starts to blur. In my mind I can feel my fingers turning it, feel the stubborn twist before it clicks tight.

Slowly I get dressed, wash my face and reach for my toothbrush. The faded pink tile by the glass that holds my toothbrush and Mom’s is cracked. When my glance lands on the tile an unexpected sob pops up from my mouth. I press my hand hard against my throat until I’m sure there won’t be another one.

We are halfway to the front door when I remember the photo album. I can’t leave it. “Wait. I have to get something,” I say. Outside Mom’s room I hesitate, my fingers curled around the cold brass knob. When I open the door she’ll be in bed asleep. She’ll be asleep and I’ll wake up.

Her bed is a wreck of tossed sheets and blankets. An empty booze bottle is on the bedside table next to a butt-filled ashtray. Her sleeping pills have spilled from the bottle onto the table and the floor. The photo album on the top closet shelf is too high for me to reach. Clothes are piled on the only chair. I don’t want to touch the emptiness of them. I jump up, hand outstretched. My fingertips graze the scruffy red cover and slip off.

The cop reaches over my head and gets the album. A loose picture floats gently down and lands face up on the hardwood floor. I stare at the picture of Mom and me taken a month ago. Mom is behind me, her forearms drape over my shoulders. The point of her chin rests on my head. We’re both smiling at the invisible picture-taker—Bill. We’re at the zoo in front of the flamingos, celebrating my fourteenth birthday. I’m smiling although I remember being mad. It was only ten in the morning and already they had a buzz on and were joking in ways that could only lead to a fight.

The fight happened on the drive home—over her driving, him losing his job. Mom swerved near the center divider, screeched to a stop and ordered him out. My last glimpse of Bill was of him standing in the median of the freeway, a zoo pendant slung over his shoulder, cussing her out.

“You don’t think he got run over, do you?” she asked a few days later when he didn’t appear.

“Bill knows how to cross a freeway.”

“Right. And like a bad penny he always shows up.”

Only this time he hadn’t.

There’s a funny prickling at the top of my head, as if I can still feel her chin pressing there. A rolling wave of longing hits. I want to be that girl again, who was only worried about how drunk they’d be at the end of the day.

The cop stoops, carefully retrieves the picture. I stick it inside the album just under the cover.

Outside it’s a sealed-in gray day. By eleven, the sun will have shot through the overcast. By noon, people will be oiled and glistening and spread out on the sand like pancakes on a griddle. I can hear the roar of large waves. The air smells of seaweed and fish. I know that whenever I smell the air on a day like this, I’ll remember this very moment forever. The cop has put on his sunglasses and looks like a giant bug.

“Fasten your seat belt,” he says. The back of the car is separated from us by wire. I am in a cop car being taken away, I think in this new disjointed way I seem to be thinking. It’s like seeing bubbles with the words already in them, the way cartoon characters speak. I just don’t feel anything.

The woman next door is watering red and purple flowers from a bright green plastic pitcher. She doesn’t even look up. The cop car kicks up gravel. For the first time I see what Mom meant when she called the place a dump. From this angle, the house definitely looks shack-like. It tilts to the right. One shutter is missing. It needs paint.

“We’re coming down in the world, kiddo,” Mom said when she rented it. “After this we may be living under a bridge.”

“Freeway or river?” My job as I saw it was to keep her happy. When she was happy she didn’t drink. When she didn’t drink, we didn’t move. “It doesn’t matter as long as we’re together, right?” I remember saying.

She agreed. But I sensed trouble. Since Bill disappeared she’s been unsteady, scared. Sometimes when I looked at her I could see her heart ticking against the hollow in her neck. Her fingernails were chewed raw.

Mom wasn’t always like this. There are photos from other times. I know them all by heart. In one there’s a surprised baby sitting alone in the middle of a huge blanket. In another she’s seven and standing alone on a beach with a pail and shovel in her hands. Her eyes are tightly closed.

“Why are your eyes closed?” I asked.

Once she told me it was too bright, another time that she was scared. I never knew what to think. Maybe it was like the zoo picture—where the opposite of what she was feeling got recorded. There’s nobody I can ask. Mom’s mother is dead and after her father left she lost track of him.

In my baby pictures I’m smiling a clueless baby’s smile. As I got older, Mom would go up to strangers and ask them to take our picture. Town after town, place after place, year after year is safely recorded, with me coaxed into a smile whether I felt like it or not. “Pictures are like dreams,” Mom said. “If you’re going to bore people with them, you can at least look friendly.”

The cop is babbling. His name is Stuart. He’s been on the force for two years or maybe it’s five. He’s got a wife, a little boy. I don’t even pretend to be listening. Why would he think for even one second that I care?

In between the houses we’re flying past, there are glimpses of the ocean. High speed. Cliff. Dead, spins through my mind until I can’t stand it anymore. “I want to see. I want to see where she crashed.”

He turns sideways to look at me, pale eyebrows drawn together over the gold rims of his sunglasses. “You don’t want to see that.”

“I need to see it.”

“She isn’t there, you know. Her body has been recovered.”

Body. Recovered. A shudder ripples through me. I wind myself into a knot of concentration to stop from hearing those awful words. If he says them again, I’ll sock him.

“Please, Stuart. Please take me. I have to see. Otherwise it’ll be unreal—like a bad dream—I’ll always think…” I have to swallow and swallow. “I’ll always think she ran off because she didn’t want to be bothered with me anymore.” A tear trickles to the edge of my lip.

He pulls sharply to the left, makes a U-turn, and we’re headed in the opposite direction. The road uncurls ahead of us. Huge cliffs on one side, sheer drops to the ocean on the other. Suddenly we’re on the edge of the highway, stopped. Beside us is a short, thick, wooden, white fence, missing a chunk.

I unsnap my seat belt and fumble the door open. Stuart is quickly beside me, rigid, ready to grab in case I decide to jump. I hang onto the fence, my legs trembling. I can see where the car slid. There are boulders and reddish blond dirt and way down, huge jutting rocks. At last I see our blue Ford upside-down like a dead bloated animal. That’s when it hits me with the force of a blow. Mom is dead.

I cling to the rough wooden fence. Silent tears spill out of my clenched eyelids. Stuart puts his hands on both my shoulders. Behind us cars whiz by, tires squealing on the curve. Below me the ocean thumps rocks. Inside me, my heart hits against my chest like it wants to fly out and over the cliff.

“I’m sorry,” Stuart says after a few minutes. “I’m sorry about your mother.” There’s a hollowed-out echo to his voice I recognize—as if he knows first hand what my life with her has been like.

Grady, a kid in one of my third grade classes (we moved twice that year), had the same echo. Grady wore thick glasses with one cracked lens and had hair clumped together like it needed scrubbing. He always smelled of cigarette smoke and stale whiskey. I used to secretly sniff my sweater sleeve to see if anybody could smell that smell on me.

Once after school when I saw Grady pressed against the wall of the gym, I had this huge urge to go up and hug him. Instead when I drew near, I crossed my eyes and stuck out my tongue. Then I ran toward the Ford where my mother, her lips too red and her eyes too bright, sat with the radio volume set too loud on a country western station. I flopped down on the back seat and cried, until in an effort to shut me up, she took me to McDonald’s and stuffed me silent with a chocolate milkshake and French fries. She didn’t eat. She wanted to get home and have a drink.

“I’m never going to drink,” I say in a low voice. “Ever.” Mom’s secret that I’ve held so carefully through each new town and each new school spills out into the cool gray morning.

Stuart pats my shoulder. “With any luck you won’t be in the Shelter long. I’ll try real hard to locate your father.”

“I don’t have a father. I’m going to be at the Shelter a long, long time.” I look straight out where the ocean and the sky look like they’re joined. The ocean is as flat as a gray floor. It looks like you could walk across it, right up into the sky. Mom finally perfected the art of disappearing, I think. Only she forgot me.

“I’ll come by sometimes on my day off,” Stuart says once we are in the car. “I’ll bring you a milkshake.”

I glance over at him. “That’s okay. You don’t need to.”

“I won’t wear my uniform, if that’s what you’re worried about. I’ll just be a friend making sure you’re all right.”

He doesn’t ask if I’d like that. Just states it like it’s a fact I can count on. “What’s your favorite flavor?”

“Chocolate,” I say after a few seconds.

“That’s mine, too.”

He turns on the overhead lights to ensure a prompt entry onto the highway. I slip my fingers underneath the album cover and touch the cool smooth dreams. All those times I was happy and didn’t know it.


About the Author: Marion de Booy Wentzien is a recipient of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award (twice) and The New Letters Literary Award. The Chicago Humanities for the Arts presented one of her stories in their Stories on Stage. Her work has appeared in Seventeen Magazine, Blue Penny Quarterly, The San Francisco Chronicle, Scholastic Books, Story Magazine, On the Page, Big Ugly Review, The Quotable, Prime Number, The Sonora Review, The Stone Hobo, Tattoo Highway, Red Fez, Cossack Review, Citron Review, Extract(s), Solstice, Drafthorse, and other literary journals.  She is a 2013 Pushcart Prize nominee, and her novel, Desert Shadows, is available from Avalon Books. She lives in Saratoga, CA with her husband and some formerly stray animals.

Artwork: Michael Lemire 

As A Lemur At A Wedding by KT Gutting

lemur


As A Lemur At A Wedding

No one can see me. Princesses gather around flowers
and doilies and ribbons at table four. “Do you know
where the photo booth is? I just love photo booths.”

I was looking for someone earlier, or waiting for a text,
and drinking raspberry raspberries at the bar after four
maybe five mimosas. A woman complimented my dress

and I wrapped myself up again. I wore heels once too,
you know. Princesses on the dance floor talking about
cake. Succulent quinoa hipsters in suspenders building

castles for princesses who didn’t RSVP. If I buy
a lemur costume, I’ll feel better. Don’t look at me.
My ring finger fell off. I was looking for someone.

I’ll have another raspberry raspberry, please.


About the Author: Anxiety-ridden San Diego poet KT Gutting received her MFA in poetry from Saint Mary’s College in 2013. Her poetry has appeared in the Bicycle Review and is forthcoming in Stone Highway Review. She is The Taxidermist for White Stag.

Artwork: Brad Milhouse

What Really Happened by Sylvia J. Martinez

Lynae Cook_for_What Really Happened

 


It wasn’t a penny, actually. It was a nickel. But she’d called it a penny. That I’ll never forget.
We’d been walking home from school which at the time for me was Edison Elementary in San Francisco’s Mission District. Our mascot was the “Lightbulb.” I was in the fourth grade, having just transferred from Alvarado where I’d spent second and third grade. At age nine, I’d just gotten tired of the commute. Starting when I was seven, someone would walk me to the bus stop across the street from the library where I would take Muni by myself for a nickel each way, all in the name of education. There was no gifted program at Edison like there had been at Alvarado, but I’d convinced my mom that if she let me transfer back to my local school, I would learn just as much there. I didn’t. What I remember was a wrinkly-faced teacher with bright pink lipstick and yellow teeth having us spend 26 entire days making an alphabet book that was supposed to be for the younger kids at the school. I remember that and a light blue windbreaker I wore every day–it had a lightbulb on the front and made me feel official.

Back to the penny which was really a nickel. I can’t tell you what season it was, but just that it wasn’t raining. I was walking with a fifth grader who often wore knickerbockers. She’d been new that year. I guess since I was kind of new having just returned after a two year stint at a school a bus-ride away, we became friends fast. Oh, it was a fourth/fifth combo class. I was a four, and she was a five.

Strange thing though, is that I can’t remember her first name, but I remember her last name. It was McElravy. She pronounced it Mac-ul-ravy, but my mind would always think Mick-el-ru-vee. To this day, I’ve never met anyone with either name.

From what I do remember, McElravy lived with her mom and her aunt. She’d had a first grade cousin at the school, a red-headed girl named Kay. I don’t know if her name was Kay or if it was just K, short for something, because I never saw her name written.

Kids in 1982 didn’t get bored the way kids do these days. We’d find a stick or a rock or use just about anything to keep ourselves occupied. That day, in 1982, it was a nickel McElravy fished out of her knickerbocker pocket. At some point the nickel fell to the ground. We all scurried to go after it, and the idea for the game was born. McElravy, Kay and I took turns throwing the nickel ahead of us and raced to see who would get it first. Being the old fogeys that we were compared to Kay, eventually McElravy and I got tired of playing and would just throw the coin for Kay. She’d bring it back to us each time, eager for us to throw it again.

During this sidewalk game, we’d talk, I’m pretty sure, about boys. That was the year I had my first crush. His initials were B.S. I would eventually go to my junior and senior prom with B.S. and eventually it would all turn to B.S. Hindsight. I do remember that McElravy liked Henry, and he liked her back. They’d even kissed already. Strange, but his first name I remember. It seemed like a man name to me, and not a fifth grader name, which is probably why it stuck. It’s kind of a stupid thought, as I think about it now, though, because every boy name becomes a man name. Unless there is a tragedy, I guess. Henry and McElravy would even French kiss before the end of fifth grade, and often, which probably made him seem more like a man. I wouldn’t french kiss B.S. until after watching War of the Roses on our first real date when I was 16 and he was 17.

So we’re back to playing fetch with Kay, and it’s hot. Maybe it was during the time of what they used to call Indian Summer. Do they still call it that now? My high school mascot was the Indian, but protesters I never saw made it so that my senior year it was nothing. That made it difficult at cheerleading competitions. Then they became the Cardinals the year I left. Cardinal Summer? My mom would always call the climate of that time of year, “earthquake weather.” 1989 would prove her theory correct, so maybe she was on to something. Or maybe she didn’t start calling it earthquake weather until after that earthquake. Hmm, I’m going to have to call her tomorrow. I do remember that seismic October day being pretty muggy. It’d been like the City had a fever that wouldn’t break. Then it did. I was alone that day, living with my dad by then in the Richmond district because he lived closer to my high school than my mom did. Again with the commute. Again in the name of education. I would spend twenty-two minutes on one bus that moved parallel to the beach instead of an hour on two buses. Most days it was too foggy to see the waves, though. And I probably had a Walkman on and didn’t pay attention to the coastal view, anyway, listening to Phil Collins or Madonna or Lionel. Probably Lionel and thinking about B.S.

So we’re back in 1982, and the nickel clinks on a hill on Guerrero. It’s actually just past Hill Street, so it’s an intersection of hills on Hill. It’s a pretty dangerous intersection, come to think of it. A few years later, I would become a nighttime passenger in a car driven by Carlos Gutierrez who would eventually be my first boyfriend when I was 12 and he was 13. First boyfriends’ full names you never forget. I can’t remember if I was a passenger in that car before or after we became a couple. I do remember him turning right on Hill and Guerrero, though, and a loud honk blared at us in his friend or cousin’s car. There was screeching and fear, but no impact. Neither of us said a word. He had just taken me around the block for a ride, but it wouldn’t be until I was 22 or so that I would get in a car with him again. That time it would be as old friends catching up, with me behind the wheel, listening to his stories of his toddler daughter Stephanie. Or maybe the girlfriend was named Stephanie. I’m pretty sure both mother and daughter names started with an S. And so did mine. Maybe he had a thing for females with curvy esses.

So the nickel that McElravy threw clinked, but then it rolled. It rolled into the hilly, four-lane street with the concrete island on the hot, earthquake weathered day. It’d been a beige Rabbit, not a convertible I’m certain, that drove down the hill that day, the day Kay was hit by a car. The driver stopped, but I can’t tell you if it was a man or a woman, or if it was a man and a woman. But Kay in her red shorts and short-sleeved furry pink sweater set was moaning some way away and was lying in the street, and eventually someone came out and covered her pink and red clothes with a blanket even though it was hot.
The ambulance was called.

I don’t remember us calling it 9-1-1 back then, but I do remember the scene in War of the Roses where the live-in-nanny can’t remember the number to 9-1-1 when the Roses almost kill each other. Or is it when they finally kill each other?

The ambulance arrived. McElravy was scared but not crying, and I was supporting her the way any fourth grader would comfort a fifth grader. I stayed with her until the grown-ups showed up.

I don’t remember how long the rescue of Kay took, or how long it took for her mom and her aunt to get there. But I do know there was a bit of time when McElravy left me to talk to the two adult sisters in a three person huddle.

I stayed. I stayed on Guerrero there to support McElravy on that hill on that hot day in 1982.
Then this: Kay’s mom came over to me and said, “Little girl.” She pointed a rigid finger at me forcefully, what my adult memory knows was her way of restraining herself from striking me. I think “girl” had also been used as a euphemism that day. She continued, “Your penny almost killed my Kay.”

I was speechless. I would eventually learn the word for that moment was flabbergasted. First, I’d wanted to tell her it was a nickel and not a penny. Then I wanted her to know that it was McElravy who’d thrown the nickel, the nickel she got from her own pocket. But McElravy wouldn’t even look at me, what I now know was her feeling a new brand of shame for making me her scapegoat. She was covering her tracks because maybe the pointy finger wouldn’t be restrained on her. Maybe the pointy finger would have become a fist or the holder of a leather belt. And she also knew I wouldn’t tell on her. Because I was a four, and she was a five, and I hadn’t even kissed a boy.
McElravy would speak to me the following morning to let me know she was no longer allowed to hang out with me. I’d been banned. And when Kay’d return to school with a cast on her entire arm or her entire leg a couple days later, I wouldn’t even be asked to sign it. I hadn’t wanted to, anyway. I was so angry in my light blue windbreaker with the lightbulb on it.

At the end of the school year, I saw McElravy graduate from Edison. In knickerbockers. I saw her from my seat in the orchestra below the stage, where we’d played a screechy version of the Star Wars Theme and “Ode to Joy” on school-issued violins.

McElravy saw me minutes after the morning ceremony ended that June day, with her mother and aunt nearby, and she gestured some sort of friendly goodbye. Maybe she’d even said goodbye. I can’t remember. I do remember, though, that I would never see her again.


About the Author: Sylvia J. Martinez has been published in the S.F. ExaminerTattoo Highway, Art From Art (Modernist Press), and Cipactli, among others.  She is currently finishing up an MFA in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University where she is working on her first collection of stories. She grew up in San Francisco and now lives in the East Bay with her husband, two children, and dog.

Artwork: Lynae Cook

 

Night Music, A Whalesong by Andrena Zawinski


Night Music,                                                                                                            
A Whalesong

Against the sail masts offbeat taps onto each other,
bay bells mixing in with tinny harbor chimes,
distant buoys throwing their soft moans to the wind,

all of them singing to the moon in a whale-like croon
that bellows love songs from the sea bed floor,

I am swept back to my first whale sighting,
the young humpback’s notes rippling out
before it hit the headland, its shroud of sound lost to sea.

Rocked by waves, stranded beneath the blue moon
at Point Bonita, everything turned a deadly quiet

where high winds once rammed ships cliff side,
dumping potatoes, lumber, cotton, mail, and gold, all of it
sunk into the deep, unlike the ballooning beached corpse

in descending light, tonight its heft of ghost at my side,
pressing hard into me the tremendous weight of sea.


About the Author: Andrena Zawinski lives in Alameda and teaches creative writing and composition at Laney College in Oakland. Her full collection of poetry, Something About, from Blue Light Press in San Francisco, is a PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award recipient. Her work has been widely anthologized and appears extensively online and in print.

Artwork: Lorenzo Tianero

 

 

Cockstrong by Celestin d’Olanie

strong


When money is funny everything is a joke. Showing up late with bleary first person shooter eyes isn’t a big deal these days. The muttonchops were a surprise. We’ve got a few shitasses here like you. Most are recent hires driving new cars home to McMansions with garages bigger than my house. All on zero down. I’m talking palaces in gated communities, flat screens wider than the SUV and bi-curious housewives who take it in all three holes.

We didn’t have that shit in the Eighties. Houses looked like houses, only the fat chicks had big tits and assholes were exit only—unless you were a fag. And if not, you’d have to be goddamn curious about anal to find out that way. All you little fuckers do is hold up your phone sideways and say let’s be famous.

Pre-hire aptitude and personality assessments suggest you held on to the game controller longer than most. Sure, there is always some room for interpretation. Yours, however, painted a clear picture of habitual kicking back, fucking off and jizzing on yourself. Nothing in your profile suggests any ambition beyond that. Yet here you sit, claiming to have sworn off farting around and suddenly become serious about life in the form of seeking what is commonly called a real job—that shit you call a moustache notwithstanding. Why? Gotta be pussy.

And so you cast your bread out upon the water. A series of interviews floats back, like a turd that refuses to be flushed. At one corporate nightmare after another, each interview is more meaningless than the last. The business parks all have the macabre quietude of a mass shooting event just before the first shot rings out. You push through the rejection and keep filling out applications. Now here you sit.

The job market has been unforgiving of your lack of relative experience. I, however, am willing to look beyond traditional indicators to fill positions. My motives are my own. Not all skills translate well into standard résumé format but are nevertheless valuable. For instance, one forthcoming candidate once confessed he’d read the job description and thought, “fuck it, those baggies of Adderall didn’t sell themselves. I can do that job.” I concurred. The convertible Mustang out front is his.

Let’s assume you possess similar suitable alternative skills and we bring you onboard—What then? After so much toil and avoidance, you show up on your first day late wearing stain-resistant khakis only to log on, kick back and fuck right off. Unlike real work, most corporate jobs can be done in an hour or two a day. When we consider the position that way, your personality and skillset are perfectly suited for it. This country was not made great by a dogged determination to reach the top, but rather how easily one can land squarely in the middle. You can popcorn fart your way into any neighborhood you please.

You should see the look on your face … somewhere between fright and how fucked up is this place? It’s pretty goddamn fucked up, if ya wanna know. But ask yourself this: with the current high rates of unemployment, does it really matter? Spend some time in front of a mirror learning to control your facial cues. Develop a poker face. You walk around an office job looking like that and people will start sneaking in weapons again just in case you snap.

A good recruiter offers refreshments before outlining the interview, describes the position, desirable qualifications and asks situational questions. Allow the candidate a chance to ask shit, mention others are being considered then usher them to the door.

Those best practices were developed to find highly motivated self-starters willing to exceed expectations while accepting shit pay and abusive supervision. Ideal candidates wait for us to call with an offer, accept and are never heard from again. The squeaky wheel types … I’m like a hot chick after a blind date with an average guy. I don’t wanna hurt your feelings, but if you keep calling it’s gonna happen.

A great interviewer incorporates best practices into a unique style. Please open your WelcomeBox. Notice the bottled water, printed job description, benefits booklet and a branded squeeze ball to relieve stress. Refreshed and informed? Fuck yeah you are. Maybe we didn’t take turns reading the shit aloud but you’d be constrained to deny you took possession of the box. Was that professional? Fuck if I know. But my decision analysis form will show it was. That’s called documentation, and it’s the corposlob’s best friend. Even if you shot the place up while on probation, my ass is covered.

Reviewing benefits invariably generates questions about what the medical covers. Think about it. How could I possibly know if Group Plan B covers microbes from a river in a different hemisphere? Go down that road and all you see are ailments: The hemorrhoid in payroll, the hermaphroditical VP, the superfluous third nipple in sales. You start forgetting names. My point is, read it yourself. I’ve already read it. Think of it as me teaching you how to fish.

You got one thing going for you, kid: Three people used to do this job. Now it’s just me. The workload didn’t change. I’m behind the eight ball on closing out requisitions. Common sense says that was caused by the increased workload.

The company, however, doesn’t see it that way. In other words, they don’t give a fuck about my problems. It’s only fair, then, that I don’t give a fuck about theirs. This no fucks given standoff is where a guy like you gets his start. So far, it’s the only thing you’ve got going for you.

You really gotta invest time in developing that poker face. Your expression changed from excited puppy to crestfallen. Fuck that shit. There is no tissue in the WelcomeBox. I can’t be that guy. Think of it this way: consoling you in this forum is a form of work. If you work for free, that’s what your work is worth. Building self esteem is not part of my performance-based bonus plan. I wouldn’t ask you to work for free …and your rape me starting salary will not change even if we were BFFs.

Never question why somebody hires you. What do you care? You wanna be paid in hugs? Let the rubes jockey for approval. You and the boss aren’t gonna live off love. Concern yourself with showing up on time and hope nobody takes the look on your face the wrong way.

The WelcomeBox also contains a specimen cup and two packets of liquid hand sanitizer. I’m going to outline how you might fit in to our corporate culture and possible career trajectory. Afterwards, look in the box and make a decision. If you want the job, take the cup down to the clinic for mandatory pre-employment drug testing. Directions are also in the box. Remember what I said about ideal candidates. We don’t need any reunions. Don’t call me if your paycheck isn’t right.

And if, after listening, you realize corpo life is not for you, use both packets of sanitizer thoroughly before shaking my hand on your way out. I’m out of sick days and can’t risk catching anything.

So … Where do you see yourself in ten years? Standard question. Bet you’ve been asked it a lot. What’s the real answer? In ten years you’ll be forty, fat and financing a nasty black market Viagra habit with home equity lines. I’m talking coming home dog tired to find your daughter banging some dude on the sofa, your son wearing a furry rabbit costume while gaming and who knows what the fuck your wife is up to. At least you’re making the minimum payments on the bills, right?

Then things get hairy at work. The new VP is from an unrelated industry—which means he doesn’t know shit but got hired anyway. He addresses the steep learning curve with denial, paranoia and anger. The department heads, all old timers, resent what they interpret as a lack of respect. Some leave, others are fired. Nobody reaches out to the clients. The competition sops up the disgruntled old guard who, in turn, bring several unhappy clients with them. They come at the new VP with vengeance because that’s exactly what it is.

He brings in new blood, which happens to be old blood from the last place he ruined. His new old crew are loyal—and why shouldn’t they be? He’s dragged them around the country to every job he’s taken. They know all the platitudes … metrics, cultural change, corrective action plans … none of it works. The P&L is fucked. The death spiral begins. I’m talking closed doors, conference calls and managers disappearing for days without explanation.

The situation reaches critical mass. The VP could fall on his sword, beg former staff to return and eat whatever shit they shove in his mouth, or double down on his fuck up. He doubles down. Only one card left to play: massive layoffs. Your first bloodletting is nigh. Despite positive performance reviews, you cop the chop in early rounds. Long hours, weekends and unused vacay didn’t mean a goddamn thing. In the end, they were suspicious of your longevity and tired of looking at your shitty face. You weren’t new blood.

“Why me?” you protest. “I been here hella long.”

“Yeah,” new blood bleeds back, “and we know the only way you could have lasted was being involved in some pretty nasty shit. You’re done.”

So there you are, forty, fat and belly-up. Your neighbor, not content with stealing your WIFI and reading your mail, now gestures loser with one hand on his forehead while pointing at you with the other. He wags his tongue through split fingers at your wife. Fucker smells your diminished purchasing power and is taking liberties.

That is not the only indignity. The school sent home information about reduced cost subsidized lunches. A local food bank inquired if you would be receiving instead of giving this year. You can’t live like this. You gotta get psyched. Forty is the new thirty, right? Start clawing your way back. With any luck, around the time you turn fifty, your net worth will be back to where it was last week.

With a professionally-polished CV packed with keywords and lies and a fresh burner phone to provide cover for gaps in employment, you apply to everything. Jobs with descriptions you don’t understand for companies you’ve never heard of. Fuck it. Let the hiring manager figure it out. It works. You land an interview.

“Break out the new-and-improved bulletproof watertight khakis,” you shout to the wife, forgetting her phone sex shift was underway. “Daddy’s going back to work!”

“Thank fucking God,” she yells back from the spare bedroom as you hear the unmistakable sound of a four battery dong crashing into a computer monitor. The work-at-home gig does not suit her. She presents herself in the flesh shortly thereafter, clothed only in a Vajazzle and residual Astroglide crust.

“You said hired, right? Please say you said hired. I can’t keep doing this shit.”

When interview day arrives, you park the old beater Honda out of site. Nothing screams loser like a decade old piebald rice burner. You find a gas station for a preemptive piss, then bound towards your destination with all the confidence of someone who has been there and done that. No sudden urges will break your steely concentration today. You’re psyched. And then your reflection in the mirrored glass entrance door comes clearly into view. The ol’ prostate, it appears, has let you down yet again in the form of a large wet spot where balls once dangled.

The new bosses were going to figure out who was dribbling piddle on the bathroom floor sooner or later, but if it happened after date-of-hire, onboarding and orientation, you might be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Showing up with a fresh piss stain, however, changes everything. The pants were supposed to be watertight. That’s why you bought them. In the commercial, a waitress spills an entire pitcher of iced tea in dude’s lap and he got up bone dry. That’s a form of guarantee. Blatant false advertising, right? Hell, start a class action suit. But that won’t mean much to the wife:

“Great,” she’ll say in that tone reserved for dick-related failures. “I’ll end up homeless because you can’t remember to shake your cock. Haven’t I told you to sit down when you go?”

Now you gotta introduce yourself with a wet spot the size and shape of the Gulf of Fucking Mexico. Gorbachev had a less conspicuous spot on his forehead. You refuse to go down without a fight. Duck into the lobby restroom and create a diversion by splashing water on the super pants. Sometimes you gotta get wet to be dry. Look the hiring manager dead in the eye and express indignance. Insinuate suspecting the faulty fixtures indicates a deeper problem within the corporate culture itself. What kind of bullshit company is this? Swing for the fences.

The cameltoe at reception doesn’t notice. You stand back from the tall front desk and point at your junk patch:

“I’m here for an interview and your bathroom sink splashed me!”

“It happens sometimes. I am so sorry.”

It happens sometimes? This changes everything. You’ve been handed an alibi. The chick up front said every other bum is walking out drenched. Somebody’s gonna get hurt. You’re just looking out for the next guy. Fucking genius. You’re golden. There’ll be food around the corner for you.

The wall behind the front desk is adorned with low resolution prints of scans of felt pen sketches. All share a common theme betraying something like a fetish and a truly impressive collection of Sharpies. The recurring motif is selfiesque poses of a heroin chic savior with flowing sandy blond hair and a well-kempt Just For Men beard—a veritable manscaping messiah with a bar of Fight Club soap in one hand and the tween entertainment dollar in the other. On second thought, you ain’t got no alibi.

“It’s Jesus,” she says, reacting to your dumbstruck expression. Evidently you accepted suffering in silence rather than taking my advice and developing a poker face.

“That’s what he looks like in my dreams!” The Son of Man flashes the same bad boy member of the boy band smirk in every drawing; replete with frosted tips and arched eyebrows. A duck-faced Jesus. This chick is nuts.

“The company can’t make me take them down, but they don’t want me talking about it during work hours. There is a war on Christianity. But Our Lord is the ultimate warrior. We can’t even say Merry Christmas anymore.” A MMA rockstar Jesus. What the fuck, man.

“Sometimes,” she says, “you gotta wonder whose country this is.” Her felt pen renditions look far more like someone who shows up at Midnight with a slab of ribs, box of condoms and carton of Newports than savior of soul and, or, country.

“The Muzzies get extra time to pray and don’t have to work on their holidays. Can’t make them mad. Instead they pick on the ones who will turn the other cheek.” You inquire if the company happens to employ many Muslims.

“No, but you know what I mean.” Fuck yeah you do. That was the set up you were counting on. Assertively exhale and blow that smoke exactly where she wants it.

“Good,” you break in before she can continue. “Because I will not work for a company that lets terrorists pray all day while Americans do all the work.”

“Amen.”

Her emphasis on the long A vowel makes it sound like two words. A-men. It is her way of co-signing onto what was just said. A-men. This guy gets it. He’s one of us.

“Wish more people around her were like you. Hope you get the job. I’ll pray on it. We need more Godly men here.” She may be nuts, but you need all the help you can get.

“Have a blessed day.” And with that, you are past reception and bounding towards the conference room with a soggy dick and brown nose.

The more substantial broads in the org chart will not be fooled. Gen-X corpo-cougars have little tolerance for anything less than a highly functioning cock and balls. A middle-aged unemployed loser with potty problems? They’ll smell it all over you. And so a decade into working life, all you have gained is a wet crotch and the sobering realization that you gotta piss sitting down if you’re ever gonna work again.

And what does an aging washed up corposlob do once finally back on the inside? Stay off the fucking radar. Pounce on every email the moment it arrives. I’m talking reply to the fucking world. This is a an email-based economy and not responding is interpreted as out fucking around. Even if you only reply with “thanks,” the perception is you are on the job and working hard.

Digger was great at that. He was a thirty year man. Single digit employee number. Went way back. Regional Something of Somewhere. Who knows what. For the last twenty of those thirty years, a framed poster of a smiling man has stood as the centerpiece of our lobby. You probably saw it on your way in. Above the face reads Your Company Has Core Values and below it, Shouldn’t You?

Digger was the smiling face on the poster and the words were his own. HR held an ethics slogan contest when the office blowjobs and sink ejaculation fad out of hand. Pipes were clogging. Something had to be done. Needless to say, his slogan won. Over the years, it has been used on posters, T-shirts, balloons, screensavers, mouse pads and trophies. Every branch in the world displays that poster in its lobby. Whenever we merge or acquire, first order of business is to send out those posters. Nobody ever asked what the core values were and neither Digger nor HR bothered to explain.

Other than that, staying off the radar is what he did best. The guy lived in stealth mode. He’d talk all the major sports—except golf. Motherfucker was semi-pro in college and smart enough to keep it to himself. A corposlob scratch golfer is a dangerous contradiction. VPs wonder what you stand for. Nobody gives a fuck if you played football in school and never went pro. But a pro-level golfer working a shit job in some office? Either you’re wasting natural talent—a talent they would give their left ball to possess—or you’re a fuck up. But you can’t not play, either. What kind of corposlob doesn’t golf? You a faggot or something? Why are you even here? Digs knew this and generally avoided the subject.

He was so far off the radar most only knew him as the Core Values Guy. Total gray man—but the gray man outlasts most. Nobody knew what Digger did and that was fine by him. He’d seen the wars and bloodlettings and was determined not to get caught short.

And then, out of nowhere, at this shit business park deli over lunch, he breaks character and blurts out how he’d bought a new TV.

“After thirty years with the company,” he says, “I finally had enough points saved up on my credit card to buy a plasma TV.”

This was back when plasmas were expensive as shit. The president of the company didn’t have one. Hell, the President of the United States probably didn’t have one. We were duly impressed. For the first time in his long tenure, Digger was the most interesting man in the room. He knew he’d fucked up.

The points were accumulated using his personal card for legitimate purchases during business travel. A detailed expense report was submitted, approved and a check cut for reimbursement. Standard shit. No code of conduct violation. It didn’t matter. Dude had a plasma, the best TV in the world. Within the month, Digger the Core Values Guy, Regional Something of Somewhere, was let go in a no-fault reduction in force—a RIF. It wasn’t until they took his company car keys that he realized the guy who effected the termination was driving him home. He sat in absolute silence, scared shitless somebody would ask for the TV. The next morning, he sent an email from a personal account to the entire corporate global address book:

I worked eighteen hour days for these miserable cunts. Thirty years! My wife’s strung out on diet pills, my son’s a faggot and all I got to show for it is a shitty TV. Get out while you can!

 

In the end, the miserable cunts had the last laugh. The email was turned over to Homeland Security. Local officers met agents at Digger’s home around dinner time. He answered the door holding a spoon and a can of cat food. His food stamps had not yet been approved. The routine investigation of terroristic threats was upgraded to a hostile domestic standoff.

“Drop the spoon asshole!”

Four words, three seconds and two headshots later, the standoff was over. Never know when a guy might throw a spoon in anger. The TV was confiscated as evidence and remanded to the protective custody of the winning shooter—a controversial decision requiring much deliberation. Two officers fired multiple shots, each scoring a solid Zapruder. It was impossible to know who fired the actual killshot.

The Department pressed the coroner for an official determination. Several thousand man hours, tax dollars and one secret coin toss later, a winner was declared. The plasma shall remain as evidence until such time as the rightful owner returns from the dead to lay claim.

Digger’s final termination had been effected. He was six feet under and belly-up. The company paid for his headstone, and his slogan chiseled onto it exactly as it appeared on the poster: The Company Has Core Values. Shouldn’t you? Unbeknown to Digs, his off-hand remark created a form of currency out of thin air. It had scalable value and no expiration. Assholes hold on to these little gems like coins and spend them when they need to buy their way out of shit. One fuck up is all it takes. If you can’t fly lower under the radar than Digger, consider packing it in. Maybe being a corposlob isn’t for you after all. Give serious thought to filing for Social Security—Mental or physical, your call. Play to your strength. That would be the time to start making those fucked up faces.

Wait on that fat retro check and when it arrives, haul your officially disabled ass down to the liquor store, cash that motherfucker and spend it all within a week. How do you think electronics stores stay in business? Nobody buys home theaters with real money. Only slobs with retro checks, tax refunds or personal injury settlements drop cash anymore.

Should somebody go all John Galt on you, tell them a dirty Mexican stole your job and no honest work is beneath you. Cite by name every family member who died in service to this great nation—even if they were actually meth cooks, weed dealers and welfare cheats. Testify how you have been turned down for the most menial jobs imaginable. You will shovel shit, dig ditches or flip burgers. Anything short of sucking cock in a highway rest stop toilet for cash. Such a passionately credulous and decidedly heterosexual work ethic will keep you off the neighborhood terrorist list more weeks than you will receive unemployment. You’re golden. No need to hide in the house all day.

I’m talking sunbathing on the front lawn in boxer briefs during working hours without anybody calling the cops and still tossing your keys into the fishbowl at neighborhood cocktail parties with head held high, wife willing and cock strong. Fuck it, apply for food stamps too. Once the first of the month rolls around, explore all the exciting places now accepting EBT cards. Start a food blog. Upload pix of gourmet burgers. Live the dream.

That first food stamp card swipe is gonna cut your pride wide open. Learn how to conceal it with your palm. Once you get good, you can enjoy the fabled free lunch realized. Let the corposlob inmates still serving time work for food. When I was a kid, food stamps came in the mail and were the size and shape of a license plate. They even used a special envelope. Even the mailman knew you were a bum.

Most of the old postal carriers were in it for the stay-at-home moms, lax open container laws of the day and funky Jeeps. They knew oversized houses weren’t part of the deal. The few who couldn’t match numbers on the envelope to the ones on the box ended up at the annex. When they fucked that up, they’d shoot up the annex. We treated them with kid gloves. If he didn’t deliver, we weren’t eating. And you never knew if dude was gonna snap.

Food stamps used to look like Monopoly money. Bums shouldn’t feel too good about being a burden on society. The Department of Agriculture issued the stipend instead of the Treasury, on the off-chance you misunderstood your place in the world. That place was somewhere between cattle and corn.

The bills made a distinctive, telling and deliberately loud noise when pulled out of the booklet. A loud rip followed by handing the checker an oversized piece of hot pink play money that looked as if you’d just passed Go. It was a call of the wild—a call invariably returned by a stiff-jawed housewife watching from somewhere down the checkout line, talking shit under her dick-scented breath. Must be nice. Wish I got free food.

My mother called them rich bitches. Thinking back on it, they were nothing more than two-bit single hole twats. They shopped in the same store as us, for fuck’s sake. But I didn’t see it that way at the time. Poor people don’t understand money. A hundred bucks might as well be a million. If you didn’t look torn up or live in our neighborhood, you were rich. That’s how it used to be. Now that the sub-slob class assume they will end up in prison sooner or later, there is no reason not to turn that supermarket on its fucking ear and upload the video later. Rich bitches only talk shit on the Internet now.

A few years ago—and by that I mean a few jobs, relocations and suburbs ago—one of my neighbors reached a breaking point. Several professional restarts all ran headlong into downsizing. Same shit we’ve all faced. That one year on, one year off cycle is rough. The guy can’t take it and fully commits. He mails the house keys to the lender and leaves the SUV in the dealer’s lot with the engine running. A year later, he turns up online, pushing a new venture in what the UN calls an economic development zone. I’m talking one of those dying shitholes where old craftsmen houses can be had for a buck and back taxes.

He sets up shop out of an old Datsun pickup selling vinyl adhesive skins for food stamp EBT debit cards. After careful consideration, he paints a simple message on a big piece of cardboard: Got Dignity? For a sawbuck, shame became pride. Food stamps? Hell no. Look again, asshole. That’s a goddamn platinum card. In time, he expanded to sports team logos, Pokemon, religious iconography, Goth shit, even school photos. But most people wanted the platinum.

The new location presented new challenges. Robbery and assault were part of his new normal. Big deal. It was the cost of doing business, but it didn’t matter. Nobody expected him to drink the Kool-Aid anymore. Loyalty was once again a private matter, rather than something proven in endless email chains. The locals didn’t give a fuck what he believed in. Plus, it was off book. The revenue lost to crime was substantially less than his tax burden, had he operated above board.

He sold the same product online, target marketing rednecks, survivalists and militia groups. He knew they all worried about RFID chips embedded in driver’s licenses. That got him on the no-fly list, but he didn’t care about that either. The old Datsun could reach any point in North America on two tanks of gas or less and his own EBT card was charged up with fresh food stamps every month. Fuck the airlines. The walls had been razed. He was free. There was no going back.

You have that duh look on your face again. Where were we? Forty, broke and sunbathing on the front lawn in Capri pants, right? That first ride is a bitch. That’s your downtime between jobs—a ride. Newbs always shit their pants first time out. We hear it during the terminations … I’m gonna lose my house, my car, my boner pills. When you see the look in a man’s eyes as he realizes the low cost four hour hard-ons are over, you understand what the Romans were like at the end.

That first ride is make or break. I’m talking weight gain, hair loss and, obviously, sexual dysfunction. By the second or third layoff, the Dollar Store knockoff Rogaine is working, the bitchtits have waned and gas station horny goat weed packets get your dick up for a buck. Those are financial adjustments—the easy part. Swallowing your pride … now that’s where the war is won or lost.

People take themselves far too seriously. As if buying a jet ski on payments means anything. Living paycheck to paycheck isn’t quite the same as a loaded trust fund. I’m talking set-aside funding for pre-matched genetically-compatible replacement organs from ethnic Albanians. They call it fuck you money. If you can’t say fuck you to a cop and drive away with the certitude of not only surviving but sleeping in your own bed that very night, you ain’t got it. You look no different, at a distance, from day laborers outside Home Depot. I’m talking big picture here.

Without multi-generational wealth and power, you’re just another pretend rich dad who thinks punching down gets you to the top—and that, I promise you, is what people in this day and age mean when calling somebody a faggot. Guys like us exist in the space between that new car smell and being two paychecks from the street. Glorified global labor arbitrage far more likely to drop to our knees than rise up. But so what. Still beats wiping your ass with your hand.

Where were we? Oh yeah … you’re fifty, third or fourth ride deep, wearing adult diapers and painfully aware of your spurious pedigree. Your monthly burn rate is insane. You got TVs in every room, crown moldings, flagstone patio with a stainless steel grill tied in to the main gas line for the house. Each layoff drops your savings and 401k lower and lower. When it is gone, there will be little choice but to leave the gated subdivision for zip codes previously only visited when GPS goes wrong. You’re thinking Filipinos living eight to an old stucco ranch just like what your grandparents had in some played out burb. Or maybe the pastoral feed lots where hillbillies change oil over storm drains while their wild-eyed Ritalin tweaking savage offspring do burnouts on dirt bikes on your front lawn. Won’t be so bad, right? The reality, however, is you can’t afford any of that shit on an unemployment check.

That means holing up in extended stay lodgings. Most are conveniently located in what FBI crime stats, social anthropologists and community organizers call a changing neighborhood. At least they have free HBO. Described on the website as a “classy corporate relocation solution,” from the ground it looks more like a refugee camp. Shitty diapers in the pool, soiled condoms stuck to the elevator doors and Mexican soda in the vending machine.

When unemployment runs dry, you camp out in the oversized SUV—which suddenly seems like your Best. Purchase. Ever. Until you miss a few payments. Then it’s shopping carts, sleeping open air and shitting behind bushes. Like most animals, after a few weeks in the wild humans revert to a feral state. Nobody comes back.

And when your wife gets fingerbanged by a cop at a DUI checkpoint, it becomes clear: You’re free range now. The car is searched without warrant or permission while you lay face down in the road. It’s purely for kicks and milking overtime. Eventually you are cut loose with a warning after a disabled old man rolls his wheelchair down his driveway to find out why his dog is barking.

“Get that piece of shit car off the street or it will be impounded. And get a job, loser!”

Cops love fucking with geezers, dogs and gimps. All three have a high likelihood of hesitating when being shouted at. Not promptly responding to an officer’s commands puts his safety at risk and—more importantly—creates an opportunity to fire at moving targets without anybody shooting back. Practice is vital in today’s law enforcement.

“Hands on your heads! You and the dog both! Hands on your fucking heads!”

When neither man nor beast respond quickly enough, officer safety is protected by firing a Taser. The electric current sparks when striking the metal wheelchair. The sparks ignite dry grass, which spreads quickly and burns the house to the ground. The dog is shot on GP—general principle. All costs of municipal services rendered are deducted from the estate. The requisite passerby cell phone video, titled Fat Police Fry Cripple Blast Dog N Burn House is an overnight Internet sensation.

Back at the extended stay, you notice a message scrawled on the dusty SUV hood: I used this finger on your wife. Welcome to America, asshole. The real America.

So what’s it gonna be, kid? The sample cup or the sanitizer? Make your choice.


About the Author: Celestin d’Olanie was born in Highland Hospital just after the MLK and RFK assassinations on the day Governor Reagan sent choppers to gas students at Cal, and the Panthers shot up the Oakland Police station. East Bay born and bred, Celestin’s great-grandfather was an iron worker who pounded out the lamp posts that surround Lake Merritt.

Artwork: J.R. Goodwin

 

I Live With Clicky Introverts by John Bruce

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I Live With Clicky Introverts

I live with clicky introverts,
whose soundtrack is a cricket shrillness with a bullfrog growl undertone
leaking from the motor of my refrigerator.
Echoes from the tubes of my television pump out images and voices and
I assume that they are about otherworldly matters, but I am not really listening;
I am hearing.
The distance dishes up the diesel truck grumble from the freeway
not miles, but yards away where

Hummers sing the streets,
feet are ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-tapping
on squared sidewalks
where pigeons give sermons
by neurotically bobbing at your shins.
Sometimes sewers hissssssssssssssssssssssssssssssterically
belch out puffs
that sting when your body sucks them down.
Honking, whirring, standing, stirring
blurring the distinction between the scream from a knife slipped into the voice
and the rattling of soft seeds in meditations shuffling percussion.

The urban ballad lovesong of noises
dissolves
into those who are not even listening.


About the author: John Bruce is a high school English Literature teacher, and recently returned home to California after three years of teaching in Latin America. He studied Literature at UC Santa Cruz.

Artwork: Meg Avery

Dancing the Demons out in DF by Angela Rage

(USE PSEUDONYM)_for_Dancing the Demons Out in DF


It was a Friday night in Mexico City. I had been living in the Distrito Federal, or simply DF, for a year, getting by with several teaching jobs throughout the city. To get to each one I spent over 20 hours using all forms of public transit: the metro, peseros, taxis, the metrobus, the regular buses. If it had wheels, I was fighting the hordes to get on it so I could get to work, and that week I had worked overtime. Demons were crawling under my skin. Tonight I had to dance them out. There was no controlling it, I either danced the electric rage out of my bones or I would spontaneously combust; my muscles didn’t give me a choice. I cast my bait and texted all of my gay friends. One would surely bite. Orlando: no, he was busy. Howard: sorry, out of town. Mark: no response. Finally, a text from Starkey: hell yeah.

Score.

Two hours later, I was exiting the metro with a cheap flask of Jimador tequila in my purse. I hurried my pace through the dark streets of Centro Histórico, not the optimal setting for a petite young woman. Even worse, I had taken out the big guns that night; I was wearing my blue baby doll dress with my hair done up pompadour-style, face armored with fierce cat-eye makeup. I looked good. I navigated myself along the granite walls of the district’s colonial Spanish buildings. The cobblestone pavement had been made damp and precarious by the evening’s rolling showers.

The whole neighborhood was deplete of greenery except for Parque Central Alameda. Adjacent to the park stood the recently renovated Palacio de Bellas Artes, a breathtaking art nouveau opera house capped with three domes colored like reverse tequila sunrises. During the day the front square effervesces with food stands and trinket hawkers. Children chase each other through swarms of shoppers. Bohos sit cozily on the grass taking in the sun and emo delinquents hunch up against the pillars with their cigarettes looking bored. The only people out at that hour, though, were the occasional group of meandering partygoers and solo men cruising for other game contenders for a casual hookup. Peering in that direction of town, I could spy the lone Torre Latinoamericana with its spindly antenna sticking up, threatening to pop the sky. The tower once toted the proud title of Mexico’s tallest building, a considerable architectural feat as it was constructed on an unstable seismic zone. It simply looked anachronistic to me now, stuck in a futuristic past, belonging more to The Jetsons’s Orbit City than to modern DF.

When I arrived at the apartment I found Starkey not at all ready to leave still in his basketball shorts and t-shirt. Typical, I thought. Starkey evaporated into his room after introducing me to his new booga roommate, so I suspected an ulterior motive for his delay. Waiting for the Princess to get ready, I shared an atrocious shot of tequila with his roommate and we chatted about how he, a German, had come to be in DF. By the time he put his hand on mine and told me how cute I was, I was ready to go.

Right on cue, Starkey stormed out with a crisis, “Guys, this is urgent! Okay. Hat or no hat?”

We hit the strip of gay clubs in Centro Histórico, just north of Bellas Artes a few blocks away from Plaza Garibaldi. Our first routine stop was Marrakech, which is without fail jam-packed like a beautiful mosh pit, maybe even as bad as the metro during rush hour. However, instead of savage youths or the bored masses, you’re bumping elbows with scores of stunning young men, essentially an anybody-who’s-anybody type of scene. We hustled our way in to find boys in their tighty-whiteys undulating on the bar. We did our mandatory lap, I almost got in a fight with a guy who pawed at my ass, and we blew kisses to our pal Orlando. After, we hopped to another club across the street where we studied the leather-clad man strippers air pumping to electronic beats. We ordered a few drinks and when our favorite hit spilled from the speakers, it was dancing time.

Watching my friend Starkey dance is like watching a unicorn prance through cloud puffs of cotton candy. He’s a sight to admire. Having grown up in North Carolina, he specializes in J-setting: a cooler, more cheerleader-y vogue with lots of big arm movements and pauses, and of course some sassy swishes of the hip. You’ve gotten a taste of J-setting if you’ve seen Beyonce’s Single Ladies video. What really gets me are the ferosh faces he flashes with every move. He has this great toothy grin, alternating different expressions. Fantastic. With enough booze in us and a steady stream of pop hits, Starkey and I will bring the house down, him swinging his arms around every which way, me all sexy hip swerves and waist. A tepid crowd will suddenly transform into a bedlam of dancing raging all around us. There’s nothing better. Only once we’re drenched in sweat is it time to hit our next spot, Plaza Garibaldi.

Plaza Garibaldi is insane. Imagine a huge courtyard full of mariachis competing to troll out ballads for swaying groups of partiers and hugging sweethearts. They’re decked out in charro suits: tight, compact pants with embroidered serpentine flourishes up and down the sides, black coats, white shirts, and bright handkerchief bowties pouring out of their taut vests. People stream in and out of clubs on the prowl to Plaza Garibaldi, ready for the meat market. There are drinking stations with cheap liquor, micheladas and mixers, venders of chiclets and lighters, men selling roses, and a guy who will electrocute you for twenty pesos as some kind of love test called toques toques. If you can hold onto the electric rods attached to the machine belted to his chest the longest, the more in love you are?

Starkey and I began to make our rounds scoping the sexy vaqueros. But this night it was a no-go. No cute cowboys to harass. Plaza Garibaldi was on a downswing with droves of people slowly emptying out, leaving behind a lot of trash. We were wading in it.

Not known to filter himself, Starkey exclaimed, “This is fucking disgusting!” A group of passing ambulators rubber-necked us with looks of anger.

“I think they thought you were talking about them, Starkey.”

“Well then they’re just fucking stupid. Let them try something.” We stopped and mad-dogged them back, but nothing. Unamused, we continued surveying charro breeches.

And then bam; Starkey flew forward, catching himself just before he ate it face first into the pavement. We both spun around to find an angry little dude from the group before. This was bad because Starkey was MAD and Starkey isn’t small. I didn’t know what the kid was thinking.

“Oh, fuck no. he did not just push me from behind,” Starkey rolled up sleeves ready to pounce. Taking in the gravity of the situation, I pulled Starkey back, jumped in between the two, and pushed the kid.

No estaba hablando de ti, pendejo,” I screamed in his face. Within microseconds, looks of confusion, understanding, and regret registered across his dumb face. He had misunderstood. Starkey wasn’t talking about him. He got it. I kept Starkey back as the kid trudged away.

Irritated, we got out of there to head home, but I remembered there was one last stop to make.

We ended up at in front of a concealed stairway of a rundown building not too far down from the main drag. There was one single rainbow flag hanging limp near the entrance. This was the spot. We ascended into the darkness toward music. Behind a heavy velvet curtain was my favorite trashy bar. We made our way to our seats zigzagging between tables full of people, through the plumes of cigarette smoke heavy in the air, and around the raised dance floor in the middle of the club. We glided by a table of heavily painted-on Amazon diva women with men hovering around like flies.

Guapas, guapas, guapas,” I snapped my fingers as I passed. I had seen them around at other bars before. They smiled back and gave me a little wave of reciprocated recognition.

Music blared from speakers in the corners. I dug this bar for the the music, classic cumbia, and salsa staples: La Sonora Dinamita’s Que Nadie Sepa Mi Sufrir, Elvis Crespo’s Suavamente, Celia Cruz’s La Vida es un Carnaval, Margarita la Diosa de la Cumbia’s Escándalo, Los Ángeles Azules’s Cómo Te Puedo Olvidar. I had a few dances left in me.

The best thing about dancing in DF is that you don’t have to wait but a second to get asked to the dance floor. A good male lead is everything. He’s not too jerky. He doesn’t get too wrapped up in his own machismo and kicks. He leads you slowly, taps your hips, your back, your arm, and your waist ever so gently to signal the direction of the next move, the next turn. And with the right partner, it’s magical.

That night I had found my guy, bald-headed with glasses, dressing sharp. He was spinning me all over the floor. At one point he even spun me off the edge on accident. I crashed onto a table with my dress flying up and my panties showing for everyone to see. A cacophony of laughter and whistles roared up all around me. I gathered myself blushing like a ripe tomato. I laughed it off though and gave them another quick flash of my lacy behind and continued dancing.

Even Starkey joined in at a certain point. The Latin ladies were getting a kick out of his clumsy steps. Salsa wasn’t his forte yet. He got by with flashes of his big smile and a deviously raised eyebrow. Finally down for the count after a series of songs, Starkey and I collapsed into our chairs and clinked our next round of beers together contented.

Then there was an abrupt music change. The tempo slowed. The sound of strings filled the air. The lights darkened. There she was standing in the spotlight. She lifted her microphone to her mouth and began to sing. The crowd erupted in excitement and everybody in the joint sang along. She was a queen, a beauty with broad arms, long blonde hair, perfectly executed makeup that accentuated the contour of her cheekbones, and lots of turquoise eye shadow. Her cobalt blue sequined gown came straight out of a beauty pageant. I recalled the sexy Amazonian trans women I had seen at the front.

Those ladies were the singer’s posse, I realized. They sat cheering her on, throwing flowers as she floated across the floor with arms out and intermittent expressions of anguish, seduction, and torment swaying back and forth. At the dramatic climax in the song, she shook her head in defiance and shot her arm up pointing at the ceiling and bring her hand down into a fist, and then hold herself as if comforting her own suffering. The audience ate it up. Me, I was on my feet bouncing up and down like an excited chihuahua. I love me a beautiful drag queen. It’s a mix of awe, admiration, envy, and desire. I was ecstatic. As her ballad ended, she bowed to the standing ovation, whistles and all, and stepped out of the limelight.

There was another music change, an upbeat tempo. A man appeared in a vest, loose black silky pants, and yes, a luchador mask. He thrust the air with smooth gyrations of his hips. I sat there mesmerized. He turned, slipped off his vest looking to the side sensually, swung the vest above his head flipping it between his legs with a nice grind. He threw it and it disappeared into the crowd. Then the pants were magically off. He was donning a pink thong. Oh my lord. I was crawling on top of my table applauding with ecstasy. And at last there was the grand finale: the thong came off to reveal his delicious bulging apple butt.

The group next to my table called him over to their birthday girl of the night. She screeched with delight and horror as he rolled his naked body against her. I was cracking up as I watched her mortification. And then suddenly, out of nowhere, he was on ME. I had a butt-naked stripper on me. It was an out-of-body experience, like a whirlwind of manic giggling, shocked shrieks and squeals, and a whole lot of cocoa butter.

After he finished and grabbed his clothes from the floor, Starkey and I settled down and decided to finish our beer and get the hell out of there. But before we could manage, a muscular man in a black pants and a buttoned up shirt with a little chest showing came up to me and asked me to dance. Why not?

            Bachatta, which is typically more slow and sexy than other Latin dances, was playing. The man and I immediately got close, so we could feel each other’s rhythms and motions. His firm muscles pressed against me through his dress shirt as we moved. His shoulders, his arms, his back, everything was rock solid. And he could move. I lost myself again for a moment dancing and getting into it, but with the change of song, I became sharply aware of how hot we were becoming and realized that this innocent dance had turned into something a bit more intimate than I could handle at the moment. His massive sensuality intimidated me. Panicking, I thanked him, pecked him on the cheek, and hurried back to the table. The crowd swallowed him up behind me.

Starkey immediately barraged me with questions. “What did he say? Did you get his number? He was sexy. Why didn’t you go home with him?”

I was still taking in what had just happened. “Who was that guy?” I muttered.

“The stripper, you idiot.”

What? That sexy man of bodaciousness was the stripper???…. OF COURSE he was the stripper, I thought, face-palming myself. I scanned the room in search of my Cinderella. He had disappeared. I was half disappointed, but frankly, half relieved too. I didn’t know if I could handle all that man.

With enough excitement for one night, Starkey and I finally departed. Daylight was already falling upon us, menacing us with the ominous reality of having to be self-sufficient adults. I still managed to get in a fight with an annoying chiclets vendor on our walk home though, and Starkey managed to pick up a cute cholo from Tijuana. When we stumbled into the apartment, I left the lover boys to their roll in the hay in Starkey’s room and lay down on the couch. The sun had just begun to creep through the blinds. Gleeful squeals faintly seeped through the walls. I closed my eyes. What a night.


About the Author: After graduating from UC Berkeley in 2010, born and bred California girl, Angela Rage, has successfully evaded reality by trotting across the globe from Mexico all the way to South Korea teaching EFL. What she’s really passionate about, though, is creative nonfiction. Being one of six girls, she enjoys writing about her crazy family and their current crisis of the week. As of late though, she has pivoted her focus to travel writing with her blogs, jejujive.wordpress.com  and chileongringa.wordpress.com.

Artwork: B.F. Pullman

The Matter by T. Allison

(USE PSEUDONYM)_for_The Matter

The Matter

Dance, she instructs winkingly, within a ring of men,
So he, watching, will be aware that you are wanted.
Or, perhaps, count three dates until he puts his hands
On your inner thighs. Pressing outwards, inwards — wait.

My fortune told me silence can be a catchall. Well,
I can’t quite recall. Maybe a salt cellar, a cat’s cradle, a catcall.
Learning to live in snow, my memory blurs like lenses in from cold.
What’s the matter when the pattern’s arrhythmic?

I buried all the prayers. I burned all the notes. I wrote only
In dirt and ashes, because my psychic said love was dead.
Its ghost wandered after me with big sad eyes, swearing:
Lust is wasted on the lustful. Hope is wasted on the truthful.

As for me, my heart is a wishing well. My throat is a flume.
My mouth is a fountain, open and — wait.
Hurry. I dam my emptying ponds. My breath catches,
Or do I catch my breath? I run breathlessly after.

Honestly, I was thinking of Catholic crucifixion. A priest:
You, who have been starving, must now wait.
I slide my tongue over teeth. I dress, slipping silk across skin,
Uncross my ankles under the tables. I undress.

It is better not to wait, but it is best that you wait.
The ecstasy is in the drive. The driveway. The delivery.
I am eyeing for warning signs, like a weighty imposition of my
Personal Space that announces: I am a hunter.

The truth is this problem, the problem is this truth.
It was a slow October, so I walked out on all my lovers.
A waiter provided good advice I must have slighted:
Love, all men do not love the same. But love it is.

Some love with eyes shut, all hands and grasping touch,
A foolish few want a girl that’s gone, dream of time machines.
Some love distance, squinting to see a smile. I love
Like an expanding universe, a red-shifted Hubble’s law.

I can’t wait. I won’t waste all that sweetness,
Fruit juice dripping down my lips, onto my chin.
He says my slant rhymes are beautiful.
That’s the matter: my pattern beats arrhythmic.


About the Author: T. Allison is a Michigan Law student, a former editor and writer by trade, and a lover of antique things.

Artwork: John Spiegleman 

Funeral Fount by William Conable

Kim Thoman_for_Funeral Fount


Doc Franklin had been dead three days, and according to the funeral opinions that mattered most, he looked the part. Jordan didn’t agree. Staring out the window into the great inhalation of Saturday, late July, Jordan thought Doc more than dead; he thought him dissipated. Someone had tried to bleach the yellowed tobacco from his beard. Someone–no doubt the same one–had dressed him in a starched shirt, pressed pants. They had cleaned his glasses, combed his hair. They had done these things for the living, believing dignity was a well-groomed corpse. Jordan thought the dead don’t need bifocals and creased pants, the living do. He thought of comb, the iron, the super-glue to seal the eyelids shut and the starch. He thought of vinegar. Then piss.

When he was a child, Jordan’s mother had told him she named him after a river in the Bible. Since then his name had made him uncomfortable, as if a current of force and faith stretching back farther than he could imagine compelled him forward, drove him into the twists and turns in his life. It was only later, years later, when he too came to know the threat of his own impending funeral that Jordan would think of the ramifications of his name. Near dying, he found redemption in the fact that though the Jordan was a name of a river in the Bible, he, Jordan the man, had never seen it nor read of it, so there was no reason for that unknown river to continually haunt his steps beyond the beyond, whatever the hell that meant.

“Sons of bitches.”

“Did you say something, sweetheart?”

Like a cat on a cloud. Doc once told him that was how his mother entered a room, like a cat on a cloud.

“Just talking to myself.”

“Try not to talk too loudly. This is a funeral. Decorum. Carry yourself with dignity.”

She smelled like a Dollar Tree bottle of floral soup. Pursed lips purpled by the pinot in her glass judged him, kissed him over, found him wanting. A retired housewife living off the pensions of three dead husbands, the first of which was Jordan’s father (mechanic; laborer; failed estate). She was never, could never, would never be satisfied with Jordan, the only heir of her loins; her labial burden carried from crib to stoop to altar and back again with each successive procession of rings on pillows only to be further led into another man’s castle as she (mother; arbiter; Hecate) plied her wiles (those wiles which in youth surpassed the rancid floral bouquet of fresh death breath she exhaled now) in pursuit of yet another kitchen pantry to arrange, another Sunday brunch philosophy to espouse, another dinner party to successfully orchestrate. Without cause, Jordan thought of meringue.

“Doc Franklin would not have wanted dignity.”

“What do you know of the man? He was a doctor for heaven’s sake!”

The hiss of her decorum pregnant fury soured his dreams of pie. Lemons. Lemon drops. First box of candy bought at Doc Franklin’s store. Sticky sugar suck on his back molars commingled with the not biblically Eve forbidden fruit of candy when the order had been for “pickled olives and bring me back all the change.” Words sticking now in his mouth, peanut butter mouth, nutter butters, granular sugar and again Doc charging him for time but not asking for money after that first lemon drop and tearful return. His only truly good father figure. Dead.

“He studied Classics. I know that.”

“That’s why Brett put Latin in the eulogy. He was always such a good boy, that Brett.”

“The implication being I’m not?”

That stopped her mid sip. Wine sloshing to the edge of her glass, the threshold of her lips and back down again. Cheap wine. Skinny legs running fast; torn fishnets and combat boots and tears and Ashlyn confessing to Brett’s goodness through the open window that was forced on her, and months later Doc and he (Jordan) becoming her (Ashlyn’s) only solace as eyes judged measured and pursed lips judged and Brett was forgiven and Hecate (mother dearest) moved onto number three–Thompson?–and Jordan took the drive with Ashlyn, learning courage, reading the well worn, oft thumbed Marcus Aurelius of Doc’s bookshelf given in confidence and out of love, waiting through her icy pain as no one else would for goodness sake. The hidden implication being Brett is too good, even for white-trash.

“You never tried your hand at it.”

“At goodness?”

“Yes. Goodness.”

“I’ve tried.”

“I told you to wear the jacket and a tie. Why must you defy me?”

Defy: to openly resist or refuse to obey. Whose aural qualities morph into defile and that means corruption and that was what he did to her body, and Jordan knew it was not defiance but defilement which she raged against. His defilement of her. He, the constant living reminder of a single night of indiscretion leaving her to forever battle from street to street seeking the good name lost through passion and youth and that unforgivable Ferris wheel carnival romance that was his father’s triumph–eight cylinders of go fast Chevelle with rally stripe and all. In fighting the quicksand of unwanted motherhood she lost more inches of herself with every violent outburst becoming, quietly, unexpectedly, unwelcome and sullied. He was her doom. The drink act now complete. The wine passed the lips and travelled on to complete its course.

“I don’t like ties.”

He turned, watching her quiver. Dry lightning quiver as when the rough western Zephyrus goes riding across harvest fields, ruffling the land, rattling the dry corn stalks of summer, reminding those living few still believing in the Wind that the respiration continues, the great drawing in of breath continues. Reminding those who still believe we are no more or less significant than that breeze, that breath of air. Deep breath. Deeper breath. Breathe.

“Seems to me you don’t like much of anything these days.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Three years, no college degree, some road trip in between, then the plant to pour concrete. All for what? Nothing. Don’t look so surprised. Oh yes, your Doc told me all about the trips. You cannot keep your secrets from me, Jordan. I am still your mother.”

Her belief in secrets betrayed her unmitigated trust in history. The slow gathering of indictments between what she saw as insider information and her wanting to be apart of that same inside. And he, in youth, knowing too the power traded secrets had over her; learning to trade in secrets for himself, the economy of lies and false falsehoods which somehow untangled the double negative, slipped the mooring cleat of truth pier, drifted into the tide of false ebb and flow down away from her and then miraculously the ocean. He trusted the ocean; the immensity, the cornerless horizon at the beachhead that hid no pretenses. He yearned to stand up to his ankles, knees, waist, chest, as sand sucked from beneath his feet back into deep watery oblivion. He wanted to feel a riptide–a backwards sort of birth, Paul Klee and the Angelus Novus. But there was nothing her secrets, her history, knew of these things. Lies.

“I know that, momma. Lord don’t I know it.”

“When are you going to mature? When are you going to stop this foolishness and do something? It’s not decent being unmarried and living at home. No education, no prospects. People are watching us. They are always watching us.”

Never mind it was her letters and her phone calls that brought his return. Stopping first, as all prodigal sons must stop, at the corner store, Doc’s store, where he sat like a philosopher’s statue, chin on fist, reading another book from the uncounted stacks of books kept in back, through the jingle jangle of bells announcing Jordan’s entrance. Then him (Doc) looking up with watery eyes behind dirty glasses wiped clean only when lenses became too blurry to read, wiped by the same rag kept in his same pocket of the last sixty years for the same purpose. The rag, which has never been, to Jordan’s knowledge, washed or snapped clean. Never mind he returned for her, to save her, to care for her as there was the driven distance between home and hospital and endless waiting rooms of stifled coughs as her breasts were taken from her, as she recovered under his hand. No. Never mind those days. Those quiet, violent days when his mother became all vomit and diarrhea and he was all patience and conversations with Doc, the only voice of reason, the only voice that understood because he (Doc) once made the same choice, choosing to run a candy convenience store in a shit-hole town as his own father died from the finally caught up to him collected entropy of age. Yes. Never mind that year, that choice. Never mind.

“Look at Brett. The two of you were so close. Always so close, and now he has a wife and sells insurance. Jeanine has a college education too. Graduated from Sweet Briar College. That’s where she got her degree in teaching. Alice says we are lucky to have her in the school. Heart of gold. That’s what Alice says, a heart of gold and a sterling mind. Can you imagine that? They say Brett will run for City Council. He’ll win. Oh, he has my vote if he does run. I told him so today, this very day. Such a beautiful eulogy he gave. He always had a way with words, that boy. So eloquent.”

“How many glasses have you drank?”

“Don’t you worry how many glasses I have drank. It’s not decent to ask. And, don’t avoid my questions.”

Outside a darkness had begun to gather in the West. The auto procession was set to begin. Even now, listening to his mother rattle her funeral litany of envy, Jordan imagined the near final movements of Doc’s corpus. A dead thing. An empty thing whose soul–if there ever was such a thing–was off and gone leaving behind the wretched living. Corpus, corpse. The summer Ashlyn took to wearing black clothes and boots and black eyeliner and black lipstick because the Shore is small and nothing happens except the passage of time which feels like no time and small town teenagers, if they are not hunters, and if they are not athletes, and if they are not church goers, and if they are poor, and if their mother was cursed with beauty, and if their father was absent, and if that same curse of mother beauty falls to daughter and abscesses into malnutritioned sex appeal, turn to things dark as Ashlyn had done, dreaming Brett would save her, and so gave of her body as down payment to him only to be not saved. White, trash, unredeemed and pregnant; this was identity for Ashlyn. She lost on the investment. She lost her womb. Jordan lost as well, the silent partner. He lost money and friendship and love. Because he could not find it in himself to wash his hands clean of “trailer park indiscretions” as Brett called Ashlyn while riding shotgun in Jordan’s truck to deliver three hundred fifty dollars in crumpled fives and ones and tens with an occasional twenty to make things go away. Jordan could not play the role of Pilate. So Brett went on to the University of Virginia and Jordan tried to do the same, only failed. One conscience stronger than the other. One conscience more malleable than the other. One finding insurance, the other unsure if man can be redeemed. The western clouds began to billow and tower. There would be no crossing, Jordan River be damned.

“Looks like rain.”

“It won’t rain. The forecast didn’t call for rain, Jordan.”

And that was the difference between mother and son. She trusting to forecasts and he relying on experience. Each leading the other further from the center. Jordan turned from the window scanning the room over the top of his mother’s head. She pushing by to see the clouds through the window knowing full well, even in plain sight, she would not believe. Across the distances of carpet and polite conversations held in hushed puddles, he saw Brett raise a stock white coffee cup steaming in toast of recognition. He wore a suit and tie. Sweet Briar next to him, her stomach stretching the seams of her dress showing evidence of the sex act. Her heart of gold equals a successful womb. Jordan dreamt of the sterile coupling of their union: her flat back passionless duty; Rosam quae meruit ferat; pillows from a catalogue; central air and no sweat stains on the mattress. Sweet Briar writhing not in passion but in shame, wanting everything to be over, wanting it to all end while thinking, miraculously, of the lies her mother told. Afterwards there would be sweet tea in a pitcher on the porch. Alice said all the children love her for her sweetness. A rose indeed.

“You should go talk to him. Maybe he can get you a job.”

“I have a job.”

“You pour concrete.”

“It pays.”

“Talk to him. I saw him look at you.”

“I have nothing to say to him.”

But it was too late. Brett had excused himself from the crowd, the herd, the politician’s admiring public. He began to close the distance between he and Jordan. Did he somehow believe himself crossing the gap of time? Was each new step a healing step, a healing salve into the still fresh wound in Jordan’s lost innocence? The distance growing less, the time distance expanding: Jordan thought of the window, of leaping out like a madman from the second story only to bound across the parking lot and into the trees like some hunted thing. But he held his ground. Quaking, he held his ground.

“Jordan. How are you holding up? I know you and Doc were close. Besides me, I think you were the closest person to him. He will be missed.”

“Brett.”

A single word. A single name. The only sound, the only utterance Jordan could muster, could draw forth, draw up from somewhere deep. After so long a silence, only a single word would do.

“Still with the stoicism? Even today?”

Jordan stared. He felt the electricity of his mother’s hope next to him. For the first time he was aware of their great difference. Suited Brett and he, Jordan, in best pair of jeans and shirt with brushed boots and no tie. A chasm of difference, of station, and place.

“Your mother was talking to me about you earlier.”

“She was?”

“Said you are looking for work.”

“I’m not.”

“Jordan, that’s not true at all!”

Her whole body suddenly a power plant. Currents of fear and indignation capable of powering the whole town, the whole county, free of charge minus one conversation and a damn dead man.

“It’s true.”

“Well if you are ever looking for…”

The first peal of thunder and all heads turned towards them. Not them, the window. Every eye seeking the source of sound. The black sky in full effect. All eyes turned, even Brett’s. Not Jordan’s though. He had seen the rain already. All eyes turned and in their turning he discovered her. Ashlyn. A single drop, alone, away from the puddles of bodies. Alone, looking at him.

“Rain. The forecast didn’t call for rain.”

“That’s what I said. Didn’t I just say that very thing, Jordan?”

In her eyes Jordan saw everything, he remembered. He remembered the party in Watson’s fallow field, the whiskey drinking and the smell of cigarettes while Marcy Playground droned it’s lyrics on and on into the night. He remembered Brett, his wild look of determination, and Ashlyn, her innocent look of hope. He remembered her stumbling, clinging to Brett as he held another shot up to her lips, leading her to the back of his (Jordan’s) truck. He remembered the two months later, the fear in her voice as she confessed another growing life to him (Jordan) over cheap high-school cafeteria pizza. It was later, the conversation between two boyhood friends deciding the fate of a third then fourth, the pain began. It was the drive to her trailer; it was his drive with her to the clinic. She didn’t wear black then. Only later. She cried on the drive there, she cried on the drive back and yes, yes, goddamnit yes he had held her and cried as well. Then it was UVA and two years Brett’s roommate as he (Brett) drank himself into fraternity graces while he (Jordan) carried the load of two, not wanting his friend to fail again, not understanding he was failing himself. Then it was the great falling out, the great moment of “No more you son of a bitch” and fists and blood like a penny held too long underneath your tongue. It was all this and more. It was leaving because College should have been more, should have been harder, should have should have should have been the Lyceum but was far too bread soaked and light beer for that. Then it was the leaving school, the road trip and the harvest fields of Nebraska because he needed to feel his body work in the sun as Doc, his confessor, his should have been if only there was a God father suggested he do. It was the cancer of his mother, her pain, his pain, the pain of lost breasts, breasts whose nipples he had tugged at when nursing, gone now and the absurdity of the silence. The absurdity of Ashlyn’s silence, his silence all silence. It was everything contained, all at once, in an iris across the room.

“Goodbye, momma.”

Now he moved. He crossed the room, swam up current, and perhaps Brett’s eyes followed, perhaps more eyes than he knew. He crossed to her, against them all, hearing somewhere faint the sound of his mother’s voice, quavering, calling to him, calling perhaps across the Jordan. He heard her, but chose to listen to the sound of rain. A thunderous rain pelting down on the roof as only summer storms not forecast know how to rain. Had her hand been waiting? Waiting these fifteen years? It was smaller than expected, than remembered. He became aware of his callous, the roughness of his palms made rough by man-made stone. He took hers or perhaps she took his or perhaps they found each others.

“Your mother’s calling you.”

“What does she want?”

“She’s asking you where you are going.”

Then there was the rain. Rain in blue sheets coming down, coming down heavy. It was a soaking rain; a blue rain; the blue rain of baptism.

“Sons of bitches.”

And Jordan and Ashlyn moved.


About the Author: William Conable is an award-winning playwright and poet who lives in Concord, California. His most recent one-act, The Ties That Bind, was performed with the Quixotic Players of Berkeley. Other writing has appeared in WORK Literary Magazine, The Dead Mule and other publications. Originally from Virginia, Conable came west to shed the South’s moldy pretensions for something fresh. He is currently at work on several new pieces, including a novel; when not writing, he bikes in the East Bay hills and considers whether redemption is possible for anyone, and if so, why we care so much about it.

Artwork: Kim Thoman 

he strings by Barry Blitstein

(USE PSEUDONYM)_for_he strings


he strings

the matter


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

Artwork: Tina P. 

Hard to Believe by Elise Glassman

Alex Herrington_for_Hard To Believe


Freddy said, “Hal, dude, you just missed the nurse. She wouldn’t tell us bupkus but oh my god, what a smoking hot body. We’re calling her Hot Donna.”

I traded hugs with him and felt anxious: Freddy joking about the situation made me worry that things were really bad. Turning to John, I said, “What’s happening with Dana? The nurse really wouldn’t tell you anything?”

John shook his head. His eyes were wet and raw. “She just said he’s still unconscious, but stable. The doctors are running a bunch of tests.”

I’d flown into Denver at noon, expecting to be in Aspen with John and Dana and Freddy by sundown. Instead, here we were, crammed into a tiny hospital waiting room. The air smelled like stale heating ducts and cleaning fluid. “So we can’t see him,” I said.

“We’re not family, so no. The nurse said we have to wait in here.”

“Have a seat,” Freddy said. He and John had taken up positions at either end of a mud brown loveseat. Every textile in the room—carpet, seat cushions, drapes—was an earth-tone, washable fabric. We’d been relegated to the Motel 6 of waiting rooms.

I claimed the chair by the window and propped my feet on my suitcase, which was packed with ski gear and two handles of top-shelf tequila, one wrapped in birthday wrapping paper for Dana. “So how did he end up in here? Is it related to the lymphoma?” Dana had been diagnosed last year and was supposedly in remission, but he was notoriously bad about details—for the first month of his treatment, I hadn’t even realized he was fighting stage 3 cancer.

“They’re not sure yet.” Freddy seemed like he wanted to say more but was having trouble, like a man holding too many playing cards.

“His neighbor found him collapsed in his driveway and called the medics.” A woman had come in, blond hair in a low ponytail, wearing dark blue pants with an equally somber pullover vest.

From her outfit and her neutral tone, my first thought was that she was a nurse. Then she sat on the couch arm next to John and put her arm around his shoulder. The new girlfriend, I realized, reaching out to shake her hand. “You must be Lorna,” I said.

“And you must be Hal,” she said. “How are you doing, John, honey?”

“I’m pretty freaked out,” John admitted. He leaned his head on her shoulder.

“Well, have faith—the Lord is willing to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows.”

I recognized the Holy Bible when I heard it. “Uh—Lorna, not sure if you know this, but Dana’s an atheist.”

She looked at me, her eyes narrowing, as though trying to decide if I was serious.

“Just trying to save you from wasting your time,” I added.

“Prayer is never a waste of time,” she shot back.

John closed his eyes. “Guys, please—not now.”

I looked at my friend, head nestled into Lorna’s embrace. In three years rooming together at UCLA, John and I had debated everything: sports, capitalism, workout routines, dog breeds, threesomes, religion. He was as much a non-believer as I was, of this I was sure. Although, until about two hours ago, I’d also been sure I was about to spend the weekend partying with old friends. I got up from the chair, stretching. My ass was starting to ache from all the sitting. “Hey Freddy—coffee run?”

We joined the cafeteria line behind a gaggle of elderly volunteers wearing bright smocks, their haircuts no-hassle short and gray. “So, how’s work going?” I asked Freddy.

“Oh, kind of shitty. The real estate market in Tucson tanked, just like everywhere else.” Freddy still had the curling eyelashes and football player’s build that had made him such a chick magnet in college. “How’re you? How’s the telecom world?”

“I just got promoted to executive director of operations,” I boasted.

“Still dating those young guys from the line crew?”

I pretended to think. “Um—is twenty-four young?” My current boyfriend worked days climbing utility poles and studied marketing at night. His precious free time he spent with me, although we both knew my fascination with his abs wouldn’t outlast finals week.

Freddy laughed. “Twenty-four? Fuck you.”

“Fuck you. Your lady is awesome.”

“Yeah, and we’ve also been together eight years. I can’t remember a whiff of what single snatch is like.”

One of the volunteers turned and gave Freddy a stern look. I smiled at her. “It’s all about choices, dude. Life is like chess and I’m playing tomorrow’s game.” We’d reached the cashier. I ordered drip coffees and pastries and Freddy tossed down a credit card to pay the tab. “Thanks, man.”

He said, noncommittal, “Yeah.”

We were both tiptoeing around something and it felt strange. “You okay?”

Shrugging, he said, “I just thought Dana had this lymphoma shit under control.”

“Passing out in his driveway doesn’t sound under control to me. Wasn’t he supposed to be getting blood counts every three months?”

“He told me he skipped sometimes. It was freaking him out. He felt like he was reliving it every time.”

“Seriously? Goddamn him.” I sipped the hot coffee. The liquid scorched my tongue. “You know what, goddamn you too, for not telling me.” Grabbing the drink carrier, I stalked back to the elevator. At the other end of the hall, John was holding open a door for Lorna. I read the sign aloud. “Interfaith chapel.”

“John got religion,” Freddy said, behind me. He held the bag of pastries curled under his arm like a football.

“Or religion got John,” I said. Our buddy had been with his share of wackadoos over the years: the bald stripper, the ex-wife who’d dropped thirty K at native casinos. But a religious chick? It was hard to believe.

Late afternoon sun beamed into the waiting room. Freddy sat in a corner texting. John was buried in the Denver Post sports page. The evening stretched ahead like Interstate 70—flat, horizon-less, shimmery. I flicked John’s newspaper. “Hey. Did you know Dana wasn’t getting his blood work done?”

“Huh?” He looked at me over the top of the paper.

“Freddy said Dana told him he was skipping his blood work.”

“No, I didn’t know. But knowing Dana, I can’t say it surprises me.”

Freddy set down his phone. “Hal, did Nurse Hot Donna say anything else? I feel like they aren’t telling us jack shit.”

A few minutes earlier, the nurse had stopped in briefly to say only that they were still running tests. I’d followed her back to the ICU. Stopping outside the locked double doors, Nurse Hot Donna had pushed her dark-framed glasses up her nose and asked who I was, exactly. A friend, I said, the word stunningly inadequate for Dana, the smartest guy I knew, hopeless optimist, reliable wingman, goofy little almost-brother. “Nope. Nothing.”

“Son of a bitch,” Freddy said.

“Maybe Lorna can pray down some updates,” I said nastily.

John snapped his newspaper. “Hal, don’t be such a prick. What’s your problem with her being a believer? Did a priest play hide the sausage with you back in the day?”

I didn’t answer. I counted to ten, then twenty, then one hundred. I stared at the divots in the carpet where the couch legs had made dents from a previous position. Reminding myself to breathe, I looked out into the hallway, where an elderly man in a hospital gown and slippers shuffled by, clutching an IV stand, heel-to-toe, heel-to-toe. He felt like a metaphor for our long, halting day.

On Sunday I woke up with an ache in my gut. Freddy and I had grabbed a late dinner the night before at a steakhouse near the hospital, then he’d gone to his wife’s cousins’ place to crash and I’d checked into the Marriott. I’d stayed up late watching ESPN and making a dent in one of the tequila bottles and thinking about John’s comment.

No minister had ever tugged my wiener, but my manhood had been the topic of a multitude of sermons. Men lying with men is an abomination, Pastor would thunder, and I’d sit next to Mama wanting to cry or punch something, wondering how she and he and our Baptist congregation could all be so smug and so certain and so wrong. John telling me to shut up had taken me back to those tortuous hours in the pew, being told to pray away the urges I felt toward other boys, to stuff them away the way I bundled up my cock before track practice.

Anyway, I couldn’t dwell on it now: shit/shower/shave, and a cab to the hospital.

I took the elevator to Dana’s floor and lo and behold the ICU doors were propped open. It felt like an invitation—a gift—for arriving early and alone. I walked in as though I had a right to.

“Sir?” A broad-shouldered nurse in purple scrubs intercepted me, stethoscope bouncing on a broad, impeccable chest. “Excuse me? You can’t go in there.”

I looked over his shoulder into a room, saw a bed and a flat screen spewing out vitals like a stock ticker. Saw figures around the bed, heard voices, a high-pitched voice, then Dana’s voice—wait—Dana’s voice? “Is he awake?”

“Only medical staff and family members are allowed in,” the nurse was saying.

“I am family,” I lied.

The nurse looked me over. “Is that so? I just spoke to his mom and sister. They’re still trying to fly out of Fort Lauderdale. Apparently a hurricane’s blowing in.”

Suddenly, two figures burst out of Dana’s room: Lorna, ponytail flopping behind her like a leaky balloon, and a white-haired man decked out in a three-piece powder blue suit. As they exited, a half dozen figures in scrubs fanned out across the hall behind them.

“Be healed. Be healed! Praise Jesus,” the man was crowing.

“Family only, huh? Then how did those two get in there?” I said, angry, but my nurse’s attention was focused on Lorna and the wailing old man.

Facing the defensive line of nurses, Lorna said, “You let us alone. He’s clergy.”

“You need to leave. Now,” the big nurse said. A muscle in his jawline flexed.

“Let’s go, Preacher,” Lorna said, taking his arm. They proceeded down the hall together, like carolers singing a grim, unwelcome hymn.

“Looks like the hurricane already blew in,” I said to the nurse, knowing I was being melodramatic. He watched me all the way to the end of the hall, and pressed a button to close the double ICU doors behind me.

Lorna and Preacher awaited me outside the doors. “Hal, meet a friend of mine,” she said, smiling, eyes bright, seeming exhilarated from the earlier encounter.

The man stepped close. His coffee breath plumed into my nostrils. “God bless you, my son. Did you come to commune with the young Lazarus?”

“Preacher’s a faith healer. We prayed Dana from his slumber.” Even though she was still smiling, Lorna’s eyes were as hard as rock, as though she knew things I did not.

Preacher grabbed my arm with cold fingers and pressed his eyelids together. “Oh, Lord Jesus, heal this young man. Heal his friends. Take away their fear and longing. Be healed. Be healed.”

I pulled my arm free. “Stop it. I’m not sick.”

“We all sick,” Preacher moaned. “We all sick, son. We just don’t know it.”

“Hey Dana, you want some more pop?” Freddy sat at the foot of Dana’s bed. The room reeked of cold cuts and onions. With his Mom and sister still stranded in the Southeast, newly-awakened Dana had waged a hunger strike until the nurses allowed Freddy and me in around lunchtime. We’d grabbed supplies from the Subway around the corner and waltzed triumphantly into his room.

Dana sipped his drink, then began to cough. He coughed and coughed. Freddy rose from the bed, concerned, but Dana hiccupped finally and caught his breath.

A dark-haired nurse in flowered scrubs poked her head in. “Everything okay?”

“Yes, Guadeloupe, sorry,” Freddy said.

“You should no eating pepperoni subs,” she said, shaking a finger. We laughed. I was relieved that Nurse Hot Donna seemed to be off duty.

“Jesus, you guys,” Dana breathed. “All this and I choke to death on 7-Up?”

“So, dude, what the hell happened?” I said. “You came down with the flu plus a random infection and here you are?”

He yawned, kitten-like, his mouth wide-open, teeth gleaming. “That’s what they think. I took a shitload of antibiotics for the MALT last year, so when I got this flu bug, regular drugs didn’t cut it.”

I felt a tug of worry. “What about the next flu bug? And the one after that?”

“I’m just trying to get through today, Hal.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Once I get my resistance built back up, I’ll be fine.”

“And keep getting your blood work done,” I said pointedly.

Dana didn’t answer. He stared at the Broncos pre-game show on his TV.

“Lorna says her and that Preacher guy woke you up with their prayers,” Freddy said. He fired a sub wrapper at the trashcan but the wad of paper bounced off the rim.

“Who is that guy?” I said. “Did she bring him here from L.A.?”

“She told me he’s local,” Freddy said. “Her church out there hooked them up.”

“He tried to faith heal me,” I said, wiping my fingertips with a napkin. “Fucking old fraud.”

Dana said, “Who’s to say? Maybe the prayers did some good.”

“Or maybe your doctors had something to do with it,” I said.

“Who cares, as long as it worked,” Freddy said diplomatically.

“No offense, idiots, but I believe in medical science,” I said.

“I believe,” Dana said, pausing to catch his breath. “That I’m going to kick you two assholes out of here if you don’t shut up so we can watch the game.”

It was our last night together. Just as his Mom and sister arrived tomorrow, we’d all go home, vacations over but not taken. Freddy got permission from Nurse Hot Donna to throw a birthday party in the cafeteria. She signed off on everything but my hip flask, filled with tequila from the nearly empty fifth. Lorna had offered to pick up taco truck dinner and a cherry pie from King Soopers, and even I mumbled my thanks as I chipped in twenty bucks.

We seated Dana at an out of the way cafeteria table. He surveyed us like a king, an unshaven sovereign bundled up in hospital gowns and a bathrobe. “Okay, listen up. I’m sorry about your vacations, dudes. I’ll make it up to you, I swear.”

“How about making sure you get your blood work done,” I said ungenerously.

“Jesus, Hal.” Freddy said. “Give it a rest. It’s not like he wanted to end up in a coma.”

“I wasn’t in a coma,” Dana said.

“You were in a coma,” John said.

“Well fuck me, you’re all M.D.’s,” Dana said. He sipped from the margarita we had mixed up in a Minute Maid carton.

“Chow time!” Lorna arrived, dumping grease-spotted bags onto the table. The smell of tortillas and cheese and salsa wafted over us like perfume.

“Where’s the pie?” Freddy said.

“Praise the Lord and pass the pie.” Preacher sailed into view, his Colonel Sanders hair flapping, balancing a pie on each fleshy palm.

“What’s he doing here?” On principle, I didn’t want to dig in now, but damn my traitorous taste buds, I seemed to be starving. Would dinner obligate me to listen to whatever sermon Preacher might feel like regurgitating?

“I said he could come,” Dana said.

“Let’s say grace,” Lorna interjected, as everybody reached for food.

“Might I lift us up to the Lord in prayer?” Preacher said unctuously.

“I’ll pray,” I said.

Everyone looked at me. “Hal, “John said, weary.

“’I thank you god for most this amazing day.’ Amen.” e.e. cummings’ poem quoted over dinner had never failed to send my mother into a fury, and, looking at Lorna’s pinched expression, I had to admit it still felt good to piss off a sanctimonious female. I bit into a warm tortilla. “Delicious. Thanks so much, Lorna.”

“What a blessing that you young folks can be here with your friend during this time of trial,” Preacher said.

“Funny thing is, he’s not a blessing at all,” Freddy said, winking. “He’s actually kind of a pain in the ass.”

Lorna cracked her gum. “You all should be thinking about the future.”

The future. Eternity. Here it came. “Can’t we just enjoy the now?” I said, irritated.

“You did say you were playing tomorrow’s chess match, Hal,” Freddy said.

“Shut the fuck up,” I said. Nearby, an Asian family was busily shoving tables together, metal chair legs squealing on the tile.

Lorna said, “I think you all know. You know it’s serious with Dana, and you’re afraid to face the truth about what’s coming. For him and for you.”

“What do you know about anything?” I said.

John was looking at Dana with leaking eyes. “What’s coming?”

“Just a goddamn minute. My health is my business.” Dana jabbed a thumb at his chest. “Everybody else can just fuck the fuck off.”

Freddy looked pale. “Dana—”

“Fred-dee,” Dana drawled, trying to be funny. He looked around the table and then drooped a little, as though finally recognizing the uncertainty in our eyes and faces. John sat with his head bowed—praying, I thought. Or maybe bracing himself.

I felt light-headed. We’d all been so busy clowning around, pretending like nothing was wrong, nothing had changed, that this was one more minor blip on the road back to hale health and heartiness. Did Dana not trust us enough to be honest? Maybe we had let him down with all our brainless horsing around.

“The Lord Jesus is here for you,” Lorna was saying earnestly. “For all of you. If only you’ll let Him in, you can spend eternity with Him.”

I stood up. She wasn’t going to let it go. Then neither was I. “Hey Lorna, you know what, you and Preacher—you two are vampires. Preying on people when they’re weak.”

Lorna said, “We’re here to speak the truth, Hal.”

“The truth? The truth is—”

John stood up too. He still had a couple inches on me. “Knock it off. Both of you.”

Lorna went on, “The truth is, the Lord woke your friend up, and you can’t stand being wrong.”

“You can believe whatever you want,” I said.

“I believe what I witnessed,” she said, again with the smug certainty.

Nobody else spoke. Preacher chewed on, moustache deep in carne asada. Was Lorna onto something? Did she really know something we didn’t? She’d been in the room when Dana woke up. John knew her best of all of us, and even he was getting hauled around by the nuts.

After everyone had cleared out of the cafeteria—a nurse wheeling Dana up to shower, Freddy to call his lady, the unholy trinity of John, Lorna and Preacher who knew where—I stood outside on an empty terrace, under a burned-out patio light, tears splashing my clasped hands. Tequila always made me emotional. I dried my face with a napkin, dug in my pockets for my emergency cigarette.

“Man, I’d kill for one of those.” There was a shuffling sound, Dana’s slippers sliding across the cement.

“Aren’t you supposed to be getting cleaned up for your family?” I said.

“God dammit. Stop being so fucking helpful. All I wanted was just to have our weekend. You know? Be assholes together, like always.” Dana breathed, closing his eyes.

“You can’t blame us for being worried. You don’t tell us shit,” I said.

“It’s true, you don’t.” Freddy came up, handed a lit cigarette to Dana, supported his elbow as he took a draw.

“Are you guys nuts?” Here was John, wild-eyed. “If the nurses see this, they are going to fucking bust you.”

“Oh come on. Give a dying man a cigarette,” Dana said.

We looked at him, miserable. “Dude, you’re not dying,” Freddy said.

“We’re all dying.” Dana looked around for a place to sit. I eased him into a chair, marveled at how light he was.

“Don’t let Lorna and Preacher get to you, Dana. They’re just a couple of whack jobs.”

“Hal, why don’t you shut up–” John elbowed me hard, knocking the wind out of me. I shoved back, watched him waver like a man on a tightrope.

“Everything okay out here?” A man approached, stethoscope slung around his neck. It was the broad-shouldered nurse who’d kicked me out of the ICU.

“Everything’s fine.” Dana’s trembling hand masked his lips, his cigarette breath.

The nurse held up my flask. “One of you leave this down in the cafeteria?”

“That one,” John muttered, nodding at me.

“Just celebrating a birthday.” I squinted to read his nametag. “How are you—Nurse Thomson? I’m Hal.”

“Kevin,” the guy said, shaking my hand. He wore pale blue scrubs and white Comverse kicks.

“Let me ask you something,” I said. “Did Jesus wake our friend up from his coma?”

He frowned. “Wrong profession, my friend.”

“Dude, are we all dying?” Freddy said, drunkly earnest.

“Every living thing is dying,” Kevin the nurse said, looking around the patio, and up at the sky. “Living and breathing and suffering and farting and fucking and loving and dying. It’s a beautiful thing, man.”

Preacher and Lorna were right, in a way. The fuckers. There was movement in the universe, I felt. A change, a disturbance, the way things stirred and then did not, just before a storm.


About the Author: Elise Glassman lives and works in Seattle, and she studied fiction with Laura Kalpakian and others at the University of Washington Extension, and with Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Workshop. Her work has appeared in journals such as The Colorado Review, Neon Beam, The Summerset Review, Main Street Rag, the Portland Review, Tawdry Bawdry, Referential Magazine, and Switchback. Her essay “Touch” appeared in the anthology Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religion, and in 2015, her story, “Free Ride” will appear in Per Contra.

Artwork: Alex Herrington

Poor K by Allan Tinker

cockroach negative


Poor K

As K stands before the (not Jewish) grave digger, for whose benefit the author worked in his professional capacity as a government legal, investigative and administrative agent with executive authority, brought into the government by a converted Christian who knew him to possess the brilliant and creative mind necessary for handling the newly dreamt-up responsibilities of the newly dreamt-up position to implement the newly dreamt-up liberal social policy in the newly dreamt-up agency that materially recognized (however inadequately) and recompensed (equally inadequately) the newly dreamt-up value of the body of the injured-on-the-job laborer — the only (unrepentent though unobservant) Jew in the government agency, responsible for forcing employers to pay the new-fangled “tax” called “workers compensation” (in those cases wherein he could prove the claim) plus penalties; feeling a little like the narrator standing before the grave this nameless Czech laborer is digging for him, which K suddenly realizes is indeed for him, as he sees not the letter K being carved into the headstone but the letter J, the letter precedent in the alphabet to K, as J-for-Jew precedes K-for-Kafka, and despite any plea to the contrary, J strips K, subsumed under the sign of the other, of his personhood, this J, this self-generating, unarguable sign, with its built-in affective alarm established by a rising storm of anti-Semitic violence in Mittel Europa, represented by a proleptic headstone with the letter J; poor K.


About the Author: An Oakland native, BA & MA in Creative Writing, SFSU, Allan Tinker taught writing at UC Berkeley, then through California Poets in the Schools and The Beat Within, while raising two remarkable children with civil rights lawyer wife, Arlene Mayerson.

Artwork: Brad Milhouse

Three Sundays At The Grove by Dallas Woodburn

Ira Joel Haber_for_Three Sundays at The Grove


 

When Deepti was born in San Francisco in the summer of 1991, her parents were living in a tiny apartment above an Indian restaurant called “The Golden Sari,” and they were in their Hindi phase. Deepti often wondered whether the Indian restaurant and the samosas her mother craved during pregnancy influenced their sudden conversion to Hinduism. It would make sense, knowing her mother. Over the years she had acquired a wide mishmash of cultural affectations to match her ever-growing palate, trying on religions and customs, discarding some aspects while keeping others, as if the world were an immense shopping mall waiting to expand her cultural wardrobe. Deepti wondered, if her parents had lived above an Italian restaurant instead of “The Golden Sari,” would they have had a Catholic phase? Would Deepti instead be named Mary or Teresa or Anne?

That was twenty-one years ago, and the Hindi phase was long gone—as was her father. Still, Deepti was left with two constant reminders: her vegetarianism and her name, Charusheela Deepti, roughly translated to “beautiful jewel full of light.” These two things, combined with her honey-freckled skin, almond eyes, and unruly wiry curls, made Deepti feel a part of many groups—part Asian, part black, part Hindi—and yet not really a part of any group. She was a one-woman species. Unclassifiable.

*

For their first date, Greg took Deepti to The Grove, an outdoor shopping mall in West Hollywood. “They have a great farmer’s market here,” Greg said, taking her hand. They wove their way through the tented stalls, past the bulging pumpkins and squashes, sizzling meat with peppers and onions, tubs of live lobsters. They ate lunch at a stall selling cheap Chinese food—the American version, of course, with greasy noodles and deep-fried orange chicken that Deepti could not eat. She ordered the mixed vegetables instead, which were mundanely delicious. Deepti only ate “authentic” Chinese food when she visited her grandparents in Oregon, so this was Chinese food she was used to, the watered-down Americanized version she recognized for its illegitimacy and loved for the same reason. And, while her own mother had preferred ordering from Panda Express to cooking recipes passed down through generations, at least she had taught Deepti the correct way to use chopsticks. Greg was impressed.

“I’m terrible at using those,” he said, gesturing with his plastic fork at the chow mein dangling off Deepti’s chopsticks.

“It’s not that hard,” Deepti said. “I’ve been using them all my life. My mom’s Chinese. Her parents came to America when she was a baby.”

“Really? That’s cool.”

Greg didn’t ask for further details about her ancestry, but she told him anyway: “And my dad’s black. They met at Berkeley in the ’60s. You know—civil rights, free love and all that.”

Greg nodded, his eyebrows slightly furrowed as if he wasn’t sure what to say. The silence stretched. Deepti felt a pit open up in her stomach as the greasy noodles slid down her throat.

“So do you speak any Chinese?” Greg asked.

“Not really. Just bits and phrases.”

“Say something for me.”

“Umm … let me think.” In truth, Deepti could not remember a single phrase she had learned eight summers ago, when her mom went back to Berkeley in search of her “roots,” or maybe Deepti’s father, and Deepti spent a month living with her grandparents in Oregon. Either way, Deepti was looking out the window for flashes of lightning when her mom’s car pulled into the driveway on a rainy afternoon. She could tell from the way her mother heaved herself out of the driver’s seat and shut the car door with the full weight of her body, as if between its hinges were cockroaches that needed crushing, that nothing—and yet everything—had changed.

To Deepti, that summer was a fierce line drawn in the gravelly sand of her life, separating the way things were from the way things used to be. Her mother left as a loud voice and a flapping coat, jangling bracelets and jasmine incense—a hippie woman-child who gazed skyward with hopeful eyes, giving crinkled dollar bills to every homeless person she passed on the street. When she returned, she seemed audibly softer, smaller—a question mark slouched inside herself. Whatever she had gone to Berkeley looking for, she had not found it. When she came back, she stopped looking altogether.

Two months later, she began showing. Deepti’s brother, Alson Jones, Jr., was born during the first whispered notes of spring. He was dark, too—darker than Deepti. Their mother said they had the same father, though she was no magician and another child didn’t make Alson Jones, Sr. reappear.

Now, gazing into Greg’s expectant eyes, the only Chinese word Deepti could summon was kuei. Ghost. Before that summer, her mother flipped through the pages of Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir every day, as if she could glean magic from the touch of her fingertips to the dusty ink on its pages. She memorized passages, quoted them aloud while they were eating breakfast or driving to school or shuffling through the aisles in the downtown supermarket, their basket filled with hard green apples and skim milk. Sometimes Deepti would walk into a room and catch her mother muttering to an imaginary Maxine. Sensing Deepti there, her mother would abruptly turn and smile, and pretend she was singing to herself.

Kuei,” Deepti told Greg.

Kuei. What does it mean?” he asked.

“Ghost,” Deepti said. It was also the word they used for white people, but she did not tell him that.

*

Deepti only had a handful of memories of her father. Being carried piggyback along a crowded city street, lulled by the sway of her father’s gait and the strength of his sinewed shoulders. The teddy bear her father won at some amusement park and gave to her, though Deepti wasn’t sure she actually remembered the broad smile on her father’s face as he presented the bear from behind his back. It was possible she was just imagining the memory.

Most of all, Deepti remembered lying in her bed at night, plugging her ears with her fingers and screwing her eyes shut as her parents’ arguments resounded through their tiny apartment above The Golden Sari.

“Who is she?” her mother would scream.

“Who is who?” her father would shout. “There’s nobody else! You’re crazy, Min!”

“Then explain where you disappear to all night. Huh?”

“I was at Bernie’s. Okay?”

“You are such a liar, don’t even expect me to swallow that load of shit—”

“You know what? I don’t have to take this.”

“Fine!” her mother screamed, the last time. “Then go! Just go, Alson! Go!”

“Okay. I’ll go!”

“GO!”

“I’m going!” her father shouted, the last time. “Don’t worry, Minjun—I’m gone!”

Deepti heard every word, despite her fingers plugging her ears. That was the last time she heard her father’s voice. To Deepti, the sharp slam of the front door was the world shattering.

*

“My parents are coming to visit this weekend,” Greg said. “They want to meet you.”

“Already?”

“What do you mean, already? We’ve been together what, three months?”

Deepti swallowed. “It’s just—that’s a serious step, isn’t it? Meeting the parents?”

Greg smoothed his palms over his blue-jeaned thighs. “Deep, you’re an important part of my life and my parents want to meet you. I don’t get what’s so weird about that.”

“It’s just…” Deepti sighed, fiddling with the zipper on her sweatshirt. “Are you sure they want to meet me? Do they know I’m not some—some rich white sorority girl?”

“Is that what you think of me?” Greg asked quietly. Deepti could hear the hurt in his voice. “Nothing but a rich white boy?”

Deepti fumbled for words. “No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.” She reached for his hand. “I would be honored to meet your parents. Really.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I want to. Maybe we could take them to The Grove?”

*

This time they did not eat at the farmer’s market, but instead at a restaurant with tablecloths and linen napkins and menus written in French. La Tomate Brulante. They sat at a table on the patio. The sun shone brightly in Deepti’s eyes, making her squint, but she thought it would be rude to put on her sunglasses. Beads of sweat coalesced on the back of her neck.

“So, Deepti, what are you studying?” Greg’s mother asked. She wore her hair in a loosely coiled knot and her blue eyes were heavily mascara-ed. Only twice could Deepti remember seeing her own mother wearing make-up: when she left that day for Berkeley, and in the wedding photo that Deepti had uncovered, framed and dusty, in a box in her grandparents’ garage.

“Philosophy,” she said.

“What do you plan to do with that?” said Greg’s father, his tone an elbow to the ribs.

“Students become doctors, lawyers. I’m thinking of applying for the Peace Corps.”

Greg’s father raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t know kids still did that.” He was a tall man, even when seated, with impeccable posture and a closely cropped salt-and-pepper beard.

“It’s a very competitive program, Pop,” Greg said, his hand finding Deepti’s beneath the table.

Later, after a round of appetizers, salad and soup, rack of lamb marinated in lemon and garlic that Deepti had to politely refuse; after the coffee cups and sugar spoons had been cleared away; after Greg’s father made a big show of calculating the tip, and Deepti said, “Thank you for lunch,” feeling strangely unsettled at the whole ordeal—later, they strolled past the stores with the big windows and the strings of lights gleaming nearly translucent in the bright sunshine. There was a bridge over a man-made pond, a gaudy fountain, a park swathed with trees and a small stage where a band played Beatles tunes. The four of them settled down on the grass. Deepti closed her eyes, letting the music seep into her chest. Maybe she worried too much. Maybe it would all be okay.

*

“They found her,” Alson said. His voice sounded too calm for a fifth-grader.

Deepti was still half-asleep. “It’s two in the morning, buddy. What’s going on?”

“It’s mom. They found her.”

“Mom?” Deepti sat up. Blood rushed to her temples.

“A policeman came to our house. I’m not supposed to know. Grandma was crying.”

“It’s okay. I’m glad you called me.”

“Deepti? When are you coming home?”

*

Deepti stuffed a couple T-shirts into a duffel bag. Greg wrapped his hands around her waist. “I’ll miss you,” he said.

“It’s only three days.”

“You’re really don’t want me to come?”

“Midterms are almost here. I don’t want to burden you with this.”

“I told you, it’s not a burden.”

“Thanks, but this is something I need to do myself.” Deepti heard the brusqueness in her voice and felt a surge of guilt—Greg was trying, wasn’t he?—but he didn’t understand. He had the perfect All-American family. His mother with her blush and pearls, his father with his beard and law firm. Their pre-Revolutionary-War lineage. Greg wouldn’t understand a mother who one day didn’t pick up Alson from school, who wasn’t there when he got home, who, they later found out, didn’t go into work that day, either. She just disappeared. No note, no goodbye—nothing. On the kitchen table, she left her faded, dog-eared copy of The Woman Warrior. That was how Deepti knew she wasn’t coming back.

Deepti took The Woman Warrior from her bookshelf and placed it in her bag. “I’ll see you soon,” she said to Greg. She kissed him, hard, closing her eyes to avoid her mother lurking in the corner of the room, gazing at her with a ghostly vacant stare.

*

When Deepti left her apartment the next morning, her kuei mother followed, sliding across the backseat of the taxi that took them to the airport. She followed Deepti onto the plane, plopping down on the aisle floor beside her daughter’s seat. She was oblivious to the other passengers stepping on her, grunting as they heaved bulging travel bags into the overhead compartments, and the stewardesses pushing carts right through her as she lay sprawled on her side, sleeping, her thin arms folded beneath her head. Deepti had forgotten how sharply angular her mother’s elbows were, how hollow her cheekbones. Even when she was alive, she had been thin and ghostly. The last time Deepti hugged her, saying goodbye after winter break, she had been too scared to squeeze at all, as if the slightest pressure would cause her mother’s frail bones to break.

“Miss? Chicken or pork?” The stewardess’s high-heel was planted squarely through Deepti’s mother’s chest.

“Actually, can I have your vegetarian option?” Deepti asked. In truth, the ghostly form beside her was not new. Her mother had always been pervasively half-there, affecting Deepti’s life from a distance. Her whimsical choices, trying on religions and cultures as if she were a little girl playing dress-up, determined who she, Charusheela Deepti, was and who she would always be. Deepti shifted in her narrow seat, waiting for her mixed vegetables and rice. She would always have to ask for the vegetarian option, because of her mother.

*

Deepti held Alson’s hand as they leaned against the boat railing, watching their mother’s ashes swirl into the dark ocean waves. Their grandparents stood a few feet away, gazing down at the water with unreadable wrinkled faces. Nobody spoke.

Deepti’s ghost-mother was there, too. She had followed Deepti from the airport to her grandparents’ home, standing silently in the corner as Deepti ate her grandmother’s dumplings and played endless games of checkers with Alson. Her ghost-mother sat on the edge of Deepti’s bed all night, and Deepti couldn’t sleep. She just wanted it to be over—she wanted to say goodbye and be done. Deepti hoped her mother’s kuei would float away with her ashes.

She didn’t. But slowly, ocean water began to seep into her ghost clothes and weigh down her hair, spilling out of her eyes and squishing wetly in her shoes. Her mother, the drowned ghost. Deepti had stuffed The Woman Warrior into the pocket of her coat before they left her grandparents’ house, in case she needed it at the funeral. She wanted to throw it into the ocean’s choppy waves. Feeling the cover’s flimsiness between her fingers, she almost pulled it out. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t just throw it away, not with her ghostly mother standing beside her and reproaching her with vacant eyes. Eyes that knew nothing and yet also seemed to know everything—everything, at least, that mattered. Everything Deepti feared. She looked into her mother’s ransacked stare and saw a future chosen and waiting for her that she never wanted to claim.Deepti did not want to be her mother’s substitute. She gripped the railing tighter.

“Ow!” Alson said. “You’re hurting my hand!”

“Sorry,” Deepti said. They turned away from the railing as the boat headed back to shore. Deepti’s other hand hung limp and empty at her side. She wished Greg were there.

*

On her way back to school from the airport, Deepti stopped at The Grove. It was a Sunday, and families milled about. She leaned against a tree and listened to the band play a few songs. Her ghost-mother sat beside her, dripping wet, muttering to herself or maybe to Maxine. Her voice was the unintelligible whisper of dead leaves.

When Deepti walked to the farmer’s market, her mother followed. They strolled past rows and rows of striped tents selling gyros and rogan josh, pot stickers and palenta. Finally, Deepti found what she wanted. Big Billy’s Burgers! a sign proclaimed. America’s Best! Deepti could smell meat sizzling on the grill.

“One cheeseburger, please,” she told the cashier. And, six minutes later, she had an All-American burger in her hand. Nobody stopped her. Nobody could tell she had never done this before. Deepti sat down at a grease-streaked table with hard plastic chairs. Her ghost-mother sat across from her. Deepti met her mother’s eyes as she brought the burger to her lips and took a bite. It tasted strange, a taste Deepti would later associate with forgiveness. She took bite after bite, knowing that within an hour she would be kneeling in front of a toilet in a public bathroom stall, her body repelling the foreign substance. Yet she kept eating, not really tasting anymore, just chewing and swallowing, swallowing and chewing. Thinking.About how her mother was found curled up underneath the fire escape beside The Golden Sari restaurant, not breathing. About the way her mother used to sing her to sleep when she was little, a lullaby, Just let the west wind carry your cares away, Wei shenme? Mei guanxi. About her mother’s smile, which she caught glimpses of in Alson’s gap-toothed grin. Deepti chewed and swallowed, swallowed and chewed, thinking finally about Greg, his hand on her knee, the way he looked at her and she felt her own wholeness expanding inside her ribcage like a hopeful balloon.

When she had licked every morsel of meat and fat from her fingers, Deepti scrunched up the wrapper in her fist and tossed it at the nearest trashcan. She unzipped her duffel bag and took out The Woman Warrior. Always she was surprised at how small it was, how little it weighed. You could carry it around with you all day, in your purse, your pocket. So light a ghost could carry it. Deepti set the bookcarefully down on the table, smoothing the cover flat. When she got up to leave, her mother did not follow.


About the Author: Dallas Woodburn is a 2013-14 Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she recently won second place in the American Fiction Prize, and her work is forthcoming in American Fiction Volume 13: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by American Writers (New Rivers Press). Her short story collection was a finalist for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction; individual stories have appeared in Superstition Review, The Nashville Review, Louisiana Literature, Ayris, and Monkeybicycle, among others. She has been honored with the international Glass Woman Prize, the Brian Mexicott Playwriting Award, and a merit scholarship to attend the Key West Literary Seminar. A former fiction editor of Sycamore Review, she also served as editor of the anthology Dancing With The Pen: a collection of today’s best youth writing. She is the founder of Write On! For Literacy, an organization that empowers young people through reading and writing endeavors: www.writeonbooks.org.

Artwork: Ira Joel Haber