Quarter After Eight Table of Contents
Ghost Story Inventory
- Molly Reid
- Emily Kingery
Tired of My Own Vagina
- Jendi Reiter
Encounter at Farpoint
- Margie Sarsfield
A Mother Cuts Off Her Hair With A Knife
- Emily Jace McLaughlin
Meet the Joneses
- Whitney Collins
Variations on a Girl Detective
- Cathy Ulrich
Once They Were Gone
- Nina Shope
- Georgia San Li
Next to Wide Wonder What Does it Count
- George Choundas
- Richard Leise
- Michaela Florio
The Perks of Imperfection
- Jennifer Lang
Soap Bullet Days
- Justin Thurman
- Wendy Wallace
Marvel, or, Notes toward Eulogy
- Brian Malone
After the Freezing Rain
- Soraya Qahwaji
self-portrait taking the anthroposcenic route
- Henry Goldkamp
- John Dudek
- Sonja Vitow
On Both Sides, Water
- Victoria María Castells
Machine Worries, Machine Hearts
- John Blair
- Michael Chang
Grammar of the Birds
- Cal Freeman
- Mathew Brady
- Sarah Kathryn Moore
The Consecration of the Góngora Sisters (Cover)
Oh Daniel... you are the virus (Back cover)
- Dany Escobar
- Francis Wilson, Moseley Wilson
abattoir series, no. 5
- Francis Wilson & Graeme Robertson
A cedar bending
under a glass coating
glistens in the sun.
In my hand a green spike
caught in colorless amber.
A beauty I can
and get away with it.
ornery at the ordinary day
& just to say so whisks gelatinous
bumble bees about my mouth
i am afraid of picnics
a bandana around my mouth
picks up a puddle of my panting
in another life were grapes between these teeth the flossy stem of rose rot
this hangover any lion
with low pony, with angel wings
i am thirty-one today, just years old
all my life the billboards rose
as popped zits out a shoulder swollen with intrastates they said earth is a MILF is a DILF is a
big sloppy lovejob whose throat goes handsome forever i diddled myself to power, i stared at the sun
i watched the lightshow in my eyelids
the colors fluffed the hanks of mane
the migraine sullied feather
wasps bomb about tosspot my blind spot
an empty-headed trash earth forever chews
i should like to eat gravel, break my three teeth yellow, chip, & snaggle
caries smart yet still we fill
those brown holes with faux gold
to see me smile is a gas station
which is a flowershop caught in riot
God's craw wilts my bouquet
hamburger stench tops His one good lung
garden zones 7 8 9 devour like the '60s horror fog, DDT
the air a sticky river
the grate a livid green mold
change denier haven't you left
a penny, taken a penny in convenience
the germ of thought passing skull to skull, pocket to pocket, hand to
hand hose the maggots off the can
wonder where they go
strong is the wriggle, hard the squirm
my white writhing mass of casual lovers
a fête's repast redundant
each fate ripostes out, will drained the sun nests my twiggy brain
no room for moons no more
i am risen, i am rose
the black can resin shines
i know what you are lullaby
a shell stench, a kitchen midden
a pile of dead
in which to burrow, sleep, & throe
The Red Blooded American Male gets a feeling,
so he goes to look at horses. They aren’t his horses, but he knows where they are boarded and pace every evening when the mosquitos reclaim their kingdom. He rides a steel bicycle, assembled in Japan a decade prior to his life’s opening credits. He is thirty, arch about nothing and sees horses because he knows in the sere hull of his heart--yes, we’ll say heart--he knows in his heart that a thirty year horse is on a threshold, already kicking shit into the spirit world. In the morning, the dew collected on the horse’s eyelashes will flash like Christmas lights or the souls that will usher the horse from its body. The evacuation will resemble nothing but the sweet breath of hay now warming the Red Blooded American Male’s hand. The horse will fold like a card table after Thanksgiving dinner.
But now, it sustains the Red Blooded American Male as he confronts his feeling. The sun is set, the day half done.
I watch as his hands grip the fish, pin it down, and remove the hook. The salmon writhes, dirt rubbing between its scales as he bashes its head with the bat. It stops writhing. Quickly he makes short work of it, guts its belly and rinses the blood from his hands.
How easy it is to be a man, I think, to take such ownership over a body.
I have caught nothing but snags, walking downstream to pull up barren lines hooked between rocks. The urge to beat something is alive in me, but my hands are tired from casting, from being empty-handed. Instead they clutch the pole, white-knuckled, going through the motions. The river is fast and deep and cold. Dark shapes sit under the surface, working their way against the current. My waders are my grandfather’s, found hanging on a hook in the garage, and as I step into the water, I feel the Kenai River snake in through the holes and make its way up my legs. I welcome the bite, love the ache as my skin turns to ice. With each step deeper I anchor myself, flooding from the inside.
We fish for hours, and never once do I step out of the river. I am up to my hips, the press of the current a constant threat to unseat me as my boots balance uneasily on the rocks below. I am not sure how long we do this, the metronome of reel and cast, reel and cast. Occasionally I feel the telltale pull of line and I jerk the the pole back, my hands eager to beat a living thing. But each time, the sudden thrash of the salmon unsets my hook and I must begin again. He continues to catch more and more, slit and gut, bash their heads or bleed them out. I watch those hands as they cast and release, how they take everything as if it belongs to him.
Eventually, we pluck ourselves from the river, place our rubber boots along the rigged metal stairs and make our way up from the banks to the trail. Tall grass engulfs us and I fall in step behind him, wondering if the alarm will sound for a bear. We tuck ourselves around the bend in the Sanctuary, where the Russian and Kenai rivers merge, and sit on a log, water spilling out of me. An eagle swoops near us with a discarded salmon carcass and we watch as it lands in a tree. The fisherman passes me some jerky, lightly encouraging me that I need to eat something since I refused to step out of the river. As I take it from his hands, he kisses the top of my forehead, tucks a piece of stray hair back underneath my hat. His fingers are gentle, but I know the work they do. He places his arm around me and I lean into him, my head against his shoulder, and I watch the eagle’s talons rip shreds. Everything can be a hook.
The night before, we had abruptly decided to leave town and camp overnight to claim the best fishing spot on the river. A couple we knew were supposed to come with us, but had bailed last minute. We had no real plan. Just pack up and head out. When we arrived and discovered all the campsites were taken, we laughed and slept in the truck bed with the cap above us, passing drinks back and forth and telling stories. We hadn’t seen each other really since high school, a few parties here and there while back from college, but we happened to be back in town that summer looking for a distraction from the humdrum of our lives. He had kissed me weeks ago in a parking lot overlooking Anchorage. We sat on the hood of his truck and drank beers. There wasn’t even danger when we kissed. As he leaned in more, though, I put my hand up and laughed, and that was that. A notable snag. Unhook and reset. The kiss, at the time, was nice. This was the distraction. There was no other incident. We continued to drink beers, see each other around town, and sometimes strike up a conversation. I thought I had made it upstream.
In the truck bed, he turns to grab me again. It is the sheer force of him on me, suddenly, my legs pinned, his hands digging and digging that startles me. And he makes short work of me.
The next morning, he’ll turn my head and say, “Last night got out of hand.” I will remain quiet as he looks at my eyes and studies me. I look at him, unblinking.
Days later, at his family’s cookout, one of his friends will stand next to me on the crooked lawn, sip his beer and say casually, “I saw the marks on his back.” He will stare pointedly at me while my brain tries to understand. I’ll stutter out, “What?” and he’ll take a step closer to me and say, “Don’t even try to claim rape. No one will believe you.”
Instinctively, I’ll hold myself, my arms crossing over my chest. A barrier. This friend of his will sip his beer and walk down the lawn to play cornhole. He’ll nod to the fisherman and my body will go limp and I’ll pray to let me dissolve, be washed downstream. The fisherman will walk up to me, then, and ask if I’m okay and I’ll smile and say yes, fall into the crook of his arms and feel tethered. Safe, not because it’s real, but because force reads as power and power reads as safety.
I will suck air like a dying fish, my mouth opening and closing, opening and closing, as I picture the fisherman’s back, how my fingers racked into his skin and left bloody stripes, the blood gathering under my nails. How my teeth lodged into his shoulders and arms until he threw me back so hard that I was stunned into submission, head colliding with metal, nausea rising in waves as he moved above me. And how after, I had found the outline of his hand among the bruises that scaled my body.hand among the bruises that scaled my body.
How he turned my face gently to his, kissed my forehead and told me how beautiful my eyes are in the light, how before now he hadn’t noticed. How he helped me dress for the river, handing me each layer, holding me up as I stepped into the waders, and attached a lure to the pole. And we both moved toward the river, as if the night could be washed away.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf
got what he had coming
The Wolf Who Cried Boy
wore a sheepskin coat
The Wolf Who Cried Boy,
The Wolf Who Cried Boys Will Be Boys
and the whole town
The Boy Who Cried
and the whole town watched him
The Wolf Who Cried
and the whole town stopped
to howl at the moon
I stand with the shears I use to cut wrapping paper and strings tied around a rotisserie. I hold them to my mane that has grown back after I woke with it shaved off. My hair grew longer as I learned to walk holding the walls, then complete cash register transactions, then say the name of my baby whose birth days prior triggered my surgery. I had been able feel the stubble as my ICU nurse rolled the screaming breast pump toward me as my milk dried up. Only my right hand could lift to signal thumbs down.
Apparently, in the brain is where we live in our bodies—not in the vulva, the heart or the belly.
Unable to coordinate schedules for a salon cut, I run the scissor blades under scalding water in preparation. But I think—these will just not do. I set them next to my aerosol hairspray, up high, where they cannot slide on me in an earthquake.
I leave my mane in a heap on the tile like entrails for my dog to consider and go out and fetch my daughter from the center. She peers at me from the backseat like my puppet. If she notices my new bob she is not able to mention it.
At the bank drive-through I withdraw the money I otherwise would’ve spent at the salon, including tip. But I forget to factor in the savings from the downtown parking meter. Back home, I store the cash in the jar for vacations. In a year, I can also put aside a grand for a Romanian man to nail creaks in my floor so I don’t tiptoe at dawn.
I strap my daughter into her highchair and press play—Baby Einstein, Baby Mozart.
Upstairs, my dog now sleeps on the pile of cut hair, as if warming a beating heart. Perhaps he envies its ability to leave me. He can imitate the insides of my body on instinct. That is, until he pretends he has other things to do. I kneel to him—wet jowl, wet eye.
Because in that final moment, the scissors had felt too precious and I had to lock him out of the room, deciding against them. I had needed a deeper relief—some truth like a bare foot in the mud, a pearl in an oyster. To feel what it was to remove an entire part of myself for myself.
First, I had grasped my ponytail like wildflowers. So this would require three good hands. I held the fastened end taut toward the mirror and took up a tomato knife in my right. It shook only from medications. I thought—this is hygiene. I saw Rupunzel’s braid. A Mattel doll from my childhood. My hair didn’t make a sound on its descent. I told myself a Helen Keller joke. I don’t know what I was expecting. Music, perhaps a symphony, as I felt the serrated blade sawing through a rope of myself—exquisite— my eyes open this time.
In the Sierra Maestra mountains,
Castro and his men longed
to enter Havana. My family
waited to cheer and welcome
the men as angels. The key to
paradise was in this pilgrimage,
but who could be entrusted to
guard it? The gates of the capital
opened and the food from the
heavens disappeared. Evacuations
surged like a curse of God,
hallucinating for American shores.
Our exile arrived like a burning spring.
In the darkened back row, you jolt, a mid-March draft seeping through poorly-insulated Israeli walls. As movie credits roll, you bend knees to chest, unable to budge. There’s no question Unified Pictures’ and Bona Fide Productions’ What They Had affected Who You Are and How You Feel. Scene after scene, you sniveled: when the siblings rummaged through old pictures, when the father collapsed on the sidewalk, when the family buried him, empty-eyed mother asking why. You pictured your parents 7,387 miles far away in California, your only brother in the same country as you, his radio-silence refusal to acknowledge you. An older woman with foggy gray hair leans down and coos: Ifshar latet lach hibuck? You stand shoulder to shoulder, accept her offer, open your arms. Zot ima? she asks. You shake your head no and hiccup-cry: Abba. Father. Brother, too, or Brother, really. An Ultra- Orthodox Jew, he will refuse to stand with you—a woman—to recite the mourner’s kaddish when the time comes. A narcissist, he has forbidden you from writing about your parents’ messy marriage and blackballed you after you disobeyed. Two middle- aged American immigrants in Israel—he in Jerusalem and you in Tel Aviv—you will never sift through family photos together. The stranger squeezes tighter, whispering in soothing Hebrew, It’s not in our control, about your father. It’s not in our control. Her words rock you like a lullaby. It’s not in our control. Your bodies sway to the soft music.
I fumble through a text, in Hebrew, from our healthcare provider like a first-grader who’s learning to read but understand it like a woman who’s lived as in I, a 55-year-old yoga instructor who eats well and exercises often knows shit, yes I can schedule an appointment for the coronavirus vaccine, targeted at the 60+/ high-risk/immunocompromised crowd, whereas my same-age husband who tried to book one was refused because he was too young, and presto, the next day, the last in December of a year like none other in our lifetimes, he accompanies me to the Maccabi building, where throngs of people—gray-haired, withered, more grandparent than middle-aged—line the sidewalk, both of us uttering Oy before giving Greeter #1 my 9-digit Israeli ID and receiving a numbered slip of paper, and we find an empty spot near the curb to wait when seconds later, 141 is called and Greeter #2 instructs me to head upstairs but stops my spouse, forcing me to confess my propensity to faint from the sight of needles to which she nods, and when we approach the door to the large open lab full of hubbub and natter, even bursts of laughter, with at least a dozen masked technicians and their subjects separated by flimsy fabric curtains, Greeter #3 asks why we’re 2 instead of 1, making me again divulge my weakness to which he nods and points me toward cubby #7, where I catch eyes with the nurse, a heavyset woman with glasses and a wide, welcoming smile as if I’m her only patient, and she waves me over, scrolls her phone, saying in a sweet lullaby voice, Ani roah or I see, affirming what I suspected—my file is forever defiled with 3 words, all capped, in the bottom of every form I sign: MELANOMA IN SITU—and, for the first time since enduring a stripe of stitches down my lower right leg to clear a 5-millimeter margin and undergoing extensive cancer screening 3 summers ago, gratitude for this unexpected perk of my own imperfection sideswipes me just as the nurse dabs my tricep with a sterile cotton ball and dips the syringe in and out with a dancer’s grace, barely leaving me time to squeeze my husband’s hand, and whispery words slip out of my mouth, Toda raba raba as in thank you so, so much a few hours before the start of a new year.
1: VOTE FROM THE ROOFTOPS
The day after the Stoneman Douglas shooting in Parkland, Florida, I was in the upper-elementary car rider line to pick up my kids. They shared a classroom and their near-constant proximity to one another was a source of conflict. They received the same material, but their interpretations differed, and they argued incessantly about who was more right. In three cars’ time, they’d be squabbling over sitting shotgun in my truck and pretending not to notice the prior day’s crumpled Valentines and candy wrappers.
Their school was once Greater Unity public elementary, but the district consolidated those kids into Marilyn Burnside School, a new and more energy-efficient campus with larger classrooms. The county then leased Greater Unity’s former primary annex to Glenview Montessori. We were a fledgling bunch, paying and doing what we could to make our kids good, self-motivated citizens. Some of us repaired vandalized playground equipment on Saturdays. Others organized the PTO fundraisers. A few parents like me were professors from the local liberal arts college. We volunteered music lessons, writing lessons, and comprehensive sex-ed for the adolescent program. We called the Montessori school instructors “guides.”
One guide led a pair of sibling girls to a Toyota Prius with a CoExist bumper sticker. She buckled them into their boosters, gave the driver the thumbs up. Another guide lifted a boy into a raised Ram pickup. Each line rolled ahead a space.
NPR’s Parkland coverage played on my truck’s radio. They tried hard to please every side. There was the feckless security guard. The hysterical parents. The policy specialists. Some of the surviving Stoneman Douglas students were striking the chords of crusade. I was a teacher, so I understood their outrage. Our college brought in consultants to ensure that every building was shooter ready. Faculty viewed preparedness videos twice a year. How to run. How to hide. How to fight. How to profile possible assailants.
I was behind Jaret’s car so my kids stood behind Jaret’s kids. Jaret and his wife were very southern, very white, and very Christian. He drove a top-end SUV with three rows and automatic running boards. Across its back window stood the stick figure decals of his massive family. Thirteen kids at last count, most of them adopted, disabled, and orphaned from satellites of the former Soviet Union. He was fetching three of them that afternoon.
One guide wasn’t enough so Jaret got out and helped. He collapsed his daughter’s wheelchair and gathered the backpacks and instrument cases. Jaret’s son waited to crawl up into his seat. He tried to jam a gloved finger up his nose.
That’s when I saw it. The front of Jaret’s shirt was an assault rifle with the caption “MY RIGHTS DON’T END WHERE YOUR FEELINGS BEGIN.” When he turned to load his kids’ effects into the SUV, the back of his shirt showed the silhouette of a sniper. Around that silhouette read, “WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, WE VOTE FROM THE ROOFTOPS.”
He lowered his tailgate. He winked at me.
My position on guns was much like my position on mosquitos. The best I could do was to keep as much of my and my family’s blood away from them. I knew their toll to humanity but no matter where I stood, I was powerless to change anything. I wish I could have been as passionate as my father (who loved guns), or my fellow academics (who hated guns), or so many of my students (who wrote their best about hunting with their families). I figured normal, reasonable people on all sides would forgive my ambivalence. We were all trying to handle the world’s messes with even hands.
But Jaret’s was some nerve I couldn’t imagine outside of a dark-web chatroom. We were barely a day out from seventeen kids being murdered. The murder weapon was not dissimilar from the one screen-printed across his chest. Though he and his wife fancied themselves the white Christian saviors of the new millennium with their refugee brood, his shirt and wink exposed the truth: Some of us appear normal and reasonable to better hide our essences as proud and merciless assholes. Jaret’s need to perform on behalf of his rights and grievances—whatever those were—was clearly the center of his depraved galaxy. The lives of my children were at best minor moons, at worse floating debris.
The guides didn’t appear to notice Jaret or his t-shirt. They delivered his kids. They smiled. Then came my kids and more smiles. The NPR coverage switched from yesterday’s killings to the annual fund drive. The car rider lines kept moving.
2: AMMO TRASH
Not long after Parkland, the local police used our kids as props in their active shooter training. My son told me. We were home and parked in the driveway, too far away to storm back into the school and shake my fist at someone.
Glenview Montessori leased some of former-Greater Unity school, but not all of it. The rest went to the city police. Their share was for storage and cop business. Their drug-, bomb-, and criminal-sniffing German shepherds sniffed in the gymnasium. Their annual sexual-harassment workshops and chili-feeds were in the cafeteria. And they ran their active-shooter drills in the school’s foyer, hallways, and laboratories.
My son opened his palm to reveal five empty bullet casings. “They are beautiful,” he said.
My daughter stood at our door with her overstuffed backpack.
“I didn’t pick up any,” she said. “I didn’t want them.”
“We had to keep quiet under the desks,” he said. “Just until they took out the shooter. He was a cop, too. But in a costume.” My wife would have killed to see this version of my son’s smile in his annual fall portraits. At eleven years old, a devoted student of ‘80s action movies, I certainly would have been thrilled. Because what if the training went sideways? What if there were terrorists? What if my half-school-half-cop-academy housed a high-tech vault chock-full of millions in bearer bonds? Could I wiggle out of lockdown through an unmanned exit and save the day? Could I yippee-ki-yay-mother-fucker?
My son called his new treasures “soap bullets.” He said they fit in real cop guns. They exploded on contact and left marks on the shooter’s clothes so the cops could score their marksmanship. This name, soap bullets, evoked images of exit wounds bleeding with bubbles.
I released the kids indoors to watch Netflix cartoons. How entitled was I to fury? Active shooter training hadn’t made it into the Glenview Montessori monthly email newsletter. I imagined the displeasure from the mother who railed against the Friday pizza fundraiser not being locally sourced or gluten-free. I thought about Jaret. Would this be his impetus to campaign on behalf of our hippy-dippy Glenview guides packing heat? Would Jaret be the Guns for Glenview guide? I imagined confronting him the day after Parkland. I imagined his reasoning. I saw the shirt-sniper picking off our children. But Jaret saw himself as that same sniper. And he was protecting them. Jaret could indeed yippee-ki-yay- mother-fucker.
I wanted to feel as raw as I had six years earlier, the day of the Sandy Hook shooting. My daughter was three then. My son was five. That forcefield their youth afforded, once stronger than Kevlar, evaporated with the smoke from Adam Lanza’s barrel. We had graduated to killing first-graders now, six-year-olds. In the following weeks, I decided that the internet was terrible and that our country’s soul was irredeemable. And the Vote-From- Rooftops types? Their grief was not invested in solutions but conspiracies. The murdered children were government operators or crisis actors, and their sniveling parents were government operators or crisis actors, and all of them had been polluted by the mind-melting fluorinated water that turned frogs gay.
But it would take more than some soap bullet shells to re- inspire my Sandy Hook despair. My desire to storm back into Glenview dissolved. In its place was frigid acceptance. To care about something was to shudder at the thought of its massacre. Of course schools got shot up. But so did congressional softball games, movie theaters, nightclubs, and country music festivals. Nobody was immune to being a target.
That night, I gave my boy a Ziploc to keep his souvenirs from rolling around his underwear drawer. Then I told my wife about the training. We got good and angry in the same ephemeral way I had that afternoon. Texts would be sent. Calls would be made. We fell asleep not knowing that our brittle indignation couldn’t last one waking hour, let alone eight slumbering ones. This was the drill now. For everyone.
I walked the kids to school the following day. The trash from the police training was still piled around the side entrance to the empty school wing. Among the coffee-stained Styrofoam and empty McNugget cartons were two full cases of live soap bullet rounds, the embryos of forty-eight future bubbling wounds. I delivered the kids to their guides, grabbed the boxes, and headed home.
Our neighbor was a city cop approaching retirement. He’d just bought a used Winnebago. By the end of the year, he would be living in it, alone, somewhere in Wyoming. I awoke him with my knocking and the unspent soap bullets. I knew enough about guns to know that live ammunition—even nonlethal soapy live ammunition—shouldn’t be around children.
“These were left outside my kids’ school,” I said. My phrasing was intentional. “My kids’ school” sounded like something an indignant movie mother might say at the town hall meeting about cancerous powerlines.
Neighbor cop started out embarrassed. He rolled his eyes and perched his cigarette on his bottom lip when he reached for the rounds. “Thank you so much,” he said.
“My pleasure,” I said. Maybe the station would commend him for getting these bullets away from the curious hands of school children, I thought. Maybe I wasn’t so powerless after all.
“You wouldn’t think it,” neighbor cop said, “but these rounds cost a fortune. My supervisor is going to love me.”
3: ALL CLEAR
A year and a half after Parkland, our college campus ran its own active shooter drill. Here’s how I understood the order of operations:
At 9:35 a.m. between classes, the active shooter in the library plaza would claim his victim with three blank rounds. He would be declared at large. Every staff member, faculty member, and student would receive emergency emails and texts. Local law enforcement would descend. They would clear every floor of every building. A second alert would declare the shooter on the loose with a hostage. The drill would end with a standoff in the theatre parking lot whereupon the active shooter team would neutralize their target. By 11 a.m. everybody would receive texts and emails that read “All Clear.”
Instructors who taught classes during this block received the itinerary far in advance. Some cancelled classes to avoid the trouble. Some refused to sacrifice the lost time. They required attendance and scheduled mandatory quizzes. Others instructed students to sow chaos, make things more challenging. It was a training exercise, after all. First responders need to be ready for anything.
The guy who called the shots in my class’s building was a humorless and vaguely fascist math professor. He refused to give me a master building key to lock and unlock my classroom because I was in the English department. He pulled me out of class the week before the training to ensure I was playing ball.
“The students need to act as though it was any other day,” he told me. “For verisimilitude.”
“I agree,” I said. “You’ll be giving me a key so I can lock us all in? For verisimilitude?”
“You will never receive a key to anything in this building,” he said.
I asked him how I’d lock my door in an active shooter event.
“Find someone in the math department to lock your door,” he said.
“You’re all on the third floor. I’d get shot on the way.”
“Possibly.” He shrugged. “Your classroom has a clear view of the entrance through that picture window. Locked or unlocked, any shooter worth his salt would blast out the glass. A key would no more save you than a balloon.”
In the days leading up to the drill, I told my students we’d be having class, but their homework was to be normal. I had two months of evidence saying that “normal” meant that at 9:35 on a Tuesday, over half of my first-year-experience seminar would be in their seats waiting for our class to start. And sure enough, when the three shots rang out across campus and the victim hit the bricks, I had fifteen students in their seats with another seven unaccounted for.
“Jawan’s in the study lounge. They won’t let him leave,” one student said, reading a text. “Is he going to be marked absent and lose points?”
“Tell Jawan he’s fine,” I said. I shut off the lights. We huddled in the corner away from the picture window. I bellycrawled to the door, removed my belt, and tightened it around the arms of the door’s automatic closer. Some students laughed at me.
“Where’d you learn all this?” someone asked.
I told them about the active shooter training videos. I told them about the consultants who audited each building and scored those buildings’ safety on a sliding scale.
“Which building’s the most unsafe?” someone asked.
“The English department,” I said. “Doors open outwards. Windows can’t open at all. Every room is a perfect square with no hiding or ambush spots. The consultant called it ‘a mass murderer’s wet dream.’”
The kids sat on the floor. They texted. They posted. They played a game of hangman on the white board. I stood beside the picture window with Kendrick, a military academy transfer student. From our spot, we could see the heavy ordinance arrive in the parking lot. The response team was masked and armored.
They carried rifles like the ones on Jaret’s shirt. Kendrick named every weapon and tactical accoutrement. I thought about the first acts of apocalypse movies, those flashbacks to the pre-crumbled world.
“Damn,” Kendrick said. “They got sixty-round stacked P-Mags. They’re fixing to disintegrate that shooter.”
The main floor of the building was a loop. Half the team took the south hallway. The other half took the north. When they reconvened in the foyer, they split again to take the two stairwells. They had three more floors to go.
It was ten o’clock. We had another hour in the dark remaining. At least.
This is when one of my commuter students, Bryson, arrived. We watched him rub his ID card across the building’s entrance scanner to no effect. He was wearing his dirty hooded camouflage hunting jacket. By all appearances, he was oblivious to the drill. He’d yet to access his student email account. He was absent the day I explained how to register phone numbers with the campus alert system.
He pulled out his phone and started tapping.
“Bryson wants to know if class is cancelled,” someone read. “I’m telling him there’s an active shooter.”
Bryson received the text. Kendrick and I watched his expression sharpen.
“Text him back. Tell him it’s a drill,” I said.
“Wind him up,” somebody said. “That’s what you get for not reading class emails.”
Bryson turned as though the gunman was right behind him. But he did not run, hide, or fight. He turned back and looked squarely at me through our class’s giant window. His look reminded me of the day I returned his first failed reading quiz. He glanced at his score, crumpled up the exam, and fired it at the trashcan. He surrendered. Like then, I was meant to take his failure as my fault. If he was going to be killed by the fake gunman he thought was real, he wanted me to watch, my penance for not taking proper care of him.
When the response team returned to our floor, they let Bryson into the building. One cop delivered a scathing lecture. The way he gesticulated with his walkie talkie told me that Bryson was finally receiving the emergency alert system instructions.
Bryson nodded, gave his yessirs. And before I could make a move, he was pushing through our unlocked classroom door. My cheap belt was wrapped twice around the door-closer’s metal arms, so it ripped into quarters before giving way. Bryson’s struggle to enter lasted fewer than five seconds. The math professor was right. I would have had the same luck with a balloon.
The class laughed at my pointless belt and shared each other’s social media. Bryson trudged over to an unmanned corner of the classroom. He made his backpack his pillow, pulled up his camouflaged hood, and curled up to nap. Before he dozed off for the next thirty minutes of our fictitious lockdown, he said, “The man said it’ll be a minute before we’re all clear.”
Bryson sat down on the nearest bench outside the front door. He waited.
“Did anyone text him that it’s a drill?” I asked. “That we’re not leaving him to die?”
“Go let him in,” Kendrick said. “All the cops are upstairs.”
I thought about the building’s tyrannical math professor, his commitment to verisimilitude. I thought about our preparedness videos and the typical shooter profile. Bryson was a lone wolf, disengaged from the campus community, in perpetual academic peril. He was white. And his classroom contributions to that point had been problematic. In a discussion about corporal punishment, he compared children to dogs that needed to be beaten to learn their places.
If this were an actual event, I would not be rescuing Bryson. I would be running from, hiding from, or fighting Bryson.
“It’ll be over soon,” I said. “Just text him. Please.”
The greatest of these is friction and in its name they wear themselves to weariness.
There are places, it’s rumored, that rust can’t go but that mystery is God’s and God’s alone.
Repetition is a rite of atonement in the service of constancy & to fail is to break faith.
Which even they know is a kind
of surrender and therefore unbearable.
They might wonder, if they could wonder, from what need they each arose.
...Where there are machine worries, there are bound to be machine hearts. - Zhuangzi, The Book of Zhuangzi
They might ponder at the end whether in sundered ecstasies of salvage it’s possible to be redeemed.
For some death is an acre of burdock and purple thistle or the green blizzards of roadside kudzu.
For others it’s the soundless wells of basements or forgotten expectations in sheds or garages.
For a few the end is deep water, turbid and electrolytic, the abyssal necropoli of broken hulls.
Selkies and monsters crawl inside their carcasses, sleep like worms in their drums and hollows.
Their paradise is any paradise, any heaven like every heaven, filled with whale-song and forgetting.
The darkest dream they dream is usefulness, the oiled & rolling surf of labor.
The brightest is the silt that binds their brassy engines, the tides that rattle endlessly in the sunken chambers of their hearts.
Let me introduce you to the Joneses. Or rather, reintroduce. You don’t know them, but you do. I mean, you haven’t met them, but you have.
You might recognize the dad. He sports brown hair with strands of silver, moderate sideburns, size ten driving moccasins. He has a smile like he broke a vase and hid the vase. He is forever, desperately, trying to look like he cares even though he doesn’t. Mr. Jones always says things like “Great job, kiddo!” and “Love you, Babe,” and “Chicken sounds great,” when what he means is “When do you move out?” and “Leave me alone,” and “A bottle of gin, an Ambien. A box of fudge. Another.”
Mr. Jones feels nada. Emotion is a letdown. Caring is such a charade. Speaking of, when Mr. Jones is asked to play charades, he doesn’t do anything. He just stands there with his arms at his sides and waits for people to guess the answer. The answer is NOT GIVING A SHIT because he is not giving one.
Here’s what’s good in Mr. Jones’s world: Obliteration! Cirrhosis! Diabetes! So much porn it becomes like watching a dull weather forecast. Partly cloudy, partly cloudy, partly cloudy. To be numb—a human callus—that’s the ticket for Mr. Jones! Do you still recognize him? Yes or no? If it helps, he’s wearing a vest. It’s a fleece one, from Costco. Charcoal gray. Medium. His phone case is black. It’s the industrial kind of case meant for contractors, but he is not a contractor. Mr. Jones’s job isn’t worth mentioning. I see you nodding. I see that you see him.
Now. Here we have the wife and mother, Mrs. Jones. Wave hello, because you know her, too! Don’t act like you don’t. You guys are buds. Mrs. Jones has her hair up and her sleeves up and she looks like she needs a nap. She smells like Bounce dryer sheets and one, desperate drag from a Camel Light. Mrs. Jones is always trying to make everyone care as much as she does. Really, to have such a giant heart in this world is so precious, so pathetic. Every day, Mrs. Jones shows up for life with that genuine smile of hers. It’s like bringing a butter churn to the battlefield. God bless, Mrs. Jones. After everything she’s been through—the in vitro, the Bell’s palsy, the learning to make risotto—she is still somehow able to muster an appreciation for a flawless peach in the produce section, the sound of a distant woodpecker in the Dave and Buster’s parking lot. When the sunset is pinker than usual, Mrs. Jones stops what she is doing and takes a picture and then she shares the picture. Not on social media, but in an email. In an email titled BEAUTY IS EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK. Mrs. Jones could have been a nurse or a nurse practitioner or even a neurologist, but she is involved in a pyramid scheme peddling collagen powder.
I know you know this, but just a refresher: Mrs. Jones has many pairs of shoes that appear identical but aren’t. The woman has an eye for subtle variation. She knows the difference between ballet flats and regular flats and skimmers and slides and mules. She’s good with paint colors, too. She can help you decide between teal and peacock and pistachio and Prussian. You know what else about Mrs. Jones? She’s sorry she quit piano, because the piano can bring such unexpected joy to everyday events. Like at dinner parties! How about “Camptown Races?” How about “Raspberry Beret?”
Another fun tidbit: sometimes—okay, daily—Mrs. Jones imagines having sex with people much, much younger than herself. Like, say, Kai. The Qdoba cashier. She does not imagine doing him in a somewhat respectable way, like in The Graduate. Not in a bed or in a hotel or surrounded by ashtrays and rolled-up pantyhose and starched white blouses draped over the backs of chairs and heavy crystal tumblers here and there bearing an inch or two of bourbon. No, she imagines ravaging Kai (and/or Kai’s friends) in a frantic and furious way. Maybe in an H&M dressing room or in a damp culvert by the church soccer field. Mrs. Jones is open for business, because life is short, and you might as well go out with a bang. Or banging. Mrs. Jones’s best guess is that Kai is sixteen.
Okay. Now, I see you putting your hand down. Like you never meant to wave to Mrs. Jones but instead were waving away a gnat, but you can keep on waving, because, like I said: you know her. She practically birthed you. You lived inside of her. You basically came out from between her legs and drank from her breasts.
Here comes the Joneses’ son. Let’s give him a name. How about Skyler? No? How about Tyler? Yes? Tyler’s face says MEH, but his eyes say YEAH. He plays lacrosse but once played a cat in a school play and deep down that’s all he wants to be: a gray tabby. Tyler has a secret plan. He’s going to make it through high school and then get into the state college. Then, a week before college starts, Tyler is going to let his parents take him to Target to buy extra-long twin sheets and milk crates and clip-on lamps and faux-fur pillows and laundry baskets. He might let them buy him a desk blotter, even. A shower caddy. Some Pert Plus and Froot Loops. A goddamn artificial succulent or three.
After Target, Tyler is going to go through all the motions of freshman orientation. He’s going to sign up for Sociology 101 and Finite Math and write his name on the Ultimate Frisbee Club’s clipboard. He’s even going to pretend he’s thinking about eventually majoring in Econ, but when school starts, Tyler won’t be there. He’ll be in the desert getting loaded on something that could kill an elephant. He’s going to pay an Internet doctor on the down-low to remove his nipples and his testicles and his penis. He’s going to use the money his parents (Mr. and Mrs. Jones) thought he was going to spend on a preowned Mini Cooper to instead have his urethra rerouted into a tube, his face tattooed with stripes, his teeth filed down into points. Tyler wants synthetic whiskers surgically inserted into his cheeks. He wants hair plugs all over his body like corn seedlings, row after row. A tail is not out of the realm of possibility, because it’s 2020 and he found a surgeon on the Internet and he has cash. Anyway: Tyler has a plan and it involves a man-sized litter box. But you knew that, because you know him better than you know yourself.
Of course, you remember the Joneses’ daughter, Delilah. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: it’s like you two were separated at birth. Delilah is beautiful but thinks she’s ugly. She’s smart but thinks she’s stupid. She’s popular but lonely, smiling but sad, thin but constantly disgusted at what she sees in the mirror. Delilah is exceptional at biology, tennis, violin, and French but the only thing she thinks she is good at is locking herself in her room and putting on her Beats by Dre and taking a Sharpie and dotting little black dots on her walls.
Delilah has to make the dots the same size and she has to space them evenly and she has to finish filling certain predetermined areas with dots before each song on her playlist ends or else she and her family will die in a horrific automobile accident or her mother will get lymphoma or she, Delilah, will start randomly hemorrhaging at school and people will think it’s her period and not internal bleeding and she will never be able to show her face again, anywhere. Delilah can see it now, the blood in the hallway and the people, disgusted. The song is almost over. She’d better get those dots dotted—spaced and placed and dotted—or else she is doomed, banished and forever alone. Which you can totally understand on every level, because you don’t just know Delilah, you are Delilah! Her dot game makes sense to you because you know it’s not really a game. It’s a prayer—prayers, plural—one after the other.
What else is there? I don’t know if we have time today to tour the Joneses’ house or go for a ride in their cars or look in their fridge or meet their dog, but I can give you a quick general overview, which will probably sound like I’m simply telling you what you already know about your own house and car and food and dog, but here I go anyway. The Joneses’ house looks good from the curb, but cheap up close. There’s a tinge of mildew on the aluminum siding, their doorbell sounds like a dying cow. Tyler’s bunk beds are held together with a bungee cord, the master carpeting smells faintly of broth. Delilah’s bedroom is on the back of the house and she has a view of a suburban retention pond and when it doesn’t rain, when there’s a dry spell, the vinyl lining starts to show around the edges, reaffirming that everything in this world is fake. It’s not a pond, it’s a “water feature.” Can you think of two sadder words together than “water” and “feature?” Neither can Delilah.
Anyway, the Joneses have a leather sectional that has not held up despite their initial enthusiasm. Two of the cushions have duct tape on them. The baseball stitching is white and synthetic and frayed like dental floss. Upstairs, downstairs, the Joneses’ doorknobs are copper—plastic copper. These knobs feel lightweight and hollow in the Joneses’ hands, and every time they turn a doorknob a wave of sorrow crashes over them. What is the point of this flimsy life?
But anyway, some peppier facts! The Joneses drive expensive cars—a mauve Mercedes and a bile green Porsche Cayenne—both with high mileage and hail damage, and there’s always a cold rotisserie chicken in the fridge that no one knows the age of, along with some non-alcoholic beer from that one time they tried. The Joneses’ family dog? His name is Sammy. He’s a rescue, a terrier mix and poorly trained, but he’s the one thing they can all agree on. Look at Sammy on his back! Look at Sammy looking out the window at the squirrels! Look at Sammy! How does he do it? How does he make it look so easy and effortless? All four of the Joneses—the Mr. and the Mrs. and Tyler and Delilah—want to sit in a circle on the family room floor with Sammy in the center of the circle and they want Sammy to show them how to love. On a daily basis, the Joneses all think this and feel this in a way that brings them actual physical pain, but they cannot say it out loud to each other.
The girl detective as a beam of light
exists in all universes simultaneously, travels through breathless space, is pure and bright and perfect, is not scraping her fingernails ragged in a locked trunk trying to find a crack.
The girl detective as a math problem
has one mother and one father and one housekeeper who calls her young miss, has 20,000 Instagram followers, has a math teacher who always greets her catch any bad guys lately, has Thomas from chemistry class and the way he inhales the delicate apple scent of her hair when they walk home from school. If the girl detective is shoved into the trunk of a long, black car, how many of them will agree to talk to the press?
The girl detective as a line from Blake
is rhyming and metered, is black text on white, is hammer, is anvil, is forge and fire, is tyger, is tyger, is burning bright.
The girl detective as a candle
flickers with the sweet rush of window-opened breath, dances and flame-twists, trails smoke into the air, is extinguished only when she has burned all the way down, puddle of wax on the fine wood counter.
The girl detective as another math problem
is how much air does a nearly 15-year-old girl of average size consume in the locked trunk of a long, black car and will hyperventilating affect that amount and should she scream and should she beg?
The girl detective as a Jeopardy category
is Things That You Find Locked in Car Trunks, is Girls Who Aren’t Named Nancy or Jane, is Curiosity Killed the Cat.
The girl detective as a parade
is held in her own honor, is ticker tape and red yellow blue balloons floating up, up, up into the air, is floats behind sputtering pickup trucks, is cheers, is chants, is the marching band playing Eye of the Tiger, is going around the corner, is growing distant, growing quiet, now, now, now, is gone.
Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Contest
Each year during the month of November we welcome contest submissions for prose—of any genre—under 500 words. This year, our guest judge was Dinty W. Moore. We’re pleased to share the following pieces with you.
- A hazy presence on the stairs. Hovering above the bed. Flickering in the window. Whistling in the closet. Etc.
- Woman behind bars in the wallpaper
- Dirt instead of milk
- Excess of mist, moors
- You take a job as a governess for some hot guy’s niece and nephew thinking maybe you’ll bone, but he never shows up
- There’s a weird stain on the ceiling that keeps getting bigger
- You agree to spend some time in a house purported to be haunted and various exciting and unexplainable events occur, including some hot girl-on-girl hand-holding and spontaneous writing on the wall that reads HELP ELEANOR COME HOME
- Tiny handprints in the cake
- Your kids run maniacally up and down the upstairs hallway. When you go upstairs to tell them to cut it out, you realize you don’t have any children
- Rabbits, stone or otherwise
- This was a choice you made. You like children, even love some of them, your sister’s for example, especially the middle one, a 10-year-old girl with large solemn eyes and a kind of exhaustion with the world you can really get behind. You’ve just never wanted children. You are zealously protective of your time and space. You are selfish in ways that you recognize and claim. Lately when you say this, people look at you with pity
- Any repetition of this number
- REDRUM in the mirror
- Your wedding veil ripped to shreds 55|
- Something’s not right with the architecture. A secret stairway. An outside that is an inch smaller than the inside. A crawl space that crawls
- You try to help people understand. There’s nothing wrong with having children. You’re not saying it’s a bad life choice. It’s just that it’s not the only life choice. You stop yourself from citing population statistics, climate change, all the scientific data in your favor. Instead you try to appeal to their empathy and their sense of humor. It’s out of my hands, you say, waving your arms over your own body. This house is haunted.
- Too many birds
- The jangle of chains
- Whispering from an unfathomable source: My body my body my body my body my body my body—
Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Contest
When the boy is chosen on the day of graham crackers and milk, a girl yanks out her ribbons. He is the boy who presses crayons too hard, who bangs the xylophone. He carries the barnyard into the classroom on his boots. He stares at the carpet like a training Buddhist.
When the teacher bends to him, her hair clean-swept into a breakfast bun, he thinks of the sparkle on plates in commercials. She is familiar to him: a deceiver. She lets him envision the priestly snap of crackers in his hands.
But he does not go to the lunchroom. He stands in the hall and stares at taped-up drawings of pets and trees scalloped over houses. The children pretend when they grow up, they will marry each other. When they set pies in the windows to cool, the boy will swipe them. He will wear a robber’s mask and dig in with his hands like a brute.
When the teacher finds him, it is past the hour for graham crackers and milk. There will be no ministry of food today, no xylophone. She marches him back to apologize. (He will think of this day, often, whenever he fails to be sorry.) When he faces the crowd of children, they wail like cartoons. The ribbonless girl balls Play- Doh stones in her palms.
Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Contest
I’ve been quarantined in my vagina for six months and I’ve washed every window. Birds thump into the glass of my vagina like confused peaches. I had a neighbor but I haven’t seen him come to harvest in awhile. Each afternoon when the sun is best my FitBit and I walk five thousand steps around my vagina. It really helps me sleep. I’m thinking of building a sunroom onto my vagina if I can find a carpenter who’ll wear a bag over his face. Since I spend so much time out there nowadays. Some mornings it just feels like too much trouble to get up and wrap myself in plastic. Then I tell myself to be grateful I still have a vagina over my head.
I’ve found puzzles to be quite a comfort. The other day I discovered the Mona Lisa’s smile behind the cushions of my vagina. It was shaped like a mouse-nibbled cracker. And three pennies and a Mississippi statehood quarter. The one with the pair of magnolias and George Washington’s vagina on the other side. I fit the missing piece into her face and the world outside my vagina melted away. Just for a moment. When it’s finished I’ll cover it with glue. I’m running out of wall space in my vagina but I won’t need that shelf anymore when the bread is gone. It’s a good life, Anthony.
Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Contest
One horse said, I want to eat you. Another horse said, I want to be eaten. This happened in horse country, of course. Of course it was illegal. Same here in badger country: you can’t consent to that kind of thing. The horses did it anyway. Me too, sort of. For a decade or so I said he had permission he never asked for. The horse who wanted to be eaten died slowly in a bathtub while the horse who wanted to eat read Star Trek. The meat kept for ten months. The horse who did the eating ate forty-four pounds of the horse who did the dying. In badger country we have several badgers famous for eating other badgers, most of whom did not ask for permission, most of whom were serial killers. But maybe you have heard of the badgers who, winter stranded, ate their dead to live. If my dead body is ever the only thing between you and the rest of your life,
let me be your feast.
I can consent to that. I do.
The horse who ate has expressed regret. Me too. Regret, the universal love language. The horse says there are probably eight hundred cannibals in horse country. In badger country, we’ve had many thousands of serial killers. In Star Trek, Klingons eat the hearts of their enemies. In Star Trek, no race is evil. I for one do not believe in bad badgers. The horse who wanted to be eaten took a few bites of himself. He wanted to be served by candlelight. He wanted to be enjoyed. Or he wanted to die. Me too, sometimes. Maybe the badger who burned me thought it was what I wanted. I would rather have been bitten, so he would have had to swallow raw. Then I could have stained his teeth. I could have stayed inside him a while, in the parts of his body he couldn’t control, so that it wouldn’t have been done for him as soon as he was done with me.
I am your father
I am your daddy
I am the Master’s House I am Mighty Morphin
I am Captain Planet
I am Dollar Tree
I am Earth Wind & Fire I am gravity
I am burning bridges
I am sugargliders
I am hummingbirds
I am hot & I melt shoes
I am white
I am fluffy
I am 豆浆 • 油条 (soymilk & crullers) I am wedding cake
I am memory
I am hunger
I am hometown
I am native tongue
I am New York’s #1 hit music station I am Houston, we have a problem
I am the raven
I am lion’s share
I am 401(k)
I am THE Ohio State University
I am trade secrets
I am EBITDA
I am profit margin
I am a billion bux
I am Chrissy Teigen
I am John Legend
I am Jacob’s Ladder
I am Brigham Young
I am Caribbean Queen
I am Lady in Red
I am waiting for a girl like you
I am CHANDELIER by Sia
I am LOVE. ANGEL. MUSIC. BABY.
I am DOMO ARIGATO, MR. ROBOTO I am rose petals
I am smoke & mirrors
I am seduction
I am your mama’s favorite
I am your mouth on my mouth
I am kissing behind the bleachers
I am tragedies
I am Wheaties
I am Cassius Clay
I am Chance the Rapper
I am Tyler the Creator
I am Conan the Barbarian
I am Detective Conan
I am fruity little drink
I am another shot of whiskey
I am looking for a reason to drink
I am less Freaky & more Freaky Friday
I am Fashion Baby
I am Octopussy
I am thankful for waffles & Missy Elliott
I am the right to remain silent
I am the right to an attorney
I am judging you
I am stained blue dress
I fell into your lap like the winning ticket
I fell into your life like funnel cake
I am the 48th President of the United States & I am blackmailing you.
“Don’t touch her,” the woman told me, pointing at the washing machine crouching in the corner of the bathroom. “If you want I should wash your clothes, you will leave them here, and I will do for you.” She was using English, not German, which was how she gave me important instructions. She didn’t seem to much like me staying in her apartment, from the way she’d eye me suspiciously over the cigarettes she hand-rolled at the kitchen table. I wondered why she’d allowed an American college student into her home, whether it was just that she needed the money from my study abroad program, or whether she was lonely – she was single, worked from home, and rarely went out, didn’t have guests for dinner, didn’t seem to receive any non-work calls. Maybe she’d expected me to be a sort of companion, a kind of surrogate daughter, but, if that was her idea, I was a disappointment. I was still on unsteady legs with my German, and her English wasn’t any better, so, when we did talk, we groped around for meaning, often missed. What was clear, though, was that she didn’t like that I left my bedroom door closed to try to keep the tobacco from sticking to my clothes, watched me while I used the electric kettle, inspected the bathroom after I showered to make sure I hadn’t left puddles behind (sometimes I had), didn’t want me to invite anyone over. The last was fair, because, the weekend she visited her mother in Potsdam, I violated her rule by bringing friends by for what was supposed to be just a few drinks – nothing she’d ever notice – and one of us (possibly me) nudged an antique oil lamp from a window frame, shattering the glass into irrevocable pieces. When I told her, tried to apologize and offer to replace it in the German that was particularly shaky when I was nervous, she stopped acknowledging the dirty clothes I left near the washer, allowed them to gather a fine fuzz of dust. Eventually, I realized this was my penance, that she had no intention of helping me again, that I had broken whatever precarious trust had existed between us. I jammed the clothes into my rolling suitcase, trying to feel righteously indignant but actually sick with shame, and took them the two stops on the train to the nearest laundromat. I realized that I should have studied better for this, immediately overwhelmed by displays crammed with foreign words for technical types of cleaning that had never come up in class. An older man, who saw my face in some state of pre-cry, abandoned his machine to help me, speaking soothingly in the yuh-heavy accent of East Berlin, his fingers, thick with age, punching the correct buttons for me. Danke sehr, I said, over and over, and he shrugged, patted my shoulder, got back to his own washing.
In Pennsylvania, I had to take my wash to the basement of the apartment building next to mine. The first winter was deeply cold, the snow staying thick and crusty for months, and it gathered on the stairs that led to the laundry, since the door would bang open in the wind. I had to decide whether to risk slipping on an icy step or reaching out a hand onto the chilly stone, always sticky with spiderwebs. To turn on the light, I had to shuffle into the center of the room and grope for the pull-chain that sometimes, inexplicably, did nothing but make a hard chunk, leaving me in the dark. One of the times the light did work, it illuminated a bunched red sleeping bag in the far corner, the hair and forehead of a man protruding slightly from its mouth. The smart thing to do, probably, would have been to retreat back up the stairs, skitter quickly back into my apartment, where I lived by myself, lock the door, report it to – someone. Here in the dim room, without a phone, no one would miss me until the class I was supposed to teach in two days. The man grunted a little, snuggled deeper so I couldn’t see below his eyebrows, which were sparse and thin. I turned away, shoved my darks into the washer that had the green smell of mold, inserted my coins, and punched it into action. He was there when I came back to change over the load, and still when I returned to gather it up. His breath had a husky, liquid rattle to it that I thought couldn’t be a good sign for him. Even in this semi-shelter, it was sharp-cold. When I left, I kept the door of the dryer open, so some of its hot breath might reach him. I hoped it would be enough for the night.
The smell was hard and brown, like gym bags and football game restrooms and rotten dog food. The source, my roommate and I discovered when we investigated with bandanas over our noses, was a pipe across from the washer and dryer. A dark, evil sludge was burbling upwards and spreading thick across the basement floor. We called the landlord, afraid he’d put us off like he usually did, with the patronizing laugh and assurances you’d give two silly girls who couldn’t help but overreact to being in an old apartment that needed a man’s touch to fix, all in good time. Something about our voices, though, led him to drop his golf game to come check it out with the guy he always called “my man Larry.” The landlord and his man Larry bailed the basement out with white buckets and slopped them into the storm drains on the street, until a neighbor called the police, who informed them that dumping sewage was a public health hazard and they’d have to stop. They decided, then, to call a plumber, who, halfway through his work, emerged for fresh air looking distinctly pale. Ancient tree roots, he told us, had overwhelmed the outgoing pipes, and it would be an ugly job to get things flowing again. “Thank you,” my roommate and I said to him through the window. My roommate’s cat meowed agreement. “You’re welcome,” he said. “Have you thought about moving?” We hadn’t, and didn’t. The rent was low and we were grad students with just enough money for groceries and beer. When the plumber left, my roommate made a safe path of flattened cardboard between the entrance to the basement and the washer and dryer. I still didn’t want to go down there, with the filth- stained concrete that the landlord never bothered to bleach or scrub, no doubt breeding colonies of bacteria I imagined latching onto my skin. My roommate, noticing the heaps of stale clothing accumulating in the corner of my room, scooped some into one of her half-full baskets, told me to come with her. She carried the load and descended, confident and undeterred by the persistent ghost of toilet ooze, and I followed, arms glued to my sides, trying not to look around, to breathe, to think. “You’re okay,” she said, pouring everything into the washer, letting it comingle inside. She’d known it was what I needed, without asking, to not do this alone, this task that must be done. I thought of the way boys in books would cut their palms open and pool their blood, and it felt like a similar kind of bond of trust, she allowing her dirty bras and underwear to swirl and tangle with mine. It felt like letting our secrets touch, like what I imagined it was to have a sister.
“Ready?” my mom called, when she’d finished unloading the dryer, which was my signal to launch myself onto my parent’s bed, to lie face-up for my mom to upend the laundry basket over me, covering me with delicious warm. Slowly she tugged each item from me to fold, as they cooled against my skin. I lay there, watching clouds scud across the skylight, until she’d turned everything neat. She never asked me to help. Sometimes, halfway through the shirts and jeans and towels and sheets and socks, she would stop, hands hanging midair, and I’d unbury myself enough to see her close her eyes, breathe deeply through her nose, in and out, over and over. Then she’d begin again, matching edge to edge, adding to the immaculate pile that, in days, would be rumpled and dirty again. I pretended I hadn’t noticed, which was easier than asking or trying to understand why, sometimes, she would look a certain kind of distant while she did the things only she was expected to do, that no one noticed because they were always, quietly, done.
I’m in a convenience store in Tennessee that sells little jars of apple and cherry moonshine and will change my twenty for quarters, which I’m pushing into my pockets. I leave heavy and jingling to the laundromat next door. My roommate (though she’s not my roommate anymore, since we’ve both changed houses and states and everything else about our lives) is already there, feeding blankets and pillowcases and sheets and yoga pants into the ready mouths of the super loaders. I move in and help her shove as much as will fit, snap the coins into their slots. I pause a moment before hitting the button. We came here to wash away the little accumulations that are all that remain of her cat, a death that is the freshest in a long line of tragedies for her. I see the orange and cream-colored threads through the plastic window. When the machine whirs to life, they’ll be washed away. That’s the idea, so she doesn’t see little signs of grief all over her apartment. It’s important, she’s decided, now that some time has passed, to clean, to let them go. Still, I wait, look over at her. “Ready?” I ask. My roommate nods, and we lean into each other, watch, hip to hip, as the water builds and churns, turning white with suds. I think of my mom doing my laundry, the endless cycle of unspoken giving, the silent promise that, as soon as my hamper filled, she would be there to empty it. I want to be able to hold this sort of promise, too. In exactly 95 minutes, the machines will chunk off, and, back in my roommate’s apartment, we’ll sit together on her bed, the air soft with drier sheet lavender, and I’ll match edge to edge to edge, knowing that there will be more to do, later today, or tomorrow, or in three days, after I’ve boarded the plane back to Connecticut, and after, and after, I for her, and she for me.
we knew things were bad when the insects started moving indoors—spiders, followed by saffron ants, followed by centipedes. crawling across the threshold, singly, and then in droves. until every crack in the floorboards seethed with them. we caulked the baseboards and windows, eventually the vents and the ducts. but still they found their way inside, as if fleeing what awaited out there, as if our homes were the only carapaces strong enough to protect them. at first, we shuddered when we saw them, feared walking barefoot and sleeping with our ears uncovered. but later we welcomed them, let them shelter us in their webwork, let them soothe us with the clicks and stridulations of their segmented bodies, with their spinners, pincers, and feathered antennae. we longed to be like them, to grow ears on our legs, to rub our genital parts together like tiger moths and listen to the resulting song. blanketed in sound. invisible to even the most astute sonar. gone was the time when we could not function beneath the gaze of their compounded eyes. now we could do nothing—eat, talk, touch one another—without it. and yet, we did not wake to their departure. how did we fail to hear thousands of feet scurrying to the door? how did we sleep through the susurration of so many wings and the clamor afterwards of such empty air? once they were gone, there was nothing to shield us from the entity that would enter in their absence, sidle in from outside our walls. we were left cracked open, legless, defanged. we were prey in its mandibles, once they were gone.
Too many cooks spoil the girl. That’s what my mother says. She can’t be having babies the natural way. She has to cook them by hand.
I am the 12th child my mother made. All of the others are gone. Ma tells me this as a warning, when I am just flour seeds in an oven, all golden-glazed and warm. She pours some skim milk from the carton to butter me up, to make my flour loose and pop, then guzzles the milk straight from the container. She looks so strange, my mother. She tells me she knows this, that losing eleven little ones will do this. She has lost her eyebrows, her hair, her breasts. My mother has no hair or breasts—just endless sheaves of skin.
I feel myself expanding, from a tiny seed into something more. I am a girl with bread loaves for legs, I am all pop and sizzle, all brown skin and fluff. My poppy seeds are to die for. My mother tastes me. She puts me in her mouth and tastes me—I taste just right, she says.
Then Pa comes in. Ma made him too when she couldn’t find a husband. He looks at me fondly. I was a little loaf of nothing just like you once, Pa says. He chucks me under the chin, and my poppy seeds waterfall into his hot dough hands. He feels me with his hot dough hands. He says I feel good. But that something’s missing. He says I need more milk.
Too many cooks spoil the girl, Ma says, but Pa is grabbing— spices, powders, herbs. Hot sauce, jalapeño, milk. He is grabbing cayenne pepper and pouring it into my fluff—I am all sizzle and fluff, I burn, I burn, I burn. Look what you’ve done, Clive, Ma says, and then I am bursting—my chest is bursting—my legs—I have long legs and breasts, I could be a Playboy centerfold. And I am only ten minutes old.
Pa tastes my breast. She tastes good, Pa says. But do you think Aunt Janie will like her?
Aunt Janie glides into the room. What’s this? What’s this? she says. She tastes my big toe, my little toe, all the little piggies. She is missing something, Aunt Janie says.
She pours hot sauce down my throat and I am changing, changing—I keep my chest but lose my legs, I have chicken wings for legs, chocolate cake for hands. I try to wipe my tears but I smear my face. I cry a sea of chocolate frosted tears.
This will do, Ma says. And then she leaves. Pa leaves. Aunt Janie leaves. They will come back to eat me in awhile. They are just washing their hands to better consume me with.
I know this and it comforts me. I am just like any other child.
I have seven different types of earplugs on my dresser. There are orange ones and earth-muffling ones and ones that taste like mint jelly if you bite down on them. I prefer not to bite down on them, but my dog Dolby likes them very much. They don’t do a good job muffling things once they’re in his poop, but they make a good conversation starter with the neighbors. Ah, you’ve been to the new Duane Reade, the neighbors say. We prefer not to patronize the big chain stores, the mom and pops need us, thank you very much. This conversation doesn’t upset me. It just reinforces how much I need my earth-muffling earplugs, to block them. But sometimes something very strange happens. Sometimes, instead of blocking them, I just hear them more. I hear them making dinner and talking on the phone and the sounds they make during sex, especially rough sex when they’ve been reading how-to articles in Cosmo, about how to keep your husband interested after 25 years of marriage. I think of my husband in the other room. He is not having sex. He is not reading Cosmo. He is watching Game of Thrones. He is watching Game of Thrones, and I can hear it, the sounds the characters are making, their grunts and their medieval chants and the way that winter is now coming, it is definitely coming, after all these seasons, get ready, get the shovels, it’s our friend winter, here. I can hear my husband. I can hear him under the grunts and the shovels and the winter gathering. I can hear his thoughts, how they sound like rain on the window—thumpity, thump thump, like horse hooves, and I wonder about this, since my husband is not an outdoorsy person. And I wonder if he’s been an outdoorsy person all along, if he’s just convinced himself that he’s an indoorsy person, to appease me. I hear him and all his outdoorsy thoughts, his hoof beats and his bear beats, he is a man’s man, he is Hodor from Game of Thrones, he is gathering for winter, get ready. I look at his feet, how delicate they are. They are thinking too, and I can hear them. I can hear them slipping on their shoes, their boots. They are thinking of me with my earplugs, how far we are from spring.
We never stopped. Or maybe we did stop and she sensed me stopping. She shows up at my door: Hi, she says. Hi, I say. Look, she says, because Amanda was nothing if not direct. I think we should stay friends. Don’t marry that guy. Ok?
She shuts the door. When she reopens it we’re friends. Best friends, or at least good friends.
I sign a contract:
I will stay friends with Amanda forever and drink a lot and still function at my job and when I come back from my job I will drink more with Amanda.
We stay friends. We drink. Amanda shows me how to drink
without destroying my liver; it’s a complicated process. It involves chewing ice cubes—she read it in a book. It works. I do not die. I do not even become an alcoholic. I’m just an Amanda-cholic. She’s not particularly mesmerizing. She has a big nose, a big voice. Her body is teeny tiny, not enough to contain that voice. Sometimes she gives it to me to hold. She says, my voice is too big for me, can you hold it?
I do—I am happy to. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night wondering where my friends are. If they’re in Iowa or Michigan or Kalamazoo, Michigan. Or worse that they’re in New York. They’re 70 blocks downtown. They just don’t want to call me. I drink and drink. At some point I realize Amanda is filling it up with water; it’s why I’m not a raging alike.
She says that it’s time to get our shit together. We’re going to get jobs. Good ones. We’re going to make something of ourselves. I take her by the hand—we go to grad school. I get a degree in something practical, something that won’t make me scream: Why can’t I do this?!!!!!!! on the days where it’s not going well, where I can’t do it, where I can’t get out the words.
I am comfortable. Happy. I have a lot of friends, friends like Amanda, friends who will never leave me alone. I become a vet. A technician. A specialist. I don’t deal in words. I don’t write, unless it’s the words “prescription” or “what are you doing later?” I don’t miss my husband. I don’t sense this other life—
The last thing I see when I die is Amanda’s nose. She says, come here. Follow me. Follow me, into the afterlife—
I go to the afterlife with Amanda (and her nose). Sometimes Jamie comes, from down the hall. We flirt. Sometimes he even asks to marry me. Amanda consents; we marry but stay in the friend circle. All our dates are group dates. At night we sleep in a gigantic bed—me, Amanda, Jamie, spooning us, his roommate, Sam. It’s a dreamy kind of life.
It was late May that year, when the ephemeral spring slipped into memory, and early whispers of Santa Ana winds stirred over canyons and hilltops. The scorch of the midsummer sun would arrive soon enough, casting its aspersions onto wind- swept histories of chaparral, leaving long fields of hollow grass in its wake. The climate in San Robles had been changing like this, unrelenting. New wildfires would burn long and late across the tinder, until all that remained were embers and ash. She flew with her daughter from coast to coast as they had for the last nearly twenty summers and twenty winters, peering out the window of the plane, watching the clouds float by. It was a Tuesday.
From the airport, Lia called for an Uber car as gravity took hold of their feet, and they settled in for the ride through the twilight. They knew the swerve of the 5 North, the stretch passing by the terracotta roof tops of Old Town before it straightened, and they could see a string of oncoming white headlights moving south toward the border. They stayed on course, following the red taillights moving north, until the silhouette of Mount Soledad under the amethyst dome of sky told them they were almost home. The driver took an offramp just before the winding pass to the ocean shores. After a short distance, the car arrived at a gate into Valencia, a colony of family homes nestled along a ridge above canyons where the passing trains would whistle in the early mornings and the early nights. The house sat neat along a narrow street like a tooth, a two-story white stucco with a tall slender eucalyptus looking out over a small patch of front lawn.
They walked up towards the door with small suitcases. Over the years they had learned how to travel light. There was little they needed to carry. Lia noticed the polka dots of white jasmine, its perfume in the porch way. Its broad leafy limbs tangled with a white picket trellis which had broken from the weight of its lush life. She knew where to look for the hidden knots of twine her father had wrapped around the frame in December. The house stood in its original form, well-kept for nearly thirty years, and in recent years its scaffolds, systems and structures were, one by one, breaking – breaking here, breaking there.
Rose pressed the doorbell, and Lia listened for the pat-pat of her father’s slippers approaching. The door opened, and the eyes of this old man twinkled with the delight of a boy. “Welcome, welcome,” he said, as he stood to the side and extended his arm to usher them in. The inflection in his voice tilted on an axis as though he had been waiting while following the calendar of the sun, patient, and longing, and anticipating their arrival. It had been, she was surprised coming to think of it now, over a decade since he had picked them up at the airport, which he used to do after tracking the status of flights, sometimes delayed in the winter by northeaster storms of snow. He would leave plenty of time to arrive with a calm and purpose, park the car and enjoy a stroll through the airport, through its undulating streams of travelers, wondering where the travelers have been and where they were going just as he wondered about these things for himself.
She envisioned him standing at the foot of the escalators near the main entrance, sometimes under blinding rays of sunlight flashing through glass windows from floor to ceiling that stood three-stories high. He would be looking up from the moving crowds, always at the same spot, raising his arms and gently flapping his hands like wings of a dancing moth until he caught their eyes. And then he would stand still, watching them float down to meet him, having made their way there from a separate journey, as if he had not felt entirely sure that they would have had this chance to be together once more.
He had done this countless times, even when they had insisted that they would take a taxi. Lia found herself now imagining his feeling as one of longing to see them return home, concentrated in the moments of waiting at the airport. Surrounded by travelers, strangers, moving through lives of their own, he would look skyward to the horizon for their faces, those of his children, his grandchildren, returning home to him at last from somewhere far away. There he waited, also asking himself aloud – Where have you been? Where have you been for so long?
Marvel, or, Notes toward Eulogy
- Brian Malone
THE trunks of apple trees sometimes fork in two directions like conjoined twins. This is a common malformation.
HALF the time, we did not know where he was. He spent winters in a warehouse because the trailer had no electricity. He said he owned a law practice downtown, but we could find no evidence of the location nor of litigation nor of him.
IF he appears in a tarot reading, The Hanged Man often indicates martyrdom. In the classic Rider-Waite deck, he hangs from a cord around his ankle, which ties him to a wooden beam propped by wooden poles strung with garlands. He hangs vertically, upside down, his head pointed to the ground.
WHEN positioning the Hanged Man during a tarot reading, I often accidentally place him in the reverse position so that he is standing upright. Before I read tarot, I ask only that the messages heal, bring peace, and validate the questioner’s experiences. If the cards reveal anything at all, I would rather have them reveal something beautiful, and so I resist positioning the cards in reverse, which essentially reverses the meaning. Maybe other readers interpret reverse positions differently, but in my view, to give my friends the experience of the tarot that I want them to have, these reverses are irrelevant. The Hanged Man, though, I inevitably rotate, always placing him in reverse by accident before recognizing my mistake and rotating him again. By his serene expression, it is easy to assume he is standing upright or laying in horizontal repose, as if relaxing on a day bed. His expression peaceful, he holds his hands behind his back and crosses his unencumbered leg behind the thigh of his bound one as if dancing ballet. He is a martyr because he has sacrificed himself for a cause, and he finds his hanging blissful, divine.
THM’S obituary says he died at home, shares that he practiced law for forty years and that he had a “carefree” retirement tending his apple orchard. The obituary does not say that once, Evie from church lent him a couple of books, which he returned months later, caked in grime. The obituary does not say that once, he did not come to church for weeks on end, and we had no idea where to find him; that if Benita, another lady from church, had not made sure he was fed and sheltered, he may have died much sooner.
WHAT I find perfect about the obituary is its presentation of THM’s picture. His neck is a bit hunched over his collarbone. He is bald and his smile is a bit crooked, and the gaps in his teeth let you see right back to his throat. His nose never quite healed from a break. He is wearing a red t-shirt. This is admittedly a formal choice for him, though certainly in character, as I cannot see any rips. I remember him in all gray, his clothes streaked
I have sometimes glimpsed the world as THM saw it. I have intuited uncanny truths and bizarre falsehoods through tarot readings. I have sensed odd spectral presences in rooms I enter. I believe we all have. Yet, I am also a healthy skeptic. When I read tarot, I do so for friends, without gimmicks, without charging them anything. I tell my friends to ignore whatever does not feel true. I tend to believe there is more between and beyond this world than we have access to. Even when I feel like I am accessing something extraordinary in tarot, there are enough misfires to counter the uncanny. I think I understand that if a veil separates our plane from others, then it is there for a reason. What I mean is, I am able to live on this side of the veil, ignore the veil entirely when I am not thinking about it. I do not think THM could.
OURS was a small Unitarian Universalist congregation in New England which attracted fourteen parishioners on a good Sunday, and where I, in my early twenties, was the youngest congregant by three decades. Our size left time in service for what we called “Pebbles of Joy and Concern.” This went as you might expect, mostly concerns, folks asking for thoughts, prayers, and positive energy. Otherwise, folks shared celebrating their loved ones’ birthdays, anniversaries, visits, encouraging test results, etc. THM’s joys were my favorite part of the service because he would tell us stories without context. He would just stand, take the microphone, drop a smooth, light stone in the bowl of water, and start telling us about anything. About pausing to consider the dead, brown leaves underfoot. For it was while wrapped in brown, wrapped in that crinkly texture of dead, dying foliage, that he said Jesus always spoke to him.
with white paint and tearing at the seams. There is something marvelous about this man. Something his piercing blue eyes are always piercing that most eyes are not.
WE know that he slept in the church sometimes. During the week, the old men of the church, Ted, Rodney, and Fred came by to check on things – to maintain the lawn and garden, check the lights, clean, prepare the altar. They found the back door, the emergency exit, ajar multiple times. They found THM’s undergarments - what Ted called “skivvies” - strewn about. After he died, they found a nest of his things around the dirt floor by the boiler in the basement: threadbare clothes, brand new sneakers. They never found THM, though, who maybe had the sense to hurry away when the others entered. His overnight presence was a liability for the church. If he had been hurt or if he damaged something while he was there, or if after a city inspection, officials had reason to believe the church was moonlighting as a domicile - well, insurance certainly did not cover any of these possibilities.
MARVEL (v): THM was not normal, and sometimes it is easy for me to romanticize that, especially since I saw him only on
A Joy: One day, THM fell from the split trunks of a tree he was tending in the orchard. He had propped a ladder against a trunk and climbed to the place where it forked. He built a brace between the sibling trunks to redistribute the weight so that one did not overpower the other, rot it, and kill half the tree’s fruit. Then, he was hanging upside down. If he had fallen that way, he would have broken his neck, but he said he felt the branches twist around his ankle and catch him. He just hung there, blessed and grateful. He did not climb down, because there, dancing in the space between the leaves, he saw his dead father, and why would anyone hurry to safety when they can hang there, held by someone who loves them for a little while?
WHEN Evie and I planned to drive an extra hour and a half to the spiritualist church in northern Massachusetts, only THM wanted to join us. Fred and Benita, the atheist social justice warriors, thought spiritualism was nonsense. Ted kept a careful distance. Rodney struggled with the uncertainty of his own beliefs. I was – am still – just someone who loves to encounter the strange. I cannot remember what the spiritualist reverend said to me as he offered short psychic readings to each of the visitors from his place at the pulpit, elevated only slightly above us, his arms raised as if to support the A-framed roof of the sanctuary, wood-paneled with dark finish from ceiling to floor. He told me something vague, generalized, easily dismissed. I recall what he told THM, though, about the slew of WWII soldiers around him in uniform. “My uncles,” THM told us in the car on the drive home, unsurprised. “They’re always around.”
HE died at age 69. Please disregard other connotations of that number. Consider how the six and the nine are inverses of each other. Right side up, upside down. I do not think my Hanged Man could have died at any other age. He was always, I think, right side up and upside down.
AT the back of the church, there is a small art room where Evie spent her time painting. I was not there when THM died, as I
Sundays, only in sanctuary. If I imagine him on any other day of the week, I doubt he was “carefree” in his retirement. Instead, I wonder if he was mostly lonely and cold. “Carefree,” as written in the obituary, seems to mean “too unstable to care for himself.” Still, he was full of love, and he saw miracles everywhere, and I can neither envy nor pity him.
DID THM see truth or untruth? Did he live so closely to the veil that he confused the mysterious with the mundane? Was he insane? I don’t know. Whatever the case, he inhabited the world as he saw it: Like a vagabond mystic, a Beatnik deity, a hero in a folk song. He inhabited the world wholly, dirtily.
I continue to marvel at THM’s life, in that I marvel at how he could have been alive at all. How could he have moved through the world, seeing and not seeing and seeing beyond and believing, always believing?
I want to position myself and THM as the twin shoots of a split trunk, but the metaphor is imperfect. We had in common only our willingness to see the unseen. Besides, THM braced the split trunks so carefully because he meant to prevent one of the shoots from overpowering the other. I see no such competition between myself and THM, no such struggle for nourishment. I see only THM’s proximity to mystery; myself at a greater distance. I don’t know if his proximity strengthened him or weakened him, but I know that THM loved his apple trees. Me? I have no business climbing an apple tree, bracing one, tending an orchard. If I were to fall from one of the split trunks, I might lose my mind, I think, if I was alone in seeing, as THM was alone in seeing, that our dead loved ones have been there all along, cradling us.
had already moved to the other side of the country for graduate school. Shortly after his funeral service, Evie said she was in the art room and felt a rush of air, thought of THM, and heard the emergency exit slam shut, though she had not known it was open. “He said good-bye,” she explained over the phone.
A Joy: He died in his apple orchard, had been mowing and just collapsed right there among fresh-cut grass, spindly roots, fruit carcasses.
My father on his deathbed railed at me. He’d heard I’d been commiserating with my sister about how little time he’d spent with us when we were small. He did a lot of railing from that hospital bed, my mother leaning into him from her seat alongside, knowing shushes would be counterproductive, cooing at him instead so he’d stop. She held his hand in a mode that looked oddly from feet away like a jiu-jitsu wrist bar. But no one could restrain this man, then or before. My father did not protest that we needed the money and two jobs were not a choice. My father did not explain that extreme poverty in childhood acts like a solvent on the young cerebrum, turning the pink to an expedient gray, dissolving all tendencies except a vicious struggle against the imagined downsuck of circumstance. He said, rather, that anger and indignation were self-justifying emotions, easier and more satisfying than self-blighting guilt and regret, and so I should consider whether I was decrying his absence from our young lives because I was the one—busy with a career and a wife and a child and a risk-forward equities portfolio and a stationary bike with its own neural network—who was sorry I had not gone out of my way to see my father as often as I would have wished.
Nearly worse than the words were their delivery: slow, pondering, without controversy or malice. Also, they were true. It took me a long time to realize—not at his deathbed, not during the funeral, not while attending the memorial service a year later, but decades after, on my own deathbed in a single-occupancy hospital suite that played hotel while I succumbed to pneumonia and a blood infection and watched my children force-cheer their way through a settled dismay and marveled at how grandchildren these days came exclusively in corn-chip scent— that he had spoken those words because anger was easier for him to bear than regret. I considered whether this thought of mine, in turn, was my own self-serving pivot toward indignation, to balm my guilt at one of the last things my father said to me, but before I could decide the nurse came to check my blood pressure for the penultimate time, and my granddaughter asked, piping sweetly, whether my bed went up and down, her eyes shifting furtively in their sockets as she considered whether she would dare ask me to show her. And so, as it often does, life interfered with truth. This, for a dying man, can be a blessing. Also for the living.
Of course I showed her. Of course she loved it. I should have started and ended here.
It’s the late offseason of what will never be. The RV park by the inland sea is empty.
I clamber onto the exposed poplar roots, their earth gone to wind and surf,
to listen. A grist of calcium sparkles in the sand.
The cooling towers
of Fermi I and II
exhale little puffs of steam into the netted-mackerel sky across the bay.
I’ve been hearing it since before the dawn,
this finite automaton syntax of the birds.
I’ve been a blind jag between the branches,
a bigram in a phonological bout, a memory house made ridiculous
by repetition. These two-birds-in-the-hand truisms, this robin trill. Without plumage,
we are hopeless birders
of disembodied song.
The Huron River Inn is closed. There’s a fishing boat
at the edge of the gravel lot, some steelhead skeletons combed over by the gulls. Which is to say we become what we cannot look
forward to, the way
a gastropod coils around
itself what is and is not
itself only to be plucked
from its aperture like light.
In place of wafers, preacher places blue taffy on your tongue. To receive it, kneel, open -mouthed, inside the dome
of blue light before the altar.
If upon you preacher
places hands, it means
he sees within you something he likes
to eat; cover
your neck. Press your
your chest to protect
the organ meats.
Fear not; his gnawing
when the organist
treats the congregation
to a composition
of gnashing teeth.
The parishioners will stand,
join hands and gnash along.
As the service comes to a close,
a candle is passed
around the room. The wax runs.
Blessed are the burned. The
shall inherit the earth.
In the slim hour of forest where Rick lives
stands a little house
but for the mice
who have chewed
the particle-board floors straight through
Rick says he left
his car parked
on the second story
we look in every corner behind every hammer-cracked continent of sheetrock
and find nothing
but you know how Rick gets after a long night digging through the powders
in his dresser drawer
Rick I say I don’t believe
your car was ever here
to begin with
but he persists
and shakes his jar
of bottle caps in my face
and no matter how I insist
that those aren’t keys
and they sure as hell won’t start your car
Rick keeps drilling
at the foundation
looking under every scrap of dried mouse and spitting his teeth on the floor
like sunflower seeds
I’m exhausted and I want to go home but hey
I’m pretty fond of Rick
so I stick around all night and listen for headlights just in case
“always try to read form as content, style as meaning.” -David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto
Mallory needed a name for her daughter. Something unique, but nothing, like Apple or Shiloh, that seemed like she had tried too hard. The problem? Most of the headstones were too small. Twisted into the earth they were chipped and covered with wildflowers and myrtle, or they jutted from sharp grades made indiscernible by shadows cast from Sewell Forest’s old- growth trees. Mallory watched her step. There were no rows. There was no order. Mallory approached each gravestone and eased down to her knees and she wiped away dirt and debris. Two centuries of cold rain and snow made many names and dates faint impressions, indiscernible. Mallory knew that tombstones were etched with names and dates. But what if she didn’t? She looked around. From a distance, each set slate affected promise. A direct sort of agency. Up close? The stones failed to deliver the corresponding placability. She thought of her niece. This beautiful child, only four. To be so little. How strange must a cemetery seem? Not very, probably. Mallory pushed herself up from the ground and she wiped her hands on the back of her jeans. This wasn’t going to be easy.
This was going to be hard. In part, this was because, at the very deepest level, all our secrets are the same. We keep these from one another because we are hungry for a reality that is perfectly situated between everything in our lives, only slanted just sideways. Mallory had secrets, plenty of them. Through the course of any verbal account she saw the systematic fashioning, the intentional shaping of events, the scrupulous reframing of reality into some other reality. In other words, she heard everyone lying. When those around her spoke, she processed that margin between the newspaper column and poetic vision. Because America really wasn’t the sort of place where Mallory expected sincerity, this wasn’t that big of a deal, ordinarily. Specifically, this mattered even less, given that Mallory was incapable of candor. When the point dulls to the degree that nothing is beneath interest, Mallory found that, underneath everything that everyone found fascinating, there was, in fact, nothing. Mallory tripped, she stumbled over a gravestone. Nothing more than a small piece of rock, really. She peered, she looked for a name. Nothing. She cradled her stomach and walked past a mausoleum. Moonlight reflected in its windowpane.
This was a fine place for a cemetery. A five-minute walk from her home, and yet five minutes past the gates the stillness and the silence were so complete they competed to create, like distant lightning, an effect almost audible. The stillness and the silence were what people expected. Or, had they other experiences, they would leave a place such as this wanting nothing less. She raised a hand. From the outer darkness something flitted towards her – a bat? a bird? – as if the animal’s intention had been to strike her. Mallory’s baby, at this stage primarily a sensation, a feeling like bubbles within her belly slowly rising and popping, was not a reason. No. This was not going to be easy. Either choice was cruel, both right and wrong. Still, Mallory had to do something. A child, she decided, was not a decision. And even if it were? The answer certainly wasn’t No.
She was going to tell her mom.
After they had been married for a few years Mallory told Justin that she wouldn’t care when her mom died, and he told her that she was nuts, totally crazy, that she was going to cry like a baby. “No,” she said. “I mean it. Really. I won’t. I don’t care. There’s no way.” And she’d meant it. Obviously, she would attend the funeral and she would, whatever, toss a rose upon the coffin. But that would be the extent of her participation. Mallory was not proud of this, but what could she say? Mallory hadn’t liked her mother. Whatever she did she would be doing for her father, who, through it all, quietly remained. After that? She wouldn’t think of her mother ever again. What was there to remember?
That’s what made this so hard. It was completely fucked. Had her mom simply died—from a car crash, or a heart attack, like a normal person—Mallory wouldn’t have cared. Telling her mom about her baby wouldn’t be an option. She would never know. But her mom didn’t just die. In fact, her mom was still alive. And the thing with her cancer? Her mom became tolerable. Almost fun. She swallowed heroic doses of morphine and Ativan. She sat, unmoving, one hand holding the other, staring out the window. Occasionally she would point a finger, mumble something about a bird. Mallory, and this for a year now, found that she liked this chilled out, groovy version of her mom. She enjoyed her company. The pain, which never fully abated, which weakened her mom to the point so she sought paths of least resistance, demanded, or exacted, composure. And while the cancer had not spread to
When Mallory met Justin they fell in love. She slept with him that first night because she knew they were going to get married.
Mallory ate some gummies. Because her mom’s right arm still worked, she tossed a couple paint-by-number kits in the back of her car. Once inside her mom’s living room she arranged their easels and put classical music on YouTube and popped one of her mom’s pills and pocketed a coupled for later and poured herself a glass of red wine and a ginger ale for her mom and, with her mom’s marble eyes blue and bright, her fine hair growing in fuzzy and eggshell white, they talked.
In this way they grew comfortable around one another. 0.
Mallory’s mom did not die peacefully.
There comes a point, just short of suicide, when the drugs
don’t work. Her mom in full distress, Mallory’s dad called Hospice. He was put on hold, and, after five minutes, hung up. Unto his wife he applied morphine patches like band-aids. While his mom wasn’t aware of pain, she was full of anxiety, she thought she was dreaming. In dream, she thought she was drowning. In the third person. “Wake up, Junie,” she said. “Wake up. This is terrible. So terrible. Don’t drown.” Mallory’s dad stepped into the kitchen. He returned with a loaded syringe. Cymbalta. He deposited the
her throat, this pain was significant enough so as to, most of the time, impose a queer sort of silence. A Fentanyl patch was her baseline. When the other drugs kicked in? Everything about her mother which Mallory loathed evaporated, puddled at her mom’s slippered feet. In its place were those charming qualities Mallory found in, of all people, Justin. That peaceful reticence. That blanket benevolence. The unassuming sagacity, shaped with, for ideas and people other than himself, reverence. For an hour or two she found the will to enter her mother’s world, to participate, even if only from her living room, as, if not quite her daughter, something more than mere citizen.
drug into his wife’s open mouth. Silently, Mallory cheered. She looked at the sofa. She considered one of its pillows. But even on TV they don’t make suffocating someone look easy. Hospice had armed them with more than enough medication to take her out. While it should have, it never came to that.
An hour later her mom was snarling, staring at some point over Mallory’s shoulder. She didn’t like what was there. She sat upright, exercised actions and movements (while she didn’t have the dexterity, she was working to tear off her top) Mallory hadn’t witnessed in months.
Finally, gasping, she greened into gray. For a moment Mallory thought to panic and she considered wishing it all away. But she was a coward and she didn’t have it in her. He mom made to breathe, but did not complete the action.
Her dad stepped behind the bed and bent over his wife. He whispered, “Thank you.” He kissed the top of her brow. And then, “For everything.” Then he rested his forehead against her soft, fluffy hair.
A few months earlier, Mallory’s father stopped sharing information. When speaking he employed pleasantries.
She really seems to be tolerating the new medication!
It was really funny, she asked for potato pancakes!
So to learn that her mom—and what was wrong with her brother, anyway? a text?—had signed with hospice? The she had been given two months, max? This came as a shock. Hadn’t her mom just painted that picture of a cardinal on a snow-peaked fencepost? Sitting in her room Mallory’s breath escaped as a gasp. Her throat tightened to the point where swallowing was an invitation to injure. Her eyes were hot and dry. Technically, she didn’t cry. But who was she kidding. Telling Justin she was going for a walk? That she needed some air? This was the same thing. Mallory leaned back, she opened wide her eyes. Overhead the evening’s pale clouds rose high to color the sky with nothing like color at all.
What, and Mallory made for a patch of gravestones, is a self? We, as selves, project ourselves everywhere. We empathize with everyone and we create plausible, if not legitimate scenarios, by which to frame some other’s suffering. Of course our lives are going to imply and induce insecurities! What else would they do! Predisposed to explode, Mallory dreams herself awake every morning. And where has that gotten her?
The world exists as we create it. We legislate after the fact. Having disowned any but the most insignificant link between her life and living, it is Mallory who remains uncertain. Tired of dreaming, weary of rest, her mom was finished, ready for whatever happens next. Her mom hadn’t quit anything. Rather, as if with a hug, and Mallory stopped, she examined a stone, she accepted death the only way possible. Alone.
She scanned the stones. The names were useless. She worked to shake loose those memories, she tried to remember why, exactly, she had hated her mom. And while Mallory could recall, with implacable specificity, those reasons, she was unable to summon, to connect, the corresponding feelings.
The idea that we are able to uncover the process by which any of this came into being and how we endlessly inscribe and magnify ourselves yet cling to uncertainty and we, for whatever the reason, have created a culture to exist where suicide is, of all things, illegal. Mallory slowed, she examined a tombstone. Her mother’s world did not accept the dignity of suicide. So, hospice. A sanctioned, a sanitized version of dying. This is what it came down to? The false promise that it is all about you, the myth that, somehow, you get to choose. Hospice doesn’t fail because the business model lies, hospice fails to deliver because the company oversells. Mallory stepped over a root. Across the cemetery, shadows drifted like snow.
Here, in this corner of the cemetery, were two great oaks. The larger tree had lost a huge limb, which, in falling to the ground, flattened several tombstones. The branch rose again like a growth independent from any other living thing. Mallory searched the rubble. There were no names. The ground was deadpan, hard and thick with rock and root, and the soil eroded easily. Mallory understood every step she took.
There were hundreds of graves. Glass cylinders once containing candles, now cracked and weather-stained, buried by mounds of dirt and strangled by strands of morning glory, rested in nests of tall grasses years unmown, amplifying nothing. A beautiful vessel, filled with, and made a sort of tangerine by moonlight, rested atop a stone flush with the earth. And how this seemed valuable. Something worth touching. Or, and Mallory looked around her, taking. Nearby an angel. Standing with a lowered head, her long robe flowed over her feet, her concrete smile tight-lipped, her bald eyes cast heavenward. Dusted with moss fine as mist, a green made evanescent beneath the moon, or glowing, as if lit by some source unseen, a worn, makeshift cross lay splintered upon her dais. More symbols, these, made meaningless by time and space. Characters, these, that had nothing to do with names. Other graves were similarly attended. Crumbling wreaths and frayed fabric flowers, cracked vases and overturned picture frames, mummified blocks of oasis and bent wires. Testaments, these cenotaphs, if not to an eternity here on earth, then certainly a preponderance of time. Mallory slowed to a stop and she stooped, she examined each of the names.
There was dirt under her fingernails. The sensation terrible, as much in her mind as it was in her hands, the idea that she could feel her fingernails growing. Mallory was not afraid, but, for the first time, she was uneasy. She rested a hand upon her stomach, covered her baby.
How incredible, the capacity to love. So dissimilar to the indifferent ease that accompanies anger. An ability she was not—including those feelings she had for Justin—fully aware she possessed until becoming a mother. Already wondering how a child, like a pressed flower, can become a memory worth preserving, something tangible but easily destroyed, petal by petal, stem and pistil, the people holding it petrified, knowing that, once opened, left perishable, its substance will quickly flake and flitter until all that remains is the impression upon the wax paper, that cleft space within the pages of the book. Hot, and sweating, Mallory took off her sweatshirt—how much longer would the sweatshirt fit?—and she tied it around her waist.
Someone said that the dead have no power. Mallory disagreed. She stilled. Stopped walking. The opposite was true. The dead watch over us. All the time, their vigilance. Relentless, their presence. Either way—and Mallory made for a trail, a path beaten into the grass—some things were never meant to be known. Maybe cemeteries should be allowed to be forgotten. What came first? She crouched, inspected a stone. The sunrise, or the sunset? If it was not for the living—she rose, approached another tombstone— how could the dead possibly exist? Everything was contingent. That, and Mallory sighed, or all was the same.
The trail led to a hedgerow, to a low bank of stones, what once was a wall. Here, another number of graves. Perhaps because of the hedgerow, and the low bank of stones, their names had not been erased, the names had been preserved, shielded from the cold rain and show. And while there were Andrews and Davids and Marks and Tims, these tombstones dated back to the early 1800s. Mallory was amazed. She freed her phone. Her camera’s flash popping like fired gunshots. This, here, marked the indivisibility of expression. These names—Effie, Lura, Ruxandra, Carolmilde, Media – Media? – Livius, Ludie, Junius, Etha, Tella, Denva, Surry, Pleasants – Pleasants? – Rebie, Vonoe, Virgie, Tazewell—so unusual, so uncommon. These, here, as if arranged for such a purpose, were what she had set out to find. Had hoped to see. Finished, Mallory stood, she pocketed her phone. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness. A cloud had passed in front of the moon.
The sky was completely clear, the moon directly overhead. Mallory was not surprised to come upon the pond. Since crossing the hedgerow the air carried the fungal aroma of rotten produce, a stench of death and decay that had nothing to do with humanity. From a distance, hiking up a bit of a hill, the pond was less an opening within the earth’s surface than something deposited upon it, a pile of crushed stones, moonlit, minerals glittering. Mallory had been curious. Cresting the hill, the smell grew stronger, and, making its summit, the pond presented itself in outline. Tiny patterns like oil swirled upon the surface of the stagnant water. Only there were no patterns and what existed Mallory created. When Mallory stopped walking nothing swirled. It had only looked that way.
Bubbles broke the water’s plane somewhere near its center. Somewhere near its center because the pond was not circular, it possessed no named shape. Mallory untied her sweatshirt and lowered herself to the ground, she made a seat. Was it possible for something to lack a center? Mallory placed a hand upon her stomach. She wanted to feel her child inside her. A sensation that, in its self-same singularity, registered as unique phenomena. She did not mind waiting.
The bubbles issued forth like there was a fountain placed beneath the surface. It was probably a snapping turtle. Mallory tossed a pebble into the pond. The bubbles stopped. A few moments later, bubbles appeared in another area. If Mallory had not thrown the rock, the bubbles would not be there. “If the bubbles had not been there, would I be here?” Mallory said. She didn’t know what to say.
Mallory didn’t know why she was thinking this way. She freed her phone. There was no sound to distract her and even that which moved, moved silently. The bubbles. The breeze. There was an animal not far from where she sat, and the creature slid into the pond. The algae was thick and green and moved like a wrinkle in a sheet. A snake. The creature’s head moved across the water. The green slime parted into heavy gullies. From Mallory’s lap a buzz, and a cool blue glow--a text. She blinked. When she opened her eyes she could no longer see the snake.
Cattails rose from the shallows. A slow trickle of water fed into the pond from a drainage ditch. Here, the water ran black and clear, and water lilies lay upon the surface like bright chalices carefully arranged. Over there, blue water lily flowers, their long pedicels erect above the water, luminous within the moonlight, the tips of so many candle flames. Water lilies were depicted by the French painter Claude Monet. Mallory’s mother liked Monet. Mallory’s mom would have liked it here.
Pregnant, Mallory was that much more alive. She had experienced a different sort of femininity when with her mom. Beside her mom—with her skeletal expression and her sinking soul—Mallory experienced a sort of elevation. Mallory, who last year could not tolerate thinking of the woman and who, when in her presence, demanded a definite proximity? Now, being around her mother was—Mallory’s phone pulsed. It glowed. Its light interrupted everything.
Even now, dragonflies dipped and skimmed the water. Hovering, rising and falling, suspended in air, movements impossible, and in these creatures and in their movements no great mystery, like the unspoken acknowledgement of a common misunderstanding. A log broke the surface of the water. That place where, come mid-morning, turtles basked in the sunlight. A frog rose to the surface and moonlight made black spectral points of its weird round eyes. The frog sunk beneath the algae. Directly across the water there was a heron. Sleek and graceful, it was impossible to know. Was the bird awake, or was the animal sleeping?
Tall grasses shape-shifted in the breeze, and petals from some nearby tree fell like petals upon the water’s surface. Such simple cause and effect. Mallory was a little dizzy. Why didn’t she faint? Mallory closed her eyes and the world remained. Not as it had been, but how it was. When Mallory opened her eyes, things were exactly the same. But of course, and she rubbed her belly, they were different.
A mosquito bit her arm and drew blood. Slowly, very slowly, Mallory moved her finger several inches forward, and from side to side. Mallory brushed the mosquito. She had not intended to injure the bug. The bug died. Squashed, its guts, mixed with Mallory’s blood, smeared across her arm. There was a lot more blood than Mallory expected, in color closer to black, to crimson, the petals of a dead geranium. This would not have happened had she been wearing her sweatshirt.
It was not dark. The moon was not quite full, a bright shape set within the sky. Mallory turned. From here how easy to determine north from south, east from west. To the north, Owego Lake. It was easy to imagine. Some time, somehow, Owego Lake was going to break—or, at the very least, crack—spilling from its southern shore and into Endwell, devouring first the waterfront district with its public golf course and pretentious farmer’s market before rising like a pulse from Owego Lake’s primary tributary, Cass River, to overtake Endwell proper, flooding the public housing and historic homes quartered into rundown apartments that dot the grid of streets surrounding the tiny city, tenants and landlords and college kids and small families alike scrambling for safety and clinging to the shingles of steepled rooftops only to be lifted by the rapidly rising current like so many leaves in the gutter, the women and the men too kicking and screaming, the water cresting just below second story windows and through the windows stay-at-home moms and their bright-eyed babies hanging upon hips and looking out onto the hopelessness, this sea of swirling mud-brown water, and climbing further still this rumbling floodwater, rising without ceasing this end of times, submerging all of Endwell proper and drowning every dog and cat, every man, woman, and baby.
It would be something to see.
And Mallory turned her back to the breeze. She cradled her belly. The newly flooded city, wiped clean, wind warm and westerly, making choppy the waters of a broken lake awash with the flotsam of its bloated citizenry, the water quickly receding, the traffic lights, supplied by power stations well outside the city limits, blinking with purpose but a purpose for which there is no longer any meaning. It is like the defrocked priest. What remains of his omniscient God? These lights, blinking, broken commandments, reflecting upon the water visions of themselves. It’s like penance, absent faith. Of course Mallory was raised Catholic. If not? She’d have had different thoughts, entirely.
East? Endwell Community College. The campus dark, silent. A series of stark, base shadows black against the austere rise of the distant hillsides. Iridescent distress lights sparkled bug zapper blue above the sidewalks of roadways and the sidelines of athletic fields and from within that deep solitary darkness glittered like planets from some distant galaxy. Light posts line the empty streets and light posts illuminate the empty parking lots and together they work to form a pattern like that of some unknown constellation. Some of them like collapsing stars blinking on and off and then back on again. On and off and then back on again. A fixture eradicated only by the risen sun.
And of course Owego Lake, opposite the direction from which she had come. When there is a moon the lake glows a deep, a sapphire blue, a color that brings to mind the stained glass windows inside Our Lady of Sorrows Church. There are fourteen windows inside Our Lady of Sorrows—seven on either side of the nave—and the windows, taller than they are wide, and rectangular before angling off to form imperfect, trapezoidal points, are set in perfect opposition from one another. One window for each Station of the Cross. They have always been pretty, despite what they depict.
And like the amount of direct sunlight determines the degree of blueness that defines the defeated form of a crucified Christ, and whether it is a cyan or a periwinkle blue that makes a mournful Mary, anyone who pays any sort of attention would certainly agree that the position and phase of the moon have a similar effect upon the blueness of Owego Lake. A luminous moon, like now, and the water shimmers the powder blue of the Virgin Mary’s cloak. A crescent moon—waning, say, low over the city’s south side—and the lake is that same sapphire as the ridges of those bruised ribs in outline atop the Son of God’s pierced, emaciated, abdomen.
But even when the moon is new you can see Owego Lake. Even when clouds mask the moon and the world is obscured you know Owego Lake is there. Only the lake isn’t blue. The lake is black. Much blacker than the skyline, and made even darker by Endwell’s twinkling lights, whose streetlights, gold as the flames of votive candles, run in neat, parallel lines across the city and whose house lights, luminous as the wings of fairies, lay scattered in various degrees of concentration around the blackened body of water, the lake is the pitch of unreflected light, and Owego Lake seems to descend into that swath of eroding earth with the same dizzying speed of the black expansion of nightfall bleeding up and into outer space.
Mallory doesn’t need to walk around the pond, she no longer needed to search the tombstones, the rest of Endwell Cemetery. She had captured enough names, her baby still inside her, awake, or asleep, in its womb. With one hand she cradled her stomach. Next? She answered the phone.
Like how Chesterton’s wistful child believes it’s the willow’s swaying branches which creates the breeze, Mallory wondered how she, herself, appeared to her mother. Things were different now. Phrases and sentences crashed into Mallory’s consciousness, they splintered into words, and compound words into simple sounds. Lately, she could not reconstruct them. She was never sure what people were saying, or what she was thinking.
Justin said, “What were you doing up there, anyways?”
“I decided to tell my mom.”
Justin nodded. He looked straight ahead and the road was dark, and their headlights tore open a definitely defined space. Her mom lived in the hills, too, only on the other side of the water. He didn’t like talking about Mallory’s mom.
“So I was looking for names, because we don’t really have anything in mind? I hate when people try too hard, though. Plus it was good exercise. I didn’t expect to find anything.”
There wasn’t much Mallory missed. She did miss, like now, about 10 mg of oxycodone, a couple Valium, and a glass of red wine. How, when high, like a warm wind sweeping over her damp body, she felt the erasure of living’s kinetic energy, as if she were nothing more than a mind held in place by something warm and fuzzy. In the near distance the tops of very tall trees. The hillside was steep, and Justin eased through switchbacks and sliced through hairpin bends in the road, his brake lights bleeding to bloody the road behind them a ruby red, before them headlights illuminating silver guardrails and behind those rocky till and sheer moraine walls, these rock formations rich with fossils from some long-ago world rising into a darkness illuminated by moonlight no longer.
“You didn’t find anything good, then?”
They didn’t know the sex. Not officially. They were going to wait. Justin had a couple of names picked out, but he was going to wait until Mallory suggested something—anything—so that he could gauge if what he liked was worth suggesting. Besides, he wasn’t convinced, like Mallory, that they were having a girl.
The hillside rose further still. Justin accelerated, Justin slowed. With two hands Mallory held her belly, with two hands Mallory assumed control. The rocks gave way to trees. There were no guardrails. There was no fencing. Here or there just a series of boulders large enough and placed closely one enough to another so as to prevent a direct avenue to death. In the rearview mirror, many miles below them, Endwell glittered quietly between hand- sized leaves pregnant with green.
Justin climbed higher and the trees thinned to yield space for enormous houses recently built. Mallory simultaneously hated and admired these homes which, like magic mushrooms, popped from their marginal property lines with the same, if not greater, muted magnificence as those Devonian outcroppings flanking the more dramatic bends of the road, Mallory finding in the ornate, in the intricate designs of these houses, Mallory locating in their constructions not so much a semblance of arrogance but an overwhelming self-consciousness, a governance of pride. Here on display was the incredible ingenuity of humanity, our ability to plan, to engineer. Only here, she thought, marked a particularly sad sort of cemetery. People entombed, still living.
“You okay?” Justin said.
Mallory nodded. She pulled her phone from her pocket. She thumbed through the pictures, read aloud the names. Justin knew Mallory well enough and while certainly trying to find a name, Mallory wasn’t trying too hard. If they had a girl Justin wanted to name her Alexandra and he would call her Alex. But even before Mallory had left to go for a walk he knew this wasn’t going to happen. Boy or girl, Mallory would select the name.
There was a Chevy parked in her mom’s driveway. The house, usually dark, was alive with light. Glowing. Even the front door— wide open—was electric with color.
“You can go home,” Mallory said. “I’ll call you when it’s over.” “When what’s over? You don’t—”
Mallory shrugged. She felt a surge of sadness. She felt like there was something extra inside of her, ready to erupt. Mallory knew what she had said. She had believed it at the time. She thought about it all the time. If she cried, she would cry and she wasn’t trying not to. But there was no way. It was impossible to think that she would cry when her mom died. Not that much had changed. She wasn’t trying to prove something, least of all to Justin. But what she felt? This was worse. There was something extra inside her—And she was afraid she was making the wrong decision. Burdening her mom with so hopeless an understanding.
“You sure?” he said. “I don’t mind coming in. It’s probably just a false alarm. I don’t mind waiting in the car.”
Mallory shook her head, she smiled. Justin was a lousy liar. They both knew why her father had called, why the nurse had texted. This was it. After a moment she leaned across the seat and kissed him on the cheek.
And Mallory opened the door. She turned and waved, listening to Justin pull away.
QUESTIONS FOR THE NARRATOR
Question: What if she didn’t?
Narrator: Seems like it wouldn’t matter, especially if you picture, in your mind’s eye, something like Arlington National Cemetery, with its rows and rows of white. Ultimately, this is impossible to say. Probably one of the story’s better questions. At least I think so.
Q: To so little a girl how strange must a cemetery seem?
N: Thanks for the reminder and I aim to ask her.
Q: A bat?
Q: A bird?
N: Of course not.
Q: Mallory was not proud of this, but what could she say?
N: Quite a bit, actually. Because the purpose here is not to raise more questions, I will stick with declarative sentences. Mallory’s mother, while not a vile person, was a number of things to a number of Mallorys. While an infant, Mallory’s mother was overprotective and ignorant. For instance, she would not leave her with a babysitter (Mallory was allowed to stay home, alone, once she turned fourteen) but refused to breastfeed, believing the prevailing literature, which stated that formula was healthier, and that breastfeeding was barbaric. While a teen, Mallory’s mother was overbearing, insisting Mallory pursue her (and her dad’s) bloated version of Roman Catholicism. Worse than this, however, Mallory’s mother was a flake. Because her husband provided their family financial freedom, Mallory’s mother pursued passing fads, foisting these interests upon Mallory. For example, when Mallory’s mother became interested in Gospel music, she took Mallory to a Baptist church in downtown Baltimore for an authentic experience. A young adult, Mallory’s parents dropped her off at SUNY Stony Brook for her first day at college and her mom, unannounced, returned to her dorm two hours later, entered her room without knocking, and placed an arrangement of fresh-cut flowers upon her nightstand, and began weeping. (Fortunately, her mom didn’t know what marijuana smelled like.) As an adult, Mallory’s mother was no less intrusive. When Mallory’s mother developed a fascination with Flamenco dancing, she took classes, and provided a surprise performance during Mallory’s wedding. It would have been better for Mallory had her mom been a stereotype, but there was, Mallory believed, no one person on the planet anything like her. The way she loved felt more like a seatbelt, and less like a hug.
Q: After that?
N: Or else, I suppose.
Q: What was there to remember?
Q: And the thing with her cancer?
N: Mallory’s mother was diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma. A tumor the size of a grapefruit was deeply embedded within her chest and shoulder. Untreatable, the cancer slowly, incredibly slowly, spread, not so much moving from organ to organ— although there was a bit of that going on—as strangling nerves and creating within her mom overwhelming pain. Her left hand was the size of two hands and so red as to seem black, as if her cells had suffered frostbite and her fingers were about to fall off. Technically, her mom was not paralyzed. Literally, pain moved in slow, concentric circles, from her left shoulder to her left hand. As though her blood were bruised. As if her blood was swelling. On a scale from one through ten her pain’s face was crimson, eyes x’s of agony, mouth mashed, tears—or sweat—bursting off the page. Her dead and dying skin, itself an avenue for metastasis, informed its own sort of ache, as if pain itself were an organ responsible for her life. For living.
Q: When the other drugs kicked in?
N: Her mom became more human. Or more like Mallory, anyways.
Q: What was wrong with her brother, anyway?
N: Good question. Mallory was not sure. At some point their relationship had fractured. As a means to heal himself, her brother, given that he was unwilling to participate in actually caring for their mother, or truly interacting with their father, assumed, in analogy, the role of executor of their father’s feelings. Like most, if not all mouthpieces, his words ran hallow. Moreover, her brother had deluded himself, denuded logic, and manufactured a story wherein Mallory, after learning that he had tried to off himself (Mallory had no idea this happened and even if she had learned of this, she would have doubted the veracity of the claim) had sent him a hurtful email. Her brother claimed to have printed this email and presented it to his shrink. His shrink said that he had no choice but to ‘kill’ Mallory, and have a funeral, mourning the loss of their relationship. He took this to heart. The last time they spoke Mallory asked him to forward the note. His brother claimed he couldn’t, that he deleted and then burned the alleged email as part of this effigy.
Q: A text?
N: It is impractical to call a dead person.
Q: To learn that her mom had signed with hospice?
N: Mallory was okay with this because she never believed that her mom had a couple months left. Numbers are random. Arbitrary. So long as her mom was alive, she wasn’t dead. Mallory, intuitively, understood that her dad didn’t expect to see her mom getting better. But Mallory didn’t picture her dying, either. Her father? She didn’t know. He didn’t speak on the subject. She thought her dad considered her as just another person with cancer. It was all so unclear. She wasn’t about to make things worse and ask her brother.
Q: That she had been given two months, max?
N: Mallory knew nothing about hospice. But she did know that
her brother was an idiot, so she didn’t quite believe this. Mallory went online. She read that hospice care may certainly signify that death is imminent, but that many people confuse the care people receive with an actual death sentence. The way the web site worded everything, a grammar like a religious tract crossed with a car lease, framed her mother’s remaining days as a sort of reality TV show. Horrified, Mallory’s throat constricted to close.
Q: Hadn’t her mom just painted that picture of a cardinal on a snow- peaked fencepost?
N: Yes. It came out quite nice.
Q: Telling Justin she was going for a walk?
N: For some time, Mallory had the idea of walking to the cemetery to look for baby names and she just couldn’t summon the needed energy. Endwell Cemetery, while close to her home, was hilly. She didn’t handle hills well. A daughter should love her mother. This daughter didn’t.The first few months of her pregnancy were anguish, and she liked to think of them as a sort of penance. The morning sickness had been overwhelming. She left the house only when necessary. Visiting her mom proved tricky, and she wondered what, if anything, her mom knew, or suspected.
Q: That she needed some air?
N: She did. While the feeling came on stronger towards the end of the story—that there was something inside her, ready to erupt—this sensation’s genesis begins here.
N: I know the guy to ask, but he’d just as likely offer up some nonsense response. This aside, the question isn’t as convoluted as it may seem. Even when erasing technology from the equation and
considering the self as an arbiter of understanding and empathy, the self becomes the soulless pages of some Chicken Soup for the Self-type book. Once technology is added as ingredient, the self becomes a sort of .gif, not exactly self-serving, but working to serve a greater good which lacks the ability to remove itself from the center of this imagined universe, and assumes, seen or unseen, its own sort of omniscience. But what do I know?
Q: And where has that gotten her?
Q: This is what it came down to?
N: Sadly, for many, dying takes a protracted period of time. Dying—as process, as opposed to ‘waking up dead’—is far from peaceful, and proves utterly ugly. Hospice promises an alternative. 1Whether or not the hospice you use is a “for-profit” corporation or a “nonprofit” corporation should not make a difference in the quality of care you receive, but it sometimes does. Maybe you have had a positive experience with the corporation. Perhaps you have heard wonderful anecdotes, or have met one of their many wonderful volunteers. Mallory’s mother did not. Within white paper bags stapled neatly shut the corporation provided enough drugs to, metaphorically, immolate the soul and literally, these kits contain enough drugs to kill a woman like Mallory’s mother until she dies. Alone, in your living room, there are no witnesses. Death becomes sanctioned in that choice is distilled to a matter of conscience. Of will. Erased is the suggestion of violence. Death becomes sanitized in that you need not wait for some blood vessel to burst, just societal-and religious-imposed principles. Suicide doesn’t become any more legal. More importantly, suicide doesn’t become any less taboo. Had it, Mallory—and maybe even her father!—would have offed her mom weeks ago. She was ready. She had all but asked for permission to leave, to go.
1. The regulations are exactly the same. All licensed and certified hospices must comply with State law and the Code of Federal Regulations governing hospice care: 42 CFR part 418. However, it must be noted that there are some large, for-profit corporations which are either buying up hospices all over the United States or forcing the smaller hospices out of business by using questionable marketing practices which are sometimes outright illegal. In any field of business there are the “good” and the “bad,” and hospice is no different. There are ethical nonprofit corporations and ethical for-profit corporations, while there are unethical nonprofit or for-profit hospice corporations. Picking the wrong hospice can have disastrous results in terms of your loved one’s care. This, as Mallory would find out, is a fact, but don’t take her/our word for it:
(Hospice Patients Alliance, https://hospicepatients.org/hospic46.html).
Q: For how much longer would the sweatshirt fit?
N: There were times when Mallory simply couldn’t believe she was pregnant. And when she wondered if the child would have erased some of the distance between herself and her mother.
Q: What came first ... The sunrise, or the sunset?
N: Obviously this is conditional, and, in terms of psychic distance, Mallory engaged this question, which, in part, is intended to display both her intellectual range, and the state she is in. More glass half empty or full than chicken or egg causality dilemma, Mallory, if asked, would refuse to answer the question.
Q: If it was not for the living ... how could the dead possibly exist?
N: See anywhere in the text, really.
N: A variant of the Greek Medea, meaning ruling, the name, as myth, is associated with a witch who left a trail of dead bodies behind her.In the United States, the name peaked in the 1880s, with fourteen per million baby girls ‘given’ the name. Media
wasn’t Medea, but Mallory knew that if she named her daughter Media, people would think she was trying too hard. In knowing that she was not trying too hard, and electing such an unusual name, Mallory began to wonder if, actually, she was trying too hard. As consequence, this made Pleasants an easy choice. And it helped that the name, combined with Justin’s surname, was both alliterative, and partially rhymed.
N: Mallory cannot find evidence for the name, so spelled, online. But she has a picture as proof.
Q: Was it possible for something to lack a center?
So here we are obviously dealing with center as noun. If we think of center as being equidistant from every point on the circumference or surface, it seems like the pond, with its irregular shape, doesn’t have a center. But if center is taken to mean the point from which an activity or process is directed, or from which it is focused, then it is impossible for any looked-upon something to lack a center. So, no. Final answer.
Q: “If the bubbles had not been there, would I be here?”
N: More chicken and egg nonsense, but, because of her baby, Mallory is hormonal, and her mom is dying. It’s a ‘Her thoughts are having her,’ sort of thing.
N: Mallory could have easily maintained a relationship with her mother, assuming her mother remained in a sort of sarcoma- induced stasis. Mallory wondered what would happen if her mother, miraculously, healed. It seemed impossible to imagine her assuming humility’s mantle, but it was definitely possible. But her mother healing seemed utterly improbable, and so, what worried Mallory, was that Hospice would be wrong and her mom’s condition would worsen, but she would survive months into Mallory’s pregnancy, and her mom—Well, we all had our own problems, and so little time away from them. Mallory couldn’t find the value in sharing hers with others.
Q: Was the bird awake, or was it sleeping?
Q: Why didn’t she faint?
N: It wouldn’t have seemed plausible.
Q: What remains of his omniscient God?
N: The better question is: What happens to the defrocked priest?
Q: If not?
N: Her brother married a Jewish woman. He converted. They are raising their four children both Jewish, and, covertly, anti-Catholic. Mallory was certain that her brother thought becoming Jewish was both cool, and a way of getting back at their mother. For instance, their mom had not been permitted to send his kids any Christmas presents, but was expected to celebrate, via FaceTime, Hanukkah. But Mallory never considered this. So, nothing. She was destined to be Catholic.
Q: Why else would she be here?
N: In a week or so, for her mother’s internment. In the year to come, to visit, and introduce, Pleasants.
N: Mallory often visited the pond and Mallory frequently crossed the stone fence. She enjoyed visiting that part of Endwell Cemetery which overlooked the hamlet, and she opened her mind to that sense of geography, of space. She liked to look at the lake. Endwell sits on Owego Lake’s southern shore. The longest of several lakes of similar shape—thirty-two miles separate Endwell, and the city of Laverna, which rests upon the lake’s northern shore—Owego Lake, as viewed from space, extends from Endwell towards the city of Laverna like a middle finger, with the knuckle being Owego Lake’s widest point at three and a half miles across. But high above Endwell, not far from her mom’s remains, the length of the lake quartered by the horizon and framed within such a limited field of vision, the lake looks so much wider, the lake seems to spread across the valley like cough syrup poured upon a spoon, like rainwater pooled upon the petal of a flower. Not so much something contained, as some thing to be preserved. In this way Mallory became more interested in time. In each year’s passing seasons. Once her mom died, everything was different. (There is no way to explain this.) Those who have lost a parent are not part of a club and they do not share something in common. The loss of your mother makes you a stranger among strangers.
Q: In its?
N: Neither. It is the womb. Here, the definite article denoting one or more people associated with a single thing. Also used to point forward, to a following qualifier.
N: She answered the phone.
Given society’s infatuation with reality, Shields, in Reality Hunger, suggests that our culture is, for the most part, devoid of any authenticity. Who’s to say? “Broken Lake” acknowledges, as homage, Reality Hunger, and questions who, if anyone, governs ideas, and how long they live.
Evil cookies; 1 grated/pureed beet to represent the hearts and blood of your conquered foes, a few tablespoons of instant coffee for the bitterness and jade in your soul, and about 4-6 oz. of dark, unsweetened chocolate chips to symbolize your hatred for all things.
Arson; coconut ash and black toasted pretzel sticks are all that remain of your worldly possessions. The smoked paprika and chili powder is the echo of the infernal heat that ravaged your home.
Electric Chair; something with lemon zest and tannins. Tea? Sesame paste? Has to be really strong to trigger that puckery jaw clench like the 10,000,000 volts surging through your bones.
Pestilence; cricket flour, for obvious reasons. Chopped nuts are all the crunchy little vermin befouling your crops. Oatmeal is the wings on which they buzz about maddeningly. That cloying sweetness is the honey dripping from the hive being slowly built upon your swollen, paralyzed body.
Hypothermia; Cocoa powder gives it the same color as your frozen, blackened extremities, with so much peppermint extract that you’ll never feel warm again. The thin crunchy coat of granulated sugar bears unnerving resemblance to the frost accumulating on your skin.
July arrives like a friend in a dream
with too many fingers and a too-long
neck. Behind the blue garage door
the Methodist pianist wades through Breathe
On Me Breath
of God again. I wade
through Waiting for Godot in French
again. It’s like
prints. The doom
sense. I forget
my phone, repeat
blind light blind light for miles,
come back from my walk wrecked
by sun, still neglect the electric
bill. Fortune telling with radio songs
reveals summer loves me not. It’s what
we used to call
played out. What we
was every flavor
mixed together. When asked at
the end of his life what had been worth while, Beckett said Precious
little. A search
for the source
of this story—precious little
Beckett—turns up newborn photos and
the Beckett g-string, “embroidered
with precious little bees.” I could
not make this
in the belly
of the body
of the monster whose name
is a woman crowned with
flowers. Viral yellow lily precious
little against the
hymnist’s blue door.
Amos pitched a potato over the shed roof and in seconds, it came flying back. He was simply trying to get rid of it, not play catch. He walked around to the opposite side but saw nobody there. Then Amos tried a nice turnip. Same thing as the potato but much more colorful on return, more like a living planet than an asteroid. Lastly Amos decided to shotput a cabbage. Over the roof it flew, big like the moon and it too came barreling back, shredding itself on the gravel. Worms and grubs ate what they could and quickly grew way out of proportion into a second string team. They eventually made their way to the other side of the shed where they took down Axel, the wolf spider quarterback.
Anymore John rarely goes anywhere without his door. Most of us are of the opinion it’s not his front door as we’ve seen his front door and his front door’s dark and heavy. My wife guesses it’s his bathroom door, something for him to get behind when he’s out in public and he’s got to relieve himself. Sometimes we see John carrying his door by its knobs a little off to his side and if you watch him for any length of time and distance, you’ll see him switch sides with it. Sometimes the wind will catch it and spin him and his door around in a circle or two but he never lets go. We’ve seen him fall on the ground with the door ending up on top of him and with him on top of the door but he always gets up and brushes the door off before himself. That speaks volumes about the kind of man John is. Not long ago I saw John, well, me and my wife saw John digging a shallow little trench for it along the riverbank so we stopped and watched. Eventually John set the door upright in this little trench, stepped back a foot or two and knocked. The door didn’t move but everything else did! The entire landscape around us seemed to revolve! My wife and I were flabbergasted but John was unmoved. Just then he turned and invited us in. It was everything you could imagine.
During the Santa Monica fires, smoke thick
as Dante, ranchers scratched their names
and phone numbers on their horses’ hooves,
hugged their sooty steeds goodbye, then turned
them loose. Like praying into the void,
or playing shadow tag with a rolling wall of ash.
Why not? Up ahead, somewhere beyond blaze
and slag, who knows where, lies a meadow.
No compass or maps, just sky in my hair,
I’ll follow my thumb till I zigzag true—
Mud Lake to here, Hell Gate to there.
No compass or maps, just sky in my hair.
I’ll make thirst my bible, wind my prayer
till stars pay my ransom and nights bleed blue.
No compass or maps, just sky in my hair,
I’ll follow my thumb till I zigzag true.
Sleepless again in the wee hours: what I crave
is a phantom two-wheeler I can pedal,
bad dreams feeding good thighs.
You come too. Great horned owl on my shoulder,
girl scout compass around my neck.
Together we’ll crush these curves.
I’ll channel Nietzsche in the knocking
pipes. Then learn vampire and practice death
curses on the rattling fridge.
You come too. Time to hum, time to ring
this tiny bell and aim our bones at the moon.
Derek Annis is the author of Neighborhood of Gray Houses (Lost Horse Press), the associate director of Willow Springs Books, and the manager of the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry, an annual full-length poetry collection contest by Lynx House Press. Their poems have appeared in The Account, Colorado Review, Epiphany, The Gettysburg Review, The Missouri Review Online, Poet Lore, Spillway, Third Coast, and many other journals. To find out more, visit https://derekannis.wordpress.com/
John Blair has published six books, most recently Playful Song Called Beautiful (University of Iowa Press, 2016) as well as poems & stories in The Colorado Review, Poetry, The Sewanee Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters, and elsewhere. His seventh book, The Art of Forgetting, is forthcoming this summer from Measure Press.
By the time Mathew Brady was born, he was already 15 years old, and a divorced father of three. Every day he ventures into the woods with his pen and clipboard and he counts all the woodland critters he sees for the government census. In 1982, Mathew won the Olympic silver medal in the thousand yard stare. His hobbies include reading and macramé, and his favorite genre is dance apocalyptic.
Victoria María Castells is a graduate of McNeese State’s MFA program, and has a B.A. in English from Duke University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Reservoir, The Journal, Notre Dame Review, and The Florida Review. She lives in Miami, Florida.
Michael Chang (they/them) is the proud recipient of fellowships from Brooklyn Poets, Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. They were invited to attend the Juniper Summer Writing Institute, the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, as well as the Omnidawn Poetry Writing Conference. Their writing has been published or is forthcoming in Vassar Review, Yellow Medicine Review, Santa Clara Review, Summerset Review, Heavy Feather Review, Juked, Radar, LandLocked, Poet Lore, Ninth Letter, Hobart, and many others.
George Choundas, established 1971 in Jersey City, New Jersey, is headquartered in Pleasantville, New York. He has operations in over fifty publications. He conducts business activities with a joint venture partner and two noisy, sugar-fiending subsidiaries.
Whitney Collins’s debut story collection, BIG BAD (Sarabande Books), won the 2019 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. She is the recipient of a 2020 Pushcart Prize, a 2020 Pushcart Special Mention, and the 2020 American Short(er) Fiction Prize. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, Slice, American Short Fiction, The Greensboro Review, Shenandoah, The Pinch, Ninth Letter, and Catapult’s TINY NIGHTMARES anthology, among others. She lives in Kentucky with her sons.
Leonora Desar’s writing has appeared in places such as New South, No Tokens, The Cincinnati Review, Black Warrior Review, and Columbia Journal, where she was chosen as a finalist by Ottessa Moshfegh. Her work has been selected for The Best Small Fictions 2019 and 2021, the Wigleaf Top 50 (2019 and 2020), and Best Microfiction 2019, 2020, and 2021. She won third place in SmokeLong Quarterly’s 2020 Award for Flash Fiction and River Styx’s 2018 microfiction contest, and was a finalist in Quarter After Eight’s Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Contest, judged by Stuart Dybek, and Crazyhorse’s Crazyshorts! contest. She is fiction editor of Pidgeonholes.
John Dudek is the Associate Director of Creative Writing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His work has appeared in Grist, The Journal, Lake Effect, Passages North, and elsewhere.
Based in Westchester County New York, in love with Catholic iconography and the comforting beauty of surrealism, not interested in painting anything that recreates reality but committed to creating his own, Dany Escobar uses acrylics because they dry fast, and unlike life, they allow him to fix any mistakes instantly.
Michaela Florio received her MFA in nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She has presented her work at the Animal Riot reading series, and has been published in Madcap Review and Under the Gum Tree, to name a few. Originally from Alaska, she currently lives in the East Bay of California where she teaches creative writing.
Cal Freeman is the author of the book Fight Songs. His writing has appeared in many journals including Southword, The Moth, Passages North, Hippocampus, Southwest Review, and The Poetry Review. His poetry collection Poolside at the Dearborn Inn is forthcoming from R & R Press in 2022.
Henry Goldkamp performs his life in New Orleans now, but is Saint Louis forever. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in Yemassee, DIAGRAM, New South, Denver Quarterly, Big Other, and Idaho Review, among others. He is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and serves as a poetry reader for The Adroit Journal and Bayou. His public art projects have been covered by NPR and Time. More and more at henrygoldkamp.com.
Emily Kingery teaches courses in literature, writing, and linguistics at a small university in Iowa. Her work appears or is forthcoming in multiple journals, including Birdcoat Quarterly, CutBank, Eastern Iowa Review, GASHER, Gingerbread House, Midwest Review, New South, and Trampoline, and she has been both a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. She serves on the Board of Directors at the Midwest Writing Center, a non-profit organization that supports writers in the Quad Cities community.
Jennifer Lang’s shorts have appeared in Atticus Review, CHEAP POP, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere. “Repeat the Enchanting” won first place in Midway Journal’s flash contest. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity. Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, she lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio and hunts for a special press for her first memoir. If she’s not at her desk tinkering with words, she’s probably on her mat tinkering with poses: practicing yoga since 1995, teaching since 2003.
Lance Larsen is the author of five poetry collections, most recently What the Body Knows (Tampa 2018). He’s won The Tampa Review prize, a Pushcart Prize, and fellowships from Sewanee, Ragdale, the Anderson Center, and the NEA. He teaches at BYU, where he serves as department chair and fools around with aphorisms: “A woman needs a man the way a manatee needs a glockenspiel.” In 2017 he completed a five-year appointment as Utah’s poet laureate.
Richard Leise recently accepted the Perry Morgan Fellowship in Creative Writing and the David Scott Sutelan Memorial Scholarship from Old Dominion University. While completing an MFA, he has a novel out on submission, and is finishing a collection of short stories. His work may be found in numerous publications, and was recently awarded Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions nominations.
Brian Malone is a writer from New England who has lived in the Pacific Northwest for the past five years. His creative nonfiction and poetry appear in Oyster River Pages, Blue Earth Review, Waxwing, Glassworks, and Storyscape Journal.
Emily Jace McLaughlin is a fiction writer and screenwriter. Her short stories have appeared in Catapult, VICE, Cutbank, and Fiction, among other journals. She is a graduate of the Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, where she currently teaches.
Ben Miller is the author of River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll Amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa (Lookout Books, www.riverbendchronicle.com). His awards include creative writing fellowships from the NEA and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, as well as grants from the South Dakota Arts Council and the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Chapter 12 of it all melts down to this is included in Best American Experimental Writing 2020 (edited by Joyelle McSweeney and Carmen Maria Machado). Other chapters have been featured in Hotel Amerika, Bat City Review, Inverted Syntax, New Delta Review, AMP, Fiction International, The Journal of Black Mountain Studies and Chicago Review.
Sarah Kathryn Moore holds an MFA and a PhD from the University of Washington; her poems have appeared in Electric Lit, Tupelo Quarterly, Poetry Northwest, and elsewhere. Find her online at sarahkathrynmoore.com.
Soraya Qahwaji is a poet of whom nothing is known. Now let’s look at her poem.
Molly Reid is the author of The Rapture Index: A Suburban Bestiary (BOA, 2019). Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, Crazyhorse, Witness, Gulf Coast, and other magazines. Her micro story “The Taxidermist and the Baker” recently won Fractured Lit’s 2020 Micro Fiction Prize. She received her PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Cincinnati and is currently the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College. For more information, please go to mollyjeanreid.com.
Jendi Reiter is the author of the novel Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, 2016), the short story collection An Incomplete List of My Wishes (Sunshot Press, 2018), and four poetry books and chapbooks, most recently Bullies in Love (Little Red Tree, 2015). They are the editor of WinningWriters.com, an online resource site with contests and markets for creative writers.
Graeme Robertson is a photographer currently based in Scotland.
Georgia San Li is a writer, currently at work on a novel, short stories, and other writings. Most recently, her work in creative non-fiction was shortlisted in La Piccioletta Barca and published in Eclectica Magazine. She has worked in cities including London, Tunis, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Paris, Wilhelmshaven and Tokyo. She is American, born in the Midwest, and currently lives with her husband and daughter in New England.
Margie Sarsfield is a Pushcart-nominated writer living in Columbus, Ohio. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Salt Hill, CutBank, The Normal School, Seneca Review, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the 2019 Calvino Prize and serves as co-fiction editor for The Journal.
Nina Shope is the author of Hangings: Three Novellas, a collection published by Starcherone Books. Her fiction has appeared in Sleeping Fish, Salt Hill, Fourteen Hills, 3rdBed, Open City, Plinth, and on sidebrow.net. Her first full-length novel, Asylum, won the 2020 Dzanc Books Fiction Prize and will be published in Spring 2022. She lives with her husband, writer Christopher Narozny, in Denver, Colorado.
A Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, Charles Springer is widely published in print and online. His first collection of poems entitled JUICE was published by Regal House Publishing. Read about him on his website at https://www.charlesspringer. com. He writes from Pennsylvania.
Justin Thurman teaches writing at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. His work has appeared in Cimarron Review, The Masters Review, and The Rupture, among others. Justin holds a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Cathy Ulrich has never liked those word problems in math. Or math in general. Her work has been published in various journals, including Passages North, CutBank, 100 Word Story and Wigleaf.
Sonja Vitow is a Jewish Philadelphian Gritty enthusiast living in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, where she is a teacher and editor of a small literary magazine called The Knicknackery. She received her MFA in creative writing from Emerson College in 2013, and will soon be pursuing her M.Ed. in Human Sexuality. As a child in the nineties, she always tried to obtain the black ring in the game Pretty Pretty Princess, even though it meant she would lose. In her spare time, she plays autoharp and makes soap, which she sends to her friends, who are all fairly clean at this point. Some of her work can be found in Rattle, Harvard Review, Fugue Journal, The Rumpus, and Carve Magazine, or on her website at sonjavitow.com.
Wendy Elizabeth Wallace is a queer writer with vision loss originally from Buffalo, NY. Currently, she teaches English in Connecticut and writes when her dog is not demanding walks. She is the co-founding editor of Peatsmoke: A Literary Journal. She met the good people who are willing to suffer through her drafts at the Purdue University MFA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Carolina Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, The New Orleans Review, Longleaf Review, jmww, and elsewhere. See this aging Millennial struggle to Twitter @WendyEWallace1
Dale Williams has exhibited in the New York City area over the past 25 years. He is a 2014 recipient of a fellowship in Printmaking/ Drawing/Book Arts from the New York Foundation for the Arts. His most recent one-person show, “America Now Suite,” which re-visioned American history in service of the civic imagination, was held at Gowanus Loft (Brooklyn) in October 2018. A selection of portraits from “America Now Suite” was included in the BRIC Biennial, February - April 2019. (BRIC is Brooklyn’s Premier Cultural Institution). An exhibition of drawings from phase 2 of his ongoing project with writer Ben Miller, “Cage Dies Bird Flies,” was held at the Center for Literary Arts of Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, April 2019; a performance was staged to coincide with the exhibition. His work has been published in numerous print and online journals.
Francis Marion Moseley Wilson is an American artist- academic currently based in Ohio. As a doctoral researcher at the University of Glasgow, her creative practice-research is on Bodies and Boundaries in Performing Taxidermy. She has performed internationally, in the USA, UK, Canada, and Germany.
Quarter After Eight A Journal of Innovative Literature & Art
Submit to the annual:
Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Contest
Any genre, under 500 words . prize $1,008.15
Deadline Nov. 30