Visual Art by Diego Luis, who currently studies at Brown University as a PhD Candidate in history. His photography has appeared in West Texas Literary Review, NAILED Magazine, Literary Juice, Der Wurzburger, SOMOS, and Cornerstone Magazine.
The Art of Flubbing Up
I once asked the three lovely young men,
refugees from El Salvador, evangelicals,
if they had a good old woman
on their weekend trip to Dallas.
I persisted through three verb tenses
of tener, to have, in response
to their shocked denials,
sure I would finally get it right.
At last one, overhearing, solved the mystery…
my Did you have a good trip…
exchanging una buena vieja
for un buen viaje.
The learning curve is a minefield,
but if you don’t venture to cross it,
losing a few dignities,
you must remain the butt
of the old joke about monolingual …
3 languages tri-lingual
2 languages bi-lingual
1 language American.
There are so many places to go
and so many ways to stay put.
Off the trail I am likely
to stumble. I always get caught
on a quick dash into the store
(“I won’t see anyone I know!”),
tongue-tied. I know some perfect people,
and I am trying to find some way
to commend myself, here,
but I seem to have circled back,
lost once again, to my title.
Carol Hamilton has recent and upcoming publications in Paper Street Journal, Cold Mountain Review, Common Ground, Poet Lore, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Gingerbread House, Main Street Rag. Sacred Cow. U.S.1 Worksheet, Pontiac Review, Louisiana Literature, Homestead Review, Poem, Sandy River Review, One Trick Pony, Plainsongs, The 3228 Review, Texas Poetry Calendar 2017, Nebo, Ancient Paths, Oklahoma Humanities Magazine, Inscape and others. Hamilton has published 17 books: children’s novels, legends and poetry, most recently, SUCH DEATHS from Vac Press Purple Flag Series. She is a former Poet Laureate of Oklahoma and have been nominated seven times for a Pushcart Prize.
Long-haired freak, ditch-weed high, digit butchered on the plane-saw. “Fine work” I thought, so proud. Poorly crafted, modest design, strictly “C” work.
Musty resin bouquet wafts from the open drawer, little trinkets and bits of paper held within. Spilled upon the floor as pieces of a puzzle, Inner-locked, a tale they do tell.
Grimy faceless “Lego chef” keychain, “Chili’s” hat pins and work schedule, brittle from age, stained and yellowed. A child’s tooth missed.
Founding membership card for the F.B of I, concert ticket stubs, old registration slip for a 71’ “Gold Duster”, broke-down, left it for dead.
A life contained in a small box, years it has followed, a hardwood memory filled with guardians of a moment.
A life lived each day — for the day, never a moment idled on yesterday’s tomorrow, ravenously consuming the here and now, self-gratifying nourishment.
They are all as they were… in the box, unchanged. At once beautiful and hideous, honest and deceptive, heroic and cowardly, innocent and culpable.
In the box, priceless riches are captive; they cannot escape as before, sustained only for my pleasure as suspended images of a mind’s eye, unsullied by the ravages of time.
Spencer Squid, John the Babbler, Ducky Bones, and The Tin Man. Gary, the two Don’s, and the Wild Texan. All the incredible, beautiful creatures, the loved and lost.
Do they wonder…was I abandoned and forgotten? Drowned in the crashing wake of instant gratification, depleted and discarded.
Or, is it I who is held in a walnut box, existing only as a bit of paper or a small trinket.
Dennis Perry Clark is a retired chef/aspiring writer seeking to express thoughts. It is his hope that those who read them enjoy.
Nevertheless He Persisted
Every blooming is a humbling
just as each negation begets a numbness.
He sees why the universe makes itself this way:
susceptible to failure but loaded with courage,
twitching with contradiction yet clear as snowmelt.
He’s really placed himself in the crosshairs this time:
having fallen in raving love and not knowing what to do.
Warnings and red flags flashed and waved all along,
but true love is a euphoric eruption for which nobody
is especially well-equipped, especially a dreamer
for whom the line between wishing and wanting
was wishy-washy at best. Who knew love’s fever
could be so feathery and serrated at once? Even
with the evidence of erosion glowering from every nook,
he will continue to play his hand at love, ignoring the pangs and constant nettles, because even having a seat
at love’s table is the best thing that could happen
to a guy like him who believes in birds and dirt and little else.
Connolly Ryan was born in Greenwich Village, New York. He is currently a professor of literature at University of Massachusetts. His visceral/surreal and knife-witty poetry has been published in various journals including Bateau, Weber The Contemporary West, Ditch, Umbrella, Citron, Harvard Review, Satire, Gravel, Scythe, Slope, Meat For Tea, Pannax Index, Satire and Old Crow. He is a recent recipient of a five hundred dollar poetry prize offered by Weber, The Cotemporary West. He is also a multiple Pushcart nominee. He has three finished Manuscripts: Fort Polio, The Uncle Becky Chronicles and What The Bagpipes Dragged In. He lives in Florence MA.
Lion Statue Babysitter
Here is a little moment for you a little turn the light out moment just for you you see the girl was about eight the boy was about three the girl was the sister the boy was toy tricks and orange juice spills the boy was attitude tantrums on the linoleum floor and thrown plastic cups across the dining room floor the boy was done all up in a smile he was crisscross applesauce and not wanting to sleep. There they were these two. Another babysitter. Another strange house. Many strange houses felt strange at first and then felt like home. Some strange houses allowed a little girl and a little boyfriend to touch under the dining room table. This house was not one of them. This strange house was the one with the lion statues at the end of the long drive the house buried in trees so far back you couldn’t see it for a long time after passing the lions those lions cold and not moving they never move they sit with paws folded cold under their cold gray bodies every day they wait there for the hours after school when they would mark the moment we entered her world. A tiny moment in this lion statue house with this lion statue babysitter who sat on the sofa every day she sat she sat she sat and sat she sat and stared at the television hum she sat and bellowed sat and sneered sat and called out to us don’ts and get away from there’s she sat and we sat staring at a television too she sat and we tried to play with toys we played she sat she sat so one day a girl gathered some courage one day she decided before seeing those lions before the drive before school that day that justice must be done must be had but must be done and she would do it today in case of an injustice today she should be prepared she would be there to set it right she decided long ago on the plan but you see it was a vague one a faulty one for a young girl such as we have here in this lion statue house. You see what happened is easy enough to predict. That babysitter she sat and said be quiet many times but this day this decided day she also said the words shut up. To the little brother boy. The little ragged brother boy with a ragged toy on a ragged floor and here was the moment of action here it was waiting for a young girl to act on her promise this cannot be overlooked nor forborne over later it must be here now little girl you must open your own mouth now you must not shut up you must do the opposite of that now and you must hear your own voice sound out of your own two lips and so as if by instinct she had the perfect retort she had many perfect retorts and this one was perfect the perfect words to put a babysitter in line she said to the little brother sitting on the floor she said not to the woman but to the brother she said the words that while meek were her pushing back at the big world her first pushing back came in the words thus: It’s okay, she’s just mean. It was the she’s just mean part that bit and swallowed that woman whole she’s mean a statement that was true and that was for the ages and that needed to be said by a scared girl in defense of her little brother a word meant to crawl over the living room floor crawl up and stop that other mouth from having the words to speak. This young girl had taken charge of the day that day and said a word that was on her mind it was a revolutionary act on a revolutionary day a day for saying words not just reading them a day for a grown woman to be told what she is in one word out of a little girl’s mouth a day when the sun curled over the statues and those lions climbed down to curl up too go to sleep a day of lion statue victory and the right mouth closed for once.
Sarah D’Stair is a novelist and poet who lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her poetry has appeared in Hypertrophic, The Ibis Head Review, Gertrude Press, Damselfly Press and several other publications. She is the author of Central Valley and the novellas Hand to Bone, Roulettetown, and Petrov Petrovich Is in Love.
Night and Day
An evening breeze stirs walnut leaves,
turning hands spilling amber light.
Darkening waters race an orange sun
down the Coast Range’s curve
to the sea. Planets and stars burn
lanterns as they cross all night black
ocean. At morning the ships flicker
and even Venus disappears on blue
waves where a yellow star sails.
Nels Hanson grew up on a small farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California and has worked as a farmer, teacher and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and Pushcart nominations in 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016. His poems received a 2014 Pushcart nomination, Sharkpack Review’s 2014 Prospero Prize, and 2015 and 2016 Best of the Net nominations.
The roly-poly ghost whisperer surges from his
primordial wormhole. He has the nerve to go
pitter-pattering across my mind, then poof!
Unimpressed by this, I go lie in a hammock
beneath a yum-yum tree, under the light
of a full copper moon. To my bewilderment
I watch rubber inner tubes fall like leaves,
then reflect upon what Waldo told me today.
He’s contracted a Beauty and the Beast complex
because the woman he’s in love with views him
as some kind of despicable werewolf, and wouldn’t
be caught alive or dead with him in public.
For me the only public enemy is the brother
I never had. Lacking a brother makes me feel
like the Lusitania reaching ocean bottom,
or perhaps a Japanese sub sunk decades ago.
What’s this I hear? Could it be the Leaning Tower
of Pisa toppling while spasms run up and down
my spine? Maybe it’s some doggone college kid
whippersnapper opening veins and letting his
blood flow like a melted iceberg to the ocean.
Once that conundrum plays out I collect myself
by sprinkling a little plutonium on my Wheaties.
This will give me a lift, and help me make it
through another day as I await kingdom come.
I consider this a much better alternative than
making a down payment on a crypt, or digging
my grave with a teaspoon, which is no fun.
People have a habit of taking me 180 degrees
the wrong way, which is to say illiterately.
They think I’m some penny-ante poltergeist
under the illusion that he’ll marry Tugboat Annie.
There once was a real-life Ann. She reigned as
the campus acid princess, loved her LSD.
She was mine for a while, but alas, I lost her.
She dumped me for a pimple-faced crackhead
who attested that they got married in a dream,
and by this means convinced her she was his.
So I’m compelled to admit I’m no Ricky Ricardo,
infamous womanizer. But that won’t bother me
because Ricardo was a narcissistic boozer, a fine
comic and keen businessman, but never faithful
to his loving wife Lucy, and unworthy of respect.
I lost respect for my pal Tad, who was at one time
a big shot in Silicon Valley. He used to own
a beautiful Winnebago, and a boat on Clear Lake.
But he blew his mind up doing lines of coke
in the toilet stall at El Torito. He lost his job,
and is now driving an ice cream truck in Detroit.
He plays “Here Comes the Sun” all day long
on the truck’s loudspeaker, while combing his
greasy jelly roll as he whistles with the music.
Undoubtedly I’m a little better off than Tad.
I’m sitting at the bus stop bench at the corner
of Franklin and Abrego in downtown Monterey.
The stop signal pulses, monotonous, maddening,
but I keep my cool. It’s gradually getting dark,
and lights to the TURN 12 bistro flicker on,
also those to the West Garage across the street.
The cityscape is packed with buildings, progress
being made. My mind has become a turnstile.
My thoughts spin round and round like a roulette
ball. It wants to land in a slot marked Dalí. I’m
returning to surrealist roots, my life a shambles.
Thomas Piekarski is a former editor of the California State Poetry Quarterly and Pushcart Prize nominee. His poetry and interviews have appeared widely in literary journals internationally, including Nimrod, Portland Review, Mandala Journal, Cream City Review, Poetry Salzburg, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Boston Poetry Magazine, and Poetry Quarterly. He has published a travel book, Best Choices In Northern California, and Time Lines, a book of poems.
The stillness, discernible from the driveway, told Marv it was the odd night when no one was home. No wife, son or father. Wednesday was the night when Cheryl’s managerial status vanished and she worked the phones. Chris was at his court-mandated diversion program, listening to can-do speeches from local business leaders and can’t-do speeches from convicts. And Calvin was at his girlfriend’s retirement-home apartment.
“No need to set me a place tonight,” the old man said that morning, as though dinner was being made by anyone. “And don’t wait up.”
The thought of his septuagenarian father and equally senescent girlfriend humping was one thing, but Calvin’s attitude is what irked Marv. He went the long way, in through the front door so he could sort through the mail, giving up partway through, and throwing it on the foyer’s flotsam table. There Marv returned to being annoyed with his father. Carefree was the word for the old man, the word that Marv reasoned as just the other side of careless. Marv muttered. Penniless and unapologetic, a burden to those who couldn’t afford another burden.
Marv exhaled hard. At least he still had the house, as long as he didn’t miss his monthly payments for the next twelve years. It felt like a long time for nothing to go wrong. His throat tightened.
He walked to the bedroom he shared with his wife, stripped to boxers and undershirt, carefully folding dress pants and shirt and depositing them in the duffel bag reserved for dry cleaning. He pondered his options. Masturbation didn’t appeal; neither did television, not after a day at a screen. The house filled with late-afternoon sunlight blinking, trying to imitate leisure. He meandered down a narrow hallway lined with framed pictures of himself, wife, child, their parents and extended families. He never understood why Cheryl hung the pictures, all smiling. It seemed morbid, incestuous or maybe just unnecessary to him. But she liked it and it was, as she rebutted him when he’d asked, what people did.
The house, which they’d bought shortly after Chris was born, had three bedrooms. The third for their next child, which never came. Money reasons, mostly, though people raised more children on less. But mostly the unspeakable sacrilege that their son failed to affect them the way other parents claimed to be transformed by their children. They loved Chris and so on and so forth. But even when at his most adorable, he wearied them, even before his problems at school, and now the assault.
The third bedroom became Cheryl’s sewing room, though she rarely had time to sew. Now it was his father’s bedroom. And sometime in the last few weeks, the old man had put a lock on the door. Just a simple bolt latch screwed into the doorframe with wood screws, and into the hollow-core door with screws and mollies. Marv noticed the lock the other day when he wanted to ask the old man something. Marv knocked, then pounded. Finally, after yelling one minute, one minute, Calvin opened the door, looking out of it.
Locks had been an issue in the house a few months earlier when Chris was caught smoking pot in the high-school parking lot. And Marv, at Cheryl’s prodding, had spent a few of his weekend hours replacing the knob on Chris’ bedroom door with a closet-knob, which lacked a lock.
Marv hadn’t asked his father about the lock. The old man deserved the dignity of some privacy, regardless of how badly he’d screwed up his finances. That’s what Marv told his wife, anyway.
But he wondered what an old man would need privacy for. He envisioned his father with pills from a silver-haired black market, crushing them up on the walnut-veneer of the room’s dresser and snorting them. Marv envisioned a plastic bag with a soft cotton rim around the edge, which he’d read about, that was used by euthanasia enthusiasts to suffocate to death in relative comfort.
Curious, Marv wandered into his father’s room. The evicting landlord had boxed up Calvin’s earthly possessions and put them into storage, holding them against months of back rent. It was a sad state of affairs, but it made the move easier.
His father’s room consisted of the walnut-veneer dresser, small desk, twin bed, night-table, framed picture of a pastel sailboat on a pastel sea, two curtained windows over the dresser, sheetrock walls with a coat of off-white semi-gloss. The lock was Calvin’s only addition to it. The sparseness deepened the mystery of the lock.
Marv went to work, opening dresser drawers. It reminded him of another time, in another house, when he was prepubescent and rooting through his father’s drawers. Back then it wasn’t pills or suicide paraphernalia he was after, but pornography. Penthouse magazines were the best. Playboy was also a find, but it was dryer, less filthy, more wordy. Its vaginas were poofs of hair that matched the hair on the women’s heads. Penthouse vaginas were chaotic, with sprawling, matted, mismatched hair, flesh and folds—wild mysteries that promised greater mysteries still.
That memory led him to his father’s sock drawer. It was the fullest of the drawers, as his father had left most of his clothing behind. Nothing had changed, Marv reflected with a mix of joy and shame—the empty home, the slanting rays of late-afternoon sun, the forbidden room, the objects his father kept hidden. It made fabric softener into an erotic perfume.
Marv almost hoped that he would find pornography. Probably a sign of health. But there, as a grown man investigating his elderly father, digging past the crowd of socks at the back of a drawer, he found something else.
Marv hadn’t supposed that they still made walkmen, then remembered seeing them hung among the phone cards and cheap cigars at an immigrant deli by the DMV once. And his father had one. It had been put away with care, the headphone cord wrapped around it. Beside it was an envelope, a stack of blank audiotapes and a package of AA batteries. He picked up the envelope, which was addressed to his father’s old apartment, with no return address. The tape cassette had worn its shape into the envelope. Inside was a sheet of legal paper with five names and addresses written in balky blue ballpoint pen.
Marv examined the off-brand walkman, opened it. The tape inside was also a blank, but of a different brand from the stack. His father had listened about halfway through. Marv popped the tape back in and put on the cheap headphones.
The spin of the tape machine hummed unevenly below the man’s voice. The voice was an older man’s, with an intermittent rasp. He sniffled every so often. It wasn’t a professional recording by any standard. The man had a blunt, matter-of-fact way of speaking, a calm determination.
Do not close your eyes yet. Do not listen too closely. For now, whatever you do, do not think of the thing that is not connected to any other thing. Do not think of the space around the thing that is not connected to any other thing. Do not wonder what kind of space can exist that does not, in any way, connect it with any other thing.
The man spoke for a while, diligent, carefully annunciating each word, saving his sniffles for the ends of sentences. He spoke like someone who knows what he’s talking about. Marv fast-forwarded to find more of the same.
…find you and they will find the knob. They will turn the knob and you will go with them. You will want to. You’ll see that it’s foolish to miss anyone. Now close your eyes. The thing that is not connected to any other thing is unimaginable to you for the moment. To imagine it is to connect to it. It is not from anything and nothing comes from it. It is not near anything nor is it far from anything…
The voice paused for a cough and an audible swallow. Marv was brought back to the feeling he would experience looking at his father’s Penthouses. He knew he liked looking at them, but he couldn’t say why. He knew the magazines were hidden for a reason, but couldn’t fathom the reason.
Marv rewound the tape to where he’d started listening, then carefully put the walkman, envelope, tapes and socks back as best as he could recall having found them. It upset him, in the way a wonderful promise made in a dream might upset him. He decided to have a snack and watch TV, to settle down.
It was another Wednesday, almost two months later, when Marv had the house to himself again. In his father’s room, the sock camouflage was just as heavy, concealing the same walkman, a bigger package of batteries, and a new set of blank tapes. Marv checked inside the walkman to find a new tape inside. He put on the headphones, which had since been reinforced with electrical tape, and clicked the wobbly plastic play button.
The voice belonged to an older woman lifted her faint croak to the lower altitudes of audibility through great effort. She stopped after every sentence or two to gather a restorative breath.
The past is a trap. The present is a ruse. The future is a fairy tale told to children before bed. Space has been for play. Time has been for comfort. But you are calm now, strong, ready, to be without them.
She repeated that a few times, then cautioned again: Whatever you do, do not look upon the thing that is not connected in any way with any other thing.
In the pause of her breath, he heard tires in the driveway. Marv knew what sounds around his house meant. Car door closed meant 15 seconds before they were inside the house. Marv leapt up from the bed, his heart like hurrying footsteps. He stuffed the walkman it into his father’s drawer, scrambled balls of white cotton socks all around it and quietly shut the drawer.
On light panicked feet, he retreated to the master bedroom and began changing into sweatpants. The door downstairs slammed hard, meaning it was his son Chris, home early from the diversion program. Flushed, Marv finished changing and stomped downstairs, to give his son ample warning.
“Hey,” he said to the sullen teenager, who mumbled and went to the fridge. Chris was a big kid, bigger than Marv, powerful, but stoop-shouldered and shuffling, never an athlete.
“Home early, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, the guy didn’t come.”
“Car dealer guy was going to talk to us for the ‘Integrity’ unit. Something came up with his dealership. So we just did the life skills exercises from the book and then they let us out.”
“How’s it going?”
Chris shrugged, slumped and scowled. But Marv kept looking at him as if he had a right, as his father, to a verbal answer. The pause had some effect. Chris’ face changed from disinterest to violent rage, then to helpless indifference.
“Fine,” the teenager finally said, submitting. “Hey dad, I’m trying to have a snack here, okay?”
Marv wandered to the living room, and turned on the TV. Whatever he’d done wrong with Chris seemed done beyond hope of being undone. And there was a jagged scintilla of comfort in that.
The old man lost his drivers’ license through a mix of carelessness and fading eyesight. But his girlfriend and his card-playing buddies drove. For everything else, he had to bum a ride. One warm Saturday, Calvin needed some shorts. Cheryl had agreed to take him shopping, but got called in to the office that weekend. There were layoffs rumored, and she had to make herself look indispensable. So Marv drove his father to the store that Saturday. The state highways were jammed, but summer was new and alive with an inchoate sense of promise, making for a happy traffic, with the windows down. Calvin was telling some episode from his misspent youth, when he abruptly changed the subject.
“Hey Marv, can I ask you something?”
“I know he’s had some problems, and he can be a mean kid, but you don’t think Chris is stealing, do you?”
“I don’t think so. That’s not really him. Why?”
“Are you missing anything?”
“No. It’s just that some of my things have been moved. It’s probably nothing.”
Marv swallowed, then spoke.
His father nodded, mouthed the word yeah.
“Sorry dad, that was me. I listened to the tapes.”
“All of them?”
“No, just bits and pieces. When you put the lock on the door, I worried about you.”
Calvin looked at Marv, then out the window. He smiled and shook his head.
“What did you think it was? Drugs?”
“I don’t know. Something like that.”
“I wouldn’t have to hide drugs, not at my age. You should see the pills the doctors hand out to old people for a little back pain. Put you on your ass for a week and you wouldn’t mind. My buddy Francis has a prescription the doctor renews every month, over the phone, just so he doesn’t have to listen to him. And if he didn’t share that prescription with the guys, then no one would ever have to listen to Francis again.”
“So what’s up with the tapes?”
“I get one, listen to it for a while, and when I’ve learned it, I record more tapes to send to the people on my list. Then they do the same, and on down the line. It’s just something I do now.”
“The tapes are…They’re weird. What are they for?”
“You really shouldn’t listen to them. You’re too young.”
“Too young? I’m forty-five,” Marv said, puffing his chest toward the plastic-rubber collapsible steering wheel of the sedan.
“Still. You’re not ready for them. You’ll have plenty of time to learn about all this when you’re older.”
The conversation had the push-pull Marv recalled from childhood, when he’d asked his mother why he enjoyed looking at pictures of women’s breasts. It didn’t fit with anything else in his life. And his mother then said just what his father just said now—don’t worry now, it’ll make sense later.
“But I think…”
“Marvin,” Calvin said with long-unused steel in his voice. “That’s all I’m going to say about it. You’ve invited me to live in your home. And I’m grateful for that. But I am still your father, and I insist on my privacy.”
And that was that.
Summer passed. Chris begged out of their annual trip to the shore. Calvin’s girlfriend died, and he took up with another woman before too long. She also had a car, and was in a nicer retirement home two towns over..
Chris started a program that taught high school in the morning and HVAC repair in the afternoon. He drifted through the house during the nights he was home in a sullen rage.
Layoffs came and went at Cheryl’s office. She was spared to stay an extra hour or two each night. She was sweet as ever, but now tired in a way Marv had never seen. Layoff rumors started up in Marv’s office—a ghost at a continental breakfast. It didn’t take much insight to see the dark parade of indignities a layoff would entail. The thinking led Marv to a check-up, to use his health insurance while he still had it. The doctor, an older Indian woman, gently chastised him about his blood pressure, weight and drew some blood for tests. He asked for sleeping pills, and she wrote a prescription.
Two days later she called him back directly. The bloodwork showed something. So she’d pulled some strings, and set up a PET scan for him next day.
Marv protested, but she talked over him with her hard voice, repeating the time and the address of the facility. He asked meekly at the end if he could reschedule, and she repeated that he should make this his first priority.
When he set about rescheduling the next day’s meetings, his colleagues nodded conspiratorially, some wishing him good luck, implying that, they got it, he was interviewing for a job elsewhere. His boss just said cryptically that this wasn’t a great time for it, but okay.
It was a warm and shitty morning, a few days after the PET scan. Cheryl was getting Chris out of jail again. He’d smashed the windshield of one of his fellow students from HVAC High, and spent the weekend in a cell. Between bail, fines and court costs, at least the kid’s college fund was coming in handy. Marv was driving to work when he got the call. The doctor wanted him to come in as soon as possible.
“What is it?” he asked, pressing his cell phone to his ear and pulling into the parking lot of a defunct Italian restaurant. He remembered going there back when Chris was a happy child and the obstacles in their lives still seemed like the temporary parts. Good meatballs, stale bread.
“I’d rather not say on the phone. When can you come in?”
“Well, I can’t come in. Not today, not tomorrow, not next week. I have no time, and I’ve already missed too much work over this. And I can’t afford to meet any more. So just spit it out. What is it? Cancer? If so, just say it.”
“I’m afraid it is a growth, not small, on the pancreas. Until we do more tests, we won’t know how aggressive it is, or what our options are…” she said and said some more, her words extraneous, wrapping paper around a hand grenade with the pin pulled. Marv said okay a lot, not sure what he was agreeing to, then thank you a few times and goodbye a few, and hung up the phone.
The car started, drifted down the road, toward work. Autumn leaves flared in a pale yellow or occasional red shading into brown. Instead of taking the left that went to the office park, he continued straight, through one town, then another. He wound up in a town that, through a mix of poor housing stock, municipal malfeasance and a particularly determined cohort of immigrants, was a poor town.
At a drive-thru, he ordered a bucket of fried chicken. But his mouth was dry and his throat was knotted too tight for him to do more than look inside at the wrinkled, tan shapes. He drove around most of day with the bucket beside him, down prosaic state highways that branched off each other like whims, past trees dropping their leaves, apologizing that they could offer the world no more than leaves.
The car in the driveway belonged to Calvin’s new girlfriend. Marv pulled up beside it, two tires on the lawn.
Marv wondered: What was her name? Rebecca? No, Rosalie, a widow, like his wife would be before long. Nice old lady, nice enough sedan from a decade ago.
He left the chicken bucket in the car. He left his coat in the car. Left his keys. It was late afternoon. He opened and closed the front door, climbed the stairs, taking a thick breath halfway, passed his son’s room, then his father’s, both with their doors shut. He wanted to lie down, not because he was tired, but because he didn’t know what else on earth to do.
There was a smell he couldn’t place that filled the house, something like perfume and something like the ground after rain. It grew stronger as he approached the master bedroom. The door was ajar.
The scene taking place on Marv’s bed seemed innocent enough at first blush. Man and woman sitting side by side on the bed’s edge, their backs to the door, his hand on her back, leaning to her ear and talking in a low voice.
Then he saw that the woman was topless, her dress unzipped and pulled down, bra unhitched. Her delicate, wrinkled flesh hung in small loose wings from beneath her armpits. The afternoon light further dappled the lines, moles and discolorations on her shoulders. What his father was saying to her in a low voice sounded more determined than seductive.
What Marv didn’t see at first was so unexpected that he couldn’t see it. His mind started from the possible and worked in from there, to that spot. And that spot became visible only once everything else had been satisfactorily perceived. It was the middle of Rosalie’s exposed back.
The older woman’s bare back was open. The saucer-sized opening was like a fleshy flower, consisting of petals reaching out, red and purple, verging on blue. They petals opened like a corona around a bright, white center. The petals, lightly moist with blood, moved slightly, responding to or anticipating his father’s touch.
Blood lightly stained his father’s fingertips as they manipulated the bright center of the flower. And that center was turning like a dial. Frozen in his paces, Marv looked closer. His father’s pinkened fingers were careful, precise. Rosalie made sudden, quiet gasps, the sounds a person makes in pain when they know to expect that pain. Looking more closely into the center of the bloody blossom of the woman’s back, Marv saw that the center wasn’t white, but light, like burning phosphorus.
After a long second watching them together on his bed, Marv gasped. His father’s head spun over his shoulder in shock. He said shit. Rosalie, said oh my god, then jumped up and spun around, her withered breasts whipping from the motion, before she gathered in her arms and retreated to the bathroom.
“What the hell are you doing here? I thought you were at work,” Calvin said to his son.
“I was. What the hell was that?”
“Don’t you knock?”
“The door was open. And it’s my house. And it’s my bedroom.”
After a pause, Rosalie emerged from the bathroom.
“I’m so embarrassed,” she said, now dressed, dressed enough. She looked like a different woman than the one Marv had met weeks ago. Her eyes were wide and she blushed powerfully enough to drown out the age spots and broken capillaries of her face. “I’m just going to go. But call me, okay?”
She gave Marv and his father two distinct smile, and left.
Marv looked at his father’s bloodied fingertips. The old man was poised, still uncertain whether to be ashamed or indignant. They heard Rosalie close the front door, heard the tires as she pulled away.
“Hey Marvin, I’m sorry to use your room. Right now, they’re redoing the carpets at Rosie’s place, and I thought you’d be…”
“I have cancer,” Marv said, like he was coughing up a rat.
Marv nodded and sat next to his father on the bed. They sat there a long minute before Calvin spoke.
“How much did you see? Before, with Rosie and me?”
“Then you probably have some questions.”
Marv nodded and looked at his father with eyes that held no possibility of guile.
“Well, shit. I guess you are old enough to hear a few things.”
Colin Dodds is a writer. His work has appeared in more than 250 publications, been anthologized, nominated and shortlisted for numerous prizes, and praised by luminaries including Norman Mailer and David Berman. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and daughter. See more of his work at thecolindodds.com.
In our most honest bloom,
detours around flood roads, every
dead tree coming back to its own,
all that was certain in your own
pearl-pink spring, in the burr
and eider patches
————we left collapsing bridges,
retracting landscapes, devolving
episodes. Love should not dissolve —
not that ragged light
that was in you,
to the center of your own planet,
tossing soil aside like a tide
until water shifted inside your sternum,
and you noticed the falling sky.
do you want to know, except everything
on earth is magnetic?
———————————-The picayune moon—
I’ll never forget it, the way it loomed over
high grasses beyond the stones.
———————-Did we ever stop to wonder
if we drove past too soon, too much in love,
speeding by far, famous as a cemetery,
& weary, hardly keeping track of time
with such arbitrary units
—————-Seven seasons called
for fourteen kinds of new birds.
Underfoot, the wild dive bar
of the earth, where herb-wind
————–In the childish fields
of hills beyond, swelling half circles
of bright frost in the unbuttoned sun,
——————–clasping for the distant
hands of clouds, the wild fruit
of a tenuous dusk, the golden rind
at the center of a carousel —
leaving the house as a kid,
coming home as a bride.
——————In the shining snow
of spiritual peaks, the demons
called you forth to join the thrall
of the loud & towering sea, un-prophetic words
of the luminous dead on your tongue,
not wanting yet
—————————that settled life beyond
our ruined, empty draft of a house,
a first attempt at a standing home;
a clear throating — but of a difficult song.
Lucas Gonzalez was born in New York City. His first novel, Maple Machine (2006), was published by 826 National (McSweeney’s Press). A 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee and a winner of the Robert Haiduke Poetry Award at the Bread Loaf School of English, Lucas holds an MA from Middlebury College and is currently an MFA candidate in Poetry at Columbia University, where he is Community Outreach Editor for Columbia Journal. His poems are forthcoming in such print and web publications as Stone Canoe, Forage Poetry, Ink Node, Fixional, and Noise Medium.
Wolb is a tiny, independent city-state, an insignificant dot on the map bordered by three great continental nations. Landlocked, hemmed in, at the mercy of its neighbors, it survives by playing one against the other in a geopolitical game that never ends. The Wolbese negotiate, flatter the great powers, and arrange affairs to the benefit of those who count. They provide a haven for dissidents, for notables who fall from grace, and for folks uneasy in the public eye. Secrecy is an option, and safety deposit boxes can be rented for a fee.
Officially neutral during centuries of war, protected by its rugged terrain, Wolb subscribes to a foreign policy of impregnability. All citizens are soldiers, men and women, including the old and physically handicapped. At the age of eighteen, they enroll in the army, and receive training in national defense. They are liable to serve on active duty until the age of sixty. They can mobilize on a moment’s notice. This universal draft has a curious effect, since everyone has a military rank in addition to their civil role. The nurse-midwife who delivers the baby of a bank executive may outrank him. Distinctions of income, education level, creed, color, age, and gender are rendered moot in the common cause.
What is more, Wolb boasts a mountain fortress with reinforced tunnels, a refuge equipped with secure sources of water and power, and stocked with food and supplies to last a year. Not only the leaders but most of the people, whole families and neighborhoods, can retreat to safety if viciously attacked. They conduct an annual drill for this purpose, a mass evacuation. What began as a military exercise has taken on the air of a holiday, a brief vacation, albeit mandatory. People picnic, drink, and play charades. Nothing gets done during that festive week. To foster preparedness, the government springs it without notice, so it falls at a different time each year.
In sober truth, any of Wolb’s neighbors could overrun the city in a matter of minutes, or drop a bomb, or sever vital lines of communication. That said, the border is clearly marked. Visitors stand out from the crowd. Despite their international embrace, the Wolbese are provincial. Their dialect is a flat intonation with hard consonants, as if they were clearing their throats or spitting. And their style of dress is distinctive. Both sexes are fond of hiking boots, knee socks, shorts, kerchiefs, and embroidered suspenders.
Apart from the annual emergency, people tend to be dour and evasive. They were famous in the past for smuggling, gambling, spying, forging documents, and spawning religious heresy. Once a bastion of Protestant sects that consigned all but a few to hell, today Wolb celebrates secularism in its own stiff way, with fines for excessive displays of wealth or affection in public.
The city itself is a miracle of smallness, efficient use of space, and concise style. There are no vacant lots or unleased shops. Every square meter is used for a practical or culturally significant purpose, such as day care for tots or an art museum. There are few bars, lounges, or places to waste your time and money, and none at all devoted to vice. If a building falls into disrepair, it is brought up to snuff or replaced at once. Enforcement of the municipal law is swift and strict, as it cannot be in a larger country. Residential blocks are orderly and clean. There are no homeless people, no beggars in the street. Subsidized apartments for the poor and elderly are guaranteed, if suitcase-like. The central business district is as neat as a pin. You can walk to any appointment in a flash, so long as you put on sensible shoes.
Historically, Wolb made much of miniatures. Dolls, dollhouses, and doll accessories were a popular export, and they rose to the level of collectible craft. A trade developed in snuffboxes, pill bottles, cameos, lockets, signet rings, gold plate set with artificial stones, and a wide array of imitation jewelry. Printing and engraving grew out of this tradition of fine workmanship and artful deception.
Clocks and watches were an economic mainstay, with scores of makers and retail shops. Today, you can scarcely go two steps without seeing the time. In keeping with this horological theme, the Wolbese are punctual to a fault. If you go, arrive early. And whatever you do, don’t overstay your welcome.
Over the centuries, Umple suffered more than its share. The documented history of the city is fraught with earthquake, famine, plague, war, fire, and flood. The tourist in the motorbus is surprised to see that anything still stands.
Located in the mountainous region of the Caucasus, amid a tangle of international borders and ethnic groups, Umple derives from the Greek omphalos or Latin umbilicus, meaning “navel,” which suggests a mythic origin. Dr. Delahanty’s archaeological investigation reveals a past that stretches back to the Neolithic Age. Stone substructures in the crypt of the cathedral, tunnels and vaults formed by massive slabs, resemble dolmens in Brittany and megalithic tombs of the western British Isles. Were the vaults erected by a prehistoric civilization? This theory has its weak spots. Until Dr. Delahanty publishes his work in a format open to scholarly review, we have only his notes and rough field sketches.
In the fifth century, the Byzantine monk Euphemius mentions a fort or walled village, a primitive outpost on the distant frontier, peopled by barbarians of doubtful loyalty, and certainly not orthodox. Chronicles in Greek of the eastern Roman Empire are a horrid series of sieges, cruelties, brutal slaughter, lightning raids, forced conversion, conflagration, oppressive taxation, and denial of basic human rights. The list of attackers and bloodthirsty hordes includes Gauls, Persians, Scythians, Huns, proto-Germanic and Slavic tribes, Vikings, Tartars, and Mongols. Moslem warriors mounted on horseback and armed with flashing swords joined the battered city to their vast world empire. More recently, the Russians gobbled it up, only to disgorge it when their empire collapsed.
This tumultuous history of conquest and cultural disarray has left its mark. The architecture of Umple is a palimpsest of erasure, insertion, overlay, whitewash, and ambiguity. Is the city Western Asian or Eastern European? Old buildings that withstood the ravages of time are solid stone with minimal hints of ornament and style. They look like blocks of masonry anywhere, gray and mute, with casement windows like bright little eyes, peaked tile roofs like indomitable hats, and chimneys like fingers that stubbornly point upward. A stone arcade surrounds the marketplace in the center, ponderously vaulted to shelter buyers and sellers from the weather, and formerly from arrows and flying rocks. The carved fountain is a restoration of the medieval one. The heroic statue of St. Durante is modern, based on a grainy heliograph.
Parts of the ancient city wall survive, especially where later buildings engulfed them. They show a variety of building techniques from several centuries, with obvious signs of rebuilding, repair, and reused material. Of special interest are the stones taken from houses destroyed one way or another. The Round Tower undoubtedly enhanced the defensive circuit, and the Gate of Martyrs may be the one mentioned by Euphemius.
Armed with a guidebook and a pair of sturdy shoes, the tourist will have to search for these landmarks. The Umpali do not bother about the past. They dispense with bronze plaques and interpretive signs. Few historic artifacts or works of art remain from all the carnage. There is no museum as such. The city is a memorial, they say.
The Caucasus was once considered the source of white skin, freckles, and flaxen hair, but racial theories clash with facts on the ground. Did each invader leave a memento? Whatever their complexion, Umpali are light-hearted and grounded, nimble on their feet, and quick to tell you exactly what they think in a dozen languages. Not because you will spend money, but out of the goodness of their hearts, they welcome you with open arms. They shower you with kisses, and when you depart they shed a silent tear. After all they have endured, they maintain a cheerful outlook. They have gone through the worst, and the best is yet to come. In this, they resemble the Hyperboreans:
Beyond the ice and the north wind,
Beyond death, they have won
The exit from the labyrinth
To everlasting sun.
Nominal adherents of several religions, they believe in themselves more than anything else. Each home has a shrine of family portraits, framed and assembled on a mantel or the lid of a piano. Among the ancestors and children are objects—a lock of hair, a gold watch, a clutch of baby teeth. A mother places a bit of food from the family meal in a saucer there. She may light a candle.
If you ask her about this, she is wary and evasive. These are her loved ones, living and dead. They do not consume the food. She blinks and begs you to accept another cup of the fragrant tea grown only here, on the rugged mountain slopes.
A bustling seaport in its heyday, which ended in the eighteenth century, Grogdram is now a picturesque haven for Sunday painters, weekend sailors, holiday excursionists, and those who contrive to escape the big city for a week in the summer. Breezy and restorative, with subtropical flora found nowhere else, the town offers bracing walks along the cliff and over the shingled beach. Visitors take the air like a cure.
Grogdram abounds with bed-and-breakfast enterprises, cozy cottages for rent, housekeeping suites, and houses let for months at a time. The owners have installed all modern conveniences and winterized their homes at great expense, and they need the income. So they go off in a trailer, or they move down the lane to cheaper lodgings, or they pitch a tent in the national park that buffers the town from the workaday world.
For the ships and crews that once called Grogdram home, the port from which they sallied on voyages that lasted for years, the base to which they longed to return, it was a different story. Many a sailor sang of his love for the girl he left behind. He pined with regret for the curving shoreline, the beauty of Grogdram Bay. While aloft in the rigging, he fancied he heard the bell of St. Nicholas. Or he glimpsed the light of its beacon in the gloom. He cursed the cruel fate that sent him off to sea, to the danger and hardship of life on the waves, when he might have stayed snug by the hearth his mother tended.
So persuasive were these shanties, so brightly did they celebrate the Grogdram of desire, the town itself paled by comparison. After he had lain in a proper bed, with sheets and a pillow, in a house anchored on solid ground, the sailor just back from the far side of the globe strolled on the Promenade with his hands in his pockets and felt a little lost. What did the ballad sweetly sung, as well as the picture he clasped to his heart, have to do with this dump?
The rocks draped with seaweed, the smell of rotting fish, the swarms of flies, the scream of gulls as they swooped overhead, and their squabbles over scum that floated on the water, these details sullied the memory he cherished. The woman who ran the boarding house where he stowed his gear was mean and abusive. His mates from previous ships were scattered, some to the bottom of the deep blue sea. Those he remembered from childhood had grown older, thicker and duller. They had married and settled down. In a few days, restless, he would find another ship and go abroad again. Then he could sing of the home he missed.
The Grogdram of the musical past is preserved. The gilded steeple and belfry of St. Nicholas preside over the red tile roofs. The cobblestone pavements gleam when wetted by a summer squall. The ancient houses of tawny stone and blackened half-timber tilt and totter, as if about to tumble on the heads of visitors. Uneasy at the spectacle, the visitors poke each other and laugh. The Rock to one side and the Hardplace to the other guard the strait to the harbor. A few boats remain from the fishing fleet, while the basin teems with yachts and pleasure craft. From the central pier, a tour boat leaves at the top of the hour for a narrative cruise along the coast.
Balconies carved of snow-white stone remind you of Venice, while pointed arches and blue glazed tile strike a note of Morocco. The Promenade is a chorus line of stucco houses painted in shades of apple green, egg yolk ochre, rose pink, and ethereal azure. The Marketplace boasts an ensemble of townhouses built by wily merchants and tough sea captains with grizzled beards. The gables retain their stout beam hoists for storage above, spaces now adapted as luxury lofts. Down at street level are smart boutiques and restaurants, with lesser-priced cubbyholes on narrow side streets.
Like the Grogdram of song, the city of the present may seem a bit much. It gives some the impression of a movie theme park, a showcase of ethno-socio-lyricological fluff. The shadows are missing, the flash of knives in a brawl, the staved-in barrels, the crippled beggars, the stink of hot tar, and the rattle of chains from a convict gang. Perhaps these are unimportant details, things we learned in school and forgot, unpleasant facts we prefer to gloss over.
Mounted on the wall of a tavern near the docks is a leather whip with dark brown stains on the tips of its thongs. The proprietor calls it a cat-o’-nine-tails from the Black Tulip, a famous brig. Some sailors developed a taste for the lash. It tickles, he says. He winks and offers to demonstrate. A tattoo of a mermaid squirms on his arm, as he pours another glass. This one is on the house, if you say the word.
Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. From 1978 to 2016, he worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, The Short Story, and other magazines.
The Waters of Covetousness
The soup-and-breads must have been in awe,
tears and drool the manner of the masses.
Now, curbed within the imperfections
of the ornate manor built
for summers on Long Island,
beads of water, soot-tainted
and malodorous, braid
from the age-scarred bellied walls
upon cracked cobble, pecked at
by flightless birds or swept
away by the help. Somewhere
in these walls lives the moist decay
of another time, a gilded epoch of
excess, when the limits of expectations
rested in the eyes and flesh, and
the water then, frozen it its
ebb, watched the rich man brave
the ice to make love to a
richer man’s wife. And today,
from the state-owned estate of the former,
one can read a placard advising
that across these ancestral waters,
everything one’s eyes can see
once belonged to the latter, and
we know that to be untrue.
Thomas Locicero is from Broken Arrow, OK. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Roanoke Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Long Island Quarterly, The Good Men Project, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Jazz Cigarette, Quail Bell Magazine, Antarctica Journal, Rat’s Ass Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, Hobart, and Ponder Review, among other journals.
“I’ll take three of them geranium pots, and one of them nice white baskets for the begonias if you have ’em, Willie,” Mrs. Norris said, unrolling the dog-eared wad of bills, which she had removed from her cleavage.
Old Willie Jargin’s spectacles fell askew as he eyed Mrs. Norris solemnly.
“I’ve still got one basket put aside, but it’s got the washin’ in it, and it’s in my bedroom. Cally’s still asleep; jist got her home yesterday—hip replacement, you know—”
“I understand sackly, Willie-boy,” Mrs. Norris said magnanimously. “Of course I wouldn’t expect the dear to hobble down in that condition. You jist go get that basket and I’ll hop over later to see her…when she’s well enough to sit on the porch, that is.”
Willie grunted something akin to assent and began moving the geranium pots into the little blue shop which was the foremost structure in the small nursery, his exacting eye never deviating from the rotund blonde and her scarecrow of a daughter, who hummed complacently as she pressed her thumbs diagonally into her navel region.
Mrs. Norris was never a woman to wait for somebody else’s Yes or No. A door in Hartstop would never close upon her so long as she had a foot to press against the frame. For all her flaws she was still a self-made woman, having conquered and married the owner of the gun-
and-tackle shop up the highway, quite a leap from third child of a carpet cutter’s assistant.
Mrs. Norris loved people; and, by extension, she loved to assist in their affairs, particularly those of a high profile. When Faith Lovecroft, who organized the church’s annual charity-food drive, had broken her femur, Mrs. Norris was there to direct giver and packer and cook and deliveryman alike. There were of course a number of pessimists who questioned her methods, but no one could doubt that as a whole it had gone off tolerably well (though a box of tasteful romance novels and a case of peach and blackberry preserves could not be accounted for in the end). Thereafter Mrs. Norris took charge of the event every year—despite Faith Lovecroft’s protestations—and eventually became secretary, treasurer, substitute Sunday school teacher and lead backsliding investigator for Pure Stone Baptist Church. Mrs. Norris was a walking armrest to all mankind regardless of color or creed, as evidenced by her frequent patronage at Willie Jargin’s nursery. Her own father, a ranking member of the Ellis County Klansmen, would have had a stroke at the thought of his daughter buying flowers from a black man; therefore it was impossible for one to conclude that Mrs. Norris had a racist or unkind bone in her body.
While she was undoubtedly a natural-born leader, Mrs. Norris harbored a number of personal ambitions as well, including the establishment of her own little clan’s respectability in Hartstop. This included the marrying-off of her four daughters. Mary Jane had been taken up by the constable’s mechanic son, Sharon-Rose by the man who drove the garbage truck (“Fifteen dollars an hour!”), and Smyrna, who had borne two of the mayor’s nephew’s sons, was just as good as married and off Mrs. Norris’s hands.
“And which one’s this, now?” Willie said kindly, nodding toward the sweet-faced girl whose gaze was fixed longingly on the cornfield on the other side of the highway. “Forgive me
hon, you know how bad I am with names.”
“That’s Lizabeth,” Mrs. Norris replied rather icily. “She goes to that Hillpine, you know. That’s their college, Hillpine is. A fine place that, Hillpine. For them. Now how’s your son, Willie? He still roomin’ with that night librarian from the ’versity?”
Mrs. Norris habitually avoided prolonged discussion of her youngest daughter, and she had found through many experiments of trial and error that it was best to divert attention to others’ weaknesses and soft spots.
“Yes,” Willie said, a little rigidly. “But he’s not gettin’ into trouble like people talk. Fact, he’s thinkin’ o’ turnin’ preacher. He and that Orlando are plannin’ a mission trip this summer, to some wild country called Kiwi Vest or somethin’ like that. Some place where they have the gay ’bomination.”
“Oh, you don’t have to tell me ’bout that. Gawd, what a judgment on us all! Now show me what you got growin’ in Greenhouse Three, Willie. I’m thinkin’ o’ some nice shrubs and cannas and sich for my patio.”
And they left Lizabeth alone among the inferior plants spread out upon splintering tables before the little blue shop.
Lizabeth was a burden and intellectual challenge for Mrs. Norris. The poor woman spent most of her time these days contriving the union of Lizabeth with the preacher’s son, Robert Lee Bragg Mason, who was just as gaunt and quiet as Lizabeth, though rather grim and pimply as a pickle. But for all the drawbacks of his sourpuss visage, Robert Lee maintained a promising future as an English major at the junior college, and of course his family’s social standing completed Mrs. Norris’s intricate mental legacy mural. Mrs. Norris saw the two of them wedded blissfully, or just as good as; Lizabeth less silly, Robert Lee Bragg Mason with an editor’s post at
the South Sentinel (“Newspapers will allus be ’round, o’ course”), exerting all his grimness into
the proper discipline of Lizabeth and therefore kinder-faced to everyone else.
We cannot begin to imagine the deliciously painful workings of Lizabeth’s mind as she looked out upon the spears of corn on the other side of the highway. Perhaps her mother’s abrupt manner on the subject of herself had conjured up some abstracts from the past; that spring afternoon in kindergarten when Mrs. Norris had screamed at Lizabeth’s teacher for suggesting she be held back; that evening in third grade when her mother had beaten her over the head with a math textbook; that prayer meeting when she was ten during which Mrs. Norris had stood up in front of the congregation and declared, “Dear Gawd, my baby is dumb as a satchel of hammers!” Even now in her brief adulthood, a Hillpine counselor’s rough grasp as they were herded across the street to the public library. Whatever her musings, Lizabeth felt instinctively that others considered her a hardship, a condition which she fought daily in her own way to overcome. The small acts of kindness which quicker intellects considered simplemindedness were nothing more than longings for affection.
Lizabeth did her best to please Mrs. Norris. She uttered not one complaint or remonstrance as her mother contrived parleys with Robert Lee Bragg Mason, donated cardigans and canisters of vegetable soup to Mrs. Mason, or even as she hinted at a specific dowry to Mr. Mason. Mrs. Norris invited the boy over to every Sunday dinner, after which he sulked with Lizabeth on the patio and read compositions. Mrs. Norris herself had listened to a few of Robert Lee’s poems, such as “The Drunkard Gambler’s Fate” and “The Horrors of the Guilty Soul at Death’s Door,” and declared that her daughter’s intended would make a famous poet someday as well as a godly husband. Lizabeth comprehended very little of the whole affair, but what few revelations did dawn upon her assured her that her future was as grim and rigid as the spine of
the boy who sat reading poetry endorsing public beheadings of abortion doctors without the benefit of a trial to her on sultry Sunday afternoons.
Perhaps Lizabeth was mentally tracing the sharp lineaments of Robert Lee Bragg Mason’s face when she first spotted the oily figure emerging from the foremost row of spears. The man was tall and powerfully built, though he sported a weak chin and rather languid features. His blonde hair was slicked back in an almost respectable style, though the oil might have come naturally. He crossed the highway without a glance in either direction and ambled carelessly toward the girl, a worn leather satchel slung over his shoulder, a threadbare guitar case in his hand.
Lizabeth had heard her mother telling patrons at Mr. Norris’s shop about the man. He was a vagrant who hopped the rails in the traditional sense, believed to be the same one who had tricked a seventy-three-year-old down in Beadle into marrying him and had run off with her money. Until recently he had played the guitar—rather dreadfully—outside the Ellis County courthouse for donations. The constable’s wife had given him twenty-five dollars; three oranges and a religious tract to stop playing—“especially that godawful singing”—and no one had seen him since.
“No one pities them out-o’-work folk more ’n me,” Mrs. Norris had told her customers, “but the whole lot should be locked up for their own good as well as ourn.”
Lizabeth harbored a certain fondness for strangers, particularly the musical kind. And while he was no great looker, the guitar player had an eccentrically masculine air, a sort of fatherly demeanor, which, while relying on empty flattery as the catalyst, is irresistibly attractive to the vulnerable.
“Hello there, Lizabeth,” the man said in an obnoxious, singsong voice.
Lizabeth was startled.
“How come you know my name?”
“I was listenin’ in,” the guitar player said unabashedly, “and plus I’ve bin in your daddy’s shop, heard ’bout sweet little Lizabeth who likes bird-critters so much she wanted to be one. You got a purty name, jist such a purty name, Lizabeth.”
The girl blushed. The man sidled closer to her and she registered the savory scent of hickory.
“You’re a little cutie, you are. Don’t you want to know my name?”
Lizabeth refused to submit to his banter just yet. She felt instinctively that Mrs. Norris would disapprove of her consorting with a man who carried all his worldly goods on his shoulder like a badge of honor.
“Name’s Paxton,” the man supplied, “Pax for short. You wanna hear me sing like a sweet bird?”
Lizabeth smiled and nodded approvingly. The man reached into his pocket and retrieved a maroon clay whistle. It was supposed to be in the shape of a robin but had been worn down by extensive usage until it resembled a disgruntled eagle. Pax blew gently and a clumsy, almost apologetic wheezing was released from the thin slit that curved along the bird’s neck. It was neither pleasing nor harmonious, but it spoke to the girl, to whom precious little music of any kind had ever been directed.
“You know what you need? What we both need?” Pax said, reaching gently for Lizabeth’s trembling hand, “We need us a vacation. Wouldn’t you like that? Wouldn’t you like to see the world with a nice fella like me?”
Lizabeth glanced sideways in the direction of Greenhouse Three.
“Now don’t worry ’bout your big fat mama. She’d be happier if you went off for a while.
Come on, don’t you wanna see the great big world? Wanna see all the pretty birds that kin fly away? Wanna be a bird?”
Lizabeth thought longingly of wings, of rooms without locks and faces that never pity you while your mother snatches you along sidewalks and narrow aisles in the market.
She nodded slowly but distinctly.
“Good girl. But now we need some money, and you’ve got to carry your weight if you wanna go off with me. Now jist step into that little shop there and go behind the counter.”
Lizabeth had given herself up to the prospect of wings. She obeyed the man with an impulse long pent up within.
“Good. Now you see a little drawer with a handle in there? Show me how you kin pull that out on your own. Show me you kin do it.”
Lizabeth pulled the battered wooden drawer from its metal sling and dropped it heavily on the counter so that the man could see her work.
“Good. Now grab all them green papers. Go on.”
At this stage in the proceedings Lizabeth hesitated. Deep within was a pricking which no beating of wings could alleviate.
“You want to go off with me, don’t cha?” Pax whimpered.
“Then take all them green papers. They’re your mama’s anyway. She wants you to be taken care on.”
Lizabeth reluctantly grabbed the thin roll of bills and pressed her fingers into a tight fist, as though she might compress the sick feeling into a dense point of nothingness.
“Good girl. Now come on. There’s a freight train leavin’ in fifteen minutes an’ we got to
kitch it. Hop along, ain’t got time for your droolin’.”
Soon Paxton had traded the threadbare guitar case and the leather satchel for the roll of cash, and the two were off beyond the spears of corn, two birds feasting on a fine summer blast rather than the half-baked kernels of the dry, forbidding land.
“Oh, Willie, it’s jist ungawdly what these kids get in their majentations these days,” Mrs. Norris said tragically as they stood examining a thick spray of honeysuckle outside of Greenhouse Three. Mrs. Norris had just recounted the grizzly assault down in Beadle as described in the South Sentinel in which a mentally ill young man had attempted to force his own medication down his father’s throat. Aware that Willie did not take the Sentinel, Mrs. Norris had amended the story so that the young man had attempted to smash his father’s skull in with a shovel but had only succeeded in dislodging the lower mandible. “You got these punks these days with their jungle music and their jump ropes—”
“Well, let me get that basket for you,” Willie said, a note of impatience in his voice. “And speakin’ o’ kids, where’s that sweet little girl o’ yours? Up in the clouds with them big green eyes o’ hers?”
“Oh, I’ll go get her,” Mrs. Norris called over her shoulder, already halfway to Greenhouse One. “She is a dreamer if there ever was one. I think she had an eye on them pretty little posies.”
Cassidy Street is a librarian’s assistant from Falkner, MS. Her fiction is forthcoming in Five on the Fifth. I am the 2015 winner of the Kirk Creative Writing Award sponsored by Blue Mountain College.