Stories always matter.
with my thoughts
about the young mother
less a Hallmark card
more from a satellite
entering the pool
lines for poems
lap with me
eighteen times as if
half a mile
is what I can do
high on a foothill
painted white stones—
form an A
reminder of beginnings.
How like the bird
loud on the blooming tree
says what it has to say
into the morning—
no more no less
than the person
I too have a song.
Story of the Week: January 1, 2019
My Mother Is a Cat Cryptid
by Christina Fulton
I have always focused my creative nonfiction on my father’s non compos mentis. His unhinged antics, exploits, and exits have been woven deeply into my current psychological temperament. It borders on obsession sometimes. However, this has led to a great sin. I have reduced my mother, the very same woman who has cleaned up all my physical and emotional vomit and shit over the years, to the role of a minor character. It must be made clear that she is so much more than just background noise to my father’s lechery, lies, and odd loopy loops into the grave. My mother is a fearsome, yet wildly misunderstood creature. My mother is a cat cryptid.
Before we delve into specifics, let’s be clear that I don’t believe she is one particular feline cryptozoological specimen. I believe she has phase shifted between three of them throughout her life. Let’s see a hairy beast-man like Bigfoot or the Wolf Man do that!
My mother was born in October 1955—a month that is already dripping with supernatural sass due to the pagan/Gaelic holiday of Samhain, a festival honoring the dead. In addition, this is a time of year where black cats are the top decorating items to have for lawns and doorways. This is probably due to the fact that during the Middle Ages these cats were seen as a witch’s personal demon flunky in disguise. It was also believed they could steal a baby’s breath, predict the weather, and snatch a dying person’s soul. My mother came into the world hissing and screeching because the doctor decided she was taking her “sweet time” and used forceps around her head to pry her from her den. According to many veterinarian websites, cats have a history of being very picky about the way they are held, and there are sharp consequences if they feel uncomfortable. The Mother Nature Network recommends that in order for it to feel secure, the cat has to have multiple points of contact with your body when it is lifted off the ground. In addition, it warns strongly against pulling on the front legs or the neck scruff.
When my mother was in kindergarten her teacher wrote on her report card that she was mentally retarded, and she had to walk home and ask my grandparents what those words meant. It was a day she would never forget. My grandparents immediately took action and made sure she went to the best schools. She was later diagnosed with dyslexia and other learning disabilities that many doctors believed were the result of brain damage from the impatient obstetrician and his kitty snatching clamps. My mother can read and can communicate properly, which was something that she was told as a small child growing up in the '50s and '60s she might not ever be able to do. Cats, and my mother, actually do have this extraordinary ability to land on their feet. Most of the time, a cat’s body reflexively corrects its course, so that by the time it arrives on the ground, its feet are in a position to safely hit first. The height of a cat's fall determines how well, or how poorly, its legs can absorb the shock of the landing. They actually have a better chance of not hurting themselves if they fall from higher up. They have more time to do the necessary calibrations. This is wonderful news because my mother was born free falling and would continue to do so, as she began to shift into her three cat cryptid permutations. The first of which may have been genetic.
In the Appalachian Mountains there is a Cherokee legend of a woman who distrusted her husband and dared to follow him on a hunt, while using animal hides to disguise her presence. Unfortunately for her, she was discovered while accidentally overhearing sacred hunting stories. The tribe’s medicine man put a spell on her for her jealousy and incursion on their magical male bonding, causing the hides to fuse to her. She became a giant bipedal black panther, with glowing, sun drop eyes, called the Wampus Beast. The sightings of this creature date back to after the Civil War, and it has been spotted skulking around Dixie Land, well into 2000s.
My mother, her mother, and this unfortunate woman all had the audacity to play outside of patriarchal protocols. My great-grandmother was only thirteen years old when she married a thirty-three-year-old man. She went on to endure seven life-threatening pregnancies and three stillbirths in the back hills of North Carolina. By the time my grandmother came along, the man she had married was well into senility and already singing his coffin song. However, there was his younger brother, Uncle Frank. He was always rumored to be a steadfast figure on the family farm, before and well into my grandmother Frankie’s childhood. A name, a connection, and a secret that were buried in an extremely shallow grave of menstruation-tinted Carolina soil.
My mother was born after Frankie returned from a period of separation from my grandfather. She does not even remotely resemble her brothers, and she has a completely different blood type than everybody in her family unit. Whenever relatives would visit, my grandmother would hastily force her to go play in the attic. She was the ghost child and proof of otherworldly visitors, like the dreaded milkman. My grandmother confessed to my mother decades later that she overheard my delightfully demure grandfather roar at a mystery caller before violently slamming the receiver, “She’s my daughter. I don’t care what you say. I love her. Leave us alone!” This was amazing because he was not a confrontational man. In fact, he was one of the most loving and forgiving men my mother and I have ever encountered. He forgave Frankie for bringing home strange souvenirs. He never treated my mother any differently from my uncles, and he never treated me any differently from my cousins, while Frankie would violently attack my mother with an extraordinary sense of disdain when her sugar levels spiked and her juvenile diabetes dulled her senses. She would beat her with a large, oil-colored bristled brush that not only left her bruised but would puncture her skin, leaving her bleeding and transformed into a temporary spotted tabby cat. Sometimes I think she saw the man she almost left my grandfather for when it came to those moments where her inner Wampus rage outmaneuvered her dietary restrictions.
Another theory that I have tinkered with over the years is that she wasn’t lovesick or mad at my mother, but enraged at the 1950s, two-parent, holy roller society that pressured her to go back to her husband and put herself second and sometimes third or fourth, depending on the day or circumstance. My mother, and her lime wedge–colored eyes, which no one else had in her family, by the way, would always be a reminder of what could have been. On her death bed, she admitted that she did not know who my mother’s real father was and apologized for it. There were no specific names whispered as this southern wildcat passed away. My mother was left with the realization that my grandmother loved not only wide and deep, but well beyond just two possible fathers. It is a well-known fact that most cats don’t mate for life. I doubt even the Wampus Beast would just want one man to love, especially after finding out you can’t even trust one man to stand up for you when an entire village of them thinks you're worth cursing for all eternity.
I am the first woman in two generations to know, without a doubt, my paternal lineage. My mother made sure that my father knew I was his through well-documented DNA evidence. It wasn’t that my mother was unfaithful. She just wanted to break the cycle of question mark dads and have that genuine connection found in normal Homo sapien households. It was fine, until she too had a reason to follow her man into the woods at night and become a Wampus Beast. This first phase was perhaps her shortest, because I was now a factor in her supernatural realm of dark realizations.
My mother first heard about my father’s infidelity while we lived on the shores of the Manahawkin Bay. Water went beyond a preoccupation for me. When I was swimming and wading through the marshes, I felt safer than I did on land where bullies pilfered my books and wove intricate wads of gum into my hair. In the mud and murky water I was part fiddler crab, part Nereid, and possessed all the sass and snap of the sawgrass and the cattails. Across the bay, and a little bit out to sea, was Atlantic City. As I child, I imagined it as some grand adult version of a McDonald’s tunnel and ball pit, for I was often dropped off at the kids club, pool, or arcade, as the adults descended into the bowels of bright lights, bells, and buffets.
It was there, across the water, where our new neighbor caught him with his mistress. What was even worse is after my mother was told by someone she had not even known very long, she found out that closer friends, and even family members, had known for much longer and decided my father’s happiness was more important than her pride. After her brief Wampus Beast run through the same woods as her Cherokee sister from another mister, she remembered she had me to come home to and sprinted back to the nearest body of water. This is when she became the North American Mishipeshu, the Great Water Lynx of Lake Superior.
Even as a child, I remember noticing my mother change a bit in the years following her emergency hysterectomy that was sparked by an infection from her exploding appendix. The doctors unequivocally believed she almost ran through all of her nine lives at once from this medical chain reaction. My mother told me later in my life that this was the time that he had strayed, just because she couldn’t, and rightfully didn’t want to, have sex. I watched my mother grow larger and develop hardened scales, a spiked spinal cord and tail, and the ability to hold her breath and tongue. My newly emerged water lynx wanted me to have a happy childhood and decided to take all the unwarranted blows from my father’s ego and libido. But she had other ways of letting her feelings and wrath drip out.
As with most water-adjacent New Englanders, summer was a time for crabbing. Every dock had box traps tied around every possible piling, in the hope of catching enough blue crabs for weekend cookouts. I was in the marsh underneath the little dock where we occasionally tied up jet skis. I was hunting an eel that I had seen the previous day, and I was determined to make him my new pet/best friend. I had already stolen one of my father’s buckets for it to live in under my bed, and I had filled it with appetizing fiddler crabs and killifish. The thought of possibly taking it to show and tell made me giggle as I gently combed through the mud. It was then I heard footsteps coming down the adjacent main dock. I knew it was my mother because every child instinctively knows their mother’s natural gate, and whether or not there is anger in those clicks, clacks, and creaks. And sure enough, I remember those steps being somewhere between heated and heartbroken.
I thought for sure she had caught on to my plans for capturing a slimy confidant, so I darted back into the shadow of the seawall. I watched her march down to the pilings and quickly pull up every crab trap. She began dumping all her prisoners into a bucket. Her face was expressionless. It reminded me of the cloudy chalkboards at school. It only changed when she had finished and pulled out a pair of tongs and a shiny spoon from a nearby dock box.
She smiled as she picked up the first crab with the tongs, which must have been a male, for she then proceeded to wedge it under her shoe and sodomize it to death with the spoon. It ended with her prying off the top shell and hurling it into the water. My mother always told me that it was okay to kill the males. She taught me to always check their underbellies for a candle-shaped mark, which now I realize was their genitals. She taught me how to jam the spoon up their little anuses, ignore their frantic hisses, and artfully dodge their pinchers. The important thing was not to stop until they were dead and ready to be cleaned.
The next one she pulled out must have been a female because she gently grabbed it by the pinchers and lowered it daintily into the water. I asked her once why we didn’t kill the females, and her answer came with a soft smile: “Because they are going to be moms one day. And that is a very important job. They have to survive.”
She then showed me one with a black triangle on its stomach indicating pregnancy. I would always watch for the blessed triangle whenever I crabbed by myself. I accidentally killed a female one time, and my mother screamed at me, as if she knew that crab personally. She banished me from the dock for the rest of the week. I remembered these things as I watched her pull out another male. This one had the unmitigated gall to latch both pinchers onto her forearm.
“You little son of a bitch!” she boomed, as she shook it off. Ignoring the blood dripping down to her wrist, she caught him under her shoe before he could escape into the water and warn his brothers. My mother hardly ever cursed, so I knew what was about to happen was going to be breathtakingly insane and memorable. When she shoved the spoon up this one she went slower than usual, and her smile returned as both his ass and shell gave way. She flung it as far as she could and then let out a deep reverberating sigh that sounded suspiciously like the sated purr of a large apex predator.
I didn’t know what I was witnessing back then, but I remembered that moment. I wouldn’t understand it until my early twenties, after my mother divulged to me that she feared my father’s lawyers if she tried to divorce him. She wanted me to have a financially stable childhood. Under that dock, and knee deep in mud, I saw the great Mishipeshu blowing off steam. It is hard work protecting something so precious, like a stash of copper, the underworld, and your only daughter.
When I was twenty I witnessed her final transformation. This time it was into the American Southwest’s most peculiar mythological beasty, the Cactus Cat. I had known since I was fifteen that my father had so flippantly smashed her heart, along with a few commandments. I found a letter she had written to him on the computer expressing her hurt, anger, and unfathomable disappointment on a variety of subjects ranging from his myriad lies to his racist reasoning behind his disapproval of my boyfriend. And what seemed to really hurt her the most is that she had recently been holding his hand through his first heart infarction and medical shrapnel deposit, and she claimed that she could feel that he only wanted his mother and the other “other” woman in his life by his side. And just like that, my teenage reptilian brain had teleported me to my parents’ bedroom where I intended to light my father’s clothes on fire. I was searching for a lighter when I heard her car pull up. I ran back to cover up my digital transgressions and then skittered to the door.
Her smile is the first thing you will notice about my mother. The second thing are those eyes. They have that classic chartreuse feline ferocity, but there is a golden nimbus around each of her pupils that I have always associated with a sense of joy. And that was the first thing I saw that day when she came in carrying groceries. I didn’t want to hurt her, and I decided to wait, because like Kristin Cast says, “Cats choose us; we don’t own them.” She would tell me when she was ready, but my father and I would soon commit the worst offense cat co-opters could make . . . we rushed her.
Five years later, after my paternal grandmother died and my mother had to endure an entire wake of rubbing elbows with his mistress, my mighty water lynx had all her spines snipped and had shrunk down to mere house pet proportions. I knew that she still loved him on some level, but I didn’t know that it was floating somewhere deep down in the mesosphere. After the funeral, I found her curled up in my grandmother’s recliner. She was pale and her eyes had that look of confusion on whether or not she had just cried or was about to. In my mind, it would be easier to help her through this if I told her I knew. I remember looking at myself in the dining room mirror hoping to catch some of her feline, made in the '50s, refined sense of sass and class in my reflection, but all I could see was my father’s Icelandic, blue mongrel eyes. The kind that show no sense of couth, feeling, or panache in being an apex predator, just nothing . . . but hunger.
“Mom, I know his mistress was at the funeral.”
At first she responded the way any cat does when a foreign object is introduced: she froze. Then, she arched her back and hissed out tears and nothing else audible to human ears for a few minutes, before I was brave enough to ask, “Was it the trashy blonde or the skanky brunette that talked to everyone, except you and me, and followed Dad around at a very suspicious and obviously calculated distance?”
She nodded and clarified the only piece of information I didn’t know with a soft mewing.
“The blonde one. The brunette . . . is her friend . . . and that’s not nice, Chris.” Even in her darkest moments, my mother has more savoir faire than I ever will. I then told her everything I knew, and she just sat there astonished and said nothing, which I feel was totally appropriate because sometimes even I, a writer, know that there are just simply situations where words go to die.
The next few months involved me, and all her true friends, trying to pull her out of a very toxic depression. I could tell she wasn’t eating well, and I would come home from college to find her curled up in bed or on the bathroom floor. I would call her in the morning, between every class, and before bed. I wanted to make sure that on some level my mother was still there. Cats have a tendency to wander off into darkness if they are not watched properly.
Then, my mother, my real mother, woke up one day and told me that she was moving out of the house, and she was going to try to divorce him. Her tail stiffened and branched out like the fingers of an angry Saguaro cactus. Instead of spines and armored plating, needles grew out of her brown fur that no longer felt the need to compete and be dyed trashy blonde. She remained small, but for a good reason. She knew that I had grown up and no longer needed the Mishipeshu’s sheer size for protection. She was now headed out into the desert to drink fermented cactus juice, howl and dance under the Mojave moon, and give any irksome cowboy a nasty scratch if he came too close. Even though my father refused to divorce her amicably or without the threat of suicide, the sheer fact that my Cactus Cat moved out and started to move on with her life was enough for me. She would always love him, but now she was ready to love herself too. There was only one night when the howling grew mournful across the rust and mustard colored sands of her new home and spiritual plain of peace, but that’s another story. This is hers . . .
and hers alone.
CHRISTINA FULTON teaches at Miami Dade College North. She has a supportive mother, a loving husband, and two crazy pups. Her poetry has appeared in Open Minds Quarterly, The Outsider, and Stay Weird and Keep Writing. Her creative nonfiction has been featured in Scarlet Leaf Review, the Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Route Seven Review, The Chaos, and the GNU Journal. Also, her essays have been published in the Sliver of Stone, Lady Literary Magazine, the Adanna Literary Journal, and the Almagre Review. The Medusa Laughing Press published her “Illegal Exhumation” in their anthology of micro texts.
 Latin, literally, not having mastery of one's mind.
 From those sages at Animal Planet.
 One of the five coat patterns found in tabby cats. The spots appear all over the sides and can range in size and shape.
 According to the legends of the Ojibwa tribe, this cat cryptid guards a stash of copper that is on Michipicoten Island. The Algonquins believed that this creature is a major player and power in the underworld.
 She is a #1 NY Times and #1 USA Today bestselling author who teamed with her mother to write the wildly successful House of Night series.
Story of the Week: January 8, 2019
Feet to the Fire
by Robert Leone
They promised to hold Marty’s body until I got there, so I flew in from San Francisco on a redeye. She was covered with a plain white blanket up to the neck. I think she was naked underneath, but I was afraid to look. To be caught fiddling with a dead body. There was a small smile on her lips, kind of like real life but somehow different. It must have been added post mortem by an undertaker.
Marty was on a metal gurney and her feet were up against a rough white wall. Clearly this was a budget operation. For some reason I touched it. The wall was warm, and only then did I realize we were up against the crematorium. I kissed her forehead. Like other foreheads of the dead it was cold and marble like. Looking at her she seemed peaceful, no unfinished business. I envied her that. I started to sweat, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just the flames. It was because of Mark. At that moment I would have been thrilled to see his size 11 feet up against that overheated wall. That was the problem with me and Mark. All we did was fight, there was no making up. It was like a reverse Pandora’s Box. Slam the lid shut and you let yourself in for a world of trouble.
Late the next day we picked up the ashes and brought them back to Marty’s trailer; it was full of people, none of whom wanted to get close to that box. That was my cue to dig in, literally, with a plastic laundry scoop. I transferred the contents to a metal pail and we set off for the mesa, a place she loved. Since I had taken charge of the ashes, I felt justified in leading the procession. I think Marty would have liked that since she was always out in front anytime we went hiking.
We wound our way up the trail in the starry night; you couldn’t see the red rock mountains all around you but you could feel them. The pail was passed around the circle. Handfuls of ashes were scattered into the dark either in silence or with some words of farewell. “I’ll see you again, old lady” was all I could think of when it was my turn. Was it stupid? I don’t know, but when I flung Marty’s ashes a wind came up and blew them back in my face. Someone out there in the dark snickered, and I wiped them away with a damp tissue I had in my pocket.
ROBERT LEONE is a published author whose work has appeared in the Hawaii Pacific Review, Spank the Carp, Imprints, Rosebud, The Evergreen Chronicles, HGMLQ, and other publications. He co-wrote, along with his husband Ed Decker, “Rights of Passage,” a full-length play focusing on international LGBT human rights that was produced by the New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco and published by Samuel French, Inc., in Spring 2018.
Story of the Week: January 15, 2019
by Lynn White
It started when we stood hopefully,
with our thumbs outstretched
by an English roadside.
We were heading towards Italy and Yugoslavia
without maps or money,
or sense of direction.
And we made it to Italy.
and swam off the rocks,
with a man we’d met in a cafe,
because he said we could.
And we swam and swam until two policemen came,
(one very stern and one very twinkly),
and said we couldn’t.
Nor could we leave the rocks without clothes on,
or with clothes clinging to our still wet bodies,
or lie on the rocks until we were dry,
in case we disconcerted the traffic or populace.
This being the main street in Trieste.
And we made it to Pec and lived
in a house "typique du Turque"
with a water pump in the garden
and a toilet, also "Typique du Turque,"
which made us very ill indeed.
But the parties were good and
the conversations interesting,
Even though no one spoke English.
And we learned to speak some Albanian,
which was always handy.
And we survived to sit thirstily by a hot,
dusty roadside and fantasize
about the ice cold mountain water
streaming through the streets of Pec,
and even about the water pump in the garden.
And we made it back home.
We had got lost a lot,
but hadn’t got raped or murdered.
So far as we can remember.
First published by Silver Birch Press, Perfect Vacation Series, August 2015.
LYNN WHITE lives in north Wales. Her work is influenced by issues of social justice and events, places and people she has known or imagined. She is especially interested in exploring the boundaries of dream, fantasy, and reality. Her poem "A Rose for Gaza" was shortlisted for the Theatre Cloud War Poetry for Today competition 2014. She has been nominated for a Pushcart, and her poems have appeared in many publications, including Apogee, Firewords, Indie Soleil, Light Journal, Snapdragon, and So It Goes Journal. Find Lynn at https://lynnwhitepoetry.blogspot.com and https://www.facebook.com/Lynn-White-Poetry-1603675983213077/.
Story of the Week: January 22, 2019
A Yellow Bus
by Niles Reddick
Melvin wasn’t overly enthusiastic about driving a yellow school bus and didn’t mention the hearing loss in his right ear from an explosion in Viet Nam back in the 1970s when he interviewed, but the part-time job would supplement the Social Security checks he and Anita got each month. He felt they could stretch the money to cover copays, groceries, their property taxes, and other bills that seemed to pile up on the kitchen table. Melvin didn’t tell people, but he and Anita had discussed how they felt betrayed by the government—from Viet Nam to Social Security. The wealthy elected folks kept seeing how to get more for themselves, leaving the least of these with even less. Melvin imagined at death all of them would be in a hellish prison, their fingers reaching up through the gates and begging to those who made it to heaven—those who’d suffered through life—to help them, and he imagined he’d stomp their fingers.
A week into his job, Melvin was assured by the transportation director at the school system office that he could drive the bus home each night. Melvin knew the doors of the bus would be locked, and it would be parked under the street light for added security. A couple of neighbors asked Anita at the mailbox how long the bus would be there, said that they didn’t think it looked good, that the neighborhood association might have to discuss whether it could stay there or not, that it could affect the housing market, and that people might think the neighborhood was lower class. Anita shared Melvin didn’t want to drive it, but wanted to earn some extra spending money since retirement. She didn’t want to give them the true picture of their poverty: once a day toilet flushing, flashlights instead of lights at night, potted meat instead of ground beef, capturing rain water in buckets to wash clothes, browsing the food pantry at church when they volunteered and scouring the church pews after service for loose change while straightening the Bibles and the hymnals.
When Melvin drove the bus all over the city, picking up in the morning and dropping off in the afternoon, he didn’t hear the “fuck this” and “fuck that” the teenagers said to one another in the back of the bus, he didn’t hear the proposition to the twelve-year-old girl for a blow job, and he didn’t hear the two tattooed gang members talking about following Melvin home to see what he might have they could steal, but what Melvin did hear at the end of the shift a month into the job was, “We have an anonymous complaint that you’ve been looking at the young girls inappropriately, that maybe you’ve made some comments, and we’ll have to suspend you without pay until the investigation is over. It could take months because they’re backlogged.”
Melvin was upset at the loss of funds. He and Anita had built their savings account back up to several hundred dollars, but what really upset him was the untrue allegations. If anything, he smiled at all the children, the life in their eyes, the hope for the future, and he prayed at night for all of them. The superintendent’s office never even called him. They simply sent him a letter of dismissal in the mail Anita collected one morning.
Later in the week, her neighbor told her in the driveway how sorry she was Melvin had lost his job over those allegations, that no one would ever believe such about Melvin. Anita thanked her, but she sensed her neighbor had been the one to complain, since she likely wouldn’t have known about the allegations and was very motivated to get rid of the yellow bus. The same neighbor would be the first to bring a covered dish if one of them was sick or died, and Anita thought maybe the neighbor should run for office. Over the next few months, Melvin put in some applications, and he shared he’d like to work with others in church who had businesses. Melvin and Anita didn’t need much and appreciated anything. In the meantime, they had hope and each other.
NILES REDDICK is author of the Pulitzer-nominated novel Drifting Too Far from the Shore, the collection Road Kill Art and Other Oddities, and the novella Lead Me Home. His work has been featured in eleven anthologies/collections and in over two hundred literary magazines all over the world including PIF, Drunk Monkeys, Spelk, Cheap Pop, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Slice of Life, Faircloth Review, With Painted Words, and many others. His new collection, Reading the Coffee Grounds, was just released.
Story of the Week: January 29, 2019
by David A. Estringel
About two and a half months ago, I was abruptly told via voicemail that my mother was going to have emergency brain surgery. Wednesday night’s social work class—the first one of the semester—had just wrapped up, and after the last of my students exited the building, I headed to my office to grab my satchel, lock up, and head home. Per usual, I checked my phone and saw my favorite niece Lauren had called. “Tio,” she said, “I don’t know if you know this, but Grandma is having brain surgery in the morning. Has a couple of blood clots. Call Mom. OK? I miss you. Bye, tio.”
I chuckled—a bit—at the irony of the situation, as I had ended the class with an exercise that a colleague suggested I try, which involved exploring personally held attitudes about specific stages of human development, ranging from birth to old age. I had students stand against the whiteboard in front of the classroom and share their thoughts, thinking this would be a nice way to bond as a cohort. Things went along smoothly for about five minutes until all the crying started. They cried about their childhoods, fathers that left them, bullyings in high school, divorces, and empty nests. I wanted to strangle Cynthia, my colleague. One of my older students (probably in her 50s) got up next. She started to share but then completely broke down. We were all stunned into death-like silence. Apart from her crying, it was so quiet in there that you could have heard a blotter of acid being dropped back in the 1960s. Eventually, she composed herself, apologized, and informed the class that she had just lost her mother a few days prior; her announcement did little to shatter the awkwardness in the room. She talked about how difficult it was to have the tables turned on her and have to watch the people that took care of her all her life deteriorate, requiring her to take care of them now. Embarrassed, she wiped her eyes and promptly sat down, surrounded by her very empathetic peers. As I watched, I remembered the picture of my mother and me that I have on my refrigerator door that I see every morning when I grab some rice milk for my cereal: she is on a hideous 1970s couch with perfect hair and makeup with me—shirtless in pajama bottoms, holding a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. We both looked happy. Overcome with guilt, I threw myself upon the pyre and decided to suffer along with everyone else. Plus, I knew they would remember this night, during instructor evaluation time. I took a deep breath, dove right in, and did well until I got to “old age,” but I got through it, somehow.
The hospital my mother was in was about an hour away from campus. It was already after 9:30 p.m., and I was tired from a long, monotonous day of grading papers and advising students for the upcoming spring semester; moreover, the evening’s hysterics didn’t help. It’s hard enough holding a space for three hours, lecturing nonstop and engaging students, but when you have 12 grown people crumbling apart before your very eyes it becomes damn near impossible. I was exhausted. Reinforcements were necessary: I needed caffeine and many, many cigarettes.
I stopped by a convenience store on my way to Edinburg to get supplies. I parked the car and turned off the ignition, preparing to get out when the reality of the situation hit me like the flu: my 85-year-old mother was having brain surgery, and there was a very real chance she may not make it. This wasn’t like one of her falls, which I had already gotten accustomed to by that point, or one of her patented meltdowns that left her husband and anyone within calling distance flustered and unsure of what to do to calm her. She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for two or three years, already, and it seemed to be advancing at an exponential rate, especially this past year. She lost her words more than not. Her short-term memory was unpredictable at best. There were even times when she would attempt to speak but couldn’t; she would just sit there with a look of frustration on her face—still, as a statue—then let out a “Damn!” and then focus on whatever happened to be on TV at the time, as if nothing had happened. Things hadn’t been easy and didn’t seem to be letting up any. No, this was very different.
I made it to the hospital in record time, hauling ass at around 85 miles per hour after procuring my fixes. After driving around parking lots for about 15 minutes, I finally found a spot and made my way to the Neuro ICU. When I got to her room, I saw a frail frame curled up in her hospital bed, disheveled and confused, surrounded by a concerto of blinking lights and rhythmic beeps that came from the various monitors she was connected to by tubes and multicolored wires. Her gown—a yellow so ugly she would have left “against medical advice” if she were more lucid—was off one shoulder, exposing more skin than I was comfortable with (though her sitter, a squat, older lady of about 60, didn’t seem to be fazed in the slightest). I looked over at the woman—I believe her name was Thelma—who had been there 10 hours already, due to my mother’s having tried to get out of bed multiple times that day. “Son,” I quickly blurted in her general direction, attempting to get formalities out of the way. My mother kept trying to pull her gown from her legs, unaware of how scantily clad she already was. I pulled it back over her knees and grabbed her hands to try and calm her along with a serenade of rhythmic shooshing.
“I thought you said you didn’t have a son, Alda,” the sitter said.
Foggy, my mother answered, annoyed, “I don’t.” She looked at me blankly. “I have Lisa, my daughter. I have Katie, her daughter . . . ” She stared at her gown, again. “No. I don’t have a son.”
I had prepared myself for pretty much anything on the drive up to the hospital, but it still stung. “Wishful thinking, old woman,” I said, looking into her eyes, smiling and rubbing the top of her crepe-papery hand.
She laughed, apparently remembering some things about us. After scanning my face more, a light turned on. “My baby! Anthony! Where were you? I’ve been waiting!”
“Teaching, Mom. It’s Wednesday. I just found out about this an hour ago.” I squeezed her hands, noticing how pale she was. I didn’t remember her skin being so white. “You OK?” My eyes began to sting and water.
Seeing the tears start to well up in my eyes, she said, “You love me” with a pitying look upon her face. “No . . . you don’t love me. You like me, but you don’t love me.” She turned her head away, perhaps distracted by a fly or a moving figure on the TV screen—maybe one of those crazy hallucinations she has from time to time.
“Well, not right now I don’t.” Again, she laughed. “I love you, Mom . . . I do,” I assured, using the tank top under my maroon dress shirt as a tissue to mop up a burgeoning flood of tears and snot. In an attempt to cut through the pall in the room, I tried to lighten things up by telling her about the picture on my refrigerator that I had looked at that morning—not really knowing what else to say—but it didn’t seem to register.
The next hour or so was spent keeping her calm, keeping her covered, dodging heartbreaking pleas to take her home. To make things worse, she would, intermittently, talk in word salad: random words strung together in nonsensical sentences. For a stretch that seemed to go on forever, she talked nonstop and said absolutely nothing. Other times she would snap out of it and speak only Spanish, talking to her father, who had died 35 years prior, repeating over and over again, “Ayudame, Papi! Ayudame!” (“Help me, Daddy! Help me!”). I just stood there, crying, wishing he would and feeling bad that I didn’t feel bad about thinking it.
At some point, her lucidity seemed to return some, so I took advantage of the moment and asked if she was scared about going into surgery in the morning, but she was oblivious to all that business. “They’re doing a procedure, Mom. In and out. Easy.” I smiled, hoping what might be the last conversation I had with her wouldn’t be a lie.
“Not with my hair looking like this, I’m not!” (If you knew my mother, you would know this was a really good sign.)
“It looks fine.” I laughed, but as soon as things started to look more optimistic, the pleading and agitation returned. All I could do was stand there with tears staining my cheeks and think about everything that could possibly go wrong in the next few hours. When she finally calmed down, she turned to me and looked at me with a suspicious look I hadn’t seen since my early 20s.
“What do you want?” she demanded.
“Cocaine,” I said. She didn’t laugh, but—honestly—it didn’t necessarily sound like a bad idea at the time.
“No, you want something. What is it?” She turned away from me with a stare that peeled off my skin like duct tape, leaving me to feel—for a moment—utterly raw. I thought about my phone and how much I hated it.
Midnight had come and gone, and she showed no signs of tiring. I was physically and mentally spent. I thought about her. The surgery. The what-ifs. I fought back tears—when I could—holding her hands the whole time, never letting go. Then, suddenly, her restlessness subsided, as quickly as it came. She turned to me, again, and just looked at me. That frustrated look I knew so well had resurfaced. She wanted to talk but couldn’t. Our eyes locked, and at that moment, I saw her, the mother on the couch with perfect hair and makeup, and—through all my artifice and bullshit—she saw me, a shirtless little boy in pajama bottoms, holding a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and for a few seconds we were both happy, again.
"Windows" first appeared in Down in the Dirt Magazine.
DAVID ESTRINGEL lives in Brownsville, Texas, and is a poet and writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, and essays. His work has been accepted and/or published by Specter Magazine, Literary Juice, Foliate Oak Magazine, Indiana Review, Terror House Magazine, Expat Press, 50 Haikus, littledeathlit, Down in the Dirt, Route 7 Review, Setu Bilingual Journal, Paper Trains, The Elixir Magazine, Soft Cartel, Harbinger Asylum, Briars Lit, Open Arts Forum, Cajun Mutt Press, Former People Journal, The Ugly Writers, Writ in Dust, Cephalopress, Twist in Time, Merak Magazine, Salt Water Soul, Cherry House Press, Subterranean Blue Poetry, and The Good Men Project. David can be found on Twitter (@The_Booky_Man) and at http://davidaestringel.com.
Story of the Week: February 5, 2019
Three poems in honor of Wild Women Month
by Phyllis Doyle, RSM
For Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Dissident
On your child’s sled you flew down
The white hills by the tsar’s palace,
And played tomboy games
With the same fearlessness that would
Serve you well in later days when
You would be called trespasser
In your beloved Petersburg.
Love would fail you many times
But one passion would survive,
You would not desert Russia
Even at the urging of friends,
They fled the chaos but you said
You stopped your ears to their pleas
Like children who hear dirty talk.
Poverty and ostracism could not put out
The fire that burned with you
As you wrote your poems of protest
On cigarette papers turned to ash
As soon as your visitor had burned
The unspoken lines in her memory.
The forbidden film of your funeral
In the oldest church of Petersburg
Captures the choir’s mourning chant,
Tears spilling on the flower-laden coffin,
Candles flickering around you
Light up the solemn faces of those
Privileged to see you home.
In the dreary Haworth village
The young girl heard the church bell
Tolling daily for the victims:
No one knew about the stream
Running under the graveyard,
Polluting the water.
In her narrow world
She found escape in Angria,
Her imaginary kingdom
Peopled with daring counts
And beautiful damsels,
Recording their adventures
On miniature pages sewn
Into her childish book.
Later her genius would blossom
On a barren moor of love,
The shy young woman
At the Belgian boarding school
Hopelessly under the spell
Of her married professeur.
When finally she summoned
Strength to leave her lessons
And returned home to England,
She wrote in her flawless French
The letters he never answered.
Under layers of repression
The metamorphosis began as
She gathered force by seeking,
In her work as in her faith,
The bedrock of the true.
“Whatever my powers…
God had given them.”
When she finished,
No angels in the house,
Only real women shaking
the doors of fiction and
Exploding on the scene.
Reminiscence: Louisa May Alcott
Looking back, I see the family home
I helped hold together in spite of
The slump from misaligned windows
Caused by joining the small houses
Already standing on our square of Concord.
I admired my mother, felt ambivalent about
My sisters and resented my father,
Since it was my earnings not his
That eventually supplied our daily bread.
To keep the family in transcendental light,
Our neighbors were the Emersons,
I wrote under my own name only what
Bronson Alcott’s daughter would be expected to,
Burying the virile pen point of my anger
Under the placid lives of my “little women,”
But reality was quite another matter.
At Fruitlands, father’s experiment,
Our diet was apples, potatoes, and bread.
As the family’s health deteriorated
So did the utopian dream of the commune.
When a zealot there proposed renunciation
Of family ties and father wavered,
Only mother’s common sense and will
Saved the family from disaster.
Humbling herself she turned to Mays
For help with her decisive message.
“I have taken the ship into my own command.”
Longing for adventure, I stayed at home
Envying my sister May her beauty
And her artist’s life purchased
With endless hours at my window desk.
When I read her Paris letters,
“This week we have a superb model,”
I felt I could imagine that life
More fully than she could live it.
Poems previously published in Portraits and Landscapes (Mellen Poetry Press, 1997; Finishing Line Press, 2010).
PHYLLIS DOYLE, RSM, PhD, is a native of Portland, Maine, and a retired English Professor of St. Joseph's College in Standish, ME. Her poems have been published in Sisters Today, Delta Epsilon Journal, and Bristol Banner Books.
Story of the Week: February 12, 2019
The Flap of a Single Wing
by Janet Garber
People seem to expect something of me that I can’t deliver. So, I’ve succeeded in withdrawing to a place where there’s only me and a wall of sea facing me. I devote hours searching for a break in the wall through which a savior can step. The sun bleaches my brain, my braids, turns my eyeballs white. I crawl about in the sand, stretch out my long neck. I’ve become more lizard than wife.
I don’t prepare poi, comb Hilo markets for spices, or take up basket weaving; I sit on the beach, devising strategies for avoiding the other Euro-American families who roam the island at will. Isolation shouldn’t be difficult here—the village has 800 people to avoid and lots of land to do it in.
Shortly after our arrival, rumors circulated about my drinking, the way I carry on at parties. Jef, they accepted—with his hand-tailored suits, silk ascots, cuff-linked shirts, his old-world manners—and pitied. The kids . . . well, the kids are fending for themselves; they have to.
This is Hawaii, isn’t it, where children belong to everyone?
Me and Jef, Piet and Ariana, “the Vandenberg family,” came to Hawaii six months ago and settled in an ordinary bungalow near the beach, whose only extraordinary feature was that it faced inland and had not one window with an ocean view. We were used to being tight with our money, and it was very cheap, almost for free; still, we might have run and settled elsewhere, as the other families had, but for the fact that I insisted we live here. The No-Vue, I called it, and it fit just right.
The first cocktail party celebrated the arrival of the Team Telescope members, the company wives, kids, and assorted baggage. Jef said I had to go. I could hardly bear to look at him so I said yes. The right side of his face was already drawn from the ear, flattening out the right nostril. The whole angle of his head was askew. Paralysis was spreading to his right shoulder.
At the party, a sucked-out reed of a woman, the project director’s wife, came upon me in the kitchen where I had gone to get my own refill. Was it true, this woman inquired, that Jef had a brain tumor and refused to get treatment for it?
“Well, that’s not exactly right,” I mumbled.
“How do you mean?”
“You see, he has a diet which is supposed to cure him. And he does exercises. . .”
“But he’s not being cured, Dearie, is he?”
Let her stick her beak into someone else’s pie. I spent the rest of the evening eyes closed and head down on the kitchen table, pretending to be drunker than I was.
Months have passed and I’m forced to ask myself, what exactly am I doing here? What becoming? I catch my overgrown shadow in the sand as I perch on my favorite rock. All urgency is gone from my vocabulary, yet I feel it’s time to do something, anything.
Tomorrow, I could skip drinks, eat enormously at breakfast instead, load my pockets with macadamia nuts, come to this rock with a pad of paper and a pencil. Science fiction is probably an easy field to break into, especially with my background in biology. Jef used to say even my lab notes made good reading. I could write about an alien being, marooned in space. I guess he’s frightened. I think I’m qualified.
I dream for hours until the sun like a blowtorch blasts away all conviction that I am human.
I walk the 200 feet back to the house, rocking from side to side like an abandoned rowboat in a choppy sea, the drink in my left hand splashing over the rim of the thermos cup onto my thighs. I am tossed this way and that by the elements. I try to pay attention.
Damn . . . I’m losing it!
Well, what’s the difference if I’m here or . . . there? I giggle.
I stop then and lay myself out on the gravel path in my shorts. Nothing much on my mind—should there be? I turn the glass over and lick with a forked tongue at the remaining droplets. I stretch out my legs and sleep.
Jef finds me some hours later, an iguana gone belly-up at high noon in the sun. He jabs at my shins with his Italian-pointed shoes. I crank open one eye.
“Get up, lazy woman! C’mon!” He jerks me to my feet, his remaining strength a surprise. We head up to the bungalow and take fresh drinks to the deck.
“Mommy, we’re hungry,” pipe two voices whose shrillness is incredible. I always hated children and now I remember why.
“Drop dead,” I reply.
Jef smirks and shakes his head, but gets up to tend to them.
“Ma . . . Toni!” Ariana comes running back.
“Toni,” she says, breathlessly, brushing her bangs out of her face, “I just want to tell you something.”
I fix her with my evil fish eye.
“I can take care of Daddy. I can do it. You don’t have to worry.”
“Get out of here!”
Ariana blinks twice, her long spidery black lashes fluttering, and turns on her hip and vanishes.
Piet runs in and jumps up on my lap. Without thinking, I hug his pudgy person to my bosom.
“Mommy, Mommy!” He snuggles for a moment. Then, “Mommy, you smell funny.”
I roughly lift him off my lap. “Go play with your sister. Now!”
Piet runs off, whimpering a bit, but calling, “Hey, Ariana, I’m here, I’m here!”
Nothing is on my mind. Jef stopped up his mouth years ago, but his body, not impressed with that brand of courage, rots before my eyes, I live in close quarters with two kids, one of whom is turning into a slut at 7, the other, mine, at this very moment, little doubt remains, being corrupted by his sister, and my life is turning into what? Nothing is on my mind.
By 2 p.m. they have all disappeared into their respective black holes in space. I can’t see them no matter where I look. Free again, yes. I manage to laugh and pour myself another drink. I dream that night of floating, bobbing up and down in the water between the islands, the Toni Vandenberg buoy. My position doesn’t seem to shift much. I bob up and down for what must be hours or years. I wake queasy and hydrophobic. In the morning I alter my plan and have two quick shots.
I do keep my appointment with the rock. I write a paragraph. Then I realize: Shouldn’t there be some dialogue in this story? Just a couple of lines right now are needed. But who can help me?
I make a fatal pause, fling pad and pencil out into the sand. Then my arms are up over my head, as is my halter. I step out of my shorts and trot down to the water. I wade in a bit and do the dead man’s float, what else?
Later, in the afternoon, it’s particularly hot and sticky. I sit and am watching the waves when a “Hawaii for Honeymooners” brochure wafts from nowhere onto my bit of beach. Someone at least has a sense of humor. Flipping through the yellow, curled, bloated pages, I spot a couple our age, mid-thirties, reminding me that life is to be lived. I can’t turn to the next page. I’m so afraid of turning that page. I’d leave—I start to say—if only . . .
I close my eyes and take yet another nap. I wake dreaming of Piet Jansens. He was only a boy of 18. I held him; he died. Simple story. I was young, strong, but not young and strong enough for leukemia. He died and I turned 20. I went to North America and lived with my aunt in Vancouver for a few years, ran wild until I met Jef. Jef had the same fair coloring, lean frame as Piet, the same catching impulsiveness of desire, also the desire to accomplish great things. What I did not realize until later was that Piet would have changed and matured as he grew older while Jef was always going to remain a pup.
Jef’s problem basically is that he’s a sequel to Piet: First Love, Part II, and like most sequels, he’s inferior to the original. He just doesn’t understand me, can’t understand why I’m not happy, why I can’t get along with Ariana who’s “only a child, goddammit,” why I’m “jealous.”
I don’t think he even understands why I married him; he is so inexperienced. The thing of it is: I loved him. Probably still do. More than Piet. Piet left me after all; Jef’s still here. My father was the first to leave me with a hollowed-out woman, a mother whose icy fingers could never warm me.
No more goodbyes . . .
Jef Vandenberg grew up with logs in the fireplace; he always had what he needed—microscopes, money, a girlfriend who got pregnant at 16 and cleanly aborted. He had been shocked and shaken, he said, that she could do that to him.
As soon as I began torturing him with my little flirtations—no, maybe when Ariana became so destructive—well, he got leaner and leaner and there was nothing left, certainly not a husband.
Sunday, Sandy drops into my kitchen. It’s the day of the company luau. Everybody has gone to the damned luau. Why isn’t she there?
“Hi there, stranger! Whatya got for lunch? I’m starving,” she says as she peeks into the barren wastes of our refrigerator, “but almost anything will do. Got any tuna?”
Unperturbed, Sandy twists around the bungalow, poking at bare walls, fishing in magazine racks. The magazines were there when we moved in. Finally, she comes up with something.
“Oh, you bird-watch too? What a coincidence! You’ll have to go walking with Lars, you know? He’s crazy for birds.”
“No . . .” I venture and wait for what is next.
“Toni, everyone’s worried about you.”
After she leaves, disgusted with me and herself, I wonder about this Lars. He interests me because I don’t believe I ever knew I had to avoid this one. He must be a rare one, with his birds. No cocktail parties for him. Must be running from people too. Maybe I’ll postpone killing myself.
Is this a joke?
I have been mulling it over in my mind for some time. I’ve been weighing the pros and cons.
Monday I decide to go ahead. Jef has a three-day encampment at Mauna Kea. I ship the kids to Honolulu with their yaya and drag out my old Betty Crocker mixer. I make one hell of a cocktail.
Somehow I wake with a pump in my gut, in that hospital in Hilo. Jef knew company people would never look for me there.
He says, “Trying to upstage me, Antonia?”
I let yellow tears drip onto my plump cheeks, hoping all of me melts down that way and oozes away.
“I . . . love you,” I whimper.
He turns his back and stands at the window.
We never talk about what I have done. Like soiled underpants lying at the bottom of a closet.
Wednesday, back at home, and I’m feeling a tightness in my body, a continual pumping inside, like I still am being pumped from inside out. I just have to let go in some way or I’ll wind up rocketing straight up into the air on my very own jet stream!
Jef doesn’t seem to be developing any new symptoms. I let him fast all he wants. This is all he seems to need from me, to just go along with the program, his program. Hasn’t he realized by now that I’m not a go-along type of gal?!
I never speak to the kids anymore; they conspire in whispers behind my back or in their common room. They’re probably already lovers.
I start running bare-bosomed down the gravel path to sleep face down in the sand. I pry coconuts off trees, crash two together like two heads, watch till one gushes open. I don’t know what to do with myself.
Jef starts spending more time “up” on the mountain, coming down only every four days to change his shirt and underwear. I know it’s because of the altitude, that you can’t go up and down every day. I am filled with hate; I am grateful.
One day for fun—okay, I had a lot to drink—I paint my face in black and green stripes, crawl through the forest meowing. I feel I’ve been given a license for such things.
Inevitably, on a run one day, luckily sans warpaint, I run into Lars, the bird-watching Norwegian. He’s tall with sand-colored strands of hair, whitish-blue eyes, an intense leanness. A charming way of talking while looking about him, taking in the flight of rare birds, the ruffled red petals of a nearby flower, the green seabreeze and seasmell. It’s harmless talk, meant to be friendly, cooling on a warm day.
We find we are running into each other quite often. Without warning he turns to me one morning, and puzzled, asks,
“What do you do with your time, Toni?”
Without hesitation, I reply, “I drink I smoke I run naked through the forest kicking coconuts in the head.”
He looks away, but I see the smile.
“Should I be ashamed? Or twenty years younger with a full head of fiery red hair?
“Ahhh . . .”
And then I have almost a physical pain in my gut as I think of how beautiful I had been, very tall and straight, fiery, Jef’s little Amazon. Jef always said my skin shimmered like cow’s milk poured steaming into a white porcelain bowl, that I looked like I came from a farm where the bright orange disk of a sun never forgot to shine on little boys and girls and dapple their skin with spots of color.
But Lars seems to be listening for something.
“You see, Toni, this one has a thin white band on its wing. Watch for it when it takes off.”
I feel my flood cooling. I go down to the beach, let the surf wash up around my ankles. I bury fingers and toes in the moist sand. Undulating with the rhythms of the poems Lars has brought me from Hilo, I lose myself more totally than I do in drink. Up on my rock, I lie back in the sun, humming.
I am waking to the sound of the blood beating beyond the sea.
I’m not sure what’s happening.
I go to an abandoned cabin we know in the woods; it’s the rainy season. I’m bent over tracing bird wings onto sheet paper, and I look up to find Lars. He has such a wide mouth with large regular white teeth. I want to jump right in. But I look down and say,
“My husband has phased me out of his death.”
“That’s his right, isn’t it? Accept it.”
“We were in it together . . . Lars, you can’t understand, can you?”
He can’t really. He’s from a family of astronomers, has his own traumas, has never married. He’s “stuck in nature” as he puts it. But I talk and talk until I realize I need information I haven’t got. He finally takes off, smiling faintly; I crumble up the wings watching him leave.
I run out, back to the bungalow. I pace in narrowing circles in a room small as a closet, a room for storage. With the dimness swirling past me, I try to grab on to motes in the dust, to some memory of my life. Every time I reach the center of the room, I hear myself sigh, and slowly I spiral out again.
Where Jef went bad is clear to me. He saw a blighted yeasty lump rise in his skull and refused to beat it down, to knead it back into nothingness. For what those strong capable hands? I’m right to feel guilty too . . .
I squint and believe I’ve located the stuffy overheated parlor, with its clattering of teaspoons against teacups, where, 12 years ago, we stood shaking hands. There I was, looking as fresh and plump and wholesome as Edam cheese, thick blonde braids plaited atop my head, babbling excitedly:
“You know, my work is almost finished in biology, I probably should have gone into psychology, where I had certain gifts, though that’s what my mother had said to do, which was probably why I haven’t done it.”
Jef, a prince in stature and severity, said mildly, “Physics is the only subject for me—are there others?”
He said he was teaching it for the first time that semester in Vancouver and probably would never do anything else.
During that first conversation, I grabbed his hand once or twice; he touched my hair; the air around us was crackling with electricity. We assumed though that it went no further than a strong surface attraction; we were wrong. When I discovered during that first breathless conversation that he too was from Rotterdam, I burst out merrily:
“So, this is why I have withstood these two and a half Canadian winters—to meet a fellow Dutchman?” And when he asked me formally to marry him a mere 10 days later, I replied, “Only if you take me someplace warm!”
Hawaii was warm. A man as good as his word, that Jef. All our places were warm at first, and so was our hearth. We went off on one scientific project after another, reveling in our nomad wanderings. I was Jef’s roots, his history and future, and he was mine. We lived in Guatemala, Chile, and then Mexico, where we had a son. Then we adopted a daughter from a woman selling chiclets in the zócalo at midnight. Two strangers came to live with us, two strange fleshes . . .
I stop, then walk toward the center of the room again, kneading my knuckles. I remember that summer visit to our hometown for the small family wedding, our parents rejoicing at what “the children” had found in the new world. Certainly we were happy then, in love, joined in our love, indissoluble.
Remembering brings a sourness to the pit of my stomach.
“I did something, I know I did!” I scream suddenly, kneeling in a dark corner, scraping my knees on the bare floor. I empty my tears till there are none left inside me.
I sense Lars will never find himself in the same part of the woods with me again. Determined, I go for him the next morning and, finding him, seduce him mercilessly—with humor and wit, scarves and eccentric dance! It doesn’t take much. He shakes afterwards, loosening my honeyed braids wrapped high around my head.
I tell him more. He doesn’t particularly want to listen, but he must be polite now, mustn’t he? I need him in order to get going; I don’t know why. Am I going?
That daughter of ours was a bad idea. Until we picked her up, filthy bundle that she was—and I can never wash that filth from my mind—we were okay. Baby Piet had hair like wheat, a pleasing baby face; he smelled like milk. I easily hauled him into art museums, out to archaeological digs, to the pyramids in Oaxaca. He was beside me in Spanish class at the Universidad, he learned to make mole sauce with chocolate and tomatoes, and to eat chili in small amounts and fruit with the skin peeled off. Daddy worked at the Instituto by day and we all sat with friends at the zócalo by night.
Ariana Elena was “purchased” on one of those evenings. Jef insisted she was an original Mayan princess: the wide eyes, high cheekbones, clear skin, thick brown hair. Well, she did have that Mayan profile, I had to admit, but the waif also had eyes that were all black. I thought for a three-year-old, she was rather spooky. Like most Mexican little girls, she was seductive in her ways; Jef was certainly not her first victim.
Later I realized the child was much like a pet snake brought home impulsively by a boy interested in growing up to be a naturalist. And predictably, rather soon, Mother was left to care for it while Sonny moved on to other passions. Ariana, for that matter, had not wanted to stay with us after the first 10 days. Jef, stricken, “understood”; but I, the good wife, marched her into the hall closet and warned her that she was never to talk about leaving, she was living with us, now and forever, like it or not. Had she or I been different, my heart might have broken. For weeks she cried for her mama; she was inconsolable. And then she just stopped. She resumed her courtship of Jef and set out to spite me in every way possible. Gradually over the last four years she and Piet have become very close buddies, and I’ve been effectively excluded from all their games.
Just as I was trying to be mature about the loss of my only son/my boon companion, and only a couple of days before we moved to Hawaii, I noticed Jef’s increasing oddness. He would turn away when people spoke to him. His fingers shook as he wrote up his teaching notes. He seemed to want to spend all his free time on the floor with the kids or reading scientific journals in his study. He no longer wanted me to invite guests over for dinner. I wondered whether his right eyebrow had always arched so. Wasn’t he losing weight?—he couldn’t afford to—his face seemed taut and inelastic.
Reluctantly, Jef admitted he had seen a nutritionist. He proudly showed me his special diet. I was expected to be satisfied with this explanation, to trust it. I ended my barely begun affair with his associate, but Jef’s physiognomy continued to change. After feeling it was my overheated housewife’s imagination, I finally called on the doctor and his wife informally one evening.
I came home raging, stood in the doorway to Jef’s study with my coat on.
“Jef, how could you keep this from me?”
“Just shut up, Toni. Don’t say anything!” he warned.
“Look, I’m not discussing this. It might seem strange but—”
“Oh no, you can’t. I can’t.”
He put his head in his hands. “Toni, please,” he said more gently.
“Jef, this doctor says it’s operable. Just get it cut out. Let’s take care of this together, okay? You’re a young man, Jef, with a family . . . We’re supposed to be going to Hawaii.”
“Toni, dammit. It’s my body and my life.”
“You’re a scientist. You know what will happen. What will I do? Piet and I? And Ariana?”
Jef just got up and closed the door between us. He left earlier than usual the next morning for work. And in all the time since, the subject has never been reopened.
Lars listens. What does he get out of it? I don’t care. I go home to sleep.
Lars and I meet a few more times. The only thing Jef notices is that I am drinking less. And that is enough to make him suspicious. “What are you up to, you slut?”
Lars and I meet again. When he sees me coming, baring my breasts, which I know are still nice, shaking my hair down, he closes his book, picking up a leaf to mark the page. And waits.
“Reading naughty books again, Lars?”
“Toni, will you run away with me to Costa Rica? I could take that job . . .”
I walk the beach in the early morning. I walk up the stony gravel path. I walk from room to room. I must get started. I mutter to myself, madly:
“Take the plane to Honolulu, and . . .” I sense the 10-seater will not support the weight of a Toni. I have often watched it flitting from island to island on its way to Oahu.
“Seek shelter with my friends?” I have no friends. I had some once but I have none now.
“Suppose I go home then?” Where is home? I have followed Jef from site to telescope site for 10 years running.
“Let me get a job then! I must get a job. I’ll get a job.” I have never worked.
I feel my will to leave at times grow stronger. I’m sure of it.
“For Lars will not keep meeting me throughout the summer, I don’t expect that, I have no sadness to spare.”
“I am leaving the island, I feel it, I am leaving the dead behind.”
I decide to buy a ticket. Two. To Rotterdam. I’ll take Piet. For now. But Ariana . . . Ariana? Yaya would take care of her, of course. But Piet would miss her . . .
Lars and I meet a few more times.
And then comes the time I have been waiting for, when inexplicably and overnight, Jef needs me.
I wheel him every morning at six the half mile to his office. He twists toward me:
“Faster, bitch!” and smiles his old smile.
No one can say how long Jef will go on like this. I feel the skies puffed out taut, monstrous cotton shapes bump above me, sleeping bears stretch, flexing their claws. I lift hooded eyes to the two volcanoes, slide them around to the ridges and hills of black stony lava to my right. I don’t see blues or golds, birds of paradise or anthurium. I do not hear the flap of a single wing. Lars has disappeared into one of those black holes that seem to people the space around me. I give the chair a final shove, propelling Jef through the door of his office, and turn without a word.
I turn and walk down to the beach.
JANET GARBER earned an MA in English from the University of Rochester. She has published fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays, articles, and book and movie reviews. She is the author of the nonfiction book, I Need a Job, Now What?, and the award-winning satiric novel, Dream Job: Wacky Adventures of an HR Manager, a finalist in the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and runner-up in the Best Indie Book Awards. She’s working on her second novel, tentatively titled The Paris Novel. When she isn’t writing, she’s listening to live blues and folk music, hiking the “Gunks,” or cheating on the NYT crossword puzzle. Visit her at www.janetgarber.com.
Story of the Week: February 19, 2019
Shades of Sunday
by Frances Terry Fischer
When Mary Donaldson stepped into her kitchen on Sunday morning, she gasped, slid down the wall, and landed with a bump on the floor. She sat there and blinked. It was real: the kitchen cabinets were the way they were before she wasted $100 and the whole weekend on a stupid whim and painted them three shades of green. She meant to pep up the kitchen, but instead had turned it from a “sit-down-and-tell-Mom-about-your day” room to a “get-going-with-something-energetic-this-minute” room, and she regretted it even before she finished. The very next day her son yanked open a cabinet and made a grab for a tumbler, smashing two of the wine glasses that had gone out of style and couldn’t be replaced.
But now the paint was gone. The old veneer glowed warmly, golden brown and weatherbeaten. Mary’s smile glowed too. It was a miracle, her wish granted—and also a lesson. Mary and her daughter had agreed they would never change that old kitchen, no matter what anybody said. Mary made it quite the resolution, but wasn't that exactly when temptations are worst? The serene feeling that followed a solemn promise to herself sooner or later gave way to a lower emotion—that she just had to have or copy something she had seen, in a magazine, in a shop, this time in a friend’s kitchen, but that was painted in more sober blue tones that would not work in this kitchen at all. Then again, neither did the green. Her daughter would have been sorely disappointed if she came home from college and saw it, and that thought made Mary’s heart ache. It was betrayal, much worse than the new look that led to yanked cupboards and who knows what else? She shuddered to think of next Christmas and everybody home and milling around the kitchen.
But now it was gone—the bad new look was the good old look again. A miracle, a lesson, and maybe even a chance to do good somewhere. Yes, that must be why it happened today.
Chica wandered in, surprised to see Mary sitting on the floor. She plopped down beside her. A hairstorm rose from her back and dropped all over Mary and her immediate vicinity. How could that mutt shed so much and still have so much hair? Here in the warm months Mary could vacuum three times a day. She turned to Chica and said with feeling, “I wish I’d never brought you home.”
Chica just smiled benevolently, fat pink tongue lolling diplomatically to the side away from Mary as she waited for a scratch behind the ears. Mary sighed, scratched both ears, and tugged them playfully. I get it, she thought, it only works if I really mean it, or maybe it only works with colors.
She got up, made herself a cup of tea, and sat sipping peacefully. The cabinets glowed with serene yellow light, inviting, inspiring even. Suddenly she got a terrific idea. That unfortunate Gonzalez girl had a dress of Mary’s—a nice dress, but a color as wrong as the painted kitchen. She had intended to dye it a gentle apricot, but it came out more like saffron with sunstroke, brassy and bright. No color for Angie Gonzalez’s sallow cheeks. She was more like leftover chicken curry. It was a clash of condiments that could not be tasty. Angie’s mother was in Mary’s sewing group and took the disaster home. Now Angie wore it everywhere. She was probably wearing it to church this very minute and looking like a case of salmonella poisoning. Poor girl. She had no sense of style. I’ll fix that, thought Mary. I’ll make it classier than anything she’s ever owned, bless her heart. She grabbed her purse and was out the door.
Mass was almost over. Right enough—there sat Angie, all garish gold and tawny makeup. Oh dear, she did need work, but here was Mary to make it all better. Now, what color might improve that dress? She knelt respectfully and glanced around for inspiration. How about a noble Bordeaux? A classy color if ever there was one. Mary waited until mass was over and Angie had stopped talking with friends and was almost out to the sidewalk. She closed her eyes and whispered: I wish Angie’s dress were Bordeaux red.
She opened her eyes just in time to see Angie close hers and flop to the ground in a faint. Mary ran to her and cushioned Angie's head on her arm. Angie raised herself on one elbow and looked down at her dress, then fell back again and moaned. Mary lifted her to a sitting position and spoke gently.
“It’s all right, Angie, your dress is just lovely.”
“Nooooo. It is punishment.”
“Wh— what? Punishment for what?”
“My cat, poor little cat. Sweet little cat, but she was old and couldn’t hold it all the time and when she did it on my pillow . . . I . . . I took her to the vet and had her put to sleep. And look, God’s punishing me. My beautiful dress—the color of blood.”
“It is NOT. It looks much better now, silly girl. You don’t get punished for having an incontinent cat put down. What an idea!”
“Noooo, it is punishment. Look—it happened right here outside church on Sunday.” And Angie fainted again. Mary held her up, thinking fast. Maybe a nice sky blue, a calming color. She fanned Angie’s face with her handkerchief and wished. Angie came to with a shriek.
“AAuugghh—now it’s blue! Like the sky. I’m going to die! I told a lie! Ooooh, little sister . . . I told her the cat got run over. First I kill, then such a fib. I never lied to her before . . . Um . . . except that time I told her the horrible blue Sky Slurpers came after kids who read their sister’s diary and blab it all around school. She hates blue, my little sister, always wants pink like some dumb Barbie doll. So, I told her the Sky Slurpers would suck out her brains and make her head empty like the sky for stealing a sister’s thoughts. She cried for an hour and tried to make me a pink smoothie. Yuck. And all the guys I had a crush on teased me for three weeks. And now I’m going to die. Going to fly up to the sky. Or...”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. Angie, Angie, Angie, nobody dies for fibbing to her sister. If they did most of us wouldn’t be here. Anyway, that was really quite imaginative—that Sky Slurper thing. Many sisters could use something like that when a little brat reads their diary.”
But Angie clearly wasn’t listening. She seemed to be trying to wipe the color off her dress with desperate sweeps of her arm. Blue wouldn’t do.
Oh well, it should have been apricot originally. Yes, apricot. Here goes. And once more Mary wished. And once more Angie screamed.
“Oh no! Apricot! Yikes—I can’t stand apricots! They make me itch all over. It is punishment. My beautiful dress looks like apricot rash. Oh no no no! Pun-ish-ment.”
Angie’s sobs were going to attract a crowd any minute. Mary had to act fast and she didn’t even need to think this time. She closed her eyes and whispered more sincerely than ever before: Oh, please, please, turn that dress back the way it was and make Angie forget all about this.
The sobbing stopped and Mary felt Angie take her arm.
“Oops, I must have slipped. Thanks for helping me up. Just hope nothing happened to my dress . . . Oh, aren’t you Mary? From my mother’s sewing group? You gave her this dress, didn’t you?”
And when Mary nodded Angie gave her a big hug.
“It’s the most beautiful dress I’ve ever owned. This color . . . it makes me think of sun and fun and being in the kitchen with my mom when I was a kid. It just makes me happy. Have a nice day.”
Mary stared as Angie headed off down the street, swinging her purse and bouncing along. Her makeup was a mucky mess from all the tears, but her smile lit up the space where they had stood. As she turned for home Mary seemed to hear an inner voice saying, Mary Donaldson, will you never learn to let well enough alone?
“Well, of course,” said Mary right out loud. It was insulting, this internal intrusion after her good deed. She continued in her mind. “You don’t have to rub it in. I get the point—got it already this morning in the kitchen. Resolutions are meant to keep. I’m not going to do another thing to another person. Although . . . hmm . . . the day’s barely half over, and all these new gray hairs are unsightly. And unnatural . . . ”
FRANCES TERRY FISCHER came to Denmark from Tucson, Arizona, in 1973. She has her BA and MA in literature and history from the University of Arizona. Classic Love Refugee—still—although with her second Danish man, she has 4 children and 4 grandchildren. She has worked at many different jobs over the years, including teaching English to Danes and Danish to immigrants. Now retired but still active and still writing, she is at work on a fictionalized version of her own story—better late than never. Working title: View from a Little Mermaid. She hopes it will help explain Americans to Danes and Danes to Americans. It is in English, because she will not feel like a real writer until she has published in her native land and native language.
Story of the Week: February 26, 2019
by Sandra McGarry
How will this day be broken—
scatter its light
in first unfurling
wild with wonder
has to be
the man in the orange
I saw riding his bicycle
balanced on the bike’s back
his life going forward
one pedal turning at a time.
Or a young man,
through long black hair
grabs a ponytail’s worth
as if it were a bouquet
onto his shoulders
jiving his life
into the morning
waiting as we
cars at idle
thoughts in high gear
his for a traffic light
to change color,
leather shoe tips
direction I’m going
SANDRA MCGARRY taught elementary school for many years in New Jersey before retiring to Colorado. Her poetry has been published in Pooled Ink, Pilgrimage, Paterson Review, and DoveTales, an International Journal of the Arts.
Story of the Week: March 5, 2019
by Mitchell Krockmalnik Grabois
As a teenager, in his bedroom retreat, my buddy Eric built model airplanes, got lightheaded on the glue, listened to Odetta as he built, listened to Ledbelly, Muddy Waters. His schizophrenic sister skulked in the hall. Her complexion was pitted and she wore thick glasses, but I found her attractive, an older woman with secret knowledge I would never have. I wanted to be misled. I wanted to be detoured by someone whose life was a detour. I wanted to get high on airplane glue without ever building an airplane.
The woman with the cruel face and large breasts rests on the couch under the jaguar, her legs folded under her, and talks on a cell phone, the universal currency of disengagement and contempt. The doors into the room are ten feet tall, but she is only five, the same height as her ancestors, who died before they were forty and whose foreheads were flat and their eyes crossed. This woman’s face is rich in cruelty, as if cruelty came in batches of a million pixels. Her cell phone and blouse are lurid pink, her toenails are orange. She is a minor character in a detective novel, who hides a shiv in her ratted hair.
I’ve got two medical conditions: (1) high Uric Acid in my blood. I take Allopurinol to prevent gout or painful kidney stones. (2) I’ve also got an excess of Words. They are sandwiched in the layers of my dermis, interlarded through my deposits of fat, crosshatched on the surfaces of my organs like lichen on a limestone boulder in a Southern forest. I expel as many of those words as I can into my laptop. It’s a relief as they flow through my fingers into this machine, a medical miracle like the Iron Lung or the MRI machine that takes you in like a bundle of dirty laundry.
But catastrophe—I was hacked. When I turned on my laptop, the tides had been reversed. All the words I’d deposited came flowing up my arms before I could even think to snatch them away, and I was refilled with all those cursed words. I staggered away from the machine, dropped to the floor, crawled under my library table and yanked the plug from the wall. I lay panting like a woman in labor, working hard to deliver, never expecting that the baby could jump back in, requiring her to endure the birth process all over again.
Jaguar Woman studies the screen of her cell phone like a Sephardic rabbi studying the Torah. She studies it like a weatherman, surveying swirls of radar for deadly storms, like a mother staring into her baby’s crib for signs of polio or sudden death syndrome, like the father of a juvenile delinquent peering into his son’s face for proof of worth or worthlessness.
This woman’s face gets crueler as I watch, until she forces me to orgasm without touching me, then leaves me to recover my sanity, and to clean myself. She goes back to the couch, back to uninterrupted staring into her cell phone, like a Sicilian studying the face of a pizza for signs of crime or the dark, mottled face of his lover for signs of betrayal.
I put Bay Rum in an empty eye drop container, half an ounce, enough for the two-week trip I was taking with my wife. I marked the bottle with a big B to distinguish it from the bottle of eye wash that was really eye wash. I showed it to my wife. That’s clever she said.
It was among the jumble of my stuff on the hotel sink. Somehow she forgot, or maybe wanted to forget, that it wasn’t eye drops, that it was marked with a B. She has many physical afflictions and likes to wallow in them, likes to wring all the sympathy she can from them. She gets me to do things for her out of consideration for her suffering.
The Marlboro Man is no pussy, no metro-sexual who lubes himself up with mousse and psychotherapy, who obsesses about what his mother did to him and what his father didn’t. The Marlboro Man might feel like shit all the time, but that’s the booze and the women, the ex’s and nex’s, the bad news coming down the pike. A cactus doesn’t feel great either, standing in the middle of the desert with his shoulders frozen in a shrug, arms outstretched in a way that means: Look, I did the best I can. Sure, I made mistakes, like with that bay rum, B, but I couldn’t do no better.
She put the Bay Rum, B, in her right eye, just a drop, but enough to hurt like hell. Her cornea turned from brown to blue. No harm there, said the ophthalmologist, but my wife disagreed.
The Marlboro Man doesn’t even smoke anymore. He quit after one of his lungs shriveled up and fell out on the road, looking like a charred marshmallow. His cow dog stopped to sniff it, then moved on, gave it less attention than a dried turd.
The Marlboro Man hates being called The Marlboro Man. That’s bullshit he says. He rides down into the wash looking for a lost calf or a good place to kill himself.
MITCHELL KROCKMALNIK GRABOIS has had over fifteen hundred of his poems and fictions appear in literary magazines in the US and abroad, including TulipTree Review. He has been nominated for numerous prizes and was awarded the 2017 Booranga Writers’ Centre (Australia) Prize for Fiction. His novel, Two-Headed Dog, based on his work as a clinical psychologist in a state hospital, is available for Kindle and as a print edition. His poetry collection, The Arrest of Mr. Kissy Face, is forthcoming from Pski’s Porch Publishing. He lives in Denver, Colorado.
Story of the Week: March 12, 2019
Welcome to the Wilderness
by Frank Possemato
This is what it feels like to not be in love? I have it inside me, ready to give to someone else—when I’m driving I fall in love out of my periphery vision. It’s summer in California and I can’t leave the house without falling for someone. I can look at a woman and decide our future, find some reason it won’t work but it might, in the time it takes her to wait for the light to change at the crosswalk. I don’t need the car behind me to honk to remind me I’m not in love.
I remember: the night sky and the highway are a two-way mirror, with blackness and headlights and the shining eyes of a deer in the woods. This is nowhere, this is Maine, this is magnificent desolation. But Angie is the person I’d want to be with in a spaceship. She drives during the day and I take the night. Highway miles and there’s nowhere else in the world but where you can see in the headlights. If there is anywhere else it’s as crackling and distant as the two radio stations coming in. “Use my phone,” Angie says in her sleep. When we were together it felt like we were the only two people in the world and now we are.
Now I’m driving on the Pacific Coast all those years so far away. Angie lives a mile down the road from me and we don’t talk like we used to. I’ve been looking, too much, everywhere, when I’m driving. I need to stop that. “It will get you killed,” I can hear my dad saying. So, I didn’t stop just a minute ago when I drove by that gas station and I saw a girl who looked like she might be my kind of woman, because you can tell at 60 miles per hour when you’ve already missed the turn in, but she had an Oregon Ducks shirt on—I should have stopped.
Earlier today I saw a girl in the aspirin aisle at Walmart who might have been perfect for me. She was wearing scrubs and we know all nurses are kinky, and goodhearted, and will be there to look after family when they get older, and are patient. Nurses are up for it. Sure, it’s a generalization but ask any nurse if I am wrong. Plus she was wearing a cross around her neck so you can go to church with her. I looked at her hand for the usual ring check and saw she was holding a pregnancy test—which could be for her friend but I know when I’m beat, even though she did smile back. I know this is not how it works and I am trying too hard. I know it’s out there. I said to my friend John Pitrof, the only person I know who might actually own a haystack, that we should do a challenge. He would drop a needle in a haystack and I’m going to look for love. We’ll see who finds it first. He called me back in a half hour and said he found the needle; he used a magnet.
I found a picture of Angie. A real picture you can hold in your hands from 12 years ago. I’d always remembered this pic—it’s from the waist up, she was wearing a leather jacket, she was caught in the moment of laughing, her shoulders hunched up into her hair, her eyes, her mouth, her whole body laughing. I took that picture. This was one of the first pictures I ever had of Angie, back when my friends, who hadn’t even met her, just called her “metal girl” from the way I’d describe her. I thought that maybe this picture would look different now, like a room from years ago somehow seems smaller. It looks exactly how I remembered it. When I first saw it back then it was like a miracle looking back at me, proving it was real. I flipped it over and the other side was just blank, 'cause what else is there? Where can you go from here? My brother would say throw it away. We don’t talk about these kinds of things but I can hear him saying it. And the reason he’d give would be, that’s sad. And to him why spend time being sad, when life is hard enough anyway. Wasting time thinking about sad things is letting life win. But this picture isn’t sad to me. Neither, I guess, is that latest heartbreak in the pharmacy aisle or at an intersection. I can measure the distance in losses. Sometimes it takes a minute. Sometimes it takes 12 years. Maybe those losses look like a win from far enough away.
I’m parked now to look at the ocean—the real ocean, not a picture. The ocean wide-armed and calm, with the cars whizzing behind me. Maybe I’ll go back to that gas station and that girl will still be there. She’s probably long gone now but there will be others, other chances, looking for a needle in a stack of magnets. The hustle is being alive. This is what it feels like to not be in love.
FRANK POSSEMATO's writing has appeared in a variety of publications including 3AM, Underground Voices, and in Akashic Books’ Mondays Are Murder series.
Story of the Week: March 19, 2019
Hot, Safe, Fun
by William E Burleson
We shook. I liked to shake hands—builds trust, especially with middle-aged men. I took my seat behind the desk. He looked around my small office, examining one poster at a time with the wide-eyed reverence of a child’s first visit to an amusement park. He stopped at one poster for an extended visit; it featured two shirtless young men standing close together, one guy looking at his friend’s chest, the other holding out a small red condom package and looking at the camera. The caption said, “Hot, Safe, Fun.”
I opened his chart. “You’re here for an HIV test?” I wondered if he would answer, his attention so focused on the poster.
I sorted out my stuff, a foil package, stand, lancet, alcohol wipes, gauze, Band-Aid. I arranged it so that just the right thing is at my fingertips when I need it. Hundreds, thousands of tests over the years made the task rote. “My name is TJ. We’ll get the test started . . .” I glanced at the name on the chart “. . . Bob, do some paperwork, and after twenty minutes you’ll have your result. Sound good?”
I opened the package and took out a plastic vial of developer and placed it in the stand. “We just need a little drop of blood. Won’t hurt a bit.” I put on rubber gloves. “Are you right handed or left handed?”
“So when I prick your finger and you get gangrene, you won’t have your more useful hand amputated.”
He smiled just a little, enough to assure me he understood it was a joke. He held his right hand out, and I turned it palm up. I wiped the tip of his ring finger with an alcohol swab. “Won’t hurt a bit.” As the last word left my mouth I realized I had repeated myself. I took a lancet and with one swift motion poked his finger. I squeezed, a drop of blood appearing. I took a tiny sample with the collection loop and placed it in the vial. I stood up and tucked his chart under my arm. “I’ll be right back.”
I carefully carried the stand with the vial down the hall of shiny linoleum and smelly antiseptic, past the door to the packed, noisy waiting room, past a clinician wearing goggles entering an exam room. She nodded to me. Nurses used exam rooms and prevention workers like me had offices. Nurses gave HIV and STD tests, pelvic exams, and more. HIV prevention workers did HIV tests. Clinicians wore white lab coats. I wore Doc Martins, a flowered shirt, and tribal tats. Clinicians went home at 4:30. Many nights I and others like me would float between gay bars into the morning, handing out condoms, talking to potential clients, seeking out the scared and uninformed, navigating around the drunk and defiant.
In the lab, I set the stand in the appropriate spot next to four other tests. They looked like home pregnancy tests, and all four had one red bar: negative. These tests were state-of-the-art: used to be a blood draw would be sent to a lab and we’d get the results in a week, but in 2008 we could get a result in minutes. I put the tester in the vial. I logged the test, the time, the code.
“Busy today,” said the white-haired nurse looking over my shoulder.
He went to answer the phone. He worked only in the lab. He used to give tests, but his bedside manner had become short, abrupt, some even said judgmental. He had worked at the clinic for twenty years. Probably a hell of a case of PTSD: he’d seen the worst days of HIV in the mid-eighties, four or five positives a day, at a time when a positive came with the frustration that there was nothing to do. Not anymore. Now there were amazing, if at times brutal, treatments; few died, but many struggled. It was still HIV, and thus the specter of AIDS.
Back down the long hall, file folder in hand, I grabbed the doorknob but realized I had forgotten the guy’s name again. I looked at the chart: “Bob.”
As I entered, he was reading a pamphlet on pelvic exams. He put it back in the pile of materials next to him. “How long did you say?”
I sat down behind the desk. “Twenty minutes.”
I looked at him, perhaps for the first time. A bit thick around the middle, he wore a baseball cap and a sweatshirt from the Academy of Holy Angels. No one would notice him walking down the street. I knew I would never recognize him again, one more of a small army of men parading through my little office.
He bounced his knee, arms crossed. He focused on another poster, one with two young men and a young woman with their arms around each other’s shoulders. The girl had a tattoo. The caption: “Know Your Status.” That was my shout-out to my fellow bi folk.
I leaned back, opened the folder, and picked up a pen. “Okay, let’s see. I’m guessing male, white.” I was trained not to assume, but that went out the window a long time ago in the interest of expediency. I filled in the bubbles. “How old are you?”
So, I thought, it’s going to be like that. Sometimes when people were freaked out, they became oppositional. No matter. After eight years, there was nothing I hadn’t seen and dealt with, including guys like that. “Well, largely because it asks on the form. Give me a ballpark.”
He said forty-five, and I blackened in the bubble for 40-49.
“If you liked that question, you’re going to love this one: who do you have sex with?”
Anger flashed across his brow. “I’m not going to give you their names!”
I laughed. “My bad. I said it wrong. I don’t want names. What gender are your partners?”
“What do you mean ‘gender’? You mean ‘sex’?”
“Yes.” Political correctness didn’t have a prayer with this guy.
“Women.” He didn’t look at me; he looked at his finger with the Band Aid.
I decided to let his lie go for the time being. “How many people have you had sex with in the past six months?”
I let that go as well, even though he had used plural not seconds before.
“Your wife? Are you married?” I asked.
He shook his head no.
I was surprised—he seemed like a married guy to me. “Prostitute?” I regretted it as soon as I said it.
“Do I look like someone who can’t get sex without hiring a hooker?”
Actually, yes. “Sorry. Did you use condoms?”
He shook his head no.
“When was the last time you had a test?”
“Five months ago.”
I filled in the bubble and closed the file.
“That’s it?” he said.
“For the form, sure. You have . . .” I looked at my watch. “sixteen minutes left.”
His leg resumed bouncing.
“What brings you in for a test today?”
I sensed now that it was less being oppositional and more he wasn’t listening. I asked again.
“You should know your status, right?”
For a moment, I was impressed, but then I remembered the poster. I repressed a smile. “Do you have reason to believe your status changed since six months ago?”
He shook his head no, with a bit of a shrug, making his answer less conclusive than he may have intended.
“Believe me, there is nothing you can say that will be shocking or new for me. If there is something on your mind, now’s a good time to talk about it.”
“There’s nothing to say. I just thought it would be good to get a test, that’s all.”
In my job, we wanted men to talk about what’s on their minds, and I was well trained in making that happen. Too many guys carrying too many secrets; the burden is too great, the cost high. But I felt tired. Maybe too tired to get a closet case to open up, to see how much risk he is taking, to maybe see a better way. “Do you have any questions for me?”
“Yeah. How much longer?”
I looked at my watch. “About twelve. Any questions about how HIV works?”
He shook his head no, then, “Yes. Yes, I do. What happens if it’s positive?”
I told him about the confirmatory test and the need for an appointment to get set up with services. “Plus, there’s more forms.”
“For now. For us here.”
He looked down at his hands. His fear filled the room.
“But I got to tell you, having one woman partner in the last six months and a test only five months ago, your risk is pretty low. Very, very low, I would say.” Ten years into working in HIV prevention, there were few surprises left. I might have been shocked that a client was negative, but I was never surprised by a positive. Never. I considered that maybe this guy was what he said he was, and that he was a member of the “worried well.” There were a lot of worried well. Guys who get tested as often as they can, even though they have little or no reason. OCD guys. Certain they have AIDS even though they’ve been with the same partner—or no partner—forever.
But not this guy. He liked those posters.
“Do you ever have sex with men?”
“What?” He flinched.
“What makes you think I have sex with men?”
“You are in an STD clinic getting an HIV test. I’d say there’s a pretty good chance you have sex with men.”
He looked at a poster of two big guys in hard hats. The poster said, “It only takes once. Condoms.”
“Look,” I said, hoping to calm him. “You’re not alone. You’re talking to a bi guy. I enjoy sex with men as well as women. It’s cool.”
He was having none of it. “How long until it’s done?”
I told him eight minutes. Then I sat there, saying nothing. Sometimes you have to let silence do its magic.
“Say I did. Say I did have sex once with a guy. What are my chances?”
“One guy? Once? Oral sex, pretty much zero. Anal, a good bit better than zero, but you’d have to be unlucky to have sex with one guy once and get HIV, although I’ve seen it.” Not what I was trained to say, to be sure, but it was what I believed to be true. When you’d been in the pits as long as I had been, you cut through the bullshit.
“I thought it only takes once.”
I thought how I needed to take that poster down. For high-risk guys, “it only takes once” didn’t work—they may have had a hundred “onces” in the past six months, and they are still negative. “Sure. But it’s like the lottery: you can hit on your first ticket, but most people buy a lot of tickets, increasing their odds.” Most days I tested some guys who would have dozens, even hundreds, of partners in the past six months. It can give you a warped view, if you’re not careful. I saw it in my colleagues, in that white-haired RN. Pretty soon you assume everyone is hanging around the basement bars at 1 a.m. or the park in the afternoon, forgetting that on any given night the vast majority of your fellow MSM—Men who have Sex with Men—are home watching TV, playing with their dogs, loving their partners.
He was a ball of nervous ticks, hands wringing, knee vibrating. “Sometimes . . .”
He said nothing.
Tired or not, I found a crack, and I wasn’t going to let the door close again. “Where do you meet guys?” Time to ignore the bullshit of “once.” “On the internet?”
“I travel a lot.”
I nodded, leaning forward, elbows on the desk. My best concerned, active listening pose.
“In Washington, there’s this place.”
There are a lot of places in Washington, and I had been to all of them. Bathhouses and I went way back. “It’s fine, you know. You’re an adult. Everyone there is an adult. The question is, do you play safe?”
He was rubbing his hands together as if he were at a sink.
“Look, it’s all good, yes? Play safe, use condoms for anal sex. Give yourself a limit for how many people you’d blow, and stick to it. Get tested regularly,” I said, practically carpet-bombing him with messages.
“I don’t do oral sex.”
We were getting someplace. “Are you a bottom?”
“I’ve never talked about it.”
“Being a bottom?”
“I’ve never told anyone that I like men.”
Sad, but I understood. Cruising bathhouses, as fun as it can be on a Saturday night, usually doesn’t lend itself to conversation, to sharing feelings, to intimacy, to simply talking. It doesn’t have to be that way, but there it is—guys are there to get off, not to have a rap group.
He asked how much longer.
I looked at my watch and lied. “A couple more minutes.” This guy was not playing safe. I felt sure. There’s no “Hot, Safe, Fun” for him, just shame-driven self-medication with sex bringing on more shame. I knew that trap well, personally and professionally. “Are you seeing a counselor?”
“What am I supposed to do? Tell me, what am I supposed to do?” he said, talking to the floor.
“Is it that you’re afraid you infected your wife?”
“Your wife? Are you afraid—”
“I’m not married. I said before, I’m not married.”
“Listen, I care. I do. You look like—”
His eyes shot up to mine. “‘You care’? Is that all you got?”
“You’re not alone. Trust me, you—”
“You already said ‘You are not alone.’ Are you following some goddamned script?”
I tried to move toward soothing. “I hear your pain—”
“What’s my name?”
“What’s my fucking name?” I tried to peek at the chart on the desk. He slapped his hand down over his name and I jumped. “Tell me what my name is!”
I looked in his eyes, which were now red, wide. “Sorry, you’ve got to understand . . .”
He shot out of the chair, hands on his head, eyes closed. “It’s been more than twenty minutes. I know it has.”
I looked at my watch even though I knew he was right.
“I’ll be right back, okay? Right back. You going to be okay?”
“You tell me.”
Carefully moving around him, out the door, in the hall, I stopped and looked at his chart. Bob. Fuck me. His name was Bob.
I really did give a shit. He had no idea. I had been in the same room. I was Bob twelve years before, a product of a homophobic world telling me in endless ways that I was sick, twisted, unable to, unworthy for, incapable of love, love of another, love of myself. You didn’t have to have a damaged soul to get HIV—you just have to be unlucky—but still, there were a lot of people like Bob and me visiting my little office.
Yes, I did care. But did I matter? Maybe that’s what haunted me. I was trained—I believed—that by holding a mirror up to people so they can see their risk they were being helped. But was that true? Was my probing into Bob’s business doing any good for Bob? I was no longer so sure.
I walked. I dreaded the walk. Seven, eight, nine, or more times a day. The guy who gave me my positive took that walk. He was a bear, handsome, blue eyes and one earring—I forgot his name.
I wished I remembered his name.
What if I had had me to do my HIV test, that lifetime ago?
When did I become so casual?
That day twelve years ago, when the bear guy gave me my positive, I cried. He hugged me. He wrapped me in his big arms, and I felt a little less like I was dead. I told a couple or three guys a week that they were positive, and I never hugged a one of them. I never let them in like that. It would be too much, too much to give a piece of me to all those guys. A piece of myself sexually if it were different circumstances, sure, but never a piece of me. I decided I would try to give Bob a hug if the test was positive. That’s what I would do. Just like the bear.
I pushed the lab door open with my fist. It hurt and felt good.
The white-haired nurse turned and looked at me.
"Hot, Safe, Fun" was previously published in Recognize: Voices of Bisexual Men.
WILLIAM BURLESON's short stories have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including The New Guard and American Fiction 14 and 16. Recent work includes editing and publishing Lake Street Days, a short story collection featuring the work of 12 Twin Cities authors, including his own, that came out in September 2018. He is now working on a novel, Ahnwee Days, the story of a small town that has seen better days and the mayor who tries to save it. Previous to writing fiction, he published extensively in nonfiction, most notably his book, Bi America (Haworth Press, 2005). To see more of his work, visit www.williamburleson.com.
Story of the Week: March 26, 2019
Coping and Cheating
by Raymond Lane
The girl’s mouth twists into a rigid, contrived smile.
Her mother snaps her picture, then looks at us, annoyance painted over with nonstick civility. “Do you think you could move over there for a few minutes?” she says to us, gesturing toward the open expanse of grass up the slope, away from the tree and the memorial plaque we are appreciating. The girl, all teeth wrapped in a graduation cap and gown, poses again for her mother. We accede to her request and trudge up the slope with reluctant steps. The young and hopeful always drive away the dead and the decaying.
I’m in Philadelphia, at my fortieth college reunion with my friends Jackie and Harold. The air is burdened by memories.
Brenda is dead. She died a long time ago.
It was so long ago that I don’t remember exactly when.
Here’s what I remember: (1) I was very busy; (2) I got a phone call from Sammy; (3) the call woke me up that morning at my girlfriend’s apartment in San Diego; (4) I had to rush to the hospital to work—I was either a medical student or an intern, I don’t remember which.
I never felt a spark of attraction for Brenda. Her nose was too hawkish, her chin too weak, eyes almost menacing. Her spine was S-shaped, her demeanor straight and hard. She was that rare species of young woman who seemed to feel complete without having a man anchored to her. Not my sort.
She never liked me. I don’t know why.
Brenda was Jackie’s best friend.
Oh yeah, there’s something else—something that I will never forget: (5) I was having a dream about the fire when I got the phone call. I saw the flames consume her layer by layer, like a paper roll in a fireplace. Then I was back at college, in a seminar course—How Young People Cope with the Death of Peers—crying.
The phone rang, waking me up. It was Sammy. His voice was cracking as he said, “Something terrible happened last night. There was a fire in Brenda’s apartment, early in the morning. She was asleep. She had no chance.”
“Oh, no!” I said, barely aware that I was conscious. “I can’t believe it. Are you sure?”
I told him about my dream.
“That is really freaky,” Sammy said. “Really, really freaky.”
I remember now—Sammy called from Philadelphia.
Sammy was my best friend in college amongst a group of almost best friends. He had journeyed to San Diego with me to attend medical school but returned to Philadelphia for internship while I stayed behind, disinclined to leave paradise.
So, I must have been an intern. I was very busy. Internship was like being an indentured servant.
The following night I had another dream. Brenda was a bird, a toucan waking within an inferno, unable to fly to safety because the door and window of her death trap cage were latched shut. The crackle of the flames assaulted my ears, the flash of heat seared my eyes. A burning suffocation scorched my lungs as I tried to breathe. Busting through the too-hot-to-touch door, I reached out to pluck her up into my arms. But as my fingers touched her body the singed feathers crumbled, then swirled around the room as if caught in a cyclone. I gasped, choking, and fell to the floor, crawling blindly in desperate search of breathable air.
There was another phone call once. I was ten years old. My friend Peter and I rode our bikes home from the hobby store, where we watched—with thirty other boys—and waited our turn to race model cars on the giant indoor racetrack. He kept pace with me while biking home, even on the downhills, which was hard for him because he was a daredevil cyclist while I was cautiously fearful of speed.
“Do you want to come over to my house?” he asked me.
“I’ve still got a book report to do,” I said. “Maybe later.”
So, we stopped briefly at my house, then he sped off for the extra five blocks to his house.
When I finished the book report the phone rang. My mom answered it.
“Oh, hello, Muriel. What’s up? What? Oh, no! Oh, that’s terrible! I’m so sorry! Oh, you poor thing.” She glanced at me, her eyes tight and dark, then looked away. “Peter was in an accident,” she said.
We got into our car and drove to the hospital. I wish she hadn’t taken me. He was broken in so many places, where his body and the vehicle that struck him tried vainly to share the same space and time. I knew it was my fault. He wouldn’t have been flying down that hill with his arms straight up in the air, pointing to heaven, if I’d been with him.
I had a dream that night. I heard the bike crumple like a piece of paper, saw the blood puddle next to Peter’s cockeyed skull, smelled the burn of the car’s tires.
He died three days later.
I was busy. Too busy to call Jackie, to call Brenda’s family, to tell them how awful it must be, how much I hurt, too. Too busy to attend the funeral—it was so far away. Too busy to contribute to the plaque and tree they planted at school to honor her.
She never had a boyfriend, as far as I know.
My wife and I, we’ve been married for many years. We possessed love at one time, but have experienced lovelessness far longer.
Sammy works with me now. We share a practice. Countless years ago, he fled Philly a second time for San Diego to escape the marrow-chilling East Coast winters.
He is my best friend and confidant.
I am at the reunion alone. My wife lacked interest. Sammy and I couldn’t both abandon our patients.
“I’m fine staying,” he said. “You go have some fun. You deserve it.”
It’s the first reunion I’ve attended. I’ve been too busy. Jackie and Harold have assumed the gray and broken configuration of old people. We’re all much older. But not too old to remember who died and who comforted and who did not. The air is heavy with loneliness pressing down on me.
I’ve had more dreams. Beautiful, pastoral dreams about college, about my friends, about that less complicated time of life when letter grades told you where you stood, instead of today’s invisible report card. We sit on the college green in these dreams, my friends and I, the late spring sun burning our skin, Harold entertaining us by making his stomach muscles roll like a wave.
The vivid nature of the dreams startles me. They provide a pleasure that teases me, like a single drop of water on a parched throat.
I have been a physician for thirty-five years now. I am familiar with death—more than most people. But no, I’ve never been comfortable with it. When I was younger I avoided dealing with death. It frightened me, like a pitch black dream filled with danger.
Now, as a physician, I’m not permitted to run away. Instead I feel numbness as I say and do the right things to help others cope with their losses.
Sammy and I share our feelings and experiences. We talk of our difficult patients, our dilemmas, our frustrations. It’s critical to survival as a physician.
I helped a man die once. He was very old. His heart stopped working, but not enough to kill him. Just enough to fill his lungs with fluid and make him unable to speak or sit or stand or even lie down without struggling to breathe. He gurgled as his breathing became irregular. It’s called agonal breathing because it is exactly that. I fed him morphine to relieve his agony, and that of his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of whom crowded around the bed like witnesses to an accident, to watch the patriarch die. I think they needed to see him suffer so that they could experience suffering as well. He opened his eyes once before he surrendered and looked straight at me—an accusatory look that I will never forget.
“You did him and his family a great favor,” Sammy said. “He died with peace and dignity. Nothing is worse than suffocating.”
I could have been almost anything, pursued any career, but I had to be a doctor.
I was untrue to my wife once. That most forbidden of relationships, with a patient. I didn’t tell Sammy, but he saw it—as did others—as if the secret was written on my forehead. But while others judged me like a tabloid headline, Sammy did not. When it inevitably blew up, he smothered the explosion, keeping it away from my wife and the medical board. Life recovered its priceless normality because of him.
The dreams became more intense over time. One night I touched Brenda and she was solid—as firm and substantive and capable of altering reality as these words.
Since Brenda died, Jackie and Harold have avoided me.
We sit on the slope at the reunion, enjoying the warmth of our skin on this beautiful May day. It is good to see my friends again. We talk about our families, our careers, our memories of school and the craziness of life in the seventies. So many sentences beginning with “Do you remember . . .” We talk about everything except Brenda.
We say goodbye. There is genuine fondness.
“We definitely need to do this again in five years,” says Jackie. “And let’s bring our spouses next time.” Harold nods in assent.
I know they have not forgiven me—I recognize the indictment in their eyes. A bandage now covers the sore, but there is no healing.
I return home to San Diego. I hug my wife, but if it is possible to hug without touching or being touched we have done so. We are childless. Monotony reigns over this barren kingdom. I think maybe she would be less melancholy if she were free to pursue passion’s flame in another man’s arms.
At work I am happy to see my partner, Sammy.
“How was the reunion?” he asks.
“A bit surreal,” I say. “Like a trip back in time.”
Other than the fire, I’ve never told him about my dreams. But now I have more than dreams—I have intentions. And like a scheming bomber I am compelled to tell him, even if I risk being caught, even if Sammy is straight and stiff as a log and wears a white shirt and tie every day and will never understand something as far removed from the concrete box as this.
Maybe I want someone rational to talk me out of it.
I tell him my plan.
“Wow,” he says, smiling for some reason. “Wow, that is really interesting. Incredible, actually.
“The only thing I’d caution you about is that old aphorism: ‘You can’t cheat death,’” he says. “Good luck."
I am at my forty-fifth reunion. This time I bring Brenda with me. We got married a few months after graduating from college. Jackie and Harold bring their spouses, too. Sammy couldn’t come because his wife is ill, battling breast cancer. We are having a great time reminiscing, though I can tell our capacities are fading with age.
I can barely remember my other wife; she is a wispy shimmer of a fading memory.
The dreams continued to become more corporeal until they overshadowed my waking life. Without question, I had to keep Brenda away from that apartment pyre in Philadelphia. And so in my dreams I romanced her. She rejected me at first, but I persisted. We studied together and ate together.
I held her hand in a dream last night. We walked in the mist. There was a smell of freshly moistened concrete. I stopped and looked into her eyes, once menacing but now inviting. Her face was soft focused like in a 1930s movie. I kissed her. Her lips were velvety and alive and spoke to me through their delicate pressure.
“I love you,” I said. “I want to marry you.”
“You’re a dream,” she said.
And here she is with me at our college reunion, very much alive, with forty-five years of memories together. Like any marriage, the memories are not all good, of course, but we have survived the undulating course without being thrown irretrievably from each other’s trust. And I really love Brenda. This surprises me—the feeling was suddenly there one day, like a bright amber blossom abruptly shooting up from a dusty olive green succulent. I put my arm around her waist and pull her close, planting a kiss on her weathered cheek.
The memories of our past are undeniably authentic. And yet I know that it was only last night, in a dream, that I proposed.
The tree and the plaque are gone—they never existed. The invisible wall separating me from my friends has vaporized. The naive intimacy and trust unique to the experience of being thrust together as college freshmen has been restored.
Brenda and I fly home to San Diego. I am in my last year of practice before retirement. Brenda has done a wealth of work in her life training the homeless for productive jobs. I am proud of what she’s accomplished.
I go to the office the next day. I feel uneasy as I look around. Something is different. Has the flooring changed? Maybe the color of the walls?
I stride toward Sammy’s office. It is as empty and ghost-like as a cavern. I’m confused.
“Where is Dr. Stottlemeyer?” I ask the nurse.
She stares at me with her owl-eyed face and says, “Who?”
“What do you mean ‘Who?’” I bark.
“I don't think I know a Dr. Stottlemeyer,” she says.
My mind and memories are fuzzy. Then I remember—Sammy lived in Philadelphia.
Brenda wasn’t there, but he was. The apartment was.
A prosaic “What have I done?” leaves my lips as I realize the grim and unwitting exchange that has occurred. I collapse to the floor, sobbing a storm of tears—enough to extinguish a dream, but not a fire.
Then I forget.
RAYMOND LANE lives in San Diego with his wife and children. He graduated from Brown University, where he pretended to be a writer while majoring in psychology, and then UC San Diego Medical School. After practicing medicine for many years, he has resumed his long-postponed dream of writing fiction.