Story of the Week: June 25, 2019
Odyssey of Tears
by Titus Green
We move forward, dragging our punished, callus-covered feet in the vague direction of a hypothetical salvation. It is freezing cold, and this spiteful European wind spits rain into our faces. The storm strengthens, and the droplets turn to hail stones, which sting our cheeks like the words of the people who line the roads to curse us as our pathetic procession shuffles through their towns. “Stay Out!” and “We Don’t Want Your Problems!” scream the placards. “Stay Away Terrorists!” reads another forceful imperative. I look at the scholarly looking woman in wire-framed spectacles holding the sign, and wonder if I should stop and offer her advice in how to recognise real jihadists, since she’s clearly a novice.
The wind howls, and I pull Abdullah closer to my chest and try to transfer my body heat through the thin polyester skin of my cagoule, which was given to me by a Red Cross worker in Skopje, Macedonia. Perhaps it was financed by a member of the public in the West persuaded by a television appeal in the advertisement breaks between installments of a sitcom or Netflix-supplied Walt Disney movie. Somebody in front of a high-definition television would be more likely to sympathize with their wallet after a good meal and a DVD filtered in jolly yellow colors with a pop idol soundtrack and a beautiful couple who find happily ever after. Although I am grateful to the nameless stranger far away whose five-dollar sacrifice has given Abdullah and me something to stay dry with, I curse the presumptuous, fork-tongued foreign big-shots whose idiotic crusade for my “democracy and human rights” has burned my country, and destroyed my family.
On and on we march through the fecund landscape. I see a ghostly copse of ash trees, with branches creaking in the wind, lurking behind the misty rain. They watch us with suspicion, like wooden proxies of the people from this region making sure we don’t stop, linger, and “destroy their way of life.” We are entering a valley of lush grass and cottages, but we are not permitted to knock on their doors, and we would not want to anyway. I sigh when I see the cozy-looking barns and inviting hay bales. Sheltering in this peaceful, pastoral countryside would be the greatest miracle of mercy right now, but I must discard my idiot fantasies of raising Abdullah in a place like this and concentrate on walking.
Howling, whistling wind. Rain lashing into us. Visibility of the line ahead and behind is diminishing. Swarthy, bearded men with agitated eyes dressed in Parka jackets clutch their infants like me. Perhaps the donation and the remote savior also crosses their minds, or perhaps not. African women in headscarves and bundles balanced on their heads laugh and joke in tribal tongues with the companions in their cliques. Underneath their jovial exteriors is an inspirational determination as solid as steel. I find the African ladies good company, even though we have no mutual language.
There are other Arab women huddled together, with their soaked headscarves clinging to their heads. There are gangs of feral youths from the Persian Gulf with gaunt faces and shifting smiles you need to look out for. They frequently ask me for water, but I am wary because what they really want usually has an uncomfortable subtext. There are Palestinians bombed out of their hovels seeking better alternatives, and Nepalese displaced by earthquakes. There are destitute Pakistani cobblers who have spent all their euros. There are African women with buried husbands back home but without dowries joining me on this brutal journey. Our multinational caravan is a vast centipede of tragedy crawling across a treacherous world. We are hungry for shelter, thirsty for help, and bleeding desperation.
The centipede is tens of thousands of people long. People at the very front and back are miles away. They are the opposite poles of a different Earth. The procession is a mystery, because nobody knows exactly where it started or in which conflict zone or godforsaken cesspit of misery it was born. Some Chinese whispers that pass down the line suggest it started in Africa. Others swear Central Asia, but its origin is of no interest to me. I only know and care that it is on this breathing, sweating, vomiting river of life that Abdullah and I will eventually float to sanctuary.
People merge with the line, joining it from other pathways of need that intersect on the terrain. There is a faltering solidarity, and people you can speak to mostly stay strong and positive. There is camaraderie, and sometimes kindness. If you stumble, fellow refuge seekers will steady you. Some will encourage you when the comets of despair strike and send you reeling. Others shut you out or become supercilious and contemptuous of your presence if you so much as try to walk beside them or chat. They won’t give you the time of day. It’s as if they are projecting some futile hubris to guard the grave of their murdered dignity in these circumstances. There is the sense that they were once wealthy and influential in their hometowns. Pride seems to be the only thing comforting them now that their homes are incinerated and their security obliterated. Perhaps they were once government officers, or people with wasta and Middle Eastern influence. Perhaps they were from Baghdad, or Fallujah, and had gotten salaries from the Americans in return for translating orders. Adios, good times.
Days later, and it’s another punishing trek along train tracks beckoning us toward the border with Slovakia. Our minds have suspended all other tasks superfluous to the job of getting to the border. It’s just a visualizing exercise. See the gate, and prepare for the jostling, and the mayhem, and the degradation. Our eyes stare blankly ahead as the horizon maintains its hypnotic hold on our attention. We all have money—currency tucked away in out-of-bounds places—but distance and ground covered is more valuable than anything. Malnutrition has reduced our faces to pallid moons with craters in our cheeks. Our mouths hang half open craving sustenance. We look, as young people in stable countries accustomed to parties and drugs would say, wasted. However, we are wasted in a purer and crueler sense. Our unwashed bodies reek as badly as abandoned corpses would, and our rotting teeth belong in the mouths of ghouls. Who knows? Perhaps we can band together and put ourselves on YouTube as one of those “zombie walks” the youth of today are so crazy about staging. However, we’ll go one better. We are the real thing! Maybe that could be the path to our salvation: the touring Flash Mob Freak Show of the Bombed, Raped, Murdered, and Displaced. Come and like our Facebook page.
Abdullah wails and beats his mittens into my chest in protest of the start in life he’s receiving. I absorb his angry blows and must humbly receive his three-year-old fury, as I am his parent and responsible for burdening him with this appalling version of life. I try to stop myself from imagining the deadening pain in his belly—God, please understand I’ve given him every scrap of rations and water doled out by the relief agencies and the kindly locals who offer us food. I turn my head and hide my tears. I want to tell him how sorry I am for this travesty of a childhood, this beastly farce of an upbringing. I reach into my knapsack and find a muffin that was donated by a ruddy Balkan lady at least forty kilometers back, and Abdullah takes it in his hands and nibbles it like a squirrel. Hunger isn’t the only source of pain, however, because although he is tiny, his nascent senses can feel. He is grieving for Sarah.
“Hey! What’s up?”
It’s Mimi, from the same Aleppo suburb. We grew up and went to school within five hundred yards of each other, but we never met, not even in the weekend souks. Yet here we are, finally brought together on this hideous highway. She was a biology teacher, and her husband, Bilal, was a journalist. They fled, just as we did, when the smelly psychopaths with black flags driving sports utility vehicles entered our city. They managed to escape with their sons, Ayam and Sayeed, and spent two weeks at a camp in Turkey. She witnessed things there she is not able to describe. I have been traveling close to them for a while, sometimes losing track of them for days after I stop with Abdullah to sleep next to roadside ditches reeking of human excrement. Then I catch up with them later, when they have slowed their pace. When the soles of her shoes wore through, Bilal gave her his own and has been walking in socks ever since and joking stoically about the agony.
“Word is there’s a hospital treating refugees here,” she says pointing to an unpronounceable place on her phone’s map app. It reads Brezice. Being a mother, she is thinking of my Abdullah’s malnourishment and his worsening diarrhea.
“Will you be taking Ayam and Sayeed? Maybe we can go together,” I suggest, thinking of safety in numbers, moral support, and the practical utility of Mimi’s more fluent and persuasive English. Yes, please, I would say to a sympathetic face with a doctorate in medicine looking at my Abdullah.
“Sorry, sister,” she says in a downcast tone. “We have to meet somebody when we get through the border.” Her eyes dive into my soul to kneel before it and plead forgiveness for the closed, secretive act of family survival Abdullah and I cannot be part of. “Meet somebody” of course means a negotiation with stone-hearted profiteers of misery. Those bastards bussing people to Berlin, Paris, Stockholm, or for the premium price, over the Channel to England. Sealed holds, suffocation, stink, danger, and a paid-for “as is” no guarantee of passage in return for your life savings. I don’t ask or even speculate how much they are paying to chance for the possible fast-track to asylum. They have been my on and off companions for nearly three weeks, and I know they are sorry that they cannot include me in this hazardous stage of the odyssey. We hug and make surreal pledges to find each other on social media when this unbelievable ordeal is over and our lives, god willing, are situated in a more human and livable future. “You must come over and try my mashi. Your family would be welcome!” I squeal with feeling. We hug each other and weep briefly, and with Abdullah’s plaintive wailing, we achieve a sorrowful harmony.
“Buses to Austria. They’ll be buses to Austria!”
I hear the announcement in the distance coming through the bullhorn of one of the volunteer messengers. A murmur of optimism passes down the line as people crowd around the competent English speakers for translations and the scene imitates life in the Tower of Babel. Here we are, either citizens with hard-luck passports, or those hunted by armed criminals with twisted beliefs sponsored by super-rich shadow governments treating our lives as though we are digital ciphers in a computer game who can be displaced, massacred, and beaten for their amusement. People who think the Olympians were merely figments of the whimsical imagination of ancient Greek mythologists should think again.
It is the worst border crossing so far. Soldiers in face masks and quarantine suits—do they assume Ebola or SARS comes automatically bundled as value-added misery for us?—prod us like cowed cattle toward the fifty-meter-wide barbed-wire mouth of Slovakia, which does not look equipped for the task of swallowing and excreting us smoothly. There is a battalion of police in full riot kit, and when a stampede starts to get through quickly to the volunteer food tents on the other side, volleys of pepper spray are fired from behind the rows of shields that resemble a testudo of the twenty-first century. There is an almighty crush when the crowd surges back in the retreat, and the screams of the elderly, frail, and female trampled and killed under the surface of the river of shoes are long and apocalyptic. The flashes of Reuters and AP photographers standing at the periphery of the mayhem go off, and the documenters of our misery conduct their work with an attentive intensity. They wait for the tsunami of anger and fear to recede before closing in to get their face-flattened horror shots and images of infants pressed into the mud with contorted limbs. They need fresh fuel for c-list celebrities invited onto British and American talk-shows to rev up the engines of their proper moral indignation. They will quarrel and emote to audience applause while we starve. Outlandishly, they propose “diplomatic solutions” for my country’s salvation when they can’t point to my nation on an atlas in a quiz, or even correctly identify our president.
There is no chance to take Abdullah to any hospital. It is, as so many things have been over the past year, out of my reach. I hear terrible reports of lines a kilometer long there anyhow. A group of fifty of us are corralled by police into an enclosure. We are fed quickly then herded onto a rickety bus and driven up a highway for about ten miles. The driver sits behind a protective metal mesh—like those for taxi drivers in New York City—and says nothing and answers no questions. After ten miles, the bus reaches a police roadblock, and the officials order us off, turn the bus around, and tell us to walk to Austria.
Let me invite you into the lounge of my former life, which was full of laughter and sweetness. Those were the days when tomorrows were cherished and not dreaded. There was stability, pride, community, and family love. Each of these things flourished and prospered like fruit-bearing trees in my own Garden of Paradise. There were family discussions with crusty old uncles holding court in the cool shade of our home’s courtyard. There was salah. There were the soothing adaans rousing us from sleep. There were holidays, and parties, and celebrations galore. There was Ramadan, and there were the iftar meals that brought us together.
I was the head teacher of a girls’ secondary school. I nurtured my girls and tried to inspire them with confidence. I told them that as Syrians, they could face all challenges in life with courage, and they could achieve anything they wanted. Now I am crushed by a hundred tons of shame at my glib, careless, and catastrophic words. Did my words irritate God and cause him to bring this on us just to contradict me or punish my complacency?
My husband, Ayam, was a government engineer working in Palmyra when those invaders encircled the city. How will I ever forget the despair in his voice during that phone call from his hotel balcony when he described the actions of those animals? One week later, I saw my husband’s face on one of their propaganda websites. It seemed to be dozing peacefully, without a care in the world, hovering supernaturally on top of an iron railing next to other men with similar expressions whose bodies were also missing. In front of the decapitated heads, there was a stocky man in a robe with a massive beard and stern, foreboding face holding up his forefinger. This foreign trespasser organized the slaughter of my husband. He shouted instructions to dim-witted, uneducated thugs living out their barbaric computer game programming while shrieking jihad. Did they actually know the meaning of this word when they butchered the love of my life, or think in their tragic ignorance that Saladin was a kind of pizza topping?
My grieving time was limited because the mercenaries closed in on Homs. With some neighbors, I took Sarah and Abdullah and what money we had, and we crossed the border into Turkey. We joined the exodus, snaking its way through valleys, and arrived at a camp that was filthy and terrifying. The foreigners handed out food, shouting at us like unruly children to get back in line. Once they had done their charity, they disappeared, and demons more evil than the most terrible jinns entered the unguarded camp at night. Savage men arrived and kidnapped girls who just disappeared into the vast, swelling totality of Syrian victims. Their screams reverberated in the humid night air. Gangs high on khat grabbed orphans and held sex-slave auctions using the headlights of their sports utility vehicles and gyrated to rap music. Others intimidated mothers into selling their daughters for “one-hour marriages.” I was gang-raped twice, surrendering my body on condition that my children were spared. I lay motionless in agony for days, unable to stir myself as the wails and exhortations for early deliverance from life carried through the canvas of the tents. A former nurse from Aleppo tended to Sarah and Abdullah as I recovered. Outside, United Nations workers floated around on their little magic carpets of self-importance trying to choose the happiest looking refugees to interview for public relations purposes or to stand with when giving interviews for cable television channels.
A week later, I used up nearly all of our money paying a weasel on the Turkish coast to take us, along with a hundred others, to the island of Lesbos. The invigorating sea air did battle with the odors of vomit and sewage to dominate our sense of smell, and I had to make one bottle of water last for three days. Despite my best motherly efforts and instincts, and the help of other passengers, my one-year-old, Sarah, died of dehydration during the voyage. I buried her near the beach of Lesbos, and my Greek tragedy was complete.
We are curled up in a sleeping bag by the side of a major road. The cold is piercing. There is fragile security being close to other resting refugees; since we are stateless, we are also powerless. We are at the mercy of anybody unscrupulous or brutal, but I am thankful that the zombies haven’t broken into this country—just yet. Where are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? What will tomorrow bring, apart from yet another move in this tiring, soul-destroying game of survival gambit? In my prayers, I have asked God to reverse all this, or simply make sure it has all been a dreadful mistake in the cosmic software of destiny. This wasn’t supposed to happen to us, surely. Abdullah is getting weaker and paler.
I look up into a clear night sky and am comforted by the brilliant stars, which seem to have aligned into a new constellation. There is the dotted outline of a water bearer light years above me. This is celestial Aquarius, no question, but what changes will this cipher of humanity bring? Whatever they are, they better be quick.
"Odyssey of Tears" first appeared in Sediments Literary Arts in February 2016, and it was subsequently reprinted in Literally Stories in October 2016. It is dedicated to the people of Syria.
TITUS GREEN was born in Canada but grew up in the United Kingdom. His short fiction has appeared in Empty Sink Publishing, Beyond Imagination, Fear of Monkeys, Sediments Literary Arts, Literally Stories, Ramingo's Porch, HORLA, and Coffin Bell (forthcoming). His published work can be found at titusgreenfiction.com.
Story of the Week: June 4, 2019
Not yet. Home . . .
by Aparajita De
In a piece I intend to write of home, I increasingly remain baffled by my searing desire to write about homelessness. I am at home, writing about home, yet I dwell on the seeming homelessness of my self. Home always means an address, a dwelling place that connects anyone to a geography of belonging. Known landscapes, streets, smells, sights, sounds, and people. It is the people who always make one dwell, stay on. Live with a place.
My earliest memories transpire around a 6x10 room. The room of my adolescence and early youth; the room that taught me to leave and stay. Live and dwell. That room. It was the mezzanine of my father’s house in Kolkata. It was a storage room when I moved in and claimed it. Windows never opened, stacks of old magazines, comic books that had lost their shiny covers but carried gossamer memories of kids who had once fought over them, notebooks with Mom’s notes from her college lectures, picture books inherited from grandmothers, books in all the languages we spoke in at home—English and Bengali. It was dusty but had the potential to house me, if I made peace with the lack of space it had. And, so I began digging out for space.
A makeshift box holding old books served as my chair, a small table lamp for light, and a rickety table of my paternal grandfather sealed my entry into the room, gradually. It was bare of ceiling fans, light fixtures; it held up the glories of my parents’ past lives to me to discover every day and purge out. It had their books, their notes; the redundancy of their past lives that echoed from each corner of that room. I started to clear space, encroaching the storage area. I started populating the walls with stickers, pictures torn off old calendars, popular film magazines, and tabloids. Posters, stamps, images, and quotes were glued on; fans, light fixtures, a stereo system, bookshelves, and a small bed later, my room got a character just like its occupant. I was clearing out the space my parents had filled in with their past lives, before me, without me. I was making space for me. My mom’s notebooks were eventually catalogued and put away in the attic, my dad’s memorabilia found a shelf, magazines and newspapers were disposed of by the kilogram—taking off in the large dirty white cloth bags of newspaper walas and magazine collectors. I was claiming space and trying to position the room as mine. Is that how occupations begin? One generation’s past piles up in a corner of another’s present?
I was unsure at the time. I did not venture yet to think back and reflect on my actions. I was more intent on claiming and re-owning a space. A 6x10 room.
A good part of my adolescence was spent dreaming, plotting, and remaking the walls of the room. I opened up the windows, dusted out the cobwebs, and spent time inhabiting and claiming the room’s energy as it melded into mine. Was that my home? I had only displaced some memories and created others in its place. Was it then like a quilt? Lined up with the stories of people who'd shared the four walls of the 6x10? With pages of poetry, fiction, scrapbooks, and journals later, I entered into early adulthood. In that same room, my friends came up to meet me: in search of an idea, in search of a goal, in pursuit of a mission to define my life with. In that room, I cried my first heartbreak, felt the first crush, and housed my first secret—away from the rest of the house and its occupants. Disappointments, milestones, reality checks, heartaches, and heartbreaks, no matter what, that room was home to a world that failed to get what I was all about. I was homed in that room. It grew me.
But rooms and homes seldom remain. It did not for me. Perhaps, I had started to outgrow my 6x10 existence and started to dream out, dream bigger . . . perhaps.
So, with budding young adulthood, I was increasingly out of the room. I wrote my first job application, got my first job, and opened my first scholarship letter in that room. When I moved out, I dreamt about the room. The people featured too, but what appeared most were my stages of slow but steady occupancy of the room. It was my nesting place after a long, hard day. I was home there. When I came back from work, and later, when I moved out of town, the room became an internal part of the entire house. It was always “her room” to the other members of my family when I occupied it most of the time. Later, when I started to come back to the room, after work, after my off-site job, it slowly became “the upstairs room.” I had moved out—of the room and out of the house too. Although I unconsciously never left the room, I realized in the new change of term that my leaving had a permanency about it. The room had accepted that I had left. And so had the people elsewhere about the house.
A few years later, I went overseas and started a new chapter of my life. The rooms I lived in never came to my dreams. They were part of a reality I was constructing by myself. I don’t quite recall the roomscape of that first living situation I moved into, in the US. Was the window to the left? How many steps to the room, right side of the house or left? Did it have imprints of its earlier occupants? My conscious memories do not let me recall the character of the rooms I moved into. Student housing, community housing, private 1-bedroom, I stayed in those addresses and those locations, only to find I had forgotten them the moment I started living in a new place. The temporariness of these rooms, those houses never bothered me. I had always thought of the original room, that little shack—that storage area converted into a living space, as my dwelling place.
That first time when I went back for a visit, the room did not stick out to me. Its character had changed with the person who currently inhabited it. Where were my images, posters, and calendars? My memories? Were my stamp collections and scrapbooks still there? I had been swiftly replaced. Unclaimed. A youth lived outside of digital archives, I found myself increasingly engulfed by the reality of not being there, not persisting in time. The room had purged me out of it. There were still dust and cobwebs though. I just wondered if these were the same cobwebs I had left behind. Or, were they from times generations past, occupants renting out these tiny webs, only to find others taking them over? Were these the same homes for the tiny insects that never relocated?
The room simply stared back at me with a clinical precision that screamed “upstairs room.” I had moved out. I could not feel me in the room and exited it, speechless. Was this the slow dawning and absorbing truth that things pass on? Was it the internalization that I had moved on from the room and that it was the dwelling of someone else now? Was I incapable of feeling that the room had also grown out of me? I don’t know. Years later, in my study in a different room, in a different place, on a street I have walked through every day, I still feel the transience of a dwelling.
For people who move out, for people who move on, is there a dwelling ever? I can’t stop feeling homeless every time I step into the room I live in now; and, when I go back to a room left behind in time and distance, I realize how the room stopped responding to me. Twenty years on, I move from one room to the next, in search of a dwelling, a nesting, and fall back thinking of that first home that never stopped being mine but never stayed mine.
APARAJITA DE is in higher education, teaching courses on global and diverse literatures to college students at the University of the District of Columbia. She is transitioning from scholarly and academic writing to more creative nonfiction in search of a more authentic voice for herself.
Story of the Week: May 28, 2019
On Becoming a Porn Star
by Steve Slavin
New York and Los Angeles are magnets for aspiring actors and actresses. But less than one in a hundred will ever get paid work—let alone ever become stars. Surely you’ve heard of an actress named Stormy Daniels, who starred in several pornographic movies. Indeed, nearly all the women who act in these movies are referred to as porn stars.
So, if you want to make it big in the movies, you can become an instant star by specializing in pornography acting. I suppose that if you want to teach porn acting, you might need to get an MFA from a top graduate school like the New York School of Pornography.
To be completely honest, I had never had such high aspirations. In fact, I subscribe to the proverb, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”
Actually, I did teach. No, I didn’t teach pornographic acting! Far from it: I taught economics at Brooklyn College. That’s right: If you don’t believe me, you can look it up.
I truly loved my job. But as luck would have it, I was denied tenure. In early 1983 I found myself out of a job when our country was in the middle of an academic depression. For every job opening, there were hundreds of applicants—nearly all of whom had more impressive credentials than I did.
I needed to find another way to make a living. Luckily, I had a friend who had some connections.
Marty was in his late fifties and still “lived at home.” In case you haven’t guessed, living at home is a euphemism for never having moved out of your parents’ house.
Marty lived with his mother in a residential hotel in Brooklyn Heights, just a few blocks from me. I had a beautiful apartment in a brownstone, complete with a fireplace, a sauna, a loft-bed, and even fourteen-foot ceilings.
When I gave parties, my guests would marvel at how spacious and well-furnished it was. I would explain that for just one thousand dollars in “key money” I had gotten the bargain of a lifetime.
When I invited a woman over, the apartment pretty much did the seduction for me. And my loft-bed usually closed the deal. In fact, a few times during my parties, the bed even closed the deal for some of my guests.
I was a typical single New Yorker back in those days. Everybody was getting laid—even guys like Marty. Well, maybe not very often, but as he put it, “Even older guys like to get it.”
I was amazed to learn that Marty had never had a job. Since his mother was quite happy to support him, he had never needed to work. A frail woman in her early eighties, she was quite happy having someone around to shop, do a little cooking, and accompany her to her doctor appointments.
Every Friday morning, he would drive his mother to his sister’s home in Queens, where she would spend the weekend. He’d bring her home on Monday morning. So, he had the apartment to himself every weekend.
That’s where he made pornographic movies. Okay, he didn’t actually make them himself, but he got $125 for the use of the apartment. And sometimes they even let him act in them. For that he would get the standard $25 a pop.
“Steve,” he confided, “it’s found money.”
“What if your mother found out what you were doing?”
“I’d be finished!”
“So, you get $125 rent plus $25?”
“Right, so that’s a hundred-fifty bucks tax-free.”
While I was too polite to say anything, I knew that at those rates I could make a lot more than 150 bucks.
Already the wheels were spinning in my head. I would be unemployed in just a couple of months. Maybe I could rent out my apartment, and if they also let me act, I could make a halfway decent living.
Better yet, I wouldn’t give a shit if the word got back to the president of Brooklyn College, who was personally responsible for denying me tenure. Imagine the newspaper headline: “Brooklyn College Ex-Prof Launches New Career.” Or maybe, “Economist Makes Honest Living as Porn Star.” The Post or Daily News headline might be more succinct: “Screwed Prof Screws.”
Marty actually knew a couple that worked in “the industry.” He invited Linda and Bob up to “his pad” for drinks one Saturday evening. Linda turned out to be the great Tina Russell, whom I had seen in a porn movie that Marty had sent me “for research purposes.” Her husband, Bob, was a filmmaker who specialized in porn.
Marty warned me not to let on that I knew anything about Tina’s career. I concentrated on calling her Linda. She was very quiet, leaving Bob to do most of the talking. He said that he was always looking for new locations.
“Steve, would you believe we’ve made about two dozen flicks at Marty’s apartment?” Actually, many of these films were just separate ten- or fifteen-minute segments called loops—a term that probably dated back decades.
He explained that just from an entertainment standpoint, viewers don’t want to see every movie shot in the same location. I guessed that the importance of location was not confined just to real estate values.
Anyway, Bob and I arranged for him to come over to my apartment in a few days to see if it was a suitable shooting location. Then he smiled, adding, “No double entendre.”
“Actually, that reminds me: If you can use my apartment to shoot some flicks, would I be able to act in any of them?”
“We’ll see, Steve. Actors we can always get, but good locations are harder to find. Anyway, the fact that you live in a brownstone in the Heights is a definite plus.”
When Bob came over, he took a short look around my apartment. He told me that he had never known anyone who actually had a sauna—at least not in New York. Immediately, I pictured myself in there “doing it” on camera. Indeed, the sauna played a leading role in my personal seduction scenes.
I was very pleased when he observed, “Steve, you’ve got a great apartment!”
Then he paused. And when the pause dragged on more than five seconds, I knew he wouldn’t use my apartment. And I would never be a porn star.
“The only problem is your loft-bed. The only way we could shoot would be to use a monster tripod with the cameraman standing on a chair.”
I just stared at him. I wanted to tell him how many women loved that bed. But he was right. It would be hard to film those scenes.
As he was leaving, I was tempted to ask him if I he could use me in some of his movies. But I had already had enough rejection for one day.
Eight or ten years later, Marty had a small gathering at his apartment. His mother, who was still alive, was at her daughter’s house for the weekend. There were maybe a dozen of us, including a very attractive woman about my own age.
I could see that she was “hot to trot,” and sure enough we ended up at my apartment. She worked as a sexual surrogate, usually with married men who needed some coaching on how to please their wives.
We were soon in my loft-bed. After we made love, she told me that she was the former girlfriend of a porn star. And I confessed my own aspirations.
“So, what do you do now, Steve?”
“Well, I just quit my job teaching economics at Manhattan Community College. I make much more money writing economics books than I did teaching.”
It amused her that I would have preferred acting in pornographic movies to teaching at a college. “I know it may sound like fun, but nearly all the actors and actresses I’ve met would much rather have been doing something else. And that includes my ex-boyfriend.”
“Really? What about your ex?”
“Well, you might have heard of him. He was pretty famous back in the day.”
“What’s his name?”
“He was a big star for years. What ever happened to him?”
“Harry never really enjoyed being a porn star, so he quit and followed his dream.”
“Yeah. He sells real estate in Arizona.”
STEVE SLAVIN is a recovering economics professor who earns a living writing math and economics books. The first two volumes of his short stories, To the City, with Love, were recently published.
Story of the Week: May 21, 2019
by Marsha Johansen
It was always the keys
stroking familiar taps
all hours of the day
she became proficient
an ancient typewriter
young lawyers found her
flashing loud lime mini-dresses
were the subject of several
quickly bored with legalese
she took her proficiency
to a kinkier world of porn ads
somewhere in Hollywood
built for speed, her IBM Selectric
engulfed in bosoms, buttocks,
frontal nudity of all shapes, all sizes
impulsive and curious
her next move, UCLA hospital
dimly lit hallways, medical students
filthy hair, body odor, stained white coats,
slipped her medical reports
experimental marijuana studies
closed chambers, smokey haze
followed by curiosity
the new mainframe computer
corporate corners filled with gossip
women with bright red sweaters, crisp white shirts
perfumed stench, corporate discrimination
she eventually traded in
her technical prowess
a calm reprieve
where evenings consisted of
smooth rhythms with the man of her dreams
a different life, now at her fingertips
escape from rigid conformity
to a cozy bungalow
with a boat carpenter
somewhere close to the sea.
First published in Around the Edges, October 2018.
MARSHA JOHANSEN lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is the author of the poetry collection Around the Edges (Mercury Heartlink Press, 2018). She’s also been published in the Fixed & Free Anthology 2015/2018, New Mexico Poetry Society Picnic Chapbook, and the Overseas Adventure Travel Magazine. Her energetic nature takes her hiking in the Sandia mountains with her dog Gus, creating a new recipe, or working on poems from a mystical poetry workshop in Santa Fe.
Story of the Week: May 14, 2019
Her Resolve, Her Power
by Ahila Wilson
I take a sip of my ginger tea next to the beautiful glass window facing high Southern California mountains. How true it is: “The thrill you feel on first seeing some delightful place dies away when you really go to live there” (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity). This unimaginable luxury turned into an everyday event in my life. This house, this peace, this status—none of this was even a wildest dream of mine. My mind flies far and long thousands of miles to the other side of the globe, somewhere deep down in the “third world.” In a park, not so green, definitely not clean, I hear that conversation so clearly in my mind, even after 20-some years.
He was talking authoritatively, as though he knew it firsthand.
He exclaimed, “After finishing this course, they might get a job that pays more than 2,000 INR per month!”
Let me clarify: 2,000 INR is a little less than $40. Now I am chuckling even with the thought of that.
But then, my mother was amazed. I saw a bright look in her eyes. I knew, she was half dreaming. I knew full well one resounding dream of her life is for her girls to be independent—more specifically, financially independent.
In those days, I used to wonder, “How could a woman be so focused, so stern, so adamant, so assertive?” Later I understood that she didn’t have any other choices. She didn’t have time to dream for herself. She couldn’t afford to be flexible. She intentionally callused all her softness that seemed natural to other women in my neighborhood.
She asked with amazement, “Really, do they get paid that much?”
The man, who was an uncle of another prospective student of the nursing program I was waiting to enroll in, said with surety, “Yes, they do. They get paid even up to 4,000 INR if they become nursing teachers.”
My mother let out a long sigh, and we all ate the little packed lunch.
My father was sitting apart from us, lost in his own thoughts. He seemed unbothered by all these conversations, as though none of this was really his concern. At times love and passion are not practical, they are just emotions. My father was a guy with high emotions, yet had nothing to offer to the practical life my mother was drowning in. At times I wonder if it is the thought of my father that makes me resist my natural love for poets and artists. Thoughts about him make me wonder if there are wives in other poets’ and artists’ homes drowning in life and children, as my mother and her personal dreams did once in our home.
While another prospective student who was sitting next to me raved about some teenage jargon, I was fixated on the little piece of paper that was in my hand: the fee structure for the four-year nursing program. The list seemed unending: tuition, books, accommodation, uniform, other expenditures... The total sum was nothing close to any number I was hoping to see. I was torn between the emotions of my two-year dream to become a professional nurse and the reality of the financial straits my family was in. It was more than selfish for me to go to that school. How could I indirectly ask each of my siblings to sacrifice some of their necessities, may it be a cloth, or a shoe?
I took my mom a little further, and holding my tears so tight, I asked, “Mom, how are we going to pay for this? Did you see the fees?”
She lifted my face up, looked straight into my eyes, and firmly said, “I will pawn my own head to pay for it. It is not your concern; your only concern is to study. Study well and become who you are meant to be. All I want for you all is to be independent, financially independent.”
Her words were not feminist gobbledygook. It was definitely not materialistic propaganda. They were the remorse-filled radiations of a young woman’s self-death. Death of her own life, her dreams, her own desires. Even the death of her self-respect due to her financial burdens. As a woman with profound self-pride, she sometimes had to tolerate humiliation to obtain her goals. Her goal was to prevent this kind of death for her girls—a death more painful than a physical one.
Letting go of the tears I was holding, I raised my doubts again. “Are you sure, Mom? It is too much!”
She didn’t answer, she just moved on with her conversation about my financially independent future. A future with a $40 to $80 per month salary. The sad truth was, she was not even sure if her head would be worth the total fees of that private nursing college. But she was very sure of one thing: the power of one mother and her resolve.
Each year passed, and somehow the fees were paid. I remember her visits with simple snacks, my all-night studies, my $2 of pocket money that she pushed into my hands. No tears like other mothers, but just a look on her face as she left the dorm. None of these are just fading, remote memories; it is all recorded in the bumps and dips of my brain so clearly.
Now I am sitting in this 2,700-square-foot house, with extravagant rooms and spaces I could never fully use, this spacious bedroom with the backyard-facing window, making an hourly pay that is more than my mother hoped that I would be paid for a month. All these, all these are true. Even the financial independence that she desperately wanted us to have, we obtained.
But above all else,
Her resolve showed me the power of motherhood,
The power of a choice one woman makes,
Power of one, just one person.
It went far beyond. I am sure that it brought me this far, even to the other side of the world.
Suddenly, I am brought back to the present day and my reality by my laptop’s clicking noise. I close the funny video that I was watching—a video that was unfolding the humorous routine of a mother. The mother threw her children’s backpacks and went back to bed. She drank from her coffee pot and picked up her children’s uniforms from a pile of unfolded cloths. The video raged about how it is okay not to be obsessed with this motherhood task. I laughed loud, yet my heart inside ached a little.
For a minute I wonder,
Are there many motherhood stories like my mom’s untold?
Amid accepting the reality, are we forgetting the possibilities of the extraordinary?
I type in a quick comment to the video. “This is funny. But motherhood is a great calling with innumerable powers to influence little hearts—never forget that, ladies.”
As I am typing, I hear a little moan of waking from my little girl. I close my laptop. I silence my expensive iPhone, tippy-toe to her bed, and cuddle with her, thinking, “Yes, I would pawn my head as well.” But thank God, I don’t have to, all because of one woman’s resolve.
AHILA WILSON’s life is a long story of her search for her Creator God, and the beautiful unfolding of His pursuit, grace, and unfailing love for her. She is happily married and blessed with a beautiful little girl. She has a master’s in nursing education, and she writes for multiple online Christian forums and blogs. She also shares her biblical insights on her YouTube channel.
Story of the Week: May 7, 2019
Stairway to Tears
by Brad G. Garber
Some years ago, I purchased a little black rectangle with speakers in it so I could beam music out of the “cloud” into my home. It had a battery in it, so I could take it along on a foray to the beach or play music through it in my car. Like a lot of modern-day electronic gizmos, it came along with a charging cord. One day, I tried to plug the rectangle into the grid, to recharge the battery, and the cord no longer snapped into it. I could no longer charge the battery. I decided to take the little black rectangle, along with the charger cord, back to where I’d purchased it. Apparently, I had purchased it about five years after the last Neanderthal was killed by a cave bear. When I walked into the store where I had bought the archeologic relic, people gathered around and gawked. “I haven’t seen one of those for years!” exclaimed one “Generation Unknown” employee.
The person who glommed onto me, when I walked in the door, was in his mid-30s. He assured me that the product was no longer in stock. So, I had to pick another sound system to channel my iCloud music through. I had the option of choosing one of those creepy systems that would answer my voice after I walked through the door of my apartment, in a sweet female voice. “Creepy,” I would say, “find me all songs by Joni Mitchell that contain the word love.” And “Creepy” would do just that. I wasn’t feeling it, however.
“Naw, I just want a sound system,” I told my shadow. What do you have that just plays music?
He showed me a couple of speakers that would hook up with my 5,000 tunes through Bluetooth. One was about the size of an apple, the other one the size of a medium-sized zucchini. “Can you play something on them, so I can hear the sound quality?” I asked the sales person.
“Sure,” he answered. “What would you like to hear?”
I thought for a moment, then replied, “Led Zeppelin, ‘Stairway to Heaven.’”
He searched the internet, or some dust-laden cave in the inner recesses of his computer/phone, to find the song, and connected it somehow to the zucchini-sized speaker. Suddenly, there they were, the liquid opening thirds of “Stairway to Heaven,” climbing into the room. I smiled as others gathered around to listen . . . all of them about 30 years old. The person standing next to me, the one who wanted to sell me the speaker, the one who clutched his phone like a control stick to a video game, listened for a bit then inquired, “Does this pick up?”
Incredulous and in shock, adrenaline flooding my body, I asked (fearing the obvious answer), “Have you never heard this before?”
I felt compelled to assure him that Jimmy Page (whom he had never heard of) was going to change his vision of the world with the most renowned guitar solo in the known universe that was coming up. As I was trying to explain to him what was coming up . . . if he would only wait . . . tears started to well up in my eyes and my voice started to shake. He did not wait and turned off the tune. There was a silence in my mind the size of the Grand Canyon. I had never, since 1972, run across anyone who (1) didn’t know anything about Led Zeppelin and (2) had never listened to “Stairway to Heaven.” And, this was 2019!
I bought the damned speaker and walked out. I was still shaken, not so much by what I felt was an overwhelming disgust at the musical ignorance of another human being, but by my reaction to it all. Why would I cry?
When I hear the “ta-dummmm,” in the opening introduction to “The Last Whale,” by Crosby & Nash, I cry. When I listen to Beethoven’s Ninth, I cry. Sometimes I cry when I try to talk about certain musical influences. Music has been a huge part of my life. My grandfather wrote company musicals for Frigidaire, a subsidiary of General Motors, in the 1940s. He had no formal training; he just wrote from his heart. My grandmother went to Oberlin College to study music and played second-chair violin for the Dayton, Ohio, philharmonic orchestra for about 40 years. My father played in that orchestra when he was in high school, went on to play for the Air Force Band, and, at age 87, still plays his drums in local high school musicals. My uncle played trumpet jazz for about 40 years, all self-taught. He could not read music; his notes, rhythm, musical structure, and feelings came from his mind.
I played trumpet for 10 years, then switched to guitar so I could sing. I had dreams.
What is it about music that can turn on the spigot? Is it that a particular tune reminds us of a life situation that we cherish? Say, a first date, the high school prom, a wedding, a death? Is it that we long for that experience and those associated feelings again? Or that we dread the experience and the pain associated with it? It is remarkable what music can do to move us. Maybe I teared up at the store because I was faced with the inevitable irrelevance of my dated musical tastes. I am not a psychologist. I have no answers.
When I returned home, I plugged my new sound system into the wall, charged it up, and played “Stairway to Heaven,” without tears.
BRAD GARBER has degrees in biology, chemistry, and law. He writes, paints, draws, photographs, hunts for mushrooms and snakes, and runs around naked in the Great Northwest. Since 1991, he has published poetry, essays, and weird stuff in such publications as Edge Literary Journal, Pure Slush, Front Range Review, Sugar Mule, Third Wednesday, Barrow Street, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Barzakh Magazine, Ginosko Journal, Junto Magazine, Slab, Panoplyzine, Split Rock Review, Smoky Blue Literary Magazine, The Offbeat, and other quality publications. In 2013 and 2018 he was a Pushcart Prize nominee.
Story of the Week: April 30, 2019
Cleopatra and the Dark Days
by Deborah Weiss
Cleopatra and I were sitting in the brown leather armchair thinking about how we got here. Well, that’s what I was thinking. Cleopatra, our long-haired calico guinea pig, was mostly silent. She had become my confidant since I began caring for my husband, who was recovering from a series of spine surgeries.
With the somber mood at home, time moved slowly, voices lost their lilt, and colors lost their vibrancy. I was occupied by doctor appointments; medication schedules; and making sure that everyone, people and pets, was fed. I really wanted a puppy, but my husband was adamantly opposed to the idea. He worried that in a battle for my attention, even though he was disabled, he would not have a chance against a puppy.
About six months after the first operation, I made my monthly visit to Malibu Feed and left with 50 pounds of pig chow, a bale of shavings, and a five-pound baby guinea pig I named Cleopatra. In an ironic twist of fate, on the afternoon I brought Cleopatra home, Elizabeth Taylor died. If only my foresight could be harnessed for something other than picking the perfect name for a guinea pig, like investing in real estate or stocks and REITs.
A few months before the surgery, Ralph had begun to experience severe pain in his leg, radiating down to his toes. And rather than dissipate, the pain was constant and intense. We consulted a spine surgeon who recommended a one-level spinal fusion at the L5-S1 without which Ralph risked permanent nerve damage.
Based upon the information from the doctor, Ralph would be in the hospital for three days and would be feeling miserable for a couple of weeks and by six to eight weeks would be 80 percent recovered.
Two hours after what was supposed to be a three-hour procedure, my cell phone rang. My mother, who had insisted upon meeting us at the hospital before the 7:30 a.m. start time, was with me in the cafeteria when the call came from the OR. I had told her not to come. She, as usual, did not heed my request, which was both selfish and selfless at the same time. I did not want to be on stage for my mother; I wanted my emotions, my fear and uncertainty, to remain mine.
“The doctor has an update,” said the voice on the phone. I was not alarmed, having convinced myself that the surgeon would tell me that everything is progressing normally, that he found the problem and it was just as he suspected.
My mother and I left the cafeteria and proceeded to the waiting room. A tall youngish man with wavy dark hair wearing green scrubs pushed through the double doors that separated the waiting families from the operating room and headed toward us. He was not Ralph’s surgeon.
The resident, lacking the confidence or polish of the attending surgeon, said awkwardly, “We made a mistake and prepared the wrong level for fusion. We need you to authorize us to do the additional fusion.”
Before I could instruct my mouth to form words, the doctor explained that they had mistakenly cut into the L3-4—two levels away from the surgical site, requiring a three-level fusion.
It was not until much later that I learned that my husband’s surgeon had not been in the operating room when the mistake occurred. That the young resident with the wavy hair cut into the wrong vertebrae. That the head surgeon did not arrive until he received a panicked telephone call from the operating room.
Finally, feeling like I was an alien from another planet, I asked, “What happens if you don’t fuse it?”
The response was unequivocal: Ralph’s back would be forever unstable if the additional levels were not fused.
I sought to channel my husband, a role I normally felt comfortable in. We finished each other’s sentences. We had known each other since we were in grade school, our parents knew each other, and now we had worked together for more than 20 years of our quarter century of marriage.
“Will he be able to ride his bike?” I asked.
“Oh, sure, no problem,” the doctor said. “Riders bend at the hips. He’ll be fine.”
I should have asked how the change would affect his recovery, whether there would be a risk of increased complications, whether the new procedure was safe. But I didn’t.
My mother tried to interject, but I cut her off. Even though I was in my 40s, I imagine that I childishly thought of her the way I did when I was an all-knowing teenager. One thing I learned from this mess is that I did not appreciate my mother’s compassion or her strength.
My father died when I was 13, and my mom, then 38 years old, raised four kids, ages 13 to 4. That should have clued me in to the depth of her character, but it did not. Instead, I focused on myself, my needs, my world.
When I signed the authorization, I unknowingly signed away my prior life. I gave away laughter, humor, and silliness. It was also the end of camping, cycling, skiing as a family.
Five days later, my husband, the expert cyclist, hiker, scuba diver came home but could not climb the stairs himself. He could not roll over in bed. He was in constant pain, not unexpected after spinal surgery. But, unexpectedly, he experienced unceasing nausea and vomiting.
At first, Ralph progressed from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane. After about six weeks, he grew weaker and sicker regressing from cane to walker and back to a wheelchair. I began calling the surgeon’s office to convey each new problem, and each was routed to one of the latest rotation of residents. They had no answers.
The house where we raised our children became a prison to me. For nearly 20 years, we had been living in the mountains, in Topanga Canyon, outside of Los Angeles. The distance from the congested city made our home feel like an oasis, as did the drive along the Pacific Coast Highway and through the windy canyon road to our house. But as Ralph’s condition worsened, the things that normally felt magical were treacherous. When Ralph rode in the car, each curve signaled nausea so that he would vomit each time we left the house. And the final miles to our home on the dirt road that made me feel like we lived on the Little House on the Prairie set, could not be traversed without causing the vertebrae to move or smack into each other, causing screaming pain with each rut or pothole.
Before the surgery, Ralph was my rock. Now my foundation was missing the caissons. There was a structure, but even the slightest wind would blow the house down.
Julie, our pig, began to feel tense. She loved to sit in Ralph’s lap while he stroked her head. But pigs cannot climb stairs with their little stick legs, and Ralph could not sit on the floor. She became lonely and nauseous. The floor downstairs was covered in pig vomit, and there was a new acrid odor that permeated the whole house. The vet could not find anything wrong with her.
In addition to caring for a sick spouse, I was sinking in a sea of pig vomit and I could not tell anyone. How quickly everything slipped away. I had always been so busy working and raising children that I did not develop friendships where I felt comfortable confiding my thoughts.
Cleopatra was a decent listener, but she had her limitations. She could not be house-trained, which was problematic since she would spend lots of time in bed with Ralph. And she could not go jogging or hiking. In other words, the sweet rodent was a Band-Aid rather than a cure.
My relationship with my husband evolved as happens with a chronically ill spouse. What was supposed to be a three-hour operation lasted for more than seven hours. Ralph developed a pulmonary embolism as well as a deep wound spinal infection. He required constant medication, could no longer drive, and his ability to work has been sharply curtailed. He was too unsteady to ride his bike. Our dreams for retirement would never become a reality.
But we have each other, our children, our house. Since I spent more time at home, I began writing down memories, which morphed from a hobby into a calling. We live a simpler life where we feel joy in small things.
I remain haunted with my decision to authorize the surgery. If the surgeon had been in the operating room that morning maybe there would have been no complications. Maybe our lives would have been the same. But, I will never know.
DEBORAH WEISS is a lawyer and legal writing teacher who lives in Topanga with her husband, son, six parrots, a pot-bellied pig, a dog, a cat, a bunny, a turtle, a bunch of chickens, and, of course, Cleopatra, the guinea pig. She is on the editorial board for the California State Bar Real Property Journal and is a program liaison for Habele Foundation, whose mission is to enhance STEM education for K-12 students in Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia. When she is not litigating or teaching, she spends her time hiking with her dog and cleaning up countless different types of animal poop. Visit her at thebarnyardblog.com.
Story of the Week: April 23, 2019
Ways & Means
by Paul Hostovsky
They come every year, the DeafBlind with their entourage of sighted guides, SSPs, sign language interpreters, guide dogs sniffing or obediently ignoring each other in an underworld of ankles, the scepters of the white canes floating up among the listening hands, the chattering hands, the bobbing heads, the faces tending to the sides and to the ceiling as the tactile conversations sparkle and buzz. And it never fails to impress the hell out of the legislators.
They come asking for money, not with upturned hands but with eloquent hands, articulate hands, passionate and persuasive hands; not begging but advocating, speechifying, lobbying the Ways and Means Committee for increased funding for their program, the DeafBlind Community Access Network, which provides 4 hours per week—16 hours per month—of support services, communication access and assistance with errands, food shopping, reading mail, attending meetings and social events—just a few of the things that hearing-sighted people take for granted.
Now they settle into the first three rows of the State House auditorium, where the Ways and Means Committee is soliciting comment from the public concerning next year’s projected budget. One by one they will get up to give their testimony, which the chairperson will remind them must not exceed three minutes, and as each one speaks it will be interpreted simultaneously by a raft of interpreters—a team of two for each DeafBlind person, plus the feed interpreters and the platform interpreters and the voice interpreters—so that every DeafBlind person in the room will know what his or her DeafBlind compatriot is saying as she’s saying it, or perhaps a few seconds after, because of the lag time. And they will be listening very intently, nodding their heads in solidarity, signing YES and RIGHT and TRUE-BIZ, agreeing with themselves and applauding themselves now that they have the floor.
“Madam Chairwoman,” begins the first DeafBlind speaker, “may I ask you: How did you get here today? How did you arrive here in this auditorium underneath the gold dome of our historic State House? And once you arrived, how did you find your way up to the dais where you are sitting now among your fine colleagues, hopefully looking at me and listening to my testimony? For that matter, how is it that you are able to understand me at all, if you do understand me, and I hope that you are understanding?”
The state senator who chairs the Ways and Means Committee opens her mouth to reply, then closes it, and continues listening, watching.
The hands of 20 interpreters flit, juke, juggle, and dance as the DeafBlind speaker asks another rhetorical question in sign language: “And are you taking notes?—I hope you are—and if so, how is it that you will be able to refer to them later on? And how will you know if one of your colleagues is raising her hand to ask a question? And how will you know when my three minutes are up . . .” (Here the speaker nimbly consults her braille watch.) “which, it seems, they almost are already.”
Some titters and scattered applause from the first three rows, knowing smiles all around. For effect, the speaker pauses, consults her braille notes, then she tilts her head at a sort of listening angle, raises her palm and shrugs. “I will tell you how,” she says. “You probably got here today on your own. You found your seat up there on the dais on your own. You can read your own notes and you can see for yourself if someone has their hand raised. You do for yourself because you can. And you take it for granted. I do for myself too, but I do it differently from how you do it. And I don’t take it for granted. Because it’s only granted when you and your colleagues vote for it. Then the funding for these services, which allow me to be independent, which allow me to do for myself, which have enabled me to come here today and speak to you in person—granted, with the assistance of those who speak my language and know how to navigate my world—then and only then is the funding for these services restored for one more fiscal year. But then I have to come back next year and ask again. Which is a little demoralizing. A little humiliating. But I do it. I do it anyway—I know, my three minutes are up—I ask you once again to please fund the DeafBlind Community Access Network for another year.”
There is a pause, maybe half a minute, as the interpreters catch up and the speaker begins rising from her seat at the microphone—which her hands had never touched, her lips never spoken into. And as she begins piloting her guide dog back to the seat she had vacated a few minutes earlier, the groundswell of belated DeafBlind applause suddenly begins to erupt in the first three rows—the feet stomping loudly, furiously, elatedly on the floor of the auditorium, sending the percussive vibrations forth in a widening wave so that everyone can feel it.
Everyone except the legislators, that is, who are up on the dais at a different level, so they can’t quite feel it. They can hear it, though. And they can see it. And maybe they can sort of feel it vicariously, which isn’t the same thing as feeling a thing directly. Or maybe it is. And the DeafBlind people keep on applauding by stomping and jackhammering their feet for a really long time—for too long, really—so that the bailiff and legislative aides and members of the Ways and Means Committee start looking around helplessly, smiling uncomfortably, checking their watches and cell phones, because they have no ways or means of stopping the DeafBlind applause.
PAUL HOSTOVSKY is the author of ten books of poetry, most recently, Late for the Gratitude Meeting (Kelsay Books, 2019). He makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter. Visit him at paulhostovsky.com.
Story of the Week: April 16, 2019
Annabel and the Artist
by Lynn White
Annabel had been a Social Worker
for a good many years.
She’d seen it all,
or so she’d thought.
And then she met the artist.
Neighbours had reported concerns,
but were somewhat vague
about the problems.
She called round anyway.
Annabel was like that.
She was old school,
didn’t work to rule.
The artist’s house was large
and a bit crumbly, dirty and decrepit,
rather like the artist herself, Annabel thought
and she didn’t chance the cup of tea, when offered.
There were paintings stacked up everywhere
and, in the corner of one room,
a large whitish sculpture.
It towered upwards
almost up to the ceiling.
Annabel walked round it pondering
its strange shape and texture.
The artist laughed, saying,
“That’s not a sculpture!
Years ago I had a dog
and never got round
to house-training it.
That’s dog shit!
I piled it up.
It went dry,
over the years!
And here it still is.”
Back at the office
there was no cause
The artist died.
her only known sculpture, “Untitled,”
is being installed as the centrepiece
of her exhibition.
First published in Outlaw Poetry, August, 2018.
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 lynnwhitepoetry.blogspot.com and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Lynn-White-Poetry-1603675983213077/.
Story of the Week: April 9, 2019
These Island Souvenirs
by John Grey
Dwarfed by ships in harbor,
a tiny port town rises,
as sun briefs the fronds, the cane,
to gild their best,
while an old woman
sets up a stall of souvenirs,
cull their purses, rifle their wallets,
to somehow buy enough
to say they’ve been here,
and a few wander off
into the hushed cathedral of the forest,
where gossamer torch of fern and fungi
light the way
or follow the signs to
the magic cadences of the waterfall altar
where worshiping is done with cameras.
the ships pull out,
candles are damped,
chalice wiped and put away,
flowers on the forest floor
rise up from all that trampling.
The island is alone at last.
Wind rattles the skeletons
of cheap commerce.
Midnight's solemn martyrdom
cries out from bitter stars.
JOHN GREY is an Australian poet, US resident. He is recently published in Midwest Quarterly, Poetry East, and Columbia Review with work upcoming in South Florida Poetry Journal, Hawaii Review, and Roanoke Review.
Story of the Week: April 2, 2019
Three poems (in honor of National Poetry Month)
by Phil Ellsworth
Dancing with Margaret
Growing up, dances were part of her life,
Maybell and Baggs and Meeker and Craig
with Charlene and Carmen and Mame and Lou,
like the dance at the Goose Egg up on the North Platte
where Wister's Virginian and one of his friends
switched the babies around and nobody knew
'til they were back home at their ranches next day.
Music and dancing and cowboys and friends,
and she married me and I didn't dance.
I was too stiff to circle and sway.
She didn't complain and I didn't know
the feeling of what I was taking away.
Margaret and Verity
Counting over ninety―
Still might be a few—
Thinking some of heaven—
Things I'd want to do
If we were there together,
If I were there with you.
I think I see some cottonwoods,
A grassy place below,
Someone reaching out to me—
It's you—I know, I know.
I feel you holding close to me
We dance the whole night through
To all the songs I left undanced
But wish I'd danced with you.
I feel the music now. It seems
I hear it in my dreams.
Heaven is some place with you,
Somewhere we have been.
I loved Margaret and when I lost her I was lonesome
and after a year or so I went to Verity
and I said do you want a companion
and she surprised me and said yes,
but nothing physical, you know, she said,
and I said sure, because I was lonesome
and that’s how it was.
For a while. But then there were the stars,
Verity could see the stars.
It was strange, because she had macular
and couldn’t see my face
but she could see the stars,
and we must have thought of ourselves and the stars
and how at night you need someone to hold
and remind you you aren’t alone in the universe.
So we held each other,
and old felt good.
PHIL ELLSWORTH is a retired mineral exploration geologist and was an infantry rifle squad leader in Europe in World War II. He lives in western Colorado. His poems are about love, the hills of home, discovery, and a few about the war and comrades lost. He believes a motive behind much of his writing is that the words will keep alive those he has lost, a paraphrase of Shakespeare in Sonnet XVIII:
So long as I can breathe or I can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee
Stories change the world.
Story of the Week