Lucy Zhang

Spear Against Shield1

A man is trying to sell a spear and a shield. He boasts that the spear is so strong it can pierce anything. He continues to boast that the shield is so strong it cannot be pierced. When someone asks what will happen if you pierce the shield with the spear, the man falls silent.

A man is trying to sell a spear and a shield because the rice fields painstakingly test his labor and patience and yield no more than a steady trickle of money. The patties sweep across all the land in sight, and a donkey trots beside one field with sacks of rice tied to its back and over its sides, ropes taut against the sag. An abandoned straw hat rests on the dirt, a speck of yellow among tiers of green terraces. The rice paddies stretch and cascade along the faces of the mountain, forming a color spectrum, the product of different rice harvesting times, and if he just looks up, he might think it a marvel of nature. The man looks up to see how many more hours of daylight he has left to sell. Customers spend much too long haggling with him and pointing out imaginary flaws in his products but he stays resolute: his greying hair and tan speckled skin from long days under the sun and wrinkles branching over his face–under his eyes, across his cheeks–fail to dull his discerning gaze, even as customers clamor for weapons. Last month, the neighbor’s son broke his leg and narrowly escaped the draft–and after the neighbor sensationalized this blessing-in-disguise tale to anyone who would listen (temporarily forgetting that the son would never walk properly again), everyone had been spooked into buying weapons, terrified of the rumored battlefields of men wielding iron swords and daggers and archers mounted on Mongolian horses. He tells the customers: if you buy both a shield and a spear, you’ll get one additional weapon of choice free. Mian fei. The magic words that drive sales crazy.

A man is trying to sell a spear and a shield. He boasts that the spear is so strong it can pierce anything. He continues to boast that the shield is so strong it cannot be pierced. When someone asks what will happen if you pierce the shield with the spear, the man responds: how about this gun.

 

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1 自相矛盾: direct translation – interacting spear shield. A Chinese idiom meaning: making a contradictory statement or claiming the impossible.

Playing Zither For The Cow2

The guzheng has thirteen brass strings stretched across movable bridges and a large wooden board decorated with carved lacquer and calligraphy. The musician wears bamboo plectra on four of the five fingers on each of his hands. His right hand plucks notes with such precision that even the children fighting over the last fresh zhi ma qiu, a deep-fried ball of glutinous rice flour coated in sesame seeds and filled by sweet red bean paste, stop to watch. His left hand presses the strings, producing an intense vibrato that strikes the hearts of the elderly performing their morning tai chi. He rotates his right thumb rapidly around the same note and the resulting tremolo turns the head of the farmer lugging sacks of millet to the market. He plucks another string, and a moment later, presses down to raise the pitch before finally releasing, the rapid alternation emerging as ripples, and the salesman whose shouts about discounted spears and shields goes quiet.

When the musician finishes playing, the children and elderly and farmer and salesman resume their tasks and he scoops the pile of coins on the ground into his pocket and heads to the rural side of town. He finds a soft patch of grass shaded by a tree and sits and closes his eyes. One of the grazing cows nears and snorts, waking the musician up. Upon seeing the cow walking in his direction, the musician wonders, perhaps the cow would like to listen to something beautiful, and begins to pluck notes into a song. The cow stops, bends its head down and chews at the grass. The musician incorporates Sweeps Without Bends, Two String Rising Slide, Flowering Finger, Moving Water Fu, Thumb Shake–his entire arsenal of skills. The music becomes so long and varied, it is more saga than song. The cow uses its tongue to grasp another clump of grass and bites it off.

The musician closes his eyes, thinking, perhaps the cow is too shy to show its appreciation of such musicality. And as he taps and strikes and plucks to the view of the backs of his eyelids, he wonders how long it has been since he last listened to his music.

 

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2 对牛弹琴: direct translation – to play zither for a cow. A Chinese idiom describing someone who is trying to tell something to the wrong audience.

Lucy Zhang writes, codes and watches anime. Her work appears in Best Microfiction 2021 and Best Small Fictions 2021. She edits for Barren Magazine, Heavy Feather Review and Pithead Chapel. Find her at kowaretasekai.wordpress.com or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.

Peter Leight

Private Time

When I cover my face

there’s more space.

I’m wearing my turtleneck,

underneath is the shell,

sitting on the bed

or in a chair

next to my desk—

please leave the furniture out of this.

Personally I’d like to live with somebody

who doesn’t even need to live

with anybody else,

I mean she actually wants to.

Touching my lips

and pulling them apart,

picking a little,

as when you deadhead the irises—

I don’t know why it takes me longer

than anyone else.

In a country of one

no borders.

There’s no one to give a gift to.

No need to close the door.

I’m not even sure why it’s taking me so long.

When I turn around there’s an empty space behind me that doesn’t even belong to me,

I’m leaving the keys to everything I need to open

in a drawer I’m not going to open,

I’m thinking it’s that simple.

Picking at my lips,

as if I’m making an opening

for the shadows passing over my lips like a border crossing

and the shadows falling in my lap like a rest period.

In a country of one

you don’t bother to knock.

And never hit reply,

Pulling back my lips to make an opening for the watery breath that pools in front of me

like a gift you give yourself

when you don’t have anything else to give.

City of Separation

In our city there are two sides that are separated. The other one is different, it’s so different it needs to be separate—we’re not even comfortable until we’re separated from the other side. I mean how different something is depends on what it’s different from. Breathing the same air, we have our air on this side, and they have theirs on the other side, have you noticed the way the same things are often in different places? It isn’t that far away, just on the other side of our side, touching but disconnected like cells in an ice tray—adjacence isn’t a substitute for attachment. We don’t actually know what it’s like, we’re not inspecting the other side or investigating on the other side, that’s not what it’s there for. It’s true, everybody says it’s a mess, it’s the messy side, they don’t even know when to stop on the other side—everybody says they would ruin our side if we let them, it’s the first thing that happens. Of course, we stay on our side and they stay on theirs—there are sacrifices on both sides. There are signs on both sides, although we don’t understand theirs, and they don’t understand ours. We don’t even speak to them. What would we say? Once we actually waited for them to come over to our side while they were waiting for us to come over to their side at the same time. Were we waiting together? I think it’s better from a distance, better when it’s a safe distance, no closer than we are right now, it’s better when they don’t know us at all and we don’t even know who they are.

City of Meeting

Every time you open the door in our city you’re in the middle of a meeting that continues without interruption as long as everybody is participating, like a program that keeps going as long as you’re watching. There’s a place for everyone in the meeting, to be honest the same place is reserved for everybody, like a pie chart that’s undivided, without a single wedge. You don’t need to be pre-qualified. You don’t have to sit and wait—everybody’s sitting down at the same time, as long as you need to sit down you sit in the front with everybody else who’s sitting with you in the front or in the back with everybody else who’s sitting with you in the back, it doesn’t even matter where you’re sitting as long as you’re sitting next to somebody. Nobody’s saying no you’re not, or not at all, you don’t have any secrets you’re not telling because you don’t need to. Of course you can only be helped when they know what’s wrong with you. Sitting on the edge of your seat to make sure you’re not missing anything, when you open the door the meeting has already started, it’s the kind of meeting that continues as long as everybody has something to contribute, it doesn’t even matter where you’re meeting when every place is a meeting place. Not waiting for anybody to take your hand or give you a hand, it’s not about you. Everybody has something interesting to contribute, as long as you’re contributing there’s nothing wrong with you—if you have something different to say it’s even more interesting, it contributes even more. Honestly it’s the kind of meeting that continues without interruption even if you’re not participating, it doesn’t even matter how long you’re attending the meeting, as in a program that doesn’t end when you stop watching.

Peter Leight’s poems have appeared in Paris Review, AGNI, FIELD, Beloit Poetry Review, Raritan, Matter, Posit, and other magazines.

Kylie Hough

If I’m Honest

If I’m honest, the sky feels different depending on where I stand. You eat chocolate cake before the movie begins. We all want freedom but I am too scared to ask and you are too stunted to know. I have the feelings I have. You label me a conspiracy theorist but I think the parts of you you don’t show sprout wheatgrass. The earth spins on its axis in a matterless universe and I would like to give it up. You don’t talk behind my back and from time to time we meet and embrace like old friends. I converse with dead people. You come to my thing and insist on paying for copy that wouldn’t exist without you. I brush my teeth and smile white foam when I think of you. There’s a space in your chest where my heart used to be before I gave it to the comma. I sign a blank page with the words, For You Love Me, because I believe in something. You don’t have the feelings you don’t have. I read somewhere that to love a thing means wanting it to live. If it can’t be scientifically proven, you won’t leave the bedroom. It’s the way of us, but if I’m honest, the pursuit of liberation is an oarless raft on a flooded highway.

The Problem with Eggs

I told you it works like eggs. You shrugged your shoulders, said you never knew. I thought, there are a lot of things you don’t know about eggs and guar gum and binding and being bound. You insisted you didn’t feel trapped and questioned me about why sex worked like eggs. Not the polysaccharide composed of two sugars whose composition you would have quizzed me on had I given you the chance. Guar gum is frequently used as a food additive in processed foods. I nodded because we were bound and I couldn’t articulate an answer, only watch you chew steak or tune into the voice in my head that whispered I needed the bathroom or to feign a headache or to go outside and shoo the Great Dane defaecating on our front lawn. None of which I did because it wasn’t my turn and if there was anything more to sleepwalking in clingwrap without a compass, I needed to explore it. Yesterday. Like an egg navigates the oiled sides of a wok there was this feeling I got with you. A join consists of two ropes. One lead from you to race, reach, rage toward me. A gypsy unawares. Last year. There was the way I placed you on the top shelf with the strawberry jam and the Jarlsberg. The way you encouraged me. With a look, you took me by the hand and led me up the carpeted stairwell to the waiting king bed. Splice with me, you said and I placed your hand between my thighs. Instead of thickening, though, you split. This is the problem with eggs.

Her Last De facto

Can you see you’re torturing yourself? he said. Yes, she thought and took his right leg and plucked it from its socket much like she would a carrot from her vegetable garden. She stuck it on a cardboard rectangle by a pane of glass beside a wooden frame on the kitchen counter. You’re not thinking of the future, he said and she raised an eyebrow because she was always thinking of how good it would feel to disarticulate him. She removed his left arm with a lurch and placed it beside his right leg. Do you hear yourself? he said, which was strange because all she ever heard was the sound of his voice. He collapsed into a bar stool, with the face of a chastised puppy, and patted the empty space beside him with his remaining hand. She smiled, took his right arm in her left hand and shook it until it plunged pool-like from his shoulder into her waiting lap. I give and you take, he said. She waggled a finger then took a hacksaw to his head. His left leg came away with a tug. She pondered his parts on the counter and poured herself a gin. Pieces of him she arranged into patchwork. You’re mad, he mouthed mounted on the wall, and to a future replete with framed men, she lifted her glass.

Kylie Hough studies Arts at UNE in Armidale, Australia. A Vice-Chancellor’s Scholar, in 2015 Kylie received the Lucy Elizabeth Craigie Award, the Richard B Smith Memorial Prize, and the Australian Federation of Graduate Women Inc. (AFGW) NSW (Armidale) UNE ARTS AWARD. She was a finalist in the Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction 2018 and is published with Feminartsy, the write launch, Verity LA, and Other Terrain. Kylie is a grateful recipient of a 2021 Australian Society of Authors (ASA) Award Mentorship in Fiction.

Joey Hedger

Paper Teeth

“One day, this old world’s gonna just up and knock out those chompers of yours,” says the self-proclaimed prophet Eloise. “The word of the Lord.”

I push down the “Thanks be to God” that forms in my throat like indigestion. She chews on a cube of ice as if she’s biting glass—a paralyzing sound for me, considering my issue with teeth. I cannot bite ice. Or drink anything too hot or cold. This is likely from my stubborn determination to avoid dentists, a fact Eloise could not have learned without help. But maybe she is not a stranger, and I actually do recognize her as we sit across from each other on the interstate passenger train. She, a dentist or hygienist I have visited in the past. Me, heading back home from Tampa to West Palm Beach. Her, traveling for traveling’s sake, maybe. I never thought to ask.

“Huh?”

“Some people, you can see it like visions. They keep their teeth closed. And you can tell by the way they speak. Others, they’re bound for chaos in the end.”

For years, now, I have been told by dentists that by the time I turned 30, my teeth, if not properly maintained by a plastic retainer, would erode until they become as thin as a sheet of paper. Erode. Like a fading beach. I am close to 30 now, and I can already see the early signs of the prophecy. Yes, thinning. Paper thin.

So recently, to either ignore the forewarning of dental professionals or to live out my days as if the end is near, I have been eating almost nonstop. Snacks. Junk food. Large breakfasts, larger dinners—coupled with entirely irregular meal patterns. Some days no breakfast at all, some days no dinners. Weight gain. Drastic loss. Even here, on this train, I have a half-cleared bag of cashews on my lap.
“How long has she been sick?” asks Eloise.

“Huh? Who?”

“Your mother.”

A handful of cashews comes up to my lips, and I use the pause of my chewing to think of a response. It’s been months, now. Nearly a year. Then maybe she does know me. Somehow. From somewhere.

“You don’t know me, right?” I say, finally. “You didn’t mean anything about that teeth comment?”

But Eloise’s focus has strayed from me to the window beside us. An orange grove slips by, its blossoming flowers dotting the sunny landscape like floaters in our eyes. I did not notice us pass into the orange groves yet—I always try to remind myself to look during this part of the trip. I always want to see these parts of the state.

“Train’s about to stop,” she says thoughtfully. “It stops when I command it to.”

And it does. Just then, the chugging wheels below us slow, and the heavy machine skids to a halt on the tracks, right in time to align itself with the next station on our route. Ah, then. It’s a magic trick, I think. Who’s not sensitive about their teeth? She’s only guessing at when the train stops, at people’s fears of the earth, at my mother’s illness. Only a guess.

The cashews fill my mouth, again, as Eloise gives me a toothy smile, rises, and exits the train. I forget to smile back, as if I was raised with no manners at all. A child, avoiding dentists and chewing with my mouth open.

Blurry Exit Signs

In a pitch-black office outside Washington, DC, an ophthalmologist shines a flashlight into my dilated pupils. With each flick of the light, my backwards eyesight encounters something new. The frontal lobe, possibly. Or the cerebral cortex. A diagram from high school flashes back to me in my vision. Now I nearly see it all in bright pinks and blues and greens to help me memorize the names of each part.

“You don’t box, do you?” she asks, clicking the lights back on, “or regularly get struck in the face?”

“No,” I reply, wondering if she has seen some new bruise, something I cannot find when I look at myself each morning in the mirror. Droopy eyes. Large brows. Irritation wrinkles on my forehead. Yellow teeth. But a nose anybody would kill for. A large gorgeous nose if I ever saw one. At the funeral last month, someone compared it to a beak. A big old bird’s beak. Maybe they lacked the imagination to think further than the taxidermy eagle I had been standing beside. My—well, the deceased loved birds, loved to collect them. Stuff them. Keep them hanging around her apartment like a museum. They brought this eagle out for the funeral, because we could all remember her better with it there.

“I really only came here because I have trouble seeing in the evening,” I tell her. “Like when I’m driving on a highway and the exits further away start to blur. It’s not dangerous, though. It’s just those exit signs that are far up there, that you need to cross traffic to reach. I start to lose my ability to read those.”

“You have a smartphone, right? You can always use a GPS.”

“Well.”

“My concern isn’t your vision, it’s the holes you’ve got in your eyes.”

“The holes?”

“Yes. You have about four in your right one and two in your left. If you were to get hit too hard, they might erupt and leak blood. Which is why I asked if you box.”

The doctor hands me a cardboard container, which I open like a birthday present. Inside is a pair of massive plastic sunglasses I am supposed to wear for the next couple hours. I wait in the Panera Bread below the doctor’s office for my pupils to readjust from the dilation drops. Somebody orders me a coffee, because I must look pitiful sitting there. Alone. In these massive plastic glasses.

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On the drive home, even now, the distance begins to fade. Evening is approaching, my line of sight growing hazy, as if there is a wall up ahead that I will soon hit, an incomprehensible, constantly moving wall.

I can only focus on the immediate to get by. The stoplight blinking yellow overhead. The fire station on the right. Fast food restaurants on the left. A neighborhood sloping downward toward train tracks.

Then, the bird.

It flies in from behind that incomprehensible wall. Hits me hard, right on the windshield and I am swept into a halo of feathers. A falcon, maybe. Or a hawk. Then it drops away, likely into the street. As I slam on my brakes, my eyes drift to the median, searching for the bird. The SUV that has been tailgating me for the past mile nearly topples into my rear bumper, swerves around, indicates another sort of bird—as best as I can guess. I cannot see the driver or his gesture. I cannot find the bird’s body in this dimming evening. So I continue on and pull off into the McDonald’s parking lot.

The cashier must think I’m odd, when she comes out cautiously, approaches me circling my car. Frantically searching for any sign of the bird on my hood or grill or windshield.

“Are you OK?” she calls out. “Do you need . . .”

But I can hear the way she swallows her words. Is it my nose? My wrinkled forehead? My tears? What does she see that elicits this reaction? Surely, I am not so drowned in bloody tears that she cannot see what is going on. The bird. That she cannot help me find it.

Joey Hedger lives in Alexandria, Virginia, where he edits for an education association. He is author of the chapbook In the Line of a Hurricane, We Wait (Red Bird) and has stories in Flyway Journal, Ghost City Review, and Maudlin House. You can find him at joeyhedger.com.

Gabe Durham

A Fox in the City

What’s the difference between living on the fringes and seeing yourself that way? Once at the cafe, I was so sure it wouldn’t impact my livelihood that I leaned back in my chair and scooped up the remaining mac ‘n’ cheese of a diner who’d left it behind. My attitude was: try and stop me humans.

I’ve known too many people and now see danger where there’s only interest. I did not get chased out with a broom that time, but these days as I patrol the city, my fox tail perks up as I pass tables where I am not even a patron: Taco stands wafting their smokers in daylight. Families on their porches. Somehow they see my hunger and rightly fear my bite.

New People

My dear old friends have nothing on new people. I don’t even know if what a new person is wearing is an outlier or the usual. I want to wow new people with charms they can’t tell are stale, even if I’ve got to cram those charms into conversation through an impression or a song or a quiet dig at dear old friends. There’s a mischief in me new people should see.

To draw in new people, I lower my voice and tell them vulnerable secrets my dear old friends could never handle, or already know, or who cares.

Have you ever noticed how many stiff drinks new people sure can put down? My dear old friends have been taking care of themselves lately, playing the long game, but not new people. I love the smell of cigars I hate the smell of wafting from the yellow lips of boldly dying new people.

I love seeing new people commit unforgivable offenses so I can keep their secret from the cops, proving my loyalty. When new people declare the most horrible things, it reflects on me not at all. I did nothing wrong! Nothing but chant

do it, do it, do it, do it, do it

to a new friend man who should not have done it, and is now in the ER becoming less interesting by the moment, receiving vital fluids from a nurse who while new shuts me down with her eyes as if a dear old friend.

Gabe Durham is the author of three books, including a novel in monologues, FUN CAMP (Publishing Genius, 2013). His writings have appeared in the TLR, Barrelhouse, Hobart, Puerto Del Sol, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles where he runs Boss Fight Books.

Peter Grandbois

The Hole

He didn’t notice the hole until he was nearly finished painting. But there it was. A large hole in the middle of the wall, three feet by three feet. How could he not have noticed it? He approached the hole and peered through. On the other side lay a field of flowers where a bearded man lay naked, sleeping. What made it odd was that the hole should have led to his living room. Odder still was that the man’s reddish-brown beard nearly covered his entire body like a blanket, shifting and shimmering as the man breathed. It looked almost as if it were alive. He reached his arm into the hole and touched the undulating blanket of a beard. Just as he suspected. Ladybugs. Thousands and thousands of ladybugs. He called to the man, but the bearded man didn’t stir, not the slightest shift in his long, deep breaths. Breaths that made you feel as if you could float away on them. Breaths that could carry you to the cusp of clarity.

He tried to shake the man awake but only succeeded in attracting dozens of ladybugs to his own arm. He scooped one up with his index finger and studied its red shell, counted its spots. Seven. He flicked that one away and scooped another from his forearm. Seven spots again. He checked another, and another. Each one with seven dark, black spots atop that same blood-red shell. He scraped off the rest and watched as they scattered in all directions on the tarp he’d laid to catch the paint. His breathing stuttered. His chest clenched. He had a brief thought that perhaps he was having a heart attack. But no, there was no pain. Just a tightness in his chest. And those seven spots and that red shell. He found himself singing a nursery rhyme he’d learned as a child:

Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home
Your house is on fire and your children are gone
All except one, and that’s Little Anne
For she has crept under the
warming pan.

Where had that come from? And what happened to Little Anne? Nursery rhymes were never very nice. He ran to the closet, plugged in the vacuum and attached the turbo head to the multi-function hose before the bearded man had scarcely taken another breath.

Standing before the hole, holding the hose in his hand, he watched the ladybugs crawling and strutting over the man as if they owned him. He would let them know he was here. He. Was. Here. He turned on the vacuum and plunged the turbo head into the shimmering mass. They flew by the hundreds through the clear multi-function hose and into the belly of the vacuum. There were so many he worried the machine might clog. But it kept dutifully sucking. Sucking. Normally frugal, he wouldn’t have purchased a top-of-the-line vacuum, but something had compelled him, some premonition of this day, and he was thankful. For now he could see layer upon layer of ladybugs piling up in the clear plastic holding container. Returning with relish to the hole, he plunged the turbo head into the writhing beard over and over again, alternating glances at the vacuum to monitor his progress.

It was only when the overfull vacuum sputtered and died, and he saw that the beard of ladybugs was still unchanged, that he began to panic. He took handfuls and handfuls of the little creatures and shoved them into the turbo head. But they just crawled out and over him. He brushed them onto the tarp. And that’s when he saw it. The ladybugs had arranged themselves in seven large spots on the blood red tarp. The tarp had been white, hadn’t it? He was sure it had been white. Maybe the paint had spilled on it. But no, he’d been painting the walls taupe. Except that the walls of the room were also red. He could see that now. He’d been painting them red all along.

He took his brush and dipped it into the paint can, then painted over the ladybugs forming one of the spots on the tarp. He drenched them in paint, but it didn’t matter because as soon as he’d moved to paint the next spot, more ladybugs climbed on top of the painted bugs in the first spot, turning it a bottomless black once again. He kicked the paint can over and watched as the red paint slowly bled out over the ladybugs on the tarp. He turned to the hole, watched the man lying there deep in sleep, felt the man’s breath sucking in and out, in and out, as if the hole were a mouth. And now the ladybugs were spilling out of that mouth. He had to fill the hole, or at least cover it.

This time, he returned from the closet with duct tape. Tirelessly, he stretched the tape back and forth across the hole in long strips. Just one small patch left to cover, and it would all be over. He tugged on the roll of tape, but only a few more inches remained. Not enough. Still, he applied it religiously, hoping somehow it would do the job. When that failed, he slumped back against the wall, head adjacent to the tiny hole that remained.

One by one the ladybugs crept out of the hole or up from the tarp and onto his face, forming a long beard that undulated over his body as he drifted in and out of sleep, dreaming of a hole he could fill in or cover up so as never to disappear again.

Peter Grandbois is the author of eleven books. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in over one hundred journals. His plays have been nominated for several New York Innovative Theatre Awards and have been performed in St. Louis, Columbus, Los Angeles, and New York. He is poetry editor at Boulevard magazine and teaches at Denison University in Ohio. You can find him at www.petergrandbois.com.

Thaddeus Rutkowski

“Get A Life”

While riding my bicycle, I see a man step into the street in front of me. I swing around him—I don’t slow so he can pass. He sees me roll close, and when he is within earshot he says, “Get a light.” Either that, or he says, “Get a life.”

I’m in a hurry. I have a twenty-minute ride before I get to the bridge. It’s dark already, but my red taillight is on. I can’t see it, but it must be blinking in a steady strobe pattern, warning drivers to stay back.

The man couldn’t have seen my taillight—he’s wrong that I need one. As for a life, maybe I need to get one. Maybe I should find a way not to have to ride my bike everywhere, in daylight and darkness, in good weather and bad. Maybe that’s what this ticked-off man was trying to tell me.

I come to an intersection where the avenue forks. I want to go straight, but doing so would mean cutting in front of any vehicle behind me. The traffic lights don’t work in concert here: The green shows on one side of the street before it signals “Go” on the other side. I roll ahead anyway, but when I reach the median, I can’t go any farther. Traffic passes in front of me, so I end up in the middle of the street, in a traffic lane. A package-delivery truck comes up beside me, and the driver yells out his open door, “Red light, man!”

A woman rolls toward me, ringing her bell. She’s working her handlebar button frantically. “Get out of my way!” she yells.

A man on a bicycle passes me from behind and heads toward the woman. When he gets next to her, he reaches out and says, “Wrong way!”

“Don’t touch me!” she says.

Minutes later, I hear the squawk of a siren behind me, then see the blue and red lights of a police car. I hear through a loudspeaker, “Pull over,” but I don’t think it means me—there are plenty of other vehicles on the street.

I make it about a block before the police car comes to a stop ahead of me.

I ride my bicycle around the cruiser, and it quickly gives chase. “Stop right there,” the driver says through his open window.

I park on the street as the officer approaches. “You went through a red light,” he says. “Why did you do that?”

I have no doubt I ran the light, but I don’t know why. Maybe I was looking for oncoming traffic, not at the light. But I don’t want to start a conversation. Any exchange might seem rude, and rudeness would lead to arrest, detainment, and penalty.

“I didn’t realize I went through until you told me,” I say.

“Do you have ID?” the officer asks.

I must not be responding quickly enough, so he says sharply, “ID! Ten hut!”

I come to attention and give him my driver’s license and a card with a photo.

“Do you have two licenses? Is one of these fake?”

“No, one is not a license.”

“Wait here,” he says as he gets back into his car.

Rain is falling as I step onto the sidewalk. My bike balances on its kickstand. Cars pass the police car obediently.

I’m sure I’ll get a ticket, not only for running a red light, but for responding to an order too slowly. I’m guessing the fine will be hundreds of dollars. I could appeal, but I would have to go to court. Which court would that be? Does the local traffic court have a bicycle division? Will the judge be on my side? The cops won’t change their story, and the judge might think that everything a cop says is true.

The arresting officer returns and says, “Your record is clean, so I’m letting you go.”

I stop at every red light on the route to the bridge. I have to cover about three miles before I reach the ramp. The traffic lights slow me down, though I’m still in a hurry.

On the bridge, there are no intersections. I cannot be stopped for proceeding illegally. But the hill is steep. I pedal slowly as I approach the first platform. I almost cannot move forward, but I don’t stop. Near the top of the ramp someone has painted graffiti on the pavement: “Sarah2, Marry Me,” with a superscript “2.” I don’t know what the “2” means. Is this the second Sarah to receive a proposal? Or is she Sarah Squared? Maybe she is a super Sarah. On the other side of the peak, sadder words are spaced at even intervals: “Entropy,” “Self-Obsession,” “Mediocrity,” “Boredom,” “Conflict,” “Revolution.”

I’m coasting fast as I approach the exit, faster than the cars in their lane beside me. I squeeze the brake handles, then release them. I do not use the “death grip”—the motion that would engage the brakes at the risk of my life. The path narrows as I come to the street. I have to get through a space in a wall and ease over a bump. When I pass through the last obstacle, I will be more or less home.

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of seven books, most recently Tricks of Light, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s members’ choice award, and his memoir Guess and Check won the Electronic Literature bronze award for multicultural fiction. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Gloria Frym

Sense

Some people don’t know what needs to be done. Perhaps they can’t sense what needs to be done. Montaigne says that it is only through the senses that we know. Such people who don’t sense what needs to be done don’t do the thing that needs doing and avoid knowing about it. There are others who know what needs to be done, always know. They sense the needing, such as the dirty metal ring staining the wood floor that the base of the old pole lamp has made over time until one day, though previously unseen, the etching of metal on wood is visible. As if carved. Greasy, even. Though it’s not. It’s solid. If it were greasy, well. The viewer of this ring, reclining in a recliner some five feet away, gets up and repositions the old pole lamp so that it once again covers its own orbit. The viewer is just too tired to make a fuss; and besides, he rationalizes, who cares, I’m old, I’m busy, I’m young, I have better things to do. One who sees clearly could be deemed responsible for remedying the situation, the needing that something should be done to remove the dirty metal ring from the wood floor and prevent the base of the lamp from carving further scars on the living wood. After all, rust never dies, just goes deeper. Living wood, haven’t you heard the floorboards speak, the entire frame speak at night? But, and after imagining several possible solutions or not, probably not, the reclining one takes the nap he had started before interrupted by the unsightly circle eating into the pale oak floor.

Faced with such knowledge, other people know what needs to be done, imagine it, and do it. Their first attempts may fail. He thought he could simply spray a cleaning solvent on the floor to eliminate the grease. However, the stain is not grease. The second attempt is floor polish. He rubs it in well. But the stain does not disappear. Then he cuts out a circle of carpet pad from a nearby rug and places it under the lamp base. This he is sure will prevent the stain from spreading. However, he is in a hurry, his thoughts have already leapt beyond his perceptions, he takes no measurements of the carpet pad, just cuts out a jagged circle smaller than the diameter. When he places the scrappy pad under the lamp base it wobbles. He makes a mental note to do it again more carefully, with exact measurements. But he doesn’t. He forgets. Time passes. Seasons change. He moves to Portland
or Sweden to throw pots.

Another member of the family, or occupant of the household (whose precise roles shall remain unnamed for anonymity, to avoid stereotypic gender assumptions), notices the circle made by the lamp. Didn’t M buy that for $15, so long ago, at a flea market or garage sale in the last century, when such events offered the contents of a garage or grandmother’s castoffs collecting nothing but dust and spiders in an unventilated attic, or the recently acquired products of a journey to a country that produced tribal textiles, basketry, beadwork, etc. At the very least, the material remains of a marriage the former wife of which sits on a folding chair next to her youngest child who beckons other children his age to visit his collection of miniature action heroes. “Two for $5,” he says shyly, to the first looker.

This member of the family or the household endowed with historical memory unplugs their earphones, whips out their self-retracting tape measure, and measures the diameter of the stain. My Business is Circumference, they recall with a smile, and note the dimension. The next day they visit a hardware emporium. Such places, with names like Passed Time, Time on My Side, Kingfisher, Do It Best, Bricorama, carry everything one can imagine for home improvement, which, in a country of dreams, is practically self-improvement. They ask for a piece of felt cut to a specific size. A clerk behind the counter cheerfully inquires as to the “color of the felt.” “It doesn’t matter,” they—the person who knows what needs to be done—reply. “What sort of glue do you recommend for adhering felt to ah . . . .old metal?” The cheerful clerk senses hesitation, knows it through her senses of course. “Brass?” she offers. “Oh yes, that’s it, or it’s pot metal that looks like old brass.” The clerk leads the person who knows what needs to be done to the appropriate aisle of the store, embarks upon an explanation of glues, which stick to what and for how long, the price of each, and though the person who knows what needs to be done—this has become a bulky assignation we could acronym to TPWKWNTBD, which hasn’t a single vowel and seems impossible to pronounce, not unlike the Hebrew alphabet, which also relies strictly on consonants, so we’d better shorten it to TPW, perhaps a bit corporate, something one would notice on the side of a truck in traffic, akin to the menacing CVS or KGB or PMS—enjoys details and specifics, is tiring of glues, though finds the expertise and bright visage of the clerk suddenly enchanting.

They both blurt out nearly simultaneously a similar thought: Why don’t you/I bring in the lamp! TPW knows by now that the lamp is brass but wants to 1) get the job done right? 2) see the cheerful clerk again? Who knows and who cares about this part! TPW rushes home, etc. The lamp is brass of course, and so TPW returns to the hardware emporium to purchase both the perfectly cut circle of felt and the appropriate glue. Whatever happens next is collateral, and though may well be the story that begins the rest of two lives—that has nothing or everything to do with the simple observation which began this rumination. We can establish, however, a “bond” between TPW and the job they set out to accomplish. We’re done now.

Recycle

One transgression against the self may beget another. This is evident in persons on strict diets who take a second piece of cake then a third, deceiving only themselves. She threw the book into the recycle, she said, for its own good. Of course I’m against censorship, she insisted, but this piece of shit was remaindered and anyway, it was a galley proof. The late author was a famous experimentalist but these narratives were the awful mean-spirited dregs of his late life, good for nothing but the dump. He said nasty things about the physiognomy of old people. He reviled the few friends he had left. However, the guilt of throwing away a book nagged at her. It burns me, she said, that the book was even published. She had no such guilt about another book on gems and precious stones which arrived in her mailbox without her having ordered it. It was nothing she was interested in, so she put it in the bathroom where it sat for years, along with 501 Slovokian Verbs, until she finally dumped both into the recycle.

When she was a child, her father taught her never to desecrate books, never to write in them, fold their pages down, break their spines—all of which she began to do once in the world on her own. First it began with pencil—checking off certain passages, even underlining them. Then as the prohibition gradually lessened in her she took up the pen and would bracket sections. In the 1950s, during the “Red Scare,” her mother, not a recipient of the same training, found a box of “Communist” books in the garage just after they’d moved into a new house. She ripped them apart and put them into the incinerator, only to be severely chastised by her husband who came from a long line of Torah scholars most of whom had died in the Holocaust. A book is a holy thing, her sad father muttered, watching the bonfire. It was the first time she ever heard him use the word holy, as he was not just a secularist but given his history, he had no use for god.

When she initially began to read what she eventually trashed, this writer had high hopes for the book and thought it might give her ideas. But the only idea that she had was to get rid of it. First she tried to leave it in a restaurant, but the waitress came running after her. Then she tried to find a trash receptacle and there was none in sight. The one thought in her mind was that no one else would or should read this book because they might get the idea that its lack of merit was ‘experimental.’ Au contraire, it was lousy writing. After all, she told me, we know good writing from bad, don’t we? The back cover said that the author worked on it until his death but she joked that it must have killed him when he finished the last word. Crossing the street against a red light with the book in her hand, she said, nearly killed her.

She was determined to rid herself of this book not just because it repulsed her. Ultimately, she felt that it tarnished the reputation of an otherwise interesting writer, and if she could, she would buy up all the copies of this now-out-of-print abomination and throw them into the recycle too.

And yet, she confided, if it was so easy to throw away something an artist had put himself into, might it not start a habit? Might she not get rid of the dreadful painting that depicted a scene out of Things Fall Apart, a black man hanging, which a student gave her in lieu of a final paper? Or the imposing portrait of an artichoke fifty times the size of the real thing as a wedding present that arrived in the mail fully framed? Would such actions precipitate a clean up of all the books and artworks and odds and ends that no longer held meaning for her, even offended her sensibility? Would she accelerate her desire to rid the world of bad writing? Would she actively seek out other books like the vigilante “book ripper” of Herne Bay, England, who targets books in a store whose proceeds go to charity, books out of sight of the cash register, particularly in the true crime section, who rips their pages in half and puts them back on the shelves? Was destroying what one deemed a bad text the gateway to further moral lapses? A future of dangerous infidelities to one’s soul? After all, it had to start somewhere.

Gloria Frym lives in Berkeley. Her most recent book is The True Patriot, a collection of proses, from Spuyten Duyvil. She is the author of short story collections, Distance No Object (City Lights Books) and How I Learned (Coffee House Press), as well as many volumes of poetry. She is professor in the Graduate Writing Program and the Writing & Literature Program at California College of the Arts.

Benjamin Paloff

    A Trick of Certain Ambassadors

Symbiosis, my daughter explains: I charge the electric toothbrush, and the electric toothbrush keeps my mouth clean. Fuck it. My Talmudic approach to writing has made me afraid of writing, and while writing, too, I am afraid, as in the ritual that precedes a run or lift or sex, the artful lacing and unlacing and readjusting, the learned wariness of the gerundial, the participial, the abstract, of their frailty against more muscular expressions, though they are everywhere, and genuinely both human and nonhuman—afraid of falling somehow short, or of falling, like Holden Caulfield, into a void with every step, though it’s only ever the stepping I wish for. Too much, you say, a guy’s book. You prefer the other. And I’m hung up on the sound of approaching engines over the sea, nature’s sound machine. An airplane, but too slow to be an airplane, the kind of undertow that can pull you so far out and down and fast, if only in my fears, that I’d have to plan an entirely different way of life, while the actual day is petty annoyances, the music frustrated by you reading silently to yourself. The street light we know is broken by its remaining on in daylight. The bullfinches’ begging we take for song. Not everyone has to sing for his supper. But the bullfinches face each other on the landing, heads low, wings splayed, and approach, retreat, approach again before parting ways, seeing reason the way a horse, fresh from the farrier, sees wonders in the sparks rising from her feet. People like me, on the other hand, are always looking out for people looking out for an angle, or else taking things for what they are, which usually means someone getting hurt. It’s excruciatingly difficult not to be distrustful when people declare April the cruelest month, when what they really mean is that April is the cruelest month for them, and the starfish-shaped shimmers along the invisible edge could be anything. Ships. Or some animal’s idea of a miracle. Or some jokester’s idea of a joke.

What They Do to Cowards
Around Here

Urine is cleaner than saliva, my wife has been telling me for twenty-five years, apropos of no latest study, wilderness first aid, no kink or would-be kink, just trying something out, and I have no reason to contradict or doubt anything said by anyone who has taken care of me. Even the surly, handsome pigeon walking laps around the backyard seems to agree that the world is everything that is a stat, that a dream about the inner lives of bees can end with an actual bee stinging me on my actual mouth. Peeing on the wound is out of the question, so I wake up every morning afraid that my father is already dead and beyond the ease of his casual 1940s racism, his enviable void of introspection, his hazy friendship with Mudcat Grant. Blues singer, two-time All-Star, pitches Game 1 of the ‘65 World Series, Yom Kippur, Sandy Koufax refuses to pitch for the Dodgers, so Mudcat beats Don Drysdale, later a Hall-of-Famer. You can still be afraid of something that has already happened. The Twins lose the series in seven. My father laughed every time he mentioned that Mudcat had a brother named Swampfire, who also played pro ball, because he could never remember what he had or had not said. Had I seen, with today’s documentary precision, the bees flying in and out of a hole in the ground and wondered what it was like inside? Was Mudcat grinning down at me as I opened my eyes, awed by how the earth’s blackness is lined with workers working toward a common purpose? I had been holding an eye to the ground, innocent eclipse, and felt lightning only after pulling away. Somewhere, I am still in crisis. The bees are still in crisis. We are all still ringed by trees, though it is only the outermost ring of the tree that’s alive.

Twenty-Nine Sonnets

As we speak, most of the animals in Australia, which is no more an island than any other continent, are thinking of new ways to kill us. I am thinking about the garage’s postapocalyptic Zen, its diorama of a world where you just let things be. There are indeed other geographies. The planet where the wind moves so fast you wouldn’t call it “wind” if you were there—that’s also the planet where it rains hot glass. Where it rains diamonds, everyone is filthy rich, and dead. The planet that’s blue is not really blue. It’s a trick of the light, the atmosphere, the mood, an artist’s conception. The planet where people kill people for land, or for what’s beneath the land, is covered in lead and peace signs. People will do what the wind tells them, they’ll flee to where it flees. Australia, I liked my youth, the stupid clarity of my youth. We used to be primordial, too. The moon used to be closer. Pure sentiment, calling other planets’ moons moons. Dig deep enough, and you’ll hit roots that form stairs. Proximity matters, especially where winter is the price we pay for spring. As surely as there are loves that bring no joy, there’s no right way to be young. There being no Hebrew saints as such, I became possessive. I wanted to track down the guy who took it upon himself to decide what size fun is and not exactly kick the shit out of him, as if mentions belonged to me alone. I imagine plenty of others escape their pasts, you have to carry your trash with you till you find where to throw it away, but the Sargasso Sea is mine, so I have to ask what the point is of any sex or famine going on in my absence. I have to wonder about the invisible artist who keeps the plants alive on the landing, rearranges the dead butterflies daily, and comes and goes with the giddiness of gulls, loud and cruel. Silver dollars being worth more or less depending on the manner of death, I want a leisure-pages poolside funeral, cucumber coins on my eyes, on everyone’s eyes, for fun. We follow the devoted marketer; we’re dying to be revived. Yet I’d to innocence submit in truth, if doing so might give me back my youth. Which to our hope then gives the lie, that sleep’s a property of the eye. In the twenty-first century, slow seeing’s sorry art is excited by the ex-president’s paintings. They’re consistent with the technology of the time, yet patchwork, like Luke Skywalker’s mechanical hand or, really, anyone’s mechanical hand. The angels have faces quite unlike those in art books. The sirens are singing their baited hooks just to drown you on the sand. To see the forward-facing footprints of the backward-walking man.

Benjamin Paloff’s books include the poetry collections And His Orchestra (2015) and The Politics (2011), both from Carnegie Mellon, as well as a critical volume and many translations. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Conduit, New American Writing, The New York Review of Books, The Paris Review, and others, and he was the guest editor of the Fall 2019 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review. Twice a fellow of the NEA, he lives in Michigan.

Rich Ives

An Inevitable Territory

Black Swallowtail Butterfly

I try not to have any beliefs that don’t nibble on who I am or at least climb outside my inner territory, where they can become more than mere bright worms of knowing, like an exotic flavor perhaps; anise, fennel, caraway. When the ideas are forming, they look like bird droppings, and dangerous ignorance from my enemies falls away. This follows a pattern. I always question them three times to give them a sense of bold black and yellow stripes along their fresh green youth lines. They become an undulating tube of matter that walks on many legs to its own escape. It feels like a beautiful dark rising after its isolation, a flight of erratic testing careening softly above its own body.

Of course inside was once outside and outside will soon be back inside before it’s released altogether. Nothing under the sun is really new, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling completely reborn. Once I collected imaginary pianolas, one of them anyway, and pounded on it and teased it different ways to make it deceive me into multitudinous emanations that you’d swear had another source, a grand variety that was mine and not the pianola’s after all, but I felt rich with it and freed.

It’s what apologies do to you. When you make them to yourself, for your ignorance. Voluptuous tired little savages they are, and they can surround you with melody until you think you’re going to explode with such sacred knowing, but with such a record of silence, God will surely shut up soon. The little celery-worm ideals will turn back to what they once were, back to protecting their escaping flights from hungers with the smell of rancid butter. These cannot be everyone’s beauties that I experience, and I take upon myself a drab coloring to match the season. Sometimes my winter restrains me, but a warmth like two rows of yellow dots, bright, progressive and oozing the warmth of Spring, calls me back to my anchored body.

My beliefs are larger than the others now, feminine and blue, the yellow spots joined with orange, behind me in an imitation flight that follows and balances me. I can see two males fighting with their soft wild beautiful wings. I am the territory they will claim, and it’s more like my fulfillment and completion than you might imagine. I watch them pursue red-wing blackbirds, black t-shirts, anything beautiful or invasive, and I’m drawn deeper into myself with their impulsive desires.

And No More

Blister Beetle

I’ve been a parasite, I admit, but I’m growing. Life comes at us in stages. At first I couldn’t even use my legs, but I shed that skin and dug a chamber to live in while I built my final form, soft-bodied, short-winged, long-necked, brightly colored, and even iridescent, it seemed to me.

I worked on an oil rig where the locals called us oil beetles. We felt it inside us and oozed. Our body oil, we joked, made a kind of Spanish Fly, poisonous in larger doses. It stimulates hair growth in the right dilution.

We watched the cattle on the plains, wading below the cutbank like bored children. We offered them our own boredom, and they entertained it. Our little yellow dog was out there all day, looking for something he couldn’t understand. We waited for a more human wilderness.

The boys liked to break things because we were broken, and we still wanted to make something of ourselves, but Hayden, the one we thought of as our leader, wouldn’t crack, so we filled his boots full of rain. He stood outside himself and watched us, breathy, a great expanse shrinking toward maturity, where the hiss of his lithium gave just this much and no more.

The work gave us blisters. Weeks descended, and the grand tendon of Hayden’s neck still twitched while we tended at a distance his remarkable ardent fits of attention. The house his papa left him, long after his papa left him, brought the garden of a separated man into Hayden’s life, shaded and rife, slipping muscular and lean between unguent and Montana trillium.

That life he carried like meat, packed in and beaten against itself. When one of us passed the dream around, he let his cigarette down, and his eyes said, This is the last stick, and the last stick falls just hard enough to continue.

His deliberate downward motion fell against the earthy tendencies of his own body.

Just this much now and no more.

Rich Ives’ books include Light from a Small Brown Bird (Bitter Oleander Press–poetry), Sharpen (The Newer York—fiction chapbook), The Balloon Containing the Water Containing the Narrative Begins Leaking (What Books–stories), Old Man Walking Home in the Dark (Cyberwit-poems), A Servant’s Map of the Body (Cyberwit-fiction) and Tunneling to the Moon (Silenced Press–hybrid).