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).

Cassandra Moss

Somewhere, someone thinks only of another

Two people struggle with avarice.

P1 substitutes the [ə] with [a̠], the [ɹ] with [h], the [ɪ] with [ɨ̟], the [s] with [se].

Within these walls of learning, time is a vise, the tightening of which squeezing the participants’ spleens, organs on the verge of rupture.

P2 is impatient, correcting and demanding a reasonable predicate of P1 as this combination of /æ/, /v/, /ɘ/, /ɹ/, /ɪ/, /s/ refuses to be affixed and transformed to work the copula in the standard agreed upon manner for such a self-centering proposition.

P1 attempts the suggestion, expostulates a half-hearted [g], [h], [ɨ̟], [d], [ɨ̟] with a knowing roll of the eyes, a disgusted click of the tongue. Ultimately, they are two people entombed in their disagreement as for P1 there is no alternative patterning of sounds to transfer the absoluteness in the barrel-bottom of this particular thought from vessel to vessel.

And so the weight of expectation swings wildly in the minds of P1 and P2 from total ontological confirmation to complete withdrawal of mutuality.

The clock ticks on, the door shaking in its frame while the wind sweeps through cracks in the rotting wood of the windows’ edgings.

On another day, P1 is crossing the road and feels disturbed by a train passenger who just then, pinching a dropper of E-Juice in the left hand, with the right hand holds a vertical phone to watch a film, seemingly unperturbed by the screen ratio of 1/4 video to 3/4 ratings and comments. The world is full of beasts, thinks P1 later, sleepless and looking up into foreign darkness, repeating I am a good person, I am a good person.

Meanwhile, P2, drink in hand, sits at the corner of a four-seater, concurrently wrecked and never-more-lucid, interrupting a friend of a friend to say: You don’t know my fucking pain.

Gists

The divorce meant I didn’t have to worry about losing anymore. It wouldn’t have been me who’d have gotten married and it wouldn’t have been me who’d have sought to dissolve it. The marriage took place as a right angle in my periphery: the corner edged into my sight while I was trying to concentrate on the circles in front of me. But I didn’t mind it, the angle, as it reassured me. Of what, I could never figure out. A kind of human credential, I suppose. When we said goodbye, the sadness in me was for the mental redactions to be made to the past nine years, and I wished I was someone else who felt different things.

There were no calls, no messages from then: simply two people apart who didn’t know what the other was having for dinner. Who were we to speculate? The absence of another set of jaws chewing didn’t need exposition. Our names were for what was spoken, said even just in the head, and the need for saying new spellings came faster and thicker than the need to preserve. ‘Ex’ anything seemed a little too much resolution for subjects who cried at photographs of themselves smiling.

Borrowing a line in adventure, I fled.

The peaks stuck up, threatening the skies as they were passed over; skies numerous in color and weight, the peaks kept up, kept jutting, whilst the drag of the dust around my feet never gave the ground a look in. Land outstretched as unfrontiered as views without horizons. The world, they say. Look at the space. Look at the enclosures you find yourself looking at the space from. I traveled until newness no longer worked on me. A woman I met in a desert told me not to think in terms of old and new. She said I was exhausted from the grate of the years, that I let each 365-day unit strip a layer off when it was supposed to be a give-and-take sort of thing. Otherwise, she said, there’ll be nothing left of you. You, you’re not exactly the wilting type, no, more like the last one standing out of fear of surrender, which has the same result, the same deadness, don’t you think? She stood next to her helper, a deaf man she’d hired indefinitely, as she made notes about the consistency of the sand. Her forehead dominated our circumstance; it led us through the vastness with a confidence unseen in most heads of state. I followed respectfully. I thought: the sun is going to burn me and the conclusions I hoped would be ready-made aren’t reachable. At any rate, not taking offense at the humor of false prophets was the beast to be reckoned with on the slow walk out of there.

In front of me, a child picked at page corners of a moldering prayer book. The church was four people shy of being entirely vacant, barren. I’d turned off a main street loitered on by its permanent structures to enter through the heavy, arched door. Being in the town was a shock. After the expanses, I found that communities harbored intentions I couldn’t guess the crux of. I needed somewhere uninhabited. By the living anyway.

A service started. I realized the emptiness had been miraculously filled. I couldn’t get up and walk out without sets of eyes disapproving my point of departure. The child was happy watching the greenish, brownish paper come off in his fingers and flicking it over to the other side of the pew. His father focused on the men singing songs for which I experienced some kind of preternatural recognition. Last time I was in church was for a christening of a baby whose cries could not be stopped by mother or father from climbing to the highest rafters and echoing through the lungs of guests trying not to hold their breaths. Being placed in something bigger than itself the baby had something to either reject or embrace as it made its way through all the uncertainty it faced. I’d only ever wanted a dichotomy. There was too much pluralism, I felt, in my upbringing: my parents flung freedoms around forcing me to sneak into binaries. I cosseted myself within the gists of opposing arguments I liked the sound of. It got me through the tumult of endless placidity that was the privilege I was born into. The low notes of the singing lodged in my sinuses. Dressed in a style of shawl I wasn’t aware existed, a woman paced the aisle at the side of the pews, in the shadow, cradling her handbag and speaking halves of words. Her head was down, practicing; the sounds coming out of her were spiked by a snort, a tic or a bronchial affliction, I considered, and the seriousness in her concentration upset me. Was it for the words themselves? Did she feel them flow in and out of her, change her? It was upsetting. I was right to be disturbed. How could she care for words? How could she feel their meaning? After the singing ended, she approached the pulpit. She was familiar: that fussing perennial in all neighbors of mine in each neighborhood.

The tic or affliction began the reading. Tone took on clarification as the words stated our duty of care towards one another, a sentiment I knew I would never be able to understand. For all my wanting of sides, I didn’t believe I could pick one. How would I know how to? I didn’t want any burden of duty.

The woman, a redness around her temples climbing up from where her gun-metal grey headband pressed the earpieces of her glasses into bone, kept her palms on the lectern. I knew her, didn’t I?

A year later I, the laziest agnostic, was in another church getting married to someone I used to take baths with as a six-year-old.

Cassandra Moss was born in Manchester and grew up just outside the city. She studied English with Film at King’s College, London and subsequently worked in the film industry for Sister Films, Working Title, and Vertigo. Since 2009, she’s been an EFL teacher. After moving to Ireland, she recently completed an MPhil in Linguistics at Trinity College, Dublin. Her short fiction has been published in Succour, 3am Magazine, Cricket Online Review, Squawk Back, And/Or, and The Passage Between.

Daniel Uncapher

Vanishing Point

Sam afraid of Sam the sandman, bound handy, blue flowers underfoot. Winter exposure, and if yes smaller rooms than to each to her or to her own, colder weather. Mask collector: assassin mask, drinker mask, milk-drinker this for that, wealthier or not, unhealthy human habits in unmasked faces and she called it Samson, thrasher-in-the-dust. Sam the Samnite, fifth prefect of Judaea year 26 killer-Christ unemancipated, shorter winter less than magic, Christmas notwithstanding not alone, without that open spanning night and in that hot side-of-the-road anticipation, black forest wall to no avail, without nothing. She sat at the foot of her bed playing video games with herself in this imaginary state-of-mind, flight or free, full of boundary, and they woke that night the aggressor, sickwards pants forward, old maid the confessor. Soft looker so-called the parable, me about me, for example the prodigal son not one she understood well at all; it remained a mystery even as she came to terms with far more impenetrable myths. Went to play felt distinct new feelings. The effects of candles in cold spaces, worn muslin, relentlessly didactic, audio player, cold smell of single panes — replace them, glazier! Special benthic layer, line behind her and her world of her childlike her awe, so broken, sources of angst and despair, nothing connects, non-adhesive, disconnected tissue, nothing seemed connected then, it was constant anguish. Meaning without mark, presence without trace, no motion, full falter the faltering forward, on — so on trouncing downward, overdrawn. The subjugation of the Samnites and Samson go down without grace. Safe without skin in the toxic secretion, the suprastructure of mappable worlds, surface-reminiscence. She set herself apart by the movements she had no control of, the tectonic plates, the arrangement of atoms, the circumlocution of planets and stars. Mispronounced names, no correctors, non-reciprocal faith. The difference between an encyclopedia a reference guide a bibliography, hagiograph, macrophage. The defining quality of things: 10,000 performative verbs in a dictionary. Take her to task. Dressage, dancing horses, arrow-time. The message was clear: Samson Option, world obliterator. Two already, more to come; something to eat, something too sweet, something eaten, something weak. Ships crashing from the sky. Dead Philistines, empty coast, dry canopies. The parable of the prodigal son went on undeciphered. Nothing changed in her heart. She reached out if blindly in every direction but alas just two hands, just two directions, two simultaneities. Hubble-like hyperopia — the vision ends at reception. Samnite to Samson, collapser of pillars, under rocks now Sam, hypnogenic, surpassing Sam no longer of the world; only Samsara, the surpassive self, the stepping towards eschaton, Samsara who doesn’t exist, non-exaltant. The fruit has been picked from the plant and boiled to a reduction, the silhouette flattened into a single beam of asymptotic narrowing light no one washes, there is nothing to clean, no glom, no magnanimity, there is only Samsara, borrowed light, simply machine, only Sam sans Samson, sand without grain, waste no receptacle, and Sam as Samsara, who doesn’t exist.

Daniel Uncapher is the Sparks Fellow at Notre Dame, where he received his MFA. His work has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, Tin House Online, Baltimore Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review, and others.

Marvin Shackelford

Far As Forever Gets You

They ran quiet, like the murmur of news on TV in the next room, but grew louder and nearer and finally exploded on the front lawn. Across the street, three police cruisers pulled into the neighbor’s yard. Kirk watched the last circle around, front tire edging into his grass, before lining up with the others. Lights flashing, sirens on a moment longer and then clipped. No porch light, none inside, the cops with flashlights looking along the eaves and knocking at the door. A Christmas play gone bad. Kirk tried to enjoy it, to imagine what was happening inside. Wouldn’t say murder, might believe a domestic dispute. He didn’t know those neighbors, barely anyone else nearby, but everyone fought. Things went south. If he’d been able to sleep, if they’d woke him, he’d have been upset, but he’d only been lying in the dark. His own disasters, plenty to think about.

They wouldn’t have come like this if things weren’t bad. They required real problems. He thought about dialing in an emergency, going over when they wrapped up, sneaking into an unattended car. They talked on their walkies, and one of the officers disappeared into the house. Kirk knew more about disappearing from a house but was unsurprised how the man was swallowed up, a child back into the womb. Flashlight beam and all. He wanted to call out, tell him to draw his weapon or run away, but it didn’t matter. People always came out, left a place as black as they found it and moved on in a squeal of light and wailing that sent a man deaf, ringing with what was lost. Okay, someone sooner or later said. Okay, Kirk said. Done here.

They eventually bundled a woman out. White nightgown, frosty breath, hands wringing and cuffed politely at her waist. A little gray in her hair. Calm. They stopped on the porch, the cops and the woman speaking at length around the gathered lights.

There’s no going back, she must have said. You take to the world and empty your soul into it.

Do you know how far we’ve come? an officer wants to know.

Far as forever until now gets you.

Ever light this place up?

I’m as lit as a long nighttime gets, honey. When I’m gone you’re still here. And here I am.

One of the men stepped back inside for her coat. Kirk gave up his watch, tried the bed again, lay with a red and blue winter throbbing through the windows. His insides stove up and broke. Doors shut. He knew what was gone, who they’d come for next. The house groaned around him, empty. He wasn’t sleeping.

April Fool

This year I won’t reward sleep. I won’t eat until I’m awake. I won’t drift when we’re sitting to dinner, when the girl asks what we’d like to start with this evening. I won’t have that last nine-minute dream the alarm clock makes. I won’t remember it anyway.

* * *

I will turn my body to steam at every opportunity. I’ll gather with the desert waters hidden about our home. The day will have to lift us loose with the heavy prybar of its length. Overhead, still distant and mooning down at us, they seed rain in the sky. It will only wash us loose of our fossils.

* * *

Along the road into town I collect soda cans, beer bottles, wildflowers. Most of it I dump beneath the Interstate overpass. Neatly piled. The semis and long traffic dive miles down the valley and roar through the shitty grins of my treasure. I take the cleanest, longest-stemmed dandelions home. You say you’ll be smiling all summer.

Marvin Shackelford is author of the collections Endless Building (poems) and Tall Tales from the Ladies’ Auxiliary (stories, forthcoming). His work has, or soon will have, appeared in Kenyon Review, Hobart, Wigleaf, Longleaf Review, and elsewhere. He resides in Southern Middle Tennessee, earning a living in agriculture.

Stephen Nelson

The Woods Are Mine

1.

Someone was walking in the woods as the train passed. It was autumn and the woods were crimson and brown. It was hot in the train so I opened a window and let the smell of autumn in. The ticket inspector came and checked my ticket. He looked grumpy and bored, not at all like the man in the woods. I had nowhere to go, so I got off at the next station and walked back to the woods. The clouds were entertaining divas. The leaves were sad songs the man hummed along to. I wondered if the man was married. Another train passed heading in the opposite direction. Someone waved at me from the middle carriage, a man walking alone in the woods. I waved back but it made me feel lonely and frustrated. My life was spinning out of control. I had never married and the girl of my dreams had three children to three different fathers. A leaf fell at my feet and I started to wipe it against my cheek. It smelled like leather so I stuffed it in my pocket and sat against a tree. I waited till twilight. I wanted people in passing trains to see me covered in leaves. I thought that might be of interest.

2.

The woods were owned by the Duke of *********, whose ancient castle hangs over the river on the other side. Sometimes I’ll walk the length of the river, stumbling over fallen trees, just to reach the ruined castle. It’s possible I was a peasant in a previous existence but I’ve never been a Duke and nothing can ever be proven. Politics is of no consequence in the woods now, although once it might have been. There is no political answer for loneliness. Under the castle, I’ll eat a sandwich I prepared at home from the last slices of a Warburton’s loaf. I sense the deer sniffing the scented air, getting closer. The Duke who hunted deer is dead now and buried in an ornate mausoleum. Some say he was murdered in his sleep by an angry peasant. I don’t know the truth about that but I want to leave a piece of my sandwich under the castle for the deer. A rainbow drops over the castle into the river. The people of the parish have never been happier, now that the Duke is dead.

3.

Deep in the woods there’s a convent, and a garden in the convent where the nuns walk and pray. I watched them from a distance, imagining we were married. One time I approached and asked the nuns to exorcise my demons. The left side of my body was a dark, damp bog. The nuns carried on rejoicing, unused to men and requests for exorcisms. Eventually I left and lay in a stream to ease the pain in my body. Everything in me was empty and rattled like an old sack of rubbish. I imagined the nuns in a shower of leaves, hoping the stream could bring some uniformity at least. My wet clothes gripped me. A train passed, rattling like an old metallic ghost. Someone saw a man lying in his clothes in a stream like a ghost. Someone else prayed.

4.

There’s a crumbling wall in a clearing in the woods. I sat on top and waited for a train to pass, wondering about the wall. Brambles grew at the foot of the wall and I kept thinking I might fall into them. Some of the brambles had been nibbled by deer. The wall was once part of a storehouse the nuns used when the war was on. I dropped from the wall and collected brambles for my journey. I was travelling back to the war. A train passed full of school kids. Can you take me back to the war, I shouted. The kids waved but some shouted weirdo and perv and some hadn’t even heard of the war. I ate the brambles and drank from a stream but only ended up back at the wall. I sat on top and knew the war was nearer than I could ever imagine.

5.

At sundown I met the man I’d seen from the train. He looked afraid and backed away into the woods as I held out my hand for him to shake. People used to call me Fox and I admit I hadn’t washed for days. My hand smelled of earth and river water and was rough like a rotting leaf. If only he knew how much I’d admired him from the train while he walked alone in the woods. I don’t have any heroes left but there’s a song I like which seems to say it all. It occurred to me I hadn’t eaten since I’d finished the Warburton’s loaf. The only way to make friends of the deer was to leave a trail of food for them. In a wave of bitterness I concluded the man had no clue there were deer in the woods and even if he saw one he’d probably be ashamed of being alone in that environment. At least in my loneliness I could reverence the deer.

Stephen Nelson is the author of several books of poetry, including a Xerolage of visual poetry called Arcturian Punctuation (Xexoxial Editions). He exhibits vispo around the world and has published poetry internationally. Find him at afterlights-vispo.tumblr.com.

Jefferson Navicky

The Butler’s Life

Mark has left for work. He said he’d send a patrol car every hour and look into a Cease & Desist. But I know none of that is necessary. The butler wouldn’t do anything to hurt me. He’s too good a servant.

The butler is out in the garden. He took up his post yesterday. He looks very dignified standing rigid among the squash. He really was born to serve. His back is so straight you could use it as a tomato stake. Black coat and tails, a white napkin folded over his forearm. His shoes, we think, must be suffering in the garden dirt and the butler won’t like that, but he’s too good a servant to abandon his post. He’s also got, we notice through the kitchen window, quite a sunburn on his bald spot. Little Daniel thinks to bring him out a baseball cap, but he, of course, refuses. Little Daniel cries when he returns inside.

It was early in our marriage when I started calling him the butler. He was simply so good at serving people, at serving me, so thoughtful, so helpful, that it seemed like a natural nickname to me. Then we had Little Daniel together and the world got small. One thing led to another, sadness upon sadness, and I met Mark at an Indians game in the beer line. Mark says there are two things that can happen to a person after a break up: you can either get better or get worse, but you can’t stay the same. You can either acknowledge the karmic rightness of what’s happening and make the best of it, or you can fight against it and make life miserable.

Some rain last night, but still the butler will not abandon his post among the squash. Mark says he’ll snap out of it, don’t worry. But I can’t help myself, I worry. I’m a professional worrier. The butler is a bit sun-faded now, which of course is not his fault. Is it me, or is he wilting a little? Still straight, but imperceptibly bent?

So I take my coffee out to the garden. I do a little weeding before I say, I release you from your service, Jeff. You can’t really do this, here, it’s not right. You’re not a butler. It’s a bit much.

I go inside to do some laundry, breathe, and when I look back out to the garden, the butler is gone. My chest almost cracks in two at his absence and at all the posts we’ve abandoned.

Moon Park

I’m going to give you a magic nose, Spoonman said and placed it over the top of the little boy’s nose. So you can smell all the smells under the smells. They were in the back seat of the car on its way to the beach.

I smell poop, the little boy said. I’m going to poop in your mouth. You’re going to eat poop.

Don’t say poop, his mother said from the passenger’s seat. It’s not nice. And it gets you all riled up.

It doesn’t matter, his father said. He’s on vacation. Let him say what he wants.

I’m going to give you a magic set of ears, so you can hear what’s really there, Spoonman said and hung them from the little boy’s ears.

I hear poop, the little boy said. There’s poop dripping out of my ears.

Okay, that’s enough, his mother said. Don’t egg him on.

For Christ’s sake, his father said. Let the kid be.

They arrived at the beach. The waves went out, came back gentle. There was a breeze like the ages. The little boy dug in the sand. He pulled his hands through the sand with a backhoe’s burden. The mother read a magazine. The father squinted at the horizon. Spoonman tried to sleep.

The little boy came up to Spoonman with a closed fist. I have something for you, he said. Close your eyes and stick out your hand.

The little boy dropped a golden tooth into Spoonman’s hand.

I found it in the sand, he said. Put it in your mouth so you can eat the magic poop.

Spoonman looked down at the golden tooth. It was scratched quite badly, but still held a buried fire.

Don’t be a pest, his father said. Go swim.

The little boy released a large sigh. I want to have magic teeth, he said, and popped the tooth into his mouth.

What did you just eat?! his mother shouted, but she didn’t get up.

With the first crunch, it sounded like he was chewing a stone. With the second, the little boy’s teeth started to give way. By the third, they were gone.

What Spoonman would remember: the little boy’s open-eyes as he spit the mealy mass of tooth shards and bloody pulp into Spoonman’s outstretched hand.

Picking through the mouth’s detritus, Spoonman found the golden tooth. He saved it. He knew the little boy would want it.

Spoonman heard the shouts. He rode in the car. They sped. How could you. Why. Luckily there’d been a pediatric dental surgeon on call. Luckily. What’s wrong with. What kind of child does.

The little boy crushed six of his teeth, three molars and a few others. Why did you keep chewing? the doctor wanted to know. The little boy didn’t answer. He looked down at his hands. The vacation was over. The mother looked at Spoonman. This is your fault.

Jefferson Navicky is the author of The Book of Transparencies (KERNPUNKT Press, December 2018) and The Paper Coast (Spuyten Duyvil). He works as the archivist for the Maine Women Writers Collection, teaches English at Southern Maine Community College, and lives on the coast of Maine with his wife and puppy.

John Sibley Williams

Untitled {luster}

Flares only illuminate the ruined part of the road. The rest is a night so perfect constellations disband & the stars, one by one, blow out. Still there is plenty for the dogs pushing into the city to pray to, eyes wild & wide & red as a tangled metal body catching the glow off these burning sticks that circle what’s left of his truck. Blue uniforms comb waist-high weeds for crushed beer cans or splifs or some reason six blocks will go powerless tonight. Snapped tibia. Downed pole. Everything now dead nouns in a world built on verbs. Me & one parent & a paralyzed moon, stuck in our orbits. For all I know this is how our story returns to its beginnings. Calculate the trajectory with string then follow just how far we can fly with some push. & I can-not close my hand around his hand until I’m told it won’t hurt, as if it will ever not hurt. & now the dogs are pawing at something they think holy, & wailing. & a sweet, brief cometlight pauses, passes overhead.

Untitled {spectacle}

Why in their dancing for us circus elephants don’t pull the canvas sky down each night and trample our kids into soft little star-stains in bare earth, I’ll never know. And is there anything so damaged as a broken horse left to ride itself? Feather-plume, velvet saddle, so beautifully lost without a half-naked woman kicking dust and cool autumn dusk from its hide. And clowns all frenzy and laughter, angels until we start demanding demons. And then they stay demons forever. I’m terrified of what makes me cheer, that I’ll end up clapping whether or not this tamer’s head emerges unbitten.

Untitled {seabird}

Someone has misplaced a seabird so far inland this all seems more like fiction than just another Sunday lost in Kansas, circling a parking lot for the third time, avoiding the dark suits and fiery eyes of end-timers I secretly envy a bit in their sureness. To think the rest of the world is fury too. Not just this wild congregation of crows, hungry for scraps, broken by a single gull that has no business being here. Not just our bodies when the world refuses to submit. But the autumn oaks we’ve shamed in their undressing. And the clouds that cymbal and the swelling river and names we give to things that fight so hard to shed them. I think I’d like to believe in signs, that this strange white bird augurs something that only seems grave on the surface or that making a metaphor of man means we can harm with impunity or that hidden behind the visible a whole new world fierce as the world we scorn yet fear losing waits, hard as a father’s open palm, as forgiving as that.

Self-Portrait as a Hard Metal

Iron filings from where a saw wore down something solider than any of us blow about the workshop on little more than an open window’s breath. Tools meant for snapping, searing, and putting back together stretch along the walls, and pin-sized holes punched through the roof give us a perfect view of how the sky must look from the wrong side of an exit wound. More and more these days I hear my grandfather’s voice drill into the brief hush between hammer strikes: what is it you think you’re making of your life? If the true song of a man hums from where his hand reaches blindly into the darkness for another’s, even if they never touch, I sing best when alone, the numbing tremor of hard metals reshaping one another spreading up my arm, my entire body; slivers of what I hope I’ve made solider, useful, dancing weightless in the slim rays of light.

How to Build an American House

What the saw wants once sapwood has sung itself out. A hammer now that all the nails are flush. A boy after having most of his childhood pulled from his mouth like teeth, like song, leaving him a man. In any case, once the job is done the thing persists. The subject fades to object. Its verb loses agency. I am. At least I am. And the sun sinks into grass, staining the surface red. It’s good, for now, forgetting the world keeps going without us, that we are bright flecks of light dancing into a back-drop of more light. The saw hangs static from hooks above its creation. All the boards are in the right place. The child has a child he hopes will have a child someday. What is it he wants now that the house is ready for living?

Sanctum

What they’ve died in made sacred while what killed them is forgotten or forgiven. No wonder history is often pictured as a sky-bearing cross or a sharp cut of moon or an endless sea of candles in a guilt-darkened room. The story as some know it ends with tangled rebar. A shattered school. Empty promises made over a rich and distant earth. I’m more familiar with young men moving stones from caves and waiting for their fathers to call them home. It’s a ramshackle river we pretend to try to cross to see ourselves beautiful on the other shore. We are convinced we cannot be beautiful here. We find the signs we’re looking for, and they mean exactly what we knew they would. I’m looking for the world the world doesn’t like to talk about above a whisper. Some sort of unforbidden city. A beveled hilltop overlooking an impossible meadow made weightless by the dead. The dead here are so heavy. We may never be this beautiful again.

John Sibley Williams is the author of nine poetry collections, most recently Disinheritance. An eleven-time Pushcart nominee and winner of various awards, John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review. Publications include: Yale Review, Atlanta Review, Prairie Schooner, Midwest Quarterly, Sycamore Review, Massachusetts Review, Columbia, Third Coast, and Poetry Northwest.