Marvin Shackelford

Drawback

When the waters receded we saw the statuary of those who came before. Their rounded helms and long hair appeared ahead of square stone shoulders, robes and armor, the pedestals bearing names in half-recognizable script. They stared grimly at us. The deep bay had swallowed them, grown murky with years of commerce, and kept them hidden. We didn’t swim there, didn’t fish unless we had to, grew ill if we ate our catch. We crossed the hills to other, quieter waters, knew the surrounding lands better than the sea. We weren’t the warrior sons and priestesses’ daughters who took this place by force and sealed it in stone. We were a disappointment. Among the paving stones and marble fixtures our fathers preached of gods forgotten, debts owed and paid, and our mothers wept for children to keep them in their dotage. To throw oneself unknowing into the void, they promised, held the greatest riches. They began to step down from their plinths and pillars, knees stiff and breaking, and fell into their own shadow. Sometimes it takes starting over, they whispered. Storms bring fresh water, and blood runs freely over old roots. Disaster presages glory. All about us the world rose and darkened. We wanted to believe them.

The Deep Threatened

In room seven of the ER a teenage girl screamed red-faced at a man—too old, scruffily bearded, to be a boyfriend but too young to be her father—who showed no signs of wakefulness. In six a man in tribal regalia stood alone, face painted, and the overhead lamp, that elbowed device in place for surgeons or nurses or whoever worked mightily in times of need, threw his shadow across the wall in the shape of a bird, a phoenix or dragon or something else built of smoke and fire, of hope and loss.

The door to five was closed, locked, but someone the other side bleated like a sheep. In four a woman lay snoring loudly, a rhythm to her breath suggesting the tremulous ringtone of an older phone. The boy in room three sat bare-chested and ate slices of pear, apple, grapes and cherries, from a white-lidded container. The nurses spoke quietly of an infestation, roaches or spiders, something legged and unseen in cluttered space.

In two the curtain was pulled tightly around the bed. A woman sat just outside it, a large book that might have been a Bible spread-eagled on her lap, and reapplied her lipstick. She blotted her mouth on the rim of a coffee cup and turned to stare into the hallway. She didn’t speak.

One lay empty. A custodian worked to remove a broken clock from the wall, its glass blackened and smoky as though it had suffered a sudden surge of power, or been struck by lightning.

And there at the entrance you shucked rainwater from your pink umbrella. The fountains of the deep threatened to swallow you. The parking lot filled with men beating at the side of our ark, all the sinners of every life I’ve lived seeking shelter from the night. I asked if you were sure we were doing the right thing, if it was necessary, if in the morning we’d look back and say, Well done, well done. You didn’t answer. You handed me your coat and walked into the far-away lights of the emergency-room hallway. You walked against the arrows painted up and down the shiny linoleum. You walked until you disappeared in a storm of scrubs and cords, carbon forms and diagnoses and promises, wise men and laughter, and I waited.

The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail

The third living pope declares himself without smoke or ceremony in Palestine, Texas. Enough is enough, he says. Suffer the little ones no more. He was a Baptist coming in, but no one minds. He begins to bind on earth what he expects of Heaven: Communion drops to every fifth Sunday and baptisms to confessions of faith, but the line on divorce stays about the same. The Sunday-school teachers and ladies in the nursery keep a very neat signup sheet and travel in pairs. He ordains deacons and elders with wives and families, and they all carry guns. They pray without repetitions around a folding table on Wednesday nights and on Thursday go to the stockyard. Fridays they eat catfish and attend high-school football games. They watch from deep in the stands. We’re looking good, they say. Awful good.

The third living pope drawls out Hebrew names, and his prayers carry a twang. Occasionally he wonders aloud what the keys he’s taken hold from Saint Peter are actually supposed to start. He pictures Heaven like a cherry-red Mustang and Hell its fuel tank, launched into the backseat when it’s struck just right. He carries quite a few thoughts about that false white horse that’s coming, its rider and overall towing power. He reinstitutes excommunication and inquisitions the flock, the church discipline let slide so long. He puts his foot on down, but not everyone’s convinced. A few folks try out the Lutherans, some give the Methodists or Presbyterians a look, but mostly they just quit church altogether.

The third living pope promises all will be well. He preaches on Sundays, morning and night, at volumes alternating between calm and angry. He says who needs Latin when you’ve got the King’s good English. He says to watch anybody with a crystal cathedral or a Cadillac or too crooked a smile, but he likes to lay on hands and anoint with oil. There’s a time and a place for the washing of feet. He starts growing a beard. Once the cameras fall away and the letters of rebuke, the calls to cease and desist, peter out, he spends more time at home. His wife bakes cornbread and beans and says maybe tomorrow a roast. He wears out his Bible, fills it with fresh ink drawing the line leading from him back to Christ. It’s shorter than anybody thinks. At night he calls his children and tells those that answer to watch the blood, follow it close. Perilous creatures unnumbered roam this earth, he says. The lion and thief come. At least we’re better than that, he tells them. We’re better than that.

Marvin Shackelford is the author of a collection of poems, Endless Building, and a couple volumes of stories and flash forthcoming from Alternating Current Press and Red Bird Chapbooks. His work has, or soon will have, appeared in The Kenyon Review, West Branch, MoonPark Review, New Ohio Review, and elsewhere. He resides, quietly, in Southern Middle Tennessee.

Rebecca Pyle

Cartoon of Goodness

She ran a service called Holding You Close. You didn’t know who was going to come to her house, you didn’t know who at all they would be. They were people who admitted they needed someone to hold them close. Some of them asked if there were men available to hold them close and she referred them to Brosnan. Brosnan would hold people close. Brosnan was a sort of god of kindness. He always stayed distant from everyone as he should, of course, and he was also constantly, constantly, cheerful, as she should be: but she tended to moroseness. She was holding strangers, but to her, they were a someone else, whom she held for half an hour; or for fifteen minutes, if they were really budgetary, or frightened about being close.

She was married, and had three children, all in school; she had a husband, who was a good employee and always being promoted, in the aerospace industry. Thus his job was a mystery. Why did anyone want to do anything in outer space? Outer space just wanted to kill you. It would kill you somehow, was the law of averages. Unless you had extreme backing, extreme luck, extreme in-the-right-place at-the-right-time luck.

She thought of the holding bed as a place that was home base, to which frightened almost-astronauts returned. When you were in your mother’s womb you were an astronaut, really, tethered by that line to your mother; when you were dying, you were the astronaut letting go of the space station, its meals, and its comforts: you were drifting off forever, and others would take your place.

She kept the sheets and blankets very sweetly laundered. That was part of her job, that they be unusually sweet, not cruelly sweet, as hotel linens were, over-laundered at the hotel. She put sweet orange oil in the rinse. Something to make her clients feel new.

Most of them, of course, were men. They were men who needed to feel safe. They had come to this big city, Seattle, to be successful, but everywhere people had family, dates, lovers, friends. Not they. They were just busy with their damned jobs. They needed to feel loved somewhere while they lay down. She would just barely touch the edges of their hair, stroking their heads, and she would nod to whatever they said. They wanted to feel included in something that was lazy and pure and not a work project. They wanted to see someone’s head up close to theirs. And they were idealists, she told herself, or they’d have someone to lie next to them. They could have found someone. But they didn’t want just anyone. Not yet. They were holding out for the perfect one.

Back to the one she imagined. He was unhaveable; he was too fine. Or he did too poor a job of trying to be fine. He didn’t have to bother. He was very good at what he did; but yet he wasn’t good enough. What was his problem? He was almost a cartoon of goodness.

The Dying Plane

But it’s also in us, he said. Our majesty. Never let anyone take that away from you. Not even a giant airplane or all the wind and sky and stars in the world. Royalty really is in your head. It was an exalted speech from an air steward. Accidental poetry. Our majesty, she said. She blinked, gratefully. She felt tears working their clever foxy ways out of her eyes. In her handbag, or her pocketbook, as it was more humbly and gracefully called, was her address, her car keys, the names and numbers of people who might still know her, who might understand the amnesia of being a year away, if they had once done such a thing, if they knew the red-velvet-dressed great sweet bed of geographical amnesia. Those, mostly, would be older men, fading out, who’d gone to war. She should choose a city, soon—choose and start up in a huge, numb city in America, the number and awfuller the better, something to fully trap her and keep her. I could—write a book, she’d begun trying to say to the air steward, he with his crisp white shirt and his vest of darkest but brilliant, radiant navy blue. But he had disappeared to be kind to others, to distribute more majesty. When she woke, she woke to unbeautiful but not unimportant noises. The plane was dropping at a terrible rate, a measurable rate by Brits in due time, from the miracle and mystery of the crown of a thing called black box, which would reveal why their plane was falling out of the sky toward the waiting swallow of sea: descent, she could not help thinking, almost a tailored match to her despair; the drop of the plane was the almost comic diagram of her grief about returning to a home she did not want. She was England’s, she was Covent Garden’s, she was in St. James park in a striped-fabric folding chair; she was the Norse-named towns ending in by, the raven-wing swell of dark hair in young British men’s hair left behind by Roman soldiers; she was the frenetic repeated steps of step-dances danced, as if carving the ground, by the Irish. She was the English. She had wanted it all to be hers, her truest mother and her father forever, King Lear with his true wife who loved him and found him on the moor; so, when the plane came to the water it was the right pain to end things, to end her failure to establish herself in some way in that place. Her only pain-flicks of regret she had, in the few moments she had to have them, were the dull awful regret that he, who must be in his house that smelled like lemons, would never know she was his; and, of course, her honest doubt she was. His. But she’d borrowed him for a while, in her head, to pretend he wanted to love her, understand her and hold her and keep her—even now, somehow, his great arms, able to hold her, catch her, now.

Pushcart nominee Rebecca Pyle’s writing appears, or is about to appear, this cave-dwelling year, in Festival Review, Cape Rock, Gargoyle magazine, In Parentheses, Honest Ulsterman, Litro USA, Terrain.org, Gris-Gris, Kleksograph, Common Ground Review, 15 Bytes, and in an anthology to be published by Grattan Street Press in Melbourne. Rebecca is a visual artist, too, her artwork to be in or on covers of numerous art/lit journals in 2021, Blood Orange Review, Gris-Gris, Cream City Review, Madison Review, Rappahannock Review, and JuxtaProse among them. Rebecca’s mumbly-peg life of arts & letters is conducted in foothills in Utah, just above Salt Lake City’s valley. See rebeccapyleartist.com.

Ian U Lockaby

Hand Tool

The sides of the well collapsed, vegetable and anxiety farmed all up the sides of the water source. Deep inside the well, a hand, a handing tool. A hand dig too left out in the rain will rust a while. The grin grips the pressure systems and the meteorologist moans. The meter is the motor, depending how you look at it. All utility must be watched, if it is to be utility rust. They hand you a tool. They charge you for it.

May 22

We take them down, slide the hour sharp right through the green tangle of feet, watch them after noon wilt against the dirt against the sun and against the dream of it— tidy plotted earth to harvest and harvest again. Wilting in the sun against the dream, here with my wit— I true the greening difference. I don’t understand that difference.

After lunching on the shade of the vine maple, the thought of yourself is going back to the field, leaving from leftover shade, having had your fill, but realizing you weren’t going back— it was the thought of you—you’ve ready said it I’m saying it again.

We’re going down to the beans and spinach—scuff them up. Shuffle your green and wilting feet. The work’s not over it’s under you. Rising up in to and through you. Rest your head against the dream awhile, harvest your feet.

A Demonstration

Suppose a demonstration is required of the worker. The labor being inside itself to begin with, mostly. What you will eventually eat upon is a table, which holds the leaves once held by hands, once inside themselves. Dust in the field is washed off before you table it. By who is not who you’re harboring, but who is harboring you.

To speak of the dibble is to reference an inside. When there is an inside, there is a dibble outside. Taking the weather in the weather’s times. To speak of the dibble. To nib with the dibble is to wear the long red gown of the weather. To follow the tails of the gown through the field crowded with seeded bread, and rows, is to dibble with toes, the labor of it.

Wellness

In the well we farm for the sides of it, from a depth of sides we up and up the farm, the hefty sides, the hefty farm. A depth of wellness has much to do with the green side of things. When the well collapsed we were welling with anxiety and vegetable, vegetable anxiety. An algae swelled. There’s water in the well, well, well. Water in the well and the well’s collapsed. To drill the well requires a well, on the green side of things, a gathering up the hefty sides of algae-well.

Carry one cigarette from the garden up the pass

I left because I needed to arrive. Always trying to arrive is one way to seldom do. An ever-arriving coincident with a failure to recognize it, the air of our heads conditioned to miss the particles we land on, over and over, this progress.

I left summer because fall was one way to fall away. It got cold, surfaces came unstuck. Carrying tobacco flowers in a glass jar grown from seed I’d been saving for years. I would smoke the flowers. I would save a few seeds, willing particles to land on. I would might then.

Ian U Lockaby is a poet, translator, and former farmworker. His poems have appeared/will soon appear in Denver Quarterly, Datableed, Apartment, Dialogist, and elsewhere. He is the translator of Gardens, by Chilean poet Carlos Cociña, forthcoming from Cardboard House Press, and his translations also appear in Sink Review, Anomaly, and The Canary. He currently teaches at Louisiana State University and lives in New Orleans.

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.

 

_____________________________

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.

 

_______________________________

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.

positInkSpash131210.small

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.