Erika Eckart

Sight

She needed a break from seeing it: the one daughter’s drinking, the one daughter breaking her hand on the other daughter’s face, the vodka-filled water bottles, the strategically placed puke buckets, the grandbaby turning his sleeping mother over on her side like he had been taught, etc., etc. So she squirreled away a few dollars to stay at a cheap hotel. She felt guilty about leaving them, but also if she didn’t remove herself she would do something dangerous. She couldn’t see it anymore, couldn’t see her baby she made with her body asleep in the snow. Well, technically she didn’t see that, the police just described it to her, but you get my drift. She was watching her creation destroy herself and there was nothing she could do, (believe me she tried all the things) but watch because she didn’t have the heart to do what the books said and put her baby out on the street. What she really wanted out of the hotel was the hot tub, to close her eyes in, to shut down completely in. And she did ease her body into the almost painful water, and it did feel so good the temporary reprieve, the halo of steam obscuring her sight, but lurking in the water was a single-celled organism which squirmed into her eye. It was a desperate grasp at relief, both her plunge and the parasite’s. It curled itself under the doorway that was her eyelid, embedded itself in the fleshy tissue, and started feasting. She came home with one eye shut. Disoriented. Nothing was better. The one daughter was unconscious in a grocery store bathroom. And the doctors couldn’t figure her eye out. At first they thought it was a trauma, then a bacterial infection until an eye specialist determined that, no, that’s a living thing in your cornea, preparing for its departure to your central nervous system. It was painful, an anvil in her skull, but the closed eye wasn’t empty. Instead, it offered a different vision. In it, she saw her daughter sober, happy, apple-cheeked, riding a fucking horse, lisa-frank style, walking down an aisle, white dress, a trail of babies, so clean. In the other open, still-operational eye, the daughter is running up a hill mostly naked, it is cold out, she is warning the neighbors about hallucinated phantoms. The mother wanted to close both eyes, to give up, and if the medicine didn’t work she’d die with her happy baby emblazoned on the backs of her eyelids. And this is how she figures the light works, the one you walk toward, the glowing embrace that protects us from knowing it’s the end, the calming fiction that gives mothers permission to let go, to pretend it’s all going to be okay, they can fend for themselves now, no need to be there to turn them on their side so they don’t aspirate.

Prepper

She had been through lean times, (I mean when weren’t they?) but she means when there really wasn’t enough to fill the cavities in their bellies. She watched them fight over crackers, for dinner once prepared a box of Jiffy muffin mix with nothing but water and split the rubbery yield among 5, garbage picked the contents of a gas station dumpster after a fire made everything technically unsellable, wept when her children reported they did not eat their free school lunch. It is a mother’s job to feed her children, and when you can’t something breaks in you, your mind is a scramble/frenzy/war always hustling to turn nothing into calories, bulk, something to chew. So later, when the foreclosure notice came/the light bill was unpayable/ the children now grown with full bellies struggled to work/live, she protected them the only way she knew, gathering food from dollar stores and food pantries like a magpie on speed: cans of potted meat, boxes of tuna helper, obscure jarred frostings, all past their sell by date. Much of it was boxes of dust: dehydrated corn syrup, ground to sparkly flint, gelatin, stabilizers, MSG, flecks of green. When reconstituted with water it transforms to the equivalent of stacking all the furniture against the door. She fashioned her stores into fortress walls, flanks of soldiers, a watch tower, a moat, stocked all the cabinets, a storage room, an extra freezer, every pocket of space filled with insurance that it won’t come to that again. In the end, there was enough to eat, but everybody was hungry for something else: affection, work, revenge, alcohol, some of it surely grounded in that earlier time of want, but there is no feeding it now, the statute of limitations is long past. Afterwards, her cupboards remained full, but she couldn’t throw it out–it was a keepsake, a relic, an obsolete fortress made of highly-processed corn, long covered in moss, trees growing on the inside, admired, but useless, but still proof of how hard she tried to cushion them from want, how well she did her job, just look.

The pull of the water

My boy wants to watch the creek carry its burden–watch garbage gather in the current and be pulled against the rocks, watch the water travel in indirect swirls when it dances over the jagged bends. When that’s not enough, he throws leaf carcasses and wood chips and discarded bottle tops on one side of a bridge and then quickly runs to the other to watch them be pulled by the flow. Each time his act has the effect he hoped he hops up and down in place, overjoyed. He wants to be closer so we walk down the bank to admire the pull of the water up close. Suddenly, he pushes himself and his puffy coat into the metal fence, separating us from the water and tries to scale it. He needs to throw himself in, to be the thing dragged by the current and pulled under, to dance against the rocks. I anchor myself on the wet ground and hold him back; he wiggles. Everything is slick, the whole world a smooth, wet surface with no traction. It is impossible to create enough friction to keep upright, so I shift my weight and we fall back, away from the water, a panting, still-struggling pile. A stranger comes and asks What are you going to do when he’s too big for you? My boy writhes on the wet ground; I’m pinning him, begging, explaining, promising, praying the stranger will walk away. It feels unsustainable, the pull of the forces, a seam about to burst somewhere in my mind or my stomach or the space time continuum. I start scream-singing “this little light of mine,” scaring the stranger away and startling my boy out of his mania, and I remember hanging from the ceiling in the school cafeteria little paper mâché planets with signs explaining how long it will take their light to get to us, and how comforting it is to know someday it’s coming, either the light or the current to carry us away.

Erika Eckart is the author of the tyranny of heirlooms, a chapbook of interconnected prose poems (Sundress Publications, 2018). Her writing has appeared in Double Room, Agni, Quarter After Eight, Quick Fiction, Nano Fiction, Passages North, and elsewhere. She is a High School English teacher in Oak Park, IL where she lives with her husband and two children.

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.

Lucy Zhang

Spear Against Shield1

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

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

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

 

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

Playing Zither For The Cow2

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

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

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

 

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

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

Kylie Hough

If I’m Honest

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

The Problem with Eggs

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

Her Last De facto

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

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

Joey Hedger

Paper Teeth

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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

“Huh? Who?”

“Your mother.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blurry Exit Signs

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

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

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

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

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

“Well.”

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

“The holes?”

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

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

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

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

Then, the bird.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Lydia Davis

Five More Claims to Fame

 

Claim to Fame #2: Karl Marx and My Father

 

My father and Karl Marx both had daughters who grew up to become translators; both translated Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

 

Claim to Fame #3: June Havoc

 

My parents bought a small house in Connecticut from the actress June Havoc; June Havoc was a talented actress and tap-dancer, even as a tiny child, though she was not as well known as her sister, Gypsy Rose Lee.

 

Claim to Fame #4: Sally Bowles

 

My mother’s second husband, after their divorce, married the nightclub singer and writer Jean Ross, model for Sally Bowles in the musical “Cabaret”; their relationship resulted in a daughter, my half-sister’s half-sister.

 

Claim to Fame #5: Salvador Dali

 

My husband once, on his way into the Museum of Modern Art in New York City via a revolving door, looked up, saw Salvador Dali, who was opposite him on his way out, and stopped the door, deliberately trapping Dali inside it for a few moments; my husband then started the door moving again, ejecting Dali from the museum. He very much disliked the art of Salvador Dali.

 

Claim to Fame #6: Rex Dolmith

 

In Taos, New Mexico, in 1949, my parents in their rental apartment were bothered by the constant noise from the family in the apartment above them; their upstairs neighbors were the family of the Taos painter Rex Dolmith.

Lydia Davis’s most recent collection of stories is Can’t and Won’t (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014). Among other works, she is also the author of the Collected Stories (FSG, 2009), a new translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (Viking Penguin, 2010), a chapbook entitled The Cows (Sarabande Press, 2011), and a long narrative poem entitled “Our Village” in Two American Scenes (New Directions, 2013). In 2013 she received the Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Man Booker International Prize for her fiction. She lives in upstate New York.