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.

Laurie Stone

Bus

Richard said, “Get a cab.” He said, “Get an uber.” When he said, “Get a cab,” I said, “I’ll call you later.” I was sweating, and my hair was frizzled. It was 4 o’clock, and there was no shade along the eight-lane road, banked with baking vegetation and fast food. I crossed to the other side to wait for a bus. A woman was on a bench in the sun without a hat, her shoulders turning the color of a rib roast. She smiled and said a bus was due to arrive, and there it was, rounding a corner. The driver was large and beautiful behind the wheel with red lips and thick dreadlocks secured at the base of her neck. The bus was cool. I said to the driver, “A waitress gave me wrong directions to my hotel.” She said, “Of course, a waitress,” sniffing. I was in Orange, California and I had walked eight miles the wrong way. I had a phone. I had GPS. Nevermind. The driver’s name was Joanne. She said the ride was on her. Once when I was trimming an agave in our back yard, I was bitten by fire ants. I thought they would not bite me because I was helping the plant. Joanne was full of life’s happiness. I stood close to her, and when the bus stopped we looked in each other’s eyes. The smell of roses wafted in and disappeared so quickly it might have been an illusion. Only poor people ride buses here. Everyone was a little rickety from exposure. I was watching movies about women who trekked long distances in scorching conditions with inadequate preparation. Why women? I said to Joanne, “I will not forget you.”

Stathis

I see my sister, this beauty. Brown ponytail, heart-shaped face, round calves. She has met a man. She is 19 or 20. I am 13 or 14, and I am in the city with my sister and this man, a hairdresser, a Greek named Stathis with thick red hair waving back from his forehead. He cuts her hair, and they go out, and she is in love. She is in love with the sex they have. We have a meal in a Japanese restaurant. I have not seen sushi before. There is some pain. He wants me to like him. He pats my hand on the table. He wants to be right for my sister. Let’s say I see his apartment. Let’s say he lives in Hell’s Kitchen, and there are cooking smells in the hall. Let’s say I find it exotic my sister cares what I think. I understand I am a go-between. My parents think my sister is made for better things. She is going to run whatever life she finds herself in. That is what she is looking for, to run a life, and everyone can see this except my parents. Stathis is under the spell of my sister. She is beautiful. She laughs easily and looks at people as if they matter. I am interested in the sex spilling out of her half-closed eyes, and the day I spend with them is yellow amber with ancient bugs pressed inside. Stathis has large hands, and they smell good.

Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal, Stories. Her work has appeared in Fence, Open City, Threepenny Review, Creative Nonfiction, Anderbo, Nanofiction, and many other journals. Her latest collaboration with composer Gordon Beeferman, “You, the Weather, a Wolf,” will be performed in New York City in December 2016. To read more about her work visit lauriestonewriter.com.

Dale Smith


from Another Sky

All that time I had been thinking what love’s wild terrain cruised, like a pickup in the dark on rough limestone, flint outcroppings. Some distant scene of youth — fishing or hunting. Along scrub oak trails a pretended wilderness interiorized like dream energy, an origin or self-sampling of how to one day be. Grow wild in cobbled destiny — it’s yours. A rare turning or value like a view of battered moonlight you had known. Drunks stammered to their cars the parking lot lit up. Loud V-8s like nineteen seventy something. All those years to tear one up with are carried in shadows by hackberry, walnut. A beginning takes root in quiet circulation of blood and nerve we are.

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A first name in the coming frame of identity. Dogs and rabbits, private pets of shared circumstance. The sky rains fuel and snow. Pear blossoms open. Reinvent origin to suit late tale’s completion. Côtes du Rhone and crackers. My children read of distant lands, allow themselves to raid pathways of neglected deities. Through a window snow passes a glowing streetlight. In my memory days reach toward faceless, non-seeing expansion. Breath and light travel my spine.

In a cabin in Texas when I was fifteen drinking cheap wine for the first time staggering to piss under hackberry’s barky roughness, I saw my breath against porch light between me and black sky. Now unsettled, another rider approaches. Her eyes widen as if awakened by voices rendered by letters. No ease of seasonal surfaces.

When I stepped out of the car I smelled coolant as steam lifted from under the hood. Lake, summer, jerking off in an Oldsmobile. Radio and a sad bird sound, not a dove, but maybe a whip-or-will like a forlorn Midwest fantasy. We would hunt at dusk and the older boys sipped whiskey by the fire near our tents. Snow hardens in April cold. The stories will not focus — they spill. A mythic energy being raids the old fields quietly for sudden amusement. In those days the woods pulsed with lore of unknown origin.

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Faded Polaroid of a man and his son by the crow statue. Cerberus toy, an ancient hammer. Boys laugh, “rough-housing,” my father said. They brush teeth in a cold bathroom while wind rattles our windows. Like a ghost, another sky comes to waken the gene domain. A corridor in the skeleton contrives wild branchings. Elms heavy with snow.

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Oval window sky lifts white to see. Linear stances, wires. I had been hoping to reach an old memory, a place with pop and candy. My father’s station wagon and hunting rifles. This morning snow came thick, wet. A snow globe intensity of whirling motion. In the window light invited awe. Slushy ice on my boots. My children mixed batter for crepes. Now the sky’s reach eases anxiety. A mechanized bell. Sugar cookies packaged in Savannah. Turbulence and word pace. Pakistanis deported from Lesbos. An interior ache no bodily comportment can find.

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Like Houston heat and grackles. Gulf wetness, sun, oak branches. Serial departures from old friends. Past selves pillowed by labor or expansive regimens of age. Tonight in my parents’ house listening to my father cough; I drink Centenario and pilsner in a climate for those whose heart rates have reduced to a minimal capacity. Blood’s hot glow like bright live oak leaves newly burst. Days to drain approval or moody sustenance. Learning always by love’s distant visibility.

Or the talk of sentences, the beauty of an extended line of thought; a corporeal arrival of inner adherence to outwardly mobile deliveries. Eggs and hand-made corn tortillas with green salsa and habanero sauce. Bowl of fruit — juicy tangerine, apple, banana. Pine planks under bare feet. Climate of the Swiffer—party preparations. And sentiment’s strong course enlivens directed ethos, devotion. The personal’s impersonal endurance where friendship coheres not as meaning but as arrival again into our now.

And to hold in mind the certainty of erasure, a body’s absorption into nation’s intensity. Migrant child’s head shorn at Greek entry. Bearings or entrance, an enlivening of tongues to train whose warrant? Sound of an owl shapes twilight. Suburban deer, a fantasy of returning, daring. Never here, as in “here,” but prolonged by robust orders of misplacement. To say how we come to see begins a jubilant lingering in condominium morning. A pattern intervenes — we entertain its prescience, a driven nation. Not even the syntax means what we say.

This selection is from Shine, a prose/verse study situated in Toronto with global overlap.

Dale Smith is the author of five books of poetry including, most recently, Slow Poetry in America (Cuneiform 2014); he is also co-editor of An Open Map: The Correspondence of Robert Duncan and Charles Olson and Imagining Persons: Robert Duncan’s Lectures on Charles Olson, both forthcoming fall 2017. Recent essays and reviews appear in Brick, Boston Review, and Los Angeles Review of Books. He teaches at Ryerson University, Toronto.

Benjamin Hollander

Louise Victor, "White Lies"

Louise Victor, “White Lies”

Woman in Kimono

 

Except for unearthing the memory, nothing about the story they heard at dinner resembled De Kooning’s Excavation. After dessert, Louise, whose densely subterranean brushwork of figures and faces could be seen in a piece she called White Lies and which was hanging on loan in Eve and Benny B.’s apartment, turned to Eve and said: “you must see this painting at the Art Institute.” Since she could not be trusted with them, Eve told Benny B. to remember the painter and the painting. Two weeks later, walking through the Modern American Art Room in Chicago, she turned to Benny B. and asked: “what was the name of that painter and his painting?” Benny B. forgot but had a big thought instead, which he articulated like this to the security guard: “Excuse me, we were told there’s a painting here we must remember to see — can you help us?”

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Toshiro had come from Japan to study portrait painting in Paris in 1971, when Eve met him through her friend Eiko — at least this is how everyone at dinner heard Eve tell it. At the same time, Benny B. learned later, Willem De Kooning had returned from Japan under the influence of Sumi brush painting and calligraphy — which surfaced in his inks on stone and in a sequence of lithographs the genesis of which took place in Hollander’s Workshops in New York: washed ink prints named Love to Wakako and Japanese Village. This was, Benny B. thought, no coincidence, more like frames from parallel film strips unrolling backwards through time, momentarily frozen in order to have the chance of meeting.

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The way Eve told it, she was only twenty when he had come up to her at the entrance to the Hotel Henri IV and politely asked to paint her in a kimono. She nodded, both of them trying to not look shy and helpless sans the other’s language. Months later, after the painting was finished and she left Paris to return to New York, Eve started receiving what she thought were love letters from him, which she imagined, so she remembered, in a childlike miniature calligraphic French. She never answered them, though the thought occurred to her more than once over the years, and now at dinner she articulated it: “I’ve always wondered if I could be hanging in some museum in Paris?”

As they walked outside, Benny B. turned to his friend, Nick, a photographer and film editor: “Listen, Eve’s 60th is in a month and I’m stumped on what to get her.”

“Easy,” Nick said in a moment of inspiration, “give her the picture.”

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“A wild gesture,” Benny B. thought on the ride home with Nick, but which painting: the one he did not know the name of or the picture in her memory which had been lingering there somewhere over time? They seemed almost the same, with Time the subject of both. Two lost works — fallen into a universal Art wormhole. If the second one, then how to find it, how to realize the gesture, how to uncover a 40 year old painting that could be hanging anywhere from an hotel lobby on the Place Dauphine to a show of Contemporary Japanese artists in Paris, at least this is how Eve felt it could be, when she remembered it.

If only she had been Japanese, Benny B. thought years later, he could have easily imagined finding her image under the name, Love to Wakako, which was, as both paintings were, invisible to him.

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Benny B.’s first thought was: how could the French make this easy for him? He wondered: if it was possible over 40 years for the enlightened among them to undress “the stranger” among them by making it a crime to wear the Islamic veil in public, as they had done not so ironically during the so-called Arab Spring, why couldn’t they take a moment in the next month for the government to prohibit the public exhibition of white women in kimonos only to more clearly reveal their unwanted presence milling around in the spaces of the Liberal State?

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No such luck. So Benny B. went online, the de rigueur of the day, July, 2011, a month from her birthday, and started sleuthing.

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On the virtual highway, people, unlike objects in the rear view mirror, seem closer than they are. This is what Benny B. had no clue of when he immediately found Toshiro online, just as he had anticipated. Of course, he had to read the small print in his bio to see how far he had come from the young man he had heard of at dinner. His career, it turned out, had a taken a graceful yet forceful turn. He had made a name for himself as a dan in the Aikido racket: a foreign art student transformed into a Master Aikido instructor who once took on a cameo in James Bond’s Moonraker before going on to train a random host of Canadian militias in hand to hand combat. Instead of unveiling a romantic saga of auctioned canvasses and signature brushes from a suicided Japanese Bohemian in Paris who had fallen on a ceremonial sword and then lingered for 24 hours, Benny B. had to settle for you-tube videos in which the man he was looking for was flipping people half his age with sticks.

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Benny B. latched onto the first email address he could find online, an Aikido club in France:

To Whom It May Concern,

I hope you understand a bit of English. I am trying to contact a man you would know of as Toshiro. I am the husband of an American woman, Eve, whom he knew many years ago in France, where he was an art student. In 1971, he painted a picture of her. I was wondering where the painting is located today, since I would like to surprise her for her 60th birthday with, if not the canvas itself, then at least a photograph or slide of the painting. I can’t describe it in detail, since I’ve never seen it, but he could have named it, “Caucasian Woman in Kimono.” There can’t be too many of them around.

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That evening, he sent the email. The next morning it bounced back.

He thought of writing another, more local and forceful:

To Whom it Must Concern,

I imagine you understand more than a bit of English. I am trying to contact a man you know as Toshiro. I am the husband of a young American woman whom he knew in Paris and drew in a kimono when he was a student studying portrait painting before he became a Master Aikido instructor and appeared in James Bond’s Moonraker. People like this just don’t disappear. If it were me, I would have called the painting, Love to Wakako.

It bounced back again.

When he was about to surrender, Benny B. enlisted the Sisters of Eve in his search.

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“Artists like this don’t discard their paintings,” the Sisters wrote Benny B. “We found a club in France whose President is Mr. Tong. Write Mr Tong.”

He did —

At the same moment, Benny B.’s brother Solo wrote: “Little American brother, if you could read a bit of French, it would help,” as he attached an image of Toshiro and some information in the other language he had found online. “If this is your guy, he’s in Quebec, in a studio. Try their email and phone number.”

He did —

The woman who answered was bilingual. So Benny B. thought, “I’ll try English.”

“Hi, do you receive the studio emails for Master Toshiro?” Benny B. asked. “I’ve sent him several.”

“No, that would be Nicholas, his assistant, but he’s not in.”

“Is there a way I can reach Nicholas?”

“Yes,” she said with a trace of a French accent, “I give you his number.”

In the meantime, Benny B. covered his bases, imagined what could happen, and wrote the Sisters again. They started worrying about him, since they couldn’t tell if his email typos and omissions and repetitions were appearing naturally out of his birthday gift obsession or if he was letting the occasional alien tone of the people he was dealing with get inside of his voice:

Sisters:

I may need some help tracking down Japanese guy. I give you his name and you can find him on the internet. His name: Toshiro. You can find him on the internet. What I know is he’s Master Aikido instructor who was in a james bond film and studied art in paris in 1971, when Eve was there. (I have his last name, but I don’t know how much of this I should keep in confidence, and whether — should I be scared for my life. Should I not be confident? As I remember it now, I am married to Eve and she never answered his love letters, so what if he gets curious and asks for our address when I ask for the painting and he says, “yes, I will send it, but where do you want me to send it?” Am I getting ahead of myself?)

Warnings appeared like pop-ups in his head, as he wrote the Sisters:

The man has trained Canadian militias.
The man has worn an iron mask while thrusting at James Bond with otherworldly cries.
The man’s panting black shepherds have chased beautiful women in transparent pink dresses through the Amazon rain forest. The killing always occurs off-screen.
His love letters unrequited, the man has every reason for revenge.
The man has an assistant.
The man flips people with sticks for a living.

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After hearing Nicholas’ phone go unanswered, but before writing him, Benny B. imagined he could be more forceful, maybe about the nature of art itself, to make the point about the importance of recovering this painting as a gift, like a memory print. “De Kooning once said,” Benny B. was prepared to drop the quote, “Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented.” Or, to press De Kooning’s point even more forcefully for this Québécois, “its raison d’être.

Dear Nicholas,

I’m after the Japanese Aikido Moonraker guy in Paris who got my wife into a kimono in order to paint her, so he said. I have no French, as she had no Japanese, as he had no English at the time he wrote her love letters she never answered, it was 1971, so I am wondering if you have a bit English and if you have it can you make a French translation for Toshiro do me justice for this birthday gift for her. Do you believe in justice? Do you believe in making justice visible? Do you know that Flesh is the reason oil paint was invented?

He trashed it before it had a chance to bounce back.

He tried again the next morning:

Dear Nicholas,

I was told you could get in touch with Toshiro, who was an Art Student in 1971 in Paris and who painted a picture of a young American woman, Eve, who is now my wife. I have been trying for weeks to contact Toshiro to see if he still has the painting, because I would like to give it or a semblance of it to her for a 60th birthday present. Can you help make it visible?

The reply was instant:

Hello again,

I can help you. You can reach him at this email_______. If this does not work, I can reach him by other means.

It was one of the emails which had bounced back weeks ago, so Benny asked for other means, and surprisingly, this Man from Quebec came through in the American way, what Benny B. had always been perplexed by and called out as “American exclamatory friendly,” evident when grownups like their teenage children could not help but see this that or the other as “sooo cute” or “soooo amazing,” or when a young woman dropped a cell phone right underneath her seat on the train and a bystander picked it up and the woman, not missing a beat, said: “Thank you sooo much,” or when a waitress who in any other country would just be doing her job brought a diner a napkin and heard in return “Thank you sooooo much!” and so Nicholas began:

Hi there again!

How are you? I am good!
Toshiro is out for now, but he will be back next Monday. I will talk to him then. This is a very nice story. I hope he still has a painting!

The Sisters could not resist:

“Oh, we’re loving Nicholas. Toshiro must still have the painting — artists do not discard their paintings — they put them in storage. It must be around somewhere.”

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And so everyone waited. Weeks passed — Toshiro was still out of town. Benny B. sent reminders. Nicholas wrote back: “I spoke to Toshiro’s wife, who said he is still out of town, but she will tell him what you are looking for. Yes, this is a very nice story.” And Benny B. wondered: why does his wife have to find out? The warnings in his head re-appeared. He waited.

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To remind him of what was at stake, one day, back at the Art Institute in Chicago, he overheard Eve and her friend Sasha, who had roomed with her in the Hotel Henri IV in 1971, talking in one of the museum rooms about the past: “Do you remember,” Eve said, as they approached a De Kooning, “Eiko’s friend Toshiro and that painting he drew of me in a kimono? I wonder whatever happened to it.”

Sasha, who Benny B. had earlier clued in on the birthday search, looked back at him with a quizzical smile, not knowing how to answer Eve as they approached the painting. “Is this it?”

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“Is Toshiro back yet?” Benny B. asked Nicholas towards the end of their correspondence.

“I believe he is. I will speak to him tomorrow, and I hope for a good outcome!”

The news was not “a good outcome.”

“Unfortunately,” Nicholas wrote, “Toshiro does not have the painting anymore. He remembers it quite well and sends his regard to Eve. I am really sorry of this outcome. I would have like to be part in this really good birthday present!”

Benny B. did not want to let go of this really good birthday present, but the guy did not have the painting — he tossed it, he burned it, he sold it, it didn’t matter. Pressing the point by repeating things he knew he had mentioned in prior emails, but hoping for a different outcome, he wrote back, sounding like a child trying out magical thinking:

Hello Nicholas,

This is too bad. I was wondering: did he ever take a photograph or slide of the painting? Perhaps he still has a photograph or slide of the painting? Or does he know what happened to the painting? If he lost it, or does not know where it is, then let me know, please.

Benny B. wanted to be sure his questions were covering all bases, and that the possibility of a birthday painting could be found out of an answer to one of them. He got his wish:

Hello again,

I also asked him if he has any photos and he does not have one. He did take note of the request and should the painting come up he will let me know and I will send you the information via email.

Benny B. latched onto the discrepancy between the two emails. How could a painting which at first “he did not have” suddenly “come up” in the future? And the fact that “he did take note of the request,” meant that the request could be met, otherwise why take note. For sure, all this meant was that the painting had not been burned. Or it could still be buried in storage. Or it could have been sold for gold to some enemy combatant of Toshiro who had discovered it and promised for the right price not to tell Toshiro’s wife, which would have been a moot point at this moment, at least since Nicholas had told her, which meant it could be returned without risk, at some point if, that is, if it was not hanging somewhere, just like Eve had imagined when she remembered the story.

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Benny B. was depressed by the veiled possibilities. A month’s search, he thought, and he was back to where he started, or rather, to where Eve started, with the difference that now everyone knew the search had gone nowhere in public — the unrealized present of a painting which was only, in the end, a wild gesture. He called his friend, Billy, a poet, and told him the story:

“I’ll tell you,” Billy said, “that’s inspiring to hear.”

“No way,” Benny B. exclaimed.

“Think of it,” Billy reflected, “Nicholas never ruled out the possibility that the painting could still be hanging somewhere.”

“Well,” Benny B. replied without confidence, “that was only after my persistence put him in an untenable position. I have no idea if what Nicholas said is what Toshiro actually meant, or if Toshiro blew him off sensing a stalker in the Americas, or if it was a bad translation, or if it was just Nicholas sensing my desperation, wanting to be friendly and accommodating, and adding on whatever hope he thought I could latch onto. After all, he wanted to be a part of this birthday present from the start, right, so maybe It’s his way of wishing it still may arrive. Anyway — it doesn’t matter — I’m coming to her 60th empty handed. I’m stumped. What do I give her now?”

“Give her the story,” Billy said, “tell her what happened. Write it down. She’d love to hear it.”

“You must be joking,” Benny B. blurted. “Not only is there is no point in that, but there’s no justice in it, since half the story is speculation, invisible, maybe even untrue. I’ve got nothing to give her, just a month’s worth of detective work to surprise her with, innocent enough, to be sure, the way some lies can be, but no gift of a painting to show for it.”

“A Surprise of White Lies…”

“Kind of…”

“Don’t worry, she’ll never see through them,” Billy spoke with confidence, “and she’d love to hear what happened.”

“You think?”

“Yeah, I think,” he insisted. “This is the reason storytelling was invented.”

—for Rosemary

Benjamin Hollander (1952-2016) was born in Haifa, Israel and as a boy immigrated to New York City. He taught English, writing, and critical thinking in the San Francisco Bay Area. His books include: In the House Un-American (Clockroot Books/Interlink Publishing, 2013); Memoir American (Punctum Books, 2013); Vigilance (Beyond Baroque Books, 2005); Rituals of Truce and the Other Israeli (Parrhesia Press, 2004); The Book Of Who Are Was (Sun & Moon Press, 1997); How to Read, too (Leech Books, 1992); and, as editor, Translating Tradition: Paul Celan in France (ACTS, 1988). With David Levi Strauss, he co-edited the last several issues of Acts (including A Book of Correspondences for Jack Spicer), the literary magazine associated with New College of California and its Poetics Program of the 1980s. A tribute to his life and work by Joshua Schuster and Steve Dickison can be found in Jacket 2. An excerpt from In The House Un-American can be found in The Brooklyn Rail.

Louise Victor has worked in painting, printmaking, photography, installation, encaustic, and sculpture for over 35 years. She received her BFA from Northern Illinois University and pursued graduate studies at the University of Minnesota. Her work can be found in many public and private collections, and has been shown across the United States. Also a pilot, Louise was one of the first women to fly for a major commercial airline and the second woman in the world to become a Captain on the Boeing 767.