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.

Peter Grandbois

The Hole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thaddeus Rutkowski

“Get A Life”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t touch me!” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have ID?” the officer asks.

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

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

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

“No, one is not a license.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino

excerpt from Suicide by Language
(a flash-fiction novel)

I never knew such elation as the hours leading up to my suicide.

Soloiste! Soloiste!

They point at me and scream, Soloiste! Soloiste!

I scream back at them, Agoniste! Agoniste!

There are no flowers here. There is the dandelion, of course, but no daisy. How does your garden grow, I asked the fox, as she lay on her back with her mouth open pretending to be dead. Just as the Devil lies in wait to trap the unwary, I never run straight ahead, she said, but always follow a tortuous path.

My soul is among lions. I went through fire and through water.

Hath the rain a father?

I took the Vespa, because I want to have her arms around me always.

This is Bobbin. She was named for a mechanical part. If you want to stretch a sweater, sleep in it.

She fell asleep at the writing table. I took her in to bed. I returned to her writing and read, where it began in a letter to Cabala Girl, Angel, when I heard the news I made the sign of the cross for you.

She fell asleep at the writing table. I took her in to bed. I returned to her writing and read, where it began in a letter to Timon, Deliver yourself from revenge, that is your bridge to the highest hope. I have met him and the impression is not good. How does one say, sour breath and rotten teeth. Or, what is the opposite of charming. We read, Psalm 38, and there is no soundness in my flesh, for my loins are filled with a loathsome disease. We’re all looking forward to be meeting again in that great golden cornflake in the sky.

She fell asleep at the writing table. I took her in to bed. I returned to her writing and read, where it began in a letter to Justine, I cannot tell when you are lying. Ask yourself, is this someone you want to have a weekend with?

She fell asleep at the writing table. I took her in to bed. I returned to her writing and read, where it began in a letter to Supergirl, My favorite scene is where you are relaxing. I want to have cigarettes with you.

She fell asleep at the writing table. I took her in to bed. I returned to her writing and read, where it began in a letter to Juliette, There is a night I will never forget, and it is what I will remember you by always. It was not meant to be a sleepover. It was snowing, and it was snowing forever. You walked me to the door and I was about to leave but when I saw the snow I was taken by the most superstitious fear. You did not plan for me to stay over. And in the morning your mother (and her boyfriend—I remember him, he was a student) made waffles.

The next morning I read in Jung that the basket is a symbol for the maternal body (for the womb — a basket of fruit may symbolize fertility). A basket may also hide a secret.

To be poetic is everything. The poet’s mechanicity. Fabulosity. How do I love thee? You are my yellow submarine.

Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino’s most recent volume of poetry is The Valise (Dead Academics Press, 2012). He is founding editor of the online poetry journal, Eratio. For more from the novel Suicide by Language, visit suicidebylanguage.blogspot.com.

Eric G. Wilson

Bowl

W.’s wife stole his bowl. She hated the way he chewed his food, so thoroughly it turned liquid. He fled the small wooden house into the middle of a road.

W. saw that no car was going to kill him. The drivers were too skilled. They swerved away from him or stopped before they reached him.

W. took to the forest.

He wandered without food or water for many days, imagining this would be an easier way to go.
He still was not dead when he looked at his hands. An eyeball was embedded in each palm. He found he could see out of these eyes. With them, he studied his face.

He was no longer a man that he knew.

He was something quite different.

Was this how death was?

Maybe the hunger and thirst had worked. He closed his palms and willed his attention to the eyes in his head. If this was the land of the dead, he wanted to look through his old eyes. He noticed nothing different. There were trees, and on the ground, brown leaves. Stones large and small were about.

W. saw a stone the size of a head and remembered, I have a young daughter, and then he thought, I’ve got to go back.

She had lost her bowl.

W. had walked so long, he was lost. He looked at the sky. The sky was gray.

He lowered his head, and there was a small wooden house.

W. fled from the house into a road. He stood in the middle. Cars sped toward him. None touched him.
He rushed into the forest near the road. He walked. Hunger weakened him, and thirst.

W. tripped over a head-sized stone. With his hands, he broke his fall.

There was pain in his hands. His palms were gashed.

W. studied the cuts. Inside each, he glimpsed white. He recalled bones and eyeballs. He imagined seeing his head from his hands.

The head he saw was not the one he remembered.

Pain was in his hands.

He imagined seeing his hands from his head. The gashes were red.

The head W. had felt bigger than the stone he stumbled over.

He had a young daughter, a child, and she had nothing to eat.

He would save her.

How to reach her?

A house appeared, small and wooden.

Through a window W. saw a woman. She was holding a spoon before the face of a girl.

W. rushed onto the porch. He grabbed the door knob. The metal scalded his hand. He jerked it away. He stared at the palm. The shape of a spoon’s oval bowl reddened its center. There was pain there.

W. touched the shape to his lips.

Pain. Tongue, teeth, throat.

W. imagined living inside of the pain, seeing the world from there.

He saw three people before an oven, a man to the left, and a woman to the right, and in the middle, a small girl, who was holding the hand of the man and the hand of the woman. The girl was looking up at the woman. The woman was plump. The man was gaunt.

W. was seeing from the pain. He was starving. He was falling down. A small hand was holding the hand not burned. The hand slipped away and he fell.

From the leafy ground, he saw near his head the head of a woman. Where the woman’s eyes once were, was blood.

W. could drink the blood. He had no bowl.

He struggled to raise himself and flee to this vessel.

Eric G. Wilson has published three books of creative nonfiction, all with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: Keep it Fake, Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck, and Against Happiness. He has also published a memoir, The Mercy of Eternity (Northwestern University Press). He has recently published fiction in The Collagist, Café Irreal, and Eclectica. His essays have appeared in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review, The Oxford American, The Chronicle Review, and Salon. He teaches at Wake Forest University.

Marvin Shackelford

Your Lifeboat, Your Friend

You plainly see the lifeboat, and you’re damp, but the ocean remains out of sight. You’re neither woman nor child, but your friend, beside you on the disappearing deck, was an only child, a mistake with which his parents could not part. All in this world, he likes to say, bows to the random rope and chain of blood. He’s unconcerned, but you believe the line cannot end here. There’s meaning in the knots that link him all together.

In the water, black and foggy, rolls a joke a hundred years old. One produced again and again on film, struck into books and whispered through genealogies, but not a part of life in this age. You see the point of your murderer in the distance. You expected, at worst, pirates, their machine guns and pillage. Even that was far off this course. You were afraid to fly and quickly have learned to feel silly, God bless you. You’d imagined a Puritan’s vacation, a reversed exploration.

“Filling fast,” your friend says. “Everything. And these were assigned. We’ll be swimming, soon.”

“You should get in.”

“What about another one? Later?”

You have no answer. But only so much is about you, about your lifeboat, your friend. You force him into escape, shove him into the mix. His balding head peaks up from a gaggle of women. He’s surprised when they lower, patient and steady, into the water. He goes on without you. Your last glimpse of him is a future long delayed, fruit of the line secured. You know you’ve done the right thing.

Later, a small man in a sailor’s cap says it’s surprising how dressing the part has made him feel. He asks if you’re holding up well. He offers you a cigarette. Overhead a flare rises, and you think of your friend shepherding, shepherded by, his new little seaborne flock to safety. Where they land is the last surprise. You imagine something vastly more Pacific, leis and luaus and a woman on each arm. The finest wish you have for him is, finally, tropical.

There’s little of the ship left above water. You feel the tilt and slide. Your lifeboat, the dressed sailor informs you, is being prepared as you speak, at last, and for the first time you doubt his authority. You ratchet up some faith. Around you men begin songs of children gone, children yet born. They speak with their fists of climbing higher. Across the water you see the circling specks of other lifeboats, the fortunate and timely. You think of all preserved there, and you prepare to dive.

Marvin Shackelford is the author of a poetry collection, Endless Building (Urban Farmhouse Press). His stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Epiphany, NANO Fiction, Southern Humanities Review, FiveChapters, Folio, and elsewhere. He resides in the Texas Panhandle with his wife, Shea, and earns a living in agriculture.

Anthony Schneider


She Was Not

She was not to stare, not even at helicopters or albinos. She was not to yawn in public or cough loudly or chew a chicken bone or break a pencil with her teeth.

She saw a car on fire at the side of the road. She could tell it had not been burning long. There was no smell. A few people watched the blaze. She rode away on her bicycle, and the explosion that she expected did not come.

She was not to smile with any teeth showing. She was not to drop anything, she was not to turn on a light switch without holding her breath to the count of three. She was not to turn off a light switch without first untying a shoe, then immediately afterwards stepping through a doorway and retying the same shoe, or if she was wearing a slip-on, taking the shoe off and then putting it back on. She was not to wear miniskirts or plunging necklines or flip-flops. She was not to show her toes.

She was not to use the word nice. Or hate. She was not to eat rice and broccoli, not even rice pudding, in the same seating.

She was not to cry in public, or remember things that might make her cry, not in the company of others. She was not to talk about the mess we’re in or how bad things had gotten, or divulge when last she spoke to her father. She wondered what she had to learn from whales, trees, small children. She wondered what she wanted. And whether she would recognize change.

She was not to be the loudest, or the last to leave, or the first to speak. She was not to point, she was not to linger, she was not to eat with her mouth open, or burp or fart audibly or sneeze more than twice in a row. She was not to drive over railroad tracks without both feet raised, even when she was driving. She was not to be visibly sweaty, she was not to be dirty or have newspaper ink on her fingers.

She kissed a boy. He bit her tongue. She made an excuse the next time he asked her out.

She spoke to her father on the phone. But when he came to town she said she hadn’t been feeling well and suggested she visit him instead, the next month maybe, or the month after that.

She was not to ask too many questions. She was not to look at anyone askance, especially not men. She was not to braid her hair. Or sing in the shower. There were no roads leading home. There would be no Armageddon.

She was to talk to him, to be civil. She was to comport herself if she saw him. She was not to set fire to anything, no matter how small. She was not to let herself wonder, even for an instant, if she might be better off if she had stabbed him with a steak knife, rather than let those things happen. She was not to bite her fingernails until they bled.

Anthony Schneider has been published in McSweeney’s, BoldType, Driftwood Press, Details, The Believer and other magazines as well as several fiction anthologies. His novel, Repercussions, is published by Penguin South Africa and Permanent Press in the US. He divides his time between New York and London.