Marvin Shackelford

Drawback

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

The Deep Threatened

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

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

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

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

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

The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail

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

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

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

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

Rebecca Pyle

Cartoon of Goodness

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dying Plane

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

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

Lucy Zhang

Spear Against Shield1

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

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

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

 

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

Playing Zither For The Cow2

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

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

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

 

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

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

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.

Gabe Durham

A Fox in the City

What’s the difference between living on the fringes and seeing yourself that way? Once at the cafe, I was so sure it wouldn’t impact my livelihood that I leaned back in my chair and scooped up the remaining mac ‘n’ cheese of a diner who’d left it behind. My attitude was: try and stop me humans.

I’ve known too many people and now see danger where there’s only interest. I did not get chased out with a broom that time, but these days as I patrol the city, my fox tail perks up as I pass tables where I am not even a patron: Taco stands wafting their smokers in daylight. Families on their porches. Somehow they see my hunger and rightly fear my bite.

New People

My dear old friends have nothing on new people. I don’t even know if what a new person is wearing is an outlier or the usual. I want to wow new people with charms they can’t tell are stale, even if I’ve got to cram those charms into conversation through an impression or a song or a quiet dig at dear old friends. There’s a mischief in me new people should see.

To draw in new people, I lower my voice and tell them vulnerable secrets my dear old friends could never handle, or already know, or who cares.

Have you ever noticed how many stiff drinks new people sure can put down? My dear old friends have been taking care of themselves lately, playing the long game, but not new people. I love the smell of cigars I hate the smell of wafting from the yellow lips of boldly dying new people.

I love seeing new people commit unforgivable offenses so I can keep their secret from the cops, proving my loyalty. When new people declare the most horrible things, it reflects on me not at all. I did nothing wrong! Nothing but chant

do it, do it, do it, do it, do it

to a new friend man who should not have done it, and is now in the ER becoming less interesting by the moment, receiving vital fluids from a nurse who while new shuts me down with her eyes as if a dear old friend.

Gabe Durham is the author of three books, including a novel in monologues, FUN CAMP (Publishing Genius, 2013). His writings have appeared in the TLR, Barrelhouse, Hobart, Puerto Del Sol, and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles where he runs Boss Fight Books.

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.

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.

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.

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.