“One Tough German: Part II” by Anna Villegas


“Maneuvers,” by Kathy O’Meara.

[Part I of “One Tough German” can be read here.]

Eddie Jr. and his wife kept Virginia with them through the week, until the day of services. In that time, the space between death and the formal closure of grief, Annie saw her once, leaving the house to climb into the Lexus. Virginia’s hair was smartly styled, the beehive replaced by a svelte, attractive short cut which took off twenty years, Annie thought. She didn’t feel she could dart out and catch Virginia to whisper her condolences just then; there would be time enough after the services.

On Thursday morning, Annie dressed quickly for Eddie’s funeral. An old black dress with an even older tan jacket. She’d be no fashion plate, but respect for Virginia’s age made the choice of anything cooler, more summery, seem wrong. She found the modern, low-slung church easily, twenty minutes before the hour, and signed the book stationed on a small marble-topped table beneath a collage of photographs of Eddie and Virginia, their family through the years of little league, graduations, marriages, grandchildren. One picture drew her; she set down the pen and moved closer. A recent snapshot of Eddie and Virginia, seated on their living room couch. Eddie’s arm extended along the couch back, Virginia was perched on the edge of the seat as if she’d finally been coaxed to sit still by the photographer, or as if she were gathering herself to rise and fetch coffee and cake. Eddie’s hearty face was pure satisfaction: a king in his castle. Virginia’s expression was harder to interpret. It had the uncomposed look of a booking photo, the kind the paper ran once a week captioned by whatever crime had led its subject to such unflattering publicity, usually drink or drugs. Blinded by headlights? Caught with illegal possessions? Afraid of losing her soul?

Behind Annie, a stout woman in a flowered muumuu was breathing heavily, big draughty breaths punctuated by gasps, perhaps from the walk in from the street, perhaps chiding Annie for clutching the provided writing tool, holding up the line, thinking unkind thoughts.

“Excuse me.” Annie offered the pen. The woman cleared her throat, took the pen, and bent to sign her name in a long, loopy script which ran to the edge of page and curled upward. Her breathing frightened Annie. She remembered a relative’s story, one of Alan’s old aunts, who’d attended a funeral during which a sister to the deceased died herself, in the family pew before the services had even begun. One mourning turned into two. Annie backed from the table and bumped against someone’s heavy chest.

“Annie, right? To the south of Dad and Mom?” Eddie Jr. looked larger than life, shiny and black-suited, carapaced into the role of Hausauer patriarch.

“Yes. Annie.” Annie let his sweaty clasp take her hand. This time, it was she who withdrew her fingers first from his warm palm. “How is your mother doing? I—“

“She’s one tough German,” Eddie Jr. smiled. “She’s doing better than we’d expected.”

He must be on automatic, Annie thought, repeating those words again and again, a week of quick comforts dished out to near-strangers, people like her who were outside the circle of family. “I’m glad to hear that. I’m always home—“ But Eddie Jr. had turned away, murmuring first to the stout woman, then to a couple behind her.

Although the church was large, it was not crowded, so Annie found an aisle seat easily. She sat, then thought it more courteous to slide to the middle of the pew where latecomers would not need to squeeze past her. From her seat, she could see the family arranged in three rows of the slight transept. Virginia was there, centered between teenaged granddaughters. She was turned to one of them, a pretty girl whose blonde hair matched Virginia’s, smiling brightly. Annie had been mistaken in her choice of solemn colors: Virginia wore a blouse patterned in bold red and black branches—what seemed like sycamore leaves– black slacks, shiny red heels on her small feet. Annie realized she’d never in all her years in the neighborhood seen Virginia so femininely dressed, so apparently concerned with her own appearance, as she had in the past week. That Virginia’s loss had not extinguished, had encouraged, really, her attention to her own beauty made Annie glad so that, for a brief moment, she felt disloyal to Eddie. What if Eddie had been able to see his wife today as Annie saw her, as pretty as one of his perfect roses, fed and watered and tended so artfully?

Annie couldn’t remember the precise moment her concern with her hair, her clothes, had fallen away. It had happened, emphasized by the literal belt-tightening she’d practiced following the divorce (her leanness growing leaner, no need to decorate it with smaller sizes), and now she could count on one hand the pieces—a denim skirt, a navy-blue wool sweater–she’d bought in the last few years. Her hair she’d stopped fussing with—when exactly? Before Patti certainly, years in advance of Alan’s elopement with a clothes horse who wore spangled bracelets on her plump tan arms and silver sandals on her painted feet. Silver sandals. Annie took the hymnal from the wooden pocket in the pew back and fanned through the pages. She admired Virginia’s red heels as she’d not admired Patti’s sandals. She lifted a hand to her ponytail; she’d looped her shoulder-length hair into a barrette, like a schoolteacher or a flower child. What would it be like to cut her hair short, to mimic Virginia’s bob? She’d be bound to monthly visits to a hairdresser then, which is why she’d let her hair go long in the first place: the constancy of those appointments grinding into her calendar for years on end. Maybe Virginia welcomed these, was already filling her weeks and months with obligations, no longer to Eddie but to herself.

Alan had never seemed to notice. Whether she wore sweatshirts or silk blouses, her clothes hadn’t registered with Alan. Their first date, so far back, she’d borrowed a checkered dress from her college roommate because she’d thought it important to be new somehow, not herself, when she went out with this boy, a business major whose notorious kindness on their small campus now extended to her, including a spaghetti dinner and a mediocre movie. She’d not discerned, apparently, what had altered in Alan during the languid years of their marriage, what made silver sandals and golden retrievers, their newness and exotic difference from Annie, what Annie was still after twenty years, satisfy such unmet need. The revelation of Alan’s absorption by details she’d long thought he’d overlooked had taken her so completely by surprise that Patti had become the subject of their joint study, the final examination before graduation.

Was Virginia welcoming the newness of what she could become now without Eddie? Annie watched her, the organist’s somnolent notes mismatched to Virginia’s bright quickness, the graceful lift of her small white palm to her younger son’s face when he bent his head for a kiss before he sat in the family pew. As she half-listened to the pastor’s intonations, as she bent her head for a moment when commanded to pray, as she heard the testimonies of Eddie Jr. and two grandchildren, Annie thought not of Eddie’s passing but of Virginia’s becoming. Not of what would change in the neighborhood without Eddie, but what would change inside Virginia’s kitchen now there was no finicky eater to tempt and to coax. No shouted interrogations about where she’d put the push broom this time, about what had happened to the new clippers Eddie knew she’d misplaced. Nobody to call out: Meg, Meg, Meg.

The service took over an hour. Finally the procession of mourners trailed up the aisle and past the family. Annie took Virginia’s hand, then felt herself pulled close as Virginia stood.

“I’m sorry, Virginia.”

“Honey, Eddie loved you,” Virginia whispered, patting Annie’s back. “Thank you for coming.”

“Whatever I can do, you know I’m just next door.”

“I know, honey. I know.” Another hug, one last whisper. “Annie? You okay, honey?”

~

Virginia seemed to be okay, far as Annie could tell. There was a certain remoteness to being a neighbor, Annie realized, which Eddie’s presence had enforced. One could pull in the next-door garbage cans after pick-up, but children (Morgan, driving a miniature blue tricycle with a bell) couldn’t be allowed to wander onto another’s lawn. One could ask what a newcomer had paid for a house, but one didn’t ask if the newcomer had ever been married. (Eddie never had done.) One could leave a box of peaches fresh from a backyard tree, but one didn’t exchange birthday presents because birthdays were private affairs.

With Eddie’s passing, Virginia ignored the formalities. She picked up the morning paper at ten or eleven, still pajamaed. She was happy to make conversation at all hours, whatever her dress. She forgot to call the grandson to remind him to mow the lawn, which turned dry around the edges as summer’s last hard days turned harder. She let the Bermuda grass take over the rose beds. Virginia seemed to have lost track of garbage days, whether it was the week for the gray yard-and-garden or the green recycle bin. She had her hair styled anew every week. She wore blouses so garish, so improbably colored, even brighter than Eddie’s favorite rose, the orange and red Party Girl, standing now in a thatch of healthy weeds encouraged by the soaker hoses Virginia would set and then leave, daylight violations forgotten without a blink of remorse for the drought-stricken state. And instead of shifting, racehorse nervous, when she spoke to Annie across the lawns or through the carport, she stood planted on both feet, her tiny hands set firmly on her hips. I’ll never listen to that Rush Limbaugh again. I’ve had enough of him for a lifetime. The redneck idiot.

Annie, startled, made a point of remembering the neighborhood rules for Virginia. The week after Eddie was buried, she began pulling Virginia’s garbage cans out alongside hers. She put them back when she came home from work. She watched for Virginia’s running water, making it her mission to shut the valves before the tell-tale gutter flooding attracted the water police. On her midnight walks, Annie stooped to pull handfuls of crabgrass and spurge from beneath the roses. Digging her fingers into the earth, setting her heels and wresting the weeds from the earth felt good, the same kind of good Annie felt when she tiptoed through Virginia’s breezeway to drop the weeds into her neighbor’s garden bin. Helping her widowed friend to keep things up, she told herself. But when she thought carefully about it, she flushed. Even in the dark, even all alone on the curb, she felt as if somebody had overseen her tell, with confidence and aplomb, a deliberate, rather slanderous lie.

When they passed each other, Virginia pulling away in her car as Annie did the hand-watering or Annie pulling into her carport after work as Virginia stood on the curb kissing a grandkid goodbye, they didn’t speak of secret kindnesses. It appeared the family was keeping a close eye on Virginia, except that nobody save Annie seemed to understand that Eddie’s sphere was being eclipsed by inertia. Nobody else seemed to care.

~  

Maybe seven or eight months after Eddie’s passing, when the local television station’s meteorologists had spent over a week whooping and hollering about the yearly rainfall totals breaking a twenty-year record, Annie stood in her carport and shed her black rain slicker after her midnight walk. More properly, it was a slicker of Alan’s, dating back to the years after college when winter backpacking didn’t seem so daunting, when sharing a sleeping bag made even the mountain weekends romantic. She shook the slicker hard, three times, and slung it carelessly on the driver’s side rear-view mirror of her car. There she’d remember to take it off before heading to work in the early morning, although the idea of losing the slicker didn’t, when she thought on it, seem such a bad idea. When she turned from the car to her kitchen door, she heard Virginia’s voice, uplifted and insistent against the drumming rain on the carport roof.

“Annie! Annie, honey!”

Annie’s pulse fluttered; was it Virginia, now, the way they said it often happened? Couldn’t live without the partner, the mate, the lost spouse?

“Annie!” Virginia was gliding across the lawn, barefoot, wearing only a magenta negligee.

“Virginia? What are you doing out—up so late—and in this weather–“

“It’s just water, honey. Come on over. I want you to have a piece of strawberry pie. I got the berries from the Fresh Picked Daily lot out on Thornton? It’s just done.”

Annie took Virginia’s hand. “Virginia, it’s after midnight—“

“We’re both up, aren’t we?”

Annie thought of sliding on the slicker, but the clamminess of old rubber—and the sight of Virginia’s own damp negligee, like a gown of glistening petals—made her step out across the lawn with Virginia’s hand in hers.

“I know you’re a night person,” Virginia said, cocking her head slyly when she turned toward Annie at her door. “I know you don’t sleep well.”

“You—I—“

“I’ve known for years. I don’t either. Sleep much.” In her kitchen, Virginia handed Annie a thick bath towel she pulled from one of three plastic laundry baskets filled with unfolded clothes and sheets, the product of a living household with more important tasks at stake than folding clothes. She lifted one from a chair and nodded to Annie: Sit there.

“Since Eddie?”

Annie couldn’t tell if it was pity or amazement animating Virginia’s face. “Oh no, honey,” she said, and Annie saw clearly the pity Virginia felt for her, for Annie. “Long before Eddie died. But now I don’t have to pretend.”

“Pretend?”

Virginia was cutting a slice of remarkable pie, so symmetrical in each of its whipped cream and strawberry layers that it might have been a studio prop. “Pretend to be asleep…you know, the way we do…so they don’t know what we’re thinking…the kinds of things we think that would make them upset or, you know…”

In the face of this bald confession, so unexpected and so frankly abrupt, all Annie could think to do was take a bite of Virginia’s pie. She didn’t know what manners were in order, what kind of female clucking might be demanded by Virginia’s offering. She didn’t know if she were capable, even if the script were made absolutely clear, of following Virginia’s line of conversation. So she took a second bite, and a third.

“You watch late night, ever?” Virginia asked, setting a glass of skim milk next to Annie’s plate.

Annie swallowed. “It’s on, usually, but I’m not watching, not exactly.” She took a long drink of milk. “For company, you know. To make the house…less empty?”

“Don’t I know,” said Virginia. “Another piece?”

Annie shook her head. “You do miss him, then?”

Virginia lifted the table knife she’d used to cut Annie’s pie. Like a geometry teacher or a deft surgeon, she cut the remaining pie into exactly equal pieces. If they were put on a scale, Annie was sure, they would weigh within grams of one another. Virginia was doing fine. Virginia was doing far better than Annie had ever done. Virginia was going to be all right.

“Honey.” Virginia paused to lift a jelly glass and sip what Annie realized must be wine. The glass was circled with pastel elephants; it had been—how old was Eddie Jr., Annie wondered—used in this very kitchen for nearly forty years, a relic from the child-bearing days when Virginia pretended…pretended what?

Virginia circled the lip of the glass with her finger. “The kids used to call him one tough German.”

She sat back solidly in her chair, a tiny queen on a restored throne.

“I see the chair’s empty in the living room. I see that, and I think: I can watch whatever I damn well want, whenever I damn well please. That’s missing, isn’t it?”

 

 

Anna Villegas worked as a full-time college English professor in California’s Central Valley for forty-one years. Her published work includes four decades of short stories, poems, essays, newspaper columns, and three novels. Now retired, she lives in Nevada City, California, where the folk, the foothills, and the ghosts of her Gold Rush forebearers supply inspiration for her fiction.

 

“The First Day” by John Riley


“Vessel Relic” by Kathy O’Meara.

When they told me there was still no sign of your boat, that they regretted nothing more could be done but wait for the tides, their looming faces full of exhausted compassion, I turned without a word and walked down the pier, waves breaking against the pillars below, on through the fish market with its once reassuring smells, up the hill past the park where the acorns had begun to fall and the surface roots of a silver maple weaved through the black top soil like shoelaces in a fishmonger’s grimy boots, on to the top of the hill where our tiny house waited, the doors locked, last night’s dark sealed inside.

 

 

John Riley lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he works in educational publishing. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Metazen, Connotation Press, Smokelong Quarterly, Blue Five Notebook, Willows Wept Review, The Dead Mule, and many other places online and in print.

 

“This Funeral is Boring” by griffin epstein


“Adriatic Freedom” by Kathy O’Meara

(Jonah Meadow Adels, 1984 – 2013)

Let’s talk about molecules
pattern repetition object to object
sand dunes, cellphone batteries and onion skins, all alike

The way plants rot (soft limits, new life)
from the perspective of science, we are separate
but entangled, like the hair still stuck in your dorm room drain

Try to answer the question
if a spoon on a string will sway forever
how long does sound bounce through a clouding sky?
(Old messages deleted from my answering machine,
the gentle break of your two dads crying)

Say for argument’s sake, I’m right
in another world the deer went willing
(laid herself down on the midnight road)
and you dodged the semi

Like the time you got so drunk you fell out of a moving car
and didn’t die
just got up and wandered off
looking for another ride

 

 

griffin epstein is a non-binary white settler, community mental health worker, service user and college professor. Their writing has appeared in Southword, Pindeldyboz, and a forthcoming issue of Grain, as well as the academic journals Social Identities and Disability Studies Quarterly. They play in the Toronto post-punk band SPOILS.

 

“Geese” by Chaya Bhuvaneswar


“Witness” by Kathy O’Meara.

One summer in Queens, two strangers set my hair on fire.
It was thick then but also fine and soft, a baby’s hair, down to my butt.
I was thirteen.
Summer day camp, a younger boy I called “gosling” got a buzz cut.
Showed off muscles, skinny arms white-blond with soft down. Age nine.
He asked me, “What are you?”, then stayed, eyes following.
He’d press in close, without me touching him.
Where he lived, girls first were surprised, then bored by motherhood.
Those girls used formula, rested. Then calculated just how long
a baby could be left alone, the precise
Measures, milligrams, of white stuff they obtained to feed themselves, injecting, warm,
Transforming jagged into soft, pain into bland, blood into circles of gold light,
Caressing veins. Their not-so-secret formula, costly of time, hours, even days,
During which baby was a thing and not a set of eyes watching, alive, merging, learning.
Mainly a benign thing, cute and cuddly, to settle down, to put somewhere,
To be settled, when baby breaks its benign mask of sleep with raging cries
And eyes, watching, counting, needing. Measuring. Judging mothers for using formula.
My gosling’s mother was a heroin addict, and he was thin like her.
“White trash” the name other white people had called them in the projects, he said.
I said, shush
The ones I hate, who hate me: Never trash to me. Little gosling.
Out at Jones Beach, he swam to me, mocking my new and chubby breasts in my tight suit, but then when no one saw us, tried to burrow in.
He ducked under my dark mammy arm, blond fuzz of him hidden by my brown.
I was a thirteen-year-old mother then, in that water,
hair streaming behind me like an island madonna’s. In the Atlantic waves, anonymous,
I had to be his mother or his nanny, no one knew.
Except for him, who took for granted he was safe.
That I would never trade him for some secret stash, betray his hurt blue vivid eyes, pluck out his bird-wing eyelashes.
“Hey baby bird,” I’d said, letting him climb upon my back in deep water.
I swam to shore and sand, laughter and dark, to fall asleep, once he was safe and dry.
Hours later I woke up. The popping, breaking sounds of a bonfire.
Camp counselor, age nineteen or twenty, jonesing and stoned, rolled a hash joint narrower than a child’s finger,
lighted a small torch from the fire and carefully touched ends of my hair, incinerating princess curls, black whorls on sand, before I woke.
Screaming out, crying in fear, holding my head, I registered
White stranger holding his roach and smoking it,
While Gosling laughed and shouted, “Check how he burned that Hindoo bitch’s hair!
“He burned the trash.”

 

 

Chaya Bhuvaneswar‘s debut story collection, WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS, is available for pre-order now at dzancbooks.org and at Amazon.com. She is a practicing physician and writer whose work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Michigan Quarterly Review The Awl, jellyfish review, aaduna and forthcoming in Litro Magazine and elsewhere, with new poetry in apt, Ellipsis, Former Cactus magazine and forthcoming in Hobart and Natural Bridge. Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color. She recently received the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a Henfield award for her writing. Her work received four Pushcart Prize anthology nominations this year. Follow her on Twitter at @chayab77 for upcoming readings and events.

 

“Wooden Gates” by Mark Liebenow


“Transformation,” by Kathy O’Meara

Memory believes before knowing remembers.
~William Faulkner

I wasn’t thinking about dying when I hiked in Yosemite. Really, I wasn’t. Mostly I didn’t care. But mistakes happen. In front of me stretched a rugged wilderness. It was going to be a rough journey.

Surrounding me was a dark forest. Dante says this is when the journey becomes interesting. We’re obviously in different forests. “Interesting” is not the word I would use. “Daunting,” maybe. Or “Fearsome,” “Traumatic,” “Chaotic.” But I’ve never lost anyone close before. What do I know? And how long can I stumble around in this darkness trying to reach the light before I give up and turn hard into the night?

There is solace here from grief, yet I’m crossing a dangerous line because some people do not come back from this.

~

After Evelyn died, the life I loved, and had grown accustomed to, ended. Because my friends are young, they don’t know what to say and wait at a distance, intimidated by grief’s intense and emotional wilderness. It feels like there isn’t much left. We had no children, my job is only something to come home from and forget, and every dream I have included Ev. I don’t even know if I make enough by myself to stay in our home.

My body feels heavy and moves awkwardly through the day as if I’m wearing winter clothes. Every step takes effort. I don’t care about anything or anyone, and I’ve grown tired of pretending that everything is okay. In public I look angry or lost, and while I’ve resumed holding doors for people, I’m not friendly about it, and they look at me worried. At the same time, a stranger smiling at me for no reason makes me cry. Today is the seventieth day after Evelyn’s death. I’m a widower who goes into public without someone first checking his clothes.

Friends thought I’d be done grieving after a month. I thought so, too, being new to grief. But, having made little progress in seven weeks, I realize that recovery is going to take more time than I budgeted. I’m also worried because I don’t deal well with strong emotions, and grief is bringing me bucket loads. Today, everyone needs to come up and confess that they’ve never lost anyone as young as Ev. This does not help. It tells me that something went wrong, and she wasn’t supposed to die.

~

Death is traumatic no matter how it comes — illness, accident, suicide, or old age. But Evelyn dying in her 40s from an unknown heart problem has excavated a dark depth to reality. Unfortunately, I’m not alone.

Mark Twain lost three of his children, including beloved daughter Susy to spiral meningitis at age twenty-four. Of her young death he wrote, “I did not know that she could go away, and take our lives with her, yet leave our dull bodies behind.” Then his wife Livy died, and he became a bitter man. He said, “The secret source of humor is not joy, but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven.”

I grew up entranced by Twain’s writings — his humor, wit, and astute social observations. I visited his childhood home in Hannibal, Missouri, and played the lead in my high school’s production of Twain’s The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. After reading his famous books, I came across the works he wrote after the deaths took his laughter away, and I stopped reading because there was too much anger. Now I want to read what Twain wrote about the humorless wilderness to see if he found a way through.

~

One Friday after midnight a couple of months ago, we went to the local emergency room because Ev was having severe upper abdominal pain. After waiting for an hour in the quiet ER, the doctor gave her a mild sedative and sent us home. The pain returned, and Ev spent the rest of the weekend kneeling on the floor in discomfort. Holding her in my arms, I rocked her, hoping that she would relax enough to get a few hours of sleep.

The next week we saw a variety of doctors, including a world-famous gastroenterologist at UCSF. He couldn’t find a cause, and the tests were negative. Driving back from San Francisco over the Bay Bridge, we hit rush hour traffic on the Nimitz Freeway and slowed to a crawl. This bypass replaced the double-decker Cypress Freeway that collapsed during the earthquake twelve years ago during rush hour on another ordinary day, and forty-two people died.

Watching Evelyn sleep from exhaustion in the passenger seat, I felt the bleakness of a dark wilderness decending that I had never known. There was nowhere for us to go. There were no other options. Whatever had been set in motion was going to happen, no matter what we did, like the people unable to stop the concrete of the Cypress Freeway from falling and crushing them. A month later Ev had her heart attack.

On the evening news tonight, a medical study reports that women experience different symptoms than men when they’re having heart attacks. Valerie Reitman, of The Los Angeles Times, found that 10,000 American women younger than fifty died of heart disease in 1998, more than the 6,286 women who died of breast cancer. In addition, women were twice as likely to die of heart attacks than men of the same age because women were more often misdiagnosed in the emergency room and sent home.

~

Rumi wrote a fun thought, continuing my preoccupation with dark matters: “With this pain, you are digging a path for yourself to God.” Buddha had one, too: “Life is suffering.” Two wonderfully bright notes to tape to my refrigerator that I can swear at every morning.

Yet they speak to my reality, so I sit at the breakfast table and think about them. Pain is a signal that something is wrong. It’s also an indicator of progress. By facing its irritation, pain can guide me toward what I need to learn. The message could be to not flee grief’s emotions but embrace them. Usually I head the other way. Evelyn, on the other hand, gained insights from her struggles with Candida and her father’s death, and used them to comfort others when their parents died.

The digging part, though, I don’t understand. You dig a hole, and you clear a path. The image I prefer is Dante’s, blazing your way through death’s Unkempt Wilderness, creating a path through the Forest of Mayhem, finding my way around the Canyons of Despair, and wading across the Cold Streams of Remorse.

Dealing with grief is a struggle that is common in mythic stories like the Gilgamesh Epic, Homer’s Odyssey, and more recently Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Rowling’s Harry Potter. Maybe Rumi is saying that God is in the center of us and we dig a tunnel (path) to reach this place. Whether it’s digging or hiking up the side of one of Yosemite’s mountains, the exhausting, physical effort required feels right for the effort it’s taking to make my way through grief.

~

Coming home after work and not seeing Ev, I check the answering machine to see if she left a message. When am I going to stop doing that? Someone said that showing up was eighty percent of life. That’s all I do; show up and stumble through each day’s indifferent wilderness hoping that the remaining twenty percent will eventually return. That’s what made our struggles bearable — eating meals together, snuggling on the couch, and imagining how wrinkled and funny we were going to look in forty years when we were old.

Sometimes Evelyn seems near, but it’s a fleeting sensation, as if she has other things to do in the afterlife. I don’t want to lose this sense of her presence, or block the thought that she might converse with me now and then. I don’t want to deny any of this, even the possibility of alternate realities, because who knows everything that goes on?

In the evening, after dozing off in the recliner, I imagine Evelyn’s hand touching my shoulder, her blond hair brushing my face as she leans over, and her murmuring next to my ear as she mischievously wakes me to come with her to bed.

~

Photos of Evelyn at different ages hang on our walls, marking her transitions through life — a preteen with her sister in matching dresses, performing with the elite Chapel Singers at the University of Redlands, and one at the La Mexicana restaurant where she looks as innocent and trusting as a child, even though society had abused her for most of her life because she was not thin and had curves. In her thirties, she was still being carded at bars. Then, in photos from the last few years, she began to put on weight as she struggled with Candida.

Unable to bear looking at Evelyn in happy times, I take all the photographs down. A day later I cautiously put one back up — a black and white cast photo from Quilters, the theater show she was rehearsing the night before she died. In her eyes I see hope in things unseen and strength to endure whatever came next.

“Photos are a mixed bag,” Barbara says from Oregon. “I felt the same way going through my photos of Evelyn on our Arizona trip early this year. Often we stopped to take photos of the Painted Desert, a practice that sometimes bothers me with people, but on this trip, for whatever reason, I had infinite patience with Evelyn, and really was delighted to watch her efforts to catch things just so. She had a very good eye.”

Searching around, I find the photos in a shoebox of envelopes that Ev hadn’t had time to put into albums. She took pictures of the red rock wilderness near Sedona, sacred to the Yavapais and Apaches, the abandoned Wupatki Pueblo where Zunis, Navajos, and migrating clans of Hopis met and shared resources for thousands of years, as well as photos of cactus, a sudden snowstorm, and a raven that stayed close. There, walking among the remains of ancient civilizations, close to where Muir found healing, Ev discovered a spiritual home and found the peace that had long eluded her.

~

On Evelyn’s birthday, I throw her a party in Tilden Park high in the Berkeley Hills because I promised her I would, although I think she expected to be here. I don’t want her to come back and haunt me. She was tenacious when upset. Today is also Bloomsday, the day in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses that commemorates when Joyce went on his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle, a day that changed his life.

Everyone is having fun and sharing stories of Ev, but while their happiness gives me hope, perhaps my sorrow brings them fear, a grim reminder that life is unpredictable and we can die at any time. After the party, everyone else returns home to their families with their dreams intact. I drive away knowing that no one will be waiting for me at home. No one will worry if I am late, and no one will come and pick me up if our old car breaks down. I no longer have my one person who is always there, and no one to take care of.

When I pull into our driveway, the house is dark. I turn on a kitchen light, pull leftover chicken from the fridge, and eat it cold as I watch TV in the dark living room, listening as the evening news tells me how many other people died today around the world. Lighting a candle for the glowing presence it brings, I say to all who grieve, “May we all find hope in the empty wilderness of our lives.”

I no longer entertain the notion that one day my grief will stop, although it probably will. Every day there will be moments of heart-rending sadness. Every day I will think, “I miss Ev” and tear up. Every day I will get angry, yell, tear things apart, and want to run into a wall so hard that I knock myself out and can’t feel this damn despair anymore. Some nights I deliberately drink too much in order to break free of grief, free of everything but this moment, drinking beer and eating chips with biting, garlic salsa. Some nights I drink just to go numb.

~

After midnight, I walk into the backyard and stand where Ev and I used to watch meteor showers together, our arms wrapped around each other for warmth. Although the darkness of night comforts me, I don’t know what I will do. I have no desire to stay here in this nothingness, because the one who stood with me is gone. Despite my efforts to hold on, Evelyn continues to grow fainter — the twinkle in her eyes, her soft caress in the night, the delightful sound of her laughter. Earth’s wooden gates have opened and she is drifting out on the dark cosmic sea.

The breeze sings its song to the night, and the scent of sweet jasmine floats on the air with the slow rhythm of the world asleep, waiting for the grace of dawn’s light to return. Looking at the Orion Nebula, Ev’s favorite constellation, I watch it in the sparkling wilderness of the universe. Where do I belong?

 

 

Mark Liebenow writes about nature, grief, and the wisdom of fools. The author of four books, his essays, poems, and reviews have been published in over 30 journals. He has won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, the Chautauqua and Literal Latte’s essay prizes, and the Sipple Poetry Award. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and named a notable by Best American Essays. His account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. http://www.markliebenow.com

 

“Also Henry” by Tom Sheehan


“untitled” by Kathy O’Meara

Jim Hedgerow was the boss of Riverbank Cemetery’s burial crew, and this morning he was scratching to make sure he had enough help to “open up” a few places for “quick deposit.”

“Monday,” he said to his gang, “is a pain. You all know that. We’ve got two late shows to open up and I have heard whispers there’ll be a third. So we have our work cut out for us today.”

He looked casually at his number one man, Bill Blakeslee, and said, “Bill, take a peek in those trees down at the end of the river road. I’ve heard some rumbles about night­time shenanigans going on down there. Fellows sleeping out there will be gone come the cold weather. I know they fold up and hide their few blankets and an old shelter half once in a while so we won’t find them. They’ve done that all summer. Hell, I know there’s a few old vets in that group, and I won’t chase them out on a bet, even if the Police Chief or the Board of Selectmen tell me to do so. We owe them.”

He sent off a slow salute to the far end of the cemetery. His crew understood the acknowledgement.

The following morning, Blakeslee said, “Jim, some of that ground near those first two we dug yesterday seems like something’s been in there. Maybe an animal. A big one. Dirt is scattered from under the green tarps we use to hide it during the final services, but I can’t figure it out.”

Hedgerow said, “Will the cement vaults fit down in there okay? That’s all I worry about after the hole is dug, of course.”

“Oh, yeah, that looks fine. I was just curious, that’s all.”

The burials went off that week as smooth as ever, and all “insertions” skidded like grease. Hedgerow was pleased at his crew and their dedicated efforts. He told them, at day’s end, “If you guys aren’t in a hurry to get home, I’ll treat everybody to a few pints down at Spud’s place. A quick stop. A quick thank you, so there’ll be no noise at home.

Six days later, all the sites were fitted with memorial stones containing appropriate inscriptions, grass seed put down on the exposed earth, and the initial watering completed.

In the morning, Blakeslee, at the completion of his morning stroll to make sure all things were okay and still in order, called Hedgerow to one of the new sites. He pointed to a newly inscribed stone that said, “Herbert Sendall 1932—2010” and on the next line, “Sarah Sendall 1936—“

On the stone was also inscribed, with a dull drill of some sort and inlaid with a black paint, the words, “Also Henry.”

“What the hell do you think that means, Jim?” Blakeslee said.

Hedgerow mused a bit, nodded, and said, “Probably kids. It’ll go away, unless the relatives make a stink about it. Might cost them for a clean-up. Let it rest.”

A few days later Hedgerow was in the diner down the street. One of the homeless vets he knew spent some of his nights in the trees by the cemetery, and worked as a dishwasher in the diner, was talking at the kitchen door to someone outside. “Yeh, a few nights ago, we had a service and had to put old Henry down. But he’s safe now. Out of all the hullabaloo.”

Hedgerow saw him toss off a quick salute.

In some cases, eternity may be twice as long as forever.

 

 

Tom Sheehan has published 22 books, has had multiple work in many publications: Literally Stories,Ocean MagazineRosebud, Linnet’s Wings, Serving House Journal, Copperfield ReviewKYSO FlashLa Joie Magazine, Soundings East, Vermont Literary Review, Literary OrphansIndiana Voices Journal, Frontier TalesDeep South MagazineWestern Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review,Vine Leaves Journal, Nazar Look, EastlitRope & Wire Magazine, The Literary Yard,  KYSO Journal, Green Silk Journal, Fiction on the Web, The Path, Faith-Hope and Fiction, The Cenacle, etc. He has 30 Pushcart nominations, and five Best of the Net nominations (and one winner) and short story awards from Nazar Look for 2012- 2015. Swan River Daisy, his first chapbook, is just released and The Cowboys, a collection of western short stories, is due shortly.

 

“Did You Ever Switch from One Drug to Another?” by Ace Boggess


“Ancient Vessel” by Kathy O’Meara

[rehab workbook]

The straw knows no master.
It worships at its favored temple,
strays toward momentary cults
of joy. I dabbled. Chased the high,
the dragon. Chased security.
Chaste because I lost a step.
I’m not a proud man often enough to matter.
I remember crawling over carpet,
feeling for fragments of pills that flew
in the crushing. Sometimes I found them;
others, rocks—how could I tell
until one nostril smelled the ancient corpse,
membranes burning like matchheads?
I tried to snort the Earth in one long line.

 

 

Ace Boggess is author of three books of poetry, most recently Ultra Deep Field (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2017), and the novel A Song Without a Melody (Hyperborea Publishing, 2016). His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Mid-American Review, RATTLE, River Styx, North Dakota Quarterly and many other journals. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia.

 

“Sign Language” by Kevin Bartlett


“untitled” by Kathy O’Meara.

Liquidation Sale:
Half-priced Lobotomies

Mix & Match
2 for 5:
Clog All Your Arteries

Sold at State Minimum:
Cigs, Booze, Lottery

I am NOT Responsible
for Lost or
Stolen Property

 

 

Kevin Bartlett was born and raised in Connecticut, and is currently a student at Texas Tech University.

 

“Torrents” by Benjamin Selesnick


“Aladdin, Fogged In” by Kathy O’Meara

Van Vleck Street is two blocks long, barely 100 yards. It’s cut into a hill that’s broken up by North Mountain Avenue and bookended by Upper Mountain Avenue and Valley Road, both busy one-lane streets. I was in my mother’s 2006 Ford Escape—black vents shot stale air.

It was late September. The leaves on the overhanging oak trees radiated in the sun like Christmas ornaments and the evergreens towering over the Van Vleck Garden looked like umbrellas God placed to protect the plants hidden beneath.

I was coming from a therapy session.

Before that, I’d come from Boston.

I had finished three weeks of the fall semester of my senior year at Northeastern University.

On the 20th, five days before driving up Van Vleck, I’d finally fallen asleep after being awake for 40 hours straight.

On the evening of the 19th, I had rushed into Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street right by the Boston Commons. The sanctuary was hushed. There was only a woman’s voice: deep, resonant, and lighthearted. Wishing to not draw attention to myself after entering the gothic hall fifteen minutes into the AA meeting, I hurried to a seat in the third-to-last row of folding chairs.

I surreptitiously turned my phone off and placed my book bag on the floor. Picking my head up to put a face to the voice, I saw a dense, curly mop of brown hair two rows in front of me. It matched the hair of one of my ex’s, Tory. For a breath, I thought it was her. What a relief that would’ve been! Since our break-up, Tory had become a source of strength, a never-ending stream of encouragement. She’d become a medium and whenever I saw her, she would speak of visions she had of me, both joyful and harrowing. She was genuine, expressive, showing off her curiosity, gullibility, and vivacity through her readings.

But the head of hair was seated next to Deborah, Gabi’s roommate.

The recognition of Gabi, my estranged ex-girlfriend, made my toes feel like they were freezing over, detaching from my feet. Then my forearms felt hollow as though the blood and bone had been sucked out, and this led to a lack of circulation in my hands. They felt heavy, sore, pins and needles on the pads of my fingers.

My mind tumbled towards fantasies of embarrassment, shame, separation. I tried to focus on the bronze statues and golden pipes at the front of the cathedral but my attention kept getting pulled back to tangents of grandiose failure: all the times I’d treated Gabi poorly, the nights spent alone in my apartment listening to the raging sound of a drum set coming from an opened window behind my building.

At the end of the meeting, the chairperson asked for everyone to take a moment to introduce themselves to their neighbors, just like at mass. I turned backwards to avoid looking at Gabi. I shook hands with two strangers.

The chairperson then opened the room up for any AA-related announcements. The meeting’s secretary, Devon, spoke up from two rows behind me. I didn’t want to wrench myself around to look at him, so I gazed forward above the back of Gabi’s head. But halfway through his share, Gabi turned around. We didn’t make eye contact, but we were in each other’s line of sight. It’d been four months since I had a clear look at her face. It was transparent, waxed over, giving a glimpse into the brilliant, inquisitive, and tragic mind it protected.

I tried to make eye contact. Why? To prove to her that I still existed? To prove that she couldn’t will me away? To punish myself further?

~

I didn’t sleep that night.

I was restless.

Energized.

Ecstatic.

Manic.

A flip had been switched somewhere inside me. Was it a dopamine dump? Serotonin? Adrenaline? I’m not familiar with the makeup of a bipolar brain, but mine certainly underwent some chemical change.

Alone in my apartment, I laughed at my own jokes, paced ceaselessly around my bedroom, and talked to the empty space in a whisper because I knew that the way I was acting wasn’t normal.

Quickly, though, I got fed up with my stifling room. I tramped outside into the darkened evening—it was nearing 1am. A torn-up couch sat in desolation on the sidewalk. I ran across it length-wise, leaping as high as I could off the couch and onto the sidewalk, landing garishly—a flick of the wrist, an arm extended to the sky, chin dipped to my chest.

Down the block I found a stray cat, one I’d rarely seen in the daytime but that had always been surprisingly friendly. It was an orange tabby with one eye and a confident saunter—never veering from its set path.

It approached from the opposite side of the street, crossing under the streetlights and into an empty corner lot. The lot was twelve feet square, boxed in by by two four-story homes, each containing twenty residents. I followed the cat into the lot, calling it all the cat names I could think of, hoping I’d strike gold, “Mittens! Snowball! Tiger! Kitty! Poopsie! Meowzerz!”

I could see shapes moving behind backlit windows of the neighboring buildings and hoped that they’d come outside and join me.

After one more Kitty!, the cat sprawled on the pavement, paws stretched above its head, stomach exposed: the sign of complete acceptance. I scratched its temple, lifted it up, and hoisted it over my shoulder. I then carried Scrooge (I’d named it Scrooge) down Mission Hill towards Tremont Avenue. A woman passed us halfway down the hill: a beleaguered college student that took long strides and kept her head down. I raised Scrooge a few inches and called, “Say hi to Scrooge!”

I placed the cat on the sidewalk at the bottom of the Hill and told it to wait while I entered a convenience store to buy it some ham.

I burst into a 7/11 and stalked the aisles with jaguar-like zeal. I spoke quickly at the register, telling the clerk about the cat in loud peaks and soft ramblings as I tried to explain to us both what Scrooge and I were going to do for the rest of the night. The clerk nodded politely and let me leave without saying goodbye.

When I came out, Scrooge was gone.

~

The mania lasted almost 24 hours. This was typical for me. Suffering from bipolar II, I experience hypomanic episodes, which reach the same emotional intensity as a traditional manic episode, but are less frequent and rarely stretch past 72 hours. Similar to those afflicted by bipolar I, though, those suffering from bipolar II experience steady depressive episodes for an extended period of time.

I sat in my Introduction to Shakespeare class the following afternoon as the mania finally crept out of my body. My eyelids grew heavy and tears formed behind my lids—burning like pinpricks. My breathing became inconsistent—rapid breaths followed by long, intentional ones. My upper body felt heavy; my posture rounded.

I couldn’t concentrate. I tried to put my thoughts together in order to understand what was happening to me what is causing this but A wouldn’t lead to B and B wouldn’t lead to C—they floated separate from one another like planets orbiting the sun.

Outside of class, Olivia asked if I was okay. I walked away shaking my head.

I stumbled across campus to the Spirituality Center where it took me half an hour to fall asleep. My nap wasn’t restorative and I awoke in a panic.

The next day I phoned home and told my parents that I needed to see them.

I saw my therapist in New Jersey on Sunday night, the 24th—God bless her. I confessed that I couldn’t finish the semester—I was losing control, I couldn’t contain myself, I couldn’t change the way I felt in a given moment. She applauded my honesty, but then hesitated, unsure how to proceed. She took a moment before speaking, eyeing my sordid posture with unease: I lay on my side across the beige leather loveseat in her office, looking vacantly towards her potted plants.

She suggested that I might need inpatient psychiatric treatment.

Drug treatment six years prior was supposed to be all the inpatient care I’d ever need. I was supposed to cured, living on the other side.

It felt like failure. Even with six years of routine therapy, active participation in Alcoholics Anonymous, and a prospering social and romantic life, I had reached a point where inpatient was again necessary.

That, I could not own.

~

Monday the 25th—Van Vleck Street.

I saw my therapist again in the morning to see whether my mood had stabilized overnight.

Mood instability, also known as mood cycling, is a feature of my bipolarity. My joy and devastation spike and rarely last more than a few days and never, at least not in recent memory, have I felt okay or even eh for a week straight.

The mood spikes are always precipitated by events, but these events hold smaller responses for those who are not bipolar. It could be said that I’m sensitive to a fault. I’m fatally sensitive. To both joy and sadness; I scare people when I get happy. I twitch. I’m easily irritated. I speak so fast that my sentences become incoherent. I trail after my thoughts like a kid holding a kite in a thunderstorm.

Driving on Van Vleck Street, I twitched and I was irritated.

It’s widely accepted that although those with dampening depressive symptoms may be in greater psychological pain, they are at a lesser risk for suicide than their energetic counterparts. When someone is so depressed that they cannot leave their bed, they cannot do much harm to themselves—they’re liable to stay in bed all day, lose their job, cut off relationships. But those with lesser psychological pain but greater energy are much more likely to act on their self-destructive impulses.

As I waited for an opening amidst the cars at the top of Van Vleck Street, an unsettling experience took over. I’d be remiss to describe it as an out-of-body experience, but that’s the most accurate colloquialism at hand.

Without actually doing it, I felt my foot slam on the gas pedal, launching me in front of the rushing cars. I watched my car get T-boned by an SUV, the driver’s side crumpling in on itself, throwing my body against the inner console and into the passenger’s seat, my head cracking the passenger’s window.

There was no sound.

No blood.

No pain.

No one else was hurt.

It was clean.

Perfect.

Like watching a film replace reality.

My therapist called me shortly after I turned onto Upper Mountain Avenue. There are few things I attribute to God, but her phone call is one of them. She said that she shouldn’t have let me leave her office that morning, that I was too much of a danger to myself. She suggested that I get into inpatient treatment as soon as possible.

I checked myself in the following afternoon.

 

 

Benjamin Selesnick is an undergraduate at Fairfield University and a reader for Memoir Mixtapes. His prose has appeared in decomP, Literary Orphans, The Bitter Oleander, Parhelion Literary Magazine, and others. In 2017, he was the runner-up for the Stony Brook Short Fiction Prize.

 

“Cake” by Grace March


“Tent City” by Jean Banas, acrylic on canvas, 48″ x 48″.

I am making a Crunchy Top Lemon Cake from Mary Berry’s Baking Bible, in a cardigan from Value Village that cost thirteen dollars and pulls on the back of my neck like the sense of guilt leftover from buying it. There is a nicer cardigan in the closet that only cost five.

It is a Monday in January, and winter has just started.

Janice and Sawyer called me into their bedroom last night to ‘touch base’, a niece’s performance review. Zoe, their daughter, compared it to a lice-check, or getting passport photos taken. They told me that I am not a disappointment, after all, which is a relief. I have spent the past year and a half imagining that, when they raise their voices or purse their lips, they are asking themselves how anyone could be such an idiot, and how much they wish I wasn’t there. Because I know that I’m not a piece of cake, and that, over time, it got too hard, and I just stopped wanting to be. If I was supposed to be stupid and lazy and callous, then, fine. Improvement was exhausting. By that time I had learned to brush my hair and teeth daily, how to wash dishes, and manners (more or less). I decided that, as long as I didn’t unlearn those things, a backslide was permissible.

I am making the cake knowing that nobody else is going to eat it. Zoe has a stomach the size of a walnut, Al eats nothing he can’t put sriracha on, Mei is trying to lose weight, Janice is gluten-free, and Sawyer hates sweet things. Tonight, perhaps, someone will help me eat it, because the church women’s group is meeting at ours; if they don’t, I will find someone at work tomorrow who likes cake and dump it on their desk, wrapped in tin-foil. Baking is not about the end product, after all. It’s about making something beautiful and good out of a cacophony of ingredients, which cannot contain themselves and are each disgusting when swallowed alone and raw, but you can put them together in a certain way that yields anything from the shamefully rich to the so-light-there’s-barely-a-flavour-at-all, and leaves your hands smelling of flour, lemon, and vanilla.

 

 

Grace March is a young writer from the Canadian prairies. This is her first publication.