“Crying in Italian” by Virginia Pye


Photo Credit: TL Sherwood

Sara’s new Italian sandals have heels she knows no sane American tourist would attempt on cobblestones. Yesterday the Roman shoe salesman assessed her calves with an unreconstructed male gaze culminating in a subsequent nod of approval—as if her legs had been put on this earth for his pleasure, which she knew was also wrong in every possible way and for which she now pays the price with a sore back and unsteady gait.

Had she even thought about her legs like that in months, perhaps years? The children grab at her skirt and shoulder bag as her husband hurries on ahead in the wake of the tour guide. Sara answers her own question: on a rocky path in the Roman Forum, an American woman jettisons her sensible shoes and doesn’t have a clue which way to turn.

Gelato,” her son Graham says, for the umpteenth time.

Gelato,” little Rachel repeats.

They buzz around her like the bees in the Villa Boghese that very morning. Rachel was stung, something so shocking to her that her eyes welled up with indignation more than pain. Sara longs for such shock, although like the sandals, she suspects that the aftermath would hardly be worth it.

Under the shadow of a cross that rises from the ruins, as if Christianity itself were a monumental afterthought, she saunters toward the tour group, drawn not so much by the sights as by the sweat beading routinely, handsomely, on the guide’s brown neck. At the back of the group, her husband Richard appears rapt, his whole being hung on the guide’s every stilted English phrase.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Sara whispers.

Richard wheels around, letting the crowd go ahead to the next sight without him. “What? Why? We have to keep up.”

“You go ahead.”

He looks perplexed yet sincere, as if seeing one more ancient pile of rubble will answer anything. Sara thinks he wants them to carry on by simply going forward.

“I’ll wait in the shade with the kids,” she says. “We’ll meet you outside the Colosseum.”

“Here, take some euros.”

“What for?” Sara gestures at the ancient olive trees, the dry landscape, the spiky weeds poking through stones unmoved for all time.

“Get the kids something from the snack carts,” Richard suggests and turns to them. “What do you think, guys, you want some limonata?” His accent hurts Sara’s ears, he’s trying so hard. She knows she is being uncharitable, but perhaps, she considers, that’s who she is now.

The children huddle, deciding if their longing for gelato can be satisfied by limonata instead. That’s the question, isn’t it? she thinks. Can one high, desperate longing be satisfied by something else instead?

Sara’s husband gives her coins from his jangling pockets. He is generous, always has been. It makes her wonder how they’ll resolve things. Amicably, she suspects.

Graham reaches his sweaty hand into hers for the money. Coins fall to the pebbled ground and Richard tells him to cool it and to pick up the change for his mother.

“All right, you guys,” he adds, “I’ll see you in forty-five minutes over at the entrance to the Colosseum. Help Mommy find me, all right?”

Then he looks at Sara and presses her purse against her hip, ever mindful of the notorious Roman pickpockets, although their family stands alone on the path. He lowers his voice and leans in closer. “You seem a little out of it today. I’ll take the kids later so you can nap. But stay alert now, OK? Don’t get lost.” His expression is as searching and mystified as when he gazed up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling earlier that day.

Sara nods slowly, noncommittally, the latent teenager in her unwilling to offer more. She knows she’s being a brat and wishes he would recognize it, too. Richard turns and scurries up the trail and the children and Sara watch him go. She tries to picture that this is how it will be from then on.

Over the past week, their family has stumbled into dark medieval churches looking for the finger bones and femurs of saints, the preserved bodies of bishops still in their robes, their wax faces surprisingly plump considering there’s nothing inside. The bodies are hollow, eviscerated, and yet people kneel before them and close their eyes.

Graham pulls on Sara’s purse and jolts her back to the moment. “Euros, Mom. We’re dying of thirst.”

For an eleven-year-old, he has the presence of someone much older, she thinks, packing all the punch his father lacks. Somehow Sara knows her son will be all right. And little Rachel will be too young to remember. She will try to recall her parents together from snapshots on trips like this one—the picture this morning in front of the fountain in the Villa Borghese. Their separation will mix in her mind with that first bee sting and the Mediterranean heat, all mysterious and conveying a pain that startles, but eventually envelopes, like humidity on the skin.

Graham takes the coins and grabs Rachel’s hand. They dash off up the path. At least they have each other, Sara thinks.

“Slow down,” she shouts after them. “I need to keep you in sight.”

“Don’t worry, Mom,” Graham shouts back over his shoulder.

“Yeah, Mom, don’t worry,” Rachel copies. Her voice rises and tangles in the olive branches where the sparrows twitter at midday.

As Sara meanders after them, she notices off to the side of the path a flight of ancient stone steps leading up an embankment to nowhere. At the top, a young Italian couple stands close together, their arms around one another. What a romantic sight, she thinks, the woman with sunlight in the folds of her summer dress. Sara pauses and gazes up at them, prepared to smile and sigh, then move on. The young man wears sleek black pants and Sara notices the way his browned forearms and smooth forehead glisten. The girl rises on her toes to reach him and Sara can understand why.

As they kiss, she notices how the young man’s hand curves over the young woman’s hip. It presses down her thigh and disappears into the fabric between her legs, the small purple, embroidered flowers on the white background crimped against his outstretched fingers. Her skirt will be wrinkled, Sara thinks, and quickly feels embarrassed that she is the only one who cares. Any initial thought that this was a tame embrace vanishes as the girl lets out a throaty laugh and squeezes the man’s shoulder in a claw-like grip. He does not smile and, what’s more important, does not remove his hand from between her legs.

Sara stays frozen on the path, enthralled. She glances down at her new sandals covered now in fine, ancient dust. Something about them on her is as outrageous as the kissing couple, she thinks, and lets out a surprising laugh, too. It’s far quieter than the girl’s, but every bit as guttural and real. Sara rubs the toe of a sandal against the back of her leg, warm from the sun and firm.

When she looks up again, the couple has moved away from the steps and crossed a ledge overlooking a deep archaeological pit. To arrive at their next stopping spot, Sara sees that they’ve slipped around a low rope barrier and entered an area where tourists aren’t allowed. She can’t help wondering what they think they’re doing there in a forbidden area with groups of tourists drifting by on the paths below.

Without thinking, Sara heads off the central path, too. She hurries up the stairs to keep the couple in sight. Each stone step is high and as she ascends, her skirt catches air and flares outward. With heat billowing around her, her thighs feel damp and shadowed and secret beneath the light fabric. When she reaches the top step, she realizes that she now is exposed, too, her purpose unclear. When she looks across at the couple she is glad to see they haven’t noticed her.

They stand, locked in an embrace at the edge of the cliff beside the pit. The man has bent his dark head into the woman’s neck and appears to be feasting there. The neck looks startlingly white against his black hair, and then Sara notices the actual lips and open mouth as he kisses the woman’s skin. The wetness of his tongue on her cool neck, Sara thinks. That’s all she thinks, because it is a thought unto itself: attention must be paid to that tongue and those lips and the press of his body against hers, his hand at the small of her back, pulling her towards him, her dress hiked up, the girl’s leg up now, too, and the pretty violets smashed.

Sara looks away and still can’t fathom what they think they’re doing, what she is doing. They can’t make love there on that cliff, can they? she wonders. Or do people do that in Italy, because it is Italy? Perhaps, like her new sandals, allowances are made for such things—sex and passion woven into everyday life. She finished reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet on the plane ride over and keeps catching herself searching for tangled, hidden passion everywhere she looks. In Rome, secrets lay as stacked and layered and porous as the crumbled walls of archaeological digs.

Early that morning, metal shutters clattered as the shop opened up downstairs. Voices like none Sara had ever heard before echoed off the alley walls, busting wide apart the day. Arguing voices asking only for some milk. If she shed tears, she knows they wouldn’t translate: any crying in Italian evaporates, unshed in the scorched air. Swallows swoop past now, disrupting thought and whatever is left of her former self.

When she looks up again, the couple is moving on. The man has the woman’s pale hand in his and he’s steering her further across the ledge. Sara spots a grove of olive trees in the near distance and imagines he will take her to that quiet spot, where the rocky ground appears to give way to soft grass. He will ease her to it and the girl will pull him down.

Sara can feel the young man’s hand, the force of it pressing against her thighs. He pushes her back, hair outstretched like a virgin’s on a sacrificial slab. Only nothing about the couple is virginal, and certainly nothing about Sara is, either, which is why she wants to step over the rope barrier, teeter across the precarious ledge, and join them in the partially hidden incline that has been used for this purpose since time immemorial. Only in her own country, in her own stark life, would someone hesitate, Sara thinks, as she hesitates. Yet here she would do it, she tells herself, surely she would.

Then she looks back and realizes she can’t see the main path that leads to the limonata carts or the plaza where Richard will be meeting them shortly. Sara can’t see the kids any longer. She scrambles along the rocky hillside, clomps hastily down the stacked steps, and hurries back onto the trail again. Her greatest fear in this moment is that Richard will have left the tour early and discovered the kids alone by the snack carts. Her absence, she thinks, will prove something undeniable about her. A recklessness and irresponsibility that show she is a bad mother. Richard has recently accused her of being untethered. He doesn’t know the half of it.

In the days before their trip, she lost the car keys three times, accidentally shut the cat in the garage overnight, and forgot to pick up Graham from soccer again. She left a flame on under an empty pot and kept the water going in Rachel’s bath until a grey cloud appeared on the dining room ceiling. Richard may never know the details, but he grasps the overall effect: she’s lost, perhaps dangerously so.

Sara slows on the path and tries to consider the truth. She has been leaving for some time now, so much so as to be already almost gone. It’s a wonder she’s here at all. But she is a mother and a mother needs to be present. She needs to watch over her kids who, she reminds herself with another jolt, are nowhere in sight. The thought of her imminent and justifiable punishment rises before her: he will get the kids if she doesn’t get her shit together.

Sara hurries up the trail and pushes through the turnstile that leads out of the Forum, glancing at the souvenir and snack carts that circle the cobblestones. And look, she thinks, there are her children, bent over their drinks, the long, serpentine straws curving into their mouths. As she approaches, she hears the happy slurping, the pull of the syrupy liquid to their young lips.

Then Sara realizes those aren’t the sounds at all: instead of satisfaction, the burbling noise she hears is crying. She dashes forward and crouches down in front of Rachel. Her daughter’s face is red from the sun, but her cheeks are dry and her expression seems far too old for her age. Sara turns quickly and sees the last thing she expects: Graham’s face streaked with tears. She grabs her son by the wrist, not meaning to frighten him, but he lets out a cry and drops his drink. Acid yellow liquid spills onto the cobblestones like urine.

“What’s wrong?” Sara asks. “Did a bee sting you, too?”

Graham’s narrow shoulders heave and he tosses himself against her. Sara rocks back on her heels and lands on her ass on the hard cobblestones.

“Graham,” she says, starting to scold him, but something in his shaking body stops her. Sara tries to peel her son off her chest so she can see him better, but he won’t let go.

“Rachel,” she says over his shoulder. “Tell Mommy what happened.”

Her daughter bows her head lower toward her drink and lets out an old lady’s worried sigh.

“Did you spend all the money your father gave you? Is that it? You can tell me. I won’t be angry with you.”

She rubs a hand over Graham’s hair and he flinches.

“Children,” Sara tries more seriously, “If you won’t tell me what’s going on, I’ll have to ask one of the grownups here.” She spreads her arm towards the milling strangers, not one bit sure her meager Italian could do the job.

Her son yanks himself away and he shakes his head hard and scowls.

“Oh, for God’s sake, darling, it can’t be all that bad,” Sara says, her voice harsher than intended. She knows she shouldn’t have wandered off, but really, can it be all that terrible?

Graham wipes his cheeks with his forearm and looks at her, pausing for what has to be dramatic effect. “You don’t know, Mom,” he finally says. “You’ll never know.”

Sara can’t help it, but she laughs. Not a lot, and not loud, but enough. She wants to tell her eleven-year-old that he can’t possibly understand the extent to which no one will know, no one will ever understand. The cruelty of her own laughter dawns on Sara a little too slowly and she stops abruptly. The children watch her, worried, perhaps even scared.

She suddenly feels exquisite sympathy for these small people, although in this moment it is hard to grasp that they are hers. Her son’s words, spoken so firmly, seem foreign to her. She simply doesn’t get their meaning. She wants to believe that they are spoken not to inflict pain, but are the pain itself. But even that motherly understanding, she thinks, is lost in this untranslatable moment.

Sara looks past the children. For an instant, the Colosseum recedes into the distance and the cobblestones that fan out around her rise into a wall that encircles her children. She senses they are disappearing down an ancient stone tunnel. She must reach for them before they are sucked away from her and into a rough-hewn quarry where the innocents are taken. It’s a crazy thought, she thinks. The heat is getting to her, dehydration and the pain in her back.

She looks over at the man who runs the limonata cart, hoping he can help return her children to her. She will buy more sugary drinks from him to set things right. Grey stubble shades his face and his eyes are hidden under a plaid cap. Sara sizes him up and wonders if he is the culprit who has harmed her son. Yes, he is the dangerous one. But then the old Italian man smiles down at a little girl who stands beside her mother, politely waiting for her drink. Sara notices the mother holds her daughter’s hand, and she thinks, that should have been me. I should have been that mother, thanking the lemon man.

So if the lemon man didn’t do it, Sara wonders, who did? A young Algerian in an NYU t-shirt leans against his souvenir truck, his head bent into his cell phone. Under the shade of an ancient tree, the ubiquitous matrons dressed in black shake their heads at some long-repeated tale. A blond, Northern European family sits wedged together on a bench, eating their sandwiches on dark bread.

Which one of these people stole my son’s change from his hand, Sara wonders, or tried to sell him something illicit, or yelled at him needlessly? Which one is a pervert or a pedophile, a nightmare come true? It must have been the lemon man, she thinks again. He is the bad guy. Although now he is whistling as he unloads bright lemons from a wooden box.

She decides she will interrogate him nonetheless in a language he doesn’t understand. She will shout at the old man in English and blame him and insist he explain why this country of fine wines and routine epiphanies has not moored her more successfully to her life. Give me back my son, my family, Sara will shout, when really it is herself she wants returned. That’s when her husband steps into her line of sight. He looks plain and well-intentioned, familiar and somehow right.

“That was fascinating,” he says, nodding over his shoulder at the Colosseum that has righted itself again and appears appropriately colossal.

He leans forward and offers a peck to the air near Sara’s cheek. Instinctively, and for no good reason, she leans toward him, too.

She looks down at Graham to try to understand what has happened between them while his father has been gone. Her son stares up at her with an adult expression, one that shows he has things under control now. He surreptitiously wipes away any sign of tears.

“Everything all right?” Richard asks, glancing at each of them. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Graham says firmly. “We’re good. Mom bought us lemonade. Mine spilled, but it’s no big deal.”

Graham offers a manly shrug. He is protecting her, Sara realizes. Something bad has happened and he is covering it up for her sake. Something has come between us, something terrible, Sara thinks. A flicker of understanding passes over her as she wonders if that something is her.

Richard looks to her for an explanation, but Sara is at a loss. She looks to Graham again, and after a long moment, she nods in agreement with him that they are fine. Graham and Sara have made a pact. In one brief moment, her son has become fully-grown and capable of deception, as well as sacrifice and love.

But, Sara reminds herself, I am his mother, not his accomplice. Now is the moment to speak up, to set things straight. The voices of strangers, the wings of birds flapping as they rise to the triumphal arch, the chatter of birds as they settle on the cross casting a shadow on the path, the guides explaining significant moments in history to the interested tourists, the calls of the street vendors: Sara must speak above it all. And yet she stalls. She’s still not sure what to say. She stands frozen and feels nothing until Graham steps forward and takes her hand.

“Let’s go, Mom,” he says. “Time to go.”

Sara looks down and wishes she could move forward, take a firm step in her new sandals.

“All right, then,” Richard says as he takes Rachel’s hand. “We’ve got just enough time to catch the next bus back to the hotel.”

“We’re coming,” Graham answers for his mother as he starts to pull them up the ancient stones.

“Richard,” Sara finally says. “Wait.”

Graham looks up at her, his face dark with adult betrayal. He tries again to pull her onward, to march them into the future he assumes is theirs.

Sara turns to her husband, opens her mouth, and begins.

 

 

Virginia Pye is the author of two award-winning novels, Dreams of the Red Phoenix and River of Dust, and the short story collection, Shelf Life of Happiness. Her stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in Literary HubThe New York TimesThe RumpusHuffington Post, The North American ReviewThe Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. She lived in Richmond, Virginia for many years and now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Find her online at www.virginiapye.com, FB, Twitter, and Instagram.

“Crying in Italian” first appeared in the anthology Abundant Grace.

Homepage Fall 2018


Silo City Public Art, photo credit: TL Sherwood.

Happy Fall and welcome to our October issue with the theme of “RUST,” featuring some wonderful poems, stories, essays, and flash all complimented by images from the buildings and surrounding areas of Silo City on the Buffalo waterfront.

I’ve been thinking a lot about rust as I put this issue together, about the process of oxidation, the transfer of electrons, and the changes that happen over time to overtake us all with the aim of breaking every (organic and inorganic) thing back down into its most elemental units. It’s a fascinating process and since we have plenty of iron in our bodies and blood, we are perpetually rusting or staving off rust ourselves. Many mornings I feel kinship with the Tin Man, squeaking through frozen lips, “Oil can! Oil can!”

At home, I have a new rescue puppy (what was I thinking?) who is definitely keeping the rust from growing under my feet, along with a new batch of roughly 400 hermit crab zoeae who are keeping me busy round the clock—we’re on day nineteen as of this writing, and closing in on 100 gallons of saltwater mixed so far. My son is home for a few months as he finalizes his Peace Corps paperwork before heading off to Zambia next year, my eldest daughter is opening her own business (a board game cafe) this week, and my middle daughter recently aced her final certifying exam and is now a licensed architect in the state of New York. It’s been a busy summer.

My hope is that the fine work in this issue offers you some light in the darkness, healing laughter, or cathartic tears. And as always, thank you for reading.

Yours in Recovery,

Mary Akers
Editor-in-chief

“Bubba” by Mary Hutchings Reed


Photo Credit: TL Sherwood

Bubba arrived at my cousin Joan’s country house with a dog-owner’s instruction book, a vocabulary list, and a handwritten note from his previous owner: “If Bubba is going to be in a threatening situation (like going to the vet, being around other dogs or going for a walk ☺), you should use the choke collar.” Joan tells me this as we sip gin-and-tonics on her sprawling patio. “Choke collar,” she scoffs at the smiling face. “The point is, Bubba is supposed to be my guard dog.”

At eight months, Bubba is “still a puppy,” guessed to be part Labrador, part Golden Retriever. He is broad-shouldered and the jumbled color of whole wheat flour. When I’d arrived, Bubba had nearly bowled me over on the gravel driveway, his paws the size of boxing gloves jabbing my stomach. He’d seemed friendly enough, but his throbbing tongue, branded by a round black bullseye, worried me. He was drooling buckets.

Joan thinks she needs Bubba because, although she lives in the city, last week her country place was burglarized during the day. “I can’t imagine how they had the nerve to steal a truckload of hay,” she says, rubbing a wedge of lime around the rim of her glass. When she came up last weekend, she’d noticed that about a hundred bales–the good stuff, from her second cutting–were missing from her horse barn. “How do you do it?” she asks me. “In broad daylight, do you just back up a flatbed and start pitching?”

Being a city girl myself, I have no idea.

With her closest neighbors a mile away in every direction, I understand why, despite the elaborate alarm system hooked up to the Barkeyville police station, Joan feels vulnerable. She’s five-foot-four and built like a fireplug, but she is forty-eight years old, has a standing appointment for her weekly manicure (Chick Pick Cherry), and is typically swathed in heavy gold jewelry, most of it from Tiffany’s. When one of Joan’s friends, who was moving to California, offered her Bubba, the businesswoman in her recognized the obvious advantages of “live” protection, equivalent, she said, to having a man around. Now, as Bubba pants beside Joan’s chaise lounge, he looks perfectly at home, not at all aware that he is destined to be “guard dog.” Indeed, it’s hard for me to imagine that the thwack! thwack! thwack! of Bubba’s ebullient tail will scare off any poachers.

“Isn’t he a little friendly to be a guard dog?” I ask tentatively. Joan is a hard-nosed, highly competent executive vice president of something vitally important at a major communications company, and I don’t often question her.

“He’ll learn,” she says. Joan believes that all problems are manageable, given the right tactics against the right strategies.

I’m surprised that Joan replaced Max, her thirteen-pound pedigreed schnauzer, so quickly. He died just five weeks ago. Joan got Max the day after her husband Tom, without any warning or hint of disharmony, moved out to live with a paralegal at his firm who was honey-haired and fresh from college at Florida State. That was a dozen years ago. Joan was so angry she hired the meanest divorce lawyer in the city and pushed Tom’s partnership lifestyle back to early-student. She busied herself with her career, bought a country home and was “done” with men, except for Max, whom she called her “little gentleman” and insisted was nearly human. She fed him macrobiotic diets, allergy pills wrapped in liver sausage, and seedless green grapes instead of doggie treats. She forgave Max his sweet tooth when he found a guest’s purse on the floor and managed to get it open and eat the lipsticks and breath mints inside, or when he found the smell of her new yellow Pappagallo pumps irresistible. She would never forgive Tom.

“I assume he’s trainable,” Joan says again, “although he’s not as smart as Max. Max had papers a mile long.” Joan introduces everyone by title: CEO, CFO, EVP, etc., and it was important to her that Max had a pedigree. I know she has a little trouble introducing me to her friends because I’m “only” a paralegal, and probably guilty by that shared association with Tom’s bimbo. Joan doesn’t intend a personal insult; to her you either have the pedigree or not, and she’d rather spend her time with those with better blood lines. Still, we’re cousins. Like her, I’m single, and I admire her success and her independence and how she doesn’t feel sorry for herself about losing Tom. Had it been me, I would’ve been an emotional cesspool, but Joan treated her divorce like a business proposition and got the most out of it.

~

I also love Joan because she can say out loud the most outrageous things, things the rest of us would be ashamed to admit, but she says them like facts, cold and analytic, without fear of what anyone might think of her. I am reminded of one time in the city when Joan and I were walking Max. We passed by a middle-aged woman who sat on the sidewalk next to a filthy beige plastic pet carrier. The woman wore a blue jean skirt with a frayed hem and heavy, once-white athletic socks. Her maroon sweatshirt was grimy and bulky in the wrong places, as if both her possessions and her pets were burrowed beneath it.

“Feeeeed my caaat! Feeeeed my caaat!” The woman’s drawn-out plea was nasal, as cutting as a bleating goat. She spread the words too thinly to be easily understood, but the sound conveyed insatiable need, a well too deep to be filled. With one hand, she stroked a bit of gray fur curled in her lap. With the other, she rattled a paper cup from Burger King.

“Oh, please!” Joan muttered. “Eat the cat!” As if I weren’t there, she added a management-style bone, “Then, we’ll talk.” She yanked Max away.

“Joan!” I started to open my purse. “The poor woman is begging for her pet!”

“Don’t,” Joan said. She ticked off her business analysis of the woman’s situation. “One, she can’t afford a pet. Two, she can’t afford herself. Three, she should go to a homeless shelter, take her meds, and stop pestering people in my neighborhood.”

I bugged out my eyes to let her know I thought she was being harsh, but I closed my purse.

Joan kept walking, then brightened. “I have to admit it’s a pretty decent marketing hook. Who can resist a pet?”

We just had, but I didn’t say anything. Joan bent down and picked up Max.

~

I’m telling Joan about my latest document production for a big-name client when she jumps from her chaise and charges across the patio.

“No!” she commands, her tone checked, controlled, as if inviting a reasoned discussion with a gunman.

Paws on the glass-topped patio table, Bubba is eagerly inspecting Joan’s signature deviled eggs, each nestled in its own molded oval around the perimeter of a blue-and-white ceramic platter with a center inscription, “Joan’s Little Devils.”

“No!” Joan says again.

Bubba ignores her.

“Down!” she shouts, no longer solicitous.

Bubba doesn’t seem to understand; his snout stretches towards the platter.

“Off! Off!” she shouts. Bubba replants his front feet, flush against Joan’s stomach. She cups his paws and drops them back down on the patio. “Good boy,” she says, patting the top of his head.

“Right on target,” she mutters to herself, then turns to me. “‘Off ‘ is one of his words,” she says. Bubba sits by the table expectantly while she goes inside and brings me the instruction booklet, “Your New Best Friend.”

I read out loud, “Dogs are like people…” Bubba lifts one paw to the table and cocks his head towards Joan, his tongue snapping like a lizard’s.

“Max was never like this,” Joan says. “Max knew not to beg. I absolutely cannot bear that. No!” She slaps Bubba’s rump. “Off!”

With an almost-human toss of his snout, as if one thing’s as good as another, Bubba zig-zags across the yard, following the cologne of an unseen critter.

“That’s right,” I venture, knowing that I am on thin ice. “Max just went to the kitchen and took what he wanted!”

Before she can chastise me for criticizing Max, I ask, “Remember the rum cake?”

~

The Easter before Max died, Joan had hosted our entire family at her country house. My mother had brought her famous rum cake, a dense yellow cake with half a cup of Bacardi Dark baked in, and saturated with an additional half-cup through toothpick holes in the top. My mother usually loses patience with the procedure after filling half of the holes, and she then picks up the bottle and douses the other half. Just before serving, she seems to fear that the rum may have evaporated, and douses each slice again.

Twelve of the Strong relatives were seated in Joan’s great room, a combined living and diving room, for a late afternoon Easter dinner. After the meal, my mother insisted on clearing the table, since Joan and I had cooked. It took a little longer than usual for her to deliver her first load to the kitchen. When she returned, she took my plate and furtively lifted her eyebrow. She continued to clear the table, including the butter dishes, the salt and pepper shakers and every last thing not necessary for the dessert course, and then asked if anyone wanted coffee. She took a fair amount of time asking each of us individually, rather than just taking our family’s usual show of hands. I knew something was bothering her.

Hoping to prod her into serving it, I asked, “How’d the rum cake come out?”

She looked at me as if I’d committed some etiquette felony punishable by a year of hard, potato-peeling labor. Then, she put on a little girl face, pulled her lip down with her index finger and said to Joan, with the inflection of a question, “I think maybe Max got into it?”

Joan jumped from her chair. “MAX!!!” she shrieked, bumping against the table and toppling two water glasses.

She flew to the kitchen, and the rest of us, like a team of tornado-chasers, rushed after her. Nose down, Max shuffled past us.

“MAAAX!!!” Joan stomped back out of the kitchen and into the great room. She still clung to her linen napkin, smeared with cranberry, rose lipstick and a dot of brown gravy.

Max took a step towards his box of playthings by the fireplace before he apparently understood Joan’s tone, and stopped dead in his tracks, eyeing the stairs. He looked as if he wanted to bolt up them two at a time, but he was visibly bloated now and could hardly move.

In the kitchen, we saw the offense. There, on the pine table, in the center of a glass plate, surrounded by sugared walnuts, was my mother’s rum cake, gouged like a gravel pit. At least a quarter of the cake was missing.

“Oh, God, Max,” Joan yelped. Max plopped over, legs akimbo, his eyes like onyx, yellow crumbs stuck in his old man’s whiskers, begging her to rub his belly.

“You’re a dog! You’re not supposed to like alcohol! You shouldn’t get drunk!” Joan moaned.

“You’ve always said he was human!” I said cheerfully, but my mother shot me a glance that said I should know better than to choose that moment to mention Joan’s drinking. Luckily, Joan had been too concerned with Max to notice my jibe.

 ~   

Thwack!

We are laughing about the excavated rum cake, and I idly toss one of Max’s weathered tennis balls into the yard. Bubba races after it, hurdling some daylilies in his way. The lilies rebound, but, once more, Joan is disproportionately incensed. She charges after Bubba, screaming “NO!!!” Bubba pauses, momentarily confused, and trots to her, his tail thrashing.

“You’re going to have to learn to be an outside dog,” she mews, almost as if she is talking to Max. It is hard to tell if it is my story or the gin that has first angered her, then softened her up.

“I’m not sure this is going to work,” she says, scratching Bubba’s ear. “It may be too soon.” She takes a deliberate gulp of her gin. “Need another?” she says to me.

I decline, but she goes into the kitchen and returns with a tumbler—her third. It’s not polite to count, but I know from past experience that, after three, she gets a little sloppy and then sleepy. Occasionally she forgets to serve dinner.

Joan sighs and this time looks at me. “It may be too soon.”

I hold my breath. Joan doesn’t often admit mistakes.

“The vet said he could’ve had surgery, and then chemo and maybe radiation, and that he would be in there for like six weeks. But Max was old. I’d had him longer than I’d had Tom, the jerk.” She pauses to take a drink, and wipes her eyes. “Max wouldn’t leave me. He was more loyal than most humans!”

I study the daylilies. Joan has never cried in my presence. Now, there is a gash in her voice that I realize must have been welded silent when Tom left. Had she really thought a dog would replace a husband? That if she had Max she wouldn’t mourn Tom? She’d been angry, to be sure, but she’d never admitted to me that she was hurt.

“What could I do?” she asks. “I couldn’t put him through all that.”

“He was your friend,” I say.

Joan straightens in her chair, forcing her voice to the analytic. “It would have cost more for him than for a human being,” she continues.

The calculation is a dead give-away. Her decision was not just a business decision, the prerogative and burden of senior management, but an elective of love.

“So I drove up there, and the vet said he could do it then. I held his little body, and I don’t know if he even knew me, and the vet gave him a shot and that was it.” In a single slurp, she finishes her gin. She puts a hand on the chaise and steadies herself as she stands up.

“Don’t!” I say, surprised how much I sound like her.

She halts, as rigid as a pillar of ice, and glares at me inscrutably, like someone in a coma.

In the heavy silence, my heart throbs dangerously, and I hear, in the distance, country life: a crow cawing, a horse whinnying, a dog barking. It’s not my place to judge Joan’s drinking, but she is my cousin, and now I’ve heard her pain, and I can’t stay silent while she kills herself as surely as the shot that sent Max to sleep.

“Don’t what,” she says flatly. It’s a tone that dares a junior executive to contradict the senior.

“Sit down a minute, and then we’ll eat,” I say.

“I’ll have another drink first,” she says, victorious.

“You drink too much,” I blurt. I am shocked at my boldness. Joan is looking at me like she doesn’t know me. I soften my voice, “It’s not a cure.”

Slowly, her spine releases, her shoulders relax, and her face melts. She opens her dark eyes wide, and blinks to clear her tears.

Thwack! Bubba announces his return to the patio with a slap of his tail at Joan’s knees, and she sits back down. With impeccable timing, Bubba rests his chin on her lap. She hands me her empty glass and waves it away, done for the day.

She looks at Bubba and shakes her head. “It’s not your fault, Bubba. It may be it’s just too soon.”

~

A week later, Joan and I meet in the city for lunch. She isn’t certain yet that Bubba is going to work out. He still doesn’t know all the words on his vocabulary list, but he is learning. She thinks he may be a little too friendly to be a good guard dog. She can’t say why, but he’s growing on her.

Joan doesn’t finish her glass of wine, but we leave the restaurant. It is a bright August day, and the city’s pace is leisurely, pedestrians waiting for “walk” signs just to delay by a few precious moments the return to work. We are at the corner when we hear a stabbing voice.

“Feeeed my coat! Feeed my caaat!”

We turn around. The woman from Joan’s neighborhood squats against the brown mustard brick of the Save-More drugstore, the cat in her lap. In front of the pet carrier, the food bowl is empty.

“Jeez,” Joan mutters, then strides over to the woman.

“Oh, Joan,” I groan, panicked at the scene she might cause. She ignores me, and I look away deliberately, as if I’m considering whether to turn left to Nordstrom’s or right to Macy’s. I hear the woman rattle her coins.

“Thaaaaank you,” the nasal voice says, and I look back in time to see Joan’s outstretched hand over the cat lady’s paper cup.

Joan joins me at the curb, her shoulders thrown back in a business-like stance. There is a moment of silence between us when I don’t know what to say. I don’t want to make her feel self-conscious or incur her wrath. But then I figure there must’ve been a good reason for Joan’s change of heart. Thinking to tease her, I ask, “The marketing hook worked?”

Without looking at me, Joan touches the corner of her eye and says, “Doesn’t mean she doesn’t love him.”

 

 

Mary Hutchings Reed is the author of four indie literary mainstream novels: One for the ArkWarming Up,Saluting the Sun, and Courting Kathleen Hannigan, which foretells the #MeToo movement as it chronicles the challenges facing a young woman lawyer “growing up” in a prestigious Chicago law firm. Mary practiced intellectual property law in Chicago for many years and her short fiction has appeared in The Florida Review, The Tampa Review, Ars Medica and the Ligourian. Read more about her work at www.maryhutchingsreed.com

 

Homepage Summer 2018


“Submerged Treasure” by Kathy O’Meara.

Happy Summer and welcome to our July issue with the theme of “VESSELS,” featuring the wonderful artwork of Kathy O’Meara, from whom the theme for the issue was borrowed. We are all vessels, yes? And the things we carry are sometimes carried voluntarily, sometimes with love, sometimes heaped upon our straining backs. But carry our burdens we do, because what else is there to do?

We have some great work in this issue, including a fascinating essay on male loneliness, a clever story that addresses the (very) creative monsters many of us live with, and at least one first-time author. It’s a marvelous collection of work and the issue came together beautifully—and thank goodness, because frankly, life has been a little hectic here of late: the website was briefly hacked, my old computer was in its death throes and has now been replaced, and well, just the general pace of life which seems to be ramping up daily.

I’m sad to say that this will be the last issue for two of our wonderful staff members. Bev Jackson, our tireless SOS editor and Noa Sivan, an astute SOS reader are both leaving us to attend to their individual lives and various creative pursuits. We will miss them, but remain grateful for all the volunteer hours they freely gave to r.kv.r.y..

On a more personal note, I’ve been dealing with a gut-wrenching mental health crisis involving a member of my family and the process has reiterated what I already suspected: most of us either have a family member who struggles with some aspect of mental health, or we struggle ourselves. Whether it be anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, dementia, Attention Deficit Disorder, or any number of other hurdles in the mind, we’ve all been affected, some in multiple forms or from multiple sides. It’s pervasive, it’s very real, and not only do these sufferers walk among us, they ARE us.

So I dedicate this issue to all of you affected by mental disorders and/or mental illness. Keep at it. Keep going. It’s the best any of us can do.

And as always, thank you for reading.

Yours in Recovery,

Mary Akers
Editor-in-chief

Contributors Summer 2018


Amy Alexander (Blue House) is a poet and writer living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She has published work in Quarterly West, The Cream City Review, The Coil, Louisiana Literature, and many other journals. She was a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship.


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


Chaya Bhuvaneswar‘s (Geese) 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, Hobart, Natural Bridge, and elsewhere. She recently received the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and a Henfield award for her writing. Follow her on Twitter at @chayab77 including for upcoming readings and events.


Ace Boggess (Did You Ever Switch from One Drug to Another?) 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.


Christiana Dillard (Houses and Homes) is a freelance writer from Orlando, Florida who relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has published non-fiction work with the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation, Pitt Magazine, and Soul Pitt Quarterly, a community magazine. She enjoys creating content and taking walks, no matter the weather.


griffin epstein (This Funeral is Boring)  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.


Geoff Graser (Now That I Was Unquestionably Single) writes nonfiction and fiction. He holds a Master’s in Journalism from Syracuse University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College. His work has appeared in USA TodayWashington City Paper, Rochester’s City Newspaper and Democrat and ChronicleMedium.com, Santa Clara Review, Timeline and The Big Brick Review. He is currently working on a book about the life and art of Rochester, NY, graffiti artist Bones.


Nick Gregorio (How to Murder Your Monster and Get Away with It) lives, writes, and teaches just outside of Philadelphia. His fiction has appeared in Crack the Spine, Hypertrophic Literary, Third Point Press and many more. He earned his MFA from Arcadia University in May 2015. His debut novel, Good Grief, is available now from Maudlin House.

Mark Liebenow (Wooden Gates) 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


Jayne Martin (Carry Me Home) is a 2017 Pushcart nominee, 2016 winner of Vestal Review’s VERA award, and a 2018 Best Small Fictions nominee. Her work has appeared in Literary Orphans, Spelk, Crack the Spine, Midwestern Gothic, MoonPark Review, Blink-Ink, Blue Fifth Review, Hippocampus and Connotation Press, among others. She lives in California where she drinks copious amounts of fine wine and rides horses, though not at the same time. Find her on Twitter @Jayne_Martin.


Kathryn McLaughlin (Survival Tips) lives in South Florida with her dog Yeti.


Jessica Mehta (She Was Always So Thirsty) is a poet and novelist, and member of the Cherokee Nation. She is the author of ten books including the forthcoming Savagery, and Drag Me Through the Mess. Previous books include Constellations of My Body, Secret-Telling Bones, Orygun, What Makes an Always, The Last Exotic Petting Zoo and The Wrong Kind of Indian. Jessica is the recipient of a Barbara Deming Memorial Fund in Poetry and runs a multi-award winning writing services business, MehtaFor. She is the founder of the Get it Ohm! karma yoga movement. Visit Jessica’s author site at www.jessicatynermehta.com.


Kathy O’Meara (Illustrator) is an award-winning artist who has exhibited in numerous solo and small-group shows around the country. She is a signature member of
ISEA (International Society of Experimental Artists). Her work has been published in The Art of Layering: Making Connections. She has judged numerous exhibitions and curated many gallery shows.


TJ Reynolds (Heptad for Returning from War) has published non-fiction and poetry with NAILED Magazine, The Hour After Happy Hour Review, and F(r)iction Magazine. From 2004-2005, TJ served an infantryman in Iraq. He has 3 gorgeous children and works as an English Instructor at Cypress College, CA.


John Riley (The First Day)  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.


Tom Sheehan (Also Henry) has published 22 books and has had work appear in Literally StoriesOcean MagazineRosebud, Linnet’s Wings, Copperfield ReviewSoundings East, Vermont Literary Review, Literary OrphansDeep South MagazineProvo Canyon Review, and other journals. Swan River Daisy, his first chapbook, is just released and The Cowboys, a collection of western short stories, is due shortly.


Benjamin Selesnick (Torrents) 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.


Anna Villegas (One Tough German: Part II) 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.

“How to Murder Your Monster and Get Away with It” by Nick Gregorio


“Fractured Glyph” by Kathy O’Meara

Your monster leaves green, wiry fur everywhere. He slops greasy white drool onto the furniture when he eats. His horns have splintered the door jambs and frames in nearly every room in the house. He never wipes his hooves before coming inside. He’s got a wet dog smell when he’s dry. A dead dog smell when he’s wet. He never cleans up after himself. Cigarette butts. Beer bottles. Take out containers. Condom wrappers. All over the place. All the time. He steals cash right out of your wallet too.

And every time you’ve tried to murder him he’s never, ever died. Not even once. Not even for a second.

But you keep trying.

You keep trying because if he’s still mucking around, you’re still making excuses. For the late nights. The inability to commit. The endless string of angry friends—former friends. For everything.

You cook up a beautiful breakfast of eggs and toast and waffles and bacon and sausage. You pepper it all with arsenic.

Your monster, he doesn’t bother to thank you—because, of course he doesn’t—before he starts throwing clumps of food into his face.

But you don’t care.

Not about the bits of egg that end up on the wall behind him. Not about the slurping, sucking sounds he makes while he chews. And not about the scratches he leaves in your good plates and custom, authentic Amish-crafted table, grabbing for more. (You bought that thing to show your mother, your father, your friends that you can take care of nice things. And now it’s wrecked.)

So you laugh when he keels over, shatters a plate with his face.

The impact jingles the unused utensils. Spills juice and coffee over the rims of glasses and mugs.

His face in a bed of shattered ceramic, you’re a cackling fiend. Your stomach muscles ache, you can’t catch your breath, your eyes are all runny. A rope of slobber runs from your bottom lip to your tie.

All because now, starting today, you’ll be taken seriously.

At work, you’re a new man. Everyone sees it. Your boss. Lola from accounting. Your marketing team.

You’ve hit reset. You’ve got a chance to begin again. Like the song you used to sing as a kid—the one about the pathetic old Irish man.

Lola says, “You look happy today.”

“Michael Finnegan begin again,” you say. “What would you say to drinks? Monsterless. Just you and me?”

But, of course, your monster calls the office just after lunch to tell you how delicious breakfast was. To ask what you did differently.

A Google search later you find out that arsenic acts as a strong sedative for monsters. That it adds volume and body to their fur on top of the very deep, euphoric sleep it induces.

You cancel on Lola before you leave for the night.

~

The next time you give it a go, you get your monster good and drunk at the bar you two used to close-up almost nightly. Now just semi-nightly.

You act like he’s your best buddy.

It’s easy because he used to be.

You buy him beers, shots, mixed drinks. More beers, more shots, and even more shots. And you, you’re faking sloppy while matching drink for drink. With a little help from the bartender, the beers are Becks NA in pint glasses. The white liquor is water. The brown liquor is…okay, it’s brown liquor. But you don’t blame yourself for that. You’ll need the guts to do what needs to get done.

Your monster, he’s cutting it up with other’s people’s monsters—the ones who have it together. The ones with their fur trimmed, and their horns polished, and their tusks or teeth all pearly white. Sure, they’re playing pool and swearing and smoking and talking bawdy about the purple-furred, fanged waitress’s scaly, sparkly tail…but most certainly they’ll go home with their humans to get enough sleep so that they’ll be ready for work bright and early.

The guys sitting at the bar with you, they’re adults. They’ve tamed their monsters. Landed good jobs. Bought houses. And only get drunk and rowdy when their schedule permits.

Buy you, you’ve had enough of all of it. Enough for two monsters, really. And despite your monster refusing to cut it out with the drinking, the smoking, the everything, you’re doing everything you can to separate yourself from that.

You talk to the bartender politely—because that’s what you do now. Ask her what she does outside of this place, what her hobbies are, where she’s from. You’re friendly with the waitress-monster, who, like most, grew up properly alongside her human counterpart.

But that’s when your monster loses everything he drank all over the pool table.

“He’s yours, right?” the bartender says.

You smile, say, “Yeah. But our priorities are different these days.”

You manage to get him into your car, buckle him in.

Then you remember the plan and unbuckle the belt as if it had buckled itself without your permission.

It’s dark. Dark-dark. No stars-dark. Just the halos from your headlamps crammed into yellow binoculars on the road. A streetlamp once or twice. Headlights every now and then. A police cruiser tucked behind some bushes here or there.

Before, this stretch of road at this time of night was just about the loneliest you could get.

Tonight—your monster snoring and slobbering all over himself in the passenger seat—you could scare children to tears with the grin stretching your face achy.

The bolt cutters bite through the chain at the quarry entrance with almost no effort. Maybe it’s the adrenaline. Maybe the light weight lifting is paying off. Maybe it was a bad chain because what kind of lunatic breaks into a quarry in the middle of the night?
Headlights off, the gravel’s a whispering rumble under the tires.

Your monster doesn’t stir, move, adjust. Doesn’t make a sound. Not a grunt. Not a deep, wet, drunken burp. Nothing.

But a hundred or so feet from the hole, you’re giggling.

The football helmet from high school smells too much like the past you hated while you lived it for no other reason than you were young and stupid and lonely. But it’s nice now. Like the prom you shouldn’t have drank through. The graduation you should’ve paid attention to. The couple of friends you should’ve kept in touch with.

One more big old whiff of sweat and dry rot, and you slam your foot onto the gas pedal, throw the car into drive, and take off toward the drop edge of nothing.

Just before the car sails into the black, you open the door and dive into the gravel. The momentum drags you through the dirt. Eats at your knees, hands, elbows, chest. But you don’t care. There’s plenty of time left to stop yourself before you roll over the edge.
Now that he’s gone.

The Uber ride home is silent. Every now and again you hum about the Irish guy in that kiddie song. Every so often your brain replays the sound of the car hitting the bottom of the pit. And every time crumpling metal smashing against stone fires through your head, you add to a list of ways your life is about to improve.

Promotion: Possible.

Lose thirty pounds of fat, gain fifteen of muscle: In-Progress.

Lola falling in love with you: Be your new self and make it happen.

At home, in bed, sleep doesn’t come easy because of the wonderful potential future ahead. But you drift off. Nice and slow, you drift away to be replaced by a brand new you in the morning.

~

Your monster calls from the police station first thing.

You have to burn some PTO to pick him up. Have to empty out your savings for bail.
At the station, your dinged up, bandaged, bruised monster acts all sheepish behind bars. He smiles, waves.

“He’s yours, right?” an officer says.

You say nothing. Nod.

Once he’s let out of his cell, you throw your arms around your monster, hug him tight. Then you say thank god, that you were worried sick, that you wouldn’t know what you’d do without him.

The cop says your monster was lucky. But not lucky enough to walk away from an accident like that without any consequences. There will be a hearing. Probably required community service. Restitution. Maybe thirty days in jail depending on how the lenient the judge is with first-time monster offenders.

You’re also told you need to be more responsible. “He is yours after all. Lead by example.”

You hug your monster again, a bit tighter this time.

Face in his reeking green fur, you listen for a pained grunt or a slight crackle of bone. But he doesn’t make a sound.

~

It’s weeks before you even begin to think about trying again.

Longer until you wonder if you’re the one who has to get murdered in order to get rid of your monster. But dying wouldn’t work at all. That productive-member-of-society status you want so badly wouldn’t apply to you. Lola from accounting would forget all about you, start talking to Dan from marketing, or Brian from the leadership team, or Ken from HR before too long. And your debt would get shunted back onto your sad, disappointed parents.

But when your monster falls asleep on the couch after talking about how wild that purple-furred, fanged waitress is, you turn all the gas burners on in the kitchen.
While gas stink fills the house, you’re on your computer.

You google, are monsters flame retardant? How many monsters died in fires in the last ten years? Does monster fur gain a new lustrous color after being burned?

You google, will Lola forgive you for canceling on her so many times if personal tragedy strikes? How much time off will you get for being caught in a catastrophe? Is a person whole if their monster dies?

You’re lightheaded when you reach for the scented candle on the coffee table. The scented candle you bought when your friends started putting scented candles on display in their lovely, well-maintained homes.

You pull the lighter that’s tucked between cigarettes in your monster’s pack of smokes. And when you flick the flame on, light the wick, you spring off the couch toward the door.

The explosion throws you through the screen door, down the porch steps, and spills you onto the little patch of lawn the landlord mows.

Aching, burned, bleeding, you laugh and laugh. You spit blood and laugh and laugh. And you have to force yourself to stop when the fire trucks and cops and ambulances show up, turn the neighborhood into a rave with their lights.

You answer all their questions lying on a stretcher.

“My monster was in there.”

“I smelled gas right before it happened.”

“I lit a candle. Is this my fault?”

The looks you get. Halfway between pity and scorn.

The same looks you’ve been getting since you and your monster never stopped yourselves from acting like you acted in high school. And college. And young-professionaldom. And middle-agedness. A boy and his monster, all grown up never having grown the fuck up.

“I’m alive now,” you say. “I’m alive.”

One of the paramedics, she turns to you, sort of smiles. “You’re very lucky.”

You laugh again.

That song floods your brain. The one about the Irish guy who never did anything right but always got second chances. The one you sang when you were a kid. Before you and your monster turned yourselves into beasts together.

Through your mangled, bloody smile, you say, “Luck had nothing to do with it. Poor old Michael Finnegan, begin again.”

Then you start to sing. “Poor old Michael Finnegan, begin again.”

Just before the EMTs shut the ambulance doors, someone outside says something like wait, wait, look. Something that sounds a lot like they’ve found something under whatever’s left of your apartment.

That something’s alive under there.

So you sing all the way to the hospital. You sing because you’re going to get another shot. Whatever it is, you’ll get another go at it.

Again and again.

Until it’s right.

 

 

Nick Gregorio lives, writes, and teaches just outside of Philadelphia. His fiction has appeared in Crack the Spine, Hypertrophic Literary, Third Point Press and many more. He earned his MFA from Arcadia University in May 2015. His debut novel, Good Grief, is available now from Maudlin House.

 

“Blue House” by Amy Alexander


“Karlen’s Vessel” by Kathy O’Meara.

She takes spider silk and oils from the next town over.
She takes flowers blue and deep black.

She dreams of sonnets and tries to get the words out.

She held the sprout of her baby, the tissues like a sodden desert bloom packed with unexpected rainwater, in her refrigerator for five days.

I’ve got a dead baby in my fridge, she thinks.
Out of nowhere she stifles a quick laugh: Inappropriate

She doesn’t know how to do this.
She examines the so-called “products of her conception.”
Looks for fingers or a spine.

The house is quiet, all the children in yellow, red or white houses and the man gone off to work.
She pours what’s left into the palm of her hand so she can hold it once. It stains her fingers like berries.

She shushes the slightly sick shame
Only say you looked at it, she reminds herself.

All the songs she would have sung feel stuck in her throat like soup cream.
All the diapers she would have hung in the sun flap in her mind and snap in the grief wind.

She promises not to mention them.

 

 

Amy Alexander is a poet and writer living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She has published work in Quarterly West, The Cream City Review, The Coil, Louisiana Literature, and many other journals. She was a finalist for the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship.

 

“Now That I Was Unquestionably Single” by Geoff Graser


“Free Flying” by Kathy O’Meara

1

I’d been to the stadium several times, but somehow never noticed the building I’d eventually call home. It emerged beyond the right-field wall, beyond the crowd, beyond the freight train rumbling and whistling. The brick stretched an entire city block with its eye-catching, if not pretty, Dijon yellow paint job. On the roof, I saw a helix of smoke spiraling from a grill into the cloudless dusk. From my seat down the third baseline at Frontier Field, where the Rochester Red Wings play, I could also make out tiny figures in ball caps on the roof. They took in the game from silver bleachers.

“Now that’s how to watch baseball,” I said, pointing out the fans to my friends. “I wonder how much it costs to live there?”

They answered with sounds instead of numbers—“Jeesh” and “Wow” and “Hmmn.” Whatever the price for paradise, we all knew I couldn’t afford a place overlooking a stadium—not even the minor leagues.

2

            More than a decade earlier, in 1997, Rochester’s leaders envisioned the picturesque minor league stadium as the spearhead for a downtown renaissance similar to what Baltimore, Cleveland, and other cities experienced after building new stadiums for their major league teams. A slew of bars and restaurants opened in the abandoned factory buildings around the stadium and spectacular High Falls (waterfalls high enough to have taken the life of 19th century daredevil Sam Patch shortly after he became the first to jump Niagara Falls). In the late 1990s, this nightlife scene drew lines out the door. However, these establishments were cavernous, loud, and glitzy—places with a bathroom attendant pushing cologne for a tip—and Rochester is a pub-town not a club-town. After the novelty faded, few ventured there during the six months the stadium sat dormant. The gigantic bars and restaurants couldn’t afford a full year of rent on half-a-year’s income. By 2005, the once-lively destinations had either given way to office space or had been deserted. I sometimes wonder how I neglected this omen.

3

At first, I envisioned the picturesque building by the stadium as the spearhead for my own renaissance. Two years after ogling Buckingham Commons with my friends, it had become clear my marriage was over.

We had lived in a two-story colonial my wife discovered on a relatively quiet city street, but I never felt settled there. Perhaps because I didn’t feel settled with my new family—Julie and my stepsons Aaron, 11, and Kevin, 8. I’d fallen in love with each of their unique and bold personalities, yet daily battles ranging from bedtimes to visitation with the boys’ fathers (they were half-brothers) spun us farther away from what I considered a healthy family dynamic. To complicate things, Julie’s mom, who suffered from chronic depression and myriad other ailments, would often stay for days uninvited. By no means a tiny house, it never felt like enough space.

We tried family counseling, but it provided only temporary solutions to what I eventually deemed an untenable situation. After three years of marriage, I moved into a basement studio in a modest apartment complex. I saw the boys sporadically but had almost no contact with Julie. After more than a year, I missed her. I initiated reconciliation. The first month or so came with forgiveness, open communication, and renewed hope. Everyone, including my two stepsons, were on their best behavior. On our first family outing, we paddled canoes through marshes in a park. When the boys took a different path in their canoe and lost us for 10 minutes, nobody fought. Julie and I snuck passionate kisses.

I slept at our house many nights, but still kept most of my belongings at the apartment. “Maybe it’s the secret to marriage,” Julie quipped about our separate dwellings. After a couple of months, though, familiar issues arose. I wanted a child of our own. Julie wanted to stay at home with the baby I desired. I couldn’t see how I’d make enough money to support a wife and three children. I started noticing women without children and contemplated a life without my current responsibilities. The holidays approached, and I couldn’t fake my way through them. I returned to my basement studio full-time.

4  

The following fall, I decided to find a place I really wanted to live. I researched loft apartments like an advanced scout planning for a draft. I’d fantasized about a building like the one by the stadium even during my marriage. Once, I made the mistake of sharing this daydream with Julie and she prevailed before we even made it to the expense. “The boys finally have their own rooms,” she said.

The loft by the ballpark cost less than I first expected—$1,000 a month. Sure, $300 more than my current monthly rent wasn’t a pittance, but with my big expenses—family health insurance, for instance—now eliminated, I decided to live the high life. I’d turn 35 in a few weeks, and I thought this might be my last chance.

A maroon banner trumpeting “Buckingham Commons” spanned the front of the building from the second floor to the seventh where I lived. The banner proclaimed a residence fit for royalty rather than a guy who wrote letters for a payroll processing company. Oh well, my new job as a cubicle clone earned more than any other position I’d held. It also catapulted me from the subterranean studio I first rented after my separation to the top floor of a building with the best view in the city—a perch I thought guaranteed the eradication of any doubts about my current lot in life. I had doubts about staying in Rochester, doubts about my career, doubts about true love.

During my first few days at Buckingham, I’d stroll through the lobby, replete with leather couches and modern art, and sing “The Jeffersons” theme song (“Well, we’re movin’ on up”). I’d learned the building started as a railroad equipment factory in 1898 and closed nearly a century later as an optical manufacturing company. Another decade had passed before a real estate mogul—on a mission to revive the once-bustling downtown—resurrected the idle warehouse into a nouveau, urban, mixed-use building with offices on the first three floors. So here I was in 2009, relishing the Industrial-era vestiges of exposed air ducts, pipes and wiring. At times, I would run my hand over a grainy wooden pillar in my apartment as you might a tree. I saw the loft as an opportunity to rediscover my roots and reclaim things I loved. Like baseball.

5

When I told people about my new apartment, I bragged about the ballpark first. As a child, I loved baseball most, and it’s the one sport I played until varsity. My view of Rochester’s Camdenesque grounds offered a daily reminder of youth, my life before adult responsibilities. Every morning of my first month there, I soaked in the view through windows more than twice my size. AM radio broadcasts of ballgames crackled in my imagination, and I swear the smell of fresh-cut outfield grass and my oiled mitt wafted into the apartment.

Baseball requires both deep concentration and split-second reflexes. Playing shortstop, I’d glance at the pitcher in his wind-up and then lock in on the hitter. With men on second and third, one out, I planned where I’d go with a hard hit grounder in the third base hole. Or a soft roller just past the pitcher’s mound. In the batter’s box I’d gently rock on the balls of my feet, anticipating a lefty coming with a backdoor curve after an inside fastball meant to back me off the plate.

If only I knew marriage like baseball. After our failed attempt to reconcile and subsequent visions of moving away, I chose this apartment so warm nostalgia and spring revival could ease my pain. Only one problem. The Red Wings season had ended the month before I moved into the loft.

6

A few days after landing my dream apartment, my laptop’s hard drive fizzled. The $1,000 I’d planned to spend on furniture went toward a new computer instead. And once I’d drained my savings, I discovered the meaning of “house-poor.” Except for bookshelves from my dad and a couple of rickety bar stools from the thrift store, the living room remained empty. At first, this didn’t stop the party.

On a crisp early October night, I invited friends over. We drank beers on the rooftop paradise I’d once envied from the third baseline. We couldn’t watch baseball, but at least the roof had a place to sit.

From the aluminum bleachers, we surveyed the stadium and other landmarks, including the 19-story Kodak headquarters that dwarfed its neighbors. Above the gold “KODAK” letters, the tower culminates with the semblance of a church steeple. The story goes that after the Times Square Building (directly behind us) eclipsed Kodak as the city’s tallest, George Eastman, the founder of the camera giant, added another three floors and a spire to reclaim top-dog status. Whenever I caught a peripheral glance of the Kodak building, I reminisced about gawking at the Empire State Building from my friend’s Chelsea apartment a decade earlier. I didn’t live in the Big Apple anymore, but my thin slice of the high life seduced me into feeling in league with Eastman and the city’s powerful. My past apartments had all been livable, but slanted floors, peeling walls or dour roommates usually thwarted my urge to entertain. This was the first apartment I wanted to show off.

“Is this where you’re gonna bring all the ladies?” asked one of my friends.

“Sure hope so,” I said.

Most nights after that, though, I headed to the rooftop myself. There were no buildings obstructing the view to the West, so I’d stand at the railing and watch the sun slip down the expressway out of town. Trains chugged below me and then into the distance. This was where I’d figure out what to do with my life, now that I was unquestionably single.

In baseball, a single means success. The crowd cheers at the crack of the bat. A single sends the hitter in the right direction, toward home. In our society, being single is not applauded. While many people relish the independence in spurts, it lacks the value given to something bigger, being a part of a couple or family. Discontented couples should always scrutinize the hue of green on the other side of the fence before leaping. Perhaps even more than I did.

Pink autumn dusks on the drives home to my new loft eventually darkened. And opening the door didn’t feel like coming “home.” My fancy apartment hadn’t burst into the swinging bachelor pad I’d envisioned. The ballpark remained lifeless and the security measures at Buckingham Commons were the modern equivalent of a mote. Guests would have to call me to open the gate to the parking lot. Call me again to buzz them into the building’s front door. And then wait for me still to open a locked door after the elevator brought them to my floor.

“It was easy once I made it past the guard dogs,” said a friend who visited.

As winter loomed, it started to feel like my studio apartment. Higher, sure, but just as lonely. As I looked past the unlit stadium onto the once-happening High Falls neighborhood night after night, the chorus to a David Byrne song sometimes played in my head, “With glass, and concrete, and stone / it is just a house, not a home.”

I’d struck out. In baseball, you get a break, a seventh-inning stretch. In life, it’s no given.

7

Two months before moving into Buckingham Commons, I’d made one final effort to save our marriage. Julie met me at a coffee shop near my office. She dressed in business casual, too, but her lips glistened and she wore enough make up to look ready for a date. I knew it wasn’t one. I’d recently heard from a friend that Julie had been seeing someone for several months.

We sat at a table outside, far enough to prevent anyone from eavesdropping. I felt at ease, friendly. We chatted about her volunteer church trip to Peru with the boys. She was still tan.

“I’ve been thinking about you,” I said.

“I shut the door back in December, Geoff,” she said. “I can’t do it anymore.”

I nodded. I didn’t want to argue.

“I miss you,” I said. “I’m lonely.”

“You should get a TV.”

I laughed. I’d stopped watching TV. I read books now. Within a couple months, though, I couldn’t look at the living room wall in my loft without envisioning a flat screen.

8

At times, I would gaze upon the caricature painting of Franz Kafka above the desk in my bedroom. My heroes had become writers instead of ballplayers. Still, I sometimes second-guessed spending that $500 the previous year. That could’ve been a flat screen TV, I thought. I’d fallen in love with Kafka not because of “Metamorphoses” but instead a lengthy letter he wrote to his father. In this 40-page correspondence, Kafka ostensibly seeks reconciliation rather than retribution. Nevertheless, he attributes his ineradicable self-doubt to the harsh upbringing by his father. In several instances, Kafka describes with stunning accuracy the same feelings of insecurity, timidity, and despair I’d experienced as a child but could never articulate. Sometimes, I admit, I still suffer these emotional handicaps.

The impetus for Kafka’s letter to his father was the unraveling of his third and final engagement. Kafka called marriage the “pinnacle of life” and saw himself as a failure for never marrying. Likewise, I believed the end of my marriage was a failure. I had wanted to make the boys’ and Julie’s broken family whole. I’d failed.

Kafka’s writing originally provided solace, but the more I read his letters and stories, the more I worried about looking up (literally) to a man whose gifts as a writer and intellectual seemed to offer little reprieve from his emotional anguish. I began to see Kafka and his trapped characters like “K” from The Castle as a cautionary tale. Similar to Kafka, I always craved time away from my day job to write. I was well aware that my passion for individual pursuits like writing and reading had factored into the undoing of my marriage. And now, without a family, I had all the time I could ever want to write. So why would I sit at my desk staring at the empty ballpark?

Maybe I needed a TV after all.

Early in December, like a Christmas miracle, a friend texted me to say she’d driven by a couch on the sidewalk. The next day, I hauled the abandoned treasure into my living room. Now that I had a place to sit, I went online and shopped for less than an hour before buying an early Christmas gift for myself —a 49-inch flat screen.

9

The cable guy was a 6 foot 3 hulk whose boots clunked across my living room floor. He turned down my offer of Christmas cookies.

Later, however, as I worked at the desk in my bedroom, I heard him say, “Mmm. Wow.” I went to see what was up. Maybe he’d changed his mind on the cookies. Before I said anything, though, I found him with his back to me looking out the window. Snowflakes fell so slowly they might have melted before reaching the ground.

“Reminds me of back home,” said the cable guy whose name I’d learned was John.

In spite of the darkness, I could make out the shape of the stadium’s grandstand and the field covered in snow from corner to corner. It hardly matched the idyllic image of America’s pastime I first saw when I moved in, but the smattering of city lights proved enough to illuminate John’s memories.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“The Bronx,” he said, and tilted the blinds for a better look. “Right by Yankee Stadium.” Maybe he saw the tracks below and remembered the subway rattling the windows of his childhood. I saw the glow of the TV as I fell asleep to a late-night Yankees game.

“You’ve got the spot,” he said, laughing and shaking his head.

“I’m splurging,” I said. “Don’t know exactly how long I can—”

“Only live once, man. If I didn’t have kids, I’d be spending a lot more on myself.”

“Oh, you have kids?”

“One’s 18. About on her way out.”

Had we met before this apartment, I probably would’ve told him about my stepsons and shared a couple of “kids-do-the-darndest-things” chuckles, but I was trying to move on. I went back to work and he did the same, but before he finished he asked me something from the living room. I thought he’d asked about having a TV.

“Haven’t had one in two years, ” I said, almost boasting.

But then he walked in with a cable coiled around his wrist and asked again if I’d be putting a TV in my bedroom, too.

“Nah, don’t want to become a junkie,” I said, before he hinted at giving me the cable for free.

“Never know. I have one in my bedroom, just for company.”

Had this behemoth of a man just admitted his loneliness to me? His face looked peaceful, as if he could doze off standing up.

“When I’m not at my girlfriend’s,” he continued, “I’ll watch for a couple hours to get to sleep.” I pictured this giant under the covers eating cookies and giggling at “Simpsons” reruns.

“You know,” he said again. “Just for company.”

It was as if he’d sensed my loneliness. I had no choice but to take the cable and smile. Until baseball awoke the stadium in spring, I would probably need some company. Now that I was unquestionably single.

 

 

Geoff Graser writes nonfiction and fiction. He holds a Master’s in Journalism from Syracuse University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College. His work has appeared in USA TodayWashington City Paper, Rochester’s City Newspaper and Democrat and ChronicleMedium.com, Santa Clara Review, Timeline and The Big Brick Review. He is currently working on a book about the life and art of Rochester, NY, graffiti artist Bones.

“Houses and Homes” by Christiana Dillard


“Witnesses” by Kathy O’Meara

A cloudy week can beat four sunny ones black and blue. Following a solid August for Vi, five miserable days in September fuck her up.

On Monday and Tuesday, she wakes with crust coating her eyelids and a phlegmy cough.

She breaks two plates in the restaurant kitchen after hours on Wednesday (Ronnie almost slips on the mess while preparing grape leaves, but he cleans it after she sinks to the floor, crying).

On Thursday, she receives a call from her father, ignores it, and smokes two more joints than usual.

She pulls a muscle in her arm on Friday morning carrying a heavy load of groceries up the stairs.

But salvation arrives in the form of a phone call from Ronnie on Friday night. Her left arm dangles off the edge of her bed, aching fingertips stretched to the floor. He invites her to help him with his grandma’s party the next day. The forecast predicts clear skies.

“You been trippin’ the past few days, Vi. Come eat with us.”

“Will she have salad?”

“Yeah. And watermelon, grilled chicken, potato salad. Other good things. You need some real food; you been on that depression diet forever.” He sounds sober and sincere, so she accepts.

In the morning, her arm surprisingly supple, Vi opens her door when Ronnie knocks. She closes it behind her before he can step in.

“For real? I got like three joints rolled up,” he says. “And we haven’t smoked all week.”

“Speak for yourself. I have.” He frowns, but she continues. “And no, Ronnie. We’re going over your grandma’s.” He sighs and lags behind her.

 

In his sedan, they head to the suburbs on the edge of town. Dense foliage borders the roadway. Sunlight splinters through the leaves. A hawk circles overhead. The sky is very blue. Vi rolls down the window and sticks out her head. The roadway smells of raw musk. Ronnie taps his fingers against the steering wheel to a rap song, shooting her quick glances.

“You got some pollen on your cheek,” he says at a stop sign. He reaches to brush it off, but she tenses up.

“I got it,” she says.

They pull into his grandma’s cobblestone driveway and hop out the sedan. Ronnie snaps his fingers. “Remind me to fill up when we leave. There’s a station around the corner.”

“Need gas money?”

“Nah. Don’t start with me. I just wanted you to be alright today. Alright?” He bops her lightly under the chin and smirks. They walk up the pathway and his knuckles rap against the door.

Faint little creaks, a twitchy knob, then the sudden slap of air conditioning. A brown lady with soft wrinkles stands smiling in the passageway, wearing a loose top and matching pants with house shoes. Her fingernails are painted ivory. She eyes Vi.

“Well, you’re pretty.” She hugs them both with fleshy arms. “Come in, babies.”

The home is crowded with houseplants: hanging, sitting. Blooming and breathing. As they pass through the living room, a loud pink hibiscus petal falls from its bud. Vi bends to pick it up, sticking it in her pocket.

“Stop stealing,” Ronnie teases with a whisper. Vi rolls her eyes, but gives him a little grin. He smiles in return. Ronnie’s grandma scoots ahead, leading them to the kitchen.

“I’m Ms. Shirley. Now,” the kitchen smells of the labor of love, “you must be Violet.”

“Yes ma’am. But I go by Vi.”

“Last name, Vi?”

“Greene.”

“Very interesting.” Ms. Shirley points down the hall. “I keep violets in the spare room. Violets and lavender. I learned about color theory in one of my evening classes at the library.” She chuckles. “And they go with the theme. I think I’m doing pretty good.”

Ronnie gets a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Doing well.”

“Boy, shut up!” Ms. Shirley laughs. “One thing you can count on from me, Vi,” Ms. Shirley says, strolling behind the kitchen island, “I don’t cut this young man any slack. No overbearing grandmotherly love here.” She eyes them both, eyes darting back and forth, and grins. “Don’t let him mess with you.”

“Oh believe me, Ma’am. I don’t.”

“Yeah,” Ronnie mumbles. “Vi doesn’t let me do anything.”

 

As promised, there’s a large bowl of watermelon topped with sprigs of mint sitting on the granite island. Ms. Shirley turns to the cabinets and pulls out small dishes. She scoops the fruit onto the plates and passes them to Vi and Ronnie.

“There’s macaroni in the oven; potato salad, an actual salad, and marinated chicken in the fridge; and red beans and rice on the stove. A sweet potato pie’s on the way.” Ms. Shirley smacks her lips together after crunching into a chunk of melon. “Ronnie told me you all work together, so I know you know he cooks, too. But I just didn’t care to have the help today. Though, if you all could do these dishes, I’d appreciate it.” She gestures to the crowded sink, where pots and pans are stacked in a balancing act.

“Of course.” Vi pops a watermelon cube in her mouth and strolls to the sink. She begins placing the kitchenware on the counter. Ronnie leans in and squeezes her shoulder. She jumps.

“Woah, my bad. It’s me, friend; you’re in good hands.” She turns to look at him. He’s smiling, yet again. “I have to talk to my Grandma real quick. I’ll be back in like, two minutes. Grandma!” Ronnie turns around and hugs Ms. Shirley around her firm shoulders. “Let’s step outside for a little bit.”

“OK. Grab the chicken.”

They walk out to the back porch, Ronnie lugging the aluminum tray of barbeque to the grill. Vi starts the hot water. Her fingers jerk away at the searing heat.

“Shit.” She nudges the cold faucet to cool down the water and squints through the window. Ronnie is giving Ms. Shirley a loving pat on the back. She pinches a stray leaf from his hair and flicks it away. They mouth an exchange as the wind blows, gently lifting their shirts at the hems. Ms. Shirley turns quickly toward the window, and Vi thinks she sees her staring, so she starts cleaning a soapy plate.

Ronnie heads back in slowly and slides the porch door shut. “Just asked her who’s going to be here.”

“And?”

“A few older people from around the neighborhood. And her ‘boyfriend.’ Haven’t met him,yet. Some old guy, stays a few miles away. Told her that I’d have to approve.”

Vi runs water over a cast iron skillet and raises her pitch. “Boy, shut up!”

“That impression was shit.”

“Boy, shut up!”

“Better.”

They scrub and dry. They let some dishes sit out on the rack. They are quiet. Outside, Ms. Shirley maneuvers the grill soundlessly.

The sun sinks lower in the sky, not as inviting as earlier. When they finish, they step back. Ronnie drains the sink. Vi looks out the window and breathes.

“I need some air,” she says.

“Want to take a walk?”

“Doesn’t she need help?”

“Nah. Didn’t you hear her earlier?”

“Well, check in and make sure.”

Ronnie knocks on the screen door from the inside. Ms. Shirley looks up. He lays his still damp hand on Vi’s shoulder and jabs his thumb toward the door. Ms. Shirley’s eyebrows go up. Vi rolls her eyes and slides open the door.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am. We just wanted to go on a walk, I don’t know why he’s being so cryptic. You good?”

“I’m good, baby. I appreciate it.” A cloud passes overhead, and Ms. Shirley frowns.

“You all should hurry up. Looks like there might be rain after all.”

“Yes, ma’am. Won’t be too long.”

When they get to the front, they meet a straight-backed, mahogany man in a plaid button down. His shaky grip hangs onto the bottom of a large bouquet of orange lilies.

“Shirley here?”

“Yes, sir. You Mr. Barron?”

“Barron Baxter. That’s me.”

“Huh,” Ronnie grunts. Vi nudges him in the rib. She butts in and clears her throat.

“She’s out back. Do you know your way?”

“Sure do. You, young man. You her grandson? Ronald?”

“Ronnie. Yes, sir.”

“And you, young lady?”

“I’m Vi.”

“Vi?”

“Violet, sir.”

“Huh.” Mr. Barron shrugs. “You all be good, now. Headed out?”

“Just for a walk.”

“Well, then. You all be good, now.” He slinks around to the back. His slow stride reminds Vi of Ronnie’s.

They shiver at the sudden temperature drop as they troop up the street.

“He’s too old for me to talk shit about, Vi, so save it.”

“Damn, who said I was going to say anything? You’re always accusing me of something.”

“I said it because I know you. And anyway, all I would’ve said—”

“And yet, here you are about to say it.”

“All I would’ve said is, he said ‘You all be good, now’ twice. And his name is corny, but whatever.”

“Maybe he really wanted us to be good, Ronnie.”

“He just seems lame. Grandma can do better. You know I’m always looking out for my own.”

Vi rolls her eyes. “At the end of the day, you don’t own her. I thought you were the optimist out of the two of us.”

“I’m the realist. The realest, too.”

“Uh huh. You’re corny.” The road begins to slant uphill. “If you’re so real, what am I?”

“I don’t know.” He stops and squints toward the end of the road. “I’m waiting for the day you figure that out. I hope it’s something good.”

They pass houses with dull aluminum awnings, and porch rockers accumulating outside grime. Wind chimes clang in tune with the tiny, noisy birds zipping from tree to tree.

The yard of a periwinkle ranch house buzzes with bees. They speed by each other, some even venturing out to the curb where Vi and Ronnie trek.

“Woah!” Ronnie plants his sneakers into the concrete, but leans back to avoid three bees too close to his unblemished face. Vi studies him for a moment.

“You’ve got a little dimple by your chin,” she comments.

“For real?” Ronnie swats and smiles. There’s a twinkle in his eye. Vi doesn’t answer as the bees zoom around her. She ignores it all and turns away.

“Want to play a game?” Vi asks.

“Yeah, of course. What is it?”

“‘Who Lives Here?’ Something I just made up now. So you have to guess the kind of people who live here.”

“But I already know who lives here.”

“That’s the point. Tell me if I’m right or wrong. And if I’m wrong, you win that round.”

“Sure. Let’s go.”

“OK.” Vi gives the house a once over, hands on her hips. “People don’t live here. Just a person. A widow. Her husband died not too long ago—like, the past two years. She has gray hair, like an old cotton ball.”

“Damn, an old cotton ball?”

“I don’t mean it in a bad way. That’s just her. She was probably pretty in a librarian sort of way, once.”

“I don’t know about all that.”

“But you do know who lives here.”

“Yeah.”

“So tell me!”

“OK, you done?”

Yes.”

“Damn, OK. OK. So you’re right. Except her husband’s still alive. He has a bad back, though. They’re actually coming to eat. She’s always giving my grandma pounds of topsoil and shit.”

“So then I wasn’t right! The dead husband was the main thing. Take your point; my gift to you.”

“Whatever you say. You know,” he adds, “I’m going to win, right?”

“Why? Because I’m bad at predicting?”

“No. And you won’t get better until you stop saying that. Just an observation. But no,” he continues, “it’s because I could just be lying to you about who lives in these houses, Vi.”

“You wouldn’t do that.”

“Why? Because I’m honest?”

“Actually, yes. That’s alright, though.” She turns to the house behind them. “You’re the only person I seem to be able to read.” Ronnie frowns.

There’s still no rain after half an hour. Ms. Shirley’s house is out of view, and they find themselves on another block. A high hanging mist begins to fog the sky. They continue to walk. The score is 6-2, Ronnie.

“We can’t play the game here, Vi.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t know anyone this far. This is getting close to where that Barron guy lives. I won, let’s go back.”

“Leave that old man alone!” Vi pokes him. “Don’t be jealous because he has a girl and you don’t.” Ronnie grunts, but she continues. “And you saying ‘I won’ all carefree like that makes me want to win.”

“Well, glad to see you’re back to your old, competitive-ass self. You can’t, though. We ran out of homes.”

“Houses.”

“Yeah, whatever. Homes, houses.”

“No.” Vi stops. “Just because it’s a house doesn’t make it a home.”

He looks her over, creasing his eyebrows. “When’s the last time you talked to your people?”

“Spoke to my mom like two weeks ago. My dad called the other day. I’ll call him back.”

“When?”

“Tonight. I swear.” She smiles, small. “Today has been nice, I guess. I can do it.”

“You guess?”

“I guess. You and your grandma … you all are cute. It was a lot to handle.”

Ronnie sighs. “Just know that I tried. What about your sister?”

She shakes her head. “Don’t ruin it. I don’t want to talk to her.”

Ronnie holds his hands up in protest. “Alright. She fucked you over. They all did, I get it. Baby steps.”

They resume the game.

“Alright. Look at that house, the two-story with the balcony. Let’s both guess who lives there. And then,” Ronnie shuffles over to a curb, still a distance away from the impressive house in the cul de sac, “we’ll wait till someone comes out.” He squats at the curb and watches.

“Until someone comes out? You’re so extra.”

“Nah; someone has to come out. It was trash day, and they didn’t collect their cans yet.” The empty containers straddle the lawn, lids off.

“Alright. I’m taking you up on this.” She scoots beside him. She feels around for the hibiscus petal, peeking at the healthy pink before putting it back. “You first. Who you got?”

“A family of five. They have a dog. It’s a big dog.” Ronnie pulls a Bic out of his pants pocket and flicks it on and off, thinking. “The son’s the middle child, an athlete. Two daughters. The oldest is probably fine as fuck—she’s in college. The youngest is popular, finishing up middle school. And the parents are tracking their 401K as we speak.”

“They white?”

“Yeah.”

“No.” Vi shakes her head. “No, they’re not.” She tips her head to the side. It lands on Ronnie’s shoulder. She feels his muscles relax. “Or they would’ve picked up their trash cans already.”

After a breath, he says, “You right.”

“But they’re good people. I can feel it.”

They sit. The sun sinks. They remain the only two on the street. Ronnie doesn’t want Ms. Shirley to worry, so they concede, the residents of the house unsolved. Vi’s neck, strained from leaning against Ronnie, begins to throb. The rain starts to fall in droplets, and Ronnie wipes one off of Vi’s face with a gentle hand.

This time, she lets him.

 

 

Christiana Dillard is a freelance writer from Orlando, Florida who relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has published non-fiction work with the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation, Pitt Magazine, and Soul Pitt Quarterly, a community magazine. She enjoys creating content and taking walks, no matter the weather.

 

“Survival Tips” by Kathryn McLaughlin


“Ice Field Maneuvers” by Kathy O’Meara, 16 x 20, acrylic on paper.

When you are a junkie, people will want to ask, how do you live like this?

This question always surprises me because I assume the answer is obvious—do nothing and don’t die.

When your dog, curled up in the crescent of your body, pisses the bed at 2 in the morning, do not get up to change the sheets. Lean into the warmth. Fall back asleep before the dampness turns cold.

When you find the path of least resistance, give in. Do not resist.

When your phone bill comes, don’t pay it. When your phone gets shut off, decide to take a much needed break from technology. And people.

When you stop showing up for work, learn ways to make quick cash. Remember—there is always money in gold and guns.

When there is no more money, and nothing to pawn, think of all the things you could do that you will surely regret. Choose the one that will haunt you the least.

When you feel the familiar pull of shame dissolving the earth beneath your feet, go limp. Allow its riptide to carry you.

When there is no one and nowhere, when the nothingness humming in your chest finds a rhythm, the faint beating growing thunderous in its empty chamber, and you fear that if you listen long enough, the nothing will start to sound like something, take an Adderall. Or an Oxy. Or a Valium. Swallow it dry. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat.

And don’t die.

 

 

Kathryn McLaughlin lives in South Florida with her dog Yeti.