“Cake” by Grace March


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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

“Fat Class” by Jenne Knight


“Tabula Rasa” by Jean Banas 37″ x 46″, acrylic on canvas.

Every Wednesday at seven, I subjected myself to the week’s worst humiliations in the interest of narcissism disguised as good health. Each week, I jumped, bounced, and jiggled my way from fatness to slightly-less-fatness. I looked around the gymnasium, at the people at their various workout stations, comparing my body to her, and her, and him. I saw what I was. I saw what I was not.

I had signed up for a weight loss challenge at my gym, not unlike The Biggest Loser, and often, I felt the weight of the word “loser” hang on me like the extra fat I carried around my midsection. At the kickoff party, where over one hundred chairs were set up and filled between the two basketball hoops, I had said “sixteen pounds” into the microphone at the makeshift stage, dedicating myself to this number for the next sixty days. The program teamed me with a small group of other losers and a trainer, a handsome, young man my younger self would have loved to fawn over. I wanted him to be excited when I said I’d lost a pound or two. But he never was, and I suspected it was because I always knew, to the eighth of a pound, how much weight I’d lost and how much I had left to lose. I was, and continue to be, incredibly aware of my body.

When he said, “I want you to add oats for breakfast,” I grumbled and said, “I just eat eggs.” I adhered to a very strict paleo diet so I didn’t have excuses to eat food I shouldn’t. So, I routinely said no to most legumes, to quinoa, to dairy, to anything starchy other than yams. I saw him try to not roll his eyes or sigh dismissively. While I wanted to be a prized student, I simply couldn’t be. Even now, twenty years after high school, I find I am the same person I was back then. Then, as now, I occupied a space between excellent and average, the B+ zone, a place of invisibility. And when you’re invisible, no one expects a damn thing from you.

My life has been a series of phases where I’m either losing or gaining weight. When I run into people from my past, I think of what they must think of me. Did they meet me in 2006, when I was running and proud of how my body looked? Or maybe it was in 2011, when I hit the highest mark on the scale. What must zip through their minds? She looks great or what a mess or she used to look so much better.

I thought about this at the gym, as I snapped my minty gum and curled the ten-pound dumbbells for two minutes or lost track of the number of squats I could drive through my legs in the same interval. My new gym friends didn’t know that I’d lost twenty pounds on my own before the challenge began. It was hard to know when my victories would mean anything to them. When I lost five more pounds, it was just five pounds, not twenty-five pounds. It didn’t feel like enough.

Before each class, we texted each other to make sure none of us would skip. With my human buffers around me, eventually, I would forget a little of what I was doing and concentrate on form and technique instead. With each pound lost, I could be more of myself. But if I had to go through class by myself, I would spring back to silently hating myself the entire time, focused acutely on my body, my breathing, my sweat.

When I started the program, the sales pitch involved asking me why I was there. “Because this is what I do,” I’d said. When pushed, I just said, “I yo-yo,” and left it at that. No one there needed my history of gains and losses. The only thing that mattered now was my new goal.

What I couldn’t say was that I’d just moved back to my hometown after losing a teaching job I loved in a city that made me feel good about myself, despite being fat. I hadn’t expected to like Baltimore, and I hadn’t expected it to like me back. In my last year there, I had regained the weight I’d previously lost, but I didn’t hate myself for it. Yet in my hometown, I did. I was ready to yo-yo down again.

After I signed up, my best friend asked me what I wanted out of the experience. I simply said my scale number. Which was only partially true.

“It’s sad that one day you’re going to be sixty,” she said. Had she stopped there, I would have agreed. “And you’re going to look back and resent the fact that you spent so much time obsessing about your body. And your weight. And how pretty you think you aren’t.”

If only it were really that easy. Dear self: resist the temptation to judge and to compare yourself to her, and her, and her. To guilt yourself when you slip and eat something decadent and forbidden. To belabor your shortcomings and magnify them beyond hyperbole.

But, really, she got it right. When I sat and thought about it, in my most honest reflections, I thought, If I’m going to be fat, I want to be fat and fucking beautiful.

So, I kept going to the gym. I worked out five or six days a week on my own and met with my trainer on Thursdays. I only had one five- and one ten-pound kettlebell at home, so I bought more and heavier bells. I did planks and lunges and squats and swings at home before work. I counted my calories in an app on my phone. I kept my fatness close to me, never very far from a conversation about food or fatness or eating.

I’d visit my mother, and after the pleasantries, I’d show her the app and say, “I’ve lost more weight.” The chart would show my progress as a terraced slope.

Every other Monday, we had to weigh in at 7:00pm. I resented the evening weigh-in, when I’d worked all day, eaten, drunk water, and added weight to my body. I resented going to the gym twice in a day since I always worked out in the afternoon, right after work. Mostly, I resented having to sit in the audience, arms folded across my chest, and be reminded of the body image support group I’d had to go to when I was twenty-one.

At the second weigh-in, I was four pounds down. At the third, an additional four. I was halfway to my goal. I was so concerned with my own progress that I hadn’t seen any of the paper signs posted around the gym, showing the Top 25 Losers. But at Day 45, I finally noticed. I was number 24. When I took my best friend to boot camp that week, I pointed at my name on the paper.

On Thanksgiving, I paced myself, making sure I clocked each morsel, each crumb, into my app. I could not let myself go. The challenge was still at the forefront of my mind. It wasn’t that I wanted to win; I simply wanted to stay on the list.

At the gym the following week, I ran into a teammate who had given himself over to the holiday weekend. Before this, he had been doing so well, and I had meant to tell him that he was looking good. Another teammate had bailed for the previous three weeks, and for the remainder of the challenge, we officially lost her. But one girl, Kaytlin, gave me something to aim toward. Years before, when I had trained for the Seattle half-marathon, I had always chosen someone far ahead, someone I could challenge myself to catch up to. Someone I would eventually pass.

I started spinning again. It was an activity I had loved when I was twenty and had worked front desk at a gym. I found power and strength and forgiveness on the bike. I could get lost in the music as the flywheel carried me forward, through the speed work, intervals, and heavy mountain climbs. I’d end class with a pool of sweat under me and laugh it off with friends I’d made. Soon after, I added a lifting class to my schedule, where I stayed near the back of the room, and worked on my lunge technique and began to add more weight to my chest presses and bicep curls.

I never caught up to Kaytlin. She ended the challenge as number four, a stunning prize of loss. At the finale, she participated in a Before and After photo contest, a cruelty where we applauded the best Loser’s photos. I valued her ability to stand in front of everyone and reveal an old, fat photo next to her current self. She deserved our applause, but some other woman who had lost nearly a hundred pounds over several challenges won instead. Kaytlin simply hadn’t lost enough yet.

In the final weigh-in, as the announcer held the mic up for each participant, I chomped hard, like an anxious cow, on a fresh stick of Mint Bliss and removed every article of clothing I could, plus earrings, rings, and my fitness tracker. In the background I heard, “her goal was seven pounds! How much did you lose?” “Nine pounds,” a woman’s voice said just before I saw her disappear in a tunnel of seated Losers offering high fives.

“Sixteen point eight,” the trainer said to me, writing my number on the sheet with my name on it. I struggled to put my clothes back on, the earrings, the rings, the tracker. I had to ask him again before I walked up to the mic. Was it really true? Did he have me right? He leafed through the pages and found my name. “Sixteen point eight,” he said again, as he weighed the next woman in line. I had passed my goal by .8 of a pound.

As I walked to the mic, in front of a sea of fellow Losers, I caught the eye of my trainer. He looked as if he knew the number already—five or maybe ten pounds, tops. He would eventually tell me that he knew I could meet my goal all along, that I needed tough love. I knew to not believe him.

The truth is that I had been invisible, even to him, hiding myself in plain sight while trying to erase the parts of me I didn’t like. It was that same tactic I had begun in high school, something that kept me safe. But I didn’t want to be invisible anymore.

I smiled as I leaned toward the mic and the too-cheery announcer. She said my name and my goal as my trainer whispered the information in her ear.

“Sixteen point eight,” I said. I walked through the tunnel of high fives and sat with my team, and Kaytlin and I exchanged phone numbers, texting each other for the remainder of the weigh-in, which made our new friendship official.

Later that week, the Top 25 list was posted around the gym. I looked at the bottom of the sheet and scrolled up, expecting to see myself near twenty-four again, but my name was at lucky number eleven. I took a picture of the sheet and texted it to my best friend.

“💪” she texted back.

On my way out, I stopped by the front desk to sign up for the next spinning class and saw that a spinning friend had already signed me up. I tucked a wayward strand of sweaty hair behind an ear and walked to my car, feeling more conspicuous than I had in ages.

 

 

Jenne Knight writes poetry and essays, and her work appears in Bodega, The Rumpus, and The Common, among others, and new work is forthcoming from wildness. Her poem, “Elegy for my Father” was nominated for Best of the Net 2016. Please visit www.jenneknight.com for more information.

 

“The Sparrow” by Liz Betz


“Escape” by Jean Banas, acrylic on canvas, 47″ x 54″.

Warm Up – Chest Expansion

Bridget clenches her jaw, ready to explain a thing or two if the woman goes any further with the spiritual angle. One of the things, she will explain, is going to be very blunt. She’d warned this ordained woman that if God were mentioned even once; that would be the last time she’d be here at Stretch and Relax. How like a minister to try and sneak a sermon into the yoga class!

Fine for others to hear that opening your chest would free your emotions so the Almighty could fill you with peace; Bridget only needs to hear the physical directions to breathe deeply and stretch the lungs. She closes her eyes and comes up with an image that suits her better, her ribcage opening up in the same way a hay bale swells when she chops the twine that holds it firm. That holds her thoughts for a moment but her agitation butts against her calm in the same way the cows rub and move bales. The cows had been cared for today, the balky tractor and the frozen-down feed hadn’t stopped her mission.

The mission here is to relax. If she can. But it galls her to see the bible story cartoons plastered on the walls, and it is vexing that in this room, children hear how Jesus loves them and how God knows when the sparrow falls. It’s a wonder the bible school room doesn’t smell like puke. She exhales and rolls her shoulders in a curl around her breasts, then on her inhalation spreads them wide as if they were wings. Around her the yoga classmates do the same.

She’s here with a half-dozen people; two others are seniors like her. Yoga is something she would have never expected to do but neither had she expected her anxiety attack. Definitely the anxiety attack is the big unexpected thing. Really, she thought that her decades of handling all the big and little crises of farm work had given her resistance to ‘nerves’ as they used to call it, embarrassment attached. People a decade younger than her, like her sister Lisa, had a more relaxed view, the shame factor much diminished.

Bridget’s churning thoughts have bunted her attention from exercises. Back to it, she tells herself. Curl. Spread.

Cat Pose

Nowadays people have the world’s blessing to fly apart. Therapy is touted as the answer; didn’t her own doctor suggest exactly that? He could set up an appointment for her with a psychologist. Didn’t take him long to add when she is ready, because he could see his notion didn’t fly. But then, in the gentlest way, he told her to learn to relax, maybe meditate or start a journal. Stupid idea from a wet-behind-the-ears, never-had-to-physically-work-a- day-in-his-life, stupid doctor.

Jesus Christ and bloody hell, but just when she starts with her usual head down and to hell with it all, her chest tightens and her breathing gives a hitch as a reminder. Even thinking about that trip to the doctor upset her. Shoulder pain brings her smarting to the present. Had she been thinking out loud? No one seems to be paying her any attention, but still this is not good. Her neck joins the shoulder in a big ball of hurt. The pain could lock her away from relaxing as efficiently as a closed gate prevented her cow herd from getting into grain bins. Big trouble. Trouble is she has to handle the stress in her life differently or have a nervous breakdown.

Chair Pose

Lisa is the one who suggests the yoga sessions, offering that she and Tom could handle Vince one night a week. Her sister’s offer is a surprise, for years she has avoided being alone with Vince and while she never explains, Bridget has a pretty good idea of what Vince might have done and even why some women would be flattered. Not Lisa. She is a loyal sister and a faithful wife. Like their grandmother, who seems to peer out from Lisa’s face, her sister is a true soul, armed with regular church attendance, practiced charity and goodness. Maybe all that works if there is no one like Vince in the picture. Bridget stops. Somehow remembering her grandmother softens her tenseness. The hardships endured in the past were huge. Women didn’t even have the right to vote.

Someone should tell Vince about women’s rights. Like a husband of that past era, Vince tried to dish up disapproval over her attending yoga class. He’d have her think it is disobedience on her part that she be here. She watches the woman leading the class noting her mustached upper lip. Bridget decided long ago that the homely get called to God’s service, perhaps because the mirror is so cruel. What she had done to deserve Vince, beyond promising to love, honor, and obey could only be called the devil’s plot, if the devil were more than a convenient fiction. Funny to remember that her grandmother spoke of the devil as well as God. Bridget didn’t really believe in deities but she could conceive a devil like Vince. She shifts uneasily, her thighs tense to the point of quivering. Not knowing how much longer this position is to be held, Bridget takes a rest. Her body sinks to the floor where she slouches and rubs her thighs. The instructor brings everyone to a new position.

Plank Pose

Thinking of her grandmother has made her feel perversely bad. She loved the woman but would like to ask a few questions of anyone with enduring faith. Was she supposed to pray the cattle would wait for her to open the ice hole? No! She had to get out there first thing, before they crowded onto the ice and fell through. Then she had to follow that up with starting the tractor, rolling out the hay and then after the animals were tended, returning to whatever Vince was dishing up.

But Lisa and her husband are with Vince making sure Bridget has a home to return to after yoga. They’ll stay and visit for a while before Bridget faces the rest of the evening with her husband. Usually Vince is tired and irritable but armed with a firm voice and an established routine, Bridget can get him to bed before exhaustion hits them both.

Lately she has been dissolving a sleeping pill in Vince’s evening glass of warm milk, oh how unkind, really, this resorting to drugs. She feels forty shades of guilt over it. But tonight it is possible that Lisa will innocently warm his milk and Vince, who even now, is nobody’s fool, will refuse a doctored second glass. Which means any peace and relaxation she gains here could be wiped out when she gets home.

Nostril Breathing

That is another unexpected thing of Bridget’s life; that her husband Vince would end up with a brain injury, which sounds simple enough but is actually a bitch and a half. It is when Bridget comes up with a house remodel to include a safe room for Vince, a padded cell affair, with piped in music and a television mounted like a window, just so she can have a few minutes reprieve without calling on someone else, that she realizes she has to do something. More than just the sleeping pill in the evening.

Then Bridget who prides herself equal to a man in all things agricultural; who works the cattle in the corrals, births them in the barn and occasionally puts them down with the rifle, who drives the combine, the grain trucks, the tractor with the air seeder, who figures out their finances, and helped Vince make the right decisions for forty years finds herself unable to breathe. By the time she calls Lisa she is sure it is a heart attack.

After a number of tests, all physical reasons are ruled out for her episode. Episode. How useful the word. Bridget uses it as shorthand for Vince’s various mishaps, the occasions when he soils his clothes, the meals that he dumps on the floor or in his lap, the blank moments or bleak moments where the unfurled flag of his rage whips over her. The term episode serves to inform people that it is not all heavenly in their lives, but doesn’t seem a whine, or invite an offer of prayers. Time after time she hears how lucky she is that Vince survived. Well, yes. And no.

But it is time to put these thoughts into the corral. Fix the mental fences. She takes a moment to tighten the elastic around hair that others call a marvelous shade of silver and tuck in her favorite plaid shirt. She remembers the anxiety episode, believing it to be an attack of her heart; all she could ask is how on earth they would get by, if she were struck in this manner. It’d be the nun-operated nursing home for them both, every wall with a cross and Christ. A sorry deal, except that others would deal with her bully and bastard of a husband.

A deep sigh escapes Bridget. The episode wasn’t her heart giving out but a message for her to ease her mind; to relax. It is unlikely, though, that she can expect miracles from prayer which her sister suggested. Not bloody likely, she thinks and shakes her head vigorously. The instructor glances in her direction. Bridget frowns back, mind your own blood-of-the-lamb business.

But that frown released something. Her agitation gives way to deep breaths and her shoulders are no longer sheltering her ears as a small miracle occurs.

In and out, for every breath the world slips further and further into the background. Every breath brings inner tension to the surface where a gentle breeze blows it away. A feather floats. Every breath lifts her closer to the beauty, to the truth, to the place where she is comforted and loved.

Bridget breathes in but her exhalation is a whimper. She has to steady herself. There is nothing to cry about here. But she can’t seem to stop. Next thing she’ll be on the receiving end of sympathy and in fact, the minister is headed in her direction. She fakes a coughing spell, lifts her arms in defense and mumbles that she needs to go home.

Downward Facing Dog

She lays her head on the steering wheel as her farm truck warms up for the drive home. The evening gospel music winds around her until she hears the hymn and strikes the switch off. Partway home she has to pull off on a seldom-used intersection and let the lonesome come over her like the moon on the snow. Weakness. Her fists wipe away her tears.

This is not a nervous breakdown. There is no echo in the silence except for her mind. Oh, isn’t it? You broke down tonight at bloody stupid yoga. And the anxiety attack? You couldn’t deal with reality. No. No, this is just an episode. That’s all.

How long has she been here? It’s late.

She enters the farmhouse. The smell of gingerbread wafts out and there is laughter. Under the bright light of the dining room table, Vince jumps his marbles across the Chinese Checker board. He beams widely, having fun, getting excited. On an average night, with just Bridget as company he’d be bitching and moaning and demanding his snack.

Bridget goes to pour his bedtime glass of milk so she can add the sleeping pill. She pours the white liquid over the tiny tablet. Lisa approaches. Her hand touches Bridget’s elbow. Bridget jumps.

The full bottle of pills tipped in her hand, Lisa reads Bridget’s name on the prescription.   Bridget avoids her sister’s eyes that are searching for a denial, explanation or confession.

They will stay the night Bridget is told, as her sister pours the glass of milk down the sink and fixes another one for Vince.

Rest – Deep Breathing

In the middle of the night, Vince goes to the basement and silently makes his way to the storage room and begins to rip into boxes and throw things around. He spends extra, destructive time with a certain corner, a certain trunk. The cattle-show banners are torn in half, a fate shared by brown paper envelopes that contain the deeds to their land, birth certificates and their marriage license. He is set on disemboweling Bridget’s hope chest. Linens embroidered with sparrows and daisies, hand stitched pillowcases are ground under his heels; the framed photos of ancestors are smashed. The sound of breaking glass wakes the sleepers. Jesus Christ and bloody hell, the three of them rush down the stairs.

Vince looks up as if confused by their presence. He holds a sampler that is Bridget’s oldest possession—The Lord’s Prayer in cross-stitch that her grandmother coached her to complete.

Vince who a moment ago was in a frenzy is now compliant and docile and allows his brother-in-law to guide him out of the room. He passes the sampler to Bridget. She cannot look at him but she has not the same choice with the sampler.

How innocent she had been when she stitched it. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Forgive us our trespasses. She stops reading. Forgive me. From one pill a night to the whole bottle. It is the trespass that she’s been skirting around, pretending the temptation isn’t waiting. She knew the route. She’s put down animals. Gathering her reasons, marshalling her strengths. Her legs fail her as she drops to her knees.

Lisa is there and her arms wrap around Bridget. Her comfort Bridget has heard before: Jesus loves you. He can give you strength, if you just let him.

“Jesus Christ,” Bridget calls out.

She means it as a curse, but it doesn’t turn out that way. For a moment Bridget considers Christ but the very idea curdles in her throat. It is such a weakness—meekness and lamb to the slaughter. All that goodness of gospel is religion’s nasty trick. Bloody hell, it means surrender. The sparrow fell. God saw. Bridget folds herself over her thighs and rests, a position of supplication if not prayer. The Pose of the Child

 

 

Liz Betz is enjoying her retirement pastime of writing short fiction which has been published in a variety of markets. She writes from rural Alberta, Canada. Follow her writing blog lizbetz.blogspot.ca for news of her publications. The Sparrow is her 40th short story published.

 

“Dear Baby Witch” by Sara Finnerty


“Road of No Return” by Jean Banas.

Dear Baby Witch,

We, the women in our family, have a problem with love, little girl. Love inside of us is a hard black hole, baseless, bottomless, always threatening to suck the rest of our bodies through its borders and to consume us until we no longer exist. Love is something too heavy to hold. Love isn’t something we think we deserve. We have been taught love means to clutch, to drag down into the dirt. Love is something to bear. But that is not what love is.

You will be born into a long line of witches, of complicated women capable of great anger and great joy. There are demons and curses in your story, little girl, but our family’s story, like all immigrant stories, is a fairy tale wrapped in war.

My grandmother says when she was a child, “Someone put a curse on us, a witch, or they paid a witch, or it was a demon.” Why, I ask, would anyone want to do that do your family? “I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe they were jealous of us. Curses bring trouble to a family. Curses will make people drink, beat, steal, cheat, lie, rape, get pregnant, die. This was a big curse, a bad curse, what they call an Original Curse. The worst kind. Hard, very hard, almost impossible to lift.”

I always loved listening to my grandmother’s stories of Italy and the war. Others groaned at the beginning of a war story, but I leaned in. Stories of the past are in our blood, little girl, in our genes. Even if we never hear the words, they are unspoken in our bodies and they are our framework, our blueprint, whether we know it or not. I want to tell you, always listen to your family stories. They are the story of who you are.

Our people are from a farming village on the Adriatic Coast. My mother was born there and her mother, in a tiny concrete hut, and these two women raised me far away from the farm, as far away as they could get, across an ocean and in what they imagined to be the most magical city in the world, New York, where people come from all over the world to live, where the languages and smells of every country are in every particle of the air, a city of islands on the sea, a city without bombs, a city where the unimaginable was possible.

My grandmother Elena, your great-grandma, will sometimes tell a story of her childhood on an idyllic farm. She will smile and her eyes will go soft. They were five sisters, little girl, and they were bound tight, tight against the outside, tight against their brothers. They gathered eggs from the chickens, they buried meat in the ground, and they washed each other’s hair with vinegar. She will tell us of her sweet father, Rocco, and how he loved her so. When he died, the ghost of her father searched the earth for her and found his daughter in a Queens apartment. He sat on her bed across the sea and placed his hand on her chest. “He was a saint,” she will tell me, but I will not yet know that this is only true because once a person dies, all their sins are forgiven.

The men drank, little girl. They drank and fought and waged little wars. In America today, there would be labels like addiction or abuse, but in Italy then, they were only men. My grandmother will laugh and say, my father liked to drink. He rode Nina, the horse, into town and got so drunk that the men in the tavern had to carry him out and drape him over Nina, and Nina was such a good horse, she knew the way home. When we heard Nina coming, we got out of bed, carried our father inside, we took off his shoes, we washed his feet, we did this with love.

Years later, when I am a grown woman in my thirties, my grandmother’s younger sister will tell me another truth. That Rocco came home drunk and beat their mother. That the brothers didn’t want to see. The sisters were too small or too scared to intervene, but my grandmother was the only one who wasn’t afraid of him. She would stand between her mother and father, fists clenched, body strong and scream for him to stop. This is not your right, she screamed, leave mother alone. Sometimes he shoved her aside and continued to beat her mother, but sometimes Elena got him stop. Sometimes it worked.

In our family, before your father, the men were loose cannons and helpless babies and the women had to learn to be witches. Women learn to orchestrate the family and the town and the universe with their wands. A woman must learn to freeze time, must learn to hold one million things together, hovered in the air, with only her will. Her ability to keep a family and a farm together, in sync with the weather and seasons, in sync with the neighbors, her ability to bend and morph herself in order to keep a marriage together is her magic, and her magic is her love.

I want you to know, little girl, that love was different then, all kinds—romantic and familial. The definition of love is not something constant or permanent. My grandparents’ marriage was arranged. Love changes with the air. Love changes based on space, on time, on geography, on what you think you can handle, or more exactly, on what is put in front of you.

My grandmother grew up on the front line of a world war, little girl. Italy was divided into a north and south, two sides of the same country fighting each other. The farm was on that line, the line that divided the country, that divided loyalties, the line on which every soldier was the enemy, my grandmother said, as nearly every soldier was a bad man.

Germans, Americans, Brits, and Canadians raped farm girls and made their fathers watch then drank all the wine. My grandmother and her sisters learned to scatter into the fields and hide when soldiers came so their father could say, “There are no girls here.” Sometimes this line worked and sometimes it didn’t.

I ask her, how could you move to a country that has men like that?

She shrugs, our men were no better. Men are the same everywhere.

It is important you know this, little girl. In our history, women were for raping, for shaming, for childbearing, for cooking, for beating, and keeping a house together. Often women turned on each other to save themselves.

Mothers and daughters warred while the men stayed out of it, quiet, off to the side, with a drink. The sons were coddled and the daughters were made to be strong, taught to cook and clean and care for the men, there was a different love for sons than for daughters. The magic of mothers clashes with those of her daughters. I will not do this to you, little girl. Nothing will ever be as important to me as valuing you for who you are, loving you in a way that is new to our family.

Love was standing by your husband’s side no matter what he did. There was no limit to what he could do, little girl. He could do anything. The worst things you could imagine. He could rape your daughter. He could rape your best friend. He could beat you almost to death. But you must stand by him and I can’t pretend to know why, little girl. I can only guess.

Because there was no other way to survive? Because there was a war? Because there was God? Because there were neighbors watching? Because if you didn’t have a husband, you had nothing? No rights to your land or your children? Because there was nothing else? Nowhere else to go? No one else to be?

Women used their magic to weave invisible veils, cloaks over their eyes that stuck to their skin and perhaps they were so good at their magic that they forgot the veils were ever there to begin with.

When my grandmother was young she often slept in Nina-the-horse’s stall. In the morning, Nina’s hair was braided into thousands of tiny braids. The next morning, the braids undone.

It was the fairies, my grandmother will explain eighty years later to her adult granddaughter and she will still believe in the fairies, and you will believe in them too.

She kicked me, my grandmother said, when I was young. I almost died. She was sorry. For years. Really, for the rest of her life she was sorry. She loved me, and I loved her.

When the bombs came, my grandmother couldn’t leave Nina behind. She took Nina across the fields, to each point of escape, across hills and valleys, to the homes of family and friends, she took her horse with her as they ran from the bombs that ripped the land apart, shredded houses, destroyed the vineyards and olive groves, killed the animals, scattered the people.

Many ran to the mountains, to La Maiella, where there were caves. People lived for years in the caves, they made chimneys and stoves and rugs and beds. The mountains were safe and strong. We could go to La Maiella, my grandmother pleaded with her mother. We could bring Nina. We could be safe inside the mountain.

My grandmother will stop her story here. She will make me think that it worked, that they lived in the mountains.

“What happened?” I ask. “What happened to Nina?”

“We could not bring her to where we were going,” my grandmother will say. She will not answer my question. Her face, which had been enchanted, animated, returns to its regular state, the resigned face I am used to, ready for whatever is next.

In Italy, and in America, we are taught if a woman has sex and is not married, she is a whore, she is a demon, she is a witch. We can say it is no longer this way but it is. Women are witches and demons and are only allowed sex from husbands to have babies but men can do what they want. A woman’s job is to stay. A whore casts a spell on a man to make him wander.

I will do all I can to make sure these lessons don’t sink into your core, little girl. But sometimes the air around us is so thick with these curses that we can’t help but breathe them in.

When explaining the Original Curse on our family, Grandma Elena says that everyone knows an original curse lasts for three generations: my grandmother’s, my mother’s and mine. You will not have the original curse in you, little girl. But there have been other curses, curses that have landed on me. I haven’t outrun my demons and curses, and I am afraid you will get some of them too. But they are diluted. I diluted them. I tried to get rid of the demons and curses before you came to be but I couldn’t. I can only let time pass and not let the curses take hold of me. I can fight them. I can teach you to fight them.

There’s a new branch of science these days called epigenetics. It is basically the law of the Original Curse. If your grandparents were cursed, it will get passed down to you. The Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, Genocide, Rape, War, Drug abuse, these things are manifested as methyl tags on our DNA and we pass the trauma to our children and our grandchildren, so you will get my traumas and my mother’s but you will also inherit all of my fight, all of my searching for a peaceful love.

When my grandmother left for America with her children, her father got on his hands and knees and beat the ground with his fists and cursed America for taking his daughter and grandchildren. He wailed and beat the ground bloody. For my grandmother, there is no greater love than this.

I was born into my grandmother’s house, among labyrinths of gardens, vegetables vining up the fences and fruit trees blooming through concrete. In late summer we made and jarred tomato sauce for the year, in fall, salad dressing and wine. On Sunday mornings we pressed fresh pasta in the basement. I pushed my finger into tiny balls of dough to make gnocchi. We made each piece of pasta, one by one.

My grandmother says there was no greater love in her life than her love for her children and grandchildren. All her demons and the curse upon her family followed her across the ocean. There was no love between her and my grandfather, or between my mother and father. Our house erupted in violence nearly every day, the roar of their screaming and the neglect of our parents brought police and child services to our house.

Magical Realism represents a leap over a chasm, a reality impossible to bear. This leap coveys more truth than reality ever could.

When I was young, I thought I could overthrow my past, I could leave, I could move, I could change, I could be my greatest self. But now that you are deep within me, and now that you have slowed every part of me down, I can see that all I can hope for myself and for you are subtle shifts, glacial growth, and bursts of energy and light in unexpected places because we cannot escape our past; there is no way to cleave us of our ancestors, and anyway, even if we could, I wouldn’t want to. I’d want all of it, all the curses, all the demons, all the love, however fraught, however damaged.

The demons and the fairies and the witches and the dead followed my mother across an ocean and fifty years later they followed me across a country, from New York to California. You can live on a different planet, little girl but you will still be cursed. Sometimes we are under water. Sometimes we breathe the water in and we drown. We carry the geography of where we are from inside our bodies.

Immigration stories are about land, little girl, about geography. Not just time. A person is the land on which they were born and raised. My grandmother is long lines of perfectly parallel vineyards that stretch to infinity. She is gnarled olive groves, bombed farmhouses, chickens and dirt; she is a valley, a mountain, the Adriatic Sea. My mother is these things too but she is also concrete sidewalks, she is the bridges and skyscrapers her father helped to build. She is a cacophony of cars, languages and smells. She is the East River. She is a city of islands. And so am I.

You will be these things too, little girl, you will be Italy and New York City but you will be born in Los Angeles, another city on the sea, and like Italy, another city of horses, cypress trees, oleander, long warm days and long cool nights. You will be windstorms and palm fronds scattered in the streets. You will be a glittering and infinite city encased in mountains, you will be the dark silhouettes of owls in the wilderness above the city, you will be wild fires, ashes falling thick and flames curling into the sky. You will be hot pink bougainvillea vines and raining purple jacarandas. You will be packs of coyotes low to the ground, quiet and running in the night.

These places are in your blood. Someday, you might find yourself standing at a counter in Italy, drinking an espresso in the brisk morning air, biting into a sweet cream-filled pastry. A motorino will pass and its exhaust will curl through the cool air, through the dusty and ancient orange trees that line the street, and you will smell the bitter coffee, the pastry, the exhaust, the oranges, and you will feel like you are home again.

I crossed this country for myself, to save myself, and I stayed for you, and for other generations. I wanted to change our fate. I wanted us to breathe easier, have more access to peace.

My grandfather used to dance with me when I was a little girl; he used to twirl me around the dance floor at the Italian social club until I was exhausted. He died just a few months ago. He knew you existed but he didn’t know you were a girl. He didn’t know your name. He will never see your face. It seems impossible that you weren’t with me my whole life, right next to me, knowing everything I’ve known. I don’t know how to let time come and go like that. Let realities exist in different space times concurrently. Except I don’t have a choice. They must. My grandparents are still in Italy. They are in New York. They are being captured and held as prisoners of war. They are being hunted by soldiers through the fields that are, that are supposed to be, their homes. They are working all day and all night inside the factories of New York City or outside making the buildings, highways and bridges that will become a city. They are fighting to break free, to change, and they are failing.

Maybe when we move from one place to another, we become whatever wide-open space we crossed to get here: we are the oceans we have sailed across, the highways that traverse a country, the desert between cities. If we go back, we will not be the same. We will be half-here and half-there, half-nowhere and half empty air, bigger than we were before, so big we may float away.

When I was a little girl, I stood between my grandparents the way my grandmother stood between her parents, so they wouldn’t kill each other. You will never have to do this little girl. I have something no other woman in my family has ever had. I fell in love. I am, so far, the luckiest woman in this long line of women.

I have chosen a father for you that isn’t like the men I’ve known. Your father is gentle and kind. He believes in fairies and guardian angels and your father would do anything for me, anything for you. Your father went hunting with men, little girl, and he couldn’t shoot the birds.

The hardest thing I have ever done, so far, is learn to love him, your father, and to learn to accept his love for me. But I did it, and now I am ready for what I am told will be harder than anything yet: raising you, loving you, and letting you go.

I dreamed your father a few days before I met him on a warm summer night at the beer garden in Queens. It was after two in the morning, our feet were dusted in dirt. He had braces and a baseball cap and a face from my dreams. I’d had plenty of dreams that had come true, but magic had been a letdown, a disappointment. Dreams came true but amounted to nothing. There were many times I thought we couldn’t last. But we fought for each other, we fought for our marriage, and for a long time now, it has been easy. I battled to discard the memories of what men will do, how they will ruin your body and spirit. My war was learning to trust. My dropped bombs were ones of betrayal. I didn’t think I could love, or trust, but I do. There is magic. It exists.

We were all pregnant, little girl, my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother, and on and on. We all felt our daughters move inside us. We felt her heels move across our stomachs and we felt her hiccups and we felt infinity inside us. The sense of possibility that maybe this time, things can be different.

We can choose the way we look at our lives, at our pasts, we can look both ways. We can say—fairies braided the horses’ hair while bombs dropped from the sky.

 

 

Sara Finnerty has essays and stories in Lithub, Black Warrior Review, Brevity, Longreads, Joyland, The Nervous Breakdown, Fanzine, The Weeklings, Dame, and others. She is the Nonfiction Editor at Entropy magazine, co-curator of The Griffith Park Storytelling Series and The Women’s Center for Creative Work Reading Series. Sara is originally from Queens, NY and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter. Find her at www.sarafinnerty.com.

 

“Filaments of Air” by Tommy Dean


“Lost Dreams” by Jean Banas, 47″ x 55″, acrylic on canvas.

I’ve got the sharp, little scissors palmed in my hand, and I’m waiting in line. Your brothers and sisters, your mother, they all went first. Chelsea, crying, her makeup streaking down her cheek like ink from a broken fountain pen. Your mother tucks Chase’s beanie little head against her hip, and she’s gasping for air. And maybe you finally did it, took away all the oxygen? Remember, how we’d put those balloons to our lips, shrugging away the taste of latex, staring at our chests in the mirrors, our bird bodies taking the shape of women, until you gagged, the ball of air sputtering out of our fingers, racing around the room, before falling, limp, at our feet.

I made the mistake of hugging your mother before I asked for the snip of your hair. I could feel you whispering, “Ask first,” but it was too late. The intimacy I had to trade was given freely, your mother leeching my little thread of power, mine and yours, bodies, so similar, down to the misshapen pinky toes, the nails like flattened pennies, our hair the same honeydew coloring that usually comes from a box. I was proud of her, your mom, for not saying your name, though I would have taken your place.

I’m alone up here, and its the first time I’ve been close enough to see that your makeup is all wrong. That instead of scissors, I should have brought more foundation, an eyelash curler, certainly, some blush, a touch of lipstick, because I want to remember you smiling, crying from laughter, our stupid jokes making the walls of your house ring with our promised youth. But I’ve always been the selfish one, right? So I’m going to make use of these scissors, because why should the Earth get the best of you? I skim the blades over the plush crèche of the casket lining, the points ripping the fabric subtly. The darkness will know I was here first. I tug sharply, but you don’t cry out. We’ve seen too many horror movies, joked too often about zombies, wondering why you couldn’t look half-dead and gorgeous. If anyone had a chance, it was you. I take a plait of hair, wishing they had let me braid it. Your bangs sit awkwardly against your forehead. You look like one of those late-in-life movie starlets, reaching back for the summer of their ingénue fame; a soccer mom on a Sunday morning sipping her Chamomile tea. The scissors jump in my hand, raking across that unnaturally flat space of skin, metal grinding, as the hair shreds into fine whispers of eyelashes, as I grab the larger pieces that dot your cheeks. I bend toward you, blowing, giving you my last filaments of air.

 

 

Tommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, Spartan, JMWW, Split Lip Magazine, and New World Writing. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.

“Relapse” by Salvatore Difalco


“The Aftermath” by Jean Banas, acrylic on canvas, 52″ x 48″.

I was already running late. Carmine wanted to meet near Pape and Danforth at noon. Ten minutes to go as I sped down Coxwell Avenue from O’Connor to Danforth. I’d just scored two plates of primo hashish for Carmine from Robbie in East York. Robbie dispensed for some Montreal bikers. I stood to make a couple hundred for a simple handoff. But Carmine hated waiting for anyone. You didn’t want to keep the big man waiting.

The light turned green at Danforth and I signaled a right turn. Pape was a few blocks west. At the same time, a half-ton truck on my left started through the intersection. Just as I go to make my turn, a late-breaking black BMW comes racing westbound along Danforth through the red. Slams the truck’s rear end with a sound like an airplane falling from the sky, front end crumpled, red-faced, bug-eyed driver still belted into his seat, and the BMW now set into a violent spin directly toward my car.

For a second or two I found myself watching the whole thing unfold like a slomo YouTube clip—but I snapped out of it with an adrenal surge, squeezed the steering wheel, footed the gas, and lurched forward enough for the BMW to just miss my car. But it continued on a crazy spin, somehow circling back toward the intersection, where it hit a woman running across the street with her child. The child escaped injury, but the woman went down, black hair flying as the car took her out.

I sat there, knuckles whitened on the steering wheel, trying to process what had happened. My body shook; my hands started cramping. I let go of the steering wheel. A wave of vertigo overcame me. I bent to the dash and took a few deep breaths, hoping not to pass out.

Pandemonium ensued at the intersection. Sirens wailed. People cried out. I rolled down my window for air. Debris littered the street; people scrambled to and fro. I shut my eyes, clapped my hands over my ears.

Maybe I should have stayed and reported what I’d seen to a police officer. But with abundant witnesses around, I felt my testimony would have been at best superfluous. And I had all that hashish in the car, surly Carmine waiting. So I drove off.

I parked on the Danforth not far from Pape and took a minute to gather myself before I texted Carmine. Little snapshots of the accident kept flashing in my head. Carmine was parked in a lot on Pape and wanted me to go to him. Barely able to stand, I staggered down the leaf-strewn street. The cool autumn air tingled in my nostrils and pricked my ears, but everything was bathed in a weird yellow light that made me feel like I was dreaming.

Carmine bitched about being ten minutes late. He backed off when I told him about the accident.

“Think she’s dead?” he asked.

I shrugged. Didn’t want to think about it.

“Still,” Carmine said, unable to not play the heavy, “be early next time. Time is money.”

Went on with my day, feeling spooked and fucked up. Drank a few scotches to settle my nerves. I’d been off the opioids for six months. Yeah. I’d gotten in deep. Started with sciatica issues. Oxycontin blissed me out so much I could walk without gimping around. Grew to love the high. Long after the sciatica healed, I kept popping the pills. Felt sick as a dog when I wasn’t high. Don’t know how I crawled out of that hole. Guess I wanted to live. The new shit was killing folks. But the temptation never went away. It hung around you like a vulture circling a dying animal. When you’re jonesing hard, you don’t care. You almost welcome death. Go on, get it over with. And stress made you jones like nothing else. Would have been easy to relapse that night. But I didn’t. I just got good and drunk.

Then, watching the late night news, I saw a report about the accident. Drunk driver arrested at scene. Mother of three pronounced dead on arrival. Recent immigrant from Guatemala.

Man. One minute you’re walking along minding your own business, maybe laughing about something, feeling good, alive, looking forward to the rest of your day, the rest of your life, and the next minute you’re gone. Poof. Just like that. It was incredible how fragile we were, how nothing. I didn’t sleep that night. Kept replaying the scene in my head: driver’s red face, mother pulling child, hair flying as the car struck.

Next day I drove by the intersection. They still hadn’t cleaned up the debris and some police-tape surrounded the bus shelter on the southwest corner. Thought I detected a stain on the road, roughly where the woman had fallen. Could have been motor oil, transmission fluid, or God knows what. But something told me it was blood. Forensics weren’t needed at this point. No mysteries here. And no one was going to clean it up. In time the traffic would smooth it all out, smear it down into the asphalt.

A few uneasy days passed. Your problems really begin only when you start thinking about them. So you do things to distract yourself. Drive around town. Maybe watch a flick or two on TV. Smoke dope or drink until you can’t think. Try to forget what you are, forget those events that trouble you, forget yourself. Tell yourself that under no fucking circumstances will you relapse. But nothing helps.

Found myself cruising along O’Connor a few mornings later. Yeah, cruising. Had the tunes turned up. Still like my metal when I’m in cruise mode.

It was a crisp, sunny day. Rusty leaves blowing around. Full autumn. I won’t say I had resisted my demons. I won’t say that. I’m not here to lie about myself and paint a picture that would somehow, unfaithfully, ennoble or validate me and my existence. I know I’m fucked. I know I’m lost. I fell in a long time ago. I passed the event horizon a long time ago. Once that happens—as we all know—there is no escape.

Robbie had another delivery for me, and Carmine would be waiting, but I couldn’t bring myself to go up to Robbie’s shitty apartment and swap nothings with him while he scaled the hashish. I sat in front of his building for almost an hour. I couldn’t do it. It was comical. I sat there laughing to myself like a cretin. I wouldn’t have thought it funny if I wasn’t high as a kite.

To be honest, Robbie and Carmine bored me to death. I didn’t fear them anymore. I didn’t like them. They had nothing to offer me. I don’t know why I was mixed up with them. Easy money? But it was nothing. It was a nothing gig and only sanctioned my status as a nothing. Maybe that was the answer, after all: that they confirmed what I believed about myself.

I turned down Coxwell and headed toward the Danforth. Almost noon. I drove slowly.

When I got to the intersection, I felt dizzy. I turned right on Danforth and parked near a Greek pastry shop. Don’t know what I was doing. Trying to regain my bearings? Reliving the horror? Going for another adrenaline rush? Except for a dented signpost, chaotic tire marks, and flowers lain by the southwest bus shelter, no sign of the accident—but I thought I could still see a bloodstain on the road. I was sure of it. I wanted to get a closer look. The noon traffic was intense. I was too high. I stumbled around the intersection. People gaped at me. It was too much. I returned to my car. Took me a few minutes to get it together. Eventually I drove away.

Later, Carmine called me.

“You junkie piece of shit!”

Man, he was mad. I would have shit my pants if I cared.

“I want out,” I told him.

Out, you cockroach! You’re on the hook for five large. How do you expect to pay that back? Out? You’re lucky I don’t come there and break your legs right now.”

“Carmine—”

“Don’t Carmine me. I don’t wanna hear it. Now listen here, sonny. Tomorrow you show up to Robbie’s by ten thirty, no ifs ands or buts. Show up or you won’t be talking to nobody no more. Understand? You fucking junkie. You couldn’t stay clean even for a few months. You’re pathetic.”

He hung up. Pure buzz kill. But he was right. I was pathetic.

That night I couldn’t sleep again. The usual monsters danced through my head. Kept seeing that BMW dude’s red face, looking right at me, wasted out of his mind. Too drunk to feel anything. Too drunk to know.

Unable to empty my head, I dressed and went out. Got in my car and drove to the intersection. The streets were all but deserted.

I parked near the bus shelter, exited my car and walked to the middle of the road, looking for the exact spot where the woman had fallen, perhaps a bloodstain, likely dried by now. A cab appeared, so I jumped back to the sidewalk. The cabbie slowed and looked to see if I wanted a ride. I waved him off and returned to the middle of the intersection.

There, I thought. Found it.

A circular or perhaps somewhat oblong stain, roughly two or three feet in diameter, darkened the asphalt almost to black. I was certain it was blood. I checked if any cars were coming. When I saw the coast was clear I kneeled down, lowered my face to the stain and sniffed it. I shut my eyes and sniffed it, hoping to discern or dispel I don’t know what.

 

 

Salvatore Difalco is the author of 4 books. He splits his time between Toronto and Sicily.

 

“Photograph of My Father, Home from the War” by John Riley


“Pink Vehicle” by Jean Banas, acrylic on canvas.

My father rode in a tank through France, or sometimes in a jeep. The tank was a M24 with 75 mm guns. The jeep was a Willys. He took a round in early forty-five and came home with a limp. Here he’s standing straight, hands on his hips, wearing a black string tie and his something-to-tell-you smile. His face tilts down an inch too far and his lips look about to explode. My mother took the shot. I watched him sleep at night. He never had much to say. Twice a year he left home and days later called from a jail and my mother made calls and begged for money until she could send a wire. At the mill she had to cover her hair with a scarf. He had a girlfriend in Portsmouth with her own children. We all knew better than to care. He grew stout and his limp grew worse until he was trapped in a recliner. My mother brought him soup and adjusted his pillow and answered his questions the best she could. He died one day while I was at school and she got a new job and bought new dresses and shoes. At night before going to bed I loved to watch her brush her hair.

 

 

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

 

“Suture Lines” by Sarena Tien


“Warsaw, 1939” by Jean Banas, acrylic on canvas.

This is when the world ends—
not with fire, not with ice,

but with dirt and water
earth tossed back to earth

without a bang or whimper
only tears cleaving the sky

and the rain slip
sliding down our shoulders,

skeletons who never got to say goodbye
left unburied and behind.

This is when the world begins—
not with a supernova, not with a star

but with a smile
stretched and stitched

down the table, forks clinking
above a sketchbook story

that strung us back together
puzzle pieces pilfered from the past,

photographs of the future and
laughter full of love and loss.

 

 

Sarena Tien is a queer Chinese-American feminist and Francophile. Her work has appeared in online publications such as Transitions Abroad, The Feminist Wire, Bustle, On She Goes, and Argot. When she’s not trying to become a polyglot, she can often be found fighting for social justice or folding far too many origami stars.

 

“Eight Days in Mercy” by Cynthia Morgan Nichols


“Favela” by Jean Banas, acrylic on canvas.

The strip-search nurse counts
my bruises, asks how I got them—
elbow, knee, hip—
I don’t know
I tell her, hands covering my breasts,
legs backsliding as she guides me
to the holding place
where others slump, oxy-blue
in skid-resistant socks; while
a world flutters mercurial, we are
brought back to order,
forced to stay
with dread-locked cravings
pacing a black tar fog
down hallways,
spilling wide-arched
into each other as feeling starts
to come back.

On the East ward I carry myself
with Prozac poise: ask for lip balm, participate
in group (they tell me
my Birkenstocks are smart shoes
for this place). My roommate surrenders
on her knees every morning, every night
against a hard board bed. I love
this place, I think, stripped and walking
patterned paces doubling back
suddenly popular
despite no phone calls, no visitors
saying my name.

Nights we count off
to the guard; a fast file out
into a frozen yard cut
by 12-foot razor wire; humming,
drumming, looping, we circle
newcomers; standing in twos and threes,
we assume vacant spaces; beneath
a void moon, we light
our cigarettes, one off the other, brightening
then dimming; a brief
constellation.

 

 

Cynthia Morgan Nichols lives in midtown Memphis and works at the University of Memphis Libraries. She enjoys painting, yoga and walking through her historic neighborhood.

 

“One Tough German, Part I” by Anna Villegas


“Lost Dreams” by Jean Banas, acrylic on canvas, 47″ x 55″.

The neighbor to the south was a single woman in her forties, Annie, who heard the sirens at close to midnight. Grateful for the cool air breathing through the front door screen, untroubled by the insomnia, which had become her bed partner since her divorce (and would be, she predicted, for the rest of her life), she was lying fully awake on the living room couch, listening. She’d heard the electrician from across the street slam his Ford Explorer’s door at ten; she’d seen the tip of his cigarette pulsing and imagined it into a firefly. She’d heard Happy’s dog tags clinking as the ancient shepherd nuzzled his way down the block, across her lawn into the carport, and back again to his home four houses up. Happy is tomcatting, she’d thought to herself, crossing her open palms across her breasts, pleased by the slight gift of sleeplessness: Happy’s nocturnal ritual defying her town’s leash laws.

She’d heard the first siren call from blocks and blocks away. Too raucous, she felt at first, to be the harbinger of death. Eddie, her neighbor to the north, was coping with stomach cancer, had been for two years. But still he pulled her garbage cans in every Thursday after pick-up as he’d done for over a decade. Just three days ago, she’d seen him pulling wisps of Bermuda grass from beneath his geraniums. He was thinned down, but his spirits seemed good. His voice was hearty and stern when he directed his grandson in mowing the lawn, in blowing the cement walkways clean of grass clippings. He was coping well enough that Virginia, his wife, sometimes escaped to Annie’s kitchen table for a cup of coffee and ten minutes of complaint. He’s so cranky, Virginia would say, nervously centering her coffee cup on one of Annie’s woven placemats. The chemo makes him dizzy. He doesn’t eat. Annie thought Virginia brave and loyal; she envied the smell of carrots and potatoes, steak and onions wafting across the backyard fence exactly at five o-clock. Annie couldn’t imagine not eating a meal which smelled so basic, so much more homey than the scrambled eggs or bowl of granola which had become her own thoughtless last-minute dinners. Virginia’s kitchen stood as Annie’s emblem of the enduring marriage. Cause or effect, Annie wasn’t sure, but she was vaguely aware that had only her oven, or her and Alan’s oven, produced the meaty perfumes of Virginia’s, they would never have been divorced.

She didn’t think about the yelling.

A neighborly sort, she’d thought when she arrived in the neighborhood years ago and came home from work after dark to find her garbage cans pulled off the street, illuminated neatly in the carport by her headlight beams. Perhaps it was neighborliness; perhaps it was Eddie’s insistence on order. His own front yard was all hard lines in concrete except for the square of lawn buffering his porch against the sidewalk. Cement curbing enforced Eddie’s red roses, which grew in deadpan earth as flat and clean as new asphalt. Annie, not much of a gardener herself, had thought one turned the earth beneath shrubs and flowers to make the broken surface welcoming to water. Eddie’s roses, though, were thriving in their hardscrabble floors. If a spent bloom managed to escape Eddie’s deadheading to drop its petals, he had them swept clean within a day’s time. A man so intent on tidiness as Eddie could not be nearing death, which would surely render dropped petals trivial.

As the sirens sounded and neared, Annie sat up from the couch and moved to the screen door, where she stood and watched. Two cars were parked in front of Virginia and Eddie’s: the older son’s white Lexus, the younger son’s dark blue Taurus. Annie was not a car person. She recognized these two makes only because Eddie had been quick to point their merits out to her. When the older son, Eddie Jr., had moved up from Camry to Lexus, Eddie schooled her in engine size, mpg, and luxury options like heated leather seats and defrosting rearview mirrors. Eddie had waved her over to the curb while she was mowing her lawn not so long ago. She’d let the mower engine die to hear about Eddie Jr.’s success at his chiropractic clinic, success that made the Lexus possible. These conversations—it was almost as if Eddie were a salesman trying to sell her a car—seemed misplaced in some psychic geography with which she was unfamiliar, what with Eddie Jr. inside the house visiting with Virginia, Eddie Sr. outside outlining the virtues of the Lexus to Annie. What was most impressive was cost, though, Annie had learned from Eddie, and that it was possible to pay forty thousand dollars for a car remarkably like nearly every other model on the freeway. She’d sensed early in her residence in their neighborhood—Eddie’s unembarrassed question about what she’d paid for her house–that money, having it and spending it, was important to Eddie, to his sense of himself in relation to others. Annie was neither a buyer nor a getter; Eddie became her weathervane of consumerism. His sons’ cars, the woven redwood fence newly erected across his back lot line, airplane tickets to the Dakotas, each was introduced and outlined to Annie in fine accounting including even the relative cost of cars not bought, fence bids not accepted, addendums necessary to certify the financial acumen of the buyer.

So Annie recognized easily the clean shapes of the sons’ cars as she stood at her screen. Their presence assured her that the sirens, winding themselves to hysteria as they drew closer and closer, were not coming to Eddie’s house. The sons—tall, portly take-charge types, gray-haired like their father—would not allow public disorder to overcome Eddie’s household any more than Eddie would. They were only visiting, Annie was sure, staying through the Late Show as they’d frequently done since Eddie’s diagnosis. When a midnight walk held more appeal than the prone, passive acceptance of her insistent insomnia, often Annie would pass Eddie’s house and the moonlit gleam of the sons’ parked cars to the studio applause following Letterman’s dialogue and the delayed roars of Eddie and his offspring. Where was Virginia, she’d often wonder, and then satisfy herself with the image of Virginia (a tiny beehived blonde waif amidst her big men) baking a lemon chiffon pie or a double chocolate layer cake for the midnight pleasure of her family. Annie herself had become the recipient of such riches on the morning after. Virginia would appear skittishly at the front door and offer her a quarter of a pie or an outsized slab of cake: Eddie can’t take the cream anymore. Or the frosting doesn’t sit well with Eddie these days. As soon as Virginia returned to her kitchen to design some other dessert, Annie would stop whatever she was doing, pour herself a glass of milk, and eat the pie or the cake. She was diligent about reporting to Virginia her enjoyment of the treats. She told herself Virginia needed her guiltless, unrestrained absorption of calories to make up for Eddie’s failure.

The fire engine, then ambulance, came from down the long south end of their street. The engine lurched to a stop in front of Annie’s house, two yellow-hatted firemen hitting the sidewalk at a run. The paramedics were a heartbeat behind, exiting the ambulance which had pulled onto Eddie’s lawn. (Tire tracks! Annie thought. Eddie won’t be happy.) Up and down the block, front doors widened and neighbors stepped out, the whiteness of pajamas and robes fluttering mothlike in and out of doors, back and forth from porch to porch, lawn to lawn. Nobody turned on a light. The paramedics unrolled a stretcher from the ambulance. When it sprang tall, its wheel-tipped legs scissoring open like an ironing board’s, Annie startled and stepped back. It was Eddie.

She shut the front door; the murmurs and footsteps, the throaty rumble of the fire engine softened. She turned off the kitchen light and, her hand sliding gently against the walls for guidance, she made her way to the bedroom, to the rumpled bed she had left hours before. Tomorrow she would speak to Virginia. She would try to find some small way she was needed, some small service she could offer that wouldn’t get in the way of the big sons and their wives whose voices ebbed and flowed as, her watching completed, she fell into sleep.

Annie’s house had been a wreck when she’d bought it. An affordable wreck, though, whose methodical clean-up and repair had so exhausted her that she had found it possible to sleep heavily for two and three hours at a stretch after a day of hauling garbage and hacking shrubs, scrubbing sinks and painting ceilings. What others had seen as an eyesore Annie had seized as a welcome alternative to Valium and Diphenhydramine, the refillable prescriptions to which her distracted gynecologist had prescribed when she’d murmured something about sleeplessness in response to the obligatory doctor’s summation following her check-up: Any questions? What she’d wanted, really, was guided instruction as to how one resumes single life after twenty years of muted, soft-cornered marriage. What exactly does one do with dinner, the one meal of the day which she and Alan had shared? How does one set a pretty place and face the four food groups alone? With a candle or without? When the fickle Honda’s clutch gives up the ghost during rush hour on a Thursday evening, whom does one call now that Alan, her best friend since high school, her officially documented ex-husband, was living on the outskirts with a golden retriever and his pregnant girlfriend (younger, although Alan had explained courteously it was her relative vivacity, not her youth, that had seduced him out of their marriage).

Annie had been a good patient and swallowed the Valium, but it enabled inaction, which opened the door to reflection, which led to the road down self-recrimination. The Diphenhydramine left her headachy and slothful for hours after waking. When Alan had asked, graciously enough, if she’d consider selling their pretty bungalow so he could extract his half of community property in cash, she hadn’t the wits to refuse. Homeless, she’d followed the directions of realtors the way she’d followed those of her distant doctor. The first refusal she’d offered to anyone (could it be decades since she’d said no, I won’t?) concerned the house.

You won’t want this one, the realtor had grumbled dismissively, kicking a broken sprinkler head from the front step. It needs so much work.

I want it, Annie had countered, thirty seconds inside the door. I’ll take it.

She’d warmed to Eddie easily in the early days in her new neighborhood. He appeared with his weedwacker after Annie blistered her thumb trimming the foot-high lawn in the back yard. He backed his tarnished silver El Camino into her carport and loaded the pyre of debris she’d dragged from the spider-webbed tool shed. Going that way anyway, he’d said, refusing her offer to pay for the dump fee. When her house and yard had been tidied and transformed from dereliction, You do good work, Annie. Meg and I were saying how nice the place is looking. Then, almost shyly as he turned away: You’re a good neighbor to have. Once during a break at work she’d mentioned to a co-worker that her neighbor was a Rush Limbaugh fan. When the woman pretended to choke on her coffee, Annie felt disloyal, as if she’d delivered a low blow to a person who’d only ever been kind to her.

Although it was Eddie’s upraised voice she overheard through the years, truly hotheaded angry if she were frank about it, and never Virginia’s, her fondness attached to Eddie rather than his wife. Virginia flitted while Eddie stood; Virginia waved while Eddie talked. It seemed to Annie that Eddie’s wife moved as if she were one step ahead of a rabid dog or a speeding car. Something about Virginia unsettled Annie, made her question uninvited all the secrets woven into a person, even a neighbor appreciated and trusted, even a woman who never let slip a complaint or discontent. A woman like Annie herself, who would never inquire about an absent husband. Or a present one.

She and Eddie and Virginia had developed a vacation system for picking up papers and mail, watering pots, pulling cans in and out on garbage day. In terse, polite notes they would inform each other of the dates of their removal from the neighborhood. When Virginia and Eddie went back to family in the Dakotas each fall, Annie stood sentry over their two houses. When Annie infrequently traveled for work, to San Francisco or Denver or Minneapolis, she left her house safe with Eddie and Virginia. Virginia collected teaspoons, Annie knew, and Annie always remembered to find her a pretty souvenir to add to her collection, an enameled tribute to the Twin Cities or the Golden Gate, over which Virginia’s exclamations of thanks would arise and subside, truncated to make way for Eddie’s questions about flight conditions and hotel locations. In season, baskets of overflow strawberries and peaches, bags of persimmons and apples, were set unannounced outside Annie’s carport door. A loaf of persimmon bread, a jar of apple butter, would be placed outside Virginia’s kitchen in the early morning. When the Honda failed, it was Eddie whom Annie had called, first for advice, then for a ride to the rental car agency. It was Eddie’s mechanic who replaced the clutch. Annie had been blessed with perfect neighbors.

~  

Annie tiptoed across her damp lawn to fetch the morning paper. Eddie and Virginia’s had, like hers, been tossed on the sidewalk, barely off the street. Eddie usually had his paper in long before Annie. Sometimes before dawn, standing at the kitchen window drinking her morning coffee after a troublesome night, Annie would see him, water hose or push broom in hand, waiting for their tardy paper boy. Virginia Annie liked to imagine sleeping, maybe rolling into the sheeted warmth left by Eddie’s body. It was always Eddie who brought in the paper, who handled the garbage cans.

The sons’ cars were gone, Eddie’s house still. The ambulance tires had marred the lawn as she’d predicted, flat indentations criss-crossing Eddie’s thick carpet like the tracks of interrupted ironing. Eddie would probably rake and then mow, as soon as he was able, to erase the imperfection. With the papers hooked under her arm, Annie knocked at the door. Through Virginia’s yellow lace curtains, she could see into the kitchen, chairs sitting cockeyed around the table, leftover coffee cups and dessert saucers awaiting rinsing and stacking.

Annie knocked again. She wanted to set the paper down and leave, but this seemed an instance where louder raps were warranted, so she knocked and waited. Hospital, she thought. The sons and Virginia are still at the hospital. It had happened before.

That evening Annie came home to find her block a congregation of cars and neighbors. The electrician from across the street, Happy’s elderly master and mistress, the pregnant accountant from the new house on the corner and her three-year-old, two middle-aged men she didn’t recognize, Eddie Jr. The old dog was asleep on the sidewalk, eyes shut, his loose leash coiled sloppily around his lowered head. The two-year-old, Annie thought his name was Morgan, was swinging a plastic baseball bat. She edged past them, pulled the Honda into the carport, set her purse and a quart of milk down on the step outside her door, and wondered what she could say, how she could phrase a question about the ambulance, the fire engine, Virginia’s absence that morning.

“Can I ask how Eddie is?” she called to Eddie Jr. as she crossed her lawn. He turned from the accountant and stared at her, red-faced, rueful. “I’m Annie. Next door?”

“Oh, sure.” He put out his big hand. “Eddie Hausauer.”

Annie took his hand, found herself squeezing it too long. “How’s Eddie?”

“Dad passed last night.”

Happy stood and shook, nudged his wet nose against Annie’s knee.

“I’m so sorry.” She knelt and felt for the velvety inside of Happy’s ear. “I’m sorry.” She held the dog’s head against her neck.

“Took the ambulance and the paramedics almost fifteen minutes to get here. He was gone when they came. My brother and I, we came over when Mom called. Thought it was indigestion.”

“The cancer?”

“Massive stroke.” Eddie Jr. was massive, Annie thought. A mastiff was a dog like Happy, but bigger.

Annie stood. “What can I do? For Virginia?”

“Oh, we’re keeping her over at our house. We’ve got lots of room. Family’s flying in from the Dakota’s this afternoon.”

“A casserole?” Annie said, hopeful.

“Maybe later. We’re doing fine now.”

“He was … your father was always so good to me. He—“

“One tough German, that’s Dad.”

“And services?”

“Thursday morning. At the Methodist Church on Fairmont.”

“Yes.”

The accountant said something about being out of town. Happy’s old mistress picked up the dog’s leash and tugged. Annie understood Eddie Jr. had no more to say, neighbors having been informed, services announced. She knew that in times of loss, it was better to jump right in and do rather than ask. She thought of Eddie’s lawn, his flowers, the Bermuda grass growing beneath the geraniums like the stubborn hair on a corpse, ignoring the body’s signals of shutdown.

“Please give Virginia my love,” she said, touching Eddie’s broad shoulder.

“Will do,” he said, already turning away. Then, salving his shortness with her, he turned and grinned. “Dad was tough, but Mom’s tougher.”

Annie hadn’t thought of Virginia as tough in all the years she’d neighbored next to Eddie and his wife. It wasn’t her physical smallness in contrast to Eddie’s size, though she was the kind of tiny that suggested frailty, however untrue the stereotype might be. Maybe it was her voice, deeper than one would expect, and never raised, not even when Annie heard Eddie’s bellows for Meg, Meg, across the back fence, laced with Rush Limbaugh’s tirades. Annie would hear the back door open and Virginia answer: What is it, Eddie? It would be something misplaced, not where Eddie damn well knew he had put it, or something needing replacement, more lawn fertilizer or bird seed, which Eddie damn well knew he’d asked her to buy. Virginia would scurry and find the lost thing or head off in the car to Wal-Mart to buy whatever it was Eddie had asked her to restock, more than once if his retorts were to be trusted. Annie would put down her broom or put away her clippers and tiptoe into her own house, embarrassed, ashamed as if it had been Annie whom Eddie was castigating. Virginia tough?

But she hadn’t thought of herself as a tough woman, either, certainly not for all the years Alan had seemed to be taking care of her and their life together. Certainly not when Alan had segued into his abandonment of the marriage by explaining patiently how he’d always wanted a dog (news to Annie, who couldn’t recall such desire in her husband), how it was Patti’s golden retriever which made him see that Annie just wasn’t the person he needed to be with now. She’s playful, he’d said with an overflow of ardent admiration which made Annie nauseous; she’s outrageous. To cut him off—she heard the next line coming—Annie had said with a sarcasm so atypical Alan had not understood: She makes you feel twenty years old again, doesn’t she? Alan didn’t miss a beat. Yes, exactly! Annie became a conspirator then, Alan made her one, to all the passions and intrigues of his relationship with Patti. Once even, before he’d left their house for good, they’d made love between Alan’s drawn-out monologues on Patti’s uniqueness. It was as if for Alan, talking about his new woman became the aphrodisiac inspiring final coitus with his old one. Annie had been a strangely willing participant, the outgoing member of a ménage a trois collecting what she could before her displacement.

What had she been thinking, Annie asked herself as she put the milk into the fridge and slung her purse onto the kitchen table, her stomach clutching with the frankness of memory. What kind of person would let herself be handled so hurtfully by a man who’d promised to cherish her? A man who’d been her best friend? Could she even hold Alan to blame for what she’d allowed him to do to her? She shuddered and gripped the table edge with both hands to stop the shaking in her shoulders. These were thoughts she’d only ever before suffered at night, when the gloamy edges of insomnia welcomed nightmares. What did she and Virginia know of the toughness of men?

 

“One Tough German, Part II” will conclude in the July issue of r.kv.r.y.

 

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