“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.

 

“She Was Always So Thirsty” by Jessica Mehta


“Blue World” by Kathy O’Meara.

I packed my mom in Tupperware
from the dollar store. She always wanted
to go to the Bahamas, even before
she’d gone to sand—before her bones
could be mistaken for broken
shells. I don’t know if it’s bad
to divide ashes, leave a slice
of femur in the Caribbean foam,
a chip of coccyx in Oregon waterfalls
gushing like overdue orgasms.
How does a person want to be
after our skin’s burned to crisps,
the only organ capable
of holding all our worst messes
together? She never said but I felt
her wailing through my insides
demanding turquoise waters, a cleanse,
a starting over. But then again,
who’s surprised? She was always so thirsty.

 

 

Jessica (Tyner) Mehta is a poet and novelist, and member of the Cherokee Nation. Jessica 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. She’s been awarded numerous poet-in-residencies posts, including positions at Hosking Houses Trust and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, Paris Lit Up in France, and the Acequia Madre House in Santa Fe, NM. Jessica is the recipient of a Barbara Deming Memorial Fund in Poetry. She is the owner of a multi-award winning writing services business, MehtaFor, and is the founder of the Get it Ohm! karma yoga movement. Visit Jessica’s author site atwww.jessicatynermehta.com.

 

“Carry Me Home” by Jayne Martin


“Waiting for Sunrise” by Kathy O’Meara.

He carried me when I could no longer carry myself. Barely able to stand on his skeletal frame when Dusty first hauled him home, the old paint gelding was now fat and shiny from spring hay and grain.

Dusty, always to the rescue. I’d never have made my way out of the bottle if it wasn’t for him. God knows before him, I had no reason.

“We’ll call him Lucky,” Dusty said.

“Damn right,” I replied. And we both laughed.

There were days when he’d climb on Lucky with nothing but a rope draped around the horse’s neck and they’d be off in the hills for hours. I never asked where they went or what thoughts he shared with that old horse that he didn’t share with me.

On nights when Dusty would cry out, shake and soak the bed sheets with sweat and tears, I’d cradle him like a child, stroke the scar that stretched across his abdomen where enemy fire had ripped straight through.

We’d fought the night before they found his truck overturned in the flood basin. Who knows why he thought he could cross there. The early rains had left near 30 inches in three days and there was no letup in sight. No one right in the mind was out on those roads. That’s what I’d told him, too, but downstream the Carter home was being washed away and Dusty had served in Iraq with their father.

Lucky nuzzles my pockets for carrots as I toss the rope around his neck. Around my own a leather pouch holds Dusty near the cavity that once held my heart. I climb onto the old gelding’s back and let him lead the way into the hills.

The thing is, I already knew Dusty was dead before the sheriff showed up at our door. I’d seen him at the end of our bed before dawn, young, smiling, and standing tall in his dress uniform. He held out his arms and I went into his embrace.

“You feel so thin,” I said. And then he was gone.

 

 

Jayne Martin 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.

 

“Heptad for Returning from War” by TJ Reynolds


“Ascension” by Kathy O’Meara

I

Writing poems after war is like holding up
a wall
with a baby wipe
and
a handful of grass.

 

II

Teaching feels like sex
for a large man
at first
a flailing performance
that works out most times
despite the sweat and
lumbar pain.

 

III

I watched my wife pull
3 kids from under
the pale blue
hospital gown. Her dignity spit out
like teeth
into a silver tray we all forgot
to empty.

 

IV

My children grow like
roots learning
the only song
they know.

 

V

Sit with me and we’ll talk of pain.

Who here holds
the first stone?

Like the stray warning
shot from a sergeant’s
muzzle into a boy’s left leg.

That, he will never forget.

 

VI

Taxis taste like meat
to my .762

Is this Sunni brine
or
a sip of thick water?

 

VII

Part of me hopes            bullets
work with Bluetooth.

Maybe when they punch
through skin and bone
they upload souls
that won’t rightly belong
in    our Father’s    heaven.

 

 

 

TJ Reynolds 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.

 

“One Tough German: Part II” by Anna Villegas


“Maneuvers,” by Kathy O’Meara.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, Virginia.”

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

~  

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

“Annie! Annie, honey!”

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re both up, aren’t we?”

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

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

“You—I—“

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

“Since Eddie?”

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

“Pretend?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

“The First Day” by John Riley


“Vessel Relic” by Kathy O’Meara.

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

 

 

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