“Those Chicago Blues” by Birute Serota


1968, Irene Matas

We’re sitting in a bar on Wells Street in Old Town listening to Muddy Waters, and laughing for no particular reason, when suddenly I touch my face and feel my tears. Am I crying because Muddy Waters is wailing the blues, or is it because I’ve taken too much LSD?

“There’s only the thinnest thread,” I say in my purple haze, “between laughter and tears; only the thinnest thread,” I repeat. My voice bounces back from the four corners of the room.

“Yeah, Irene, keep taking that shit and there’s gonna be the thinnest thread between you and a lunatic,” says Connie. I can see she’s in no mood for pharmacological enlightenment, but I can’t help myself.

“Lunatic. Luna. Someone deeply affected by the moon.” I smile beatifically. The blue and rose lights on the stage are pulsating wildly, extending like haloes around each person in the room. A gathering of saints. A redemptive rally of former sinners. A vision from the Old Testament. All God’s children are saved and Muddy Waters shall lead them beside the river, the beautiful, beautiful river. My eyelashes flutter in a moment of religious ecstasy.

“Irene, your miniskirt is sliding up halfway to China.” Connie tugs it back down to mid-thigh. “You’re putting on more of a show than Muddy Waters. I’ve got some Valium in my purse if you need it.” Connie rummages through her crocheted purse. Her Irish red Afro is backlit by a blue halo and her tight jeans are pushing a roll of fat out of her waistband.

The smoke-filled air pulses with the rhythms of “I’ve Got Those Walking Blues.” Four couples dance lethargically in the corner. “The blues reminds me of death,” I say.

“Everything reminds you of death.” Connie looks irritated. It’s probably her cheap-paying job at Piper’s Alley in Old Town selling scented candles and lava lamps.

I lean over to Connie’s ear: “Death never walks alone; she always walks with her sister, Lust.” I’m really tripping.

“And why is that, Irene?” asks Connie as if it were an ordinary conversation.

“Because Lust carries the seed.”

“The seed. Ah ha.” Connie rolls her eyes.

“Of Life. The next generation. Always another generation. Like waves, they keep coming despite lassitude, drunkenness, boredom, satiation, listlessness. Despite Death.”

“Baba Irene, guru to Lithuanians, wherever they may wander.”

“Baba means wise old man. Sounds like boba in Lithuanian.  Means foolish old woman.” I feel my mouth curl in disgust.  “Sexism.”

Connie grabs her purse and gets up. “Come on. I’m sick of this. Let’s go home. I’m waking you up early tomorrow for the Democratic National Convention. We’re going, in case you forgot.”

The next day starts out kind of pleasant for Chicago. Crowds of hippies watching Alan Ginsberg chanting “Ooommm” in Lincoln Park. Connie spots Paul Krassner passing out copies of his journal, The Realist.  It has a lurid cover story about Lyndon Johnson on the Air Force One trip back from Dallas and a centerfold of all the Disney characters “doing it.” Krassner is an iconoclast extraordinaire.

All of Lincoln Park looks stoned. Even the undercover narcs look happy. Music, dancing, eating, kissing–there’s the feel of festival in the air. This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

Connie wears bell bottoms and tie-dyed T-shirt and I’m wearing my Lithuanian blouse with the red embroidery over frayed jeans and my favorite water buffalo sandals with the strap around my big toe. I’m covering the demonstrations outside the Democratic Convention for the alternative press, which means the throwaway paper that lands on the doorsteps of incense stores and head shops once a week.

Connie and I walk along the park and head over to Michigan Avenue where Lyndon Johnson is staying at the Hilton. Grant Park is where the more serious demonstrators are gathered with antiwar placards and bullhorns. I stop dead cold when I see a long line of National Guard troops lining one side of Michigan Avenue. They’re standing at attention with rifles in hand. Behind them are Guard Jeeps with a grid of barbed wire in the front of each car.

“Geez, friendly looking group.” I don’t like this.

“It’s a police state,” says Connie. “Like East Berlin. They’re not kidding around here.”

“Off the pigs,” some shirtless hippie yells into a guardsman’s face. “Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh,” another kid shouts. One hippie quietly places flowers into every rifle neck.

“I say let’s boogie on home.” I feel like creeping away, the joy seeping out the edges.

“Nothing’s going to happen,” says Connie. “This is just Mayor Daley flexing his muscles, showing off in front of his fellow Democrats, letting them know he’s one tough son of a bitch.”

“But he is one tough son of a bitch!”

“Yeah, well never mind. We’re here and we’re staying. They can’t frighten us away.” Connie marches on like the Taurus bull she is. The trouble with Connie is that she’s a true believer. I, on the other hand, am too cynical to truly be in the trenches but also too curious not to put my foot in–one foot in, one foot out–my perennial stance. My generation is having too much fun so I don’t want to miss the action, but then again, those rifles scare me to death and the barbed wire looks ominous.

I run to catch Connie by her arm. “Hey, nothing’s started yet. Let’s go over to Walgreen’s. I need to get some Tampax and a cup of coffee. My head is still throbbing from last night.”

At Walgreen’s, Connie sits at the counter sipping coffee, staring out the window towards Michigan Avenue, while I go to the bathroom and take a cube of “window pane.” Maybe the acid will give me courage. When I sit back down, the waitress pours another cup of coffee. I study it like the Rosetta stone, pour the cream in, stir it, watch the coffee swirl around in my coffee cup and then I stir it again. And again.

“I wonder if coffee swirls in the other direction south of the equator.”

“Coffee swirls in the direction you stir it, above or below the equator.” Connie finally sees what I’ve been doing and realizes I’m whacked.

“Oh bloody hell, don’t tell me you took some acid while you were in the bathroom?”

“Just a touch,” I say sheepishly.

“Oh shit, now what am I going to do with you?”  Connie is pissed.

“Nothing why?”

“Irene, we’re going to go yell ‘hell, no, we won’t go’ to the assembled Democrats. We will do this in honor of your brother, Pete and for Al Vitkus, who are in Viet Nam. Remember.” She is shrieking now and I’m freaking.

“Yeah sure,” I say, contrite. “For Pete and for Al. You think I’m not going?”

“Irene, you’re turning into a total head.”

“It’s only because I don’t know how to live my life. You got any ideas that sound good?” I’m feeling something like remorse.

Connie sighs. “Come on. Just don’t freak out on me.”  I can tell she doesn’t know anything about life either. She’s just scared of acid like I’m scared of rifles and jeeps with barbed wire.

On State Street, the usual shoppers and hawkers throng the street. Connie and I walk the two blocks towards Michigan Avenue. We hear the sound of a crowd long before we see it and figure that LBJ has just arrived. We see a group of kids come running down the street, followed by another group and then another. Some look wild-eyed with fear, others look angry. Suddenly a group of longhaired hippies blitz by, pursued by a cloud of tear gas. We feel the sting in our eyes and throats as we start running back towards State Street.

Then the Chicago police materialize out of nothing, their pale blue shirts rising up from the street, their clubs swinging, cracking the heads of protesters and onlookers alike. A policeman grabs Connie by her big hair, dragging her away to a waiting patrol car, while she screams obscenities, writhing and kicking.

I want to help her but I can’t move. I’m surrounded by kids, screaming in pain, as policemen rain blows on them. A girl falls down next to me clutching her head. A trickle of blood runs between her fingers. I long to help her but I’ve turned to stone. My mouth is open in a silent scream. Here it is. I’d been waiting for it my whole life. I grew up listening to my parents tell apocalyptic bedtime stories about World War II–bombs, camps, the running from the Communists. Now it’s finally here—Chaos, the wild beast riding a tear gas cloud, maw open wide, most ravenous of beasts, feeding on innocent blood. I’ve been waiting so long, it’s a relief to finally see it.

I shudder and feel a hand grab mine. I’m prepared to die. Truly. I can smell Death’s sour breath on my immobile cheek, and I’m ready to be the sacrificial Lamb. Oh Lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy on me. The hand pulls me again and I submit. I surrender to the beast as it draws me into the sea of the anguished. I’m swept into the crowd of screams and shouts and curses. Still the hand pulls, and then the bus door closes behind me, and the bus driver says, “We’re not letting any more in. There’s no more room.”

Bus 1968 to hell, I think. The express–no stops, no transfers. I stand pressed against a hairy young man with a Van Dyke beard. “Where am I?” I try to focus. Is this some post death bardo state or is I Alice in the rabbit hole? “Are you a Dutch captain on the Hudson River?” I ask.

“Are you crazy?” he shouts.

“Quite possibly,” I say. But I know nothing. I look out the window at the rough sea of violence swirling around the bus. Who is stirring this? I’m in the eye of the tornado. What hand had pulled me to safety, and why me and not those out there? I start to whimper, thinking all those people on the streets are from my grammar school. I know them all, don’t I? Why is one hurt and not another? Why did my brother Pete go to Nam? Why Al Vitkus? Then I’m sobbing while Van Dyke holds me.

I don’t know how long I stay on that bus. I grow old there, clinging to Van Dyke in my grief. I don’t know yet that his name is Ira Horowitz. I only know that I’m bleeding. Am I injured? I can’t remember. Nothing hurts. It takes me a long time to remember the bathroom at Walgreen’s. I forgot the tampax. Now my jeans are soaked with blood. The ambulances arrive. They want to put me in an ambulance along with the others who are hurt and bleeding. I want to protest, but I can’t. The solicitude of attendants, nurses and doctors is too much to resist. Always the redemption of blood. Or is it blood sacrifice? Why is all of this feeling so, well so, Catholic? Martyrs, torture, flagellation, and the always-dying Jesus on the cross.

The ambulance attendants lift me up on a gurney. Van Dyke goes along for the ride to the emergency room. The TV cameras are rolling. It is my finest hour. I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille. It is faux, but I’m a symbolic martyr of the Democratic National Convention. My golden aura, like a halo, covers those around me like a gentle shroud.

I don’t even begin to feel embarrassed until much later when the LSD wears off. Then I’m totally mortified. Penitent. The doctors are not amused. Van Dyke stays with me though I don’t know why. I don’t care why. He’s my savior. We bail Connie out and take her home. She’s not bruised or broken or dead, as I had imagined. Just mad.

I bow my head. Chastised. It’s true. I’m bad to the bone. I can’t hold my head up or speak for days. I would have worn ashes and sackcloth, or joined the flagellants if I could find some. Instead I scourge myself with a running inner-monologue of self-loathing. I go to all my classes at Roosevelt University, work at the dull credit office job at Marshall Field’s, apologize over and over to Connie for doing too much acid and vow never to take it again. And I promise myself I would go see my parents the following weekend. I need home.

The trouble with home is that it depresses me to go back to my old South Side neighborhood. It always looks like one of life’s forgotten backwaters. There is Life with a capital L, full of risk and excitement, and then there is life with a small l, which is cautiously lived, saved and parceled out carefully. I know every nook and cranny of this South Side life.

“We saw you on the news, Irene.” My mother is studying me.

“You did?” I feel sick.

“Last week, during the convention. What were you doing there with all those hooligans?” My mother looks at me the way Margaret Mead used to look at those South Seas islanders.

“What did you see?” I ask warily.

“You were being dragged on a bus. They kept showing it on every newscast. All the neighbors called. They saw you too.” My mother bit her lip to keep from crying. “I was so embarrassed.”

Why did seeing parents always mean you would stand in line at the Cafeteria of Guilt? “I was demonstrating against the war, Mama. For Pete and Al, so they could come home.” My face is turning red. I wonder if my mother saw my bloody pants. I don’t ask. I eat my mother’s apple cake and drink her hot tea. The clock ticks loudly on the wall, the same yellow electric clock my parents had since 1950. It reminds me of grammar school. Of sitting at the table, doing my homework for Sister Kunigunda.

My parents look at me like I’m an escapee from a perpetual Mardi Gras–colorful but not to be taken seriously. I know they’re right.

My mother pours more tea. “Mr. Vitkus told me yesterday that his son was injured in Viet Nam.”

“Al’s hurt?” I hold my breath. This must be my fault. The acid, the demonstration, the tampax–something I did wrong.

“Nothing serious. His father said he didn’t even have to go to the hospital.”

“Will he be OK?” I feel nauseated. I haven’t had a letter from Al in two months.

“His father said it was just a scratch.”

I’m not relieved. I know Al wouldn’t tell his father if it were serious. “How about Pete?”

“He’s fine. He writes that he’s in Saigon working in an office. I pray for him everyday.”

Pete’s lying too. He’s in Hue. He doesn’t want mama to worry.

When had my mother gotten so much older, so much grayer and tired-looking? When had my father gotten so bald? “Are you going to visit your old friends, Vida and Ona?” she asks me.

“I don’t have time, Mama. I have some papers to write for school.”

“Vida’s engaged, you know. To Jonas Kelmas.” My mother says those words like they were a charm. One of life’s alchemical phrases.

“Yes, I heard.” I look at my mother, knowing that she wants me to dress like Jackie Kennedy, marry some nice Lithuanian engineer and move into a brick house right down the street. Have children and send them to Lithuanian Saturday School. Have dinner at her house every Sunday after Mass. I just can’t do it. I’m certain life would be easier if I could. It’s not in my nature to be a good girl. I’m a bad girl. A wild card I have to play it to the end.

I kiss my mother and tell her that I love her. My heart aches as I realize that I’ve taken a turn in life, I can’t say exactly when, but it was irrevocably away from them. I walk down the stairs of the brick two-flat and head for the bus station. Magda, Al’s retarded sister, crosses the street, walking alongside me without saying a word. We go down Talman Street together and I remember a day when Magda was about twelve. She was in the alley wearing a blue housedress. I watched in amazement as Magda picked up her dress, pulled down her underpants, and shit like a dog in the street. When I walked by the place where Magda had been, I saw blood. I had thought Magda was dying, that something was terribly wrong with her. And for months and years, I watched Magda with apprehension, looking for signs of a fatal illness. I knew nothing about menstrual blood then. My mother had once mentioned that someday I was going to bleed, but that God forbid, I should never tell my father or my brother about it. I thought I was going to have the stigmata.  What else could it be?

I take Magda’s hand and walk to the end of Talman Street, where I know Magda will walk no further. Magda has her perimeter in this neighborhood, like I supposed her brother, Al Vitkus, has in Viet Nam.

Magda smiles like the six-year-old she still is. Why has God done this to Magda? She, not I, is the sacrificial Lamb of God. I feel a sudden sympathy for all of life’s misfits–for the slow and the clumsy, for all the rejects and queers, for the deformed and the misshapen, for the odd and the slow-witted. I know I’m one of them. I hug Magda like the sister I never had. Sisters in menstrual blood.

I take the bus to Loomis and get on the “el.” The wheels of the train screech and clack. I stare at the blur of broken back porches on the South Side. I don’t cry until the elevated train goes underground.



Birute Serota grew up in Chicago but now lives in Santa Monica. She has published short stories in Spectrum, West/Word, Segue, New Digressions, Story One, New Hampshire College Journal, Lituanus, Southern New Hampshire University Journal, and Storyglossia.


“Scorpion Days” by Richard Wirick

We bought the kief from a Moroccan kid—probably a soldier—on the Tripoli-Rabat Express, handing over the quartered dinar notes for the four or five flat-rolled zagarettes, clipped and trim and even.  We stood facing him, holding on to what we could, hand straps and seats and backpacks, rocking, swaying as we raced down through the date oases at the desert’s edges.  We got it not so much for wanting it as for the bad way the kid had taken Roberts’ joke, Nous sommes Algerien, which made him frown and look as if he were reaching in his djellabah for something harmful.  So we bought it out of shame, as a sort of apology. We hadn’t known how much the Algerians were hated, how fierce the battle had become with them for the Spanish Sahara.

Roberts, whose instincts I later would stake my life on, had said the wrong thing, the wise thing, the thing that could get your throat cut.  So we were forced into being supplicants, which in the third world meant that most essential sort of other humans:  consumers, customers.

Roberts was red-faced, downcast as the strong-chested boy stuffed the bills in the pocket of his gray striped robe.  Jieux, joux, said my companion, searching for the word “joke.”  Les joux sont fait said the Moroccan soldier: the game is up.

The whistle blew.  The stop was a garrison of the militia, and he got off.

The stops increased.  More and more people got off the train and the clusters of buildings thickened.  I got out of my rucksack the books Halpern had given me, and which I was supposed to bring back for the magazine and translate: Yacoubi and Mohammed Mrabat, books whose loose, soft phrasing could build up your Moghrebi if you digested a line or two a day.  Badi, my tutor, would ride the train with us from Fez to Tangier in order to correct my selections.

The books were full of invocations, benedictions, not just from North Africa but from the far West and South, from the Dinka and Pygmy tongues.  I read some of them now silently to myself.

Somehow, when I wasn’t watching, Roberts had put the kief in a loose, thick catalog of birth and funeral songs. I snapped it shut.  We had come to Centr`al, the great main station webbed in glass and iron.

Our hotel room looked out over the mamounia, the old tanneries and the drying and folding stalls that surrounded them.  From there the lanes of the medina wandered up through the hills.  The stink of the tanneries was legendary: a hellish, rancid stench that gave you tears and jagged fits of coughing.  And we had two windows of it, the price of a cross breeze on a humid summer night.

But it also masked any odor one brought to the room.  So after dinner that night Roberts opened the funerary and took out one of the sticks.  As he lit it I could see its oval circumference, and as he passed it to me the brays of the donkeys pulling the tanning buckets grew louder.

The weed was ravishing.  Beyond belief.  My spine felt lined with something like a ridge of tongues, and honey poured along them, cooling and pulsing, cooling and pulsing like the morphine wash they had given me once for kidney stones.  The sounds of the prayer callers had started and mixed with the donkey calls and creaking of the wood and ropes.  It was the “violet hour,” the time the long day’s haze made all the buildings’ edges wash and seep up toward the giant, starless night. There was a knock on the door.  Before the slowed-down sound of it ended the knocker had opened it, and Roberts made a sudden gesture toward the window, pointing or violently pushing.

“Control,” said the man who had entered.  Behind him there was another man.  The speaking man had large, scratched glasses and an open shirt.  The one behind him had a narrow, sweating face, and his cotton dhoura was buttoned to the top.

The first man made a sniffing sound.

“Control?,” Roberts asked, his left eye cocked.

I watched the streams of sweat on the main man’s neck.  His hand was open in the air, a plastine picture on the right and crooked typing on the facing side.  No badge.  No gun.  But he was real.

Roberts asked again.  My heart pressed up against the sides of my ribs, like some sort of swelling fruit.

“Do you want to see . . . . ?” the man’s voice trailed off, and he made a clasping motion with one hand over the wrist of the other.

Roberts shook his head, and I saw now it was a sort of cooperation, a disarming honesty he was going for. Something incredulous and American.  He bunched his mouth to say: no disbelief, no disrespect intended.

When my eyes went out toward the roof Main Man’s did too.  He waved his hand for the other officer to search it.  But Main Man joined him when nothing presented itself, both of them leaning their palms on the sill.  Then the lieutenant hobbled over and out onto the tiles, walking and crouching, bringing out a flashlight.

My heart was like a rabbit now.  The seconds were long, dull flashes of panic.  Looking at Roberts’ hands, making sure they were open, I thought of my first near bust in the relative comfort of my own country.  Mounted police had come down to a circle of us in Golden Gate Park, their horses stamping and chafing as one of them dismounted.  We’d thrown the joint away, but their hands went through our shirt pockets until they found the film canister in Marty’s.  He was the one they took in.  But we knew where to find him, and when, and how to go about it.  There were no surprises inside the surprise.

The Control agents came back inside.  They hadn’t found anything.  Main Man was sweating more, clearly agitated.  Roberts looked over at me, and I could see in his eyes the fear of a plant, a drop, a thrown-down something they were about to dangle in front of us.

They both sat down on the desk chairs.  They were ready to negotiate, for all I knew, on matters they had yet to propose—-an offer waiting in a place they would haul us down to or had prepared in the room next to ours. I could imagine writing the rest of my travelers checks out to the two of them, or going to their own money-changer.  Or worse: I saw myself locked away, outside the reach of diplomatic help, my twenties evaporating into something I’d know later only as static time—-a thing I’d never lived, a droplet I had never

But the two of them were winded from the search on the roof.  They had nothing, and looking across the beds and desk and shelves gave them even more of an unnegotiable empty hand.  They struck us now, with their heavy breathing and heaving, sodden shirts, as cops too young to pull off a plant, rookies too green for crookedness.

When they had left Roberts and I looked at one another, not speaking, reeling out the fear we could sense in each other.  After a minute or two I could see his fingers shaking, a true tremor, like an old man with a disease.  I had nearly shit myself, but what I thought was my own stench was once again the heavy offal of the tanneries, that hideous thickness in the air.

At first I thought Roberts was watching the spasms of his hands, which he certainly was.  But I looked at the sight line he made along his index finger and down to the floor.  He was pointing.  The zagarettes were there in the middle of one of the squares, scattered like pick-up sticks, their paper color blended perfectly with the shade of the limestone.


Badi sat next to me on the harbor train, going through my notebooks, looking at the Moghrebi texts I had been working out into what I hoped was a lyrical English.  The coral trees threw a checkerwork of shadows in through the windows.  The dark patterns tumbled over Roberts’ face, sleeping across from us in the breezeless compartment.

Badi said we had been the victim of a scorpion, or scorpiones, hotel con men posing as federal police.  We were going over some Dinka songs, and Badi made quick corrections as he spoke.  He said we were lucky.  Even young scorpiones were rumored to be good at set-ups.  We had definitely gotten two who were off their game, or, more likely, were themselves too high and disoriented to remember their routine

Badi came to a song whose final lines I had not yet captured.  He tapped his blue pencil on the already smudged, torn paper.

“They grow up in camps, in prisons themselves” he said.  “They are like the Guardia Civil up in Spain or like Russian police.  Good at getting criminals because they were hoods themselves.”

The lines of the Dinka song had to do with cycles and recurrence.  The “fronting” couplets of the stanza spoke of rains that come, go away, wait in the place they have gone to, and then come again.  The winds also come, go away, wait in the place they have gone away to, and then come again. I’d gotten those two
lines perfectly.

“They kill,” said Badi.  “Scorpions all lived in the camps of the French, not knowing from one day to the next if they would be around.  So they are not afraid.  They will make the move without hesitation.”

Badi stopped his tapping.

“What happens to you?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, “but there are places up in the Atlas.  Riverbeds, full of bones.”

He changed the words of the final line, which speaks of [M]an/Who is born, lives, and dies/Goes away to the place he waits in/And does not come back again.

The cadence was gorgeous, the sounds of the Arabic spectral and cool, like echoes bouncing back across stone. I put my hand on Badi’s shoulder and he snapped the notebook shut.  Soon he was asleep too.

It would be an hour or two before Tangiers, and hours after that waiting for the Algeciras ferry.  When I closed my own eyes I saw the two men sitting in the room again.  Then I saw lines and lines of the script I was learning, its sharp points and waving upward thrusts, like young grass just starting to come into its growth.



Richard Wirick writes and practices law in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two children.  A three-time Pushcart prize nominee, his fiction has appeared in the Indiana Review, Northwest Review, Texas Review, Oxford Magazine, Berkeley Review and numerous other publications. He is the author of Many an Incense Bearing Tree, a collection of travel essays. His short fiction will soon appear in a collection of his work entitled Fables of Rescue (Routledge, 2004)


“Kleenex” by Anne LaBorde


I’m at the office supply store picking up paper for writing. That’s it. I get nothing else. Later I hit the grocery store and load up half a dozen boxes of Kleenex into my cart. I get two kinds, the flat boxes for the bigger table to my left and the tall square boxes for the smaller table on my right. In the square-boxed Kleenex, I pick Cold Care, the kind that has aloe vera in the tissues. They are softer, not so chaffing, if you use a lot. I push the cart farther down the aisle and throw a couple of packages of Dixie cups on top of the Kleenex. As I unload the cart I flash back to my trip to Staples. They don’t have what I need to run my business. No high tech supplies for me, not even low tech supplies like paper clips and rubber bands. I need Kleenex and Dixie cups to run my business. Dixie cups for the water, tissues for the tears.

The location of the Kleenex box is one of the first things I look for in a therapist’s office if I’m the patient. I don’t know what other people’s strategies are, but I also look for the garbage can. You have to have some place to throw that big wad of tissue when you’re done with it. It’s all wet and goopy. I have two garbage cans in my office. Large and visible. I hate it when the therapist hides the garbage can in some obscure location like, under her desk and to the farthest reach away from where you walk out. Is she on this planet or what? Has she ever had to throw away 50 minutes worth of tears?

Some people announce that they are going to cry at the beginning of the session and take a few tissues right away. Others have burst into tears at the sight of me. I usually offer them a Kleenex while I hold their elbow and guide them into the office.

Some patients let the tears roll down the contours of their face, looking right at me the whole time, reaching for a Kleenex when the grief is over. Others wipe their tears with the backs of their hands using a tissue only when their noses are so full that they can’t make it without one. Some people take one and use that one tissue through the whole session. Such an economy of tears. Other people will hold onto the whole box, putting it next to them or on their lap.

I try to be discreet about offering Kleenex, pointing to the box with just one finger, the pointing hand close to my body. I watch for how far my patient has to reach to get a tissue. If it seems a strain to reach, I’ll move the box closer. If the cleaning people move the boxes at night, I move them back to their reachable locations. I have attractive covers for my Kleenex boxes.

An Italian hand painted grapes design on one and a wicker and leaves cover for the other. This way the boxes don’t scream, “You’ll need me,” when a person first walks in. All you can see of them is a curl of tissue white and waiting.

Men and Kleenex. Men have a manly way of reaching for a Kleenex. They grab one, like a rope, and pull. Mostly, men’s eyes just water and then they get a hold of themselves and it’s done. I never think of Kleenex as tissue when a man reaches for one. Out of respect for the gender, I think Kleenex.

I’ve gotten teary in a patient’s session before, but I don’t ever remember using a Kleenex. When a patient’s husband was killed by a drunk driver on the 101, that made me cry. I tried to catch the tears as they collected at the corners of my eyes and I dammed them up with my fingers. When I was going through my own divorce, I had a couple, who’d become very dear to me, come and tell me they were splitting up and would I help them to do it without hurting each other too much. I didn’t think they could tell, but sometimes the things they said to each other were so moving that I’d have to breathe deeply to keep from sobbing.

One night they were fretting over what to do with this big leather chair she’d bought for his study. He loved the chair, but hated that she’d spent so much money on it. They ended up deciding to ship the chair to her aging father in Minnesota who’d always admired it. It was going to cost them a pretty penny to do it, but they both wanted to.

The whole thing made me think of my own fight about a painting Id bought John for his 50th birthday. How proud I’d been to give it to him. How hard it was for him to receive it. At the time of this session, John and I were still fighting over most everything and it touched me that this couple could make such a loving gesture from a ruined piece of love. John  eventually gave me that painting as the last Valentine’s Day gift he would ever give me. It was as sweet as an entire universe of See’s chocolate truffles.

But I was caught in the middle of the nightmare my life had become at the time I was seeing this couple and as their session came to an end I choked down a cry. They both acted as if they didn’t notice it, but as the guy got up to leave, he pulled a Kleenex from the box and tucked it into my hand, closing my fingers over it. I cried all the way home clutching that Kleenex.

The oddest thing anyone ever said to me about Kleenex came from a 22 year old girl from Albuquerque, New Mexico. When I went to get her in the waiting room, she had “cowgirl” written all over her. It wasn’t her clothes that made me think that. She wore baggy jeans, a thick belt pulled tight at the waist, an orange fisherman’s sweater and clogs. It was the way she stood up. She was a about five foot two, but when she stood-up, it seemed as though she rose to 6 feet. When she walked, her legs were bowed like they’d grown that way from riding a horse too long and too early.

The first time I opened the door for her and stepped aside to let her pass, she motioned for me to enter first, like a man would. She sat down in the middle of the couch, as far away from the Kleenex boxes as she could get. Then she started to talk and did so for the better part of an hour. She wove a story like few I’ve heard. As the light faded outside my office, I felt transported to a circle of wagons around a campfire and I just knew the massacre was coming. She told the story straight and when she was done there was a faint line of perspiration above her upper lip.

As she wrote me a check, I tried to think of something to say. She glanced over at the Kleenex box as she ripped the check out of the book. She threw her head a little over in its direction. “What are they for?” she said. I wasn’t sure at first if she was serious, but the innocence on her face told me that she was.

“Sometimes people cry when they come here,” I said.

She nodded her head, a brief flash of fear skittering across her eyes. “Well I’ll never use them,” she said.

All through the dark night of her terrible story, she kept her gait and kept her word. I came to understand that she told me her story from a disembodied place. A place where tears couldn’t enter, a place she shook off before she walked out my door.

Hers was not a story of ordinary human ugliness, it crossed the line into evil and there is nothing I can say that won’t betray her story. I will take it to my grave.

She finally stopped coming.

“You don’t understand,” she said. “I’ve been this way too long.”

That girl had a river of tears in her, more than all the Kleenex boxes I could position close enough for her to reach. She was terrified that she’d pour right out of herself, washed away with the tears. Nothing left but the tissues.


~Anne LaBorde, Ph.D, Psy.D

“Mentors” by Maureen Tolman Flannery

All the hermits and holy men of my formative youth
were alcoholic sheepherders in self-imposed exile–
left alone from year to year, from binge to bender
with none but goddesses of timber and sagebrush,
with a horse, a dog, and their unacknowledged longings,
their only visitors the camp tender
come to move the sheep wagon to new grazing ground
and bring more grub
and we, the rancher’s little girls
eager for adventure stories
expecting the gift of an empty Bull Durham bag—
unbleached muslin with a yellow drawstring
just right for holding little doll,
or an abrasive, thorned pet horned toad
that prehistoric pilgrim from another age
that could cling three-fingeredly to cloth.

A herder perfected something of the weaver’s art–
working the limitless yarn of thin, immaculate air
spun in the nearly-touchable sun
daily back and forth, in and out of the warp,
the confining sheep wagon
drab as slag, gray as February hay.
He chewed on this rhythm of contrast–
cloud-sheep in blue skies, his herd on green feed,
wood-stove grease on compartments
where his canned goods were stored;
daybreak eagle-racing his skittish horse,
warding off demon cravings of the moon-dark night;
climbing the heights, crawling into his bedroll;
the mountain to conquer, the cave to transform.
He was the shuttle and he wove his scratchy wool life.

These men held knowledge not inferior to any priest’s–
where the purest waters spring icy from the depths of earth,
the kindness of the star-flung night,
how to jacket a motherless lamb with the hide of another,
healing arts for scours or a maggoty sore from a shearer’s knick,
how to check yourself for ticks,
when to let sheep graze and when to bunch them
and where to send the dogs if some aren’t there,
ways of splitting logs, mounting bareback,
calling mountain gods to account,
beating the obvious odds at solitaire.

They showed us how to whittle pine,
turn quartz and limestone boulders
into monuments whose strange configuration
told rare passers-by
how we had spent long idle afternoons.

Beyond all these things, they taught paradox,
for what I sensed in them,
even as a child who had not learned distinctions,
was that they’d lived events so disparate
from the gentleness of sheep,
their sometimes ravings having evened out
the clean reliability of mountain sunrise.
They volleyed all their lives for balance
between responsible sobriety
and each year’s two-week drunk
when they’d spend every dime,
pawn saddle and rifle,
befriend all manner of gold-digging women,
perhaps sign my dad’s name
to a few bad checks across the state,
before returning humbly to our door
to dry out and go back to the mountains.

And there in the mountains year after year
they were my teachers and my friends,
each with his sheep wagon
in its predictable summer meadow–
matted as an artist’s print in blue and purple
by lupine and shooting star,
each telling tobacco-stained stories,
each spitting snuff or rolling his own
and saving the tobacco bags
for my sister and me.



Maureen Tolman Flannery has just released her latest book, Ancestors in the Landscape: Poems of a Rancher’s Daughter.   Although she grew up in a Wyoming sheep ranch family,Maureen and her actor husband Dan have raised their four children in Chicago.  Her other books are Secret of the Rising Up: Poems of Mexico; Remembered Into Life; and the Anthology Knowing Stones: Poems of Exotic Places.  Her work has appeared in forty anthologies and over a hundred literary reviews, recently including Midwest Quarterly Review, Amherst Review, Slant, Buckle&, and Atlanta Review.


“How to Walk Down a Country Road” by Felicia Mitchell

F.Mitchell 2004

One.  You don’t really need a guide to help
You find the way.
Just follow all the doves
That gather on the wires until you see
No more. Then you will know you’ve gone so far
There are no wires or houses.  Two. Avoid
Advice that says to face the traffic when
You’re on a curve.  Look at those doves.
They know
The difference between life and death is not
As easy as all that.  It takes some sense
To cross the road when cars are tumbling down
Like cold, white water with no place for you
To navigate.
Three. Lose the road. You don’t
Know country roads until you’ve stepped aside
Into somebody’s pasture or a stream
With rocks as smooth as wings on doves-or stopped
Beneath an apple tree and eaten one
To prove you could survive in nature if
You really had to.  Four. Turn back before
Your time runs out.  Five.  The doves may look
As if they’re watching over you.  They’re not.
The crows aren’t either.  Not the cows, the leaves,
The lines on asphalt separating gray
From gray.  You’re on your own.  Find your way home
Alone and then you’ll know exactly what
It’s like to walk right down a country road.



Felicia Mitchell teaches creative writing at Emory & Henry College.  Her poems appear regularly in journals such as Terrain, Many Mountains Moving, and Survivor, and are found in a few anthologies and chapbooks. Many of her poems touch on issues of abuse and the theme of psychological survival.


“Unbroken” by Sara-Anne Beaulieu

stock photo

27 years, I have tried to
shed your skin, weighted
on me like an overcoat.

27 years, I pick this pen
up, stand tall to your
reddened toothless face, spit

flying from your lips.
To draw my adult form
over the child, her inky

jagged body in the corners
of the mind.
She looks

at you, unable to separate newly
sobered you, from old, stagnant scent of booze,
bloated belly full of beer, hair trigger

temper. Separate the you
from the demons that
that still flare your nostrils

monstrously. Demons that dig wide fingers into
my arm, dragging me, the child, out the door,

shut your ungrateful mouth; to get
the fuck out. So slick, no bruise surfaced.
Beneath skin, blood rattles,

heart, hands, legs quake.
A low familiar howl
escapes from the child’s lips

as your back turns to me,
and I scream not again, not

Watch me father. Watch
me throw the coat
to the ground,

the fists, the
slammed cupboards, the
beer bottles spinning in infinity.


My voice shakes, trying to
destroy this black eye of
rage and sickness; save the child

who has been waiting
10 years ago, yesterday, this

Waiting for me to shed your skin,
the fracture of 27 years, and emerge



Sara-Anne Beaulieu is a recent Masters of Fine Arts graduate at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire. She has studied with poets Anne Waldman, Jeff Friedman, and Joan Larkin. She has just completed her thesis on Diane di Prima’s Loba, and her own manuscript No Roses. Ms. Beaulieu currently resides in Rhode Island.

“Event Horizon” by Joel Deutsch


We speak of being
sucked in, as if need
had not propelled us.
As if we might still croon the litany
of birthdate social security mother’s maiden name
and recollect the particles
we pressed into shape and service
crammed into our shoes.

But this rearrangement
is profound, this condition
infinite density.
Nothing escapes, not even light.
This gravity
takes us like a death squad
from the borders of sunlit plots.
Somos desaparecidos. We are disappeared.

They find our hoes, rakes, rusted rifles,
the gleaming blades of identity
we thought would hack our way home.

They sound alarms, call a curfew,
comb the places they knew us to haunt.
They seek evidence of our indivisible natures
in shopping lists, laundry tags,
in hearsay reports of our dreams.

Night falls. They are exhausted.
They gather by fires
in a long, bewildered silence.

Finally, someone mutters
“fell in love.”
In dark rooms redolent of the usual suppers,
tobacco ashes glow and bob in helpless agreement.

They give it up, let it go.
They let their daughters
use the phone again.


Joel Deutsch
is a writer living in Los Angeles. His literary non-fiction and
novel in progress can be read at www.joeldeutsch.net

“Grace” by Joseph Mockus


We live behind the oldest living
telephone pole in san francisco
gray scag professing high voltage
between porcelain cups you radiate
charm from an era when
wood steel and glass
perfected the sweet sound of future
Tiles crack the stucco bursts
to reconcile new mortgages
we sit in italian light here
late afternoon with my daughter
and study that electric tree
planted and hooked to this
our play ground home

And I see what I could see
if I were newborn watching
her call that broken pole by name
electric light surging
I can feel that blood beyond my fingers
and before I can remember I am
in but not of the world



Joseph Mockus is a Bay Area poet, rock ‘n roll drummer and criminal defense attorney. A graduate of U.C. Berkeley’s Literature Department, his work has been published in the small University press.

“Space Time is Curved” by Victoria Pynchon

(for Anne)

Space time is curved
and gravity does not hold
the moon like a ball
on a string.

Gravity, they say,
just names the shape
of space, simply expresses
the curve of it.

We’re like that.  We curve
space time around
each other.

I’ve said this before:

every cell contains the whole
of us, yet makes a single
piece of us, muscle or sinew,
tissue or bone.

We’re like that.  We go
where we’re needed.

Remember, my love, that love
is what moves anything
in the direction of another,
woman toward her kind
and the creatures toward
their god, the apple toward
the ground as it falls
and the fire toward
the sky as it burns.

Love is a shape, not a force
and we do not hold
each other like moons
on a string.

We are love’s form,
my sweet, love’s

And I curve
into you

Victoria Pynchon has been published in Poet Lore, Transformation, a Journal of Literature, Ideas and the Arts, Kalliope, Ledge, and the Southern New Hampshire Literary Journal among others. Ms. Pynchon is an attorney-mediator who lives in Los Angeles, California with her husband, Stephen Goldberg.