“Last Call for a Loner” by Tom Sheehan

He had never belonged anyplace, and that realization was slowly dawning on him. Of all the places he had been in this whole land, East Coast to West Coast, border to border, foothills or river’s edge, none came charging up in his memory rugged with warmth, none touched longingly at him; no village, no harbor, no vast plain running off to the far horizon, no collection of people near such places.

This time out of the barn he had been moving for close to two months, hitching rides generally north, new stars and the wash of pine trees in April’s breath calling him on. The contradiction came at him again as harsh as a fist: of all the places he had been, he had been no place. His mind kept telling him the same thing the way a canyon echo sounds, distant, muted, out of a deep solace, hollow, near metallic. It was, he was ready to say, as if he had never stopped long enough to listen.

Now, near the foot of this day, the tidal flats wide and enormous, the sun at odds with itself on Earth edges, he could hear something. It was universal. It bore intelligence. It caught at his attention.

As usual he was alone and swore he was the only one attentive to that thing and seeing all this around him, the late sun splattering gold on every surface, moving or still, for as far as his eyes could see. Though he was not unkempt, he was not headed for the boardroom either. A worn but decent dark blue jacket hung on his slight frame, over a red plaid lumberjack shirt buttoned at the collar. The pants were brown corduroy and shiny at the knees and at the thighs. Brown ankle-high boots dipped up under his pant legs. A roadman he obviously was, a hitchhiker, but one apparently who spent his nights abed under cover, his clothes not covered with strange bed residue. This day a shave had been accomplished at some place back down the line. Under his arm he carried his baggy Matilda of sorts, and a vast marshy area spread before him, just a few miles up-river from the ocean. The sea salt and reed grass of the brackish land were stiff as knuckles at his nostrils.

Where he had paused, at the side of Route 107, along the mile-wide marshes, a sign stood its ground as heavy metal. Cast iron most likely, he was thinking as the last of the sun flung itself in reflection. It had a gray field and black letters about two inches high that simply said, “Saugus,” and some part of its beating called upon him. An Indian name, he was convinced in his own reflections, thinking some names have importance, some do not. His name, for that matter, was Chug and he was a loner, acknowledged, as he often said, as the loneliest feeling a man could have. For him there were no roots, no wispy grasp at footholds, no family beachheads he could remember. A loner. It might have been that he had not been long enough in one place, or had never let his past catch up to him. No such determination as yet had fully surfaced on that account.

But now, in the late afternoon, the name Saugus drew him on. It stuck in his mouth. What else was there? Where else? What place could he belong? A trucker‘s horn suddenly startled him. “How far you going, pal?” The rig was a Diamond-T, a monstrous breed of new redness and shiny chrome sitting beside him on the marsh road, and a hum under that giant hood as deep as a cement mixer. The driver, leaning at him from behind the wheel, half filling the cab, presented red hair and big eyes with shaggy brows and a smile as wide as the window. Chug looked again at the cast iron sign. “Saugus,” he said, quixotically, and then with serious conviction added, “To the middle of Saugus, wherever that is.”

“What’s your tag?” the trucker said, re-adjusting the sun visor, shifting gears from the dead start, clutching, gassing, leaning back in his seat. Artistic, thought Chug. “Mine’s O’Malley Fighorn, and ain’t that some moniker,” he laughed. “My mother sure as hell wasn’t letting go her last bit of Irish. My brother’s name is Sullivan, Sullivan Fighorn, Mal and Sully, that’s us.” Deep from his chest rose a laugh as though he was remembering something special, someplace special.

Chug said, “Chug,” like it was a simple flake of rock falling off a cliff face. “Chug it’s been forever. Plain Chug.”

“What’s your real tag?” Mal Fighorn bowed his head and looked at Chug as if something else special was waiting on him. Crows’ feet almost crinkled with sound at his eyes. A bump sat prominently on his nose, proud badge of badges. Looking ahead at the stoplight now green in the distance, he downshifted the rig, then looked again at his rider. He had shared his name and expected, it seemed, his rider to do the same thing for him.

“Tylen,” Chug said, caught by that charge, the depth in the driver’s eyes, the fan of crinkles friendly in its marking. Then he added, his breath coming out of his chest like it had been saved up for a long time, “Tylen Brackus.”

The two grown men looked into each other’s eyes and began to laugh. They laughed all the way up to the red light with an arrow saying “Saugus” beside it. The arrow pointed north. The tears rolled south on Mal Fighorn’s cheeks, and on the cheeks of Chug Brackus.

“Ain’t we the friggin’ pair!” Mal Fighorn said, as he swung the rig into the northbound road, a huge hand pawing the shift lever with adroitness, his feet tap dancing on clutch pedal and gas pedal. “Tylen Chug Brackus, you and me, pal, are having dinner with my dad. Lives here in Saugus, loves his company.  And get this,” he added uproariously, shifting again, tap dancing again, his brows heavy over bright eyes, “his name is Montcalm Fighorn. He’s friendly, he likes his beer and wears twenty years of beard.”

They laughed all the way into the Fighorn driveway on the far edge of town, near the Lynnfield line. Laughter had taken them right through Saugus Center, past a veterans’ monument at a green rotary, past a stately old Town Hall bearing late traffic, past a handful of quiet churches.

Tylen Chug Brackus, loner, felt again that unknown sweep of energy come across his chest or across his mind. He could not be sure which avenue, but it swept at him and by him in the long driveway, making him think he was in a kind of wind tunnel. Once, long ago, someplace in his travels, that sweeping might have been known. He could not remember where. Out back of the house was a barn and another truck, looking like its last mile had been run, sat beside the barn. Painted sign letters on the body of the truck had faded to an unreadable point, pale as old scars. Its tires were flat. Chug thought about old elephants going off alone to die. His mind, he thought, could never compute how many miles of service the truck must have delivered. Now it did not seem so important; it was just rusting away as much as the barn was decaying, though not seen the same way.

A bit later a delicate spring evening hovered around them as they sat on the porch, long and screened-in with at least a dozen chairs scattered its length. He’d bet that some evenings every chair was occupied, it was that kind of house and that kind of porch. In the distance clusters of fireflies dominated the dark landscape. Across the road and up a steep hill, in the growing darkness, an owl called out. Chug thought it to be a place called home.

“So you got a name thing, too,” Montcalm Fighorn said, pouring beer from a quart bottle into three frosted mugs still wearing shadowy clouds. “They’ve been calling me Monty since I can remember. Never by my real name. Hell, I never called this boy by his real name. Enda, my good Enda, never called him anything but O’Malley. And Sully had it the same way.” Toward a bit of darkness off the side of the porch, adroitly, in modest ceremony, he tipped his drink, and the tipping was understood by those who saw it done.

Chug drank slowly and deliberately, and the bearded Monty Fighorn watched his guest drink with dainty sips after the healthy meal. “Don’t be bashful, Chug. End of the day’s the time for a good swallow. Have at it.” He raised his mug and drained off the contents. “Best damn part of the day,” he vouched with certainty, poured another full round, and then raised his eyebrows at his son who went to the small icebox at the end of the porch and brought back another imperial quart.  “I’m not the real curious type, Chug, but wonder where you’ve been, what you’ve seen. Mal says you spend the winter in Florida. That so?”

“Two or three places down there. Sometimes they put up with me and sometimes they don’t. I have a special delivery box and they hold all my mail. Usually it’s just a few retirement checks from Uncle I use to try to get through the winter.”

“You in the service, Chug?” Even as he asked the question, Monty knew the answer. The signs were there. Besides the bracelet Chug wore, it was written on the man. His clothes might have been second-line, but he was shaved that very day, and his hairline cut half moons high over the ears. The boots, beat up as they were by the road, were not long from a spit shine. He’d bet there was a pair of dry socks in his small bag if not pinned to the inside of his jacket.

“Twenty-six years in the Army.”

“I got me one of those,” Monty said, pointing at the bracelet on Chug’s wrist. “Where’d you get yours?” The wreathed Combat Infantryman’s Badge, its blue field long since faded, curved loosely on Chug’s wrist. A small chain kept it in place. A circular stain was on his wrist.

“Couple of places were good enough. But first with the 31st in Viet Nam. Then in the desert in the Eighties. You?”

“Nam, too. Four oh first. Caught a bit of hell and was rolled out of there in a hurry. Think I was pinned down for two months then on my way home, on evac. Had one friend, talking about nicknames, who was transferred to first battalion of your outfit. We called him Grunt before we had grunts.”

Perhaps from the dark hill or out of a field now gone into the night, the sweeping energy came on Chug again. Almost electricity, it ran right over the porch as if the fireflies had let everything go. Chug knew a rustling at the screening, a possession of sorts, at the very spot Monty had tipped his mug. “Talking about names, his wasn’t Billy Pigg, was it?” He could not bring back a face, but a piece of it, a nose.

The energy, the sweeping, told him the answer even before Monty Fighorn came up out of his chair. “Damn it, guy, don’t tell me you knew Billy Pigg! Hot damn! Thought about him a thousand times. Old Kentucky Billy Pigg. Great boy he was. Marksman of all marksmen, I tell you. Often wondered about him. Often.” The plea was in his voice and he nodded again at his son sitting there, the son’s mouth agape, his eyes wide in the darkness, wondering what the hell had made him stop and pick up a hitchhiker off the marsh road, the end of the world itself. From the corner of the porch Mal brought back two more imperial quarts of beer and poured the round himself.

“Hate to tell you, Monty,” Chug said, setting down his mug, as if his right to drink had been suddenly halted, perhaps his welcome stopped in place. “Died in my arms, not quick, not slow, but long enough to ask me to bless him with water. I did, from a canteen, and him leaking badly, one of them old sucking chest wounds that’ll never let go. Said his daddy picked him up one day, about to walk into the river with him and do it up proper, when his daddy keeled over from a heart attack and never got him wet. All that time, it seems, it was all he could remember, being on the grass and not wet. But I got it done for him. Boy had a nose been smashed all to hell before he even got in the army. That your Billy Pigg, Monty? That the one you knew as Grunt, nose broke up all to hell?”

Chug was aware again of the spot Monty had tipped his mug to. The unknown sweeping was coming through the same place, the rustling, the net of screen separating sounds and energies, paying them due respects. And he and Monty Fighorn, old soldiers at the pair, had a sharing of lasting memories coming at them in pieces.

Chug said, “Tell me about that old truck out back. Looks like an old soldier in the Old Soldiers’ Home, just waiting to go the last mile. Serve you that good, did it, not letting it go?”

“You’re right on that account, Tylen Brackus,” Monty said, and laughed loudly, his laugh ranging the porch and out into the night. “Was a hell of a rig in its day. Brought us a little freedom, worked so long and good. It ain’t going no place before me, and that’s a given.” Turning to Mal, he said, “Tell him that’s so, son.”

“It’ll turn to rust in that spot long as I’m around. Bet on it.” He tipped his mug, but it was not at the dark space just off the porch. It was more at an idea.

All of it, Chug thought, was measurable.

Monty swung around in his dark red Adirondack chair. Chug heard it creak. “I got an idea I want to run by you, Chug,” Monty said. “No strings attached, as they say. Got lots of room here, most of it going to waste.

Boys here got business I don’t want to get into. They do their thing and I do mine. I’m willing to let you have a room for the summer, go and come as you please, go off as you like when you like, doing your road thing if you have to, and head back down to see your friends come fall or late summer. It’s no charity farm nor the Old Soldiers’ Home. You cut some grass, you do some dishes, make your own bed and do your own laundry, and you got a place to drop your head come of a night. And you don’t plan to drink all my beer. Can’t lose anything from where I sit.” The chair creaked again as he stood up and said, “Want to show you something.” He went into the house and toward the back of the house.

Mal said, “He’s going to show you his,” pointing to Chug’s bracelet. “We had it mounted on a piece of cherry wood a lot of years ago. Sets some store by it, he does. Makes me think you should think real serious about his offer. Doesn’t do something like that very often.”

“I’m just a guy barely out of the tank, Mal. Doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall. Why make me out so special?”

“He knows you a lot better than you think, Chug. You and him, you’re like blood brothers maybe. I’m sure you share something I might never know, though it might be like Sully and me. He’s a good man and he finds stock in you. Hell, man, there must be some of that in me, too. I picked you off the side of the road, could have gone right by. Usually do, these days. I have no idea why I stopped. Something in the air, I guess. Would you believe it?”

Only Chug Brackus heard the rustle at the screen, the promise of sound in a small shrub, with a host of fireflies coming closer to the porch.

And so it was, practically for the first time in his life off a post or station, for more than four months of belonging, Tylen Chug Brackus sat on the porch at night with Monty Fighorn. They listened to the fireflies almost, to the owls on the hill, to the old truck turning to honored rust, and every now and then, from a distance, like down a one-way street, to the limitless, endless charge of energy finding its way to a couple of old souls.

In the dread heat of late August, the heavens at rampage, electricity beating about the skies like a thousand cannons at battle, one bolt of lightning followed another bolt through two aged hearts.

Mal told Sully over the phone, “Damned won’t believe it, Sull. Neither one of them spilled a drop of their beer. It just sat there beside them, waiting to get sipped up like it was last call.”



Tom Sheehan is the author of Brief Cases, Short Spans, a short story collection, from Press 53, 2008, and From the Quickening, another collection, from Pocol Press, 2009. Epic Cures, short stories from Press 53 earned a 2006 IPPY Award. A Collection of Friends, memoirs, Pocol Press, 2004, was nominated for Albrend Memoir Award. He has nominations for ten Pushcart Prizes, three Million Writers nominations, and Noted Story nominations for 2007 and 2008, received the Georges Simenon Award for Fiction from New Works Review, a Silver Rose Award for Excellence in fiction from ART, is included in the Dzanc Best of the Web Anthology, 2009 and nominated for Best of the Web 2010. He appears in the new anthologies from Press 53, Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform (sharing space with Jim Salter, Tobias Wolfe, Tim O’Brien, Kurt Vonnegut and others) and in Milspeak: Warriors, Veterans, Family and Friends Writing the Military Experience. He served in Korea, 1951-52, and has published 13 books.

“New Year’s Eve” by Cheri Byard


“What do you want to burn?” Tara asked as she handed Jack strips of white paper.

He placed them on the kitchen table and said, “I don’t know. I feel stupid doing this.”

“Jack, the idea is to write all the bad things that have happened to us – all the things we want to put behind us – and burn them.” She smiled at him, lightly touching his shoulder.

“Hell, it’s not like it’s gonna change my luck.” Jack said. He waved his hands toward the ceiling, causing the paper to scatter.

“Sweetie, just give it a try for me – for us.” She said as she bent over to pick up the pieces of paper. “It’s symbolic. I think it will help give us a fresh start for next year. A positive state of mind might bring positive results.” Tara’s stomach quivered as she saw Jack pour a glass of Crown Royal over ice.

“Sure. Why the hell not. Guess it can’t hurt. You write ‘em down and let me know when you’re ready to blaze ‘em. I’m gonna relax and watch the game.”

Tara was beginning to regret not accepting an invitation to a New Year’s Eve party at the Eldridge Hotel, an annual event that she attended pre-Jack. She missed those times and wondered why she ever let that tradition slip away.

Well, it’s too late to go now. Just stick with your plan, girlfriend. Everything will be better next year. It’s got to be better than this year! Suck it up and follow through.

It wasn’t just the symbolism of this act that moved Tara. She had convinced herself that she could alter their karma by physically burning the bad events they had experienced, welcoming only good.

Tara walked into the living room and sat next to Jack. “Well, what do you want to purge? If you could eliminate anything that has happened to us, what would that be?”

Jack was flipping the channels, looking at the television. Without turning his gaze, his hand felt for Tara’s knee and patted it, “Whatever you want, babe. I trust you. Write whatever you want.”

Tara sighed and returned to the kitchen. She poured herself a glass of red wine from a box in the refrigerator and sat at the table, staring out the window. She gazed at the sleet illuminated by the alley floodlight.

It’s probably just as well we didn’t get out in this weather. I didn’t really want to go out anyway. Surely Jack will stay awake for the whole game. I just need to keep him up until midnight so we can do this.

Jack poured himself another glass of whiskey and sat beside her.

“Hey, I didn’t mean to blow you off. You know I’m not good at this kind of thing. I trust you to write it down for both of us.

You know what I’d want to write.” Jack hugged her. She could already smell the alcohol on his breath.

“Grab your wine and the papers and come watch the game with me,” Jack said.

Jack knew she couldn’t sit still watching a football game on television, but she was certain that she needed to stick close to him tonight if she wanted him to join her at midnight.

Tara and Jack rarely cuddled on the couch any more. Tonight, however, she thought she would give it a try.  After all, it was New Year’s Eve. Most couples were out celebrating together, kissing at midnight, bringing in hopes and dreams for a new year.

She sat close to Jack with her left side touching his right. She consciously sat on that side, knowing he would be using his left hand to control the remote. Jack did not put his arm around her or his hand on her knee, as he had just moments before. She remembered how he used to wrap his arm around her shoulder or weave his fingers into hers. Not tonight. She wondered if they would ever have that tenderness again.

She cocked her head to look at Jack, “Honey…do you want to cuddle like we used to?”

“No, you go ahead and write down your purgings or whatever you called ‘em. I’m good.”

Well, there’s your answer. Dammit. Why do I even try? Tara pulled her body slightly away from Jack’s.

She picked up the pieces of paper and wrote down every awful thing she could think of that had happened to them; not just this year, but in all the years they had been together.  Jack’s accident. Infertility. Cloe’s death. She tore two additional pieces of paper to add the rest. Tara covered everything she could think of except for one. Could she sneak that one in without Jack seeing?  She shuddered when she imagined him finding it.

No, I can’t do it. Not yet. I want a baby. Besides, if we can adopt, I just know it will change him.

Tara picked up her book, The Bridges of Madison County, and read.  Jack had several more drinks and passed out by 10:30.  Tara left him to sleep on the couch while she gave herself a facial, took a bubble bath, and drank another glass of wine.  After putting on some sweats and a heavy tee-shirt, she sat in bed and recorded all the words she had written on tiny slips of paper earlier in the evening, adding the one she had omitted.

At 11:45 she quietly walked downstairs. The familiar patterns returned. Wet underarms.  Dry mouth. Erratic breathing. Quaking stomach. Her pulse beat faster. She could easily turn around and return to bed.

You are such a chicken shit! Go on. Wake him up. You NEED to do this for both of you!  Think of the baby we could adopt.

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and gently shook Jack’s shoulder. “Jack, honey, it’s almost midnight. I’ve got everything ready for us to burn our bad karma.”

Jack snorted and his body jerked toward the back of the couch. She shook him again, with a little more force. “Jack, it’s time. We need to do this, honey. Please get up.”

Each time she moved him, his snoring increased. He was out for the night. Tara knew if she wanted to do this, she was on her own.

Tears in her eyes, Tara grabbed her coat and put the strips of paper and a lighter in her pocket. She picked up an empty coffee can from the kitchen table before going out.  As she opened the back door to the deck, she raised her head; eyes fixed on the sky, and smiled. Despite the freezing temperatures, she was warm inside. God had blessed her.  There were stars in the sky and the moon was bright enough she did not even notice the floodlight. With a new resolve, Tara pulled one scrap of paper at a time from her jacket pocket. She read each entry out loud before putting a flame to it, and dropped them one at a time in the coffee tin, allowing one to die out before adding another. After the final piece had burned, she set the can on the ground, looked up at the sky and yelled ALCOHOLISM!



Cheri Byard has been an elementary school special education teacher for over 20 years.  A painter, writer and poet, Cheri’s poems and essays have appeared in various publications including Awareness Magazine, Words-Myth Literary Journal, and the anthology Mentor’s Bouquet. She is currently at work on her first novel, from which “New Year’s Eve” is excerpted. Cheri resides in Kansas with her husband and young daughter.

“The Pink Cloud” by Robbie Gamble

you can hear
on the phone
his forced euphoria

the spit flecks
in his inflection
“It’s all good”

just one week
removed from rehab
the prodigal son

set back up
in the home
less home, more

like a fishbowl
the family eyeballing
his every twitch

no job leads
girlfriend gone, no
prospects for escape

just a day
reeling out ahead
real and dull

still, he tries
hard to please
“I’m so grateful

for these tools,
to be working
on the program”

it settles, overcast
thickens into dark
no evening star




Robbie Gamble


“Clear As Snow” by Joseph Mockus

As clear as now it is I always
Remember this place in mist
You and I awake inside a dream—
No stars, no moon, only sand
On the deserted beach
What is the memory of what we thought
Was love but love itself



Joseph Mockus is a writer, poet, criminal defense attorney, dad, husband, and rock ‘n roll drummer.  Joe has published in the small university press, but generally only when his friends submit his work, which is never rejected.  It is only because Joe taught your editor-in-chief how to really read literature (standing in front of a dart-board on Turquoise Street in Pacific Beach sometime in 1975 or 1976) that we have the r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal at all.

“Temerity” by Sue Bernardi

Even though it’s summer, the air is cold at two in the morning. “Dammit,” I say through chattering teeth.

Even worse than insomnia, I hate being cold in the summer.

I try to remember helpful hints from old magazine articles, “How to Quiet the Mind”, very Mother Earth, very now, very convenient for wishy-washy naysayers like myself.

I throw on an old Harvard sweatshirt over my stained Hanes T-shirt, both of which I stole from a guy that lived upstairs from me.  I can never remember his name, something like Brian or Jeff. He would always wash his car on Thursday afternoons, and I would drink Rolling Rock from his fridge. I slide into my gray flip flops and go for a walk.

I avoid cracks in the sidewalk and dog shit. I half whistle and wonder if I’ll ever remember what sleep feels like. I notice a guy walking cat; I rub my eyes in disbelief. Maybe sleep deprivation has given way to visual hallucinations.

He sees me and does a half-shrug head-nod frat boy greeting. “This is Selma,” he says in a whiskey voice.

“I didn’t know you could walk a cat.”

He digs his free hand in his front jeans pocket and smirks, “I bet there are lots of things you don’t know.”

I grind my teeth. “You know what? You’re absolutely right. And at the top of the list of things unknown to me is why I’m talking to you.” I go back to my apartment, and for the first time in months I feel exhausted. I sleep for 5 hours.

I have a terrible job at the county court house. Actually I work for an independent photocopying shop that needs me to work at the county court house faxing, mailing and, of course, photocopying bankruptcy documents. I have read 10 books this summer because of my shitty job.

The fax machine makes it slow grinding noise; I sigh and put down Slaughterhouse Five. I love fax paper; it has a slight waxy feeling to it and it curls under like a town crier’s bulletin.

“Hey check this out!


I look across the street with my binoculars to see Greg leaning against the counter listening to The Fall. Greg says he used to masturbate to Mark E. Smith when he was in high school. Knowing Greg, it’s probably true.

The New York Times has put out a list of the 100 greatest books of the 20th century. I put green asterisks next to the books I have fully read and orange asterisks next to the books I have partially read.

I pick up the binoculars again and study the busy people on the street below. I gasp; it’s the cat walker from last night. I rush down the marble stair case just in time. The cat walker has a toothpick in his mouth and is much more attractive than I remembered.

“No cat today,” I say smiling. I’ve been told I have a beautiful smile.

Maybe this time I’ll be lucky, he has an aura of optimism around him. I feel like the 13 year old version of myself. I adore having a crush.

“Knowledge is power,” he says.

I blush and stammer something about loving School House rock.

“Do you also love happy hour?”

“Where can I meet you?”

He takes my hand and walks me to the corner. We stare at each other and he sighs and shakes his head. He leans in close; it feels like we are going to kiss.

He whispers and I swallow hard, “5:30, ‘Palais Royale’.” I stare at his face; he has sleep dirt stuck in the corner of his soft green eyes.

I wander back to work as if in a fugue state. I stare at the clock until it says 4.

I bustle back across the street, bursting to tell Greg about my good luck.  Greg stares at his navy blue Chuck Taylor low rise sneakers while I’m babbling about my beautiful new crush.

“Did you see that new X Files movie yet?” Greg asks, unimpressed with my news.

I go in the back and sit with Mamie. If I didn’t know Mamie I would hate her, impossibly thin, impossibly blonde and ageless. When she told me she was 31, I choked on my Nutella and banana sandwich. Mamie knows the Heimlich maneuver too.

Mamie is doing date entry and listening to obscure Brit pop, music is the only thing we have in common.

“Mamie, would you consider a man that walks a cat?

“Oh I know that guy.”

“You’ve dated a man that walked a cat.”

“No, I mean I saw were talking to Hesh on the corner. I spent a weekend with him in the city. Paid for everything and I never called him again.”

I feel sick; a cast off of Mamie’s, no good can come from this.

“Aww don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll be a much better fit for him,” Mamie has slight underbite that makes her seem even more adorable.

“Did you say his name is Hesh?” I ask with a forced breeziness.

Mamie smiles as if she were in a dream. “His real name is Helmut. Hesh’s mother came from Stuttgart. Hesh is short for Hessian, you know like those paid German mercenaries from the Revolutionary War. I think it was rather creative of me.”

The Palais Royale is the type of bar that William S. Burroughs would go to if he had been kicked out of everyplace in all five boroughs of New York and couldn’t score any heroin. It attracts wannabe writers and casual hangers-on. I went there once with a guy that said my eyes looked too hard for someone my age.

Then he left with a girl that had buzz cut.

He is sitting right in the middle of the bar, sipping a beer with a lemon wedge floating in it. I get nervous, what if I start belching or I chip my teeth against the beer bottle.

“I’ll have a whiskey sour, please,” I say blushing.

“My nana likes to drink whiskey sours,” he laughs and shakes his head.

I pretend not to care and stare at his hands. He has dirty fingernails and hairy knuckles.

“I was painting all morning,” he says and picks at his fingernails.


“No, I’m working on a black and white series.”

I feel stupid and wonder why this guy is interested in me.

The bartender hands me my drink, making the glass smudgy with her greasy fingertips.  I take a sip and sigh.  The bartender slaps her gnarled hands down on the bar and squeezes.

“Cockroach,” she says in an unapologetic voice.

He brings me tea and toast, neither of which I enjoy but accept with a sheepish smile. He brings his hand to the side of my face and he stares at me with a bemused look on face.  As if he couldn’t believe he was going to end up in bed with someone like me. I set the teacup on the floor; we hold each other for a brief moment. I spy a plaid tuxedo in his closet.

We’ve hardly said two words to each other all night. I feel like I’m having drinks with my boss.

“I have to pee,” I say after an age of silence. Hesh nods.

I go to the cruddy bathroom and step over puddles of what I hope is water.  I stare in the mirror.  When did I start to look so old?  I rub my eyes hard and see red splotches.

Hesh is not at our table. I spy him at the bar talking to an ultra cool brunette with a sinister smile.  My legs are made of spaghetti as I amble my way over to the happy couple.

The brunette is laughing and tugging on Hesh’s sleeve while he is tearing a paper napkin in half. He’s pretending to be the weakest strong man alive, that’s our private joke.

“You moved,” I say lamely.

“Huh? Oh, yeah. Well Leila was all the way over here so, you know,” he mumbles, not really looking at me.

Leila smirks at me. I can read her mind, ‘I’m next, Bitch’.

“Well are you gonna sit down at least or are you going to continue to act like a jealous wife?”

I have vomit in my mouth and I can feel the tears well up. I slink out like I wish I had never been born.

I sit on cheap plastic lawn chair that I have in my living room/bedroom. I fished out of someone’s road side trash one drunken night.

It’s two in the morning, no phone call. My eyes burn but I have not shed one single tear.  I go for a walk, back to the scene of the crime. Like magic he appears, like a nightmare he is kissing Leila.  I feel like I’ve been sucked through a black hole. I stumble home and pretend to sleep.

I put all of Hesh’s things in a pile in the middle of my unmade bed. Every time I fold his shirts, I stop and breathe in deep.  I cry at the scent of paint, sweat and that special Hesh smell. I have run out of tissue and I dry my tears with toilet paper.

I have seven or eight sketches of me Hesh did when he thought I was sleeping, usually after we had sex.  I open up the bedroom window and liberate Hesh’s art.  Lucky me it rained last night and they all land in a dirty puddle of water.  I stare out the window all afternoon and smile every time someone walks by and stomps on the delicate pencil drawings of a contented me.

“Can’t we talk about this like adults?” Hesh asks in a hurt voice.

I am seething; I clench my jaw and try to form words. “Oh no, the onus is on you. Go fuck your hipster friend. Oh wait you can’t. She knows you’re a fucking scumbag.” So much for grace under pressure.

“I’m an artist, I’m unreliable. You knew what I was like when we started this thing,” he looks smug, as if he could burst into the “I told you so” song and dance.

“Don’t put your shortcomings on me!” I sound like a shrieky witch, like the kind of woman that will pick a fight with her husband at the supermarket for no real reason other than to make everyone else feel as bad as she does, the kind of woman that I hate, that I have somehow evolved into.

“I don’t want to argue with you anymore,” I say in a softer voice.

“Then just stop.” He folds me into his arms and I close my eyes.

I am knitting a pair of socks and drinking a brandy Alexander. Greg sits primly on my Naugahyde green recliner.

“What are you doing,” he asks.

“A garter stitch,” I say listlessly.

Hesh has not called in a few days, when I phone him I get his cool, detached voice mail. I feel needy and small.

“That’s it, Anne Frank. We are going out.”

“Can I wear my pajamas?”

Greg smirks at me and pats my head.

“Temerity,” I say out loud and blush. I hadn’t meant to say anything at all; the words crept out of my mouth of their own volition.

“Do even know what temerity means?” he asks, eyebrows twisted up in a mocking knot.

I ignore the line of questioning and concentrate one the bedroom walls. A wave of ambivalence washes over me. I can’t remember why I thought stop sign red would be a choice in wall color. I feel claustrophobic.

“I don’t know how I feel about red,” he says with a frown.

Though I can barely catch my breath, I argue. “Well I love it,” I say, my arms folded around my torso like a frustrated contortionist.

He smiles and squeezes my shoulders, “I have take out in the kitchen and a surprise.”

As if not speaking to each other for two weeks wasn’t surprising enough, I am pretty astounded by the thoughtfulness of a gift.

I rush into my kitchen which now seems gray and flat compared to the bordello like walls in my bedroom.  Gerber daises lay in a heap on the table.  I paw through my recycling and find six empty Orgina bottles.

“Why do you always do that?” he asks, “Did it ever occur to you to buy vases?”

I fight back hurtful words and line my flowers in the windows of my kitchen.

He eats and I continue to paint until I feel dizzy from the delicious smell.

“Can’t paint fumes cause brain tumors?”

“At least I’ll die happy,” I say sharply.

He pulls me down on the bare mattress and spoons me with a rough gentleness, a trait all of his own, a trait I can help but succumb to. I pick at the red flecks on my legs.

“It looks like I have the plague,” I say.

He is fast asleep.



Sue Bernardi is an almost 34 y/o well fed starving artist.  She’s been making a meager living in the world of non-profit whilst dreaming of becoming a professional writer.


“Keeping Time” by Erik Svehaug

When Diskus hoisted his case and stepped outside, he felt late.  And Green Bay was out of Super Bowl contention already. Shake it off.

Nancy probably wouldn’t talk to him for a week. Shake that off, too. His sobriety? He’d already shaken that off. The street was filled with black grit and slush. Snow lay like old manna on strips and patches of grass. Up the street, pitch and run. Sell. Tune in. Make it.

“Look, just bear with me a minute,” he told the short, shiny man, wiping the snow from a parked car. “How many ways do you know to boil an egg? One. How many ways to chew it? One. You sleep, you wake up, you chew your eggs the same way every time.”

The little man was listening. He was buying, Diskus knew.

“Break your wife out of the ordinary. Surprise her. No occasion. It’ll mean a lot to her. The gold chain is worth $15.00 by itself.” Diskus proffered a delicate pendant set.

The man’s twenty bucks made almost half of seventy, his goal for this morning. Diskus pocketed his money and headed down the street. He fished for rhythm, pitch, swagger.  He imagined himself at the next door.

You sing when you’re by yourself, lady? You used to. What’s it going to take to get that back? Time’s eating you up. Look at yourself. Maybe you don’t feel the teeth yet. Sing or you die like a bug. You used to sing all the goddam time. Couldn’t shut you up.

Nancy had sung a lot.  Before they were married, they’d sung together.  Mamas and Papas.  Yardbirds.  Belafonte.  All kinds of things.  She even knew some Sinatra and Patsy Cline.  But she’d closed up as his luck turned; when he lost his shirt and then the storefront on Wabash.

He picked the next door because of the curtains in it, the newish Beamer out front, the frosty but manicured garden.  He knew, as he knocked, that he was stuck in his head; he should have waited; should have gotten his pitch back first.

When the door opened, he said:  “If you have a moment, ma’am, I want to say change is the main thing.

Quick change.  Newness and speed.  Absolutely central in a livable life.  Curiosity, surprise, variety, excitement, discovery.  You’ve got to keep the human eye moving or it won’t last a week.”

His audience was a fragrant woman of about forty.  Either a young grandmother or an old mom, he thought, after glimpsing a basket of Legos through the door.

“What’s that?”  she said.  “I’m sorry, keep going,” she said, with a small smile.

A radio in the background said:  “In high school hoops, Independence High meets Roosevelt tonight, it’s Madison at Winona.”

“I mean that Hollywood and television and newspapers don’t just help pass the time.  They are time.  If it weren’t for them, every minute would be just like every other minute and time would stop.  Aging wouldn’t be a problem; people would be too bored to notice.  You’d die as old as you were born, for all you’d care or know. Fashions, advertising, reporters; they’re all beating their brains out to keep you alive.”

“I don’t think I quite get it.”  She said.  Her smile was tentative.  She had wrinkles around her eyes, freckles in the usual places.  Her eyebrows crowded down.  “Really, what do you want?  I’m freezing with this door open.”

He took her money.  She went for hoop earrings.  Ten bucks was ten bucks.

Sure, he was attracted to her.  But he had seen himself in the mirror this morning.  Guts in a sack.  Sloping shoulders.  He had a white sickle-shaped scar on his ribs from a Korean bayonet and hard gravel lumps of tissue from sloppy shrapnel repair.  Does anyone even know what a sickle is anymore?  Shake that off, too.

He and Nancy had an arrangement. He would try to be gone by 7:30 A.M.  After that, she’d get made up for her day at her beauty salon, four chairs, with nails.  Before last night, he’d been on the wagon for thirteen months. She used to say things to him occasionally when he walked through the bedroom.

He’d gotten married seventeen years ago, at fifty, when he was still skinny and strong, like a wise-but-wired, stud-looking paperboy.  So what’s seventeen years in dog years?  An eternity.  Nancy had her friends and the shop.  He ate his own cooking, washed his own dishes, bought his own toothpaste.  And he almost used to drink.

He had his case by its big double handles.  Shake it off, he told himself.  Pick it up.  Tune in, here and now.  He headed south.

His feet slapped pavement and he hummed a razzy tune.  Big flappy feet and the tune was 20’s, 20’s, 20’s, no, by God, 1931.  Green and pink tweed jacket, rubble nose, baggy pants and humming 1931.  He stopped at the tail of his dirty green Rambler wagon.  “So there you are,” he said to the car.

He had drunk hard last night.  He had nursed a cranberry and soda and swapped a few stories at the Vets’ Hall, until the TV 4 News Anchor said:  “Seventy-one year-old Korean War veteran Frank Cole died today.  He was one of only a handful of remaining GI’s who were captured at the fall of Taejeon, almost fifty years ago.”

Diskus hadn’t known the soldier’s name, but he and some of the others knew some guys in the 24th Infantry and Diskus had seen nearby Osan go down, himself.  That is, at seventeen years old, he had been trucked out on his back, bleeding, as it fell.  The white office buildings, homes and warehouses billowed black smoke into the sky in the distance.  He remembered the grenade blast that got him.  No idea about the bayonet though.

That must have come after.

They shared a round for Frank Cole and, then, another for other fallen brothers.  As the rounds came and went, his head filled with the whiskey fog.  Somehow, he knew that the Timberwolves lost to the Panthers 98 to 108.  Before long, he cupped his heavy chin in one hand and propped it on the bar.  Bright thoughts gleamed and rolled by him, like pinballs out of reach of the flippers.

Determined to leave, his bar-world whirling, Diskus heaved himself to his feet, hands flat on the counter.  He reminded himself to try to remember in the morning to think about where he’d left the station wagon.

“Spring Training is only 58 days away,” said the Ten O’clock News.

Somehow, he had made it home on foot.

From under the front seat of the Rambler, he pulled yesterday’s dented steel thermos of coffee, poured the contents into the shiny top.  All the time, pitch and run.  He opened the passenger door and sat down.  Better get out there.  Two cold swallows of coffee.  The sun was working its way up and light covered his lap and made him sad.  Tired of being an odd-looking joke.  From under his feet, he pulled a blanket onto his lap.

To them, I’m always just a peddler.  He was already drowsy.  He scrunched so his ear was down onto the soft, worn backrest.

Selling jewelry was relaxing at first.  But now even the cheap plated junk was getting to him.

Before that, he’d sold Bibles energetically, but he quit when the verses, the heavy scary lines, had started lacing his dreams.  God’s angry voice began to voice-over his private life.  He felt like a punk teenager getting chewed out by a grownup.  Anger, disapproval, guilt.

He decided faith wasn’t slack thinking.  It was a grab at hope, set against the pain-hot real impossibility of being loved.  That was Hell.  Buy my Bible, baby.

He used to drink part-time to keep any sales pitch from taking over his mind full-time.

God, for some whiskey to steady him.  He longed to be solid and happy, slow dancing in place with his hands on the hips of some straight, thick tree.  Some room above the street, away from everybody, watching night traffic; slowly breathing booze.

He snarled now, asleep.  He watched himself, a boy, watching back.  Not a care.  The blue sky spread out above thirteen year-old summertime him.  The farm and the smell of cows and weeds and wheat dust and the caws of crows.  As a boy, he had hunted crows, their calls fresh in the air.  Boom!  The signal from the house that they had company.  Ten minutes later, he had a visitor, a family friend: a girl.  He showed her how to hunt. They sat on the edge of the field, under the trees, to wait and whittle and watch.  They held hands then and kissed; small tight little mouths.  He let her hold the shotgun.  They would swim for a little.  Through the trees, along the stream, in mushing sod, onto the cracking dry logs at the edge of the pond.  A pile of clothes by the tree.  He swam in his skivvies.  She quietly pulled over her shirt.  Forever in a day.

Diskus sat up slowly, looked at the Texaco station across the street, rusty pumps, a heap of scuffed bald tires. 

Where am I going?  How long have I got?  The sun had disappeared and rain spattered the windshield.

Windshield wipers clacking, the road shining and splashing, he drove the Business route down between the warehouses.  A lighted reader board said:  07-03.  Which inning?  Had the White Sox won?  The Business Route crossed the Burns Bridge toward the liquor store and its shopping center.

On the sidewalk, near the middle of the windy bridge, a woman in a black-and-white cape and wide brim hat stooped over two dress boxes, snatched them up, threw them over the side toward the river.  Then, both hands on the railing, she sank to her knees.

It was still raining.  He stopped.  The woman looked up angrily, swiped him away with her hand.  He got out and sat on the hood, ignoring the splash of the raindrops, felt the engine idling under his wet seat.

“I’ve got plenty of room, if you’d care to ride, Miss,” he said.

She looked away through the railing.  “Go away.”

He sat for a moment, then got back in his car.  His butt was cold and wet and tried to stick to the seat, as he slid in.  He drove the rest of the bridge and parked on a side street.  He dug a dirty white Bible out from under the back seat.  He wiped it on his sleeve as he walked back.

The woman hadn’t moved.  He watched her as he approached.  Her hands and cheeks and chin and arms were puffy with fat.  But she did have a good-natured comely look.

“I want you to have this,” he said, holding out the Bible.  “It’s dirty, but it is vinyl covered, so it should clean up.  It’s got a concordance and finger-tabbing, a zipper, a place in the middle for a family history…” He paused for her to comment.

She didn’t.

“They say it contains words of strength for those who contemplate the river,” he said.  “Not that I’ve read it,” he added.  He just held out the Bible and smiled.

“Don’t smile at me like that, you old clown, patting yourself on the back.  I’ve got business here, so shove off and take your sermons with you.”

“Alright,” he said.  He dropped the Bible over the edge of the bridge like he was tossing it onto a shelf.  She jumped up and yelled and leaned over the railing and together they watched it fall for a long time and make a tiny splash.

“You’re a fool,” she said, but she grinned.  “Why are you trying to do me this big favor?” she asked.

He kept trying to face her now, but like a gyroscope, his head kept turning away, his eyes to the river.

“Beats working,” he said.  They both gave a short laugh, sobered and were silent.  Somehow she’d bought it. 

Bought what? he thought.  They started walking.  He maneuvered to be by the railing.

He liked her strutting, overweight walk.  They kept the same pace.  She was taller than he was, her shoulder swayed level with his ear.  She looked morose.  He felt the tension in her. Her eyes were steady.  The safest people he knew had mobile eyes.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Diskus,” he said.

“First or last?”

“Last.  It’s what I go by.”

“I’m Ruth.”  She paused.  “My husband ran off.”

My god, he thought, is that all?

“He lost his job two months ago.  He just waited until we ran up our line of credit and then took off.  And what are we supposed to do for food?”  She only half looked at him. 

“I’m step mom to his three kids.  Three!  And I don’t want any of them, by myself!  Before you came, I was up on the rail.  Couldn’t say goodbye, somehow.  I don’t know.  I’m so stupid.  I just came from buying more dresses on another store account!  Every other night a guy calls from the bank and tries to give me lip.  I was going to jump with those dresses, but I pictured myself hugging them and falling and saw everything soaking in the water and I hated them for meaning so much to me.  So I threw them over the side.  And then I hated myself for being so touchy and stupid and wasteful.”  She glared at him and took his arm like it was a rope. 

“At least you’re going to treat us to a meal before you disappear.”

And he followed.  “I know a good little Samaritan restaurant…”

She smiled at him and held a twenty-dollar bill at arm’s length in front of his face.  He grabbed into his front pocket, but the twenty was gone.  “That’s pretty lousy,” he said,  “and it was already a lousy day.”

“Look, sweetie, you can leave when you want, but I’m keeping your money.  I’m lucky to see this much in a week anymore.  Eat with us if you want.”

He stopped outside Jerry’s tavern.

She looked at the tavern door, surprised, then smiled and nodded.

He held the door from well inside.

The TV at the bar was talking Sports:  “the San Jose Sharks are in town tonight to take on the …”

He let her lead the way to a small plywood booth in the dark of the back.

He ordered a pitcher and they talked, mostly about her husband.  After the second pitcher came, he took her hands, fat with short fingers, in his leathery, baggy-skinned hands.  They would both soar into speech at times.  She talked about being twenty-one and only 12 pounds too heavy to be a flight attendant and reading biographies of jockeys for weight-loss tips.  She told him about the weed she had dreamed she was, that lived in a path and thrived on the crush of hooves and heels and wheels.  And he amazed himself by telling her of his dead marriage and his loneliness, of almost dying in Korea and never being sure of the next dollar.

Diskus’ veins pumped with a new pudding.

He blushed in the dark for being of all things out of words.  She would look down seeming unable to look at him.  He talked about his doll collection. She sought his eyes then, to see if he was serious.  He laughed at her.  She laughed back and hugged him to his feet.

He held out his hand.  They got two pizzas, the largest at the bar, and a carton of Coke and left.  One block and across the street, they went up to a cluster of apartments, up worn wooden stairs.

The kids were famished and got both pizzas if they ate in front of the TV in the common room down the hall.

Slumped in front of the apartment’s main window, behind the sofa, they watched first, then clutched arms, then kissed big, old, fat, sloppy lips and wet and strained.  Then sideways on the floor in a snarl of legs and an open dress and he eased her breasts out.  Her fingers undid his shirt and found the sickle shape on his ribs and followed it gently.

Such breasts she had; they were fat and white and heavy.

Yet he stroked her and she liked him and they were beautiful.

He kissed each one tenderly.

She sensed him pulling back into himself a bit and said:  What’s the matter?  The kids?”

“No; I was just thinking we should slow down, that’s all.”

“That usually means ‘Goodbye.’  Are you getting ready to leave?”

“You know, you are not the failure here; he is.” He said.  “He is.”

She leaned back against the couch and closed her eyes. “Don’t go there,” she said.

“I know him.  I am him,” Diskus said.  “Impatient.  Full of expectations.  Waiting for the next burst of feeling. 

Lots of disappointments that take even more activity to avoid.  A workaholic to fill the spaces between bursts of extra intensity.  Always some crisis at work.  Crises that are good for his adrenaline.    And then he lost his job.  He’s spinning now.  Add on desertion and theft.”  Diskus paused.  “I’ll bet he’s a baseball fan.”

“The Reds,” she said dully.

“With me it’s the White Sox.  To this very minute.”  He was excited now.  “Look: when you’re dying inside, time is agony.  Like dog whistle pain torture that won’t stop.  You try to blot it out.  You focus on things that don’t hurt as much.”

She had opened her eyes and was watching his face.

“Take the White Sox. Every game, every score, is like the rung of a ladder.  After a while, every trade, every mention on a talk show was another rung of my ladder that led me through time, passed the time.  It’s a Pass Time!”  He almost shouted.  “That’s it!”  He was really pleased and smiled at her.

She couldn’t help smiling.  “Like shopping?” she asked.

“Probably,” he said.  “And it’s exhausting, trying to climb every minute of the day and night.  So some people jump.”

They were both quiet a minute.

“I think I do have to go,” he said.

“It’s past time,” she said.

He missed her joke until he was behind the wheel of the Rambler again.  He snorted appreciation.

He got to the Salon, “Nancy’s”, as the streetlights still flickered on.  The shop had closed twenty minutes ago, so there was parking in front.

As he pulled up, a radio announcer introduced a panel of experts.  The British anticipated a scaled-back Olympics with small crowds and big debts.  An American caller challenged them.  “The sports public is counting on the international diversity and suspense of the games…”

He snapped off the radio. “I’ve got a life,” he said.

He let himself in with his key, rather than pull Nancy away from whatever she was doing.

There was music.  Kenny G.?

She was cleaning the mirror at her own station, up on a short stool.  She stopped with her rag arm on the glass above her head.  “Hello, John,” She pretended a lack of surprise.

“It looks real nice in here, Nance.  Feels comfortable,” he said.

“Everybody keeps it up,” she said.  “It’s easy with a little teamwork.”

“How’s business?  I mean,” he waited because he felt that had come out too cold and too abrupt.  “Does it still make you happy?”

She finished spraying and wiping the mirror and got down.  She faced him.

“Yes, still.  I guess I’d like helping people look good whether they paid me or not.  And we’ve got 20-30 regulars.”

She waited for him now.  He had come to her.

“Why didn’t you ever leave me?”  Diskus asked, suddenly.  “I was a beached whale.  I wasn’t going anywhere.  I had nothing.  But you…”

“John.”  She said.  “When I make a choice, I stick with it.  Better or worse.”

He just hung there.  Like a watched pot, the next moment just wouldn’t boil.  Slowly, he reached an arm out around her shoulder and she shifted gently into his embrace.  They hugged for some time.

He had time.  For once, he didn’t need to be anywhere else.


Erik Svehaug lives and writes in Santa Cruz, California, a vacation town he created as a child. He has been in Static Movement, Bartleby-Snopes, Linnet’s Wing, and Meta-Zen. His story, Tempeche, is in the Outlaws Chapbook at Bannock Street Books. He will be in the next issue of Ampersand. Flashes he wrote were mentioned honorably in Binnacle UltraShorts competitions in 2008 and 2009.


“The Things We Never Say” by Joseph S. Pfister

The snow comes down in fluffy chunks, making it impossible to see out the windshield.

“For God sake, would you slow down already?” Rebecca says for the third time.

I am only driving thirty, if that. “Can you do something besides critiquing my driving?” I ask, peering over the steering wheel. “Like maybe put on something we haven’t listened to five times already?”

She snatches up the iPod, which has been on the same playlist—Spring Break ‘08—since Indiana. “What do you want to listen to?” she snaps.

“How about something that doesn’t suck?” I suggest fictitiously.

We have been driving for five hours straight. Somewhere around Chicago the gray and blue skies opened, and the storm weather.com had been predicting dumped on us with all its late-spring fury. We’ve gone maybe twenty miles in the last hour, and from seventy-degree temps to thirty all in a day. But mostly, we’re sick of the cramped front seat of the teal-green Mazda we’re driving back from Georgia as a favor to my parents.

“Well, that rules out just about all of your music,” Rebecca says. Brake lights up ahead shine through the flurry of white that hides the Illinois landscape.

“If I hear Miley Cyrus one more time, I’m gonna puke.”

“Shut up. I like like one song,” says Rebecca, sinking back in her seat and putting her feet up on the dashboard, a remarkable feat considering how small the car feels at the moment.

“I was supposed to be in Milwaukee tonight,” she says, bringing up a topic we’ve already been over a dozen times and agreed is not worth discussing again. When we were in Georgia, Rebecca’s father called to warn us about the storm, but we simply crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. So far, the best hadn’t happened yet.

Massaging the bone between my eyes, I guide the car with my other hand as it slices through the slush coating the interstate. Welcome back to the Midwest, I think.

Rebecca puts down the iPod. “I just wanna sleep in my own bed tonight.”

The heater between us—not used to being used in Georgia—is working overtime, and the ice-covered wipers squeak loudly as they cross the windshield. We haven’t shared a laugh since yesterday morning, and I’m beginning to think that spending spring break with my girlfriend instead of drinking beers at the cabin with my buddies was a poor decision.

“Where are we staying tonight?” Rebecca asks, her voice tired and hard. She is looking out her window, though I know she can’t see anything. I certainly can’t.

“A hotel probably. I hadn’t really thought about it.”

“A hotel where?”

“I don’t know. Somewhere. Once we get tired of driving.”

“And when will that be? I’m already tired of driving.”

“I don’t know,” I say, picking up the iPod.

Rebecca gives me a threatening look. “Don’t you dare put on any of that screamo shit.”

Snorting, I settle on the first loud band I can find. I don’t know if it’s because I really feel like listening to it, or if it’s just because she doesn’t.

Rebecca lunges forward and fiddles with the heat, trying hard to disguise the fact that she can’t stand me at the moment.

She doesn’t say anything for a long time, and neither do I.

It is Well after one when we decide to pull off for the night, finding a small motel off I-90, north of Chicago. The first motel we try—a Ramada Inn—has no vacancies, and after a few choice words from Rebecca, we find a motel on the other side of the highway.

The trail of lights from the interstate ignite the dark sky behind us, and the parking lot encircling the low-stretching building is littered with snow-covered cars. Pulling up to the front entrance, Rebecca gets out, slamming the door behind her. I leave the car running and start pulling out our luggage, even though I don’t know if there are any rooms available. Based on the look of the parking lot, though, my guess is there are.

Shit, it is freezing. I have to jog in place just to keep warm. I know getting back in the car seems like the logical choice, but my thighs are stiff from the long drive and I don’t feel like sitting anymore. In fact, I don’t feel like doing anything but sleeping. The never-ending, disorienting swirl of snow continues to fall around me, illuminated in the glow of the humming Comfort Inn sign. The whole scene would probably look beautiful if it weren’t the middle of March.

It was during finals week right before Christmas when Rebecca appeared in my doorway and yanked me from my desk, demanding I follow her.

Where are we going? I asked. Outside, she replied. Should we grab our coats? It was snowing, giant flakes outside gliding past my window. No, she said, leading me out the door. Once we were outside, she broke into a run, disappearing into the wall of falling snow. What’re we doing? I called, trying to keep up. Just trust me, she said. The sudden cold made my eyes sting, and finding it hard to breathe, my jog turned to a half-hearted amble. Rebecca waited for me up ahead in her red sweater at the foot of a large snow bank formed by the parking lot and a rarely traversed path. I wanted to make snow angels, she said, grinning. So we made snow angels right there, in a T-shirt and red sweater in the falling snow. Rebecca liked to do random things. They made her feel alive, she said.

We’ve been dating for almost a year, and it’s getting to that point where I have to ask where this relationship is going. I love Rebecca—and I’m pretty sure she loves me too—but I’m graduating next year and the future isn’t so clear. I try and imagine myself without her sometimes, but I can’t. I don’t know where I am going to live or if I am going to have a career. Rebecca still has another year left of school, and she’s from New York. She loves it there. I visited once, but I didn’t think it was anything special. Every day with her is an adventure. When I think about it, I realize that’s why I love being around her so much—her spontaneity. But tonight that liveliness isn’t there. We both just want sleep.

The car is still running. I want to sleep in my own bed tonight as well, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Traffic is at a standstill, and it’s probably better just to wait out the storm until morning. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Where the hell is that woman? I’m freezing my ass off here in this parking lot that looks like it could be used in a made-for-TV holiday murder mystery. Go in, ask for a room, come out. That’s it. I’m about to stick my head around the corner and look inside when Rebecca’s petite frame appears in the glass doorway. Flinging a key card in my direction, she turns around and goes back inside.

Sure, I’ll just park the car and bring in the luggage while I’m at it. No problem.


“Which room are we in?” I mutter, meeting Rebecca outside the lobby elevator, a fresh dusting of snow in my hair. She has put her hair back in a sloppy ponytail and looks as tired as I feel. We both just want to sleep.

“Two-twelve,” she says, as if she can’t believe I am actually asking.

The desk clerk—a middle-aged Pakistani with a craggy face and a moustache—observes us quietly from behind his computer. I feel like a valet standing there with my bag slung over my shoulder and Rebecca’s suitcase in tow. She avoids my gaze, arching her head back and watching the numbers slowly unwind as the elevator approaches. The door dings open, and I follow her in with our bags, saluting the desk clerk who watches us as the doors slide closed, smiling. Glancing at Rebecca, I realize she is smiling, too.

The short ride to the second floor is a quiet one, and we’re too tired to argue. There’s nothing that hasn’t been said in the last eight hours, and Rebecca seems perfectly content to stand silently on her side of the elevator, which is fine with me.

Rebecca had said she wanted to see animals on spring break, so we did. We took my uncle’s car and drove forty minutes south to Wild Animal Safari. She fell asleep on the drive, though I wasn’t surprised. We had to rent a minivan fitted with metal bars once we got there, and we saw animals from every continent—camels, sheep, reindeer, pigs, tigers. Rebecca giggled when a zebra came up to the window and ate out of her hand. She said its breath was warm on her arm and gave her the shivers. Later, she shrieked and cowered against me when two long, sticky buffalo tongues swabbed the inside of the van like strange, hungry eels searching for food. She spent all afternoon tossing pellets to the smaller animals that kept their distance from the van. Her favorite animal was the giraffe.

When the elevator stops, I stumble out, tripping over Rebecca’s rolling suitcase as she leads the way down the narrow, poorly lit hallway.

Looking up and down the corridor, I get the feeling again that I’m in a Stephen King novel or a bad horror movie, and am secretly relieved to see Rebecca stop at two-twelve and slip the key card into the door.

“Son of a bitch,” she moans a moment later, standing in the open doorway without going inside.

“What?” I ask, joining her.

“They didn’t clean the room.”

She is right. A bed with what looks like day-old vomit on the sheets and a rollaway spilling its blankets like guts sits parked in the middle of the pastel-colored room, facing the TV, which is still on. The walls are decorated with tasteless, framed prints of mountain peaks covered in snow.

Dropping my bag, I say, “I’ll go see about another room.”

With an irritated look, Rebecca hands me her key card. “I’ll just wait here.”

The front desk is abandoned, and the square clock on the wall behind it reads quarter to two. Ringing the service bell, I hear shuffling from the back. The smiling middle-aged desk clerk from before appears, though he is no longer smiling and looks as if I have roused him from a peaceful night’s sleep.

“Can I help you?” he asks. He has a thick, foreign accent. All I want is a clean room to pass out in.

“Our room hasn’t been cleaned.”

The clerk looks surprised and gives me a worried frown, as if somehow I can’t be telling the truth. “Which room?”


He looks up something on the computer that I can’t see. “You said it hasn’t been cleaned?”

“Right,” I say, trying to mask my irritation.

“Okay, well,” he says, looking slightly flustered, “how about two-fourteen?”

“That’s fine,” I say. Exchanging keys, the desk clerk mutters an apology and then disappears, leaving me alone in the empty motel lobby, waiting for the elevator.

The first time I stayed with Rebecca and her parents, I almost killed their dog. It was an accident, though I’m still not entirely sure she’s convinced or has completely forgiven me yet. Rocco. The damn dog’s name is Rocco. I don’t even know what kind of name that is. Sure, Rebecca told me when I arrived at her parent’s place, don’t leave any food out because Rocco will get into it. And, sure enough, he did. We were in the living room watching “Seinfeld” when Rebecca realized that she hadn’t heard Rocco in a while—usually a sure sign that he was into something he shouldn’t be. That something was my gum on the end table in the family room where I was sleeping. Apparently, there is some type of chemical in gum that when ingested in large amounts—like say an entire pack—can be toxic to pets. Xylitol, or something like that. Needless to say, an emergency trip to the vet with a vomiting dog and Rebecca’s parents wasn’t on the itinerary. And what made it that much worse is that that dog is like the son Rebecca’s mother never had. A furry, pain-in-the-ass son who gets into gum instead of the liquor cabinet.

If possible, Rebecca looks more infuriated than she was when I left, and doesn’t say anything upon my return. She hasn’t moved from the spot where I left her and doesn’t appear to care if she does. Scooping up my bag, I nod down the hall. Lugging her suitcase with two hands, she reluctantly falls in line behind me as I lead the way to two-fourteen.

Inserting my key card and giving Rebecca a look, I shove open the door. Holding my breath, I flip on the lights.

The room is—clean.

Plowing inside, the unmistakable stench of cigarettes stops us before we can even close the door.

I drop my bag with a sigh. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

“Gross,” says Rebecca, shooting me a savage look, as if all of this is my fault—the weather, spring break, the motel, all of it. The reek of cigarettes from the last guest still hangs in the air, attaching itself to the drapes and walls like mold.

“At least the room’s clean,” I say.

“I don’t know if that’s the right word for it,” she says darkly, dragging her suitcase onto the queen-size bed at the center of the room. Extracting a small perfume bottle, she moves around the room, filling the air with a Burberry London mist. After a good dozen squirts, the room smells like an Abercrombie & Fitch store that has just recently allowed smoking.

Grimacing, I empty my jean pockets of spare change, watching out of the corner of my eye as Rebecca pulls out her pajamas and starts to undress. Once she realizes I’m watching, she turns and heads into the bathroom.

I finish changing, and plugging in my cell phone to charge overnight, I whip back the sheets and fall into bed. The sheets are stiff, but I don’t complain. I have a bed, finally.

Peninsula State Park, Rebecca said, is something everyone should see, especially in the fall. We went up to Door County with my family, and the morning we decided to climb the observatory tower it was cold—the kind of cold you feel in your bones and makes you wish it was still summer. The 75-foot observatory tower soared above the trees in their autumn suits. Every inch of the painted, mud-brown tower was covered with names encircled with hearts, or couples with FOREVER carved beneath them. We added our names. When we reached the top, we could see for miles. The sea of trees below us roared in flames of red, yellow and orange, and we pointed out which islands on Lake Michigan we’d build mansions on someday. As breathtaking as the view and jagged coast looked in the late morning sun, we didn’t stay long.

Rebecca reappears from the bathroom in an old T-shirt and sleeping pants a moment later. She has let her hair back down, and reluctantly lies down on the bed beside me.

“The sheets smell like cigarettes,” she says.

I nod, my face still buried in a pillow, facing away from her. “I don’t wanna think about what else they smell like.”

The fatigue from the day has finally hit us full-force, and even the silence feels exhausting. Turning off the lamp on the nightstand, we lay in silence, listening to the heater on the wall sputter. Rolling over, I can see that she is lying, arms folded on her stomach, staring up at the ceiling.

It’s not often you get a perfect day, she said, but this was close enough. It was our last day in Savannah—part of our mini-vacation while on vacation—before heading back to my uncle’s. We had the day to do whatever we wanted, and Rebecca was happy just to sit in one of the squares. Savannah, she said, was the most beautiful place in the world. That’s why we went there in the first place—because she wanted me to see it for myself. We sat in the green grass beneath the sprawling oak trees coated in Spanish moss and old-fashioned lampposts, listening to the life around us. The mood to draw struck Rebecca, so she pulled out her drawing pad and pencils and started sketching away. I didn’t learn until a truck stop in Indiana that with all that beauty surrounding us, she had chosen to draw me instead.

“We’re never staying at a Comfort Inn again,” says Rebecca.

I nod in the dark of the room, a smile I can’t help spreading across my face. It begins as a chuckle, but soon we are both shaking with laughter.

In the morning, the sunlight on the snow outside our window is blinding. We dress quietly and check out before ten, the night before feeling like the remnants from a night of heavy drinking where bad decisions were made and have to be faced. We say nothing to who we assume is the desk clerk’s wife, and after loading our luggage into the Mazda, we drive across the street to the BP we somehow didn’t see the night before. We get breakfast—Pop-Tarts and Mountain Dew and a copy of The National Enquirer that Rebecca grabs—and as we pull out, destined for the barren vein of interstate that cuts the snow-covered landscape, Rebecca reaches over and clutches my hand. She is reading about cyber-hookers, and that is when I realize she is probably the best thing that will ever happen to me.


Joseph S. Pfister is a senior majoring in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a member of The Madison Review Literary Magazine.


“Bedside Manner” by Scott Owens

I had forgotten the slow ways of death,
interminable days of quiet uncertainty,
punctuated by necessary offices and awkward
visits. Years ago, a great aunt’s
always darkened house, wood stove
over-heated, smell of Vicks and perfume,
constant breathing of machines, drone
of white gospel the only other sound,
as if we all wanted to slow things down,
keep them as they were, let nothing go,
and even the slightest unnecessary noise
might startle time awake.
Now, it all comes back again.



Scott Owens is the 2008 Visiting Writer at Catawba Valley Community College. His first full-length collection of poetry, The Fractured World, was published by Main Street Rag. He is also author of three chapbooks: The Persistence of Faith, Deceptively Like a Sound, and The Book of Days.


“For Dad, A Year After His Death” by Cathy Gilbert

Today I remembered you
teaching me to ride my bike without training wheels.
I held tight to the pink handle grips
as you held me steady, your piano hands stretching
beyond the full octave to guide me
by the back of the polka dotted seat.

I felt the comfort of you next to me.
As we started out, my feet pedaled,
and you huffed alongside, keeping me balanced.

The wind in my face grew stronger,
my feet more impatient, and those two wheels
carried me faster and farther than ever before.

I stopped, a thrilled laugh exploding,
placed my feet on the ground
and turned to you
but you weren’t there.

I’d left you long ago, and I squinted
to see you small in the distance
of the street length between us.
I wanted to see you smiling,
but the sun burned my eyes
and silhouetted you into shadow.

And then I put my foot back to the pedal
and set off on my own, feeling
the ghost of your presence still at my side.



Cathy Gilbert is an Instructor of English at Heartland Community College in Normal, IL. She currently teaches many levels of composition, but will soon add creative writing to her repertoire. Her poems have appeared in the Madison Review, Main Channel Voices, and PANK. When she’s not teaching, grading, or writing, Cathy attends as many jazz and rock shows as her sleeping schedule allows.


“Runner” by Justin Carroll

On the Television, an infomercial audience is clapping. That must have been what woke you.  No.  There is knocking, so you walk to the door. It’s Emily. She’s giving you a ride to the airport so you can visit your parents for Christmas.  There’s no telling how long she’s been standing on the front step, but judging from the knocking it’s been a while.  She’s mad, furious, standing out in the frigid December morning as the wind nips up her shirt and gives her flabby stomach goose bumps.  These are your last moments in Montana.

“Your cell phone’s turned off again,” she says as she brushes the cold off and heads for the furnace.  “Jesus, you’re twenty-three.”

“Oh?” you say.  It’s probably for the best, you decide.

Theodore, the twenty-five-year-old with braces and a nine millimeter, has been leaving threatening voicemails for a week.

“Are you packed yet?”


“Shit, Gerard, you’re going to miss your flight.” She rushes to your bedroom, grabs your suitcase from the corner, and starts picking up clothes that lay scattered on the floor. She stuffs them into the bag without folding. This pisses you off, but you don’t say anything. As she packs, you look at the room you’ve been living in for three years. There is a leaning tower of boxes, a musty towel, and a nest of blankets lying in the corner by your pillow. There is no bed, no chair, no dresser, and no exercise bike.

When Emily is finished, you go to the bathroom and get on your knees. You pray that you don’t drink or get high.

You walk with her to the car. It smells worse than usual. You scoot over a heap of crumpled fast food fry cartons and sit. The cold, cracked vinyl of the seat touches your skin between your jacket and jeans. You shiver. Her heater doesn’t work. It’s going to be a cold twenty minutes to the airport.

The sun rises in an orange blast on Emily’s side. Instead of noticing the miracle of it all, or marveling at the horses prancing in the field blowing clouds from their nostrils like dragons, you focus on how you fat she looks. She’s gained twenty pounds since dumping you for the eighteen-year-old bass player in the noise punk band. You hate her face, the way her eyes scrunch up in defense from dawn. You love what she used to be, and what you used to be. She lights a joint, hits it, and you accept it.

“Have a good trip,” she says as she pulls up to the loading zone.

You take a step towards her, which makes her look away. When she looks your way again, you kiss her on the lips. They are cold and still.

“I love you,” you say.

“Take care of yourself,” she says and without another look she gets into the car and pulls out.

After you check in your bag, you look in your wallet. Two dollars. In searching for more cash you find a baggie that once held half a gram of cocaine. You head to the bathroom and, once there, lick it until your teeth feel vaguely numb. Bags hang your eyes. A patchy beard has sprouted on your chin. You still have a cut on your neck from when the mill worker put your head through the pawn shop window next to Al and Vic’s. You head to the bookstore and steal a Rolling Stone. On the plane, you start to read an article about Iris DeMent. She’s your mother’s favorite singer. Two lines in, you fall asleep. You’re out until Little Rock.

You spot your father standing by the gift shop. He’s giving his patented smile, not showing any teeth. With each step closer, his smile fades. By the time you’re shaking his hand, his brow is knit in a frown. He sticks a hundred dollar bill in your pocket.

“Good to see you, son.”

“You, too,” you say. You mean it. Walking to the baggage claim, he puts his arm around you, and you put your head on his shoulder. His arm stays on your shoulder as you go to the car. Stella is in it. Her face seems gray, but she’s wagging her tail the way she did the day Mom brought her home from the breeder’s ten years ago.

“Stella looks good,” you say.

“Her health’s not too hot,” he says, reaching over and scratching her ears. “We’re not sure how much longer she has.” You both sit in silence, and you can sense your father is working on the right way to go about saying something. He clears his throat.

“You drinking again?” Dad asks.

“A little,” you say. He pats you on the knee and Stella licks your face.

When you get to your parents’ house, you walk to the guest bedroom and lie down. It’s dark when you open your eyes again. There is a note hanging on the microwave written in your mother’s loving hand.

Went to a dinner party at the Finleys.
There’s salmon in the fridge.
Glad you’re home.


You ignore the salmon and look for wine, but there isn’t any. You fish your phone out of your back pocket. When you turn it on, you have twenty new voice mails. The first eighteen are from Theodore, and you delete them without listening.

Then there is Jared:

“Dude, twelve assholes just came to the house lookin’ for you! You stole money from them or something?” He sighs. “I don’t know, man, Sarah is freaked. Call me when you get this.”

The last one is from Emily:

“So, I turned your phone on. This is the last time. Hope you’re having fun. It was nice to see you.”

You call her back and it rings once and goes to voicemail. You don’t leave a message. You turn on the TV and turn it off immediately. You check your pants for another baggie. There isn’t one. You check the pants Emily packed. Nada. You check the bookshelf, where two summers before you stashed your weed. There is nothing to smoke and nothing to drink. You decide to take your father’s station wagon for a drive.

There are no stores in the gated village your parents retired early to. You drive ten miles to get out the gates. A man in a brown uniform gives you a salute as you pass. You suppress the urge to give him the finger. You pass two supermarkets and a few gas stations. Then you spot a liquor store. Your stomach feels queasy as you lay eyes on the endless ocean of bottles. You get Jack Daniels and smile at the clerk.

At your parents house you crack the bottle and get ready to chug. When you smell it, though, you get sick. Your hands shake. Your gorge rises. You cannot take a drink. You pour a shot, but cannot drink this either. You take the shot glass to the back door and throw it as hard as you can into the woods, and go back to TV.

When your parents get home you are still sober. You’ve hidden the liquor, but can’t stop thinking about it. Your mother rubs your beard and kisses the top of your head like she’s done since you can remember, then heads to the kitchen to heat the salmon. Her eyebrows are thinner, but her rosy cheeks are the same as when she used to pick you up from soccer practice. Her graying brown hair is cut the same way, too.

“Are you still working at the independent paper?” she asks.


“Oh, that’s too bad. Why not?”

“I missed an interview with Iris DeMent,” you say. The real reason was a woman accused you of being drunk during Family Day at the Clark Fork Park.

You’re sure Mom knows that’s a lie, but she doesn’t say so.

“Have you looked for another one yet?” she asks.


Since the paper fired you two months ago, you worked as a sushi roller for three weeks and at Burlington Coat Factory for two. Without thinking about it, you go to the grandfather clock and pull out the whiskey bottle. You bring it to the sink, open the bottle, and pour it down the drain. Your mother silently watches.

“Have you been drinking again?” she asks.

“A little,” you reply.

The next night you allow your mother to drive you to a church. In the basement there is a cluster of smiling faces. The people shake your hand and tell you they’re glad you could make it. For an hour they drink coffee and talk about how they haven’t drunk booze in a while. You’ve been to places like this before, once when you were eighteen and once three years ago when you were twenty. After the hour you help stack chairs. A woman with white hair and yellow teeth rubs your back.

“Hope to see you again,” she says.

“I think you will,” you say.

A week later you still haven’t taken a drink. You’ve been going to those gatherings every day, back at that church a few times and in a trailer outside the village gates. You went to a gathering in an abandoned school house behind the horse track in a town twenty minutes away, too. You had Christmas with your family. Stella had to be put to sleep the day after. You dug a hole in the garden like your father asked and you held Mom’s hand as she cried. It was the first time since before high school you felt like a part of the family.

Jared continues to call, as does Theodore. You only pick up calls from Emily, and she’s called just twice.

On Sunday, you go for a walk with your father. It’s brisk outside, but it seems tropical compared to the cruel mornings of Montana. You walk by the golf course.

“Have you been looking for a new reporting job?” Dad asks.

“Not since I’ve been here, no,” you say.

“You can look for jobs online, you know, and you better be aggressive.  The newspaper industry is dying, so it’ll be hard to get another gig.”

“I know.”

In your head, you try to count the reasons for going back to Montana.  Emily is the only one you can think of.

“I may not go back, if that’s all right with you,” you say while walking up the driveway.

“Your mother and I would love that.”

Jared is rude when you tell him you’re not coming back.

“Rent is due in five days!” he shouts over the phone.

“I’m sorry. I’ll send you next month’s rent ASAP.”

“You still owe for this month.”

You hang up the phone. You write your dad an email, asking if you can borrow the money for rent.  In the morning, there is a blank check sitting on top of your wallet on the night stand.

Ten days into your new life, you get a job at a café. It’s in the golf course, and pays six dollars an hour, plus a cut of the tip jar. One woman works with you. She is a big, dark-haired woman named Cleo.

“Where you from, boo?” she asks on your first day. When you tell her, she makes a high pitched sound and pretends to shiver.  “Way too cold up there for me.”

“And you?” you ask.

“I’m from the mud of Louisiana, where it don’t dip below seventy in the middle of winter and races past a hundred in August,” she says.

The day after your first shift is New Year’s Eve. You talk to Dan, a friend from Montana.

“You’re missing the big bash at Al’s and Vic’s. It’s an eighties party. Should be pretty sweet,” he says.

It sucked last year,” you reply.

You want to go. Emily calls and wishes you a happy New Year. When you tell her you’re not coming back, she starts to cry.

“I’m gonna miss you,” she weeps, “I wish things hadn’t gotten so screwed up.”

This makes you want to drink more than anything. You go to the schoolhouse behind the track.  You don’t listen to what people are sharing.  Instead, you imagine yourself dressed up as Tom Cruise from Risky Business. You see yourself nodding at Jared, Theodore, and all the others that you usually had to duck away from. You see yourself handling your drinks like a gentleman, like a champion even. There would be no more fights. You wouldn’t puke on the pool table like at last New Year’s party. This time would be different, you say.

After the meeting there is a dance. A man with a very long soul patch backs his Honda hatchback up to the front door and cranks up his stereo. Guns N Roses are playing. Two women start dancing with each other. As you leave, you avoid the man in red extending for a handshake.

You’re going to get drunk, end of story. Your mind says to kill yourself instead, but that’s way too drastic. All the liquor stores look dark. The usually glowing martini glasses are silhouettes, only visible from the fluorescent glow of the beer coolers. You decide to hit the Wal-Mart by your parents’ house.

There is an agonizingly long line. You stand behind a man in a ball cap and listen to his side of a phone conversation.

“I got ’em, honey, don’t worry,” he says. You imagine he’s talking to his wife, probably some beer-chugging, NASCAR fan. Still, though, you feel envious.

“I know, I know, I can’t wait to see you too, baby. I love you.”

Darlene is the name of the woman at the register. She has a smiley face button on her apron, but isn’t smiling. Her neck hangs loosely like a hound dog.  When you put your beer down on the counter, she looks confused.

“You can’t buy this today, sir,” she says impatiently. Two women behind you in line stop their conversation about Allan Jackson.

“What? Why not?” Your voice is panicky.

She sighs. “It’s Sunday, sir.” The women behind are whispering now, and you can feel heat in your cheeks.

“Christ, what’s that supposed to mean?” you yell. The store goes silent. A man behind you somewhere clears his throat.

“Hey, take it easy, buddy,” he says. You ignore him and turn your attention back to a very nervous Darlene.

“It’s against the law to buy or sell alcohol in Arkansas on Sunday.”

Tears are rolling down your cheeks before you make it out the store. You punch the steering wheel of your father’s car. This isn’t fair, you think. Life drunk is miserable, and life without booze is hell. You think about last summer, when you and Emily saw The Decemberists at the Wilma. You drank like a gentleman that night, like a champion. When you interviewed the band for the paper, they laughed at all of your jokes and invited you to the after party. During their set, they dedicated a song to you. When you declined to go to the after party so you could walk Emily home, she told you she would love you forever.

Another memory comes to mind, this one not that long ago. It was just a week before you came to Arkansas. You stay up all night drinking, trying to figure out a way to pay the rent. Finally, you drive your car to Theodore’s, but you have to stop at a gas station and fill up your front tire. When you get to Theodore’s house, you make sure he’s at work. When this has been established, you kick in his back door. Under his mattress, you find twelve hundred in cash. Under his bed, you find half an ounce of weed. You look for cocaine, but find none. You sell the weed to a kid with a nose ring. You decide before you pay the rent, you’re going to celebrate. You call up Darnell, the third string fullback for the Montana Grizzlies and your second string coke hook up. He comes through, and two days later you’re broke without paying the rent.

Then, like a punch in the stomach you’re hit with a sane thought: I don’t want to drink, and I don’t want to die.

It strikes you as the first rational idea you’ve had in a long time. You drive back to your parent’s house.Your mother is asleep and leaning against your father. He is watching The Grand Ol’ Opry.

“How was the meeting?” he asks.

“Great,” you say.

The day you are supposed to head back to Montana, you are cleaning the fryer at the golf course. After you drain the machine, scrub the sides, and fill it with fresh oil, you take the old stuff to the receptacle behind the ninth hole. You take your phone out. The only person who has called you in the past two days is Theodore. You dump the grease. The sides of the container look like a thousand candles were melted in it. You drop your phone in.

Walking back through the course to the parking area, you pass a pond. Steam is rolling off it. The ground is wet, and two Canadian geese have their wings up. They’re honking and circling each other. It looks to you like some sort of dance, something ballerinas in New York would imitate. It’s beautiful.


~Justin Carroll