“The Crackhead’s Palindrome” by Catherine Owen

“On the Road” Image courtesy of Dariusz Klimczak

It comes right down to this. Just one more hit
and he will be cured of the need
for this frenzy in the dark, this scrounging:
things he can pawn, lies he can tell.
She will know then; all will be revealed.
Something will save him from the sharp,
tight hankering in his brain, this net
he’s cast around the world: the feel
of pressing the glass mouth full, sucking
and the sense that he is everything
in that one split second rush.
Now he is Hercules eternally is he not.
So surely this time that will be it.

O surely this time that will be it.
Now he is Hercules eternally is he not?
In that one split second rush there
is the sense that he is everything, sucking,
pressing the glass mouth full, the feel
he’s been cast around the world, a net
tight & hankering in his brain.
Something will save him from the sharp She
who will know then; all will be revealed –
those things he’s pawned, the lies he can tell.
All for this frenzy in the dark, this scrounging
to be cured of the need.
It comes right down to this. Just one more hit.



Catherine Owen has published nine collections of poetry and one of prose. Her work has been translated and has appeared in journals in NA, Europe and Australia. Her website is www.catherineowen.org.

Read our interview with Catherine here.

“Mirrors Like Silence” by SJ Sindu

“Fly Away” Image courtesy of Dariusz Klimczak

Carlos was sleeping in his oven when we found him. The gas stove on, unlit. Empty liquor bottles rolled through the cramped apartment, their quiet tinking vibrating the empty walls.

This was not the first time.

I didn’t visit him in the Mental Health Crisis Center. Our friend Sarah called me with news and updates. I thought of all the Smirnoff I had mixed into his drinks over the years, the Gatorade bottles with booze that we had carried around campus, the pacts we made before parties to not let each other do something stupid, the frightened morning-after STD tests.

But I was clean now, out of college, getting engaged and applying to grad school.

I led a community writing group, and through the musk of stale whiskey that swirled over the table, I wondered if Carlos looked like these people now, with their murky brown coats and tenuous sanities. The young man who stared at his nails when others talked. Did Carlos sit in his psych ward bed with his hands splayed like that, trying to find himself through the fleshy webs between his fingers?

Borderline personality disorder. Alcoholism. Depression. I sounded these words out in my head, these words that taste like steel.

We both feel the brand of our brown skin, our dark hair. His body hair is sparse, mine is abundant. We took salsa classes, and shocked the instructors by wanting to learn the opposite parts: I wanted to lead; he wanted to follow.

Carlos had no family. His mother was dead, his siblings like strangers. He hadn’t talked to his Tex-Mex extended family in years. A ward of the state.

He had trouble remembering. He couldn’t recall his high school years, how he had flirted with suicide over a lost lover. He couldn’t remember the friends he had made.

In college Carlos was my wingman. It was his responsibility to keep me from bounding over chess boards to make out with butch lesbians; it was mine to keep him from humping men on the makeshift dorm-room dance floors.

“You get lucky,” he told me once. We were on the swings at a park close to my apartment. We were both single, both dating, both looking. The sun was low, the moon already rising from behind the university smokestacks. “You meet good people,” he said.

I didn’t go to see him until he got out of rehab.

He got strange when we talked about the past. He didn’t want to fudge truths, was hung up on the small details of dates and times, the numbers of people at parties and what we ate. To me, it didn’t matter if it was January or February. But for Carlos everything hung on these details. He was attached to the characters of his memory. He couldn’t let them go, couldn’t blur the lines of their existence.

Two years after he got clean, I ran into Carlos at a bar. Whiskey burned on his breath. He wouldn’t meet my eyes. He promised to call me to make plans for dinner or lunch—or brunch like old acquaintances.

He never called.

When I stumbled into soberness, Carlos didn’t follow. Or maybe I didn’t lead him well enough.

Carlos painted.

He hung the paintings on his new living room walls in the halfway house where we drank coffee every Sunday morning.

Canvas after canvas: a pale, blond young man crucified with swords; a gremlin surrounded by thick blackness, screaming in silence; a field of daisies, streaked with black from where a cold wind had taken life.



SJ Sindu received an MA in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Sindu’s creative writing has appeared in Brevity, Water~Stone Review, Harpur Palate, and elsewhere. Focusing on traditionally silenced voices—the immigrant, the poor, the queer, the female-bodied—Sindu is working on a novel and a collection of nonfiction essays.

“A Short History” by Lia Mastropolo

Image courtesy of Dariusz Klimczak

Bill took you walking the first day back. He’s that kind of guy. Maybe it was supposed to be a long walk, but it ended up being short because your legs were like pins without any joints.

He said, “It’s good to have you back, man. We were all a little worried there.”

When you started the triathlons in college you couldn’t swim very well. The race started at the boat launch and you had to dive in right away, like a razor, or you’d never catch up. With everyone thrashing and kicking and swimming over and under you, you could have sunk down into the bottom of the harbor and never come up. All the swimmers wore wetsuits, it was that cold. You took a deep breath and just swam under water like a frog as the mob passed over. When you had to breath, you’d fight your way up and men would take their faces out of the water and curse when they felt a head coming up against their stomach, or between their legs.

After a couple of years you were slicing though the tide of swimmers like a knife. You sliced and sliced, and then you biked, and then you ran. And the whole way, in every race, and all the time when you practiced, I was thinking yes.

I remember what happened right after the wreck. You woke up feeling, you said, like a head in a glass with nothing attached. And I couldn’t cry and I couldn’t even scream, and the doctor asked me if I wanted him to be straight.

They brought in a wheelchair so you could get used to looking at it. Of course you couldn’t use it at first, since you weren’t allowed to be moved. But it was something to shoot for, the wheelchair. A big silver beacon of mobility. If you healed up right, the doctors said, maybe one day you’d be able to sit up on your own.

The doctors were wrong, though. They were so wrong it makes my own spine tingle. When they let you, you sat right up.  Yes, I said, and you moved your fingers, and yes, and you moved your toes. Then you stood, leaning like a tent between three people.

Bill was worried that you seemed depressed. One day after a walk he took you to his church, a small gathering in a room over at the strip mall. When I asked you about it you said you sang Amazing Grace. “Is that all?” I said. “Yeah,” you said, “that’s all.”

The next day I took you to the pool. You were so weak I had to help you down the ladder. I stood in the water behind you and held you hips so you wouldn’t fall back. Your foot slipped, and you said, “Shit.”

A couple of little kids were playing in the shallow end near us, and they drifted over to watch.

“Hey,” I said, “Get out of here. Leave the man alone.”

But you climbed back up the ladder all by yourself and left. You took a shower that lasted a hundred years and when you met me in the lobby you said, “No more swimming. I can’t do this.”

You were putting on weight, but it was like your body wasn’t yours. You walked around the house as if on glass. You walked as if you were glass, ready to shatter if anyone looked too closely.

You and Bill used to be running buddies. But after the accident you became walking buddies. You walked together every evening after dinner, like old men, him carrying your cane because you couldn’t get the hang of it. But then one day Bill stopped going for walks with you any more. You said he needed the time to run, but I said maybe he thought you were being ungrateful.

“Ungrateful to who?” you asked, but I couldn’t really put my finger on it.

One Saturday when you were looking strong, I took you to the pool again. You were still afraid to drive. This time you got in the water, and we floated in the shallow end with those long foam noodles that little kids can ride like ponies.

I said, “Want to try some laps with me?” I pulled my blue goggles over my face and did a little dive towards the deep end, thinking somehow my enthusiasm could sweep you up like a wave. But when I popped up in the deep end, you were still standing with your noodle looking like a wet cat and not at all like an athlete.

You waved me on, and I swam a couple laps of backstroke out of sheer frustration. You lay on your back and moved your arms slowly back and forth to keep from sinking.

On Easter I drove you to my parents’ house, where everyone hugged you like you might dissolve into ash under their arms.

“I just can’t get over how lucky you were,” said my mother. “It’s like all our prayers were answered.”

My dad said, “So when are we hitting the golf course?” and everyone laughed. You said something about metal bones and how maybe you wouldn’t have to take as much of a handicap now, and they laughed even harder and fed you little pieces of quiche. Even after, at the table, when we were eating ham and scalloped potatoes and green beans almondine, they all kept stealing glances at your working arms, your legs, your upright torso. As if in just moments the spell would break.

The doctors said you couldn’t run or go back to the construction work you did before. They said it like you were asking them to reach up and pluck out the moon. “You start lifting,” said the physical therapist, “and that metal knee that took eight hours to connect to your femur will be shot in under a month.”

What you could do was work at a desk. You could talk on the phone and take people out to lunch just fine, so you got a job selling windows at a fancy lumberyard. Sometimes you saw Bill when he came in to buy things for this job or that one. He just looked you up and down, at your skin that was starting to tan and the absence of a wheelchair, of a coffin, and said, every time he saw you, “How ya feelin’, man?” He said it like he expected something. Like your life was a balance sheet with a whole lot still in the red.

I thought I had lost you. I knew that the body takes its own time to heal, and that some places in a person take longer than others. But even though you told me everything, you told me nothing.

Then one day in January I took you to the pool again. It was about four months after you’d gotten out of the hospital. We stood together near the deep end, and it must have been right after a swim meet or something because all the lane lines were still in and the diving blocks were still anchored to the concrete. I put on my goggles and said, “follow me.” From a racing block I dove arrow straight into the middle lane, and with everything in my body I pointed the way across the pool.  I swam the cleanest, straightest lap of my life. My freestyle’s not too bad. I made razors of my elbows. My hands cut the water without a splash. My legs beat out a drum-roll flutter kick behind me, and before I knew it I’d hit the other wall.

You were watching from the other side, and maybe, just a little, your expression changed. It was interest, I think. I hadn’t seen it in months.

“Now you,” I shouted, and it echoed in the empty pool room.

You were shaking out your legs and arms the way you used to as a swimmer. “Okay,” you said, “okay.”

Any minute now people would come bursting through the doors of the locker rooms, old ladies with kickboards and little kids with those puffy things they wear on their arms. A sea of artificial flotation. And the water would be cluttered, and there would never be this chance again. So you looked straight into my goggle-eyes, and I smiled, and you raised your arms to dive.

You dove. I could almost feel the rush of water on your skin. Rushing past your ears, a little getting in. The familiar up-pull of the surface and the down-pull of your weight as the force of the dive propelled you forward and up. You squeezed your shoulders to your ears and kicked like mad. All around was the rush of water and bubbles, and when you opened your eyes and exhaled the white stream of bubbles rose around your face.

Into the shallows, the bottom of the pool coming up to meet you. There were my legs and middle in the water, blue-tinted and soft, waiting for you as I will always be waiting for you. Come. You fluttered your feet and pulled with your arms and all your muscles needed air, but you were close so you pulled again and again and you kicked even harder and your life was rushing by and there it was, your head about to break the surface.



Lia Mastropolo studied literature and creative writing at the University of Connecticut, and environmental policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in The Berkeley Poetry Review, Confrontation, Full of Crow, and Pindeldyboz, among others.

Review of WE by Lowell Jaeger


Poems by Lowell Jaeger
Main Street Rag, 2010

WE is a glimpse of the extraordinary, hidden within seemingly mundane everyday lives, and Lowell Jaeger gives us beautifully constructed portraits of the people you may not notice rushing to catch your bus or pushing past on a street when late for an appointment.

The titles alone reveal the objects of his scrutiny: “regular guy,” “stroke survivor,” “the wives,” ”dad,” and “door to door jesus.”

But what Jaeger gives his reader is something that transcends any idea of a lofty introspection. It’s quite the opposite. Jaeger solidifies this idea of exploring the seemingly simple and takes us deep into where these people live, how they work, and who they might be in a way that creates connections to us all.

In “If They Blow,’ the reader is dropped into the middle of a conversation as if we were eavesdropping in a crowded room full of strangers:

If They Blow

“…run for shelter, Dad said.
Means Krushchev’s launched his warheads.
I’d asked: Why the yellow horns on a tower
atop the grandstand’s roof? (31)

In “we all know trouble when we see it” the dialogue is realistic and so regionally dense that I was brought back to sitting in a diner as a kid fascinated by the chatter of the adults around me; a place of no secrets where verbal clues alone become the vehicle to understanding:

“Birdie snags the waitress to question
this or that about the bill. Silly,
but I hold my breath to listen…” (81)

“every mother” gives us the gruffness of the man, the tirelessness of the woman and the obliviousness of the children where a mere car breakdown can create a whole new level of frustration in an already exhausted day:

Try it again, the man shouts
like he’s peeved at her
when his machine won’t go.
He adds a string of curses,
drops his wrench, and she’s on the spot
with a wad of Kleenex
to nurse torn knuckles.” (19-20)

Lowell Jaeger’s WE is a collection of portraits that give us an inside view of people at their everyday tasks, errands, and jobs, but these characters become so much more than that by the end of the book. This is a contemporary view of who we are, where we come from, and where so many of us really live. WE is a beautifully crafted poetry collection with intimate language, densely sketched /images, and as realistic a viewpoint as any observer could discover. I have become a fan.

“On the Verge of Frog-Hood” by Richard Bader

Image courtesy of Dariusz Klimczak

My key was in the door when I heard the voice behind me.

“Do you have a minute?” it said.

A woman had materialized in my driveway, 40-ish, with short brown hair that curved in and forward at her neck and framed her face in a sort of oval. She was holding a large cardboard box. She wasn’t unattractive, but she wasn’t especially attractive either, and I was using this information to decide whether I had a minute. She set the box down. A light rain began to fall.

“Actually I was just leaving,” I lied.

“Oh!” she said, with either real surprise or mock surprise. “I thought I just saw you pull in.” She nodded toward my car. For all I knew she had felt the hood to see if it was warm.

“I came back to get something.” Lie two.


I thought she’d take the hint and leave, but she stood there looking at me and I looked at her and soon it got uncomfortable.

“What’s in the box?” I guessed Bibles.

“My book,” the woman said. This didn’t entirely rule out Bibles.

“Your book.”

“A book I wrote. It’s a novel.” She opened the box and pulled out a hardback book with a plain blue cover and a title in white letters I couldn’t make out. “I’m trying to sell it.”

“Door to door?”

She smiled a smile that looked forced. “I published it myself. So yes.”

“Crazy way to sell books.”

“Are you a reader?”

No, I’m illiterate. “Yeah. I mean, I read.”


No, food labels. “Yes, books.”

“Wonderful! A lot of people don’t. Would you like to buy one?” She thrust the book toward me and I took it.

Tadpoles, by Amanda Boom. Amanda Boom—great name. You should have made it bigger on the cover.”

“It’s pronounced Boam,” she said. “It’s Dutch.”

“It’s really about tadpoles?”

“They’re a metaphor.”


“That’s why you buy the book,” she said. She grinned, and it did something to her face that made her more attractive. It wasn’t until then that I realized she had looked sad before. The rain was picking up. “Your books are getting wet. Do you want to come in for a minute, Amanda Boom?”

Boam. Weren’t you just leaving?”

Now she was making fun of me. She was sharp, Amanda Boom was. Sharper than she looked.

“Do you have any coffee?” she said as we entered my living room. I went to the kitchen and made a pot. When I came back with it she was looking at a picture on the mantel.

“Your wife and daughter?” she said.

I wasn’t sure how to answer. It was Sophie, my daughter, with Anne, my wife, on a beach in Maine at sunset. But Anne and I were in day twenty-seven of a trial separation that was feeling less and less like a trial. I’d put the other pictures of her away. Leaving that one out was like saving a starter cell, something to clone the marriage back on to if it came to that. “Yes,” I said, not wanting to get into it.

“What are their names?”

“Sophie, she’s my daughter. And Anne.”

“And yours?”


“Well, George, you have a beautiful family.”

I directed her to the couch and sat in a chair opposite. “So. Your tadpoles.”

“They represent loss.”

It was a ridiculous story. There’s a woman who every spring goes into this wealthy neighborhood where people have backyard pools. In the winter the pools are covered with tarps, and in spring frogs breed in the rainwater that collects there. Except when they take off the tarps, it kills them. So before they open their pools, this woman goes around and rescues the tadpoles with a net and takes them home in jars.

“Some become frogs,” she said. “But most die.”

“You ever know anybody who did this?” I asked. “Collect tadpoles from swimming pools?”

“No. It’s a novel. It’s fiction.”

“It’s just… You just don’t say, let’s have this woman who collects tadpoles from swimming pools. That has to come from someplace. Where in the world do you get an idea like that?”

“In your head. You make it up.” I thought I heard an edge in her voice.

“That’s crazy.”

“Crazy. That’s what the people say about the woman. She shows up year after year, a sign of spring, like dandelions or onion grass, and starts collecting. They talk about her, but no one talks to her, not really. No one bothers to learn her story. To them she’s just the tadpole woman. ‘Has the tadpole woman been to your pool yet?’ Like that, like she’s their tadpole woman, a quirky little break from their bland suburban routine. No one even knows her name.”

“What is her name?”

“You never find out. She’s sort of an Everyman.”

“Or Everywoman.”


“But every woman doesn’t collect frogs.”

“Tadpoles,” she corrected. “And everyone deals with loss. This is just her way of doing it.”

There was a car crash, she explained. The woman was driving, and someone ran a stoplight. It isn’t clear whose fault it was, but her young daughter is killed. Her husband blames her and the marriage falls apart. The neighbors feel sorry for her at first, but then start looking at her differently. She feels their scorn. She blames herself. She moves to a new town where no one knows what happened. The tadpoles become a way to cope with guilt. The whole thing was far-fetched, but I have to give her credit—she told the story pretty well. I thought she was going to cry when she described the car crash.

“Do you have kids?” I asked.

“It’s not about me.” That edge in her voice was back.

“It just seemed like you’d need to have a kid to know…”

“What it feels like to lose one? Is that really so hard to imagine? So she’s carrying around this secret. It’s too painful to tell people what happened, but it’s almost as painful to keep it to herself. And she doesn’t trust herself around people. The loss is devastating. The pain won’t stop. Who she was is gone, so she has to figure out who she is now, this new person that feels so disconnected from the old one.”

“I get it. Like tadpoles.”

“Exactly. On the verge of frog-hood. But totally oblivious to how their lives are about to change.”

“It’s like… what’s that word for when something turns into something else?”


“Right. Metamorphosis. You should have called it that.”

“Taken,” she said.

When Anne said she wanted to separate, I was in shock. Twenty-one years of marriage and she could just walk away? She said she wasn’t “happy” anymore, and with Sophie away at college, she wanted to see if she felt happier apart. Happy. Jesus. Happy wasn’t something I thought a whole lot about.

That first night, after she told me she wanted to separate, she went to sleep in the guest bedroom. Twenty-one years—that’s like 7,000 nights—and it was the first time that had happened. So I’m lying alone in our king bed, staring at the ceiling. And what do I think about? The impossibility of life without Anne? This feeling that a piece of me just fell off? No. Logistics. Where will I live? What will I eat? What furniture will I need? House or apartment or condo? Rent or buy? Ikea or Ethan Allen? And the weird thing—would Anne approve? My wife is leaving me and I’m worried about reconstructing a life that she would endorse. But then the next day she said she’d move out, and she rented an apartment about a mile from here. Her car’s never there, though. I think she’s seeing someone else. Maybe she has been for a while.

“And that’s it? She lives out her life saving tadpoles?”

“Something happens to her.”

“What happens?”

“That’s why you buy the book.”

“Oh, c’mon.”


“She falls in and drowns.”

Amanda Boom laughed, and her face did that thing again. I liked when it did that. I liked that I made it do that.

“That would make it a short story,” she said.

“She kisses one of her frogs and it turns into a prince.”

She kept laughing. “Now it’s a fairy tale.”


More laughter. This was fun. I guess I felt “happy.” So I kept going. “She has an affair with a neighbor.”

This popped the whole laughter bubble. “Men always say that,” she said.

Men always say that. It was something Anne would say. Then I’d react, and then she’d react, and it would become this thing, and we wouldn’t speak to each other for a week. If Anne were here, she and Amanda would now be partners in a little anti-George coalition.

“Have a lot of men bought your book? It doesn’t seem like much of a guy’s book.”

“Some. Yes.”

“And what tips the balance? What makes them decide to buy it?”

“Is there any more coffee?”

I got up to get the coffee and gave her a refill. She took a sip and then sat staring at the cup in her lap. Finally she looked up. “One man asked me if I would have sex with him.”

She blushed when she said it, but looked me right in the eye, challenging me to something. I was confused. Was she saying, All men are basically pigs, and don’t I agree? Or was it some kind of come-on? It had been a very long time since I’d been on the receiving end of a come-on, so it was hard to tell. So now I’m sitting here looking at Amanda Boom and thinking about sex, thinking about sex with her. And then it happens again—I start wondering what Anne would think. Would she be jealous? Impressed? Would it make her want to come back? What would she think of Amanda Boom? It seems crazy to think about it that way, but I couldn’t help it.

“And did you?”

“Did I…?”

“Have sex with him?”

“What do you think?” she said.

“It’s an interesting marketing strategy.” I was suddenly really uncomfortable, and I tried to mask it by sounding clever. “Unorthodox, but you can’t deny its potential, and it would give you an edge on Amazon. Kind of extreme, though, just to sell a book.”

“Yes,” she said.

“Yes what? Yes it’s extreme?”

“Yes, I had sex with him.”

I felt like I was being led into another story. Like the woman in my driveway and the book and the tadpoles and the car crash and the dead daughter were all just so many breadcrumbs to take me to this other place that had something to do with this real woman sitting in my living room, whose name may or may not be Amanda Boom, who may or may not be inviting me to have sex with her, and who may or may not be the author of the book sitting on the coffee table in the space between my chair and her couch. I picked up the book and opened it, almost expecting the pages to be blank. But there were words there, just like with anybody else’s book.

“Not then, though,” she said. “I told him he had to buy the book and read it first. I said I’d come back in a week to see if he had.”

“And he believed you?”

“I guess it was worth $15.00 to see.”

“But you came back.”


“For $15.00. There’s a word for that, you know.” I was angry. Not because I was judging her. I was angry because I was jealous.

“It wasn’t that simple.”

“How’d you even know he read it? Did you give him a test?”

“More like a quiz.”

“And he passed.”

“Flying colors.”

“You’re full of surprises, Amanda Boom.”

She shrugged, but didn’t look away.

“What difference did it make? Him reading the book?”

“He paid attention to my story. For three hundred and twenty-nine pages.”

“To the frog lady’s story.”

Another shrug. “It made him no longer a stranger.”

“Because you don’t sleep with strangers. At least not for $15.00.” I wanted her to react to that, but she didn’t. “Was it worth it?”

One more shrug, then a slight smile. But she didn’t answer.

“What did you get out of it?”



“No, heard.”

“Ha,” I said. “No, you got laid. Did you see him again?”

She shook her head.

“On to other sales opportunities? Is this like a standard offer you make? ‘Now, for a limited time only, buy one book and screw the author for free’?”

“Anne left you, didn’t she?”

“What are you talking about?”

“There’s mail forwarded to her on the table next to the door.”

“She’s away on a business trip.”

“To a place in the same zip code?”

I wanted Amanda Boom to leave. “We’re separated. Not that it’s any of your business.”

“You don’t know what’s next, and you’re not even sure you want to find out. But something’s next, George. Something’s always next. You could get depressed and suicidal. You could start collecting tadpoles. You could invite a strange woman into your house.”

Neither of us said anything for a while. I couldn’t look at her, so I stared at the book.

“So what happens now?” I said.

“Maybe you turn the page.”

I laughed. “You win. I guess I will buy your book, Amanda Boom.”

“It’s Boam.”

“Right. Will there be a sequel?”



Richard Bader makes his living writing and consulting for nonprofit organizations. Fiction is a fairly new interest. He would love to be called a ‘young’ writer, but is afraid that ship has sailed. So he’ll settle for ‘new’ writer, or, with luck, ‘emerging.’ This is his second piece of published fiction.

Read our interview with Richard here.

“Lovin’ You’s a Man’s Man’s Job” by Jon Pershing

“Oldman,” Image courtesy of Dariusz Klimczak

I check her out at some quasi-church’s quasi-auction of used goods. I don’t belong to said church nor do I hunger for said goods. In my mid-thirties, never married, no kids, no assets greater than the car parked out back that Kelly’s Blue Book tells me is worth less en masse than the new clutch I put into it six months past. It seems I’ll go pretty much anywhere as long as there might be one single woman there. I look at her face and she looks at mine and I think to myself, “Now here’s something interesting.” But then I glance down to take in the rest and see a tow-headed urchin hanging his little arms about her waist and everything falls apart before it can get built. I’ve got nothing against children, love a slew of them who call me “Uncle” though I’m no such thing to any of them, but a child with a woman usually means there’s a man with the woman as well, and it’s that that I’ve something against. “Fuck,” I think, “One more woman one more man beat me to the punch to,” and I turn away and fix my gaze on the worn cowboy boots up for sale.

Of course, there’s an equation I haven’t considered. While woman-plus-child almost always equals man, woman-plus-child only about half the time these days equals husband. Fifty/fifty chance, more or less, and today’s my lucky day. I hate the knuckle-to-toe thrill that comes over me when I overhear her say she’s filed for divorce, know it’s not right to feel glee when somebody’s else’s shit hits the fan, but it’s just that she’s got dark hair and dark skin and dark eyes and a great smile and even a greater laugh—and she is laughing: just filed for divorce and yet she still manages to have a sense of humor—and it’s been so long since any similar situation yielded me even the least of results, I just can’t help but feel good. Like the sun is shining. On me, for me. And that’s even before I turn my back on the boots and find her looking at me—at me.

So I make a few moves and she makes a few more and before long I’m officially “dating Mommy,” though it’s months until we go on anything even resembling a date. Instead, we wait all day and half the night for her child to go to sleep, ride the couch as hard as we can when he does, wear ourselves both down to the nub with our late nights and our early mornings and all the beautiful wanting in between. There’s soccer and swimming and play dates and the park; there’s her job and my job and her soon-to-be ex-husband’s job of making her life Hell. I get to be a kid with her kid and it’s great. In time, we find other times to be alone; we plan dates; we prioritize. We laugh more than we have any right to laugh. She’s got a second lease on life and she’s investing it and I’m the beneficiary. Finally a woman who knows what she doesn’t want. And I’m not on that list.

I learn more about being a man from a man who isn’t being one than I ever did from those who were. Her soon-to-be ex-husband’s got himself convinced that the trouble with their marriage, and thus the trouble now with their impending divorce, has everything to do with her and nothing to do with him. He’s a forty-year old recovering pothead, a skater punk who never grew up, unemployed and living with his mother, a born-again woman with little love for her former daughter-in-law and no eyes to see what her son has been and still is and maybe always will be. He’s also filled with a tempestuous rage no Jonas could ever calm, part medical, part mental, a sufferer of both bipolar disorder and “small-man’s disease,” the latter caused by being physically smaller than the pack and feeling the need to prove your toughness, your manliness. Unlike mellow potheads the world over, the dope riled his mood-swinging self up, and so, already pissed, he grew even more so and directed his rage toward his wife who was slowly killing herself in a constant attempt to make him well. He contacts her a dozen times a day, leaving voicemails and sending text messages, not to check up on his son, but to berate and belittle her.

Her son, at times, is a spitting image of his father. Just five years old, his favorite words are “idiot,” “freak,” “stupid,” and “hate.” Fond of light sabers and pirate swords, he wields them with impunity, and when he can’t get to them because his mother has placed all potential weapons on top of the fridge, he resorts to his fists and his feet, punching and kicking and tossing his favorite words like daggers into the air. “You’re an idiot,” he says. Punch. “You’re a freak,” he says. Kick. “You’re stupid,” he says. Punch. “I’ll hate you forever,” he says. And on it goes, the little guy working himself into such a rage he loses the ability to speak and simply screams instead. He thinks the whole world is out to get him and is as hard on himself as he is on his mother, calling himself “stupid” at the slightest mistake.

I don’t see much of this—really see it—at first, of course. She’s upfront with me about her soon-to-be ex-husband and his problems, but she hasn’t yet gained the proper perspective to see what’s going on with her child, and so when he occasionally says he hates me or attacks me with a sword all she can say is, “I’m sorry: he’s five,” as if that explains it. For now, for her, it does. And for the most part, it does for me as well. But as the months go by and I spend more and more time with her and her son, I bear witness to what is starting to become a never-ending barrage of verbal abuse (often but not always coupled with physical aggression). I measure his tantrums against those of my friends’ children, which I’ve seen many times, and the only similarity I find is the depth of the emotion behind the outburst.

He scares me, this raging little five-year-old, even more so because when he’s not talking trash and hitting out at whomever’s in reach, he’s a great kid, funny and loving and creative, innocent and sweet, and I can’t help but think of the man he will become if only his father would stop fucking him up. But what can I do? “It’s none of my business,” I tell myself, and I try not to think about it when I lie alone at night waiting for sleep and wishing she was there beside me, but I hardly ever succeed. When the phone calls start rolling in, she turns to me for comfort, and I hold her and listen to her talk and offer support but never say what’s really on my mind—that I see no reason to believe her husband’s behavior and actions towards her will change once their divorce is finalized; that the excuse that her son is five doesn’t hold any water; that if she doesn’t do something to alter his behavior now he will go from an angry toddler to an even angrier teenager hell-bent on hurting anyone in his path, including himself.

There’s nothing in this woman that deserves any of this shit. I see their future as a carbon copy of their past, forever tied to the anchor of a man too selfish, too bitter, too full of rage and frustration, to realize the consequences of his actions. And if this is their future, what then of my own? “Better men than me have walked away from far less,” I tell myself.

“If this is all too much for you, I understand,” she tells me. “If you don’t want to deal with this, just pull the band aid off quick.” But I don’t want to lose her. If, as Flannery O’Connor believed, a good man is hard to find, then the same is true about finding a good woman. And I’ve found one—a great one.

Six months after we first met and after a lot of foot-dragging and nasty phone calls and text messages and threats of refusing to sign the papers from her husband, her divorce is finalized, but the drama rolls on. During our Spring Break at the university where we both teach, we meet her husband at a halfway point in Virginia and hand over her son for a week. Afterward, on the six-hour drive home, she is subjected to numerous angry calls from her ex-husband, and when she finally refuses to answer the phone, to angry text messages, all of which turn her into a jumbled mess of tears and worry, fear and sadness.

To distract her from the mess she claims she’s made of her life, I tell her for the first time in detail about the mess I made of my own before we met, of how I fell for a Christian fundamentalist girl-woman and spent the next five years being dragged deeper and deeper into the muck of her family’s Christian Right Hell. A high school teacher by profession, this girl-woman belonged more in the rows of fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds in their small desks than she did behind the big desk at the front of the room; indeed, the last time I saw the inside of her bedroom door, it was still pasted over with magazine cut-outs of hunky movie stars and bare-chested jeans models she had hung there as a teenager even though she was two months away from her twenty-eighth birthday. A triune controlled her life, but it didn’t consist of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Instead, her family, the Bible (literally interpreted but only by piecemeal), and Fox News called her every shot, especially her family, especially her domineering mother and sister, who made sure she had no time to invest in our relationship. This triune dictated when she could move out (when she’d earned enough money for a down payment on a house of her own); when she could have sex (not until she was married); who she could vote for (Republicans only); whether or not she could take the medicine a doctor prescribed for her bronchitis (she could, but only after much debate); when she could spend time with me (only when her mother and sister were busy); what movies she couldn’t watch (nothing by Michael Moore); who she could have romantic relationships with (in theory, only fellow fundamentalists); and what wars she could support (all American ones, no matter the casualties, no matter the cause). And because this triune ruled her roost, I slowly allowed it to rule mine as well.

No, she never beat the shit out of me, but, by her refusal to be her own person and her insistence that I give up my personhood as well, she abused me all the same.

“For five years with this woman,” I tell her as we drive, “I never got to be a man. I never got to be a man because her family wouldn’t let her be a woman. All this shit you’re going through, all this shit I have to go through to be with you—it’s shit, yeah, but at least it’s adult shit. I can handle adult shit. And so can you.”

The next weekend, she goes alone to Virginia to retrieve her son, where her ex-husband screams at her and repeats his now standard litany of how she’s fucking up their son. Never mind the fact that as he rages and calls her a “fucking bitch” their son is witness to it all. Never mind the fact that for the first four and a half years of his life her son bore witness to hundreds of similar scenes of verbal abuse. Never mind the fact that she suspects he may be using again, that he might be high right now. In his mind, she is to blame for everything, always was, and always will be.

Her son, upon return, is a nightmare of rage and confusion. I can tell he’s worse than usual, but, more importantly, so can his mother. “Is he different since he got back?” she text-messages me a few nights after their return. “Or am I just finally seeing what’s always been there?”

“A bit of both,” I reply. The next night, a regular babysitter comments on his behavior and attitude, as does the woman who runs the daycare. That night, we talk long and hard about the most important thing in her life: her son. I tell her everything I’ve wanted to tell her but didn’t think it my place to. She calls a local non-profit organization that deals with abused women and children. She meets with her therapist, who specializes in children, and schedules a series of sessions for her son. She treats him as she always has, with nothing but love, but now with an added dose of preventive and corrective parenting. Her ex-husband keeps giving her Hell, but for the first time in ten years of dealing with the man, she doesn’t back down or give in. If she only sensed what was at stake when she decided to leave him, she now knows it with all her beautiful heart.

In the days ahead, there will be more bullshit and drama. There may be the legal battle she hoped to avoid when she settled for an 85/15 split of custody. There will be things that neither of us can anticipate. I don’t know what will happen to us, to her, to her son. All I know for sure is a man—a real man—doesn’t do this to a woman, any woman, and he certainly doesn’t do it to his child. Obviously, it takes a man to know this, and, right now, her child’s father is no such thing.

But what about the child himself? What does he know? What can he know at age five? It will be years before he will be old enough to understand that the words his father used to explain why his parents were getting divorced—“Mommy doesn’t love Daddy anymore”—weren’t an explanation at all, only another attempt to shift the blame to the child’s mother. At what age will he realize something every parent and teacher knows, that it’s usually the kid who’s quickest to point the finger at somebody else who actually performed the misdeed? And, when he does, will he be able to apply that knowledge to his own world, to his present, to his future, and, most importantly, to his past? Will he come to know his father’s failings and strive for something different for himself and for his family? Will he become the man his father might never be?

This man will do all he can to see that he does.



Jon Pershing is the pseudonym of a writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in MARY: A Journal of New Writing, Inside Higher Ed, Love Poems and Other Messages for Bruce Springsteen, Artichoke Haircut, Ray’s Road Review, and Lunch Ticket.

Read our interview with Jon here.