If Lavinia had been able to, she would’ve cupped her severed tongue between her palms, its warmth trickling in the creases of her lifeline until it began to move.
If given the chance, Lavinia could have carried her tongue in her pocket, felt its outline in the silk as a reminder, the pulse quickening in her fingers, so they would have written the words, then danced them. Disability is not a new invention, nor are the mutilated girls who must carry on with ordinary lives.
But they cut her hands off, of course. Sent her tongue crying off into the woods where it fell in the dirt and lay, unseen and unheard by any audience.
Somebody else spoke Ophelia’s death into our minds, just as Lavinia’s mutilators cackled about her tragedy while she bled offscreen. But Lavinia’s tongue will return to tell its own tale, someday, will dance again tapping against teeth until released onto a new stage.
Kate Shakespeare graduated from Vassar College in 2016 with a degree in Psychology and currently works as a technical writer in Seattle. She has been previously published in Pidgeonholes and Asymmetry Fiction.
Today she separated the plants so they could thrive then put the purple ribbon in a drawer. The basket, much too grand for her, had been claimed by some niece in the city who hesitated at first, she didn't want to push. You cannot ask for the dismantling of the dead, the cleaning of their closets, sorting of cupboards. Who will throw away the nutmeg and ginger when she has gone, drink the last of her wine? Who will find homes for every ficus and fern, see the purple ribbon and remember what a beautiful arrangement it had once been.
Jennifer Schomburg Kanke, originally from Columbus, Ohio, lives in Tallahassee, Florida, where she edits confidential documents for the government. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, and Sou’wester. She serves as a reader for Emrys.
Way out in the middle of the open water about as far from land as one can get lurks the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s thought to have started in the late 70’s or early 80’s; our globalized, mechanized, consumerized societies here in the US and in Asia teach us to toss away our trash with little thought to where it goes, assuming that once it’s out of our hands, it’s gone. But our world is really a closed loop feedback system. Nature has been secretly storing all our thrown away garbage, mostly plastics, in a peacefully austere location in the middle of the ocean where the winds blow both together and at cross breezes, creating a trapped area of calm in the center of all the circulating currents. A no-man’s-land where our trash is piling up, breaking down, overflowing and densifying at the same time.
Our problems pile up, too.
Childhood traumas real or imagined, adolescent hurts
never soothed, adult needs and wants unmet, gaping holes unfilled, hungers
never fed, pressurized obsessions never released, broken things unfixed.
Itches desperately unscratched.
One of the most interesting features of the Great
Pacific Garbage Patch is that much of it is unseen. While there’s more than
enough visible trash to impress anyone who cares to look, though we usually
don’t, most of the plastic has degraded and dispersed, so the water around the
Garbage Patch looks clear but is actually infused with plastic particles. This
soupy plastic water poisons its way up the food chain, getting into the unsuspecting
plankton which get eaten by small, unsuspecting fish, which get eaten by bigger
unsuspecting fish, until it reaches unsuspecting humans who should really know
enough to be suspicious.
The whirlpooling repository of our garbage is also out of sight but definitely not out of mind. Our problems slowly infiltrate ourselves until the self isn’t the same self it had once been, the cancer starting from the outside and working its way inside, hiding in plain sight, going from outside us to inside us until it’s become … us, us transformed, transfigured, mutated, like the plankton that don’t, can’t, know any better. Like a mugging victim who discovers later that the whistle, the mace, the handgun, the powerlifting routine, the karate lessons, the cash in the shoe, the bars on the windows and the debarked attack dog have all blended into seamless, perfectly reasonable seeming parts of their lives.
Despite its appearance, hitting a big, obvious piece
of pinpointable plastic like a bottle or a wrapper is relatively rare in the
pervasive plastic soup of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Hopefully most of us
have had only a limited amount of big, obvious trouble in our lives like a
sexual assault, a car wreck, the untimely death of a loved one or cancer;
something which changes our lives for the worse in a pinpointable singularity.
We’ve got the thickening plastic soup, instead.
The overdue bills in various shades of yellow and pink left sitting on the kitchen table, the fight with the wife that ended with grim mischievous satisfaction taken in her tears, the cold food delivered late which elicited a nasty call to the manager, the coworker who takes another donut even though he’s already consumed two and we haven’t had any, the phantom electrical problems in our cars, the leaky window we rattle until it cracks, the pushy ethnic neighbors who play their music too loud until we start wondering if the other millions of people in their country are the same way … all slipping into the relatively calm stillness out at sea after the vortex of stress is over, forgotten but not gone, dispersed into the thickening soup and slowly poisoning everything up the higher-functioning ladder until we drink too much or hit the kids or shrug at the suffering of others or go on a Columbine-style rampage after things reach the point that our diffused plastic soup has congealed into someone else’s pinpointable plastic bottle or statue of liberty, like a gradually gathered snowball hurled across a parking lot at an unsuspecting classmate who ends up with frigid dirty snow melting down the back of his shirt.
Whether god or science created the ocean, it wasn’t
meant as a repository for our waste; our minds, our limbic systems are designed
to deal with occasional hungry tigers or enemy tribesmen on the plains of the
savannah, not the petty inhumanities of life in an apartment measured in square
feet, in airplane seats priced on the inches of personal space we can afford,
in deciding whether to order off the dollar menu or to splurge on the supersized
option and then throw away the wrappers which eventually make their way to the
Some people’s garbage dump is a dry, dusty desert where things petrify and fossilize, while others have a dank, soggy swamp where fungus takes hold and grows. Rats and roaches and germs thrive on our waste, as do cynicism and disgust and eventually hatred. Who knows what Ebola or ISIS are evolving, waiting for just the wrong time to achieve critical mass and explode.
Is there a solution? Happy moments remembered and
savored, a visit to a shrink, a weekend at a hot springs spa with detoxifying
mineral water and a deep tissue massage included in the package deal? Someone
invented a membranous maw to catch microplastic particles; someone else started
recycling them. We can apply the effort to turn ugly events into harsh lessons
learned. But the trick is to invest that ounce of prevention now, before a
pound of cure becomes necessary.
Alexander Jones has short fiction and poetry appearing in Akashic Books, Bastion Magazine, Crack the Spine and DASH, among other publications. His nonfiction was recently anthologized by 2Leaf Press and an essay he wrote won GoRail’s 2012 contest. He has a BA in English/ Creative Writing and is pursuing a second BA in History. He works as a metal fabricator and lives with his family in New Jersey.
“Garbage Patch” first appeared in the journal Prometheus Dreaming.
Welcome to our October issue with the theme of “EVERY TONGUE.” We have some wonderful work in this issue, including at least one first-time author—a fact that always makes me proud.
I’ve been editor of r.kv.r.y. for ten years now. Hard to believe, but I took the journal over from Victoria Pynchon in the fall of 2009. She was looking for a replacement, had published my work in the past, and I admired her beautiful journal and its mission, so the whole thing seemed like a good fit. And it was. One of Victoria’s favorite artists at the time was the photographer Cole Rise. She had used his work to illustrate a number of pieces and it seems fitting, this issue, to honor her at this ten-year-mark by illustrating this issue with the wonderful work of Cole Rise. It feels like a full-circle moment. Thank you, Ms. Pynchon.
I hope that the fine writing and beautiful artwork in this issue offer you some light in the darkness, a measure of healing laughter, and/or the gift of tears. And as always, thanks for reading.
1. When your father picks you up for Thanksgiving break during your freshman year of college, wear a t-shirt that says “nasty woman.” Walk out of your dorm building, and up the street to where he’s parked, with your jacket unbuttoned so he can read it, even though it’s the end of November and it’s cold. You bought the shirt on Amazon for fifteen dollars last month when you were certain Hillary would win. When you get into his car- the car you drove to high school every day last year; the one you picked your friends up in to go to the mall and to the beach- he doesn’t say anything about your shirt, and you worry that he didn’t notice. He doesn’t say much as he drives up route 2 but when you reach the townline he starts talking about Trump. Seize the opportunity. He doesn’t understand why your anthropology professor- who is a woman, disabled, and queer- cancelled class on the day following the election. He doesn’t understand why your English advisor, who is gay, let class out early. He uses the word “snowflake.” He tells you that your liberal education sounds like a waste of money. Don’t tell him that after you heard the results you walked to the quad and hit the cement wall of the library with your fist. Don’t let him see the purple bruise on your knuckles. Tell him that people are allowed to be upset, and they’re allowed to be scared, because Donald Trump has an open rape case against him, and he’s mocked disabled people, and the LGBTQ community and plans to build a wall on the Mexico border, and rip children away from their parents because they aren’t the right color and they don’t belong here, and he bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy.” Your father tells you it was just locker room talk, and you remind him that Trump said those words in the workplace, not in a locker room. Your father says that Trump is a businessman, and he is going to save the country money by cutting funding and rearranging budgets. You tell him that people’s lives should not be run like a business, but your father was in the navy, and he says, “it’s about time we take care of veterans” and he slams his fist on the dashboard and he’s yelling over you saying, “We. Are. Americans. This. Is. America.” And when he puts his hands back on the wheel you don’t say anything else. After your father dies your mother tells you, while eating lunch with your aunt, that she once asked him if he really believed the things he would say. He told your mom, “it doesn’t matter,” he said, “but look how angry she got.” Perhaps you should get a shirt that says “angry woman.”
2. When your father gets up from his recliner to use the bathroom, take the TV remote, and put on last week’s Grey’s Anatomy because you haven’t seen it yet and you’re tired of watching Ice Road Truckers. When he gets back, before he even sits down, he says “oh, no, no, no” and you try to tuck the remote under the couch cushion, and out of sight, but Dad can be fast when he wants to be and even though you try to hold onto it he snatches it right out of your hand. And he changes the channel back and rests the remote on his leg, not on the arm of the chair. And you watch another episode of Ice Road Truckers like you do every night because Dad pays for the cable, and you are just a teenager, after all.
3. When Dad says “the girls” he’s talking about his pet chickens, but the problem is that sometimes when he’s talking about you and your sister he calls you “the girls” so you tell him he has to pick a different nickname for the chickens. He tells you he’d call them “the kids” but they aren’t goats, and he doesn’t want things to get confusing. You suggest he call them “the chickens,” or “the hens,” but he decides that he’ll call you and your sister “the kids” so he can keep calling his chickens “the girls.”
4. When you talk about Ellen Degeneres–comedian, talk show host, actor, writer, producer, and known lesbian–your father calls her Ellen Degenerate, and a fag, and you ask him, “why?” You’re sitting in his truck in the driveway waiting for the engine to heat up. It’s winter, the heat is blasting, you’re wearing a winter coat, and can feel your skin sweating. Dad is in a t-shirt, enjoying the sauna. His Carhartt jacket is in the backseat. He tells you that homosexuality is unnatural. He doesn’t quote the bible, or say that man shalt not lie with man, because you don’t think even he believes that bullshit. You listen to him describe his disgust of gay men, and lesbians, and maybe it’s because he was born in the fifties, and his parents were racist, and you were born during the age of the internet. You saw a video online recently about an alternate reality where everyone is gay, and straight people are called “breeders” and shamed for their sexuality, so you ask your father, “what if the roles were reversed?” You think it’s the perfect argument, because certainly if everyone else in the world were gay, you’re father would still be straight. You want him to practice empathy, to imagine what it might be like to be the minority, but your father laughs. It’s dark in the car so you can’t see his face, and even if you could, you’re not looking at him, you’re looking out the windshield at the lights on the house. “Then the population wouldn’t last very long,” he says. And you don’t have anything to say to that so you stay silent. Years later, you look back on this conversation from high school and, as a practicing lesbian, you wonder what he would say to you now.
5. When you put on the radio in the kitchen to the pop music station 95.7, which all the cool kids at school listen to, Dad yells to you from the living room where he’s reading the newspaper to turn it down. Your hands are covered in Cabot Seriously Sharp Cheddar™, which you’re slicing to make homemade macaroni and cheese, so you rinse them in the sink, and dry them on the dish towel that hangs on the oven door which is never fully dry, then you turn the volume from eighteen to sixteen. The water is boiling so you dump in the medium shells, not the full box, but two thirds of it, and you preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and measure out the butter, flour, and milk for the cheese sauce. Dad comes into the kitchen and he doesn’t ask if he can eat some of the cheese that you just cut up, but he reaches for the cutting board to take some, and he pops the chunk of butter for the cheese sauce into his mouth. You watch his face, but his expression doesn’t waver as he bites into it and chews, and he asks you to hand him a slice of bread. You give it to him. When he leaves the room with his butter and his bread, he pushes the power button on the radio and the music cuts off even though he’s leaving the room and you’re still there, and you were listening to it.
6. When you’re riding in the backseat of your father’s car, his window is all the way down and you ask him to roll it up because your hair is long and it isn’t in a ponytail and it’s blowing into your face. Dad rolls the window up two inches, and technically he’s doing what you asked, but he’s making it infuriating. You put in headphones, and turn your music up on your iPod nano so you can hear it over the wind that is rushing past your ears. It’s a three hour car ride to your Grandmother’s house, and Dad is driving on the highway. You know it’s summer, but the air conditioning works so really there’s no reason for the windows to be down. You try to ignore the the wind, but you notice Dad roll his window all the way back down and you lose your temper. You demand that he put the window up, but he pretends like he can’t hear you over the roar of the wind, and he laughs as you get angrier until finally he rolls it halfway up. And then all the way up. And then all the way back down.
7. When you tell your father you’re getting a tattoo tomorrow he tells you that if you can afford a tattoo, you can afford lots of other things like the monthly school bills he pays, and car insurance on a car you don’t own, and no longer drive, and rent, and groceries. He says you shouldn’t scar your body for no reason, and you remind him that he too has a tattoo. An eagle on his bicep, which Mom calls a Navy scar, because he got it when he was young and enlisted. You make him look at the ugly scar you have on the back of your left hand from when you were watching the neighbor’s dogs, and you got in the middle of a fight over food, and one of them bit you. You remember the way it bled, and how you called him and he wiped the drops of blood off your neighbor’s kitchen floor then drove you to the hospital. You tell him that you’ll have that mark for the rest of your life, and you understand the permanence of a tattoo, and you say you’re just going to put something on your body that you want and that you chose. In the morning when you leave you tell him you’re leaving to get a tattoo, and he says, “so that’s really happening?” And you tell him “yes.” And he looks at the design- “c’est la vie” in typewriter font–which you printed off the desktop computer in what used to be the computer room, but is now just a room with some junk in it, and he tells you to make sure the letters are spaced out enough because with time they’ll bleed together. He rolls up his shirt sleeve so you can see the eagle on his bicep, and he tells you it used to be black ink with fine lines but now the ink is green and the lines are thick. You nod and tell him, “thank you,” and get in the car that you don’t own, or pay for, and drive to a tattoo shop forty-five minutes away.
8. When your father asks if you’d like to go out to dinner with him and your Mom, say no because you would rather just stay in your bed, and even though you are kind of hungry you would rather have the house to yourself for a night.
9. When your father knocks on your bedroom door and tells you it’s time to get up at nine in the morning on a Sunday you ignore him, and roll over in bed to try to fall back asleep. He assumes you don’t answer because you’re still sleeping. He knocks louder and yells your name insistently until you get irritated and say, “what?” And he calmly tells you it’s time to get up. It’s time for church. And you get up, because that’s what you do every Sunday morning, and you eat a breakfast of pancakes and bacon, and you go to church with your family even though you hate it and all of your friends go to the Catholic church down the street not the Church of Christ, and you don’t even believe any of it anyway. But it’s not really that bad. After your father dies your mother says how grateful she is for the church goers who bring her food, and company. One woman sews a prayer shawl for your mom, sister, and you too. Yours has a sailboat and palm tree stitched into it.
10. When you eat a whole box of Pop-Tarts in three days your father gets angry and tells you that you lost your Pop-Tart privileges and he won’t be buying them anymore. With your mouth full of a hot fudge sundae Pop-Tart cooked to perfection in the toaster oven, you roll your eyes, certain that he’ll forget about it in a week. But he never buys you Pop-Tarts again.
11. When it’s the day before your appointment to get your tonsils taken out- because you had mono, strep throat, and have chronic tonsil stones- Dad wants you to stay home but you made plans with your friends already. It’s the end of summer, and you’ll be going back for your sophomore year at your college that is two hours away and you won’t see these friends for a while. You tell him you’ll have plenty of time to stay home when you’re recovering from surgery. He says, “the car needs an oil change,” and he’s talking about the car that you drove everyday in high school that you don’t regularly drive anymore. The one he pays for. But you tell him it can wait and he doesn’t stop you when you leave that morning while he’s eating breakfast with your mom at the kitchen table. On the drive to the restaurant where you’re meeting your friends for brunch you call the doctor’s office and they ask you to verify your name and birth date, then want to know if you smoke, or if you ever smoked, and you tell them “no.” They ask more questions and remind you to be at the office at eight in the morning the next day, and you say “okay,” then hang up. After brunch you go to your friend’s house and your mom texts you telling you to go to your aunt’s house but you don’t want to so you ignore the text until she sends another one, and eventually you leave and go to your aunt’s house. When you get there your mother, aunt, and sister are crying and you hope your uncle is okay because he had surgery recently and he’s been tired a lot. But then your aunt tells you that your father had a heart attack and he died and you think about how that doesn’t make any sense at all because you saw him this morning and he was fine. And then you think about how he told you to stay home and change the oil in the car and you think about how if you had listened you would have been with him and maybe he wouldn’t have been chopping wood in the driveway, and maybe he wouldn’t have gotten too hot in the sun, and maybe he wouldn’t have needed to go to the hospital, and maybe, just maybe, he’d be alive. Then your mother tells you that she cancelled your tonsillectomy appointment for the next day.
Julianne Clarke is
currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English at Massachusetts College of
Liberal Arts (MCLA). She works as a tutor in the college’s writing studio, and
is an intern at Tupelo Press. She is a native of Western Mass, and enjoys time
outside. This is her first published piece.
It wasn’t the first time I’d met a cliché, so I wasn’t
surprised when she walked up and introduced herself. I was in a nice, clean, pretentious
bar in Hollywood, but there’s no escaping phonies anywhere in that town, and I
had her figured for a phony before she even opened her mouth. What would you
have thought? The slinky white satin gown that caressed her breasts and thighs
as she walked, the skin that looked smoother than skin ever is in our sunbeat
part of the world, the brassy hair that even bobbed over one eye–a style that
had been out-of-date in my father’s time…. Right down to the martini glass
carefully balanced in one hand as she sashayed through the crowd. The crowd
didn’t pay much attention to her—a couple of glances from the straight guys,
mostly the older ones. It was Hollywood; they were used to good-looking phonies.
The town offered them in wholesale lots. If some woman had come in looking like
an honest female human, they would have stared her down, or maybe just turned
away to slouch into their drinks while they thought up a better way to cheat
their barmates. I looked her up and down myself because she was, after all,
good-looking, though I wasn’t sure how good she’d look without the satin and
pancake and heels. Probably an ordinary girl, freckles, dry hair, tired eyes.
She came here to play the script she’d written in her own head. That’s what
they were all doing here.
All except me. Not because I’m so fucking self-righteous or
anything, but because it wasn’t my choice to be here. I had to meet someone,
and the Harbor Bar, which was a good thirty-something miles from the actual
harbor as the crow flies, was where they said to meet. It wasn’t my kind of
place: I’m a wine-drinker and I like restaurants with decent food. So I sipped
my twelve-dollar glass of four-dollar wine, which the barkeep had handed me
with a look of pitying boredom, and checked out the slinky girl while I waited
for my appointment.
She homed in on me like one of those guided missiles that
follows the laser dot. I was surprised. If she wasn’t the normal human female
type, I was definitely the normal human male type. Unremarkable by design. Nice
clothes but dull colors, a haircut you could get anywhere in the world, cheap
comfortable shoes. My own private-label brand of rebellion, and I suppose it
worked too well. I stood out by not trying to stand out. Maybe I even did it on
purpose, although I’m saying that just to cover my bases. I don’t like to be
noticed, even by good-looking girls who are trying so hard to be slinky—and in
this case succeeding. Being noticed brings annoyance, and sometimes trouble.
Losers who want to tell you their life story and convince you to invest in
their inevitable future fame. Or just plain con men. So my first thought was
that she took me for some sort of lonely square she could scam out of something
and maybe not even have to go to bed with him. I tell you, living in Hollywood
makes you cynical. That’s why I just used the word “square,” which is
out-of-date even among actual squares. I want no part of it. Not even the
slang. But there she was, a minor nightmare in white satin, locking her eyes on
mine. She slalomed up to me, dropped her eyelids dramatically, and said my
name, with a polite question mark at the end. I kept a few incipient swear
words from adding to the din of the bar. She was the fucking client.
“Yeah, that’s me. Larry F. Sanders. I take it you’re
“Holly F. Johnson.” She smiled, and I wasn’t sure,
but it looked like a real smile, not a scripted one.
“Well, I should’ve known,” I said. “You hold
the drink like it’s a…microphone.”
She laughed then. “I was afraid you were about to say
“We don’t know each other that well yet. Is there a
place in this joint where we can talk without projecting? You might be good at
that but I haven’t sung since I broke my momma’s heart by dropping out of
after-school chorus. And it was no loss to music, I tell you.”
“Follow me,” she said, and slalomed away. I did as
I’d been told. It was definitely pleasant to keep an eye on her as she led the
way. I’m sure she knew it too.
There was a booth in the back where some of the din was
absorbed by the red vinyl tuck-and-roll on the walls. A cute little padded cell
with a table for four, or two if you included their egos. She slid into place
like she’d been machined to fit, and I blundered in with my usual lack of
grace, which I am always at pains not to hide in places like that. There was a
battery-powered votive candle on the formica tabletop; it even flickered a
little, like it was about to fade out. But no such luck. She placed her martini
glass on the table and picked up the candle, smiling. “Classy, huh?”
she said. I nodded and took a sip of the wine. Someone bulky lumbered by in the
shadows, headed down the red-lit hallway to the rest room. “Not the best
table,” she said. “But the quietest.”
“Always be grateful for small favors,” I said.
“Because that’s the most you’ll usually get,” she
We automatically raised our glasses and clinked them over
the electric candle. I couldn’t help reflecting her smile. This might not be so
bad after all.
“So,” she said, “your mother wanted you to be
“Hardly. She wanted me out of her hair for an extra
couple of hours twice a week. Listen, the choirmaster was happy when I left. At
least he didn’t try too hard to convince me I ought to stay.”
“Well, you’re still in something creative. Designing
websites is creative.”
“I just fell into it. It was what was happening when I
needed an income, and I got in early when it was easy to learn. Now I want out.
With the damn smartphones and all, there’s no point in making a good design,
since it all ends up stacked like shoeboxes on those little screens anyway.”
“But you agreed to meet me about doing mine….”
“I want out, but I still got rent to pay. And I’m still
good enough to get by.”
“So am I. I started singing as a kid, but I didn’t
really dedicate myself to it till I was a little too old to hit the peak.
Meaning I was twenty before I took myself seriously. I’ll never be great,”
she said, “but I’m good. And I’m brassy enough that I want the world to
know it.” She took a sip of her drink. “Eventually I realized I’m
happiest when I’m in front of a band, singing obsolete jazz songs. And the only
way I can afford the time it takes to do that is to get paid for it. So I’m
ready for a website to help that happen.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t had one before. I checked
you out online, of course. That doesn’t bother you, does it?”
She emitted a theatrical sigh. “Hey, I’m looking for
attention, right? That’s why I called you? Yes, I did have one, but I was still
using my ex’s name then. It was one of those cheap ones where you fill in the blanks,
you know? No one visited except my friends, who didn’t need to. They came to my
gigs anyway. So, the usual story…I dumped him, and I tried to dump the website,
but it’s still up there somewhere. Not that anyone notices or cares. Except
maybe the ex, who’s still kinda carrying the torch.”
“I can take care of that for you, if it bothers
“The website, or the ex?”
I had to laugh at that one. “Just the website, Holly. I’m a good boy. I mean, I definitely know how you feel about exes and all, but that’s not my line of work.”
She looked at me over the rim of her glass, lowered lids et
cetera, the sexy-threatening shtick, marred a little by clumps of mascara. It
was a good effect, but it would only work in close-up. “I guess you really
didn’t need to know that,” she said. “But now you do. So are you married, Mr. Larry F. Sanders?”
“Frequently, but not presently,” I said. It was a
good line, and it was also true. I’m a sucker for the love-nest scenario, which
never ends happily ever after. Anyway, it cracked her up; she laughed a good
loud laugh, loud enough that the phonies at the other tables turned their heads
to look. I saw the crinkles at the corners of her eyes when she laughed. It
didn’t look like the pancake was as thick as I’d figured. Maybe that was a good
sign. Maybe it meant I still had a lot to learn. I’d always been a willing
“Now let me ask you a question, which might seem a
little out of line. Why the slinky dish getup to meet a website designer at a
bar while the sun’s still up? Are you, like, onstage 24/7?”
“Far from it. I’ve got a gig in Santa Barbara tonight,
a place so small they don’t have dressing rooms. I’m past the days when I was
so desperate I’d change in a toilet stall. And it’s a two-hour drive when the
traffic’s good, which it never is in LA. So you see, I’m not so bad after all.
It’s just that you’ve got to look the part, you know.”
“I know. It’s all part of the sales pitch.”
She looked a little miffed. “It’s all part of the show.
People want their illusions just so. Believe me, this isn’t Holly Johnson in
her daily life.” She ran her hands up and down her waist to illustrate. I
thought that was unfair. She smiled one of the triumphant little smiles that
women have. “But you like this Holly Johnson, don’t you?”
“Goes without saying. But there’s no cuteness
discount.” This was the big test, and she passed it by laughing instead of
frowning. “But,” I said, “would you dare to put the 7AM Holly
Johnson on your website? You know, to show the human side of the icon. Or
should it be album-cover style all the way? And I know I’m showing my age by
talking about album covers.”
“Hey, I’ve got vinyl at home. It’s almost a bylaw of
the jazz world. But let me think on it. It’s not that the 7AM Holly Johnson is
a Medusa or anything like that, but…shit, you know this business is a hard
sell, Mr. Larry F. Johnson. I need you to make me look like someone they’ll
feel they ought to have heard about, y’know? Like they’ve been missing the
boat. And icons aren’t supposed to have a human side.”
We talked business a little bit, but we got sidetracked into
a long discourse on the music itself. It was good; I had to know how she felt
about what she did, and she had to know how I felt about the One Big Thing in
her life, but it took up too much time and two more drinks for me, just one for
her. Finally Holly looked at the skinny silver watch on her wrist and said,
“You know, Mr. Larry F. Johnson, I’ve got to go. Where’s your car? In the
“I didn’t drive. I live about half a mile away.
“Come up to Santa Barbara with me. We can talk
business—real business—on that long damn drive. And you can see me on stage.
The drinks’ll be on me. Or on the house, if the crowd is good. I’ve played
there before. I’ve got my camera in the car, and you can take some pictures if
you want. Assuming we come to terms.”
I nodded. “I’m sure we will, Ms. Holly F. Johnson. I’m
sure we will.”
She waved at the waiter to settle the bill. I offered to
cover it—it was a deductible expense—but she insisted on taking the deduction
for herself. Yeah, she was the lady, but she was also the client. What do the
phonies always say when they’re about to cheat you? “Business is
business.” Well, no one was cheating anyone here. We just accepted the
complications of life. I did give her my hand to help her out of the booth. Her
hand was nice and warm. My momma would have been proud.
“Follow me,” she said. She began to slink out of
the bar, parting the waters of phonies, on her way, with my help, to the
promised land. I followed her. It wasn’t too hard to do.
Richard Risemberg was born into a Jewish-Italian household in Argentina, and brought to Los Angeles to escape the fascist regime of his homeland.He has lived there since, except for a digression to Paris in the turbulent Eighties.He attended Pepperdine University on a scholarship won in a writing competition, but left in his last year to work in jobs from gritty to glitzy, starting at a motorcycle shop and progressing through offices, retail, an independent design and manufacturing business, and most recently a stint managing an adult literacy program at a library branch in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. All has become source material for his writing. He has pursued journalism, photography, and editorial writing, which, combined with his years in motorcycle culture, introduced him to the darker side of the dream. His fiction concentrates on working-class life, homelessness, and cultures of violence, and the indifference of the Dominant Culture to it all.
I have a fish in a glass jar. She
lives beside the bed on a desk with twelve pens, four chapsticks, three books
with no pictures, and one baseball card that belongs in the old cigar box next
to it. The card isn’t in the cigar box because the jar is sitting on the lid
and I have discovered the fish does not like to be moved. It is a very small
desk entrusted with holding very many things. It has three drawers, but they
are already full and I am not supposed to use them. I think the fish is asleep
now. I can tell she’s not dead.
I wish I had a bird or a monkey. I
know if I were a pirate I’d want a monkey instead of a parrot. I don’t
understand why more people can’t answer that question.
What I want an answer to is why
alcoholics are the only ones awarded a special chip when they’re a year out.
All I have is the fish who it is my responsibility to keep alive, which I guess
might be called ironic.
I’m trying to read Ivanhoe but all
I’m managing to do is drink my beer. It’s not an hour for reading or drinking
but it’s been a year since my body has treated the nighttime as anything with
rules. I wonder why on the page the heart is said to be something so much more
fragile than the skin when in life that doesn’t seem at all true.
The tracks beneath my wristwatch
illustrate this truth. I drew them to prove I was hurting even if it wasn’t my
heart, as everyone supposed. I was supposed to feel something, so I made every
effort to make sure I did.
My beer’s warm. It goes down easier
that way, but it doesn’t taste any better. The movies say it’s supposed to help,
though really Hollywood recommends something stronger.
The knights, in Ivanhoe I mean,
seem to get along with wine. I save wine for desperation because it does,
sometimes, help me sleep. And I know sleeping is important. And, like hearts,
is supposed to be much simpler and more easily understood. But wine is also
I can hear the jingling of my gimpy
dog in the silence of my parent’s house, all hops and skips with a cast on his
back right leg. I’m not the only one awake. He knows where I am, on the pullout
in the basement and I want to remind him to stay away from the stairs, but some
people are actually asleep and, despite my reminders, neither he nor anyone
else seems to listen.
I’m not fully responsible for
keeping the dog alive, that’s a shared custody situation with my parents. The
fish on the other hand, I don’t know that anyone else even remembers she’s down
here with me. Which all sounds exactly like something I would have said at sixteen,
and I don’t know if it’s lucky that, this far away from sixteen, I still sound
the same and, once again, live in my parents’ house. Stories like this are
written for and about teenagers, no one writes them for people like me who are
much closer to thirty than we are to high school.
At thirty you’re supposed to be
able to handle this. You’re supposed to be able to handle most things. All
those young adult novels were supposed to prepare you. But there are only so
many situations you can prepare for and none of them are targeted at alleviating
particularly poor brain chemistry. That’s what the meds are for, to make any
preparation remotely possible.
But everything that was possible
then isn’t possible now. Marriage, kids, milestones. All I can accomplish now
is feeding the fish, getting out of bed, and not cutting. That’s the point.
That’s all anyone’s asked of me in awhile. And it’s still been hard. But those
aren’t the sort of accomplishments you Instagram about or talk up at a reunion.
Apparently they’re not even the sorts of accomplishments they give chips for.
There’s no graduation, or cards
with checks enclosed. There’s no cake or even celebratory phone calls. Maybe
I’m the only one who remembers the date. And just like the act itself I have to
do this on my own, celebrate and congratulate myself with a drink and a pat on
the back. And maybe part of being closer to thirty than sixteen is being okay
with celebrating yourself by yourself.
I hear a burble and know the fish
is awake. It’s impossible to have a regular sleep schedule when you live in the
basement and only get light when someone feels like reading or lying awake. She
blows bubbles at the surface of her jar sometimes. The Internet says this means
she’s happy and basically marking her territory.
“Hey,” I say. “You
awake? You happy?”
Her fin flutters.
“L3,” I say. Named her
after a Star Wars droid. It seemed appropriate for a fish. Part of this world
but part of its own world too.
She blows another bubble and then
swims in a circle.
“Are you bored?”
She shakes her head.
“You could live outside the
jar for a little while as long as you stayed wet.”
“But it wouldn’t be very
That’s probably true. She’s just
alive, and she’s cool with it. She doesn’t like to move so I make sure she
doesn’t have to. She’s even cool with the insomnia. But I guess the fish
doesn’t have to get up for work in the morning.
Which I do now. And always did.
Never expected a special lunch or anything at the office because I never told
anyone there. Never gave them a reason to suspect. Because, like AA, this is
supposed to be anonymous. You don’t get a branded sweatshirt or framed photo
for surviving. You just do. But here you don’t get a sponsor or a mentor
either. I’m trying to decide if I care. Maybe I’m making this all into a bigger
thing than it is, now. It was big then, but not now. So why celebrate something
small? I guess I should ask everyone at AA. But I don’t go to AA. I don’t have
a problem that is quite that defined. I mean, it’s defined. It comes with a
name, and doctors, and prescriptions, but no one has ever celebrated it as a
group activity. I’m no hero. So I guess that’s why we don’t celebrate. But I
guess there are heroes in this story too. Which is why, while reading Ivanhoe
and drinking, unlike L3, I will get up in the morning. Because there’s a little
boy in my class. He’s four years old and both of our favorite color is green,
which is how I always know where he will sit on the carpet with the star in the
center and the letters around the edge. The S is the green we both like.
And I can’t imagine being four and
having my teacher kill herself, or at least die as I’m sure they’d spare my
class any gory details, as well as the gory falsehoods, like it was a broken
heart that did it. And he would probably only ever remember how he felt rather
than what happened. He’d remember where he was sitting when he found out, on
that green S that is both of our favorite color. He would understand I wasn’t coming
back probably because I drew a picture of Batman for him last week, who we both
also love, and he wouldn’t be able to love Batman anymore. And maybe he loves
me as much as he loves Batman. Which is why I keep getting up. And why I keep
And it has been a year after all. A
year of living with my parents, and drinking through my insomnia, though
Ivanhoe is new. And it has also been a year of someone who is happy to see me
everyday, even though he’s four, and not at all what the movies train you to
expect. And that has to be okay too. Because there are no stories about me.
There are no stories where you try to kill yourself in your twenties, and you
don’t, and there’s no institutionalization, just changing your meds and moving
in with your parents. There’s no story where you attempt suicide not because
your heart is broken but because you think you don’t even have one to break. There’s
no action or heroes or villains really. There’s no group therapy, or sobriety
chips. There’s just me keeping the fish alive, because who else can? And maybe
this is the story no one else has written, even though I know this has happened
before. And will happen again. Though not exactly like this.
There are no calls, or cards, or
presents, or parties. But tomorrow morning I’ll get up with bags under my eyes
and walk into work and get a hug.
There’s a knock on my door. I
freeze and hear L3 burble. I can feel my heart in my throat and my wrists and I
know my new anxiety is still more pronounced than the depression of three
hundred and sixty five days ago. I strain to hear if it’s the dog or someone
else. What’s out there now? At this time? What’s supposed to be?
Jessie Atkin writes
fiction, poetry, essays, and plays. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The YA
Review Network, Writers Resist, Cloudbank,
and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in creative writing from American
University. She can be found online at jessieatkin.com
Like usual, Walt stayed under the covers until he heard twittering from the earliest birds. By the time he’d used the bathroom, made his bed, changed into clothes, and fixed coffee and toast, the first blush of dawn had just begun paling the eastern sky above the neighborhood’s rooftops. He brought his breakfast outside and took his regular spot on the front step with it. As he ate, the silhouettes of newly-budded tree branches nodded in the yard on the small breeze. Gradually, he could make out the crosswalk fifty or so yards down the street that linked the elementary and middle schools. Her crosswalk. The one she’d guided elementary students across every hour during the day for P.E. classes at the gym they shared with the middle school. No one was out. Except for the birds and the occasional passing car or barking dog, it was quiet.
When Walt finished his breakfast, he returned to the kitchen, washed his dishes, and went into the bathroom again. He stared in the mirror as he brushed his teeth, the stubble on his head more salt than pepper, the skin under his tired eyes loose and sagging. It had grown more so since he’d retired from the library down the street beyond the schools a few years ago. Walt blew out a breath, then used the back door to go into the garage. He pulled the string on the tin-shaded lamp over his workbench and a cone of light lit the pieces of the bird feeder he’d been making. He blew away sawdust, turned on the old radio to his classical station, selected a hunk of sandpaper, and started smoothing the section of roof he’d left off on the previous afternoon.
Walt finished the feeder a little before eleven. Its design was simple, basic: a hollow house with wire on top and a wider, drawer-like bottom to hold the seed and provide a perch. He filled it with birdseed, turned off the radio, and carried it through the back gate and down the sidewalk towards the crosswalk. The replacement crossing guard, an older man like Walt, sat in a folding chair on one side of it. Flowers, cards, and candles were clustered against the fence that separated the elementary school playground next to him. Someone had even placed a framed photograph against the fence; she was young in it, perhaps thirty, about the age Walt had been when she’d started there as the crossing guard.
The fence was made of iron bars three inches apart that were joined by crossbars along the top connected to brick pillars every dozen feet. The playground was empty, though Walt knew it would soon be filled with students frolicking during their lunch recess. The replacement guard raised a hand to Walt as he stopped in front of the collection of remembrances. Walt returned the gesture then fitted the feeder’s wire over the bar in the fence directly above the collection. The replacement guard regarded him as he straightened it against the bar.
“I’m told she used to feed birds here all the time,” the replacement guard said.
Walt looked at him. “That’s right.”
“Did you know her?”
Walt felt a heat rise behind his eyes. He said, “Just to nod and smile.”
The replacement guard did both those things. He pointed
to the collection at the base of the fence. “I guess she was someone special,
though I’m told she lived alone.”
Walt nodded. He said to himself: like me. He thought about passing her each day on his way to and from the library all those years and never having the nerve to say a word to her. Those eyes, that quiet, gentle manner. Regret overwhelmed him.
“That’s a nice bird feeder,” the replacement guard said. “Nice way to remember her.”
“You going to keep filling it with seed?”
“Good for you.”
Walt felt his lips purse. He nodded again and said, “Take care.”
Walt turned around and headed back to his house. He fixed himself a peanut
butter and banana sandwich, poured a glass of milk, and made his customary trip
with them out onto the front step. By then, happy shouts from students rose
from the playground. A pair of orange-breasted robins flew by overhead in that
direction. Walt watched them swoop down to the perch on the feeder, watched the
replacement guard follow their descent, watched him chuckle and shake his head.
Until a week earlier, Walt had eaten his lunch there almost every day and
watched her scatter birdseed at her feet on the sidewalk. Not anymore.
Walt took a bite of sandwich and washed it down with milk. He didn’t
know what he’d do with the rest of the day; now that the feeder was finished, he
had no plans. Really no idea either how he’d fill the days and years ahead. Nothing
but time lay before him. He watched one of the birds on the feeder lift off and
fly away. A moment later, another replaced it.
William Cass has had more than 190 short stories published
in literary journals including december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella
competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a couple of Pushcart nominations, and
won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.
When I used to drink my portion of the universe made sense.
Hand heavy on the glass, glass heavy on the table; table legs splitting the lithosphere probing the core of creation.
Formidable and dark, worshipped by belts and moons, I firmly anchored the eccentric orbits of waitresses and lesser drunks.
I filled up the bar like a smiling planet, pushing up mountains and draining seas, bending the sky on my back and sweating asteroids.
When I used to drink, I exalted within my surface storms, watched continents swirl on discs of liquid rock and settle where I willed.
Warping matter and twisting time, I rolled through the emptiness, ponderous and cold, unaware of the sun.
Mark Thomas is a retired English and Philosophy
teacher and ex-member of Canada’s national rowing team. He has previously
published work in Electric Literature,
Daily Science Fiction and The Globe
when street cats stare snake-eyed and each snake carries a cat’s-eye
when pot plants only starve or drown; and even the dishwasher looks super disappointed
when you put your fucking headphones on.
when the past keeps breaking its commitment; perpetual resurrector, these flowers from a nec- romantic heart
though the original is always chosen over the re-make. and even now I suspect I might be one of the violent men, after all.
when the cum is dopamine, escaping
when paradise is desire or disgust, and it never mattered which
when you tell a person how they are mistaken, before they ever find the words to speak.
although maybe we are all here for you to feel a little less alone –
tell me what I don’t know. I’m waiting for you to say when.
Andrew Sutherland is a Queer writer and theatre practitioner working between
Western Australia and Singapore. Theatre works include a line could be crossed
and you would slowly cease to be, Jiangshi, Unveiling: Gay Sex for Endtimes,
Chrysanthemum Gate and Poorly Drawn Shark, which was awarded the Blaz Award for
New Writing 2019. He received Overland’s Fair Australia Poetry Prize 2017, and
his poetry and fiction can be found in various publications including Cordite, Westerly, Margaret
River Press’ We’ll Stand in That Place, Scum Mag, Proverse Hong Kong, Thin Air and Visible