“A Small Wooden Box” by D. G. Lasek

Image by Cole Rise, used with permission.

The eleven o’clock news goes to commercial. I look down at the empty juice glass by my foot. A single ruby droplet at the bottom takes on a warm glow from the lamp that burns in the opposite corner of the living room. I pick up the glass, bring it to my lips, and toss my head back like a grizzled cowhand in Bonanza taking a shot of whiskey. Some sandy sediment clings to my front teeth while the tiny droplet trickles down my throat, barely noticeable.

I stand up with a grunt and mosey from the living room, leaving my father sitting in front of the TV. The sound of a Jetta commercial fades to a dull blur as I round the corner. I push through the heavy swinging door that separates the living room from the kitchen.

The empty bottle stands on the counter next to the sink. Fresh droplets of water run down the inside of the green glass in rivulets. My mother has beaten me to it. Saturday is recycling day in my New Jersey hometown. I should have known that my mother, who has just gone to bed, would have swept through the house, confiscating every stray bottle, can, and newspaper.

I sigh with disappointment and relief. Then I cross the kitchen and place my glass in the sink. As I turn away to head for the bathroom, something catches my eye. It’s a bottle of Jim Beam Black, half hidden in the corner behind the Mr. Coffee. An inch of liquor lingers at the bottom of the bottle.

I snatch the bottle from its hiding place and set it on the counter in front of me. There really is only a little bit left. Barely a shot. I rescue my glass from the sink and pour the last of the Beam. What’s another ounce or two of bourbon on top of five ounces of wine? That makes one more bottle for recycling. Call it my good deed for the day.

With juice glass in hand, I sally back into the living room. My father hasn’t moved from the rocking chair. As I make my way to my spot on the couch, I hold the glass down toward my knee. He doesn’t look away from the TV. I drop onto the couch and place the glass on the end table next to me, hidden from view by the base of a lamp.

The news comes back on. Kim Jong Un has traded missiles for tractors. There’s been a shooting in the Bronx. A man ran down a mother and her twin daughters in a crosswalk in Passaic and fled the scene. They close with a happy story. An elderly couple whose son died from addiction donated a Christmas tree to Trenton City Hall in their son’s memory. The smiling newscasters wish us a good night from everyone at Channel 5, then the room falls silent for a moment before another Jetta commercial blares forth.

In that moment of silence, I realize that my father and I are alone.

“So how are things with you?” he asks.

“Pretty good. No complaints.”

“That’s good.”

With one sly hand I take the glass from its strategic location behind the lamp base and down the whiskey in one swallow. I set the glass back down as swiftly as I picked it up, being careful that it doesn’t clatter against the plastic coaster. As before, my father’s eyes don’t leave the TV. We don’t talk about his recent trips to the hospital, my uncertainty about my recent decision to attend graduate school, or about the lovely young woman I’m dating. We’ve never talked about any of that before, and we don’t talk about it now.

Drums rumble, horns blare, and the audience roars as Craig Ferguson takes the stage. A warm sensation envelopes my stomach, like a hug from inside. It skips my chest and rolls up my neck, its fingers massaging my cheeks. My dad and I laugh together at jokes about Sir Paul McCartney’s uncanny resemblance to Queen Elizabeth. I feel good. This is probably the perfect place to stop. Even if the ice between my father and I hasn’t entirely broken, it has at least melted, and I don’t show any of the outward signs of intoxication. I could go to bed tonight and actually rest, wake up in the morning, and not wish I hadn’t.

I no longer follow what’s happening on TV. Instead I laugh when my father laughs and watch Ferguson’s lips, hoping each punchline, the end of each skit will herald the next commercial break.

Ferguson says he’ll be right back. I say the same and make a big show of getting off the couch, as though I’d rather not. I walk quickly—but not too quickly—into the kitchen, where I have to think on my feet. The wine and the whiskey are spent. A brief moment of panic grips me as I wonder if I’ll have to go to bed half lit, having failed at both staying sober and getting drunk. Then I remember.

I flick on the small light over the counter and open the cabinet under the sink. There it stands: my mother’s bottle of Bacardi Gold, untouched since my last visit. She won’t miss a drop or two. I take the bottle out and put it on the counter, making sure my father can hear. Conspicuousness removes suspicion. I fill my glass halfway with rum and replace the bottle under the sink. As I head back toward the living room, I take a healthy sip off the top to give the impression that I had only poured an ounce or two in the first place.

This time, as I reenter the living room my father steals a glance at the glass in my hand without turning his head. His glance stings. My face turns redder than it already was. But my father can’t say a thing about the glass or its contents. He knows it, and I know it. So he doesn’t.

By the time I reach the couch, I’ve forgotten my momentary embarrassment. I set my glass down on the coffee table in front of me, then I start to talk. I talk about music, about how I need a new turntable because I’ve been into the oldies lately and the only way to hear those mono recordings is on vinyl and my turntable is pretty old and I’m afraid it’s going to damage the records.

For a while, my dad nods but says nothing. Then, without looking over, he offers some sage advice on the virtues of belt-drive over direct-drive turntables. After all, when he and my mother were first married, no one was interested in television. Everyone invested in audio equipment. There were entire stores and magazines and catalogs and…

Really? I ask. Tell me more, more, more.

This is fun. I take a sip of rum here, a sip of rum there. I interrupt him to declare that Black Sabbath and the MC5 are the pinnacle of rock and roll and did he know that bands nowadays buy the old Orange amplifiers to try to emulate that sound and isn’t it absurd that artists today release albums on vinyl that were digitally recorded. My brain is on the express track, but I speak with calculated nonchalance, articulating each word so I don’t mess up a good thing with the odd slur.

My dad starts telling a story about a guy he knew in college who was a freak for all kinds of vintage guitar equipment. I’m not listening. Instead, I’m picturing my dad in college, young, mustachioed, full of life. My mother would have been back in their hometown—where we’re sitting right now—waiting for him to graduate so they could marry. My dad hadn’t yet faced the commitment that would prove to be too much pressure for him. Kicking back in a dorm room in the protective isolation of Glassboro, sucking down one Budweiser after another, he was an eighteen-year-old kid who had no idea he was about to ruin his life and that of his future wife, and very nearly the lives of his three unborn sons. What would he have done if he had known? Would he have acted differently?

I’m sure I don’t know, but as I drain the last of the rum from my glass, I do know that I pity this version of my father. Things got away from him. They get away from everyone now and then. Maybe it was the distance in those early days, the one-hundred-and-ten-mile stretch of I-95 that separated him from my mother.

It’s time for a refill.

I stagger to my feet and head for the kitchen, where I take a detour to the bathroom. My parents’ house doesn’t have one on the first floor, so I go down to the basement.

Once down there, I feel my way through the dark toward the tiny bathroom-closet next to the washroom. I tug on the pull chain that dangles from the ceiling and turn to face my reflection in the mirror. In the dim glow of the globe light, my eyes look swollen and half closed. For a fraction of a second, the smoke in my mind clears and a single thought sears through my brain, as sharp and clear as an icicle that catches the sun.

I’m loaded.

For a moment I have the distinct urge to put my fist through the mirror, to smash that image of myself, but I don’t. The lucidity fades as quickly as it came. I do what I came to do, then I wash my hands without looking up. I kill the light and head back across the dark basement toward the stairs. Walking around down here in the dark usually gives me chills, but tonight I take my time, winding my way across the floor, climbing the stairs one at a time without skipping any.

Back in the kitchen, I head to the counter, where the white Formica seems harsher than usual under the pale overhead light. I fish around in the cabinet, shoving the bottle of Bacardi out of the way. If any more of the rum goes missing, my mother will notice, and I’ve never been stupid enough to try to replace Bacardi with Lipton. I start to think I’m off the hook when my hand brushes something cold at the back of the cabinet. I pull it out. It’s an old bottle of cooking sherry, untouched for God knows how long. Joy and disgust wrestle in the pit of my stomach, and for a second I’m afraid I’ll have to make a beeline back to the bathroom. But it passes, and I fill my glass.

A voice inside my head that I recognize as sober Me screams: I don’t want this!

The other Me, who has emerged from his rock and now stands boldly out in the open, replies in his calm and steady voice: Yes, you do.

My head spins. At that moment, it’s a wonder to me that my father can’t hear every word of this argument from the next room.

I grab hold of the counter, and the voices fade. I tell myself that it’s okay, that this is a quarter of what I used to drink on any given Friday in college, that I’m an adult, that I have the right to relax and have a couple of drinks at night, that there’s nothing unusual about it.

The next thing I know, I’m back on the sofa. I don’t feel good anymore. My glass is in front of me, filled almost to the brim with wine that isn’t the color of any wine I’ve seen before. It’s brown, dirty. I start to speak again, even more carefully than before. I am aware, in a vague way, that I’m saying something about what I’d like to do after graduate school, but I focus all of my mental energy on sounding normal. The way I enunciate each vowel probably makes me look like an actor in a silent film, my lips forming each O and E with slow deliberation.

Once again, my father doesn’t appear to notice. Rather than confront me, he seizes the opportunity to reflect on his own career, the career from which he only recently retired but which has been dead in the water for well over a decade. As he drones on about the intricacies of pharmaceutical advertising, I widen my eyes, trying to make them look like normal eyes, to open them all the way and chase away the puffiness I saw in the bathroom mirror. I feel like an owl. Then I do something that I haven’t done all evening, all year, or maybe ever.

I look at my father.

Though he’s stone-cold sober, he looks worse than I do: the bags under his eyes, the ashen skin, the distended belly. There’s nothing he can do about it just now, because his symptoms didn’t appear just now. They are the promise of many years.

I take a sip of dirty wine and watch my father as he talks about big-time marketing campaigns from thirty years ago, about his cutting-edge mentoring strategies. He tells a story about how he once instructed a nervous young employee to write her problem down on an index card and put it into a small wooden box he kept on his desk. By doing so, the employee took her problem and made it his problem. Lo and behold, the girl relaxed, her subconscious went to work, and presto! By the time she arrived at work the next morning, she had solved her problem all on her own, and she thanked my father for his wisdom.

Unlike that doe-eyed employee, my father had a problem that wouldn’t fit in his small wooden box. My parents won’t come out and say why my father has been to the hospital so many times in the last few weeks, but they don’t have to, because I know.

He’s dying.

He’s dying from the inside out, from too many years of refusing to look his problems in the face. He hasn’t had a drink in decades, but the damage is done. His liver gives out a little more each day, and all he can do is sit and reminisce about the time his small wooden box worked for someone else.

My father’s words grow more emphatic as he plunges further down memory lane. He stares at the TV, unseeing, while he gestures with his hands and rattles on about the ruthlessness of corporate life. I realize that I am listening to the words of a man who looks back on his life in the way that someone else might look at an exhibit in a museum: as a foregone conclusion, something dead and preserved with no stake in the future. As I watch his vision of the past play out behind his glassy eyes, it becomes clear that my father is no longer talking to me. He’s forgotten that I’m even in the room, just like he forgot about my mother and two brothers during his days of corporate glory and, later, his nights of debauchery in seedy, bucket-of-blood bars.

This makes me want to scream. His problem is not behind him. It’s eating him alive. It’s eating me alive, too. My father’s problem rushes through my veins faster than the alcohol I’ve consumed tonight. Unlike the alcohol, it does not go away in the morning. It does not stay away during my periods of sobriety, no matter how long they last. It only rushes faster.

I knock back the last of the sherry.

Why won’t he look at me?

Because I’m a young guy who is still exploring his relationship with booze. Because I’ve got dreams and ambitions, I’ve got a nice girlfriend, and I’ve got time to sort it all out. Because I’m a manifestation of the problem he’s worked so hard to lock away in his small wooden box.

Only trouble is, I don’t quite fit.

My father stops talking. The room grows quiet except for the chatter of the TV. We’ve been reduced to watching reruns of American Ninja Warrior. My father looks at his watch.

“Well, I’ve chewed your ear off long enough,” he says. “It’s getting late.”

“What time is it?” I ask.

“Quarter to three.”

“Geez, it is late.”

I get up and walk to the kitchen one last time, feeling unsteady on my feet. It’s time for the usual charade of sneaking up to bed, hoping that each creak of the stairs won’t wake my mother.

After a minute or two spent leaning on the counter, staring into space, I fill my glass with lukewarm tap water and drain it in one gulp. I tell myself that the liquor has been watered down, that I won’t feel it in the morning.

Fat chance, I think as I place my glass in the sink and switch off the overhead light.

Nothing’s free.


D.G. Lasek, originally from New Jersey, now lives with his wife in Massachusetts where he teaches English as a second language. His fiction is forthcoming in Corner Bar Magazine, and his children’s fiction has appeared in Bumples Magazine.

“Perfume and Pearls” by Michael Olenick

Image by Cole Rise, used with permission.

Lina could not take Jake to England to get him set up at university, so I went instead. While away I bought gifts to convince myself I was returning to home as it had always been. Spending money for no reason is what you do when you’re on vacation, so I thought if I did that, it would mean I was vacationing (as opposed to deserting my wife to help my son). Kind of like dressing for summer to encourage warmer weather while knowing the next season was winter.

I always bought a duty-free bottle of O de Lancôme because, if my other gifts were not up to par, at least I had gotten one right. That was her perfume and I was grateful I no longer had to remember Chanel numbers. But it turned out that had stopped being her favorite years ago while I wasn’t paying attention. And what the hell was she going to do with perfume anyway? The pretty green and white box sits unopened on a basement shelf.

But the earrings, oh the earrings, I was right about those. She still liked pearls and she put them on each morning and removed them each evening, even if there wasn’t much else she could do that day. At least until the 3 A.M. when she took one with water, mistaking it for one of the bedside pills whose purpose was to make her feel that she could still be cured.

Was ingesting an earring reason to put her through another trip to the hospital? We had made enough trips already, and the act of getting off the couch, let alone up and down the stairs, was torture to everyone involved. But research was done, and although the search results mostly had to do with toddlers, this type of earring just passed right through. I think that was our last shared moment of gratitude. You were terminally ill but at least your esophagus would be spared perforation by an open clasp; your intestines would not be destroyed by an MRI sucking metal out of you.

But you were back in the hospital soon after, and I’d like to think the pearl ended up as a nurse’s reward for tending to the needs of my now infant wife.


Michael Olenick lives in Brooklyn with his daughter, son, and wife’s ashes. He had a promising start with a story appearing in Journeys: Prose by Children of the English-Speaking World when he was ten and then put writing aside to focus on the usual sensible adult things. Since his wife’s death, his inner English major has awakened, and he has started writing again as a way to forget and not to forget. His poems have recently appeared in Euphony Journal and Offcourse Literary Journal.

“Him and Me” by John Vanderslice

Image by Cole Rise, used with permission.

“Why are you always so cynical?”

It’s a surprising accusation, flying up as if out of nowhere, as I drive him down the highway to his weekly viola lesson. Surprising because, well, first of all we weren’t having that kind of conversation, but mostly surprising because this accusation is coming from him—him—who acted like a hard-boiled forty-year-old at age twelve and at least a decade older than that at fifteen. Nothing but straight blackness out of his mouth then; nothing but the same color in his wardrobe. Hair dyed so dark a brown it might as well have been pitch. Black socks; black Vans, black wristbands. The dark sounds of screamo shouting at him through his ear buds. You get the picture. Thankfully, he’s started—started—to come out of all that over the last two years. But, still, I’m the cynical one?

I’ve always thought of myself as naïve, bordering on ridiculous. The kind of person who dares think well of people, almost always thinks well of people, until they prove otherwise; and sometimes even after they prove otherwise. A mid-Atlantic bred, lapsed Catholic, twenty-to-twenty-first century Akaky Akakyevich; the kind of guy who stumbles his way through life and keeps to his self-styled recreations, while the world keeps after its own, only vaguely aware that behind his back—and sometimes to his face—he is being ridiculed. And when aware of it, not sure what to do about it. The kind of guy who, at age 22 or 23, did not appear to be on any kind of track that might lead to marriage, home, family; to say nothing of gainful employment. You get the picture. Except that through a minor romantic miracle, occurring on or about the month of March in the Year of our Lord 1997, I found my way to all those things, and way sooner than anyone had a right to expect.

Thirty years ago, when I was a junior in high school, as he is now, I carried around inside me a global, uninterrupted sense of all that there was in the world I didn’t understand. Most problematically, people. People I understood the least. I felt like barely a person myself then. I could not have explained myself to myself. So how could I explain all these other people around me: in my high school, in my neighborhood, in my life? Where did they get their strange notions? What brought on their compulsive behaviors, their destructive alliances, their ugly decisions, their pointless risks? Where they did they get all their bizarre, dark-worldly knowledge? What kinds of homes must they have grown up in to become these kinds of people, to earn that sort of knowledge? Homes not like mine, that’s for sure.

“What do you mean?” I say.

“All you do is gripe about people.”  He’s staring out the windshield at the road ahead, as if it might disappear entirely without his help. His cell phone is in his hand, but he’s not looking at it. He’s not looking at it. Normally, that’s all he does in these car rides.

“I don’t gripe about people.”

He laughs. Not a real laugh. It’s not a real laugh. “Are you kidding?  You gripe about me constantly.”

Do I?  Is that what he thinks?  How could he?  I make suggestions to him, sure. I admit. Sometimes strong suggestions. But, honestly, with him and me it’s like Akaky Akakyevich taking on the Kremlin; or, rather, a tepid stream of water lapping against a brick wall: the limited force taking on the immovable object. I can’t bring him down in one fell swoop, so I try to brush up against him regularly, at sustained intervals, trusting that eventually I’ll break through a barrier. That’s not griping; that’s love in daily maintenances.

“You tell me I don’t dress right. You tell me I don’t eat right. You complain about my room. You tell me I need to try listening to this kind of music—because it’s your kind of music—though you don’t ever listen to my kind of music. You were especially bad a couple years ago. It’s better now that I’m listening to more classical, but a couple years ago all you did was make fun of it.”

I did?  My recollection from a couple of years ago is that at all times I was desperately trying—and trying successfully, let me say—not to express how dearly I hated his screamo. Even though I did hate it. I hated it so very much. He never fathomed the depths of my hate for it, because, as I saw it, I held back the storm. Heck, didn’t I buy him a couple CDs one time?

I choose my words carefully. “Well, you know, those are classic complaints that parents bring up with their kids. All parents. The music. The food. The room. It’s like in the rule book.”

He frowns but says nothing. He isn’t giving me that out.

“Hey,” I say, “you’re lucky I didn’t bitch about your friends.”

“You did bitch about my friends.”

“When?  When did I do that?”

Dad.”  He turns to me, his face caught in an expression mid-way between exasperation, befuddlement, and disgust. His mouth is hanging open, but he’s not able to push out any words.

“Which of your friends did I complain about?”

“C’mon, Sutton Parrish?  Ryan Turpen?”

“I liked Ryan.”

“You said his family was like holdover hominids from the Stone Age. You said they reminded you of nomadic peoples hunkering down in the caves of Northern Europe 20,000 years ago. Except, you said, they weren’t good enough to paint horses on the walls so the tribe would have kicked them outside to go hunt woolly mammoths.

“I never said—”

“But, you said, they were so stupid they would have ended up squashed to death beneath a big, hairy foot.”

“Did I really say all that?”


I consider this for a moment. I think: That was pretty clever of me.

“Well,” I say, “they were fairly primitive.”

 He raises his hands to the sky.

 “But I never disliked Ryan. And you have to admit that Sutton Parrish was a washout.”

“Sutton’s father was in jail. Their family was having a really hard time of it then.”

“I guess.”

“No. No guess, Dad. They were.”

“Is he still in school?”

“He’s not even in the state. They moved to Texas like a year ago.”


“I’m pretty sure I told you that.”

“Maybe you did.”

“I did,” he says.

I drive. He stares. He squints. I drive.

“Okay, so I’m sorry for being kind of rough on Sutton and Ryan. But the other stuff—the food, the room—isn’t that all true?  Are you going to tell me your room doesn’t look like a war zone?”

 “But you are always going on about it; like it’s all you can think about. Like your life can’t be right if my room isn’t the way you want it.”

“But your room is really sloppy. I mean really, really sloppy.”

“See?” he says. “See?”

He’s pushing back now on his seat, his neck straining, his right leg pressing forward, as if imitating a braking motion. Except that traffic on the highway is moving normally. The closest car is several lengths in front of us. And he hasn’t even learned to drive yet. Why is he doing the braking thing?

“See what?” I say. I’m looking with double attention at the road, wondering what I’m missing.

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about. And, no, other parents don’t go griping after their kids all the time.”

“They do too,” I say. Then: “Sometimes.”

“Dad, I know other kids. I go to school with other kids. I know other kids’ parents. They’re not always griping to them about their rooms. Or how they eat.”

“Well, maybe those kids are willing to taste a vegetable once in a while; maybe those kids clean their rooms.”  If he’s thinking of his girlfriend and her parents, I happen to know that she does eat vegetables—plenty of them—including broccoli—also that she keeps her room hypo-allergenically clean. Her room is probably cleaner any four hospital rooms combined. I know her parents. They told me.

“See?” he says, his neck straining again, his leg braking once more. “Don’t you see?”

“What?” I say. I check the road again. “See what?”

“Sometimes, I think—I really think this—I think that for you guys being parents is like purely an administrative duty or something. Something you have to do, like taking out the trash, doing your taxes. Something to get out of the way. Something you have to do, but you’d really rather not do it; you’d really rather wish you could be let off the hook.”

Good lord.

“Is that how you feel?” I say. I’m not even trying to keep the hurt and exasperation out of my voice now.

Is that how he feels?

“I mean,” I say, “is that how I seem to you?  What makes you say that?”

He turns his face, looks out the side window for several moments, as if studying the trees in the distance for some school-enforced botanical survey.

“I’m not sure I should answer,” he says.

“But I’m asking you.”

“That doesn’t mean you want an answer.”

“What do you mean?  If I ask you, I want an answer.”

“You might want an answer, but it doesn’t mean you want a real answer.”

I chew on this for a bit. Can it be true? And, if yes, what does it mean? I mean, what does it mean for the entirety of our relationship, the seventeen-year living history between him and me? Have I been existing inside a bubble of illusion all this time? Some phony, happy idea of what I was—or at least could be—as a father, and he was as a son? How long had he been holding back? And what did it mean for us now or going forward? What would it mean next month? Next year? Eight years from now? If he’s finally lost his patience and proceeds to cut, what will that new reality look like? What will I be?

I hold my breath. I watch the road roll past beneath the burden of my car. “I have a feeling there’s something you want to say to me,” I say. “Maybe you should just go ahead and say it.” He stays silent. He doesn’t look at me or out the window anymore. Just ahead, at what is coming. I see something like worry—but not actual worry—pass across his eyes. “I’m a big boy,” I say. “I can take it.”  Then: “I should take it.”

He breathes a sigh through his nose, his heavy lovely cheeks sag—as a baby, even as a six-year-old, he had the chunkiest cheeks you’d ever seen, and there’s still, even as a teenager, a residue of that fleshiness in his face. His head dips the tiniest human measure. He still doesn’t look at me, yet I feel him looking at me.

“That’s okay,” he says. “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”

That’s probably exactly what I would have said to my own father, at his age, in this situation, in a closed automobile, driving at highway speeds. That is, if the man had ever begged me for the truth—which he never did. And never would have. But that’s exactly what I would have said. Because I would have known the truth and would not have wanted to hurt him with it. To unsettle him. To unseat him. To break apart his precious, heart-beholden delusions. I think to tell him this, as he sits there next to me, frowning at the windshield. I should tell him. I should say it: That’s exactly what I would have said to my own dad at your age. But I don’t. I don’t say it. I keep driving and, finally, eventually, he begins looking at his phone. I like to hope he understood, he understands.


John Vanderslice teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Central Arkansas. His stories, poems, essays, and plays have been widely published, including in such journals as Sou’wester, South 85, Laurel Review, Crazyhorse, and The Pinch. In recent years, he has published two books: Island Fog (Lavender Ink, 2014), a linked story collection, and The Last Days of Oscar Wilde (Burlesque Press, 2018), a historical novel.

“There Isn’t Any More” by Kim Shegog

Image by Cole Rise

Hazel helped her husband Bill into his suit coat, leveling the shoulders with heavy hands. With her face turned from him, she slid his silver cigarette case into the breast pocket. Her eyes, the color of fresh mud he’d once told her, were weak. She feared they’d tear up or glaze over—they’d expose her.

“Now don’t you spend all day fiddling around with those snowball bushes,” Bill said. “I need you to have the basement ready for the O’Dells to come by and look at. They’re coming first thing tomorrow morning. Remember, I have to visit the bank to sign the rest of the papers for the house, then the insurance agency, and then back to the office.” 

Hazel nodded and offered her right cheek to Bill for a kiss, which he failed to notice. He’d occupied himself with verifying the location of his cigarette case, wallet, and car key. The screen squealed as it opened to release Bill and again as it returned to its place. Hazel shut the oak door and made her way to the kitchen to clean up the breakfast dishes.

It was day three in the new house. After five years of living in White’s boarding house, Bill had saved enough money to put a down payment on a two-story home. He had a nice office job at the furniture company that had opened several years ago, and Hazel had contributed a little money to their cause by selling her needlepoint pillows at church bazaars. She was quite talented at stitching birds. She blushed when the ladies told her they could hear sad coos released from her mourning doves.

Bill had decided to take in boarders since the new house had a full basement. With the added income, he could pay off the mortgage earlier. Hazel liked the idea of giving a young couple the option of living somewhere besides Mrs. White’s boarding house, which really was just a single-story box filled to the brim with whining cats. Earlier that morning while preparing the coffee, Hazel believed she’d seen the fat calico jump from the potato bin onto the kitchen counter, yet when she turned around, the cat was not there. 

The basement was large enough for a kitchenette and a bathroom, and Bill had a plumber coming next week to help set everything up. In the meantime, he’d instructed Hazel to tidy things downstairs as best as she could. There was a wrought-iron bed already in place. All Hazel needed to do was wipe the dust off of it and put on a set of sheets and a quilt. She was supposed to move their night table downstairs, too, since Bill was getting a new one for them at a good price through his company. She was to wash the basement’s windows, both inside and outside, as well. The window washing had been her idea. She wanted the O’Dells to notice how the sunlight would brighten up the whole basement. Somehow, it made the concrete walls look pretty.

Hazel placed her dishtowel over the sink and walked into the living room. It was almost time for her favorite soap opera, “Our Gal Sunday.” If she turned the volume all the way to the right, she would just be able to hear it while she worked in the basement. 

Yes, folks I said Anacin. That is spelled A-N-A-C-I-N.  You will be delighted with the results.

The radio had been a wedding gift from her brothers and sisters. All eight had chipped in, some more than others she was certain, to buy the newlyweds the radio. When it was delivered to the boarding house, Mrs. White allowed the men to set it in her kitchen. The noise would be a bother, she said, but she would just suffer it so the couple wouldn’t find themselves even more cramped in their bedroom. After about a month, Hazel told Bill the only time she got to choose a radio program was when Mrs. White took her bath on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Bill didn’t seem to care. He’d said the radio was a nuisance and an impractical gift for a young couple with no home of their own and no money to speak of.

Practicality all the way. That was Bill Morris. Nothing was ever bought on time payments, except for the new house, the realization of which was wearing him thin, home from the office for dinner at noon, and supper, always with cornbread on the side, at six-thirty. Everything he did at every moment had to have a reason behind it, some purpose to be done, or it wasn’t worth his while. There’d been a peak of this practicality in the last few months, and especially the last few days. He’d taken on a mortgage and much of the renovations for the basement apartment, combined with his regular work at the office, so there never seemed to be just the right time for Hazel to tell Bill the news­—she was expecting. 

Hazel was clearing the photograph frames from her night table when the doorbell rang. She evaluated herself in the mirror. Dressed only in a striped housecoat with a slip underneath, but her hair was washed and pinned and her face was clean. Her brown eyes, bright and wide. She was presentable, enough, for whomever was at the door, probably a salesman pledging to make her life easier with the touch of one button.

The doorbell chimed through the house, again. Hazel walked faster. “Coming, coming,” she called. As she made a detour into the living room to turn off the radio, she heard the announcer:

Can this girl from the little mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?

Somehow, she always does, Hazel thought before rotating the dial.

“I could hear the radio on the porch,” Iris said as she stepped into the house. Iris was married to James, Hazel’s brother. She was a petite woman with fine clothes, but her presence was sour and her voice curt.

“I like having it on, and I like it loud. It drowns out everything else,” Hazel said, ushering Iris into the living room.

“No doubt you were listening to those absurd soap operas with their fickle men and moaning women.”

“Never mind them,” Hazel said, offering Iris a chocolate from the candy dish. “What brings you by?”

“James. It was his idea I drop in to see how you were feeling,” Iris said, declining the treat with a wave of her hand. “You were looking worse for wear the other day, but you seem all well now. Not a trace of a cold.” Iris lowered her thin eyebrows, glaring at Hazel.

Hazel had asked Iris to drive her to Dr. Price’s office the day before yesterday. Bill had told her she looked a bit peaked, and she’d better get to the doctor’s before she got worse. They had too much to get done this week. Besides, he couldn’t afford to get sick and have to stay home from work.

Iris pulled into the driveway promptly at 9:30 AM. Hazel’s appointment wasn’t scheduled for another hour, and it only took about twenty minutes to drive into town, but Iris was a cautious driver to say the least. Every now and again Hazel would accompany Iris to purchase weekly groceries, and while Hazel was certainly thankful for the ride, she did wish Iris would drive a bit faster. When Hazel dared ask her about her driving style once, Iris replied, “Well, at least I know how to drive,” and then she added her customary statement, “When you rush, you risk.”

When they arrived at Dr. Price’s office, Iris said she would be quite comfortable waiting in the car while Hazel received her diagnosis. She didn’t want to catch anything that was catching. She’d driven the entire time with her scarf draped over her mouth and nose.

No, it wasn’t a cold or the beginning of a bout with pneumonia. Hazel, at thirty-five, was expecting her first child. Dr. Price had just lit his second cigarette when he delivered the news. He determined she was a couple of months along. She was an otherwise healthy gal, and she should have Bill lower the clothesline for her before the next load was hung. Hazel tried to listen to his instructions, but her mind was elsewhere. How had she missed it? Well, her cycles were often irregular. With five years of marriage and no children to speak of, she’d thought having children to be impossible. Now, with the move and the new house and preparing for live-ins, she just failed to notice. Bill wouldn’t be satisfied this was the best time, especially since they’d gone so long without children. 

It would’ve been natural for Hazel to begin thinking about her own mother at this moment, but she didn’t. Her mother had nine children and no husband to speak of, not the traditional kind. He provided only sadness and aggravation for his wife and children. He dropped in and out of all of their lives as it suited him. Sometimes he’d stay for two days, other times a week or so. It seemed like as soon as he left another child came along. They came one after the other. Her mother even had a set of twins—a pair of boiling pink boys Hazel bottle-fed while her mother healed. To this day, Hazel couldn’t be certain what happened to her father. Only flashes of a dark, lanky image existed in her memory. It was her mother who’d raised them, and they helped raise each other.

As Hazel walked out of the office, she decided there was no need to tell Iris. She’d be disturbed by the news in one way or another, or she’d offer nothing but advice for the entire ride home. It’d be better just to let her think she had a cold. Besides, Hazel needed the time to herself to plan how she was going to present Bill with the news. 

Now Hazel had known about her condition for almost two full days. With Iris across from her, Hazel’s face flushed a convicted red. “I really do need to get back to the housework,” she said, standing, her eyes concentrated on the front door.

“Fine. Like I told you, it was James’s idea for me to come,” Iris said, brushing a piece of lint from her lap. “He’ll be relieved to see you’re recovered so quickly.”

“I’ll tell Bill you said hello,” Hazel said, half-waving to Iris in her car. As she watched Iris’s gradual turn onto the main road, she thought of Bill. When he’d gotten home from work on the day she visited the doctor, he was in a terrible mood. Something had happened to a number of important invoices at the office, and then when he stopped by the bank to sign the rest of the paperwork on the house, the bank officer had already left for the day. He stomped through the living room and turned off the radio, yelling, “You could get a lot more done if you didn’t pay so much attention to that nonsense.” He’d been so worked up he even forgot to ask her about her appointment with Dr. Price. He wasn’t himself, and she just couldn’t tell him. She’d planned to tell him last night after supper. She’d prepared some of his favorites, cubed steak with gravy, green peas, and cornbread, of course. He never tasted much of it, though, saying he had brought home some work from the office, and he wanted to work on the cabinets for the kitchen in the basement while there was still daylight left.

Tonight for sure, she thought. He’d been in an almost pleasant mood at breakfast, she’d have the basement looking nice and tidy for the O’Dells to see, and she’d tell him with a grand smile on her face. She refused to allow her own anxiety to show. She’d explain now was a good time for them to have a child because of the extra income from the boarders. Their child would also have his choice of second-hand clothing from all his cousins.

On her way back to the bedroom, Hazel switched on the radio in time to catch Sunday’s husband, Lord Henry, tell her:

You, my dear, are a caged lioness.

Indeed she is, Hazel thought. We all have that in common.

In the bedroom, she retrieved a new package of white bed linens from the closet. She placed it on top of the cleared night table, lifted the table on each side, and headed for the basement. Stopping to listen for a moment, she heard only a commercial, so she made her way down the steps.

The sheets hadn’t been pinned properly, and they unfolded into a large bulging bundle in her arms. As she began to fold them, she felt a stinging pain in her stomach; a loose pin or two must’ve caught her skin through her dress. She found the two pillowcases and began stuffing them when she felt hot liquid trickle down her inner thigh. She lifted the edge of her slip, discovering blood. She saw no sign of stains on the sheets, so she left them as they lay on the bed. With one hand, she held the bottom of her housecoat between her legs as she climbed each step with determination. She must be careful to avoid making a mess. 

Hazel shuffled down the hallway into the bathroom and climbed into the empty tub. After half an hour, there were no more stomach pains, no more blood, no more anything. She took a rough washcloth to every inch of skin, scouring between her fingers. She washed her hair again, digging her fingernails into her scalp. Out of the tub, she perfumed and powdered and extracted too many eyebrows. She opened her eyes wide, gazing in the mirror as she applied a thick layer of mascara to her dry eyelashes. She pulled on a tattered bathrobe, one she kept hanging on the back of the bathroom door, and gathered her clothes, compressing the garments into a mound barely visible in her hands. With the afternoon passing and her emotions and womb dried, she needed to do the wash and get back to work in the basement. There was supper to prepare before Bill got home.

Hazel hung her clothes out on the line although it was more difficult to open the pins this time. No need to ask Bill to lower it now, she thought. When she threw her slip over, it didn’t catch but fell onto the ground. It didn’t matter anyway. She figured on throwing it out. Though she had scrubbed it over the sink with soap and cold water until her fingers burned, the stain only spread. It didn’t disappear. She had hoped she could save it. Bill’s mother had given it to her as a wedding present. It had yellowed only slightly; otherwise, it was smooth and shiny. That slip was the final garment Bill had removed on their wedding night.

She remembered how warm and ready she was when he placed his finger under the strap and slid it off of her shoulder. It had ended up on the floor that night, but now it was on the ground, stained, ruined, and waiting to be thrown away. She dropped it in the burn barrel with the coffee grounds and yesterday’s newspaper.

When Hazel heard the shrill bursts from Bill’s car horn that evening, she knew he was playing with her. She joined him by the door, her heavy chest bumping into him.

Bill stepped to the side. “Everything has been taken care of,” he said. “We’re all set for the house.” He handed her a pack of chewing gum. “Heard the jingle for it on your radio the other day,” he said. “I’m trying to woo my girl like it says.” Hazel returned his foolish grin with a half-smile and shoved the small package into her apron pocket and returned to the kitchen.

Now he was in a good mood. He whistled while he hung his coat on the rack and stumbled while removing his loafers. Hazel listened as he walked down the hall and stopped at the basement door. His sock feet thumped on the steps.

“This looks nice,” he yelled from the basement. Hazel continued peeling carrots over the sink, wiping leftover skin caught in the grater on her apron. She heard the basement door close, and Bill entered the kitchen. He moved close to her side and this time she backed away.

“I think the O’dells will like the room,” he said, snatching a peeled carrot. “They’ll like it ever better when the kitchen and bathroom are set up, but they’ll just have to use their imaginations for a while. They’re still young enough to do that.” He split the carrot with his front teeth. “I’m going to work down there this evening after supper,” he said, grinding what was left.  He then took a slice of cornbread from the tin by the counter. “What are we having, tonight?” he asked between bites. “Hey, this cornbread from last night is even better today. Do we have anymore?” He turned to evaluate the contents of the tin, hoping there may be another piece, but found it empty. Hazel placed the grater in the sink, wiped her hands on her apron, and walked out of the kitchen. She sat down in the chair by the radio, which she’d turned off some time ago.  She slid her feet from her slippers and stared at her toes.

“That’s all there is. There isn’t any more,” she called to him. 


Kim Shegog has an MFA from Converse College and an MA in English from The College of Charleston. Her work has appeared in Appalachian HeritageThe SunOWL, and The Compassion Anthology. She received the 2019 Judith Siegel Pearson Fiction Award from Wayne State University. She has taught creative writing and composition courses at Coastal Carolina University. She lives in Ohio.

Contributors Fall 2019

Jessie Atkin (I’ve Kept the Fish Alive) 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

William Cass (Bird Feeder) has published more than 190 short stories in such literary journals as decemberBriar 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.

Julianne Clarke (11 Ways to Start a Fight with Your Father) 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.

Alexander Jones (Garbage Patch) 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.

Jennifer Schomburg Kanke (The Widow Does Love…), 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.

D.G. Lasek (A Small Wooden Box) Originally from New Jersey, D. G. Lacek now lives with his wife in Massachusetts, where he teaches English as a second language. His fiction is forthcoming in Corner Bar Magazine, and his children’s fiction has appeared in Bumples Magazine.

Michael Olenick (Perfume and Pearls) lives in Brooklyn with his daughter, son, and wife’s ashes. He had a promising start with a story appearing in Journeys: Prose by Children of the English-Speaking World when he was ten and then put writing aside to focus on the usual sensible adult things. Since his wife’s death, his inner English major has awakened, and he has started writing again as a way to forget and not to forget. His poems have recently appeared in Euphony Journal and Offcourse Literary Journal.

Cole Rise (Illustrator) Traveler, pilot, designer, photographer and entrepreneur, Cole Rise isn’t afraid to try on a variety of roles, depending on where his current obsessions might take him. So it’s no surprise that his past travails include everything from riding across the U.S. taking photos for Harley Davidson, to selling his own design consultancy to Apple.

Richard Risenberg (Negotiation) was dragged to Los Angeles as a child, and has been working there in a number of vernacular occupations since his teens while writing poetry, articles, essays, and fiction, editing online ‘zines, sneaking around with a camera trying to steal people’s souls, and making a general nuisance of himself, which is his forte. He’s survived long enough to become either a respected elder or a tedious old fart, depending on your point of view, and is still at it. It hasn’t been easy for any of us.

Kate Shakespeare (Lavinia’s Tongue) 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.

Kim Shegog (There Isn’t Any More) has an MFA from Converse College and an MA in English from The College of Charleston. Her work has appeared in Appalachian HeritageThe SunOWL, and The Compassion Anthology. She received the 2019 Judith Siegel Pearson Fiction Award from Wayne State University. She has taught creative writing and composition courses at Coastal Carolina University. She lives in Ohio.

Andrew Sutherland (June Resurrection Loop) 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 Ink.

Mark Thomas (Cosmology) 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 and Mail.

John Vanderslice (Him and Me) teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Central Arkansas. His stories, poems, essays, and plays have been widely published, including in such journals as Sou’wester, South 85, Laurel Review, Crazyhorse, and The Pinch. In recent years, he has published two books: Island Fog (Lavender Ink, 2014), a linked story collection, and The Last Days of Oscar Wilde (Burlesque Press, 2018), a historical novel.