Review of Say So

Say So
by Dora Malech
Cleveland State University Poetry Center
November 2010
88 pages

Say So by Dora Malech is a tumble down the language rabbit hole.

It takes you into a world of wordplay that is more than mere playful language. These poems are serious business and will gather your senses until you are absorbed into their consciousness. When Malech titled her book, Say So, it was a signpost to her readers because that is exactly what she does in this, her second full-length collection of poetry.

Malech sets the obvious against the hidden and blends them into a musicality that peels away layers until the reader feels as exposed as the /images in her poems. The wordplay trickles in and around the words like a meandering tributary that opens up into a vast river of /images that rushes through to her readers.

Malech’s speech is straightforward and at times raw. She  begins her poems with a searing openness that both beckons the reader and grips like a vise. Some of the titles in this collection include:

“Oh Grow Up”
“Lying Down With Dogs”
“Note To So Sorry For Self”
“Them’s Fighting Words”
And, my personal favorite: “Goodbye I Love You.”

But these beckoning titles are only a part of the story. Malech takes everyday speech and weaves it into a rhythmic and melodic song. In “Love Poem” she  juxtapositions opposites until they tell an intimate story:

“Get over it, meaning, the moon.
Tell me you’ll dismember this night forever,
you my punch-drunking bag, tar to my feather.
More than the sum of our private parts, we are some
peekaboo, some peak and valley, some
bright equation (if and then but, if er than uh).
My fruit bat, my gewgew. You had me at no duh.” (5)

The combination of positives and negatives within the play of everyday words gives her readers an insight into the duality of love and relationships in a clever, tongue-in-cheek fashion.

But as one reads this collection, one sees through to the heart of this duality. There is something much stronger being expressed within these seemingly playful lines. This is evident in poems such as “Pop Quiz”:

“Twist of lime or twisted arm? Lent hand or footsie?
All the crossword puzzle nouns can’t help me now—“

This ominous beginning only deepens as the poem continues:

“Tactile error means wrong cheek to cheek.
I’m wetting my unicorn suit. Can’t blame this mess
On longwinded weather, cyst, or whiskey dick”

Until we come to the end and are left with a final line of strength and defiance:

“Throat closed for repairs, I gag a bit, allergic
to the peanut gallery: “Its your fucking heart, man.”
I pledge a lesion, draw a spine in the sand.” (47)

Malech’s poems have many voices in this collection: some are sad, some sarcastic, some are funny with a sneering backhand; but, no matter the subject, this collection will sing to you. It is definitely best when read over and over. Keep Say So on your bedside table for those sleepless nights when you need something to remind you that the world is indeed an amazing place filled with contradictions and beauty hiding in very strange places.

 

 

Joan Hanna was born and raised in Philadelphia. She has a BA in Writing Arts from Rowan University and is completing her MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry and Creative Nonfiction at Ashland University. Her poems have appeared in Common threads, Modicum, the premier issue of Glassworks and the 15th anniversary edition of Poetry Ink. Joan is a reader for River Teeth and writes reviews for Author Exposure and Poets’ Quarterly.

“Hopeless in St. Henry of Uppsala” by Mindela Ruby


Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

At chicken o’clock I set off on foot, having quaffed Jolt all night so as not to oversleep right through the sex meeting. People who write me off as a hopeless, organ-grinding tramp should see me now, arriving early at St. Henry of Uppsala for 12 Step.

Not my peppiest or at all sure how to act, I stage my entrance into Community Room 2 with eyes cast low. The chair I pick is near the window. As others take their seats, I feel their attention bushwhack me. Who’s the new girl? The fatty ass punk in the thrift store hound’s tooth skirt –what’s her frailty?

Displaying a chink in the armor’s not my thing. Still, the longer I’m forced to wait for the program to start, the more violently my heart lub-dubs. As the chest contractions hit panic speed, I tell myself, Remember why you’re here: my employer (and well wisher) didn’t fire me, even after “stealing” her car. Instead, she says that if I get in the 12 Step pink, her old Nissan will be mine.

Gain back Sada’s trust and snag her ride? Blowing this sweet a deal would be a stupiculous move.

Besides, my sex life’s hit rock bottom. Of that I am damn sure. All I’m good at lately, other than getting stone cold rejected by heartless dudes, is going cruising for a bruising. The thrill of that’s long gone.

Will sexaholic meetings help? No guarantees. What is a safe bet is that these folks are gonna make me talk about myself. Blather seems to be what self-help is about. Like Sada’s grief workshop at this church, where they unload sagas of sorrow and cheer each other on. I lift my chin and suck hard at air, to not turn blue with fright.

Eight others are present so far. We all wear jackets in the unheated room and look like a pack of bears. I’m shivering and sweating.

For gratifactual distraction, I think of my music promoter kingpin pal (and secret object of desire). When I called Stoney yesterday, he told me our bass player’s dad is sick. She’s visiting her parents, this flounderous fish tale goes, and no one knows when she’ll get back, and Up the Wazoo’s not rehearsing. Or so Stoney and the girls in the band would have me think, if I’m gonna get paranoid about them, and maybe I’d better. Johnny Rotten once said it best: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

On a cue I’ve managed to miss, a man’s lisping voice across the room gets the proceedings underway. “God give uth grayth to akthept with therenity the thingz that can’t be changed.”

One chair over sits the runt who squeezed a rubber squeak-toy in the toilet stall when I accompanied Sada to this church. The toy squeezer isn’t acting like a hyped-up toddler today. She’s quietly pursing her lips during the prayer, but she’s definitely the chick from the can, ‘cause she’s wearing the exact same size-four gray shoes with matching laces. I stare at them as the prayer ends.

Amens erupt, a chorus of confidence, though, if you wanna know the truth, this room’s a far cry from inspiring. The floor is worn to ribbons. The paneling droops. The chairs have seen better days. The one grace note of the excursion struck on my way in, when the church biddies at the refreshment table offered me free coffee. While I tanked a couple of cups, they explained that they’re a Black ministry of Evangelical Lutherans, and St. Henry of Uppsala was a bishop in Finland who got canonized.

Overdosed on caffeine, I’m Too Far Uppsala to capiche whatever point they were making. At any rate, “introductions” have begun, and my glands sweat in hyperdrive as the participants state their names and the gist of why they’re here: “Tarik, Fred, Roxanne…internet sex, physical abuse, romantic escapism,” details that fly faster than bullets in a shoot-out.

“I’m Dales,” a guy in front of me says, “a sex addict who can’t get through a day without ten to twelve ejaculations.”

I grin and digest his sentiment effortlessly. A hush descends like a thought of death. Everyone stares at me. My turn? I’ve got zippo! No handle that neatly justifies my presence. The blood in my lower extremities defies gravity and whooshes up to my face. It’s all I can do to sputter, “Pass” to get everyone’s attention off me.

Someone laughs. I can’t see who. My engorged head hangs between my legs. Introductions end.  The topic “internet addiction” generates cross talk, but I hear only smatterings between heartbeats that in my head sound like, “Get out, get out, get out.” When I rise and follow these dictates to the exit, no one laughs or speaks or tries to stop me . Even the coffee peddlers in the hall ignore me shambling past.  I’m hopeless. Everyone at St. Henry’s knows it.

 

 

Mindela Ruby is a former punk radio deejay and current community college professor. Her fiction has appeared in The Binnacle, Emprise Review, Literary Mama, The Medulla Review and Boundoff audio journal. This piece is an excerpt from a completed novel.

Read our interview with Mindela here.

“Daylily” by Sarah M. Wells

Daylily
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

I tuck away my secrets
in my tepal until
it is time to trumpet
every petal and sepal,

calyx open, throat laughing.
I may be a common
daylily, but today
I will unfurl, wave

my stamen and declare
myself Hemerocallis—
it is mine, this day,
this beautiful day.

 

 

 

Sarah M. Wells is the author of the chapbook, Acquiesce, which won the 2008 Starting Gate Award from Finishing Line Press (March 2009).  Poems by Wells have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry East, Measure, JAMA, Literary Mama, Ascent, Nimrod, Christianity & Literature, Poetry for the Masses, Rock & Sling, The Fourth River, The New Formalist and elsewhere.  She has received scholarships to attend the Key West Literary Seminar and the West Chester Poetry Conference.  Wells is the Administrative Director of the low-residency MFA Program at Ashland University, where she also serves as Managing Editor for both the Ashland Poetry Press and River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative.  She lives in Ashland, Ohio with her husband, Brandon, and their three young children, Lydia, Elvis, and the “bun in the oven,” Henry. Visit her blog for more information: http://driftwoodtumble.blogspot.com.

Read more about Sarah’s work here.

“Ashes” by Virginia Williams

Ashes
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

We brought Ben’s ashes home on a sweltering Thursday in July, six and a half months after his sudden death on a bleak midwinter’s day.

As with many days of that year, Simon and I were quiet on the drive to and from the funeral home, lost in grief for our stillborn child. The unspoken question between us—what now?—would remain unanswered for months, long after we placed Ben’s ashes in the room that would have been his, closed the door and tried to leave the pain inside.

The night he died we fought over a small, stupid thing that had been festering for months. I went to bed angry; Simon went to the basement to resolve the problem – a utility sink blocked up with accumulated household detritus. We woke up mad the next day, too proud to apologize or admit how silly we’d been. It was the day before New Year’s Eve, 2003.

Thirty-nine weeks and four days into pregnancy, I was tired, ready to bring my baby home and be done with aching hips and heartburn. I wanted to meet this new little wonder who was coming to change my life. Outside, it was cold and gray, mirroring my exhaustion; inside, Charlotte, our three-year-old, had an ear infection and fever, and, much as we wanted Ben, we were nervous about bringing a second child into our lives.

That last morning, I stewed in the doctor’s office, angry with Simon, annoyed by the doctor’s slight delay, wishing my regular OB weren’t on vacation. I didn’t notice that my boy wasn’t moving. Blind to everything but myself own self-righteous annoyance, I was confident Ben wasn’t going to arrive anytime soon.

When I finally got to the exam room and on the table, Dr. Todd, a doctor new to me and my pregnancy, rolls out the Doppler heartbeat monitor. He smears cold jelly on my stomach and places the microphone on my belly. Static. He tries again, and still, nothing. He asks where we usually hear the heartbeat, and I indicate the right side of my belly. He tries again. Nothing. My heart starts to beat a little faster.

Dr. Todd remains calm and tells me he thinks the Doppler machine has been dropped on the floor a few too many times, and runs off to retrieve another. We try again. We wait. And nothing.

But then, very faint, is a rapid heartbeat. Dr. Todd says he thinks it might be my heartbeat, and checks my pulse. It is, indeed, my heart racing with fear.

I look at him and say, “Please tell me not to panic.”

He says nothing.

Dr. Todd keeps trying with the Doppler, then says, “I’m going to send you over for an ultrasound to see what’s going on.”

I think that’s when I knew that Ben was dead. I don’t let myself believe it; I tell myself I’m going to have an emergency C-section after the ultrasound and start planning a phone call to Simon.

As I walk out of the office, the receptionist calls out, “Have a Happy New Year.” I think, “If you only knew.”

In the ultrasound room, I lie down yet again while a technologist puts gel on my belly and runs her wand over my protruding stomach. I hold my breath and stare at the ultrasound screen, at my perfect little boy, looking desperately for something, anything, to help me decipher what is happening.

Another doctor enters the room; Dr. Baird is young, with long brown hair, about my age. She briefly looks at the screen and reaches out to grasp my hand. “How are you feeling right now?” she asks.

“I’m feeling pretty scared.”

“I’m sorry to tell you,” she says softly, “but he’s gone.”

And this is when my world stopped.

~

Minutes later, someone leads me down the hall to a small room used for moments like this. There is a box of tissues on a coffee table, some pamphlets on grief, a sofa and two standard medical office armchairs, a side table and telephone. One window looks out onto a cloudy December day, traffic moving past, people bundled up against the cold waiting for the bus. I cannot fathom the world that is carrying on outside this place when I need to tell my husband Ben is dead.

I dial our phone number, wipe away my tears and tell Simon, calmly enough, that I have bad news.

But I don’t know how to tell him the next thing I must say. I gulp for air like a fish on dry land and gasp it out: “The baby died,” and burst into tears once more.

Normally unflappable Simon falters. “What should I do? What should I do?” I instruct him to phone our neighbor and ask her to watch Charlotte. I tell him where to find me in the hospital, begging him to get here soon.

Sobbing, collapsed on the floor, I phone my friend Patty. She’s not at work, but doesn’t answer at home. I phone my friend Sandy at her job. No answer. In desperation, I phone Patty again. Miraculously, she answers. She is home with her children and parents-in-law, and after I say hello, my voice breaks again.

“Patty, the baby died.”

And I cry. She insists on coming to me immediately, her composure a brief respite from the agony of unrelenting sorrow.

Unable to make more calls, I wonder why I didn’t know that Ben was dead. Dr. Todd and Dr. Baird come check on me, help me up from the floor and into an armchair. I ask them how I could not have known Ben was gone, but they have no answers. “I don’t care what you think you did or didn’t do,” says Dr. Baird, “Whether you missed a prenatal vitamin once or ate something you shouldn’t have: you did nothing wrong.” It doesn’t help. For now, I am too stunned to be rational; my heart is twisting itself into knots. It was my job to keep Ben safe, and I failed.

Shortly after Simon and Patty arrive, Dr. Baird returns to talk about what happens next. Our options are few: Doing a caesarean on a mother whose baby has died is too risky, she tells us. Labor can be induced, however, and she suggests we go home, get some rest and come back in the morning. There is no way I can go home and sleep while my baby lies dead in my belly, so we arrange to return that evening, after we’ve found someone to look after our daughter. Once our plan is set, we get up to leave.

Walking down the white hallway in the glare of fluorescent lights, in some bit of cosmic cruelty, all we hear are the heartbeats of other women’s babies. There are doors on either side of us, with other pregnant women, unknowing, unconcerned, bathed in the joy of their particular miracles. Patty and Simon, on either side of me, keep me from dropping to my knees and succumbing permanently to my grief.

~

Just before six o’clock that night, Patty drives us to the hospital. I remember strange and ordinary things from that night: I picture Patty in her winter hat and coat, hugging us goodbye, watching her minivan pull away. The night sky is beautiful, deep and dark. Before I turn to go inside, I catch a glimpse of stars and wonder if Ben is up there too.

~

On the building’s second floor we try to remember where to check in. A young resident sees our confusion and points us toward the Labor and Delivery doors. Thankfully, he doesn’t make any of the polite exchanges many might in this situation: “Good luck” or “Congratulations.” Maybe he sees the sadness on our faces, maybe he knows.

Once we are settled in our room, we are assured that we will be given as much privacy as possible for as long as we are there. A nurse asks me an extensive list of questions to help pinpoint why our baby died: do we have a cat, and did I clean out the litterbox while pregnant? Did I eat rare meat or raw seafood? Is there any family history of birth defects? The answer to all is no. We can think of no reason why our son is dead.

Later, the nurse takes twelve vials of blood from me, which will be tested for various disorders. I have an IV of Pitocin, an IV for fluids, an IV of antibiotics to treat a strep B infection. Another needle is inserted into my spine for an epidural, which helps the physical pain, but there is nothing to be done for my mental anguish. The epidural, however, doesn’t completely take, and they kindly give me another narcotic drug, one I would ordinarily have refused. It eases my fear and anxiety, but can’t cut the ache in my heart.

Throughout the night, Simon and I alternately sleep (another blessing of the epidural is that the numbing of the contractions allows me to rest), read, and cry. And I think, maybe, just maybe, Ben isn’t really dead.

Around 5 a.m., someone tells me it’s time to push. The doctor is called, the nurses return to hold my legs and Simon holds my hand. It is quiet in the delivery room, somber. Through the night I’ve heard other women down the hall, shouting as they push their babies into the world. I am scared of what we might find when Ben is born. Is he deformed? What will he look like? Why did he die?

Unlike a regular delivery, no one offers me a mirror to watch the baby arrive. They don’t ask me to hold my legs, nor do they have Simon help. I am positioned so that I cannot see whatever might emerge below. And I am grateful for that.

I push when I am told, and, at 6:01 a.m., Ben is – what? What should I call this process of birthing, his delivery into the world? There is no word for this. How, I will later wonder, can we be given a death certificate for someone never, officially, born?

Minutes after his birth, I push out the placenta and the doctor cries, “Look at that. There’s a knot in his umbilical cord.” Dr. Todd shows us a perfect knot, pulled tight. “He must have wriggled himself around, probably weeks ago, and then last night pulled on his cord and died.”

“Did it hurt him?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “He wouldn’t have felt a thing.”

I burst into tears, and wail out to the room, “I want my son. I want my son.”

Simon pulls me close, and we cry.

~

Sometimes it feels like Ben was just a dream, a shadow that passed across my life, like the shadow of an airplane over my backyard on a bright summer’s afternoon. But the effect of a shadow never lasts as long as the effect of this child in my world. I will spend the rest of my life longing to go back to him, to the day he was born.

My world turned to ash that day seven years ago; all I knew, all that I held on to, flaked away and crumbled into dust. I built that world up again, but the solid core has weakened, the edges are soft. Those ashes I hold in my hand and heart; my son’s ashes, in an urn, sit now in my living room. Neither is palpable, but they hover invisibly, like wisps of smoke after a candle has been extinguished.

My world has not ended, but I have learned how much can be lost, and how quickly. The question—what now?—no longer lingers in the air. The answer was in what we were doing all along: we just go on. Slowly, the pain recedes, changes us, and becomes forever part of who we are.

 

 

Virginia Williams’ essay “What No One Tells You” was published in the anthology They Were Still Born: Personal Stories About Stillbirth, in November 2010 by Rowman & Littlefield. She has worked as a columnist for ClubMom.com, an online community with over two million members, contributed articles to the Absolute Write e-newsletter, the web site WeddingChickie.com and worked as a Buzz Blogger for Prevention.com. Williams blogs about parenting after a loss at http://www.landofbrokenhearts.blogspot.com, and is currently at work on her first book.

Read our interview with Virginia here.

“The Pugilist” by Kevin Jones

The Pugilist
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

The grass I’m lying on is wet and hasn’t been cut in several weeks judging by its length. There’s a small bug slowly crawling across one long, flat blade and I watch, fascinated by the fact that something could move so carefully, so unaware of the chaos all around it.

This insect lives contently in a universe of its own. I am vaguely aware of movement behind me. I sense, rather than hear, people shouting from above me. I pay no attention; I am happy to watch the bug make its way through its little world. Everything is quiet. Still. Like the world is holding its breath for one small moment.

Behind the bug the background is a blur; my glasses were knocked clean off of my face with the first hit Marco landed.  I can only focus a few feet in front of me. Now, lying on my stomach in the grass beside the bus stop, the morning dew seeping through my coat, I am content to lie here in this sudden and surprising silence for the rest of my life. No more teasing. No more going to the bus stop and waiting in fear to see if Marco is going to walk to school or ambush me near the oleander bushes at the intersection where the other kids wait for the bus. A small gallery of children that has become a loyal audience for my daily hazing.

Last week Marco was sick and didn’t come to school and the other kids were actually disappointed that I was left alone. I made a joke about it, the first step on a long journey toward a sarcastic and self-deprecating sense of humor. “Sorry guys,” I said. “No show today.” I smiled at them like we were all buddies.

Buddies.

These kids who had never once helped me out while I was pushed around the street like a rag doll. Never ran and got an adult from the neighborhood when this bully, this giant kid who was old enough to be a sophomore in high school but had failed so many grades he was still in middle school, pounded me day after day.

They are bored.

And I am the show.

And this is the way of my world.

And today I have had enough. Today, I am finally tired of sneaking back into my house without my mother seeing another black eye, split lip, or random abrasion that I try to explain away as a playground injury.

A particularly rough game of touch football at PE.

A bathroom door that swung open at an inopportune moment.

But never a bully.

My mother will not know what to do about a bully.

Her idea of how to handle things will be to report it to the school. To call the sheriff’s department and file a complaint. Worst of all, to go to the bully’s house and talk to his parents in an attempt to “sort things out.”

Things that will only make my life worse. My teasing more intense. The image of my mother holding my hand and standing next to me at the bus stop with the other kids, this image, it’s beyond horrible.

And she’ll do it too.

I secretly confided in my stepfather, a career military man who, although not a great thinker by any stretch of the imagination, had a certain masculine philosophy that seemed appropriate at a time like this.

“You’ve got to fight this asshole,” he told me one night after I admitted that my cut lip was not from getting hit in kickball.

I blinked in astonished surprise.

“Red,” I said (He was Red to everyone who knew him. I didn’t find out his real name for years. I’m not even sure my mother knew it when she married him). “This guy is huge. He’s fifteen or something.”

“Get a stick,” he said.

I just blinked again.

“Or a rock, or a brick, whatever,” he said. “What I’m saying is, get an equalizer. If the guy is bigger than you, get something to take away that size advantage. It doesn’t matter how big a guy is, if you bash his head in with a stick, he’s gonna go down.”

“Something like a knife?”

“No. Never ever use a knife.” He was adamant, and I remember thinking that this was odd. What could be a greater equalizer than a knife?

He went on. “And if he tries to use a knife, just tell him you’re going to take it away from him.”

The idea of me and my skinny body telling anyone that I was going to take a knife away from them seemed absolutely ludicrous, but I didn’t mention this to my stepfather.

“What I’m trying to tell you is, even if you get beat up, it’s better than being afraid to go to school. It’s better to fight your enemies than to run away. Don’t ever run away from trouble. Be a man and fight for yourself, or you’ll never be able to look yourself in the face.”

This was not only the longest piece of advice Red ever gave me, it was also one of the most profound.

It’s also how I ended up on my belly on the side of the road.

Another Northern California weekday. Forty degrees or so, light fog, and a pack of twelve year olds waiting for the bus in their Lacoste polo shirts and Levi’s Jeans. I arrived in a pair of blue, threadbare corduroy trousers (one of four I owned) with very visible hem marks from where my mother lowered them at the start of the school year. This was her way of saving money. Buy pants that were several inches too long for me and then just “let them out” as the year went on. As a child my body grew up, not out, and I was able to wear my clothes for as long as my mother was willing to patch up the knees and elbows of my middle school wardrobe.

I made my way to the bus stop each morning, the corduroy zip-zipping as I walked down the hill towards the intersection below my house. No one else wore pants like mine. The other kids had designer labels and shopped at the mall for their clothing, and they weren’t hesitant to let me know it.

Marco began picking on me at the beginning of the school year and I never found out why. I was a small, skinny kid, but that was hardly unusual at my school. I wore glasses, but this too was not unique. I was poor, but so was he. If I was going to psychoanalyze the situation I’d say that he was beating up on me in order to fit in with the other, more affluent kids in the neighborhood, only he wasn’t. Marco treated me like shit everyday he was there, but made no effort to talk to the other children at the bus stop.

Even at school, he hung out by himself. Occasionally, someone would report that he was “smoking weed” with some older kids from the high school out behind the large dirt circle that served as the school’s track and field course. But never was it apparent that his punishment of me led to any sort of social advancement.

Marco was huge for seventh grade. Not only had his parents started him late in an attempt to “make him bigger for sports” a not entirely uncommon event in my neighborhood, somewhere along the way he had seen fit to fail a grade or two. Thus, at fifteen years old he towered over the rest of the kids waiting for the bus like an ogre. He couldn’t have looked more intimidating if he tried. He was the perfect bully; straight from central casting. His hair was cut, if it could be called that, into a shaggy, jet black mullet that perpetually hung in his eyes. He wore an olive drab fatigue jacket year round, beat up and dirty with US Army tapes still above the pocket, blue jeans stained with motor oil, and black motorcycle boots that he stuffed his enormous feet into. He looked like a cross between a heavy-set Joey Ramone and a Mexican wrestler and he scared the shit out of me.

But today I have had enough.

Today, when Marco pushed me at the bus stop, I turned around and hit him in his eye as hard as I can. I had to stand on my toes to do it, or maybe I just jumped up when the time came, it’s not really clear anymore. I’m not sure what I thought would happen. In all of the movies that I’d seen, the bully went down like a stone when the victim finally stood up to him. I imagined Marco clutching his eye, collapsing on the ground in pain. Perhaps, in my more dramatic pugilistic fantasies (and there were, admittedly, several of these) blood spurted forth and my attacker permanently lost the use of his eye.

Of course, none of these things happened in real life.

In real life, Marco took a small step back and gave me a surprised look.

Then he threw me to the ground like a rag doll and began kicking the shit out of me.

Somewhere during the journey from standing erect to huddling in a fetal position on the ground my glasses had flown off. I could feel kicks hitting my ribs and shoulders as I lay there, but also something else.

Relief.

I had stood up to Marco, and now, in my seventh grade logic, he would see that I wasn’t going to take it anymore and leave me alone. He wouldn’t have any choice; bullies don’t pick on kids who stand up for themselves. This was the irrefutable law of every television After School Special.

Faintly, in the distance and between the kicks, I can hear a low rumbling noise.

Salvation.

Delivery from pain.

The School Bus, hallowed be thy name.

The one rule held amongst all suburban children, regardless of their social status, was that all mayhem stopped when grown-ups arrived. Especially teachers or other school employees. The bus was no exception.

The blows stop and I hesitantly get to my feet. I can see a big green Marco-blur moving towards the intersection where the other children are forming an orderly line. I can feel hot salty tears covering my face that I don’t remember crying. I am waiting for my face to swell up, my legs to give out. For someone to tell me that my nose is covered in blood.

None of this happens.

The show is over.

It’s time to go to school.

Someone touches my arm.

A girl that I’ve never seen before is handing me my glasses. They’re wet, and one of the arms is bent, but they are otherwise unharmed. I stammer out a thank you but when I look up she is gone. I carefully straighten them out and place the gold rimmed teardrop shaped lenses on my face. My mother suggested these frames when I started wearing glasses a year earlier because they “looked like something a motorcycle rider would wear.” My guy who lives across the street from me is a motorcycle rider. He spends all day working on his bike in the front yard, shirtless in faded jeans. Old, blurry blue-green tattoos cover his arms like a disease, their original shapes lost to time. Sometimes I wonder what they mean, and how this skinny, weather-beaten man ended up in our moderately safe suburban neighborhood of used American cars and weekend Nerf football games.

My stepfather says he’s a dirtbag.

I wipe water from my face and blink a few times to clear my eyes. My world is a bit clearer, my body starting to ache. My head still buzzes with what has just happened. The rest of the world moves on, but something in me has changed. Slight, imperceptible right now, but growing.

I walk over and stand behind Marco who is last in line for the bus. We shuffle forward, inching towards the open door of my savior, big yellow #31. I can hear the offbeat tic-tic sound of the windshield wipers, like an irregular heartbeat, as it starts to sprinkle. My jacket is already soaked from the damp ground where I was tossed. There is dirt on my sleeve, and my trusty blue cords have a rip in one knee.

In what seems like a dream, I grab Marco by the sleeve and lean in close so that only he can hear me. I don’t know why I do this, only that I have an intense need to confirm what I feel here, now, at this moment. That things have changed. Things are different. I can feel him tense up, but I know that he won’t do anything with the bus right here.

I say, “We’re done now.”

I say, “This is over.”

I have no idea where this is coming from, I only know that it’s true.

Marco turns and looks down at me, and I notice that his left eye is red where I hit him.

“Nothing’s over,” he says. He points a finger at his hurt eye. “If this turns black, I’m going to kill you.”

“We’re done Marco. It’s over.”

My body is shaking and I want to cry but I’m too young to understand that this is adrenaline and it’s normal. I’m twelve years old and I think that I’m weak because my voice is shaking so hard that it sounds like I’m freezing to death while I stand here.

Marco faces away from me and we get on the bus. I used to worry about him picking on me during the ride to school, but not anymore. My worst fear was getting into a fight with him, and now I have. I am concerned that his eye might turn black, and that he will get mad again, but part of me also hopes that it does. A kid can say that nothing happened at the bus stop, that he didn’t lose the fight, but every child knows that the kid with the black eye is the one who got his ass kicked. If people at school think that I kicked Marco’s ass, that won’t be such a bad thing.

I would like to say that all of the kids on the bus are looking at me differently now. I would like to say that they all have a new respect for me that wasn’t there before, but I can’t. I am still the poor kid who shops at Woolco for his school clothes and has patches on the knees of his corduroy pants. I am the one who wears polo shirts with a tiger on the pocket instead of an alligator or a man riding a horse. I am the one whose mother trims his bangs once a month and calls it a haircut.

I am the one who hit Marco in the face and gave him a (possible) black eye.

The bus driver (who also looks like he might be a motorcycle rider) gives Marco and me the once over and then shuts the door.

“You want to sit up front behind me kid?” he says.

There is a long moment where the only sound in the world is my breathing and the Steve Miller band singing “Abracadabra” from the driver’s radio bungee corded to the dashboard. Marco has already sat down and stares at me from a few rows back. He sits by himself, like he does everyday. He looks angry, but that’s the way he looks all the time, and I’m through being afraid every day.

I look back at the driver, slouched in his chair, smoothing out his whispy blonde moustache. I can see a pack of cigarettes poking out of the pocket on the olive drab fatigue shirt he is wearing. There are military unit insignia and name tapes on the shirt in all of their proper places. Army units. I wonder briefly if our driver was in Vietnam but he looks too young. I am only twelve and a boy and war is still something romantic and misunderstood to me, something I will later learn is fought by boys not much older than I am now.

“No thanks,” I say. “I’m okay.”

I make my way back to an open seat near the emergency exit, my ribs starting to throb and my glasses crooked, a stupid grin on my face.

 

 

Kevin Jones’ work has been featured in The New York Times, Ink Pot, and the anthologies Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform and Boomtown: Explosive Writing from Ten  Years of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA Program. He lives on Florida’s Gulf Coast where he teaches writing and literature.

Read our interview with Kevin here.

“Slow Hand Antigua” by Dennis Mahagin


Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

It was after hearing your solo
in “Strange Brew” when everybody
started calling you God, and who
could argue? Later, the 80s brought
curlicue lines of killer powder
to an already full plate, conjuring
filigrees for a deadly wrought iron gate
like in the movie Omen II
before it impales
the priest… Styptic pencils, prying
open bloodshot eyes, vodka flasks
in toiletry kit, gig bag, soft leather
case, carrying it, carrying it.

After hiring Nathan East to play bass,
you cleaned up, and bought a plantation
in the West Indies for placing addicts
in anesthetic freeze to stem withdrawal
symptoms in lieu of deities and detritus,
until icicles formed at the anus cracks
of these addicts, long-cock stalactites
the color of faded amethyst. I remember
a December dawn, wracked by chills,
cramps and terror (the usual
withdrawal) — writing you a letter,
the gist of it not even much sincere,
asking if I might come to this new
clinic; God, I sent you

that pathetic note via post office
address in Antigua which I copied
from an article on your career appearing
in Creem Magazine. Sometimes I wonder
what became of that letter: Was it stuffed
in some duffel, packed off to a landfill,
or museum specializing in Pathos and
Cultural Oddities? It’s like something
out of Melville; or what Nietzsche
said about “the things that don’t
kill you.” Well, I lived through

the 90s, and into a new
millenium, and yet I’m not stronger…
Mr. Friedrich told a white lie when he laid
that one down, a platitude for deep thinker’s
decorum in a form letter, sent out to assuage
shame, guilt and doubt that might gnaw
through a man’s guts, or even
drive him nuts.

Still, if you could bottle
the kind of luck, that’s been visited
on me? Might call it recovery, or else
one soporific side-stitch analgesic
sponge for Christ’s cross-top
agony, time lapse for when it can’t
get any worse, then it does: Overkill
and Aftermath. Antigua in every city.
E.C., I forgive you the final fifty three
bars of Layla; how indulgent, simply
goes on, and on, and on and on …
reminds me nobody’s God.
Time is all; my letter
lives.

 

 

Dennis Mahagin is a poet from eastern Washington state. His work has appeared in many literary venues, including Exquisite Corpse, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Absinthe Literary Review, 42opus, 3AM, Slow Trains, Clean Sheets, Juked, PANK, Thieves Jargon, Keyhole, and Night Train. Dennis is also an editor of fiction and poetry at the online zine called FRiGG. A collection of Dennis’ poetry, entitled “Grand Mal,” is forthcoming in ’11 from Rebel Satori Press.Visit DM on the Web: http://fourhourhardon.blogspot.com

Read our interview with Dennis here.

“In All Things, Absent” by Ru Freeman

suitcase
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

In an article titled ‘Estrangement,’ in a summer 2008 issue of AARP, the writer, Jamaica Kinkaid articulates her attempt to come to terms with the fact that she stopped speaking to her mother three years before her death.

Her effort, however, is not full of regret, but incomprehension that she misses her mother, incomprehension that she does not wish to be buried next to her and, also, does not know if she wishes that her own children be buried beside her someday. She ends with the words, “I do not know, I do not know.”

The loss of my mother fills my life with a similar unknowing. My mother was, as her favorite student described her during his heartfelt and perfect eulogy, difficult. And it was her difficulties that my brothers and I, as adults, responded to, not her ease. I learned to dismiss every concern she brought up, about my brothers, their wives, her grandchildren, me, my life, my father, and her health. Her own regrets and sorrow were so deep that I feared that I, too, would fall into that bottomless well and never come up for air, or that my affirmation of those sentiments might seal her forever in that tomb of despair. Had I been listening harder, perhaps, I might have heard the mothering behind what she said, might have assumed, rather, the role that she wanted of me, of a gentle and caring child, of the never-grown-up companion I had once been, of being again the girl whose goal in life had been to wear her clothes and do what she did for a living, teaching literature and Greek & Roman Civilization to armies of devoted boys.

Instead I was the opposite of her. I prided myself in taking no shit from anybody. I was flamboyant where she was conservative, boisterous where she was quiet, and forswore the undying affection of schoolboys and replaced it with the fickle attention of grown men. I frolicked in the man’s world that had circumscribed her life and I laughed when she spoke of devotion, consistency and simplicity, never letting on that in act though not in word, I was all those things. Whereas she had waited, as refined women of her time did, to have her appearance or clothes or work admired by other people, I paid myself compliments. I wrote about politics when all she cared about was the pride felt in seeing her children’s bylines. Somewhere during all those shenanigans I recall seeing both delight and fear in my mother’s eyes.

She seemed to both love the cloak of freedom that I had flung so seemingly easily around myself, and fear for my life. I was not a good woman, I was not a good wife. Somewhere down the line, my husband was bound to leave me. Somewhere down the line, I would need something besides flair and flourish and did I have those other, inner resources? I did, I do, but I was not going to let her see those aspects of myself that were so similar to the strengths she possessed. All I would say in response to her “he might leave you,” was, “and if he does I won’t spend my life running after some man who doesn’t want me.”

In more ways than one, I was trying to define for my mother a life that I wanted her to live. I wanted her to be more like the person I was playing for her. I wanted to rub away the timidity that overcame her whenever she boarded an airplane to America, the kind of thing that would lead airport officials to fling her bags around and deny her compensation for lost luggage and which I could secure on her behalf with no greater skill than a simple steady glare that would leave her full of awe at powers she believed I had; powers she was glad I had, in this strange, unfriendly, place, but whose acquisition she regretted for, as far as she could tell – and she did tell it! – they had exacted the price of tenderness. I wanted to nullify all of her regrets and fears, to drag her into the future where everything was impossibly hard and yet also possible and full of loveliness. I wanted to put make-up on her face, I wanted her to wear the beautiful clothes she owned but never put on, falling back constantly on her worn saris, the old skirt, the tattered nightdress.

But I held that tattered nightdress to my face when I returned home for her funeral, and breathed in not what it showed to the world – its faded, overused fabric – but the sweet perfume it had earned for itself and still held. My mother’s life was full of a doing with which mine could never compare. She had no time for the kind of self-creation with which I had become so adept; she was too busy making a living, staving off hopelessness and, more than everything else, helping the people who came looking for her in a ceaseless stream… People who did not care that she wore no make-up, that she traveled in buses and scooter-taxis in a country where such travel is perilous even for the young and healthy, that she sometimes opened the door to them with a smile, sometimes – quite often – with a scathing, unfiltered criticism, did not care that her home was an uncertain refuge where sometimes the gate was padlocked, and the phone unanswered and nobody could find her, or that she was awash in eccentricities that led her to scream for Brand’s Essence of Chicken as though it was a cure certified by the pantheon of multi-origin Gods whom she worshiped, drive her children out of her house “to go live anywhere,” or hang a sign on one of her precious plants with the following statement: “We are very poor and we have no money for your religious festivities. If you have any money to spare, please leave some here – Happy Vesak, Happy Christmas, Happy Ramazan, Happy Deevali!” That spirit perfumed her clothes, her hair, her life. It did not make everybody admire her, indeed many people – most specially her students – were terrified of incurring her wrath, but it made them love her unabashedly. It made them write to her and come and visit her carrying the cakes and sweets she was not supposed to eat, willing to forgive her moods. That spirit frayed her clothes, splashed them with mud, ripped at their seams.

Over the course of the two days before she died, my mother had hauled a chair to be mended (so the set could be given to my oldest brother), cleaned her house, given her sister money for an operation, called up all her friends, all her relatives, all her favorite students, and all of our friends, and, of course, secured for herself a bottle of Brand’s Essence of Chicken. She had given away much of her wardrobe of beautiful, unspoiled saris and dresses, and most of her vast collection of perfumes. Whatever precious jewelry had not already been given away had been robbed. On the day she died, unbeknownst to any of us, she was so weak she had to ask the woman who worked for her now and again, to boil water for her and bathe her. On that day, after that bath, she used whatever strength she had left to sit down with one of her students to help her with a college application, an application that has since secured a place for her at an Ivy League school. She climbed into a car carrying two saris she wanted to give to the servant of the friend who came to pick her up, and spent most of the journey laughing. She suffered a heart attack right as she was trying to field a telephone call from another student’s tennis coach. She left mid-thought, mid-act, mid-goodness.

I can tell myself a variety of things to stave off the grief that I feel. I can say my brothers were there, their wives were there, she was not alone. I can accept what other people say to me, that a mother does not remember the disappointments, but rather the good times. I can say that she knew, she knew, that though I did not write and did not call, my inner conversations were always with her, that every time I stood before a crowd, or walked down a street or performed some good work or signed a book, or sang to my daughters, what I felt was her presence, her glad acknowledgement that yes, heaven be praised, he had not left me yet, I was still the most beautiful person in the room, the smartest one, the best, in all things the best. In her absence I will never again be that “best” that she saw whenever she looked at me. In a crowd full of women, in my mother’s eyes, I was always more than any of them. On a shelf full of books, mine was better. My words were articulated more clearly, my clothing was more stylish, my deeds were greater, my husband was perfect, my children flawless. I can tell myself stories but they are as useless as my wearing the cardigan that I had bought for her during her last visit, as futile as my attempt to fill it up with her, to feel her around me.

What I remember now is not all the things that I did not affirm in my mother, all the things that I wished she hadn’t done or said, but the things she did do. What I remember is that she brought me music, theater, literature, language, a sense of humor, confidence, strength, joy, and a model of motherhood that runs in my veins as naturally as my blood.

I remember that she found it funny when I placed 38th in a class of 40 students and asked flippantly if I had failed math too, as we walked hand in hand away from the Convent I attended. What I remember is that when I was expelled from that convent for an array of irreverences but subsequently invited back, my mother – though she screamed at me in private and threatened to cut off my hair which, she said, was the source of all my problems – dismissed the offer from the nuns and enrolled me in a “school more suited to (her) daughter’s spirit, intelligence and interests.” What I remember is that she paid for piano lessons when we did not yet own a piano, swallowing her pride and letting us go next door to practice. I remember her voice pouring song after song into all of us, bringing Ireland, England and America to us through lyrics and melodies and that those songs still take the edge off the acts of governments that were also discussed in the house. I remember that she polished the floors of our house on her hands and knees with coconut refuse and kerosene and now and then with polish, that she planted every blade of grass in the garden and pruned her lawn and hedges with hand-held shears that left blisters on her piano-playing fingers and that out of the arid earth that surrounded our city home, she could make flowers bloom. I remember that she gave me a girl-only space in a house that held so many permanent and transient visitors, and that it contained a dressing table, a fan, an almirah, a bed, a table, a bookcase, and the silk bedspreads that had once been gifted to her, and that all of these things made my room magical in a time when magic rarely translated into concrete evidence. I remember that she listened to me read, that when I asked her if she was sleeping, the answer even when it took a while for her to say it was, always, a comforting “no, of course I’m not sleeping!” I remember that she encouraged me to wear my hair short and climb our roof and play French Cricket and run faster than the boys and, also, to steal guavas and skip school to attend cricket matches…

And I remember that she spent a teacher’s salary on buying bolts of fabric that she stored in a suitcase, beautiful cloth waiting to be turned into dresses by the best of seamstresses according to designs I sketched in ballpoint pen. I remember that except for there being no compromising on decency and modesty, she put no restrictions on the clothes I chose to put on, literally and metaphorically. She stood by and let me be everything that she was not. I wish I had done the same for her.

Not long ago, just before I left for a residency where I finished writing my second novel, completing it on the first anniversary of my mother’s death, I went to listen to Jamaica Kinkaid read and speak at Bryn Mawr College. She read from new work, from a story that is told from the perspective of two children who scorn their mother for writing and writing about her own mother, her country of birth. Her answers to the questions posed afterward continued to reflect that conflict. But when I went to introduce myself to her and mentioned that I had used her words to guide me through this new lifetime of grief, she reached out and held my hand. “Oh my dear,” she said, gazing deep into my eyes, “now you are truly an orphan. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter that your father is here with you, when your mother is gone, you are orphaned.”

There are things for which we are never prepared. Childbirth is one of them. The loss of a mother is another. It has been said that, as human beings, there are only three or so significant decisions that we make: whom we marry, whether or not to have children, where we choose to work and live; each of these decisions narrows the world a little further, concentrating our attention on the work involved in succeeding at any of this. But the death of a mother, I have discovered, unravels those decisions and the accompanying work. It has set me adrift in a place where nothing at all makes sense, where there are no anchors or guarantees, where even the statement, “you are going to be taller than me,” uttered to a daughter at the bus stop this morning, comes with a shadow sentence which tells me, even if I don’t say it aloud, that I can make no promises: of the return of the bus, of the greeting at the door, of years in which she might grow into a height that exceeds my own. I can only promise that there will be regret and that the world will, one day, become dislocated for them as it has become for me. But it is a promise I cannot articulate; it waits for them as it did for me.

 

 

Ru Freeman was born into a family of writers and many boys in Colombo, Sri Lanka. After a year of informal study at Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia, she arrived in the United States with a Parker ink pen and a box of Staedler pencils to attend Bates College in Maine. She completed her Masters in Labor Relations at the University of Colombo, and worked in the field of American and international humanitarian assistance and workers’ rights. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Story Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Kaduwa, Pebble Lake Review and elsewhere. She has been awarded four consecutive writing scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and been a fellow at Yaddo. She is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review. Her debut novel, A Disobedient Girl, is published by Atria Books/Simon & Schuster in the USA and Canada, by Viking/Penguin in the UK and territories, and has been translated into Dutch, Italian, Simplified and Complex Chinese, Portuguese, Turkish and Hebrew. She calls both Sri Lanka and America home and writes about the people and countries underneath her skin.

Read our interview with Ru here.

“In the Basement” by Stefanie Freele

In the Basement
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

You do your thing, in the basement of the dorm, under the guise of doing laundry. It is but a ruse; the laundry pile consists of four shirts and a pair of pants, barely enough for a load. You’ve been invited to two parties on the eighth floor, but instead, you’re underground.

The elevator rarely sinks to the basement. The only people traveling to this depth are the janitors and the paltry few who don’t have weekly visits from prudent parents who arrive bearing neatly stacked piles of fresh clothes. Those would be the same parents who leave waving, whisking away bags of dirty laundry. Like your roommate’s parents, who are upstairs right now, writing your roommate another check while she complains of her struggles in Art History. You know the struggle has to do with the fact that the class is at eight am, far too early for her and her boyfriend to get out of the top bunk. The parents don’t know anything about the guy. She’s really a virgin. Sure.

Devouring caramel corn, you sit on a washer, suck down a vanilla milkshake, drinking as fast as possible, unafraid of the looming cold headache and try not to think of the girls at the upstairs parties. Other girls can have a few handfuls of corn, dress for the party, and enter the room laughing. Not you. You can’t stop now.

Underneath the dirty laundry, and inside the basket, juts out the yellow letter that arrived this morning: FALL 1985 MID-TERM GRADES, indicating “D” in three courses, an unopened box of mint cream cookies, the thick kind with a half inch of white soft yuck in the center, a bag of peanut butter chocolate squares, the cheap generic kind you buy by the pound, and a carton of sugar glazed donuts. A quart of milk sits exposed, atop the towels; no one gets weird over the presence of milk.

You pull out one item at a time, but not all at once. That would be giving yourself away, wouldn’t it? You imagine one of those lucky, skinny, and mind-boggling girls, who can eat a half a turkey sandwich and wrap up the rest for later, holding their tummy I’m so full. One of those girls might walk in to see you surrounded by food, shoving it into your face with both hands. But, you’re careful; anyone walking in will just see a package of whatever the current consumption item and a drink.

You stash the empty caramel corn bag behind the detergent and bring out the donuts. They’re softer and the stomach needs the softness to go with the rough of the nuts. Coming back up should be as smooth as possible; clumps stuck in the throat hurt and often make your eyes feel like bursting, like trying to vomit up a bowling ball.

You really should have drunk more liquid and chewed slower so this would be easier, but there is always this time element – an overwhelming need to become filled, quickly as possible. The high, if you call it a high, doesn’t start until the stomach feels like bursting. The cookies come next, and the milk is gone, so you snag a Pepsi from the vending machine and gulp it in four swallows with peanut butter squares. Not the best for downing; stickiness is hard to puke.

One has to heave everything, every drop, every pea size morsel; there cannot be anything left; the stomach must be absolutely empty when all is over.

In your haste to gulp the Pepsi, you fail to put away the boxes of cookies, both sit atop the washer, when a student walks in with an orange plastic crate of laundry. You swat the boxes right off into the garbage, instantly realizing it is a mistake, not to empty those boxes; now you’ll have to dig in the garbage to retrieve them when no one is around. The same garbage full of blue-gray wads of dryer lint. The girl smiles briefly, tosses her ponytail, and heads efficiently toward an empty machine.

Your stomach distends, but you can still stand up straight; there is room; not quite there yet. The student drops in her clothes and picks up a book. She doesn’t pay any attention, so you grab cookies out of the box in the garbage and high-tail it to the hallway, where just around the corner, you stuff your mouth. Why didn’t you buy ice cream? That always makes for the easiest purge.

On your way back in, she passes with that faint smile, the kind of smile that indicates she’s not really there, probably still in that book she was reading. She walks down and opens up the bathroom door. You need more liquid, but water isn’t gluttonous enough. You’re out of quarters for the machine.

But, there is a pile on the student’s dryer. You swipe one for a Mountain Dew  – too much Pepsi with chocolate makes for a foul tasting barf – dump it in the machine and swig.

She comes back to resume her studies, leaning over a washer and highlighting in a textbook, something you should be doing, but never ever do. You don’t even own a highlighter. Instead, you rely on common sense and a bit of natural smarts to get through college; lately your concentration level is minus zero.

With the student’s back to you, you resurrect the rest of the peanut butter squares and ditch back in the hallway again. This time you pace slightly as you eat, feeling the end coming. The burst of energy courses through your arms and you wish you could keep it- could take this energy to the gym. The surge won’t last.

At the water fountain, you swallow about a cup of water and stand up for it all to mix together into a mass for easy expellation.   If only the student doesn’t need to use the bathroom at the same time, doesn’t interrupt the big production, you’ll be safe. The best part about the bathroom in the basement – you know where every single toilet is on the college campus, which are the emptiest and least likely for interruption – is that it’s a single and it can be locked. No chance of disruption. Also, it’s down the corner, so the chances of someone hearing are slim. The empty hallway echoes as you unsteadily walk toward the bathroom. Your distended belly stretches painfully and you hold it up with your hand like a pregnant woman might do.

You lock the door and assume the hated position. Left hand holds the stomach and right hand is used for purging. Your pointer finger is cut up from rubbing on your teeth, it stands aside, healing. Middle finger for this one. At the sight of the toilet, you begin to cry and retch. How did I end up here again? It started ages ago on a quest for gorgeousness, for thinness. Tears blur the pieces of donut and caramel corn. The peanut butter squares catch as expected, too bad, they taste so good, so forbidden. As you choke on a hunk of peanut butter, the tears drain and you press against your stomach to help the vomit flow. Gagging, then a big hunk comes up, of course smaller than it felt in your throat. The roughness of it scratches the esophagus. Whisper and beg to stop. Please let it all come out, I’ll never do it again. You can’t keep any of the calories. More remains in the stomach. The shake and mint cookies. Your stomach feels as if someone punched you in the gut. Legs shiver as sweat dribbles down thighs.

The longer you do this activity, the harder it is. You don’t know if it gets easier for others, as you don’t know any, the habits are secretive; for you, it just gets harder and harder to vomit.

You lean your sweaty forehead on the back of the toilet, conscious of the fact that your face presses onto a toilet seat where who knows what kind of ass last sat. You rub the coolness of the toilet forward and back while whispering. Please stop me please stop me. The last of it comes up, complete with acid and bile. You slink against the door of the stall to quell dizziness. At the sink, you wash your hands over and over again with soap and scrub the outsides of a raw mouth. You rinse several times until the sharp taste is only at the back and then stop at the mirror to see red bloated eyes, and an ugly face.

You lift up your shirt and hold in your stomach to check the fatness. Disgusting. You creep into the hallway, as always prepared with a flu story, in case anyone heard. A dryer buzzes in the distance. You step weakly toward the water fountain, eager to put something in a tender stomach.

You don’t look at the garbage can as you fold the laundry, the remnants of the binge are right there, a few feet away, but you fold and then give up, dumping all the clothes into the basket and walk out. The cold sweats start – the shakes are but minutes away. The student is still highlighting, oblivious. She is highlighting.

The stairs would be fantastic for the thighs, but the legs are flimsy. Where is that previous energy? Your hands tremble toward the elevator button as a wisp of a voice says, “Excuse me.” It could only be one person, the student you’ve stolen from. The student who is about to confront. Quickly, you try to think of a story, when she says, “I’m diabetic. I’m sorry to trouble you, but I’m out of quarters and I noticed you have cookies. Could I have one?”

The cookies gone. Everything is gone. Her quarters are gone. “I think there are some left, but I threw them away.”

The girl rushes to the can and finds the carton. With her mouth full she grins, “Thanks, you are such a life saver.”

You hurry as much as possible for someone who is faint. In your room, you lie down on the bed, wishing for a couple of oranges and a salad, healthy non-binge items. You’re too powerless to get them, knowing that the depleted state will soon lead to an overwhelming urge to scarf down everything in sight.

Like it always does.

You curl toward the window, hugging the pillow and cry sideways, ignoring the roommate when she comes in to get her pass for dinner, pretending you’re asleep. She rustles around with papers, humming, and then leaves.

You roll over, stomach sucked-in and empty; if only you had the smarts to set yourself up with healthy food afterward and a big glass of water. You’re tired, but so hungry now that the stomach felt like its eating itself. You find your dinner pass, an extra sweater – you’re always cold lately – and stolen gum from the roommate, and head for the cafeteria where the all-you-can-eat buffet would be great if you could quit after one plate, if you could just have that salad, but you can’t. Impossible. You used to make promises to yourself to fill up only once, have four squares etc. Now you don’t even kid yourself. The buffet will be filled with starches, a table of desserts, an unlimited supply of ice cream.

So you walk slowly toward the door, down the hallway, ignoring energetic dorm-mates who laugh and bumble down the hallway, shouting after each other. With your head down and clutching the hot acidy stomach, you push the heavy door with a limp arm. A blast of cold air hits you and for just an instant, you’re glad, because you love windy winter weather.

If only someone would stand in the way, but no one notices as you pace toward the cafeteria. No one obstructs – you: the lifesaver. You: conscious of weary knees walking in the direction of more food.

 

 

Stefanie Freele was born and raised in Wisconsin. She is the author of the short story collection Feeding Strays (Lost Horse Press) and the Fiction Editor of the Los Angeles Review. She recently heard some superduper news: one of her stories has won the Glimmer Train Fiction Contest. Recent and forthcoming fiction can be found in The Florida Review, Word Riot, Glimmer Train, American Literary Review, Whitefish Review, and Night Train. She has an MFA from the Northwest Literary Arts – Whidbey Writers Workshop. www.stefaniefreele.com

Read our interview with Stefanie here.

“Bodies” by Matthew Vollmer

Bodies
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

My first night on Pleasure Island, I whiskeyed myself up on the deck of a condo and watched waves pound the beach where the bodies of Confederate and Federal troops had been blown to smithereens.

I’d promised Copeland—my former brother-in-law, the man whose condo I’d commandeered—that under no conditions would I drink. It was a stupid thing to say, but I’d said it early in the morning, which meant it didn’t count. Most mornings, I’m aswarm with promises. No more this, no more that. Of course, the changed man bit lasts about half a day. I blame the sun. Post-zenith, it tends to slope downwards. This downslope takes everything it touches and makes it boozeworthy. As my daddy used to say: drink, drink, and drink some more, for tomorrow we die. But tomorrow, more often than not, we do not die. Tomorrow we wake with blood in our shorts and a toothache of the heart, to make promises that seem keepable, until the downslope awakens our indefatigable whims.

My bottle was empty. I flipped it into the dunes, where it shushed in the grass. I felt grandiose, famished. I would’ve spooned the contents of a mayonnaise jar into my face if there’d been any, but Copeland stocked only salt, pepper, sugar, and chamomile tea. So I shuffled three blocks to a shack reeking of grease, ordered a cheese sandwich and a Wild Turkey, neat.

That night, this bar’s Magnavox blazed with some self-congratulatory bullshit about sexual predators. A host with a face based loosely on the face of a human had made himself available over the internet. There, he’d claimed to be a thirteen-year-old girl who wanted to party; now he hosting of a sting operation. Guys streamed into a McMansion and Host confronted them, and they either prayed for mercy or claimed they’d brought condoms and beer to teach the girls a lesson. Afterward, the cops, wearing bulletproof vests, threw them to the ground, read them their rights. I told the bartender the only way I’d continue to watch this trash was if Host snipped off their cocks and crammed them down their throats. Easy, my neighbor said, some young buck with clippered hair and tatted arms, the usual bozo who thinks because he’s lifted some weights he can police whatever vicinity he finds himself in.

I knew from experience that guys like him were all mouth and flabby muscle. Problem was, they hadn’t spent much time in the ring; their jaws were champagne-flute glass. So what if you were an old sack of jellied gristle. If you’d survived a few bouts and owned a switchblade you’d been carrying since ’82, you had a better than average chance.

“Once upon a time,” I said, “a bastard hacked my daughter to pieces.”

“Sorry to hear that,” the young buck replied.

“That’s not the story,” I said. “The story is that ten years later, I watched that bastard die. And you know what? I liked it. In fact, when they flipped the switch and his body started flopping, I cheered. But it turned out cheering wasn’t the thing to do. My rejoicing carved out a nasty hollow. It taught me something. Take no pleasure in the harm you mean to have done.”

“Sir,” the young buck said. “Get out of my face.”

I flipped out the blade. The guy raised his hands.

“That’ll do,” the bartender said. He was all skin and bones, with a face that suggested he might’ve tasted a restroom floor. And at the end of his tanned, hairless arm, there was a polished .38.

I tossed a ten on the bar, said keep the change.

~

Like a true hot shot, I woke up in the sand, among broken seashells and cigarette butts and ice cream wrappers and those plastic discs you snap on the tops of soda cups. I dragged myself into a sitting position, smacked ants from my legs, and stared at the churning sea. It occurred to me that Primordial Man might’ve watched a similar sunrise bleed across this same froth. He had not, however, smelled doughnuts, and that was one of a few things I could think of that separated his world from mine.

On the boardwalk, House of Doughnuts had raised its garage door and was ready to serve. The woman manning the counter was a tall, haggard granny wearing a knee-brace, already sweating. On wobbly legs tattooed with Looney Tunes, she retrieved a sack of fried dough for the last guy that needed one, a fatso wearing a red Redskins sweatshirt with the sleeves ripped off, a man who nodded and smiled at me, making me feel shitty for having silently cursed his bovine physique.

“Need help?” Granny asked.

“I’m thinking,” I said. The menu couldn’t have been simpler. To eat: doughnuts, glazed. To drink: milk and coffee, small or large. They didn’t take American Express—only cash. I was about to ask for a sample, when a girl trotted in, maybe twelve, no more than thirteen. Blonde braids. Brown, calflike legs, unshaven, adorned with thousands of golden hairs. To say she was a duplicate of my daughter would be saying it wrong. She was my daughter. Which meant she’d either come back from the dead, or I was really bad off.

The girl ordered a dozen doughnuts. Looney Tunes Legs fetched them in no time. So. Not a ghost. I was bad off. Worse than I’d thought. She unwadded a few bills for the granny. I followed her out. I tried to stay at a safe distance, or maybe I didn’t, because I caught up to her, tapped her shoulder. She whirled around; a braid-tip brushed my outstretched hand. A harrowing sight I made for sure, a scorched lump, aglitter with sand. But she didn’t scream. Squinting, she waited for me to explain.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “For a minute I thought, maybe.”

“What?”

I knelt. The earth was tilting. The Lord, I figured, trying to knock me down. “I thought,” I wheezed. “You were somebody.”

“You okay?” She pulled a phone from her hoodie pocket. “I can call 911.”

I shook my head. “It’s just the downslope.”

She frowned.

“Forget it. I’m old,” I explained.

“Angela,” a voice said. A man stood at the other end of the alley.

“You don’t look that old,” she said.

“Angela Simmons!” the voice said again.

“I gotta go,” she whispered. She jogged toward the voice, which belonged to a dude laden with muscle, wearing a baseball hat, sunglasses and Croakies. He yanked her by the arm, a gesture she’d hold onto, to fuel some misplaced father-hate. She couldn’t understand how he needed to feel like he was in charge. Like he had the power to save her. It was a feeling no man could spoil. Unless one came along and did.

I pledged to stay away from the boardwalk. Half an hour later, I still hadn’t left. Slumped in the bucket seat of a race-car game, watching the monitor advertise itself, I was going nowhere, fast. I had yet to make my mark. Across the room, a toddler sporting fake fangs rode a mechanical, sombreroed donkey. The girl, the one from before, stood beside him. She looked bored. She wiggled a foot from one of her sandals, used it to scratch the back of her other leg. She caught me watching and raised her hand. I didn’t wave back. She approached.

“Are you feeling better?” she asked. This touched me. It angered me.

“You shouldn’t talk to people like me,” I said.

She blinked her blue eyes. Her tongue poked the inside of her cheek. My chest prickled, as though a fuse had been lit there. “What kind of person are you?”

“The kind to avoid.”

“Do you know Jesus?” she asked. She had a plastic spider ring on one of her fingers. Her lips gleamed with gloss.

“I’ve heard the name.”

“Well, you should know that He’s real and He loves you.” She opened a coin purse smothered with stickers of wild safari animals, retrieved two quarters and dropped them into my slot. “People should stop being afraid of each other,” she said.

On the screen, numbers counted down: three, two, one. A green light lit up, and all the cars but mine took off.  I stomped the gas. “It might seem okay to think that now,” I said, “but what if the unthinkable had a mind to descend?” She didn’t answer. I glanced behind me. She was gone. The little mechanical pony was still going, riderless. My car—a yellow Lamborghini—burst into flames.

At House of Doughnuts, a new waitress manned the helm. Buxom was the word for her, big in all the places where you want big to be, except for the eyes, which were about three sizes too large, and a chin that seemed embarrassed by its weakness. The eyes I could deal with, as long as I didn’t have to look into them. Her flesh was a luxurious brown, peppered with melanomas. Brown hair waterfalled to her ass, shivered when she walked.  I waited on a stool. She took care of the others, approached me.

“Where’d Looney Tunes go?” I asked.

“Looney Tunes?” she repeated, frowning and grinning.

“Tall granny? Had Bugs and Taz waltzing across her calves.”

“Mom?”

“Really?”

“That’s what we call her. I’m filling in. What can I get you?”

“One quart of whiskey.”

“How about a large milk?”

I gazed, unabashedly, at her bosom. “I haven’t got a dime,” I said.

Gloria winked. “How about we say this one’s on me.”

Gloria had an apartment two blocks from the beach. She’d refused to retire to my condo because it belonged to a man she didn’t know, who rented to people she didn’t know, particles of whom had likely been shed throughout, and she didn’t much care to breathe these particles, or converge with possible secretions. She’d seen a 20/20 where they hired a forensics team to dig around in a hotel room post maid-service. The team had discovered unfathomable particles and unspeakable secretions, and now it was difficult—impossible, even—for Gloria to inhabit private places where other people had lived.

The funny thing being this: she was a bird lady. I should’ve guessed by her dangly turquoise earrings she shared an apartment with such plumage-shedding, shit-producing creatures. The fecundity! I took a whiff before my eyes adjusted to the dark, and despite the tweets, thought pachyderm. The day before, Hurricane Season had officially begun, so Gloria whipped up some Category Fives—glorified Long Island Iced Teas. Gloria reheated a pot of vegetarian jambalaya; Michael, the African Grey parrot, perched on my shoulder and nibbled my ear. I was smitten. Okay, Gloria said, tell me your story, so I did, touching on my time at a boy’s school, how I’d pursued acting, made it as far as a toothpaste commercial, tried my hand as a stuntman, broke both my legs, met my ex-wife at a rodeo, tried real estate, made a fortune, went bankrupt. In short, I told her nearly everything. As a rule, I won’t bring up my daughter with people who don’t already know, unless I feel like wasting half a day circumnavigating their sympathies; it’s like letting someone else tear the scab off a wound that won’t heal. Instead, I told her what seemed as true as anything else: that my daughter was here on Pleasure Island, that it was a complicated story I might share someday, the most important part being that she’d been sent to live with another family, who’d insisted I never contact her again. Gloria pretended to believe me, inquired as to my condition, which I assured her was tolerable. We ate. We drank. We nuzzled. I was pleased to find Gloria’s massive legs were as muscular as they looked. I buried my face in her breast, which ponged of coconut. With her legs, she embraced me. I pumped like a drunken teenager; she acted like it was just the thing. Maybe it was. When the blubbering began, she didn’t inquire. She lapped at my tears, begged me not to stop.

Big surprise: swinging a metal detector feels too much like work, only less fruitful, especially if the battery’s dead. I’d found one in a closet at Copeland’s, figured it’d transform my pathetic beach-amble into something purposeful.

Also I’d filled the pouches of my shorts with airplane bottles of slightly impressive whiskey, charged to a credit card that was about forty dollars from maxed. I tinkled as I walked. Waves ate the beach. In fifty years, I predicted, all this would be gone. Then, I revised that figure to include the phrase “or less.”

The girl and her people lounged near the boardwalk, not too far from what appeared to be a family reunion of black folk, some of whom were playing volleyball without a net, while the less physically inclined—the swollen and possibly handicapped, wearing massive T-shirts—wallowed in the surf. The girl lay on a towel, next to a smaller boy who’d dug himself an impressive hole. Her parents, youngish and athletic, sat in the shade, wearing sunglasses with silver lenses. Their clothes rippled in the wind. Fifteen feet away, I swung my detector over a mound of incandescent seaweed, reading their lips. I didn’t catch much, except for when the father yelled at the kids, reminding them that if they wanted to see Bodyworks they had twenty minutes of beach time. I’d seen a flyer about this thing. People had died, science had claimed their bodies, stripped them of their flesh, snatched out their arteries and organs, shoved it all into the spotlight of a traveling freak show.

I approached the girl’s father. “Excuse me,” I said. “You believe in reincarnation?”

“Huh?”

“I didn’t believe in it, either, until recently.”

“Oh,” he said, raising his book.  “We’re not interested, thanks.”

“Your daughter,” I said. “I had one like her.”

“Excuse me?”

“Keep an eye out. Because you never know. The worst stuff you’ve never thought is out there. The worst doesn’t wait for an invite, either. If I were you, I wouldn’t sleep a wink.”

“Get the fuck away from my family,” he said. He rose from his chair. This guy, unlike the guy from the bar, could’ve put me in my place. Instead, he unsnapped his phone, and punched some numbers. “I’m reporting you,” he said.

“Good,” I said. Message delivered. Whether he listened or not was up to him. Only he could protect that angel from the hands of an animal who had nothing left to live for, except to hold another man’s daughter in his arms.

What I found, with the detector turned on: squat.

At Copeland’s, I opened a little book that’d been left, by his wife I presumed, for renters to record their flattery. Everyone loved the beach! And the house? The décor was fab! Michael’s seafood was awesome. House of Doughnuts rocked! Boy, were they were going to have to lose some weight after THIS vacation! I read every word of that shitstorm, a testament to the sweet oblivion of the unscathed, and spent the rest of the day trying to generate some compliment to pay Pleasure Island. I came up with one thing only, though my hand wouldn’t write it: I want you to sleep in my arms.

The next day, Gloria asked if I wanted to go see the bodies. Had I mentioned this to her? I had not. I took it as a sign and said yes. We drove her Cherokee to a convention center in Wilmington. Gloria looked alive and trashy in a way that commanded attention but caused people to ask: did that just happen? Bangles in her ears, a low cut top, shorts so short she had to keep tugging to keep her cheeks in check. I placed my hand on her lower back, to let everyone know whose side I was on.

A laminated card reminded viewers these bodies were not the bodies of executed Chinese prisoners, merely unclaimed Chinese. Every one lacked flesh. Their musculature had been stripped away, in some cases flayed. I remembered a dream where I died but the electricity stayed on in my brain. No body movements, eyes open, stared at what was in front of me. I imagined every body here cursed with a similar power. Bodies dead, brains alive, flickering with a lesser consciousness, a perpetual state of perplexedness.

“My God,” Gloria said, to the flesh of an obese cadaver, which had been sliced into three sections to illustrate how fat was stored.

A woman in front of us, wearing a fanny pack, pointed to the ceiling, where a fleshless, bug-eyed woman with outstretched arms levitated. With my eyes on her teats—two blind and withered globes—I nearly tripped over another of the skinless bastards. It took me a second to figure out he was kneeling in prayer. His held his heart—or maybe somebody else’s—in his hands. “Promise me something,” I said.

“Shoot,” Gloria replied.

“If I die in the next ten minutes, have me burned to a crisp. Fertilize your garden. Line your bird cages.”

“Please.”

“I suppose you’d prefer me to get all dolled up, stuff me into a box?”

“I’d prefer you to be eaten,” she said. She grabbed my hand, started gnawing an index finger.

“I don’t expect you’d like my taste.”

“Not by me, retardo,” she said. “Birds.”

“Yours?”

She shook her head. “Too finicky. Turkey vultures, though? Turkey vultures would get the job done.”

I took a break from the exhibit to conjure a vulture-beak. It scooped out one of Gloria’s eyeballs.

“You okay?”

I wasn’t sure. I felt like I had somewhere to get to, someplace I didn’t want to visit. I pointed to her purse. “You got any booze in that thing?”

“You want a Midol?”

“I’m not menstruating.”

She pressed the back of her hand to my forehead, pronounced it clammy.  “I could really use a drink.”

“Take deep breaths,” she said. “Close your eyes.”

I nodded.

“Think about something nice.”

My daughter appeared. She was a baby, maybe four. She was asking me how much I loved her. This was a game of ours. A pastime. She’d ask how much, I’d yell a gazillion! I’d ask her how much she loved me and she’d yell sixty! Wow, I’d say, sixty’s a lot.

“Is sixty a lot?” I ask.

“It depends.”

“Wrong,” I say. I swallow. The back of my throat tastes like snot. “Sixty’s not a lot. Sixty’s nothing. I’m ten years from sixty now. That’s six times the number of years my daughter breathed the air of this earth before she was slain.”

I hadn’t meant to include this part. But I’d been staring at the muscle-threads of a man carrying his own skin—like a coat—over his arm, and my mouth, as usual, had a mind of its own.

Halfway through the exhibit, Gloria and I found an oasis: a bamboo café. At the counter, an adolescent boy with a Mohawk dispensed coffee and offered us free chunks of nut-infested brownies. We sat at a wobbly table, its unwiped surface agleam with the residue of spilt beverages. I took one sip, and scalded my tongue. The story arrived like a deluge.

Once upon a time, a man and a woman made a child. The child wasn’t perfect. In fact, the child was, for the first two years of its life, a terror. Never satisfied, threw tantrums, the whole bit. Toddlerhood, however, transformed her. She learned how to speak. She didn’t lose the mean-spiritedness, which she’d inherited from her father, but she loved to talk, to tell her parents how much she loved them. She loved to love, loved to be loved. She’d don her Snow White mask, listen to the man’s heartbeat through a fake stethoscope, shake her head gravely, and say: you haven’t had enough kisses today.

One day, another man—a neighbor, no less—invited this child into his truck. Something had happened, he’d said, to her parents. But nothing had. What’d happened was he had dreamed of performing unspeakable acts upon the girl’s body, before her death, and after.  And that’s what he did. Six days went by. On the seventh, a fisherman found the girl’s hand bobbing in a river. Cops were summoned, parents were summoned, the body was identified, the predator nabbed, the funeral performed and forgotten.

In the years that followed, the woman was the one who proved herself. She wept often, but not always. She slept at night, got up in the morning. She found ways to go on, move on, get past, overcome. Meanwhile, the man lay in bed, grinding his teeth like he had a mouthful of glass. She’d tell him to go on, and he’d go on, out somewhere, into whatever building had its doors open and encouraged the worst habits money could buy. Eventually, the woman moved west with an aspiring soul-winner, sent postcards from the desert imploring her ex to get personal with the Lord. For a while, the man did get personal. He cussed the Lord like you would a family member. Then, one day, the Lord broke the news: a daughter who’d been hacked to pulp can’t be buried. You will carry the pulp with you.  That pulp was your heart. It would lend no hand with sympathy.

It wouldn’t let me die.

Gloria’s fingers—her talon-like nails shellacked with paint—fanned her eyes, as if casting a spell on her face. Her lips turned inward.

“Don’t,” I said, “You’re not pretty when you cry.”

“Baby,” she replied. “Don’t be mean.”

“I’d have to die first,” I said.

Gloria put her lips to my ear. “I want you inside me.”

“I’ll allow it,” I said, “on one condition.”

“Anything,” she said.

“No matter what transpires, you won’t shed a tear.”

She said she’d promise me nothing. I knew then she was mine.

~

We had a whole floor to get through—bodies playing poker but not, bodies running but not, bodies conducting an orchestra and posing like the Thinker and riding the flesh-stripped bodies of horses but not—and then, after the exit, the harsh light of a downsloping sun.  How much of us it would fail to reveal? Only time would tell. Right now we had bodies to view, some whole, some not, some torn down the middle. We had bloated hearts and charred lungs and shriveled peckers to size up. We had shudders to inhabit. We had conversations to overhear: my uncle had heart disease; epidermis is your largest organ; I knew someone with a hydrocephalic child; I happen to think we’d be beautiful without skin!

I looked for the girl I’d seen before, the one who looked like my daughter. I told Gloria what she looked like, told her to alert me should one like her make an appearance. Look out for braids, I said. Strawberry-colored barrettes. Baby fat. Brown limbs and crooked teeth. A propensity to rely on fingers when counting. An insatiable love for animals, especially those injured, made lame, or missing a leg or three.

I had no reason to dream. I had no business envisioning a new era, where everything vital would come back from the dead. But, I told myself, I was keeping my eyes open. Peeled, as they say.

But back at her apartment, Gloria wanted them shut. She had a present for me, and this present required a blindfold. I lay prostrate-side-up on her floor, like she asked. Also: my clothes were gone, removed by Gloria herself. I was a little afraid, and said so.

“Don’t be,” Gloria said. I heard bird-peeps, the squeak of cage doors flung open. “Relax,” she said.

“Impossible,” I replied.

“Then pretend. Pretend like you know how to relax.”

“Play dead?”

“Exactly.”

Soon, they were upon me. Their tiny bird-feet. Their claws. Their beaks, nibbling and nibbling. The little wings, feather-kissing my flesh.

“Move your hands,” Gloria said.

“I wish for that part of me to remain unpecked,” I said.

“Leave that to me,” she said. She climbed aboard.

The birds tweeted. One nipped at my ear, another at the cloth above my eyelid. Gloria rocked and rocked.

“Are we… too old… for babies?” I asked.

“Let me… get back to you…”

“Keep… getting… back.”

“Keep… inquiring.”

The air pulsed with bird wings. I hadn’t known she had so many. Maybe they weren’t all hers. Maybe they’d flown through the open windows, from all directions—from the land, from the trees, the sky, the sea. The screeches they made! A cacophonous song—one that, I suspected, was imploring their winged brethren to abandon the dead and rotting things of the world, so as to observe our fervent wallowing. We were, I was sure, a sight to behold: two withered creatures, laboring and laboring, blind with the belief we might make something new.

 


Matthew Vollmer is the author of FUTURE MISSIONARIES OF AMERICA, a story collection. He is the co-editor, with David Shields, of Fraudulent Artifacts: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Dubious Documents, forthcoming from W. W. Norton. Previous work has appeared in Paris Review, Epoch, Tin House, VQR, Colorado Review and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing at Virginia Tech and is at work on a novel. Read more of his work at http://www.matthewvollmer.com and visit his blog at http://matthewvollmer.tumblr.com.

Read our interview with Matthew here.

“The Darning Needles” by Diane Hoover Bechtler

Darning Needles
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

When a marriage fails, people eventually begin saying, “It’s time for you to move on.”

Why do they say that? A marriage is not a building to be vacated. I don’t want to move on. Why would I? Does Nessie want to leave his loch? Was Dorothy really happy when she returned to Kansas or in her sleep did she mumble, “There’s no place like Oz, there’s no place like Oz”?

~

I don’t know how to mend things. A hole has appeared in my favorite cashmere sweater – the one he bought me from a boutique we discovered in Rome while we ambled through the warren of streets at the bottom of the Spanish steps. We were happily lost most of that day until we stumbled upon the familiar Trevi fountain.

We each made a wish and tossed coins into its water, thus assuring our return to Rome. I don’t know if the legend means we return together or apart. Perhaps the legend doesn’t know. I certainly don’t. After tossing the coins, we skipped away, laughing and holding our stuffed shopping bags, the sweater nestled in one.

I rummaged through a small sewing kit given to me years ago by a flight attendant–needles, some thread, and a couple of clear buttons. I didn’t remember sewing supplies in my condo. My subconscious must have packed it away. The job of mending the hole needed something more than a plain sewing needle. I thought of my vintage darning needles. I pulled them from the vitrine and tried to remember how to darn. I could not remember. I went back to my plain steel needle. I connected the ragged edges of the hole, but they didn’t fit neatly together. The result was an ugly knot.

A woman at the alteration shop clicked long blue fingernails on white speckled Formica and examined the garment.

She said, “Honey, that thing will have to be rewove. I imagine it will cost you a couple hundred bucks. Maybe more. If you don’t want it sewed like you got it, you best throw it away. Go buy a new one.”

I wanted to protest, “This is a piece of my history. It’s not from the local department store. It’s from Italy, a country I may never see again despite throwing coins in fountains.”

But I said nothing. I just left and took the sweater home, folded it sleeves-inward, wrapped it in tissue, and cradled it in the bag for Goodwill. Another woman may not care about the damage. For me the hole is so large that I fall through it into an alien and hostile world, where teapots break in poorly packed boxes, tiles drop from walls, and where I reach for a familiar cup and it isn’t there.

As we divided personal property, my last months with my husband blurred. Summer came and I signed papers giving him the New York apartment. Flowers faded. I sold my vintage Mercedes. Halloween happened. I gave him the airplane. Leaves turned red and gold. I gathered my personal things from the vacation house. Thanksgiving arrived. I shopped for condos. Christmas came. My husband ran off with the Ferrari and Tina. Isn’t there always a Tina or Dixie or Trixie? A snowstorm hit. I moved during it. I measured time by gas and frost. The act of packing my art collection has vanished from my mind. I can’t recall the first time I saw my new condo or picking out the counter tops and carpet. I talked to Mel, my therapist, because it was strange that I couldn’t remember the last weeks I spent with my husband, a man I adored.

Mel explained, “It’s called the ‘battered child syndrome.’ “A part of you knew whatever was coming was going to hurt really bad.” As he talked, his jaw clenched and he chewed his words. “For self-preservation, your mind went somewhere else. Your brain shut down.”

I shook my head, “But my brain shouldn’t have had to go away. He and I shouldn’t be apart.”

On the many trips between the house that now belonged to only my husband and the condo that belonged only to me, I passed the same woman.

She stood on a corner holding a cardboard sign that has become too common. In block letters, it said, homeless, hungry, need work, need food, have children. After a few days of passing time and time again, I stopped seeing her. She was just another landmark.

I remembered the sweater. I rolled down my window and handed her the sweater and a twenty.

The darning needles were from my grandmother and my childhood. She taught me how to darn, a skill that has fallen out of fashion. It is easier to throw things away and buy new ones.

I also have my grandmother’s pedal sewing machine. Because I could not mend the sweater I sewed a sackcloth robe to wear while I sit in ashes.

 

 

Diane Hoover Bechtler lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband, Michael Gross who is a poet with a day job and with their cat, Call Me IshMeow. As well as writing short work, she is working on a novel about a likable character who strives against great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal. She has an undergraduate degree in English from Queens University where she graduated summa cum laude and subsequently earned her MFA. She has had short work published in journals such as The Gettysburg Review, Thema Literary Journal, Everyday Fiction, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

Read an interview with Diane here.