“In All Things, Absent” by Ru Freeman

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.

“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



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.

“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.


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.


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.


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.

“The Lemon Method” by Anne Elliott

The Lemon Method
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

He stands four floors below, outside the window, playing God Bless America all goddamn day.

Across the street, a chapel is covered in ash, festooned with flags, crayon drawings, chains of origami birds. Gravestones in the churchyard, two centuries old, gray dirt, dead grass. Even the grass, dead. Looming behind, stubs of famous office tower, gravestones too, lit yellow into the night, still smoking.

Our old office is damaged, off limits, behind checkpoints we can see from our window.  Our new office is a conference room, four of us crowded around one table.  Laptops, papers, Doritos, dry-erase board.  And a lemon.  Tasha brought it to deal with our troubadour.

“If you show him the lemon,” Tasha says, “He won’t be able to play. It works to stop a whistler.” An old Russian trick, like medical suction cups bruising your back, like dog saliva to ward off infection.

“You just show it to him?” I’m laughing. I’m skeptical. This lemon is the best thing I have seen for awhile.

The lemon sits on the table for weeks, while the fife plays on. He doesn’t know we are in here, that we hear him all day, that his song penetrates our jumpy bodies like ash: particles of asphalt, computers, bones.

Phone calls from Boston, clients growing impatient. Now I notice how loud this colleague chews, that one laughs. Eyes to my screen, but nothing gets done. I look at the same word fifty times, and forget it fifty times. Every number looks wrong to me. A war of feet under the table, and apologies grow less sincere. That person’s lunch smells disgusting. I look straight ahead, out the window, at the newly empty sky.

I can’t take this song any more. I grab the lemon and go outside, ready to face the enemy.

On the street, tourists push against police barriers to get a glimpse of what isn’t there. Eyes turn skyward, mouths gape, taking in the dirty air.The fife guy breathes this all day. This is the gritty wind going through his instrument. The hat beside him holds quarters, no bills. He’s just an entrepreneur. He’s a symptom.

I hold the lemon up, show it to the disease. The stars and stripes, the new sirens, the horrid blue sky, the junk of grief.  I give it a good squeeze. It pushes back, solid and cool in my hand. When I go back inside, the fife plays on. The gritty wind is still there. The lookers still gape. Nothing has changed except my palm. It has turned waxy white, and smells like an innocent summer.


Anne Elliott is a securities analyst / writer living in Brooklyn. She has performed spoken word, with and without ukulele, at PS122, The Whitney Museum, St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and Woodstock ’94. Her stories have appeared in Hobart, Pindeldyboz, Opium, and others. Her hobbies include knitting and feral cat management.

Read our interview with Anne here.

“The Athlete” by Ed Falco

The Athlete
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

It had been years since El played a game of chess on an actual chess board with actual pieces, and even longer since he had chatted easily with a woman, and yet there he was, in the ornate living room of an old Victorian home in Lexington, Kentucky, seated in an overstuffed chair across from Tess, a tall-ish, athletic-looking woman of about his age, mid- to late-fifties, though he’d have guessed when he first met her that she was younger.

She sat across from him in another overstuffed chair, looking down to the slate table between them at a handsome antique chessboard and pieces. She wore faded blue jeans and a thin pale-yellow turtle-neck sweater that hid the loose folds of her neck, where, he had noticed the night before, her age did show. In her eyes he found a mix of intelligence and weariness he associated with successful women. He’d just explained that all the chess playing he’d done lately had been on a computer screen, with anonymous opponents from all over the world, and she’d said huh, as if it amazed her anyone would want to spend his time playing chess with someone he couldn’t see. They’d been talking like this, sharing little bits and pieces of their lives, for the past day and a half, since they’d been seat-mates on a flight out of New York to Roanoke, Virginia––a flight that had been diverted because of fog. They’d wound up in the Lexington airport late in the evening, and when flights there were grounded because of snow, they wound up sharing a cab to the same Bed and Breakfast a few miles from the airport, where they wound up sharing nightcaps in Tess’s room, followed by more easy conversation that lasted for hours and ended with them making love and falling asleep in each other’s arms.

In the morning, to El’s surprise, there was very little awkwardness. They’d risen, showered, dressed, and then gone down to breakfast chattering away, talking about everything in the world, from their histories and their lives to politics and science. It was as if neither of them could talk fast enough. Turned out, they both lived in TriBeca, relatively close to each other: El on North Moore Street, Tess on Leonard. They were both divorced, El for the six years, Tess for ten. El had been married for a dozen years before the divorce, Tess for more than twenty. They both had grown children: Tess, two girls and a boy; El, a son and a daughter. Tess worked in fundraising, El was in sales.

After breakfast, they’d retired to the living room and spent most of the rest of the day in front of an open fireplace, and every hour or so one or other of them took a chunk of wood from a stack on the red brick outer hearth and tossed it into the flames. Late in the afternoon, when it was clear there would be no flights out of Lexington until sometime the next day, the woman who ran the B&B, a grandmotherly figure with a balding head of gray hair and a belly that made her look impossibly pregnant, asked if they’d mind if she left them alone for awhile while she went to look after an elderly friend. Now it was late afternoon, the light outside gray and solemn, and they were alone in the house, midway through a chess game neither of them cared much about, a game that was meant only to provide an occasional diversion from their ongoing conversation.

Tess looked up from the chessboard, out a bay window overlooking a sloping hill and a trail that disappeared into a line of snow-covered trees. “Let’s go for a walk,” she said, “before it gets dark.”

“Seriously?” El looked out the window again, as if he might have been missing something. The snow was still coming down, though lightly, and there looked to be a foot or so on the ground. The scene was peaceful if dark––gently falling snow over fields and woods––until a gust of wind sent furious white swirls spinning into the trees.

“You’re a big guy,” Tess said. “You can take it.”

El said, “Looks awfully cold out there,” and then opened his arms and gazed down at himself, at the thin, dressy slacks and black shoes, at the white cotton shirt with fine blue stripes, more appropriate for a board meeting than a hike in the snow.

“She’s got everything,” Tess said. She jumped up from her chair, as if officially announcing the game of chess was over, and she motioned for El to follow her. “Look at this.” She opened a door off the foyer to reveal a closet stuffed full of winter gear in a variety of sizes: coats, scarves, boots, hats, gloves, multiples of everything. “Elwood,” she said, using his full name, teasing a little. “They have actual real woods here in Kentucky. Right out there, in fact.” She pointed out the bay window.

El wrapped a long green scarf around his neck and foraged through a line of winter coats, looking for something that might fit him. He was six-one and bulky, with thick legs and heavy thighs. “Did I tell you I played point guard in college?” he asked as he tried on the only coat he could find that would reach down to his waist.

“Really?” Tess said. “I love basketball. Were you good?” Then she added, quickly, “I mean, you must have been good––”

El laughed and said, “That’s all right.” He was struggling to get the coat zipper up over his belly. “I was too small to get much playing time, but when they let me on the court, I usually did pretty well.”

“Did you like playing?”

“Loved it,” El said, and left it at that. He took a step back and opened his arms. The coat was too small for him, but he’d managed to get it zipped up and buttoned.

“You need to put a second pair of pants on over those,” she said. “Do you have anything a little sturdier?”

“Pants?” He shook his head. “I’ve got another pair of dress slacks.”

“Better go get them,” she said. “The wind will whip right through those; might as well be naked.”

El said, “Fine. I’ll be a well-dressed woodsman,” and he went back up to the bedroom, where he found a heavier pair of socks and put them on over the first pair, and then struggled into a second pair of pants.

Before leaving the room, he looked at himself in a free-standing, full-length mirror. As he expected, he looked ridiculous: a big guy with a round face framed by a full head of gray hair, wearing a too-tight winter coat and a long green scarf with gray dress slacks, two pair. He smiled, amused at the figure he cut––and then his thoughts took a quick turn back to basketball. He had been modest with Tess. He hadn’t told her that in high school he’d been the team’s leading scorer sophomore through senior year, and that one college scout who watched him play said he had the sweetest three-point shot in the region. Still, he had no offers from Division I schools. Too small. He’d heard it over and over, through high school and college. Too small. After high school, he traveled halfway across the country to play for Oklahoma Wesleyan, a good Division 2 basketball school––only to get limited playing time, because, of course, he was too small to compete against the bigger, stronger players in the league.

Too small. The words were lodged somewhere deep inside him like slivers of heat. He told Tess he loved basketball, but his feeling for the game, back then at least, was something more than that. His whole life was immersed in basketball. When he wasn’t playing, he was practicing. When he wasn’t practicing the game, he was thinking about it. He did only what he had to do to get through the academics in high school, and the same in college. He was a good basketball player, and he believed that would be his future. In high school, he believed he’d be recruited by a division 1 team and go on to play in the pros. When that didn’t happen and he went on to a division 2 school, he believed he’d be noticed there and go on to play in the pros. When that didn’t happen, when he finished college having spent infinitely more time on the bench than on the court, he found himself ill-prepared for the work world. He wound up in sales by default, and he’d been in sales ever since. When he thought of basketball now, it was often with anger. His coaches and team mates, his parents and his friends, they’d all tried to tell him. He was too small for the pros. It wasn’t going to happen. He’d never forgiven them for being right, nor himself for not proving them wrong. His memories of basketball were buried in him like flames, like a roiling circle of heat.

Downstairs, he found Tess in front of the bay window, bundled up in a red quilted ski jacket, a white knit cap with ear muffs, and a long green scarf identical to the one he was wearing. “You look like a Christmas tree,” he said, and then laughed at his own joke.

“I put out some boots,” Tess said, “that look like they’ll fit you.” She pointed to the closet.

El said, “perfect,” as he slid his foot into a boot. A moment later he’d donned a knit cap and gloves and was heading out the front door with Tess behind him.

“Cold,” Tess said, announcing the obvious. She pulled her hat down over her forehead and wrapped her scarf over her face so only her eyes were exposed.

They waited together for a moment on the front steps of the house, looking across a snow-covered lawn that descended to a blacktop road. A plow had gone by less than an hour earlier, and the road was slushy with patches of ice and snow. Beyond the road was an open field surrounded by trees.

El said, “Sure you want to do this?”

Tess said, “I bet you it’ll be warmer when we get into the trees and out of the wind,” and then she lurched forward, down a pair of steps and toward the driveway.

“That’s a theory,” El said, following her, “but I wouldn’t bet on it.”

On the other side of the house, as they trekked over snow toward the tree line, a gust of wind kicked up and seemed to cut right through El. He stopped to tuck his pant legs into his boots, and when he looked up Tess had turned her back to the trees and was waiting for him. She pulled the scarf away from her face to reveal a smile. “Hey!” she called. “It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?”

El gave himself a moment to take in the white expanse of field enclosed by towering green-and-white speckled trees, their branches loaded with powdery snow. He jogged to catch up with Tess. When he reached her, he put his arm over her shoulder and pulled her close. She felt solid in his grasp, her body slim but muscular, and they continued trekking together through the snow toward the trees.

El’s marriage was largely a disaster, but as he walked through the cold and wind with his arm around Tess, his thoughts returned a moment to the good early days, when he had been in love with his wife, when they used to take long walks and talk about their future. El hadn’t had a loving thought about his wife in so long the memory left him feeling first disoriented and then sad. She had turned both his children against him. She had cost him a fortune in lawyer’s fees. She’d wound up with the house and most of his retirement fund, so that now he’d never be able to retire comfortably. He was distant from his children, money was tight, and he’d be working in sales until he got too old to do it anymore. After that, he didn’t know what would happen to him.

“Look,” Tess said. She pointed to a gap in the trees.

“Trail head.” El squeezed Tess’s shoulder and then let her loose. In the last several years, he had trained himself, with the help of a therapist, not to think much about his wife. There had been a point, before he started seeing a counselor, when he’d been so eaten up with bitterness he’d found himself thinking about murder and suicide, about killing his wife and his children and then himself. That he could even entertain such thoughts had frightened him into counseling. His therapist put him on medication for a couple of years, and that had helped––and now he lived an essentially solitary life that revolved around work. When he met people, it was through work. When he did anything social, it was through work. He had a distant, formal relationship with his children, and though he would have loved something more intimate, he didn’t know how to make it happen. He hadn’t spoken to his ex since the last time they’d met in a lawyer’s office, six years ago.

Once they were in the woods and out of the wind, it turned out Tess was right, and it was noticeably warmer. Tess leaned back against a boulder and undid her scarf, which she had wound around her neck and face. “Isn’t it great to be out in this?” she said. “I love Manhattan, but, wow . . .” She gestured to the snow-covered trees and the scattering of rocks and boulders all around them. “I’d forgotten how beautiful.”

El crouched in front of her and wrapped his arms around his knees. “But it’s still cold,” he said, “really cold.”

“This world . . .” Tess said, and she turned to look out through the trees, toward what appeared to be a meadow, some forty, fifty feet in front of them, at the bottom of a hill.

El pulled himself upright, embraced Tess, and kissed her. Tess seemed surprised at first, but then she put her arms around him and kissed him back.

“This is crazy,” El said. “Don’t you think?”

“What is?”

“Us,” El said. “This.” When Tess didn’t answer, he said, “Is it just me?”

Tess watched El for a moment, her eyes on his eyes, and then she kissed him again. “It’s all crazy,” she said. She reached for his hand and pulled him along.

El followed Tess on the trail, which curved around one boulder that was several feet high, and then between a pair of boulders that formed a narrow corridor and opened onto a steep downhill slope to the meadow. When the wind stopped for a moment, the woods grew suddenly quiet. El let go of Tess’s hand, possessed suddenly of an urge to touch the ragged surface of one of the boulders. As Tess continued down the hill, he took off one glove and pressed the palm of his hand to the rock. It was cold and solid. What else did he expect? Still, he held his hand against the stone and pushed his fingertips into the gritty surface. How long, he wondered, had this boulder been here, unmoved and unmoving? A few hundred thousand years? Millions? He rummaged around in his memory of geography classes and came up with an image of mountainous glaciers slowly retreating, gouging holes in the earth and leaving huge boulders scattered like pebbles.

Tess waved from the bottom of the hill. “Come look at this,” she called. “It’s lovely.”

Before El reached Tess, midway down the hill, it occurred to him the meadow wasn’t a meadow. It was too big, and there was something about the way the trees on the far side, now that he could see across . . . the trees all descended to the open space. It reminded him of his visits to the ocean in Oregon, the way the mountains descended to the sea. There was a space of perhaps two or three seconds between the moment it first dawned on him there was something odd about this meadow and the moment he realized it wasn’t a meadow at all, but a pond, a large pond surrounded by woods––and in those two or three seconds, Tess stepped out onto the ice and her feet slid out from under her.

El yelled “Wait!” and started to jog down the hill. He had only taken a couple of steps when he tripped on something, a rock or an exposed root. To keep his balance, he reached for a tree and slammed sideways into it, and then lost his balance anyway and tumbled and rolled for several feet before finally coming to a stop. Through all this, he was keenly aware of the bulk of his body: it felt like a great weight, utterly beyond his control, radically different from the body of his youth, the one he could hurl about on the basketball court so athletically. He didn’t know what shocked him more, the fall or that sense of his body as lumbering, uncontrollable bulk.

“It’s all ice,” Tess said. She had pulled herself to her feet and was looking up the hill. “Are you okay?” she asked. “You’re bleeding.”

“It’s a pond,” El called back to her. He wiped blood from the side of his face. First he thought he must have gotten scraped up when he hit the tree; then he realized there was too much blood, and he had gashed himself somewhere.

“You think?” Tess said. She was crouched and looking at the ice under her feet, her arms spread for balance. “Guess so,” she said.

A gust of wind came up and sent a spiral of snow across the pond as Tess took a careful step toward the shore and most of her body disappeared under the ice. El didn’t hear anything crack. There was no sound at all. One moment Tess was upright on the ice and the next she was submerged to her shoulders.

Tess said “Oh,” and then “Lord,” and looked up at El as if she were embarrassed.

At the bottom of the hill, El got down on his knees and worked to extricate a long branch from a pile of icy brush. The gloves were interfering with his grip and so he pulled them off and tossed them onto the ice. Tess had said only those two words—“Oh,” and “Lord”––and then she had gone silent as she struggled to pull herself out of the water, pushing her body forward. She appeared to be trying to walk, and slipping with each step. Her body lurched upright and then fell forward three times in quick succession, and then she stopped, her eyes open in a frightened glare, staring up the hill. She seemed to be conscious and aware. She was breathing hard, but she wasn’t moving or speaking.

When El, at last, was able to pull the branch free, he lay down on his belly and extended it to Tess. The ice was cracked and shattered now all the way to the shoreline, and he could see that the drop off was steep. Tess was only ten feet in front of him and the water was up to her breasts. “Take it,” he yelled. Tess clutched her heart with one hand and looked at the branch as if she couldn’t quite make out what it was or what to do with it. Her free arm rested easily on a heavy chunk of ice pressed up against her chest. “Take it,” El repeated. “I’ll pull you out. Grab hold of it.”

Tess looked at El and then at the shore, and then she lunged at the branch, reaching for it with both hands. For a second she managed to grab hold of it. One moment her arms were wrapped around the branch, her whole body leaning over it––and the next moment she was gone, disappeared under the water.

El shouted her name and rose to his knees. An instant passed then that felt more like several minutes. First, he explored his options. He could try to run and get help––but that would be the equivalent of leaving her to die. He might try lying to himself, he might try rationalizing––but he knew if he left her there, the only point in returning would be to retrieve her body. Or he could go in after her. He’d have to submerge himself in the water, pull her out, and then carry her up the steep hill, across the long field, and back to the house. He figured the chances of succeeding were exceedingly small. But maybe. Maybe he could do it. There was at least a chance.

Still, kneeling at the edge of the water he hesitated. His thoughts flew in a heartbeat first to his ex-wife, whom he saw in his mind for a moment vividly, her expression tender and concerned, and then to his children––and in a flash of memory he recalled his daughter falling from her bike, her legs and face scraped and bleeding, and how desperately she’d wrapped her arms around his neck as he carried her home. Both these /images came to him in the instant’s hesitation before he stepped into the freezing water.

The shock was stunning. It hit him like a body blow, as if he’d been slammed into a wall. After his first step he was in up to his waist, and the next step he was under water, struggling to make his brain work, commanding his feet to feel for the ground, his arms to search for Tess. Then, a heartbeat later, there was no thought at all, only a panicked, urgent thrashing until he found Tess and pulled her to the surface choking and spitting. Her body seemed impossibly heavy, as did his own, the two of them weighed down by thick layers of soaked clothes. They were surrounded by chunks of ice and slushy water, and El had come up facing the opposite shore, so that what he saw in front of him was a wide expanse of pristine snow surrounded by trees. He leaned back, his arms around Tess’s waist, and slipped and fell with his first attempt to take a backward step toward the shore. As he went under, his hip smacked into something hard and unmoving, and the impact was dull and sharp simultaneously––a dull thud and a sharp shock of heat shooting up his spine. When he found footing again and came up out of the water, he was facing the shore, his arms still fast around Tess’s waist.

They were close to solid ground now, only a few steps, only a few more feet––and El wasn’t at all sure he could do it. His arms and legs felt stuck, unmovable, his arms wrapped around Tess as she continued to cough and spit while laboring to breathe, his legs planted under the water. With a grunt he gathered all his strength and surged forward, pushing Tess out in front of him, heaving her toward land, and then he was under the water again, his feet slipping out from under him, and when he broke the surface for the second time, he saw Tess clawing her way out of the pond, pulling herself to the shore. With what strength he had remaining, he flung his body toward her, pushing through chunks of ice that pummeled his chest and legs, until he was finally beside her, and he managed to pull both himself and Tess all the way out of the water before collapsing onto his back and breathing hard while he waited for his heart to quit its terrible pounding, to slow down enough that he could manage something more than his own hard breathing.

Though his body felt exhausted beyond functioning, his mind apparently was still working methodically. He entertained a dim hope that someone might have seen them struggling in the water. They were, after all, nearby a small American city: they weren’t in the middle of the wilderness somewhere. Perhaps someone in a house on the other side of the pond, some kids out playing in the snow––perhaps someone saw them and was at that moment on the phone, dialing 911. Then, if they could hold on, others soon would be hurrying down the hill to take them away in ambulances––and all would be well. Maybe. El entertained these comforting thoughts until his heart stopped raging in his chest and he was able to turn over onto his side, where he found Tess, still on her back, breathing a little easier, looking up into the trees as if she saw something interesting there.

“Tess,” he said, his voice raw. “Tess. Can you hear me?”

Tess nodded and turned her head to look at him. “I can’t move,” she whispered. She added, almost inaudibly, “I can’t move my body.” Then her lips moved again, as if she might have thought she was speaking, but all that came out was a whisper of breath.

“Our clothes,” he said. “They’re weighing us down.”

Tess looked back at him, but made no effort to speak.

“Okay,” El said, with no idea what he meant. He struggled and managed to get himself sitting upright. His arms and legs felt as though they weighed tons, and it took him forever, fumbling with numb fingers, to get the zipper of his jacket down. By the time he had managed to get out of his coat and unwrap his tangled scarf from around his neck, he was exhausted again. He waited a moment and listened, his sodden jacket and scarf already beginning to freeze where they lay beside him in the snow. He had hoped to hear the sound of an engine in the distance, or the sound of boots trudging through the snow, or, best of all, maybe voices, voices calling for them.

But he heard nothing of the kind. Snow had started to come down harder and the wind blew constantly at about the force of a light breeze––and what he heard was the soft whisper of snowfall in the woods, and wind soughing through trees.

His first plan had been to carry Tess up the hill and back to the house––but that was impossible, and he understood that now with certainty. He could barely move himself, let alone carry Tess. He considered trying to get Tess out of her wet clothes, which he could see were already stiffening as ice crystals formed on the outer layers near her neck and wrists. He couldn’t figure which would be better for her, to leave her packed inside of wet, icy clothes, or to leave her further exposed to the wind and cold with them off. While he tried to consider that question, he noticed his thoughts had started to move sluggishly, and that in turn frightened him into moving.

“I’m going,” he said, meaning he was going to get help. He pulled himself to his feet and looked up the hill, which seemed to him now mountainously steep. He turned back one more time to Tess, stretched out on her back in a bright red jacket and green scarf, her hair stiff with ice, a light layer of bright new snow untouched around her. He thought to shout something reassuring to her, but he couldn’t come up with words, and he realized he was at least a little dazed now and his mind wasn’t functioning entirely right––and again that realization provided the surge of energy he needed to push himself forward and up the hill.

His exhaustion was overwhelming, like nothing he’d ever felt before. Even in his days playing basketball, when he’d sprint from one end of the court to the other at full speed until his legs finally gave out, when he’d fly up and down the stadium stairs, or work the weight machines until his arms were rubbery––none of it was anything like the exhaustion he felt climbing that hill. Each step required all his remaining will. Every time he fell, he tried to fall forward, so that when he got up again, which he did, over and over, he’d made a little progress, moving himself farther along––and in that manner he made it to the top of the hill, where he could see through the trees to the open field behind their B&B. In another fifty feet, he’d be out of the woods––and even if he couldn’t make it all the way across the field, he still might be seen by someone, by the old woman who owned the house, by kids out playing, by a car passing on the road. If he could make it out of the woods, he told himself, his chances were better, and if he could make it all the way to the house, he might yet still save himself and maybe Tess, maybe Tess also could be saved.

With those thoughts rattling around in his head, he stumbled forward, pushing himself one step at a time, and not until he reached the pair of boulders that formed a narrow corridor, did he allow himself to fall to his knees and rest a moment . . . just a moment, out of the stabbing wind, within the protection of the two ancient rocks, the one he had touched with wonder a million years ago, when the earth was still young and much was possible; when Tess, a woman who had appeared out of nowhere in his life and with whom he had been peacefully cuddled in the warmth of a down comforter the night before; when Tess, who was beautiful and smart and funny; when Tess was a dozen feet in front of him and ambling down a hill toward the pond that they both thought then was a meadow. He was at ease there, between those rocks, and suddenly, overpoweringly sleepy. When he thought about the intense desire to sleep that was overcoming him, and when he realized at the same moment he was no longer kneeling, but rather he was stretched out on his belly between the boulders, he had another, brief, panicky moment. He knew he had to pull himself up to his feet, he had to get up and keep moving, and he pushed his mind back to the /images that had come to him in the moment before he stepped into the water, in that moment when he made his choice to go in after Tess. He remembered his children and his wife, and his daughter’s arms around his neck as he carried her home.

One more time, then, he struggled to pull himself to his feet, and when his body wouldn’t move, he struggled harder, he struggled with all he had in him; and at the moment when he was about to give up, when he was on the verge of resigning himself to sleep, at that moment, suddenly, miraculously, he was fine. He was saved, both he and Tess. Together they walked away from the cold, out of the woods and over the surface of the pond. All around them, pristine snow gathered. When the wind blew, it danced in circles and sailed off into the stands of surrounding trees. They had both taken off their clothes to free themselves of the sopping, burdensome weight, and they walked easily over the ice, sure-footedly, side by side, leaving a trail of mist behind them, falling off them like smoke. The mist coming off Tess was white and wispy, while the mist off El was thick and swirling and tinted red. He saw himself then as if from above, a big man, bulky, walking beside Tess on the pond, leaving a cloud of red mist behind him, as if his body were casting off heat and leaving behind a trail of flame. He continued watching calmly, the bodies beneath him on the ice growing smaller and smaller as he rose higher, until they were merely points of light, and then they were nothing at all.



Ed Falco‘s most recent book is the short story collection, Burning Man, from SMU Press, in which “The Athlete” first appeared. Other recent books are the novel, Saint John of the Five Boroughs, and the short story collection, Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha, both from Unbridled Books. His stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, TriQuarterly, Best American Short Stories, and the Pushcart Prize anthology, among others. As an award-winning playwright, Falco is the author of Home Delivery, Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha and Radon.  In the summer of 2001, Falco worked with artists and actors from the United States, England, Greece, Bosnia, and Germany in an international theatre project meant to explore the healing power of drama. Ed lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, where he directs the Virginia Tech’s MFA program, and edits The New River, an online journal of digital writing. You can read more about Ed and his work here.

Read our interview with Ed here.


“God Bless Our Mess” by Dora Malech

God Bless Our Mess
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

Day by day, the days dissolved into the simplest of cross-stitched requests.
The sky let herself go—a fistful of sleet, a leftover moon.

Looking down became a hobby which payed off the morning when I found
an unmarked house key and a poorly molded plastic soldier.

On the path by the train tracks, I taught myself to recognize the marks
made by a limp in snow, shuffle in snow, stagger through snow.

There were calls to field, long-distance. Also, catcalls from moving trucks.
Some days I drove by Every Bloomin’ Thing and was tempted to turn off

into the parking lot and march into the greenhouse, remove my scarf and gloves
and stand bare-chested, crying pothos, ficus until I grew moss or was dragged away.

Some days I reached for my turn signal but kept driving. Thus, the weeks looked
like this: Monday—small claims court, Tuesday—leaky vessel,

Wednesday—scratched laugh track, Thursday—ritual burial, Friday—
blank check, Saturday—strip mall, Sunday—closed concession stand.

Another refrain snagged in my mind like a hangnail on some sweater’s pilled knit—
lit from within lit from within it went as I watched other women emerge orange

into the winter night, the sky a contusion, the streets all slush and no action,
their backs to a borrowed summer, to the bright lights of Jamaica Me Tan.



Dora Malech is the author of two collections of poems, Say So (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011) and Shore Ordered Ocean (Waywiser Press, 2009). Her poems have appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Poetry, The Yale Review, Poetry London, American Letters & Commentary, and Best New Poets. She has been the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, a Glenn Schaeffer Poetry Award, and a Writer’s Fellowship from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. She has taught writing at the University of Iowa, Augustana College in Illinois, Victoria University in New Zealand, and Saint Mary’s College of California. She lives in Iowa City. “God Bless Our Mess” was first published in Chelsea, and appears in the collection Say So (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011).

Read an interview with Dora here.


“Two-Headed Nightingale” by Shara Lessley

Two-Headed Nightingale
Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011

Christine & Millie McCoy, 1851-1912

tear open the breast                        and heart to tell
biological truth: no:                         the black, deformed
birth: yes: slavery                             of the interior

unlock the shackled                          spine to show
in sixty-one years monstrosity: yes:
she never left my side the fusion of vertebrae

the malformation                              of blood and bone
collision? no                                   our walk, a side-step
the backbone braided                        dance: a waltz

born 1851                                       as slaves: the body
twice betrayed: the sky                    held the sun: no, moon
“MOON AND SUN                              UNITED ON STAGE”

illusion? no: miracle:                           the sisters
merged, their voices                         layered like the nightingale’s
sheath of feathers,                            light hitting its wings

breaking up light –                            negress? no: they are
crimson blazing,                                their song quick and agile
as their hearts’ pumping:                      yes: one beat:

one pulse: one soul, two                   thoughts, from darkness,
a final note                                         dividing the air: the sudden outward
breath rushing to fill                            the other’s departure



Shara Lessley is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry. Her awards include an O’Connor Fellowship from Colgate University, the Gilman School’s Tickner Fellowship, the Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellowship from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and a “Discovery”/The Nation Prize. Shara’s writing has appeared in Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, Threepenny, Black Warrior Review, The Southern Review and Alaska Quarterly Review, among others. She was the recipient a 2009-2010 Artists’ Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council, and currently lives in Amman, Jordan. “Two-Headed Nightingale” first appeared in the journal Gulf Coast.

Read an interview with Shara here.