“Hunting” by Leland Seese

Hunting
“Ellis Island #5” by Penelope Breen

 

The one-time Eagle Scout spent the drive up to the mountains texting with his husband in their condo back in town. At the lodge the busker lit a fire in the woodstove with a single match and half a paper sack. A junkie in recovery started up a coffee pot to flow both day and night. We brought three pounds of French roast for the weekend to fortify the twelve of us. No beer. No scotch. No vodka. No cigars. Nothing that might tempt a single one to sacrifice sobriety. Throughout the weekend, scents of boyhood hunting trips, summer fishing expeditions, wood smoke, pine, and skunk cabbage, and memories. This one learned to field dress a deer from men who later passed out drunk in camp. Another told why God the Father isn’t comforting for those whose fathers beat them with a belt. Two call-ups to Afghanistan left a third one screaming in his bunk bed in the middle of the night. No one brought a shotgun or a rod and reel. Were we the first guests in this lodge to mourn the harm we’d done, or pray for opportunities to make amends, or fill the pot with meatless stew? And though we peppered conversation with our shits and fucks as men up in the mountains do, we shook our fists at all the ways the world had wounded us. Lying on our backs beneath the Milky Way, we trusted myriads of stars to understand as we drew out fears like little demons from the shadows near the dying fire, and let forgiveness stalk us, wild and unpredictable through the forest night.

 

 

Leland Seese’s poems have appeared in The Christian Century, The Nassau Review, The East Bay Review, and many other journals. He lives in Seattle, where he and his wife are foster-adoptive-biological parents of six children. Much of his work as a pastor involves work with homeless and immigrant communities.

 

“Glass Splinters” by Tyler Anne Whichard

Glass Splinters
Black Hand” by Penelope Breen

When his mother died, he didn’t cry. I guess he couldn’t find it in him. His eyes that teared up in every argument we ever had were dry at the wake, at the Sunday service, at the graveside, and for three months after that, too. Some people are just like that: all the mourning happens on the inside, and that’s fine. If anything, it’s worse for the people watching. My eyes followed him at the wake, at the Sunday service, at the graveside, and for three months after that. I felt like Noah building his arc even when everyone told him it wouldn’t rain. I had heard the same voice he had; we both knew a flood was coming.

~

One night, I found him alone in his room and he held his arms out to me with a look that reminded me of the glass his friend Eric shattered three parties before; I’m sure if someone looked hard enough, they could still find splinters of it in the corners of the room, under the lip of the lower cabinets.

The pretty girl he danced with went home and everyone who couldn’t drive fell asleep in random places throughout his house. I kept him on his side the entire night in case he got sick from all the alcohol and came to terms with the fact that I would be picking the splinters of him out of me for a very long time. He fell asleep and I wondered if he found what he was looking for there.

~

On the last night of a summer trip we went on, he sat outside in a little rocking chair; it was balanced against the wall so no one could tell it was broken at first glance. If it was sat in the right way, it didn’t give way beneath you. It was around two o’clock in the morning when I woke up and found him there, crying silently. He never spoke about his mother, but I knew who the tears were for.

“You’re always the one to find me,” he said with a breathy, not-funny sort of laugh.

“I’m always looking for you,” I said – only, come to think of it, I can’t remember if we ever said anything like that out loud. If we didn’t, I don’t know why. I remember I wrapped my arms around him as he buried his nose in the silent place between my collarbones.

The rocking chair didn’t give out – I guess it knew a thing or two about timing.

~

At the last party I ever attended at his place, I stayed up on the couch talking to one of his friends, confusing them as my own for a night. I didn’t go up to his room.

At one point, one of his little brothers came over to me and told me he hoped things worked out because I was the best thing for his older brother, even if he didn’t know it. I guess I’m the type of person people are meant to stay with, only no one does, and I don’t really know what that says about me. I didn’t go up to his room after hearing that, even though I wanted to. I knew who was up there with him, and he knew I knew.

I hope she kept him sleeping on his side. He wasn’t one to lose his alcohol, but it was best to play it safe and he snored on his back, anyway.

I drove myself home and slept for two days.

 

 

Tyler Anne Whichard is a 21-year-old aspiring writer working toward her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. The r.k.v.r.y quarterly literary journal is the first official publication of her work. Her hobbies include staring at blank Word documents, binge-watching Korean dramas, and pouring too much creamer in her coffee in the morning.

 

“When We Could See But Did Not Know” by Heather Adams

When We Could See
“Foggy Bridge” by Penelope Breen

Mark was six- or maybe seven-years-old when he started climbing on the fences. He walked along the top railing with his arms spread out and looked down at his feet, smiling. I can picture just how his smile was and his shoes were muddy from where he’d been running in the field.

“You’ll fall,” we told him, his father Clive and I. “Watch out.”

“Watch this, Mama,” he said, hopping from one foot to the other on top of the fence, like the ground was a hot and burning thing he didn’t want to touch.

In the distance, a chainsaw whined and buzzed and close by squirrels skittered on a branch and acorns fell. The wooden fence creaked under the weight of him, but he kept going. And we didn’t know how soon we would start losing him.

The older Mark got, the more he was two different people. Some days he wanted everything and talked all the time and needed to be moving every minute. And other days he was emptied out and didn’t see the point in anything. Still, a losing like that doesn’t come all at once. It comes at you in little pieces. You’re asking don’t you want to get up and go outside and you’re saying settle down, just settle down. The whole time looking for the middle, settling-in place he needed.

The last time I talked to him he was twenty-three and about to be married. I went to see him out at the lumberyard where he was working because I knew something was wrong, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was. He was moving slow that morning like he was underwater.

Later that afternoon, the phone rang at the house and I took the call and got to the bridge as fast as I could. A girl stood there, crying and screaming and biting her hand. She wasn’t his fiancé. I’d never laid eyes on her before and I didn’t know what kind of trouble Mark was in. He wasn’t around anywhere, not that I could see. I looked out over the bridge and past the trees and the rocks. Either the girl stopped her crying or I stopped hearing it because everything turned quiet when I saw him. Mark was way down at the bottom of the gorge, blurry and far away and not moving.

When he was part of the air, I wasn’t there to see him. By the time I showed up, he had become part of the ground with the dirt wrapped around his shoulders like a coat and I looked away without seeing the rest. But I could picture what he must have looked like before, when he was part of the air, his arms spread out and him not wanting anything except to fly, the ground a hot and burning thing he didn’t want to touch.

 

 

Heather Adams, winner of the 2016 James Still Fiction Prize, has published short fiction in The Thomas Wolfe Review, Clapboard House, Deep South Magazine, Broad River Review, and elsewhere. This story is based on her first novel, Maranatha Road, which is forthcoming this fall from West Virginia University Press.

This flash fiction first appeared in Pembroke Magazine (Vol. 47, 2015)

Read more about the inspiration for Heather’s story here.

“Pest Control Methods” by Beverly Lucey

Pest Control Methods
“Encountered Humans” by Penelope Breen

“…Treatment and prevention:… relies first on an accurate identification of the pest species. Only then can an effective strategy be tailored…”
~advert SimplyOneCall Pest Service in Northern Ireland

Inside Dee’s head, a wasp buzzed. The mic looked like a hive. Every time she adjusted the violin under her chin, drew the bow, and pulled it toward her for a solo spot of Yidl Mitn Fidl, the apiarian tone echoed in the back of her skull. Everything felt very wrong. This audition was not going well, either. Only a few Klezmer Bands existed in Idaho. Maybe it’s more surprising that there was one, rather than more than one. But its name, Meshuggah, described how Dee felt of late. Crazy.

The clarinetist/leader shook his head. “Sorry. You’ve got a hesitation there, like you’re listening to something else other than us. Anybody ever mention that to you before?”

“What? I didn’t quite get that. There’s a background sound. You don’t hear it?”

Good thing her day job at the museum was a quiet one. She wondered if stinging insects slept until dusk.

“We need focus. You don’t have it. Thanks though. Wish it worked out. Sorry.”

Sorry. Now that’s a song she’s heard before: sorries from a local dinner theater, a couple of Coeur d’Alene quartets who did weddings, and Tag.

First time it happened, Dee thought a mosquito had woken her up. Instead, it was Tag whispering, “I got a job in Branson. Don’t get up. Wish it worked out. Sorry.” Dee pulled the striped pillow over her head like a lid so she wouldn’t let even one minor protest escape. She figured four months must be the life cycle of a sax player. Just the natural order of things.

Relationships have lives of their own. People said that. Easy for someone else to say, but at thirty-four, her cycles were getting mired and sticky. Tag left, but the tone in her head stayed to remind and annoy, like a monotonous drone, the way early TV stations near Mobile, AL sounded after sign off. TV broadcasts had a cycle of their own, back then. Dee’s mother slept to it on the living room couch for over ten years, after Dee’s father left. Dee would find her there and turn off the set, just as the birds started singing.

The urge of her women friends to live alone, bewildered Dee. Her one marriage, a decade ago to Jimmy Musca, lasted three whole years. A stand up bass player was less likely to roam. Harder to bum a ride to the next gig.

After Jimmy, Arjun moved in. At least he built Dee cabinets before he disappeared. When Hervé left, he took her pannini maker with him. Men went like that. Mostly musicians, a few writers, an engineer. Then Tag. Taggert “The Bullfrog” Radoscz. Gone. Only the buzz remained.

Sometimes it sounded like Tag just noodling with the mouthpiece late at night. He’d said, “By blowing the mouthpiece and reed, the reed will tremble very fast. Such a reed does tremble some hundreds of times in a minute. Can you hear it? Feel it?” Back then it was sexy. Now it’s a maddening haint.

When Dee looked up, the Meshuggah guys were just standing there. Had something happened? Oh, right. She hadn’t left. She’d been dismissed, but hadn’t managed to put her instrument back in the case. Dee thunked the side of her head a couple of times, as if to dislodge seawater in her ear. This time, instead of quieting down the sound, she got zapped from the inside. Her inner ear felt hot and stabbed. Bumbling with the clips on her case, she tried not to cry. They would think that she really was disappointed not to be able to play Jewish jazz at temple single mixers across the Northwest. She merely wanted nights full of music instead of a dial tone in her head.

“You OK?” the accordian player said. “You remember what door you came in?”

“Sizz, hisss, thrummmmm,” Dee said, as if clearing her throat. She rubbed hard at her eyeballs, impressing an image onto her lids like a rubber stamp. A picture of her brain dangled in front of her face. It looked like the mic, or maybe a sponge. Within the porous mass of interlacing horny fibers she could see little winged things crawling in and out of the colony. Busy, busy. Taking over.

“I think I’ve been stung,” Dee said. “Did you see anything? Sssssss. It hurts.”

The trumpet player said, “I’m a doctor. Do you have allergies? An epi kit?”

“I’ve got anti-itch gel,” said the drummer.

“I’ll walk you to your car. I’ve got to get back to the lab anyway, ” said the piano player, slamming the lid down over the keys. The crashing distracted Dee just enough so that she could look him straight in the eyes. He had nice warm honey eyes.

“Maybe I was wrong. Never mind. I don’t feel it now.” Her head was quiet for a change.

Their cars were parked next to one another in the lot. “I was just sitting in tonight,” he was saying. “I’m not the real piano player. No time. Sorry if you didn’t get it. If you wanted it, that is. It was hard to tell.”

“What’s your name?” Dee’s brain cells were behaving.

“Cooper. I’m tenure track at the university three months now. It’s a nicer place than Chicago.”

“What are you?”

“Entomologist.”

“Perfect. Tell me what you know about wasps, sometime, will you?”

“Funny you should ask. I’ve got a grant working with paper wasps. No drones. No queens. No workers, as such.”

“No?”

“Nope. They’re sort of hippie insects. Just males and females working together, raising their young. It’s cool.”

“Cool.” She felt a breeze on her face from the lake working like a balm on her brain.

“You sure you’re all right?” He put a soothing hand on her shoulder.

“I’m better.”

“Could I call you?”

“Yeah, sure. Give me a buzz.” As Dee wrote her number on the back of Cooper’s hand, she couldn’t help but picture making him breakfast: oatmeal, honey, and her very special jam.

 

 

Beverly Lucey has had work appear in Zoetrope All Story Extra, Vestal Review,  Absinthe Revival, and Feathered Flounder. She was the winner of the Fiction Contest for Estonian Public Broadcasting  (2013) Print anthology:  Friend. Follow. Text.  #storiesFromLivingOnline  (fall 2013 release) “Voice Mail for the Living” in the anthology Up, Do Flash Fiction by Women Writers, (spring 2014). Landmarks: 2015 National Flash-Fiction Day Anthology (UK).

 

“Harbor Lights” by Susan Cole

Harbor Lights
“Emotional Landscapes” by Penelope Breen

John bought the red sweatshirt, fleece-lined and hooded, from L.L. Bean three-and-a-half years into his Stage 4 lung cancer. We lived in Florida then, staying with his sister Pat in her retirement community near Orlando where he got treatment. John could never warm up enough. Chemo and radiation had weakened his muscles. He napped a lot. Even when wearing the sweatshirt, he sometimes shivered with cold.

A year earlier, we sold our catamaran Smooch on which we had lived in Fort Lauderdale, and we moved to Merida, Yucatan. Although not strong enough to sail anymore, John was still robust, and we didn’t want to hang around a furnished Florida apartment waiting for the next CT scan. Merida with its gorgeous colonial architecture, lively mercados, friendly locals, active ex-pat community and economical lifestyle appealed to us. From Merida, John flew to Florida once a month for chemo. He treated the excursions like overnight business trips.

One day in Merida before he was set to go to Orlando for chemo, he woke up feeling extremely dizzy. He could barely walk straight. A doctor in Merida prescribed “dizzy pills” for 100 pesos. I booked a flight to Orlando so I could accompany him for his treatment.

John’s oncologist in Florida ordered an MRI, and we soon found ourselves sitting across from Dr. R., John’s neuro-radiologist. A few small brain tumors had popped up in the past, and Dr. R. had demolished them with gamma-knife radiosurgery. Now, on this trip, Dr. R. brought up the latest MRI on his computer.

White blobs of all sizes glowed like misshapen stars from the dark recesses of John’s brain. He would need two weeks of whole brain radiation. Dr. R. asked John not to fly to Merida until the MRI results of the radiation arrived in two months.

Dr. R. said, “The next two months will be a delicate time for the brain, a little dicey.“

John’s interpretation: “Your brain will explode if you fly.”

Dr. R. was confident that he could keep John’s brain clear of tumors for six months or longer, and if new ones cropped up, he could again perform gamma ray surgery. He wanted to begin immediately.

I reeled from the term “whole brain radiation.” I imagined John becoming a vegetable. Dr. R. assured us that would not happen.

As we stood up to leave, Dr. R. shook John’s hand and said, “We’ve had a good run.”

The handshake reeked of finality. Shaken, John called his oncologist who reassured him that the last scans showed no spread of the lung cancer within the lung. We held onto the hope that Dr. R. would perform his magic: John would come through this awful turn of events intact, a little the worse for wear.

John took the brain radiation well: a little unsteady on his feet but his brain remained sharp. He wore the sweatshirt in the house, loose and unzipped, warming his hands in the pockets. He kept it on even in the 95˚ midday heat of the screened porch. From my air-conditioned spot on a stool at the kitchen counter, I would turn around to check on him—the back of his sweatshirt a stark red against the bright glow of his computer screen through the sliding doors.

We met in our twenties in Connecticut and, once we became a couple, had always lived on or around boats. John had sailed since he was four. Now, as I stared at the back of the sweatshirt, I remembered John’s tanned back and broad shoulders as he trimmed sails, tightened turnbuckles and captured loose halyards on our sailboats. He would haul heavy sail bags from below deck or grab the thick end of the boom on his shoulders to lift it. He’d expect me to hold up the other end. My family did not prize physical prowess and I had disdained team sports. But I loved the physicality of sailing with John.

Before we knew about the cancer, we would set out on Smooch in the soft middle-of-the-night darkness from Biscayne Bay to sail across the Florida Straits to the Bahamas. The alarm would go off and we would bolt awake, nerves jangling. I would brew coffee while John did a final check of the engine and deck, making sure everything was tied down tight. While the engine warmed up, we sat quietly in the cockpit sipping coffee, adjusting to the darkness and taking our bearings-–boats anchored around us, sand glowing on the nearby beach, navigation lights leading out to the channel. John steered from the cockpit while I raised anchor and then ran back to the nav station below to guide us out.

Once we had turned into Biscayne Channel, I would join John on deck. He steered us between the red and green lights towards the open sea, black and alive with uncertainty. The winking harbor lights comforted me as we plunged into the unknown.

Now, as the weeks dragged on at John’s sister’s house while we waited for the MRI, the red sweatshirt, softened and stretched from washings, was worn and supple. Almost imperceptibly, it began to hang more loosely around John’s thinning shoulders. The sweatshirt engulfed my formerly tanned, broad-shouldered sailor who not so long ago had raced headlong across the deck in choppy seas to tame a loose jib sheet.

I missed that sailor. At times, I regarded the shopworn sweatshirt as though it were a flimsy hospital gown–flaps loose, revealing John’s pale legs and back, and exuding the chemical smell of his illness.

After he got sicker—the brain radiation was successful, but the lung cancer spread–I came across a photo I had snapped just a few weeks earlier of John and his sister Pat, with whom we had stayed five months by then, instead of the originally planned three days. In the picture, John was seated at her dining table. She leaned into him, one arm around his shoulder, a hand resting on his chest. Cheeks pressed together, John and Pat shook with laughter. You couldn’t mistake the family resemblance: wide smiles, twinkling eyes nearly crinkled shut, strong jaws.

Pat, six years older, had taught John to smoke when he was eight. She had chanted “loony, loony” when he talked to himself as a kid while playing with his toys. The siblings’ dark humor had always attracted me. In the photo, they could have been laughing about John’s shrunken shoulders or his last cough. The photo lifted my spirits in a way that well-meaning platitudes people tossed my way –“hold strong,” “you can beat this”–did not.

They were laughing at the blackness, the void ahead. John’s faded red sweatshirt took up much of the frame, warming me like the winking harbor lights when we headed to sea at night.

 

 

Susan Cole recently completed a memoir about a three-year sailing voyage she took with her husband and daughter from Connecticut to the Bahamas, Cuba, Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Essays about her family’s sailing adventure have appeared in Daily Palette, Mary, and Living Aboard. She has attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival every year since 2007. In between sails, she earned a B.A. from Barnard College, an M.A in Psychology from Columbia University, and for many years, ran a successful new-product marketing research firm. She currently lives in New Orleans, enjoying a new land-bound adventure.

Read an interview with Susan here.

“Sensory Memory” by Kristen Scarlett

Strength and Identity scratched+window
“Scratched Window” by Penelope Breen

Breaking

My father picked up a series of inventive punishments from the short time he spent in the US Army. He would make me do push-ups or lie on the ground with my legs six inches in the air until my stomach muscles spasmed, or employ the “hands and feet position,” in which I lay on the ground and held a rocking chair or other large object above my head.

I was never a daddy’s girl.

In Basic Training, my father had been assigned to the fat program, so he was on a strict diet. His drill sergeant stapled a bag of M&Ms to a corkboard in the barracks to taunt the trainees and promised to eat it in front of them on their last day. A week later, my father sneaked to the cork board in the middle of the night and stole the M&Ms, slicing the bottom open with a contraband razor then filling the bag with toilet paper. When the sergeant discovered the thievery, he made everyone do pushups until someone ratted. To teach my father a lesson, the sergeant commanded him to do sit ups while holding a heavy log for hours.

My father was involved in a motorcycle accident that nearly killed him when he was stationed in Oklahoma. His left leg shattered, leaving it almost two inches shorter than the other; the lack of symmetry caused immense back pain that worsened over the years. Because of this injury, he was honorably discharged. He then moved back to North Carolina, where he met my mom while leaning against his Mustang at a gas station.

Influence A

Every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening my mom took us to Awana, an evangelical, youth-indoctrinating, pre-teen gossip session and basketball championship. I’m now an atheist, but my mom believes I’m saved anyway. “You were baptized,” she says, “so you already have your ticket into heaven, even if you’re a little lost.” She prays for me every day.

As a child, I accepted my mother’s religious beliefs as absolute fact, very much like children believe in Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny. When bearded men slide down your chimney and bunnies hatch eggs, deities don’t sound so far-fetched. But if I was ever truly devoted to something, it was the strength of my will. I clung to it like rosary beads in my fists. I hurled back-talk like holy water at my father but he never burned like the movie villains. His will was proportional to mine; the more I fought back, the stronger he became.

 

Influence B

My father skipped church to sink into one hobby or another. Sometimes it was model airplanes or refurbishing cheap computers to sell on eBay. I obsessively observed his projects, pining for an opportunity to contribute.

He’d say, “Keep back so I can concentrate,” so I did. Occasionally his hobbies would cross over into my world, and those were the best times. For the Awana Grand Prix, we made an extraordinarily aerodynamic derby car that won all the races. The accusations of cheating made us proud.

Perhaps my favorite of his hobbies was go-kart racing. I’d watch him ride around Woodleaf track, while I clung to the fence and yelled, “Go Daddy!” as loudly as I could. The dirt got under my fingernails and in my nostrils and sat permanently under my skin, the smell of methanol burned into my memory so that whenever I smell it now, I think of my father, re-experience the adrenaline, and remember the rusted playground outside the track where we’d find and count change to buy candy at the concession stand.

Copycat

If you visit my old home on Hickory Tree Road and dig up the earth to the left of the shed out back, you’ll find the remains of a family pet and several wild animals I found dead, then buried. When our cat Tigger died of feline leukemia, my father wrapped him in a blanket and put him in a box and we had a proper funeral in the garden that had been tilled but never sown, next to the tree house that had been promised but never built.

Every time I found a dead animal after that, usually a mole or a bird and once a squirrel’s head delivered by our half-feral cat Daisy, I would grab the animal with a mechanic’s glove or paper towel, and bury it in that garden. I would preach the merits of that animal, its ecological contributions and physical aesthetics, and lay a rock over the spot. Then I’d imagine what it would be like if the animal came back to life, secretly hoping that would happen.

 

Identity

I don’t know when my parents stopped loving each other. It could have been when my father started going to school at night while working full time and spending weekends with his hobbies. Maybe it was when my mother became dissatisfied with the role of staying at home, often alone. Perhaps it was when my father met my step-mom in an astronomy class while getting his MBA. It may have been after a third child still didn’t help them find whatever was missing. Maybe it was when my mother became pregnant with me, four months after they met.

I don’t know when the love stopped, but I know when they called it quits. The divorce transformed my first ten years into a memory that sits behind translucent glass. Those memories feel uncomfortably foreign, and sometimes false; if it wasn’t for the testimony of my parents, I’m not sure if I would believe they were ever married.

My early childhood survives in sensory memory—the taste of bubble gum my mom gave me to stay awake in church, the aching in my wrists and carpet patterns pushed into my skin from too much time in the hands and feet position that still feel as intense as if I’d just collapsed onto the floor. The smell of methanol involuntarily thrusts me into the nostalgia of the go-kart track.

Submission

In the past six years, my father has had two grand mal seizures, fracturing discs in his back when he fell, both times. He already had an emerging Vicodin problem from the pain caused by his motorcycle accident, but the surgeries and resulting depression left him entirely dependent on the drug. His addiction escalated to morphine, which eventually wasn’t enough either. When he finally decided to seek professional help, he told me, “I realized that the only place I had left to go—the only thing that could make me feel anything again—was heroin. And I wasn’t going to do that.” Today, “professional help” takes the form of Suboxone dependency.

My father was out of work for a year after he broke his back the second time. This changed him more than the drugs ever did. His proudest accomplishment was providing for his family, which was now nearly impossible. He refused to accept help, so he used up all of his savings and 401(k) to keep us in his nice house in the suburbs. He would sit in front of the TV in his bedroom, eating cereal out of mixing bowls and dipping chocolate bars into jars of peanut butter. He gained 60 pounds. Perhaps the worst part was that seizures affected his short-term memory. He began relying on my stepmom for his scheduling, doctor appointments, and reminding him to drop off the kids at school. Even now, if I want to arrange lunch with my father, he says, “Ask Nina if I’m free.”

While my father managed his pain with drugs, my mother chose to ignore hers. When I was young, she would say, “I put all the pain in a little box in my mind, and then I shove that box off a cliff. It seems to help.” She has fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis. She has felt pain all over her body and in her joints for the better part of twenty years. It has gotten worse with time. Hand massages with lavender-scented lotion have replaced hair-braiding sessions and dance parties at sleepovers have become watching movies on a heating pad.

 

A Web of Addiction

My grandpa was an alcoholic for 40 years.

My uncle was an alcoholic until he started going to church.

My cousin is addicted to Xanax, among other things, and hasn’t had a job in ten years.

My grandmother can’t sleep without pills.

Both of my parents can’t function without depression medication.

My stepbrother is addicted to heroin. He’s twenty-two years old.

 

Another Association

When I was five and six and seven and I was losing baby teeth, but not fast enough, my father would pull them out with pliers. I would wait until the tooth was really loose, then I’d present it to my father who would say, “Are you sure?” And he’d “yank that sucker right outathere,” without any complaints from me. This impressed him. With my ultimate goal achieved, the 25 or 50 cents I earned was just a bonus. But now the idea of pulling a tooth out with pliers and tasting metallic blood and feeling that fleshy empty spot with my tongue makes me feel sick. When I had my wisdom teeth removed a year ago, I was careful to avoid grazing the craters left in the back of my mouth.

My father was also a big fan of ripping off bandages quickly or digging at splinters until they came out because the pain didn’t matter. Mom would say that the splinters would fall out on their own or get absorbed into my body, but to me and my father, the splinter was a mind game. That splinter wouldn’t get the best of us, and we certainly weren’t going to let the bastard sit in our bodies like it paid rent. The pain was a challenge that meant you deserved to have toes without splinters and holes in your mouth to make room for stronger teeth.

It’s easy to forget how I cried and begged him not to rip out the teeth and splinters. How in adrenaline-endorphin fog, I was proud of getting through the ordeal and winning parental approval. But in my father’s own self-doubt, he yearned for my trust. To this end, we played a scary game. When I was still small enough, I’d be lifted by my father’s insistent arms to the top of our refrigerator where I shivered and he begged, “Jump into my arms!” I’d shake my head no and hold my legs close to my body. I’d close my eyes, pretend he wasn’t there, pretend I wasn’t so high up, and believe that when I inevitably slid off the refrigerator, I’d land safely. It isn’t so scary when you just pretend, when you can believe there’s anything more than fear and floor beneath you.

 

 

Kristen Scarlett is a writer from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her work has appeared in Cape Fear Living Magazine, and East End Elements, and she received second place in the SCCC Creative Writing Award for College Writers in 2015. Her hobbies include fancy teas, existential crises, and musing with her cat, King Charles.

 

“Old Man” by Joseph Chelius

Old Man
Image by Penelope Breen

(For Andrew, six months in recovery)

As you strain for the high notes
I want to imagine it’s the 1970s
and I am brooding with Neil Young
at the wistful campfire of the turntable—
worn grooves like crackling embers—
and not gazing at palm fronds
on a wall in Delray.

But from identical chairs
we watch you at the foot of our bed—
guitar and sandals,
a crew cut that brings back the boy
with his baseball cards
those days before court appointments, trips
to detox, the resolve in your eyes,
unwavering pitch on the words
Twenty-four and so much more
enough for us to believe
in the transcendent power
of songs played on a dust-clumped needle—
our hearts like old vinyl, skipping again.

 

 

Joseph A. Chelius is employed as director of editorial services for a healthcare communications company in the Philadelphia suburbs. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in journals such as Commonweal, Poetry East, Rattle, Poet Lore, and the American Journal of Poetry. His full-length collection, The Art of Acquiescence, was published by WordTech Communications in 2014.

 

“Near Home” by B. Chelsea Adams

Near Home-
“Ellis Island” by Penelope Breen

I.

In the hotel of unchanged sheets
strangers sleep together, one room,
having the same hungry nightmares,
some they do not wake up from,

sharing that same fear of morning,
the struggle of muscle and bone,
movement out-of-doors,
across pavements,
being lost
in the city they grew up in.

II.

One old man wobbles down the block
up to a first floor walk-up.
The porch threatens to separate
from the house. He wonders
if this is the big wooden door that was
too heavy to open when he was little,
that is too heavy for him to open now.

Farther down the street,
apartment buildings have been renovated.
The park has a new name. The old man
isn’t sure it is the same pond,
the willow tree,
the same ducks.

The jungle gym and slide
are new, and the swings.

He knows he would become dizzy now,
swinging. He knows
the mothers huddled near one another
on the benches
are made uncomfortable by him.

Old man in torn clothes.
They won’t allow a vision
of one of their children
growing into him.

III.

His visions when
he hung by his knees
from the old jungle gym
were of baseball cards,
that one Saturday at the Polo Grounds,
the arrival of the ice cream truck,
school, where he was math king,
and, of course,
climbing the willow tree.

IV.

Who would have imagined
these stained trousers,
shoes Goodwill won’t take,
the hotel of unchanged sheets?

 

 

B. Chelsea Adams received her MA from Hollins College in Creative Writing and English. Chapbooks of her poems have been published: Looking for a Landing by Sow’s Ear Press in 2000, Java Poems celebrating her addiction to coffee in 2007, and At Last Light by Finishing Line Press in 2012. Her stories and poems also have been published in numerous journals, including Poet Lore, Potato Eyes, Albany Review, Southwestern Review, California State Poetry Quarterly, Clinch Mountain Review, Union Street Review, Wind, Lucid Stone, Rhino, and the Alms House Press Sampler. She taught at Radford University for over 23 years.

 

“A Rose Named Gary” by Timothy Eberle

A Rose Named Gary
Image by Penelope Breen

Ahem. If it can be said that art represents humanity’s collective attempt to reconcile its own existence with an otherwise cold and uncaring universe, then it stands to reason that tragedy is art’s truest manifestation: watching the human ego fail to connect with anything other than itself. I gleaned this pearl through a steadfast and sustained personal study of ABC’s “The Bachelorette.”

Actually one specific, unscripted moment in the scripted reality of “The Bachelorette”: the first rose ceremony that concludes the debut episode of each new season of the show. For the uninitiated, the “rose ceremony” is the device through which the aforementioned Bachelorette—the most recent of whom happened to be a Mid-Western real estate developer named “JoJo”—determines which of the show’s contestants will remain with her on her journey towards true and everlasting love and which contestants will be sent home packing. Human connection, in this pantomime, becomes a scarce resource. To the keeper goes the bloom. To the losers, so many losers, go all the imaginary blooms that they thought they would be holding before JoJo cuts them loose.

Loathe as we may be to admit it, ours is a conclusively lonely existence: one fraught with sorrow and disillusionment in search of the proverbial one rose. That’s the torment heard in Juliet’s deathbed soliloquy, the longing behind the chords of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the panic in Edvard Munch’s “Scream” and the sadness beneath the sunglasses of Guy Fieri. And that’s the sense of soul-crushing desperation underlying perhaps the single most heart-wrenching, fully-realized American tragedy of this (or any) generation: one dramatized scene in a hit reality series, through which the most esteemed of a human gender—He with the Bright Smile teeth, He with the rippling ab-shield worn by a Grecian god on earth—is revealed as a grotesque creature in false clothing. He is an animal with a lifespan, and he is destroyed for lack of a flower.

I anticipate with mutual horror and fascination this first rose ceremony because, in every other rose ceremony to follow, the Bachelorette’s decision as to whom she’ll either extend or deny a rose will be an informed decision—based on a careful consideration of factors like compatibility, shared goals and interests. (As an aside, the episode wherein the “artistic contestant” inevitably writes a poem that attempts to rhyme with the Bachelorette’s name—in this season, “My JoJo” with “My Mojo” – approaches revelation. It is a stunning bit of wordplay that will echo through the halls of our literary canon.)

But the first rose ceremony is just a gut-call firing squad. The first rose ceremony is a human house-cleaning wherein JoJo, operating on intuition alone, makes a knee-jerk determination that there are several men in this house about whom she knows nothing except that she finds them immediately unappealing. She would strongly prefer that she never have to see them again. And so she never has to. It’s the human equivalent of those sticky chicken claws that get pushed around on Dim Sum carts in Chinese restaurants. You know that it’s technically food, but it’s also extremely unappetizing, and you really wish that the waiter would take it away so that you can go back to eating dumplings like a person.

Then it happens to the unsuspecting. Comes the rose, and I have shed tears for garbage-appetizers-of-men, dismissed on less than a whiff.

I cry for them not out of embarrassment but out of a genuine sense of loss, as their mouths slowly close and the light softly fades from their eyes. These men very clearly did not expect this to happen. (In fact, they very clearly expected the opposite to happen.) Why else would they have flown to California—abandoning their careers, their bars, their fitness routines—if not because they were fully convinced that what they brought to the table—their backstories, their personalities, their synthetically inflated pectoral muscles— would be sufficient to satisfy the romantic ideals of not only their season’s Bachelorette-Du-Jour but also those of an adoring American public?

I cry for these men because they bear the collective burden of embodying what may be the single harshest truth underlying our shared human experience: the image of ourselves that we think we’re projecting into the world is so comically divorced from the reality as to merit its own show on a major network.

We all think that we come across better than we do. We have to. It’s a necessary by-product of our self-preservation. If any of us were ever forced to honestly acknowledge the way that the world sees us as individuals—how visible our flaws, our deficiencies, our cartoonishly bizarre proportions—none of us would be able to muster the simple strength required to get out of bed in the morning. Maybe that’s the reason why the phrase “The Kind Of Place Where People Don’t Even Lock Their Doors” holds great currency in today’s real-estate market. It isn’t because of some overwhelming concern for personal safety. It’s because a world of unlocked doors is one in which we would never be forced to backtrack to a friend’s party, where we’ve just said our goodbyes, to retrieve a forgotten set of keys and stumble into a room where the people we love have already begun saying horrible things about us.

We’re all objectively terrible people. Those carnies at the amusement park are sketching our real faces. Yet, most of us operate under the delusion that we are somehow beloved, that we alone are exempt from the piles of judgment that we have no problem heaping on everyone else. We tell ourselves that, in our case, our worst traits are somehow actually assets. “I’m not annoying. I’m quirky.” “I’m not dumb. I have alt-smarts.” “I’m not trying way too hard. I’m really pulling off this indoor jean-jacket.”

No one thinks that they’re the person who’s going to be sent home on night one. Look, it isn’t as if we’re wholly unaware of the image that we present. We generally have the basic outline down. It’s just that, somehow, we’re encouraged to see our reflection and then completely forget it. The devil, they should say, is in our details.

For example, despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary—evidence suggesting that the image that I actually present is that of a “bookishly approachable stranger you can rely on for accurate directions to any Banana Republic in the tri-state area”—I simultaneously maintain the completely unfounded illusion that I project a palpable sense of danger. Last week, walking down Atlantic Avenue in a blue bandana I’d recently started wearing in an attempt at a look that can only be described as “recently unemployed adjunct professor,” the thought crossed my mind that someone might see me and worry that the tree-lined streets of Brooklyn Heights had suddenly been infiltrated by a street gang.

I own a seltzer maker. I have a “tea connection” in Connecticut. I’ve started more than one conversation with the phrase, “You know, if you really stop and think about it, Matchbox Twenty is a pretty underrated band.” None of which stopped me from having the very real thought that, “I hope that no one sees me in my blue bandana and thinks that I’m in The Crips.” (I’ve been in gangs over the course of my lifetime. But they’ve been gangs made up of people who look like I do. Also known as “improv troupes.”)

Which brings me to my own personal moment of devastating self-realization. The moment when the entire facade I’d spent years carefully crafting for myself came cascading down in a crushing avalanche. The moment when, confronted with the entire set of options available to her, JoJo looked me in the eyes—squarely, deliberately—and mumbled, simply, “Nope.”

I was in Charleston, South Carolina, in town to perform a show I’d written and absolutely confident in everything I was bringing to that particular Southern table—my accomplishments, my personality, my New York City residency—would have everyone I met immediately throwing themselves at my feet begging to be regaled with tales of “life in the big city.” The night before the show, the cast and I decided to soak in some local culture and soon found ourselves at a bar in the company of Brittany and Elena: two beautiful HR recruiters in town for a consequence-free Girls’ Weekend. (Which is, it should be noted, exactly the type of experience I thought I could provide for them.)

From the moment I inserted myself (unasked) into their conversation—a conversation that was, I could only assume, severely wanting for some fascinating insight into “the time I saw Joaquin Phoenix on the subway, because, you know, I live in New York City, and that’s the kind of thing that happens all the time in New York City, where I live”—I could tell that Brittany and Elena were enchanted. I was witty. I was charming. The banter between us flowed as seamlessly as dialogue in a less-preachy Aaron Sorkin drama.

So engaging was the interaction, so ripe with potential, that on my way back from the jukebox, where I’d been queuing up a Matchbox Twenty playlist, I realized that I’d never found a window in which to properly introduce myself. (A fact that I, a longtime proponent of kill-or-be-killed improv comedy, sought to ameliorate by proposing that, instead of me just telling them what my name was, why didn’t they see if they could guess it based on whatever impression I’d left them with over the course of the last twenty minutes.)

I leaned back against the bar smugly, a cocky Rumpelstiltskin waiting to be anointed with a name like “Pablo,” “Jean-Luc,” or “Javier Bardem,” some name evoking mystery and adventure and the type of forbidden dalliance heretofore confined to the pages of the Kama Sutra.

The name that I was actually given (and given, it should be noted, with a deliberateness and speed in defiance of everything I thought I knew about the physics of sound) was Gary.

Fucking Gary.

Has there ever been a name that connotes an image of a more sexless, amorphous, broken sack of human desperation than Gary? Gary isn’t the name of a person you flirt with at a bar. Gary is the name of a guy who wears sweatpants to the Olive Garden. Gary isn’t the guy who fulfills your romantic fantasies. Gary is the guy who gets hernias playing office kickball. I don’t care what small town you live in, if there’s ever a headline in your local newspaper reading “Area Man Falls Into Yet Another Sinkhole,” the name of that area man is Gary.

If Gary were an instrument, he’d be a used tuba. If Gary were a band, he’d be—I can now say with the benefit of hindsight—he’d be Matchbox Twenty.

Here are a series of phrases that have never been directed at anyone named Gary:
“Well, the results are in, and they aren’t terrible.”
“Congratulations on not getting trapped in another Ponzi scheme.”
“Please Gary, just a minute. My body can’t handle another bed-shattering orgasm.”
And lastly, perhaps most devastatingly: “Gary, will you accept this rose?”

There would be no rose, I could tell, in the offing for me that night in Charleston. No sun-drenched evening horse rides, no walks along the beach. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that perhaps Brittany and Elena were simply compensating for their intimidation at being in the presence of a comedy genius who might also be in The Crips, but I couldn’t maintain the mental delusion longer than it took for the last strains of “Push” to fade from the bar’s speaker system. (And, though I can’t say for certain, I distinctly remember the song that played next was Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”) My mouth closed.

Though I stood in that moment alone, I can honestly say that I was not lonely in my disgrace. Because somewhere, I knew…I know, is a man with teeth like dreams boarding a plane for California with a one-way ticket to the Bachelorette Mansion. And to that man I say this: “It’s nice to meet you, Gary. My name is Gary, too. I live in New York City, but I suspect you’ve already guessed that from my cool familiarity.”

 

 

Timothy Eberle is a New York based writer and comedian, like everybody else who lives in Brooklyn. His writing and performances have appeared in McSweeney’s, Splitsider, the Santa Fe Literary Review, Jewish Life Television, Jewlicious.com, Heeb Magazine, and the Madcap Review, among other credits. Most recently he was seen performing at The Peoples Improv Theater in “I Am Not a Man” (a sad show which he wrote alone), and in the review “Sad Men and the People Who Love Them.”

 

“Into the Fire” by Kyle Laws

Into the Fire
Image by Penelope Breen

after being named for a woman jazz singer

Around a Philadelphia piano bar sweaty with beads
off glass, towards the end of the last set,
the singer and her voice became what Mother wanted
for a daughter, something in the name,
something her father said about their Irish ancestry.

I became clay to shape for the fire
when she gave me the name Karl in Gaelic,
but not even Mother could bring forth a goddess
in urn with all the wood of a forest.
By the time I budded breasts,

I didn’t want to be a girl who played with dolls,
but the woman astride a horse leading—
if not a nation—her family to what they could be,
more than what they were, more than drinks
around a set of black and white keys.

Three quarters past midnight, it would be easy
to focus on a man who walked away
in a piano bar tune. But it would be me,
a woman descended of Druids, the one stones
are circled for, the one for whom fires are burned.

 

 

Kyle Laws’ collections include This Town with Jared Smith (Liquid Light Press, 2017); So Bright to Blind (Five Oaks Press, 2015); Wildwood (Lummox Press, 2014); My Visions Are As Real As Your Movies, Joan of Arc Says to Rudolph Valentino (Dancing Girl Press, 2013); and George Sand’s Haiti (co-winner of Poetry West’s 2012 award). With six nominations for a Pushcart Prize, her poems and essays have appeared in magazines and anthologies in the U.S., U.K., and Canada. She is the editor and publisher of Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press.  www.kylelaws.com 

Read an interview with Kyle here.