Contributors Spring 2018


Jean Banas
(Illustrator) is a well-established Florida artist living and working in the community of New Smyrna Beach. She can often be seen working in the studios at the Artists’ Workshop and the Atlantic Center for the Arts.


Liz Betz
(The Sparrow) is enjoying her retirement pastime of writing short fiction which has been published in a variety of markets. She writes from rural Alberta, Canada. The Sparrow is her 40th short story published. Follow her writing blog lizbetz.blogspot.ca for news of her publications.


Tommy Dean
(Filaments of Air) is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV (Redbird Chapbooks). A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, Spartan, JMWW, Split Lip Magazine, and New World Writing. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.


Salvatore Difalco
(Relapse) is the author of 4 books. He splits his time between Toronto and Sicily.


Sara Finnerty
(Dear Baby Witch) is the Nonfiction Editor of Entropy magazine. She has essays and stories forthcoming or published in Catapult, Literary Hub, Black Warrior Review, Brevity, Longreads, The Rumpus, Joyland, and others. She is the co-curator of The Griffith Park Storytelling Series and is originally from Queens, NY and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter. Find her at www.sarafinnerty.com.


Jenne Knight (Fat Class) writes poetry and essays, and her work appears in Bodega, The Rumpus, and The Common, among others, and new work is forthcoming from wildness. Her poem, “Elegy for my Father” was nominated for Best of the Net 2016. Please visit www.jenneknight.com for more information.


Rachel Maggio (In Which Sasquatch Moves to the Desert) is a freelance writer and student in the English program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.


Grace March
 (Cake) is a young writer from the Canadian prairies. This is her first publication.


Cynthia Morgan Nichols
(Eight Days in Mercy) lives in midtown Memphis and works at the University of Memphis Libraries. She enjoys painting, yoga and walking through her historic neighborhood.


Optimism One
‘s (Grade School Fashion Faux Pas) essays have been published by In Fact Books and The Normal School, among others. He earned his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sierra Nevada College and teaches writing full-time at Modesto Junior College in California. He’s currently working on a memoir called Goodbye, Suicide. His blood type is B+ (be positive).


Dion O’Reilly
(Gone Sister) has spent  much of her life on a farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She studies with Ellen Bass and Danusha Leméris and attends an MFA program in Creative Writing at Pacific University. She has worked as a waitress, barista, baker, theater manager, graphic designer, and public school teacher. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in Rattle, The Sun, Canary Magazine, Spillway, Bellingham Review, Atlanta Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Porter Gulch Review, and a variety of other literary journals and anthologies. Her work has been nominated for Pushcarts, the Intro Journals Project, and was a semifinalist in The Folio Literary Journal Poetry Contest.


John Riley
(Photograph of My Father) lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he works in educational publishing. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Metazen, Connotation Press, Smokelong Quarterly, Blue Five Notebook, Willows Wept Review, The Dead Mule, and many other places online and in print.


Sarena Tien
(Suture Lines) is a queer Chinese-American feminist and Francophile. Her work has appeared in online publications such as Transitions Abroad, The Feminist Wire, Bustle, On She Goes, and Argot. When she’s not trying to become a polyglot, she can often be found fighting for social justice or folding far too many origami stars.

 
Anna Villegas (One Tough German: Part I) worked as a full-time college English professor in California’s Central Valley for forty-one years. Her published work includes four decades of short stories, poems, essays, newspaper columns, and three novels.   Now retired, she lives in Nevada City, California, where the folk, the foothills, and the ghosts of her Gold Rush forebearers supply inspiration for her fiction.

“One Tough German, Part I” by Anna Villegas


“Lost Dreams” by Jean Banas, acrylic on canvas, 47″ x 55″.

The neighbor to the south was a single woman in her forties, Annie, who heard the sirens at close to midnight. Grateful for the cool air breathing through the front door screen, untroubled by the insomnia, which had become her bed partner since her divorce (and would be, she predicted, for the rest of her life), she was lying fully awake on the living room couch, listening. She’d heard the electrician from across the street slam his Ford Explorer’s door at ten; she’d seen the tip of his cigarette pulsing and imagined it into a firefly. She’d heard Happy’s dog tags clinking as the ancient shepherd nuzzled his way down the block, across her lawn into the carport, and back again to his home four houses up. Happy is tomcatting, she’d thought to herself, crossing her open palms across her breasts, pleased by the slight gift of sleeplessness: Happy’s nocturnal ritual defying her town’s leash laws.

She’d heard the first siren call from blocks and blocks away. Too raucous, she felt at first, to be the harbinger of death. Eddie, her neighbor to the north, was coping with stomach cancer, had been for two years. But still he pulled her garbage cans in every Thursday after pick-up as he’d done for over a decade. Just three days ago, she’d seen him pulling wisps of Bermuda grass from beneath his geraniums. He was thinned down, but his spirits seemed good. His voice was hearty and stern when he directed his grandson in mowing the lawn, in blowing the cement walkways clean of grass clippings. He was coping well enough that Virginia, his wife, sometimes escaped to Annie’s kitchen table for a cup of coffee and ten minutes of complaint. He’s so cranky, Virginia would say, nervously centering her coffee cup on one of Annie’s woven placemats. The chemo makes him dizzy. He doesn’t eat. Annie thought Virginia brave and loyal; she envied the smell of carrots and potatoes, steak and onions wafting across the backyard fence exactly at five o-clock. Annie couldn’t imagine not eating a meal which smelled so basic, so much more homey than the scrambled eggs or bowl of granola which had become her own thoughtless last-minute dinners. Virginia’s kitchen stood as Annie’s emblem of the enduring marriage. Cause or effect, Annie wasn’t sure, but she was vaguely aware that had only her oven, or her and Alan’s oven, produced the meaty perfumes of Virginia’s, they would never have been divorced.

She didn’t think about the yelling.

A neighborly sort, she’d thought when she arrived in the neighborhood years ago and came home from work after dark to find her garbage cans pulled off the street, illuminated neatly in the carport by her headlight beams. Perhaps it was neighborliness; perhaps it was Eddie’s insistence on order. His own front yard was all hard lines in concrete except for the square of lawn buffering his porch against the sidewalk. Cement curbing enforced Eddie’s red roses, which grew in deadpan earth as flat and clean as new asphalt. Annie, not much of a gardener herself, had thought one turned the earth beneath shrubs and flowers to make the broken surface welcoming to water. Eddie’s roses, though, were thriving in their hardscrabble floors. If a spent bloom managed to escape Eddie’s deadheading to drop its petals, he had them swept clean within a day’s time. A man so intent on tidiness as Eddie could not be nearing death, which would surely render dropped petals trivial.

As the sirens sounded and neared, Annie sat up from the couch and moved to the screen door, where she stood and watched. Two cars were parked in front of Virginia and Eddie’s: the older son’s white Lexus, the younger son’s dark blue Taurus. Annie was not a car person. She recognized these two makes only because Eddie had been quick to point their merits out to her. When the older son, Eddie Jr., had moved up from Camry to Lexus, Eddie schooled her in engine size, mpg, and luxury options like heated leather seats and defrosting rearview mirrors. Eddie had waved her over to the curb while she was mowing her lawn not so long ago. She’d let the mower engine die to hear about Eddie Jr.’s success at his chiropractic clinic, success that made the Lexus possible. These conversations—it was almost as if Eddie were a salesman trying to sell her a car—seemed misplaced in some psychic geography with which she was unfamiliar, what with Eddie Jr. inside the house visiting with Virginia, Eddie Sr. outside outlining the virtues of the Lexus to Annie. What was most impressive was cost, though, Annie had learned from Eddie, and that it was possible to pay forty thousand dollars for a car remarkably like nearly every other model on the freeway. She’d sensed early in her residence in their neighborhood—Eddie’s unembarrassed question about what she’d paid for her house–that money, having it and spending it, was important to Eddie, to his sense of himself in relation to others. Annie was neither a buyer nor a getter; Eddie became her weathervane of consumerism. His sons’ cars, the woven redwood fence newly erected across his back lot line, airplane tickets to the Dakotas, each was introduced and outlined to Annie in fine accounting including even the relative cost of cars not bought, fence bids not accepted, addendums necessary to certify the financial acumen of the buyer.

So Annie recognized easily the clean shapes of the sons’ cars as she stood at her screen. Their presence assured her that the sirens, winding themselves to hysteria as they drew closer and closer, were not coming to Eddie’s house. The sons—tall, portly take-charge types, gray-haired like their father—would not allow public disorder to overcome Eddie’s household any more than Eddie would. They were only visiting, Annie was sure, staying through the Late Show as they’d frequently done since Eddie’s diagnosis. When a midnight walk held more appeal than the prone, passive acceptance of her insistent insomnia, often Annie would pass Eddie’s house and the moonlit gleam of the sons’ parked cars to the studio applause following Letterman’s dialogue and the delayed roars of Eddie and his offspring. Where was Virginia, she’d often wonder, and then satisfy herself with the image of Virginia (a tiny beehived blonde waif amidst her big men) baking a lemon chiffon pie or a double chocolate layer cake for the midnight pleasure of her family. Annie herself had become the recipient of such riches on the morning after. Virginia would appear skittishly at the front door and offer her a quarter of a pie or an outsized slab of cake: Eddie can’t take the cream anymore. Or the frosting doesn’t sit well with Eddie these days. As soon as Virginia returned to her kitchen to design some other dessert, Annie would stop whatever she was doing, pour herself a glass of milk, and eat the pie or the cake. She was diligent about reporting to Virginia her enjoyment of the treats. She told herself Virginia needed her guiltless, unrestrained absorption of calories to make up for Eddie’s failure.

The fire engine, then ambulance, came from down the long south end of their street. The engine lurched to a stop in front of Annie’s house, two yellow-hatted firemen hitting the sidewalk at a run. The paramedics were a heartbeat behind, exiting the ambulance which had pulled onto Eddie’s lawn. (Tire tracks! Annie thought. Eddie won’t be happy.) Up and down the block, front doors widened and neighbors stepped out, the whiteness of pajamas and robes fluttering mothlike in and out of doors, back and forth from porch to porch, lawn to lawn. Nobody turned on a light. The paramedics unrolled a stretcher from the ambulance. When it sprang tall, its wheel-tipped legs scissoring open like an ironing board’s, Annie startled and stepped back. It was Eddie.

She shut the front door; the murmurs and footsteps, the throaty rumble of the fire engine softened. She turned off the kitchen light and, her hand sliding gently against the walls for guidance, she made her way to the bedroom, to the rumpled bed she had left hours before. Tomorrow she would speak to Virginia. She would try to find some small way she was needed, some small service she could offer that wouldn’t get in the way of the big sons and their wives whose voices ebbed and flowed as, her watching completed, she fell into sleep.

Annie’s house had been a wreck when she’d bought it. An affordable wreck, though, whose methodical clean-up and repair had so exhausted her that she had found it possible to sleep heavily for two and three hours at a stretch after a day of hauling garbage and hacking shrubs, scrubbing sinks and painting ceilings. What others had seen as an eyesore Annie had seized as a welcome alternative to Valium and Diphenhydramine, the refillable prescriptions to which her distracted gynecologist had prescribed when she’d murmured something about sleeplessness in response to the obligatory doctor’s summation following her check-up: Any questions? What she’d wanted, really, was guided instruction as to how one resumes single life after twenty years of muted, soft-cornered marriage. What exactly does one do with dinner, the one meal of the day which she and Alan had shared? How does one set a pretty place and face the four food groups alone? With a candle or without? When the fickle Honda’s clutch gives up the ghost during rush hour on a Thursday evening, whom does one call now that Alan, her best friend since high school, her officially documented ex-husband, was living on the outskirts with a golden retriever and his pregnant girlfriend (younger, although Alan had explained courteously it was her relative vivacity, not her youth, that had seduced him out of their marriage).

Annie had been a good patient and swallowed the Valium, but it enabled inaction, which opened the door to reflection, which led to the road down self-recrimination. The Diphenhydramine left her headachy and slothful for hours after waking. When Alan had asked, graciously enough, if she’d consider selling their pretty bungalow so he could extract his half of community property in cash, she hadn’t the wits to refuse. Homeless, she’d followed the directions of realtors the way she’d followed those of her distant doctor. The first refusal she’d offered to anyone (could it be decades since she’d said no, I won’t?) concerned the house.

You won’t want this one, the realtor had grumbled dismissively, kicking a broken sprinkler head from the front step. It needs so much work.

I want it, Annie had countered, thirty seconds inside the door. I’ll take it.

She’d warmed to Eddie easily in the early days in her new neighborhood. He appeared with his weedwacker after Annie blistered her thumb trimming the foot-high lawn in the back yard. He backed his tarnished silver El Camino into her carport and loaded the pyre of debris she’d dragged from the spider-webbed tool shed. Going that way anyway, he’d said, refusing her offer to pay for the dump fee. When her house and yard had been tidied and transformed from dereliction, You do good work, Annie. Meg and I were saying how nice the place is looking. Then, almost shyly as he turned away: You’re a good neighbor to have. Once during a break at work she’d mentioned to a co-worker that her neighbor was a Rush Limbaugh fan. When the woman pretended to choke on her coffee, Annie felt disloyal, as if she’d delivered a low blow to a person who’d only ever been kind to her.

Although it was Eddie’s upraised voice she overheard through the years, truly hotheaded angry if she were frank about it, and never Virginia’s, her fondness attached to Eddie rather than his wife. Virginia flitted while Eddie stood; Virginia waved while Eddie talked. It seemed to Annie that Eddie’s wife moved as if she were one step ahead of a rabid dog or a speeding car. Something about Virginia unsettled Annie, made her question uninvited all the secrets woven into a person, even a neighbor appreciated and trusted, even a woman who never let slip a complaint or discontent. A woman like Annie herself, who would never inquire about an absent husband. Or a present one.

She and Eddie and Virginia had developed a vacation system for picking up papers and mail, watering pots, pulling cans in and out on garbage day. In terse, polite notes they would inform each other of the dates of their removal from the neighborhood. When Virginia and Eddie went back to family in the Dakotas each fall, Annie stood sentry over their two houses. When Annie infrequently traveled for work, to San Francisco or Denver or Minneapolis, she left her house safe with Eddie and Virginia. Virginia collected teaspoons, Annie knew, and Annie always remembered to find her a pretty souvenir to add to her collection, an enameled tribute to the Twin Cities or the Golden Gate, over which Virginia’s exclamations of thanks would arise and subside, truncated to make way for Eddie’s questions about flight conditions and hotel locations. In season, baskets of overflow strawberries and peaches, bags of persimmons and apples, were set unannounced outside Annie’s carport door. A loaf of persimmon bread, a jar of apple butter, would be placed outside Virginia’s kitchen in the early morning. When the Honda failed, it was Eddie whom Annie had called, first for advice, then for a ride to the rental car agency. It was Eddie’s mechanic who replaced the clutch. Annie had been blessed with perfect neighbors.

~  

Annie tiptoed across her damp lawn to fetch the morning paper. Eddie and Virginia’s had, like hers, been tossed on the sidewalk, barely off the street. Eddie usually had his paper in long before Annie. Sometimes before dawn, standing at the kitchen window drinking her morning coffee after a troublesome night, Annie would see him, water hose or push broom in hand, waiting for their tardy paper boy. Virginia Annie liked to imagine sleeping, maybe rolling into the sheeted warmth left by Eddie’s body. It was always Eddie who brought in the paper, who handled the garbage cans.

The sons’ cars were gone, Eddie’s house still. The ambulance tires had marred the lawn as she’d predicted, flat indentations criss-crossing Eddie’s thick carpet like the tracks of interrupted ironing. Eddie would probably rake and then mow, as soon as he was able, to erase the imperfection. With the papers hooked under her arm, Annie knocked at the door. Through Virginia’s yellow lace curtains, she could see into the kitchen, chairs sitting cockeyed around the table, leftover coffee cups and dessert saucers awaiting rinsing and stacking.

Annie knocked again. She wanted to set the paper down and leave, but this seemed an instance where louder raps were warranted, so she knocked and waited. Hospital, she thought. The sons and Virginia are still at the hospital. It had happened before.

That evening Annie came home to find her block a congregation of cars and neighbors. The electrician from across the street, Happy’s elderly master and mistress, the pregnant accountant from the new house on the corner and her three-year-old, two middle-aged men she didn’t recognize, Eddie Jr. The old dog was asleep on the sidewalk, eyes shut, his loose leash coiled sloppily around his lowered head. The two-year-old, Annie thought his name was Morgan, was swinging a plastic baseball bat. She edged past them, pulled the Honda into the carport, set her purse and a quart of milk down on the step outside her door, and wondered what she could say, how she could phrase a question about the ambulance, the fire engine, Virginia’s absence that morning.

“Can I ask how Eddie is?” she called to Eddie Jr. as she crossed her lawn. He turned from the accountant and stared at her, red-faced, rueful. “I’m Annie. Next door?”

“Oh, sure.” He put out his big hand. “Eddie Hausauer.”

Annie took his hand, found herself squeezing it too long. “How’s Eddie?”

“Dad passed last night.”

Happy stood and shook, nudged his wet nose against Annie’s knee.

“I’m so sorry.” She knelt and felt for the velvety inside of Happy’s ear. “I’m sorry.” She held the dog’s head against her neck.

“Took the ambulance and the paramedics almost fifteen minutes to get here. He was gone when they came. My brother and I, we came over when Mom called. Thought it was indigestion.”

“The cancer?”

“Massive stroke.” Eddie Jr. was massive, Annie thought. A mastiff was a dog like Happy, but bigger.

Annie stood. “What can I do? For Virginia?”

“Oh, we’re keeping her over at our house. We’ve got lots of room. Family’s flying in from the Dakota’s this afternoon.”

“A casserole?” Annie said, hopeful.

“Maybe later. We’re doing fine now.”

“He was … your father was always so good to me. He—“

“One tough German, that’s Dad.”

“And services?”

“Thursday morning. At the Methodist Church on Fairmont.”

“Yes.”

The accountant said something about being out of town. Happy’s old mistress picked up the dog’s leash and tugged. Annie understood Eddie Jr. had no more to say, neighbors having been informed, services announced. She knew that in times of loss, it was better to jump right in and do rather than ask. She thought of Eddie’s lawn, his flowers, the Bermuda grass growing beneath the geraniums like the stubborn hair on a corpse, ignoring the body’s signals of shutdown.

“Please give Virginia my love,” she said, touching Eddie’s broad shoulder.

“Will do,” he said, already turning away. Then, salving his shortness with her, he turned and grinned. “Dad was tough, but Mom’s tougher.”

Annie hadn’t thought of Virginia as tough in all the years she’d neighbored next to Eddie and his wife. It wasn’t her physical smallness in contrast to Eddie’s size, though she was the kind of tiny that suggested frailty, however untrue the stereotype might be. Maybe it was her voice, deeper than one would expect, and never raised, not even when Annie heard Eddie’s bellows for Meg, Meg, across the back fence, laced with Rush Limbaugh’s tirades. Annie would hear the back door open and Virginia answer: What is it, Eddie? It would be something misplaced, not where Eddie damn well knew he had put it, or something needing replacement, more lawn fertilizer or bird seed, which Eddie damn well knew he’d asked her to buy. Virginia would scurry and find the lost thing or head off in the car to Wal-Mart to buy whatever it was Eddie had asked her to restock, more than once if his retorts were to be trusted. Annie would put down her broom or put away her clippers and tiptoe into her own house, embarrassed, ashamed as if it had been Annie whom Eddie was castigating. Virginia tough?

But she hadn’t thought of herself as a tough woman, either, certainly not for all the years Alan had seemed to be taking care of her and their life together. Certainly not when Alan had segued into his abandonment of the marriage by explaining patiently how he’d always wanted a dog (news to Annie, who couldn’t recall such desire in her husband), how it was Patti’s golden retriever which made him see that Annie just wasn’t the person he needed to be with now. She’s playful, he’d said with an overflow of ardent admiration which made Annie nauseous; she’s outrageous. To cut him off—she heard the next line coming—Annie had said with a sarcasm so atypical Alan had not understood: She makes you feel twenty years old again, doesn’t she? Alan didn’t miss a beat. Yes, exactly! Annie became a conspirator then, Alan made her one, to all the passions and intrigues of his relationship with Patti. Once even, before he’d left their house for good, they’d made love between Alan’s drawn-out monologues on Patti’s uniqueness. It was as if for Alan, talking about his new woman became the aphrodisiac inspiring final coitus with his old one. Annie had been a strangely willing participant, the outgoing member of a ménage a trois collecting what she could before her displacement.

What had she been thinking, Annie asked herself as she put the milk into the fridge and slung her purse onto the kitchen table, her stomach clutching with the frankness of memory. What kind of person would let herself be handled so hurtfully by a man who’d promised to cherish her? A man who’d been her best friend? Could she even hold Alan to blame for what she’d allowed him to do to her? She shuddered and gripped the table edge with both hands to stop the shaking in her shoulders. These were thoughts she’d only ever before suffered at night, when the gloamy edges of insomnia welcomed nightmares. What did she and Virginia know of the toughness of men?

 

“One Tough German, Part II” will conclude in the July issue of r.kv.r.y.

 

Anna Villegas worked as a full-time college English professor in California’s Central Valley for forty-one years. Her published work includes four decades of short stories, poems, essays, newspaper columns, and three novels. Now retired, she lives in Nevada City, California, where the folk, the foothills, and the ghosts of her Gold Rush forebearers supply inspiration for her fiction.

 

“In Which Sasquatch Moves to the Desert” by Rachel Maggio


“The Overseer” by Jean Banas, Acrylic on canvas, 38″ x 47″.

i. they say the Sasquatch has never been killed
because the face is too human
that hunters looking into the eyes become struck with the fact
that they too are monster;
that Sasquatch have an affinity for chewing tobacco and bottled water
sneaking it from the packs of hikers, careful
so as not to wake the children

ii. the sightings of donovan are rare
perhaps on thanksgiving or christmas
but when he is present the room is alight
the air hangs in earthquake weather
this time the medication is working
this time dono drives a bus
this time he drives us all in the bus to see the christmas lights
this time i bury my head in my mother’s shoulder the whole time
too afraid to look up
this time the air is alive and elektrik

iii. Sasquatch speak their own language
a cohesive language they all understand of grunts and moans
and guttural calls, even the young ones
(they live in close family groups)
speak this language, based on the cries of the young
so the species adapts to speak to babies,
understood from birth that the innocence we all carry
may in fact be our saving grace
not the other way around and the Sasquatch
presumably have their own bedtime stories told in these grunts and moans
and the young presumably grunt and moan
for them to be told again

iv.they move to the desert
my grandma tells me the desert, has more extreme highs
and lows and maybe the sunshine and nature is what
the two of them need
and we go to the desert to see them
past the plaster dinosaurs and donovan rocks a new baby in his arms
to sleep before he disappears

v. the great Sasquatch of the pacific northwest
can communicate with the conscience
and maybe that is why it has never been killed
the great Sasquatch of the pacific northwest often attempt to bring home
the hikers kind enough to bring them chewing tobacco and bottled water
not realizing this is not appreciated
seeing into the greater conscience(but never to the surface)beyond the fear and thinking
instead about the need to escape to nature, but these hikers
cannot see into the greater Sasquatch conscience only to the surface of their own, and therefore
are limited to their fear

vi. when they find donovan’s body
hanging in the garage
my brother deciphers the news through my sobs
and asks me if i remembered to take my medication
wondering if i too will run away into the woods 

vii. offering Sasquatch food ensures your survival
while crying seems to aggravate the creatures
who will punch in your jaw and run at the sight of tears
but apparently no one has told this news to my grandmother
and aunt because there is no food at the funeral but there is
plenty of tears and
in the true Sasquatch spirit,
punching to follow suit

viii. donovan rode his skateboard down pch
to watch monsterquest with me and my brother
and his guttural laugh at the skeptics shown
makes us only more sure of ourselves
Sasquatch live among us
he leaves before the episode is over
and before Sasquatch are found

ix. the Sasquatch’s humanoid face
may in fact be proof that they are real
our cousins in fact
early wanderers who once
fed up with this world’s treatment
fled into the woods,
and spoke a new language of guttural groans
and chewing tobacco
and never came back

 

Rachel Maggio is a freelance writer and student in the English program at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

 

“Gone Sister” by Dion O’Reilly


“Carriage House” by Jean Banas, acrylic on canvas, 48″ x 52″.

She never fell from her frantic
mare as it reared and twisted
in the mustard fields.
And when she drove high speed
in her ‘67 Karmann Ghia,
she didn’t plummet
off an unexpected cliff
at the end of Swift Street
as she flipped out on acid.

She survived her wild childhood,
divides her time
between three western states.
Summers in Coos Bay, visits in the fall
with the willing men of Kanab,
winters spent
floating across borders,
visiting boneyards of the old days
in this dirty California town,
where she learned the ways of wayward surfers,
smoked dope downtown with strangers,
searched the Boardwalk
at four in the morning
for some stringy-haired boy
to bring home.

Bull-whipped child grown bold,
cast out by her parents at seventeen,
her violence aimed back to them,
when she tipped the table,
stood, suddenly screaming
at Christmas.
Even my father’s fists
slamming her face,
my mother sending her into the streets
in tight lime-green pants and torpedo bras—
none of it killed her.
Without family she’s alive,
sixty-six in a jet-black wig
and Grace Slick bangs, the same
as when she was eighteen
and I was twelve,
her big dark eyes inked with liquid
eyeliner, her plump mouth
shiny with pale gloss, open,
as if calling out.

 

 

Dion O’Reilly has spent  much of her life on a farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She studies with Ellen Bass and Danusha Leméris and attends an MFA program in Creative Writing at Pacific University. She has worked as a waitress, barista, baker, theater manager, graphic designer, and public school teacher. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in Rattle, The Sun, Canary Magazine, Spillway, Bellingham Review, Atlanta Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Porter Gulch Review, and a variety of other literary journals and anthologies. Her work has been nominated for Pushcarts, the Intro Journals Project, and was a semifinalist in The Folio Literary Journal Poetry Contest.

 

“Grade School Fashion Faux Pas” by Optimism One


“Moving Through Space” by Jean Banas, acrylic on canvas, 46″ x 47″.

We had gone running early that morning but cut it short, stopping after three and half miles.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” Cortney said, and started to walk.

“Big potty?” I asked, trying to be delicate, speaking her third-grade-teacher lingo.

“Yes.” Her cheeks reddened under the lamps that lit the trail.

“You can poop in my hat,” I said.

“No. I wish I had brought some toilet paper. I’d go in the bushes.” We were on the Virginia Corridor Trailway, a two-lane paved path that replaced a dormant set of train tracks and bisected neighborhoods to the west and east. I pictured the doggie pick-up bags in dispensers and shuddered at the thought of cleaning up after her. Thankfully, I kept my mouth shut. Thankfully, she didn’t want to crap in my favorite fitted running beanie.

I had to go, too, but I was more used to running through the urge.

Ten minutes later, back at her apartment, Cortney rushed to the bathroom. I started making a smoothie and heard the shower. Since there is only one bathroom in her apartment, I held it and got her lunch ready. The relationship was pretty new in those ways.

~

Cortney was running late for work. She had already left the apartment and walked down the stairs to her car but rushed back in. “Have you seen my cell phone?” The force of her words pushed the door open as much as her hands.

I popped my head out from the kitchen at a 45-degree angle, shaking my hands toward the sink. “No, I don’t think so. Is it by the b—”

She reached between the cushion and the arm of her reading chair. “Oh, here it is. Okay, gotta go. Quick kiss.” She walked and puckered as I met her in the living room.

In unison, we exaggerated, “Muah!”

“I’ll walk you out to your car,” I said.

She sped through the door and hurtled down the stairs. “Don’t lock yourself out.”

“I won’t,” I said, closing the door behind me and rushing to catch up. Suddenly it felt like we were working out again, running down bleachers at the track, head and eyes down, intent on each step, a mixture of concentration, caution, and exertion. At the bottom and on flat ground, we jogged the twenty yards to her car.

“Okayhaveagreatday,” she said.

“You, too. See you this afternoon.”

I stood in the mini parking lot like I was waiting for her plane to take off, not wanting to turn around until her car had disappeared from my sight. I watched her pull out in reverse. The gravel in the alley crunched under her tires. She drove away after we gave our final waves, metronomes from elbows to fingertips, and blew our final kisses.

Floating back upstairs, belly full of butterflies, I glowed with the thought that I was an attentive, exciting boyfriend.

The front door was locked. I gripped the cold, gold handle and shook it like I was trying to tear it off, as if I would somehow overpower the locking mechanism with brute force. The windows rattled.

“What the fuck?” I said out loud, knowing Cortney was already down the street, out of sight, zooming to work fourteen miles away and two towns over. Knowing I didn’t have my own cell phone on me. Knowing I didn’t know her phone number anyway.

I walked around the wrap-around balcony to each hand-crank window, hoping that one had been left cracked open, digging my fingers into the gaps on the sides to pry loose the old, rusted frames.

What the hell am I going to do? I had rented out my house when I went on sabbatical and was crashing at Cortney’s before I went traveling again. Everything I needed was locked inside of her place.

I started to get cold in my running tights, running shoes, and form-fitting, long-sleeved running shirt.

~

Now I was stuck outside without a key to my car, a phone, money, anything. The morning air added an extra chill to my smoothied bones. And, still having to go big potty, it felt like I was going to mess myself.

I thought, Maybe Paul is awake and I can borrow one of his cars. I walked the five blocks to my friend’s house, reliving the scene in Up in Smoke when Cheech coaches himself: “Cheeks stay together.”

Paul was already gone, so I returned to Cortney’s porch, shaking the same door handle, pulling at the same windows. I looked across the street to my college. It was still before 7 a.m. on a Friday, a non-teaching day. I could wait until the secretaries arrived and call my mom’s house. But what I wore left very little to the imagination. One glance at my crotch gave a clear outline of everything.

Plus, having just spent too many weeks on the road eating crappy food, I looked like I was pregnant and just starting to show. My pecs, too, seemed more like points since I hadn’t done a push-up in weeks. I felt like Mr. Fatness more than Mr. Fitness. This was fine for running in the dark before most of the world awoke but not walking around in broad daylight at my place of employment. Still, the specter of squatting outside to relieve myself overtook all ego.

Where do the homeless go to the bathroom? I wondered.

The science building, otherwise foreign to me, sat close to the road. I slipped into a bathroom with an outside entrance. Warmth, gratitude, and relief consumed me so much that I considered staying until Cortney got home at 4 p.m. But picturing myself pacing back and forth in a bathroom or sitting all day in a stall, hiding and hoping no one would walk in, motivated me to think of other options, like running to my mom’s house three and a half miles away.

The run would keep me warm, allow time for my mom and stepdad to wake up, give me access to a car, and provide the option of putting on some lessrevealing clothes. An added bonus, which I didn’t anticipate, was that the run would give me time and insight to work through my tendency to blame others for anything bad that happens to me.

I knew that Cortney locked the door as she walked out, an unconscious movement from the two years she had spent living alone in that apartment. I noticed her doing it a week before when she almost locked me out, and I had thought several times that I should get an extra key made to stash outside. But I didn’t. And now I wanted it to be her fault that I was stuck outside, stranded, resourceless, and practically naked.

Deep down, I knew better. But it took this extra run through Modesto to figure it out.

~

My mom opened the front door, her face pixilated through the security screen. “What are you doing here?” she said.

“I’m locked out. I need your car.”

“What? Where’s Cortney? Is she already at work?”

“Yeah, I walked her out to her car and didn’t realize that she locked the door out of habit.”

“Do you have your license with you? You can’t drive my car without your license.”

“Mom, are you serious? Look at me. I don’t have anything. All I have is what I wore to go running. I’m not going to get pulled over.”

She chuckled in that nervous way that conveyed she meant what she said but wasn’t comfortable being challenged about it. “Yeah, I’m serious.”

Dan, my stepdad, still facing the too-loud TV, said, “I’ll take him.”

“Okay, thanks, Dan. But Mom, do you have some sweats I could wear over my running gear? I can’t walk into Cortney’s school looking like this.” I would have asked Dan, but he outweighs me by at least 100 pounds.

She soon displayed a series of matching sweatsuits in pastels and kitten-soft material not meant to go past the front door.

“No, Mom, what about that matching blue Adidas track suit you wear all the time? Can I wear that?”

“Oh, yeah. Let me see.”

Meanwhile, I said to Dan, “If I’m not being too needy, can I borrow one of your baseball caps? My hair is a mess.”

“You bet.” He followed my mom down the hall but turned left to the spare room cum storage closet.

My mom returned with another wrong set of sweats. “This?” she asked. I began to get flashbacks of being in the third grade, shopping for school clothes at Mervyn’s with my mom. She had seemed intent on ensuring that everybody I ever encountered would not only dislike me but also openly ridicule me.

“No, you know, the track suit with that material that makes that swishy sound when you walk and it rubs together? Swish, swish, swish,” I said, embarrassed that I tried to mimic the sound certain clothes make.

“Oh, okay. I think I know what you’re talking about.”

“See if this fits,” Dan said, walking past my mom. “If it does, you can have it. I didn’t realize it didn’t adjust when I bought it, and my head is so big you could put a wine barrel on it and it’d still be tight. That thing’s not even close.”

I squeezed it on, getting an instant headache, but I just wanted this kitchen fashion show to be over. “It’s perfect,” I said. “Thanks.” Meanwhile, I wondered who I could give it to after it served its purpose.

My mom walked into the room holding another set of warm-ups like she was carrying a baby at a distance, one hand on the hanger-hook, and one hand under the legs of the pants. “This one?”

“Yep, those are the ones.”

I heel-pushed out of my running shoes and pulled the pants on over my running tights, then the jacket over my running shirt. My mom’s waist and torso are bigger than mine, so I looked like a kid who wore his big brother’s sweats and his little brother’s hat. To top it all off, the legs came up a little short to show my bare ankles, what kids called “high waters” back in the day.

~

Walking onto the playground in elementary school was always terrifying. Actually, junior high and high school were no different. It was like playing “Marco Polo” but on dry ground. I just knew someone was going to yell “fish outta water!” and identify me as an outcast, an oddball, the one who wore his big brothers’ hand-me-downs, the one who still wore Toughskins while everyone else had graduated to Levi’s, the one who wore Kinney shoes while K-Swiss ruled. It didn’t even matter that I was generally pretty popular. I didn’t feel like I fit in.

Thirty-five years later, I thought I had grown out of that, but the perfect confluence of mishaps brought it all back.

~

I swished into the elementary school office wishing that I had shaved in the last three days, that I wasn’t sporting my stepdad’s too-tight baseball cap, and that I wasn’t wearing my mother’s clothes. But I was desperate.

“Oh, you’re Op,” the secretary said. “Nice to finally meet you. Just sign in right there and you can walk to Cortney’s classroom. Do you know where it is?”

“I think so. That way, right?” I pointed in a direction I hoped was south.

“You got it.”

Exiting the back door of the office, I saw miniature people, maybe kindergartners, lining up outside. One of them appeared to ask his friend, “Who is that strange, scary man walking with his head down?”

I sped up my pace, which only made me look more creepy and suspicious, I’m sure.

When I approached Cortney’s third-grade classroom, I heard her voice and suddenly realized I hadn’t considered what I would say. I just stood in the doorway, watching her read to her students in “Library Corner.” The light from behind me made me a silhouette.

She looked up, and her brow tightened over her eyes, defensive and alarmed. “Can I help you?” Twenty-seven tiny faces turned my way.

“I’m locked out.”

She registered my voice and unclenched her jaw. “Oh, no. Come in, come in.” Then her teacher voice returned, a few decibels higher than normal conversation. “We-were-just-read-ing-a-stor-y. Let-me-in-tro-duce-you-to-ev-er-y-bod-y. Class, this-is-my-boy-friend, Op. Op, this-is-Kay-la, Lu-is, A-lex-is, O-mar–”

“Baby, I’m sorry, but Dan is waiting outside. Can I meet everybody at a better time, when I’m not wearing my mom’s clothes?” The kids all giggled, either titillated that I had called their teacher “baby” or looking closer at my get-up.

While Cortney retrieved her keys, the kids still stared at me, so I addressed them like a robot speaking to a group of semi-deaf, developmentally-delayed children. “I-look-for-ward-to-meet-ing-ev-er-y-one-of-you-real-ly-soon. Good-bye-now,” and waved like Ronald McDonald.

As I did this, I kept thinking, Is this how I’m supposed to communicate with third graders? This can’t be right. I was used to teaching adults at the local junior college.

In a chorus, Cortney’s students said, “Goodbye,” unaffected by my self-consciousness, my attire, my mannerisms, or my syncopated speech.

~

Now, with the key to Cortney’s apartment securely zipped in my pocket, I strode back over hopscotch outlines and basketball courts while two bottles of post-run water pushed for release. I wondered if it’d be okay to slip into the little kiddos’ john to pee. But just then, a waist-high poster boy for cuteness stepped out of the bathroom entrance while still buttoning his pants, and I got a clue. No way was I going in there, especially looking like a forty-something stalker-predator who still lived with his mom.

I didn’t want to add another challenge to my morning of playing Survivor: Central Valley, so I held it again, trying to find the lesson in all this. Like before, what I desired remained just out of reach — a bathroom, my living space, a vehicle, an inconspicuous set of clothes. But really, these were all temporary, and it wasn’t like I was actually homeless. My so-called problems were small in comparison.

I also had to look at my fault-finding. Since I was no longer a kid, I couldn’t just blame others for whatever predicaments I got myself into. Still, I didn’t shit or piss my pants or die from colon blockage, kidney failure, hypothermia, running too many miles, or embarrassment from wearing goofy clothes. Yes, I did have to relive all the anxiety I felt as a kid about what I wore and how others perceived me. But just like when I was in the third grade, I didn’t get laughed off the playground. I lived to learn another day.

 

 

Optimism One‘s essays have been published by In Fact Books and The Normal School, among others. He earned his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sierra Nevada College and teaches writing full-time at Modesto Junior College in California. He’s currently working on a memoir called Goodbye, Suicide. His blood type is B+ (be positive).