“Sepsis” by C. Dale Young

Tree in mist
Image by Jenn Rhubright

The fog has yet to lift, God, and still the bustle
of buses and garbage trucks. God, I have coveted
sleep. I have wished to find an empty bed

in the hospital while on call. I have placed
my bodily needs first, left nurses to do
what I should have done. And so, the antibiotics

sat on the counter. They sat on the counter
under incandescent lights. No needle was placed
in the woman’s arm. No IV was started. It sat there

on the counter waiting. I have coveted sleep, God,
and the toxins I studied in Bacteriology took hold
of Your servant. When the blood flowered

beneath her skin, I shocked her, placed the paddles
on her chest, her dying body convulsing each time.
The antibiotics sat on the counter, and shame

colored my face, the blood pooling in my cheeks
like heat. And outside, the stars continued falling
into place. And the owl kept talking without listening.

And the wind kept sweeping the streets clean.
And the heart in my chest stayed silent.
How could I have known that I would never forget,

that early some mornings, in the waking time,
the fog still filling the avenues, that the image
of her body clothed in sweat would find me?

I have disobeyed my Oath. I have caused harm.
I have failed the preacher from the Baptist Church.
Dear God, how does a sinner outlast the sin?

 

 

C. Dale Young practices medicine full-time, serves as Poetry Editor of the New England Review, and teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. He is the author of The Day Underneath the Day (TriQuarterlyBooks, 2001), The Second Person (Four Way Books, 2007), and Torn (Four Way Books, 2011). He is a previous winner of the Grolier Prize, the Tennessee Williams Scholarship in Poetry from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, both the Stanley P. Young Fellowship and Amanda Davis Fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, American Poetry Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry. He lives in San Francisco with his spouse the biologist and composer, Jacob Bertrand.

“Sepsis” from TORN (c) 2011 by C. Dale Young. Reprinted by permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved. Read our review of TORN here.

 

“Bearing Down” by Brian Hall

Old gas pumps
Image by Jenn Rhubright

A month before my grandfather committed suicide, I drove him to Russ’ Auto Repair in Canton, Ohio, for his Cadillac to be fitted with a left-foot accelerator.

He couldn’t use his right leg because of a recent hip replacement. A prosthesis was installed to help support the weight of his body, which at 280 was the lightest he had been in a decade. Losing weight was one of the three criteria he had to meet before the operation—along with quitting smoking and drinking—and though he was normally defiant of physicians, this time he had followed doctor’s orders. After watching my grandma slowly die in a hospital room earlier that year, he had made a commitment to stay mobile. He wanted to be able to take care of himself, so he wouldn’t have to move in with anyone, or—his greatest fear—into a nursing home.

My grandfather had planned to be at the auto shop as soon as it opened at nine, so I arrived at his house at 7:50, hoping to be on the road by eight. When I arrived, he was already sitting in the car, and his walker, collapsed on the driveway, lay near the passenger side door. As I approached the car, he rolled down the window, and said, “I’ve been waiting here all morning. Now, close my back door.”

My grandfather had always been an impatient man. Throughout my life, if my grandmother and he were at a family function, he would abruptly stand up at the most inappropriate time, tell my grandmother to get her things, and walk to his car. The grandchildren would have to run to the car and wave as he backed out of the driveway. Once I asked my mother why grandpa always left so fast. She shrugged and said, “I guess when he decides to go, there’s nothing you can do to stop him.”

I caught a glimpse of the wreckage in the house as I reached to close the door. The house, which had been kept immaculate by my grandmother, was lost under dirt and clutter. Stacks of dirty dishes sat in the sink, two dining room chairs leaned against the wall, and magazines, letters, and empty glasses covered the dining room table. In the brown, plush carpet, the feet of the walker left small circular indentations that marked my grandfather’s journey from the living room, through the dining room and kitchen and to the car. Between the walker’s tracks, the carpet was raised like an acrylic wake, a wake left by a dragging leg that still hadn’t adjusted to the artificial hip’s metal ball-and-stem that had been inserted three weeks earlier. As I closed the door, I considered that it probably had taken him much of the morning to shuffle to the back door.

I returned to the car, put his walker in the trunk, opened the driver’s side door and slid behind the wheel.

“Took you long enough,” he said. I could smell mint on his breath, a sure sign he was drinking again. He offered me a cigarette. Since I didn’t have enough nerve to tell him he shouldn’t be smoking, I decided to lead by example. I declined. “Then, what are you waiting for?” he asked. “Let’s go.”

During the first miles of the drive, my grandfather began his critique. He told me when I was going too slow, too fast, and when I didn’t come to a complete stop at stop signs. When he asked questions, they always had two parts. The first part was, “What’s the matter with you?”

The ride became a litany of: “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know how to drive?” or “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know how to use a turn signal?” or “What’s the matter with you? Why did it take two weeks to return my phone call?”

I had been avoiding his phone calls because I couldn’t deal with how depressed and reserved he had become after my grandmother died. I lived forty minutes away so it was easy to avoid his calls or, more precisely, him. So I let the rest of my family deal with him. I kept my distance after his first suicide attempt, because I didn’t know what to say to him. My mother finally made me contact him. She told me he needed the accelerator fixed and I was the only one available to drive him. If I would have known it would be my last trip with him, maybe I would have been more enthusiastic instead of focused on not wanting to deal with an old, depressed man for an entire day.

I indulged my grandfather’s orneriness because he seemed to be the grandfather I remembered. The one who decided it was his job to point out any and all flaws. I thought he had turned a corner and was getting better. I considered that maybe the new hip, the alcohol, or the freedom that would come with the accelerator was beginning to bring him out of his depression. I began to feel comfortable around him again, so when we were near Canton, I played along. I told him that he was getting too old to know what he was talking about, and it was best if he just shut up, or, as I said, “Shaddup!” We laughed together, and I continued trying to show that he was wrong to critique my driving. In fact, I became so caught up in proving that I knew where I was going and what I was doing that I missed the exit signs, becoming temporarily lost.

After forty-five minutes at Russ’, the left-foot accelerator was installed: a pedal placed on the left side of the brake and a bar and lever extending to the gas pedal on the right. I drove through Canton, and the car lunged and stopped repeatedly as I tried to find the right amount of pressure with my left foot. Because I wasn’t sure of the exact location of the pedal, sometimes I would hit the break instead of the gas, sending us into our seatbelts. Each time this happened my grandfather said, “Wrong one.”

The most frustrating aspect of the apparatus was that it made me aware that I was driving. That awareness made something so simple, incredibly difficult. Even now, I wonder if that is how my grandfather had felt. Everything became slightly more difficult after my grandmother died: cleaning the house, making dinner, walking, and, until that moment, driving. Perhaps the frustration I had in the car with that damn left-foot accelerator represented a small amount of the frustration my grandfather felt every day with everything he attempted to do.

Outside Canton’s city limits, my grandfather told me that my driving was making him sick, and it was his turn to show me how it was done. I stopped in a supermarket’s parking lot, so we could switch. In no time at all, my grandfather mastered the accelerator.

“What’s the matter with you?” he asked. “The damn thing’s easy.”

A mile away from his house, I had the sensation of moving sideways. The white line marking the road’s shoulder slipped under the car. The tires kicked gravel and dirt as the car approached a drainage ditch. My grandfather was asleep with one hand on the wheel and his head on his shoulder. A month later, a neighbor would see the walker and  my grandfather slumped against the house, his legs buckled under him, and his head, once again, on his shoulder. Thinking that he’d fallen, the neighbor would run to help only to discover the semi-automatic pistol and the half-inch entry wound above his right ear.

“Hey,” I said. My grandfather woke and swerved the car onto the road. “What’s the matter with you?” I asked.

I expected to see his half smile, the one that indicated an insult was coming, but he didn’t smile or have a comeback. He hadn’t even looked at me. He kept his eyes on the road ahead of him, and I watched his cheek twitch as he clenched and unclenched his jaw. I thought about asking him again if something was wrong, but I never had a chance because he pushed the accelerator to the floorboard and turned the corner too quickly. Instead of talking I had to find a way to brace myself.

 

 

Brian Hall is an Assistant Professor of English at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, OH. His essays and photographs have appeared in a variety of journals including The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Palo Alto Review, Exquisite Corpse, The Lullwater Review, and The G.W. Review.

 

“My Moving Cage” by Alice Lowe

My Moving Cage
Image by Jenn Rhubright

If I’d been able to Google it twenty years ago, I would have breathed more easily to know that my malady was real, an identifiable condition. And that I wasn’t alone. Instead, I sheltered my secret in shame, like a drinking problem or a shoplifting mania.

The first episode burst on me like a sudden squall when I was crossing the Coronado Bay Bridge, the span of speed and efficiency that replaced the ferries that used to connect San Diego with Coronado Island. As I drove onto the bridge, I felt a sudden anxiety, growing to panic proportions as I ascended toward the looming mid-point. It was as if there were hands on the steering wheel covering my own, an evil entity who wanted to take the car over the side. I clenched the wheel in a vise-like grip to keep from making a sharp turn to the right, through the restraining wall and into the dark swishing water below. I was sweaty and clammy. Dizzy, hyperventilating. I braked in abrupt jerks. I slowed to about thirty miles an hour; cars veered around me, horns blasting. I couldn’t look beyond my moving cage and its boundaries—the white line on my left, the barrier on my right, the cars directly in front of and behind me.

When I saw the tollgate on the other side, the dam burst inside me; I dissolved into a quivering mass of gasping, shaking, sobbing. I pulled off to the shoulder as soon as I could and turned off the motor. I opened the windows and gulped fresh air until I felt able to continue to the Hotel Del Coronado, where I was attending a conference. The rest of the day was a blur, blotted out by repeating /images of that scary voyage, like a bad dream that haunted me. What happened? Was it a fluke? Was something wrong with me? Would it happen again? How would I get back across the bridge?

~

It has a name—hodophobia. From the Greek “hodos,” meaning “path,” and “phobos,” fear. The label is applied broadly to fear of travel, including flying, but it more specifically relates to road travel. These panic attacks aren’t restricted to bridges: they can be triggered by driving on highways, turning or changing lanes, in traffic or bad weather, over long distances and at high speeds. Mine were the textbook symptoms of a not very remarkable anxiety disorder, but I didn’t know it at the time.

I couldn’t shake the after-shocks and drove under a menacing cloud. I was able to avoid the bridge, but then on a drive down from Los Angeles with a friend, I seized up on the freeway. The same symptoms, not quite as intense as on the bridge, but with the addition of hazy vision—as if a semi-transparent dirty curtain was hanging across the windshield—and a stale, moldy smell. I still wasn’t ready to tell anyone—I said I was feeling a little woozy, maybe feverish, and my friend took the wheel for the rest of the trip. After that I could drive only in the right-hand lane, embracing the shoulder and inching along at perilously slow speeds. My reflexes were shaky, and I knew I was a hazard on the highway, making the imagined risk real, a self-fulfilling prophecy. I learned to get around the entire city of San Diego on surface streets, but the more I shunned the freeways, the more alarming they became.

I didn’t know which I feared more, a brain tumor or losing my mind. I was convinced there was something gravely wrong with me. My primary physician dismissed the former and referred me for a psychiatric examination; the screening consultant diagnosed an anxiety disorder and sent me to a therapist.

Therapy was illuminating at first. I was able to voice my anxiety about the stress I was under—I was preparing to give up a settled and secure life and satisfying work to live outside the country for the better part of a year, during which time I would be, virtually, in physical, emotional and financial dependence on another person. It was a fantastic opportunity but a threat to my risk-averse comfort zone and my zealous independence. The therapist identified my need to have everything under my control as typical of an ACA—adult child of an alcoholic. Well, I thought, maybe so, but so what, and then what? I was no closer to getting back behind the wheel with confidence, the insurance co-pays for my therapy were running out, and my departure was approaching.

~

I learned over time that I was in good company with an elite club of fellow-sufferers, writers whose frank admissions, vivid recollections and dramatic descriptions comforted me and validated my experience. In “The White Album,” Joan Didion drives from her home in the Sacramento Valley to see and report on the student revolutions in Berkeley and San Francisco. The Bay Bridge stood in her path, cold menacing steel. She grits her teeth and inches across. Some years later she told an interviewer that she no longer drives across bridges and only when necessary on freeways. Not one to let an experience go to waste, Didion has captured those feelings of terror in her writing, in the way that Virginia Woolf admonishes herself to observe her own despondency: “By that means it becomes serviceable.”

In Home Before Dark, a biography of her father, Susan Cheever tells of John Cheever’s suffocating fear of driving on bridges. He would be so shaken after an incident that he couldn’t raise a glass to his mouth for hours. She tells of being alone in the car with her father as a child when they crossed a bridge. She noticed the car’s jerking, her father’s foot shaking against the gas pedal, the stress on his face and in his breathing. He said, “Talk to me, about anything,” so she chattered about a book she was reading until they reached the end of the bridge. Cheever translated it to a short story, “The Angel of the Bridge,” in which the narrator has to pull off to the side while crossing a bridge to get his breath and nerves under control. A young woman hops into the car, a hitchhiker who thinks he’s stopped to pick her up. She’s a folk musician and sings him across the span while he enjoys a dream-like euphoria and basks in the beauty and durability of the bridge, the tranquil waters of the Hudson River below.

~

I spent most of my time abroad in a one-church, one-pub village in England’s West Country, where in addition to driving on the wrong side of the road, they careen down narrow country lanes and roar along at whiplash speeds on the motorways. I wasn’t willing to deny myself the second-hand book shops with their dusty finds, like Virginia Woolf first editions, afternoon teas with scones and clotted cream, the sculpted estate gardens and the craggy wildness of the Devon countryside. I would climb into my flimsy little Fiat and drive—nervously, cautiously, slowly—from village to village and around the moors, avoiding the maniacal motorways and the “B” roads, the more treacherous by-ways.

I returned home eight months later with my millstone still tightly shackled to my limbs but with steely determination. I had spent much of my time away planning my future, and there was no room in it for perverse fears that would hinder my mobility. One day I left home for a lunch date in a neighborhood most easily accessed by freeway. I started to take a roundabout route, but with mind over matter as my trusty weapon of choice, I entered the freeway onramp and stepped on the gas. I opened the window and took deep breaths, sucking in as much oxygen as I could and whooshing it out in exaggerated bursts. Breathe, breathe, I said aloud; focus, relax; relax, focus; keep breathing, keep moving—my mantra until I reached my exit. My neck and shoulders ached with tension, my palms and forehead were soaked, but I’d rejoined life as we know it in Southern California—life on the freeway.

Over time it became easier, and a kind of normalcy was restored, though I stayed off bridges. By then I had confided in a few friends, even then downplaying the severity; I tried to put it out of my mind as much as possible, but it still lurked, wraithlike, and would jump out and say “boo” when I wasn’t expecting it. We all live with our ghosts, I figured.

~

For Ruth Reichl, as for Didion, it was the Bay Bridge looming between her home in Berkeley and engagements in San Francisco. In her memoir she tells how she would resort to public transportation, however inconvenient, or cajole friends into driving her (without divulging her secret). The gravity of her situation reached epic proportions when, as an up-and-coming food writer, she almost passed up an opportunity to meet James Beard because she couldn’t cross the bridge.

In Literacy and Longing in L.A., a quintessential “beach read” by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack, we meet Dora, a freelance journalist who has been terrified of driving on Los Angeles freeways since the time she stalled in the fast lane of the Santa Monica freeway. She too learns to negotiate the city without getting on the freeway, willing to spend extra hours doing so, until an out-of-town assignment makes it unavoidable. She takes her place in the twelve lanes of thundering metal on the I-10 but likens her silent hysteria to Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream.”

Anne Lamott makes the fear vivid by virtue of its absence, recognizing it as common enough to resonate with readers. The narrator of All New People describes her mother’s bizarre phobias—revolving doors and houseplants—noting that driving across the Golden Gate Bridge was not one of them.

~

We all know people with phobias—they plague millions of people in the U.S. alone. A mix of heredity, genetics and brain chemistry combined with life experiences, hundreds of different phobias have been identified and classified. In one online listing there are upwards of 40 H’s alone, including my hodophobia, which is not to be confused with hobophobia, fear of bums or beggars, hydrophobia, fear of rabies or water, or homophobia, fear of homosexuality. There is hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, a fear of long words, and hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia, fear of the number 666. Something for everyone.

Phobias are treated with all sorts of remedies—hypnotherapy, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, and exposure therapy (“just do it”). Energy psychology includes acupressure, yoga, tai chi, and qi gong. Tapping, or Emotional Freedom Technique, is an acupressure method that uses meridian energy points across the body to release past emotional trauma. And there are homeopathic remedies, aromatherapy, vitamins and herbs.

Whether good news or a dubious downside, treating phobias is big business, the entrepreneurial spirit in action. If a condition exists, someone will find or fashion tools and techniques to fix it. I searched the web and found driving-fear.com and drivingfear.com (note the differentiating hyphen), fearlessdriving.com, fearofbridges.com, phobia-fear-release.com. There’s a six-step self-hypnosis program ($6 PDF, $20 book); an NLP program with an 85% cure rate ($37 plus a bonus book); an energy therapy program, marked down from $99.90 to $67; a program with no description but with a money-back guarantee ($67 standard, $87 premium). The do-it-yourself remedies on sites like ehow.com (“how to do just about everything”), include positive thinking, deep breathing, distraction (singing or recitation), talking about it.

~

I didn’t have much interest or hold out hope for a hyped cure—I was satisfied with my limited success; my condition was manageable. But when I was presented with an opportunity to experience tapping, I was intrigued. Audrey, a colleague, said she was freed from excessive cravings for French fries by this method, and the practitioner, a psychotherapist and yoga instructor who happened to be her mother, said that it worked well with phobias and anxiety. I resolved to put aside my skepticism. We invited Nancy to our office, where she met individually with three of us. Sara was an intermittent smoker who wanted to give up the habit completely; Irene was a compulsive chocoholic and hoped to be able to enjoy chocolate without binging. Both claimed immediate and complete success when they put the method to the test.

I told my story to Nancy, and, with her coaxing, tried to recall and verbalize the panicky feelings evoked during my crises and to rate my fear on a scale of one to ten. Along with tapping on my arms, she instructed me to sing “Jingle Bells” aloud. Jingle Bells? I suppose it could be anything distracting. But I never gave it a chance—I couldn’t tap away my trepidation. This wasn’t something I could do in the comfort of my living room; I had to drive across a bridge.

A few years later I was having lunch one day near the Coronado Bridge. It beckoned from the restaurant window, it taunted me: Come on, are you going to be a coward forever? I said OK, what the hell. I got in the car and aimed for the bridge. As I approached, panic clutched my gut. How do you tap yourself when both hands are in a death grip on the steering wheel? How do you sing or play mental word games when you’re struggling to breathe? I drove past the bridge onramp. I reasoned that it was a beginning, but it was years before I ventured forth again.

I became friends with a woman who lives in Coronado. Our get-togethers on her side of the bridge are typically foursomes with our husbands, so I tolerate the crossings as a passenger, outwardly composed but still a trifle uneasy. When she and I meet, it’s on the San Diego side. I maintained this status quo until we had to have our house tented for termites, and Eva offered their guest room for the two nights we would be homeless. Their home is large and lovely, and they are gracious hosts. We are parsimonious. How could we refuse? But I would have to drive back and forth to work.

The first afternoon, driving from my office to their house, I chickened out. I drove to Imperial Beach, an extra twenty miles south (and an extra hour in rush-hour traffic), where I could access the Strand, a long narrow spit of land that joins the mainland to Coronado. It would be possible to take this route for the next two days, but I wanted to rise to the challenge. I had observed when in passenger mode that the bridge seems less threatening coming back across—the access is more gradual, not as steep or curving. So the next morning, without giving myself time to reflect, I took the plunge, figuratively of course. My panic came with me, a taunting ogre perched on my shoulder, but I was determined. Terrified but determined. Short of breath, shaking, gasping, sweating, my fingers cramped from clenching the wheel, I took charge. I drove across the bridge.

I did it, I did it, I said to myself, my heart racing and pounding in a kind of hysterical euphoria as I continued on to my office, where I was finally able to stop and reflect on my victory. My exhilaration remained with me throughout the day—I wonder if this how it feels like to wake up after surgery and be told you’re out of danger—I thought I was on my way to full recovery. As much of a struggle as it had been, I convinced myself that I had broken the barrier and that it would get continually easier.

My triumph was short-lived. That afternoon I was eager to prove myself again, this time almost cocky with confidence. But as I entered the span, the full trauma struck, and the fear took over. I lurched and swerved my way across like a drunken snail, and I was in tears when I got to the other side. I knew that I hadn’t conquered the beast, that it would always be hovering, laughing at me, grabbing at the wheel, and I didn’t have the energy to fight it. On the last morning, I drove back down the Strand.

 

 

Alice Lowe is a freelance writer in San Diego, California. Her creative nonfiction has appeared this year in Hobart, Eclectica, Foliate Oak and Writing It Real, where her entry won first prize in an essay contest. She has published essays and reviews on the life and work of Virginia Woolf, including the 2010 monograph, “Beyond the Icon: Virginia Woolf in Contemporary Fiction;” Virginia Woolf has a way of popping up in her personal essays as well, including this one.

Read our interview with Alice here.

 

“Million Dollar Find” by Walter Giersbach

crocuses
Image by Jenn Rhubright

Archie Mezinis was a walker — a boardwalk stroller, a country road rambler, a city street seeker.

Sometimes he drove all the way to Philadelphia so he could meander up Race Street and down Market before getting in his car and driving back to New Egypt.  Saturdays, Archie took his daughter-in-law to the flea market in Englishtown, driving her up from the New Jersey Pine Barrens in his 1965 Plymouth Duster so she could open her T-shirt and sweat shirt business at 6 a.m.  While Elisa unloaded boxes of shirts and the press to imprint logos of rock bands, he unfolded tables and set up the blue sunshade tarp.

Her customers came to Englishtown from as far away as Manhattan and Brooklyn.  If no treasures caught their eye, there were always cosmetics, a baseball cap or one of Elisa’s T-shirts.

He anticipated Saturdays, not because he was close to Elisa or because the assignment gave him a purpose for living out his retirement.  His compulsion lay in taking an hour to file up and down the lanes between the tables, looking for what dealers called “smalls,” little items that moved quickly off the tables.  His practiced eye could spot a three-inch Meissen figurine and know it really was Japanese, or a Murano cigarette tin worth twice the asking price now that smoking was socially hazardous.  He didn’t re-sell the finds.  Instead, they went into a footlocker.  A single item in his pocket could validate his whole existence for the next week, reinforcing an existential question as to whether he was truly alive.

Once or twice he’d stop, hold up an item and say, “How much you asking?”  He was a buyer, not a pain-in-the-ass negotiator.  If the item was two bucks, he paid two bucks.  The urban hagglers were contemptible, city folk who came down to Englishtown and returned proud if they knocked fifty cents off the locals.  They were bennies, come to suck in the benefits of a day in New Jersey.  Benny also referred to Brooklyn, Elizabeth, Newark, and New York, their points of origin.

He made a point to walk by the dealer with two tables on Connecticut Avenue because she had the most interesting finds.  Her business card said she was Maureen Sweeney.  She looked to be in her 50s, and even during the heat of the afternoon when he returned to pick up Elisa, she nodded if their eyes happened to meet.  When she smiled her teeth were miniature mah-jongg ivories.  He imagined the bandanna holding her hair was a souvenir of some African adventure, and enjoyed the way her first and last names almost rhymed.

“How much you asking?”  He showed her an angled wire ending in a flat piece of gold-toned metal with a glass jewel.

Maureen shrugged.  “A buck.  Don’t know what it is, but you can have it for a buck.”

“It’s a toogle.  Thought you’d know that.  Your mother probably had one.”

She blinked and laughed.  “Toogle?”

“It’s for a woman to use, to hook onto the table and then hang her purse when she sat down in a restaurant.  Kept your purse off the floor and out of sight.  See how it balances?”

“A toogle.  You’re kidding?”  Maureen’s face was flushed in the heat as she brushed brown hair back under the bandanna.

He shook his head and smiled back.  Smiles could be infectious, like yawns and sneezes — cathartic, too.  “I have maybe two dozen at home.”

“Jeez, you collect them?”

“Well, not collect exactly.  They’re just part of the past that’s disappearing.  Like those pencils with a ball on the end, little thingies that women used to dial the telephone so they didn’t break their fingernails.  Guess I have twenty or thirty.  They advertised banks and hardware stores—before refrigerator magnets were invented and celluloid mirrors went out of style.”

“Doesn’t your wife or whatever get kind of crazy with all this stuff?”

“You’re a dealer,” he said.  “You know it’s not about collecting.  It’s about something else.  Connecting with the world.”

“I know.  Hey, I see you all the time.  My name’s Maureen.”  She reached out a hand, something that had never happened to Archie at Englishtown.  Her palm had a firm, no-nonsense feel, the kind of hand that could heft an object and appraise its intrinsic value.  He held it a second longer than he meant to.

“Maureen, I know.  I’m Archie, and no, there’s no wife now.”  Instead, there was an emptiness he tried to fill with insignificant treasures.

“Sorry.”  She dipped her head in an unconscious benediction.

“Don’t be,” he said.  Too many people said sorry, then redirected the conversation.  His loss was an embarrassment to friends who had known them.  He’d had two purposes in his life: installing and maintaining oil heaters and loving his wife of thirty-seven years.  One employer and one wife, and now both were gone.

“I just said that ’cause I know the feeling.  There’s no Mr. Sweeney either.”

“I drop my daughter-in-law off at her shirt concession, then scout the place every Saturday.”

“Me too.  I mean, I’m here because I like all the people.  What a parade!  It beats sitting behind a counter.”

“Never know,” Archie said, “I might find that million-dollar item, like the guy who found a Declaration of Independence behind a bad painting.  He wanted the frame, and lo and behold….”

“I heard that.  Million-dollar treasure in a flea market.  Happens all the time.”

“I’ll take the toogle, Maureen.”  He reached for his billfold.

She waved her hand.  “Take it, Archie.”

“You sure?”

She nodded, and the smile lit up her face again.  “Come see me.  I have a shop in Red Bank.  Might have some more toogles or telephone dialers tucked away.”

“I might do that.  I could do that on Monday.  What about Monday?”

“Monday sounds great.  Hey, if I find something worth a million, I’ll split it with you.”

“You never know what you’re going to find,” he said.  “Never know in life.”

Archie walked down Connecticut Avenue with a new feeling lodged somewhere in his mind, a connectedness, something bigger than the pocketbook hook in his pocket.  When he picked Elisa up later she’d probably ask if he was successful in finding any treasures.  He could answer, “Maybe.”

 

 

 

Walter Giersbach’s fiction has appeared Bewildering Stories, Big Pulp, Corner Club Press, Every Day Fiction, Everyday Weirdness, Gumshoe Review, Lunch Hour Stories, Mouth Full of Bullets, Mystery Authors, OG Short Fiction, Northwoods Journal, Paradigm Journal, Pif Magazine, Short Fiction World, Southern Fried Weirdness, The Short Humour Site and Written Word. In October, 2010, he was 6th place winner of the Writer’s Digest writing competition.Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, have been published by Wild Child.

Read an interview with Walter here.

 

“Shakespeare’s Garden” by Jen McConnell

garden of flowers
Image by Jenn Rhubright

Sunday evening in the garden, as she reaches into the rosebush, Evelyn feels a twinge in her left knee.

Shifting her weight on the gardening pad doesn’t make a difference. Evelyn sighs, stands up, and tucks the clippers into her cardigan pocket. She is done for now. Shakespeare, presiding over the patch of heather in the corner, says to her, “Go.” Evelyn has been waiting for this sign. The chimes on the back porch chorus in the dusk. The moon casts a soft light across the roses standing tall under Shakespeare’s gaze. Evelyn listens but the sound of his voice has faded and she is alone again. She rubs one hand with the other and looks at the pile of pruned branches. There is so much to do if she is going to go.

With aching knees, Evelyn walks along the stone pathway. Shakespeare’s eyes and unsmiling lips have not moved but the word echoes around her. She rests her hand on his cold head, the band of her wedding ring clinking against the concrete. His head is damp, as if water is seeping from the inside. By this she knows it will rain tomorrow. Evelyn looks forward to the clouds and rain. It will feel, for a few days at least, like the garden she visits in her dreams.

With the sleeve of her sweater, Evelyn rubs the moisture off the base of Shakespeare’s bust. When she is sure he has no more words for her, Evelyn walks inside to the kitchen. A stack of bills sit on the countertop. Dirty dishes wait in the sink. It is no one’s fault, she thinks, rubbing her face. The sounds of the Trailblazers’ game drift from the living room. As Richard dozes on the couch, the cat curled next to him, Evelyn calls Maggie.

“What did Richard say?” Maggie asks.

“Just book the ticket, please,” Evelyn whispers.  “I can’t wait any longer.”

Next, Evelyn calls Janey, her daughter, who worries about Richard being alone. That’s why she is calling, Evelyn explains. They are on the phone only a few minutes. Evelyn can hear the cadence of Richard’s breath, his hiccup when the volume on the television grows louder during the commercials. In thirty-eight years, they’ve never been apart for more than a day.

~

Janey was six when they moved into the house. Evelyn claimed the kitchen and backyard as her own and Richard set up the front porch with two wicker chairs, a table and transistor radio. He sat there in the evenings listening to baseball games and playing chess with Janey. On Sunday afternoons, he worked the crossword puzzle and talked to their neighbor, Mr. Keegan.

Evelyn preferred the shelter of the backyard, though her first attempts at a vegetable garden yielded a meager bounty. Janey drifted between them—bringing a tomato or squash to Evelyn then playing chess with Richard until bedtime.

One day, when Janey was twelve, she saw a poster about Portland’s Shakespeare Garden and begged to go.  In the middle of an April rainstorm, Evelyn and Janey found Shakespeare’s alcove tucked behind a row of cypress trees in the Rose Garden. Evelyn stood under an umbrella while Janey wandered through the budding bushes writing their names in a notebook.

Each rose bush and flower had a sign bearing the plant name and its origin. Prospero from The Tempest was a tall, spiky bush that in the summer would offer enormous red roses. Fair Bianca from The Taming of the Shrew was a small bush showing just a wisp of the white paper-thin roses to come. A few names sounded familiar to Evelyn—Ophelia, Tatiana—but she couldn’t place them. She hadn’t read much Shakespeare.

Strawberry plants bearing tiny fruit were nestled in the ground between the roses. Janey ate one before Evelyn could stop her. Etched into the sidewalk below a statue of William Shakespeare was the phrase, Of all flowers, methinks a rose is best.

“I don’t want just roses,” Janey declared.

For days, Janey looked for references to flowers and herbs in a library edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Plays and Sonnets while Evelyn dug through a weathered copy of Hooper’s Guide to Gardening to learn what woodbine (honeysuckle), oxlips (primrose) and dewberries (blackberries) were. Next Evelyn sketched a diagram of grass, flowerbeds, bench, statue and vegetable garden.

With guidance from the local nursery, she and Richard built flowerbeds around the perimeter of the yard. The new vegetable garden, wrapping around the edge of the garage, would be twice as big as the original. Next came a three-tiered bed that sloped down the southern wall. At the top, they planted honeysuckle and jasmine. In the middle, primrose. At the bottom would be the herb garden. The back wall didn’t need much work. The cypress trees, like the ones in the Portland garden, were a natural backdrop to the full-grown rose bushes they planted—vintage, antique, crossbreeds and thoroughbreds. Janey drew handmade signs for each bush, which were replaced six months later by embossed metal ones that Evelyn had ordered.

In the fall, Evelyn and Janey buried bulbs in the soil next to the back porch steps and planted purplish-pink and yellow-blue pansies (‘love-in-idleness,’ Shakespeare called them) as groundcover. In the spring, the tulips and daffodils would burst into a ribbon of color.

A year after they began, they installed the final touch: Shakespeare’s corner. Richard cleared the ground and lifted the bust onto the concrete stand he had poured. Around Shakespeare, the heather bloomed into brilliant pink flowers from July to September. Next to him, they placed a wooden bench with iron scrollwork.

At first, Evelyn sat on the bench only to rest while Janey watered the roses or weeded the vegetables. When the days grew longer, Evelyn sat outside after dinner and tried to read Shakespeare’s plays. It was so laborious, one finger on the line of text, another on the footnotes, that Evelyn could read only a few pages each night. Gradually, though, the words began to fall into her.  Evelyn found herself retreating to the garden at odd times of the day and night. When no one was looking, Evelyn would rest her hand on Shakespeare’s head, feeling a connection to him, as if he were trying to tell her something. It wasn’t until later that she associated the temperature of his head with the coming weather.

Janey and Evelyn spent hours in the garden on weekends, planting and pruning, cleaning up or planning for the next season. But when Janey began her junior year in high school, she abandoned the garden. After college, she roamed through Europe and Asia, coming home only long enough to save up for her next trip. Now, in her late thirties, she was living in Paris. Occasionally, Evelyn sent her seed packets.

“How’s your garden?” Evelyn asked now and then.

“It’s coming along,” was all Janey would ever say.

~

The morning after Shakespeare spoke, rain drips off the broken gutter and wakes Evelyn.  She should have replaced the gutter when she felt Shakespeare’s head but she hates those kind of chores.  There is also a broken doorknob to fix and two light bulbs to replace.  Those used to be Richard’s responsibilities.

At seven, the clock chimes in the living room and Richard begins to stir. His hot body is too close; Evelyn throws off the covers. Using his right arm, Richard lifts his left leg, shifts closer to Evelyn and rests again.

The stroke happened more than a year ago, just after Richard retired. They were in the kitchen one Sunday when he dropped the cereal bowl he was carrying to the table.  Evelyn reached for a dishtowel without looking up from the newspaper until Richard groaned, crumpling into her as she rose from the table.

Of those first six months, Evelyn remembers only the phone ringing and the roses looking restless. She went into the garden just once a day, too nervous to leave Richard’s side for long. His speech gradually improved and Evelyn helped him learn to dress, eat and speak again, almost, but not quite, like he used to. His face had changed, too. The left side drooped slightly lower than the right; the corner of his mouth permanently tugged into a faint grimace. The stroke itself hadn’t hurt, he told Evelyn once. Only living with it was painful.

Through it all, Evelyn woke up each morning and looked out the bedroom window at the garden below. Despite her meager care, it did not wither.  But Richard grew tired of struggling up the stairs, so they moved from the bedroom with its handmade bed and view of the garden into the room behind the kitchen, which looked onto the driveway. They crammed into a narrower bed, touching hip to toe all night long. Evelyn had not slept well since.

Janey came home only once since Richard’s stroke, a languid weekend where she acted as if nothing had happened. During the day, she sat with Richard on the porch playing chess and once took him to a Trailblazers’ game. In the evenings, she helped Evelyn trim the honeysuckle but Evelyn saw that her thoughts were elsewhere. Janey chatted about life in Paris, hardly paying attention to the shears in her hand or the smell of winter around them. Evelyn waited patiently, breathing in the aroma of pine needles and fireplaces, but in four days Janey never once asked Evelyn how she was doing.

~

When the clock strikes eight, Evelyn sits up in bed.

“Are you going to go?” Richard whispers.

Evelyn hesitates, surprised that his voice is so clear, almost like before.

“Yes,” she says. “Janey is coming to stay with you. You’ll be fine.”

“Janey’s coming today?”

“No.”  It all comes out in a rush. “When I go to London. I was able to get the package for his birthday celebration. The royal garden will be in full bloom.”

“Oh…you’re going to go.”

“That’s what you asked, isn’t it?”

He is quiet for a few seconds and then pulls himself up on one side. His cheek is creased from the pillowcase. His green eyes search her face. “I meant going to the store…for the gutter,” he says. “I didn’t know you made up your mind. We were supposed to talk about it.” He collapses, breathless, back against the pillows.

“I need to go…I’m going.” Evelyn tries to slow her own speech.

“If you just wait a few more months,” he says, “maybe I can go with you.”

“His birthday’s in April.” Evelyn speaks softly, edging out of the bed. She wonders if Janey really could take care of the roses.

“It’s that important to you?” Richard’s voice cracks. “You want to go without me?”

“It’s only once a year.”

“Maybe I’ll come. Why not? I’ll try…” He hoists himself up and swings his legs over the side of the bed. “I’ll fix the gutter.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, sweetheart. You never wanted to go before.” She touches his shoulder. “I’ll do it this afternoon,” she says. “I promised, right?”

“Remember when you tried to fix the screen door and nailed it shut instead? I’ll take care of it. All of it.”

“It’ll just be a couple weeks.  Ten days.”

“We’ll see.  Okay.  Just…we’ll see.”

Evelyn crosses the room to the window and parts the curtain. The car sits in the driveway, its fender dented from an accident two years ago. She hears Richard behind her pulling on his robe with great effort. She is used to his gruff, throaty sounds as he struggles with what used to be a simple task. She doesn’t move to help him.

~

At eleven-thirty, there is a break in the rain. It is already the middle of March, almost too late to plant for spring, so Evelyn must hurry. She needs to finish the roses and plant something in the bottom herb bed. She doesn’t want Janey to do anything but water.

In the garden, Evelyn stands before Shakespeare, wondering whether to plant rosemary or wild thyme. Rosemary, the footnotes tell her, is a symbol of remembrance at weddings and funerals. It would hold up best under the cool weather but is prone to grow wildly, leaving its prickly stalks rough and useless. Thyme is more appealing but delicate and won’t last more than a few weeks. Evelyn can’t resist feeling rosemary is too serious for spring. Because of Ophelia, Evelyn associates it with winter and endings. She settles on the thyme as Shakespeare says quietly, “Yes.” Evelyn turns away from his voice.

In front of the rose bushes, Evelyn rakes the pruning into a pile. This takes longer than expected and she doesn’t leave for the hardware store until after lunch, having convinced Richard, she thinks, to rest on the couch. Evelyn watches him for a few minutes before she leaves. His eyes are closed and his body moves slightly under the blanket.

On the slick roads, Evelyn drives cautiously, thinking of Shakespeare’s voice. It was low and melodious, and now blurs into her own voice as she repeats “yes” to herself while she drives. The man at the hardware store helps her choose a replacement gutter. With all her questions about how to install it, she is gone for more than an hour. Finally she is back in the car and thinking of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, which she is reading again. More than once she has fallen asleep thinking of the flowers in the book and the flowers in her garden. How she has brought them to life. Sometimes, just as she is drifting off, Evelyn hears Shakespeare call out her name in a sharp voice, like fingers snapping.

As Evelyn pulls into the driveway, she sees Richard lying on the porch. He is on his back, his arms reaching out as if swimming backstroke. The front door stands open, stopped by one of his flimsy slippers. A ladder hangs halfway off the porch crushing the hydrangeas below. Evelyn screams and runs past the ladder, up the stairs. She kneels next to Richard, pressing her face to his. She tries to feel his breath but knows she is too late.

“I said I would take care of it,” she says. She repeats this louder, again and again, until she is screaming. “If you’d just waited,” she weeps into his hair.

She collapses on Richard’s chest, his red flannel shirt soft on her face.  He loves to be warm, she thinks, always in a flannel shirt or sweatpants. She wants to get a blanket, something, but can’t leave him. The wind has picked up, blowing the rain sideways. A small lake has formed on the walkway where it dips slightly. One of those things Richard had planned to fix.

The car door is still open, the sensor beeping into the gray day. Mr. Keegan is next to her.  Evelyn gazes at Richard’s face. The muscles have gone slack and she is overcome with relief that the two sides of his face are symmetrical again.

When she returns from the hospital, Evelyn wanders alone through the house. The lunch dishes are washed and put away. The magazines, playing cards, and lidless pens are gone from the kitchen counter and a faint smell of ammonia hangs in the air. Richard had done it all.  Even the tumbleweeds of dust on the floors are gone.  Clean laundry is folded in a basket on the couch. Evelyn moves the basket to the floor and lies down. Rain drips off the gutter, the phone rings and Shakespeare calls to her from the garden. Evelyn pulls a cushion over her ears.

~

Three weeks after the funeral, Evelyn goes back into the garden. Underfoot, the grass needs to be cut; the dewy blades tickle through her thin sandals. The empty herb bed nags at her (rosemary or thyme?). The heather, bold and incessant, has taken over Shakespeare’s corner.  Evelyn hesitates, suddenly weary, when she sees the stone bust.

Janey has come and gone. She arrived the day before the funeral and busied herself around the house, rummaging through Richard’s desk and bureau drawers. Organizing, sorting, boxing up, filling the house with activity. She hired men to fixed the gutter and smooth out the walkway.  More than once, she tried to coax Evelyn into the garden.

“The roses need you,” she said.

Evelyn could only sit on the couch with a Travel and Leisure open in her lap, listening for Richard.

Maggie came too, bringing a new ticket for London.

“You missed his birthday,” she said, “but you should still go.  It’ll be good for you.”

Evelyn relented.  Only the garden was holding her back.

Now kneeling in front of the roses as the sun disappears, Evelyn dips a toothbrush into the bucket of soapy water and begins to clean the signs: Pretty Jessica, Wise Portia, Lordly Oberon. She has ignored them for so long they are almost illegible. While cleaning Tragic Juliet, a tall bush with pale yellow roses and thumbnail-sized thorns, Evelyn feels sudden distaste.

It is so much work, every year, the same weeding and planting. There has never been a moment where Evelyn could say, “It is finished.” And it will always be this way. She sits back and lets her gaze unfocus across the flowers so that the colors blur together.

When she has finished cleaning the signs, the clouds have parted to reveal a full moon. Evelyn rests on the bench, kneading the knots from her fingers. She opens her notebook and begins to write instructions. “For whom?” Shakespeare asks but Evelyn ignores him. She charts what grows best where, how often to water and when to prune, surprised at how much she knows from memory.

As the cool night creeps up her legs, she puts down the notebook and tries to imagine London—the museums, the gardens, anything—but cannot turn that corner in her mind.

 

 

Jen McConnell is a native of Southern California who later moved to San Francisco where she began her writing life. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. She has published stories in Bacopa Literary Magazine, SNReview, Clackamas Literary Review, WordRiot, UC Santa Barbara’s Spectrum, and the forthcoming Sports Anthology from MainStreetRag. After living on both coasts for most of her life, she currently makes her home on the Lake Erie shoreline. She supports her writing habit by working in non-profit marketing and communications. www.jenmcconnell.com

Read an interview with Jen here.

“Torn” by C. Dale Young

cow skull
“Cow Skull,” Image by Jenn Rhubright

There was the knife and the broken syringe
then the needle in my hand, the Tru-Cut
followed by the night-blue suture.

The wall behind registration listed a man
with his face open. Through the glass doors,
I saw the sky going blue to black as it had

24 hours earlier when I last stood there gazing off
into space, into the nothingness of that town.
Bat to the head. Knife to the face. They tore

down the boy in an alleyway, the broken syringe
skittering across the sidewalk. No concussion.
But the face torn open, the blood congealed

and crusted along his cheek. Stitch up the faggot
in bed 6
is all the ER doctor had said.
Queasy from the lack of sleep, I steadied

my hands as best I could after cleaning up
the dried blood. There was the needle
and the night-blue suture trailing behind it.

There was the flesh torn and the skin open.
I sat there and threw stitch after stitch
trying to put him back together again.

When the tears ran down his face,
I prayed it was a result of my work
and not the work of the men in the alley.

Even though I knew there were others to be seen,
I sat there and slowly threw each stitch.
There were always others to be seen. There was

always the bat and the knife. I said nothing,
and the tears kept welling in his eyes.
And even though I was told to be “quick and dirty,”

told to spend less than 20 minutes, I sat there
for over an hour closing the wound so that each edge
met its opposing match. I wanted him

to be beautiful again. Stitch up the faggot in bed 6.
Each suture thrown reminded me I would never be safe
in that town. There would always be the bat

and the knife, always a fool willing to tear me open
to see the dirty faggot inside. And when they
came in drunk or high with their own wounds,

when they bragged about their scuffles with the knife
and that other world of men, I sat there and sutured.
I sat there like an old woman and sewed them up.

Stitch after stitch, the slender exactness of my fingers
attempted perfection. I sat there and sewed them up.

 

 

C. Dale Young practices medicine full-time, serves as Poetry Editor of the New England Review, and teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. He is the author of The Day Underneath the Day (TriQuarterlyBooks, 2001), The Second Person (Four Way Books, 2007), and Torn (Four Way Books, 2011). He is a previous winner of the Grolier Prize, the Tennessee Williams Scholarship in Poetry from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, both the Stanley P. Young Fellowship and Amanda Davis Fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, American Poetry Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry. He lives in San Francisco with his spouse the biologist and composer, Jacob Bertrand.

“Torn” from TORN (c) 2011 by C. Dale Young. Reprinted by permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved. Read our review of TORN here.

 

“Carrying the Day” by Sylvia Hoffmire

Carrying th Day
Image by Jenn Rhubright

I know the sun was shining that day or I wouldn’t have been hanging sheets on the line to dry.

I know it was hot, or I wouldn’t have put him in his playpen bare as birth to take the sun and ward off diaper rash the way my mother said I should. And I know a light breeze blew because my hair, fresh washed and lemon rinsed trailed across my face so that even now the smell of lemon calls up memories I’d rather lock away.

It’s all there, much as it is today though years have passed. The house in need of paint, still or again, the back steps sagging toward the middle. But remembering, it’s like I’m looking through smoked glass, the kind people use to watch an eclipse. And nothing moves. The lithographed tree in the center of the yard pins the sky in place so that the earth can push the horizon to its furthest limit. The laundry on the line hangs straight and smooth, as if tethered to the ground by invisible wires. No color in anything, from the baby’s toy lying in the stiff grass to the sullen sky.

And I’m there. One hand inside my apron pocket clasping a clothespin, the other tethering a pillowcase to the line as I turn to check on the baby. His hands are folded over the rail to pull up. He’s laughing. But I can’t hear his laugh. Nor see the child who’s running towards us from across the street.

I’m back to pinning clothes on the line when I hear the blow, the sound of a hard object striking something solid but softer. I’m back to pinning clothes on the line when I hear the blow and the sharp cry, then silence. A silence that flows outward from that moment to this, a silence that has lasted for all these years as I see myself slowly turning from my task that day. The picture, like the silence, never changes. The child beside the playpen, one step back from it, the baseball bat resting on his shoulder, his gaze directed downward, into the place where my baby lay. And then color appears for the first time, the only time in that picture. A crimson pool spreading out beneath my baby’s head. Those are the last sharp pictures for a while.

After that it’s all sound and motion and touch. A scream I know is my scream, a rush of movement that I know is the child with the bat leaving, the flow of air past my own face that I know is from me running and running, the warmth that is my baby held against my breast, his face pressed into the curve of my neck like so many times before but this time the dampness at my breast is not my milk.

They flew me and my baby to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. Just me and him, my husband unable to get away. He held his business to his breast while I clasped our baby to mine. I held him as closely as I could, him strapped to a board, umbilicled by needles and tubes. When he died, minutes after we got to the hospital, I made them take him off that board and give him back to me. I wouldn’t let them put him in a box. I carried him home on another airplane, in my arms. I’m not sure why they let me, but they did.

When I got to the airport back home, I found a taxi and gave the driver my address. Things were clear to me then. Clearer than before or since. The sky was bleached again by an invisible sun. It was dinnertime, when husbands came home from work to take the noon meal with their families, when children were called in from play to wash their hands, say grace, and fill their empty plates. I didn’t knock.

I walked into their house, crossed through their living room and into the dining room without hesitation. They looked up at me, surprised I could tell. The child pushed his chair away from the table as if he knew he needed to be ready. I walked straight to him and laid my dead baby in his waiting arms. I drew the blanket back so that he could see my son’s gray, pinched face. The mother gasped, the father lurched to his feet, the crashing of his chair an explosion in that still room.

The mother said, “He didn’t know what he was doing.”

And I said, “He knows now.”

When I took my baby back, I went across the street to my own house where I waited in the rocker by the window until my husband came and called the funeral home. I let him go, knowing even then that I would be pressed backward into this memory more times than I would find the strength to resist.

The child’s family moved away soon after, an act of mercy. We stayed on, my husband’s view being that strength comes from confronting fears and loss. My husband’s view being that to turn away from anything unpleasant is to admit a lack of courage. I am not courageous. I struggle to achieve an inner blindness, an ability to turn my inner gaze away while outwardly I seem to look straight on. I fail, time and again.

Behind me now my husband sits at the table, stirs his tea with lemon freshly squeezed.

“What do you see out there?” he asks.

I turn to look at him. His eyes and hands are busy with his plate and fork, his buttered roll. His glance flickers in my direction but doesn’t quite reach. I watch him rearrange the napkin in his lap, open the newspaper that he likes to fold a certain way so that it fits the space beside his plate. There is just enough room.

“The neighbors’ dogs have gotten at the garbage cans again,” I say.

I think I hear him sigh as he adjusts the folds on his newspaper, chews each bite carefully. I push the screen door open and hear it slap shut behind me. I wonder if he notices, if it occurs to him that I might not be coming back.

 

 

Sylvia Hoffmire earned her undergraduate degree in theatre and creative writing. She founded Youtheatre, a children’s theatre organization and has published with Baker Plays, staging and producing many performances. She received numerous grants to support writing projects, most notably an NBC Writing Residency grant, one of only sixteen awarded nationwide. She has also received grant support from the North Carolina Humanities and Arts Councils for a variety of projects, including a collection of short stories based on oral histories she collected in the Piedmont region titled Thoughts of Another Day. She is a graduate of the Queens University of CharIotte MFA program and serves on the faculty at Pfeiffer University teaching Creative Writing and directing their Cultural Program.

Read our interview with Sylvia here.

 

“Traces in the Winter Sky” by Doug Bond

Traces
Image by Jenn Rhubright

Tyler steadied himself alongside the enormous Cypress that bordered the open space across from his house and reached down to unleash the dog.

A chilly wind rising up from the bluffs set the branches creaking overhead as it also lit up the wind chimes his wife had arranged on the gazebo back behind the garden. Exhaling slowly and deeply, Tyler settled his back against the saddle of the tree’s broad trunk and let it all go.

The fight had been silly, he knew. Absurd, even, tangling with her about whether to change the way the Christmas lights would be hung. Couldn’t she just let some things stay the same? Her tone had been sharp edged, even taunting, the way she abruptly clipped the leash and dropped it in his hand, all but pushing him out the door. The flares had come to feel like more than just the bickering of long married people, and he resented it: a disembodied voice and that inflection of disinterest. It pulled at him, the shift and weight of dependency, and Tyler tromped his feet heavily on the wood chips for a few steps as if to shake himself back. The Lab pulled up beside him misreading the cue, and Tyler lowered to pat his head and then released him away again.

As he listened to the jingle of the dog’s tags mixing with the wind and lilting chimes, Tyler let himself drift back into memories and /images long gone. The face of a girl and a first kiss, a December night like this one almost fifty years ago. His brain clouded from the distance and compression of so much time. He remembered the way her skin had smelled sharply of astringent, and the brightness that had come into her eyes when he looped her in his arms.

They had snuck out of the Christmas concert and tucked themselves back for a smoke behind the orchestra room door. Jenny had unbolted it from the top and gave it a kick, sending smoke up past the glowing red exit sign, her hair braided and whirling. When he looked up at the sky and counted out the three stars on Orion’s Belt, Jenny pointed to the lowest one, told him it was actually two, rotating so close together they seemed like one. It was the first time Tyler had heard her talk of stars.

Hers was the kind of mind that had wrapped easily around numbers. Back then he would go into a trance when Jenny gave voice to the elegant geometry of the constellations, to the sound of words like Trapezium, the star cluster deep inside the Orion Nebula, the dim edge of the sword falling below The Hunter’s Belt. They had spent hours together staring up into dark and white speckled skies through her father’s old telescope, so dim and weak they had called it The Night Glass.

A sudden commotion of collar tags and rustling shrub leaves lifted Tyler off the Cypress trunk. He remembered that he’d promised he would not be gone long. Shaking the leash in both hands he called for the black dog who came quickly padding towards him in the wet grass. Together they tracked towards home with the leash pulling, straight and angled.

Watching as Tyler came up the walk, she stood in the parted curtains of the front window, backlit by the dining room lamps. She was outlined sharply in the window frame, but no matter the light, he could not see her. By the time Tyler stopped at the door, she had it opened, waiting. He reached out and brushed his hand across her forehead, then slowly his fingers along the bridge of her nose, onto her lips and into her hair, which lay now short about the crease of her neckline. When she opened her mouth to speak, he felt it and gently shushed her, turning to draw his eyes up again towards where he knew it should be, Betelgeuse, and the long line from the Hunter’s foot to the shoulder. She took Tyler’s hand and helped him trace it, crossing straight through the Belt’s three stars and then the further distance to Rigel, the one she said that burns brighter than all the others.

 

 

Doug Bond has endured life in Manhattan and along the Western fault lines, most recently in San Francisco. His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Used Furniture Review, Necessary Fiction, Mad Hatters’ Review, Metazen, and Wilderness House Literary Review. Additional written words of his and links to social media can be found here: www.dougbond.me

Read our interview with Doug here.

 

Review of TORN by C. Dale Young

TORN
by C. Dale Young
Four Way Books
March 2011
85 pages

In TORN, C. Dale Young’s most recent book of poetry, he continues to explore the themes of human frailty, both physical and spiritual, of love and passion, and of tenderness and cruelty.

The poems in this collection beautifully express the irony of the human craving for precision and accuracy—particularly in the field of medicine and in the realm of love—and the unfortunate and inherent fallibility of both. Often Young employs repetition of a word or a phrase, guiding the reader toward understanding by modifying the context each time the word or phrase appears. This repetition also serves to deliver a sense of urgency to the cadence of the poem and the meaning of the whole.

In fact, the very organization of the collection pulls the reader forward through the book, as if moving through a life. Its sections call to mind Blake’s Songs of  Innocence and Experience.

Section I opens the book, delivering the reader into a world of heady innocence, of childhood desire on the edge of understanding, of love just beginning. Consider these exuberant lines from the poem “The Bridge”:

“And I love fountain pens. I mean
I just love them. Cleaning them,
filling them with ink, fills me
with a kind of joy, even if joy

is so 1950. I know, no one talks about
joy anymore. It is even more taboo
than love. And so, of course, I love joy.
I love the way joy sounds as it exits

your mouth. You know, the word joy.
How joyous is that. It makes me think
of bubbles, chandeliers, dandelions.” (25, 26)

By the time the reader reaches Section II, the perils of Knowledge (with a capital K) come to the fore as Young explores the human tendency toward doubt and sin. The poem “The Seventh Circle” expresses it thusly:

“Did Michelangelo dream of hell
while he manipulated shadows
in an attempt to show us heaven?
Did he betray himself with his hands

that admired the strength of other men’s hands?
If he did, we have forgotten.
Yes. Here we see the luxuries of heaven,
the bodies clothed only in light
languishing above painted shadows
that separate these glories from hell.

There will be no Cerberus in our circle of hell,
we are told, only hundreds of swaying hands
reaching up from even darker shadows.” (46, 47)

And finally, section III brings the reader forward, into a world of post-experience, of regret, judgment, and fallibility, and even a weary sort of forgiveness. Consider the following lines from “Self-Portrait at 4 AM”:

“…The mirror

is of no use. It lies, dirty and spattered
with toothpaste and beard stubble and crud.
It lies. That man staring at me is not my friend.

That man wants to hurt me. He has
hurt me before. I have hurt myself.” (72, 73)

In TORN, his third collection of diverse and beautiful poems, C. Dale Young has given his readers a celebration, a gorgeous lamentation, and an attempt, as the surgeon in the title poem tells us with despair, at perfection. And here, Young has come as close to that ideal as fallible words and human hands can.

“Untitled” by Sarah Voss

untitled
Image by Jenn Rhubright

Old man futility is hovering
over my shoulder again. My third eye
catches him fiddling with my inner ear.

As always he looks strong, invincible
but hides his face. Let me in, he pleads.
It’ll feel familiar, comfortable.

My mother housed him most of her life.
Then he discovered me and I lugged him
around for years as if I had no choice.

One day I found my daughter holding him
tight, like a lover. I watched, weeping,
while he tried to wreck her self esteem,

mangle her mind. An old soul though, she
prevailed. I call her to let her know
he’s back. I share what he’s whispering.

She’s quicker than I, this daughter. Tell him
he’s lying, Mother. Familiar maybe, but
comfortable? Tell him he’s lying, Mom.

My voice gains power as I practice. Liar,
I yell. Liar. Liar. I spit on his feet, a first
for me, and he slinks off, skunked.

 

 

Sarah Voss’s poetry has appeared in literary journals including Writers’ Journal, The Mid-America Poetry Review, Thema, Earth’s Daughters, Ellipsis, Porcelain Toad, Plainsongs, and Whole Notes, and in several anthologies including Nebraska Presence: An Anthology of Poetry; Times of Sorrow, Times of Grace: Writing by Women of the Great Plains/High Plains. Her three published books, including What Number Is God?, all contain a smidgen of her poetry. She is a past contributor to r.k.v.r.y. (“Backbone” Spring 2008)

Read our interview with Sarah here.