“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.

 

“I Nearly Lost You There” by Erin McReynolds


Image by Jenn Rhubright

A Close Call

Twilight, and things gold seconds ago have gone blue and hard to see.

I’m barefoot and running towards the front door of your place. Parked the car in the alley behind your building and ran. No one can get by. The car is still running and I am running to the door. Grandma called me as soon as you hung up with her. She said you and he were fighting and that she could hear Junior in the background, calm, placating. I bought her all this wine! he yelled so that Grandma could hear, over the phone lines that stretch up the interstate, alive and quivering slightly in the pink of the setting sun. On the phone, you told your mother not to worry. But you whispered it. She called me immediately. It doesn’t sound right. I left without shoes, drove fast and prayed for no cops. Then prayed for cops. Here now, the door gives way easily, it’s ajar and the dog doesn’t come to greet me. The living room and kitchen are empty. The only other room in the condo is your bedroom. The door wide is open. I tiptoe to it and his back is to me. The TV is on. I see it in the mirror behind your bed. An action film. Someone screams and a machine gun rapidfires bullets. Junior sees me behind him in the mirror and spins around. He has a steak knife in his hand. He’s a middle-aged boy, a cherubic face gone pale, eyes wide. The TV shrieks with bombs. Get out, I say, but I can’t be sure. I am not speaking but sound is coming through me. He sputters and turns to look at you, on the bed. Your hand is clasped to your ear. My right. Your left. You are coughing and with each convulsion, a thin jet of blood shoots into the air. I’m Sorry, you say, breathless and falling backwards. I shove him out of the way and am by your side, ripping the pillowcase into a strip and tying it around your neck. When your hand falls away, limp, I see a half a dozen small holes, and one big one, a heaving gill in your neck. Just a papercut, but for all this blood. I yank the knot tight against it. In minutes, your brain could die but you will keep your blood. Keep it all inside, I say. Keep it all inside, Mom. My hands flip open the phone, drop it, pick it up. Sirens wail on the television. I push four buttons, swear, hang up, and push three. Concentrate hard on the green button so I don’t miss it again. The time on the screen is still the same as it was on the dashboard clock when I pulled up outside: seven-fifteen. The hospital is at the bottom of the hill. I don’t let the operator finish. Sounds are made and I don’t know what they are. I only know Please and Hurry.


Let’s Do Better

The sun takes its time. A quarter to seven and the ocean and clouds are still sprayed violent pink. The shadows grow longer on the drive up the hill to your house. My boyfriend is with me. We were going to go to the fair. Devo is playing with the Psychedelic Furs. They’re too old to be good anymore, we reasoned as we drove away, even though we had been excited about going. We left because in the parking lot I’d had a feeling. I called you and you didn’t answer. That is, Junior didn’t; you don’t answer the phone anymore, and you confessed why, just last week when you got away from him for a while. He won’t let you answer it. Still, you’re both always home. And I had this feeling. How close we are, every second, to losing everything. We pull into a parking space near your door. Children are shouting from the pool in the courtyard and the stucco condos are pink and getting pinker with the setting sun. As we near the door, Chloe bursts out and stretches her long terrier legs against our thighs, bowing her back in a half stretch, half greeting. You are in the kitchen, chopping onions. I smell burning coals. You are sniffling, and you turn, surprised. Your face is swollen. You drop the knife and throw your arms around me, and I smell oxidized red wine, cigarette smoke, and cilantro. I put my face in your neck. You are an inch shorter than me. I can fold you into me completely. I whisper in your ear, Are you okay? He comes out from the bedroom, where he has been lighting the grill on the patio. Oh, hello there, he says. We’re about to have fajitas, you want to stay? You sniffle into my shoulder. No, I say. Mom’s coming home with me. I tell my boyfriend to get Chloe’s leash. He pats his legs and Chloe goes to him, her tail between her legs. Junior laughs. Why are you going, Deb? I got the grill started. He explains, She’s mad even though I bought her three bottles of wine at Trader Joe’s and I cleaned this whole place, you should have seen it before, and we rented some movies so I don’t know what she said but you know what, if you want to go, Deb, fine, I won’t stop you. Just can you come here a second? Can you come talk to me? But you push off of me and fly at him, jamming your little finger in his chest and saying, No moreyou are controlling and manipulative and I want you out. Now. My boyfriend has the dog on the leash and he says, Let’s just go. The words surprise me, coming from him. They seem to surprise him, too. We four adults look at each other. I tell Junior, We’ll talk tomorrow. I think the best thing now is to just go and get some space for a while. Fine, Deb, he says, still looking at you. You go get some fucking space. He follows us to the car, taunting. You struggle against me, wanting to fight him some more. No, I tell you, wrestling you into the back seat where the dog is shivering, her tail coiled tightly around her legs. She nervously licks your face as I close the door. My boyfriend refuses to get in the car until I do, but I have one more thing left to do before we leave. I turn to face Junior.

 

Just Missed You

The sun sinks into the ocean while we wait for the locksmith in the parking lot. He shows up with a toolkit and I make some noise about forgetting my key at work and how you’re out of town. I show my driver’s license with this address on it. Satisfied, he jimmies the door. It is dark and cool inside. The blinds are down, which has been driving me nuts for two days. I got a message from Grandma as I was leaving the fair the other night, that she was worried about a fight you and Junior were having while she was on the phone with you. I went down that night but no one answered. Your car was gone—is still gone—and so is the dog. The dog goes everywhere with you. Glen, the drunk next door, told me that night you two often go to San Onofre or the desert to dry out. I’d called all the campgrounds. Where have you gone? The house is clean and still. Unusual. I used to live here, right here in this living room, but I feel like a sneak. A snoop. The door to your bedroom is closed. I pause before opening it. Nothing happens. I send my boyfriend to the bathroom to investigate and I open the vertical blinds that have kept me from seeing in for the last couple of visits, where I stood on the patio with Glen last night, trying to wrest the sliding door off its track. Long shafts of sulfuric streetlight stripe the bed, which is piled with covers and pillows. A duffel bag. Bingo. I pull the duffel bag towards me and there is a hand. Your hand hangs there, dumb and graceful, palm down. Pink. Brown fingers. A thundering boom from somewhere, everywhere, as if something open has been slammed shut. Sudden, awful tenderness follows.

No, I tell the hand. It stays, so I say it again, harder. No. It will not listen.

Louder now.

No.

I bare my teeth. It does not flinch.

Arms are pulling me backwards, away from the hand. I lean forward with all that I’ve got, barking, barking, barking. And then a howl.

 

Let’s Try Again

I wait outside the front door, which is half open. Inside, in the kitchen, you and he are in an embrace. You drop the phone on the counter and cross your wrists at his back. You are so small inside his arms that I cannot see you. A broken glass is on the floor, red wine spilling out of it, staining the terra cotta tiles. I turn away and let you be.

 

 

Erin McReynolds has an MFA in Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, NC. Excerpts from her in-progress memoir have also appeared in The North American Review and Prime Number. She lives in Austin, TX, where she writes and edits for the Fearless Critic restaurant guides, and blogs about food writing, waitressing, wine, and trauma.

Read our interview with Erin here.

 

“The Haircut” by Cezarija Abartis

Haircut
Image by Jenn Rhubright

She had a serpent tattooed on her left bicep and below her collarbone the red emblem from  “The Queen of Pain,” which, she explained, was a song by The Alkaline Trio.

He was having his hair cut at the beauty school, where  she was studying to be a stylist. His daughter would be about her age. He’d been grinding his teeth in his sleep the past two nights. His jaw hurt.

“Your hair is very healthy,” Shawna said. She fanned it out at the sides.

“Thank you,” he said, but he did not know if that was the right response. He wondered if her parents liked those tattoos.

“We’re all the same.” She looked around at the customers and the stylists and tapped her comb in her hand. “I wanted to be different. I wanted to study art at the Chicago Art Institute.” She combed his hair and parted it into sections.

“That’s got to be expensive. Maybe an art school in Minneapolis?” He massaged his jaw. “My daughter studied art.”

“The Art Institute costs thousands of dollars.” Shawna pulled on the bottom of her shirt as if it were sticking to her, but the room was air-conditioned. “I told myself that I don’t need a piece of paper saying I’m an artist.” She put clips in his hair. “I can just make my art.”

He and his daughter argued about communication, how they couldn’t talk. Shawna had disclosed so much about herself that he felt he should tell her about himself. “A long time ago, I studied art–commercial art, not fine art. But I stopped when I saw I couldn’t be as good an artist as I wanted to be.”

She laughed. “No wonder–with an attitude like that.” She seemed unafraid to be direct. Her eyes were honest.

“I’m an English teacher now. I teach at Bishop High School.” His daughter had objected to going to the same school, being the daughter of a teacher, but in college, she was fine.

Shawna picked up the scissors. “I loved English. I had a teacher who hated me. I wasn’t disrespectful, never skipped class, but she was always giving me detention. She blamed me when someone stole my book.” Shawna snipped the hair in back lightly. “I had to pay for it.”

“You probably reminded her of someone she hated or someone she loved once.” He bowed his head down. His jaw ached. “It was not your fault.”

“One good thing came out of it: I enrolled in the skills program, where you go to school only two-and-a-half  hours a day and work on your own for the rest of the day. I loved that. So I guess I got one good thing out of her.” Her scissors worked on the right side of his face. “Is this your first time here?”

“My regular barber is out of town, and I had to get a haircut.” Mostly it was women here, but there was one college-age kid at the station at the end.

“A special occasion?”

“Yes.”

Shawna told him that her brother had a full scholarship at the technical college, but he went two weeks and stopped going. She just hoped he would get a job. Their house was in foreclosure. Her mother broke up with her boyfriend. “She always picks losers. This one was an alcoholic. She woke up in the middle of the night, and he was sitting in a chair with a gun in his lap. That scared her. But with him gone, she can’t pay the mortgage. She’s been in bankruptcy once already. It’ll ruin her credit rating.”

“That happened to my brother-in-law.” He bent his head forward, so she could shave his neck. He felt only slightly dizzy, considering how little sleep he had gotten.

She fluffed his hair out and turned his chair to the mirror. “How do you like it?”

“Fine, fine.” But no, it was not fine. His daughter was the same age as Shawna. He wanted to tell her.

She smiled into the mirror, her eyes open and leaf-colored. “What’s the occasion?”

He could not catch his breath. “A funeral.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.” She put the comb down and stepped back. She cupped one hand in the other and waited.

“My daughter. She died. A car accident.” He poured out Miranda’s whole life, her aspirations and virtues and death. “When she was little she wanted to be an astronaut. Her teachers loved her. She painted with acrylics and sang in the school chorus. We used to fight. We were almost to the end of the fighting stage.” The chair tilted. He felt stones in his throat. He remembered her voice. The cold air pierced his lungs. He wiped his eyes with his handkerchief.

She watched quietly and nodded as though she understood.

 

 

Cezarija Abartis’ Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Brain Harvest, Underground Voices, Liquid Imagination, Story Quarterly, and New York Tyrant (which also gave her story The Lidano Fiction Award). Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University.

Read our interview with Cezarija here.

“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Doe” by Jude Marr


Image by Jenn Rhubright

Archaeology rescued J. Doe’s remains
from a re-zoned potter’s field, before the backhoes
flattened clods into the basis for a co-ed dorm—

dirt-rain muck-churned mud-red on midwife’s boot sheet-reek and mama dyed at my
first wake

Pathology measured Doe at fifty-seven inches,
and an estimated twenty years. Her diseased joints,
her skull’s deformity, screamed tertiary syphilis—

my Rory my beau lost at sea Rory raw and bonny rest his soul Rory made May maid
no more

History judged, from the situation of the grave
and the condition of the bones, that Jane Doe must have lived
a whore, before post-Reconstruction’s Gilded Age—

pa traded me for meat plucked fowl blood sausage mutton rare sweet not spoiled not like pa’s wee May

Women’s Studies gave Ms Doe more shape: urban-slum child,
further pauperized by gender; tender cherry-
flesh broken/sold/assaulted by misogyny; a face made hideous by pox—

nor bairn’s nor women’s sickness dosed with mercury I shrink from sticks and staines from stink from me

Art played with Jane. Art digitized her skull, repaired
the syphilitic parts, layered virtual clay. Maybe J’s
reconstructed face, her blunt unwholesomeness, failed to inspire;
still, Art clicked SAVE—

tenement bed-wretched breath blood coughed consumption they say can’t wake May

Meanwhile, Buildings and Grounds scheduled another hole
(fifty-seven inches—four-foot-nine) and re-buried
Unidentified Human Remains, Female #63.

dirt-rain muck-churned mud-red on digger’s boot who says amen wakes me wakes May

Moral Philosophy may plant a cherry tree at her feet.

 

 

Jude Marr was born in Scotland and has lived for many years in England, but always with the United States on her mind and in her work. In the last two years, she has traveled to workshops and residencies in New England, New York and Florida. Right now, she is folding up her old life and putting it in a drawer with her winter clothes, getting ready for the new school year as an MFA candidate at Georgia College in Milledgeville. Her poems have also appeared in The Cortland Review, and she recently completed a novel she hopes may see the light someday. She is fifty-two years old and feels like her life just got started. Dreams can come true.

Read an interview with Jude here.

 

“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.