“Two Variations on the Theme of Goodbye” by Christine Aletti

Monet_water lillies (Two Variations On)
Water Lilies, a study by Claude Monet, circa 1920


The night needing left, bromeliads broke
from trees.  I hung my belly on the line to
dry in the moonlight and admired its shine.

Just at the edge of shadow, I waited,
patiently, for your voice.  Nothing came.
All was silent.  The palms stood solitary

as guards.  Cranes settled down, indifferent
to air.  The ponds blackened in disregard
and below, the trout denied swimming.

All was silent.  I should’ve known:
without needing, there’d be no noise, no
cacophony of please, I love you, let’s

have dinner.  I should’ve known:
my belly would twist and dry on the line
and emptiness would feel, simply, like nothing.

I grew to miss our arguing— the way
your words spiked inside me like
those broken flowers— the way

arguing leaves sloped and sighed, allowed
for the speckle of cream.  Out the door:
coffee-bean grinders and night-time tremors,

I think I lost a tooth in your mug—
Can you swallow my agenda?  Or,
even better, yesterday’s phrases?

There’s no need to utter them now.



And forgetting, forgetting never came.
Sundays it rained and I never made it
to the beach.  Little dogs fell in the pool

while the oak held toads, fucking.
Their bellows pulsed alien and dank.
Summer wouldn’t leave; I sat outside

only at 6 am, when it was simply thick
air and gnats ignorant to flesh. Listened
in piss yellow patio lights to trucks rattle

down the road beyond the lake, airplanes
echo, soar and flash red and I forgot nothing
of New York City on a Monday; how when

it was finally quiet— the cologne and beer
disgusted, the handbills disheartened— fruit
trucks started down Broadway, tin-tailed,

stumbling into every little piece of broken
asphalt.  I never slept.  And how, when
you finally answered what lingered—

the cellphone’s throb and the question’s
swallow—salamanders didn’t stop
creeping up concrete. Gnats still attacked.

Even in the heat, forgetting never came;
Florida remained a yeast infection
that yearned for my body’s niches, but

I was not ready to give myself over
to invasion and forget everything, you.



Christine Aletti has an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her poems have been published in Two Hawks Quarterly and Tattoo Highway. Christine lives in New Jersey, where she teaches writing to unruly youths and yoga to disciplined yuppies.

“Short Prayer” by Michelle Olney

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Eugene Delacroix, 1861

I unearth the grey siddur
given me as a child.

I creak its cover open
to the short prayer for healing.
Ayl na, refa na la.

I do not need a prayer book
to recall this meager necklace of words,

nor your body in reach to feel the hollow
severity of your frame.

The spine balances in my hand.
I know you will not be healed.

I know you will not be healed because
you lean into your illness

as one does a strong wind: carelessly.
Death accelerates toward you.  Listen.

My prayer is a means of talking to you.
I read the words to myself.
Ayl na, refa na la.



Michelle Olney studied Creative Writing at Brandeis University, where she received the American Poets Honorary Prize (2009). She was recently hired as Poetry Editor for the speculative genre magazine Isotropic Fiction. She lives and works in Portland, ME.

“Like Juliet and Romeo” by Kevin Winchester

Rome and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet by Hans Makart, circa 1870

In the fall, I smell the leaves as they begin to turn. The yellows, tart as a lemon wedge. The reds, sharp as cinnamon. The oranges, heavy with the bitter muskiness of saffron. These leaves—even their dying holds a promise.

I could see the coming of the season in you, then. A crispness in the way you walked, a calm in your smile, an easing in the touch of your fingertips against my cheek. I could see it in the few weeks before the first stab of color showed itself on the slight ridge beyond the house, before the thin smoke telling of the hunter’s fire ribboned above the trees, before the first glazing of frost. Do you think somehow that has changed?

Remember that evening at Carlita’s Grill, sitting on the patio, the July air heavy and thick as wool? We were drinking Mexican beers. Flossie and Bill were there. Crutch and that weird girl from Tuscaloosa he dated for a while. Amy and Sean. Mando Dave, too.  Planning the trip to the Keys, laughing. Everything as it should be, the way we imagined it would always be. More beers and the meal came, slowing the conversation. The hot air moved just so as the sun went down and offered a hint of coolness. Remember? I loved the way the buttery light of dusk filtered through the fake palms, the way it settled, not on you, but gathered around you.

You are angry with me still.

On your first trip to Europe, you viewed everything through the harsh, new lens of this country. Soon enough, that disappeared and you drank it in, the aged aloofness, the weary determination, everything. After the sunset on the Arno, walking back to the hotel, we discovered that little basement bar where the German band played American rock and roll. They let you sing “Blue Suede Shoes” and I watched everyone watching you, but you looked only at me. The next afternoon, with the red tiled roofs of Florence slanted below us, snapping pictures from the Duomo’s campinale, I moved near the railing. The wind lifted my hair, I could smell bread baking below, and my weightless stomach felt tethered to the breeze. I could feel it pulling me away from the safety of the Basilica, teasing me, daring me.  “Let’s jump,” I said. “We’ll be famous, like Juliet and Romeo,” I said. You laughed and kissed me. “Easier than all those stairs back down,” you said, “but Romeo and Juliet were stupid kids, they didn’t know what it means to love, not really. Let’s avoid the cliché and buy a bottle of wine.” That bottle of chianti survived three moves, the little apartment on Sutton, the duplex on Ash, and finally, when we moved into our house, we opened it. It was better suited for salad dressing than celebration by then. Remember?

You’ve taken the pictures from the wall, but now the empty space frames your guilt.

We came home that day and your sullenness strained to mask your frustration—with me, with yourself, with the doctors, with things you could not control no matter how desperately you wanted to. I had no words to improve your silence. The screen door slammed when you went out to the porch, sudden and sharp as a surgeon’s knife. From the window, I watched you there. You looked skyward, I followed. There, on the tip of a pine at the far edge of the yard, the red-tail hawk perched, her head tilted downward and fixed, scanning the hedge row on the far side of the road. In an instant, she rifled toward the earth, quiet as a shadow, and disappeared into the thick of the hedge row before rising, a rabbit kicking in her talons. The rabbit squealed and you flinched. The animal shrieked once more, once more you flinched, but you never looked away. I could have gone to you, touched the soft lines around your eyes, told you that I, too, was afraid, that we are all afraid, and I could have asked you to hold me, but I didn’t. It was enough that I knew you’d never look away.

I was angry, too.

I never told you this, never told anyone, but one night, my grandmother came to me in a dream. She sat on the end of the bed, playing the old Maybelle Carter song, “Wildwood Flower,” on her guitar. Her fingers didn’t move across the strings, but the notes rang true and confident. She appeared with such physical certitude—her weight creased and slanted the mattress, she carried the scent of a pound cake baking with her—that I questioned, not the mystery of her appearing, but the how of it. In that moment of forming the question, I sensed a spooling back through time that did not begin or end with me and her. Rather, it threaded beyond that, beyond the world I knew of her, of the world she knew before me, of this place before the trees grew and the rains fell and the mountains pushed up from the seas. Before, and before that, a vastness so deep, so complete it was too much to transcend, to even imagine, and yet there she was. Through it all, Granny Jenkins had come to me. I tried to speak, but had no words. Again the question, how? And then I knew. You were right. Romeo and Juliet didn’t know what it means to love.

Hold fast to those pictures and soon I will come to you. I will come to you.



Kevin Winchester is a North Carolina native and author of the short story collection, Everybody’s Gotta Eat. His work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Tin House, Barrel House, Storysouth, and the anthology Everything But the Baby. In 2005, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference awarded Kevin their Work Study Scholarship. He is currently the Director of the Writing Center at Wingate University where he also teaches Creative Writing. Winchester recently won the 2013 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Award.

Read an interview with Kevin here.

“The Lightning Continued” by Monica Wendel

Dughet Gaspard (Gaspard Poussin)-xx-Landscape with Lightning-xx-Late 1660s
Landscape with Lightning by Dughet Gaspard, circa 1660

II. The Lightning Continued

To make this state God took a great carpet of sod and unrolled it unsteadily over the ocean and then didn’t bother leaving. So now His name appears on signs with metal legs, stuck into grass, and on highway billboards next to pictures of tiny translucent fetus hands. Not to say there isn’t joy. This morning the thunder smelled like wet rope, I said, Dear God, if You love me, let me live. And He did.


IV. Hotel Pilgrim

The waterslide was listed on the website of God’s miracles. And billboards along the drive counted down miles until, until … Still, the Hilton barely banked off it. You could even say they pretended it wasn’t God’s Slide of the Drowning Child and Twelve Apostle’s Face. I made my two hands a cross but it wasn’t the right sign. Flipped it over and a waitress came over — do you need anything hun? Lifeguards watched the pool through grey filtered cameras, counting silences.


V. Old Sport

How quickly a hotel room becomes “home” as in, I’m frightened, I’m going home. Smoke rises against the sky like skin on skin. Lightning jumps back and forth between clouds without jumping down. I washed the ashes out of my hair, washed sugar from fingers. Who knew that I would wake up eagle-stretched in a warm bed. Who knew that I would dream of the subway painted yellow passing miles underground. A seam of peat underground smolders overnight and the television expects sinkholes to collapse above it. The fingers of Spanish moss are too damp to catch, too full of insects to be brought indoors. I watch it brush against the window, breaking into grey-green spores.



Monica Wendel is the author of No Apocalypse (Georgetown Review Press, 2013) and the chapbooks Call it a Window (Midwest Writing Center, 2012) and Pioneer (forthcoming, Thrush Press). These poems were composed at the Jack Kerouac Project of Orlando, Florida, where she was the Spring 2013 writer-in-residence. Currently, Monica lives in Brooklyn and is assistant professor of composition and creative writing at St. Thomas Aquinas College.

“lullaby” by Kiik A.K.

Henri Fantin-Latour (French Realist Painter, 1836-1904) Roses and Lilies 1888
Roses and Lilies by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1888

If I fold the page into a single
white glove I’m saying goodbye

If I fold it into a cricket
you will know the lullaby
seals itself between your dreaming
eye and the unsteady dream

A lantern calls to you
and I past a solitary dream
to meet in the shared tunnel
of your remembering

Six paper lilies means
I have fallen through the tunnel
and cannot rise, I am singing to you
from the shoulders of crickets
at your window

If I fold the page into a bowl
you will know I am out
collecting rain

Though you dream of thirst
and wake to the dry perfume of lilies



Kiik A.K. previously studied poetics at Santa Clara University and UC Davis and is a current graduate student of creative writing at UC San Diego. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the journals iO, Scythe, Washington Square, Barge Press, The Brooklyner, Alligator Juniper, CutBank and Alice Blue Review. “lullaby” was written for Kane and Peggy Araki.

“Benefits of Anticipatory Grief” by Janet Frishberg

Henri Regnault (Benefits of Anticipatory Grief)
Mme. Mazois (The Artist’s Great Aunt on Her Deathbed) by Henri Regnault, 1886

I’ve forgotten my voice waiting for her to die. I came to say goodbye but I don’t believe it’s time yet and neither does she.

Six days ago in San Francisco, my friend Audra invited me over to eat chili. She stirred the soup in her narrow, steamy kitchen. I told her my grandma was sick but I didn’t have a way to get to her in LA. Saying it out loud to Audra, it didn’t feel real. It just felt like a story I was telling while we waited for the beans to soften and the spices to soak in.

“Take my car,” she said.

“No…” It was too generous, easy.

“Yeah. If the only reason you’re not going is because of a car, you should take mine.”

“How’ll you get to work?”

“I’ll take the train; I’ll figure it out. This is important.”

“Okay. How about…I’ll let you know if I can’t find anything else.” I leaned on her counter top. “Thank you so much for even offering.”

“You should take it. This is really important.”

Which is how I came to understand it was actually happening, and came to be driving Audra’s white Jetta down to West Hollywood. How I came to be standing in the doorway of my grandma’s room.

Almost all her furniture had been removed or rearranged. The master bedroom looked huge without their king-sized bed. As a child, I’d wake up in the guest room from nightmares about people trying to murder me. I’d tiptoe into their room and crawl into bed between them so I could fall asleep again among their snoring, squishy bodies.

It’s been almost three months since she’s stopped eating—claiming nausea and that nothing tastes good. Now, I sit beside her new hospital-style bed, while she drifts in and out of sleep all day. I try to stay busy while she sleeps; I knit or write or read. I catch up on This American Life.

Once it’s dark outside, she wakes up and we talk. She says things like, “You make my heart sing,” and when she has the strength, she likes to yell, “Ah!” and then shout, almost angrily, “You are so beautiful!” She complains about which appliances in her life are breaking, and who isn’t calling her the way she wants them to, and she likes to gossip about our family.

We’re the same people as before. Nothing about her or me has gotten inherently wiser just because she’s dying.

So instead, we discuss the green and golden afghan she’s not sure she can finish. She teaches me the stitch: knit two pearl two in a row with a number of stitches that’s divisible by two but not by four. She cries and covers her face with her wrinkled-skin hands, and I lean over the bars of the bed and drape my arms over her lap and say, “I don’t care that we’re just sitting here. That’s all I want to do. This is all I came down here to do.”

In early morning, I sort her pills for her, rolling their smooth gel casings between my fingertips, and when I crack eggs for lunch later, wonder if traces of morphine remain, and lick my skin just in case.

After approximately sixty-three hours in the house, I stand in the bathroom. There’s a three-foot long mirror on the wall that I’ve been looking in since I was a little girl and stayed with her for weeks at a time. It’s possible I haven’t showered since I got here. I pull off my smelly gray sweatshirt, stare at my naked chest, yellow in the mirror. I’m trying to remember how to breathe fully into it.

This is not the first death. There was my namesake grandma before I was born, and the grandpas, one in high school and the other in college. There was the sudden death at 17 that sent me to the bathroom floor sobbing: a boy I loved who jumped into the water. These deaths were important and also different—they were a phone call. They were a surprise, a punch in the stomach. Sometimes they’ve taken me years to believe in—he’s actually gone. I am glad now for the slow build of her dying. Her dying has been in the background for months now, like putting the teakettle on the electric burner and listening for its steam to build to a whistle.

But, nobody instructed me: when sitting with the dying, you must be very careful not to get caught inside the land of the dying.

I walk down the wooden hallway to the kitchen, telling myself to stop sneaking slices of banana bread covered in butter. My uncle, who lives with her, or she lives with him they like to say, gets home from his girlfriend’s place. He makes me leave the house with him to pick up sushi from around the corner. We walk through the streets, along with the gays and tourists. This is part of what she loves about the neighborhood. I carry the meal home in its Russian nesting dolls of plastic inside plastic.

I sit at what we call the “real” table, drawing thick slabs of pink sashimi into my mouth. I’m afraid of concentrating too hard on this raw fish flesh. I don’t want to remember the lamp light on her emaciated cheeks three minutes ago, when I fed her a bite of hamachi, the first food she’d accepted all day.

I felt triumphant, watching her swallow, and thought, that should solve it. She used to tell me, when I untangled a necklace or fixed her phone, “You’re magic, Janet.” I picked up a second bite with the chopsticks but she closed her mouth and shook her head at me, like a contrary toddler. She’s getting more beautiful in her starvation, except for the sunken places where her dentures and right-breast prosthesis should sit.

While eating, I try instead to see what’s physically real: the living room in front of me, where I sleep when visiting. White couches, masks from countries they visited all over the walls, my stuff an explosion of clothes in one corner. Not knowing what to bring, I brought too much.

I want to get farther away than the living room—for this, a car is needed. I drive down Sunset and turn left, towards the canyon, leaving the crowds behind me like an exhale. The flammable beige and green plants on each side of my car are familiar. The windows are up. I like the closed container of the car.

I connect my phone to the sound system and turn on music, try singing, just to hear my own voice. I almost lost it from all the yelling to be heard through her hearing aids, or worse, without her hearing aids.

I don’t want to think about ten minutes ago when I stood by her bedside, my shadow falling sideways in the lamp light, and told her, “I’m leaving for a few hours.”

“Where? Where are you going?” she protested.

“I’m going to yoga with Sonia.” She loves Sonia, my friend from college, because Sonia is beautiful and talented and listens.

“Sonia? Now?”


She started crying, moaning, “I guess I have no choice do I?”

I can, in the car’s silence, scream words I gulped down—because I didn’t want a fight, because all day I checked to make sure she was still breathing, like a baby—which were: this is why it’s so hard to visit you, and: you make me want to lie to you.

I once thought this city was soulless but I know now, the green, the canyon; I was wrong. Here is just anywhere, but with more expensive cars.

I thought I should move my body into downward dog or maybe warrior one, but I got lost in the canyon’s turns, in not-thinking about what if she dies while I’m gone out of spite.

Five minutes late, they’ve locked the studio door on me. Sonia arrived on time and is inside, without her phone. I climb back into the car, waiting for the class to end so Sonia, her boyfriend, and I can have dinner. Trying to remember what else people do besides sit and watch the wheezing inhales of the person who probably loves them most.

I turn up the music, skipping through songs that feel wrong right now. Nothing too sad, or too happy. I want purgatory music. I roll the windows down. When my phone rings with an unknown number, I answer, hopefully, wishing it’s either God or an old friend calling to say, “I was thinking of you.”

It’s a volunteer: “Phone banking for the Dems, just making sure you’ll vote no on Prop 32!”

She did things like this for the Democratic Party when she was younger, better at using the phone.

“I already sent in my absentee ballot. I voted no. Thank you. Thank you for what you’re doing. Okay. Okay, bye.”

That twice thank you—I wanted her to like me. I wanted the phone banker to be a sage and stop her script to transmit wisdom, or maybe comfort me. To say, “Are you okay, Janet? You sound sad,” and, on the phone with her, I’d be able to cry, the way I haven’t been able to by myself yet, but this isn’t a movie, so we just hung up.

It’s becoming early evening. I watch the middle-aged women taking walks around the block with their dogs, jealous of their commitment and consistency.

I drove forty-five minutes here for some spiritual guidance and all there is now are car sounds coming in through the open windows: a screech of tires, honk of horn, smell of cigarettes and flash of expired parking meter. There’s nothing for me to do but sit and wait for the yoga class to end. After a brief gap of silence in the music, I’m shuffled my dead friend’s song, recorded for me in high school—next month he will have been dead seven years—and I let it play, resting my dry hands on the bottom of the steering wheel, and I listen.



Janet Frishberg lives and writes in a light blue room in San Francisco. She’s currently editing her first book, a memoir. You can find her work in Literary Orphans, Cease, Cows, sparkle & blink, the SF Chronicle, and soon in The Rufous City Review and Black Heart Magazine. You can find her @jfrishberg

This essay first appeared in Verity La.

“Wunnerful, Wunnerful, Fabulous” by Ann Hillesland

renoir (Wunnerful)
Dance in the City by Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1883

When I was seven, I dreamed of being on The Lawrence Welk Show.  Every Saturday night, my family would eat dinner around the television, the only night we were allowed to have it on during dinner. I’d be riveted, watching Myron Florin’s accordion flash, the imperviously smiling Bobby and Cissy twirl across the dance floor, and Norma Zimmer, blonde hair artistically poofed, warble “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.”  As the youngest of six, I never rated a spot on the couch. Instead I sat on the floor with my taco or slice of homemade pizza and a Pepsi instead of the usual milk.  Dapper Lawrence Welk would wave his conductor’s baton as the orchestra played amid a swirl of bubbles, declaring his trademark “Wunnerful, wunnerful!”

I had no idea that I was idolizing the squarest show on television in 1972. Though I enjoyed the antics of Laugh In, I always felt hyper and drained afterwards. And though I watched Sonny & Cher and loved belting out “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” I could never imagine wearing Cher’s navel-baring outfits, nor did I want to be as mean as she was, always putting down Sonny. In contrast, everyone was smiling on the The Lawrence Welk Show.  The women’s wide-collared shirts, puff-sleeved dresses, and pleated jumpers could have come out of my own closet. I could see myself kicking down a prop fence during “Don’t Fence Me In” and singing “Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)” without embarrassment.

The one cast member I emulated above all was Sandi. I envied her marvelous cheekbones and flowing red hair. I was round-faced, my dirty blonde hair always ragged because I habitually fell asleep with gum in my mouth and my mother had to cut out the hardened blobs. Sandi looked perfect, smiling, calm. She mostly sang as part of a trio:  Sandi, Gail, and Mary Lou. Together they harmonized to “Swinging on a Star,” dressing up in flowing-sleeved evening gowns and leaning together close as sisters as their voices blended sweetly.

My family sang together, especially when we were camping and had no TV or other music (my parents forbade radios and cassette players during camping). We sang folk songs, John Denver, songs from musicals. The older kids harmonized, but I always sang melody, too young to sing a part and too convinced that I should be the star and have the melody anyway. After all, someday I was going to be on television, singing in front of the orchestra while gossamer bubbles floated behind me.

Eventually I outgrew The Lawrence Welk Show. He was an old man in white shoes, and no matter how flashy the silver was, an accordion was not hip. Even the ads were awful, touting Geritol and Rose Milk, the hand lotion my grandmother used. By high school I worshiped Deborah Harry and Pat Benatar. But I never pictured myself in a catsuit in front of a rock band. Instead, I sang in the school chorale and the chorus of “Oklahoma,” and tried—and failed, due to my terrible dancing—to make it into the school singing and dancing group, the Thor Throats (the school mascot was the Vikings).

After I graduated from college, I stopped singing except in the car or shower. I got a job, got married. A few years ago, though, deciding I missed singing, I joined the JewelTones, ten women who dress up in wide-shouldered 40’s outfits or glamorous long dresses and harmonize on songs from the 40’s and 50’s. Our official name is the JewelTones, but we call ourselves the Fabulous JewelTones because, well, why not?

Recently, we sang for a 50th wedding anniversary party in a Methodist church social hall, which had a stage at one end and a basketball hoop at the other. The woman’s wedding dress, displayed on a mannequin and smelling of mothballs, crowded us on stage left. In the unseasonably hot night, all the doors were thrown open, and people scooted their chairs to see us better from the round tables. The audience was mostly elderly, with a few bored-looking grandchildren thrown in. We started the show with “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake,” which features many short solos, and when I stepped forward to sing my solo, I concentrated on a white-haired lady near the back who was mouthing the words. Every 90th birthday party, retirement home, or “fun after 50” group has a few people who know all the words, maybe singers themselves who idolized Doris Day or Bing Crosby. The crowd laughed at our schtick, at the silly hula dance in “Makin’ Love Ukulele Style,” at the moment when our (male) pianist donned a dress and added his baritone to “Sisters.”

As I was swinging my arm in our synchronized train motions during “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” it struck me—I was in the Lawrence Welk show. I was wearing a long red dress, on stage with other women in long red dresses. Our emcee bantered between songs as we got props: a suitcase for a train ride, a feather boa for vamping it up. No prop fences or haystacks, but we do our best with what we can carry. We smile all the time and sound as sweet together as Sandi, Gail, and Mary Lou. Who cares if we’re not hip? Who cares if our most fervent supporters take Centrum Silver? We weren’t on television, but when the anniversary couple came back stage and said our show was everything they’d hoped it would be, I felt as good as Sandi must have felt.

One of the JewelTones has a bubble machine she wants us to use as a prop. Her idea is a silly version of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” but maybe I should propose that old Lawrence Welk closer “Adios, Au Revior, Auf Wiedersehen.” We could sing “Here’s a wish and prayer that every dream comes true” while the bubbles cascade behind us and the lights dazzle our rhinestones into diamonds.



Ann Hillesland’s work has been published or is forthcoming in literary journals including Fourth Genre, The Los Angeles Review, Monkeybicycle, Open City, Prick of the Spindle, and SmokeLong Quarterly, and has been selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2012. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte.

“The Tuesday Evening Meditation Group Breaks to Pee” by Richard Bader

Rinpoche (Meditation Group)
Detail from Vision of Yeshe Tsogyal by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

The five members of the Tuesday Evening Meditation Group are flat on their backs in the upstairs classroom of the Unitarian church where they meet. The room is warm, its temperature set for people who don’t move around much. Eyes closed, they are tuned in to Conrad’s voice: “Feel the pressure on your pelvis as you relax into any tension there. Feel your shoulders where they sink into the carpet.” He is bringing them back from twenty minutes of acute body awareness visualization, horizontal variation. The thin gray carpet is stained and smells faintly of the collective dross of many years of church potlucks, and visualizing your shoulders sinking into it is not an altogether pleasant image, so they are grateful to be nearing the end of this exercise. This brings to a close an hour of marginally successful work to empty minds—earlier twenty-minute installments included simple sitting meditation and sensory breath-awareness meditation—and now another part of their anatomy needs emptying.

“And… back,” Conrad says, working the segment to a close. He tries to be soft and soothing, but his voice is naturally nasal and off-putting to some, and he speaks with an awkward cadence. “Now [pause] open your eyes [pause] slowly [pause] and come back into the space [pause] with everyone else.” He inhales deeply and loudly, then exhales with a whoosh. “Good. Let’s take a ten-minute break.”

Jennifer wishes he would have said slowly open your eyes instead of open your eyes slowly, because she’s suggestive by nature, and when he said open your eyes she just went ahead and opened them, quickly, and then when he said slowly it was too late to go back and do it that way, so the effect was jarring. The last thing Jennifer needs in her life right now is jarring. She is a short, stylish, forty-something human resources director with short, soccer mom-ish auburn hair who is fond of tight turtlenecks, and during lying-down meditation Conrad likes to watch her chest rise and fall as she breathes. Having peeked, Jennifer is aware of this, and even though she isn’t attracted to Conrad, it makes her wistful. She has a well of resilient good humor that she draws on as a defense against the torrent of personal misfortune she is undergoing: the recently fired husband who spends his days looking at Internet porn instead of searching for a job. The 93-pound teenage daughter in an inpatient program for anorexics. And the very recent news that the tiny lump she discovered in the shower a month ago is a big enough deal that her left breast will have to be removed. How interested would Conrad be if he knew that? Just yesterday, after her husband forgot to clear the search history on his laptop, Jennifer found a link to a website of women with mastectomies who had gotten tattoos to cover their breast scars. Some of them were quite beautiful.

It was Jennifer who several weeks ago suggested that they refer to their mid-session bathroom break as “achieving flow,” and everybody had laughed. Everybody except Conrad, who thought her glibness bordered on sacrilege, but said nothing. Conrad is tall and gaunt and has a braided black ponytail flecked with gray. He majored in Tibetan poetics and culture at a quirky but accredited college out west and wants the class to call him “rinpoche,” but as none of them are familiar with that term and Conrad himself seldom speaks unless he’s directing a meditation exercise, it’s unlikely that this will happen all by itself. Conrad has prostate cancer, but he doesn’t know it yet. This explains the pain he sometimes feels during sitting meditation. He has started to sit on a cushion, and this helps some. The cancer is the rarer, fast-moving kind. His reliance on homeopathic remedies won’t help him much, and in eleven months he will be dead.

Willow and Alex roll up in unison like it’s some kind of dance move they’ve practiced and then take turns massaging each other’s shoulders before they stand and stretch. They are young lesbian lovers from the college who are there because they saw a flyer outside their Religions of the Eastern World classroom. They are also there because they read on a blog that Sting meditates, and who doesn’t think Sting is cool, even if he is sixty. They hold hands when they meditate, aiming for a shared mystical union. This is kind of lovebird cute, but it also royally pisses George off, because while Willow is dark and scrawny and heavily pierced, Alex is an Amazon, lithe and bronze from time outdoors with the college soccer team, so when George sees her holding hands with Willow all he can think is, What a waste.

Ron has a crush on Jennifer but he hasn’t done anything about it. He is a single forty-seven-year-old librarian with a blondish comb-over. One Tuesday during a break Jennifer asked him what he did for a living and the top of his head went crimson as he tried to explain his job, where he wasn’t the head librarian, but after a recent promotion was number two. Jennifer, who asked Ron this question on a night when her husband was entrenched in front of the computer and her daughter was in the hospital and she herself ended up staying at a friend’s, found his shyness kind of charming. But since then Ron has avoided her. It was as if that one brief conversation succeeded in making him think that Jennifer might actually like him back, and breathing the rare air of that possibility was enough.

Ron also has a sort of crush on George, who joined the group just a few weeks ago. Not a romantic crush, but a man-crush, the kind of crush men felt about Sean Connery during his peak Bond years, a wanting-to-be-like-him crush. Not that George was anything like Sean Connery, to say nothing of James Bond, but he did exude a robust masculinity that Ron himself lacked. George was short and solid where Ron was tall and wispy. George was loud and boisterous where Ron was shy and nervous. George bellowed when he laughed and Ron did this sniffly thing that came out his nose. George has farted loudly and unapologetically during sessions, while Ron has endured stomach cramps. George arrives from work on Tuesdays in wrinkled grey suits from his job selling something—kitchen appliances, Ron thinks—his tie pulled loose at the collar. George smokes cigars and has high cholesterol. Ron is a near-vegan on a gluten-free diet. George is also, Ron thinks, the last person in the world you would expect to find in a meditation group.

George is at a urinal, so Ron steps to the single toilet stall. George pees like a Clydesdale, and Ron is envious of this, too. “Whatever inspired you to start meditating?” Ron asks, to relieve the awkwardness of just listening to pee.

George uncorks a bellow laugh as he tucks himself back in. “Shhhh,” he says, looking at Ron with a broad smile on his face and a thick index finger on his lips. “I’m not doing meditation.” Ron gives him a puzzled look. George winks, then explains. His wife thinks he has a drinking problem and has said she will leave him if he doesn’t get help. George did some research and found an AA group that met Tuesdays at the church. He went once and hated it. No one was any fun, and their stories were depressing. On his second visit, he discovered the meditation class meeting at the same time. “So,” he says to Ron, “here I am.”

Ron flushes and fixes George with an admiring grin. “You’re kidding,” he says.

“No, seriously. Tell you the truth, I like it. Worst-case scenario, I get a little nap.”

“And your wife thinks you’re at AA.”

“Yeah. But I don’t need AA. I’m not…” His voice trails off and he does a gesture of helplessness with his hands. His wife says that whenever he says he’s not an alcoholic it just proves he is, but is in denial. She learned this from something she Googled. He finds the logic absurd. “It’s perfect, right?”


“And you know the best part?  She’s thrilled by how well it’s working. Says she’s so glad I’m so committed to it. Can’t believe the progress I’m making.” Then with a stroke of ironic self-awareness, George reaches into his jacket pocket and withdraws a slim silver flask. He unscrews the top and extends it toward Ron, who laughs a real laugh, not his usual sniffly laugh.

“No thanks.”

“Jack Daniels,” George says by way of persuasion, but Ron shakes his head. “Suit yourself,” George says, and takes a swig.

“Oh, what the hell,” Ron concedes. As he feels the burn in his throat, Ron wonders what George will think of single-nostril breathing when Conrad gets to it.

Jennifer is standing at one of the sinks in the women’s room. There are two toilet stalls, which is more than sufficient given the church’s flagging membership. A flush comes from one and Willow emerges and goes to the sink next to Jennifer’s to wash her hands. Their eyes meet in the mirror, where Jennifer is drawn to the tiny silver stud in Willow’s right nostril.

“How many do you have?” Jennifer asks, touching the side of her own nose to indicate to Willow that she means piercings. Between the nose stud and the eyebrow hoop and the assortment in Willow’s ears, Jennifer counts nine.  She herself sports a very conventional two, one per earlobe, and she’s partial to gold dangly things.

Willow thinks for a few seconds, her head bobbing slightly as she counts to herself. “Fourteen. I think.” Three more head bobs, left-right-left. “Yeah. Fourteen.”

“Wow,” Jennifer says, reaching for a paper towel to dry her hands. Then, risking a level of intimacy she has no right to risk with this young girl, but newly intrigued by the concept of unconventional body ornamentation, she asks, “Where?”

Willow pauses for a second, then grins into the mirror and sticks out her tongue, displaying a round silver stud the size of a BB. Jennifer laughs. Then Willow lifts her black T-shirt at the waist to show Jennifer the tiny silver hoop in her belly button. The second toilet flushes, and it startles Jennifer, who turns to see Alex. Alex glances at her, expressionless, then locks eyes with Willow in the mirror. Her eyebrows arch questioningly. Jennifer feels her face redden. She looks down at the sink, then back at the mirror, missing the slight nods that Alex and Willow have exchanged. Then Willow lifts her shirt higher, then higher still, and pulls up her sports-bra with it. Her breasts are small and round and taut. Two silver hoops pierce her left nipple. The right nipple is un-pierced. Willow is grinning, though with the shirt lifted up Jennifer can’t tell.

Jennifer’s eyes fill with tears and she starts to cry.

Willow quickly covers herself back up. “What’s wrong?”

Jennifer waves her hand as if to say, nothing. Alex puts an arm around her. “You OK?” she asks.

“I have cancer,” Jennifer manages, then musters a brave smile and goes on to explain.

“Oh my God.” Willow sounds stricken. “I am so sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“No,” Jennifer says. “It’s OK. Really. I asked, didn’t I?” She looks carefully at Willow, who is only a few years older than her own daughter. She feels a rush of desire to comfort the girl, and starts to reach up to touch Willow’s face but pulls back. “I’m grateful. Really. Thank you.” She wipes her eyes with a Kleenex, then smiles and says, “You’re beautiful.”

“Do you want to just hang out down here for a while?” Alex asks. “We can stay with you.”

The generosity of these two girls moves Jennifer. She hopes her daughter will be like Willow when she is her age, then realizes that she has just wished for her daughter to become a heavily perforated lesbian and laughs. Willow and Alex laugh with her. Jennifer wants her daughter to meet them, thinking that maybe that would help, though from the look of Willow, Jennifer can’t rule out the possibility that she has food issues too.

“I’m fine,” Jennifer says. “Let’s go back up.” They are halfway up the stairs when Jennifer stops and grabs Willow’s arm. “Wait,” she says. “That’s only thirteen. Where’s the last one?” Willow and Alex exchange glances and burst out laughing, and Jennifer delights in joining them.

Conrad is sitting cross-legged on his cushion as they reassemble. He hears rain on the roof, and decides that tonight they will skip walking the labyrinth in the yard behind the church. Ron twists himself into a full lotus that will go from mildly uncomfortable to full-on knee pain in about two more minutes. The meniscus in his right knee is torn—an orthopedist has confirmed this—but neither that knowledge nor the pain will motivate him to abandon his lotus. Emboldened by George’s whiskey, he plans to talk to Jennifer after tonight’s class, and decides to use this final meditation exercise to think about what he will say. George, as always, pulls up a chair, and Conrad silently judges him for not trying harder. Alex and Willow sit with Jennifer between them. The sight of Jennifer giggling with the two lesbians produces in Conrad an emotion he might call rage if not for the fact that he has worked so hard to eliminate rage from his emotional vocabulary. He worries that they are mocking him. He has troubling thoughts about what might have gone on in the women’s room. “What’s funny?” he says with cool nasality, and Jennifer half-expects him to do the admonishing third-grade-teacher thing and add, Is it something you’d like to share with the group? But he doesn’t.

“It’s nothing,” Jennifer says, struggling for composure.

“Humble apologies, sensei,” Willow says, head-bowing with prayer hands, and the three women fall into each other, laughing hysterically.



Richard Bader‘s fiction has been (or is about to be) published by the Burningword Literary Journal, SN Review, and National Public Radio. This is his second story for r.kv.ry. He lives and writes in Towson, Maryland.

“Meditations on My Brother’s Winter Coat” by Fran Wolf

Albrecht Durer (My Brother's Winter Coar)
Self-Portrait at Twenty-Eight Years Old Wearing a Coat with Fur Collar by Albrecht Durer circa 1500

I bought my brother Davey a winter coat when he was sober, finishing his long interrupted college degree, and staying on his anti-psychotic medications.  David, I mean. He’s forty-five, not a kid any longer.  He stayed sober and sane for the past six years.  Something changed. A hormone shifted. One of his pills worked too little. Or it worked too much. Some hand of fate loosened its grip, or, grabbed tight, and he was drinking again, calling at 3 a.m., telling me what the feral cats were telling him, fighting with his psychiatrist, fighting with our mother, filling his credit cards with purchases and returns and re-purchases and re-returns of iPads, laptops, and the Oxford English Dictionary, twenty volumes, delivered who knows where. He gave away or threw away or somehow lost his winter coat.

After a stay at detox and then a psychiatric hospital, Davey is living with our mother and reading the copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations that he asked me to get him for Christmas. Written nearly two thousand years ago, Meditations is the thoughts of a Roman Emperor on accepting duty, service and other things, like fate, that I don’t worry about given that I’m busy in the world of law, intellectual property, and money.  Davey’s resigned to circumstances; I make my own life.

“Bad job on the translation,” he says over cheese omelets our mother cooked. He wears a white wool sweater and jeans that are Christmas presents from our mother—from me, since I gave mom the money. Davey’s voice sounds as if he borrowed it from a stranger. He looks unfamiliar; but it’s been three years since I’ve seen him, and I’m tired from the cross-country flight. Davey and I still have the red hair and freckles of my mother’s side of the family. We’re both thin, but at 5’7” I’m taller. He still has that scar from when he was beaten up and too drunk to fight back, but his meds are user-friendly these days, no dead-eyed staring and jerky motions as from the Stelazine and Thorazine. We have my father’s blue eyes, but David’s are sad, as if he’d fallen down a rabbit hole and emerged when he was thirty-nine, not knowing what his life was or where it had been. We had such hopes during these past six years when he finished his B. A. in classical literature and applied for graduate school in education. Hope rose like ghosts from our childhood’s grave.

Optimism comes from my father’s side of the family. So does schizophrenia. Although mom thinks Davey’s bipolar, too.

“All right, I appreciate the gift, it’s just very modern…” Davey says, tapping his index finger on the table.

“That’s bad?” I ask. “Making an obscure book accessible? Maybe you would have preferred it in Latin?”

“Can you go shopping with David for a coat?” Mom intervenes, frowning. Her once crimson hair has faded to cinnamon and grey. Her brown eyes are tired. She butters the orange-currant scones she baked for breakfast. Some patent work on a web-based media, and I had the cash to buy her this two-bedroom condo with its kitchen overlooking the marina. My money can’t resurrect her dream of starting her own restaurant; that died with decades of Davey’s arrests, hospitalizations, medication changes, disappearances, and returns to her doorstep.

Now it’s the morning after Christmas. January promises snow. Davey needs a winter coat to replace the one he lost.

“Sure, I can drive him to the Mall.”

“Can you go shopping with him?” Mom taps her finger on the table as if she and Davey are sharing a bongo drum.

I know what she won’t say while he’s here: you’re his sister; sooner or later, he’ll be your responsibility.


Davey holds the North Valley Mall doors open for a white-haired grandmother hauled by yowling kids.

“After you,” he says and heads for the Mountain Sports’ Menswear section.

He scans the racks of North Face parkas, Columbia rain gear, Coleman all-weather coats, assorted down jackets. He rubs hood ruffs. He tugs at zippers. His hands drop. His nose wrinkles. Wrong color. Seams aren’t tight. Down isn’t waterproof. Too short. Too long.  A raincoat, not a winter coat. A parka, not a snorkel coat.

“Just what kind of coat are we looking for?”

“I’ll know it when I see it.”

We cross the mall to Burton’s Fine Clothes.

“Not here,” he says after a jet-fast scan of the coat racks.

We walk past screaming children and arguing spouses to reach Macy’s.

“No,” says Davey. Half-off signs hang over Women, Petites, Children, and Shoes. Menswear is a full-price wasteland.

“Trust me. Cost is not a worry. Get a coat and if you don’t like it, we can get you another coat.”

I don’t tell Davey of the client who called me at 9:30 a.m. on December 23rd desperate for a three-hour job for some minor software package that couldn’t wait until the 27th. It was four hours before my flight. “That will be $5,000,“ I had said, folding silk shirts and black jeans into my suitcase. He screamed; he cursed; he paid. I went online in the departure terminal, finished the job as the plane cruised over the Rockies, and emailed it to my client during the layover.

Davey scans the racks but stops to pull out a neon orange coat.

“Wrong color,” he mutters. He shoves his hand into the pockets. He checks the lining. He rolls his eyes at the price tag.

A sales clerk rushes over and says, “Happy holidays, how can I be of service?”

“Hello. How are you?” asks David. His words are a second late as if he’s translating from a private language; he waits for a reply. The clerk blinks and looks to me.

“I need this in a different color…” I start to say.

“Alright Joan, thank you, but…” Davey cuts in.

“Our post-holiday stock is on display,” the clerk explains, “We could order it for you.”

Davey puts the coat on the rack. I pull it off.

“Joan, alright, wait a minute!” My brother protests.

“I’m handling this Davey…”

“Call me David…”

The clerk blinks. Out of the corner of my eye I see Davey tapping his finger on the coat rack.

“Can you do a rush order? And do you have tailoring?” I continue.

Davey grabs the coat, shoves it onto the rack, pushes other coats around it, and turns to the clerk, saying,  “Thank you for your help, have a nice day.”

The clerk blinks and walks off.

“Davey, we could have finished this…”

“It’s David…”


“No, it’s David.  That’s my name… not that kid’s name, like I wasn’t…just say David, all right?”

“The coat is what’s important! What were you thinking?”

“C’mon, that guy would’ve wanted shipping, tailoring fees, extra charges for special orders…”

I almost say: that’s how normal people buy coats. Instead, I count to ten. I never believed Mom’s stories of giving Davey $10 for yard sales and having him come home with a Bill Blass robe and The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson. Mom said he once found a leather-bound edition of all of Shakespeare’s plays and talked the owner down to $4.50 and The Hunt for Red October thrown in for good measure. (“He knows I love the thrillers,” Mom said.) Mom said that after Davey’s last binge —after he had been missing from the halfway house; after his photograph had been sent to emergency rooms, morgues and police stations; after he was found by the river — he was vomiting blood and booze onto an Armani jacket, a Goodwill tag stapled to the sleeve, a copy of Gilgamesh in his pocket.

“I’ll cover that.”

“But where’s the deal?”

“David, how many stores do we have to go to? There are other things I could be doing. There are even other things you could be doing. And there’s no better deal than a free coat. So let’s just get a coat, okay?”

Davey stares, as if he’s going to say something, but walks off. Maybe he counts to ten, too. We return to our car. We drive to the Woodland Mall. We are silent. We park, pass a labyrinth of cars to reach the elevator, and go to Mervyn’s on the 4th floor, Target on the 3rd floor, T.J. Maxx on the main floor, and the Men’s Warehouse in the annex. We find trench coats, Jefferson coats, snorkel coats, and leather coats. We find parkas and intricate poly-pro layering systems that fit under all-weather shells. We find coats that are tan or black, not navy blue, or that have fake fur ruffs not real rabbit fur, or that don’t reach past the hips, or that reach the knees, or that have no drawstring to cinch the waist.

We drive to the Central Valley Mall, Davey staring out the window, his nicotine-stained fingers on Meditations. We have a fight at REI.

“Did you take your meds this morning?”

“All right, what are you, my caseworker?”

“It’s been eight stores, Davey, maybe that’s who you should have gone shopping with…”

“All right, I appreciate the help, your driving and all, but call me David!”

“Well, thank God for my help,” I yell. Shoppers stare. I lower my voice. “We’ve only been driving all day…”

“All right, we need boundaries, this is my coat not yours, ” my brother declares.

“Do you always sound like you’re in therapy?”

He winces. I wince. Of course he always sounds like he’s in therapy. That’s where he is when he’s sober. Therapy. AA. College classes. That’s his life.


“Do you need me at Bargain Coats & More?”

“No. Why don’t you get some coffee?”

When all is lost, you can always find a Starbucks, and we do.

“It’s on me,” he says.

“I can get it.”

“Yeah, you told me, but I have money too. Cuppa joe,” he calls to the barrista.

He rummages through his jeans, pulls out a wad of dollars in a money clip, closes his eyes and says: “He does only what is his to do, and considers constantly what the world has in store for him—doing his best, and trusting that all is for the best. For we carry our fate with us—and it carries us.

“Davey —David,” I say, holding up my hand. “Your meds, you did take them, right?“

“Relax, it’s from the Meditations. Duty and opportunity. Marcus Aurelius is famous for that.”

“Sounds like a fun guy.”

“He’s expressing the Stoic philosophy. Life is rational, nature acts for the best, and the worst can be endured for the better. You should read it,” my brother says, handing over my coffee. “Just my way of saying, all right, I’m not teaching like I wanted, but I get man-around-the-house, fix-it jobs from mom’s friends.”

After David leaves, I get a double tall Americano. There was no need to embarrass him by correcting his order. Sitting at a tiny table, scanning my Kindle, I can’t remember many times when I was nice to David. It’s hard to think of that now when I remember his courtesy to store clerks and grandmothers. I don’t like remembering how we had read the Wrinkle In Time series together, and the Lord of the Rings, and how David had written to J.R.R. Tolkien for a dictionary to learn the Elf language. I don’t like remembering the summer Saturday nights we’d haul our beaten up kid’s telescope onto the back porch, David telling me the myths of Lyra and Orion and Cassiopeia, me searching for new meteors, new comets, new stars, mom chasing us back indoors right at midnight. I don’t like remembering just before I was sixteen, and David was seventeen.  The year it began.  When David would laugh and shriek through the night. When, for him, a chair became an oracle, and a can of beef barley soup became filled with worms.

I found my calico cat with her blood soaking into the back yard’s dirt, her skull smashed in, bits of her brain stuck to a red brick. I screamed for my mother.

“An accident,” she said. She was crying. “What else could it be?”

I knew then how it was going to be. I gave away my gerbils. I didn’t ask for permission before finding a new home for Mr. Charles Ames, our schnauzer. Meanwhile, Mom kept a steady stream of psychiatrists, therapists, faith healers, naturopaths, and acupuncturists flowing through our home.

I remember when I first saw David in the hospital.

“He didn’t mean it,” my mother kept saying.

David was sweat-soaked and turned away from the other patients: those without belts in their pants or laces in their shoes. My parents accompanied me, but I was alone—alone with the memories of the police arriving, of the ball-peen hammer David had used to pound demons out of my sleeping mother—didn’t that prove David loved us, and we loved him, he was trying to save my mother from demons—of my father throwing David to the ground, of my mother shaking and crying, of bruises on her arms and blood on her face, of screams. The neighbors said the screams were mine.

At the hospital, I remember David sat staring at a wall.

“Speak, friend, and enter,” I had said saying the words used to open the dwarves’ lair in The Fellowship of the Ring.

“Go away,” David told the wall.

I did. I asked David’s psychiatrists if I’d become like him. Back then, the psychiatrists were Freudians , so they blamed the mother, or Laingians, so they blamed the mother, the father, the sisters, and brothers. Then they said it was genetic, so they blamed the parents’ families.  Now they say it’s genetic with an environmental trigger, like drug use or trauma, nothing I could do anything about. So I did what I could. I worked as a library aide after school and a babysitter on weekends. I had dinner at friends’ houses where no one screamed, no one talked about medications, and it was safe to have knives at the table. I studied, earned scholarships, went across the country to college, found summer jobs away from home, and only came back at Christmas. I accompanied my mother as she brought coffee, sandwiches, and books to David when he lived at the halfway house, the treatment center, the hospital. I went to law school and became rich. David came of age and lived on the street.

Now our father is dead. Our mother is old. What will happen when I’m the only one to look after David?


David taps me on the shoulder. “No luck at the so-called bargain store.”

I tap my watch. Time’s gone; all I’ve done is remember things I can’t change.

We walk to the car. David hunches in the back seat sending plumes of smoke into the twilight air. David loved holding my gerbils in his now gnarled hands. He loved petting Mr. Charles Ames until the dog licked his nose in a frenzy of gratitude. He loved being my big brother, the one who kept my secrets, the one I trusted.

“Still reading Aurelius?”

“Yeah,” he is quick to respond, “listen to this: Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity…”

“That’s quite a list,” I laugh.

“… prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all the other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself?”

“You believe that?”

“On my better days, yeah,” he replies. “At least, I hope so.”

I cannot love David. Perhaps something else is possible. I don’t know what.

“That’s not the way to Mom’s,” David calls out.

“I’m taking an alternate route,” I say. “Humor me.”


We see a strip mall where we stop, walk into Martin’s Menswear, and David sees his coat.

“All right. There it is. And in my size.”

I grab the coat off the hanger.

David grabs it back. He stuffs it between two other coats, saying  “I saw a 20% off coupon in the Bay Guardian.”

I count to twenty. I imagine ripping the coat to threads. I count to ten. This is all David has. The delusions, the hallucinations, maybe even the drinking are held in a delicate biochemical balance he can’t control. Finding the deal is still his.

“All right,” I sigh. “We’ll do it your way.”

We traverse the mall in search of a Starbucks with a Bay Guardian. We drive to the next strip mall, find a shoppers’ kiosk with a Bay Guardian, drive back to Martins Menswear, get our feet in the door and the coat off the rack and past the cashier with ten minutes to closing. David wears the coat as we walk out of the store.

Stars beam in the blue-purple night. I’ve seen that color in crocus bursting above ground in an offbeat blast of January sunlight. They can’t last. But there they are. Like the hope I had during the past six years of David’s sane, sober life. I want the hope. I want the hope because I want my brother back.

David beams. He stretches his arms. The navy blue coat seems to merge with the darkness. Cuffed sleeves notch over his wrists. A fur hood surrounds his face. The pockets are deep enough for books, a sandwich, a thermos of coffee, a bottle of rum. The coat is a den of warmth for a college student waiting for buses. The coat is a home a homeless man could carry on his back should David return to the streets. Perhaps not for months. Or years. Perhaps never. Perhaps tomorrow.


Fran Wolf writes stories she’s learned from living life as a paralegal, waitress, library aide, community organizer, phone solicitor for charities, and all too many other jobs. “Meditations on My Brother’s Winter Coat” is her first published story. You can reach her at: franwolf1117@gmail.com

“Cells of Solitude” by Alexa Mergen

blue-and-green-music-(Cells of Solitude)
Blue and Green Music by Georgia O’Keeffe, circa 1919

Rain. Each drop a finger tap on the roof, gutters gurgling. When the sun reemerges, northern California will green up like a piece of bread in a damp bag. To replicate an island’s edge, I’ll sleep in my car beside the cold ocean north of San Francisco behind a curtain of wind.

1. A woman with an English degree, I taught school, roping young people like calves into the corral of literature to discuss the human condition. Coaxing them to think, write. But a good teacher labors all the time, without the space of hours an artist needs to walk the open fen of creative thought. My stories’ characters stayed stuck mutely in scenes, the next line of dialogue impatient to be transcribed.

2. A photo of Georgia O’Keeffe’s classroom shows assignments hung on the wall, easels in rows. O’Keeffe taught school and painted until she could not sustain both, then chose painting. She tossed out, she said, everything she had learned to depict what she saw in a way that others might see anew. About flowers, shells, rocks and bones, she wrote, “I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.”

3. On colorful walls and in plexiglass cases at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), collages, paintings, and sculptures of self-taught artists reveal the depth of the well of creative enthusiasm: a ship glued from popsicle sticks; tiny scenes of prison life stitched from embroidery thread. AVAM proclaims: “Visionary art begins by listening to the inner voices of the soul, and often may not even be thought of as ‘art’ by its creator.”

4. At the men’s maximum-security prison near my home, the incantatory power of sound erases snow fences of race and gender. The inmates and I share each others’ poems and those of favorites, like Mary Oliver: “maybe just looking and listening/is the real work./Maybe the world, without us,/is the real poem.”

5. Artists’ work holds a heart before we know their biographies. When I fell into Jean Toomer’s “I Sit in My Room” I assumed the poet, like me, was a white woman. I hope he, whose father was born into slavery, forgives my laughable error. The poem whispers to any soul seeking to understand through a pen.

I sit in my room.
The thick adobe walls
Are transparent to mountains,
The mountains move in;
I sit among mountains.

I, who am no more,
Having lost myself to let the world in,
This world of black and bronze mesas
Canyoned by rivers from the higher hills.
I am the hills,
I am the mountains and the dark trees thereon;
I am the storm,
I am the day and all revealed,
Blue without boundary,
Bright without limit
Selfless at this entrance to the universe.

6. Through Yale University’s Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities, you can view online two pages from Toomer’s journals. The simple notebook with lined pages resembles the kind the inmates and I use, purchased for a dollar or less. People are logging thoughts, each phrase a beam in a cathedral never to be completed.

7. With journals as portable studios, we make things and make up things. We strive to make up to the world for our limits, each new creation–poem or painting–another hat tossed into the ring of the attempt to understand the depth and breadth of the human condition.

8. By studying what happens when the sound of a jet disrupts their chorus, biologists learned that the songs of spade foot frogs form a musical camouflage that protects them from predators.

9. Each person’s poem or picture enters a biophony of interrelated soundscape across time and space, like Yeats’ song of Innisfree: “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,/Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;/There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,/And evening full of the linnet’s wings.”

10. Art is our ant farm, our honeycomb, labyrinth, the anthology of infinite pages; each poem is a rain drop on its way to an ocean.



Alexa Mergen edits the blogs Day Poems and Yoga Stanza. Her poem “Distance,” published in Solo Novo, was a clmp Taste Test selection. Alexa’s most recent chapbook is Three Weeks Before Summer; and a full-length poetry collection is forthcoming from Salmon in 2015. For a full list of published essays, poems and short stories, please visit alexamergen.com.

Read an interview with Alexa here.