“A Small Wooden Box” by D. G. Lasek

Image by Cole Rise, used with permission.

The eleven o’clock news goes to commercial. I look down at the empty juice glass by my foot. A single ruby droplet at the bottom takes on a warm glow from the lamp that burns in the opposite corner of the living room. I pick up the glass, bring it to my lips, and toss my head back like a grizzled cowhand in Bonanza taking a shot of whiskey. Some sandy sediment clings to my front teeth while the tiny droplet trickles down my throat, barely noticeable.

I stand up with a grunt and mosey from the living room, leaving my father sitting in front of the TV. The sound of a Jetta commercial fades to a dull blur as I round the corner. I push through the heavy swinging door that separates the living room from the kitchen.

The empty bottle stands on the counter next to the sink. Fresh droplets of water run down the inside of the green glass in rivulets. My mother has beaten me to it. Saturday is recycling day in my New Jersey hometown. I should have known that my mother, who has just gone to bed, would have swept through the house, confiscating every stray bottle, can, and newspaper.

I sigh with disappointment and relief. Then I cross the kitchen and place my glass in the sink. As I turn away to head for the bathroom, something catches my eye. It’s a bottle of Jim Beam Black, half hidden in the corner behind the Mr. Coffee. An inch of liquor lingers at the bottom of the bottle.

I snatch the bottle from its hiding place and set it on the counter in front of me. There really is only a little bit left. Barely a shot. I rescue my glass from the sink and pour the last of the Beam. What’s another ounce or two of bourbon on top of five ounces of wine? That makes one more bottle for recycling. Call it my good deed for the day.

With juice glass in hand, I sally back into the living room. My father hasn’t moved from the rocking chair. As I make my way to my spot on the couch, I hold the glass down toward my knee. He doesn’t look away from the TV. I drop onto the couch and place the glass on the end table next to me, hidden from view by the base of a lamp.

The news comes back on. Kim Jong Un has traded missiles for tractors. There’s been a shooting in the Bronx. A man ran down a mother and her twin daughters in a crosswalk in Passaic and fled the scene. They close with a happy story. An elderly couple whose son died from addiction donated a Christmas tree to Trenton City Hall in their son’s memory. The smiling newscasters wish us a good night from everyone at Channel 5, then the room falls silent for a moment before another Jetta commercial blares forth.

In that moment of silence, I realize that my father and I are alone.

“So how are things with you?” he asks.

“Pretty good. No complaints.”

“That’s good.”

With one sly hand I take the glass from its strategic location behind the lamp base and down the whiskey in one swallow. I set the glass back down as swiftly as I picked it up, being careful that it doesn’t clatter against the plastic coaster. As before, my father’s eyes don’t leave the TV. We don’t talk about his recent trips to the hospital, my uncertainty about my recent decision to attend graduate school, or about the lovely young woman I’m dating. We’ve never talked about any of that before, and we don’t talk about it now.

Drums rumble, horns blare, and the audience roars as Craig Ferguson takes the stage. A warm sensation envelopes my stomach, like a hug from inside. It skips my chest and rolls up my neck, its fingers massaging my cheeks. My dad and I laugh together at jokes about Sir Paul McCartney’s uncanny resemblance to Queen Elizabeth. I feel good. This is probably the perfect place to stop. Even if the ice between my father and I hasn’t entirely broken, it has at least melted, and I don’t show any of the outward signs of intoxication. I could go to bed tonight and actually rest, wake up in the morning, and not wish I hadn’t.

I no longer follow what’s happening on TV. Instead I laugh when my father laughs and watch Ferguson’s lips, hoping each punchline, the end of each skit will herald the next commercial break.

Ferguson says he’ll be right back. I say the same and make a big show of getting off the couch, as though I’d rather not. I walk quickly—but not too quickly—into the kitchen, where I have to think on my feet. The wine and the whiskey are spent. A brief moment of panic grips me as I wonder if I’ll have to go to bed half lit, having failed at both staying sober and getting drunk. Then I remember.

I flick on the small light over the counter and open the cabinet under the sink. There it stands: my mother’s bottle of Bacardi Gold, untouched since my last visit. She won’t miss a drop or two. I take the bottle out and put it on the counter, making sure my father can hear. Conspicuousness removes suspicion. I fill my glass halfway with rum and replace the bottle under the sink. As I head back toward the living room, I take a healthy sip off the top to give the impression that I had only poured an ounce or two in the first place.

This time, as I reenter the living room my father steals a glance at the glass in my hand without turning his head. His glance stings. My face turns redder than it already was. But my father can’t say a thing about the glass or its contents. He knows it, and I know it. So he doesn’t.

By the time I reach the couch, I’ve forgotten my momentary embarrassment. I set my glass down on the coffee table in front of me, then I start to talk. I talk about music, about how I need a new turntable because I’ve been into the oldies lately and the only way to hear those mono recordings is on vinyl and my turntable is pretty old and I’m afraid it’s going to damage the records.

For a while, my dad nods but says nothing. Then, without looking over, he offers some sage advice on the virtues of belt-drive over direct-drive turntables. After all, when he and my mother were first married, no one was interested in television. Everyone invested in audio equipment. There were entire stores and magazines and catalogs and…

Really? I ask. Tell me more, more, more.

This is fun. I take a sip of rum here, a sip of rum there. I interrupt him to declare that Black Sabbath and the MC5 are the pinnacle of rock and roll and did he know that bands nowadays buy the old Orange amplifiers to try to emulate that sound and isn’t it absurd that artists today release albums on vinyl that were digitally recorded. My brain is on the express track, but I speak with calculated nonchalance, articulating each word so I don’t mess up a good thing with the odd slur.

My dad starts telling a story about a guy he knew in college who was a freak for all kinds of vintage guitar equipment. I’m not listening. Instead, I’m picturing my dad in college, young, mustachioed, full of life. My mother would have been back in their hometown—where we’re sitting right now—waiting for him to graduate so they could marry. My dad hadn’t yet faced the commitment that would prove to be too much pressure for him. Kicking back in a dorm room in the protective isolation of Glassboro, sucking down one Budweiser after another, he was an eighteen-year-old kid who had no idea he was about to ruin his life and that of his future wife, and very nearly the lives of his three unborn sons. What would he have done if he had known? Would he have acted differently?

I’m sure I don’t know, but as I drain the last of the rum from my glass, I do know that I pity this version of my father. Things got away from him. They get away from everyone now and then. Maybe it was the distance in those early days, the one-hundred-and-ten-mile stretch of I-95 that separated him from my mother.

It’s time for a refill.

I stagger to my feet and head for the kitchen, where I take a detour to the bathroom. My parents’ house doesn’t have one on the first floor, so I go down to the basement.

Once down there, I feel my way through the dark toward the tiny bathroom-closet next to the washroom. I tug on the pull chain that dangles from the ceiling and turn to face my reflection in the mirror. In the dim glow of the globe light, my eyes look swollen and half closed. For a fraction of a second, the smoke in my mind clears and a single thought sears through my brain, as sharp and clear as an icicle that catches the sun.

I’m loaded.

For a moment I have the distinct urge to put my fist through the mirror, to smash that image of myself, but I don’t. The lucidity fades as quickly as it came. I do what I came to do, then I wash my hands without looking up. I kill the light and head back across the dark basement toward the stairs. Walking around down here in the dark usually gives me chills, but tonight I take my time, winding my way across the floor, climbing the stairs one at a time without skipping any.

Back in the kitchen, I head to the counter, where the white Formica seems harsher than usual under the pale overhead light. I fish around in the cabinet, shoving the bottle of Bacardi out of the way. If any more of the rum goes missing, my mother will notice, and I’ve never been stupid enough to try to replace Bacardi with Lipton. I start to think I’m off the hook when my hand brushes something cold at the back of the cabinet. I pull it out. It’s an old bottle of cooking sherry, untouched for God knows how long. Joy and disgust wrestle in the pit of my stomach, and for a second I’m afraid I’ll have to make a beeline back to the bathroom. But it passes, and I fill my glass.

A voice inside my head that I recognize as sober Me screams: I don’t want this!

The other Me, who has emerged from his rock and now stands boldly out in the open, replies in his calm and steady voice: Yes, you do.

My head spins. At that moment, it’s a wonder to me that my father can’t hear every word of this argument from the next room.

I grab hold of the counter, and the voices fade. I tell myself that it’s okay, that this is a quarter of what I used to drink on any given Friday in college, that I’m an adult, that I have the right to relax and have a couple of drinks at night, that there’s nothing unusual about it.

The next thing I know, I’m back on the sofa. I don’t feel good anymore. My glass is in front of me, filled almost to the brim with wine that isn’t the color of any wine I’ve seen before. It’s brown, dirty. I start to speak again, even more carefully than before. I am aware, in a vague way, that I’m saying something about what I’d like to do after graduate school, but I focus all of my mental energy on sounding normal. The way I enunciate each vowel probably makes me look like an actor in a silent film, my lips forming each O and E with slow deliberation.

Once again, my father doesn’t appear to notice. Rather than confront me, he seizes the opportunity to reflect on his own career, the career from which he only recently retired but which has been dead in the water for well over a decade. As he drones on about the intricacies of pharmaceutical advertising, I widen my eyes, trying to make them look like normal eyes, to open them all the way and chase away the puffiness I saw in the bathroom mirror. I feel like an owl. Then I do something that I haven’t done all evening, all year, or maybe ever.

I look at my father.

Though he’s stone-cold sober, he looks worse than I do: the bags under his eyes, the ashen skin, the distended belly. There’s nothing he can do about it just now, because his symptoms didn’t appear just now. They are the promise of many years.

I take a sip of dirty wine and watch my father as he talks about big-time marketing campaigns from thirty years ago, about his cutting-edge mentoring strategies. He tells a story about how he once instructed a nervous young employee to write her problem down on an index card and put it into a small wooden box he kept on his desk. By doing so, the employee took her problem and made it his problem. Lo and behold, the girl relaxed, her subconscious went to work, and presto! By the time she arrived at work the next morning, she had solved her problem all on her own, and she thanked my father for his wisdom.

Unlike that doe-eyed employee, my father had a problem that wouldn’t fit in his small wooden box. My parents won’t come out and say why my father has been to the hospital so many times in the last few weeks, but they don’t have to, because I know.

He’s dying.

He’s dying from the inside out, from too many years of refusing to look his problems in the face. He hasn’t had a drink in decades, but the damage is done. His liver gives out a little more each day, and all he can do is sit and reminisce about the time his small wooden box worked for someone else.

My father’s words grow more emphatic as he plunges further down memory lane. He stares at the TV, unseeing, while he gestures with his hands and rattles on about the ruthlessness of corporate life. I realize that I am listening to the words of a man who looks back on his life in the way that someone else might look at an exhibit in a museum: as a foregone conclusion, something dead and preserved with no stake in the future. As I watch his vision of the past play out behind his glassy eyes, it becomes clear that my father is no longer talking to me. He’s forgotten that I’m even in the room, just like he forgot about my mother and two brothers during his days of corporate glory and, later, his nights of debauchery in seedy, bucket-of-blood bars.

This makes me want to scream. His problem is not behind him. It’s eating him alive. It’s eating me alive, too. My father’s problem rushes through my veins faster than the alcohol I’ve consumed tonight. Unlike the alcohol, it does not go away in the morning. It does not stay away during my periods of sobriety, no matter how long they last. It only rushes faster.

I knock back the last of the sherry.

Why won’t he look at me?

Because I’m a young guy who is still exploring his relationship with booze. Because I’ve got dreams and ambitions, I’ve got a nice girlfriend, and I’ve got time to sort it all out. Because I’m a manifestation of the problem he’s worked so hard to lock away in his small wooden box.

Only trouble is, I don’t quite fit.

My father stops talking. The room grows quiet except for the chatter of the TV. We’ve been reduced to watching reruns of American Ninja Warrior. My father looks at his watch.

“Well, I’ve chewed your ear off long enough,” he says. “It’s getting late.”

“What time is it?” I ask.

“Quarter to three.”

“Geez, it is late.”

I get up and walk to the kitchen one last time, feeling unsteady on my feet. It’s time for the usual charade of sneaking up to bed, hoping that each creak of the stairs won’t wake my mother.

After a minute or two spent leaning on the counter, staring into space, I fill my glass with lukewarm tap water and drain it in one gulp. I tell myself that the liquor has been watered down, that I won’t feel it in the morning.

Fat chance, I think as I place my glass in the sink and switch off the overhead light.

Nothing’s free.


D.G. Lasek, originally from New Jersey, now lives with his wife in Massachusetts where he teaches English as a second language. His fiction is forthcoming in Corner Bar Magazine, and his children’s fiction has appeared in Bumples Magazine.

“Perfume and Pearls” by Michael Olenick

Image by Cole Rise, used with permission.

Lina could not take Jake to England to get him set up at university, so I went instead. While away I bought gifts to convince myself I was returning to home as it had always been. Spending money for no reason is what you do when you’re on vacation, so I thought if I did that, it would mean I was vacationing (as opposed to deserting my wife to help my son). Kind of like dressing for summer to encourage warmer weather while knowing the next season was winter.

I always bought a duty-free bottle of O de Lancôme because, if my other gifts were not up to par, at least I had gotten one right. That was her perfume and I was grateful I no longer had to remember Chanel numbers. But it turned out that had stopped being her favorite years ago while I wasn’t paying attention. And what the hell was she going to do with perfume anyway? The pretty green and white box sits unopened on a basement shelf.

But the earrings, oh the earrings, I was right about those. She still liked pearls and she put them on each morning and removed them each evening, even if there wasn’t much else she could do that day. At least until the 3 A.M. when she took one with water, mistaking it for one of the bedside pills whose purpose was to make her feel that she could still be cured.

Was ingesting an earring reason to put her through another trip to the hospital? We had made enough trips already, and the act of getting off the couch, let alone up and down the stairs, was torture to everyone involved. But research was done, and although the search results mostly had to do with toddlers, this type of earring just passed right through. I think that was our last shared moment of gratitude. You were terminally ill but at least your esophagus would be spared perforation by an open clasp; your intestines would not be destroyed by an MRI sucking metal out of you.

But you were back in the hospital soon after, and I’d like to think the pearl ended up as a nurse’s reward for tending to the needs of my now infant wife.


Michael Olenick lives in Brooklyn with his daughter, son, and wife’s ashes. He had a promising start with a story appearing in Journeys: Prose by Children of the English-Speaking World when he was ten and then put writing aside to focus on the usual sensible adult things. Since his wife’s death, his inner English major has awakened, and he has started writing again as a way to forget and not to forget. His poems have recently appeared in Euphony Journal and Offcourse Literary Journal.

“Him and Me” by John Vanderslice

Image by Cole Rise, used with permission.

“Why are you always so cynical?”

It’s a surprising accusation, flying up as if out of nowhere, as I drive him down the highway to his weekly viola lesson. Surprising because, well, first of all we weren’t having that kind of conversation, but mostly surprising because this accusation is coming from him—him—who acted like a hard-boiled forty-year-old at age twelve and at least a decade older than that at fifteen. Nothing but straight blackness out of his mouth then; nothing but the same color in his wardrobe. Hair dyed so dark a brown it might as well have been pitch. Black socks; black Vans, black wristbands. The dark sounds of screamo shouting at him through his ear buds. You get the picture. Thankfully, he’s started—started—to come out of all that over the last two years. But, still, I’m the cynical one?

I’ve always thought of myself as naïve, bordering on ridiculous. The kind of person who dares think well of people, almost always thinks well of people, until they prove otherwise; and sometimes even after they prove otherwise. A mid-Atlantic bred, lapsed Catholic, twenty-to-twenty-first century Akaky Akakyevich; the kind of guy who stumbles his way through life and keeps to his self-styled recreations, while the world keeps after its own, only vaguely aware that behind his back—and sometimes to his face—he is being ridiculed. And when aware of it, not sure what to do about it. The kind of guy who, at age 22 or 23, did not appear to be on any kind of track that might lead to marriage, home, family; to say nothing of gainful employment. You get the picture. Except that through a minor romantic miracle, occurring on or about the month of March in the Year of our Lord 1997, I found my way to all those things, and way sooner than anyone had a right to expect.

Thirty years ago, when I was a junior in high school, as he is now, I carried around inside me a global, uninterrupted sense of all that there was in the world I didn’t understand. Most problematically, people. People I understood the least. I felt like barely a person myself then. I could not have explained myself to myself. So how could I explain all these other people around me: in my high school, in my neighborhood, in my life? Where did they get their strange notions? What brought on their compulsive behaviors, their destructive alliances, their ugly decisions, their pointless risks? Where they did they get all their bizarre, dark-worldly knowledge? What kinds of homes must they have grown up in to become these kinds of people, to earn that sort of knowledge? Homes not like mine, that’s for sure.

“What do you mean?” I say.

“All you do is gripe about people.”  He’s staring out the windshield at the road ahead, as if it might disappear entirely without his help. His cell phone is in his hand, but he’s not looking at it. He’s not looking at it. Normally, that’s all he does in these car rides.

“I don’t gripe about people.”

He laughs. Not a real laugh. It’s not a real laugh. “Are you kidding?  You gripe about me constantly.”

Do I?  Is that what he thinks?  How could he?  I make suggestions to him, sure. I admit. Sometimes strong suggestions. But, honestly, with him and me it’s like Akaky Akakyevich taking on the Kremlin; or, rather, a tepid stream of water lapping against a brick wall: the limited force taking on the immovable object. I can’t bring him down in one fell swoop, so I try to brush up against him regularly, at sustained intervals, trusting that eventually I’ll break through a barrier. That’s not griping; that’s love in daily maintenances.

“You tell me I don’t dress right. You tell me I don’t eat right. You complain about my room. You tell me I need to try listening to this kind of music—because it’s your kind of music—though you don’t ever listen to my kind of music. You were especially bad a couple years ago. It’s better now that I’m listening to more classical, but a couple years ago all you did was make fun of it.”

I did?  My recollection from a couple of years ago is that at all times I was desperately trying—and trying successfully, let me say—not to express how dearly I hated his screamo. Even though I did hate it. I hated it so very much. He never fathomed the depths of my hate for it, because, as I saw it, I held back the storm. Heck, didn’t I buy him a couple CDs one time?

I choose my words carefully. “Well, you know, those are classic complaints that parents bring up with their kids. All parents. The music. The food. The room. It’s like in the rule book.”

He frowns but says nothing. He isn’t giving me that out.

“Hey,” I say, “you’re lucky I didn’t bitch about your friends.”

“You did bitch about my friends.”

“When?  When did I do that?”

Dad.”  He turns to me, his face caught in an expression mid-way between exasperation, befuddlement, and disgust. His mouth is hanging open, but he’s not able to push out any words.

“Which of your friends did I complain about?”

“C’mon, Sutton Parrish?  Ryan Turpen?”

“I liked Ryan.”

“You said his family was like holdover hominids from the Stone Age. You said they reminded you of nomadic peoples hunkering down in the caves of Northern Europe 20,000 years ago. Except, you said, they weren’t good enough to paint horses on the walls so the tribe would have kicked them outside to go hunt woolly mammoths.

“I never said—”

“But, you said, they were so stupid they would have ended up squashed to death beneath a big, hairy foot.”

“Did I really say all that?”


I consider this for a moment. I think: That was pretty clever of me.

“Well,” I say, “they were fairly primitive.”

 He raises his hands to the sky.

 “But I never disliked Ryan. And you have to admit that Sutton Parrish was a washout.”

“Sutton’s father was in jail. Their family was having a really hard time of it then.”

“I guess.”

“No. No guess, Dad. They were.”

“Is he still in school?”

“He’s not even in the state. They moved to Texas like a year ago.”


“I’m pretty sure I told you that.”

“Maybe you did.”

“I did,” he says.

I drive. He stares. He squints. I drive.

“Okay, so I’m sorry for being kind of rough on Sutton and Ryan. But the other stuff—the food, the room—isn’t that all true?  Are you going to tell me your room doesn’t look like a war zone?”

 “But you are always going on about it; like it’s all you can think about. Like your life can’t be right if my room isn’t the way you want it.”

“But your room is really sloppy. I mean really, really sloppy.”

“See?” he says. “See?”

He’s pushing back now on his seat, his neck straining, his right leg pressing forward, as if imitating a braking motion. Except that traffic on the highway is moving normally. The closest car is several lengths in front of us. And he hasn’t even learned to drive yet. Why is he doing the braking thing?

“See what?” I say. I’m looking with double attention at the road, wondering what I’m missing.

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about. And, no, other parents don’t go griping after their kids all the time.”

“They do too,” I say. Then: “Sometimes.”

“Dad, I know other kids. I go to school with other kids. I know other kids’ parents. They’re not always griping to them about their rooms. Or how they eat.”

“Well, maybe those kids are willing to taste a vegetable once in a while; maybe those kids clean their rooms.”  If he’s thinking of his girlfriend and her parents, I happen to know that she does eat vegetables—plenty of them—including broccoli—also that she keeps her room hypo-allergenically clean. Her room is probably cleaner any four hospital rooms combined. I know her parents. They told me.

“See?” he says, his neck straining again, his leg braking once more. “Don’t you see?”

“What?” I say. I check the road again. “See what?”

“Sometimes, I think—I really think this—I think that for you guys being parents is like purely an administrative duty or something. Something you have to do, like taking out the trash, doing your taxes. Something to get out of the way. Something you have to do, but you’d really rather not do it; you’d really rather wish you could be let off the hook.”

Good lord.

“Is that how you feel?” I say. I’m not even trying to keep the hurt and exasperation out of my voice now.

Is that how he feels?

“I mean,” I say, “is that how I seem to you?  What makes you say that?”

He turns his face, looks out the side window for several moments, as if studying the trees in the distance for some school-enforced botanical survey.

“I’m not sure I should answer,” he says.

“But I’m asking you.”

“That doesn’t mean you want an answer.”

“What do you mean?  If I ask you, I want an answer.”

“You might want an answer, but it doesn’t mean you want a real answer.”

I chew on this for a bit. Can it be true? And, if yes, what does it mean? I mean, what does it mean for the entirety of our relationship, the seventeen-year living history between him and me? Have I been existing inside a bubble of illusion all this time? Some phony, happy idea of what I was—or at least could be—as a father, and he was as a son? How long had he been holding back? And what did it mean for us now or going forward? What would it mean next month? Next year? Eight years from now? If he’s finally lost his patience and proceeds to cut, what will that new reality look like? What will I be?

I hold my breath. I watch the road roll past beneath the burden of my car. “I have a feeling there’s something you want to say to me,” I say. “Maybe you should just go ahead and say it.” He stays silent. He doesn’t look at me or out the window anymore. Just ahead, at what is coming. I see something like worry—but not actual worry—pass across his eyes. “I’m a big boy,” I say. “I can take it.”  Then: “I should take it.”

He breathes a sigh through his nose, his heavy lovely cheeks sag—as a baby, even as a six-year-old, he had the chunkiest cheeks you’d ever seen, and there’s still, even as a teenager, a residue of that fleshiness in his face. His head dips the tiniest human measure. He still doesn’t look at me, yet I feel him looking at me.

“That’s okay,” he says. “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”

That’s probably exactly what I would have said to my own father, at his age, in this situation, in a closed automobile, driving at highway speeds. That is, if the man had ever begged me for the truth—which he never did. And never would have. But that’s exactly what I would have said. Because I would have known the truth and would not have wanted to hurt him with it. To unsettle him. To unseat him. To break apart his precious, heart-beholden delusions. I think to tell him this, as he sits there next to me, frowning at the windshield. I should tell him. I should say it: That’s exactly what I would have said to my own dad at your age. But I don’t. I don’t say it. I keep driving and, finally, eventually, he begins looking at his phone. I like to hope he understood, he understands.


John Vanderslice teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Central Arkansas. His stories, poems, essays, and plays have been widely published, including in such journals as Sou’wester, South 85, Laurel Review, Crazyhorse, and The Pinch. In recent years, he has published two books: Island Fog (Lavender Ink, 2014), a linked story collection, and The Last Days of Oscar Wilde (Burlesque Press, 2018), a historical novel.

“There Isn’t Any More” by Kim Shegog

Image by Cole Rise

Hazel helped her husband Bill into his suit coat, leveling the shoulders with heavy hands. With her face turned from him, she slid his silver cigarette case into the breast pocket. Her eyes, the color of fresh mud he’d once told her, were weak. She feared they’d tear up or glaze over—they’d expose her.

“Now don’t you spend all day fiddling around with those snowball bushes,” Bill said. “I need you to have the basement ready for the O’Dells to come by and look at. They’re coming first thing tomorrow morning. Remember, I have to visit the bank to sign the rest of the papers for the house, then the insurance agency, and then back to the office.” 

Hazel nodded and offered her right cheek to Bill for a kiss, which he failed to notice. He’d occupied himself with verifying the location of his cigarette case, wallet, and car key. The screen squealed as it opened to release Bill and again as it returned to its place. Hazel shut the oak door and made her way to the kitchen to clean up the breakfast dishes.

It was day three in the new house. After five years of living in White’s boarding house, Bill had saved enough money to put a down payment on a two-story home. He had a nice office job at the furniture company that had opened several years ago, and Hazel had contributed a little money to their cause by selling her needlepoint pillows at church bazaars. She was quite talented at stitching birds. She blushed when the ladies told her they could hear sad coos released from her mourning doves.

Bill had decided to take in boarders since the new house had a full basement. With the added income, he could pay off the mortgage earlier. Hazel liked the idea of giving a young couple the option of living somewhere besides Mrs. White’s boarding house, which really was just a single-story box filled to the brim with whining cats. Earlier that morning while preparing the coffee, Hazel believed she’d seen the fat calico jump from the potato bin onto the kitchen counter, yet when she turned around, the cat was not there. 

The basement was large enough for a kitchenette and a bathroom, and Bill had a plumber coming next week to help set everything up. In the meantime, he’d instructed Hazel to tidy things downstairs as best as she could. There was a wrought-iron bed already in place. All Hazel needed to do was wipe the dust off of it and put on a set of sheets and a quilt. She was supposed to move their night table downstairs, too, since Bill was getting a new one for them at a good price through his company. She was to wash the basement’s windows, both inside and outside, as well. The window washing had been her idea. She wanted the O’Dells to notice how the sunlight would brighten up the whole basement. Somehow, it made the concrete walls look pretty.

Hazel placed her dishtowel over the sink and walked into the living room. It was almost time for her favorite soap opera, “Our Gal Sunday.” If she turned the volume all the way to the right, she would just be able to hear it while she worked in the basement. 

Yes, folks I said Anacin. That is spelled A-N-A-C-I-N.  You will be delighted with the results.

The radio had been a wedding gift from her brothers and sisters. All eight had chipped in, some more than others she was certain, to buy the newlyweds the radio. When it was delivered to the boarding house, Mrs. White allowed the men to set it in her kitchen. The noise would be a bother, she said, but she would just suffer it so the couple wouldn’t find themselves even more cramped in their bedroom. After about a month, Hazel told Bill the only time she got to choose a radio program was when Mrs. White took her bath on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Bill didn’t seem to care. He’d said the radio was a nuisance and an impractical gift for a young couple with no home of their own and no money to speak of.

Practicality all the way. That was Bill Morris. Nothing was ever bought on time payments, except for the new house, the realization of which was wearing him thin, home from the office for dinner at noon, and supper, always with cornbread on the side, at six-thirty. Everything he did at every moment had to have a reason behind it, some purpose to be done, or it wasn’t worth his while. There’d been a peak of this practicality in the last few months, and especially the last few days. He’d taken on a mortgage and much of the renovations for the basement apartment, combined with his regular work at the office, so there never seemed to be just the right time for Hazel to tell Bill the news­—she was expecting. 

Hazel was clearing the photograph frames from her night table when the doorbell rang. She evaluated herself in the mirror. Dressed only in a striped housecoat with a slip underneath, but her hair was washed and pinned and her face was clean. Her brown eyes, bright and wide. She was presentable, enough, for whomever was at the door, probably a salesman pledging to make her life easier with the touch of one button.

The doorbell chimed through the house, again. Hazel walked faster. “Coming, coming,” she called. As she made a detour into the living room to turn off the radio, she heard the announcer:

Can this girl from the little mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?

Somehow, she always does, Hazel thought before rotating the dial.

“I could hear the radio on the porch,” Iris said as she stepped into the house. Iris was married to James, Hazel’s brother. She was a petite woman with fine clothes, but her presence was sour and her voice curt.

“I like having it on, and I like it loud. It drowns out everything else,” Hazel said, ushering Iris into the living room.

“No doubt you were listening to those absurd soap operas with their fickle men and moaning women.”

“Never mind them,” Hazel said, offering Iris a chocolate from the candy dish. “What brings you by?”

“James. It was his idea I drop in to see how you were feeling,” Iris said, declining the treat with a wave of her hand. “You were looking worse for wear the other day, but you seem all well now. Not a trace of a cold.” Iris lowered her thin eyebrows, glaring at Hazel.

Hazel had asked Iris to drive her to Dr. Price’s office the day before yesterday. Bill had told her she looked a bit peaked, and she’d better get to the doctor’s before she got worse. They had too much to get done this week. Besides, he couldn’t afford to get sick and have to stay home from work.

Iris pulled into the driveway promptly at 9:30 AM. Hazel’s appointment wasn’t scheduled for another hour, and it only took about twenty minutes to drive into town, but Iris was a cautious driver to say the least. Every now and again Hazel would accompany Iris to purchase weekly groceries, and while Hazel was certainly thankful for the ride, she did wish Iris would drive a bit faster. When Hazel dared ask her about her driving style once, Iris replied, “Well, at least I know how to drive,” and then she added her customary statement, “When you rush, you risk.”

When they arrived at Dr. Price’s office, Iris said she would be quite comfortable waiting in the car while Hazel received her diagnosis. She didn’t want to catch anything that was catching. She’d driven the entire time with her scarf draped over her mouth and nose.

No, it wasn’t a cold or the beginning of a bout with pneumonia. Hazel, at thirty-five, was expecting her first child. Dr. Price had just lit his second cigarette when he delivered the news. He determined she was a couple of months along. She was an otherwise healthy gal, and she should have Bill lower the clothesline for her before the next load was hung. Hazel tried to listen to his instructions, but her mind was elsewhere. How had she missed it? Well, her cycles were often irregular. With five years of marriage and no children to speak of, she’d thought having children to be impossible. Now, with the move and the new house and preparing for live-ins, she just failed to notice. Bill wouldn’t be satisfied this was the best time, especially since they’d gone so long without children. 

It would’ve been natural for Hazel to begin thinking about her own mother at this moment, but she didn’t. Her mother had nine children and no husband to speak of, not the traditional kind. He provided only sadness and aggravation for his wife and children. He dropped in and out of all of their lives as it suited him. Sometimes he’d stay for two days, other times a week or so. It seemed like as soon as he left another child came along. They came one after the other. Her mother even had a set of twins—a pair of boiling pink boys Hazel bottle-fed while her mother healed. To this day, Hazel couldn’t be certain what happened to her father. Only flashes of a dark, lanky image existed in her memory. It was her mother who’d raised them, and they helped raise each other.

As Hazel walked out of the office, she decided there was no need to tell Iris. She’d be disturbed by the news in one way or another, or she’d offer nothing but advice for the entire ride home. It’d be better just to let her think she had a cold. Besides, Hazel needed the time to herself to plan how she was going to present Bill with the news. 

Now Hazel had known about her condition for almost two full days. With Iris across from her, Hazel’s face flushed a convicted red. “I really do need to get back to the housework,” she said, standing, her eyes concentrated on the front door.

“Fine. Like I told you, it was James’s idea for me to come,” Iris said, brushing a piece of lint from her lap. “He’ll be relieved to see you’re recovered so quickly.”

“I’ll tell Bill you said hello,” Hazel said, half-waving to Iris in her car. As she watched Iris’s gradual turn onto the main road, she thought of Bill. When he’d gotten home from work on the day she visited the doctor, he was in a terrible mood. Something had happened to a number of important invoices at the office, and then when he stopped by the bank to sign the rest of the paperwork on the house, the bank officer had already left for the day. He stomped through the living room and turned off the radio, yelling, “You could get a lot more done if you didn’t pay so much attention to that nonsense.” He’d been so worked up he even forgot to ask her about her appointment with Dr. Price. He wasn’t himself, and she just couldn’t tell him. She’d planned to tell him last night after supper. She’d prepared some of his favorites, cubed steak with gravy, green peas, and cornbread, of course. He never tasted much of it, though, saying he had brought home some work from the office, and he wanted to work on the cabinets for the kitchen in the basement while there was still daylight left.

Tonight for sure, she thought. He’d been in an almost pleasant mood at breakfast, she’d have the basement looking nice and tidy for the O’Dells to see, and she’d tell him with a grand smile on her face. She refused to allow her own anxiety to show. She’d explain now was a good time for them to have a child because of the extra income from the boarders. Their child would also have his choice of second-hand clothing from all his cousins.

On her way back to the bedroom, Hazel switched on the radio in time to catch Sunday’s husband, Lord Henry, tell her:

You, my dear, are a caged lioness.

Indeed she is, Hazel thought. We all have that in common.

In the bedroom, she retrieved a new package of white bed linens from the closet. She placed it on top of the cleared night table, lifted the table on each side, and headed for the basement. Stopping to listen for a moment, she heard only a commercial, so she made her way down the steps.

The sheets hadn’t been pinned properly, and they unfolded into a large bulging bundle in her arms. As she began to fold them, she felt a stinging pain in her stomach; a loose pin or two must’ve caught her skin through her dress. She found the two pillowcases and began stuffing them when she felt hot liquid trickle down her inner thigh. She lifted the edge of her slip, discovering blood. She saw no sign of stains on the sheets, so she left them as they lay on the bed. With one hand, she held the bottom of her housecoat between her legs as she climbed each step with determination. She must be careful to avoid making a mess. 

Hazel shuffled down the hallway into the bathroom and climbed into the empty tub. After half an hour, there were no more stomach pains, no more blood, no more anything. She took a rough washcloth to every inch of skin, scouring between her fingers. She washed her hair again, digging her fingernails into her scalp. Out of the tub, she perfumed and powdered and extracted too many eyebrows. She opened her eyes wide, gazing in the mirror as she applied a thick layer of mascara to her dry eyelashes. She pulled on a tattered bathrobe, one she kept hanging on the back of the bathroom door, and gathered her clothes, compressing the garments into a mound barely visible in her hands. With the afternoon passing and her emotions and womb dried, she needed to do the wash and get back to work in the basement. There was supper to prepare before Bill got home.

Hazel hung her clothes out on the line although it was more difficult to open the pins this time. No need to ask Bill to lower it now, she thought. When she threw her slip over, it didn’t catch but fell onto the ground. It didn’t matter anyway. She figured on throwing it out. Though she had scrubbed it over the sink with soap and cold water until her fingers burned, the stain only spread. It didn’t disappear. She had hoped she could save it. Bill’s mother had given it to her as a wedding present. It had yellowed only slightly; otherwise, it was smooth and shiny. That slip was the final garment Bill had removed on their wedding night.

She remembered how warm and ready she was when he placed his finger under the strap and slid it off of her shoulder. It had ended up on the floor that night, but now it was on the ground, stained, ruined, and waiting to be thrown away. She dropped it in the burn barrel with the coffee grounds and yesterday’s newspaper.

When Hazel heard the shrill bursts from Bill’s car horn that evening, she knew he was playing with her. She joined him by the door, her heavy chest bumping into him.

Bill stepped to the side. “Everything has been taken care of,” he said. “We’re all set for the house.” He handed her a pack of chewing gum. “Heard the jingle for it on your radio the other day,” he said. “I’m trying to woo my girl like it says.” Hazel returned his foolish grin with a half-smile and shoved the small package into her apron pocket and returned to the kitchen.

Now he was in a good mood. He whistled while he hung his coat on the rack and stumbled while removing his loafers. Hazel listened as he walked down the hall and stopped at the basement door. His sock feet thumped on the steps.

“This looks nice,” he yelled from the basement. Hazel continued peeling carrots over the sink, wiping leftover skin caught in the grater on her apron. She heard the basement door close, and Bill entered the kitchen. He moved close to her side and this time she backed away.

“I think the O’dells will like the room,” he said, snatching a peeled carrot. “They’ll like it ever better when the kitchen and bathroom are set up, but they’ll just have to use their imaginations for a while. They’re still young enough to do that.” He split the carrot with his front teeth. “I’m going to work down there this evening after supper,” he said, grinding what was left.  He then took a slice of cornbread from the tin by the counter. “What are we having, tonight?” he asked between bites. “Hey, this cornbread from last night is even better today. Do we have anymore?” He turned to evaluate the contents of the tin, hoping there may be another piece, but found it empty. Hazel placed the grater in the sink, wiped her hands on her apron, and walked out of the kitchen. She sat down in the chair by the radio, which she’d turned off some time ago.  She slid her feet from her slippers and stared at her toes.

“That’s all there is. There isn’t any more,” she called to him. 


Kim Shegog has an MFA from Converse College and an MA in English from The College of Charleston. Her work has appeared in Appalachian HeritageThe SunOWL, and The Compassion Anthology. She received the 2019 Judith Siegel Pearson Fiction Award from Wayne State University. She has taught creative writing and composition courses at Coastal Carolina University. She lives in Ohio.

Contributors Fall 2019

Jessie Atkin (I’ve Kept the Fish Alive) writes fiction, poetry, essays, and plays. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The YA Review Network, Writers Resist, Cloudbank, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in creative writing from American University. She can be found online at jessieatkin.com

William Cass (Bird Feeder) has published more than 190 short stories in such literary journals as decemberBriar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a couple of Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.

Julianne Clarke (11 Ways to Start a Fight with Your Father) is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in English at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA). She works as a tutor in the college’s writing studio, and is an intern at Tupelo Press. She is a native of Western Mass, and enjoys time outside. This is her first published piece.

Alexander Jones (Garbage Patch) has short fiction and poetry appearing in Akashic Books, Bastion Magazine, Crack the Spine and DASH, among other publications. His nonfiction was recently anthologized by 2Leaf Press and an essay he wrote won GoRail’s 2012 contest. He has a BA in English/ Creative Writing and is pursuing a second BA in History. He works as a metal fabricator and lives with his family in New Jersey.

Jennifer Schomburg Kanke (The Widow Does Love…), originally from Columbus, Ohio, lives in Tallahassee, Florida, where she edits confidential documents for the government. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Pleiades, and Sou’wester. She serves as a reader for Emrys.

D.G. Lasek (A Small Wooden Box) Originally from New Jersey, D. G. Lacek now lives with his wife in Massachusetts, where he teaches English as a second language. His fiction is forthcoming in Corner Bar Magazine, and his children’s fiction has appeared in Bumples Magazine.

Michael Olenick (Perfume and Pearls) lives in Brooklyn with his daughter, son, and wife’s ashes. He had a promising start with a story appearing in Journeys: Prose by Children of the English-Speaking World when he was ten and then put writing aside to focus on the usual sensible adult things. Since his wife’s death, his inner English major has awakened, and he has started writing again as a way to forget and not to forget. His poems have recently appeared in Euphony Journal and Offcourse Literary Journal.

Cole Rise (Illustrator) Traveler, pilot, designer, photographer and entrepreneur, Cole Rise isn’t afraid to try on a variety of roles, depending on where his current obsessions might take him. So it’s no surprise that his past travails include everything from riding across the U.S. taking photos for Harley Davidson, to selling his own design consultancy to Apple.

Richard Risenberg (Negotiation) was dragged to Los Angeles as a child, and has been working there in a number of vernacular occupations since his teens while writing poetry, articles, essays, and fiction, editing online ‘zines, sneaking around with a camera trying to steal people’s souls, and making a general nuisance of himself, which is his forte. He’s survived long enough to become either a respected elder or a tedious old fart, depending on your point of view, and is still at it. It hasn’t been easy for any of us.

Kate Shakespeare (Lavinia’s Tongue) graduated from Vassar College in 2016 with a degree in Psychology and currently works as a technical writer in Seattle. She has been previously published in Pidgeonholes and Asymmetry Fiction.

Kim Shegog (There Isn’t Any More) has an MFA from Converse College and an MA in English from The College of Charleston. Her work has appeared in Appalachian HeritageThe SunOWL, and The Compassion Anthology. She received the 2019 Judith Siegel Pearson Fiction Award from Wayne State University. She has taught creative writing and composition courses at Coastal Carolina University. She lives in Ohio.

Andrew Sutherland (June Resurrection Loop) is a Queer writer and theatre practitioner working between Western Australia and Singapore. Theatre works include a line could be crossed and you would slowly cease to be, Jiangshi, Unveiling: Gay Sex for Endtimes, Chrysanthemum Gate and Poorly Drawn Shark, which was awarded the Blaz Award for New Writing 2019. He received Overland’s Fair Australia Poetry Prize 2017, and his poetry and fiction can be found in various publications including Cordite, Westerly, Margaret River Press’ We’ll Stand in That Place, Scum Mag, Proverse Hong Kong, Thin Air and Visible Ink.

Mark Thomas (Cosmology) is a retired English and Philosophy teacher and ex-member of Canada’s national rowing team. He has previously published work in Electric Literature, Daily Science Fiction and The Globe and Mail.

John Vanderslice (Him and Me) teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Central Arkansas. His stories, poems, essays, and plays have been widely published, including in such journals as Sou’wester, South 85, Laurel Review, Crazyhorse, and The Pinch. In recent years, he has published two books: Island Fog (Lavender Ink, 2014), a linked story collection, and The Last Days of Oscar Wilde (Burlesque Press, 2018), a historical novel.

Homepage Summer 2019

“The Emerald City” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas.
All artwork appears courtesy of the artist.

Welcome to our July issue with the theme of “SALTWATER.” Saltwater makes up 3/4 of the earth’s surface. It is where the very first inchoate squiggles of life began. It includes tears, and sweat, both necessary elements of recovery, at least to this regular saltwater producer. Many of the stories, poems, and essays in this issue center in or around the ocean or use the ocean as a metaphor. Once I discovered the beautiful and atmospheric artwork of Sydney McKenna the whole issue came together nicely. There is the personal story of a (very literal) near-drowning along with several figurative near-drownings. This seems fitting, as we all struggle to stay afloat in this hectic, swirling life.

In this last week, while compiling the issue, the literary community lost two wonderful souls, both of whom I had the pleasure of knowing and both far too young to be gone. We first lost Paul Otremba, a beautiful poet and teacher whose soulful poetry cuts deep with an exacting and yet utterly empathetic blade. Paul was a great encourager, that rare sort of human who never failed to make one feel seen, heard, and appreciated. A few days after losing Paul, we lost Ned Stuckey-French, a champion of the essay and a man who nurtured and encouraged talent with an expert eye, a finely tuned sense of humor, and buckets of compassion. These men were kindness personified and the writing community is vastly poorer for their passing. 

Meanwhile, the world keeps spinning, as shocking as that can feel after a loss. I do hope that the fine writing and beautiful artwork in this issue offer you some light in the darkness, a measure of healing laughter, and/or the gift of cathartic saltwater, in whatever form that takes. And as always, thanks for reading.

Yours in recovery,

Mary Akers


“Chemotherapy and the Tasmanian Devil” by Jaclyn Piudik

“Through the Woods” by Sydney McKenna, watercolor, 30″ x 32″

An elephantine drip aglow
fortuitous bubble gum – pop – à la Bazooka Joe
Her appetite undergoes treatment for disarray
in the dark archives of University and College
Joan of Arc or Jones New York
have no place in these toxic gardens
Jab her with poetic justice, a heartfelt grunt
a rasp and a slow-borne growl of plasmatazz

The curative act [sic] becomes art
of the omnivorous kind, the hellishly tired veins

swig their pastel cocktail
a seeming infinity of cranberry masks

the sterile byways, the benign gleam
of cartoon English and wigged-outness

Looney music pacifies the buzz, the nauseated
floral-spin in the afterworld desert

Distant from eloquent drawl, she is so radiant
Shine on crazy diamond: omnia mutantur


Jaclyn Piudik is the author of To Suture What Frays (Kelsay Books 2017) and two chapbooks, Of Gazelles Unheard (Beautiful Outlaw 2013) and The Tao of Loathliness (fooliar press 2005/8).  Her poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including New American Writing, Columbia Poetry Review, Burning House, Barrow Street and Contemporary Verse 2.   She received a New York Times Fellowship for Creative Writing and the Alice M. Sellers Award from the Academy of American Poets. Piudik has edited three collections of poetry for award winning Canadian publisher Book*hug. She holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from the City College of New York, as well as a Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto.

“Ten and Two” by Melanie Perish

“Rapture in the Postmodern Era” by Sydney McKenna, Oil on canvas, 60″ x 62″

In the first year, even after
she worked the steps
love was crazy as
driving under the influence.

Like that time the car started to slide,
slide across the double yellow lines
into the on-coming lane;
and she couldn’t remember which way
to turn the wheel.

No time for prayer beyond
God help me.
Her right foot down once
down twice on the brake,
then lifted, so her heart
could catch up.

Black gloved hands at ten and two
turned the wheel
toward the spin
out of hope the size of a tear drop
while life moved in geologic time.

When the spin stopped
the car pointed in the right direction
in its own lane; and again
she lived by minutes and inches.
With the car, with any new person
she could have sworn
she was going slowly enough.


Melanie Perish lives in Reno, NV and commutes regularly to Bryan, TX, Northern, CA, and Santa Fe, NM.  She is a member of Poets & Writers and Alcoholics Anonymous. She is old and sometimes crabby and does not care that she’s just broken her anonymity.  Her poems have recently appeared in the Austin International Poetry Festival anthology, DiversityThe Avocet, Brushfire, and Emerging Poets (Z-Publishing, 2018). Her poetry collection Passions & Gratitudes was published by Black Rock Press in 2011. She is currently working on a second collection. She is grateful for the generosity of other poets and writers, her history with women’s writing workshops, her online writers exchange, and the current poetry workshops she participates in. She is indebted to small press publications, little magazines, and on-line publications because she knows how much effort these require.

“God and Laundry” by Tara Stillions Whitehead

“The World Below” by Sydney McKenna, watercolor, 22″ x 30″

Lacy was on her knees when you found her—six days shy of thirty-five years old and ninety-one days sober. The cats had been chewing the callouses on her feet for two days but were still shitting in their overflowing litter box tucked behind the brand new front-load Whirlpool washer. The warranty tag was still taped over the handle. It had never been used, and this unsettles you, confirms that she had never meant to do it. That it was a baffling, powerful moment of desperation. And before that moment, there was a future where she planned to carry out the banal task of washing her soiled clothing, but with a brand spanking new washer. She had even plugged it in. Attached the water hoses to the spigots and fed the plastic drain pipe through a hole in the kitchen floor, down the basement wall to the French drain.

 And then hanged herself.

It shouldn’t have taken you that long to agree to participate in a well-check. Lacy’d stopped showing up at the River Street meeting three weeks ago, citing an upper respiratory infection that just wouldn’t shake. She was always sick—terminally unwell, always on the mend from something trying to kill her. But the text responses had gotten shorter each time, and no one could seem to get her on the phone, not even Peggy. And then that long silence finally came, the one you hear about in the rooms too often, the one that you could not fill a little over a year ago.

Peggy was the one who spotted the body through the barely parted shades—just enough to make out the top of Lacy’s head tucked forward, the oxygen long expired, her last breath sealed inside by the Ethernet cable she’d used to twist-tie herself to the bedpost. It all happened in jump cuts from there. You became all action. Dislodged the screen, forced yourself through the window like you used to do when you were using. But this time was different. This time, your heart was on fire and you could feel what you couldn’t feel before—your fear of the static in the air and the cats, irremovable in their grotesque and frantic chewing. And the pain in your shins where you leveraged yourself over the sill into the tidy kitchen sink, knowing before you really knew it that you were too late again. Just like with your mom. And David.

You are standing outside of Trinity Lutheran when Peggy tells the story for the fifth time. As if you hadn’t been seeing and smelling and standing there, too. 

“Goddamnit, I thought she was praying when I first saw her,” Peggy explains, smoke from her menthol hanging hard on the image of prayer.

Just then, a white van pulls into the church roundabout and a group of young people emerge from the back. They are all wearing gray sweatpants and oversized T-shirts turned inside out to hide the logos, but you can still read them—Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger, Aeropostale. There are five of them. Four guys and one girl. None of them make eye contact with you or Peggy when they pass through the double doors into the hallway leading to the meeting room.

“Hill House is getting a lot of traffic lately,” Peggy says, and it isn’t until she says it that you realize that none of those kids looked old enough to buy cigarettes. “IOP saved my life. I don’t think I could’ve stayed sober if I had had to bunk with a bunch of underagers. I mean, it’s enough to have to parent Glenn, and he’s fifty-six—”

Peggy’s phone chimes. She looks down, dismisses the text with an irreverent tap.

You scan the dark parking lot. Where is everyone else? You want the meeting to be big so that you can hide in it. You want it to be full of people whose stories you have never heard, people who make you feel like less of a monster, people who did not know Lacy. You want distractions. You doubt that the Hill House group will be enough, but you hope they are. Maybe one of them will share something so honest and powerful that people will forget to ask about Lacy and whether you and Peggy are okay after finding her.

You have no desire to share details, and it bothers you that Peggy keeps recalling that image, that Peggy never seems to stop talking. But you don’t say anything because your sponsor tells you that you need to stop seeing people for their defects, that you need to pray for tolerance and love. Right now, though, the thought of prayer fills your stomach with marbles. Lacy isn’t the first woman you’ve known who hanged herself, but she is the first woman whose story felt like it could be your story, whose transparency and doubt and desperation could have been mistaken for your own. Lacy was the first woman to ask you to be her sponsor and the first woman you said yes to.

“I just don’t know if I’ll ever believe in god,” she’d said during your first meeting over coffee. “I’m more afraid of him than dying.” You knew what she meant, and that frightened you. Lacy was the kind of addict you were, which triggered you hard. During that first meeting, you couldn’t stop staring at her distressed Target jeans. You had the same pair, probably in the same size. You hadn’t worn them since your last relapse, and you should have thrown them away, but there they were, tucked fashionably into those tall riding boots of Lacy’s, reminding you what the last time was really like—and, that was it, you tossed them in the trash that night. That’s when you told her that it wasn’t going to work out, that you were sorry. You didn’t think you could give her what she needed, but Peggy could. Peggy with the fourteen years and eight grandkids. Peggy with the government pension and the summer house in Rehoboth.

“Do they know whether she was using when she did it?” everyone had asked.

“Nope,” Peggy would say, then, eyes narrowing over the tops of her Betsey Johnson readers. “But one would hope so.”

It sounded awful, and you hated her for saying it, but you knew what she meant. It was scarier to think Lacy offed herself while sober, like David did. Because who wants to give in just to give up? That was the real reason you wouldn’t sponsor Lacy. David was all it took for you to go back out. Death leaves a frightening emptiness in the chest, and you faced that fear the way you have faced everything in your life. You were high that afternoon, the coffee in the Styrofoam cup from the police station still hot enough to melt the ice on your windshield. Some part of you knew deep down that you couldn’t have stopped him if you’d tried, but now Lacy is gone—Lacy with the Target jeans and the story like yours—and you feel closer to a drink or drug than you’ve felt in the past year since you went back out.

“Thank God it was Evan’s weekend with Chase,” Peggy says. She stubs the cigarette out on the bottom of her Louis Vuittons. “She and I were just out buying him one of those sand and water tables for his fourth birthday on Thursday. She seemed so good then, so excited that they had the Paw Patrol wrapping paper on sale. Goddamn, I can’t even.”

You haven’t asked Peggy a single question since the two of you found Lacy, but the answers keep coming and you don’t know what to do with them, what you have to say to get her to stop talking.

People are coming now, two here and three there. While you wait to see whether you know anyone, the image of the cats chewing on Lacy’s feet enters your mind again, and suddenly, out of nowhere, the question that has been haunting you for days comes barreling out of your mouth before you can stop it: “What’s going to happen with the cats?”

Peggy looks at you as if you’ve been asking unanswerable questions all along. “I have no idea,” she says. She sprays herself with patchouli. “Goddamn,” she sighs—but not to god or you. “We better go get a seat.”

“I’ll be in in a minute,” you say.

You want to be alone. All addicts want to be alone.

But just as Peggy enters in through the double doors, the Hill House girl emerges, wearing a jacket one of the boys she came with was wearing.

“Can I bum a smoke?” the girl asks. Her voice is softer and more polite than you expected, which unsteadies you.

“I don’t smoke. Peggy does. I’m just an innocent bystander.”

The girl smiles a big smile that suggests she is even younger than you thought. Closer to fourteen. Your knees give out a little because she is young enough to be your daughter, and you can’t imagine what this girl looks like when she’s fucked up. When she isn’t smiling.

“Hello.” You hold out your hand, and she takes it.

“Callie. I’m only twenty days. I mean, I only have twenty days.” She laughs uncomfortably and wraps herself deeper into the jacket that isn’t hers.

“Not only,” you say, and you say it because you had been told the same thing when you came in. “Just…twenty days.”

She smiles.

“Be proud of that.”


Westminster Quarters sounds from the bell tower, marking the hour, but neither you nor Callie move towards the double doors.

“I like your shoes,” she says, pointing at your purple slip-on Chucks. “I have the same ones at home. They’re my favorite pair. I miss them.”

“Thanks. They’re my favorite, too.”

You’ve worn Chucks since you were twelve. You wore them to prom. You wore them to your graduation from the most prestigious film school in the country. You wore them in your brother’s wedding and at your mother’s funeral. You try to stop yourself from feeling the feelings before you feel them, but you can’t. You imagine Callie’s mother slipping freshly laundered clothing into a child’s dresser, placing a new pair of shoes beside the canopy bed you slept in until you were sixteen. Does Callie know how to start a fire without kindling? With licorice sticks? With dryer lint cartons that smelled like your mother when you put a match to them? Does she know how to make a slipknot or the proper way to cool a burn? Did she know that soothing one with ice could cause frostbite?

“When I was a Brownie,” you say, pointing up. “We sang this at the end of every meeting.”

“Cool,” Callie says. “I’ve never been in any, like, organized thing. Well, until now.”

She looks like she is going to ask a question, and the marbles in your stomach start banging together. You want to talk to her, but you don’t want to scare her. And then, you want to scare her. You want to tell her about your mother and filling your underwear with Snickers bars to take to her when she was institutionalized. You were fourteen. Is that how old you are, Callie? You want to show her where you burned your wrists with cigars in college, to explain how Ivy Leagues and terminal degrees couldn’t stop your disease from trying to kill you. You want to tell her about Lacy and how you haven’t been able to sleep for five days because when the sun goes down, the cats are everywhere you look, gnawing the baseboards apart, chewing through the electrical wiring, and then hanging themselves in your windows, their tails hard from rigor mortis, curled violently into a question mark.

You want to tell her that you will answer any question she has. That you wish you had asked the ones you wanted to ask when you had twenty days. That, since then, you have not answered the ones you should have answered.

Callie opens her mouth. Allows the night air in.

The bells are quiet now, but their sound memory hovers over you, fills the parking lot, the street, the neighborhood, connects you and Callie to everything beyond the dark, beyond time, to that place where a clock melody becomes words, words you imagine Lacy’d sung without thinking, without questioning whether she believed in God. A song sung for the pure pleasure of singing, for the pure sense of belonging:

Oh Lord our God

Thy children call

Grant us Thy peace

And bless us all.

You’ve heard Westminster Quarters a million times, been to hundreds of meetings where it signaled the hour, the quarter hour, the half hour—always the measure of arrival and departure and the reprieve in between. How had you never made the connection before? Why were you only making it now?

Callie looks over her shoulder towards the doors. She still looks like she is going to ask a question, but this time, she does.

“Not to be weird, but would it be okay if I sit with you? I’ve never been to one of these outside of Hill House, and the guys are like, sorry—this is so weird—I mean, god, I’m so weird—but you know guys. I don’t want to do anything, but they—you know. And this jacket? They’re always talking, and I’m, like, I can’t hear myself think, let alone have a conversation, which might be a good thing. I don’t know. My head is so full, and I’m trying to empty it out, all of the shit that’s in there, you know? Does that make any sense? I am so sorry. That was probably the most awkward way to ask a stranger for help.”

 “No, not at all,” you say. It is, hands down, the fastest you have ever answered a question in your life. “I’ll go in with you.”


 “Yeah,” you say. She smells wonderful. Like fresh laundry.

“Thank you.”

And as you lead her through the double doors, you feel yourself growing lighter in step, as if you have been given the answer to a burning question you had been too afraid to ask, as if she is helping you more than you are helping her.


Tara Stillions Whitehead has had fiction, essays, and hybrid texts published in Chicago Review, Fiction International, Red Rock Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Texas Review, New Orleans Review, Sleipnir, and elsewhere. She has received a Glimmer Train Press Award for New Writers, an AWP Intro Journals Award nomination, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. A former assistant director for film and television, she now lives in Central Pennsylvania, where she teaches English and Film Studies.

“Training Wheels” by Amie McGraham

“Flow” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″

The Proposal

He proposed to me in a roomful of people, from the podium of the drab fellowship hall. Coffee brewed in the kitchenette; someone had brought a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies. “’Boy meets girl on AA campus,’” he said, the microphone carrying his confident voice across the room. “Will you marry me, Amie?” We had met in that very room at my first Twelve Step meeting four years before.

I wanted a Valentine’s Day wedding. Simple and small, no sappy white lace or roses. The free spirit in me needed the freedom of the outdoors, so we settled on a spot at the top of the hill where we’d trained together for the Boston Marathon a few years before. Our friend George, a mail-order minister we knew from the meetings, would perform the ceremony.

The week before Valentine’s Day, we drove to City Hall for a marriage license. “The Justice of the Peace is marrying another couple here in an hour,” the clerk informed us. “If you don’t feel like waiting.”

Marathon Marriage

He became a personal trainer not long after we started dating, ending a career in sales to pursue his lifelong passion for fitness. He spent months studying at the library, backpack heavy with physiology textbooks and anatomy charts, and passed the rigorous certification testing with high marks. I was the perfect test subject as he built his client list; he trained me for my first marathon in San Francisco at age thirty-five. “Cool weather and a postcard perfect course,” he told me. Never mind the relentless hills or the hottest July on record, I finished, sweat-soaked and wanted more. In just two years, he helped me qualify for the Boston Marathon, a runner’s Holy Grail.


Meanwhile, back at City Hall, spontaneity triumphed. Years of heavy drinking had resulted in a “do it now” kind of impulsiveness that floated just beneath the surface of our alcoholic personalities. Even sober, it often proved difficult to corral.

“The couple that trains together remains together,” he said. “Might as well tie the knot today.”

I nodded in silent agreement, the hilltop desert wedding fading into oblivion. An hour later, we exchanged vows before the judge and another couple, each playing the dual roles of witnesses to our respective jeans-clad ceremonies.

We had both been married before, but this relationship redefined our concept of marriage. We lifted weights together and shared a mutual passion for John Sandford novels. We preferred protein shakes to French fries; were addicted to Law & Order reruns. Together we discovered the electronic lull of trance music. We rarely argued.

We vacationed on the beaches of Maui, Miami, and Mexico; he accompanied me on president’s club trips to Hawaii and Banff for which I’d qualified through my sales job. As the years passed, we were known as the “power couple,” yet we never lost our own identities. We were one. And we were separate. We were sober. And we were still wildly, passionately in love.


I had always assumed he’d retire first, mainly due to our double-digit age difference. My career as vice president for a national insurance company was approaching the quarter-century mark, a once unfathomable achievement considering the half measures of my drunken past. Over the years, I’d moved thirty-odd times, across the country, across the street and across the ocean, drifting between various jobs and school, It had taken three universities, three coasts, a foreign country and nearly twenty years to obtain a bachelor’s degree in English.

Then, life took an unexpected turn and it was I who stepped down from my career.


My family is small and intellectual to a fault. I am an only child. My parents divorced the same year I first drank alcohol—two glasses of warm Chablis at age eleven—and from then on, my life became a study in doing the wrong thing. It wasn’t intentional; I didn’t set out to get busted by Principal Johnson for smoking a joint in the locker room, or lose my driver’s license for a year because I drove home from a Christmas party in a blackout, or nearly drop out of high school with a 4.0 GPA.

At sixteen, I moved into a double-wide trailer with a boyfriend which led to a brief marriage as hazy and jagged as our cigarette-laden hangovers. At twenty-three, I ditched the waist-high snowbanks of perpetual New England winters for Southern California and its endless summer of surfboards and skaters, keg parties and cocaine. I never looked back. And I rarely went back.

Through my blurred teens and twenties and thirties I lived a hard, fast life and as long as Anheuser-Busch was still brewing beer, my world was complete.

My parents remained an ocean away and on my infrequent visits home, I logged more time in the bars of my past than I did on that island of my youth, where my mother had become something of a celebrity. On one summer visit, she’d just returned from promoting her recently-published cookbook in bookstores from Bangor to Boston with her second husband, whom I’d never fully embraced as a stepfather even after their twenty-odd years of marital bliss. He was seventeen years older; one of those eternally happy people you just want to shake; a Marine, for God’s sake. These were not people I wanted to hang out with in the self-centered orbit of my world, where life was a never-ending party. They did not drink.

For all the years I drank, I was a shitty daughter.

But, like anything that seems too good to be true, my self-proclaimed life of fun became fun with problems. Then, it was just problems. Too many times, I woke up in hotel rooms, the air thick with the stench of stale ashtrays and Merlot-crusted wineglasses, with no recollection of where I’d been, what I’d said, where I’d parked. I constantly sought an escape route through the anonymity of business trip cocktails only to return to the same unhappy life I’d left.

Eventually, I found a Twelve Step program at the subtle suggestion of a co-worker with a decade of sobriety. Staying sober was harder than running a marathon; harder than meeting million dollar sales quotas; and a shit ton harder than drinking. I struggled through the first six months, missing that cloudy buzz of a drunk, craving the high of irresponsibility, wishing for wine, beer, even the bitter sharpness of tequila shooters, any liquor-induced escape to avoid facing the suddenness of myself.


My mother is a woman of many talents. Artist. Writer. Gourmet cook. She’s witty, eclectic, creative, generous, and brilliant. She’s also rigid and uptight, conservative to the core. Reagan will always be her hero. Her childhood consisted largely of family gatherings around the hi-fi of the suburban Boston living room, listening to “Father Knows Best.” She got straight A’s in Home Ec, knew every book of the bible, and owned both ballet flats and tap shoes.

She was a stay-at-home mom, but not the Harriet Nelson kind. She worked from home, a freelance graphic artist. She drew fashion models for newspaper ads, painted landscapes and floral arrangements, designed layouts for magazines. As a preschooler, I sat alongside her in the studio, an aspiring artist grasping my own tiny paintbrush with watercolor-smeared fingers.

My mother is also endearingly naïve. The relic of a life largely lived on a Maine island, she was long insulated from traffic lights and shopping malls, immune to hijabs and border walls. The only gunshots she ever heard were from the occasional hunter in search of a deer in the back woods. For thirty years, she wrote and illustrated a monthly newsletter on cooking, traveled to England twice, published a cookbook and played the organ at her church.

She devoted her life to that church, a congregation of ten, which espouses temperance and faith-healing and forbids medicine and physicians. She has never tasted champagne or swallowed a Tylenol or drunk any caffeine but instant Sanka. She is a rules-follower, a people pleaser, the consummate good girl. “Daddy taught me to do the right thing,” she often reminded me. “I never disappointed him.”


I’m a quick study when it comes to book learning and business affairs. I know my way around every major city in the nation, I’ve closed thousands of sales contracts, and can craft a marketing campaign with my eyes closed. But with family matters, I’m a slow learner. For all the years I drank, the distance between my parents and me was not merely defined by geography; I had erected an invisible wall of self-absorption.

For all the years I drank, I was a shitty daughter.

When I finally realized I wanted to not drink more than I wanted to drink, living a sober life—eerily coherent and oddly enjoyable—became my way of life. So did the simple principles I learned in recovery: Trust God. Clean House. Help Others.

Gradually, I became better daughter.

With the selfless clarity that comes from sobriety, a few years ago I noticed my mother needing help with daily activities. Getting dressed was a task for two; following the steps of her favorite recipes, an exercise in frustration. Adrift on the time-space continuum, she was never certain of the day of the week, the season, or whether it was morning or night. “I’m having a little trouble understanding August,” she confessed and pointed to the calendar, now as perplexing as her windup clock.

And so I left the corporate career and moved back to the island home of my childhood to care for my mother.

I’ve never had kids other than those with tails. These days, I am a parent to two children: an eighty-seven-year-old who fancies himself the Casanova of the east coast, who still drives and can recite his entire credit card number by heart. Relentlessly self-sufficient, my father lives a quiet life alone in his New England cottage. I handle his finances and legal matters.

And an eighty-three-year-old with Alzheimer’s. For three years, I was my mother’s in-home caregiver, an unanticipated career with an excruciatingly fluid job description and no training manual. Other than the part-time high school job I’d had as a nurse’s aide in the local nursing home, my resume for this job was a blank page.

My first year as an Alzheimer’s caregiver felt a lot like the first year in sobriety, which felt a lot like riding a bike for the first time without training wheels. The control freak in me—long dormant after finally acknowledging that something bigger was in charge of the universe—reawakened like a fly on the windowsill in spring; the patience and tolerance I’d cultivated in recovery evaporating each time my mother repeated a question—which was often—or failed to remember what I’d just told her, which was more often. I was restless and irritable not just with my mother, but too, with the man I’d met in my Twelve Step group and later married, when even in our long-distance marriage, he’d been nothing but supportive. And I was resentful toward my new job: the dementia that had hijacked my mother’s brain.

In a dim corner of my mind, alcohol beckoned and I almost sought the escape route again. But, as I’d learned from my mother and in sobriety, I needed to do the right thing, even if I didn’t like doing it or want to do it. I am my mother’s only living blood relative. I couldn’t just walk away.

My life, sober or not, has often been one of all-or-nothing. So, in my second year, I vowed to learn as much as humanly possible about Alzheimer’s. I highlighted stacks of reference books. Combed through dozens of online research journals. Joined caregiving support groups on the internet. Met with friends who’d cared for parents with dementia. Shared caregiving tips in tweets and blog posts with caregivers as far away as Berlin. And I didn’t drink.

In my third year of caregiving, when depression struck with the force of a Nor’easter and I languished in lethargy, the escape route I sought came not from a bottle or a pill, but through therapy: a family counselor and part-time lobsterwoman who had converted an old B&B to a dementia care home. Each hour we spent together helped confirm that the rapid progression of my mother’s Alzheimer’s would soon require more care than I could give.

Today, my mother and I are closer than we’ve ever been. She’s in a memory care home five minutes from my house and I visit her almost every day. Moving her across the country from the comfort of the old island farmhouse where she’d lived for the past fifty years to a big city was not without multiple challenges. She didn’t sleep for days. She hallucinated the first week, one moment convinced she was being held against her will by foreign-speaking terrorists in a Bible-lined cellar, then in a panic over the man in her closet wearing her high heels. She’s never owned a pair of heels, and the building has no cellar. For the first two months, I obsessed about whether I had done the right thing.

Like most things in the world of Alzheimer’s, recollections fade. She has friends in her new home, and things to do. She may have lost her ability to draw, but she takes weekly art classes, her fingers now stained with watercolors like mine so many years ago. And although she can no longer bake a cake by herself, she’s teaching a friend’s young daughter how to cook.

To those outside the demented doorway which I stepped through a lifetime ago, this may not seem like growth. But as fast as the disease has progressed, my mother has taken giant leaps forward in a short time, and this I know in my heart: we have done the right thing.

I’m slowly getting my life back. I’ve been sober now almost as long as I drank. I find the escape route through putting words on a page, volunteering at an animal shelter and in an unlikely new job as a pet sitter. I still go to meetings and help others stay sober. I am still a caregiver, which turns out to be the ultimate act of service. And being of service to others—alcoholic or otherwise—is an essential part of recovery.

The parallel of our lives, my mother’s and mine, is like looking in a mirror. As life can be in dementia, mirrors are often terrifying; reflections unrecognizable. We both have a disease of perception that centers in the mind; we both have a disease of denial.

It’s been said that alcoholism is the only disease that tells a person they don’t have it. Most people living with Alzheimer’s face a dual battle of denial. To accept it is to confirm its relentless death-grip. To acknowledge it requires logic and comprehension, both missing in the ethereal dementia-drift in and out of reality. For my mother, it’s a trifecta of denial since her religion rejects the concept of disease or any form of sickness.

As Alzheimer’s—the ultimate identity thief—robs her of the prolific life she once led, she remains forever trapped in her mind. Yet I, through recovery, have been freed from mine.

Taking care of my mother has given me a deeper understanding of recovery, and of family. Until I got sober, I never felt like I was part of anything real. My relationship with a husband who loves me for who I have become teaches me how to be present, how to be a mother to my mother, how to accept my father’s stubborn independence.

My husband has been present for me, all along. He was there for me at my first meeting. He was there for me when I ran the Boston Marathon. He was there for me when I quit my job and stepped into the quagmire of Alzheimer’s, a reality as unavoidable as my own self. And he was there when I was no longer sure who that self truly was.

He’s still a personal trainer; I still run marathons. Dust gathers on the sales trophies lining my bookshelves; business suits have been swapped for yoga pants. This year, we celebrated our seventeenth wedding anniversary and a combined total of fifty years without a drink. Our sobriety is intact; our marriage is solid. But after my time away, some reassembly is required. “You’re a good daughter,” he said recently, after I returned from a day at the aquarium with my mother.

I’m working on the good wife part now.


Amie McGraham grew up on an island in Maine and now lives in the desert southwest. A freelance writer, family caregiver and petsitter, she received her BA in English from Arizona State University. Her fiction has been short-listed for the Fulton Prize, New Guard Review and The Offbeat and she was a two-time semi-finalist in Tucson’s Festival of Books Literary Awards. Her work has appeared in Exposition Review, Motherwell, Women on Writing, The Caregiver Space, Wanderlust Journal, Creative Nonfiction, Best Friends Animal Society and elsewhere. Her flash blog, “This Demented Life,” was featured by AlzAuthors and is read internationally.