“Negotiation” by Richard Risemberg

Image by Cole Rise, used with permission.

It wasn’t the first time I’d met a cliché, so I wasn’t surprised when she walked up and introduced herself. I was in a nice, clean, pretentious bar in Hollywood, but there’s no escaping phonies anywhere in that town, and I had her figured for a phony before she even opened her mouth. What would you have thought? The slinky white satin gown that caressed her breasts and thighs as she walked, the skin that looked smoother than skin ever is in our sunbeat part of the world, the brassy hair that even bobbed over one eye–a style that had been out-of-date in my father’s time…. Right down to the martini glass carefully balanced in one hand as she sashayed through the crowd. The crowd didn’t pay much attention to her—a couple of glances from the straight guys, mostly the older ones. It was Hollywood; they were used to good-looking phonies. The town offered them in wholesale lots. If some woman had come in looking like an honest female human, they would have stared her down, or maybe just turned away to slouch into their drinks while they thought up a better way to cheat their barmates. I looked her up and down myself because she was, after all, good-looking, though I wasn’t sure how good she’d look without the satin and pancake and heels. Probably an ordinary girl, freckles, dry hair, tired eyes. She came here to play the script she’d written in her own head. That’s what they were all doing here.

All except me. Not because I’m so fucking self-righteous or anything, but because it wasn’t my choice to be here. I had to meet someone, and the Harbor Bar, which was a good thirty-something miles from the actual harbor as the crow flies, was where they said to meet. It wasn’t my kind of place: I’m a wine-drinker and I like restaurants with decent food. So I sipped my twelve-dollar glass of four-dollar wine, which the barkeep had handed me with a look of pitying boredom, and checked out the slinky girl while I waited for my appointment.

She homed in on me like one of those guided missiles that follows the laser dot. I was surprised. If she wasn’t the normal human female type, I was definitely the normal human male type. Unremarkable by design. Nice clothes but dull colors, a haircut you could get anywhere in the world, cheap comfortable shoes. My own private-label brand of rebellion, and I suppose it worked too well. I stood out by not trying to stand out. Maybe I even did it on purpose, although I’m saying that just to cover my bases. I don’t like to be noticed, even by good-looking girls who are trying so hard to be slinky—and in this case succeeding. Being noticed brings annoyance, and sometimes trouble. Losers who want to tell you their life story and convince you to invest in their inevitable future fame. Or just plain con men. So my first thought was that she took me for some sort of lonely square she could scam out of something and maybe not even have to go to bed with him. I tell you, living in Hollywood makes you cynical. That’s why I just used the word “square,” which is out-of-date even among actual squares. I want no part of it. Not even the slang. But there she was, a minor nightmare in white satin, locking her eyes on mine. She slalomed up to me, dropped her eyelids dramatically, and said my name, with a polite question mark at the end. I kept a few incipient swear words from adding to the din of the bar. She was the fucking client.

“Yeah, that’s me. Larry F. Sanders. I take it you’re Holly Johnson.”

“Holly F. Johnson.” She smiled, and I wasn’t sure, but it looked like a real smile, not a scripted one.

“Well, I should’ve known,” I said. “You hold the drink like it’s a…microphone.”

She laughed then. “I was afraid you were about to say something crude.”

“We don’t know each other that well yet. Is there a place in this joint where we can talk without projecting? You might be good at that but I haven’t sung since I broke my momma’s heart by dropping out of after-school chorus. And it was no loss to music, I tell you.”

“Follow me,” she said, and slalomed away. I did as I’d been told. It was definitely pleasant to keep an eye on her as she led the way. I’m sure she knew it too.

There was a booth in the back where some of the din was absorbed by the red vinyl tuck-and-roll on the walls. A cute little padded cell with a table for four, or two if you included their egos. She slid into place like she’d been machined to fit, and I blundered in with my usual lack of grace, which I am always at pains not to hide in places like that. There was a battery-powered votive candle on the formica tabletop; it even flickered a little, like it was about to fade out. But no such luck. She placed her martini glass on the table and picked up the candle, smiling. “Classy, huh?” she said. I nodded and took a sip of the wine. Someone bulky lumbered by in the shadows, headed down the red-lit hallway to the rest room. “Not the best table,” she said. “But the quietest.”

“Always be grateful for small favors,” I said.

“Because that’s the most you’ll usually get,” she answered.

We automatically raised our glasses and clinked them over the electric candle. I couldn’t help reflecting her smile. This might not be so bad after all.

“So,” she said, “your mother wanted you to be a singer?”

“Hardly. She wanted me out of her hair for an extra couple of hours twice a week. Listen, the choirmaster was happy when I left. At least he didn’t try too hard to convince me I ought to stay.”

“Well, you’re still in something creative. Designing websites is creative.”

“I just fell into it. It was what was happening when I needed an income, and I got in early when it was easy to learn. Now I want out. With the damn smartphones and all, there’s no point in making a good design, since it all ends up stacked like shoeboxes on those little screens anyway.”

“But you agreed to meet me about doing mine….”

“I want out, but I still got rent to pay. And I’m still good enough to get by.”

“So am I. I started singing as a kid, but I didn’t really dedicate myself to it till I was a little too old to hit the peak. Meaning I was twenty before I took myself seriously. I’ll never be great,” she said, “but I’m good. And I’m brassy enough that I want the world to know it.” She took a sip of her drink. “Eventually I realized I’m happiest when I’m in front of a band, singing obsolete jazz songs. And the only way I can afford the time it takes to do that is to get paid for it. So I’m ready for a website to help that happen.”

“I’m surprised you haven’t had one before. I checked you out online, of course. That doesn’t bother you, does it?”

She emitted a theatrical sigh. “Hey, I’m looking for attention, right? That’s why I called you? Yes, I did have one, but I was still using my ex’s name then. It was one of those cheap ones where you fill in the blanks, you know? No one visited except my friends, who didn’t need to. They came to my gigs anyway. So, the usual story…I dumped him, and I tried to dump the website, but it’s still up there somewhere. Not that anyone notices or cares. Except maybe the ex, who’s still kinda carrying the torch.”

“I can take care of that for you, if it bothers you.”

“The website, or the ex?”

I had to laugh at that one. “Just the website, Holly. I’m a good boy. I mean, I definitely know how you feel about exes and all, but that’s not my line of work.”

She looked at me over the rim of her glass, lowered lids et cetera, the sexy-threatening shtick, marred a little by clumps of mascara. It was a good effect, but it would only work in close-up. “I guess you really didn’t need to know that,” she said. “But now you do. So are you married, Mr. Larry F. Sanders?”

“Frequently, but not presently,” I said. It was a good line, and it was also true. I’m a sucker for the love-nest scenario, which never ends happily ever after. Anyway, it cracked her up; she laughed a good loud laugh, loud enough that the phonies at the other tables turned their heads to look. I saw the crinkles at the corners of her eyes when she laughed. It didn’t look like the pancake was as thick as I’d figured. Maybe that was a good sign. Maybe it meant I still had a lot to learn. I’d always been a willing student.

“Now let me ask you a question, which might seem a little out of line. Why the slinky dish getup to meet a website designer at a bar while the sun’s still up? Are you, like, onstage 24/7?”

“Far from it. I’ve got a gig in Santa Barbara tonight, a place so small they don’t have dressing rooms. I’m past the days when I was so desperate I’d change in a toilet stall. And it’s a two-hour drive when the traffic’s good, which it never is in LA. So you see, I’m not so bad after all. It’s just that you’ve got to look the part, you know.”

“I know. It’s all part of the sales pitch.”

She looked a little miffed. “It’s all part of the show. People want their illusions just so. Believe me, this isn’t Holly Johnson in her daily life.” She ran her hands up and down her waist to illustrate. I thought that was unfair. She smiled one of the triumphant little smiles that women have. “But you like this Holly Johnson, don’t you?”

“Goes without saying. But there’s no cuteness discount.” This was the big test, and she passed it by laughing instead of frowning. “But,” I said, “would you dare to put the 7AM Holly Johnson on your website? You know, to show the human side of the icon. Or should it be album-cover style all the way? And I know I’m showing my age by talking about album covers.”

“Hey, I’ve got vinyl at home. It’s almost a bylaw of the jazz world. But let me think on it. It’s not that the 7AM Holly Johnson is a Medusa or anything like that, but…shit, you know this business is a hard sell, Mr. Larry F. Johnson. I need you to make me look like someone they’ll feel they ought to have heard about, y’know? Like they’ve been missing the boat. And icons aren’t supposed to have a human side.”

We talked business a little bit, but we got sidetracked into a long discourse on the music itself. It was good; I had to know how she felt about what she did, and she had to know how I felt about the One Big Thing in her life, but it took up too much time and two more drinks for me, just one for her. Finally Holly looked at the skinny silver watch on her wrist and said, “You know, Mr. Larry F. Johnson, I’ve got to go. Where’s your car? In the lot here?”

“I didn’t drive. I live about half a mile away. Why?”

“Come up to Santa Barbara with me. We can talk business—real business—on that long damn drive. And you can see me on stage. The drinks’ll be on me. Or on the house, if the crowd is good. I’ve played there before. I’ve got my camera in the car, and you can take some pictures if you want. Assuming we come to terms.”

I nodded. “I’m sure we will, Ms. Holly F. Johnson. I’m sure we will.”

She waved at the waiter to settle the bill. I offered to cover it—it was a deductible expense—but she insisted on taking the deduction for herself. Yeah, she was the lady, but she was also the client. What do the phonies always say when they’re about to cheat you? “Business is business.” Well, no one was cheating anyone here. We just accepted the complications of life. I did give her my hand to help her out of the booth. Her hand was nice and warm. My momma would have been proud.

“Follow me,” she said. She began to slink out of the bar, parting the waters of phonies, on her way, with my help, to the promised land. I followed her. It wasn’t too hard to do.


Richard Risemberg was born into a Jewish-Italian household in Argentina, and brought to Los Angeles to escape the fascist regime of his homeland.He has lived there since, except for a digression to Paris in the turbulent Eighties.He attended Pepperdine University on a scholarship won in a writing competition, but left in his last year to work in jobs from gritty to glitzy, starting at a motorcycle shop and progressing through offices, retail, an independent design and manufacturing business, and most recently a stint managing an adult literacy program at a library branch in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city. All has become source material for his writing. He has pursued journalism, photography, and editorial writing, which, combined with his years in motorcycle culture, introduced him to the darker side of the dream. His fiction concentrates on working-class life, homelessness, and cultures of violence, and the indifference of the Dominant Culture to it all.

“I’ve Kept the Fish Alive” by Jessie Atkin

Image by Cole Rise, used with permission.

I have a fish in a glass jar. She lives beside the bed on a desk with twelve pens, four chapsticks, three books with no pictures, and one baseball card that belongs in the old cigar box next to it. The card isn’t in the cigar box because the jar is sitting on the lid and I have discovered the fish does not like to be moved. It is a very small desk entrusted with holding very many things. It has three drawers, but they are already full and I am not supposed to use them. I think the fish is asleep now. I can tell she’s not dead.

I wish I had a bird or a monkey. I know if I were a pirate I’d want a monkey instead of a parrot. I don’t understand why more people can’t answer that question.

What I want an answer to is why alcoholics are the only ones awarded a special chip when they’re a year out. All I have is the fish who it is my responsibility to keep alive, which I guess might be called ironic.

I’m trying to read Ivanhoe but all I’m managing to do is drink my beer. It’s not an hour for reading or drinking but it’s been a year since my body has treated the nighttime as anything with rules. I wonder why on the page the heart is said to be something so much more fragile than the skin when in life that doesn’t seem at all true.

The tracks beneath my wristwatch illustrate this truth. I drew them to prove I was hurting even if it wasn’t my heart, as everyone supposed. I was supposed to feel something, so I made every effort to make sure I did.

My beer’s warm. It goes down easier that way, but it doesn’t taste any better. The movies say it’s supposed to help, though really Hollywood recommends something stronger.

The knights, in Ivanhoe I mean, seem to get along with wine. I save wine for desperation because it does, sometimes, help me sleep. And I know sleeping is important. And, like hearts, is supposed to be much simpler and more easily understood. But wine is also more expensive.

I can hear the jingling of my gimpy dog in the silence of my parent’s house, all hops and skips with a cast on his back right leg. I’m not the only one awake. He knows where I am, on the pullout in the basement and I want to remind him to stay away from the stairs, but some people are actually asleep and, despite my reminders, neither he nor anyone else seems to listen.

I’m not fully responsible for keeping the dog alive, that’s a shared custody situation with my parents. The fish on the other hand, I don’t know that anyone else even remembers she’s down here with me. Which all sounds exactly like something I would have said at sixteen, and I don’t know if it’s lucky that, this far away from sixteen, I still sound the same and, once again, live in my parents’ house. Stories like this are written for and about teenagers, no one writes them for people like me who are much closer to thirty than we are to high school.

At thirty you’re supposed to be able to handle this. You’re supposed to be able to handle most things. All those young adult novels were supposed to prepare you. But there are only so many situations you can prepare for and none of them are targeted at alleviating particularly poor brain chemistry. That’s what the meds are for, to make any preparation remotely possible.

But everything that was possible then isn’t possible now. Marriage, kids, milestones. All I can accomplish now is feeding the fish, getting out of bed, and not cutting. That’s the point. That’s all anyone’s asked of me in awhile. And it’s still been hard. But those aren’t the sort of accomplishments you Instagram about or talk up at a reunion. Apparently they’re not even the sorts of accomplishments they give chips for.

There’s no graduation, or cards with checks enclosed. There’s no cake or even celebratory phone calls. Maybe I’m the only one who remembers the date. And just like the act itself I have to do this on my own, celebrate and congratulate myself with a drink and a pat on the back. And maybe part of being closer to thirty than sixteen is being okay with celebrating yourself by yourself.

I hear a burble and know the fish is awake. It’s impossible to have a regular sleep schedule when you live in the basement and only get light when someone feels like reading or lying awake. She blows bubbles at the surface of her jar sometimes. The Internet says this means she’s happy and basically marking her territory.

“Hey,” I say. “You awake? You happy?”

Her fin flutters.

“L3,” I say. Named her after a Star Wars droid. It seemed appropriate for a fish. Part of this world but part of its own world too.

She blows another bubble and then swims in a circle.

“Are you bored?”

She shakes her head.

“You could live outside the jar for a little while as long as you stayed wet.”

“But it wouldn’t be very comfortable.”

That’s probably true. She’s just alive, and she’s cool with it. She doesn’t like to move so I make sure she doesn’t have to. She’s even cool with the insomnia. But I guess the fish doesn’t have to get up for work in the morning.

Which I do now. And always did. Never expected a special lunch or anything at the office because I never told anyone there. Never gave them a reason to suspect. Because, like AA, this is supposed to be anonymous. You don’t get a branded sweatshirt or framed photo for surviving. You just do. But here you don’t get a sponsor or a mentor either. I’m trying to decide if I care. Maybe I’m making this all into a bigger thing than it is, now. It was big then, but not now. So why celebrate something small? I guess I should ask everyone at AA. But I don’t go to AA. I don’t have a problem that is quite that defined. I mean, it’s defined. It comes with a name, and doctors, and prescriptions, but no one has ever celebrated it as a group activity. I’m no hero. So I guess that’s why we don’t celebrate. But I guess there are heroes in this story too. Which is why, while reading Ivanhoe and drinking, unlike L3, I will get up in the morning. Because there’s a little boy in my class. He’s four years old and both of our favorite color is green, which is how I always know where he will sit on the carpet with the star in the center and the letters around the edge. The S is the green we both like.

And I can’t imagine being four and having my teacher kill herself, or at least die as I’m sure they’d spare my class any gory details, as well as the gory falsehoods, like it was a broken heart that did it. And he would probably only ever remember how he felt rather than what happened. He’d remember where he was sitting when he found out, on that green S that is both of our favorite color. He would understand I wasn’t coming back probably because I drew a picture of Batman for him last week, who we both also love, and he wouldn’t be able to love Batman anymore. And maybe he loves me as much as he loves Batman. Which is why I keep getting up. And why I keep L3 alive.

And it has been a year after all. A year of living with my parents, and drinking through my insomnia, though Ivanhoe is new. And it has also been a year of someone who is happy to see me everyday, even though he’s four, and not at all what the movies train you to expect. And that has to be okay too. Because there are no stories about me. There are no stories where you try to kill yourself in your twenties, and you don’t, and there’s no institutionalization, just changing your meds and moving in with your parents. There’s no story where you attempt suicide not because your heart is broken but because you think you don’t even have one to break. There’s no action or heroes or villains really. There’s no group therapy, or sobriety chips. There’s just me keeping the fish alive, because who else can? And maybe this is the story no one else has written, even though I know this has happened before. And will happen again. Though not exactly like this.

There are no calls, or cards, or presents, or parties. But tomorrow morning I’ll get up with bags under my eyes and walk into work and get a hug.

There’s a knock on my door. I freeze and hear L3 burble. I can feel my heart in my throat and my wrists and I know my new anxiety is still more pronounced than the depression of three hundred and sixty five days ago. I strain to hear if it’s the dog or someone else. What’s out there now? At this time? What’s supposed to be?


Jessie Atkin 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

“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.

“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.

“The Australian Valiant in Its Natural Habitat” by Welton B. Marsland

“Sunrise Sunset” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas, 36″ x 60″

They were somewhere on the wrong side of Horsham. At least the number beside Melbourne’s name on the road signs was steadily declining.

Jeremy’s right foot had been on the accelerator so long that he wouldn’t be surprised to find it stuck there at journey’s end. Heat and sweat caused the gum trees on the roadside to dance in his peripheral vision for a fleeting, sickly moment.

“You okay?”

The voice from the back seat prickled the back of Jeremy’s neck. He hadn’t realised he’d moaned softly. “Huh?” he glanced into the mirror. The boy was sprawled along the Valliant’s long back seat, grubby hands cradling a sawn-off shotgun, both truncated barrels pointed at Jeremy’s nape.

“I said,” the boy sighed, “Are you okay? You moaned or something. What’s up?”

Jeremy stared at dark blue bitumen. “Nothing.” What else could he reply? He’d only been heading out for coffee, after all. He wondered again—117th time this journey—how long did Dirk and Grania wait in their favourite Fremantle café as Jeremy’s expected arrival time came and went? How many different types of shit did they call him for standing them up?

Jeremy remembered how smooth Dirk had sounded on the phone. He’d accepted the purred invitation without hesitation, tied his hair back, grabbed his leather jacket and gone. Almost out the door, he’d doubled back to his bedroom, searching amongst the detritus on the floor for the silver star on a chain Grania and Dirk had given him last Christmas.

They’d wanted coffee in the café he’d first met them in—a good sign. He’d pulled out of his driveway hastily, the sleek classic car narrowly missing the letterbox. At the end of his street, as he checked for non-existent traffic, he realised two things—one, he’d left his phone on the kitchen table, and two, there were shotgun barrels currently being pressed to the back of his neck. The sensation was cold and sharp; he could actually feel tiny, vicious nodules of rudely hacked metal scraping his skin. The Valiant stalled.

“Get it started again! Move it!” The voice sounded so young. Was this a joke? The barrels jabbed him once, twice. Jeremy fumbled the gear stick and ignition, deciding any joke that went like this was best played along with for the time being.

“Right,” the voice resumed when they were back on their way, “I’m heading for Melbourne. You’re gonna be nice and take me there.”

“Melbourne?!” Jeremy stared stupidly at his petrol gauge. “How?!”

“Drive me there of course, dickwit!”

And so it was.

Jeremy barely even noticed Perth falling away behind them those first few hours. His eyes were glued to the roads, not even daring to glance into his mirror. Several times, his fingers cramped around the wheel; knuckles bloodless, white. This Can’t Be Happening, he thought repeatedly, the shotgun’s lazy presence telling him otherwise, even as he thought it.

“We’re … we’re almost out of petrol.” He’d found his voice at last, somewhere behind his knees, apparently.

“Better stop somewhere then, hey?”

A small servo loomed up before them. “You got enough money on ya? Do ya want me to pay?”

Jeremy thought of the coffee and cake money in his jacket and stammered his negative reply.

“Settled then,” the voice breezed, like a boss announcing he’ll pick up the tab at a business luncheon. “I’ll pay our way ’til we get there.” A rolled up bundle of money plonked into Jeremy’s lap. “Use that. And be nice.”

Be nice? Jeremy almost laughed. Shouldn’t the voice say something like “Don’t try anything stupid”? or “No funny business”? Surely “be nice” was a little out of place here?

He stopped the Valiant at a bowser and because the place had a hand-painted sign boasting of driveway service, he waited for an attendant. A man soon appeared, smearing oil stains over a dirty overall. He waddled up to Jeremy’s window, smiling gap-toothedly.

“Series S,” he leered at the Valiant as though appraising a barmaid’s cleavage. “Bewdiful condition. Must be proud of her?”

Jeremy nodded dumbly. There was silence from the back seat and the shotgun had moved from the back of his neck. Surely, though, the amputated barrels were pressed into the restored leather upholstery of his backrest, waiting to blow both he and his beloved car apart unless he did his best to “be nice”.

“Fill her up, thanks,” he croaked.

The attendant shuffled the bowser nozzle into place, free hand tapping on the shiny black roof. “Restore her yerself, did ya?”

“Yeah,” Jeremy sighed. “Spent all summer on it. Me and some friends.”

He was lost for one sweet moment in memories … the bonnet sparkling in strong Perth sunshine, he and Dirk with heads bent close over mechanical intricacies, so engrossed that only Grania jiggling as she waxed the Valiant from bumper to bumper could distract them.

“Must be proud of her,” the attendant drawled again. Jeremy passed the man some money from the roll in his lap, the man passed back some workshop-grubbied change.

“Y-yes, I am. Thank you.”

Back on the road, the voice rose again. “Does that radio work? Or is it just for looks?”

“It works.” Jeremy twiddled the knobs, trying to find something the voice decided it liked.

“Cool!” the voice exclaimed, “Leave it on this!”

They travelled hours without saying a word. Jeremy tried not to look at the landscape too much; he hated being out of the city and this never-ending expanse, the unflinching openness of it, made him queasy. Jeremy instead filled his mind with candlelit images of bedrooms, rough kisses in dark nightclubs, three person conga lines around his kitchen table to cocktail music rescued from op-shops. His abductor stretched out along the back seat and growled along with every lyric the radio spilt into the car’s interior. Darkness was deep around them by the time the voice realised its driver must be wearying.


Jeremy started at the sound, at the very poke of the voice.

“Tired? Want me to drive a while?”

Jeremy pulled the car into the gravel siding, feeling a little sick. “What’ll you do with me while you’re driving?” Oh god, his mind trembled, don’t let him put me in the boot. Oh god, please…


“So!” the boy slid into the driver’s seat, testing his foot-to-pedal comfort, “Ever been tied up before?”

Jeremy couldn’t help laughing. Could this teenager even guess why an adult might find that question amusing? He couldn’t be more than fourteen, surely? For godsake, he was being held captive by a little kid! He looked down at the complicated knots he was tied with and sighed heavily. A little kid who’d been a Boy Scout, obviously.

“Can you drive?” Jeremy demanded. “A lot of work’s gone into this car. I don’t want it wrecked by some little shit out for a joyride.”

The boy turned the engine over expertly and cast Jeremy a baleful look. “Do I look like I’m out for a joyride? Now be nice and sleep. I’ll need you driving during the day when people might see us.”

A flat tyre near the Victorian border was to be the only further event of the journey. Jeremy resigned himself to getting the kid to Melbourne quickly. He didn’t want to ask questions, didn’t want to try escaping and be a maimed or dead hero. The kid didn’t seem talkative either, so they rode out their trip with only the most essential of speech.

That’s why Jeremy was startled by the sudden questioning outside Horsham.

“You okay? You moaned or something. What’s up?”

“Nothing.” He sighed again. “Actually, yeah, something’s up.” He glanced into the mirror, finding the childish, wide brown eyes of his captor peering back. “I was heading out for coffee. Just a bloody coffee. There’s these people … you’re too young to understand, but this … couple … are very dear to me. I haven’t seen them for a while. We’d had this stupid argument over showing the car at a collectors’ show. Yeah, this car. Did it up together, see. Anyway. We had this stupid argument and haven’t seen each other since. I’ve been miserable, okay? Then suddenly they call me and want to meet in the place we first met. That’s where I was going when you popped up. Now here I am,” he made a sweeping gesture at the green and gold land rushing by. “Here I am thousands of miles out of my way, I’ve stood up the two people I love most, and I’ve got a shotgun pointed at the back of my frigging neck! To top all this off—have you seen the state of this car?! She’s a grand old lady and we’re putting her through a bloody cross-country rally!” Jeremy swiped angrily at tears as he finished, wondering what young thugs thought of blokes who cried these days.

The boy was quiet while Jeremy composed himself then, for the first time, he swung his legs over the red leather backrest and fell into the front passenger seat. “I wouldn’t worry about the car if I were you,” he said. “Vals are tough. You could drive her through a war zone and she’d pull up alright on the other side. Plus, y’know, you and yer mates did a great job on her. You could keep going up to Brisbane before she’d even need a service, I bet.”

Jeremy snorted a teary laugh. “And what would you know about cars?”

“My dad was a mechanic. Used to work on oldies like this. Old Valiants. Old Holdens. He would’ve loved this car. Always wanted a Series S…”

Jeremy glanced sideways and caught the wistful look on the boy’s face. It took him a moment longer to realise the shotgun had been left, forgotten, in the back.

“Is that why you chose my car? Because your Dad would’ve liked it?”

“Yeah. Plus it’s not hard to get into a locked Val. Sorry mate, but it isn’t.”

The boy and Jeremy both smiled cautiously. Jeremy shrugged, giving his attention back to the road. He still didn’t want to ask of the boy’s whys and hows, even though it was probably possible to do so now.


The lights of Melbourne’s skyscrapers winked at the Valiant as it approached journey’s end. The boy dozed lightly. Jeremy nudged him awake, telling him to put his seatbelt on.

“Sure,” the boy said, first leaning over into the back to shove the shotgun into a battered sports bag. “North Melbourne station’s probably the best place to leave me. D’ya know where that is?”

Jeremy shook his head. “Never been out of WA before.” He laughed grimly. “You know Melbourne?”

“Yeah. My mum’s here somewhere. Haven’t seen her since I was six, when Dad took me to Perth. She’ll probably pretend she’s glad he’s dead when I tell her. But she’ll be upset really, I reckon. She always said he was a loser, doing all those robberies and stuff. Now he’s gone and proved her right. He should’ve stuck to fixing cars, instead of driving ’em away from banks really fast…” He smirked and hauled the sports bag into his lap, hugging it close while Jeremy eased the car into the dark parking area at North Melbourne train station.

They sat silently, looking embarrassed for a short while. “My mum always told me to be nice to people who help me,” the boy fumbled with his seatbelt and sports bag. “I’m sorry if I scared yer too much or anything. I know I’ve really put you out, but there was nuthin’ else I could do. I had to get away real quick … and it’s such a cool car…” He held his hand out. Jeremy looked it at a moment as if wondering what the boy wanted, then he clasped it and shook it solidly.

The boy got out of the car, threw two rolled-up bundles onto the seat and ran off, shouting a childish “Thanks heaps!”.


Although he’d given up smoking years ago, Jeremy ripped open a pack of smokes from the nearby pub’s machine as he listened thankfully to the coins dropping into the pay phone. He raised his voice over the traffic-mumble around him and blurted “I love you” into the receiver, barely registering if it was Grania or Dirk who answered at the other end.


Welton B. Marsland is a queer-punk writer from Melbourne, Australia whose stories, poetry & more have appeared in many local & international markets. Debut novel “By the Currawong’s Call,” set in 1890s Australia, is available through harpercollins.com.au and recently won the Romance category at the 2018 Bisexual Book Awards in New York. Twitter: @wbmarsland Website: weltonbmarsland.com

“The Unfastening of Winter” by Cris Mulvey

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

Alice stretched her tired body and dropped heavily onto the straight-backed chair at the side of the open casket. She ran calloused hands through dull-blond hair and pressed her palms, just for a moment, against her eyes, steeling her mind against the silence. You’re free now. So…will you?

It was as if someone else had spoken, this unexpected voice inside her head. She looked sharply around the room. It was empty. There was only her husband’s body laid out before her, his face gray, but pain-free; the picture of the Sacred Heart above it; and herself, poised stiffly on the edge of this hard, little chair.

The Sacred Heart seemed to stare at her, a bit like the Mona Lisa, she thought. No matter which way she shifted to try to change the light, his eyes followed her. The voice in her head said it again. “Free, at last. So….will you?” It became like a mantra. It kept time with the tick-tock-tick of the old clock on the mantelpiece. “Free now. Free now. Free. Will you go now? Go now? Go?”

She focused on Matt’s face. This face that had lain beside her all the nights of thirty years, even those of the last ten, when he’d been bed-ridden, unable to move, paralyzed from the neck down, from a fall on the train tracks at work. It wasn’t that she hated him, she thought, swallowing. It was that she felt absolutely nothing. Nothing at all.

“It’s a kind face,” she mused, searching for a feeling, “a warm one, one that lit up often with smiling.”

“He’s a man who’s done his best, all the days of his life” her father had said once, reprimanding her. ” A man who loves you.”

“Enough for both of us,” Matt had said, the day he’d asked her to marry him.

“And you loved your sons” she said aloud now, to try to make herself feel it,

so hard they brought tears to your eyes, in good times and bad.” She sighed. She still felt nothing, Nothing at all.

Her eyes moved down his body. His hands were large as spades, from his work as an electrician for the railroad. Pale and purplish, knob-knuckled and rough-skinned, they lay limply now, folded across his chest. She remembered the feel of them on her skin, their first night, the way they’d grasped at her breasts, pulled at them, how they had closed tight on her shoulders at the end; her feeling of being taken. She had lain there afterwards, thinking about another man, a man who had taught her what it had felt like to open, to surrender; to pour herself, body and soul, like a river into an ocean, like milk into an urn.


She’d seen Doug first at a rodeo, three hundred miles away in the eastern part of the state. Black-haired and strong, his eyes, the color of wild phlox, narrowing each time he looked at her, flashing like the sun does on the rough edges of broken ice. Each time something inside her had shimmered. She watched him later, moving with the horses he was loading, his body loose with the out of doors, built to work under wide Montana skies, not in its dried out little towns.

Their first evenings together, at the end of her father’s corral, he had whispered to her of the ways of the wind high up there in the mountains, had dared her to cross the fence, cajoling her to leave her world of pianos and china and little lace doilies, just for an evening. When she declined, he told her he’d wait for her behind the chapel on Sunday, and that he’d show her the places God really lived. So she feigned illness at the start of her papa’s sermon and left for air. He helped her up behind him and immediately they were galloping, out across the mountain-side of the town’s white fences, out to the prairie’s tides washed up against sudden reefs, where there were no fences, only the smell of sage and pine, the ice-cold splash of rock-strewn creeks, the secret dens of animals who lived without fetters.

They’d had six months, six secret months of wild riding across open grassland, six months of him reading to her philosophy and poetry, six months of wet kissing, pressed first up against the rough, flaked bark of spruce trees, later, sprawled on the prickling forest floor. Six months where he’d awakened her as rain does soil and planted in her a new sense of what was possible.

It was a deathly cold winter’s night when the stone he threw woke her – and her papa. It had ended then and there. She remembered the long, slow wail of the train, as it pulled out of town, taking him eastwards. She could see it still, snaking its way out across the prairie, the prairie that stretched in waves like the ocean, waves which that evening were tinted hues of pink and purple, stained by the light of the dying sun. She crept into the frozen fields to do her weeping.


A year later, these hands that lay limp now beside her, had taken hold of her and made her a wife.

She had thought about bolting the first day he’d brought her to this town, to the very house where he’d grown up, a house full of the photos and mementos of a family she must now call her own. It was a bigger town than her hometown, but its streets were narrower and its houses smaller. There were no trees to break the dreariness, no views, only the rounded looming shapes of mountains, pressing around her from all sides, crowding out the great expanse of sky. All her life, it had been sky that had soothed her, helped her lungs expand, helped her to breathe. Here, there was almost no sky.

It would have been easy. The train passed behind the fence of their tiny backyard. She could have hopped on it any day, as it slowed its pace to move through town, slipped into one of its carriages, and ridden it ‘til it left this mountain valley far behind. She could have stayed aboard until, turning east across the open prairies; it left even the endless plains behind eventually and began to move between buildings, taller than the wheat silos of her home town, high above streets that danced, not just with the hard green of cottonwoods, but with the soft spread of maple leaves, and the creamy, rose-colored froth of cherry blossom.

But she didn’t.

The boys had come. First Tom. Born whimpering. She remembered the grasp of his hands too, their gripping at her hair, their reluctance ever to let her go. Robert, born a year later had, from the start, sucked at life, not her. He was distant, contained, utterly independent. She adored him.

What she remembers most about those long winters was the unceasing whine of the wind sweeping down from the mountain tops, whipping itself around the outside of the house. Hearing to it, she could think only of the barren, snow-locked flanks of Mt Heron, that beast of a mountain that rose six thousand feet above her window, where even the wolves had to shelter from the cold, from the unbroken, bone-shattering lonesomeness. She would picture the snowfields up there, their top layers shimmering with crystals, burning with starlight, the rocks far below, cracking and splitting beneath their weight of ice, the vast black bowl of the glistening night upended above it all. Sometimes the mountains held her in the immensity of their embrace. Sometimes, it was as though she held them, as though far inside her, in the place of her heart perhaps, or her womb, was a world of pure and dark and ice-cold beauty, lit only by the purple fire of the stars, quite untouched by human feeling.

The clock on the mantelpiece above Matt’s casket chimed loudly. Five o’clock. Another 30 minutes and the evening train, carrying her oldest son, would be pulling in. The clock drew her back to a day she’d spent the last ten years trying to forget. It had sounded just like this the very moment the last living thing inside her died.

Tom had arrived unexpectedly from Bozeman, where he and Robert had been studying. Walking straight into the living room, he waited for his parents to follow. He did not speak until they were seated. Something about his eyes had stopped her heart. The clock began to chime.

“Robert’s dead,” Tom said. “…a car crash. Early this morning. He was drunk.”

After that, all she remembered was the chiming. The sound of it just went on and on in her head. She sat there listening to it. Tom and Matt were talking, she thought. Crying maybe. She just listened to the clock’s voice, to the echoes it made through the silence of the house.

That evening she found herself alone. Matt was at work. Tom was out, making funeral arrangements, taking care of business, acting responsibly. She made her way upstairs. She pulled out the suitcase she had brought from home all those years ago. She put it on the bed and began to pack. “When they come back,” she thought, “I’ll be gone. I’ll figure out where when I’m on the train. It really doesn’t matter. East somewhere, somewhere there’s a college, a library, and a whole lot of pretty trees.”

The wind was cold. A waning moon sailed in and out of bits of angry cloud, never spilling light for long. She had been waiting in the unlit lane by the station trying not to be seen. When the train pulled in she would walk briskly through the turnstile and climb aboard. She would buy the ticket down the line.

She heard the familiar whistle, signaling the train’s passage through town. She bent to lift her suitcase, rising suddenly to a swirl of light from a car pulling in to the station yard. A car door slammed. Footsteps, hasty, on the gravel. She gripped her suitcase, turned away, walking through the turnstile and onto the platform, earlier than she had wanted. She looked southwards anxiously, towards the approaching train.

 A man came up behind her. He was out of breath. She didn’t look around.

 “Mom?” she froze. “MOM!”

 “It’s Dad. He’s had a fall. It’s bad.”

The train’s brakes screeched to a halt. A door opened right in front of her, pouring light across the platform. She moved towards it. She placed her foot on the step. The light was yellow on her shoe.

“He’s in the hospital. They can’t wake him … They think he’s paralyzed … from the neck down.”

She pulled herself into the corridor of the train and turned into a carriage. It was empty. She sat in the seat by the door. She took off her hat. She placed her suitcase by the wall beneath the window. She took off her scarf, her gloves, laid them on top. Then she gazed for one long moment east.

With the first shudder of the carriage she stood up, smoothed her coat and left the train, its gathering speed causing her to almost turn her ankle as she leapt. Her eldest son’s hand steadied her.

“Take me to him.”

From the car she saw the moonlight catch the roof of the train as it made its way out of town. On the other side of the tracks, the snow at the top of Mt Heron glinted and flared. Then a bank of cloud totally swallowed the moon.


That was ten years ago. Ten years! She’d counted again this afternoon when, emptying the urinal down the toilet, she had heard him call. Once, twice, a third time:

 “Alice. A-lice. Ple—e—-e—ase…”

Despite the mounting panic in his voice she’d pretended not to hear, listening instead to the tin-like notes the urine made sprinkling against the water of the toilet bowl. She listened to it echo, almost musically, through the silence of the house. She noted the color. Too dark. She’d have to bring him more liquids. Later. She’d been all day in and out of that room. She knew he wasn’t doing well, but, well, she couldn’t breathe. Rubbing the condensation from the inside of the bathroom window, the outline of Mt Heron appeared blurred against the evening sky. She let herself gaze at its highest slopes. She sucked them in. A sudden flurry of hail hit the tiny pane like a fistful of gravel and she started. She’d go later. Just a little later. It was time for dinner.

Alone in the steamed up warmth of her kitchen, the crackling of the wood-stove, the drone of the late afternoon radio, the sweet knowledge that not even the telephone could get to her here, she let a long, slow breath expand her ribs, then let it out. She couldn’t afford to let herself think. She hummed to the tunes that came and went on the radio. Frowning in the half-light at a recipe book, she washed, sliced, cut, diced, flung the vegetables into a casserole, flung the casserole into the stove and turned immediately to baking.

The hard slipperiness of the butter yielded beneath her fingertips. The cool softness of the flour ran across her palms. She rubbed, squeezed, kneaded, rolled, her eyes following the trickle of melting snow, as it slid pencil-thin runways down the opaque windows. Outside, she knew, Mt Heron stood, stood as it always did, stood as she stood in the midst of her life, immobile, expressionless, letting the seasons and the weathers come and go, untouched by any of it.

An hour later, she entered the bedroom to bring Matt his dinner. She found him lifeless, a dribble from his lower lip dried white against the stubble he had wanted her earlier to shave. She moved immediately to do what needed to be done.

The key in the door brought her back to the present. It was Tom. She lifted herself out of the chair to greet him. They hugged, briefly. She pulled away first and left him alone with Matt. In the kitchen she stood, hands on the cold edge of the sink, staring at the hump of Mt Heron through the net curtain. She thought of the high fields, their snow glinting in the starlight. Still, she felt nothing.


It was the day after the funeral. Tom and she were returning from an after dinner walk. He’d been trying, all day, to talk her into leaving, into going back East with him back, back to where his wife and he had a place. They’d just turned off Main St. towards the house. The streets were deserted. The shadow of the mountain stood black against the evening sky.

Suddenly, Tom stopped and waved his arm at the streets and their buildings.

“Look at this place! It’s dark! Miserable! Empty! You can’t stay here alone. There’s nothing here for you. Not now.”

She couldn’t help a wry smile. She walked on. He caught up.

“Look, I know I’ve said it before, but it all makes sense. Mo and I have tons of room. You’ll have company, and you’ll have space. When you sell the old house, you’ll have money. Then you can figure out what you want.” His voice whined with frustration. “Just give it a try, will you?”

Alice said nothing. She was trying to picture those tree-lined city streets, the ones she’d dreamed of all those years, trying to see herself walking across a tree-filled campus, reading in an oak-shelved library, sipping coffee with friends, talking poetry. But none of it would come into focus. There was only the mountain, its snow-capped peak shining far above her. Her mind would go nowhere but there. She saw herself standing atop that north facing ridge, way up there at the top of the world, gazing down at this valley that had held her life. She had never been up the mountain. Suddenly she wanted to go. Tom stepped in front of her to peer into her eyes. “I’ll think about it, Tom,” she said. “I will. Now, I, for one, am going to bed.”

Alone in the attic at the top of the house, a place she sometimes slept alone, she stood gazing through the dormer window at Mt Heron. With a flourish she threw the windows open to the night and leaned out. Far below leaves were skittering down First Street, gusting in circles, gathering in the corners of fences, and settling. It was a wind she knew, a wind she watched for, year after year, the one, she believed, came to shiver the tops of things, and whisper to them to grow.

High above it all, Mt Heron glimmered, its peak and ragged edges white with moonlight, its crevices and the meadows where the tree cover grew, pooled in darkness. Watching the curve of its massive flank and the delicate arc of silvered snow across it, Alice felt a sudden opening. The friendless world that had leaned forever against her windowpanes seemed to lift, just a little. The mountain seemed to lean towards her.

“Perhaps,” she thought, sniffing the wind “perhaps, at last, winter is over. Perhaps now, Spring can finally come.”

She had no idea what that might mean. She knew only that she would not recognize it anywhere but here.


Cris Mulvey was born and raised in Ireland and spent the first half of her life as an educator, activist, and community organizer. Drawn by the beauty of wild nature and its power to feed, heal, and inspire, she moved to Montana where she began to write poetry, short stories, and memoir. Mulvey currently lives in Northern California with her husband Jack, a dog, and two cats. Her work has appeared in a number of journals, including the Naugatuk River Review, the Whitefish Review, Mobius, Last Night and Women’s Voices for Change.

“Repossessed” by Ellen Leary

“Time is on Your Side” by Sydney McKenna, oil on canvas

I ran into him, by accident, in a department store in New York. Saks. He was buying a printed silk scarf—probably for one of his many paramours, I think, wryly. The familiar ache rises up and makes me turn away. I am going to pretend that I have not seen him and walk on, but just as I do, he turns.

“Reina! Is that you?”

His eyes flash with the sparkles that first made me fall in love with him, and he takes my arm.

“What a lovely surprise to run into you! How have you been? You look amazing!”

I manage a smile, privately relieved that I had taken some time with my appearance that morning. I know I look good. He gives me a once-over that would be highly inappropriate save from someone who had known your body intimately, and for a long time.

I think: Of all the department stores, in all the towns, in all the world, he walks into mine …”

but I say,

“Jack. How nice to see you.”

He turns back to the saleslady who is wrapping the scarf while she processes his credit card.

“Hold on a second,” he says to me, not relinquishing my arm.

He signs the receipt with his right hand, still resting his left hand on my arm. His left hand has a wedding ring.

Of course I knew that he had remarried. The information had been batted around at a cocktail party and brought to my attention by my husband. “Did you know …?” he asked. “Of course!” I said, shrugging it off, although I experienced a sudden lightheadedness and was having trouble breathing.

He turns back to me:

“Can we … I mean … are you in a big rush? Or can we have a drink somewhere?”

“I … have a meeting I’m supposed to …” I find myself stammering and he sees me flush and smiles broadly.

“Ah, come on! How long has it been? Five years? More? I want to know what you’ve been up to. Can’t the meeting wait?”

It has been seven years. I look at my watch, apprehensively.

“I suppose so,” I say, regretting it immediately. But my heart has risen like a helium balloon. “I’ll … have to make a phone call.”

 “Go ahead,” he says.

He turns to take the shopping bag that the saleslady holds out to him and I see her face respond to the eye-sparkling smile he gives her. Like they all respond.

But I take my cellphone from my purse and walk a distance away, knowing that I will be talking to my answering machine.

“Hello?” I say, into the phone, “It’s Reina. I will be late for the meeting. Please go on without me. Thanks.” I turn the phone off and stare into the distance, amazed at what a cool liar I am. I walk back to him.

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s get out of here. I know a nice restaurant not far from here. It’s after lunch hour and I’m sure they’ll let us sit with a drink for a while.”

And just like that, as though we were still married, as though I was still his wife, his possession, as though the seven years of therapy had never happened, I let myself be led out of the store.

“Look” he says, pointing up to a wrought iron fire-escape on an apartment building across the street from us, “Look how New Yorker’s strive for a tiny touch of nature.” I look. There is a potted geranium sitting in the one shaft of sunlight that has made it through the concrete labyrinth. “In California,” he says, “there are beautiful flowers all around.”

We turn into a dimly lit restaurant — a French place — that is empty except for a bartender who looks up at us, scowling, as though he has just seen his cigarette break flying out the window. Behind the bar there are racks of wine bottles in a geometric pattern.

We sit down at one of the tables with a blue and white checkered tablecloth on it and the bartender approaches us, resigned.

“Something to drink?” he asks, pleasantly, in an accent that I take as French. Maybe scowling is just his natural demeanor.

“Yes,” says Jack. “Two extra-dry vodka martinis, straight up with a twist.” He remembers.

Then he looks at me,

“You still drink martinis, don’t you?”

I smile and nod, knowing that I don’t drink them in the middle of the day.

“Reina, Reina, Reina!” he says, looking at me and shaking his head. “Look at you! Red is your color!”

“So you always said.”

“I guess the divorce did you good!”

“Oh, Jack. Don’t be ridiculous. The divorce didn’t ‘do me good’; I just pulled myself together afterward and managed to go on with my life. (Good for you, I think! Assert yourself a little.)

“What about you?” I ask. “ You are looking very well also.”

He sits back and sighs, looks down at the table.

 “Yeah. Things have been … good. I’m … I’m just in town for a short time. Actually, leaving tomorrow morning.” He looks up. “I am living in California now. Doing the tennis thing. “

“Ah. That accounts for the tan,” I say, smiling.

A piebald cat emerges from behind the bar and sits on its haunches licking its front paws.

“Yeah. It’s a nice life out there. I don’t know … you get a little older and the winters here start to wear you down. You might consider it yourself.” He looks up hopefully.

The waiter puts the two martini glasses down on the table and leaves.

“You know, I think of you often, Reina,” he says, fingering the stem of his glass. “Do you ever think of me?” He looks up waiting for my answer.

“Sure.” I say. “I think of you every time I wear a piece of the jewelry you gave me.” (Good retort. Keep hitting them back, I say to myself. All you have to do is get them over the net.)

It is beautiful jewelry. He has good taste. Some for my birthday; some for our anniversaries, and some for when he’d come home much too late. When all the wars are over and civilizations crushed, jewelry is what will remain. If you don’t believe me, go to the Met.

What I don’t say is that I once stood stock still on a busy New York street thinking I saw him, only to realize, as he came closer, that it was a stranger. Or how, late at night, when my mind wanders, I recall his hands. Or how my life went unspooling when he left and how I ran like a frantic child to pick up the thread.

He raises his glass.

“To old times,” he says.

I raise mine.

“To old times.”

We clink glasses.

The martini is good. Cold and sharp and the vodka infuses my mouth with its familiar bite. May it give me strength, I pray.

He studies my face. He tilts his head and slides his bottom teeth forward, slightly, absently scraping his top teeth. He eyes are searching mine, looking from one to the other. I feel the hackles or the shackles or whatever you call them rise on the back of my neck.

“I hear you’re with someone nice.” he says.

“Really?” I am taken aback. “Who told you?”

“Oh, people are always giving me updates on you,” he says.

I am surprised, but pleasantly so.

There is a pause. The ball is in my court. I have to say something. I meet his eyes.

“Yes,” I say. (Noncommittal. But still an answer. The score is thirty-love. Only, don’t mention “love.”)

He sighs and sits back.

My husband is nice, I think. He is kind and loving and takes good care of me. I have a happy life. A calm and centered life. But how can I say — it is like a missing limb that has been replaced by a brace: an up-to-the-minute, state-of-the-art artificial leg. That you strap on and you can walk as though nothing had happened. It is perfectly functional. But it doesn’t stop you from dreaming that you still had the real thing.

Somewhere in the back of my closet in a shoe box there is a letter in his familiar handwriting. A letter that says, “You need someone who will take a little care of you. I was never good at taking care of you. I let you get fat and unhappy.”

“He takes good care of me,” I say. (Game, set, match!)

“No children?” he asks. He knows the answer. If there had been children his sources would have told him, surely.

“No,” I say.

“We should have had some” he says. “Maybe that would have kept the marriage together.”

“Ha! It rarely does that, so I am told,” I say. “Anyway, I’m passed all that, I’m afraid.”

“Why? You’re still young, Reina. You are two years younger than I am. And I am … what? 41?”

“You are 45, Jack.”

“Oh. Really? Ah. Yeah, I guess so.”

“And you?” I ask, trying to make my voice airy. “No children?” (I don’t want to hear the answer.)

“No,” he says. “She has two from her first marriage, but they live with their father. She didn’t want any more.”

I nod. My heart resumes beating.

“Still. We should’ve had some, Reina. They would have been something else!” He smiles at me.

I manage a smile back, thinking, Yeah. They would have been something else!

We stay silent for a while, drinking our martinis and thinking of the children we never had.

“I’m glad that things worked out well for you, Reina. That you seem happy.”

Maybe I should tell him about my recurring dream: the one where I am standing at the luggage carousel of some airport. My suitcase has sprung its locks and is going around and around with the top open. All my belongings are spilling out. My intimates, my bras and panties are strewn across the metal belt, for all to see. I try to pull the suitcase off the conveyer while at the same time stretch out one hand for the items that are moving out of my reach. I am trying to hold everything together and keep the lid of the suitcase from springing open again. (I don’t need a therapist to explain the dream to me.)

A group of rowdy young people enter the restaurant. They appear to have been drinking. They sprawl at a nearby table, laughing and speaking French. The waiter eyes them and brings over some menus. One girl gets up and sits down on her boyfriend’s lap. She is caressing his neck.

We watch them. There goes our quiet drink. He reaches out and puts his hand over mine.

 “My hotel is right down the block,” he says. “The New York Palace. Madison and 50th. You know it, it used to be the Helmsley Palace. Why don’t we go there where it is quiet? I have a dinner I have to attend this evening, but we’ll still have time …”

My blood feels as though it has been carbonated.

‘Yes!” I say, “Yes!” But the words that come out of my mouth are: “I can’t, Jack, I have to get back to my husband.”

He nods, releases my hand, and finishes his drink. I finish mine, excuse myself and find the ladies’ room.

Inside I collapse on a striped divan. Oh God! To be able to pretend for one hour that all the hurt had never happened. That we are still young and so in love. To shut our eyes and cling to each other as we used to; to feel his arms around me, his mouth on mine …to fill the well of longing for just a tiny moment. To feel whole again!

Why did I have to arrive at Saks at exactly that time? What if I had stopped in at the shoemaker’s as I had planned to do, and not suddenly change my mind when I saw the bus approaching? I never would have been at the scarf counter at the same time he was. Why didn’t I turn away a split second sooner, before he saw me? Can all of life hinge on such a tenuous element of chance?

I pull myself together and run a comb through my hair. I add some lipstick and determine to go back out there and face up to the challenge. The martini has made its way into my bloodstream and is giving me strength.

He stands as I approach the table.

“I’ve paid the bill,” he says.

“Thank you,” I manage to say. We leave the restaurant and stand outside for a moment. He is headed in one direction; I in the other.

“Maybe we could meet every five years or so,” he says. “It’s been nice catching up with you.”

“Sure” I say.

I smile at him. A lock of his perfectly coiffed hair has blown lose and I reach to pat it back into place, but stop myself. I think of Barbra Streisand standing in front of the Plaza with Robert Redford at the end of THE WAY WE WERE. That gesture she did spoke volumes. It was so inmate. It told of the affection they still had for each other; of past lives living together, laughing in the sunshine and making love, but there was also the poignancy of the differences that rose up to crush the love — not all of it. Just enough so as not to be able to live together.

I kiss his cheek. “See you in five years,” I say.

I turn and head down the block. I can feel he is watching me, but I don’t turn back. I walk into Saks and go up to the same counter where ladies’ scarves are sold. It only takes me a minute to find a beautiful silk scarf that is way out of my price range. I take it up to the saleslady. It is the same saleslady who was there before. She doesn’t recognize me. That often happens when you stand beside Jack, I think. Standing in his aura. No one can see you because the light that he gives off is so blinding.

I pay for the scarf, head out of the store wearing it and hail a taxi. I give the driver my address and sit back in the seat. There will be no one at home, I know. My husband is away on a business trip. One end of the scarf flutters in the open window.


Ellen Tovatt Leary spent twenty years acting on the professional stage. She performed in theaters from the Ahmanson in Los Angeles to the State Theatre in Lincoln Center, including four Broadway, many off-Broadway and regional theaters. She worked with Hal Prince, Maureen Stapleton and James Hammerstein among others. She graduated from Antioch College and was a Fulbright scholar at LAMDA. Her first book, a memoir, Mother Once Removed, details her childhood growing up on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in the 1940s with an eccentric, divorced mother. She was on the writing staff of the Carnegie Hill News in New York for fourteen years. She has published short stories as well as poems, is a native New Yorker who currently resides, with her husband, in LA.

“The Blue Rigi” by Patricia O’Donnell

“Transitions” by Lisa Boardwine, Oil/Cold Wax on Panel, 12 x 12.

In every story Clarissa began, or even thought of, someone had recently died. There was no other story for her: someone loved, someone irreplaceable, had died, and how did one go on? She told herself it wasn’t because of Jared; it was because everyone dies, and how can one write anything that doesn’t acknowledge that?

For Jared, dying was rich in comic possibilities. He had the worst sense of humor; no joke was too corny for him. “Treat each day as if it were your last, and one day, it will be.” They were jokes he would have told their child, if they’d had one. So he told them to Clarissa, daily, to her anguished moans and protestations: “What’s brown and sticky? A stick.”

Clarissa flew overnight from Boston to Dublin. She faded during the long line going through Customs, twisting through the cavernous, windowless room. She caught a bus to Monaghan, and finally a taxi to the artists’ residency. She was here for two weeks, a trip funded by the university where she taught, to finish a novel. The estate house, in Gothic Revival style, was impressive; the grounds green and rolling down to a tidy lake. Her head swam as the Director showed her around the place, rushing her past the artist studios, making jokes in his Irish accent that left her bewildered. When she made it to her room, she collapsed.

After a time of staring at the posts of the four-poster bed, feeling all the mistakes of her life, including the decision to take this trip to Ireland; her failures in her professional life; her personal unworthiness, and the sense of loss and aching loneliness at the center of it all that she tried not to look at head-on, she fell asleep.

When she woke, it was nearly time for dinner. She opened the drapes and stared at the well-tended gardens in light constantly shifting from clouds moving overhead: early roses, lavender, and lilies. She showered, put on her black dress, and brushed her long brown hair. Maybe there would be single men at dinner, devilishly handsome Irish men or Brits, intrigued by an American woman. She leaned close to the bathroom mirror, drawing a fine dark line around her eyes.

There was just one man at dinner, a white-haired man who sat next to her. He was the husband of the woman across from Clarissa. Painters, they each had a studio in the building that used to be the stables. The man leaned in to Clarissa to hear her speak in a way that reminded her of her father. His wife leaned forward to talk with Clarissa, once reaching across the table to touch her hand. Later Clarissa struck up a conversation with a dark-haired, intense young woman sitting next to her, an essayist from Dublin. The wine helped Clarissa feel loquacious. In this setting, no one knew of her failures, losses and mistakes, or that the novel she was working on was going nowhere. She told the woman, whose name was Siobhan, about her tenure-track position at the state university in the Midwest, and about her two close male colleagues. “They’re both very well-published,” Clarissa said. “And they’re friends.”

“Oh, dear,” Siobhan said, in a way that made Clarissa feel she understood more than Clarissa said; understood something of the paternal tone of the older colleague, and the mild flirtatiousness of the other. Clarissa didn’t want to complain about these men; they were her friends and colleagues, and it was important to keep positive in the workplace. As her mother used to remind her, no one is perfect. “Not even you,” she would say, looking pointedly at her daughter.

There was just one person who thought Clarissa was perfect, and he was gone.

In the morning Clarissa stared at her fingers, resting on the laptop’s keyboard. Left index on F, right index on J, waiting to be told to move. The novel waited on the lighted screen, truncated, partial, and longing. She’d started writing about a young woman who wanted to be a gymnast, but the story shifted until the young woman was older, and had lost her lover in a fire. Clarissa thought this turn might be a bad idea; it seemed obvious to write about a woman who had suffered a great personal loss, but it was all she wanted to write. It was the experience she knew best. Her fingers hesitated on the keys. She wanted her character to grieve, and then fall in love again, and discover she was loved in return. The thought made her embarrassed. Surely that wasn’t enough to write about; surely she needed a darker, more complicated vision.

Three fat flies buzzed at the window in front of her, trying helplessly to get to the garden. The window was closed but she saw it could open at the top, with a lever pushed straight out. Standing on the chair, then climbing onto the desk in her bare feet, Clarissa pushed the window open and secured it. Climbing down, she took a piece of paper from the desk, and pushed its edge gently against one of the flies. She finally got the fly to step onto the piece of paper, and remain there while she climbed back on the desk and tapped it out the window. “There you go, dummy,” she said. She climbed down and back up again with the next fly, and the third. Standing on the desk, tapping the paper out of the crack of the open window, she watched the fly zoom away into the overcast sky, then looked down to see a man, standing in front of her on the garden walk.

He turned away with a smile, embarrassed to be caught watching. From his position on the sidewalk it would have been hard not to notice her, standing full-length in front of the window and reaching up. Still, it had been worth the effort to stop hearing their anxious, desperate buzzing. She sat back on her chair, pushed it up to the desk, and looked at her keyboard.

None of her characters died of cancer, which is what her fiancé died from; she chose more dramatic deaths. Fire, or car crashes, or suicides; something sudden, rather than the slow, sad slog that had been the approach of Jared’s death. She hadn’t really known he was going to die, even though she should have known, until all of a sudden it was time to call his parents. She had never found the right time to tell him that, when he got better, she wanted to try for a child. It was what he’d wanted, all those years, a decision they disagreed on that kept them from settling on a date for a wedding. She was in grad school, then starting a stressful new job; where was there time to be a mother? Then, when she felt ready, he was dying, then suddenly their story was over.

She didn’t want to write a character as stupid as Clarissa had been. She wanted her character, Amanda, to be perceptive, intuitive, and courageous. She wanted someone to fall helplessly in love with Amanda, and for Amanda to fall in love also, after she finally determined the man was for real. Like Jared had been for real. It had taken a long time for Clarissa to finally believe that, and to trust.

There were new people at dinner that evening: a couple of women who were sharing a cottage and working together on a play, and the man who’d seen Clarissa at the window. Shaking her hand, he said, “I’m so sorry about earlier. I couldn’t help watching; I thought you might fall forward through the window, and I would need to be there to rescue you.” He had gray streaks in his dark curly hair and a bit of softness around his middle. Clarissa thought he was British, but he said his accent was originally Australian. “Tempered by years of living in Dublin.” His name sounded vaguely familiar, Dillon Burnham. He asked her name, and what she was working on, and saw him search his memory for any trace of her.

“You wouldn’t have heard of me,” Clarissa assured him. He sat next to her at the table. Throughout dinner she was aware of him, of his arm close to hers. She talked with one of the playwrights. Carol and Isabel were from Belfast. Carol talked about the community theater she worked with, the plays she’d written, their progress on this one.

Clarissa knew she should talk of her own work, but she didn’t want to; it felt private to her, wrong to discuss. Instead she asked more questions of Carol, and nodded thoughtfully, pretending to listen.

Clarissa slept deeply, waking only once when she opened her eyes to darkness, forgetting where she was, what this room was, what this building was. For a brief moment, she thought Jared might be lying next to her in the house they used to live in together, and reached to feel for him. It wasn’t until she was standing in the dark room, feeling the walls, that it came back to her: she was in Ireland, at the Artist Residency. That was her desk, that was the door that led to her bathroom.

In the morning, she was glad she didn’t have to talk to anyone when she helped herself to the food set out on the counter; she was not a morning conversationalist. Jared was more energetic in the morning, but had learned to save conversation, and especially jokes, until later. That was one of the things that it takes time to learn about a person. She didn’t know if she could ever do that again: take the time to adapt to someone, to their snoring, for example, and have them take the time to adapt to her. She thought of the things she did that used to annoy Jared: take too long to leave the house when they were going out, always remembering one more thing she needed, or a last-minute change of shoes. They were getting over these minor irritations, finding ways to reach their affections around the things that irritated them, and Clarissa had just begun imagining what it might be like to have a child with this man, when he became ill.

But for that short time their relationship had been a success for Clarissa, a flash in her life. So brief, it seemed now, the five years they’d been together; a gasp, a kiss, a moment, and it was over, Jared gone as if he’d never been.

Clarissa took the time to look up on her laptop poems by Dillon Burnham. He was quite accomplished, with several well-reviewed books and a major British award. It was strange to be reading the words of someone who was in one of the rooms next to her, just beyond a wall. The language of the poems was vigorous, with exact, unsentimental observation of nature. She particularly liked one that came around to the subject of death, and the loss of the loved one’s eyes. She thought the writer of that poem must understand loss. It helped her move back into the novel; she imagined Amanda remembering her dead lover’s eyes. Clarissa made those eyes gray, the same color Jared’s eyes had been.

At dinner Clarissa sat between the two playwrights. They were a couple, she presumed, thought she wouldn’t have guessed that either of them were gay. Carol had curly red hair and Isabel was tall and thin, graceful, with long blond hair. Isabel took an interest in Clarissa’s work, asking her what it was like to teach creative writing in the United States.

Clarissa was aware of Dillon Burnham at the other end of the table, glancing their way. After dinner, Carol and Isabel stood and apologized for leaving: “Back to work!” Carol said, dropping her napkin on the table.

“She’s a rough taskmasker, she is,” Isabel said, and followed Carol out the door. Dillon moved to sit next to Clarissa, bringing his bottle of wine with him. He filled Clarissa’s glass. “Cheers,” he said, and raised his glass. “How’s the writing going?”

“Let’s not talk about that,” Clarissa said. “I read some of your poems,” she confessed.

She watched a faint pink spread up the sides of his face. “Oh, no,” he said.

“They are quite beautiful.” She couldn’t remember the name of the poem, but said “My favorite is the one about the eyes.”

He raised his glass again. “Here’s to the writing of Clarissa, of which she doesn’t wish to speak. May her characters suffer a better fate than her namesake.”

He was referring to the heroine of the novel by Samuel Richardson. That Clarissa was abducted and raped, but fought for her virtue to the end. “My parents had not read that book,” she said, “Or they might have thought twice about naming me.”

“It is a beautiful name,” Dillon said.

Outside the glass doors, the evening was soft and gray, bushes shaking in the wind. “Would you walk down by the lake with me?” Dillon asked. They filled their glasses and walked down the gravel path to where the lake shone, one white swan drawing lines across its surface.

“This is simply ridiculous,” Clarissa said. Dillon looked at her. “All this.” She gestured with her wine glass. “The building, the lake, the grounds. Ridiculously beautiful,” she said.

They stood by the water, watching the swan cut the lake in half with a smooth line. Dillon taught literature at Trinity, and played the cuislenna, an instrument he described as a small Irish bagpipe, but he didn’t mention a wife. Clarissa kept thinking of the eyes of the poem, and of a pair of gray eyes she couldn’t forget. She wanted to tell him of her sorrow, and see if he had something similar to share. Jared’s death had occurred just nine months ago. Long enough to grow a baby, if she’d been able to do that. She stood tense, and instead of saying anything about eyes, blurted out, “Did you hear about the black swan that walked into a pub?”

“No . . .” Dillon said, turning to face her.

“The bartender says, ‘Hey, I named this pub after you!’ The swan says, ‘What, Dave?’”

Dillon chuckled politely. Clarissa felt a flush of embarrassment. What had gotten into her? After a quiet moment he said, “The lake is just the color of a Turner watercolor, don’t you think?”

Clarissa bit her lip, searching her memory for Turner’s watercolors. When she confessed that she didn’t have a clear image of Turner’s paintings of lakes, Dillon said he would show her one. He wanted to go fetch his computer now, but she said no. “Tomorrow,” she said. “Eleven o’clock. We’ll meet in the kitchen.”

They said good night in the darkened kitchen. Clarissa impulsively reached over and took his hand. He was so kind, his eyes looking down at her warmly. “Good night,” she said. “It was a pleasure.”

He took her hand to his lips and gave her thumb a quick kiss. “Dear Clarissa,” he said. His low voice rumbled through her. She slipped away to her room without saying anything else. There would be tomorrow to talk.

In her room Clarissa lit a low lamp and looked at herself in the mirror. The evening had gone well, except for that ridiculous joke about the swan. In bed, she lay in the darkness, smelling the faint scent of laundry detergent on the sheets, feeling the sensation of her hand being brought up to his lips. As she was beginning to drift off, she heard a familiar voice say, What do you call a fish with no eyes? And the answer, Fsshh.

In the morning, Clarissa looked up more of his poems, but she refrained from looking up Turner’s work. A few minutes before 11:00, Clarissa wandered into the kitchen and sat casually at the table by the glass doors. The room was empty but for a staff member wiping up the floor with a mop. Clarissa poured herself another cup of tea, added a drop of cream, and sat back at the table.

She heard a door open in the hallway, footsteps, and the white-haired man she’d met her first night shuffled into the kitchen. He waved, then went out the door and down the gravel walk. The day was overcast again, though a suffused light came through the clouds. She could see figures down by the lake, people walking, but she couldn’t make them out, then their heads dipped below the rise of the lawn.

At 11:20, Carol pushed open the glass doors and entered the kitchen, her red hair wild around her face. She went over to the coffee machine and pushed the button for espresso. “How’s it going?” she said to Clarissa.

“Well enough. Is your work going well?”

“It has been, yes. Isabel seems to have taken off . . .” Carol glanced down toward the lake. “Taking a walk, I guess. Oh well, I need a break too. My husband is waiting for a phone call.” She sipped the espresso. “Don’t want him to think he’s forgotten, now, do we?” Behind her, the couple walking by the lake came into view again, this time close enough for Clarissa to see that it was Isabel and Dillon, walking slowly, thoughtfully, deep in conversation.

Back in her room, Clarissa looked up the painter J.M.W. Turner on her laptop. His paintings seemed to be mostly of the ocean, many of them set in Venice; only one reminded her of the lake at all. It was called “The Blue Rigi,” and was an image of a Swiss mountain, Mount Rigi, as seen from Lake Lucerne. The gray and blue colors were similar to the colors of the water last night. The painting reminded her of sadness.

She opened a new file. Jared’s eyes were gray, she wrote. They reminded me of a smooth gray stone. When he opened them in the morning, he would make a joke. He would be sick, about to vomit, knowing he was to die soon—and he would make a joke. A terrible joke, but a joke nonetheless. “How does a train eat? It goes chew, chew.”

She would write Jared alive on the page, for herself if for no one else. There was no more of him left in the world, no child with his smile. She would recreate him, breathing, making stupid jokes for her, Clarissa, just to get her to smile. Dillon Burnham wasn’t what was important to her life. She would smile when she created Jared again on the page, smile when she remembered his terrible, terrible jokes. What did the finger say to the thumb? I’m in glove with you. She would write about the way he tried to pretend he didn’t feel too bad, even as he grew pale, and the pain made him pant for breath. He did that for her. She would write about his death, how she told him to close his gray eyes and rest, not knowing he would never open them again. She would spend this entire residency writing Jared alive again, and then letting him die, and when she was ready—when she was good and ready, not a moment before—she would say goodbye.


Patricia O’Donnell is the author of the newly released novel, The Vigilance of Stars. Her other books include the novel Necessary Places, the memoir Waiting to Begin, and the short story collection Gods for Sale, which won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award. Her short work has appeared in many places, including The New Yorker. She is a professor of Creative Writing in the University of Maine at Farmington’s BFA Program. 

“Night Fishing” by Whitney Curry Wimbish

“Passage of Time” by Lisa Boardwine, 12 x 12, Oil/Cold Wax on Panel.

Abel’s twin sister had died a modest death, not the spectacular one friends and family feared, or privately expected. An aid worker traveling the world should perish operatically, from the sudden outbreak of civil war or the contraction of a rare deadly virus. Yet Ariel died during a work meeting when she leaned too far back in her chair and fatally struck her head. Abel’s parents phoned him at his own job to deliver the news, and for several long moments he stared out the window, waiting for the words to resolve into meaning. In that period of shock his thoughts drifted in and out of arguments he’d had with Ariel over the years, and it occurred to him that he finally had proof his job ensuring regulatory compliance at Deloitte was indeed the better career. Here were comfortable chairs made to lean back. Here was a floor that could hurt no one, covered as it was with a plush carpet. He thought, miserably, that for once he could have said what she did every time they argued about career choices: “I win.”

It was a year later when Abel arrived in Cambodia. He’d put off the trip in order to receive several vaccinations, including one against Japanese Encephalitis, though it was unlikely he’d contract it, and because he wanted to avoid the rainy season, and because he had always been afraid to fly, and because, most of all, he wasn’t sure if he could do it alone. His bravest moment in life had been accepting an internship in New York City immediately after graduating from the University of North Dakota. It was his first offer and he wasn’t sure he’d get another; He had been terrified to walk the block and a half between his apartment and the office for at least half a year. The internship turned into a job, and since then, his only trips were back home to Grand Forks. He’d never visited Ariel at any of her postings, though she visited him at least annually.  

His plane touched down at 9 p.m. and he hired a motodop, as recommended by his travel guide.

“English?” the man asked. “French?”

“English,” Abel said. “Or American.”

“Oh. Comedian. You speak Comedian.”

Abel wished he was the kind of person who could seize the moment and extend his half-hearted joke into a playful exchange. Instead he named his guest house and handed the man a printout of the address written in English and in Khmer. Through the busy city center the man bobbed and weaved, and Abel held him around the waist, as he saw was the custom for men and women alike. The driver’s body was relaxed and safe. He delivered Abel to the right address and Abel clutched his backpack to his chest as he watched him go.

It was hot. The lane was quiet and pockmarked. Vines strained against the tall cement fences. The heavy air smelled of jasmine and garbage and bore the sound of a million tiny wings.

Was it jetlag or something else that woke him at dawn? He wandered out to the porch and saw for the first time what Ariel must have seen every day, early riser that she’d been. A watercolor sky. Thickening haze. Trees and tall grasses wet and bright.

And there at the far end of the porch was Ariel herself, sitting in a wicker chair. She wore shorts and a sleeveless shirt and was pouring cream into a glass of ice coffee. It moved through the liquid like it was alive. Another glass sat on a low table in front of a second chair.

“Coffee?” she said.

Abel wanted to scream in her face. Pour out his tears. Embrace her and never let go. But the setting was so calm, her posture so relaxed, that the impulse evaporated. In its place: a pointless flicker of hope.

Ariel pushed a list across the table. “Can you get me this stuff?”

The curvaceous Khmer script was indecipherable to Abel.

“Ok, but – ”

“Go to Orussey and then go to Tuol Tom Poung.”

“Ariel, can you just – ”

“Hey, want to see something?”

She reached into a backpack. When she turned back she was wearing the wooden mask of a demon. One eye was closed and slashed across the eyelid, the other wide open and bulging. From bright red lips poked two fangs.

“Boo!” she said.

Abel stared at her.

“I’m a ghost!”

“No kidding.”

Ariel shimmied and wiggled her fingers. “Ooooooo,” she said. Then louder, leaning forward. “OOOOOOO!”

“Okay! Jeez.”

“According to folk tales here, if you shake your bare ass at a ghost, it will get scared and go away. Isn’t that great?”

Abel’s laugh was genuine. “Would that work on you?”

“No.” Ariel took off the mask.

Abel stood at the curb to hail a tuk-tuk and another guest house resident came to stand beside him, a white woman in a white linen dress with a white leather purse and a big floppy straw hat. Abel fidgeted and hoped she would leave him alone.

“It is so, so hot out, isn’t it?” she said. She retrieved a fan from her purse and thworped it open with a flick of the wrist. She held it before her face and waved it with a fussy little motion.

“It’s so nice to see another expat here,” she said. “I’ve been here for a year now, volunteering.”

Abel’s smile was a closed door. He scanned the traffic.

“You’re going to love it,” she said. “It’s so pretty, there’s a ton to do. Oh – there’s an expat party every second Tuesday at Sunny’s, so that’s coming up and everyone goes. You should come!”

“Hm.” No tuk-tuks, no motodops, no taxis.

“Let’s see, what else. We hang out on Street 140. Check out Pontoon Bar. It’s a bar on a pontoon. Buy some lotus seeds and feed the monkeys as soon as you can. It’s so fun. And make sure you get a pair of shoes made. All the expats have some. They make them exactly to your specs.”  

Abel did not want to do any of that. He wanted to see what his sister saw in her last days, just a glimpse, maybe understand finally why she kept travelling so far from home. And then he wanted to leave. But suddenly he also wanted something else, some way to dispel the welter of anger he was surprised to feel. He met the woman’s eye after a beat.

“You keep saying ‘expat,’” he said. “What do you mean, exactly?”

“You know, someone who moves here.”

“So, an immigrant?”

The woman looked at him blankly.

“People from El Salvador, then,” he said. “Nigeria.”

The woman cocked her head. Abel pressed on. “You mean white, no?” His voice rose. “White people are so fucking special, so they get the special word.”

“I never really thought about it.”

“You never thought about it,” he said. “Cool.”

“I don’t know what you’re getting so mad at me for. I’m trying to help.”

Abel had never picked a fight with a stranger before, but it wasn’t fair this lady got to be here instead of Ariel, who had made fun of words like “expat” and phrases like “friendly fire.” He reached for the worst thing he could think of and ignored the tightness in his chest. “Well you should try harder.” He willed his voice not to crack. “Because otherwise what good are you.”

Stalls of spices, of vegetables, of freshly butchered meat. A vendor of deep-fried insects and tiny flattened frogs, tossed in oil and salt and eaten one after another like potato chips. A stall of hot peppers whose proprietor wore thick rubber gloves.

Abel wandered towards the back and found a series of food stalls around a big fire pit that filled the space with smoke. He greeted a vendor and pointed to a plate of food someone else was eating. With quick precision she produced another of the same: a wide eggy crepe filled with bean sprouts and leafy greens. It hung over the plate and he took a bite of one edge, as he would have a plain slice. The woman was looking past Abel at the next in line, so he moved on to a communal table and pretended not to understand when a table of English-speaking men asked where he was from. Two of the men had broken off from the others.

“At the beer garden, these girls – ‘Beer Girls’ – they come up and give you a massage, and if you give them more money, they’ll do more,” one in a suit said.

“Oh man, that’s awesome,” the other said and raised his hand to receive a high-five.

The first was distracted by his phone. “Wait – sorry bud,” he said. “I gotta head back. You go on without me.”

“Man, the embassy works you guys so hard.”

Ariel was waiting again in the early morning and Abel handed her the sacks of groceries. He passed her the list, each item ticked off.

“Thanks,” she said. “Now we can get started.”

The food came together like magic, neat cabbage-leaf parcels of minced pork and herbs, tied with a length of lemongrass.

“So on balance, ‘aid worker’ is kind of a misnomer,” she said.

Abel made a face. “What are you talking about?”

“‘Aid worker’ sounds nice, but it’s kind of bullshit.”

“But you worked for the UN,” Abel said. “That’s no joke.”

“It kind of is.”

“You guys went around, giving people money and stuff. That’s good, that gives people security. When you’re secure, you’re happy!”

Ariel’s hands were busy. The cabbage rolls multiplied by the hundreds. “There’s more to it than that.”

Another list. A different market. In the morning he found this one outside the center of town, near the Japanese Embassy. Rougher. Smaller. The tarps covering the outermost stalls were frayed around the edges and whipped the air. A storm was rapidly gathering in a sky that minutes before had been clear. The street emptied.

Abel bought a plate of food and sat on a stool to watch the rain fall in sheets. A tiny girl approached and extended her hand. Six years old? Five? She was dressed in rags and held a baby on one hip. Its arms hung limp and its mouth was open.

“Please,” she said in English. She patted Abel’s arm with a bird’s fluttery staccato. She shifted the baby to her other hip. Abel dug into his pocket and held out a dollar bill, worth many times over the local currency. She hesitated before taking it. “Please,” she said again. Abel thought back to his guide book; he was meant to turn away now to show he would give no more. The girl stood by his side for a long moment. A man from behind the counter glanced at Abel and handed the girl a skewer of meat, the same kind stacked high on Abel’s plate. The man spoke a few words to the girl and for an instant her too-adult countenance transformed as she smiled. Another child appeared and the two took turns eating and holding the baby. Its head lolled back.

An enormous pot simmered on the stove. Noodles gleamed in thick brown sauce. A whole fish was fried and golden, its skin slashed into diamonds. The kitchen smelled of freshwater and wood smoke, of oil and ginger and sweet grasses and history.

“The Khmer Rouge wiped out the country’s whole culinary tradition,” Ariel said. “And now people are trying to remember the old recipes.” She was issuing statements like this, one after another. “Did you know there was a big rock scene here before the KR?” Her face was obscured by steam. “Did you know the country was once a matriarchy?”

She sent Abel out twice more. Two more days of heat and humidity and grit in the folds of his skin. He went to the killing fields and stared at a tower of skulls. Afterwards he heeded his intense desire to stand barefoot in the fine dirt, to physically feel the earth beneath him more intimately than he could with shoes. He ignored the sidelong looks of other tourists.

“Hope you’re hungry,” Ariel said that night. “Dinner’s ready.” There was a long table that stretched forever, laden with endless plates of food. The Cambodian ones came first, followed by those of a dozen other nations, everything beautiful and enticing, valuable in a way Abel could not precisely explain. They sat facing each other and Ariel stretched her arms wide to indicate the bounty. She folded her hands in prayer and closed her eyes. “Dear God,” she said, and frowned. “Actually, what am I saying, it’s just us here.”   

When they were young, Ariel would always say “this is what heaven must be like” every time they went to Whitman’s Candy Store in Fargo, and in adulthood, she transferred the ritual to restaurants. When she visited Abel in New York for their 30th birthday, she said it of a fancy uptown hotspot Abel chose in the hopes of pleasing her. But she would have said it of the corner diner. And now, here, in this dreamstate or purgatory or whatever it was, she said it again, and for the first time Abel did not think the phrase was sentimental nonsense. And then the forces at work transported him backwards in time, and he saw himself in the year since Ariel died, checking off his to-do lists, saving his money. He saw himself come straight home from work, night after night after night, double-lock his door, and sob.

In the morning Abel had coffee in the guesthouse café and watched fellow travelers discuss what they would do that day. Shopping figured heavily into their plans. Massages. High tea at the big fancy hotel. The dollar went so far here. They lamented the city’s poverty and promised to make donations. They considered visiting the genocide museum and decided against it. It was, after all, awfully grim for a vacation.

Abel wandered the streets without aim, around a wat where monks in orange robes played Candy Crush on their cell phones. He bought noodles from a food cart, tried to squat low to the ground and eat like the locals, found he could not. The beef and egg and chilies and fresh greens were straightforward and nourishing.

After nightfall Abel walked past a throbbing party and saw it was Sunny’s. Today was the correct Tuesday and the enormous outdoor garden was packed. The party was sweaty, loud, and it stank. He walked on and soon found himself along the Tonle Sap River. Past the Foreign Correspondents Club and its own hectic gathering. Past motodops. Past taxi girls dressed up and waiting. They walked expertly over the gravel in their stilettos. Abel crossed a causeway to the dark silence of the river’s other side. He stood on the shore. Let his eyes adjust. There ahead, the silhouette of a long canoe. The figure within flung a net wide and it slapped the water. He pulled it in. Repeated the motion. The sound was clockwork, a hand measuring time. The boat passed beneath the bridge. Then it was gone.


Whitney Curry Wimbish is an American writer living in Scotland. Her fiction has been published by MIROnline, and has received honorable mention in two Glimmer Train competitions. Her journalism/nonfiction has been published in The Baffler, The Financial Times, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in North American Review.

“The Esterlink” by Robert Sachs

Painting by Anna Rac.

On a frosty March morning, Leon Esterlink left his Louisville home, running with a slow, steady pace. “It’s made for running,” he said to himself, moving up Eastern Parkway to Cherokee Park. There he found a gentle, dry breeze and made friends with it. “Perfect,” he said. He did the hills with ease, past the golf course, the pond, and then out of the park toward downtown. He knew he was sweating, but the dry air wicked it away. “Symbiosis,” he shouted. A man in a bright yellow parka walking his dog turned around to look. A trumpet voluntary marched through Leon’s head. The music paced him and he was lost in its melody. He barely noticed crossing the Second Street Bridge into Indiana. Leon’s goal was Indianapolis. If he could keep his normal pace, he’d be there before midnight. A film crew accompanied him: three guys in a flatbed truck and two more in a helicopter. He did his best to ignore them.

During his years of isolation after his hair fell out, Leon had survived on daily patterns that kept him from thinking about the injustice of his disease, about relationships never made, loves never found. He was alone. “Like a tree next to a stream,” he said once to the woman who cleaned and shopped for him. “I can see it, I take nourishment from it, but I can’t dip my toe in it. I can’t go swimming.”

She had laughed. “A tree swimming,” she said, wiping clean the electric cook top. “A swimming tree.” The thought tickled her.

Before he took up running, this was his pattern: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday he’d get up at seven, make breakfast, read the paper, listen to the morning news. He’d spend an hour on the treadmill and two hours on records for his insurance business and talking on the phone to the home office. In the afternoon, he’d call clients and prospects. Most of his business was transacted over the phone and through the Internet. E-mail had been a boon to Leon. He used a courier service to get papers signed and to deliver policies. Evenings were spent back on the treadmill and reading. His favorite book was The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Alone 1932-1940.

He’d sleep later on Wednesday, Friday, and the weekend. He tried not to work on those days. He’d read, play the guitar, cook. And jog on the treadmill, where he had a good view of the street from his living room window. He’d spend weeks, sometime months, this way, seeing only the woman who cleaned and shopped for him. Even for her, he’d wear a cap and draw in eyebrows. She understood that he was doing this for her. If he noticed that she wore lipstick and nylons on the days she cleaned for him, he never let on.

Some years earlier, when Dr. Fannin confirmed it really was alopecia universalis, he told Leon, “It needn’t be a death sentence.”

No, not death. Life in solitary confinement, thought Leon as he left the office. Six months earlier the first clump of hair had come off in his hand. Now he saw himself as a hairless freak.

“There are treatments,” Dr. Fannin said. Leon tried them without success. “There are wigs. Nowadays you can’t tell them from real.” Sure. And finally, “There are support groups.”

Support this, Doc, he wanted to say. Leon, toting his empty follicles, walked home from the doctor’s office three weeks before his thirty-seventh birthday planning for a life alone. His three-bedroom brick bungalow, with its sharp roof lines and wide oak flooring, provided sanctuary.

He was headed now north into the heart of Indiana, red with the glow of oxygenation, shadowed by the flatbed truck and the helicopter. The music was gone, the cadence called by his beating heart. It was mile fifty and his breathing was steady, his gait strong. He smiled thinking about how worried Dr. Fannin had been just a few years earlier. “I know your lifestyle, Leon. You’re a time bomb ready to explode,” he said. He tapped Leon’s belly. “Look at that paunch. Triglycerides above 500. HDL very low. You’ll need to shed some weight. And you’ll need to get more exercise.”

Leon bought the treadmill and like everything else he did, applied himself assiduously to the task of losing the paunch and getting into shape. He incorporated the treadmill into his daily patterns. He watched what he was eating. The woman shopped accordingly. She also changed her diet and began exercising.

He was on his treadmill late on an April day when a congregation of runners passed in front of his living room window. Hundreds. It could have been thousands. Serious athletes, poseurs, men, women, old, young. Running, jogging. Some walked. Some were in costume!

“They’re going somewhere,” he said out loud, “and I’m stuck here treading water.”

“Treading water on the treadmill. Treading water. Getting nowhere.” This mantra of the moment kept the tempo as he beat out the miles. “Treading water, getting nowhere.” The next day, after dark, he put on his blue running pants with the double white stripe down the sides, his Centre College sweatshirt and a baseball cap, and ventured outside for the first time in weeks. His first run. The windless air sat heavy on his Highlands neighborhood as he started out. One block. Two blocks. A mile. Three miles. Enough.

He walked back to his house, sweating heavily and humming show tunes. He passed a well-manicured hedge and ran his hand across the top leaves. It tickled. He leaned into a lamppost stretching his calf muscles, first one, then the other. He slept until ten the following morning.

The cleaning and shopping woman noticed something different. “Chipper today,” she said putting a carton of eggs in the refrigerator.

He couldn’t wait until nightfall.

Leon’s run to Indianapolis was, for the most part, along Route 31. Through Sellersburg, Memphis, Henryville, and Underwood. Past the deep cornfields of Vienna, Austin, Crothersville, and Uniontown. Up past Reddington, Azalia, and on to Columbus. Mile seventy. He had just completed a repetition of The Esterlink and felt confident. It was The Runner that gave it a name and made Leon wealthy. His technique, it was claimed, enabled a runner to get past the wall, to continue running much farther than would otherwise be possible. It looked bizarre even to Leon. “Who’s crazy enough to do this shit in public?” he thought. “You’d look like a fool.”

People lined the road approaching Columbus. First only a few, but the closer he got to the city the larger the crowd became. “Go Leon,” some shouted. “Esther-Link, Esther-Link,” groups of teens chanted. It made him nervous. He was expected to wave and smile.

It had taken a month or so of nighttime running before he got up the nerve to run in daylight around Louisville. There was little in the way of encouraging chants then. “Mexican Hairless,” young toughs would taunt. “Freak,” they’d shout. He took to running on country roads where he would be less likely to be harangued. And it was there, among the rolling hills, the farmhouses and the occasional horse that he discovered the secret of long-distance running. Loping along early one June morning and out of boredom, more than anything else, he started to skip. Feeling playful, he began goose-stepping, like the leader of a marching band. He noticed, quite by accident, that he felt refreshed. He ran farther that morning than ever before. And he could have run farther still were it not for the fact that he was due back home to take a call from the head office.

Leon sensed he was on to something, and he began methodically experimenting with various movements. It took a few months of trial and error, but he was able to eliminate the extraneous and whittle down the possibilities to the basic moves we know now as The Esterlink. With this technique, Leon felt he could run a hundred miles or more.

He was aware that the sight of a tall, thin (for by now he was thin), hairless man running, goose stepping, leaping and waddling would not go unnoticed. In his first marathon, his hairlessness garnered some attention, but he was not yet ready to use his newly discovered technique. He finished, but not without having to stop and walk several times.

He entered the Chicago Marathon, lost in the blur of thirty-seven thousand other runners. At the sixteenth mile, when he felt he could run no farther, he unveiled The Esterlink. Other runners dodged his goose stepping, avoided his leaping and, too oxygen starved to laugh, smiled at his waddling. At the twentieth mile, it was picked up by the television cameras. By the time he reached the finish line, a coven of reporters was waiting for him. He feigned exhaustion and refused to answer questions. “Thanks. Thanks,” was all he said.

He developed a following. In subsequent races, the people lining the streets were cheering for the skinny, hairless man with the strange moves. Newspaper reporters and television crews followed in his wake. A sports physician appeared on 60 Minutes explaining that the Esterlink technique couldn’t possibly work to eliminate fatigue. Another went on Oprah convinced that the Esterlink was the greatest advance in running since pavement. Leon made the cover of The Runner magazine. Weekend runners practiced the Esterlink and entered marathons. The notoriety was torture for Leon. He wanted to be left alone, but he recognized the improbability of that.

Wherever he ran, the press barked at his heels. Fartlek Shoes approached him with a seven million-dollar offer. A three-year deal. He’d be required to run in at least three marathons a year and make two television commercials and a video. The rest of the time he was free to run as he saw fit, as long as he wore the Fartlek insignia on his singlet and the Fartlek Esterlink running shoes. “I can’t do it,” he said to the woman as she sorted through his mail and straightened the papers on his desk. “I don’t think I could stand the spotlight.

“No, she said, “it would be too difficult for you. Such a shame. The money would make you independent, of course. You could retire after the three years and do whatever you pleased.”

“You think I’m crazy,” he said, “turning down that kind of money.”          

“No. Not for a tree,” she smiled. He stopped the treadmill and turned to say something, but she had moved on to the kitchen and was running the disposal. Later that day, he called his attorney and instructed him to accept.

Fartlek’s Esterlink model became a best seller, in the first year rivaling the sales of Nike’s Air Jordan models. The shoe was designed to his specifications and each week, along with a large check, he received a new pair in the mail.

Leon refused in-person interviews with reporters, but he agreed to a telephone interview with a newspaper reporter who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“How do you react when you hear that youngsters are shaving off all the hair on their bodies so they can look more like you?” the reporter began.

“I’m flattered, of course. I’m sure it’s a fad that will fade away soon enough. It’s ironic. Here I’ve spent years hiding my hairlessness, staying indoors, skulking around in long coats and sunglasses, and all of a sudden teenagers, even some adults, are using depilatories and shaving their body hair just to look more like me. The mind boggles.”      

The reporter scribbled “humble” in his notebook. He got Leon to explain the development of the Esterlink movements. “I have to admit, I watched the video and began to laugh when you started with those steps. You have to be aware of how strange you look,” he said.

“I understand in the last Bay to Breakers there was a group of seven runners who did it in unison throughout the entire course. Now that must have looked goofy. Sure, I was scared and felt stupid the first time I did it in a race. But there was no other way I could have gone the distance. It’s easier now.”

“What’s next for Esterlink, Inc?” the reporter asked.

“You make it sound like I’m an industry. I’m just a runner, and not a particularly fast one. I didn’t seek out the notoriety or the money. Maybe it’s just my fifteen minutes of fame.” He was trying to sound the way he thought a sports star should sound. It was painful for him. “Look, I really have to go,” he said by way of ending the interview.

The reporter thanked him. “Clueless schmuck,” he wrote.

Running had become an obstacle course for Leon. Well-wishers, autograph hounds, reporters. Jimmy Fallon wanted him on his show. Louisville renamed a street after him. There was a rumor he had donated a million dollars to endow the yearly Mini-Marathon on the condition that the city change the name of the race to the Esterlink Mini. The more he denied it, the more people assumed it was true. Fancy women called him at night suggesting things that turned his ears red. He yearned for the solitude hairlessness had imposed. He’d learned to tolerate the stares and the ridicule accompanying his early daylight runs. Adulation proved more difficult.

“My life’s no longer my own,” he moaned to the woman who cleaned and shopped. “My agent is suggesting bodyguards now. Goons in cars to shoo away anyone approaching me. How am I supposed to live like that?”

“Less than three years,” she said softly, putting orange juice and soy milk in the refrigerator. She suggested he see someone.

“I don’t need help. I need to be left alone,” he shouted and went upstairs to his bedroom.

The throng of people waiting for him in Indianapolis was clapping and hooting as he entered the downtown area and circled the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. A young woman with long auburn hair broke through the police line and tried to grab his shorts. It was after eleven by the time he hopped in the cab of the flatbed truck and headed home, the helicopter leading the way.

Two months later, on a sunny Monday, Leon awoke at seven. He made breakfast and read the paper. He flipped on the radio and listened to the news. On the treadmill he looked out onto the street. Nothing out of the ordinary. People going about their business, children waiting for the school bus. He thought about the nastiness surrounding his break with Fartlek. “I did the video; I ran in two marathons. They can continue to use my name on their shoes. I want out,” he had told his lawyer.

The contract had two more years to run, but Leon was through. He wanted to keep the two million Fartlek had paid him so far and walk away. Fartlek sued for the return of most of the money. His lawyer convinced him to counter sue for a share of the profits from shoe and video sales. The litigation, his lawyer assured him, would last for years.

In the two months after the filming and his decision to abandon his obligations to Fartlek, Leon hadn’t left his home. Every day he received dozens of letters from people he didn’t know, wishing him well and hoping he’d return to running. Many explained how he had inspired them with his courage. Some contained pictures of hairless children with notes about how he had given them self-esteem. These touched him.

There was a letter from the reporter. He was writing a screenplay about Leon’s life and he’d like Leon to work with him on it. “One of the movie studios had shown some interest,” he wrote. Leon was offered $25,000 to speak at the annual meeting of the National Sporting Goods Association in Las Vegas.

His popularity continued to grow. This, in turn, had a positive impact on his insurance business. He had planned to give it up, but found himself busier than ever and with mounting legal fees to pay, he was thankful for the business. He added Wednesday as a work day. The woman who cleaned and shopped agreed to help him handle the extra business. She moved into his guest bedroom so she’d be available to streamline his work flow.

A year passed. He was sitting in the living room watching Stephen Colbert talk to a man from Madison, Wisconsin, who opened beer bottles with his bellybutton. The cleaning and shopping woman sat down beside him. “Any regrets, Leon?” she whispered.

He thought for a moment about the fame and fortune, the adulation, his contribution to the sport of running, the positive role model he had been to alopecia sufferers. He laid his head on her bosom. “None,” he said.

Robert Sachs’ work has appeared most recently in The Louisville Review, the Chicago Quarterly Review, and the Delmarva Review. He earned an M.F.A. in Writing from Spalding University in 2009. His story, “Vondelpark,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. Originally from Chicago, he currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky. He serves on the board of Louisville Literary Arts. Read more at www.roberthsachs.com.