“The Clattering of Bones” by Clifford Garstang

Walt didn’t feel like going out. It wasn’t the first time, and Patsy got that look on her face, clenched and squinty, like everything was his fault—the July heat, the near-dry well, even the rat snake that had coiled on the driveway one sunny afternoon. She jerked her purse off the counter and dug for a cigarette, even though she’d sworn to quit. She stood there, puffing angry clouds at him like she was sending a signal.

“Damned if I’m going to sit around all night watching TV,” she’d said. Only it was more of a growl, the way it came out in a deep, wet voice, at the back of her throat.

“Suit yourself,” Walt said. Walt had the news on—a drought update had caught his eye—and Patsy traipsed back and forth from bedroom to kitchen, he guessed so he’d see her progress in getting ready to go without him. First it was the hair. She fixed it up high, like she did when they used to go dancing—back when Walt worked at the lumberyard and they liked to party, had big plans for the future, kids, trips to Opryland. She came out in her panties and bra, not the low-cut, flesh-colored thing she wore sometimes with a blouse half-unbuttoned, but a white one that pushed her up and made her look bustier than she really was. She splashed whiskey over ice, stirred in a little 7-Up, and took it into the bedroom. Then she came back in the slinky blue dress Walt gave her two Christmases ago, and the pink coral necklace he bought for a birthday years back, that she gushed over at the time and hardly put on anymore. The hair had already come undone a little and a long strand dangled off her neck. She shot a look at Walt and went back in the bedroom when she’d freshened up her drink. Next time out her lips were fierce red—clashed with the necklace, Walt thought, but of course he wasn’t going to say anything—and she’d added green eye shadow. He’d told her once she looked like a banker’s fancy girl with her eyes done up like that, not the wife of a dirt-poor landscaper who couldn’t get the topsoil out from under his nails. Patsy took a last gulp of her highball and tossed the ice in the sink, grabbed the keys to the pickup and let the screen door slam behind her.

It was after dawn when the Ford pulled in and skidded on the gravel to about an inch from a load of stone Walt planned to lay in Miz Doak’s garden. He watched out the bedroom window, saw the whole thing, how Patsy stumbled getting down from the cab and sneaked a look around, like she was afraid the McKennas across the road would see. He didn’t want her to see him either, so he slid back in bed, although it wasn’t like he’d slept at all. Not worried about her exactly, since she’d done it before, but wondering if maybe this time she wasn’t coming back.

Her hair was completely down by then. She rattled the necklace onto the bureau, like she was rolling dice. She kicked off the spike heels, let the dress crumple to the floor and fell into bed without once looking at Walt. Didn’t care that he saw, he guessed, or didn’t want to know. The next night, without a word passing between them, Walt moved to the sofa—a frilly, flowered number he’d never liked but had learned to put up with, grown lumpy and bowed in the decade he and Patsy had been married. He was still there a week later, but giving some thought to what he could do to make things right between them. It couldn’t go on that way forever.

On Sunday, as if a midsummer morning didn’t come early enough as it was, down the road Miz Doak’s rooster started hollering at first light and a chorus of her woeful cows chimed in. Patsy’d wake up mean, Walt knew, coming in late again, after three. He swung his legs off the sofa, folded the sheets, piled the board-thin pillow on top, smoothed the yellowed case. Now the mule started to bray and there was another voice in the mix, high-pitched, like a whinny. But Walt knew Miz Doak’s last mare was a year dead, and the only other horses in the hollow were another mile upcountry.

Walt shuffled across the gritty kitchen floor and switched on the light over the stove. Toss yesterday’s grounds in the compost bin, rinse the pot, one scoop, two . . . six, pour in the water, filtered, not from the tap, Patsy hates the taste of the well water. “Like chalk and tin cans in my mouth at the same time,” she says, when he forgets. He cinched his old plaid robe tighter, though the day was already warm, and leaned against the sink to peer into the yard, see what the weather had to offer. High clouds. No rain in sight, no relief. The coffee maker crackled, and dribbled into the pot. Something moved out back.

Ducking down, to see under the redbuds and past the gangly walnut that presided over the backyard like an archdeacon, Walt noticed the gassy smell in the drain— cabbage from his own garden, foul when left to rot like that. Not from last night—last night they’d skipped supper—but from the night before. The coffee maker still popped and dripped. There, he saw it again. Something definitely moved. Through the leaves, he could just make out the muzzle nodding, inches off the ground, as if the deer wanted to graze. Odd to see a deer so close to the house, in full light. At dawn maybe, in twilight safety, but the sun had been up a good hour. Walt yanked the pot off the burner and let coffee drizzle into a mug, then slipped the pot back. He almost turned to see if Patsy’d witnessed the maneuver. “Walter, don’t do that,” she’d say. “It makes a mess. Can’t you wait?” It was funny when she was the one complaining about a mess. Talk about the pot . . . Walt took his cup to the dining room, to get a better view of the fence.

Dining room. That was a joke, too. More like a wide spot in the living room where the hand-me-down table had landed last year when they moved in. The house had seemed just right at the time, with room for the coming baby, and a sunlit yard for Walt’s garden. But Patsy’s miscarriage derailed the unpacking— unopened boxes were still stacked in a corner of the bedroom and the dank basement—and they’d never figured out what to do with the table, short of Patsy’s idea of chucking it in the fireplace. Walt pulled a chair close to the window.

The glass was streaked and dull. But there was the deer, half in the yard, half out, slung over the barbed wire fence like a musty blanket on a clothesline. Walt opened the window, and instantly regretted it. The doe had seen him, or heard the grating of the warped frame; she struggled and kicked, craned her neck. Her front hooves pounded the dirt and raised a dust storm. The wire shuddered. Blood trickled down the inside of her hindquarters, a leg twisted between strands, snagged on a barb. Walt backed away from the window. She’s killing herself, he thought. Got to keep her calm. Only way to save her.

Patsy was in the kitchen now, leaning against the stove. She lifted her coffee cup with two hands and eyed Walt as he bent over the sink.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“There’s a deer. On the fence. Trying to figure out what I can do to help her.”

“If you had a gun, like every other man in this county, you’d know what to do.” She looked over his shoulder. “Can’t see anything,” she said.

“Not the season, honey, even if—”

“But you’d let it die slow?”

“Not if I can help it.”

Walt left Patsy inside and peeked around the corner of the house, but the deer saw him and started thrashing again, slashing a trough with her hooves, kicking her hind legs out, stretching her neck up to make herself look bigger. He’d seen dogs do that, to fool larger animals. If he could keep her quiet, maybe cut the wire or find a way to lift her off the fence, she might have a chance. The closer he got, the harder she struggled, and that’s when he thought of the jute sacks. Sometimes Patsy bought a forty-pound bag of potatoes from the wholesale market and Walt saved them.

“They’re filthy,” Patsy’d crabbed when he rescued the first one from the trash. “They’ll just be more clutter.” To Walt it didn’t seem much different than hording plastic tubs for leftovers, or grocery bags for the garbage, but Patsy wouldn’t listen.

“I’ll find a use for ’em,” he’d said.

They were in the garage, under a stack of bricks left over from when he’d redone the front walk. That was in the fall, when Patsy’d been so snappish and distant he couldn’t stand to be around her, and he’d invented time-eating projects in the yard—the walkway, transplanting the azaleas, setting out dozens of bulbs and daylilies. Those extra bricks he piled beside the crib he’d painted for the baby, tucked behind boxes so Patsy wouldn’t have to see it.

He came out the side door so as not to spook the doe. He’d have to work fast, run hard to where she was, grab her neck to keep her still, and slip that sack over her head. Then she’d settle down, blinded, and in a minute she’d be calm enough for him to take the next step. Except now he saw his cutters would be no match for the heavy-gauge wire. And he wasn’t sure how he was going to lift her off that top rung without hurting her even worse, especially with her hind legs caught up in the next two strands.

But there was no sneaking up on her; the doe wouldn’t let him near. Walt held the putrid bag open like a butterfly net, but when he came close her flailing grew so wild he could hear the barbs rip through her flesh and the fur actually flew. He’d always thought that was a dumb expression, but there was no denying the hair on the doe’s hide floated in the air like dandelion fluff. This is killing her, Walt thought, and backed off.

He poured more coffee and watched from the dining room window. The deer’s struggle slowed, but every now and then she’d lift her head or twitch her ears and he knew she was still alive. There weren’t many options left. He could call a neighbor—John Craig down the road was a good man—and maybe the two of them could get the deer down, even with all her crazy dancing. Maybe she was going to be still now, maybe she’d figure out he only wanted to help.

Or he could call the Sheriff. Walt wasn’t on particularly good terms with the Sheriff’s office, didn’t like their coming around all the time, like this spring when one of his oh-so-helpful neighbors had called to report an incident at Walt and Patsy’s place. It had all been a misunderstanding—Patsy’d screamed bloody murder when she saw the garden shears in his hands, probably remembering another incident, ancient history, when he’d just been laid off and they were both drunk, involving a butcher knife and shouted threats. And there’d been that muddle in high school, not so long ago really: pranks with beer cans and spray paint, brawls with boys from Defiance, getting high and racing down country roads. It got so the Sheriff came looking for Walt and his buddies at the first sign of mischief.

All behind him now. It wasn’t as hard to quit drinking as he’d thought it would be, and Patsy went right along with him, even seemed relieved. It was part of their plan, and things were good for a while, peaceful, although they had to get by on Patsy’s tips from the nail salon while he hunted for work. And when Walt got hired on as a landscaper, life seemed downright sunny; they saved a little money, Patsy got pregnant and they bought the house. But the Sheriff still stopped by from time to time, like he figured Walt was destined for trouble.

So Walt didn’t want the Sheriff’s help. He made some calls. The Game Department was no good, when he finally got through to somebody. She was polite enough, but said there was nothing they could do, and suggested he call Transportation. That made no sense to him but he called and, it being Sunday, got no answer anyway. It dawned on him they’d be the folks to clear away road kill, and then he wished he hadn’t left his name on their answering machine. That wasn’ t what he wanted at all. The Wildlife Center didn’t do rescues in the field. “You ought to call the Sheriff,” they said.

Walt set his coffee cup on the dining table, noticed the dust fly and brushed his hand across the surface, leaving stripes that turned his fingers gray. He waited.

Patsy made herself breakfast—Walt heard butter sizzling in the skillet and then the crack of eggs and Patsy’s humming as she stood over the stove with a spatula, the ting as the bread landed in the toaster. Walt drank his coffee, kept an eye on the doe.

He turned when he heard the click of Patsy’s heels on the linoleum. She stood in the doorway, a plate in one open hand like a serving tray, sopping up runny yoke with her toast.

“You going to watch that damn deer all day?” Patsy’s nails, freshly lacquered in a shade of pink that brought undercooked pork to Walt’s mind, scraped the underside of the plate. “That thing better be gone by the time I get back.” She was going to church with her sister, Molly, then a movie at the mall and shopping afterward—a high school ritual they hadn’t grown out of. Patsy’s plate rattled in the sink, just as Molly honked out front. The screen door slammed and Walt didn’t have to get up to picture the two women gunning away in Molly’s beat- up Grand Am, hair fluttering out the windows, trailing the oldies station behind them like exhaust. Beat-up because it wasn’t hers and she didn’t give a damn what her ex-boyfriend, Darryl, had to say if he ever showed up to claim it. Probably wasn’t worth it to him, knowing he’d have to get past her first.

Now Walt made something to eat. He and Patsy hardly ever ate breakfast together anymore, and she’d stopped cooking for him months ago. Sometimes he fixed supper, but Patsy didn’t show much interest and most of the food went into the trash, or down the drain. While he waited for his toast, he watched the deer for signs of life. It was still, maybe the head bobbed, but Walt wasn’t sure. He found the butter and jam and returned to his spot by the window, feeling like he was at the movies, too. He watched a rabbit nibble on the spirea he’d just planted, then bolt into the woods with another rabbit in pursuit. He finished the toast, catching the crumbs in his cupped palm, and licked the jam off his fingers. A cardinal landed on the feeder to peck at the sunflower seeds and then was joined by a drab female. Walt tapped on the window and the birds scudded into the sycamore at the edge of the yard.

That sent the deer into a paroxysm that startled Walt. The front legs stirred up even more dirt and that white tail flew, her head high, like she was just now starting her jump over the fence, and dropped fast when she came up short. The hind legs banged against the barbed wire and he could hear the twang even inside the house. And then she was still.

He didn’t blink for fear of missing any twitch of movement. But there was nothing. The hooves were planted, motionless. The wires settled. The neck hung, snout drooping close to the ground. The eyes stared. The rabbits ran back into sight. The birds forgot about him and returned to feed.

Now he had a different problem, but at least he knew what to do. There was no hurry. Walt showered and dressed, ready for chores. There was a fallen tree to clear down by the creek, the garden needed attention, he’d let the grass get higher than he should and it would be sluggish mowing.

He took a break around three. Careful to slip off his boots before he traipsed dirt into the house, Walt filled a glass with ice and poured warm Coke. He felt cooler already, just listening to the ice crackle and feeling the Coke spit on his hand. He peeled off his sweaty t-shirt and traded it for a dry one, held the glass to his forehead, ducked down again to see the deer. Still dead, he thought, and shook his head. Not funny, not . . . respectful. The cold Coke burned his throat, hammered his head just behind his eyes.

Out back now, it couldn’t be avoided any longer. He took a few steps toward the deer and stopped. Took a few more. Flies hummed in a chorus like they enjoyed their work, swarming on the doe’s eyes, the nostrils, the trail of blood on her legs. He took a few more steps and the swarm lifted and settled again, and he wondered if all those thousands of flies had gone back to their own spot on the carcass or if maybe they’d taken that opportunity to change places. Now the stench was noticeable. The doe had been straddled there for hours in the sun, baking, rotting, and it didn’t take long for the smell to start. But he was close enough to see what he needed to see. She’d managed to get a hind leg over one wire and twisted under the next and it was squeezed around her like a paper clip; barbs had sliced through the hide in a couple of places and he could almost picture the wire sawing her in half. A saw. He might need a saw, but didn’t relish having to cut through bone just to get the deer off the damn fence.

In the garage, he settled on the tools for the job: gloves, a hoe, a trowel in case the hoe didn’t work. The flies buzzed off when he came back, sounding angry, mad to get to their prize. Holding his breath and gripping the deer’ s front legs, he lifted. Heavier than he’d expected, and he couldn’t do it—she didn’t look that big with her head down—and they were on an incline so lifting from the front was moving her uphill, the lift harder. But the leg was stuck in the wires anyway, and just lifting wouldn’t have done the trick. He tried to pry the leg loose with the hoe, but that was no good. With his boot he jammed the lower wire down and pulled up with his hand, finally managed to untwist that leg and let it spring free. Then he vaulted the fence and came at her from behind. He wasn’t holding his breath anymore, just working fast to get it over with. The smell was bad, but the flies were worse. It seemed like they were after his eyes, his nostrils now. He tried to shoo them away, but there were too damn many. One, two, three, lift, and she was off the fence, on the ground, neck twisted and ugly like a train wreck, open black eyes unforgiving. Her brown hair coated the top wire where the body had creased, and blood in the dust darkened and seeped into the rocky soil. Walt crouched, grabbed the hind legs just above the hooves, and pulled the doe under the fence. He dragged her through the tall weeds, the thistle and wild roses, apologized for the thorns that added insult to injury. The abandoned pasture parted, and they left a trail of crushed grass and shivering Queen Anne’s lace. He pulled, his breath coming hard as he tugged the weight uphill, not from the exertion so much, but just the sadness of what he had to do. The dry soil crumbled under his boots; sweat boiled out of him. He stopped. Dropped the legs. The flies swarmed to the body. Walt turned his head and backed away.

He set the tools on their pegs in the garage, hung the bloodstained gloves above the bench, next to the pliers and the useless wire cutters, and went inside. No sign of Patsy yet. He washed up, drank another Coke, eyed Patsy’ s bottle of whiskey, lay on the sofa.

* * *

First one, circling high, gliding like a kid’s kite until it sees the doe on the hillside, or smells her, swoops down for a clumsy landing, waddles over, hunched wings nearly hiding the small poppy skull, and pecks at the deer, rips away a bit of hide with the black hook of its beak. Then it launches and soars, drifts over the hillside and disappears. Later, letting the flesh melt in the sun, the vulture comes back with another, and a few more follow, and then the sky is full of them, wafting toward the doe. One lands and makes for the carrion, then another. A pair roosts in the walnut tree, peering down, waiting their turn. Then the ground is covered with the birds, wrestling over the corpse, stripping meat from the skeleton, spreading their wings in mutual reproach. They’ll be silent, for the most part, a whine or a hiss to stake a claim, but the sounds are the ripping and tearing of the hide and flesh, the clattering of bones. It’ll take a day, maybe two, to pick her clean.

* * *

The sun dropped behind the pines on Bald Rock Hill, spilled pinks and oranges over the ridge, left the sky violet black. Walt sat on the porch, watched the swallows until they became invisible, swatted at the mosquitoes, listened for the growl of Molly’s Grand Am. Darryl’s Grand Am. Nothing. He gave it another hour.

Inside he found a backpack he used sometimes, on hikes up in the Blue Ridge, or when he was out in the field on long summer days. When he picked it up he knew it still had a water bottle from the last trip. Loose change clinked in the side pocket. It wouldn’t hold much, but it wouldn’t need to. He pulled briefs out of the bureau, socks, a few t- shirts, just enough to get by for a few days, a week. He’d get the rest later, after he found a place. He went out to the garage. He ran his hand over the glossy white of the crib, the pink and blue trim, traced the stenciled flowers with his finger. Then he tossed the pack into the truck bed, next to his toolbox and a pair of muddy boots, and climbed in.

Gravel spun under the tires, headlights washed over the vacant fence, and Walt pulled the Ford onto the dark road.



Clifford Garstang has published his work in Shenandoah, The Baltimore Review, North Dakota Quarterly and others. He has won the Confluence 2006 Fiction Prize and was a finalist for Harpur Palate’s 2006 John Gardner Fiction Prize. He will be a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference this summer. He has an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.

“Crocodile” by Richard Wirick


The cayman that’s behind you
makes no noise before he kills.
He breaks your curious neck
with the flat of his five foot
bird-thin jaws
and drags you to a thatch of
half-sunk mangrove roots in
the rapids’ whirlpool path,
so hair and clothes drift off
the flesh, that roasts by turns
of its own weight in the heavy
wall of sun and steaming air.
A week, two weeks of eating
for its squirming, owl-eyed,
white and hungry young.
What’s left of you are what
the Anu call the ‘forest’s
cracked spines and clutching
metacarpals, sodden, water-
logged, but still bleach-bright
in the blackest branches.



Richard Wirick has published his fiction, essays and journalism in Quarterly West, Northwest Review, Playboy, Another Chicago Magazine, Indiana Review and elsewhere. He is completing a collection of short stories, Fables of Rescue, and is co-founder and editor of the journal Transformation. Telegram Books recently published a collection of his prose poems, One Hundred Siberian Postcards, which grew out of his assignments in Ukraine and Siberia in 2003-5, and his adoption of a Siberian daughter. He practises law in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and three children.

“Bridge Jumper, 1977” by Richard Wirick


“When I was up
in the air I knew
that everything
in my life could still
be fixed except
what I’d just done.”

he said on the deck
of the Coast Guard boat,
all of the bones
of his doomed-to-go-
on-living body broken:
Twenty stories through
The same world’s new world’s air.
All around him all
That unmindfully
Buffered the void:

Great speckled gulls,
a cliff of trees,
acres and acres
of sparkling foam.



Richard Wirick has published his fiction, essays and journalism in Quarterly West, Northwest Review, Playboy, Another Chicago Magazine, Indiana Review and elsewhere. He is completing a collection of short stories, Fables of Rescue, and is co-founder and editor of the journal Transformation. Telegram Books recently published a collection of his prose poems, One Hundred Siberian Postcards, which grew out of his assignments in Ukraine and Siberia in 2003-5, and his adoption of a Siberian daughter. He practises law in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and three children.

“Regrets” by Robbie Gamble


Looking up and down that stretch of sewer
Through which I’ve sluiced this wan, addictive life:
Cooking the books, obliterating tracks
Whooping up while no one else was watching,
Dull to my family all those after-days.
It’s all run backwards, all these rising pains
Culled and crafted chronically long ago;
Fits of cleansing, soon overwashed again
By numbing gulps of bitter eye-candy,
Those neon-cunning pornographic trails
I stalked, and when I could have bailed, instead
Chose fog and soundproofed walls for twelve long years.

Now, how to root the numbness out, and live?
Plow on–keep breathing–dredge your love to give.



Robbie Gamble is a nurse practitioner working with homeless families in the Boston area. His poetry has appeared recently in Acorn, Monkey’s Fist, Modern Haiku, and the 2005 Robert Frost Foundation Anthology.

“Black Walnut” by Linera Lucas

Black walnut seedlings travel undercover,
Sneak up through the soil with two rounded leaves,
then, when the squirrels aren’t looking,
shoot out the serrated second leaf set, and
claim the territory.

A sixty-foot tree in an herb barrel? (Shove over, parsley.)
Three-foot diameter trunk wedged between the fence palings? (Give it a try.)
In the lawn? (The mower is old, it might miss.)
In the crevices of the rock wall? (Sideways could work)
In the parking strip under the power line. (The city pruners might forget our street)

The arborist advises me to photograph the leafing each season,
measure the mature leaf span,
watch for die-back.
“This scar,” he taps the puckered trunk,
“has self-healed.” He scratches his head and puts his cap back on.



Linera Lucas holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. Her work has appeared in Pipes and Timbrels and Bede’s Journal and is forthcoming in the anthology In the Yard.

“Two Weeks” by Joy Beshears Hagy

Photo Montage:  Watts Towers © by Masumi Hayashi

My husband was gone two weeks,
before his father tracked him
down, dragged him back to me,
afro crowned with lint, cheeks
sunken.  I ran him a bath, scrubbed
his body, his head, picked the lint out,
the way he picked at the carpet
when he thought I wasn’t looking.



Joy Beshears Hagy lives on High Rock Lake in Lexington, NC with her husband, two dogs and a cat. Hagy holds a BA from Salem College, and received her MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Her poetry has appeared in various journals including Poet’s Canvas, THRIFT, Main Street Rag and Southern Gothic Online. Her poem, “Rapture” was chosen by Kathryn Stripling Byer as Honorable Mention in the 2006 NC State Poetry Contest.

“Disadvantage Point” by Claudia Grinnell

The workers bleached the walk, all afternoon
The motor sound of the pressure wash,
Chlorine.  The signposts were scrubbed.  The red
Brighter than ever.  A simple pensioner
I sacrificed myself to lesser colors: chartreuse,
Ambergris. The red had to go. I’m not
A moralist about this, not at all. No steel-rod
Constructions in my spine, I bend with the times
Still. I look at red and see ruins. My City. You
Can’t understand how packaged
The whole thing remains. How they talked for days
In dust free rooms. Dustless worlds, in fact.
They had none of it in their bodies.  They didn’t miss
It. They wore their gills proudly. The simians hunted
Them for sport. I had put options on both sides,
A straddle. I can’t tell you who won but the roads are much cleaner
Now. If you don’t mind all the water, the wipers
Constant flapping. They know me
On this corner.  I look good in this light.



Claudia Grinnell was born and raised in Germany. She now lives in Louisiana, where she
teaches at the University of Louisiana, Monroe. Professor Grinnell is the author of Conditions Horizontal (Missing Consonant Press, 2001). Her poems have appeared in such journals as Kenyon Review, Exquisite Corpse, New Orleans Review, Mudlark, and Minnesota Review. In 2005, Dr. Grinnell won the Louisiana Division of the Arts Fellowship in Poetry.

“Mrs. Alexander” by Beebe Barksdale-Bruner

Artwork by David Laity

She loved English
on both sides of the ocean,
phrasing it with her whole body
and was something
for the boys to behold:
skinny skirt, ample skin,
dark cherry lips, spit curls.
I imagined a goldfish
swimming in the clear liquid
of her plastic high heels.
Red lacquered finger
pointing, she would
glare over us
as perspiration locked us
waiting for her finger to spark.
The high-water nerd
in white socks spoke up,
so eloquently energized.



Beebe Barksdale-Bruner has an MFA in poetry from Queens University and a forthcoming book from Press 53 in 2007.

“Joy Despite the Cracks” by Pamela Knight

A  huge, sparkling “8” adorned the roof of Star’s restaurant.  “Wow,” thought Joyce, Star’s and I have the same anniversary. Eight years sober.  A slight smile crossed her lips as she remembered the stargazer lilies her friend Marie gave her to celebrate the occasion.  Stars again.  It’ll be good to see Marie this weekend. Thank God for friends.

The twangy voice of the radio D.J. hummed in the middle of a skit that Joyce was not following. “Crackpot!“ his edgy voice squelched.

“Crackpot, crackpot!” Brenda and Bobby, ten and twelve, seized the word excitedly, trying it out in various insulting forms. Laughing and poking each other.  They were delighted with their new word.

“Your kids are such all around kids !” one friend had gushed. “Not afraid to talk or laugh or enjoy things.” Admittedly, Bobby delighted his basketball team. Brenda drew balloons to herself like a magnet.

Joyce was less enchanted to hear a word that so rawly summoned up /images of substances.

“Crackpot means crazy or a sham,” Joyce explained before drifting back to her self absorbed reverie. “A lot like my last relationship.” Despite Joyce’s  best intentions not to think about Paul and to move forward, she slid into the pain of their recent breakup.

The pain was gnawing and obsessive. Paul made her feel complete even though Joyce knew no one “completes” you. Day dreaming about him and how it would be when she was with him — how it would be when they got married —  had been distracting.  Had been sufficiently numbing to keep her from dwelling on her mother’s health, unpaid bills and Bobby falling asleep in class at school. Now that the relationship was over her thoughts prefaced each illusive longing with “if only, if only.”

If only we could have had a life together like the day we went down the Cape — a day that as a microcosm of life with Paul Joyce dreamed of.  The phone conversations leading up to the date purred gently and suggestively. The kids were spending the weekend with their father. Paul pulled up to Joyce’s home early with his van and loaded her bike beside his. The early summer sun shone.

The tentatively defined couple drove to the Bourne Bridge. Parking the van, Joyce thrilled to be doing something with someone who shared her drive for exercise. Happily, surrounded by breezy salt scented sunshine, they began the seven mile scenic ride along the Cape Cod Canal. Once they stopped and rested on a park bench and ate the snack Paul had thoughtfully prepared.

Afterwards, calmed and invigorated by the bike ride, they continued flirting. Joyce knew she was falling in love despite Paul’s reminders throughout the eight month relationship to keep things casual. They traveled further down the Cape to Dennis Beach and found a secluded sand bar. Paul read his novel, comfortably settled in a webbed lounge chair, as Joyce, fantasizing of many days to come like this one read the newspaper contentedly.

Topping the day off, the two stopped at Joyce’s parent’s house and Joyce proudly introduced her new boyfriend. The perfect day was rounded out with a meal out and a visit to a local AA meeting. Sleeping together ended the ideal day.

But Paul called a few weeks later, stumbling over, “it’s too soon after my divorce for me to be serious.” Joyce reeled.  She was still stunned, empty and grieving as she journeyed to the Recovery Convention.

Joyce pulled into the parking lot of the Sheraton Tara where she and the kids would spend the weekend. She was looking forward to attending workshops but was not to the nitty gritty settling requiring trips back and forth for the cooler and luggage.  Getting the kids to help remained difficult.

“Mom, this is too heavy,” Brenda whined, struggling to hold up her end of the cooler.

“Ma, can’t we just go swimming? Can’t we do this later?” Bobby definitely would prefer to shirk. “We could have just bought drinks here anyway.”

“Honey, you know I’m trying to save some money by bringing our own.” Joyce wrestled with two suitcases and a backpack.

Once again her thoughts strayed to Paul and why he would leave her.  Why she didn’t have a partner to help with stuff like this.  She remembered what her counselor advised: don’t ask why. Ask how. How can I live my life happily or at least serenely? God please help me. She remembered to ask for help with these aching, annoying continuous thoughts. Thoughts of something, outside of her, that owned her- Paul rented space in
her head and seemed permanently lodged in her heart.  It was impossible to evict him.


“Marie, I’m so glad to see you.”

“Hi Bren, hi Bob, how’re you doing, kids?”

“Good,” they chimed. Small grins appeared. Marie’s teenagers were here. Sometimes they swore, and while Mom denigrated this behavior, Bobby, especially, commended it.

“Come, guys, you can make it though you do look a little overburdened. Let me take something.”

Try as she might to relax after they settled in, Joyce could not. Bobby and Brenda monotonously echoed “Crackpot, crackpot,” as they cannonballed into the pool. They barely noticed as Joyce left to go to a workshop.

“Thanks a bunch, June,” she called to Marie’s sixteen year old daughter who joined in with the antics of Bobby and Brenda as Joyce left the pool area.

“Crackpot. What is this crackpot crap?“ Joyce heard June ask as she left. She felt mildly free and told herself to be grateful for the small blessing of having an hour to herself.

The title of the workshop listed on the program was Joy Despite the Loss of Our Dreams. The topic resonated with Joyce. Becoming absorbed in the sharing as she sat in the room Joyce was prompted by something the speaker said to remember her brother who died in his early twenties. After a few minutes of sadness, she realized she may not have had these feelings when he died ten years ago because she had been drinking and drugging.

She thought of that eight ball they had as kids. The one they’d ask questions of and wait impatiently as the answer slowly slid into focus. It was just like that.  Her brother Ed slid into view. She was nineteen and he was fifteen. They’d hopped into the VW and traveled up to Vermont. After smoking the joint she brought, they lay in sleeping bags beside a country road. Side by side they watched shooting stars cascade into the deep, wide indigo sky.

The speaker was saying, “despite the loss of my dream of staying with my wife, I am grateful to have my kids in my life, to be sober, and to be a productive member of society. Every day I ask God for help. The losses in my life are scars. Today I plan to turn my scars into stars.”

Everyone clapped to hear the positive spin.  It was Serendipitous that she’d been thinking about stars (and scars) at the same time as the speaker. Synchronicity or coincidence nurtured her faith and hope. It helped her trust that being a single mom and working full time must be God’s will. Marie always suggested that God’s will was wanting what one had and appreciating it. Joyce had been journaling and recording all the synchronistic events that had occurred, proof if she needed it that life played on key. She would read a
character’s name in a book and then someone with that name would appear in her life.  She marveled at these happenings and wondered what message the universe was trying to convey to her.

People in twelve step programs call this type of coincidence God-incidence. For Joyce it helped to show that a Power Greater than Herself was working in her life. One day she took a walk while on vacation, not really knowing where she was going.  At the end of the walk she came across a dingy with her initials painted on it. Another time she took her teenage nephew to see Ozzie Osbourne. Wondering, even as she was there, if
this had been the right thing to do, Joyce opened the Anita Shreve book she hoped to read during the chaos and found it dedicated to Ozzie. At these moments, Joyce felt in the right place, sure of God’s blessing.

Leaving the workshop, Joyce mulled over all she wanted to tell Marie. Briefly she thought of Paul but remembered to stay present with herself, here and now. Marie was walking to the pool.

“Marie, Marie!” Joyce called.

The two hugged.

“You look a little better,” Marie observed. . Marie knew how badly Joyce had been taking it since Paul broke up with her.

“I am. That meeting was really good. I thought of my brother; I felt the pain- deep original pain, so to speak, and then I remembered a wonderful day with him and by feeling it and grieving and then having the good memory, I think I released some of the pain.”

“That’s right, girl. Its okay, it’s going to be okay,” Marie encouraged.

The pair hurried into the pool area. Suddenly happy to be with her family Joyce grandly greeted her children, “My stars, my stars!” she called as she saw them.

Used to their mother’s whims and grandiosity and what they called ‘recovery crap’ such as the Easy Does It but Do It bumper sticker their car sported, they grimaced good naturedly but answered, “Hey, Mom.”

“You’re coming to the big meeting tonight,” she reminded them. “How’s the water?

“Great. Real warm,“ Brenda spluttered. “Can I go in the Jacuzzi?”

Joyce and Marie exchanged glances. Kids always pushing limits.

“How about we check out the paddle boats?”

“Okay,” everyone agreed.

The paddle boat experience bonded the two single parented families together. Only an occasional joking affront of “crackpot” was uttered by the younger members of the group. By now even June was throwing the term around. Joyce explained how the word had come over the air and how the kids had become obsessive about it.

“Crackpot is a funny word, I have to agree,” Marie told the kids. Then, to Joyce, commiserating, she added, “And gratitude, patience and acceptance are funny words, too.”

That night, refreshed from the outdoor entertainment and a nice meal of Asian food, the group went to the ballroom to hear the main speaker of the convention. Usually the keynote speaker was clever and engaging, able to make the audience identify and laugh.

“Let me tell you a Zen story,” Loretta began, “that has to do with character defects and not being fully present for our realities. There were two pots that were being used to carry water.   One pot was broken and dripped along the path; the pot was not perfect. The cracked pot went to the Zen master and complained about its condition. But, look behind you, the Zen master said. I put seeds in your path and every day the crack in your side allowed the water to seep out and nourish the plants. Look at the beautiful flowers you have grown!” Loretta laughed. “And you know I am just an old cracked pot! But that’s okay, because God has been with me every step of the way.”

Joyce became mindful that she had not thought of Paul for five hours and that she was enjoying life exactly as it was right now. Tears filled her eyes as she felt the grace of another serendipitous moment. Cracked pot. Crackpot. She put an arm around each child and gave a warm squeeze. A full, wide smile emerged on Joyce’s face as she turned to see if Marie had caught the coincidental gift. Marie nodded.

“I really, really want what I have,” Joyce whispered.

Brenda and Bobby rolled their eyes. Silently they mouthed a word to each other.



Pamela Knight has worked as a subway mass transit driver for the MBTA in Boston, MA, for the last twenty three years. She has published two pieces in Chicken Soup for the Recovering Soul Daily Meditations. Residing by Nantasket Beach, she lives with her two teenage children and three cats. She enjoys her book club, gardening and bird watching.

“Rain” by Michael P. McManus

It’s dark and raining and beyond the darkness I can hear the river rising in the rain. It’s been that way for three days, the rain falling so hard I cannot see anything.  And what is before me? I struggle through the mud, a place where the rain has become a ubiquitous wall that shifts and shapes the world around me. If I could see where I were going, if it were daylight, if the moon were high and the sky was clear, I know there would be mossy rocks, vetches, forget-me-nots, many kinds of wild flowers. I know if I could see beyond the river I would see an immense mountain covered with balsams, hemlocks, spruces, pines, beeches and maples. There could be sunlight falling on the foliage and the shadows it made would be a girl who smiles and then walks away forever.

I have killed a man. His body is stiff and cold and the rain slides off it and his clothes cling to him like a second skin. When the lightning flashes, I can see his face, a smile locked there until decomposition begins, his skin the color of flour. I have dragged him for hours. I have kept my head low, but still the branches have scraped and touched and tried to hold me with boney fingers. Perhaps I am bleeding, my blood mixing with the rain and the rain mixing with the blood and if I were Christ the world could drink of me. But I am not and this morning I killed a man who was once my friend, a man who I have known since the third grade.

He was not killed for adultery or theft or any other condemnations that one could argue as supposition for any murder. No, he was killed quite succinctly, quite commonly, because he had remarked with little fanfare that I lacked the courage for killing. And then it was finished. And then it was done. There was no remoteness as one might find when looking upon a lighthouse from far out at sea. No, he had turned his head and in one instant I had pressed the pistol barrel to his head and before he had time to reason what had befallen him, my finger had pulled the trigger.

The body crumpled as he fell to the floor and through I expected some kind of virtue there was none. There was, however, at the moment of death, an overriding calm as if time had ceased to be anything but a name and perception. I looked down on him to find that quizzical grin, the one I had known since childhood, and wondered if his soul had left him? Blood had run into his blue eyes and I asked myself how it would be for his wife. She was a beautiful women who did not deserve such a thing, but it was finished now and outside it was raining and thundering and from time to time the house shook and before I went outside to load him into the back of my truck, wrapped tight head to foot in a dark tarp, I turned off the television. CNN was talking about the profits made by the oil companies and that was the last thing I wanted to listen to.

In the end it’s always some son-of-a-bitch sitting in his glassed-in office on the fiftieth floor, some gray-haired CEO who’s out to fuck the common man. Now I’m fucked for life, through I don’t know if I’ll ever be caught. I think I’m smarter than that. And if I could, I’d be dragging the CEO of Exxon through the mud and rain not the heavy body of Wilson Woolf, a man who at one point in my life I would have died for. But he’s the one who’s dead and I wish he would have watched his weight because my back hurts and the buildup of Lactic acid in my arms makes my muscles burn.

As I stop to rest I can hear the river roaring close by and for a moment I picture the oil fields burning during the Gulf War. The skies are black from the rising smoke and it’s raining oil on a platoon of Marines and through they won’t say it out loud each of them is wondering how-in-the-hell did it get to this?

Then I’m thinking about the moment in The Deer Hunter where De Niro holds up a bullet and says, “this is this.” Well this is this and here I am and here Wilson is and because I don’t believe in the concept of sin I wonder what it means for me in the end? It doesn’t matter now because what will be will be and it’s all one giant cliché, one which means nothing because nothing can be done, and even as I near the river I’m sure the oil gurus are smirking and thinking of excuses to jack up the price on crude oil as much as they can.

I dragged him towards the water by his ankles but his boots slipped off and so I had to take up his wrists and lean back and pull and keep at it until the water was lapping at my feet. The river is high and mighty and wild and it has heard my laughs before. I was young once and so was Wilson and we swam here summers when the only worries were what our mothers were cooking for supper.  But I’m thankful now that the river is the way it is and I’m sure it will take his body far downstream and if it’s found they won’t find the gun because I’ve broken it down into pieces and thrown them away miles apart.

As Wilson floats away I’m imagining the CEO of Exxon fucking his mistress and whispering in her ear little nothings about the Porsche he’s going to buy her. As for me I know I used half a tank of gas driving out here and there’s a good chance the prices will go up again tomorrow.  On the way home I know I better fill up because I’ve had visions about the new world order and it isn’t a pretty thing and on nights like this when it’s not all that clear a man like me never gets a break.



Michael P. McManus is a two time Pushcart nominee and recipient of a Fellowship from the Louisiana Division of the Arts. He was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania. He currently lives in Louisiana where by day he sells plumbing supplies to the masses. At night he reads and writes, and from time to time sips a round or two at the local Irish pub. He is a Navy Veteran and lifetime member of the Disabled American Veterans. Michael’s poems and short stories have appeared in numerous publications.