It took Boyd Lawry a moment or two before he could comprehend the image of the dead deer. He’d been at the kitchen sink scrubbing plates crusted over from that night’s chili when he’d looked out the window and seen it speared through its fleshy gut by a metal spike. He thought that maybe his aging eyes were deceiving him. Maybe he was seeing an animal in a most private moment, striking out against its grounded destiny and trying to fly. Then he’d noticed the hard spike of the fence bursting from the deer’s meat, a jarring marriage of metal and flesh.
First, before the horror set in, he felt a sense of bemusement and the wretched animal vaguely reminded him of a chicken skewer, like the kind he was planning to make in a few days for his daughter’s farewell dinner. He’d been asking her for a while what she wanted to eat and he had finally wheedled an answer out of her. But after staring at the eviscerated body of the deer in his backyard, he didn’t think he could make the skewers after all.
That was the backyard where he’d wanted to teach her to kick a soccer ball as child, but never did. Whenever he tried to teach her, she’d run back inside after five minutes, complaining about the heat. Now at sixteen, she was on the basketball team at school, but he had yet to see a single game. Bleachers always made his bad back act up.
Boyd glanced back at his daughter, Bix, sitting at the kitchen table. She was tall for her age, taking after him in that one aspect. She was painting her nails blue. For most of his life, Boyd hadn’t realized nail polish came in any other color besides blood red.
At that thought, his mind travelled back to the deer. Bix’s head was still bent over her hands, which meant she hadn’t seen anything yet. He flicked off the faucet and made his way outside and he knew her eyes wouldn’t follow him out.
He wasn’t a squeamish man, had worked in his twenties and thirties in construction, where he’d hurt his back slipping from a roof. He had been lucky; he’d seen men fall from rafters and lay sprawled on the ground in twisted angles, but standing in front of his fence brought forth a visceral reaction that stunned him for a moment. The deer was suspended in the air, neatly bisected by the seven-foot fence, the spike at the top painted a shiny crimson. Its front legs were draped on one side of the fence and its back legs on the other, a few fall leaves still clinging to the soles of its hooves.
It had been trying to jump the fence. He had heard about the same thing happening to his neighbors’ fences, but in all the years he’d lived in this house, it had never happened to his. If only the deer had gone a foot or so higher, it would have made it.
He was reminded of something Bix had said to him only a few months prior. Life is just a series of endings. She was sixteen, full of sulking silences and scorching stares, and such a statement would have been overly dramatic of her, except for the fact that they were coming back from her stepfather’s funeral. She had lived with the man since she was three, and, Boyd could admit it, even if only to himself, that he’d been more of a father to her than her own. He had succumbed to a heart attack at the age of sixty while Bix was away on a school trip, and Boyd’s ex-wife was left unmoored, too busy wading in her own grief to contemplate her daughter’s.
Boyd offered to help with Bix any way he could, despite them only seeing each other a few times a year. She had always been somewhat unknown to him no matter how many times he saw her. When she was six, he’d taken her to the county fair, where she wailed for a five dollar plastic ring with a fake ruby gem affixed to it, and when he bought it for her, she twisted it so hard on her finger in her excitement that she popped the gem right off.
As Boyd studied the deer, his daughter’s line came to him: Life is just a series of endings. He wondered how long ago the deer had made its fatal jump. He was glad he hadn’t had to watch its hind legs twitch, see its deep brown eyes dull as it stared down at him from atop its perch. Life was a series of endings, true, but as long as he didn’t have to bear witness to such endings, that was fine by him.
He moved closer to the deer. Its fur was the color of his daughter’s hair. She had pulled it into a ponytail the day she first came to stay with him that summer and hadn’t let it down once since. She would be going back to her mother’s when school started in a few days. Once, when he was plopping down clean laundry on her bed, Boyd caught a glimpse of a calendar lying open on her bedside table, with red slashes through most of June, July, August. The last day of her summer break was emblazoned with stars.
Boyd had tried. He’d asked his ex-wife for suggestions. His poker buddies told him all the boy bands that their own daughters listened to. When Bix came for the summer, they’d gone to the movies, seen all the fast car and pale vampire movies he could stomach. They’d gone to her favorite bookstore and the makeup store at the mall. They had even tried the county fair, but they only stayed fifteen minutes before she rolled her eyes enough times for him to get the hint. He’d done what he could to make her see him as some kind of father, but found himself unable to talk to her, except in short sputtered bursts.
Out in the backyard, Boyd decided the deer had to come down. It couldn’t stay up there on the fence, surveying the land like some sort of lord. Boyd could still remember how he’d felt slipping from that roof decades ago. Just before the endless sinking, his body hung weightless in the air for a flash of a moment. Boyd wondered if the deer felt that too, right before it met the fence.
He grabbed a pair of old work gloves. He found an empty wood crate in the garage and dragged it to the fence. Except for the death next to him, the view from atop the wood crate was pleasant. He could see through the trees that lay beyond the fence to his neighbor’s lush lawn, still bearing the bright green of the summertime. That may have been where the deer was heading as it made its last leap.
Standing on the crate, his forehead was level with the deer’s midsection and he glimpsed its white belly. He hesitated for a second, then pulled off a glove. He brushed one finger along the deer’s downy stomach. It was soft, like a woman’s hair. The deer was still a little warm, despite the brisk early autumn air. He put the glove back on.
That night at the dinner table, Boyd had tried to talk to Bix about school. ‘You have a favorite class?’ he asked.
Bix picked at her chili bowl, a slight sneer on her lips, but then caught herself and shoved a spoonful into her mouth. She was distant, but Boyd knew her mother had raised her to be polite, and so Bix had merely shrugged. ‘I don’t know really,’ she said amiably. ‘Since classes haven’t started yet and all.’
He felt his face redden. ‘Yeah.’ He gulped down a glass of water. ‘Right.’ Once, when she had visited him at Christmas when she was around ten, she had carried around a notebook everywhere, jotting down observations in secret. She had said she wanted to be the next Harriet the Spy. Boyd swallowed some more water and then said, ‘I bet you’re real good at English. Writing.’
Bix shrugged. She made circles in her bowl with the spoon. ‘Not really,’ she said. ‘I liked Biology last year.’ Her face was unreadable to him. They were both quiet the rest of the meal.
Now outside, he took a breath, and gripped the deer’s hind legs. The body had not yet begun to smell of decay, but rather contained only the smells of sweat and warmth. He slung the legs over his shoulder and pushed upwards, intending to shove the deer over the fence. But its stomach was being held intact by the fence spike, and it wouldn’t go overboard without leaking its insides everywhere, so Boyd stopped.
He considered climbing over the fence and trying from the other side, but knew he would only encounter the same problem, if he could even get that far; at fifty-seven, he was no spring chicken anymore. His back couldn’t handle the strain and the deer would split in two if he tried that.
When Bix first moved in with him at the beginning of summer, she was cordial. She treated him the way you would an elderly relative, one twice removed. She didn’t call him ‘Boyd’ or ‘Dad’, but instead avoided calling him anything at all. She wore jean shorts with holes at the pockets and walked barefoot till her tracks were black. One Saturday in June, she came back to the house with a bright ring on the round of her ear. It hadn’t been there when she’d left, and Boyd was so astonished at its sudden appearance that he didn’t know what to say except, ‘Well, that’s a new one.’ She had let out a noncommittal huff and disappeared into her room.
He had finally understood that the things he actually understood were few. This included his daughter, who was as unknowable and at once familiar to him as his own shadow. The deer made much more sense to him. It had wanted little in life and had ended up with even less. He felt a kind of duty in tending to what remained.
For a moment, he stood still, clutching the deer’s legs, his head bowed as if at an altar. Then he let go and stepped off the crate. He walked inside and stood at the kitchen table, where his daughter still sat, blowing on her hands. He noticed then that she had rings on nearly every finger, though none were ruby.
Her head was down inspecting her nails, but he saw her tense when he entered the room. ‘What?’ she asked, something like fatigue creeping into her voice.
Seeing her, her deer-brown hair pulled back in a swift ponytail and her long legs scrunched underneath her on the chair, he hesitated. He debated turning around and marching outside alone, but then he remembered Bix saying she liked Biology. Perhaps the deer would intrigue her, excite her scientific curiosities. Perhaps she would be disgusted with it, with him, with their life together. Either way, he knew the poor animal had to come down and that couldn’t happen without an extra set of hands.
When Boyd spoke, his voice sounded unlike his own. ‘I need your help with something.’
She raised her head and stared at him cautiously. ‘Yeah?’ she said.
He had gone to his ex-wife’s house once to drop Bix off after a three-day weekend when she was twelve, and he saw this scrapbook Bix had made. It was sitting on the coffee table and it was no macaroni-letters, glittery-beaded, little kid thing. She’d glued pictures on the pages with patterned borders, she’d done calligraphy with a sure hand, she’d picked a heavy strong binding with enough weight to hold all that was inside. He had taken a peek when no one was in the room and saw the scrapbook contained pictures of Bix and her parents, the ones she lived with anyway. There was a photograph of her and her stepfather. She was looking at him with a wide-toothed smile. Boyd had thought back to the bottom drawer of his bedroom dresser where a bundle of Father’s Day cards was buried under his socks.
Now in the kitchen, Boyd set his jaw grimly. ‘Put some shoes on, okay. A deer. It got stuck on the fence. The backyard fence. I don’t know. I don’t feel right about leaving him up there. But I can’t get him down alone.’
‘Sure, whatever, I’ll help.’ She pulled on some sneakers and tied the laces in the way that he had taught her years ago, the bunny around the tree, only she did it so slowly, deliberately that Boyd wondered if she was pulling his leg, before he remembered her nails were wet. When she stood, she appeared disinterested, but there was a certain gleam to her eyes that he recognized. He’d seen it when she’d held that ruby ring right before she ripped the red off.
They headed towards the backyard, but when they reached the fence, Bix came to an abrupt halt and let out a shaky breath. ‘Oh,’ she said. Her ponytail loosened in the breeze.
Boyd was surprised to see his daughter’s white face. ‘I’m sorry, sweetie, I should have, I didn’t mean.’ He could have kicked himself. ‘I thought I'd said it. What I meant was that the deer was gone already. Nothing we could have done. It’s dead, Bix, it just happened when we weren’t looking, but now we’ve got to get it down.’
She nodded, blinked hard. She let out a shiver, but he didn’t think she was afraid. ‘Yeah,’ she mumbled. ‘What do you need me to do?’
He considered the deer for a bit. ‘Well, what I think we need to do is push up at both ends of the thing at the same time. Any other way and it’d split right in half. It’s not going be pretty.’ Boyd knew this was an understatement, but he didn’t want to gross her out. There was something in him that felt he owed it to the deer to get it down, at the very least. He hoped Bix felt the same way. ‘What do you think?’
‘Sure,’ she replied, and shrugged as if it didn’t matter to her one way or the other. She bit her lip and didn’t look at him, but at the deer.
By the time Bix was born, he and his wife were already almost finished splitting in two, but had only held off on that final break for the child’s sake. It hadn’t worked in the end and bitter things were said on both sides. But when he first held Bix in his arms, Boyd found himself stuck in her brown eyes. He promised himself he would be good to her. He paid his child support on time, he sent her birthday presents, he saved up for her college fund. He had been happy for her when she had found another man to call ‘Dad’.
Boyd passed her another pair of work gloves and she put them on, her blue nails swallowed up. ‘How’s this going to work?’ he said, more to himself than to her. He stepped on the crate again and peered as far over the fence as he could. Boyd looked down and considered his daughter a moment. ‘I’m going to need you to hop the fence here, Bix.’
Her eyes bulged. ‘What, me?’
Boyd nodded. He didn’t think he was agile enough to cross the fence, and the back end of the deer would be heavier so it would require his greater weight. She hugged herself, but her gaze was steely. ‘Think it’s the only way, sweet bee.’
It was a name he had called her as a child and he saw her nearly smile before she didn’t. He guided her towards the wood crate and she gripped the metal fence tightly. She was close to the deer now, though she didn’t look at it, but rather at the trees in front of her. Crossing the fence was easier than it had seemed. Boyd pushed her upwards as she hoisted herself to the top, moving gingerly around the spikes. She swung one of her long legs over and straddled the fence, stuck for a moment in the face of the deer. She let out another barely audible ‘Oh!’ and seemed to lock eyes with the animal. Boyd could see its dead gaze reflected in her pupils.
‘Honey,’ he said softly, and she swung her head away from the deer.
She continued her descent and reached the ground. He pointed to a large boulder near the base of the fence and she took a step towards it. He stood again on the wood crate, and when they were both on their respective shelves, they were almost at the same height through the fence. Boyd could only see a part of her right eye, clouded by the metal of the fence and by a flicker of anxiety. Her other eye was hidden by her hair, which had come undone. He flashed her a small smile, but he didn’t think she could see it through the fence.
‘So we’re going to have to get under it, really under it, and push it forward. Maybe put our hands right up near the spike, you see it?’ Bix looked up and nodded. ‘And when we get it up off the fence, it’s going to be heavy, so we’re going to have to do it quick. I’m going to throw my weight forward and I’m going to sort of toss it over, okay? So it’ll be coming over towards your direction. I think the best place for it is over the fence, out towards the trees. Okay?’
‘Yeah.’ She blew her hair from her face.
They both placed their hands under their ends of the deer. For a moment, they stood transfixed, each on their side of the fence, and he thought this may be the longest amount of time he’d spent really looking at his daughter. Her face was thin, with no trace of the baby fat she had once held onto. The shape of her nose reminded Boyd of her mother, but her chin was sharp like his. Then she broke her stare and pulled off one of her gloves. His breath caught in his throat as he watched her brush a finger along the deer’s belly. She put the glove back on.
‘Ready?’ Boyd whispered.
Then they began to push upwards, feeling the benignity of the animal fall away as its innards squished and sloshed and splashed down both faces of the fence as the spike hammered into the animal’s frame gave way to nothing.
For a millisecond, Boyd and his daughter held the deer, wrenched free from the fence, above their heads. His arms twitched. She crinkled her nose. Though leaking red, the deer was still whole. Boyd took a breath and shoved the weight in his arms as far as he could. It sailed over his daughter’s head and landed near a tree with a final thump.
Boyd and Bix stood facing one another, she on the rock and he on the crate. They both breathed audibly. Her brown hair was loose and covered her shoulders.
He looked at Bix. ‘We did right,’ he said.
She pulled off the gloves and passed them to him through the holes in the fence, then rested her fingers on the metal. He noticed the blue of her nails, smudged and blurry. Her rings were intact though, all silver and gold glinting in the light of the falling sun. He tried to see the deer down on the other side of the fence, but could only see its outline through the mass of leaves.
‘We did right,’ he said again. He looked up and found himself held by his daughter’s brown eyes.
‘Yeah,’ she said.
The air was still and cool, and in a moment, Boyd knew he would try to clasp onto the light coming from those rings. In a moment, he knew he would reach forward to her through the fence.
But for now, another breeze swept in and a few leaves crawled towards the deer’s remains, the burying already begun.
TAYLOR KOBRAN holds an MFA from Hollins University. She was a runner-up for the 2016 Andrew James Purdy Prize for Short Fiction and was the recipient of the 2013 Moorehead-Timberlake Award for Creative Writing at Dickinson College. Her work is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket Magazine. She lives in New Jersey.
You’re asleep, facing away from me. The glow of the street light creeping through your fading curtains illuminates the soft hair at the top of your back and neck. I watch you. I’m tempted to touch you, to caress the hair and run my fingertips down your back, let them trace the terrain well-travelled over these years.
I stop myself.
Rise, fall, rise, fall: your breathing has a soothing quality. I can’t get back to sleep because you’ve unravelled yourself from the confines of our duvet, and you know how I like to cuddle. One of your legs is bent towards you, enhancing the curvature of your bottom beneath your Calvin Klein boxers. They’re black, and I bought them for you for Valentine’s Day or your birthday. I don’t remember when, but they do remind me of better times.
Hot under the covers, I pull the duvet off too, careful not to wake you. Your steady breathing sighs success. From beneath the bed I retrieve an A3 sketchpad, some shading pencils, and I sit at the foot of our bed. Flicking through the sketchpad I see how every day seemed the same but, in hindsight, everything has changed. For every sleepless night there is a sketch of you.
I begin with the CK boxer waistband. It brings back the smell of coffee in Paris, and my taste buds tickle for croissants. When did we last have breakfast in bed? The contours of your legs are simple, understated, with each strand of hair masking the power behind your thighs. I remember cycling, walks, and other physical activities we’ve forgotten we enjoy. I record you as you are and not as I remember you. One arm is underneath the pillow where your head rests and the bicep bulges the way you used to flaunt because you knew I liked it. Your hand lies limp over the edge of the bed, your fingers gripping nothing, letting me slip through.
My pencil keeps sketching your landscape; your back, shoulder blades, the hair I wanted to touch, your neck. After I finish drawing the back of your head I place the pencil down, look at my drawing, and then back to your sleeping body, comparing the two.
I’ve tried to put on paper what I see in front of me, but there are parts of you I cannot map. I wonder what’s beneath your skull, what you’re dreaming of now, and what keeps the light dancing behind your eyes when you’re awake.
Peaceful, you take a deep breath, roll over, and I gaze at your chest, hairier than your back, but, oddly, I like it. I imagine my fingers crawling over your sternum and running over your ribs. I picture myself slipping my hand beneath your lungs and stroking your heart. I want to see if it’s my name etched on the ventricle walls, but something tells me I already know. I set my sketchbook down and rest my ear on your chest, savouring whatever’s left.
SANTINO PRINZI helps with National Flash Fiction Day in the UK and is the Flash Fiction Editor of Firefly Magazine. He was the recipient of the TSS Young Writers Award, the 2014/15 Bath Spa University Flash Fiction Prize, and has been longlisted, shortlisted, or placed in other competitions. His flash fiction, prose poetry, and short stories have been published or are forthcoming in various journals or anthologies, including Ink Sweat and Tears, CHEAP POP, Flash Frontier, The Best of Vine Leaves Literary Journal 2015, and Unbroken Literary Journal. You can keep up to date or contact him via his Twitter or his website.
This story is taken from his debut flash fiction collection, Dots, and other flashes of perception, which is available to order from The Nottingham Review in print or as an ebook here.
B.B.P. Hosmillo is a queer poet of color. Pushcart Prise & two-time Best of the Net nominee, he is the author of Breed Me: a sentence without a subject (AJAR Press, 2016) with Vietnamese translation by Hanoi-based poets Nha Thuyen & Kaitlin Rees. His writing is anthologised in Bettering American Poetry (2016) & has recently appeared in Palaver Journal, The Collapsar, SAND: Berlin’s English Literary Journal, Transnational Literature (Australia), & minor literature[s], amongst others. He has received research fellowships & scholarships from The Japan Foundation, Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, & Republic of Indonesia. He is guest poetry editor at Cha: An Asian Literary Journal & co-editor of Queer Southeast Asia: A Literary Journal of Transgressive Art with Cyril Wong, Hendri Yulius, J. Pilapil Jacobo & Pang Khee Teik. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Edge Against Sign
my life is about letters
against rust around the garden
and weeds at the tips of
your fingers below the horizon beyond
midnight roar for the magic ring
from the poster in the right-hand
pocket into small grottoes of sweet
biscuits like blazes of tourism and
local fashion on a gum leaf
out flat over a small round
table round the side through
shattered glass to rocky outcrops under
freeway pylons up into the
valley with feet with friends with
insects up in the building under
noise towards the open doorway
through smallest lens round the
lit-up tank over a guitar case
out into universes on the table
of used plates like something I dreamed
into silent gullies drains dumping grounds
in a place in a room in
wires from dark green hollows
for a second down by the
harbour behind its dull red wall
at the centre above police
car at the corner at edge
against sign breaking
being wide awake after
JILL JONES has published nine books of poetry, and a number of chapbooks. The latest is The Leaves Are My Sisters, a self-published chapbook from an Adelaide-based collaborative venture, Little Windows Press. Other recent books include The Beautiful Anxiety and Ash Is Here, So Are Stars. She edited, with Michael Farrell, Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets.
You’d planned to meet Brett at the tea shop, but it closed at four. He texts you that he’s at the small park across the main street, a square of flattened grass, two benches, some unattended mums, a monument to WWII soldiers once living in the village.
You are suddenly stupid shy, as if you were fourteen instead of forty. You have texted one another for six days straight since you met online, talking about the sudden, sharp entrance of autumn, about your divorces, places in Ireland you’d love to visit one day, your shared affinity for pumpkins and chocolate. Brett admitted he sits on the floor and sings to his Pug, Max, during their morning lovefest, that he retired early because of bad knees, had anger issues when he was younger, that his overwhelming fear of being alone forever sometimes makes it impossible to breathe.
While Brett waits in the park, you are hidden by a parked car. You look through the windows and see a reflection of a man on a bench wearing a white T-shirt and jeans. For a moment, you consider running, but Brett has seen you. He is waving and walking towards you into the street. He is smiling.
He is not what you imagined from the one blurry photo on the dating site showing him holding a live Maine lobster at a roadside seafood stand.
Brett is bigger in the chest and solid, like a wrestler, with thick-framed black glasses that remind you of an old science teacher and a wild swath of hair that stands up in the wind.
You hug each other without any parts of your body touching except your arms. You grouse about the tea shop closing so early, but it is too cold to stand outside, so you go to the pub on the corner.
As you walk, you have the urge to take his hand, as if the two of you are a real couple.
Inside the bar, at a too-small table, you sit across from Brett and his club soda with lemon wedge, watching him wipe at the perfect circle of moisture his glass has sweated onto the table. His nails are cut too short – maybe even chewed on. You think about reaching over the table and patting his hand to let him know everything’s going to be fine, but you don’t want to lie.
His voice is oddly high-pitched, and there’s an overabundance of cadence to his dialogue; everything he says ends in a question mark, as if he thinks you might have the answers.
You order food and a glass of Riesling, but Brett says he’ll stick with his seltzer, that he had a late lunch with Max.
Brett tells you about his OCD, which he is working very hard to control, about taking up guitar and finding music his true calling. He talks about his journey, his years in therapy following a toxic marriage to his high school sweetheart, how he now fuels himself with love and the understanding that he is in touch with the universe and everything is unfolding as it should be. He tells you he is right with the world.
You wonder where the server is with your chicken pesto sandwich and side of slaw.
You want to join Brett in the moment, to understand his journey, to root for him and cheer him on, but you are restless and unable to come up with an authentic response this unforeseen soul-baring. You wish he would go back to talking about his music, his kids, why he was cradling the lobster in Maine.
‘Congratulations,’ the law clerk in the attorney’s office had said when your divorce became final four months before, like it was a cause for celebration, like she might toot a little horn and throw some confetti, present you with a cake festooned with pink frosting flowers.
Your ex’s copy of the divorce papers were mailed to him in North Carolina, where he moved to get out of the harsh New York winters, carve out his own life after 12 years with you.
‘I don’t think I love you anymore,’ he’d announced over coffee and buttered toast. ‘Maybe I don’t even know what love is anymore.’
You’d kept drinking the acidy coffee because you knew if you put your mug down, you would lose your shit.
Your heart is all messed up and twisted around. You dream of suffocating your ex with his pillow, still on his side of the bed. You dream of driving the 14 hours to Wilmington to find him lounging on the beach beneath a sun umbrella, but when he turns to you, his face is frozen, icy cold. You dream of walking down the middle of the street, following music that’s playing somewhere around the corner, only to find yourself naked when you get there, the music gone.
Pesto chicken was a bad idea; it sticks in your throat and you need a second glass of Riesling to wash it down. Brett says the pub is too loud; it needs some kind of fabric or cork in the walls to absorb the noise, which is funny, because the voices, including his, were muddled and sounded far away to you.
Brett picks up the tab and you let him.
The wind has died down as you leave the pub. Brett is parked further away, so you offer to drive him to his Subaru.
During the overly awkward moment meant for saying good night in your car, Brett tells you he is looking for ‘the one’. He tells you he will be dating other women, even though it goes against his deep-seeded belief in monogamy. He says he wants to sift through as many women as he can, to speed date, to hurry the process along so he can reach the finish line sooner.
Brett says he doesn’t know what he’s looking for, but he’ll know it when he sees it. He talks in circles. The circles widen until they become nonsensical.
You knew instantly, the moment you saw him sitting in the park, reflected in the windows of the car, that you are not the one.
In the park, there is an older couple on one of the benches drinking coffee out of paper cups. They are leaning towards one another, closing the space between them. The woman is talking and the man is laughing, and when they pause, he brushes her shoulder, touching her hair and you think, ‘I will never have that.’
You lean in for the good night kiss, and Brett gives a quick, uneventful peck on your lips.
Brett is talking again and all you can think is you will implode if you hear about his search any longer. The scary thing is, he’s beginning to make sense, and suddenly, you see a clear, straight path for him from this moment until he finds the one, shrugs off his anger and fear, and sits with her on a bench in a park having coffee beneath a maple tree with leaves just starting to turn gold.
You use your tongue for the next kiss. He tastes like lemons. He gropes for your left breast, a high-schoolish way of going to second base.
When you lower your face to his lap in the dimly lit, mostly empty parking lot by the park, he fumbles for the buttons on his 501 Levis. He makes happy noises as if he’d never known this was what he wanted all along. Not the one. Just you, this night, this misguided collision of a night, as you take him into your mouth, you know with certainty you are not the one, you will never be the one. But Brett is yours, this one night; this you know to be the truth.
The next day, Brett texts you a picture of his penis, with the message ‘I really enjoyed meeting you.’
It is the last you hear from him.
It is incomprehensibly painful.
CARI SCRIBNER is a freelance writer/journalist living in upstate New York. Her work has appeared in the new renaissance, Gravel, Fiction Southeast, Bartleby Snopes, Litro, Vending Machine Press, The Tishman Review, New World Writing, Drunk Monkeys, and Brilliant Flash Fiction. She is also an Assistant Editor at Bartleby Snopes. She is currently at work on a short story collection and a memoir, 6 CAROLINE, about growing up with a father with schizophrenia. Cari has been in 6 New York State Writers Workshops, where much of her work had its inception. She can be found writing with her little dog, Syd, at her feet, for hours on end. Her family knows to tipetoe around her when she’s working.
The Walking Exclamation Mark
[Redacted] chose not to meet his birth mother no
the moment of location was met
Rather than a letter
or photographs of his children
recordings reviews and
his curriculum vitae.
As a teen [Redacted]
attended [Redacted] Preparatory
alongside the now-famous violin soloist
Indeed [Redacted] was being
for a complementary career
until the moment
of collegiate matriculation arrived.
New York conservatory pursued
in comparative literature
at Yale University.
By all accounts
attack on and deep
for his mentor at [Redacted] Prep.
Before he won
his section position in the [Redacted] Orchestra
by my own craziness.”
Days before all previous
every fingering every bowing
for the thrill of it
of his most self-destructive desires
the iteration of a deep-seeded
fear of success.
In a pattern not uncommon for his sort
[Redacted] battled debilitating
for much of his career.
Years of study
coaching with the foremost experts
in this type of anxiety left him
to share his gleanings
with students and colleagues
“if you get nervous just squeeze
your hands together
hard as you can
like you’re taking a huge shit.”
is hyperbole personified
and his playing thusly similar.
He shifts gleefully:
Kreisler-esque gestures indicative
of his Franco-Belgian
ostensibly reckless though
Detractors describe his musicianship
as “fat-man-plays-violin” that is to say
In truth it is near-divinely
a testament knowing though
without its irrepressible
accompanying [Redacted]’s first job
adjunct faculty at [Redacted]
rank-and-file player in the [Redacted] Symphony
than she’d ever seen after
years of graduate school
were allocated to the purchase
of sixty-five dollar
rye the finest
fleur de sel and various assorted
At first Maldon gold and flaked
spiked with truffle
from a culinary boutique in Portland.
Later a selection
of mountain salts Himalayan pink
Hawaiian black only
to return safely
to a respectable Breton variety.
[Redacted] believed her
status a working girl musician
finally paid for her toil
ostentatious flair a mark
of her first
steps in an ascent to the bourgeois.
In truth her
was anchored in Bandura bobo doll
modeling a stretch
designed to emulate her
most trusted advisor
the so-called self-described
“thinking musician” the wished-for
to the particular class
lousy with donors
guarantors and the like.
CLARE LOUISE HARMON is the author of The Thingbody (Instar Books, 2015) and the chapbook If Wishes Were Horses the Poor Would Ride (Finishing Line Press, 2016). Her work has appeared in numerous journals including Sixth Finch, Tammy, PANK, The Feminist Wire, The Fem, The Stockholm Review of Literature, and others.
Plant skeletons, that is, firethorns
in bony frames, cushion flowers
in cartilages, unmoving, frozen
in the diaper white of dew,
and, at dawn, you walk me into the belly
of the land—the tunnel we passed through
a small intestine, where the stomach
of a lawn empties itself, where shrinking
pebbles seem to break down
and digest, where fallen leaves hide
their faces under the sand, but,
it’s been more than a year since I saw you,
and I’m willing to be taken in by the mouth
of this valley, go through this swampy throat
with you, and be eaten and swallowed,
if by walking and holding hands,
we feed this hunger in us, and linger
still at the tract of shrublets,
where a party of peafowls begin and end,
their descent a slide of digestion,
their liftoff like sputum spat out,
and then they disappear,
as every strand of your hair blows
against my eyes, as every copestone tilts,
while our wedding rings reflect similar colors--
saffron, gamboge and,
taking the first step back home,
we watch the river belch and overrun its bank--
cattails and skunk cabbage like food crumbs,
swept onto the porch of the shore.
Of superclusters and dark matter,
of our ability to speak in sheets
and galaxies, of our attempts at packed stars
and roundish shells—the being we’re becoming,
the interaction that shifts our focus, the tide
that levels us, the black hole that disappears.
We’re reworking the brightness today.
A galactic disc slips in. Planchet-like things, puck,
saucer, coin blank white and clean. Puncturing
the brown planes like a pin puncturing a balloon,
or an ice pick puncturing a tire,
is a four-fly proton beam. Neurons shoot
at the holes. A giant core crashes, fishtails
its scattering on the feet of the tussocks, loops
and shuffles and softens on the cockspurs,
hunkers down as liquid. Its voice whittles the world.
On its tongue, a green pipe leans, collects
white gums on the wavebands, tips them,
licks them, swallows them alive. The yard smells
of eglantine. It is you—bright, prickly, pinkish.
Optical doors tear open. Bushtits whimper.
Whatever was missed, whatever was burnt out,
or charred, whatever was interred with the dusts,
lay twirping under a firebush. It’s a bird.
A conelike one. It’s a brown top and a long tail
with a voice.
SAMUEL UGBECHIE’s works have appeared in Sentinal UK, Wikicolumn, Elsewhere Lit, Jalada, and elsewhere. In 2012, he won the Sentinel All-Africa Poetry Competition, was a finalist in the 2014 RL Poetry Award (International), and was longlisted for the 2014 National Poetry Competition. He is currently working on his debut poetry collection.
We’d gotten into it earlier that night. It wasn’t a blow out and it might have just been a misunderstanding about a joke one of us took too seriously. I don’t know. Everyone we talk to says things like this will happen in the first year or two; that those are the hardest. Which honestly has been no help at all.
Misunderstanding or not, I went to the grocery store to get out of the apartment for a few minutes, and filled a cart with things we would eventually run out of and non-critical one-offs we always seemed to forget. I’d checked out and was on my way to leave when I saw the big cardboard bin full of pumpkins by the door.
Jen had suggested carving pumpkins in the past and for whatever reason we never ended up doing it. The last time I carved a pumpkin I was just a little kid. God only knows what that one was; maybe a cartoon character or something. That’s a little optimistic. It was probably just some uneven shapes I called a face. None of that’s important though. Seeing those pumpkins I decided this might be a nice gesture. Real argument or not, this was a good move. There was no downside except that I would have to carve a pumpkin. But I had a couple beers in me at the time so even that didn’t sound too bad.
I went to the customer service desk, explained that I had something else to get and they said they’d keep an eye on everything until I got back.
I sorted through the pumpkins and found a couple without any big dents or scuffs. They were good-sized pumpkins. Not huge, but the biggest I could carry in each arm. It was a bit of a balancing act getting them to the register and out to the car, because by then I’d forgotten all about the cart.
Jen was on the couch reading an old magazine and didn’t look up when I walked in, so I assumed this whole misunderstanding wasn’t a joke after all. I put the pumpkins on the kitchen table, pushing the stacks of bills, a dirty plate still there from dinner and the vase where we collect our burnt-out light bulbs out of the way. She looked at the table and put the magazine down.
‘What are those supposed to be?’
Somehow, this made the situation worse.
I got a couple of steak knives from the kitchen, stood in front of the table and said, ‘This year we’re going to carve jack-o-lanterns.’ I sat at the table and fiddled with my pumpkin, pretending to do something while I waited for her to accept.
She poured herself a glass of wine and joined me at the table where we cut out the tops of the pumpkins, reminding each other to cut at an angle so they didn’t fall in.
‘What about all the goop inside? Are we going to make pumpkin seeds?’
‘That’s up to you.’
‘It’s cold and gross.’
‘It’s completely gross. We’re adults and we know better, so if we don’t want to sort through all that ropey slime for seeds we’ll end up throwing away anyhow, I’m fine with that. I’ve never once missed the taste of pumpkin seeds.’
I went back to the kitchen for a couple of tablespoons and pulled the trash can over. We scraped out all of the insides and spent the next hour talking and laughing and carving away. Somewhere in the middle of it all we sorted through whatever banal thing we were upset about by deciding that no one was right. This was just one of those difficult situations and there were sure to be more so we might as well just sweep it under the rug and move on.
I’ve seen pictures of pumpkins carved by professionals, the ones where they put celebrity faces or iconic movie scenes on them. What we did wasn’t that impressive, but it was light years beyond any pumpkin I’d ever seen in real life.
When she was done, I asked her who her pumpkin was and she said it was Luciano. When she was a girl she imagined she would marry a handsome, world-famous theater actor and they would split their time between a brownstone in New York and a villa in Italy. His name was Luciano and this was how she always thought he would look.
I told her I didn’t want to say who mine was because it was dumb, which was a mistake because after that I knew she’d never let it go. I should have just lied, but I told her. It was the guy who played the witty hero in that old action show on TV. The one with the robot sidekick. Not him now, but back then. These days he’s a mess. It was the only thing I could think of. I have no idea why.
She said that was dumb and I was wrong because it actually looked like me, except that he was smiling and I didn’t smile that much. I said this was just another one of those things we’d have to agree neither of us were right about and be happy our marriage was progressing at such an accelerated pace.
‘So where are we going to put them? We can’t put them on the porch. Someone will just come by and smash them. Even if they don’t, they’ll rot before Halloween.’
She had a point.
‘Well, we can’t keep them in here. That’s for sure. They’ll stink up the place in no time and they’re sure to attract bugs. That’s the last thing we need.’
She poured another glass of wine and came back to the table where we sat in silence staring at our creations like they might have an opinion to offer on the matter.
‘I know what we should do,’ she said. ‘We’ll take a picture of them, then go out and smash them ourselves. That way we’ll always have them and we’ll never be disappointed because no one got to ruin them except us.’
‘That’s a great idea,’ I said, but I didn’t think it was something we would actually do. I mean, imagine, two adults who do everything they can to come off like they have it all together, standing in front of an old apartment building with bats and golf clubs swinging away at some, quite frankly, beautifully carved pumpkins they had clearly put some time in to, and in September no less.
‘Then lets do it.’ She downed her wine, tucked Luciano under her arm and headed for the door.
She really meant it.
I grabbed the hero of my youth and followed her outside.
Thankfully, none of the neighbors were out on the porch to dismantle our enthusiasm with questions. Like all plans hatched from half-drunk ingenuity and emotion, ours was fragile and wouldn’t hold up under criticism, especially not that of our neighbors who all seemed to have accepted they would spend the rest of their lives in this building or others just like it. We weren’t like them and shared an unspoken fear that too much exposure would break us down and leave us as complacent with this life as they were.
‘Where do you want to do it?’
‘Right here. I’ll go first.’
She walked to the edge of the porch, held the pumpkin away from her and said, ‘Luciano, the time has come for you to shuffle off this mortal coil.’ Which was unexpected and honestly one of the weirdest things I have ever heard her say. I thought we were just going to have fun destroying things. I didn’t think we would be making little speeches.
She let go and the pumpkin fell to the ground. It landed on the grass with a thud, but didn’t break.
‘Looks like he’s not ready to let go.’
She stepped off the porch, picked up the pumpkin and went through the whole thing again, minus the speech and again Luciano dropped and didn’t break.
‘This goddam thing,’ she muttered. She climbed down again and picked him up, only this time she didn’t come back. Instead, she walked across the narrow yard to the parking lot, held the pumpkin over her head and threw it against the pavement. That did the trick.
‘Looks like he learned to let go the hard way,’ I chuckled.
Luciano was in pieces, but evidently not enough because she stomped at some of the bigger chunks. She picked up a softball-sized piece and was about to throw it into the street when a car pulled in. It was one of the neighbors. I tried to imagine the scene from their perspective and how they might be putting this together in their heads so it made sense, but it was impossible. There wasn’t a rational explanation anyone could come up with for how we got to where we are now.
She let the piece fall to the ground, gave it a slow, controlled stomp, wiped her hands on her pants and made her way back to the porch, trying to act casual, all the while mouthing the words, ‘Let’s go. Get inside. Go.’
I tucked the hero under my arm, held the door for her and we made it inside before the neighbors had a chance to say hello or ask questions.
We poured ourselves fresh drinks and started clearing the evidence of our work off the table when I mentioned that we never took a picture. She batted the air and said it was just as well. She’d held onto the idea of Luciano for too long. It felt good to get rid of something she always thought would make things better but only did the opposite.
The next morning, I saw my pumpkin still there on the kitchen table. When I left for work I took him with me and stopped at the dumpster. I held him up and said, ‘Well, Nick. We’ve had some good times and we’ve had some bad times. We’ve been through a lot, but our time has come to an end.’
I tried to throw him at the back corner where he might go unnoticed until trash day, but I overcompensated. He banked off the metal wall and cracked in such a way that he landed in the middle looking back at me, his carefree smile now broken.
There. Now you’ve shuffled off your mortal coil. Whatever that means.
I heard one of the neighbors come out to the porch and clear his throat. ‘Morning.’
I gave a wave and didn’t slow down as I made my way to the car.
‘Everything okay? Things looked pretty crazy when we were pulling in last night.’
I said I didn’t know what he was talking about. Everything was fine.
‘Because it looked like—’
I got in the car and backed out. As I pulled through the parking lot I swerved to run over what was left of Luciano, braking on top of him for a second to make sure the neighbor saw me and what I was doing before I drove away.
NATHAN WILLIS is a writer from Ohio. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Across the Margin, 99 Pine Street, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Crack the Spine, and Ink In Thirds. He was also a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. He can be found online at nathan-willis.com and on Twitter @Nathan1280
LOLA HASKINS’ poetry has appeared in LRB, London Magazine, Outposts, The Atlantic, Georgia Review, Rattle, and elsewhere. It has also been broadcast on BBC and NPR. Her most recent of fourteen poetry collections is How Small, Confronting Morning (Jacar, 2016). Her awards include two Florida Book Awards, the Iowa Poetry Prize, two NEAs, four Florida arts fellowships, and the Emily Dickinson prize from Poetry Society of America.
It was the middle of November as I sat in my favorite maple tree and played war. There was no wind that day and I heard the hollow rustling of leaves behind the hemlocks up in the ravine. I knew, from the sound of the autumnal footsteps growing closer, that it was my neighbor. I watched, as he dragged a deer through the row of white pines that lined his yard. He wore a red flannel jacket and grey wool pants that were spotted with mud. I called him Uncle Johnny back then. He slowed down, smiled, and waved as he made his way across the yard, pulling the buck by his antlers with one arm. I waved back as I pulled myself up to the next branch, then quickly fell back into the comfort of my imagination.
There was snow in the forecast for the next day, and, like any 10 year old, I prayed for a blizzard; I prayed for a snow day, but it didn’t come. It seemed too cold for it to snow. After school, I took the trail towards the ravine where I looked for blood-stained leaves. I had a long branch in my hands, pretending that it was a loaded musket gun and pretending that I was a Mohawk hunting a deer; I was looking patiently for my target’s blood trail. After an hour of traversing the ridge, I gave up. The crimson blood was lost in the red, brown, and orange autumn blanket under my feet. The sun began to set and the chimney smoke began to rise, so I gave up on my little hunt and made my way back towards the neighborhood, kicking leaves and snapping branches on the way.
Considering my parents worked late, I would often eat dinner with Johnny and his wife. I went over for dinner that evening. He was a postman and would get out of work early while she stayed home to take care of their young one. I cut through the giant pines, up the small hill, past the piles of leaves lining their driveway, and into the open garage where Johnny was fixing his snow blower. I sat down on a pile of firewood and watched him work. After the maple tree, his garage was my favorite place to sit. It smelled like gasoline and was cluttered with old tools and fishing rods. At all times, there was the crackling of old tunes from a radio I could never find. I sat there while he worked and he talked about how much he was looking forward to ice fishing this winter. He loved to hunt and fish. It was something he did, companionless, every day after work.
His wife called for us to come in for dinner as he went on about Black Pond’s abundance of large mouth bass. She opened the screen door and the warm glow of their home poured out into the dusk. She stood there, a silhouette, with one hand on her hip and the other holding the front door open, waiting for us to move along. Johnny grabbed a rag off of his toolbox and wiped his hands down, he closed up the garage, and then we made our way toward the house. I ate fresh venison and drank cold milk that evening.
A few nights later, my father and I sat around with Johnny while his wife and my mother were out with some of their friends in the village. The two of them drank beers while I ate pie and ice cream. We all sat around the kitchen table as they talked about the coming winter and last year’s snowstorms; I sat there, swirling pastry and melted ice cream with my spoon, lost in thought. With the mention of winter, my mind jumped to Christmas. Presents and tackle football in the snow with my cousins. They began to reminisce about the old days, but I, in thought, was still tearing through the wrapping underneath the sparkling pine in my living room.
Eventually, I noticed that the conversation turned into one concerning the Vietnam War. I was still heedlessly taking in a few words until I saw Johnny’s face and was returned to the table where the golden beer cans sparkled under the kitchen light. The same overhead light threw shadows under Johnny’s pointy cheekbones. He played with his black mustache while his eyes swam through the blur of his peripheral. His eyebrows furrowed as he dropped his hand away from his face. He looked so angry, but spoke so softly. I couldn’t understand much, only that my father expressed empathy for Johnny saying, ‘God damn them.’ He grabbed him another golden beer can.
Johnny talked and my father listened like this for another 20 minutes or so. The fireplace in the next room crackled and hissed, and as Johnny went to go feed it with a piece of dusty wood, my father patted me on my head, signaling that it was time to go home. He tossed the empty cans into the trash as I watched the fusillade of flames contrast Johnny’s body. He knelt there, staring into the fire, his shoulders gently trembled. I knew that he was crying. My father said in his kind voice, ‘we’re going to head out, John. I’ll pop in tomorrow night to watch the game.’
Standing up and turning around with a gentle but forced smile, he said, ‘Yeah, you got it. See ya, boys.’ The fire had dried his tears, leaving shining trails down his hollow cheeks like a snail’s route across the neglected statue of a hero.
On our short walk home, I asked my father what The Vietnam War was. He told me that it was a war that we, as Americans, were engaged in; a war that we, as foreign invaders, lost. He told me that he was pardoned from the draft because of a knee injury he sustained during a high school football game. Already knowing the answer, I asked him if Johnny was in the war, but the cold air had glaciated my father’s thoughts and he told me that he’d tell me more when we got inside. While we made our ascent up the narrow stairs towards the front door, our billowing exhales followed us up. I imagined that my breath was the rise of smoke from my machine gun. At that moment, I was still a child and I knew nothing about the gravity of war.
It was around 9:30pm when we settled in. Thankfully, it being a Friday night, my father let me stay up late to hear Johnny’s story. We sat down in the living room, he in his chair, while I draped a mosaic quilt around my shoulders. My mother, returned soon after we had, kissed my forehead and said good night. I pulled the blanket, my grandmother’s patchwork, up to my chin as my father established his exordium with poignancy. ‘The war did not kill Johnny – this is something that is obvious to you – but,’ he punctuated his discourse with a deep breath as he brought his eyes up from his folded hands, ‘you see, the soldiers that were injured or died in battle were the decorated casualties; those that came home physically sound – uninjured – are the casualties left in their camouflage.’ Kyrie, our grey dog, entered the living room, jumped onto the couch, and rested her head on my tiny legs.
For the most part, the somber story has been obscured by time, leaving me with a sequential abridgment of my father’s narrative: Johnny fought his war inside of a tank; the tank acted as a flamethrower, burning anything in its path; after almost two years confined to his tank, Johnny watched his whole battalion die through the hatch; he held his commander’s torso together for some time before seeing that he had died; after realizing that he was the only survivor, he moved off of the road and into the jungle where he hid in the labyrinth-like undergrowth; and there he waited for several days. Starving in unconsciousness, he was eventually spotted by a group of American soldiers. He fought the remainder of the war in the opaque barracks of his mind – in a hospital bed.
As I was trying to fall asleep that evening, I pictured Johnny inside of his tank, watching through the peephole as a flurry of ashes shrouded the dead. The thought of human impermanence – a contagious thought, marked by the coarse grey hairs in my father’s sideburns, and the blue veins running down my mother’s wrist – filled my head. Imagining my life after the death of my parents was terrifying. The contagion moved towards my own mortality. After some time, during a lull in thought, I heard the gentle breathing. Kyrie was with me somewhere in the darkness, putting me to sleep with her deep, immutable sounds of respiration.
The next morning I woke to a thick silence; a silence that was sporadically cut by the rattling of a loose windowpane. Then hearing the muffled scraping of a frail plastic against the unbound gravel, I knew that it was snowing and now my father was shoveling. As I stretched my arms and legs, releasing the warmth from under the covers, I flattened the cold sheets in the barrens of my bed. I jumped up, made my way toward the window, and watched as the rioting winds threw snow in every direction. It was Saturday morning and after putting on my snowsuit, I ran out the back door and turned the corner towards the front yard, kicking through the powder. Johnny and my father were talking out by the road. My father was leaning on the shovel, gesturing towards the sky with his other hand as Johnny threw his rifle over his shoulder. He bent down to pet Kyrie, who was biting at the snow. Yelling out to the men, I ran across yard toward my tree. They waved as Kyrie’s head turned towards me. I waited for her to run, but she stayed still. Mounting the first branch, upside down with my legs wrapped around it, I heard the shoveling start again. As I climbed up to my favorite spot, Johnny wadded through the snow. I watched him step through the tall pines towards the ravine. The wind howled and whipped through the branches that I held onto, burning my fingers and filling my eyes with tears.
MICHAEL DE ROSA is an American writer of short fiction and poetry living in Manchester, England. His writing has been featured in Anima, Blue Lake Review, Chronogram, Offline Samizdat, and Otoliths.
I first saw the girls on a Tuesday night about a week before the hurricane. I remember there was a new moon and a breeze that flicked cordgrass around my waist, but those details don't matter much. Tuesday is the important part. One of the hottest Augusts on record had slipped in, sticky sweet and thicker than Amaretto, but the morning humidity felt like walking through the cool swimming pool down at the community center. That is, until the sun set on its heavy path around ten.
In the latest part of evening, the day takes a few moments to fall asleep. I’ve heard that’s when the night things make the mad dash to join our world. It was in one of those few moments that Gavin and I crouched behind a clump of bushes, brown and limp from the south Louisiana heat. We’d heard a noise in the dark, and our young bravados pushed us outside of our tents. I saw girls dancing around the fire beside the river, and I almost dropped my flashlight. When it hit the ground, the light flickered and died.
‘Holy shit,’ Gavin whispered to me. ‘What are they doin’, do ya think?’ I shook my head and put a finger over my lips. We watched the girls undulate in the firelight’s trembling, their unclothed bodies swaying to music we couldn’t hear. If there was a rhythm to their footsteps, we couldn't find it. They weaved around the fire and one another, eyes closed and feet squishing into the soggy mud.
Gavin tugged on my shirttail. ‘Avit, I think we should go back,’ he said. I nodded, and we crept away from the bushes. When I turned back to look again, one of the girls stood apart from the rest and watched me. Our eyes locked for a moment before she lifted her arms above her head, her young body stretching upward. She twirled toward the firelight to rejoin the others.
Those modern witches, my mother told me. Dancin’ ‘round in naught but a hair clip. Outta be ashamed for bringin’ that hoodoo in their parents’ house. Don’t know when to leave well ‘nough alone. She was right, of course, but I went back to watch them anyway. Every evening, I pulled on a black T-shirt and pushed the screen away from my window. I waited for my eyes to adjust before slipping into the darkness and moving into the river marsh behind my neighborhood.
There were always the same six girls, and I started naming them on the fourth day. There was Aileen. She was the leader, the first girl to pull off her white shift dress. Aileen always lit the first of the candles that jutted from the mud at odd angles around the fire. Jara and Tara must have been twins. They had the same brown curls and tall frames, but Jara’s spine traced a silvery scar from tip to tailbone. I think Anya was the youngest, no more than sixteen, but her body moved more smoothly than the others’. She swayed like cattails. Emery was the only one who kept her eyes closed the entire time. The last one was Kyro. She carried the book, the one they chanted from the day before the wind carried me out of Louisiana.
On the day of the hurricane, my mother swished around the house, pausing once every few minutes to listen to the old radio crackle evacuation. The man’s voice claimed sixteen tornadoes spotted in our parish during the last hour. Offshoots of the hurricane. My mother piled blankets and clothes in my arms, and pushed me toward the door. ‘In the car,’ she said, and bustled toward the back bedrooms to pack other things.
The sky outside wasn’t the pea green that I hear about in school tornado drills. It was more of a mottled grey that swirled into a peachy marmalade on the corners. Big, fat raindrops plopped on the ground and in my hair. I watched the trees that whipped in the wind behind my house, and wondered if the girls would dance again tonight or if the storm would wash them away.
HANNAH WARREN is an MFA candidate at the University of Kansas, and her works have appeared recently or will soon appear in The Vignette Review, Mangrove, The Quaker, and Soundings East. She often writes about death, but hopes never to experience it. She rambles at hannahvwarren.wordpress.com
From the driver seat of his car, Charlie watched as his father stooped to water the dead fig tree in the front yard of his childhood home. As Carlo Bellantine, tanned and still robust in a pair of red swim trunks, waved his iron watering can over the tangled roots that had torn through the cement, Charlie thought of the synapses in his mother’s brain, broken yet obstinate. Countless times, Carlo pointed to those roots as proof that the tree was still alive, despite not producing a single fig in more than five summers. Charlie remembered his forearms aching beneath the weight of those figs, which Carlo would pile into plastic bags and force Charlie to carry uphill to his teachers on the first day of school each year. Inevitably, some of the tender purple bulbs broke during the ten-block climb, leaving a sticky yellow film along the bottom of the bags. But, as Carlo explained, there were too many figs to keep and he didn’t want the birds to eat them. ‘Besides, your teachers would have to fly to Italy to find figs that juicy,’ Carlo always added. Charlie would nod, knowing he’d be eating crushed figs for lunch.
Charlie turned off the ignition and ignored the text from his partner, Dane Creston, urging him to get back to the office downtown as soon as he was done with his parents. Dane needed to talk to Charlie before they met with the company’s lawyers about the bankruptcy. Charlie’s temples pinched as much at the thought of losing his business as at the thought of asking his father to commit his mother to Bellerose Village. When he popped open the glove compartment to remove the Bellerose papers, he hoped to find a spare aspirin in the process. He found none. He decided to check the medicine cabinet in his parents’ upstairs bathroom. After sticking the Bellerose papers in his gray suit jacket pocket, he exited the car, then sauntered across the street, still beyond his father’s purview. Not wanting to disturb Carlo, Charlie stood on the other side of the gate adorned with bronze figs, jingled his car keys, and waited. Without turning around, Carlo placed his watering can on the concrete and rose from the fig tree roots. After rolling his neck around once, he turned to face the street. He squinted at his son with his mouth gaping open, and waited.
Charlie drew a sharp breath. ‘Ciao, Pa.’
‘Ciao,’ replied Carlo, looking his son up and down.
Charlie stood before the elder version of himself. The short stature, glasses and baldness the same; the deflated skin and scowl different.
‘Any figs?’ asked Charlie, already knowing the answer.
‘Not yet,’ said Carlo, raising his eyebrows. ‘But soon.’
‘It’s almost September.’
‘So what, September?’
‘Wouldn’t they have come out by now?’ asked Charlie, glancing at the surrounding row houses and the parched crimson foliage waving already beneath the fire-streaked sky.
‘È presto ancora,’ said Carlo. It’s still early.
‘How’s Ma?’ asked Charlie, rubbing his eyes beneath his glasses.
‘Bene, come sempre,’ said Carlo, shrugging. Fine, as always.
Charlie nodded. He grew tired of the rhetorical game.
‘Come va all’ufficio?’ asked Carlo. How are things going at the office?
‘Busy as always. Posso?’ asked Charlie, lifting the latch of the gate by the bronze fig handle. May I?
‘Vieni,’ said Carlo, waving down his hand at his son. Come.
As he stepped into his parents’ front yard, Charlie banished the infinitesimal possibility that he’d find solace there from the reality of losing his company. By 49, he should have known better, having learned at an early age that his parents weren’t like the other Italian parents in the neighborhood prone to spontaneous and smothering embraces as gratitude for their children’s existence. Carlo’s passion, if one could call it that, was reserved for his wife, Liliana. Charlie and his younger sister Dina were guests permitted to live, for eighteen years maximum, in the house Carlo bought as his first wedding gift to his bride. The second gift was that fig tree, whose sapling Carlo’s friend smuggled in a suitcase from Calabria, and which was meant to flourish each year of their marriage. Charlie reminded himself that obligation alone justified his being there. Besides, Dina lived in Pennsylvania and couldn’t be troubled with addressing Liliana’s senility between holidays, which marked the only times Dina visited with her doctor husband, whom Liliana no longer recognized.
‘Go see Mama,’ said Carlo, interrupting Charlie’s thoughts.
‘I gotta water!’ he yelled loud enough to send a cluster of robins flying off the bronze gate.
‘Okay, take it easy,’ said Charlie. ‘I’ll go.’
He climbed the cement steps and pressed the white pupil of the bronze doorbell three times as usual. He could hear his mother shuffling down the wooden stairs in her terrycloth slippers, and felt a twinge of dread just before she flung open the door. The wizened version of the stunning beauty Liliana had been stood in the same housedress covered in gravy-stained sunflowers she had worn since the year before when the worst of her memory loss started. Combed rows of greasy gray hair replaced the long black tresses she would braid back from her smooth forehead, now a washboard of frown lines. Her chestnut brown eyes squinted beneath still long eyelashes, confused above the same upturned nose and a pair of full lips that never managed to close over her overbite, which, when pulled into a full smile, used to be considered beautiful. The sight of his mother’s filmy yellow teeth and the stench of her unwashed flesh pained Charlie. He should have come sooner, he told himself.
‘Are you coming in?’ she asked in her usual suspicious whine.
‘Yeah, Ma,’ he said, stepping into the dark hallway and its omnipresent musk of tomato sauce and mothballs. ‘You know I’m Charlie, right?’ he asked in the soft tone he often reserved for Dane’s four-year-old son whenever Dane brought the boy to the office.
‘You must think I’m stupid,’ she said, spitting in Charlie’s eye. He removed his handkerchief from the lapel of his suit jacket. As he dabbed out the unintended gob, he realized that his mother’s defensiveness and suspicion weren’t due to the tangled circuits in her brain. They had always been there. She was always accusing the neighbor women of wanting to steal the figs off her tree whenever any of them passed by to compliment her thriving garden. Now it appeared to Charlie that she was somewhat aware of her tendency to forget things, which amplified her suspicion at everyone she met. Everyone except her husband, who simultaneously challenged and adored her. All Carlo ever needed her to be was pretty, Charlie was convinced. His nose caught a sudden whiff of smoke.
‘Do you smell something burning?’ Charlie asked his mother.
‘I made some broccoli rabe,’ she said, referring to the bitter leaves and diminutive broccoli florets Charlie had eaten his whole life and come to associate with home.
Charlie ran into the kitchen and saw smoke rising from a gallon-sized pasta pot on the stove. The smoke detector shrieked on the ceiling as Charlie grabbed the kitchen towel off the refrigerator handle with one hand and pulled a step ladder out of the corner with the other. He climbed the step ladder and waved the towel beneath the smoke detector to silence its deafening cries. Carlo ran into the kitchen then with his watering can, which he shook over the smoking pot. Liliana stood in the stepladder’s space in the corner as she watched her husband and son’s frantic movements with frowning eyes. After a few minutes, the smoke detector stopped beeping. A sweating Charlie panted and stared at his mother from the top of the stepladder. Carlo turned to his wife.
‘Hai bruciato le verdure!’ You burned the greens!
‘I didn’t burn them,’ she said. ‘I just forgot to turn them off. You can still eat them.’
‘You gotta be more careful,’ he said, taking her hands in his.
‘I know,’ she said, nodding. ‘Next time.’
‘Si,’ said Carlo in a quieter tone. ‘La prossima volta sara meglio.’ Yes, the next time will be better.
Carlo let his wife’s hands drop to her sides before returning to the stove. He knelt down to reach the white cabinet beneath the stove and pulled out a ceramic bowl covered in oil-painted tomato vines. From the wall behind the stove, he removed a slotted metal spoon which he used to scrape and transfer the charred green mounds from the bottom of the pot to the ceramic bowl. Charlie watched his father for a few stunned minutes before placing his fingertips on each of his temples. It was time to find that aspirin, he decided.
‘Where you going?’ his father asked as Charlie turned to leave the kitchen.
‘I’m gonna use the bathroom upstairs.’
‘We will wait for you to eat,’ said Carlo, before placing the full ceramic bowl on the table at the center of the breakfast nook.
‘Okay,’ said Charlie, not understanding how his father could expect him to eat that burned green mush. He sprinted up the wooden stairs and slammed the bathroom door behind him. The scent of Jean Nate pervaded the bathroom, while unused bars of Ivory soap sat stacked in one corner of the white tub. Charlie cupped cold water from the porcelain sink in his hands, which he lifted to his mouth and ran over his face. He pulled open the mirrored medicine cabinet door slowly, careful not to invite his father’s curiosity. He found an expired bottle of Bayer at his eye level. He popped open the cap and removed two aspirins, which he swallowed with more hand-cupped water. He sat down on the plastic cushion that covered the solid white hamper and pulled out his phone. He saw that Dane had sent him several texts, each with building urgency about the upcoming lawyer meeting. The last one said something about ‘unsavory’ details they had to go over. Charlie frowned at the irony of the statement, considering the current state of the meal downstairs. He had a lot to explain before losing the business he and Dane had built over the past twenty years, but knew that there in the bathroom he was safe and time had stopped. It had always been that way.
As Charlie shifted on the cool white hamper, he thought about that Christmas Eve forty years earlier when he’d locked himself in the bathroom after Carlo’s fight with Uncle Gabe, Carlo’s younger brother. Charlie couldn’t remember what provoked Uncle Gabe to accuse Liliana of having taken sleeping pills while she was pregnant with Charlie, hoping to lose him. Charlie remembered Carlo roaring back that Liliana had trouble sleeping after her father died that year and needed those pills. Then Carlo slapped Uncle Gabe before throwing his wife Mena and him out of the house forever. Afterwards, all Carlo said to Charlie and Dina was, ‘They don’t respect my wife! To hell with them!’ He didn’t think to reassure Charlie that what Uncle Gabe had said was a lie. Years later, when Charlie wasn’t able to impregnate either of his ex-wives, he wondered whether his difficulties had anything to do with Liliana’s alleged tactics.
Charlie texted Dane saying that he would call him as soon as he was done eating with his parents. He knew it would be nearly impossible to find the right moment to talk with Carlo about signing the Bellerose papers. But he thought he could at least argue that the kitchen incident was proof the time had come. If not, he’d have to try again the following week. Another distraction from the office wouldn’t hurt, he assured himself.
From the bottom of the stairs, he saw that his father had placed a fresh loaf of Italian bread beside the ceramic bowl of the burned rapini in the middle of the breakfast nook table. Carlo uncorked a glass bottle of olive oil, which he drizzled over the bowl, followed by a few cracks of black pepper from the old wooden mill.
‘It is better now,’ said Carlo as Charlie sat down on a stiff wooden chair in front of the breakfast nook table.
‘I see,’ said Charlie, pouring himself a glass of water from the rooster-shaped jug on the table.
Carlo ripped a piece of bread from the flaky loaf and pulled out the white spongy center before filling the hole with a scoop of the green mush. He passed the sandwich to Charlie.
‘Mangia,’ he said. Charlie nodded and bit a corner of the sandwich. Carlo repeated the process in creating sandwiches for his wife, then himself. He chomped on his sandwich before frowning at Liliana.
‘Amaro,’ he said. Bitter.
‘Broccoli rabe is always bitter,’ she said, frowning. ‘It’s not because I burned it.’
Carlo huffed before taking more large bites of his sandwich. He looked up at his son.
‘I am eating!’ said Charlie, his stomach sinking with each mouthful of the bitter sandwich.
Carlo popped open a can of Heineken from which he drew long, calm gulps with his toothless mouth. Liliana stared out the window, blinking over and over again, at what, Charlie could not imagine.
‘I don’t want autumn to come,’ she said, squinting. ‘Autumn weather is sick weather. One minute, there’s cold wind, the next, you’re sweating. You never know how to dress. Before you know it, you’re coughing. It doesn’t make sense, does it?’ she asked Charlie.
‘No, it doesn’t,’ he said, shaking his head in feigned disbelief.
‘You know, Liliana was the most beautiful girl in Greenpoint,’ interrupted Carlo, his eyes creased as he smiled at his wife. ‘All the boys wanted to marry her. But she chose me. Not that tall banker’s son with the blond curls like a German. Not the baker’s son who brought her boxes of those angel wing pastries she loved. She chose me because she liked my hands. She said she liked my strong fingers and the dry palms. Never wet and nervous. She knew I carved statues in Central Park. She knew I’d take care of her.’
Charlie didn’t think to mention that Carlo recounted that story on Liliana and his wedding anniversary each year. As teenagers, Charlie and Dina would glance at each other on the rigid chintz couch in the living room as Carlo took Liliana’s left hand and kissed each finger, adding an extra one to her wedding band once he was done with the story. Charlie would excuse himself to the kitchen while Dina went upstairs to her bedroom to listen to Joan Baez records on the lowest volume so as not to disturb the lovebirds downstairs. Even now, Charlie wished he’d had a fragment of the tenderness for his ex-wives that Carlo bore for Liliana.
As Charlie reached for the rooster pitcher of water again, the Bellerose papers crunched in his suit jacket pocket.
‘Watch you don’t lose those papers,’ said Carlo.
‘I won’t,’ said Charlie, wondering how his father noticed the papers from his angle.
‘You want a plastic bag for those?’ asked Carlo.
‘No, thanks, Pa.’
‘It will be better,’ he said, before getting up and walking over to the pantry behind the refrigerator. He came back with one of the red plastic shopping bags he used to hold garbage.
‘Here,’ he said, holding the crinkly bag in front of Charlie’s face. ‘For those papers.’
Charlie glared at his father. Even after all those years, Carlo was still the furbo, or shrewd one, in the family. As Carlo had told Charlie many times, he managed to negotiate a bargain for the house he bought for Liliana despite its value, which was three times the amount he paid the seller. Charlie remembered that Uncle Gabe lived and died in the same rent-controlled apartment above a hair salon in Williamsburg in which Charlie’s grandparents had raised their sons. Although, as an adult, Charlie surmised that his father likely suspected childless Uncle Gabe and Zia Mena’s motives in taking Charlie and Dina ice skating at Rockefeller Center every winter followed by lunch at the Russian Tea Room, he was grateful that Carlo never stopped the couple’s efforts. That is, until that volatile and final Christmas Eve. That night was supposed to be the last time Charlie and Dina saw Uncle Gabe and Zia Mena, but Charlie and his sister visited them on random Sundays for years without telling Carlo. Still, Charlie knew that no one fooled or insulted Carlo Bellantine without consequence. He remembered that as he accepted the red plastic bag his father offered him and placed the Bellerose papers inside.
‘Grazie,’ he said to his father before hanging the bag on the back of his chair.
‘Let’s have some fruit,’ said Carlo.
Charlie nodded. He watched as his father walked over to the counter by the sink and picked up a large red bowl of bright yellow honeydew melon decorated with green figs.
‘This fruit is from California,’ said Carlo. He lifted out the melon, which he cut into thick quarters. He took a paper napkin from the dispenser on the table and wiped the few drops of olive oil from each plate before passing everyone a slice of melon and a green fig.
‘We’ll have to eat these figs until ours come in.’
Charlie rolled his eyes. Liliana nibbled the bulb of her green fig.
‘Our figs are much softer,’ she said. ‘And sweeter.’
‘Soon, Mama,’ said Carlo, smiling again at his wife. ‘They’ll come soon.’
Charlie lifted his slice of melon to his lips, the oily residue of the skin collecting on his fingertips. He didn’t bother with napkins, reasoning he could excuse himself to the bathroom again once he finished eating. He bit the thick green fig, pleased with the juicy crunch of its syrupy red seeds. He thought of his business. He thought of Dane. He thought of the fact that, by the winter, he could no longer call himself an owner. He remembered his father’s reaction the day he told him he had opened an architectural firm in downtown Manhattan with his classmate from design school. ‘Tua Mama sara felice,’ was all Carlo had said. Your mother will be happy. Charlie supposed his father’s opinion was the same as his mother’s, as was usually the case. And, as usual, it had to suffice.
Charlie got up from the table and waved his fingertips. ‘I have to wash my hands upstairs.’
His father shrugged. Charlie got up from his chair, brushing the bag containing the Bellerose papers on his way upstairs. Once he reached the bathroom, he washed the olive oil off his hands in the sink and splashed more cold water on his face. He looked at his face in the mirror, the lines around his eyes scars from years of triumphant laughter at successful architectural projects and scrunched with tears at the end of two marriages and even last week in his office after Dane said the meeting with the lawyers would be the official start to the company’s dismantling. He would become unemployed, his status as son the only significant title that would remain with him once the bankruptcy was done. He thought of the Bellerose papers downstairs, knowing he would have to address them with Carlo before he left the house. Charlie’s fear of provoking Carlo’s rage would have to yield to the possibility of his acquiescence, for Liliana’s sake, and his own.
From the top of the stairs, Charlie saw that his father was waiting for him in front of the kitchen doorway with Charlie’s red plastic bag in one hand and a white plastic bag full of garbage in the other. Charlie dragged his loafers down the staircase, almost bumping into his father at the bottom.
‘Come throw out the garbage with me,’ said Carlo, locking his eyes on his son’s face.
Charlie began to open his mouth, but stopped. He placed his hands in his pants pockets and followed his father out the front door. Once they reached the bottom of the stoop, Carlo turned to his son.
‘You remember where the garbage goes, right?’ he asked Charlie, who felt like an eight-year-old again.
‘Under the house.’
‘Bravo,’ said Carlo, holding the plastic bags in front of Charlie’s face.
‘Now we have more rules for the garbage,’ he said. ‘The white bag goes into the black can. And this one,’ he said, shaking the red bag. ‘This one goes into the green can. For papers.’
Charlie nodded, his stomach dropping the way it always did around his father.
‘So, go ahead,’ said Carlo, handing Charlie the bags.
‘But Pa,’ began Charlie, holding up the red bag. ‘The papers in here aren’t garbage.’
‘Yes they are,’ said his father. ‘You think you can fool me, business guy from the city?’
‘I’m not trying to fool you, Pa,’ said Charlie, choking on the tears building in his throat. ‘I’m trying to help you. It’s time. She’s getting worse.’
Carlo gripped his son’s arm, his fingers still as strong as shackles.
‘If you ever come here with those papers again, I’ll throw you out like your Uncle Gabe. I didn’t care that he was my brother. I don’t care that you’re my son. She’s my life and nobody’s taking her away from me. Hai capito?’
Charlie wiped the tears from his eyes.
‘Yes, I understand.’
‘Good,’ said Carlo. ‘Now go throw out the garbage like I told you.’
Charlie nodded and walked around the side of the house, tripping on the fig tree roots on the way to the garbage area. He ducked under the square cove beneath the house and followed his father’s trash sorting instructions. As he dropped the red plastic bag into the green recycling bin, he heard another text from Dane bleeping on his phone. In a way, he was relieved for the excuse.
When Charlie returned to the bottom of the stoop, he cleared his throat.
‘I have to get back to the office now, Pa,’ he said in one quick breath.
‘Say bye to Ma for me, okay?’
‘She’ll forget you soon,’ said Carlo, with neither malice nor compassion.
‘I know,’ said Charlie, wincing. He held out his hand to his father. Carlo stared at his son’s hand before shaking it.
‘Arrivederci, figlio,’ he said. Goodbye, son.
Charlie lifted the gate’s bronze fig latch and crossed the street to his car. He sat down in the driver’s seat and watched his father grab onto the fig tree with his head facing the house and his shoulders shaking. Charlie feared his father might be having a heart attack, but when Carlo turned to face the tree, Charlie watched him stand upright as he wiped tears from his eyes. Charlie began to open his car door again, but stopped. As he turned on the ignition, he remembered not to disturb his father when he was watering that tree.
STEPHANIE LATERZA is the author of the legal thriller, The Boulevard Trial (March 2015). Her short fiction has been published in Writing Raw, Literary Mama, and Akashic Books’ Terrible Twosdays series. Stephanie’s poetry has appeared in the Newtown Literary Journal, San Francisco Peace and Hope, Literary Mama, and Meniscus Magazine. More of Stephanie’s poetry is forthcoming in San Francisco Peace and Hope’s upcoming online anthology. You can follow Stephanie on Twitter @Stefani1218 and via her Facebook page
My cousin Susie was tough in a way I’d never be. She punched Tommy Myers square in the face that time he called her a cream puff before homeroom. I didn’t even know what a cream puff was, and once Susie described them, my stomach started to growl and I wished I could have one.
Eatin’ ‘em ain’t the same as being ‘em, Susie said. Which made sense, but still, I love cream-filled things, and didn’t understand why it made Susie so mad.
He thinks I’m weak and I ain’t.
There wasn’t anything weak about Susie, and Tommy sure learned that the hard way.
When Susie was nine and I was six we used to do plays in our grandma’s backyard. Susie’d map out the story and tell me where to stand and what to say, and I’d do the best I could, watching her eyes to see if it was okay. If I did it wrong she’d yell Cut and throw her hands in the air. One time we went ten whole minutes on a scene where Susie was the boy and I was the girl and she said we could be happy, like on TV. We held hands and she led me behind the shed, told me to close my eyes. I was a little bit scared, but I always did what Susie said, and as her soft lips brushed my cheek, I kept hearing Tommy’s voice, teasing: cream-puff, cream-puff, cream-puff.
MARY LYNN REED’s fiction has appeared in Mississippi Review, Colorado Review, The MacGuffin, Jellyfish Review, and Smokelong Quarterly, among other places. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland.