Rumbling over Steel
By Ute Carson
I love trains, the slow local and the 200-mile-an-hour express. I have traveled on all sorts of trains over the years. As a child I fled westward from the advancing Soviet army with my family atop an ammunition transport.
There was the old steam engine chugging from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo on a narrow-gauge rail line with village women carrying chickens and lugging baskets of farm produce.
My face was soot-smeared with coal dust blowing in through the open windows.
I have shivered in air-conditioned compartments and perspired next to antiquated radiators. I have savored sumptuous meals in elegant dining cars and munched on snacks on wooden commuter benches. Decades ago, on a trip from Stuttgart to Istanbul I bedded down in a luggage rack strung like a hammock above the compartment seats. And once in a sleeper from London to Glasgow, I was awakened with morning tea.
A whistle, a hooting, and the wheels begin to sing on tracks that look like ladders stretched end to end along the ground. In Ukraine a station master in a red cap motioned with his hand signal as we passed through his little town, a herd of sheep on the left, an onion-shaped church steeple on the right. An elegant lady wrapped in fur stepped down from a first-class car in Turku, Finland. And in Italy students jumped onto the caboose of our departing train in the nick of time.
A train ride is a journey not a trip. I hear foreign languages and meet strangers. We trade stories. I can retreat and read or watch the world outside roll by as in a movie. The rocking, clanking and rumbling over steel lulls me and stirs my imagination.
One fated day more than fifty years ago on a long-distance train from Hamburg to Bavaria there she was across from me, nestled in the slightly worn, faded red upholstered seat, her brown hair harnessed in a ponytail, one elbow protecting a backpack next to her. Her legs were tucked under, her bare feet sticking out from frayed jeans. She pretended to be reading. I eyed her over my wire-rimmed glasses. My hunch was that she was a student like myself.
She yawned and announced to no one in particular, “I need to stretch.” I joined her in the narrow corridor along the outside of the compartments. We talked as we peered through the smudged window at the countryside whisking by. The journey lasted five hours, long enough for us to share a little about our lives. Unlike me, she disliked trains and felt cooped up on long stretches. She preferred flying.
But by the time we reached Munich we were on a first-name basis and had exchanged addresses. She allowed me to hold her hand for an extra moment as I helped her off the high iron steps of our rumbling-over-steel matchmaker. We agreed to continue our conversation at the university library a few days later. The rest is history.
Beautifully Made for Each Other
By Gene Hines
I am beautifully made. I am without imperfection. On the inside, I am like a cloud, soft and smooth. And, in this, I have something in common with you. You too are beautifully made, even though you do have imperfections and you are not made of bronze and mahogany.
And we both do the same thing, too, don’t we? We are waiting for each other. I know you have grand ideas about your future. But I already know what the future holds. We are waiting for each other. Nothing more. I am waiting for you. And you are waiting for me, even if you try to deny it with your big ideas. I am patient, while you run around being educated, getting married, having children, trying to get ahead at some job, making it—because I know you will come to me in the end.
I wait in warehouses. I wait in carpeted rooms with others like myself. I am taken around in trucks. I am run in and out of rooms on a wheeled dolly made just for me. I don’t mind, because I know the future.
You might live long enough to attain the wisdom, finally, of knowing that you and I are meant for each other. If not, it doesn’t matter; we will be together soon enough. But I am saddened, too. How can anything as beautifully made as we are be hidden out of sight? Shouldn’t our beauty be seen? But, at least we will be together. I will give you rest in a mahogany bed, upon a satin pillow, and it will be my joy. After all, we are beautifully made for one another.
By Mark Pearse
Great rippling bands of heat distortion shimmer above the cobbles as our dear electric friend the sun shines razorblades through the sweat shine on my skin and it was only 9:45 am!! “que wow, another day in paradise”, the rhythmic panting from Daisy dog alongside me confirmed her agreement with my unspoken “farkin ‘ell it’s ‘ot.”
And another day unfolds, get everything done before 11:00 am, hide from the heat, move again near sunset. Key word ‘rhythm’, 3 grey rainy days, 3 hot sunny steamy days repeat for a while … Each day a blend of survival and sweet contacts—reiki sessions and meditations and secret chanting groups and exercise groups all small groups of 3 here 4 there, all broke and trading skills and smiles, dotted around in bundles of cliques, keeping the faith raising vibrations hither and thither and global as well, it must be, i reckon.
So life here’s wonderfully rich in experience—my natural abhorrence of work means i pinball between highs and lows, ricochet existence providing contrasts a-go-go to a backdrop of hot dusty humid chicken dog parrot bug noise the rhythmic unending of Sayulita life.
By Jim Freeze
I couldn’t tell if it was my memory or psychological trickery. Did Chester handpick me to be his friend? Or was it accomplice, I’m still not quite sure. The one thing I am sure of is I had no say in the matter. It was a surprisingly simple negotiation: “You and me are going to hang around together quite a bit beginning today,” Chester stated as someone difficult to say no to.
It was 1957 and we were in the seventh grade at Sumter Junior High School. Chester is what you would describe as a school bully but even back then I recognized something more than just a bully. He seemed, even to a thirteen-year-old like myself to be hard and easily available to evil. It was obvious he was driven by negative desires and bad habits.
Our first evening walking home together after a rainy football practice we took the advantage of the covered walkway in front of our old elementary school. The building was arranged with seven classrooms side-by-side and windows beginning at two and half feet off the ground. Chester began with the very first classroom—breaking two or three windows—punching them with his bare fist. He continued duplicating this action, laughing with each and every jab, until all seven classrooms were damaged.
Chester was adamant that I join him in this mayhem but I was successful to beg off, explaining that I would cut my hand because I didn’t know how to throw a proper punch. The explanation was sufficient that time but I would find myself spending a lot of thinking power in the future devising reasons why I could not join Chester in his adventures (crimes). Some winters are longer than others and this would prove to be the longest to date.
Chester’s anger was typically self-driven and prone to explosions of temper and violent deeds. He was very seldom satisfied, always wanting more and enjoyed the situation immensely when he felt he had gained total domination. He had an ease for lying, knowing the end product would be his calculated gain. You could feel the rage radiate from Chester as he displayed how well he understood the elements of conflict.
Some people will go to endless extremes to hide or escape the realities of life and Chester fit this group like the perfectly found piece in a jigsaw puzzle. His character was filled with denials, stinginess, a lack of self-control and the habit of ignoring warnings, even about warnings. Chester usually knew when trouble was just around the bend but he was very good at ignoring those warnings. Whether it was evil or just the scoundrel in him, he believed himself to be the proverbial exception to the rule.
Always looking for a quick fix emanating from a short attention span, Chester showed no resolution of will or any fixed principles. It wasn’t even apparent if he really knew what was going on around him. But he felt he had a name to live up to even though feeling he was not alive inside.
In April 1958 Chester was arrested for breaking and entering more than fifteen homes and assault with a deadly weapon (a knife and a pair of brass knuckles). He was found guilty and sentenced to a juvenile reform facility. Chester would spend the next forty years in and out of various prisons while also having elevated his level of criminal endeavors to three murders.
It has been close to fifty years since I last thought about Chester until today when those memories of our time together flooded my psyche. Chester was being interviewed on a nationally syndicated news show, asking the state to put him to death.
I was stunned by the comfort he showed while talking about the storms of his life. He came across as intelligent—studied—prepared—and ready. The only major physical difference I noticed was a disturbing guttural sound deep from within his throat when he spoke. But he still possessed a grin that somehow could find a way to sneak up on you. I was also intrigued by the way he was able to show immeasurable joy of peace and understanding.
The newscaster remarked to Chester, “You seem to have excellent control of your mental awareness along with an obvious life change to the good while in prison, so why at this point would you ask the state to execute you?”
Chester responded, “Perhaps there are changes in the air right now, in the midst of my decision. I have spent much of my life letting the important be the victim of the trivial. There may be seeds of insight lying in the dark vessels of my body waiting for the right season, but that season hasn’t appeared. It is now my belief that it is too late to put my life, that particular ship you could say, back in the bottle.”
The interview lasted another forty minutes and I saw something in Chester that I would have thought impossible those many years ago. I was struck by the magnitude and irony of the moment watching Chester’s absolute and relative truths struggling to tell their story. I realized I was looking at someone who I believed (at one time in my life) needed to show me forgiveness; but now it was I who needed to forgive myself.
This became one of those eye-opening days while watching someone I knew to be a lost soul pull himself from the depths of misfortune. It proved to me that everything and everyone can change and that only change itself is eternal. So go the brush strokes of life!
By Ann-Marie Lindstrom
When I was a little girl, Mama always called me light-headed. I never did know what that meant. Look at my hair. It’s always been the color of mud. Never was light.
Now light-fingered I knowed. Cousin Billy Frank was light-fingered. Couldn’t take him into Mr. Hobbs’ store without his taking something weren’t his. Billy Frank had a sweet tooth. And them light fingers.
And light-hearted I know. Granny was light-hearted. She could sing songs that would make you feel like things was going to be better. They might not be good right then, but you knew they was going to be better.
“Raise a joyful voice unto the Lord,” she’d say. Then she’d sing until I felt like I could fly away.
And she told the most wondrous stories. All about when she was a girl in Arkansas, growing up in green mountains.
You know how the air smells after it rains? All fresh and new. She said it smelled like that all the time in Arkansas. I think Arkansas must be the most beautiful place in the world. I’m going there someday.
I’m going to sit in the grass and smell that air. And I’m going to sing a song for Granny. I know she’ll hear me. When I raise my joyful voice unto the Lord, she’ll hear me. ‘Cause she’s right there with Him.
And Becky will hear me. I sing a lullaby to Becky each night. I don’t think I know if you sleep in heaven. I don’t remember the preacher talking about that. But I sing each night, just in case.
I didn’t get to hold her and sing to her after she was born. They took her away too fast. I sit here sometimes and I imagine I’m holding her. I cross my arms like this and I rock them. If I look real hard, I can see her. And I can feel her. She’s not very heavy, cause she was just a little baby.
They could have let me hold her. Just once. But they took her away so fast. Nobody even asked me what her name was. I don’t know what it says on her stone. They never told me where her stone is.
I named her Becky after she was gone. My best friend at church was Becky. She was pretty and smart. Woo, that girl was smart. She could learn things so fast. She learned all the disciples’ names in one morning. I never did learn them. I get a little lost after Mark and Luke. Granny tried to help me, but she’d lose her patience. Seemed to me the Lord wouldn’t want me shut in a room reading from a book when his world was right outside the window.
When I was supposed to be studying the Bible, I used to sneak outdoors and plant things. Whoosh, I was a planting fool. You’d laugh if you’d seen me. I’d plant seeds Mama gave me. Beans and tomatoes. Mr. Hobbs gave me flower seeds once. Shoot, when I ran out of seeds, I used to plant rocks. What a picture. Scrawny little girl digging in the hard dirt to plant rocks. Don’t know what I thought would grow.
Mama caught me once. Watering a rock. Got a licking for that. Wasting water on a fool rock. Think that was the first time she called me light-headed.
Maybe I thought I could grow a mountain. Like in Arkansas. I can’t remember now what I thought.
Kind of funny that I can’t, ’cause I remember more of what I thought than what I did when I was little. I must of gone to school. And done chores. But when I try to go back in my mind, I remember what I was thinking more than what I did. Know what I mean?
I remember dreaming about mountains and cool, fresh air. Or wishing I was smart like Becky. And pretty like my Mama had been. I saw some pictures of her ‘fore she married Daddy. I don’t recall seeing Mama smile ‘cept in those pictures.
Granny said it was Mama’s smile that captured my Daddy’s heart. I don’t remember my Daddy. Not ’cause my memory’s bad, though. He died in the war ‘fore I was born. Mama said there was nothing left to smile about after that. I don’t think she loved me like I love Becky. Maybe everybody’s only given one love in this life. My Daddy was Mama’s and Becky was mine.
I didn’t love Becky’s daddy. I think that’s a sin. But it’s not like we was married or anything. Tommy was a boy I knew from school. He was going into the Army. There was this big party. He drank lots of beer. I don’t think he loved me.
When I told his mama I was going to have a baby, his baby, she slammed the screen door in my face.
I think Granny is the only happy person I ever knew. Really happy, not beer happy. That’s ’cause she was from the mountains. I’m going to the mountains some day.
They tell me if I stop singing to Becky, they’ll let me go. To Arkansas.
I try. All day long, I stay busy. I keep my mind so full of what is going on there is no room for Becky. But then it gets on to dark. I remember what it was like to be little and have that dark all around you. That dark, so full of nothing. Then I can’t stop myself from singing.
When the night comes I have to sing. I try to be quiet so they won’t hear me. But this joyful voice comes out of my mouth.
I want to tell you a secret. Sometimes I wonder if I’m really singing to Becky. She’s with the Lord and Granny and my Daddy. She doesn’t have to be afraid.
Sometimes I just wonder if I’m singing for myself.
Madison, Winter 1985
By Christopher Lowe
She was a homeless person, but we didn’t call them “homeless” back then. She was a “bag lady” living on the sidewalks of Capital Square. All day she’d walk the Square, flipping open the lids of trash cans and bending and peering into them, sometimes reaching in and tweezing and inspecting garbage between her fingers. A tattered wool hat and scarf swaddled her head. She wore a fur coat, also tattered, and grimy with street crud, but you could tell it had once been an expensive purchase.
I was in my last year of law school working part time at a firm on Capital Square. On my way into work in the afternoon I’d occasionally walk past her on the sidewalk. Her eyes would be downcast and intense, yet focused on an imaginary distant point. Approaching her I’d see her lips moving, a dark scowl on her face. As we passed I’d try to make eye contact, but her expression and stare would remain locked in place. Through her undulating lips flowed a steady stream of curse words delivered in a rasping tone.
People said—people who would know—that her husband had been a corporate lawyer at one of the large corporate law firms on the Square. He’d killed himself years earlier and sometime thereafter, but not right away, she’d begun her life as a bag lady.
It was a Friday evening in December and I was in an upscale bar on the Square for TGIF happy hour. The outside wall of the bar was floor-to-ceiling windows. The first snowfall of the year was taking place on the other side of the windows.
On our side of the windows it was warm and loud with conversation and laughter. Seated at a table with others I sensed movement through the window, movement that emerged from behind the curtain of snow on the distant sidewalk and became more pronounced in increments, more defined, until the movement revealed itself in the shape of the woman.
She had four bags with her, cloth-handled, wax-coated paper bags, the bags of a type used in upscale department stores, each bag stuffed to the brim. She transported two bags at a time, hands gripping the cloth handles, her head down and shoulders hunched the entire way. Slowly she’d progress to a spot and set the two bags down, turn around and trudge back to the two bags left standing in the sidewalk snow, pick the bags up by their handles, turn again and retrace her steps over the snow and then another fifteen paces beyond, where she’d set the bags down, turn around and walk back to the two waiting bags, and repeat the process again and again.
The sidewalk lights illuminated halos that glowed through the falling snow like hovering angels.
My mind turned away from the alcohol-fueled atmosphere of happy hour to this woman’s struggle, the life force compelling her onward to an unknown destination, her mental controls out of whack due to illness and sadness and anger. She had so much dignity in her despair. I watched her until she faded from sight.
By Sharon Thompson
“What do you mean I cannot ask Granny for any more money?” Teddy is ten and ½. Skinny hands are on narrow hips. He’s about to dress cool.
“Because I said so Teddy.” Mum Mona is struggling to get all the washing into the basket. “Granny gives you too much money.”
“Dad says she’s loaded AND you can never have, too much money,” Teddy heaves on a pair of denims.
“My mother, your precious Granny, is not loaded. She’s a writer Teddy. I think everything is ready for her surprise party. Once this washing goes into the machine.” Mona is on the stairs.
“Can I wear my Superman t-shirt or wha Mum?”
“Yes ok, if you promise … ”
“Alright. I’ll not ask Granny for any more money!”
Teddy starts talking to the bathroom mirror as he gels his hair, “I mean if she has it—And she wants to give me some, sure what’s up with that? How fab am I? My hair looks just like Johnny’s.”
Teddy practices his ‘Johnny’ walk, as guests arrive downstairs. The hair is coifed again, when he reaches his reflection in the hall mirror. “Cool.”
Tony, his dad hollers, “Answer the door Teddy, more guests are here!”
It’s Johnny, his Dad’s best pal. He has spotted Teddy’s superman t-shirt, “That’s a mad t-shirt you have there Ted.”
Teddy likes being called Ted. Dad’s cool friend likes his t-shirt—Life’s good. Teddy flicks his unmoving hair. “How can it be a surprise party when you are a Granny and seventy? I mean she is bound to know she’s old?” Johnny seems to be preoccupied. He’s ogling Mona’s boobs, as she sets out the food platters.
“Better not tell women they are old, Ted mate—it’s like a crime or something!” Johnny flicks the hair above his forehead. He slugs on his beer bottle. “There are too many old ones here Ted. I hope the surprise doesn’t give them all heart attacks.” Johnny snuggles up to Mum Mona and makes her giggle like a girl.
“Yuck, he’s flirting with my Mum, euhh,” Teddy tells the mirror in the hall near the kitchen.
Dad Tony asks, “Where did you put the fecking ice Teddy? You were in charge of the ice. Where is it? And who let you wear that awful t-shirt?”
“Johnny likes it!”
“Well that says it all. Johnny has no taste. Your Granny’s friends all need lots of ice. If they actually had alcohol in it, that would be somethin’! But they are as boring as be Jazzus. Teddy where the feck is the ice?”
“In the fridge.”
“It’ll melt in the fridge. You idjit.”
“How can ice melt, in a cold place?”
“Less of the cheek Teddy. It better not be melted. This day cannot get anymore sssshhhh … ”
“Shit?” offers Teddy. One of Granny’s friends walks by and tut-tuts loudly.
“Shit!” says Tony slamming the fridge door. He tries to rescue the remaining ice from the pool in the bottom of a large bowl.
Teddy wanders off, “I hate getting jobs.” Mum Mona is sipping her drink through a fancy straw and giggling at Johnny. She glances now and again at her phone.
Suddenly she grabs Teddy and howls, “Granny is on her way, crap! Everyone hide. We need to jump out and surprise her.” Fun—life is good again.
“Hide and Seek with old ones!” Johnny points to an old dear trying to hide behind a large potted plant. Her large party dress can be seen. Johnny, Ted and Mona are behind the couch. Everyone’s waiting on the ‘Surprise’.
“SURPRISE!” roars Mona and everyone in almost unison. Coming from the kitchen Tony yelps and spills the remaining ice. Granny lets herself in the front door a fraction too late and promptly slips on the iced tiles. Such a mess!
Teddy is tired of being in A&E. “Granny, Dad says your friends, are as boring as be Jazzus!”
“Disappear to the toilet Teddy, before I commit murder!”
Teddy is flicking his hair in the mirror of the smelly bathroom, “If people listened to me, they wouldn’t mind asking Grannies for money AND people would leave all the ice in the fridge!”
By Grayson Chong
Perfectly arched feet don pink satin pointe shoes. Perfect hair, not a strand out of place, is secured into perfect buns. Perfect girls dressed in leotards of black and royal blue prance around the mirrored room. Some bend in half, backs arched like lions stretching their paws on a lazy afternoon. Others leap across the polished floor, their movements akin to the graceful galloping of gazelles. Jumping. Turning. Floating. Flying. Perfect.
“Everyone in first position.” The teacher’s entrance pulls me out of my reverie; her perfect posture demanding attention, from the regal tilt of her chin to the sharp points of her shoes. Perfect girls rush to find the perfect place at the barre.
The old vinyl record hums a soft, ethereal melody, a symphony that could only be composed by fairies in a faraway land. Perfect girls rest their perfect hands on the barre one by one. I follow suit. Perfect. Only what I feel isn’t wood. Instead, my hand rests upon the metal of my imperfect wheelchair.
What Our Dreams Do To Love
By Mohsin Abbasi
Delia always dreamed bigger than South Carolina. She wanted to go to New York and become an actress, make it on Broadway. But she was a romantic, and desired more than anything for her boyfriend Tyler to come with her.
“Sweetie,” she said, “it’ll be so good for us. You can be a writer. You’re good at it, always writing those stories and poems. You can work at one of the big city newspapers.”
But Tyler was adamant about staying on the farm in Carolina. Shaking things up was a bad idea when he had a good thing going. He said, “Either you stay with me or go to New York, but you can’t have both.”
She loved him, but she loved her dreams more.
I was sitting at my favorite bar on MacDougal when she walked in, pretty as could be in a little country dress with a flower in her hair.
She told me about her dream of becoming an actress. I told her about medical school and how long I’d wanted to be a doctor. We talked late into the night, but I couldn’t see the
spark that was there.
It took me three weeks to sleep with her, and another three to end things. I grew tired of listening to her stories about Carolina—going with the girls to Charleston, Hanahan, a million little towns on the weekends.
She cried when I told her it was over.
“I hate it here,” she said. “I hate that awful office I work at and I hate the cold New York people who don’t say hi. I hate you for being this heartless. I wish I’d stayed with Tyler.”
“You should have.” I said.
Her head jerked upwards, disbelief on her tear-streaked face.
The truth hurts.
I’m in a fancy Soho restaurant idly playing with my Fettuccine Alfredo. Across from me is my date for the night: a blond sorority girl in her senior year at Baruch.
“What do you do for fun?” I ask.
“I love concerts.” She stretches out the word ‘love’. “Do you know Avicii? He’s like, the coolest DJ ever. I’ve seen him live, like, four times.”
I asked her out because she looks a bit like Kate.
Kate, who stayed up with me every night back home, studying for the MCAT. Kate, who kissed me and made me whole again when my little sister died. Kate, who left when I told her I had to go to Columbia for medical school because it was my dream.
I find myself looking around the restaurant. At the table next to us there’s an elderly couple. They’re quiet, simply enjoying each other’s presence. It doesn’t matter what they say; words matter less than companionship.
I think of Delia. She would’ve sat here quietly with me. She didn’t want me for sex, or for my apartment. She just wanted to come home from work, tell me about her day and hear about mine.
Two weeks later, the apartment bell buzzes and I’m face-to-face with her. She still loves me. We say things that will make it hurt more when we can’t be together. I tell her this.
“I love you Delia, but this city isn’t good for you. Go back to Carolina where you’ll be happy.”
I haven’t cried in years.
She moves closer and kisses me, looking into my eyes. “I have a better idea,” she says. ”How about I stay here and we build our dreams. Together.”
We came to this city with broken hearts and dreams. I thought that dreams were greater than love, but she’s taught me that love makes our dreams come true.
By Bruce Costello
The hall falls silent. Christchurch panel beater Doug Smith rises unsteadily to his feet, wine glass in hand. His face is red. His bald head gleams under the chandelier.
“Thank you for coming to celebrate with us the wedding of our daughter, Stella, to Kevin, this fine young man.”
He looks around the hall, beaming, and points at Kevin.
“Doesn’t he scrub up well!”
Young Kevin holds a glass aloft with one hand, and lifts up his white tie with the other, grinning from ear to ear.
“Good on ya, Kev! Go for it, Doug,” somebody shouts.
Doug continues. “I’ve had lots of advice about what to say in my speech, all of which I’m going to ignore. I don’t often hold the floor, so I’ve decided, this is MY speech, and I’ll say whatever I bloody well like.”
Mary, his wife, next to him, looks up, eyebrows raised. Somebody giggles. Mary pushes herself back from the table, holds up her arms and cries out: “The opinions expressed by the pisshead of the family are not necessarily those of the management!”
Women clap and cheer.
“Get in behind!” shouts a man’s voice, and other male voices take up the chorus.
Doug continues. “Quiet, please. We’re not here to enjoy ourselves. This is a wedding.”
“First a few words about the seating arrangements. We’ve organized the tables so the people who gave expensive gifts are at the front, and everybody else is at the back.”
Clapping from the front tables. Hisses from the rear. A paper napkin folded into a dart flies across the room, hitting Mary in the neck.
Doug continues. “Stella has asked me to express her gratitude to good old Uncle Fred, there at the back, who gave her the oven glove. She hopes he’ll give her the other one for her 25th anniversary.”
Doug purses his lips and looks serious.
“I’d like to tell you about some embarrassing episodes from Stella’s childhood.”
“Yeh!” calls out Julie, Stella’s older sister.
“But I can’t.” Doug stops talking, and looks around, then says in a deadpan voice: “I can’t because Stella was an angelic child, even as a teenager, always well behaved, never put a foot wrong.”
The room erupts with hooting and hollering.
Doug looks across to Julie. “What do you think, Julie?” She mouths something and puts her head in her hands.
Doug turns to his wife. “Do you want to comment at this point, my love?”
Mary rolls her eyes.
“Now some fatherly words for the groom,” Doug grins. “If you need advice about the physical side of women, it’s no good asking me. My memory is stuffed. Ask your uncle Bob. As a dairy farmer, Bob is well acquainted with female anatomy, not to mention the strange meanderings of female psychology.”
Raucous laughter and loud guffaws from the men.
“Seriously, folks,” Doug calls out, holding up his hand for silence. “Kevin, don’t ever let me catch you using four letter words on Stella…like ‘cook,’ ‘dust,’ ‘wash’ or ‘iron.’ And bear in mind that no husband has ever been shot by his wife while he’s doing the dishes!”
“Stella! If you need advice on male anatomy and male sexual behaviour, I suggest you talk to your uncle Martin, who’s been a pig farmer all his life.”
Hysterical cries and shouts of “here, here!” and ‘pigs, pigs!’ from the women. A fat lady stands, jigs up and down with wobbling chins, clapping her hands above her head.
“Enough of this unseemly merriment!” says Doug. He raps a bottle on the table, then himself doubles up, snorting uncontrollably. Shouting and table banging explode at the rear of the hall.
“Silence! The man wants to speak,” shouts a loud male voice. The noise subsides. Doug resumes.
“Now, just to prove I went to school, I’d like to quote from Socrates: ‘By all means, marry; if you get a good wife, you’ll become happy. If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher.’”
He rubs the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand.
“I’m sure Kevin will never become a philosopher—but he is a deep thinker. The other day he said this to me: If a man went deep into a forest, and expressed an opinion when there was no woman there to hear him, would he still be wrong?”
He takes a deep breath.
“Now some serious words for you both. Be careful of the words you say, be sure they’re nice and sweet. You never know from day to day, which ones you’ll have to eat.”
Raising his glass, he cries out: “A toast to the happy couple! As they slide down the bannisters of life, may the splinters never be pointing the wrong way!”
The guests raise their glasses. Doug’s face twitches with emotion. The guests look at each other as tears roll down his cheeks. Silence fills the hall.
Doug speaks, softly: “They’re a great couple. I love them both to bits. May they be as happy together as I have been with the mother of the … ”
His words are interrupted by the February 22nd earthquake like a freight train hitting the building.
The chandelier crashes down, pinning Doug to the table.
His lips are still moving and one finger beckons towards Kevin, who lowers his ear to hear the man’s closing words.
“And, finally, no farting in bed or in the kitchen.”
The Girl with Blue Eyes
By Ron Woods
The first time I saw him, he was driving a small yellow car far too fast down a pitch dark country road. He was gripping the steering wheel tight, his body hunched forward so his face almost touched the windscreen. The radio crackled when I sat in beside him and he looked towards where I was sitting; for an instant I thought he could see me and for an instant he thought so too.
I was startled by the voice of a young girl from the back seat.
‘Where are we daddy?’ she asked; her sleepy voice sounded worried.
I turned to look into a pale tired face framed by long wispy blond hair that needed to be brushed. I remember she had very large, very blue eyes. A smaller boy was lying across the seat beside her, asleep, his head resting on her lap.
‘Ssssh,’ her daddy whispered, turning briefly to glance at her. ‘We’re almost there.’
When I looked back to the road I could see he was driving more slowly, even carefully. I thought perhaps I needn’t have come, so I left.
When I saw him again the sun was rising on a cold harbour wall, casting sharp shadows across heaps of stinking fishing nets. The little girl was standing at the edge of the pier holding her brother by the hand. The breeze from the sea lifted strands of her hair and the golden light of the sun played in them before they fell, but the early morning air was cold and they were shivering. When he’d dreamed up this particular plan he hadn’t meant to leave them there, but none of his plans or dreams had ever worked out.
‘Where’s daddy?’ asked the boy.
The little girl didn’t speak, her blue eyes brimming with tears as she pointed into the churning bubbling water of the harbour. I stood beside them and looked down into the deep swirling blackness. As the water gradually settled and cleared, and there was just a single spiral of bubbles trailing upwards we could see the roof of the small yellow car far below. I didn’t go to him. He would have been caught up in his last bitter struggle with life and I’ve seen too much of that.
We watched together as one last bubble spiralled up from the deep, then floated towards us across the oil-slicked water. When it burst and disappeared the little girl sobbed.
I knew then it was time to go to him so I left the little girl with the big blue eyes holding her brother by the hand and stepped off the pier. When I gathered him in my arms he looked up at me with those same blue eyes.
‘Where are we?’ he asked.
I held him a little tighter.
‘Ssssh,’ I whispered. ‘We’re almost there.’
By Paula Fusco
VAFROUS—yellow-chalked on her front door.
Twenty-second word in as many weeks.
Unintelligible words, unnerving, at first.
A woman sits alone at her parlour window, night after coffee-black night, keen to catch the graffitist red-handed.
Procuring a lexicon she takes to prediction, exhilarated when her word matches his: T for TABEFACTION.
Four more words and then the alphabet is done.
She hopes for WANION or XERIC, YOUSTER or ZEK.
And prepares to mourn the coming loss of yellow-chalked vocabulary on her front door.
By Chella Courington
Her parents polled their 142 Facebook friends. “Please choose a name for our baby-to-be from the following: Nicola, Nicole, Niki, and Nikita.” The vote was close. So they had a party and put the names on forty slips of paper, divided equally, and dropped them in a jelly jar near the front door for the guests entering to draw. Rules: The first name drawn eight times would be her name. Odds being what they were, Nikita, Niki, Nicole, and Nicola were drawn seven times. The parents being who they were, set fire to the remaining twelve pieces and threw the jelly jar in the fireplace.
A week passed, and they were no closer to a name, only closer to her birth. They sat on the back deck, hands on the growing belly, waiting. In bed that night, they agreed to throw away caution and ask their gray Siamese, sitting on a pillow between them. They wrote Nicola, Nicole, Niki, and Nikita on four slips of paper, folded them into squares, shook them in a small glass from the night table, and tossed them on the bed. The Siamese stepped through them, her paws gently moving each name but never touching one.
The Thespian and the Prelate
By Andy Jones
The woman woke suddenly and panicked. There was no light in the room other than a faint green glow from a ceiling-mounted smoke detector. Controlling her fear, she tried to remember last evening’s events. Slowly, it came back to her. The after show party! Oh God, what had she done? Drank too much for a start. Her head throbbed, fit to burst. Lying back on the silk sheets, a wave of embarrassment swept over her.
Being an understudy for so long had been soul-destroying. That was, until the role of Caesar’s wife had fallen into her lap. That bitch Samantha had upset the producer enough to be given her walking papers, resulting in the understudy’s promotion from Vestal Virgin to Dictator’s Consort. Ten years of ignominy touring the sticks, then overnight stardom beckoned.
The play’s run had gone well; apart from you-know-who making it plain that he would expect “some appreciation” for going out on a limb for her. To escape his overtures at the party she had turned in desperation to an elegant dark-suited man who stood close by. It was only after talking to him for a while through a haze of champagne bubbles that it became obvious he was wearing a Roman collar. He laughed quietly as she slurred an apology for not recognising his calling.
“Please,” he said. “Even Bishops have a little time off. I won’t condemn you to Hell, at least until you do something to merit such a fate.”
She had no idea how they ended up in bed together. All that could be said was that he was a wonderful lover, tender and experienced to a surprising degree for one supposed to be celibate.
Eyes now accustomed to the darkness, she tentatively stretched out an arm towards her sleeping partner. When searching fingers encountered nothing, the panic returned. Jumping from the bed, she fumbled for a light switch, eventually finding one after tripping around the room, falling over things.
Her discarded clothes lay scattered across the carpet, and her empty handbag stood upended, contents spilled. The open wallet, stripped of credit cards and cash, rested on a copy of the previous day’s red-top tabloid, its black headline reading “BOGUS BISHOP BEDS BUSTY BEAUTIES”. A photo of the ersatz prelate underneath left no doubt. Her mouth opened in a silent scream.
A sharp knock on the door made her jump. “Hotel security here. Open the door, please.”
By Lesley Mace
Little dragons loved lollipops.
So, medium-sized dragons began to make fabulous lollipops. Ancient recipes were lovingly followed, and their marvelously crafted sweets earned a living for the medium-sized dragons, and made the little dragons flutter their wings with joy.
Big dragons, slyly spying on those beneath them, lit blackly smoking fires and experimented. Cheap ingredients made inferior lollipops. But the big dragons discovered the dark magic of addiction and processed their rubbish sweets into irresistibility.
Too fat to fly, the little dragons soon lost their joyfulness and sickened. But the big dragons invented plausible deniability and flourished in their mountain hideaways, polishing their hordes of gold and silver.
By Jane Swan
“Cast not a clout ‘til May is out,” says my grandmother. How many times have I heard this?
Judy, my Kiwi friend, looks astonished. “What does she mean?” she whispers.
“Don’t discard layers of winter clothing until the Spring is really here. You know, May, Spring … Northern Hemisphere.”
“Just the sort of things Nannas say.”
Days with Gran. Sliding back into the old speech. Umpteenth, bairn, fleein’, skerrick—Scottish and Northern English words filtered through a strainer of narrowing holes—Sussex, Essex, Grammar School, finally New Zealand until only the most robust are left.
When I’m with Gran my vocabulary seems thin, watery, like Oliver Twist’s gruel.
A cousin emigrates from Britain. “I can hardly understand New Zealanders, Pet,” he says in a strong Geordie accent. “The farmer next door, in the paddock, told me that the wether was cast. The sky looked fine enough to me. And then he said to remind my wife to bring a plate to the W.I. Are they short of crockery?”
“She’s supposed to take food to share at the Women’s Institute meeting. Lamingtons. Neenish Tarts, that sort of thing. You take your plate home.”
“And the weather?”
“Sorry, na. A castrated male sheep had fallen over and had to be helped up before he carked it—er, died.”
“I know how he feels.”
By Jan FitzGerald
It wasn’t the first time a stray dog had wandered through the snow to piss on him, but he remained motionless in the dark. Steam rose briefly from his jackboots up to the pockets of his black coat.
The wind had gone to ground and soon more snowflakes fell like cold dandruff on his collar and epaulets. Birds sucked in their song and became branches. The stark rookeries swallowed their quarrels.
Behind him, in the attic of a wooden villa, a little girl lay dreaming under a feather eiderdown, oblivious to the rifle cracks of overladen branches as night bled out in the forest.
His body rigid, face expressionless, he kept guard as the moon passed over the white trees.
In the morning the little girl, dressed warmly in a red cape, skipped through the snowdrifts to the forest’s edge.
The man was frozen solid in a circle of yellow, his hat at an odd angle.
She stared at the hole in his face and screamed.
Her mother struggled through snow on the garden path, lifting her skirt as if wading into the sea.
‘What is it?’ she panted.
‘A reindeer’s come out of the forest and eaten the snowman’s nose!” the little girl cried.
The Age of Reason
By Phyl Herbert
The nuns had told us that we were about to reach the Age of Reason and that they were preparing us to receive the body of Christ. Our sinful pasts would be wiped clean after our first confession. We were seven-year-old girls in the First Communion class. Our little heads had been full of our white dresses and veils and how much money we might make on the big day. The Age of Reason was when you looked at the deeper meaning of life. I had so many questions. Where did words come from? Why did my mother marry my father? Was I a princess waiting to be discovered, to be claimed by a rich family?
Words are like a river flowing through your life, they can nourish or cripple.
The nuns had been concerned with the state of our souls. The State of Grace and the Occasion of Sin. If you died in the state of grace you would go straight to Heaven. If you committed a sin—especially a mortal sin—you would go straight to the fires of Hell. Eternity was the time you would spend there. Eternity, a new word to us, meant forever and ever. In Hell there was a clock that ticked loudly and hissed, “You’re here forever, you’ll never get out.” The night before my First Communion the thought of Eternity in the afterworld had kept me awake worrying about the unspeakable boredom of being in either place forever and ever without end. That’s when I had made my mind up. My time on earth would be my Heaven. Down here on earth was my stage.
I had not always been happy with my costumes or the parts I had got to play or with the other members of the cast. Two young girls lived on my road; we were all the same age and were referred to as the “three little ones.” We had discussed such weighty matters as, which of us was the tallest, the prettiest. When we hadn’t been able to agree with each other we had stopped strangers and asked them. The answer didn’t always please me. The words used by adults hurt.
My parents had played cards on Sunday evenings. Our entertainment was viewing from the corners of the room. The different accents, the flat Dublin loudest of all laced through with the Wexford lilt of my mother and her friends. The Dublin voice held the trump card—always. I wished that my mother would speak out more, so that I could hear what she said and be proud of her. Her voice had always been drowned out by the others. Later on as the years went by I learned that she had this recurring dream that her gums were stuck together and that she had struggled to get her words out. Her tongue would stick to the roof of her mouth. She gave birth to eleven children, seven boys and four girls. Not a minute to herself. Her words grew fewer, dried up for a long time.
Words are like a river. They touch the root and branch of the estuaries of our lives. The river of words rises in the mountains of thought. Words are like a river, they flow on forever and ever into Eternity. Words that map the whole rest of our lives.
A Winter’s Tale
By Alan Balkema
On a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan on a January day, a figure in a mink coat sat on a park bench. Joe presumed it was a woman because what man would be wearing a mink coat? Did they make mink coats in men’s sizes?
His next chore was to visit his father, a fraction of his former self, shrunken into his wheelchair. Every other visit he would be lost to Alzheimer’s, and Joe would give up on rousing him and sit quietly until he felt he’d fulfilled his daily obligation. When his father was functioning the words would be disjointed, but at least he still recognized his son, if he couldn’t come up with a name.
The car’s side window was half-frosted over, but Joe could see that the hair on the head matched the color of the coat. He decided to call it sable brown. He didn’t think there was such a color as mink brown.
Joe couldn’t say what had drawn him to Juneau Park, but he sat in his parked car, engine running, heater on, for a good fifteen minutes, watching the woman. What brought her to the park on such a dismal day? Sure, the coat would be warm, but there wasn’t much to see. An impenetrable white cloud concealed the lake. The leafless trees didn’t hide the sight of traffic on Lake Shore Drive, the dirty snow piled high alongside, empty chip bags and candy wrappers visible in the piles.
He grew more concerned about the mink-clad woman. Perhaps she’d wandered away from the elder-care facility. Would she gaze vacantly upon him, trying to decide whether he was somehow related?
Joe cut the engine and, spurning the cleared sidewalk, walked straight towards the bench, each step breaking the crust on the snow. He thought the woman would surely react to the noise, turn, a look of concern spreading across her face, stand and quickly hurry off in one direction or another, and he’d take the spot she’d warmed.
The woman on the bench didn’t react, even when Joe sat on the bench. She was hunched into the coat, to protect her ears, Joe presumed, and perhaps her eyes, too. Joe looked off into the distance as she did and wondered what images she saw. They would have to be bleak.
“At least the holidays are over,” Joe said. He hated the holidays and the expectation of being in good cheer, especially at the elder-care facility.
He didn’t expect the woman to reply, assuming that she was barely containing her alarm. A gull passed in front of them slowly and circled back, as if checking out a potential meal. A big meal.
“The days are getting longer,” he said. “It’ll be noticeable in another month.”
He didn’t look but sensed that she’d extended her neck from the carapace of her coat. Two gulls were now circling.
“A little sunshine would be nice,” the woman said.
It was a young voice, definitely not feeble. He said, “Tomorrow, if the forecasts are right.”
“They never are.”
He heard this directed his way, so he turned and looked into her eyes. They were deep brown, obscuring the pupil, with circles under them, as if she’d cried recently. Still her face was pretty, if blotchy from the cold. Her age indeterminate, although certainly not trophy-wife young. Perhaps she had been. Mid-forties?
“They get lucky sometimes,” he said.
She half-smiled and faced forward. Dipped her neck back into her carapace.
“When the sun shines it gets colder,” he said.
Joe settled back and extended his left arm, his gloved hand a few inches from her shoulder, and looked off into the murk. He was surprised that he didn’t feel cold. Although he’d grown up in Milwaukee, he barely tolerated the winters, and this was a bad one. The ground had been covered with snow since mid-November.
Joe sighed heavily. The woman shifted towards him. He lifted his hand, and she slid next to him. He wrapped his arm around her.
“That doesn’t look like much of a coat,” she said as she pulled her head back into the carapace.
“Goose down,” he said.
“Nothing under your butt.”
A moment passed when he thought of nothing, only sensed the life that sparked through the mink. Since she wasn’t a resident of the elder-care facility, she must live in the luxury lakefront condos behind them. She would have a rich name, Louisa, and a rich husband, Lloyd. Their friends would call them the charmed couple.
Was she waiting for him to try something? Stroke her back, squeeze her closer? She’d expressed concern about the quality of his coat. Was she trying to warm him? She probably thought he was some nutcase but took comfort that he was being respectful. He imagined that, other than the concierge in her building, this was the only conversation she’d had today. The first person she’d touched in two days.
Lloyd, older by twenty years, maybe thirty, grew more distant every day. Since they’d moved out of the family home, with all of its memories, and into the lakefront condo there’d been fewer friends to see, fewer activities to amuse. Her children, twin boys, had made a point of traveling to different colleges far away. She took it as a hopeful sign of independence then but missed them very much now. Missed the anticipation of their return from school. The endless practices and games that she’d ferried them to. She so wished she had that connection now.
She’d lost track of how much time she’d spent on the bench. She wasn’t even sure if she was cold. She loved this coat, even though she wondered if Lloyd had given it to her at Christmas to atone for an indiscretion, a silent admission, an invitation to an argument that they’d never had.
By Eric R. Widen
“I’ve got it!”
“Oh, no. Not again.”
“No, this one will work! I know it will!”
“Grovel; your plans never work, because what you suggest is never possible.”
“No, for real this time. I promise! I promise!”
Howard slammed his book closed, and then he set it down on the white end table, which was directly next to his white chair, which was in the corner of their white room. The restricting feeling of the confined cell seemed to do battle with the limitless grandeur of the open sky that surrounded the highest tower of the Mordem Asylum.
The tallest tower was reserved for the most … unique patients.
“Is it better than your previous plan, when you wanted us to dream that we had escaped, and then simply try to never wake up?”
“Much better than that! Much, much better than that!” Grovel hastily repeated as he hunched forward and continuously wrung his hands.
“Is it better than your idea of painting a hole in the ceiling and then climbing out of it?”
“Oh, yes. This one is genius!”
“I’m sure that it is,” Howard mumbled as he rolled his eyes, picked up his book, and then resumed his reading. “I’ll give you one last chance to think it over, Grovel. Don’t bother wasting my time unless it’s at least something that is possible, will you?
“This is the one, Howard!”
Howard sighed as he flipped a page. “Let’s hear it, then.”
Grovel triumphantly threw his fists into the air. “Okay!” Without shifting his gaze from his cell-mate, he shot his arm out to the side and pointed toward the solitary two-foot by two-foot window which was on the wall opposite the steel door. Iron bars crisscrossed the small opening to the outside world, and Grovel would often squeeze his arm through and try to snatch the passing clouds or glistening stars that so proudly flaunted their freedom. “The window!”
“What about it?” Howard muttered from behind his book.
“I’ll cut you up into tiny pieces and then slide you through the bars of the window; then, you put yourself back together, come back, and unlock the door from the outside!”
Howard closed his book and then rubbed in between his eyes. “I said not to waste my time unless it was actually possible,” he grunted. “How did I get lumped in here with the likes of you?” He put his hand onto his hip and mocked his cell-mate. “Cut me up and toss me out the window? I may be crazy, but I’m not insane!” He pointed toward the barred window. “Do you have any idea how high up we are? The fall would kill me for sure!”
“So, which one am I speaking to today?” the psychiatrist interrupted as she adjusted the straps on his strait jacket. “Howard or Grovel?”