By Jemel Wilson
Her name was Gale, short for Nightingale. A badass black Caddy sitting on white walled tires. The grill looked like the car had on a fresh set of chrome braces. My grandfather purchased her with money he received from working on the old GM assembly lines. In those days it was hard to own much of anything, so when the neighborhood saw a black man in his twenties riding through the streets in a brand new black Cadillac, they knew you were doing damn well for yourself. It was a luxury that most didn’t get to experience. Other parts of the country were riding on public transportation unable to sit in the front due to the color of their skin.
My grandfather was the role model of the family and everyone listened when he spoke. Every sunny Saturday morning he’d wake my father to help him wash and wax the car. My grandfather would turn on the car radio and turn it up so that the neighbors could hear it on all sides. My father would unravel the hose, drag it out to the driveway and get the bucket of soapy water ready.
“Bring the bucket and hose over here, son.”
My father would waddle over with the bucket, splashing suds on his thin ashy legs.
“Pass me the hose and take the sponge,” Grandpa said. “Gale’s a little hot—gotta cool her off.” He’d spray her down and randomly shoot the hose in my father’s direction. Then he’d grab the sponge and massage the suds into the side paneling in soft, sensual, circular motions.
“Son, when you get something this nice you have to take real good care of her,” said Grandpa. “That goes for every special lady in your life. You have to work hard because nothing comes free or easy. When you get older you can work at the same factory as your old pop and buy yourself a Caddy too.”
As years passed, work slowed up at the factory. Every other month there were strings of layoffs going on around the city. One by one Grandpa’s good friends on the line would get axed, but despite the plague of hardship hovering around Granddad he stayed optimistic. Every Saturday the car wash ritual would continue. He’d crank that radio but there were fewer neighbors around to listen. Most moved once the layoffs started.
“Like I always tell you son, hard work pays off. Just look at your old man,” he said. “You keep your grades up and maybe I’ll teach you how to drive Ms. Gale.”
They both kept their end of the bargain, but the GM factory didn’t. Grandpa was fired the day before Thanksgiving. They sent him home with two turkeys as a parting gift for his years of loyal service. Grandpa pulled into the garage and Dad, home on break from college, walked in to greet him.
“Hey old man,” said my father.
“Hey son. Didn’t expect you to come home,” replied Grandpa. “ I figured you were busy with tests and what not.”
“I thought I’d surprise you.”
“Well you succeeded there, son.”
“How’s the GM plant?” asked Dad. “Still giving out turkeys to their favorite workers, I see.”
“You know GM, same ole same,” said Granddad. “But never mind me. I want to tell you that I love you and you made me very proud.”
“Thanks, Dad. You were a great guy to follow behind.”
“Son, I was thinking on my way home. You’re a college man now and don’t have a set of your own wheels. How would you like to take sweet ole Gale?”
“Really? Are you serious?” said Dad. “Hell yeah I’ll take her … but are you sure this is what you want? You love that car.”
“Absolutely, son. You’ve earned it and like I told you hard work pays off in the end if you keep at it,” said Grandpa. “She’s a good woman, so you’d better take care of her like I did.”
“It’s a deal. Just give me a moment with my ole lady before I pass her on to you.”
“You got it, Pops.”
They shook hands and he handed my father the two turkeys to prep for dinner. My dad waited for over two hours before deciding to see what was taking Grandpa so long to come inside. When he opened the garage door, a thick fog of exhaust fumes crept into his nostrils. The hose was taped and led from the tailpipe into the car through an inch sized window crack. Dad fanned through the smoke-filled garage to see his father passed out facedown on the steering wheel. Dad dragged him out the front seat and tried giving him mouth to mouth but it was too late. He propped himself against the car door and held Grandpa in his arms on the cold concrete floor. The medics came and carried Granddad off in a large unfamiliar red and white van with flashing lights.
My father packed everything he owned into the big trunk of that black Caddy and rode Gale off to start a new life and to continue keeping up his end of the bargain.
By Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri
“Fuck it. I need another.”
She throws a Pabst. It doesn’t break, just lands on the pile, a beer-bottle cathedral.
She’s been trying to write since the divorce, since her life opened to possibility. Yet she’s stuck, her characters indistinguishable. Like her, a shadowed afterthought.
David leans against the wall in navy pajamas, brow furrowed.
“I’m all right, sweetheart.”
She envies his coolness at twenty-two, his way of looking after her, through the made-up lives in which they were great writers and actors—not inconsequential drifters.
She takes his hand, watching the drifting moonlight.
“Get Mother a beer, sweetheart.
By Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri
The engine growls stubbornly. The music teacher turns the key, cursing. The iron monster marches down the tracks, blasting a discordant scream. It reminds him of his marching band, a maelstrom of tubas. Trumpets. He thinks of how he wanted only to prove his own existence when he started teaching.
The monster closes in. He sees his wife. The way they laughed, with absurdity and frustration between them, through all the benders. Teaching jobs and rent problems. They held onto dreams and recognition, two happy idiots.
The monster blinds him in its butter-colored, howling light. He clutches the door handle and surrenders, a happy idiot. Alone.
By Anne Macdonald
Angie’s oldest brother, Michael, was killed in Iraq while Angie was a senior at Sisters of Loreto High School. The memory of the funeral drove a wedge into her head, forever to show up at the oddest of times—leaving her alone, within the confines of her massive brain to question the ways of the universe and of God. God was the other wedge pounded into Angie’s head. Through grade school, high school, childhood, puberty, and pre-adult, God, as he was meant to, rang wooden bells as loud and rough as the heavy thumps during the Good Friday consecration.
There were only bits and pieces of Michael buried on that windy April day in southern California, the few parts of Michael the government was able to locate. Or, so they said. Who knew what was really inside the gold plate and mahogany box.
Angie’s mother, Nora, wept loudly during Michael’s funeral. Nora Ryan resembled in every way and every manner and every look a stoic, straight, duty-bound, adjusted woman. The day of Michael’s full military funeral, as they folded the flag, and the guns saluted, seven by seven, and the soldiers clicked their heels, turned, saluted, and handed her the folded flag, Angie’s quiet, statuesque mother screamed like an Irish banshee. All the cultivated façade of the good, highbrow, lace-curtained Irish-Catholic wife dissolved into that twenty-one-gun salute. Angie and her remaining brothers and sisters gaped as their beautiful mother shrank into an old Irish scrubwoman. At once, God was less threatening, less majestic, less meaningful in the terrestrial and spiritual life of Angelina Ryan. Nora’s God had not been in the right place at the right time. He certainly wasn’t there to comfort poor Nora Ryan.
Michael had thrown himself on an IED, saving his men from annihilation. That is what her father told everyone. Angie never believed it. But everyone—the neighbors, the parish, the schools, the entire beach town—appeared to take it seriously. The fantasy about how Michael was always the hero-type, and saving his men from annihilation didn’t surprise any of them, became the reality. But, of course, Michael was not the hero-type. He was afraid of moths in his bedroom. He was afraid of the dark, afraid of strangers, afraid of loud sounds and spiders, terrified of death. But the lie satisfied their father. Their father continued to embellish his private world by adding to the Michael-as-hero scenario. As time went by, he actually believed that his son serving his time in Iraq was best for the name of Ryan, for Irish-Catholics everywhere, and for the country as a whole.
Three years after Michael’s burial, when Angie was a junior at UCLA, Nora died of breast cancer.
“She died of a broken heart,” their father pretended.
“No,” Angie said. “No, she died of breast cancer. She wouldn’t let them take away her breasts. Her sadness at the injustice of Michael being blown to bits in a war that never should have been is separate from her breast cancer.”
But the lie persisted and was simply added to the Michael-as-hero story and everyone could continue their lives, alive.
By Miryam Sivan
For years when travelling abroad, I’d invite people to watch the apocalypse from my porch in southwest Asia.
“Front row seats,” I said. “I live in the valley near Megiddo. What you call Armageddon.”
All those years no one came, until the war did.
The green valley is grey and shiny now. So many people worked at killing its green. They’re gone. It’s quieter now. No traffic jams. No crowds. No one anywhere. At least that’s how it’s been since the painful hum that knocked me off my feet in the cellar. When I opened my eyes, the ground was grey and shiny. Now the air’s tinted and the sky’s so close, like a snow globe.
I am walking to the desert southeast of Jerusalem. The caves there have been a refuge for millennia. Strange how I’m not afraid to be alone and how everyplace feels like home. The grey earth itself like soft flannel sheets.
No landmarks remain. The world’s a blank canvas. The sun still works, fainter because of the tinted dome, but visible enough to be a compass. I hope that once I reach the hill upon which Jerusalem was once set I’ll see people. And if not, beyond that, the Dead Sea has surely become a source of life.
I never expected a nourishing silence in a post-boom world. I never imagined feeling good in it either. Happy. Light. Curious. But it’s like everything’s been licked clean with heat. What remains is simple and calm. Imagine putting your hand deep inside a pile of silky cold ash. That’s earth now. Still if I’m the only one left to enjoy it, I won’t last long. I have near minus survival skills. How I’m managing so far without food is a mystery to me. And why my water bottle seems to never reach bottom is as well.
Maybe I’m dead and walking is a part of the journey to the underworld. I groove on that and then feel thirst or stumble over a stone. No, I still have a body. I’m still here.
For months now the armies to the north have been at war with Israel. We all knew it was bad and getting worse, but I never thought the weapons would tip the scales so far to one side that we’d capsize like a ship. That’s it, I think. I’m under the sea. The sky dome’s the water line. But that scenario doesn’t last long, unless the blast gave me gills. I fill my nostrils and lungs with tinted air. No. Still here.
When I meet someone the first thing I’m going to do is kiss him or her on the lips. A ritual greeting, like an ancient declaration of allegiance. In the middle of all this grey I think red and invite a man about my age into the landscape. We’ll hold hands and walk. He’ll whistle. I’ll sing.
But meantime I hum. Not ready to belt it out and fill the air with me. On the horizon there’s only grey though I yearn to see the golden throne of the messiah. Isn’t he part of this after-the-blast script? I walk and hum and remember.
A week ago my cell phone fell into a pool of water in the kitchen sink. Reason enough for a bad mood that entire day. Now there’s no cell phone, no landline, no wall plug, no wall, no floor, no ceiling, nothing built remains, nothing green either. Just flat grey and tinted sky. I have absolutely nothing to hold onto but myself, torn pants, tee-shirt, flip flops, and a water bottle. Who am I without all the other markers?
The terrain rises. I feel it in the shifting air. Mountains vanished but the imprint of earth’s shape remains. Thoughts settle on my youngest child’s face. I drink in the nectar of this memory. The way she walked towards the horse stable and then backtracked to hug me.
“Have a great day, Rose,” she said. She’s always called me by the English translation of my name.
I kissed her lightly on the nose. She is ten, I am forty-five. She is the love of my life.
The earth rises some more, the hum is louder, and suddenly there are people. It’s a shock to see them.
“God is talking,” a tall woman pushes me down and points to a satellite dish. “Show respect.”
“Is this where the temple and mosque … ”
“Pray,” she orders.
The hum is not pleasant … like snow on television screens … the sound of disconnect. I scan the landscape and plot escape.
“God appeared in a lightening flash,” a man in leather pants and boots thunders. He is bald and has corkscrew earlocks perpendicular to his beard. A priest and imam stand with him. “Faith is more important than life itself. Words, not bread, rule the world. In the beginning was the word. It defined faith. It determines who is in and who out.”
Folks on the ground moan. Their bodies contort with spirit. I crawl away, then raise myself casually and walk away. The desert spreads out before me. The Dead Sea is sapphire blue. Morning has come and it is good.
I walk into the desert. Silence again.
Suddenly an American flag flutters in the breeze rising from the grey blanket of earth. I realize a) someone here is alive, and b) there is a breeze.
“Welcome.” A man slides down a rock. “I’ve been waiting for you.” He leads me into a cave. “Here.” He gives me bread and olives.
“Where were you when … ”
“Shrine of the Book. I broke the glass case, removed the scrolls, and hit the deck. The scrolls are back where they belong. Apocalypse’s come.”
“We’re in Qumran?”
“You have food?”
He shows me another cave filled with dozens of clay jars. “Come, let’s celebrate the world to come,” and takes me in his arms.
By Adam J. Wolstenholme
The last time we stayed at Harbour Cottage, we woke to find that our holiday had become unrecognisable. I think I was six and you’ll have been nearly eight. I remember I still took My Little Pony to bed with me, and you were getting too old for your Transformers. The previous night, Mum and Dad had been drinking and laughing with Uncle Pete and Aunt Clara. We could hear them downstairs as we lay talking in bed. But in the morning it was strangely quiet. We crept downstairs to find bottles, glasses and abandoned meals scattered around the kitchen. There was broken glass on the floor. Then we heard voices upstairs. Mum shouting and crying, Dad’s voice softer, pleading. There was no sound from Pete and Clara’s room.
Eventually Dad appeared. His eyes were swollen, red-tinged smudges in his pale face.
“Where are Uncle Pete and Aunt Clara?” you asked. “What’s wrong with Mummy?”
Dad looked out of the window at the space where their car had been. “I suppose they had to go. Come on, kids. Let’s clear up before Mummy comes down.”
When Mum came down she looked even worse than Dad. She was shaking furiously as she bundled us, breakfastless, into our coats and shoes.
“Where are we going?” said Dad.
“We’re going out,” Mum said. To Dad, she said: “You do what you want. Go find Clara. I’m sure Pete will understand.”
Dad just watched as Mum dragged us out of the house and to the car.
She parked at that nearby rocky beach. It was a bright, cold day, still early, and the beach was empty. I took a bucket from the car, but couldn’t find a spade and didn’t dare to ask for one. In silence we walked down to the old jetty. Suddenly Mum sank down onto the stones and lit a cigarette, shielding it from the wind with a shaking hand.
Mum looked out to sea where a solitary gull was taking dives at something hiding in the shark-grey water.
“Where have Uncle Pete and Aunt Clara gone?” I said.
Mum just looked at me as if she was in pain. I wanted to comfort her, but was afraid I’d done something wrong.
She looked so angry.
So I just stood there, cold and wretched on the stony beach, clutching my useless bucket.
“Tom, why don’t you take your sister for a paddle or something? I’ll be along in a minute.”
We walked up the beach.
“Let’s hide and maybe she’ll come looking for us,” you said.
So we climbed over the jetty, out of sight. Eventually we gave up hope of her following and sat, helpless on the stones.
“Tom, why’s Mummy so upset?”
“I don’t know.”
But I felt you knew more than I did, that you and the adult world were keeping from me some vital information.
“Did Mummy fall out with Aunt Clara?” I asked.
You shrugged, gazed off towards the jetty. I thought I saw a thin cloud from Mum’s cigarette rise from behind the jetty only to be snatched away in the wind.
I felt we had to do something and began picking up stones and putting them in the bucket. “Let’s make Mummy a present.”
I was worried that you’d laugh, dismiss the idea as childish or girlish. But you didn’t. You held the bucket while I chose the stones. Sometimes I had to delve down to where they were wet and sandy to find the best ones. I remember feeling reassured with each clink of stone against stone, as if the fullness of the bucket was a defense against our suddenly unpredictable world.
Then you had another idea. You took out the prettiest four stones, packed the bucket almost to the brim with smaller ones, and then placed the four chosen ones on top.
“There we are,” you said. “A family of four. Just like ours.”
There was nothing else to be done. We clutched the present between us as we made the fearful journey across the stony beach, towards our mother, towards whatever was going to happen next.
By Jonathan Ojanpera
It all happened so suddenly. One minute I was gliding around town, snickering at the people caught in traffic snags, those on foot and even the people sitting still. It seemed that as soon as my confidence reached a haughty crescendo, there it was; the ground. I must have rolled over twelve times when I hit.
I had crashed before, but never like this. This wreck marked a measure of finality. My last trip around town from above.
It was my wings. They were ruined.
By Rose Servitova
Spider webs and bats decorated the hospice reception … no ghosts or skeletons here. Twelve lanky, skirting-board-staring strides got him into her room.
There she was, in the bed, dying. Only her head, which resembled a shrunken turnip, was visible.
“Hi’ya Mam,” he said, stretching out his booted feet as he sat down by the window. The view—maple-syrupy Halloween—rich harvests of orange and red were mushed up with deep browns and greens.
All this beauty and it was no bloody use to her anymore.
Her hands, he couldn’t touch. Withered and weak, they meant nothing to him. How could he compare them with the strong hands he’d seen fling away her frustrated tears? Tears that had fuelled those hands into action, expelling her demons any way she could. She was forgiven yet he knew that somewhere, etched into his psyche and DNA, were the ghosts of hand-shaped bruising on his childhood legs.
Now he sat, as he did every night, singing to her Life is an ocean and love is a boat.
Okay is Enough
By Tyrean Martinson
Nisa hadn’t always felt this dissatisfied with life, but she felt overwhelmed by it now. Nothing had gone right today. Her boss didn’t have her paycheck ready. She’d locked herself out of her mom’s apartment, and then it started to rain. She didn’t have any money in her pockets to stop at one of the corner coffee stands, and they weren’t much for coffee shops anyway—just drive-thru shacks with awnings and plastic chairs at one end. She supposed she could walk towards the library.
Maybe she wouldn’t be soaked before she got there. And even if she was, she knew the librarians wouldn’t mind. One had even given her a cup of tea from their employee room once. It hadn’t been good tea, but it was a warm, kind gesture. She turned onto Waverly Street, though she’d avoided it for a year now. It was a back-street shortcut with older houses that sagged comfortably on their foundations like grandparents in armchairs.
As she walked over the lilting and cracked sidewalk, she looked across at the Stevens’ house. She slowed as she noticed James’ backpack on the porch. It wasn’t like James to leave his books out in the damp. A cracking noise and a yelp brought her attention to the side of the house where James, clinging to an old lattice, was plummeting to the ground, back first.
Nisa ran across the empty street and into the Stevens’ yard. She grabbed the lattice and attempted to pull it off James, but he was clinging to it with his eyes shut.
“Hey, let go. You’re down now. Are you all right?” Nisa said, all at once in a rush. She hadn’t talked to James since that night when she’d foolishly crossed the line of their friendship and asked him out on a date.
“Ow, ow, ow,” James said with closed eyes, his hands clenched together in fists.
Nisa moved the lattice to the grass beside her. It was awkward, but not that heavy. “What were you thinking, James?”
“Lost my keys. Thought I would climb up to my window. It wouldn’t open and the lattice broke.” He slowly opened his eyes and unclenched his hands. “I think I’m okay, but my back and ribs hurt.” He paused and looked at her with blue-as-sky eyes. “You’re talking to me.”
“Yes, James, I’m talking to you,” said Nisa, crossing her arms. “Why don’t we get out of the rain, unless you need me to call an ambulance?”
“Sure, I mean, no,” he said, and then slowly sat up, groaning. “Let’s get out of the rain.”
Nisa could have offered him a hand. A year ago, she would have. But things were different now between them.
James felt heat rush to his cheeks despite the cool rain. To cover it, he put a hand to his face and realized he was missing his glasses. That was why Nisa seemed a little blurry around the edges. “Nisa, do you see my glasses?”
“No, I … oh, here they are.” She knelt down close to him.
James went still, caught by her usual fresh minty smell—though she swore she never used scent. “Thanks,” he said, reaching out.
“They’re slightly broken.” She put them in his hand. Their fingers brushed and he felt as if an electric current jolted through him.
“Great! I mean, at least they aren’t lost.” James felt like an idiot as he brought his mangled glasses closer to his face. He straightened them and realized the problem was in one arm joint. With the right tools, he could fix it. Considering how tight money was this month, he would have to figure out a way. He put the glasses on, but they tilted precariously sideways.
Nisa laughed, her light, beautiful laugh that always seemed to indicate that everything was all right. “Oh, James. I’m sorry, but you look a little like a mad scientist. Your hair’s standing up and you even have a leaf in it.” She reached towards him as if to pluck the leaf from his hair.
James gazed at her deep brown eyes, and ran his hand over his head, pulling the leaf out himself. “Let’s get out of the rain.”
Nisa looked away. “Are you going to be all right? I was just going to the library.” Her voice had gotten quiet and tight again, like it had been for so many months now when he tried to talk to her.
“I’ll come with you,” he said, feeling the heat rise to his face again as soon as he said it.
“You won’t be able to read anything without your glasses.”
“Well, I’ll just get some books from the large print section, and in any case, I’ll be warmer there.”
“Okay,” she said quietly.
“Thanks.” James didn’t know how to say everything else that he hadn’t been able to say for the last year. At least she was talking to him again.
An almost content feeling washed over Nisa as she walked to the library with James. It was almost like old times. Not quite, but it was okay, and okay was enough.
By Kari Redmond
Joey supposed he would have won whether or not Sally Harrison showed up.
He would claim, for the next several years, that he had no way of knowing she was there as he maneuvered the electronic arm for what must have been the thousandth time, until finally the metal claw held tight to the giant stuffed ring and sent it down the mouth of the machine.
He will say that when he finally retrieved the ring from the chute, amidst the clapping and cheering of the crowd which had grown three rows thick with children as well as adults, he had every intention of giving it to Sally even had she not been among them. The fact that she was, made it ‘all the more romantic,’ Joey would say as he recounted the story on the playground in the weeks and months that followed, Sally standing proudly beside him.
Joey had been playing nearly every Sunday after church when his parents would take him for breakfast to the Denny’s Restaurant that had the only crane game in town. Joey saved his quarters all week. One for taking out the trash, another for keeping his bed made, another for collecting his laundry every Thursday and another for loading the dishwasher every night. The latter was a job usually meant for his sister, but since the discovery of the grabber game, Joey begged her to let him do it instead. She relented, preferring to watch American Bandstand, which played directly after dinner most nights.
On this particular Sunday, Joey had not four, but five quarters, having found a beautiful shiny quarter on his walk home from school the previous Tuesday. It rested between two rocks, bright against the grass growing between them. Joey took the quarter in his hand, inspecting it for authenticity, before placing it carefully in his pocket. He vowed that this Sunday, the Sunday he would have not four, but five quarters, would be the day he got the ring.
Sally Harrison knew about the kid who played the grabber game every Sunday. She listened in awe as children talked on the playground and when she learned that the prize he was after was the ring, she quietly blushed. She had played the game only once since its arrival at Denny’s and was particularly fond of the diamond ring.
Joey was not fond of the ring toy. It was simply the logical choice because of the nature of a ring. The claw would hold onto the loop of the ring much easier than it might a simple teddy bear. And for this reason, Joey had his sights on the ring.
On Sunday Sally made her way to Denny’s. She entered the double doors and found herself in the crowd of people already gathered around The Claw in the lobby. She had to stand on her tippy toes to be sure it was Joey playing the game. She then squeezed her way between an older gentleman and his wife to join the children in the front row. She asked the girl next to her exactly which quarter he was on. The fourth, the girl answered. Sally drew in a sharp breath, which she held, she figures, until the fifth quarter had achieved success.
A hush fell over the crowd as Joey carefully removed the coin from his lint-filled pocket. He settled it into the palm of his hand so he could blow away the remnants of lint before slowly and deliberately placing the quarter in the game. This gave Sally time enough to say a quick prayer to give Joey the steadiness to move the arm and grab the ring. By her assessment, the ring was in a perfect place having been held and dropped so many times that it finally rested diamond side down, loop side up.
Joey had a ritual he repeated before depositing each coin into its slot. He would visualize his next steps. It was something his older brother, now at college, had told him about once. And he had never forgotten it. So when the crowd grew still, Joey was grateful for the silence and the time to visualize his hand on the joystick and the giant mechanical arm moving over the ring and dropping perfectly around the loop of the plush toy. He then saw the claw pick it up, dangling the ring in its arms. He watched it move forward in his mind and drop the ring into the chute.
After the quarter was dropped, Joey was ready. He saw his tousled blonde hair in the reflection of the glass on the machine and watched a drop of sweat roll down his cheek. He was grateful no one else could see this. When the game activated, he moved the arm of the machine just like he visualized, so much so, that when things happened just as he’d foreseen, he had to blink his eyes twice to be sure the ring had in fact dropped down the chute and deposited itself for retrieving in the mouth of the game.
It was rather simultaneous; his sudden realization that it was not a visualization and the cheers of the small crowd that had materialized in the lobby. Claps and whoops surrounded him. He held the ring up for the crowd to see, and at the instant he turned around to face them, he found Sally standing in the middle; a shy smile on her face. He ceremoniously knelt on one knee and presented her with the plush toy.
Sally pretended to slip the overstuffed ring on her left ring finger. She patted herself on the back for placing the quarter visible enough for Joey to spot on his walk home from school. She remembered the look on his face as he held it up in the sunlight as she peered at him from the bushes.
By Anthony Keers
Henry sat at his table reserved for two. As he tilted the drink towards his mouth, he scoured the room, occasionally glancing at the door. Being stood up had happened before. On numerous occasions in fact. But he thought somehow this girl would be different.
He’d been in the restaurant for 20 minutes. The waiters witnessed the unfolding scene and tried to smile as they came over every so often to ask if he’d like another drink. It was hard to act happy, so he avoided eye contact with them. The restaurant was crowded and the tables were neatly packed close together. The other customers glanced over and muttered small remarks to each other as Henry struggled to conceal his embarrassment.
Well, he thought, fuck it. He stretched his arm in the air, signaling the waiters. A few were discreetly hovering near his table and one rushed over in seconds.
“Yes sir, is everything all right?”
“No, not at all. But hell, can you bring me a bottle of the house white wine please?” replied Henry.
“Certainly, sir … Will your company be arriving soon?”
“Well, it doesn’t look like it, does it?” he said.
The waiter smiled. “I’ll bring the wine right away.”
Henry nodded and watched the waiter walk towards the bar. He glanced down at his watch, hoping his date would arrive. But as the bottle arrived and the first glass was filled and emptied, that hope became permanently sedated. He sat alone, watching the candle in front of him burn differently than the others. As he drank his wine, he looked over at the neighboring tables. The women there were laughing beautifully as their necklaces glistened in the candlelight. They looked comfortable, happy, entranced by their partners, who in Henry’s eyes looked like male models from fashion magazines. It all seemed so easy.
As the last glass of wine made its way to his stomach, loneliness began to seep into his mind. Any feelings of hatred he had towards his date were now long gone. Instead, he looked only to his humiliation, and rejections he’d had in the past. Eternal rejection. The restaurant was emptying and waiters began to clean the last tables.
Reaching into his back pocket, he pulled money from his wallet and slapped it on the table. As he walked out, he stood on the edge of the curb for a few seconds and looked up at the sky.
“Even the stars have been matched up,” he said, before the night wrapped his body in comfort, took him by the arm and walked him down the street. Just as it had done many times before.
By Jan FitzGerald
“You can train yourself to make obsessive thoughts to go away,” Sue’s counsellor said. “It’s about learning to refocus. I want you to choose a colour here today, and from this moment and throughout the week, every time you see it, ignore it, and think of something else.”
“Okay, red,” said Sue. “I hate red.” She glanced at the counsellor’s crimson boots. “Whitebait fritters,” she said quickly. They both laughed.
I didn’t realise red’s so bloody everywhere, she thought afterwards, as she walked down the street. Even the taillights on parked cars are look-at-me red—artichokes are not worth the preparation.
Funny how traffic lights show out more on gloomy days—I wonder what I’d look like bald?
Where have all the silver cars gone? It’s the latest colour, isn’t it? Today they all seem red—I can’t begin to imagine what the vet bill will be.
That woman’s scarf’s red—who cares about Kim Kardashian—and there’s a woman in a red puffer jacket—itchy backs are a pain when you can’t reach the spot. Now that’s Angus tartan with the red stripe—tam o’shanter is such a weird word!
The pedestrian buzzer’s not working. I can’t look. Is the little man green or red? Raku sells those cute Japanese teapots with the long handles.
How long have I been lying here in a puddle on the road? This is an ambulance light flashing above me, right?
Okay, I’m not dead.
The Gingham Tablecloth
By Bruce Costello
A place for everything and everything in its place.
Grant’s voice echoes in Lana’s head as she searches the house for somewhere to put herself.
His memory lingers in every room. There is no calm place for Lana to be.
She pours vodka into the void within.
Lana’s father finds her cross-legged on the floor, making high-pitched wailing sounds. Vomit runs down her sweatshirt.
“I knocked at your back door, but you didn’t hear me,” he says. “The Police just told me.”
“Why, Dad, why?” she cries out. “Why did this happen?”
“It was Grant’s time.” He squats beside her and puts an arm around her, awkwardly. “Your mother would’ve liked to come round to see you but … ”
“You know what she’s like.” He leaves the room and returns with a towel and a bowl of water.
Her mother rang a few days later.
“Your father told me you’re not coping after Grant’s accident and I would’ve been to see you, except I’ve been really depressed, what with your father the way he is!”
Lana holds the phone away from her ears.
“It was a pity Grant got killed, but that’s life! Was it because you’d been arguing with him? Had you told him you wanted to leave? If your father wanted to leave me, I’d be jumping for joy!”
“Well, if the truth hurts…”
“Don’t speak to me like that about my Dad!”
“You always stick up for him. What about me? Daddy’s little girl, aren’t you!”
“You know, Dad,” Lana says, two months later, her voice sinking to a whisper, “I sometimes wished Grant dead. Often when he took off on his motorbike, I just hoped he wouldn’t come back. Then it happened.
“You didn’t kill him. A truck did.”
“The police think he rode into it deliberately. Autocide, they called it.”
“He was troubled long before you met him, love.”
“But we’d had a bloody awful shouting match just before he went out the door.”
“He was a grown man.”
“It’s funny, but when you’re kissing someone, you’re close. When you’re fighting with them, there’s still a kind of closeness, a … connection, some sort of involvement or something, I don’t know. It’s just weird. Maybe it’s true what they say, a negative relationship is still a relationship.” She takes a deep breath. “But that doesn’t go for my mother! I don’t love her. Why the hell should I? And I’ve never been able to figure out why the blazes you put up with her!”
“It’s not all her fault, Lana.”
“Do you still love her, Dad?”
“No. I can’t.”
“But you stay with her!”
“And look at you! You’re a bleeding mess!”
“I don’t like the way you blame your mother for everything. I’m not the perfect husband. And I’ve got my own ways of coping.”
“Not getting any easier, though, is it!”
“I’m worried about you, Dad.”
“I know all this crap about me and Grant has been hard enough on you … but I think something else has been going on in your life … and you’re not telling me what it is!”
“The truth is,” Lana said a week later as they sat side by side on her back porch, “Grant made me miserable most of the time.”
A mid-morning winter sun shone down on them weakly as they hugged their coffee mugs.
“But I still centered my life around him, forgave everything. Just wanted the best for him, really.”
“You loved him.”
“Yes, I did. Took the rough with the smooth, though it was unbearable at times. Isn’t that what love is about?”
Her father stared at her. “I stopped loving your mother years ago, and I’ve never stopped feeling really bad about it.”
“A person can only take so much, Dad.”
“I know, but … ”
“Love is a thing you do rather than feel. And you’ve stood by her for thirty years, despite the way she is with you.”
Tears rolled down her father’s face.
“From things you’ve let slip,” said Lana, putting her hand over her father’s, “I think you stayed with mum at the start because of me. You were scared shitless I’d turn out like her, if she was the only parent I had.”
Her father nodded, slowly.
“I’m not a little girl now, Dad.”
“I’m starting to realise that, but can you imagine what it’s like for a father when his little girl grows up and leaves?”
“That was seven years ago! You’re not staying with Mum for my sake now, you know. You’re staying because you’re scared of ending up on the scrapheap alone.”
“I want to live a little before I die. Who knows how much time I’ve got left?” Lana’s father said quietly, two days later, in her tiny kitchen.
He set the coffee cup down carefully on the little gingham tablecloth Lana had laid. She thought it always evoked a certain intimacy, like the curtain on a confessional.
“I’m surprised some other woman hasn’t fallen in love with you,” she said, smoothing a fold in the tablecloth.
Her father stared at her, then lowered his eyes. “I was kind of accustomed to the way my life was, like a man who’s always been on a bread and water diet and doesn’t know any better.”
“Till somebody offers him a nice roast, you mean?”
“Yeah. Sort of.”
“So what’s happened?”
“Nothing. Not yet.”
Lana gazed at him and smiled. “Tell me about her.”
“Actually,” her father faltered, picked up the coffee cup, saw that it was empty and put it down again. “His name’s Eddie.”
Little Red Huddy and the Wolfman
By Maurice Cashell
Before I entered the station I’d already dumped the mobile and swallowed the SIM card.
I’m a professional. You win some, you lose some.
I don’t hang around children’s playgrounds or amusement arcades. That’s for losers. The modern sex player sees grooming as a managed process. The sheer genius of the idea is in enticing children into a world in which, ultimately, they are a willing part of the game. There are no rules, only moves. I begin by targeting the candidate and sizing up his—I prefer boys—emotional neediness and lower self-confidence.
Remember the Red Huddy case last autumn? The kid from Clonshaugh? That was one of mine. A good time to go hunting, autumn. Kids starting second level, confused, unhappy. And what do all those confused and unhappy kids do? They play on-line games with other unhappy kids. They’re like: “It’s a way to escape all the crap going on in my life”. Escape? That’s rich. Move One: I separate the candidate from peers by creating a sense that I’m special, giving him the kind of love that he needs. Yes, I know that’s ‘shrink talk’, but hear me out, I’ve brought this theory to a fine art.
My vehicle is a game called Stockpile, which allows players to exchange messages. Sometimes, I’ll start a private chat with another player to discuss cheats, tips, strategies; you know the kind of stuff.
Obsessed with Stockpile, Huddy was easy game. I made contact, but was suitably reticent. I let on that I thought that he was older than me, he was so good at the game. He liked to be looked up to; it didn’t happen to him at school or even at home. I explained that I lived in Dundalk. We became “mates”. Soon, when he revealed that he was depressed about stuff, we were meeting in private chat rooms.
After two or three weeks he was getting comfortable about having someone who respected his feelings about school and parents, but he had a natural reserve. It was time for Move Two: gaining his trust. That turned out easier than I thought. We’d got to know each other well and we exchanged mobile numbers. So when his Mum or Dad would kick him off the computer or make him go to bed, he could still text me.
I started to ask him some really personal things. He didn’t think it was that strange because we’d become such good mates. I watched and waited, getting to know his needs and how to fill them. The really difficult part about Move Two is striking a balance between filling a need and becoming too familiar. Too much personal attention or gooey intrusiveness provokes suspicion. So, I was a spy, and just as stealthy.
Move Three—isolating the candidate—is exciting. When the mid-term break was approaching, I suggested a meeting. I told him that I had asked my Mum if he could stay over and that she said it was fine and that she would buy the train ticket. At this stage I had a good picture of life with his parents and had no difficulty in making “my parents” appear cool compared to his.
It didn’t surprise me that he packed an overnight bag and went to the train station without his parents knowing. But I was excited when he took the train. When it was approaching Dundalk, I texted him to meet at the hotel instead. He hesitated, but he didn’t stop, didn’t even stop to think it was weird.
Unfortunately he never made it to the hotel because he was intercepted by the police. You maybe read about it. He had left a note. His parents worked out what happened and called the police immediately. It was only when he saw the police on the platform that he finally started to add two and two.
He told them that on the train when he realised what he had done, he couldn’t escape a sense of dread, a feeling that he was being stalked and that something bad was coming. He never found out that his friend whom he had thought was the same age as himself was actually the 40-year-old man who was seated four rows behind him in the carriage. Neither did the police.
The SIM card? No problem, I keep all my information in sync across multiple devices.
Oldest in the World
By Wilson F. Engel, III
France may have taken the Gold medal in the earliest stages of the Ageing Olympics back in 2015, but the USA took Silver and Bronze medals. America then decided—as a matter of national pride—to take a Gold medal within fifteen years and to retain it for the subsequent fifty years. U.S. determination was fully funded. The U.S. Department of Ageing was established. Its duty is to boost the number of verified contenders by an order of magnitude each decade. Some of us felt the U.S. competitive advantage should be leveraged from cradle to grave. France legislated the “Jeane Calment Competition” along that line, and the USA never passed a chance to overtake the French.
As Head of the USDoA, I keep statistics and monitor programs. I demand transparency and fair recordkeeping. International chicanery abounds, but perfidious movements have evolved within other U.S. Departments like Labor, Health and Human Services, Defense and Commerce. They fight against my department’s budgets and make the outrageous claim that people should be forced into hospice care at age 70, mandatory retirement age. Murderers! AARP now preaches against longevity. For exposing their covert aims to euthanize the aged, I have received death threats. Supercentenarians are now protected by the Secret Service. The radicals’ tactics merit daily exposure. They ardently pray for my earliest demise.
My unfair advantage in this deadly game is my longevity. I am the oldest human alive, and as long as I survive, America will be the Gold medalist: I represent the miracle of beating our medical and pharmacological mafias. Since I am exempt from mandatory drugs, I am free to compose my life for everyone. Forty years ago I understood the game. Replacing my body parts and brain, I’ve eluded all traps of ageing: Project Methuselah survives in me.
H…E…Double Hockey Sticks
By Alan D. Harris
I got a seventh grade English assignment due tomorrow—300 to 500 words about a poem that doesn’t make sense. So I took my homework to the ice rink today and tried to work on it in the lobby before practice:
I really really enjoyed a poem by T.S. Eliot.
It’s called The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
I only had 281 to 481 words to go when Georgie Aziz sat down across from me.
“Homework … due tomorrow.”
“My mom and dad woulda made me miss hockey if they knew I had homework.”
“I’ve never seen you miss hockey. You must be pretty good at homework.”
“You just watch when Ramadan falls on the hockey schedule—I’m gone, out like Shout. But there’s no way I’d tell them I got homework. They’d kill me, or at least make me miss hockey.”
I realized then and there that you just don’t know how rough other kids got it at home.
“Can I read what you got so far?”
“Sure.” I handed Georgie my first nineteen words and a copy of the poem.
“This is a good start. Seventeen words. Really like what you did with the word really. You should repeat more words. Pure genius. You really really are a good writer.”
“Why T.S.? Who names a baby T.S.?”
Just then Jesse Cook walked up and asked, “T.S. who?”
“T.S. Eliot,” I answered. I didn’t know it, but Jesse’s dad had crept up behind me.
“Never heard of him,” said Mr. Cook. “But love the name. Shoulda named Jesse—T.S. Cook.” Georgie and I looked confused. So instead of moving on to complain about his favorite subject—the practice schedule, Jesse’s dad took the time to explain what his version of T.S. stands for. I don’t want to write down exactly what he said. So I’ve decided to keep the word tough for T but the word sugar is a much better choice for S. Call it poetic license. Tough Sugar Eliot, I’d like you to meet my friend and teammate, Tough Sugar Cook.
On second thought, if I ever name a baby poet—T.S. would be just fine.
“What position does he play? We need another winger,” said an obviously confused Mr. Cook.
“He’s not a hockey player. He’s a poet. Hey—I’m a winger and we already got three full lines.”
Jesse’s dad smiled. “I meant we need another goal scorer. My kid can’t carry this sorry team alone. I never heard of Eliot. Did he play hockey in college? Europe?”
Just then Dr. Aziz walked up. “Who is doing homework at the rink?”
“Not me,” said Georgie.
“Yes sir, Dr. A,” I confessed. “But it’s nothing. Just poetry stuff.”
Georgie’s dad looked over my notebook, adjusted his thick dark glasses and said, “Ahh…Thomas Stearns Eliot. As a young man in Beirut, I memorized The Waste Land. It taught me much about American culture.”
Jesse and I replied at the same time—Huh? But Georgie nudged me as if to say he wanted to go to the locker room rather than listen to his father tell stories.
“It’s a stupid love poem, Dad. We got to go get dressed,” said Georgie.
“Very good—the Prufrock poem,” said Dr. Aziz. “It ushered in the Modernist era. Do you have a copy?” So I handed him the poem. I really really didn’t think he’d understand it any better than me. After all, it starts out in a foreign language. Understanding poetry is hard enough. Why would anybody start off a poem in something other than good old English? Maybe I could write 100 words or so just about that.
Mr. Cook looked over Dr. Aziz’s shoulder and said, “Don’t waste your time doc. I know a little Espanola and someone’s pullin’ your pata there, Padre. These words don’t make no sense.”
Dr. Aziz picked up the poem and read the first stanza:
S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
This time it was Mr. Cook who said, “Huh?”
“Italian,” replied Dr. Aziz.
Jesse’s dad’s not often impressed with anyone besides himself. But with a bug-eyed smile, he said, “You speak English and Eye-talian?” Now Jesse started eyeballing for us to head to the locker room before his dad said anything else.
Dr. Aziz replied, “In truth I speak four languages. None of which are Italian. I am simply like any learned schoolboy—I read Dante’s Inferno.”
“Oh yeah, me too,” said Mr. Cook. “Help me remember exactly what it was about.”
“Hell,” replied Dr. Aziz.
Mr. Cook seemed relieved and asked, “You forgot too, eh?”
“Dante’s Inferno is the seminal work on the metaphoric Hades—or at some level, hell on earth. With the use of metaphor and understated subtlety, T.S. Eliot has captured its essence, especially for the lonely man—disenfranchised from love.”
It hit me then that understanding a poem comes with a price. You have to deal with unwanted surprises. “I gotta write 300 to 500 words about H…E…double hockey sticks?”
“Hell, that should be easy, kid,” said Mr. Cook. “Ask any married man about hell on earth.” For the very very first time, I saw Mr. Cook and Dr. Aziz share a smile. I put my homework away and finally followed Jesse and Georgie into the locker room. Both wanted to get away from their dads for different reasons—none of which had anything to do with J. Alfred Prufrock.
“What are you gonna say to your teacher if you don’t write another 281 words before tomorrow?” asked Georgie.
As I tossed my hockey bag on the locker room floor full of tape balls, broken laces and empty juice boxes, there was only one thing I could think of to say. “Tough sugar,” I said.
A Night for Action
By David J. Wing
Baxter Collins sat in the beige Studebaker he’d pilfered from his mom and watched. His hands sat on his lap and stroked the .45 absently. It was one of those smoke-laden LA nights, the ones where your headlamps did more harm than good. The house he was spying on was a stucco job, modern and absent of character—he’d never liked it. He reached into the glove box and lit up. The flare would show his face to any tom or dick watching, but nobody was. Nobody cared where he was or what he was doing; they were too busy with their parties and their martinis, and she was too busy with him.
The butts began to stack up, and after the tenth Camel Baxter decided it was time. The light from the living-room window had vanished some time ago and they’d either be asleep or in the act; either way they wouldn’t notice him.
He clicked the car door shut and crossed the street. The palms wavered in the evening breeze and he felt a chill. His hat jittered but a swift tug sat it back down. He reached the front gate—unlocked. The door at the back of the property had always squeaked, but he’d come prepared. A little oil on the hinges and it gave it up easily, like the lady of the house.
Stepping through the porch, Baxter glanced down at his dirt-laden boots and grimaced. He ventured into the kitchen and to his relief saw no muddy prints. He hated mess. On to the living room, where he had watched the figures through thin curtains, dancing and drinking and kissing. Wine glasses sat together and an empty bottle of California white pooled condensation on the mahogany. Strange, he thought, she usually likes red.
Up the ample stairwell, he passed framed photos. The one from Copacabana, that summer he graduated. The one from the diner they used to like, with the chocolate malteds and the juke box. They looked happy. No. They looked joyous.
Now he stood outside the bedroom door. No light shone. He reached inside his coat pocket and withdrew the .45. Twisting the door handle, slowly, quietly, he pushed and entered. The carpet, the one she’d wanted, that they had on back order for six months—a shame really.
Standing over the pair, their bodies covered in Egyptian cotton blend and breathing calm breaths, he watched. His eyes fixated on her. The man didn’t matter. He’d do him first.
Extending his arm he pointed and pulled. The flare from the muzzle lit up the bedroom for a fraction of a second and a dark splodge hit the bed head. She sat bolt upright, eyes ablaze in the nightlight. He flung his arm back and pointed at her.
Baxter flinched for a moment and then the .45 kicked. The effect was the same.
He flicked on the side light. Curious. Morbid.
Not her. Not his Mavis. Sharon, her friend from college.
He breathed, fast, then turned and darted down the stairs, the .45 still in hand. He blasted out the back door, knocking an ‘in case of emergency note’ off the kitchen table. He ran out into the street. The car screeched and careered down to the boulevard and beyond.
Tamiami Trail Recitative
One Act Libretto for the Rest of Us
By Betty Story
Setting: A sidewalk in front of a strip mall with a pawn shop, a coin laundry, and a convenience store. Outside the laundry are benches and buckets with sand for ashtrays. A No Loitering sign is on the wall.
BOY-About age 4.
MAN-Thin and worn, chain-smoking.
WOMAN-Also washed out. Wearing cutoff jeans; legs & arms covered with tattoos.
SWEEPER-The boy’s grandfather—tall and greying.
The BOY is on his knees pushing toy cars on one of the benches. A thin worn MAN is standing outside the pawn shop smoking a cigarette. A tattooed WOMAN is also outside folding the clothes that are in a wire cart.
BOY: Vroooom, vroom, vroom, I’m goin’ to Miami. I’m goin, I’m goin, I’m goin to Miami. I’m goin, I’m goin, I’m goin to Miami. Vroooommm, vrooooom, I’m goin, I’m goin.
MAN: Little man I been to Miam-ah. I lived in Miam-ah. I got children there who don’t want to see they daddy no more. An I won so much money at the dogs when they was babies. You never saw such a time we had. Me and they momma gave them bicycles, baby dolls, big yellow dump trucks that you boys love to push, a little table and chairs, a tea set, and a armful of teddy bears. Those teddy bears protected my children at night. They would take shifts standing on the balcony outside their room, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.
BOY: Mister, you crazy. (Turning back to his cars. Then looking up.) What happen to the dump trucks?
Man: Son, you know what a hurricane is? A monster wind that comes and blows harder than anything you ever knew. A wind that takes an ocean up over your head and slings it all over your life. That wind blows in snakes and frogs and any kind of meanness it can. First umbrellas sail by, and then roofs, and later people go by in rowboats drinking beer and they don’t even wave at you neither. You get so wet you don’t ever want a bath again.
WOMAN: You talking about Hurricane Andrew? You know who he was, don’t you? He was the Fireman! He aimed to put out the fires in people’s dreams. Dreams of schoolgirls learning to smoke and then catching their hair on fire. Dreams of men practicing for a bake-off and having their ovens blow up. Dreams of love letters burning up and leaving a hole in the writer’s heart.
See these blue letters on my legs next to the dragons? After I burned everything my old man wrote to me, the man inked these letters on me. They rearrange themselves every night when I’m sleeping.
Dreams of driving and your brake foot going right to the floor. The dream you have that ends with you tumblin’ down that long James Dean cliff and at the bottom—boom!
It’s always too late for the Fireman though. Dreams of getting my kids back before they start smoking.
MAN: Aahhh, I wasn’t in Miam-ah for Hurricane Andrew, I had moved on to New Orleans. That Andrew had nothin’ on our bitch Katrina. She put out the fire I had in my heart and the dreams I had in my soul. That woman sweeped up my life with a flood of nasty water. I ended up doing real bad things for a lit cigarette. I been too wet to ever go back to Miam-ah.
WOMAN: Darlin, you think you were missed? Those teddy bears probably danced a jig with your wife and shared their smokes. Were you in First Class on a Greyhound out of town? Yeah, big spender, I’m with the boy, what happened to the dump trucks and your children? I bet your ex wants to fire you up with boiling sugar water. You’re always fixing to send some money but you’re really hoping the child support orders were blown away.
(The SWEEPER, a tall man with greying hair comes out of the laundry holding a broom. He nods to the boy and the boy picks up his cars and stands beside him. The SWEEPER begins sweeping as he talks to the boy.)
SWEEPER: I don’t waste myself studying these people. Talking about smoking teddy bears and little schoolgirls catching fire. That sign needs to say No Foolishness. Mmmm, mmmm, mmmm. (He begins sweeping the walk near the smoking man and continues down the walk by the woman. Dust begins to swirl around on the ground as a wind blows across the parking lot. Cigarette butts, scratch off lottery tickets, bottle caps, beer can tabs, receipts and finally letters of the alphabet begin to spin in the wind and encircle the man and woman. She looks at the glowing letters on her legs; he sees the tip of his cigarette is a small flame. As the whirlwind encircles the man and woman, the dust begins to sparkle and glow and rise around them. The sweeper moves the pile toward the curb and with some flicks, the mess of people and small life debris rise slowly, spinning around faster and faster until it is a blur. The SWEEPER leans his broom against the wall, and turns to the BOY.)
SWEEPER: Now this is when I’m supposed to say, Mmmm, mmmm, mmmmm, how trash does fly in the wind! Or some such. And now I’m to say that I know you’re thinking, you’re thinking about a little yellow dump truck and we might be able to do something about that on the way home. I just might say that.
By Ed Higgins
Okay, so I’m sitting here trying to write through a frigging cold. And I … Oops, wait a sec! … I’m stopped, astounded, stunned between coughing my left lung clear over my keyboard and watching it flopping on the back of my desk just now … Oh shit! My spat-up, spasm-seized lung just slid behind my printer and down the crack between the wall and desk … wait, wait, hold on a minute … OK, ok took my slipper off and I can just feel it with my toes … too squishy to grip though … there, there, nope … wait, slowly, slowly … yeah, great, barely managed to drag it out from behind and under the desk with my scrunched up toes—once I took my sock off. Kinda looks okay … dust-bunny-coated on one side and I’ve had to flick off a couple of lost sticky notes, an old toothpick and a blue paper clip … but oops, oh damn, looky-here, just noticed a rough three-inch tear on one side of the upper lobe … sheesh-to-shit!! What-a-crime, musta happened when I jerked the poor thing around the surge protector. Well, all right, some superglue’ll fix that, I think. Give me a bit while I climb outa my loft here and go rinse this ugly mess off in the kitchen sink.
Ah, damn-it-all, the agony of writing, let alone interruptions like this frigging medical crisis!
Fine, fine back now, and I think the tear was just where lefty attached to some bronchial tube or other. After rinsing as best I could, I stuffed the whole pinkish, prolapsed fucker back down my throat and am hoping for the best.
As added insurance I’m chewing another piece of zinc gum. Tastes like a half-rusted galvanized rain gutter (if you need a taste analogy for a fucking ineffectual zinc cold remedy). But I’m a true believer anyway. Still, zinc gum doesn’t keep your damn lungs from flying out during a raging coughing fit.
And would you believe, one of the lost sticky notes from under my desk that I flicked off my dust-bunnied lung is just the inspiration I need to finish up this frigging story I’ve been stumbling around in. “Snot. Do something with snot,” the still bright-yellow sticky note says. That’s it, of course! Not only have I been trying to write while literally coughing my left lung out, my green-cement-loaded sinuses have given me a headache the size of the Starship Enterprise.
So, I’m thinking of adding nasal decongestants and acetaminophen to the zinc gum crap info. And snot hasta be good for a narrative line or two. Write what you know, they say. Okay, I’m about to intensify the plot-character-coughed-out-lung-crisis with a virulent snot attack.
Meanwhile, your narrator-protagonist seems to be lung safe, for the moment at least. But wait, wait, hold on a minute … again … now my cold’s recurring nose-tickling’s demanding an imminent sne … sneeee … sneeze! There it goes, rudely flying outa my partially relieved nose. OMG! All over my iMac screen with an unsightly, viscous, green-infused splat drooling down the screen’s center, while still unwinding from my schnozzle like a loosed fireman’s hose. Whoa, an embarrassing mucous lament, mostly the color of limes, sliding slowly onto my desktop! Damn, what to do, what to do? No hankie, no Kleenex. And I’m inches away from another coughing fit. Or just a follow-up sne … sneeee … sneeze!! There it goes, ripping onto the screen again.
That’s it, that’s it. I’m too fucking discouraged to carry on any further with this frigging story. No real resolution anyway … so I’d better just leave it for now.
Hmmmmm … maybe a double-whiskey hot toddy will help the ol’ inspiration along? Or at least comfort my overactive sinuses somewhat. So, now I’m climbing outa my loft headed for the fifth of Southern Comfort stashed in the kitchen’s under-sink cupboard. Yes, this story’s gonna get better before I’m done.
In the Ranges
By Penny Westhorp
Range after range of blued-out mountains, fading behind each other; their tops craggy and battlemented; hiding secret lands scarcely inhabited by wary tribes—I stare and stare at these forbidding shapes. How can something so harsh make my heart soften? The people there, my old people, are suspicious of strangers; their territories patrolled by fearsome warriors, as thin, alert, and wild as the winged beasts they ride. Would they allow me, an outsider now, soft and slow and fat with water from the plains, to climb, short breathed and aching, back to their watching eyries? I came from there; I ran away. I live in the comfortable boring plains. I want to return.
Will they treat me as a child again? Send me to collect the twigs from the sparse, twisted, precious shrubs, or to scoop up fresh water from the tiny pools between the rocks? Or can I be as a young adult and go back to the ledges where they summon their winged mounts?
Might my partner, my ex-partner, once again show me how he summons his beast with that unique shriek? I cannot call the beast—it answers only to him. A flyer must be wily and fearless to catch and tame his own winged partner, deepest love of his life. He lures it with a fresh kill, baited in a trap that holds but does not harm. He keeps it tethered until it will take food only from his hand. He gentles it until it will tolerate his lithe and agile weight. He did the same with me—this man who screams, as high and piercing as the beast’s own cry, every time they launch over the sharp, shattered rocks of the ravine. The one who screeched with me, the first time we jumped together from the cliff to the salted water. The one whose cries of harsh freedom haunt my dreams and draw me back.
I will not be allowed to see the sombre big-eyed children, who learn at earliest age the value of silence; who stay hidden. Rare, fragile, vulnerable to sudden death from cold, danger, or privation, children are too precious to share with returning strangers.
I will be subject to the silent appraisal of the elders, those shriveled old men. They will not trust me as they used to. They will watch to see if I truly accept the ways of the stone hard mountains. They will keep everyone separate, waiting to see if I will accept, submit, recant.
Those elders will not deign to discuss the longings of young women, our desperate yearning for unrestricted space, a place to run unhampered, an unfettered life. Such feelings are irrelevant, unworthy, dismissable.
They will assume that I know of the fierce revulsion of the young men for a life of ease, tied down in those meadows. I do know it; I saw it on his face. He could not leave. But I could not stay. And now, I cannot stay away. I have tried both worlds, and with regret in every step away and towards, have come back to the old ways. The life here, tightly bounded, screaming free, means more to me now than the lazy swill of the flat lands below.
There are hardly any old people here; only those few ancient judgmental men. They are small, brown, as seamed and twisted as the tough rooted bushes. Sometimes, there is a terrible longing in their eyes, when they watch the young men leap onto the winged creatures. Their old broken bones, poorly set, are irrelevant payments for the fierce unspeakable joy of flying a beast. It’s why they demand that nothing changes.
But there are almost no old women. Most of them have gone, worn out by constant grief; the loss of wailing thin babies who died, or who grew despite the odds into untamed, sinewy warriors. The loss of boys who died trying to catch a beast. Of girls who fled the sharp, stony ridges. Perhaps the old women followed their girlhood dreams and went down to the wide wet meadows to die.
This is the prospect I have come back to. A man who flies wild; a child who if born, will be drawn away from me, lured by either the wind under his wings, or the softer life she will find below. And a short old age. Will I stay to become one of those rare fossils? Or retreat again, when life becomes as hard as stone?
An Indian Folk Tale
(From the Myths and Legends of the Tandoori)
By Paul Sherman
In the ancient kingdom of Dansak, the mighty Phall called his princeling sons, Sag Aloo and Sag Ponir, “My little Sags,” he said, the lines of wisdom in his face as old as those in the Sacred Book of the Biryani, “It is time I bequeathed to you parts of my Kingdom. To you, Aloo, I bequeath the Land of Bhindi Baji, and to you, Ponir, the land of Onion Baji.”
Both Sag Aloo and Sag Ponir looked displeased, but they knew better than to say anything.
“As to your marriages,” the Phall continued, “You Aloo, shall wed the Princess Bhuna, and you Ponir, will wed the Princess Koorma.”
Back in their Nursery, the little Sags approached their revered Nurse, Peshwari Naan, who had nurtured them and looked after them and had a personality as sweet as a sultana.
“Why must I only inherit the land of Onion Baji?” Ponir complained, “It is barren and smells of onions. And marry Princess Koorma? She is ugly and smells of coconuts.”
Peshwari Naan’s eyes darkened and the little Sags shook in their shoes. When angered, she could transfer herself into the formidable Keema Naan or even the dreaded Dopiaza.
“Have you taken leave of your senses?” she roared, “Or have you been partaking of the Methi? Guard your tongues lest they be infected by the Murghi.”
Sag Ponir fell on his knees, shaking as if possessed by the Sagwala.
“I am sorry Naan,” he cried, “It is only idle chat. I will be satisfied with my lot. I will not complain again. I do not have the raitha.”
“And what about you Aloo,” Naan demanded, “Do you think you have the raitha to complain?”
“Peshwari Naan,” Aloo ventured, “I love the smell of onions and coconut. I would happily inherit the land of Onion Baji and marry the Princess Koorma. My brother then may have the realm of Bhindi Baji and marry the Princess Bhuna. If he so wishes.”
Ponir slapped his brother on the shoulder.
“By the ancient law of the Chapati, we may swap inheritances,” he cried. “We are identical twins. The Phall will never know.”
“What a vat of vindaloo,” moaned Peshwari Naan, “What a mess of madras. Yet boys will be boys. Chaps will be chaps. That is the law of the chapati.”
“Peshwari Naan.” Both the little Sags took her hand in theirs. “What will be will be. And it will, like water, passanda the bridge.”
“Ghosht!” sighed Peshwari Naan.
Super 19 School Uniform Club
By Brian Sheehan
My name is Chihiro Hoshino. I am president of the Super 19 School Uniform Club.
We are ten girls from the Shibuya District who are 19. The uniform of our club is the same uniform as our old school, Aoyama High, except we wear pink jackets instead of blue. You can change the colour of your clothes with fabric dye.
There used to be eleven girls in our club. Misao Tanabe was a member but she is no longer allowed. Last week she called my house but I pretended I was not home. Afterwards, I saw her in the park with her mother, still wearing her pink blazer. She was crying. It is difficult for her but she is 20 now. In our club you have to be 19.
Invasion, Odds Are
By Romana Guillotte
Dwight gave Steve’s sleeve a tug. “Let’s go to the attic. You promised.”
“Do you want to get electrocuted?” Steve snapped back, his voice barely above a whisper.
A huge thud above them gave the signal that the time was going to be sooner than Steve anticipated. Dwight put on his tin foil hat, sprung up and ran for the attic stairs.
“Dwight!” Steve cried after him.
Upstairs the lights didn’t work—they never do in these cases—so Steve popped his head into the attic without being able to see.
Steve nearly fell down the stairs. “What!”
A bright light shone, streaming from all sides. Steve had to shield his eyes until it dimmed and a slender figure appeared.
The figure was impressive—dressed in a grey suit, his black hair slicked back, shoes perfectly shined. Oh … and his eyes didn’t match. I hoped you’ve guessed he’s an alien, because you’d take home the new car if we had the funds for it.
“Steve, Dwight. Hello.” His human accent came out English as he moved his mouth around the words, a motion that looked as if he were trying to free a popcorn kernel from between his teeth. He smiled in recovery.
Dwight smiled back. “What’s the good word?”
The alien bent down to wipe a smudge off his shoes. “Oh … invasion, odds are. But don’t worry, I plan to spare you.”
“Excellent!” Dwight said.
Screams came from the neighbors next-door.
“Can I pour you a cup of tea?” Steve asked.