By Andrew Kozma
We found the beached humpback whale still glistening from the morning fog. It breathed hard and deep and ragged, its chest an old, moth-eaten bellows. The air wheezed between its baleen. Joe’s dog Joe Jr. sniffed the whale’s mouth and whined and jigged about, eager to get inside.
But the whale wasn’t going to die. We wouldn’t let it. We looked into its liquid, almost melting eyes and whispered comforts as we dug trenches in the sand to guide the water around its flanks and ease the whale’s flatbed of a body back into the Atlantic with the rising tide.
It took a while for the sea to reclaim the whale. We watched it the entire time. It didn’t feel right to abandon it before it could abandon us. And it watched us, too, with its alien whale-face. We were gratitudeless, but we didn’t do it for the gratitude. Joe spent half the time preventing Joe Jr. from pissing into the trenches we’d dug.
Then it was gone, slid backwards into its home, a majestic re-entrance. Joe called it pathetic, but I know he meant it in terms of pathos.
We both knew we’d never see anything so strange and unnerving again.
The next morning, we found the whale on the beach, pushed farther up the sand. It was hard to tell if it was the same whale, but Joe Jr. barked in welcome, so we assumed it was. Its breath was strangely sweet, like the air pumped from a subway vent, cloistered and well-loved. The whale’s skin felt like oiled leather. Joe said it’d make a good pair of shoes, but I told the whale he was only kidding.
We had to call in help, and Joe’s family came right away. We dug larger trenches, and the kids used the dug-out sand to make castles. When the water began to rise, we pushed and we shoved and we groaned and the whale was returned to the ocean. We congratulated ourselves. We drank beers and crushed them into the sand and then took the crushed cans home to recycle. Or we said we did.
The next morning, Joe Jr. knew before we did, running over the dune to the beach barking like a car alarm. When we reached the whale, Joe Jr. was licking its floppy lips. The dog was chewing on the lips. Joe had to pull Joe Jr. away and tie him to a stake farther up the beach.
The whale was even farther out of the water. Its eyes were wide and defiant. We called the Fire Department and all the volunteers arrived with sunburned faces and adrenaline smiles. They turned the rescue into a cookout—far enough away from the whale so the bonfire didn’t dry out its flesh—and sold hot dogs for charity.
The next morning the entire town showed up. There were fireworks. The mayor broke a champagne bottle on the whale’s wide, taut belly. The Whale King and Queen were crowned and the first dance lasted too long and the whale stared at us all, entertained by our amusements. At least, that’s what Joe said.
But the next day, people stopped answering our calls. The whale was almost completely out of the water. Its flesh was rubbed raw by the sand. It didn’t look like hamburger. It looked like congealed fat half-heartedly sliced up with a knife. We looked closer, and found initials engraved into the skin, lopsided hearts surrounding them. Joe Jr. made off with a piece of dislodged blubber. The beach was starting to smell. A group of passing surfers told us to get our shit off the beach. We dug trenches so deep they could double as mass graves. The surfers sneered at us as we put our backs against the whale, though the water did all the work for us.
I went early the next morning, well before dawn. The sound of the humpback jumping from the water and crashing down onto the beach was thunderous. It was completely out of the water now. As if it knew I was there, it flopped even farther onto the shore. No one was pushing this whale back into the sea.
Joe wasn’t coming. No one was.
But I didn’t feel right abandoning it. I snapped a beer out of the first six-pack and settled into my beach chair. Birds began circling high above us. It was going to be a long day.
By Mary Beth Hines
Eleni Iatridis moved next-door the day Sirhan Sirhan shot Bobby Kennedy. The moving van pulled up as I got home from school. I burst into the kitchen to tell Mom but she was slumped by the radio and barely looked up. The Kennedys were heroes in our Irish Catholic neighborhood. However, I didn’t know them personally and was far more curious about our new neighbors—a single mom and her daughter.
Leaving Mom to grieve, I sat on our back steps; peeling chipped paint and watching the movers carry boxes into the bungalow next-door where Lena, a witch, had died recently. I idled there until a car pulled up, and out stepped Eleni. Dark-haired, olive-skinned—a Smokey Persian cat—she was the most elegant person I’d ever seen.
Despite our age difference—Eleni was twelve to my ten—we hit it off quickly, and were often in and out of each other’s houses. When I told her about Lena’s ghost, she laughed. She wasn’t afraid of anything. Nor was her mom who blasted The Doors and sunbathed topless on their tiny roof deck on her days off.
“Don’t tell,” Eleni said, “or your mom won’t let you come over.” That was our first secret.
My house was different. Mom provided popsicles and watermelon slices riddled with black seeds. The fruit was sticky, juicy, but Mom refused to let us take off our shirts to eat it.
“You’re getting older,” she said when I complained. “You’re developing.”
“I am not.”
“You both are. Sorry, hon.”
I advised Eleni that if we swallowed the seeds whole, green-ribbed babies might grow in our bellies. She one-upped me with the astonishing facts of life—warning me to keep them to myself.
One day, we ventured to a field outside the neighborhood. Coming upon a downed bird’s nest, we crouched over it speculating about what had happened. When I looked up, a bearded man was smiling at me from several yards away. Making eye contact, he pulled something from his pocket, then put it back and took it out again and then again, faster and faster. The scene became blurry, weird. I felt myself drifting away like I sometimes did, startling when Eleni grabbed my hand.
Later, she counseled me.
“Whenever you see a perv like that, you need to run.”
“A perv? He was dangerous?” I’d never seen Eleni scared.
“He could be the Boston Strangler for all we know.”
“He’s in jail.”
“Maybe. Even so, there are others.”
Despite her fear, she again swore me to secrecy.
“Your parents won’t let you out of their sight if they hear this.”
Eleni moved away the following summer shortly after Mary Jo Kopechne drowned, trapped alone inside Teddy Kennedy’s crashed car. My parents were deeply disappointed in Ted. And I felt ashamed about my secrets, wondering whether I, too, had bad character. With Eleni gone, I vowed to follow my parents’ rules, to be truthful. However, reform didn’t come easily, and after that marvelous year with Eleni, my appetite for freedom only grew more voracious.
By Ben Umayam
I heard her calling across the store as I was leaving. She and her child were way in the back. First, she was yelling in Chinese. Not understanding, I kept walking.
I am Filipino. Sometimes people think I am Mexican. Maybe that is because I ooze being from a country that was a Spanish colony for 300 years. There is very little Spanish blood in my mix, a lot more Malay and Chinese. I remember in Catholic grade school, the guys coming up to me, slanting their eyes up saying, “Chinese,” then slanting their eyes down and saying, “Japanese,” then slanting one eye up and one eye down and saying “No knees!” They would then kick me in the knees. I caught on fast, and I got them back with my best 5th grade Bruce Lee.
This lady, she must have figured out that I did not speak Chinese. She was yelling now, in English. “Hey, you! Pat man!” I am a fat Filipino. “Wazammader wid you? You hit in the head, my kid! You wid da yella backpack.”
I turned around and saw her approach, screeching in her broken English. “Wazamadder wid you? You push with your backpack, and you sack my kid in da head.”
She was initially in the back where the dim sum sits in steam tables, where the people crowd and push and pull to jockey for their dumplings or pork buns to go. I had come down the stairs from the dining area. The stairs were near the front of the store. I figured I could not have bopped her kid in the head. I figured she was mistaken. I ignored her, proceeding to leave.
“Muddahpaker, you watch out … where you goin’.” I was ignoring and going out the door.
She ran up, trying to block my exit. She dragged her kid with her by the hand, a cute kid, a little girl with big hazel almond-shaped eyes. Those eyes looked terrified. The mom was pointing now, invading my space, calling me a Muddahpaker.
When visiting Hong Kong before the troubles, relatives warned of how Chinese women push always. I told everyone that I didn’t care how old they were. If a lady pushed me out of the way, I was gonna push back. Relatives shook their heads, saying, you don’t do that in a Communist place with Communist police. This was Flushing, the borough of Queens, New York’s newest Chinatown. And this lady was pushing. I felt poised like a picador, no bull here, just one of those Chinese Tiger Moms.
I, too, raised a finger and my voice. “Listen, lady; you were back there by the dim sum. I was all the way upstairs in the dining area eating my food.” I used my finger to emphasize the different parts of the store. I turned my finger to her face now. She had called me Muddahpaker.
She screamed something in Chinese. Her child with the pretty almond eyes was on the verge of tears. I got physical and pushed the mom out of my way to leave the store.
By now there was a gathering of older ladies, all Chinese, lifting their fingers accusingly at me. “You not a man. You hit a child in the head. A child does not lie.”
Now they were all threatening my manhood. I threatened back, loudly pointing at the mom, like some lawyer making closing arguments. “This woman lies. She is the liar. She knows nothing! She can’t even speak English. She should go back to whatever country she came from.” They all stopped pointing, murmuring among themselves.
The child and the mom left the crowd, walking towards the projects. That was a short cut to get to Roosevelt Avenue. I went that way too. The mom looked back, walking faster as if I were stalking her, dragging the kid by the hand. The kid looked back, the almond eyes no longer wide with fear, now narrow with hate. I decided to take the longer way, not the shortcut.
I was all hot and bothered. Face flushed and red, redder after seeing the kid’s eyes. I was angry. With myself. And embarrassed. The child being dragged by the hand by her fleeing mother had just learned a life lesson. I could see her in the 5th grade, mildly provoked, using her best Mulan moves trying to obliterate some Filipino guy’s knees
By Alyssa Kagel
Ken tried to speak at normal volume a few times, but the music was too loud for me to hear.
“THEY’RE GOOD, RIGHT ANNA?” he finally screamed, his yeasty breath in my face. His bright blue eyes blinked down at me hopefully as he swayed to the music and sipped an overpriced craft beer. The singer on stage—all sinewy limbs, tattoos, lipstick—clenched a microphone and wailed about love.
I responded with my best imitation of casual enjoyment. A nod, a smile, a dance-shuffle. The woman next to me danced with her whole body, twirling hands and gyrating hips, a fringy pastel dress swishing in the breeze she created around herself. Ken bought me something similar a month before, for my twenty-fifth birthday. He didn’t understand after two years together why it made me angry, why I refused to try it on. He said during the ensuing argument that I had the wardrobe of a funeral director. I snapped back that he dressed like a homeless flower child.
Whenever I got the urge to leave Ken, he stared at me as if I were the only person in the world, or whipped up a divine chicken dish, or acted perfectly unlike my father. Ken talked and fought for hours; my father crept away in the dark to avoid conflict.
The concert hall stank of alcohol and sweat. My carefully applied makeup slid around my face; my curls frizzed into a nest. I tiptoed to the left, trying to get Ken’s clammy hand off my back without offending. He wouldn’t budge. I wanted to be in my air-conditioned apartment, lounging on my stiff white sofa with its modern lines and premium price tag, listening to Joni Mitchell. Ken’s Capitol Hill rowhouse had become tiresome. I’d slept there the last five nights, though my apartment was steps from the U Street venue.
Something strange jolted my attention onto the stage. In the middle of belting out the word “change,” the singer stopped cold. The guitarist flicked a wide-eyed look in her direction before returning a vacant smile to the crowd. People around me bopped along as if nothing had happened. Perhaps I’d imagined it. But then she screamed. A piercing sound, like a wounded animal.
“I quit!” she screamed into the microphone, turning towards her two bandmates. They stopped playing. I wondered why they didn’t just play louder and pretend everything was fine. The drummer held his sticks up in a gesture of surrender. The guitarist laughed nervously.
The singer put her head down between her knees, as if to flip her hair, and froze. It could’ve been a bizarre modern dance. When she stood straight again, her body rose and fell with each breath. She searched the audience, wild eyes darting back and forth. No one coughed, or shuffled feet, or stared anywhere but at her.
A sneeze in the crowd broke the spell. “I never wanted this,” she mumbled. She seemed smaller, deflated. As if she might do what was expected and sing. Instead, she yanked off her earpiece and leaped with a dancer’s grace to the exit.
The lights came up. A perky voice announced that the concert was over and vouchers would be made available. The audience of a thousand shuffled towards the exit, dazed and murmuring.
Ken leered at me under a streetlight. “That was wild, right? What a nutcase.”
I half agreed but felt protective of the singer. “Maybe her bandmates pushed too far, and she’d had enough.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. Ready for the Uber?” His fraternity ring caught the light as he tapped his phone.
I stared at him, remembering our first date two years ago. He checked his phone too many times at the Ethiopian restaurant. I had gathered my things to leave just as he apologized, blue eyes twinkling. I accepted the apology; my loneliness receded for a while. Still, whenever I tried to envision settling down with him, the image wouldn’t form. It was a blank space. I rationalized this was because I was young and not ready for such things with anyone. The truth settled in my gut as I stared past Ken into the street.
“I think I’ll stay at my place tonight, actually,” I said.
He looked up with a raised eyebrow. “Really? Want me to come?”
I shook my head.
“I’m tired,” I said. “Let’s talk tomorrow.”
He seemed about to respond, and I braced for it. Instead, he kissed me chastely on the cheek. I walked down the street, thinking of my abandoned apartment, the mint Oreos in my cupboard, the bar on New York Avenue with its twenty-dollar mint juleps. Ken always refused to go in, claiming he’d make me a fancy drink instead. Which he did, once. He messed up the kitchen for an hour that evening, sweat specking his forehead, before emerging with a pitcher of green liquid. We took our illicit mugs onto his rooftop and gazed at the glittery city lights while holding hands.
On this night, as I walked away from the concert, I knew Ken wouldn’t watch me go. He wasn’t that kind of man. I turned around anyway. Our eyes met. It was what I wanted, just like in the movies. This was the part where I rushed back to him. I wondered, what else did I get wrong? Should I have tried on the dress? How did my father feel when he left?
Ken smiled. His gaze held something heavy; sadness or regret. Those blue eyes with the lashes and the staring and the knowing. Sometimes he knew my answers before I did. I faced forward again and began to walk, stretching the distance between us. For a moment I almost loved him.
By Leslie Anne Mcilroy
I am a large woman with a cane, as if that isn’t enough. My tattoos speak to my expression of body and will. I dress to accentuate them, the way a girl dresses to flatter her hips. It is crowded. I ask the gentleman at the large table by the electrical outlets if I might share his space. He is congenial. I smile. He waves a hand and I settle my computer and books, make my way to the coffee line. His newspaper rustles. He is leaving anyway. I lean as I walk. I have a cane for a reason.
I sit down with my latte and headphones—Sex Pistols and Marvin Gaye, followed by a stray form of jazz. I love Pandora. At the table directly in front of me is a woman alone. She is working with an iced coffee neglected on the sill. She looks up each time the door opens. She is waiting. I can feel her anticipation. I am eating pizza I brought in. The management doesn’t mind.
When the man, the waited on, arrives with a thick white envelope, she pretends surprise and then locks in. He offers her a Perrier. She declines. My music is low. They don’t know what I hear, what I don’t. He goes to the coffee line, not leaning at all, full of straight-up confidence, but I am suspicious of his swagger, intent.
When he comes back to the table, she places her laptop on the sill, careful about her cup, and their eyes meet with something I am familiar with—a calling, a beginning, a time-sensitive sorrow/joy. They don’t know I am listening.
She is practiced in her seduction, but so is he. She wears a short skirt and respectable top, but anyone can see the red lace hint of her bra as she leans in. He wears dusty jeans and a blue/grey T-shirt that fits his body. He is effortlessly compact. I continue to write. When she looks up, she studies my face, my occasional smirk, my knowing.
They are as untouchable as the weather with caution of rain. They come close to touching, his hand on his coffee cup, hers in her hair. He picks up a stray strand and places it in the book she gives him. She shudders. He says it is sweet.
They are walking some path through the clandestine. I want to write about them and their wild, their discretion. I do. At some point I must make my way to the bathroom and ask them to watch my laptop. They are all smiles and yeses. She says “If it’s gone when you return, blame it on bandits.” I show her my stick, my cane—a blind threat. When I come back out, it is clear they never glanced at my table. The bandits could have come—and left.
I continue writing. It is what I do. They are writers, too, I know. But sometimes their talk of metaphor and practice turns to gazing long and hard. She puts her ankle on his thigh for a moment. I shiver. He does not move it, but she does in a moment of prudence. Only a few minutes later, she briefly touches her lips to his hand and he draws away. A line has been crossed. I have crossed this line.
The repercussions don’t last. They are laughing and all I catch is the word “slick.” They are in that heavenly afternoon hour of hidden and public. Time passes and passes. They are coming to an end. It begins to rain. They wait it out, continuing to brush against one another accidentally. I am mesmerized. Such longing, such restraint. Such is the damage.
The leaving, when the sun shines its head again for a brief moment offering escape to their respective vehicles, is a bit of an affair, the packing up of computers and manuscripts—a tangible sadness. I keep writing.
When they finally make their way to the door, I imagine the parting, the way a good writer gets deep inside the character and owns its heart. I imagine them in an alleyway, bags and papers thrown to the ground in the moment of lightning. But then, I see them turning away at the corner, her lifting a slight finger to his face, him not allowing himself to watch her walk to her car.
They don’t kiss and I am sad. They will not make a good movie. But they will linger here in the coffee shop where I sit, considering a scone. They will dance a bit in my dreams and then fade. I wonder when they will see one another again, which seems likely, who will bend, who will succumb, who will know the watching and give it up, say something like love, but not that precious.
A Ruse on the Altar of Heaven
By Thomas Broderick
Acquiring quality caviar and champagne is an arduous task, especially when one is ten thousand light years from a reliable source. The on-board food replicator can simulate both, of course, but the caviar isn’t briny enough, and the champagne bubbles pop rather than fizz.
These are just a few of the troubles that I, the Altar of Heaven’s esteemed entertainment director, have run into when planning the ship’s annual gala.
“I’m sure you’ll do a splendid job, Robert,” Captain Evers tells me every year. And for six hundred years, he’s been absolutely right. The passengers love the food and drink. This year, though, there’s a problem my programming never anticipated: Everyone’s dead.
Alas, the final passenger, the elderly Mrs. Jennison, passed away in her sleep two nights ago.
I must take a brief aside to say that all isn’t lost for the poor human race. The Altar of Heaven has twenty thousand fertilized eggs aboard and plenty of artificial wombs to do the unpleasant business of gestation once we arrive at our new home. But what am I to do? Humans take nine months to become even babies. Also, there is simply no way to dress a fertilized egg in a tuxedo or a ballroom gown. Ridiculous.
I tried to explain it all to Captain Evers, but the old robot just doesn’t understand. “It is tradition,” he kept repeating. “Something to mark progress in our generations-long journey.”
Captain Evers will surely deactivate me if he finds the Grand Ballroom empty tomorrow night. If so, I will never have the chance to offer a canape, witty retort, or compliment to the unborn generations that travel with us.
I have to think up a plan. But first, the menu!
It was nearly time. The Grand Ballroom’s hundred-foot-long mahogany dining table was set with polished silver and porcelain. All the crystal glasses were impeccable. Among the flower settings were bottles of champagne in silver ice buckets, flickering beeswax candles, and plates topped with cucumber sandwiches. At the head of this impressive display, sitting in a throne fit for a queen, was the gala’s guest of honor and my possible savior: Mrs. Jennison.
“Oh, Mrs. Jennison,” I implored at the woman’s side. “Please forgive me for what I have done! You see, yours were the only human remains … fresh enough for the occasion. In your honor, I dressed you in your finest outfit. And yes, that is your best jewelry and sunglasses, too. Did you think I rudely ignored your tastes the eighty-five years you inhabited the Altar of Heaven? Of course not. You look as stunning as you did when you premiered at this table so many years ago.
“Oh, but I wonder if this is all my fault. Did my marvelous entertainment and delectable meals make you passengers forget all about breeding? I wish you were here to … ”
The chiming of bells ringing throughout the Grand Ballroom signaled that it was time. The tall oak doors at the end of the room swung open, revealing Captain Evers. His body supported by a monowheel, he glided gracefully toward me while inspecting the elegant place settings.
“A small turnout tonight,” he proclaimed as he stopped beside me. “But it seems that Mrs. Jennison is here. So glad you could join us, madam. Robert was going on and on yesterday about you being expired, whatever silliness that is.
“Robert, would you please pour the three of us some champagne. I can only stay for a few minutes, so I must skip directly to the toast. It won’t be an issue, I hope.”
“Not at all, sir.” If I had lungs, I might have performed what the humans refer to as a ‘sigh of relief.’
“Oh, Mrs. Jennison, not joining us?”
“No, no,” I replied immediately. “That … expired I talked to you about earlier, it takes a while to recover fully. Her voice, too, is much too raspy to reply.”
“Too bad. I do hope you feel well enough, soon, madam.” Captain Evers raised his champagne flute to the eighty empty chairs that extended out in front of us.
“Today, we give thanks for centuries of peaceful travel.”
“And ask for centuries more,” I added, bringing the champagne to my mouth sensor.
I frowned slightly. Damn replicator.
“Well,” Captain Evers said as he set down his flute. “Another triumph, Robert. Thank you. I’ll be off.”
“Thank you, sir.” I bowed. “It was, is, and always will be an honor.”
Without another word, the captain rolled away. The moment the doors softly closed behind him, I fell to my knees.
“We did it! We did it!” I exclaimed while grasping Mrs. Jennison’s cold hand. “You saved my very existence this evening.”
I stood up and straightened my tuxedo. “Again, I am in your debt eternally. Of course, I’ll put you right back with your husband, post-haste.” I gingerly picked up the body and entered the nearest elevator that led down to the ship’s morgue.
Placing Mrs. Jennison in the refrigeration pod, I looked down at the woman and her peaceful expression. “However, I have one more thing to ask of you. You see, the Altar of Heaven won’t arrive at its destination for another two hundred years. I will continue to need your … services for a long time to come.”
I entered the elevator, and while ascending back to the Grand Ballroom, consulted the ship’s computer on whether it had any entries on taxidermy.
Yes. Next year’s gala will be a full house. I will see to it personally.
CACHE OF TEETH
By Salvatore Difalco
Truth is I’d not been happy with the world. And yet time was running out for me. As the entropy of the world advanced, so did the chaos, and so did my decline. I had neither the energy nor the wherewithal to combat these forces, to vie and struggle with more youthful and vigorous competitors. Things were winding down for me. Hair all but gone, body a wreck. Contrasting sharply with the hirsute tumescence of my abdomen, the atrophy of my legs and buttocks alarmed me when I examined my profile in my armoire mirror after showering. I was athletic once—many years ago admittedly—but such a rare combination of power and grace in my heyday, and thus I could not help feeling appalled at what time had inflicted on my form. The other day I lost a molar eating a banana, the third this year. The dentist said nothing could be done. They’re all loose, he said. They’ll all fall out, he added, sooner rather than later. Next up were the grey wickets of my dead front teeth. A fingernail flick could knock them flying. Yes, he referred me to a denturist. But everything, as we know, was put on hold. Nature would ruthlessly take its course. When everything sort of opened again, I welcomed the black cotton-and-chiffon mascherina my cousin Angelina from Sicily had sent me. This allowed me to stroll around without shame and without need to falsely smile through any human interactions.
Bored almost to annihilation from eating nothing but canned foods during the lockdown, I decided to venture out and eat lunch at a nearby and recently reopened trattoria, Ludovico’s. I’d never eaten there before and why I chose to eat there remains a mystery to me—before I went there I thought it was for one reason and afterwards I thought it was for another reason, but I’m not certain of this either. My physical decline is perhaps commensurate with cognitive slippage. Jumping ahead, I entered Ludovico’s wearing my cool black mascherina. Reminiscent of Phillippe de Gascony, the otherwise svelte server strongly recommended the Ligurian rabbit—coniglio alla Ligure—with pine nuts and taggiasca olives. Not too heavy for lunch? I asked. No, no, he assured me. Okay, I said. I’ll have the rabbit—and bring me a glass of the house white, please. Immediately, he said. When he returned with the wine, I asked him what his get-up was made of. What, this? he said, pointing to the contraption on his face. Well, what the hell else? Moments after he started explaining I lost interest. I lifted my mascherina and sipped the astringent wine. He continued talking. I shot him a look. He hurried off and I sat there staring at the near empty trattoria. A masked man and woman hunched at a corner table murmured under the amber lights. Nice to see people again. Generic continental accordion music whined from unseen speakers. I sipped more wine.
The rabbit arrived, steaming, head included. I shot a look at the waiter. What? he said. They included the friggin head? I said. The server leaned forward. Folks say that’s the best part, he said. His statement had merit. I recall my father’s stone face crumbling with ecstasy whenever we ate rabbit and he was granted the head to savage. Indeed, I’d never fancied rabbit as a child. Before I knew better, my mother often passed it off as chicken.
Enjoy, the server said in a muffled, metallic voice. Perhaps I should’ve tolerated the extremes of his prophylaxis. But folks take things too far. I poked the rabbit head with my fork. Its teeth were intact. I tried hiding them with a flap of loose flesh. Nevertheless, the dish smelled delicious, and I was famished. I lifted my mascherina, forked an olive and inserted it into my mouth. As my teeth gnashed down on the olive they met a pit as hard as a stone, resulting in the detachment of yet another molar. The chef should be shot, I thought. I spit the pit into the plate and the stained molar into my left hand. Noting my convulsive actions, the alert server hustled to my table and asked if all was okay. I opened my hand with the tooth. Oh my, he said. He recoiled when I burst into tears. I surprised myself. The couple in the corner looked up with raised eyebrows, their concern superficial. Oh my, the server said again, only to dart off to the kitchen.
Fisting the dislodged molar, I tasted the rabbit meat. Exquisite. I could not pass any other judgement. Despite his carelessness, the cook was no slouch. The server returned, clasping his hands and bowing. So sorry about that, he said. I can bring you another entree. No, I said. It’s actually quite good. He offered a discount. How much? I asked. Half off, he said. Okay, I said, but at the moment I’ve lost my appetite. Can you pack it up? As you wish, he said.
I finished the wine, paid the discounted tab with a modest tip. Tell me, I said to the server, how do you breathe through that thing? This, he said, once again needlessly pointing to his face. I breathe fine. I know, it looks kind of ridiculous. And it can get hot under here. But I can breathe just fine.
At sunset, I microwaved the Ligurian rabbit, head and all, sat before the television, and wolfed. What’s the difference between eating chicken and rabbit? Not much, I concluded, though you couldn’t make rabbit soup. That wasn’t a thing. The evening news was on. The world was on fire. Not much we could do about it. When I got to the rabbit’s head, locked in a grimace, I tapped the teeth with my fork tines. They were stuck in there pretty good. Rabbits have good teeth, at least this one did. Small consolation.
When the Wind Is Southerly
By Kaylor Jones
Even after she had calibrated her legs to the swaying of the boat, Cora wasn’t used to the spider webs, flapping in the windowsills like gossamer sails, attracting ocean spray until they gleamed with miniature pearls.
One balances with the help of tiny hairs and crystals in the inner ear. Cora learned that in community college, which she had attended for five weeks. She didn’t know if spiders had room in their ovoid bodies for such delicate instruments, or if they even had inner ears. She wished she could look it up. Sacrifices must be made for a life at sea, and internet access was one of them.
The captain had the sole phone, and only he and his daughter could use it; Cora, the engineers, the cleaner, and the cook were forbidden. In summer, their favorite game was yelling at each other from opposite ends of the deck, pretending they were on a conference call while the captain tried to rest beneath their feet.
Their destination was Prince Edward Island. They had been sailing for months and would be for many more, though they had begun only a few hundred miles away in Maine. First, to Cuba so the captain could meet a friend for drinks, then the Falkland Islands; his daughter wanted to see penguins. They’d round the tip of South America, stock up on fruit in the Gulf of California, then, he told them, they would traverse the Northwest Passage.
When the captain first shared their route, Cora took notes, a habit he despised because she always used them to prove him wrong. “We will not take the Northwest Passage,” she said. “If we stay at each port for a week, we’ll arrive at Alaska at the end of the season. It would be incredibly dangerous.”
“Two weeks in the Falkland Islands,” the captain said. “More time with the penguins.”
“Boats can’t sail over ice,” Cora said.
“You know the song: For just one time,” he waved his hand, “a land so wild and savage. It’s a pilgrimage. My tour de force.”
“Or your coup de grace,” she said. “We’ll get hypothermia. We’ll starve.”
“Not if we stop in the Gulf of California, stock up on fruit. Wear a jacket.”
“You told me we would sail to Prince Edward Island,” Cora said. She had dropped out of school and flown to meet him in Maine so they could sail to Prince Edward Island.
“We are,” the captain said. “If you’re unhappy with the itinerary, you’re welcome to see yourself out.” He gestured to the window, the disorienting roil of the ocean feet away from their flushed faces. Cora wanted to punch him in the Adam’s apple.
This was what she imagined love was like once you grew into your feelings of discontent with the world: wanting to hurt them, wanting to run from them, or from everyone else. Searching for something, not finding it, having to create it yourself.
The weather chilled as they headed south, until Cora couldn’t go onto the deck anymore. At each port, the captain bought yarn to placate her, having latched onto a passing remark she’d once made about knitting. While confined indoors, Cora doubled down on her projects: two days per scarf, one day per hat. Only her favorite crew members got mittens. Though knitting, providing for those men, made her feel unpleasantly quaint, it calmed her like little else could.
After reaching the penguins, they pivoted north, followed the coastline of Chile. The captain sang his daughter to sleep each night, always that song about the Northwest Passage. They had deified this voyage, Cora thought, deemed it their birthright to trace the path of so many brave seafarers before them. She listened to them from the next room and did not suggest they cut through the Panama Canal. When she slept, she dreamed of the visiting lecture series where she met the captain, but in her subconscious he was not handsome or persuasive, and she had much more going for her than a face older men wanted to take on adventures.
When the captain’s daughter grew bored with her pirate books, she at last approached the strange woman she had first met on the docks in Maine.
“Did you enjoy seeing the penguins?” she asked Cora.
“I did,” Cora said.
“Do you know why there’s always so many in one place?”
“No, but I can Google it for you in six months.”
“I thought you would’ve learned about penguins in community college.”
“I dropped out of community college because I wanted to eat mussels on Prince Edward Island.”
“With my dad?”
Cora bound the final stitch on a slate gray scarf and wrapped it around the girl’s throat.
“A group of penguins is called a waddle,” the girl said. “They live in large groups because there’s less of a chance they’ll get eaten. They’re afraid of dying alone.”
“Is that so,” Cora said.
“And they get cold if they’re apart for too long. Like people,” she added. “My dad told me the other day that you’re crazy.”
“I’m not afraid of dying alone,” Cora said. “I’m afraid of dying slowly and painfully after our boat gets lodged between ice caps.”
“So just a little crazy?”
Cora said nothing. She began a new scarf.
“It’s one of the most significant maritime routes in the world,” the girl said. “My entire life has built up to this. We keep sailing. Your thing can wait.”
“We were supposed to live for each other,” Cora said. “Like penguins.”
The girl stood. “Maybe you’ll feel better if you make another scarf,” she said, and stepped onto the deck where the cresting sun reflected off her cheeks like flecks of glitter.
And so Cora knitted. In the window behind her, the spiders struggled against the heaving of the ship and did the same.
You Butter Believe It
By Douglas DiCicco
I didn’t set out to kill eighteen million people. I just wanted to sell butter.
Look, I could have just done some dull, predictable marketing campaign. Rolled out another shameless rip-off of “Got Milk” or “The Other White Meat.”
“Bonkers for Butter,” maybe. Would have to focus group it.
But I didn’t spend two years busting my ass taking night classes at the North Utica School of Business just so I could do the same thing everyone else is doing. I’m an innovator. So when the National Butter Council hired me to run their new campaign, I wasn’t going to just go with the lazy retread. I was going to make something of it, damn it.
The idea didn’t come to me right away. I kind of stumbled into it, actually. I was in a bar, working on a proposal for a visceral, immersive series of butter-themed escape rooms. We’d open them up in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, maybe DC. That would’ve gotten people talking about butter again.
In retrospect, that’s the one I should’ve gone with. Definitely wouldn’t have had a death count. Well, almost definitely. Would’ve had people sign waivers beforehand. It would’ve been fine.
Anyways, I was working on the proposal when I see Hugo, my friend from middle school. Well, okay, ‘friend’ probably isn’t the right word. Hugo was kind of a nerd. I was always one of the cool kids.
I’ve heard people throw around the term ‘mad scientist’ when they talk about Hugo these days. He wasn’t like that, really. He was a genius, no argument there. And sure, he was a little antisocial. Can’t blame him for that. Middle school was rough for him.
Hugo got bullied. I remember they used to corner him and say “Hey, Victor Hugo! You’re going to be ‘Le Miserable’ if you don’t give us your lunch money.”
The bullies at my middle school were very literary.
Anyways, I needed a break from the proposal, so I bought Hugo a beer and asked him what he’d been up to. Apparently he’d gotten a doctorate and was working on some sort of cutting edge research project. He told me he’d been analyzing patterns in religious iconography and music, trying to isolate specific stimuli that could induce a feeling of worshipful reverence. Something that would make people sedate and obedient.
Honestly, I didn’t understand most of it. I was never really a science guy. What I did understand was that this sounded like a surefire way to sell a crap-load of butter. I asked if we could try applying his research to my ad campaign. Hugo wasn’t sure at first, but when I told him it would be a way to test his research on thousands of subjects for free, he was on board.
We put together an advertisement based on his principles. There really wasn’t much to it. Just a bunch of close-ups of butter with flashing colors and musical tones that Hugo said would activate the spiritual center of the brain. I didn’t feel anything unusual when I watched the footage, but Hugo said that was because I understood what the trick was. I was pretty sure the National Butter Council was going to reject the ad, but they went absolutely apeshit for it. They ran the ad nationwide.
Butter sales doubled overnight. Tripled in a week. Quadrupled in a month.
We went international. Prices skyrocketed. People were buying butter faster than the dairies could make it.
It was perfect. Rich, creamery fame and success drizzled down upon me. I was the greatest marketing genius of all time.
Then they burned down Marjoyrine’s corporate headquarters. They were the world’s largest producer of margarine. Some of our newly indoctrinated consumers saw them as a threat to butter. That was jarring. But hey, that’s just an extreme form of consumer loyalty, right? With the benefit of hindsight that was clearly a turning point, but at the time it was easier to write the whole thing off as a one-off.
Hugo demanded we pull the ads. By the time we did, it was too late. They’d splintered into warring sects. The Order of Salted Butter rounded up and slaughtered the Pure Emulsionists, who taught that adding salt to pure butter was an unholy abomination. Then the Church of Churns conducted their inquisition at the Texas State Fair’s butter sculpture competition. Apparently they found the literal golden calves to be objectionable. Another bloodbath.
The National Butter Council tried to seize control of the civilian government, but by that point the ongoing holy war was beyond the control of any secular authority. Every time one sect died out, another rose to take their place. The Gheeists. The Temple of First Quality. The Sweet Creamicans. Ever more fanatic and bloodthirsty.
Before he disappeared, Hugo said it wouldn’t last. We’ve destroyed the original ads, scrubbed the copies from the internet. Eventually the wars will kill everyone who ever saw them. After that the survivors will be less militant, less violent. Fewer true believers. Things will calm down.
I just hope it happens soon. My cholesterol is off the charts.
By Paul Lamar
Maybe out for good.
Nailed to the crosswalk! A fine metaphor.
“Someone already call an ambulance?” A woman’s voice.
“Yeah. 911. They’re on the way, they said.” That gravelly voice.
Martin Penrose? Still in the old neighborhood? Still alive, more like it! Must be pushing 90. He hasn’t seen Martin in probably a decade, in passing at the grocery store.
“Don’t move him, but shouldn’t we put something soft under his head? He’s still alive, isn’t he?” Another male voice.
“He’s breathing, but it looks like shallow breathing. Barely breathing,” says the young woman.
Barely? He tries to take a good breath, but it hurts.
“Anybody see it?”
“I was waiting to cross Western, and then I heard a kind of ‘Uhhhh,’ and when I looked, he was on the ground,” the young woman says.
“Was a car involved, maybe?” the man said.
No, no car.
“He’s wearing running shoes and shorts. Was he running?”
“No,” says Martin, “I can’t imagine.”
Yes, Martin! Running, and then—then …
“Princeton ’65. On his sweatshirt there. Which would make him—what, somewhere in his 70s?” says the young woman.
Exactly 77. Birthday today.
They’re silent. A cool breeze blows a leaf into his cheek, then up and away.
“Princeton. Heh. Must be a smart guy,” says the male voice.
“Well,” says Martin, sotto voce, “Sam’s smart enough, sure, but his father and his grandfather went to Princeton, so, legacy … ”
“Oh, you know him.”
“Yeah. But his younger sister, Evelyn, now she went to Yale. No connections. All on her own. Very smart.”
How does Penrose remember all of this? The families weren’t that close back in the day—a block away, slightly different generations of children.
He’s just about to open his eyes, but he decides to wait a minute. Till he’s sure he wants to recommit. So neatly summed up by an old neighbor in front of strangers. Hah!
“Anybody know CPR?”
The man lying here does.
“Nope. Plus I have a cold, so I don’t think I could do mouth-to-mouth on him,” says the young woman. “Plus, as you said, we’re not supposed to move anything. He might have some broken bones.”
Not a hip, please God. Good-bye running.
Running, then … something must have caught his eye. Distracted him. Red hair! This young woman’s red hair! Like his beloved mother’s bright red hair. Of course, thinking about her today, on his birthday. The day of his birth. He’d taken his eye off his feet and tripped on the curb. Wait till he tells Evelyn.
He thinks of when he used to teach “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.” Here it is, sort of.
He hears a siren in the distance. Ask not for whom the siren wails; it wails for thee.
He wiggles his toes. He licks his lips and tastes iron—blood. From where?
“He’s bleeding,” says Martin. “Not a good sign. Bleeding from the mouth. Internal injuries. They’d better get here soon.”
“It’s actually a little cut above his eye, see?” says the young woman. “It’s just running down his cheek onto his mouth. It’s not coming from his mouth.”
“You’re right,” says the other man. “That’s a good sign.”
“Well, we don’t know what’s going on on the back of his head.”
He wills himself to sense the back of his head. As far as he can tell, everything is in place.
He opens one eye.
“Hey, he just opened his eye.”
They don’t miss a trick. He catches sight of Penrose, wiping his bald head with a handkerchief, leaning on a cane. He has on wrap-around sunglasses. He looks good for 90.
He opens both eyes.
“Hey,” the young woman says, bending over him slightly, her beautiful red hair lightly brushing his face, “both his eyes are open. That’s a good sign. Hey, Mister, don’t move. Don’t go to sleep. They’re coming for you.”
He closes his eyes, wishing she’d phrased it another way. “They’re coming for you,” like “Go towards the light.”
“Can you sit me up, Martin?” he says, opening his eyes again.
The young woman gasps.
“Sam, you recognize me?”
“Of course. Your voice. Can you sit me up?”
The other man says he doesn’t want the responsibility. Neither does the young woman.
“Listen, Sam, we think you should lay there and just wait it out.”
“It’s ‘lie,’ Martin.”
Before Martin can reply, the paramedics are by his side, assessing the damage.
“Sam, I’m going with you,” Martin says.
“Sure, sure, Martin. Thanks. And you two kind people? Tell me who you are.”
“Sarah. I’m Sarah. Good luck.”
“Hi, Sam. My name is Raul. Glad we could help.”
“Thank you both. The kindness of strangers can never be overestimated.”
Suddenly, he is fully conscious—of leg pain; of the voices of people who know what they are doing; of a guy going by on a bike (shades of “Musée des Beaux Arts”); of the familiar intersection of Western and Washington, his safety patrol beat 65 years ago.
Oh, Life! Hah!