Four Poems

Poetry
Josh Smith


Photo Credit: Giles Watson/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Black Diamond

The easiest path,
through the most difficult woods
is still Black Diamond.

 

By The Knife

Everybody takes cuts in a knife fight.
Winning is about who sustains less damage.

Keep your arms in, except to strike or block,
always stay moving.

It’s what the Sharks and Jets knew.
It’s what our grandparents knew, on the old world streets.
Each fight—at least a scrape, which time adds up.
Each fight, building toward an eventual loss.

A moment’s pause:
an arm is dropped, a reflex too slow.
No one raises the victor’s hand;
the next challenger always steps forward to fight.

 

For Elise

Monsters make monsters.
I came to you—ball of clay.
What did you make me?

 

Poems About Me
(after Trace Adkins’s “Songs About Me”)

I met a woman at the café,
she spotted my notebook and asked,
what do you write?

I said, a little fiction, a lot of poems,
I’ll be reading them at the bar tonight.

She giggled, and hid her face behind her hand,
said, sorry, I thought you were in a band.
What made you want to write that sort of thing?

I told her, ‘cause they’re poems about me, and who I am.
Poems about learning and living,
and fairness to women, children and dogs.
Yeah, they’re all just poems about me.

So I gave her the address,
said, I promise, it’s not what you think,
when you hear the word ‘poetry.’
She said, I don’t expect to become a fan,
but I might swing by if I’m free.

Then that night when I got done with my poems
about the road, and home, and broken bones—
she caught me as I walked off stage,
and screamed, hey, you were right!

It was like you wrote those poems about me, and who I am.
Poems about learning and living,
and fairness to women, children and dogs.
Yeah, they’re all just poems about me.

So I’ll just keep on writing
until the whole world’s reading all those poems about me.
Yeah, they’re all just poems about me.

pencil

Josh Smith is to David Hasslehoff what David Hasslehoff is to Germany… which is to say he’s foreign to him, younger than him, and smaller than him. Josh lives and writes in Buffalo, New York. Email: joshsmithpoetry[at]gmail.com

Four Poems

Poetry
Timothy Robbins


Photo Credit: Jos van Wunnik/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Kazu

I wish we’d kept in touch. I want to
tell you I’m rereading the Murakami
novel. I want to convince you of the affection
I feel for a minor character, the caretaker who
minds the power station and collects
musical instruments for their shapes as
I collect shapes for their pitch. I say “reread.”
Actually I’m listening to an audiobook.
I didn’t love the caretaker when he was mute.
I’ve fallen for him now for the narrator’s
voice like a wind from a world that has only
one wind.

I pray your kickboxing is still so
precise it’s not violent—pray you’re still
a percussionist not a pugilist in the ring.

I love the narrow forehead you try
to ignore, fearing your ancestors’
unkind love for the Mandarin’s
pale arching brow. In my nightmare once,
as you slept untouched beside me, you
took a knife to your hairline and thirstily
drank your blood till you drowned.

Imagine a pregnant girl who
doesn’t know what’s happening to her body
or how it came about. Your relation to your
beauty is that girl’s relation
to her gestating heir.

 

Blanket and Knife

There’s no blanket
we haven’t shared.

No hunger we didn’t
divide like bread.

There was a
game of expectations,
each a knife.

The first and last
act we committed with
the knife was to wash it.

Everything in between was
feint to get us from

the first to the
second cleaning.

Once it was clean, we
tested how long we
could stand to stare
at its shine
without speaking.

 

The Shape

It has only shape and light
like the form I see at head-
ache’s start. When data is

added it will be me pressed
to a wall, arms in a T—
and him, the prop. Then it

will be me fastening cloth
flowers to a spiked cross,
me driving it into parched

earth, right against the stone
which all visitors but him
will assume was there before.

 

Manmade Drifts

I whisper to myself. It’s
more effective than
talking. Stripping away
the vowels, reducing
verbal music to a fit of
breaths is often the only
hopeful choice. At 3:00
a.m. a snow clearer warns
me: not all voiceless
utterances are soft. In an
Oscar winner I saw last
Wednesday, a boy, with
violence surprising
from such skinny arms,
blocked his mother’s
hate-fueled screams
with a sliding glass door.
Boy and viewers—
though we weren’t lip-
readers—easily read
faggot! I wake and
see my husband’s mouth
doing, as usual, the work
of his nose. I doze and
rouse to his breath on my
eyes. It’s been so long,
the kiss surprises like
an expletive, scrapes
like a plough, exposes
where we are, clears the
way for where we’ll go.

pencil

Timothy Robbins has been teaching English as a Second Language for 28 years. He has been a regular contributor to Hanging Loose since 1978. His poems have appeared in Main Street Rag, Off The Coast, Bayou Magazine, Slant, Tipton Review, Cholla Needles and many others. He has published three volumes of poetry: Three New Poets (Hanging Loose Press), Denny’s Arbor Vitae (Adelaide Books) and Carrying Bodies (Main Street Rag Press). He lives in Wisconsin with his husband of 21 years. Email: robbinstimothy9[at]gmail.com

My Husband’s Lies by Caroline England

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


My Husband’s Lies by Caroline England

Reviewing books for Toasted Cheese is one of my greatest pleasures. It gives me the opportunity to read a range of literature—poetry, short stories, memoirs, and novels. I like to read. It goes with being an editor. My day typically begins early with a few chapters and a cup of coffee and the moon keeping me company, and often ends the same way except without the cup of coffee. Another pleasure I have is to write a second review for a TC author. I’ve written a handful of second and even third reviews thus far for a select group of authors who have stuck it out, persevered in their craft, hammering away despite the daily drone of life that most often takes precedence and yet have somehow managed to pick up a pen or tap on their laptop keys to produce something meaningful. And what’s more, rose again to the challenge of finding an agent or an editor who was willing to read it. I recently received a query from one such author: Carolyn England, whose short story collection, Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses, I reviewed for Toasted Cheese in 2013. Since then, England has written two novels with a third soon to be published. I was delighted to have a second opportunity to read her work and see how it has evolved.

Carolyn England’s second novel, My Husband’s Lies (Avon, 2018), is about friendship. Adult friendship. Although the book jacket hints of more: Everyone has a secret… and Do you really know your friends? England masterfully narrates her story in a third-person point of view that shifts between several characters often revisiting important scenes to show the reader a detail up close or an idea seen with more clarity through another set of eyes. The characters are interesting, robust, and believable in their complexities and imperfections. Nicknamed “The A-Team,” they share a common bond: a friendship that began in their teenage school years at St. Mark’s.

They are:

Handsome Dan Maloney, a Realtor married to Geri and expecting their first child; wealthy Nick Quinn, newly married to Lisa; golden boy Will Taylor; and intuitive Jen, a married mother of two and the only girl member of the A-Team. These characters and their significant others are reunited at a wedding in the novel’s exposition and each holds a secret that is hidden from the other characters. Chapter by chapter, England reveals the characters’ flaws, problems, and secrets through close narration, building tension and suspense.

These characters are real and very likeable despite their troubles. Here’s an elegant character sketch from Nick about his much older and beloved brother, Patrick, who just happens to be a favorite of mine.

The low sound of the car’s horn brings him back to the road and a stubborn stray sheep. He turns to Patrick, suddenly remembering how comforting it was to see his fair hair in the darkness when he was small and had a nightmare. Immediately there by his side, it was as though Patrick knew. Today his greying hair is hidden behind a suede hat with flaps. Give him a moustache and he’d look like a dashing World War II pilot rather than a sad fifty-year-old keeping his ears warm on a cold March morning. (p. 178)

The hallmarks of England’s writing are still there. Her storytelling is expressed keenly through dialogue sometimes with a slight change of tone or in the smallest movement. I could see these people and their stories play out like a film in my mind in a sublime economy of words that doesn’t give anything away.

The story begins in medias res, in an atmospheric and exciting prologue—a big kick start that introduces one of the characters in serious peril. This character is the linchpin in the story, set up with purpose for the reader to follow, like Alice’s little white friend flying down, down the rabbit hole. What is further interesting is that the character isn’t named. I loved that. I pondered whether or not this mysterious character was a reliable narrator. Great characterization.

After this initial scene, England uses flashback to explain the perilous event and then structures the remainder of the story in a linear timeline of events peppered with smaller flashbacks. England drops hints and clues, letting the secrets out piece by piece, like a giant jigsaw puzzle until the whole puzzle is laid out and then the fun begins: What will happen next? England shows all and tells nothing. Her prose is spot on and evocative, vividly told, page by page, chapter after chapter, layer on layer as she builds the characters’ stories with suspense from the get go and with it a mystery that leads, takes root, and grows into an exciting Hitchcock-style conclusion. Masterful storytelling.

*

Born a Yorkshire lass, Caroline England studied Law at the University of Manchester and stayed over the border. England was a divorce and professional indemnity lawyer and instigated her jottings when she deserted the law to bring upher three lovely daughters. In addition to the publication of her short story collection, Watching Horsepats Feed the Roses, England has had short stories and poems published in a variety of literary publications and anthologies. Her debut novel, Beneath the Skin (Avon Harper Collins), also known as The Wife’s Secret, was published in 2017. Carolyn England’s second novel, My Husband’s Lies, followed in 2018. Her next novel, Betray Her (Little, Brown) is soon to be published in 2019. Facebook | Twitter | Instagram.

pencilShelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

99 Words of Sorrow

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Maureen Rostad


Photo Credit: Sarah/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Jeremy died on December 21, five years ago to the day.

Raindrops hung in the air almost like nature was hanging them on an invisible Christmas tree. The forecast told of a massive rain torrent later in the day, an uncharacteristically warm winter. Her heart felt much the same as the humidity, and unshed tears hung around her neck.

A brain aneurysm, the doctor said. Dead before the ambulance could navigate through the narrow roads of rural Pennsylvania, up the side of the mountain and down again to the gravel road that eventually led to her house in the middle of nowhere. She remembered cursing that house then, hating the little rundown farmhouse on a little rundown farm, their diamond in the rough. How unfair it was, she thought, as she wept beside him, while she was silently aware of the seconds that passed, knowing that no doctor could revive him after so many. The true anger at the house came later when projects piled upon her, a leaky faucet here and a door that refused to latch there. Several walls still had imprints of her fist through the drywall, another project incomplete.

Jewel knew that she needed to move on from his death. The logical part of her brain knew that her life, being replayed over the same way each year like Groundhog Day, was not normal. Like she went through the motions 364 days per year only to live one day. But some unknown, some obsessive need or grace or whatever made up the cosmos, told her to keep doing it.

She found herself outside of the local electronics store, drawing the curious eyes of those entering as she hugged herself. The air smelled raw, scrubbed out like a toilet. A rarity that this store, when so many other locally-owned ones failed, would stay in business, and yes, even thrive. The owner was kind of a celebrity, some gamer, winner of some huge online Xbox thing, said he always wanted to own an electronics store that catered to other gamers. Like D&D meets Best Buy.

Jewel tended to avoid this store, preferring to go out to the strip mall even though it was a longer drive, because she normally had to dodge hopeful gamers buzzing around the store like mosquitoes to a mudhole. The owner runs some kind of gaming podcast, and if some gamer does something fantastic, whatever that means, he doles out fifteen minutes of fame. Or, more exactly, a podcast hour.

But this store was the first stop.

She stepped through the automatic glass doors, still hugging herself. She was immediately assaulted by a young girl dressed like an elf, her nondescript brown hair clinging to her green Santa hat with static electricity. The elf smelled like freshly-baked Christmas cookies. Jewel briefly wondered if it was a perfume. The girl handed Jewel a postcard and then walked away to descend upon another customer, feet jingling all the way.

Jewel looked at the postcard.

Christmas Contest!!!!! Win a brand-new Nikon D850!!!!! Sponsored by J&J Jewelry Store!!!!!

Despite the morbidity of her mood, Jewel smiled to herself. Five years ago, almost to the hour, her husband had picked out a Nikon camera, an earlier model to this exact camera. Her Christmas present.

J&J, huh? she thought. Jeremy would have liked that.

Tell us why you should win in 100 words or less, the postcard said. The best reason wins this award, a fabulous high-end digital camera. See fine print for details.

“It’s my Christmas gift, five years late,” she wrote, scribbling out a short story about her dead husband’s brain aneurysm in 99 words. 99 words of sorrow on a card, she thought. 99 words of sorrow, take one down, pass it around…

She looked around for the elf.

Jewel went about the rest of the morning perfunctorily, her legs deadened down like coal filling a stocking. Out for breakfast—the super special: two eggs, any style, toast, bacon, and pancakes—a second place set for him. She received more than one sympathetic look from other diners who thought she was being stood up.

If you only knew, she thought.

Then to the jewelry store. “Jewels from your Jewel,” she said to him, every year, as she handed him a watch, all wrapped up. Even though he knew what was inside, he still managed to act surprised.

“I love it!” he would say, and then he would kiss her.

As she paid the bill on a man’s watch, her cell phone made a blip to notify her of a text message. You’re the winner of our Christmas Contest!!!!! Stop by the store before closing to claim your prize!!!!!

The woman behind the register waved the receipt for the watch in Jewel’s face, letting out a short breath.

“Thank you, Jeremy,” Jewel said to herself, as she turned around and walked out of the store, forgetting the receipt.

The clouds begin to threaten the horizon by the time Jewel pulled into the electronics store’s parking lot, and fat, angry raindrops splattered onto her face as she rushed through the glass doors, making her look like she was crying.

Jewel had to make some sort of statement about how wonderful it was that she won a brand-new Nikon DSLR camera. For the podcast. She was not sure about announcing Jeremy’s death to the world, despite the fact he had been gone for years. But the deadened part of her stomach, the blackness inside of her, dissipated just a little as she told the microphone about his death. By the time she was done, that part of her was not gone, but she felt a little better. The store owner was gentle, asking her only a few questions, and he gave her a hug when she was done. She cried on his shoulder. To her surprise, he handed her a business card. With his cell phone number handwritten on the back. A few moments of awkwardness passed because she had no idea what to even say to that. She stuffed it inside of her pants pocket, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, and briskly walked away before he could, or rather, she could, respond.

The temperature had dropped while she was in the electronics store. A light dusting of snow clung to the parking lot, but the rate of snowfall threatened even the most frenzied of last-minute Christmas shoppers. They walked quickly to their cars, dashing around like reindeer.

The snow is a new beginning, she thought, as she, too, galloped to her car.

Ten minutes later, Jewel plugged her phone into the car cigarette lighter. Her car inched along the only real road the township where she lived had, barely half a mile from the electronics store. It moved with all the other shoppers who were unfortunate to get stuck in a surprise snowstorm. She briefly thought about turning around and asking to bunk inside the store, but she was scared that the owner might have already shut everything down, and then she would be stuck even further from her house. She was even more scared that she would have to talk to the store owner.

Since she was not moving, she dug around her middle console until she found a power converter, a noisy device that let her plug in regular three-prong plugs into the second cigarette lighter. She managed to open up the camera box, find the battery and the charger, and plug everything in. Her car only moved a foot. Might as well capture the snow, she thought. Since it’s going to take me a year to get home.

Jewel predicted several feet of snow, given that they had been expecting so much rain. She again cursed living out on a farm. Fortunately for her, Jewel stockpiled almost everything, including wood for a fire. Not really a farmer, but more of a homesteader, she learned her lesson long ago to always be prepared. Especially about the snow. The last time they had this much snow, she was holed up for two weeks without power. It was their first year of marriage, and she thought they would starve before she could get to the nearest store.

She looked outside. The wind battered against her car and created snow flurry cyclones. She looked at the Nikon’s screen. A slight charge—the battery must have been pre-charged. She waited until she could pull off to the side of the road, since the car was not going anywhere. She grabbed the camera and went outside.

Jewel almost abandoned her mission when a force of cold air hit her in the face, making her feel as though her sweater had a million holes and whipping her hair around her face. The man behind her lurched forward to take her place in case she changed her mind, blaring his horn and giving her the finger. She aimed the camera and took a picture of him. Click, click, click. She was almost afraid that he was going to get out of his car and wallop her, right here on the side of the snow-pummeled road, but he seemed to forget her as he looked forward, his fists grabbing the wheel as if he would lose control of the car going less than a half mile per hour. Her eye wandered towards the trees on the horizon. She looked at the screen between every series of photos.

She turned around and faced her car, and she turned the camera around too. Click, click, click. She missed herself completely. Click, click, click. She got the top of her head. Click, click, click.

There! She got herself.

And something… else.

Her blood momentarily warmed her torso as her fight or flight response kicked in, but it faded as she tried to puzzle out what was in the camera LCD screen. A shadow? No. The sun glinting off the snow? No. Some kind of brightness, but it was undefined. Not shaped correctly for a flash, and it was too bright for a flash anyway.

As if, instead of casting a shadow, she cast a light.

Was that even possible? A weird aftereffect of all the snow?

She twisted around, almost slipping on some stray patch of snow, but nothing was there. She frowned. She could barely lift the camera back up because her fingers were shaking from both the cold and the fright, but she slowly went through the pictures again. Yes, something was definitely there. What was it? A spot on the lens?

She scrolled through the earlier pictures, trying to figure out if the lens was bad, but whatever it was only showed up next to her selfies.

She tried again. This time, she tried to have her face off to the side of the screen. Click, click, click. Yes, something was definitely there. And it was still near her face, not in the same spot as it was previously. Not the lens. Just to make sure, she snapped several, random photographs. Nothing.

Must be the sun hitting the snow and my face at the correct angle, she thought. Whatever it is, I can’t stand here all day.

Taking a long look at the wintry scene around her, willing it to give her answers, she went back inside her car. Several people honked at her as she navigated back into the lane, but she ignored them, her mind on whatever she had in the photographs.

The wind picked up speed, creating noises against her car like ghosts in a scary black-and-white film. Jewel was momentarily blinded as she crept along, the brightness of the snow sending dancing sparks around her vision.

The brightness faded as the clouds blotted out all natural light, as if God himself did not want to witness the ensuing blizzard. By the time she reached the mountain pass, almost all the sun had been drained off the winter wonderland. Her anxiety increased in the same measures. She turned on her high beams, but they were useless. The snow came down faster than the lights could melt it. Her windshield wipers were on the fastest speed possible, but they were not fast enough.

Her fists were knotted up on the wheel just like the man she made fun of earlier. Her house was less than a mile away, but she felt that she would never get home. She turned off the side of the road momentarily to cry, windshield wipers matching her frightened breathing.

After several long breaths and wiping the tears that continued to fall, she gave the car some gas.

The wheels spun.

She tried again, and the wheels spun some more.

She knew that she was on the verge of a full panic attack, but she did not know what else to do. She gave the car some more gas, this time almost flooring it. The car rocked back and forth, and out of whatever snow pile she was in.

Just as she let out a breath that she did not realize that she was holding, the car skidded. She instinctively grabbed the wheel and turned it to the right, away from the rock face. The tires had a mind of their own, and she head-on collided with the mountain.

Jewel did not know how long she sat in her car, confused. Her breathing bordered on screaming until she realized that she was, in fact, screaming, and she had to force herself to stop. She realized that 911 would be just as useless today as it was five years ago. She would die here in this very spot because no one could, or would bother to, transverse the mountain pass. Her mind obsessively fixated on her body, found two weeks from now, frozen solid even as the snow melted.

She could no longer feel her own feet, and she realized with renewed panic that the heat in the car had escaped faster than she thought it would. She spotted the camera, thrown onto the passenger side floor. She took several minutes to grab it, the cold inside of the car acting as a wall to her inertia. Her body screamed at her, what left she could feel of it.

When they find me, the camera will be frozen to my fingers, and they will have to throw it out. This thought made her giggle inside of her head, a morbid thought spiraling out of control just like the situation she was in.

I better move, she thought. Otherwise I’ll die here.

Jewel grabbed whatever she could: her cell phone, the camera, an extra blanket she found in the back seat. She used her feet to push open the car door against the snow that had piled up outside. The top had not frozen yet, and her feet landed, compacting the snow as she put her weight on them. She cautiously made her way to the trunk, the rational part of her mind that was left demanding that maybe she had something else warm that she could wear. Yes, she had a coat. She stood in the middle of the mountain pass, snow wailing down on her as she put it on.

Jeremy’s old college letter jacket. It smelled like him. Instead of the overwhelming sadness that she got, the kind of sadness that made her rest against a wall with her hands on her knees because it punched her stomach like an MMA heavyweight champion, she felt happy. Safe. Jeremy was helping her get home.

She looked around, but everything was blanketed in white and cold, and she had a renewed sense of panic because she did not know what to do now. All at once, tears fell again, fat droplets of water like the raindrops earlier. She scrubbed them away, thinking that they might freeze inside of her eyes.

He’d want to record it all, she thought, almost gleeful over the absurdity of taking a final picture of herself before she froze to death in the middle of the road.

Her mind would not let that go, and not knowing what else to do since she did not know where she was, she gave in to her own insanity.

Jewel fiddled with the settings until she found the delay timer and the burst shot. She carefully set the Nikon on top of the trunk. Pressing the buttons, she hopped over to the edge of where she hoped the road was, and she smiled at the camera. She waited a few seconds, not hearing anything, and started to go back towards the camera when it finally clicked. She went back to her spot, pasting another smile on her face. Let the police figure that one out.

She slushed her way back to the car, retracing her own footsteps, and checked the LCD screen. She almost dropped the camera, the strap catching on Jeremy’s jacket buttons. preventing it from sinking into the snow or smashing against the car. She made a wet, strangled sound. She waited almost a minute, the LCD screen shutting off on its own, convincing herself that she was spooked because it was December 21.

She tried again, picking up the camera by its strap and turning the screen back on.

She was in the photos, as she expected to be, but the background was not the frozen ice land of the Ninth Gate of Hell. Rather, it showed a spring background, right before the trees bloomed, the wisps of grass and leaves evident.

She thought perhaps the camera had some kind of mechanism to trade pictures, like a built-in Photoshop effect, but beside her was the same whitish figure. Perhaps a person? Whatever it was had its own light source, as the sky was fading as if on an electric dimmer. Not bright like a flashbulb or a lampstand, but it was definitely glowing, like a lit paper lantern floating down the river during the nighttime Toro Nagashi festival.

“Jeremy,” she whispered. She grabbed for something to steady her, a sharp jerk momentarily startling her as she hit the car, a wash of overwhelming sadness hitting her.

Jewel sat against the car, turning on the screen every time it blinked off. Her fingers long ago had lost any feeling in them, and they felt almost like stubby pencils instead of living flesh. Just to spook her some more, her headlights suddenly blinked, then faded out. She was left in the ensuing darkness.

She stared at the springtime scene, so vivid against the vanishing light of her current situation. It was like a guiding post to safety. With sudden comprehension, she understood that she was looking at her house in the background scene of the photograph, a very short distance over the edge of the road.

She got up from her half-crouch. She steeled herself with fake confidence, breathing in and out with deep, steady breaths. The cold air filled her lungs, washing away her panic. Jeremy had sent her this camera to let her know that he had not left her. He was there, inside of the camera. And he was helping her get home.

She looked out toward her house. She saw a small bump that passed as her roof even though she did not recognize anything else because of the snow. Everything was white, white, and more white, with only trees sticking up from the ground to announce that they still lived even in the cold.

I have to jump, she thought.

Flicking on the camera, she tried to figure out if she would make it, or if she would die from a broken back. She debated the two choices, follow the road until it led her to her house, or jump and trek across the field, the more direct route. Looking down at the camera gripped in her hand, she took a picture.

“You led me this far, Jeremy,” she said to the camera. “Tell me what to do now.”

In answer, the camera showed her the snowy bank.

She aimed the camera up the road, the longer way home, still unsure. A black screen. As sure a sign as any.

“Okay, Jeremy.”

Jewel flicked the Nikon dial to “movie mode” and pressed the button to start recording. She wanted Jeremy to guide her the rest of the way home. Or to record her death as she fell off the side of the road.

“Why did you leave me?” she yelled. The only answer was the camera adjusting itself, auto-focusing whatever it was looking at. The snow. Maybe the white would burn out the camera’s bulbs.

“Why did you leave me?” she yelled again. She wanted nothing right now but to be back within her house, the holes in the walls be damned. She would take her unloved house in disrepair over this snow.

She wrapped her blanket around herself, hugging herself. The air smelled sweet, as if it knew that the snow raging around her would melt away her sorrow. She shifted the camera to her left hand, sticking her right hand in her pocket momentarily to give it some warmth.

Right before she jumped off the side of the road, she curled her hand around a business card.

pencil

Maureen Rostad is a freelance writer and attorney based in South Central Pennsylvania. You can follow the daily adventures of her and her dog, Joe, on Instagram. Email: miheui[at]gmail.com

Eidolon

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Lou Nell Gerard


Photo Credit: Laurent Sauvebois/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

It was subtle. Rerouting her commutes to and from work. She considered her routing as a means to avoid road construction, school bus stops, garbage trucks on pick-up day, the mainstream uptight crazy traffic, or simply enjoy a scenic route. Of course, now that it was dark on her way to and from work, she couldn’t rationalize “scenic” anymore. She considered being able to enjoy a full episode, rather than mere snippets, of Rufus Roundstone’s Noir In the 21st Century as a side benefit of, rather than the reason for these extended commutes.

Beryl loved film noir but was often too tired after getting home from work to stay awake through a movie. A friend suggested podcasts during her commute. Beryl was skeptical. How could a podcast recreate lighting, Dutch angles, haunting tendrils of cigarette smoke—all essential in creating noir’s ambience? Nevertheless, she decided to give it a try. She was surprised at the abundance of noir podcasts available. She tried a few but Noir In the 21st Century was the clear winner. Rufus Roundstone’s voice was the voice of noir. Imagine a voice that combined the timbre and characteristics of James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne, and George Sanders. The content varied. Re-imagined classics (The Maltese Falcon, Marlowe, Spade), neo noir, interviews and special intros with the likes of Noir Czar Eddie Muller. Perfect.

She normally struggled against the onset of winter, but now she welcomed the drives in the dark and the rain. It helped make up for what she considered the limitations of audio only. The quiet metronome of her fore and aft windshield wipers blended with the foley work in the podcast. She was in her own private little theater complete with a heated seat. The extended trip home helped ease the transition to what she considered her weaker side. Beryl was an extremely talented designer and she knew it. At work she was strong, independent, decisive. Once “outside,” in public, even at home, it all seemed to fall away, a superhero stripped of her powers. She was prone to anxiety attacks. Decisions almost shut her down.

*

Hec had not noticed that Beryl arrived home later each day. First, that was Beryl, born fashionably late. Also, the seasonal switch flipped. The shorter days of winter made him feel perpetually late. Leaving work late, getting home late, eating dinner late. So, he dismissed Beryl rolling in after dark as part of his own perception of lateness. He wasn’t overly alarmed—until their daughter asked, “Hey dad. ‘Sup with mom?”

“What do you mean, Abb?”

“She’s, well…” Abby looked around in an exaggerated manner. “Um, not home yet, right?”

“Abby, it’s not that late, just your perception now that it’s cold and gets dark early and—”

“And almost nine o’clock, Dad.” She shoved her watch up under his nose.

Hec looked at Abby’s watch. He checked his own. His face didn’t match the reassuring words. “Ah, Abb, you know what a workaholic she can be. She’s probably on some kind of a roll with this latest design project of hers.”

“Ya, well, she better not be late Thursday.”

“What’s Thursday?”

Abby made fish mouth and her eyes rolled, feeling her dad was a little clueless. “Only their big annual gala party? The one we’re invited to? The one where she’s getting that surprise doodah thing?”

As Hec watched his daughter’s gestures he lamented to himself, she’s been watching too many teen sitcoms and melodramas. “Right, right, right! They are giving her the Imagine Design Award. More than just a doodah, Abb. They don’t give those out lightly. This is the first in five years.”

*

The morning was dark with gusts of wind that rocked her Nissan Leaf a bit. The wind gathered the rain and pelted the car making percussive splashes. Perversely, by noon it was unseasonably sunny and warm. Beryl took advantage of the weather to run her car through the wash and vacuum it during her lunch break. She wanted to get in the habit of keeping it nice, and though still new, the dash had collected dust and she’d started to detect a faint, unpleasant odor. If she didn’t know better, she’d say there’d been a smoker in the car. She shrugged her shoulders thinking, “Maybe a salesman or someone on a test drive? How rude. But then, why am I only just noticing it?”

She enjoyed the conveyor ride through the car wash; the rainbow-colored foam sprayed out and ran down the windows, the wax had a familiar and reassuring scent, and the jet blower sounded like a small jet engine starting up. The conveyor spit her and the Leaf out and she rolled across the lot to the quarter vacs. She wasn’t the only one taking advantage of this unprecedented, balmy day. Beryl got out and admired her first new car. She’d chosen the Deep Blue Pearl exterior with black cloth which was shot through with blue threads, a nice complement to the exterior color. She opened all doors, took out the floor mats and hung them on the available clips. “That’s odd,” she thought, as what looked like bits of cigarette ash floated out and off the front and back mats. She plopped her Ziploc bag full of quarters near the coin slot, dropped several in and began to vacuum. She started whistling music from The Barber of Seville. She ended up singing lyrics from the Rabbit of Seville.

She had to use her fingernails to unweave some long blonde hairs from the cloth upholstery of the back seat. She frowned and tried to remember if she’d had anyone with hair that length and color in her car. Abby was the only one she remembered sitting in back and she had inherited the dark red hair of her mother. She shrugged and decided it must have been there from some other customer, maybe took the whole family on a test drive, maybe the smoker’s family. “Still,” she thought, “you’d think the detailers would have cleaned up better before handing over the keys.”

*

The drive home that night was under a clear sky, but the coldest yet. As soon as the sun had set, the temperature dropped like a hammer blow. Beryl shivered as she felt the contrast of the cold with the rapidly warming seat. She pulled out of the parking lot and decided to take the route around the lake, then started episode six.

The sound of rain, a car door thud. Beryl swore she felt the car shift slightly. She wondered if the gusting winds of morning were returning. She imagined she smelled wet wool.

“OK, so you found me Delilo, what’s the score anyway?”

“You coulda shaken your hat off before getting in at least, Dill, you used to be a gentleman.”

“Well, this gentleman doesn’t appreciate being strong-armed into a car, although I do appreciate being outta the rain and I thank you for that.” A groan. “Where’d you get those guys anyway? A heavyweight two-for-one sale?”

“Distant cousins needed a leg up with employment.”

“Does their parole officer know what they’re doing?”

“Don’t get cute, Dill. You’re no good at comedy. Got a little job for ya.”

“I don’t do your kinda job anymore, Delilo, you know that, trying to stay on the straight and narrow.”

“Yeah, well, do this one last job for me and we’ll forget about that debt your wife is building up at my place. By the way, try to keep her out, OK? I’ve never seen a dame so unlucky. Kinda makes me feel sorry for her.”

“You never felt sorry for anyone, Delilo, not even yourself.”

Sounds of shifting and a stubbled chin being scratched. She thought she smelled a faint scent of some aftershave, like something her grandfather used to wear.

“Didn’t realize I was so impressionable.”

Beryl grinned to herself, enjoying the added sensory experience her imagination was creating.

“It’s an easy enough job for you, Dill. Walk in the park.” A wood match striking, the scent of cigarette smoke. “This dame’s not even spilled milk, no one going to cry over her… passing. One of those spoiled rich dames likes to go slumming. Enemies in both camps. Cops want her on a murder rap.”

“Let ‘em have her.”

“Uh-uh. Knows something she shouldn’t.”

Beryl heard breathing, the sound of cigarette smoke being blown out—she could smell it, then it seemed a bit of smoke wafted into her peripheral vision. She felt the car shift a bit.

“So, the whole debt forgotten? Can, oh, what’s his name…” A finger snap. “Biegler! He still your mouthpiece? Can he write up an agreement, call it an insurance policy for me that’ll stick?”

“Biegler can do that in his sleep. But you gotta keep your wife outta my place, or let our bouncers keep her out. We usually keep the hands off the ladies.”

A snort. “She’s no lady. Not since she got that ring on her finger… sure had me bamboozled. Be my guest, toss her out, better yet, don’t let her in. You know what she’s like after a few drinks… or at least you oughtta. She is still your sister, you know, or had you forgotten?”

“Half-sister.”

“Don’t quibble.”

*

At home, Beryl got out of the car. When she turned to close the door, she noticed a damp-looking spot on the back seat. She opened the back door to pat it, assuring herself it was probably a shadow, but no. The seat was damp. There was a small puddle on the floor mat too. An almost electrical spike of fear shook her from the inside out; she felt a bit of a chill. She took a few deep breaths to shake it off, but that brought the scents of aftershave and stale cigarette smoke. She backed away shaking her head. Her heart was racing and her hands shook so she almost dropped her phone. “No, no, no. Come on, be rational, Beryl. Maybe there is a weakness in one of the window seals that the car wash breached. Take a deep breath and start a list for the dealer.”

*

Hec was in the kitchen when she entered. It seemed overly bright to her. She squinted and blinked a little.

“Hey Hec, where’s Abb?” She hoped he wouldn’t detect the quaver in her voice.

“Fed and in bed, Beryl.”

“Not our Abby? It’s only—”

“It’s 9:45, Beryl. Abb and I’ve had dinner. Your plate’s in the warming drawer. Glass of wine?”

Beryl checked her watch, the clock on the oven.

“Hec, I’m so sorry I didn’t call. I was down in my zone on that new design.” She was ashamed at how easily the lie came.

Hec shrugged, turned toward the wine glasses and asked again, “Glass of wine?”

“Uh-huh, thanks.”

*

During the drive into work the next day Beryl was running a bit late, but managed fifteen minutes of the next episode. That night, a filthy, relentlessly wet night, she picked up where she had left off:

A woman’s voice. “But, you don’t know me.”

“I don’t need to know you.”

It was Dill.

“What have I done to you?”

“Me? Not a thing, doll. As far as I know you are a perfectly swell dame—though outta my league. Seems like a waste.”

“Look can’t you put that thing away? It might go off.”

“It will go off darlin’.”

“Why, why?”

“Better ask Delilo.”

“Raimy?” A little snort and bright chuckle of relief. “Some kind of joke, huh? OK, buster, what’s the hook?”

“No hook.” Gun blast.

Beryl jumped. It surprised her how loud it seemed. She heard echoes of a muffled sound, a female “umph” and the rustle of someone slumping, only it didn’t come from the speakers. The smell of cordite wafted from the back seat, then the sound of a wood match and the acrid smell of tobacco. She checked her rear view mirror. There was an ember and a column of smoke. She swerved onto the shoulder, hitting the brakes, eyes snapping forward. She felt and heard that deep drone, like the throat singing she experienced with her panic attacks. One side of her neck and jaw tightened; she could hear her own heart pounding; she struggled to force herself to breathe. She forced her eyes up.

She felt herself talking, but didn’t quite believe it. She didn’t recognize her own voice.

“Say, put that out mister and don’t toss it out the window either.”

She felt something cold against her neck; she assumed it was a gun. Her hair lifted. Someone blew on her ear. Her hair dropped back down. She shivered, felt the cold sweat of fear in her armpits, yet her palms were relaxed on the wheel.

“Anyone ever tell you that you have a lovely neck?”

She started to nod and tried a furtive glance in the rear view mirror.

“And don’t get any ideas, get rolling again and keep those green eyes on the road and we’ll all be pals, Irish.”

“How far we going?”

“Not as far as I’d like.”

Her voice sounded more familiar to her now. “My husband and daughter. They’ll be worried.”

“I’m sure they will, darlin’, but by the time they get around to doing anything about it, you’ll be on your sweet way home, no harm done. But, you sure you wouldn’t consider forgetting that family right now and coming home with me, Irish? No? Too bad. I’m a sucker for red hair, green eyes, and those freckles. Take this turnoff down Five Mile Road. Wanna guess how far Five Mile Road goes?” He chuckled.

Beryl slowed and veered right, slowed some more as the roughness of the road surprised her. Her teeth were chattering but she didn’t feel cold. Her hands were now shaking. Her insides were doing flip flops—forget butterflies, she felt like some alien was about to emerge though her abdomen.

“OK, check your odometer, in three miles you’ll see a turnout on the left. Use it for a U-turn but stop before you get back on the road. Watch the edge, it’s steep.”

She did as she was told. When stopped, she tried to get a look in the rear view mirror.

“Careful now.”

She felt the cold barrel of the gun at the back of her neck again. She closed her eyes, wished she was practiced at prayer.

“Hey.” The gun tapped against her temple gently. “You better try breathing. Just keep your eyes forward and your hands on the wheel.”

She heard the rear door open, some sliding, a thud. The car shifted with a weight change, shifted again. Whoever was in back slid across to the passenger side. Footsteps on gravel and something heavy being dragged, then nothing but the wind outside the open door. Footsteps headed back to the car. Another weight shift, the rear door closed. She heard heavier breathing.

“Dame didn’t look to weigh that much. I guess death is like the camera, puts on the pounds. OK, you can head home. I’ll tell you where to drop me and remember, eyes straight ahead, in fact, let’s see you cock that rear view mirror to the side. Thatta girl.”

“Who are you? What are you?”

“Eidolon.” The voice, bored, carried a ‘no more questions’ finality.

Eidolon. It rang a faint bell. Where had she heard that before? She heard a voice saying it, a different voice, not the voice from the back seat. Professor Dorelle. Yes, Ancient Greek Lit. Homer, Euripides, Helen of Troy, Trojan Horse, all that. A shade, a spirit-image of someone dead or alive. She felt a chill. It was all she could do not to look back.

“OK.” The voice from the back made her jump. “Know where the Greyhound station is?”

Beryl nodded.

“Drop me there.”

*

Back home, Beryl pulled silently into the garage. She sat staring.

The door from the house to the garage burst open.

“Beryl, what the hell? I was worried sick. Abb, too. I looked for your phone. What were you doing way out on Five Mile Road? Listen to me, like a fishwife. Come here, you.” Hec pulled her to him and squeezed. Rubbed his nose in her hair, sniffed deliberately a few times then pushed her back to look her in the eye. “Did you start smoking?”

Beryl shook her head; her lips were quivering.

Hec figured she was cold and led her into the house. “Here, go put on your flannel-lined jeans and a big sweater, I’ll flip the basking machine on—you can eat near the fire. I kept your dinner warm—again—had to feed Abby. She’s in bed but I’m sure she’s not asleep. Better go assure her. She’s still a little girl in a lotta ways, you know.”

“OK, Hec. I’ll wash my hair before I eat.” Her voice was low and rather monotone. She paused without looking around said, “I’m not smoking Hec. You know me better than that. I had to meet someone after work, chain smoker.” Another lie.

She tried to use the shower to come ’round. “Buck up, girl. Something has just triggered your vivid imagination in a powerful way. Remember the make-believe murder mysteries you used to solve as a kid while all your friends were playing with dolls? Creepy dolls.” She shuddered and grinned at the same time. “I’m talking out loud to myself. If it happens again, I’ll go see a trick cyclist.”

She knew the water and steam in the shower was hot, still she shivered deep down. Finally gave up trying to stop shaking. Grabbed her big towel, then climbed into her hooded Turkish towel robe.

*

Beryl went directly to work the next morning, no scenic route, no Noir In the 21st Century. She tuned to a favorite internet radio station. An eclectic university campus non-profit.

*

“Daaa-ad?”

“Yes, Aaaaaa-Abb.”

“D’ya think you could take me shopping after school today? For a-a d-dress or something?”

“Ah, you want to dress up for Mom’s award dinner? A dress, Abb? You? Really?”

“Don’t make fun, Dad. Yes, I-I d-do, I think it’s im-important.”

He felt bad, teasing her. He should have known how hard it was for her to ask. Her normally well-controlled stutter had resurfaced. “Sure, sweetie.” He put one arm around her shoulder and squeezed. “I’ll cancel office hours with my students today. Meet you at the car after final bell?”

“Yip!” She launched herself at her dad and wrapped her arms around his neck and her legs around his legs—used to be hips. Hec marveled at how quickly he went from having a little girl to a long tall beauty.

“Want to go over to Anya’s for a hair trim and a blow out too?”

“You’re th-the b-best dad ever.” She squeezed, then hopped down, giving him a peck on the cheek. “B-but she b-books up like crazy. What if she can’t f-fit me in?”

“Remember, she’s also Auntie Anya, I’m pretty sure we can work something out. In fact it might be better—get your dress first, see her after the salon closes. She might want to check out your dress before styling your hair.”

*

On the way home, Beryl dismissed her reluctance to continue the podcast. The night was cold and windy, a freezing hard rain, with intermittent hail. She turned right, to the proverbial dark side of town and beyond, not left toward home. She checked her clock and figured she still had time to listen to one episode, get home and ready for her team’s big gala that night. She’d arrive fashionably late, she grinned—it was almost expected of her now. She resumed the podcast. She felt she’d lost her place somehow. There was the sound of hard rain and wind being thrown against the windows. At a stop, the rear driver side door opened. A gloved hand covered her side mirror, the car shifted as someone got in… aftershave… the door closed, the light turned green. Beryl sat frozen.

*

Brenda put on her white gloves and polished Beryl’s award. She admired it from several angles trying to decide which direction it should be facing for the unveiling. Settling on something she liked, she draped a plush deep blue velvet cloth over it. Brenda was proud to be on Beryl’s team. This was the highest award their company offered and it was rare. This was a design award, awarded by designers.

“Oh Brenda, Mr. Halliday wants to be sure Beryl has no inkling she’s getting this tonight.”

“Not as far as I can tell, Lucas, and I never thought of her having much of a poker face.”

“…and she will make it tonight?”

“She won’t be on time, but yes. I’m certain she’ll be here.”

“OK, we’re doing the presentation between dinner and dessert service. She should be here by then.” Lucas looked around the banquet room. “Looks good.” He nodded, “Well, the band has arrived, sound system is a go, I’ll just go peek in at catering.”

*

“Don’t attract attention now, Irish. We’re this close.”

“Close? Close to what?”

“You tell me, doll, you tell me. I’ve got ‘em bound and gagged just like you wanted. What’s next?”

Beryl chilled from the inside out, her heart raced, her head felt like it would implode. “Who? What do you mean ‘like I wanted’?”

“We arranged it this morning. Don’t you remember? Your kid and that husband of yours…”

“What do you mean? This isn’t happening, Beryl. Pull over, deep breaths, turn around drive straight home…”

“Hey, Irish, I thought you said it was you and me from here on out… ‘straight down the line’ you said… anyway, rigged it so his car broke down on their way in to school… funny him teaching in the same school she attends. Along comes me, a good Samaritan, to give ‘em a lift, right? It was real smooth. Your kid, she’s sharp… had to move and talk fast to stay ahead of her. She knew my ‘shortcut’ wouldn’t work, had to pull off sooner than I wanted. Still, got ’em bagged and gagged. Introduced ’em to my dear wife. They can just go hungry together, most likely they’ll die of exposure first.”

Beryl went from chilled to flushed, she wanted to fling off all her clothes as she felt them tightening around her and such burning heat. “You’re not real.” Her voice cracked.

“Hurts to the quick, Irish. I feel real enough, that kiss last night was real enough.”

“You yourself said ‘Eidolon’. No, no, no, Beryl. Don’t make him more real by talking to him. Turn off the podcast. Sing something. Sing something. Music heals me. Rabbit of Seville, come on.” She was pulling off the road, couldn’t even come up with a tune, her hands were shaking, her whole body was shaking, tears dropped from her chin onto her chest, she could hear her heart pounding. “Hec, oh Hec, what have I done, Abby, my baby, you’re OK, this isn’t real.”

She felt a warm hand pull her hair back behind her right ear, a caress lingered on her neck just below the ear, the familiar scent of aftershave, she felt her shoulders relax, her hands released the wheel. She leaned into the caress, took in a deep breath, she relaxed and a smile spread across her face. Her head pressed into the warm hand, she rubbed her own cheek in his palm, then reached across and put her left hand over the back of his, kissed the palm. She rubbed a stubbled cheek with the back of her right hand. “Ah Dill, Dill.” She felt herself talking. Heard herself, but her voice sounded sultry, husky, like a smoker’s voice. “Gimme a drag, huh?”

Dill pulled the cigarette out of his mouth, turned it around and slid it between her lips at the side of her mouth. She took a deep drag, blew upward; a long spiral of smoke smashed against the headliner of the Leaf and spread out like a thunderhead. “You sure no one will find them?”

“Sure I’m sure, doll, but you decide. They can starve in each other’s company for all I care.”

“We could get some cash for ’em… Dill, our money won’t hold out forever… I bet Delilo isn’t as hardhearted about his half-sister as he makes out. Hec’s family is filthy rich and they adore that granddaughter of theirs.” She pulled out onto the highway.

“Isn’t that a bit risky? You know, they might have a harder time pinning it on us if we all just disappear. Blackmail, doll… I dunno.”

“Blackmail beats murder. We go for the payoff, then disappear. Never to be heard from again. You and me, Dill, straight down the line.”

*

The annual dinner carried on as these things do. Brenda, Lucas, and particularly Mr. Halliday kept a watch, at one moment on the door, at one moment on their watches, at one moment on the lovely sculpted award hidden under the cloth, at one moment on the three empty chairs where Beryl, her husband Hector, and daughter Abby were to be seated. The empty seats, the unused place settings were an irritation to Mr. Halliday. Beryl was often late, but this, this was rudeness, the annual gala. Of course, she didn’t know about her award so she couldn’t be blamed for snubbing it. The surprise was that Hector hadn’t managed to get her there and he knew about this award. He always managed somehow to deliver Beryl at least “fashionably late.”

Finally the plates were cleared and the speeches had begun.

Lucas bent down to whisper, “Mr. Halliday, Brenda and I have both called Beryl’s and Hector’s cell phones multiple times. We get no answer. I’m a little worried. I hope they haven’t had an accident or something. This really is not like them.” Lucas was, in fact, considering calling the police or local hospitals.

Brenda squatted down to add, “Mr. Halliday, if they don’t arrive, I suggest you unveil her award anyway. The art department put so much into it, it is a lovely design in and of itself. You can make a joke about her tardiness. It’s practically a signature for her…”

Dan Halliday nodded. “Fine, fine.” He made a whisking motion as though batting at a gnat to dismiss Brenda and Lucas. He could not disguise his irritation.

*

“Slow down, doll. Get us killed, you’ll get them killed too… that long slow death you’re trying avoid. Though I hear that hypothermia can be pleasant after awhile, after the first phases of cold they feel warm, even flushed, they start taking off their clothes and even try to burrow into a small dark space…”

Beryl pulled into an access road for a campground closed for the winter.

“I’m a city boy born and bred, Irish, what are we doing here?”

“Don’t get cute, we gotta make a plan, I mean, how do we ask for the money? How do we arrange the pick up?”

“We don’t have time for cut-out letter ransom notes. Phone calls? Too easy to trace.”

“Unless… how about we use a burner phone, even two or three? Make the calls from them. Have the money transferred via phone into, I dunno… your wife’s account is too obvious. Can’t use Hec’s either.” Beryl started to tap her nails on the steering wheel.

“Biegler.”

“Biegler?”

“Delilo’s mouthpiece. He might do me a favor… for a cut.”

“Why’d he help you burn Delilo?”

“Honor among thieves, doll? Really?”

Beryl shrugged her shoulders.

“I bet I can get a nice little packet from Biegler. Burner phones, credit card account in some name or other ready and waiting, IDs, offshore bank account. We could get outta the country, and still get the money. Delilo will be quick. He’ll also be ready to retaliate. What about your in-laws?”

“They’ll need time to access their accounts, I guess, I dunno how their money is locked up, bonds, stocks, bank. Probably need a day. So… you know how to contact Biegler?”

“Know where he lives. Head back to town. Just before city limits, take Majestic toward the lakes. Slow down, you’re not driving a race car you know.”

Beryl grinned, feeling she had the upper hand. “You’re not scared are ya, Dill? I just love the twisties, although you’re right, this isn’t the car to do this road justice.”

Just then she hit some black ice, her Leaf spun and slid. The air bags didn’t go off for some reason. Her head hit the steering wheel hard. When she came to, she felt blood on the side of her forehead, grabbed a tissue. There was blood on the passenger window which she couldn’t figure out. She didn’t recognize the road she was on or her direction. The freezing rain didn’t help.Thoroughly disoriented she shook her head to try to clear it, then grabbed her phone to pull up directions for home. The shoulder was only slightly canted and it was easy for her to get turned around and back on the road.

She smelled cigarette smoke and aftershave. It puzzled her. The rain had completely given way to hail that was bouncing off her hood like ping pong balls. As she entered known streets and landmarks, she saw Hec’s car on the side of the road. She smiled, he was out looking for her. She pulled up behind him and jumped out into the hail. As she got up to the driver door she saw no one inside. She felt the hood of the car, cold. She felt a deep chill, heard the voice from the podcast: “Still, got ’em bagged and gagged. Introduced ’em to my dear wife. They can just go hungry together, most likely they’ll die of exposure first.”

pencil

Lou Nell Gerard’s, “Derecho,” placed 3rd in the 2018 A Midsummer Tale Narrative Writing Contest. It was published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (September 2018). “Fixies Adrift” won Gold in the 2014 Three Cheers and a Tiger Mystery Writing Contest. It was published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal (June 2014). Other published work includes Wetlands’ Role in Water Quality Enhancement (City of Bellevue, Stream Team News Splash, 1989), “Secret Dreams” (Rider Magazine, Women’s Forum, 1986). These and her blog, Three Muses Writing, reflect her enthusiasm for motorcycles, road trips, movies, music, plays, paintings, and books. Email: lng-writing[at]gerards.org

The Grave of Samuel Seymore James

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
M. Luke Yoder


Photo Credit: denisbin/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Preservation of the dead. That’s why I take grave rubbings.

Isn’t preservation the reason we created gravestones in the first place? To preserve the proof of the people we care about?

I imagine the first burial marker was the turned earth that hid the body. But the earth is ever changing, and humans are ever sentimental, so we needed more permanent signs of death. Mountains. Landmarks. Rocks. At first, it was a small pile of stones that wind and water wouldn’t wash away. As we evolved, those piles became pyramids and monuments and henges for the great; for the mediocre, short words of remembrance etched on small granite or limestone or marble slabs: name, date, epitaph. I think it’s sad that the mediocre, the most common human lives, are the first to vanish, eroded and effaced by weather or vandals or lack of care. We will forever know where the memories of our Pharos, Presidents, and Poets are housed, but the proof of Samuel Seymore James of Huger, South Carolina, 1781-1806, Beloved Husband & Faithful Fisherman, might moulder to obscurity if not for rubbers like me. In a way, I keep the dead alive.

But many cemeteries and plantations and old properties with old graves no longer allow rubbings. They argue rubbing hastens the decay or someone may break fragile stones even with best intentions. And I understand: gravesites are solemn places for the safeguarding of our past and the one true promise of our future. They are as concerned for preservation as I am. We need archival proofs, however. In time, those cold carved letters on stones and marble slabs will be erased and return to mere rock, and those names will vanish from the earth. Without archival proof, those weathered words may as well be written on the dirt and the rain. So I continue to rub, whether I should or I shouldn’t. Some cemeteries still allow rubbing from anyone, but I’m not concerned for those graves: they have their archivists and plenty of them. I seek lonelier treasures.

Which is why Samuel Seymore James’ grave is so important to me. It’s the loneliest thing I have ever seen.

For fifteen years, I’ve taken rubbings from countless sites. Piles of archival boxes and hard plastic document tubes rise from the floor of my apartment. I’ve rubbed stones and revealed names and dates indecipherable to the eye from weathering. I’ve recorded hopeful goodbyes inscribed on crumbled white obelisks tucked away in a decaying cemetery corner. I’ve taken rubbings from a collapsing antebellum family complex marking the death of a dozen children, each vulnerable to the diseases that plague mankind. I’ve found and documented our names and fears and hopes of death before nature or man could erase them, and I’ve brought them home with me on paper and cloth rubbed with colored wax. I’ve seen it all. But the grave of Samuel Seymore James haunts me to this day.

While visiting cemeteries in the area one steamy summer, I pried a story from old Huger locals. Deep in the wilderness, there is a small grave site, unknown to any from off. It was, as they said, a local legend, preserved by a vengeful magical creature, as if the stones were erected that very morning rather than centuries ago. They would not take me—one visit was enough for each of them—but they told me about hidden markers along the way and gave me detailed directions, the same they’d pried from their grandparents when they were younger and bolder. They admonished me to return as soon as I could.

I hiked seven hellish hours to the grave, prepared to camp for the night. The paths often took me through flooded lands and cypress swamps. Snakes rattled at me. Alligators slid from logs to follow me. Tall pines and sweetgums and shade oaks drenched in Spanish moss gave me no relief from the close heat. I was ripped at by piercing thorns and hounded by insects that thirsted for blood. It was brutal. I understood why those locals refused to accompany me.

I stumbled to the grave site at dusk in a putrid film of sweat, covered in welts from the giant mosquitoes that arose in those stagnant, humid lands. My clothes were torn and bloody from long briars, my hair was matted from grime; I imagine I looked like some filthy being borne from those wild swamps that nature allowed to live. What a contrast I was to the grave of Samuel Seymore James.

Tucked beneath an ancient sprawling live oak with heavy branches drooping to the ground, I saw two gleaming white stones rising out of the leaf litter like incisors. It was as if nature decided against decay and allowed the markers to remain as unblemished as the day they were set. A pair of alabaster hands, one from each stone, stretched and clasped one another through space, binding the graves. When I looked closer at the hands, I could see words etched on the back of each, in a perfect Gothic font: Together in Eternity.

The left marker bore Samuel’s name and date of death. The edge of each letter was sharp and crisp, without hint of moss or mold, so pristine I thought it a wonder I didn’t hear the pinging of hammer on chisel as I approached earlier. I was amazed a grave so old and isolated could be so clean and free of weathering.

The right marker, just as pure, bore a name as well: Edith Anne James. Unlike Samuel’s grave, there was no epitaph or date of death: 1785–. Samuel was buried here alone, forever.

A loneliness I’d never felt before, or have experienced since, rolled over me in an instant and settled on my bones. In the fading light, I stood at Samuel Seymore James’s grave and I wanted to weep. The grave was so far removed from everything else in space and time and companionship that I was struck with the grandeur and sadness of it all. Buried alone, here, in a place so far removed it’s a wonder it exists at all. I took the rubbings of the stones and the clasped hands binding them among the crying crickets and flickering fireflies long after the sun disappeared.

I didn’t sleep well that night. In the fitful heat of my tent, I imagined I could hear Edith Anne wailing, wandering outside my tent, seeking her beloved Samuel and her rightful final resting place beside him. I could not dissuade myself that this grave was the loneliest on earth, hidden from the eyes of others, and destined to remain hidden until nature, if it was within its power, did away with it.

I returned home feeling I’d taken my most important rubbings. I placed them in an archival box and continued my work for years, knowing that no grave would need more proof of existence than Samuel Seymore James’s. I’d trekked through hell to take those rubbings. I could say that if I should die tomorrow, I’d die happy having brought Samuel Seymore James out of the wilderness, returned to life, and having captured the spectre of his beloved Edith Anne and her unfulfilled promise to him as well. Despite the terrible hike, I was satisfied my passion for preservation drove me to his grave and gave me such a sad, haunting story as that of two lovers long dead and separated for eternity.

But now I have to go back through that hell once again.

I received a call last week and I’ve been digging through my archives ever since. Thousands of rolls and sheets and I cannot locate the rubbings for Samuel Seymore James: not with the other Huger rubbings nor in the archive box for Charleston and Surrounding Area.

The call was from the American Institute for the Preservation of the Dead. They are a historical advocacy group that insists rubbings are a vital method for safeguarding the burials of the past. They won a grant from the Smithsonian and want to take their message on a tour to raise awareness for rubbings and the importance of preservation. The representative who contacted me knew of my work through other rubbers and mutual friends. The Institute would be thrilled for me to submit my most important rubbing for approval. The award for the twenty-five works chosen would be a one-year gallery tour throughout the country for advocacy and a prize of one thousand dollars. I told the representative I knew the exact rubbing I would submit and that I would send it soon.

That was six days ago. I’m now convinced, after having exhumed nearly all of my past work, against all odds I misplaced the rubbings of Samuel Seymore James. There is no reason I should believe I committed such a crime, but there it is. They are nowhere to be found.

I thought about submitting others. I have a beautiful rubbing from Boston I did on cream cloth and purple wax with a date of 1713 and a tearful poem yearning for positive judgment on a life lived. But it wasn’t the same. I know what I’d had with Samuel’s grave. I cannot bring myself to submit another sample in its place. I am certain I am, in all of Creation, the only human to have taken a rubbing of that grave, and the importance of its preservation is undebatable. The rest of my rubbings can burn for all I care.

I’m sure I can find the grave once again.

I live three hours from Huger. It’s winter now and the drive should be easy. Winter in the South is different than most people expect. They expect it to be mild, but not cold. They are wrong. It doesn’t snow much in Huger, but there are countless days from December to March when the cold is as close and heavy as a hide blanket and the clouds press down upon your shoulders with weight. You can’t help but hug yourself to hold on to the heat being pulled from your chest. And when it rains, the damp lasts for weeks beneath the feeble sunlight that manages to filter from the heavens. Darkness falls early on those days and the dawns are slow to return. It’s one of those looming mornings as I drive through Huger.

I think about the story of Samuel Seymore James often. Every grave I’ve visited since has evoked the memory: I see him kissing Edith Anne goodbye that late August morning and heading into the forest to find a secret fishing hole. I see the hurricane clouds and flooding winds, the oak branch that fell on him after he lost the path home in the darkness and rain. Edith finds his body herself. She buries him beneath the oak and spends everything she has on the gravestones. The few people who trekked into the wilderness to witness the ceremony said Edith refused to leave with them. She sat on the ground at her own gravestone, silent, tracing patterns on the smooth surface with her finger. She was broken, they said. So some stayed with her. But Edith Anne never got better. They built her a shelter and found her food and soon she was alone.

When one couple took it upon themselves to return from guilt, Edith Anne was gone. Two days later, the couple died in a house fire. A man traveling through the forest to Jamestown noticed small piles of stones which lead him to the grave; he camped at the site on the way up but he never returned home. His body was found beneath the oak. Just twenty years ago a Ranger found two Wiccan lovers dead on Edith’s grave. Visiting the grave now is a dare that few local children still rise to. But no one ever goes back twice.

And so the locals told me the story of Edith Anne James, alive still in that wilderness, caring for the gravestones and punishing those who leave her.

The locals told the story with such conviction that when I first stumbled to the site that long ago summer, I wanted to believe it as well, seeing those stones absolutely unaffected by the very same nature that attacked me every step I took toward the grave. There Samuel lies, below two shining white beacons of stone that defy degradation and decay. Edith Anne is there, too, somewhere, the magical source of that defiance. I wanted to believe that wave of loneliness crashing over me in my sweaty exhaustion was Samuel’s and Edith’s. I wanted to believe it all. But while that abject feeling of loneliness is incomparable to anything I’ve experienced since, my reverence for the story has waned. Evidence soon proved otherwise.

I found many examples in the literature of gravestones in near-perfect condition after over one hundred years, stones that nature just doesn’t touch, due to differences in material or local conditions or a variety of other rational variables. Despite decades and centuries of heat and floods and droughts and deep chills, despite the enduring press of nature upon all things in this world, there are exceptions immune to that press. There are things in existence that resist the inevitable laws of nature, and the grave of Samuel Seymore James appears to me to be one of those special examples. I’ve found other examples on every continent and within every other climate. There is evidence in this world our markers can endure those laws to which all other things must succumb. And isn’t that why we created gravestones in the first place? Preservation! Isn’t that wonderful enough in itself to justify returning through hell for a rubbing, despite a local legend and the natural part of me that still wants to believe that legend is true?

I think it is. I thought it was the moment I was contacted about the award and I still do as I see signs for the Wadboo Trail a few miles north of Huger.

The Wadboo Trail is an old horse path that meanders through the forest for fifty miles. It was cut out before the Revolution and farmers, travelers, and enthusiasts have been using it ever since. This is the main passage I will follow to reach the first pile of stones.

I park in the small gravel lot at the head of the trail, empty as last time. I sit basking in the final warmth I’ll have until the campfire I build tonight. The head of the trail is wide and paved in pine straw, but it soon narrows and becomes ribbed in places with exposed roots and fallen branches. Despite the hellish heat of my last trek, I enjoyed a brisk pace and admired the scenery until I left the trail at the first pile of stones, a rough footpath that’s noticeable if you know where to look. But after are the swamps and muck that pulled down on me like I was wading through hell with little hope of reaching the grave. Swamps tend to ebb in the winter, and I hope this is true today. From there, the land rises to dry and is choked with greenbriers and thickets to the grave site.

I’m going to camp through the night. There’s not enough sunlight in the day now to avoid it and hiking in the dark is unthinkable. I can reach the grave site well before dusk but I’ll return in the morning. I have two battery lanterns that will give me enough light to work in the dark, but with the fire I plan on building to stay warm, I may not need them.

I tug my hat over my ears and open the car door to pull on my stuffed backpack. The cold slaps my face. I can see my breath. The sound of crunching gravel radiates a few feet and dies close in the heavy air. There is no wind, but wind would be a mercy if it lifted these pressing clouds from my shoulders. I feel like I’m in a cold, grey box stuffed with cotton spun from the dampness. A mist seeps from the sodden ground. It’s as quiet as a fallen blizzard. I stand up straight, shrug my backpack right, and pass between the two short wooden rail fences that mark the cold beginning of the trail.

I can’t see the tops of the pines for the low clouds. The mist is so thick I can just make out a few magnolias scattered about the edges of the trail. All I can hear are my winter clothes swishing with my steps, my boots crunching the pine straw and dead leaves on the trail, and my heaving breath. I walk to the rhythm of these sounds and it takes my mind off the depressing conditions: I plan on making quick pace to the first marker. This will give me more time to navigate the swamp waters and will also keep my temperature up besides. I still shudder when I think about this hike in that hellish heat in the past, but I suspect this gross day will do its best to beat it.

In quick time, the first marker appears just as it was before. I find the footpath, but it’s more crooked and rugged than I remember.

The trees are older and closer together here. More oak and sweetgum. Spanish moss hangs like curtains from the branches; dank green moss and gray lichens grow between the bark. If I didn’t know those swamps still awaited I’d take my time to make sure I didn’t twist an ankle to breaking. But those swamps do await. So I do my best to follow the winding trail and keep the pace. My cheeks are numb and my lungs sting from the cold.

I am alone with my marching sounds. Swish, crunch, breath. Swish, crunch, breath. Now at the edge of my hearing, softer but higher pitched than my cadence, I can hear a pinging. As if someone struck a bright cymbal or triangle. I don’t know what is, but I incorporate the sound into my march. Swish, crunch, ping, breath. Swish, crunch, ping, breath. I fall into the rhythm and quicken my pace.

I trip on an exposed root. I grab a branch to steady myself, but it snaps off and I land on my hands and knees. One nub on the branch punctures the palm of my hand. It hurts like hell. I scream and the sound dies close, smothered by the mist and clouds. When I raise my hand to examine it, I leave a bloody handprint on the detritus and exposed roots.

The wound is deep. I wrap a bandage around my wrist to stave the blood. I clean the wound with water. A large splinter of the nub is still stuck. I yank it out and scream again. Soon, the bleeding slows and I dress the wound. It may not be enough, but I’m not stopping. The grave is too important. I start the hike once more.

I’m lost in the swamp. My wound has broken open. I’ve also twisted my knee. I don’t have time to stop now, not with dusk already settling in. Winter dusk is not like summer dusk. Especially on cold, disheartening days like today. In the summer, the colors dusk throws into the sky are brilliant: purples and reds and yellows tossed from below to bloom on the belly of the slow, darkening heavens. In the winter, dusk is more like closing your eyes to die; the light slowly fades in the gray until there is nothing left to see. And when the darkness finally comes, it comes quick. I should not rest, but I must. This hike has been far worse than my first.

It’s as if nature redoubled its efforts from long ago to prevent me reaching the grave of Samuel Seymore James.

The land rose and sank in places I could not remember. The footpath twisted through the dense woods in an unimaginable and illogical way, turning back upon itself and forking madly. It was more maze than trail. I could still find piles of stone markers, but there were fewer than I remembered and I found them at odd intervals. At one point I thought I saw someone sneaking in the mist. They didn’t answer my calls; I twisted my knee when I left the path to find them. Branches scratched at me and roots stubbed my feet. I finally stumbled to the edge of the swamp. And still, I could hear that ping, out there somewhere, hidden within the mist and clouds that enveloped everything.

I was exhausted. I forced myself deeper into the swamp. I couldn’t find the next stone marker. There was nothing but cypress trees and vines and that damned mist obscuring it all. I tried to find the source of the ping, but it was difficult to know the direction beneath those dampening clouds. I’ve been unable to find my way out of the swamp since, and now I don’t think I ever will.

I’ve torn something in my knee. Blood runs down my wrist, soaking the tourniquet. It drips from my fingers into the water when I rest my arm by my side. I can’t keep warm, no matter how hard I hug myself. I redress the wound in the dying light, but it won’t help. The bleeding won’t stop. And the pinging won’t either.

I rest on a small dry area between two cypress trees. I think of my favorite rubbings: the one from Boston; an eighteenth-century angel fighting Satan in Louisiana; a severe slab of marble from Boise, 1896-1945, with a tasteless joke and an etching to match. These were all fine examples, examples that need to be preserved, and any one of them or countless others were good enough to win one of those awards. I could’ve submitted any of them and won. But the grave of Samuel Seymore James called to me, and for that I am lost.

What would my gravestone look like, if someone should chance upon my body? I imagine aspects of each of those rubbings coalescing into my own gravestone, erected in my name, here. I’d have a witty epitaph. Something to make people laugh. Above my name, a quote on preservation and the innate need for humans to create things that remind us of those we miss the most. I imagine sculpted adornments and effects that would make anyone who stumbled upon it ask themselves: who the hell was bold enough to die out here? And, at moments, I imagine Edith Anne visiting my grave to keep the unrelenting weathering forces of nature and time at bay, as she did for her beloved these last two centuries.

I imagine these things and it makes me smile. But I know the truth. The only things that will mark my grave are my possessions and the small portion of my bones that don’t get carried off by alligators and other scavengers. Those things will mark my grave for a time, but nature will claim those, too, with hurricanes and floods and larger tides. I imagine this tiny island I lie on now will be gone in five years, and my bones and belongings will fall to the swamp, carried away to wherever nature wishes. Soon, there will be no trace I lived and died. There will be nothing to stop the weathering of my grave and no one near enough to preserve my existence.

This is why we build monuments to the dead, in hopes that we can defeat nature and, in a way, live forever. But that won’t happen for me. I die as we died before, when nature hid us from the universe as soon as it could and we didn’t know enough to do anything about it. Before henges and pyramids, before piles of stone.

There is little light left. The pinging is as fast as it’s ever been. My eyes are heavy. It’s no shame, to die like this. In the name of preservation, I tried. I look to the dusk horizon, as close as it is, and I hope to see a color. Any color but gray. Purple. Red. Yellow. Something. But all I see is that damned mist and those awful clouds above. I can’t tell if darkness is here or my eyes are finally closing. I’ve lost a lot of blood. The pinging stops. As the last bit of light leaves, I see something strange.

I fumble for my light and flick it on: it’s a white tube that wasn’t there before, propped against a nearby cypress.

I slide back into the cold water. My knee screams and I almost sink. I manage to hold the light on the object and I splash to it. It’s a plastic document tube. Written along its length, in black Gothic letters: Preservation of the Dead.

I carry it back to my island and set the light on the ground. I unscrew the cap. I pull the rolled cloth from the tube. It’s the rubbing of Samuel’s grave.

It’s my rubbing. My cloth, my color of wax, and my signature; Samuel’s name, date, and epitaph. It’s mine, except for a message written in the margin, in the same letters as on the tube: This is Your Award.

I’m not alone. I shine the light about. The clouds are lower. The mist swallows the light and spits it back at me. I hear a splash behind. I swing the light around; a figure wades into the mist. I shout, but it’s pointless; it doesn’t look back. I chase as fast as I can.

I can’t keep up and they won’t slow. My leg feels like it’s going to snap. I’m dizzy from losing blood. I keep the light enough to spot glimpses of the figure through the mist. I can’t scream anymore. I can barely breathe. If I falter, I won’t have the strength to continue.

The ground starts to rise. I claw my way onto land. There’s another document tube. Beyond, the figure stops. I crawl to the tube and twist it open. This time, I see the impression of two hands clasped, rubbed in red wax: Together in Eternity. In the margin, again: This is Your Award.

I beg for the figure to stop and to help me. Instead, it disappears into the mist. I roll over onto my back and try to scream at the clouds. My voice dies in my throat. I can’t tell if this is real or an irrational dream; I’m not certain I want to know. The ping starts once more. Clearer. Closer. I shine the light in the direction I know it’s coming from and I see a familiar pile of stones.

The grave isn’t far, now.

I force myself to my feet, but my leg gives and I fall. I crawl forward on my hands and knees. I hit snaking vines of greenbrier and deep thicket. The thorns catch my clothing and pierce to my skin. I can feel blood dripping from my head and ears. Vines wrap around my ankles, denying my efforts to continue. I pull myself, digging my hands in the soil and using roots like ladders. I hold fast to the light and I see a clearing. More vines seem to reach out at once to bar my way; they tangle my limbs and twist me around. A thorn stabs my throat. I am being torn apart. I bellow loud and pull as hard as I can. I squirt out onto the leaf-littered ground beneath the oak like I was pushed.

I crawl to the grave site. My body is throbbing. I imagine I look like some pathetic creature, spewed from nature like excrement from disgust. A thing that has no choice but to go where drawn. A mindless maggot seeking by instinct.

I shine the light at the grave.

The figure is hunched over Edith’s marker, striking the stone ping ping ping ping ping! Just behind it, on the ground, another document tube. A wave of absurd terror rolls over me and I want to weep. I know what awaits. I know, and still, I must see. I find a stick to prop myself to my feet and limp to my fate.

Ping ping ping ping ping!

The white cloth inside this tube isn’t mine, but I wish it were. As illogical as that seems, I wish it were.

There are words written once more: For Loving Samuel as much as I do. But above the epitaph, an image of my own face, as if the cloth was placed over my sleeping eyes and rubbed with some ethereal red wax while I dreamed impermanent things.

The pinging stops. The figure stands and turns. My light shines through it now, a spectre transparent like a fine mist rising from the ground. I cannot see if the creature is man or woman from the pulsating shimmer that springs up in a halo around it like dawn. But I know. In my bones, I know. It unleashes a sound of happiness so pure I wonder how it is that I was ever frightened of dying out here in the first place; my doubts of returning to the grave vanish in the flood. The rubbing was worth it. For Samuel, it was worth it.

And then Edith Anne reaches out and pierces my chest with an incorporeal hand. My heart seizes and I can’t breathe. I drop the light and fall to my knees as she screams in delight.

The last thing I see is my gravestone, pure white, next to Samuel’s. Name, date, epitaph: Dedicated Preservationist.

I wonder, will it weather?

pencil

M. Luke Yoder is a writer from Charleston, SC. Email: mlukeyoder[at]gmail.com

Couch

Baker’s Pick
Jared Levy


Photo Credit: emdot/Flickr (CC-by)

My dad came home from work and sat on the the black leather couch in the living room. He always sat on the same spot. He always looked tired. Every night it went work, couch, until the couch developed a large impression where his butt landed.

Until my mom kicked him out. Then I sat in the spot. I was younger then, about eight or nine, so I fell into the spot. It was like falling into a pit. It was like wearing hand-me-downs.

When my mom asked to sit in the spot, I said, “No, it’s mine.” But my mom said I couldn’t claim the spot. She said it was a little weird for me to be fixated on the spot when there were so many places to sit. What about the place on the other end of the couch where you could put your legs up? Isn’t that more comfortable?

I ignored my mom and stayed in the spot. I came home from school and watched the same TV my dad watched: sports, ER, and any movie on TNT. When my mom got home, she said she was too tired to argue with me. Do what you want.

About a month later, my dad visited and my mom left the house. My dad walked to the living room and looked at the couch, but he didn’t sit in the spot. Instead, he sat in the place my mom talked about, the place where you could put your legs up, and I didn’t know what to do. It didn’t feel right to sit in the spot, so I sat on the floor near the couch as my dad asked me, how were classes, how was basketball, how were my friends?

I tried to answer, but I kept looking at the spot, getting more and more angry. My answers got shorter and shorter, from a sentence to word, and my dad looked more and more uncomfortable, getting quieter too, until I told him I needed to go to the bathroom. I went to my room instead, shut the door, and tried to punch a hole in the wall. The plaster cracked. My knuckles got raw and bloody.

My dad yelled, “What are you doing up there?”

I yelled, “Nothing!”

I went back downstairs to the couch and sat on my hands. Blood stained my favorite corduroys. Crimson speckled all over the bottom. I threw my pants out before laundry day.

When my mom kicked my dad out, I was sitting on the couch. He looked at me and asked, “Is it always going to be this hard?”

I said, “I don’t know.”

And when my mom came home on the day my dad visited, he stood up to say hello, but she walked past him and over to me. She put her hand on the back of my neck and asked, “How was it?”

I looked down. I said it was fine. I softened under her touch.

pencil

Jared Levy has stories published in regional and international journals including The Quotable, Apiary Magazine, The Machinery, and The Matador Review. His most recent published story, in Cleaver Magazine, “Waiting for you in Paris”, was nominated for a 2019 Pushcart Award. He holds a BA in Philosophy from Bates College and is the recipient of support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Lacawac Artists’ Residency, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. He was born in Philadelphia, PA, and currently lives there, too. He is a proud member of the Backyard Writers Workshop. Email: jaredmlevy[at]gmail.com

The Pen

Broker’s Pick
Carl Leggo


Photo Credit: Paul Sullivan/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

(for Rick)

years ago when my first book of poems
Growing Up Perpendicular on the Side of a Hill
was published, my brother sent me
a silver Cross pen with my name engraved

my brother sometimes complained
I made money by writing poetry about
his mishaps and calamities (I always
explained, poets don’t make any money)

a year ago I lost the pen, and while I lose
a lot of pens, I was especially sad to lose
the pen my brother had given me, a gesture
he was glad I wrote stories, even his

on the eve of my birthday I was culling
clothes in my closet (a seasonal purging
to sustain balance amidst busy clutter)
with hope that the thrift store had room

I found the pen in the pocket of a winter jacket,
and remembered how my brother always
phoned me on my birthday with the boast,
I’m now two years younger than you, at least

for a week, since he was born one year
and one week after me, always my best friend
growing up on Lynch’s Lane, and for all our
differences, he was the brother I always needed

since he died last August, he will always be much
younger now, and finding the lost pen I knew
how a lovely mystery holds us fast, even in loss,
when my brother whispered, write more poems

pencil

Carl Leggo is a poet and professor at the University of British Columbia. His books include: Growing Up Perpendicular on the Side of a Hill; View from My Mother’s House; Come-By-Chance; Lifewriting as Literary Métissage and an Ethos for Our Times (co-authored with Erika Hasebe-Ludt and Cynthia Chambers); Creative Expression, Creative Education (co-edited with Robert Kelly); Sailing in a Concrete Boat; Arresting Hope: Prisons That Heal (co-edited with Ruth Martin, Mo Korchinski, and Lynn Fels); Arts-based and Contemplative Practices in Research and Teaching: Honoring Presence (co-edited with Susan Walsh and Barbara Bickel); Hearing Echoes (co-authored with Renee Norman); and Poetic inquiry: Enchantment of Place (co-edited with Pauline Sameshima, Alexandra Fidyk, and Kedrick James). Email: carl.leggo[at]ubc.ca

Ventured

Creative Nonfiction
Tracy Lyall


Photo Credit: Hannah Swithinbank/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The ancient T-Rex and Brontosaurus, a Route 66 beacon jutting out to the highway from beyond the grave. Was it Big Bang? Our oil, our fossil fuels from you giant beasts have taken us many miles across this America, the bold and the beautiful. I drive for you. You Godzilla of city-crushing monsters we long to pet and adore. Your bone oil is brewing beneath the surface of the earth like a stew. Like a golden black curse, killing earth and destroying families.

Mothra’s outfit is sewn out of canvas and he flutters off to the side, kicked out of theatre like an angry gay man watching the play die.

They are trying to revive Route 66, bring us all out to play, to drive, to live and roam the American dream again. Fill the Grand Canyon up with water like a giant backyard pool party, barbecue with tiki torches, the wife, and kids. Your buddies and one—only one—wife, you know, the one you’ve loved since high school, sweetheart letters in a photo album next to prom and a cheap backyard wedding in an old suit and dresses suitable for evening wear. That one. The one you forgot, turned your back on, and rode away on a motorcycle with a fake blonde to drown out the pain. The one who drank and cried, took a job, quit a job, traveled and overdosed

—only to not care anymore
—so you could come back
—calling her ugly
—the wear and tear
—calling her washed up
—her dying dreams
—calling her broken
—no shit, really?

This highway wouldn’t exist without the dinosaur; its bone dust ground to petrol for man’s steel machines—the oil, the petroleum, and gasoline.

Like the stuffy stairwell up the dinosaur’s belly into the gift shop, you think you can buy time, buy a souvenir of a time gone and recollect like a tourist. As if you weren’t the one responsible, as if you weren’t the bully kid who kicked the chair out from beneath the little freckled girl who fell on her face, busting her lip, and knocking out her teeth.

So you can call her ‘ugly’.

Driving, driving

—to the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles. Check my bag in at the front door and walk past the Snuffleupagus head mount on the wall and up the stairs. Red and black, brown, burgundy spines of books pieced together, the vertebrae of literary dinosaurs melting in tar pits of film images gone plastico. The black type words strategically placed, line after line, letters and letters, the dots on pale white pages I long for. As if I’ve created a narrator in my head, the voice you gave me in silence. I hear your words alone in dusty aisles. Buried beneath cinders and dollar sections, stupid titles and possible relics. Where are you now? Failed writing etiquette or the history of sea lions or crappy detective novels with boring, depressed main characters who die by page three. Working at CVS or all-night diners?

I’m walking through your tunnel sculpture, the creak of wood beneath my heel. I close my eyes and touch spines.

I never told my mother I was on a journey for a mate, a lover, a cross-country husband hunt—anything outside that mundane hot and humid hell-town—beyond the traffic and views, sweat, oppression, and fear. I give her my license plate number “in case I go missing.” She says no one would take me. In case I never come back. Except to pack up my belongings. No one knows I’m here.

After coffee at Intelligentsia, five-dollar espresso and university culture, trying to find a reading, a closed-down theatre, black coal on a Sunday afternoon, after Whole Foods and green machine smoothies—two-day socks and suburbs.

The mountains are always in the background, always landscape for a silent sprawl, lava of highway and clusters of homes to hide our wads of body. Bags and chain link fence. Driveways and gay parrots.

F— you god, f— you and your little dog too. Your sick joke of life, I proved you wrong—I drove off smiling with clothes, paintings, CDs and camping gear.

Look away.

I walk away and come back twenty minutes later. His long curly brown hair beneath a baseball cap, white T-shirt. ESP. Wishing he could read minds.

A stack of books in my hand, I set them down.

“Do you mind if I take a picture?”

He doesn’t but it’s intrusive so I say maybe if you turn.

They say you traveled cross-country to Maine once, had a breakdown.

The fishing boats, the docks, and the eerie cold water—dead fish frozen beneath the surface as the lighthouse scans the sea. The cliffs are dry and water calm. I heard you went looking for Stephen King and his fictional, mystical town. You found donuts and snow boots, old trucks, and lonely wives. The ratio of male/female was 100 to 109. You were looking for an angel, someone to take back home. God wasn’t listening because his damn yippy dog was all the noise.

So in the middle of the night on the edge of town, you jumped off a cliff into the green sea—and didn’t die, did you sweetheart?

Dove into the freezing water, thought about that punk rock song “People Who Died.” Died. You shivered and rose up. Holding your breath. Tried but gradually resurfaced. Then slept in a ball on the beach, digging beneath the sand like crab, it kept you warm.

You lived. You came back.

Ventura, was it? Return to the hills, the smog, the crowd, like pushed to the edge of a dark bar. Your back is against the wall—body stench, bathrooms, and stale beer. Your shoes stick to the floor. Your mother calls, you lie in bed for days peering up over the windowsill, watching gulls fly through the end streets, the roar of ocean just outside. Someone knocked your mailbox down with a bat, tossed beer cans in your yard.

She says you’ll be fine, invites you over for dinner, and tries to hook you up with the frumpy neighbor. Now look at you, not dead and hanging out with your mother who suggests more night school and another job. Kick your shoes off, get rid of that old dog, it’s stinking up your apartment.

I took your picture. You stood nervously then sat back down again, looking at me as if asking, “Can you read minds?” It’s too soon; we’ve just met. Sit down again. I am over your shoulder, an amber glow. Books, shelves of books, and a black light overhead, radar knobs and dials like submarine. Submerged deep beneath a hundred-year city, black-and-white silent movies, quiet beauty, freak shows and gay parades. Smog sun. Cemeteries on a grey day.

This is it, this is your only life—let’s just live.

It’s three p.m., the rental car is parked in the lot down the street. Where have I been? Asleep, having babies, working jobs I loathe, and looking for a guy like you—like high school, mid-life prom. Let’s go. We ‘um,’ we go stupid… I walk away with your image in my camera—three of a hundred or so. Pay for the dollar books under my arm, get my bag from baggage check, hoping you ask about me. I call a day later but it’s too late. Look back one last time at the mannequin by the front then drive to the mountains to camp out, got there too late and had to rent a hotel room. One of the attendants is chasing away a cat who’s bothering tenants. I tell her I will watch her and she spends the night in my room. Quick to leave in the morning while I drink coffee, hunt donuts, count the cars in the parking lot next door, watch the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada worming its way through the mountains. Bikers eat at cement tables outside the gas station.

You’re still alive.

We’ll meet again.

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Tracy L. Lyall was born in Houston, Texas during the time of roller-disco and cool, cigarette-smoking tomboys, she spent her early years traveling on greyhound buses and experiencing life, much of which became the basis of her writing/art/photography ventures. After working with underground zines her writing spanned into journalistic media. Published by university presses, magazines, and small press, she actively hunts the ‘big time’ while raising a series of fiction and creative non-fiction novels along with two joeys, degrees, paintings, photography, and running an online literary zine. She currently resides in a dungeon. Email: yedicat[at]yahoo.com

On Second Thought…

Fiction
Louis M. Abbey


Photo Credit: Don Shall/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I was savoring my first bite of fresh apple pie when a knock on the front door startled me.

Swallowing quickly, I flipped on the porch light, opened the door and Bill Canfield stood there smiling. He’s six-foot-four with thick brown hair, broad nose, high cheekbones and sad brown eyes. A paunch drapes generously over his belt. He and Louise are my only neighbors for miles along our stretch of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Hi, Bill,” I said. “What’s up? Come in out of the dark. Cup of tea? Piece of pie?” I held the door and he stepped inside.

“Oh, everything’s fine, Larry. I can’t stay long this time, so I’ll take a rain check on the pie. Just wanted to tell you I’ll be away for a few days. My dead brother’s wife’s got a problem with her father’s will—family squabbles, you know. They asked me to help straighten things out.”

“Sounds like a rough situation.”

“Yeah, kinda ridiculous too.” He shook his head slowly. “Here it is 1975, man’s been dead near two years and they still can’t agree on who gets what. Just wanted you to know where I’d be. Louise doesn’t get along with that side of the family so she’s stayin’ here.”

“Well, I’m sorry to say I won’t be around either, Bill. I’m heading out early tomorrow for a month in the Philippines. Hate to leave the same time as you, but… no choice.”

“I understand, Larry. You come and go on short notice. I’ll only be away for a couple of days; Louise can take care of herself. Got her plenty of groceries and there’s a pile of books she’s been dying to get at. She’ll be fine.” He turned and opened the door to the porch.

“OK, Bill. Good luck on your trip and hope you can get things sorted out.”

“Talk to you when you get back, Larry, and I’ll see to your grass.” He chuckled. “Good night.”

I switched off the porch light when Bill reached the dirt road. My piece of pie was waiting patiently on its plate.

*

My work in the Philippines was exhausting. So when I returned, I picked up mail, back issues of the local newspaper, and drove home. Shopping could wait. Pulling into the yard, I noticed my grass was almost knee-high. Bill’s lawn looked mowed but his car was gone.

My fridge was empty except for a can of beer. Unpack in the morning, I thought. Opening a package of cookies, I sat down at the table to scan the local news. The second page shocked me. Louise Canfield had died. I stared at the three-week-old obituary. Tears welled in my eyes. What would I— could I say to Bill?

I had a restless night. In the morning, Bill’s pristine metallic-green Chrysler was in the driveway and he was out raking under the tall pines. His large frame seemed smaller and moved a little slower. I watched through the window for a few minutes, mulling over what to say. Then I stepped outside and walked across the yard between our houses. Bill’s back was turned and he was scratching his rake on a shabby patch of lawn and pine tags.

“Don’t mean to sneak up on you, Bill, but how’s it going?” I said from a few yards away.

“Hi! How’re ya’ doin’, Larry? Welcome back!” His confident tone contrasted with the flustered look on his face.

“I’m fine! Beautiful afternoon. I, ah, read in the paper about Louise. So sorry I was away, Bill. How’re you holding up?”

His eyes filled as we shook hands. “Still pretty rough, I reckon,” he said with a shrug, letting go of his rake. It tilted slowly and thudded to the ground.

“Sure is a beautiful weekend, just the kind of weather for November.” My lighter tone fell flat.

Bill bent over, picked up the rake and leaned on the handle, droop-shouldered, mouth slacked at the corners. “She’s been gone over three weeks now,” he drawled, shaking his head slowly. “Still listen for her to tell me what to do—my scheduler, alarm clock, and director, all gone at once. Life sure is boring without her yellin’ at me. You know, I’ve overslept more lately than in the whole time we were married. That would be thirty-two years this January.”

“Long time…” I nodded.

“Remember I had to go away on that business with my sister-in-law?” Bill asked. “I told Louise I’d only be a couple of days. When I got there the lawyer said it’d take near a week. So I called Louise right away. No answer. Thought she might be outside so I waited and called again, still no answer. I had the car and she’d never leave with anybody else, once I was gone.”

“So I left right then, to hell with the lawyer. Drove all night, straight back; kept stoppin’ and callin’… no answer! Pulled into the yard early in the morning and spotted her first thing, layin’ out there under those trees beside the beach, buzzards circling.” He pointed to a stand of tall pines. “She must have died while I was on the road.”

He wiped his cheek with the back of his hand.

I stared at him—my mouth hanging open. The newspaper hadn’t mentioned that part of the story.

“Right here in my yard—my poor dead wife being picked over by buzzards and I had to come home to find her. I ran at ‘em. Scared ‘em off, but they kept circling. Got a blanket from the car to cover her just so I could go in the house to call somebody. It panicked me. I yelled and screamed at those birds, blubberin’ like a baby. I think about it when I’m alone—where was I when she needed me?”

“I’m sorry, Bill, I didn’t know. Thought she—”

“No, right there. Ain’t nobody around to find her this time of year, just summer places up the road, you know. She prob’ly had some scraps to throw back for the crabs… empty bowl beside her. Buzzards must’ve ate it and were about to start on her. Doctor said it was a massive heart attack.”

I looked away, drew a deep breath and wiped my eyes.

“It was awful,” he went on. “Neither of us have family in the area, you know, and she’s an only child. She meant the world to me, Larry. You never realize it ’til they’re gone. Doctor told me she didn’t suffer. I thank the Lord for that, but I never knew how much I’d suffer.”

“You two sure had a good life… a lot to be thankful for.”

He turned his head and stared across the two-mile width of flat, brown, mid-November bay.

“Know what I miss the most?”

“No, but it must be hard thinking back. You’re brave, Bill, don’t think I could do it.”

“Never know ’till it happens to you… can’t never prepare.” His voice trembled. “You know, she used to iron my— my undershorts and handkerchiefs. Now I don’t mean no harm but that’s what I miss… the little things. She took care of me and I wasn’t even here when she needed me most.”

A tear ran down his cheek to his chin. He let go of the rake handle and wiped his face with the back of his hand. The rake balanced then tipped slowly toward the water landing in the grass. He bent over, picked it up and leaned it against a tree.

“I’d worry when she was late coming back from the store, get mad at her. Not that she might get in an accident or something, but ‘cause she wasn’t here to cook my supper. She wasn’t here for me! Now I can get as mad as I want and it don’t do no good. That’s 32 years of thinking of myself!” He spread his arms wide and looked straight at me. “In the end, she checks out on her own, without me.”

“You know, when I went to the war in Korea, I feared I’d get…” He pointed below his belt buckle. “You know, shot off so I couldn’t use it anymore. I’d rather they shot me dead. Never thought about what it’d be like if she passed first. Just assumed I’d go first, like men mostly do. She was always there for me.”

“I wasn’t even here to see her go! Hell, I’d trade… you know what… to have her back for just an hour to say good-bye.”

“I miss our walks. No hand to hold. Not that we walked through the woods holding hands all the time, but now when I reach out, that hand’s not there. Blows me away!”

I nodded.

“You know I like to read the paper in the morning, front to back, ‘fore I ever get going and do anything. We’d sit there and I’d come across lines or stories—read ‘em out loud to her—get her ideas—talk about ‘em. Now I read to the goddamn walls—nobody there. We never had kids—maybe we shoulda.”

“I went fishin’ the other day. Got back to the dock and I let ‘em all go. Poured ’em outta the bucket right back into the water. Couldn’t bear to clean ’em. All I thought of was their relatives, how they’d be missed.” He shook his head. “Think I’ll ever get back to fishin’ again?”

“Louise, she was a real stickler about leaves and pine tags, remember? I’ve raked a couple of times since she died, not for me, but for her. Thought she might feel better, wherever she is. I feel close to her, out here raking her leaves. She’s here with me every day, right here in my heart.” He thumped his chest. “I know she is.” He kicked the dry pine tags. Silence settled with the dust.

“When she finished rakin’, we’d sit down and have a soda, you know, right over there on the lawn chairs,” he pointed. “They say you never know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone. Well, I’ve got nothing now.”

“You took care of her, Mr. Canfield, and she took care of you. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? Watch out for each other… hope and care. Hope and care’s all we can give.” I placed my hand on his shoulder.

He lowered his head, shoved a hand in his pocket. “Yeah, she used to talk about that. Kept this sad-assed lawn clean hopin’ the grass would grow. You know you can’t grow decent grass this close to saltwater. But she hoped and now I reckon I’m continuin’ to hope for her. She’d be proud of the way I keep it all clean. Only one thing, though, when I’m done, there’s nobody waitin’ over there with a cold soda. She’d quit a minute or two before me, go get the sodas—her ginger ale and root beer for me—then we’d drink ‘em together, sittin’ right under that tree in those chairs.” His voice was thick.

All the chairs needed were Louise and Bill sitting in them, seats weighted down perilously close to the ground. She’d have her hands in her lap, ankles crossed in front of her. He’d cross his legs in the manly fashion, ankle atop the opposite knee. Sometimes he’d cock his arm behind his neck like a headrest.

“Keep working on the memories, Mr. Canfield,” I said softly, patting him on the back. “Pretty soon, you’ll be able to take comfort in ‘em. Now, I know you don’t drink, Bill, but there’s a cold beer back in my fridge and two glasses—one for you and one for me. You wait here and I’ll get ‘em.”

“Well, no thanks, Larry. I don’t drink, you know. Louise never approved. But I appreciate you thinking of me that way.” Then he tipped his head back and gazed up at the sky. The tops of the pines swayed in the wind. He drew a deep breath, slowly combing his fingers through his thick hair. Then he turned back to me. “On second thought, Larry, I think I would like one. We can sit in those chairs over there under the tree.“

I smiled, turned, and trotted back to my house.

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Louis Abbey is a retired Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology from VA Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from VCU and has published both poetry and fiction in journals such as Indiana Review, The MacGuffin, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Georgetown Review, among others. He has also been published online in Grey Sparrow, Wild Violet, twice in Toasted Cheese and in Zero-dark-30. One of his poems was anthologized in Blood and Bone, Poems by Physicians, Angela Belli & Jack Coulehan, Eds. U. Iowa Press, 1998. He currently lives and writes in Revere, MA. Email: abbey_louis[at]yahoo.com