Chew On This

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


Some writers I know shy away from calling themselves writers. Others treat their writing as a shameful addiction, keeping it a secret from their friends, family, and co-workers, and “come out” only in the presence of other writers. Still others disrespect their successes, and those who had confidence in them, by insisting they are “unpublished” because their credits consist of ezines, small-circulation magazines, local newspapers, and the like.

Stop it.

Fact: Writing is the only thing that makes you a writer. Publication and payment are perks, not prerequisites. The word “writer” is not a statement on the quality or circulation of your words. It is simply what you do.

Fact: The presence of your writing in any publication, even if it was “just a newsletter”, means yes, you have been published. When you say you are unpublished after your writing has appeared in a publication, you not only disrespect yourself, you disrespect the publication, and the other writers published there.

Fact: You may never earn your living from writing. Many successful, well-known writers hold down second jobs. This doesn’t make them less a writer than someone who does make enough money solely from writing. Some types of writing pay better than others. That is all.

Want to get some respect as a writer? Give yourself some. And start treating others–including those “little” publications–with the same respect.

I have an interesting perspective. I’m a writer, who probably has similar writing credits to many of you. I’m also an editor of one of those little publications. So I get to see things from both sides of the fence.

As a writer, I’ve heard many a tale of woe from other writers. It’s easy to get sucked into thinking that everyone in publishing is out to get the poor, struggling writer. But hop on over to the editor’s side, and it quickly becomes clear why most of these writers aren’t getting published. Allow me to enlighten you.

There are three ways to get published in Toasted Cheese: open submissions, contests, and Best of the Boards.

BEST OF THE BOARDS

Best of the Boards is our break-in category. It ties the writing community to the literary journal, giving our community members both a chance to get a work-in-progress published, and to participate in the editorial process by voting for the best piece.

Since BotB pieces are works-in-progress, readers are looking for potential, rather than perfectly polished pieces. That said, you’re far more likely to be nominated if you treat a post as you would a submission. Spellcheck and proofread your work, format it correctly, and check for continuity errors and other mistakes before posting. It’s a good dry run and your readers/critiquers will appreciate this extra effort. Post junk, and that’s what it’ll get treated as.

To participate in BotB, you must check the small box that says “consider my post…” when posting. This allows others to nominate your post, and gives us permission to publish it if it wins. If you don’t check the box, your post can’t be nominated. What we’ve found is that most people don’t check the box. We’re not sure why. Maybe it’s a lack of self-esteem, or conversely, maybe it’s because they feel this category isn’t “good enough” for their work.

Newsflash: Any credit is better than no credit. Here, you have the added satisfaction of knowing your peers admired your work. So why not check the box? If you do, you’re already one step closer to publication than someone who doesn’t. You have nothing to lose, and a writing credit to gain.

CONTESTS

We run four contests a year: the “speed story” contests in spring and fall, and theme contests in summer and winter. At present, we do not charge entry fees. That’s right, it’s free to enter. Free! The editors choose the best from the entries received, and the top three stories in each category are guaranteed publication. Guaranteed! Three stories! What are you waiting for?

No, seriously, what are you waiting for? These are good–no, great–odds, much better than your chance of winning the lottery or being hit by lightning. It’s really hard for us to feel sympathy for writers who whine about being unpublished, or under-published, at the forums, but then don’t make the effort to enter the contests right here in their own backyard. (For the record, entries are blind-judged; we don’t learn who wrote what until after the winners have been chosen.)

Newsflash: You can’t be discovered if you’re not putting your writing out there. Hackers aside, no one’s going to go snooping around your hard drive looking for the Great [Insert Country-Of-Choice Here] Novel.

Contests are an excellent way to break into publishing. No cover letter is required–which comes as a great relief to many writers–but you MUST follow the contest rules. Don’t, and your work might be discarded before it even gets read. At best, you’ve prejudiced the editors against you before they’ve even read your work. Is that what you really want? Following the rules is basic consideration for those you are trusting with your work. It shows the editors you have a brain and know how to use it, and believe me, that goes a long way.

OPEN SUBMISSIONS

You’ve probably heard the term “slush pile.” Perhaps you laughed and thought it can’t be as bad as those whiny editors make it out to be. Well, it is. And we’ve only grazed the tip of the iceberg; it’s hard to imagine what it’s going to be like as our submissions grow.

“Slush” is a pretty accurate description of what arrives in our submit box over the course of a submission period. It’s gray, it’s gritty. When it melts, it reveals icky bits we’d rather had stayed concealed. And we spend much of our reading period wishing it would go away. But we keep reading because we hope we’ll find a pristine bit of snow amidst all the gunk.

Newsflash: If you’re thinking that because Toasted Cheese is an ezine, we’ll publish “anything,” you’re wrong. On the contrary, we’re trying to build a good reputation, and we can only do that by publishing quality writing. We publish only a small percentage of the submissions we receive. We don’t publish something simply because it’s the “best of what we got.” We only publish pieces we believe deserve to be in Toasted Cheese. If nothing does, that’s what we’ll publish: nothing.

Want to jump out of the rejection pile and onto the page? Start by submitting your work in a professional manner. Read the guidelines. Follow the guidelines. Treat a submission as you would a job application. After all, that’s what it is. There’s something about email that makes people think it’s okay to be cutesy or cozy regardless of who they’re writing to. It’s not okay. In fact, it’s rude. A good rule of thumb when submitting: If you wouldn’t put it in a hard-copy submission, don’t put it in an email version.

SUMMING UP: Five Steps To Writing Like A Pro

  1. Believe that you are a writer. If you don’t, no one else will.
  2. Take time to learn your craft. Don’t submit “the first story you ever wrote.”
  3. Start small. Submitting work to big-name competitions/publications early on is just setting yourself up for failure.
  4. Treat the publications you’re submitting to with the same respect you expect to receive from them.
  5. Write, Edit, Submit. Repeat.

Writing is hard work. If you’re not prepared to work hard, I suggest you choose another profession. Perhaps neurosurgery.

pencil

The Beav can be reached at beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com.

What Does We Want Mean

Best of the Boards
Ana George


I was drinking coffee when he first came up to me. “I’m Rob,” he said.

Extending my free hand, I said, “Renée. I’ve seen you around here, I think.”

“Yeah, this coffee hour is nice. Mid-morning is the perfect time. I get into the day’s musing, charge up on caffeine, and the day is more productive.” He chuckled. “Well, usually.” Unlike most men, he seemed to look only at my face, or away somewhere.

I nodded agreement. “Caffeine and a bit of warmth. It usually seems to be chillier in here than I counted on. Hence today’s sweater, even though it’s not that cold out.” My hair, which I wear very long, was under my sweater; perhaps he’d decided to approach me because he found me less intimidating with my hair out of sight or something. I’ve given up trying to guess. We were talking, and that was enough for the moment.

He nodded, checked out the sweater, and the woman inside. “Indoor weather is often very different from what’s outside,” he agreed. I found something arousing about the way he reached out with his eyes.

*

Over the next few weeks we met at coffee a few times each week. I could see him check me out from across the room, and, what with being a statistician, I noticed a correlation. When I was wearing something feminine, or had my hair down, he would usually stay on the far side of the crowd, sneaking glances at me between the knots of conversation. If I was wearing something loose and shapeless and had my hair braided or under a sweater or something, he was all chitchat.

A week or two later on a chilly morning, Rob and I were chatting again. The fickle spring weather had turned a bit too cold for my long skirt, sandaled feet, and tie-dyed T-shirt. So the warmth of my cup was delightful, pressed into the crook of my elbow, tight up against a breast, steaming. But whenever I moved, a lock of my (somewhat uncharacteristically) loose hair kept trying to take a dip.

“Hold this,” I told him, handing him my coffee.

I started braiding my hair, combing it with open-fingered hands, lifting both arms over my head, which pulled my shirt against my breasts. My hair is curly enough to stay braided without a fastener; this also seemed to fascinate Rob, being yet one more physical thing about my person he could caress with his eyes.

I dropped the braid down my back, out of trouble, pulled my shirt down to resume its habit of hanging loosely about me, and put out a hand for my coffee.

He spluttered a bit, handed me both his mug and mine, and went into a paroxysm of coughing.

On the third try, he managed a weak, “Sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

“Well, actually I do,” he continued, after clearing his throat again. Raising his eyes to mine, he continued, “Sometimes you’re just sooo attractive, I can’t resist.”

“So don’t,” I said, with a smile.

His eyebrow crooked. “Don’t…?”

“Resist.”

“Didn’t want to be impolite,” he murmured.

“Politeness and, um, whatever-comes-after-friendship aren’t actually compatible ideas,” I told him.

“True. Would you…” he hesitated.

I smiled, and nodded almost imperceptibly.

“Dinner?” he finished, omitting the verb.

*

Usually when I’m cooking for myself my hair’s braided, out of the way. Tonight Rob’s presence called for exceptions to most of my customs and household rules, so I was moving carefully around the kitchen. I handed him a corkscrew to use with the bottle he’d brought. The stereo was playing the Vivaldi Gloria. He hummed along, until my notice made him self-conscious.

He stood in the doorway for the last few minutes of the preparation, watching. The chitchat subsided. I looked at him through the lock of hair that had fallen into my face.

“I’d like to photograph you, just like this,” he said.

And so it was that, after dinner, I learned a bit of what visually oriented people (read: men) see in a woman’s appearance. He had some lights in the trunk of his car; he seems to free-lance as a photographer in his spare time. “Something non-academic,” he explained.

One particularly nice picture was taken from two feet off the floor, with a toddler’s-eye-view of my bookshelves in the background. He had me crouching frog-like on the floor, bare toes just peeking from beneath my long skirt, hair everywhere. In printing it, he’s pushed the color or played with the light or something, so one stunningly green eye was visible through streaks of a lock, contrasting with the color of the wine I was holding by the stem in pale hand. The nose and chin seem almost disembodied. He had clicked the shutter from his position sitting cross-legged on the floor, just as I was deciding whether it would be OK to check out his crotch. So what’s visible of my face has a look at once puzzled, calculating, and lusty.

He printed it out full-page size and framed it for me. I have it still, these years later, as a reminder of what he taught me about life, friendship, attraction, and, well, lust, actually.

“I am enjoying this,” I told Rob, as he reloaded his camera. “I mean, I usually don’t go in for being photographed; it’s a little too, I dunno, intimate? Not quite… Maybe narcissistic? Exhibitionist? But you seem to know what you’re doing. You’ve put me very much at ease, tonight.”

“Well, I’ve been taking pictures and selling them for 15 years; I guess I know my way around the camera by now,” he said, not looking up from his work. ” There. Besides, if I may say so, you’re really photogenic, and the expressions on your face are just astonishing; but they come and go so quickly. A quick trigger finger is a must in the business of taking pictures of people.”

And somewhere in the second roll he got the other really good picture of me. I was trying to make up my mind how the evening should progress after he ran out of film; looking at him; watching him play with his equipment; wondering if I wanted him to stay or not. And there I am in the picture, slouched on the couch, hair falling down like a waterfall onto the floor; feet up, the long skirt misarranged. An elbow underneath me, my figure visible in the light and shadows as my clothes crumpled in places where they were empty. And with a gleam in my eye which is certainly not an “on the street” kind of expression, but is enigmatic enough that I hope he couldn’t read my musings.

“I remember, in school in the late 60s, when we girls started wearing skirts like this. It was an era of miniskirts, and a time of dress codes. The rules said if you’re female you wear a skirt to school (do they ever try to enforce that any more?) and the length shall be at the knee, plus or minus two inches. I don’t think anybody in my whole sophomore class ever wore such a thing to school. Most wore minis, because that’s what was in. So some of us uncool, rebellious types decided to go the other way, and wear long skirts. Very practical, really; I could never understand the appeal of minis (unless you’re being blatant about trying to seduce some guy; I never got into that either, and that’s another story).” I was babbling, trying to get the idea that he was ogling me with his machine out of my head; trying to look more or less natural.

“And tie-dyed shirts, when somebody figured out how to do that. Some were really stunning. One nice thing about them is that they’re loud enough to act as dazzle camouflage. It’s almost impossible to see the detailed shape of something painted in wild colors.”

“Um, unless…” he said.

“Well, yeah,” I admitted, following his gaze. This particular shirt was a pale blue with a bright orange sun-burst neatly surrounding my left breast.

Snap!

went the camera shutter. Oh, great. Now he’d have a photograph of me, looking at my own breast.

“Can I ask you something?” I asked him.

“You just did,” he answered, very predictably, grinning. “Sure.”

“Um,” I stammered, coming right down to the point. “How much film do you have left?”

“Three more shots. But I don’t think that’s what you were going to ask.”

“I want… I mean, I’d like… Er, harrumph. Women are supposed to be more aware of conversational gambits and moods than men are; here I’m flustered, and you just sit there, smiling.”

“Take your time. You’re very cute when you’re flustered,” said Rob.

I sat up, ran fingers through my hair to get it out of my face (Snap!), glared reproachfully at him (Snap!), and then had to laugh (Snap!). Counting three shots, I crawled over to him, with hair dragging on the floor, and took his camera from his hand.

“Lens cap?” I demanded.

He produced it, affixed it to the lens. I carefully placed the infernal ogle-machine, eye down, on the couch.

Then crawling ever closer to him, I kissed him, kept advancing, and he tumbled over on his back with me on top of him.

“Wow,” he said, coming up for air.

“Is that a good wow or a bad wow?” I asked, genuinely perplexed.

“A really good wow. I had no idea,” he bumbled. “I mean, well, I don’t know what I mean.”

So I kissed him again. Then I took his hand, stood up, and led him to the staircase. There we’d be able to kiss standing up, using the stairs to negate his eight-inch height advantage. And, in due course, the staircase might lead to other things.

Just at this moment, the stereo finished a disk of Bach, and, much to my horror, Tori Amos from the next room sang, “Look, I’m standing naked before you, don’t you want more than my sex?” It seems I’d left some, ahem, controversial music in the nether regions of my CD magazine. The ambiguity of the song seemed to feed into our situation. He smiled.

He was not taking hints. It seemed time for something direct. “In about ten minutes…” I started, then hesitated. I’d chickened out several times already, so this time I decided to plunge right ahead. “…I’m going upstairs to get naked and finish what you started, what with fondling me with your camera. If you’d like to join me…?”

He visibly shook, as if I’d hit him. He looked at me, red-faced.

His mouth opened, and then closed, and then opened again. “Another time, for sure,” he said. “I’m just starting to get to know you, and I’d like it to be perfect.”

“I understand. I’d like that too. And I respect your attitude. A lot.”

Silence. For a bit too long. I started to babble.

“I don’t usually proposition my colleagues,” I said, “Heck, I usually don’t even date my colleagues. But for you I figured I’d make an exception. But not one of those if I make an exception for you I’d have to do it for everyone kinds of exceptions.”

“We wouldn’t want that,” he said. I loved him, just there in that moment, for helping to ease my embarrassment.

“No, we wouldn’t want that,” I agreed. ” You know, what with desires being such private things, I’ve never been able to understand what We Want could ever mean,” I told him. “Sorry if I’ve been too forward.”

“Don’t be sorry. I like your explicitness. I know where we’re going now; I just don’t know how long it’ll take me to catch up with you.” He smiled. “There will come a time when it will be clear what We Want.”

He collected his gear. We kissed at the door as he left. I sat down on the bottom step, shaking, unfilled, wondering.

pencil

“What Does We Want Mean?” was originally posted at Perpetual Passion, Toasted Cheese’s romance writing forum. Ana can be reached at ana54writes[at]yahoo.com.

Alphonse and Lorenzo

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Liz White


“Lorenzo you idiot! This is why I hate taking you anywhere!” Alphonse could not remember being more angry at his younger brother. Lorenzo looked surprised and offended, “A guy’s got to eat Alphonse! Look, I saved one of the legs for you.”

Alphonse screamed back at him, “You ate the driver! How are we supposed to get this thing to the convention now?” He was referring to his pride and joy, a Humvee he’d recently bought just for this cross-country drive. It was the only vehicle he’d found that was big enough to accommodate his bulk comfortably.

“Oh.” Lorenzo’s face first grew troubled, then gradually seemed to collapse in on itself as he realized the full impact of what he had done. He started sniffling, then blubbering, worked himself up to sobbing, and finally to outright wailing. It was enough to set the farm dogs howling for miles around, and it cut through Alphonse’s head like a rusty saw.

“Shut up and let me think.” He tried to sound calmer than he felt, knowing if he didn’t the din would only escalate. He didn’t want to get the farmers out with their shotguns to see what was going on. He knew this trip would have its challenges, and really hadn’t wanted to take Lorenzo with him in the first place. But there had been no choice. They made up the most famous wrestling tag team in the country, and were the main draw of the convention. There weren’t that many ways for trolls to make a living in the world of humans, so there was a lot of interest in hearing from those few who could manage it.

Alphonse was scheduled to deliver the keynote address in two days, and they were still well over six-hundred miles from Groom Lake where the event was to take place. This was the first annual convention of the Association for the Betterment and General Advancement of Trolls. It would also be the last if the main attraction didn’t make it on time. It had been difficult enough getting a place, and would have been impossible if it weren’t for the relationship Alphonse and several of his associates had with the military and the CIA.

ABGAT was still a fledgling organization with a precarious future. Trolls were not known for their organizational skills, and humans were not comfortable with them even singly, much less in large groups. The military felt it to be in its best interest to help them find a place to gather, and Groom Lake not only kept them from scaring the public at large, but offered a perfect way to keep tabs on the proceedings.

Alphonse had never driven before, but he loved cars, and had been watching the driver work the pedals and transmission closely. He was pretty sure he could figure things out. He’d never read a drivers manual, but he knew something about things that would get you in trouble, like going too fast, or going the wrong way, or running over people. The latter was a good way to get a meal, but tended to attract too much negative attention. He looked at Lorenzo. “Stop crying and get in.” He climbed in behind the wheel and looked for the keys. “Lorenzo, did you eat his clothes too?”

“No, I don’t like the texture. I like to peel them before I eat them.”

Alphonse found the key in the pocket of what was left of the guy’s pants and slid it into the ignition with anticipation. He cranked it to the right as he had seen the driver do, and thrilled to the sound of the engine; even if it did take three tries. This Hummer was built for civilians and had an automatic transmission, so he didn’t have to deal with a clutch. He reasoned out the correct position for the gear shift, put it in drive, and put his foot on the gas pedal. The car lurched forward, scaring them both, and Alphonse stomped on the brake, nearly putting them through the windshield.

He spent the next ten minutes or so figuring out all the controls before he felt confident enough to move out to the road. He carefully turned on the left turn signal, looked behind him to see if any traffic was coming up from the rear, and eased his foot down on the gas. Turning the wheel to the left, he bumped the car back onto the road, forgot to turn the wheel back again, and crossed all the way over to the other shoulder. After a second of panic, he swung the wheel back the other way, over-compensating again, but not as much. With considerable weaving and lurching, he managed to get back to the proper lane and stay there, but he was glad they were out in the middle of nowhere.

He was just starting to enjoy the experience when a bellow from his right made every cell in his body jump with alarm. Alphonse slammed on the brake, sending the car into a spin and nearly rolling it. When they finally came to a stop, he wrapped his hands around the steering wheel so tightly his claws were digging into his palms. He didn’t dare let go for fear he’d rip Lorenzo’s throat open. “What is it?” he snarled.

“Food!” Lorenzo was pointing back to a man by the side of the road. The man had picked up a backpack and was jogging toward them. “Hey Man… thanks for stopping. That was a cool move when you spun across the road like that! Hey! I know you, aren’t you Alphonse and Lorenzo? Oh wow, this is so cool. Wait’ll I tell my folks, they’re huge fans. So’s my sister. That’s where I’m going, home to see them. Hey, can I get your autographs Man?” He started rummaging through his backpack to find something to write with and on. “We watch you guys every chance we get. You are the best! Nobody’s ever had a tag team like you! You should be champions instead of Buck and Butch, those slimy, nasty, backstabbing SOBs.”

Buck and Butch were Alphonse and Lorenzo’s best friends, but in the wrestling world, they were arch enemies. Alphonse smiled. As he was writing, he looked the guy over. “Maybe we can help each other out. Can you drive this thing? I’ve… ah… been driving for hours and hours and I’m… uh… getting real tired.” He ignored the look of disappointment on Lorenzo’s face as he realized he wasn’t going to get his snack after all.

“Sure man. I’ve never driven a Hummer before, way cool. Where are we going?”

“Nevada. We’re headed for a conference. I have to deliver a speech and we’re slated to put on an exhibition match and sign autographs. What’s your name?”

“Richard.” By now Lorenzo had moved to the back seat, Alphonse to the front passenger seat, and Richard was behind the wheel. “Looks like you’re going to need to get some gas.” Alphonse slapped his forehead, he’d forgotten all about fueling the car! He didn’t know if they had enough to get to the next town and started looking for a place to refuel. Just then they passed a sign: REST AREA 1 MI NEXT REST AREA 54 MI. Lorenzo started whining from the back seat.

“Can we stop Alphonse? Please? I’m hungry and I got to go. Please, can we?”

“Oh for cryin’ out loud. All right, all right. Richard, pull in to the next rest stop.”

Richard glanced at the dashboard, “The low fuel light just came on.” Alphonse thought hard. He had to control Lorenzo; they couldn’t afford to lose this driver too. They also had to fuel up somehow. Richard solved both problems. “If you distract a driver long enough, I can siphon fuel from other cars.”

“Okay, park here at the end away from the crowd where we can see who comes in.”

They sat there for a half hour watching traffic come and go before they saw what they wanted. A guy driving alone pulled in right next to them. Alphonse nodded to Richard then he and Lorenzo followed the driver into the rest room. When they came back an hour later, Richard had managed to fill the gas tank about half full and was ready to go. If he noticed the grass stains and blood spatters on Lorenzo’s clothes, he chose to ignore them.

A hundred and eighty miles further down the road, they stopped to fill the tank again and let Richard buy a sandwich at the convenience store. Lorenzo had a colossal appetite with little self-control and Alphonse worried about adding to the trail of human remains they’d already established. He concentrated on keeping a close eye on his brother. Consequently, he wasn’t paying any attention to Richard, and failed to notice when he placed a phone call.

Back on the road, Richard did what he could to get conversation going. “Tell me about the speech you have to give.”

“It’s the keynote, and the topic is ‘Making a Living in the Human’s World.’ Most of us still have to survive in the traditional way, raiding farms for sheep, goats, or chickens and making it look like the coyotes or wolves are responsible.” He put special emphasis the part about “sheep, goats, or chickens”, giving Lorenzo a pointed look. Lorenzo, however, pretended not to hear. Alphonse sighed, “Lorenzo and I are unique in being able to make money legitimately.”

“So how do you get by socially? Isn’t there a lot of prejudice against trolls?”

“Yeah, we’ve run across our share, but there are laws to protect us now, we’re an endangered species. The Feds tolerate us because we’re useful to them.” He paused, and then added, “We do an occasional odd job for the FBI and others.”

Richard drove on in a comfortable silence, and Alphonse watched the sparse desert vegetation fly by as the sun set. The sky darkened to black velvet and the stars grew intensely bright, scattered like billions of tiny shards of glass lit with a black light. With no moon or city lights to interfere, it was a spectacular sight. Alphonse settled back to gaze at it, and fell asleep.

He woke up from a nightmare in which farmers had cornered him in a barn and were waving torches and shotguns in his face. The Hummer was stopped and the torches turned out to be flashlights wielded by a couple of soldiers. He sat up to see they were parked on a ridge overlooking the Groom Lake site. He was certain he had not told Richard the specifics of this location, and he knew Lorenzo didn’t know enough to have told him, so how did they get here? The obvious answer was that Richard wasn’t just an ordinary hitchhiker.

It took him a few seconds to register what the soldier was saying, “…the last of them. What took you so long?” He heard Richard explain about the first driver and running out of gas, and the delay at the rest stop to allow Lorenzo to feed.

Alphonse looked around. “Where’s Lorenzo?” “He’s off in the weeds,” Richard answered. “He said he had to go, and he thought he saw a sheep. I’ve never seen anyone put away so much food! He’s not too bright either, is he Alphonse?”

“He may be a little slow on the uptake, but he’s a good brother, and one hell of a wrestler. Why are we stopped here?”

“This is the end of the road. We’ve arrived at your big convention.” The sarcasm in Richard’s voice was unmistakable, and Alphonse finally got it. They had outlived their usefulness, and the government was tired of cleaning up the messes they left. Here at Groom Lake, no one would notice an operation that would significantly reduce the number of trolls in the world.

He looked again at the guns pointed at him and resigned himself to the inevitable. He was contemplating his death when he heard a soft snap and the two soldiers slid to the ground. He saw Richard turn at the sound and come face to face with Lorenzo.

“Now, Alphonse?”

“Sure Lorenzo, enjoy.” Alphonse watched as Lorenzo deftly broke Richard’s neck and began peeling.

pencil

“I live in North Fork, CA, with my husband and dog, and work as an analyst in Geographic Information Systems. Currently, I’m growing out of adulthood and back to kidhood!” Liz can be reached at whites[at]sierratel.com.

Escape

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Robert Weisz


My parents told me on the evening of December 5, 1956, that we needed to leave, and we weren’t coming back. I knew enough at age nine to take one last good look at my toys and books because I would not see them again. It was that kind of upbringing. It was that kind of an era. I even went as far as writing the date on my little toy wheelbarrow which served as my toy box. I used a grease pencil. My parents were horrified, but they didn’t erase the date, just shook their heads and stuffed the toy deep into the cabinet where it was kept.

I was awakened very early the next morning. It was completely dark. We got dressed in the dark. There still was the occasional gunfire in the distance, but it was much quieter than it had been a few days and weeks earlier. The Revolution had pretty much been quashed and the remaining resistance was very small.

We left the apartment, each carrying one small satchel. Clean shirts, some food, a bottle of vodka, some of my father’s watchmaking tools, and some valuables. The super of the building had to let us out with a key because the front door of the building was locked. My father told him that we were going to stay with relatives in the country. I’m sure he surmised that this was to be a permanent leave-taking. We hoped that my uncle would get to our abandoned belongings before this person did. But, there was nothing to be done about that.

There was no transportation in Budapest, so we planned to walk to the train station. Just the three of us on the black street. Two blocks from the building, a truck backed out of a driveway in front of us. Police? Russians? We had nowhere to hide. The driver asked if we needed a ride somewhere. Hungarian. Probably a fruit vendor or a shopkeeper. We asked for a ride to the train station and he obliged. Luck.

The train station had masses of people. Everyone “happened to have” families they were going to visit in western Hungary. The train was only going a part of the way toward Austria. But, that was enough. My father went off to make a deal somehow for tickets. I think he traded a gold chain for them, but I’m not sure. Slow train ride. Not much talking. The train came to the new end of the line even before we thought it would.

We get off. My father asks around if there is a way to get to the border. No more real secrets or pretense here any more! Somehow, we find a farmer to take us in for the night. We are fed, and we go to bed under a warm feather comforter in a huge bed with a wooden frame. But, we don’t sleep through the night. There’s a loud anti-Semitic conversation in the other room. We’re afraid that these people know that we are Jews. We get dressed in the dark and climb out the window. We walk to the next town west. Around the few streetlights, there are halos of falling snow. It’s pretty enough to almost forget why we are here. There are dogs barking, and we’re lost.

By morning, we’re in the next town. Whispered questions. The day goes. Toward evening, my father makes a contact. We’re taken to a room lit by a single bare bulb. There are several men there. The place smells like the tavern across the street from the apartment house so far behind us now. My father offers them cash and some gold. They agree to take us to near the border.

We join up with a woman and her adult son. We don’t know who these people are, but our guide isn’t giving us a choice about traveling with these people. The first part of the trek is through a coal mine to get closer to the border. They say it’s safe to travel in the depths of the mine; there are no Russian patrols down there. We walk for a long time among the men, stepping over tracks, around coal cars. It’s dark, wet, coal dust with every breath.

Emerging from the mine, we are put into a truck. It’s filled with boxes and covered with a tarp. The boxes are moved and we sit with our backs propped against the driver’s cab. The boxes are replaced. We say nothing to the strangers. They say nothing to us. They must not trust us either. Good. The ride is bumpy. We know we must be silent. Then, voices, the truck comes to a stop. I can’t tell if it’s Hungarian or Russian being spoken. We hear the driver get out and slam the truck door; we take it as a warning, but there’s not much to be done. The back flap of the truck is thrown open. All I can really see is light from a flashlight slashing through the spaces between the boxes. It sweeps several times from side to side. I hold my breath. More talking and then the tarp is pulled back down. We roll on. Tentative breaths.

Not long after, the zing of bullets ricocheting off the truck roof. Not many, just two maybe. We don’t slow down, but shortly afterwards we stop. The driver opens the flap and whispers loudly for us to get out. Boxes are moved, and we scramble out. We’re in a snow-covered forest, no road, only trees and darkness. The driver points and whispers that the border is a hundred meters that way and that he must go. We try to protest, but he’s already hopping into the truck and driving away without lights.

No choices. We walk. Perhaps we hear noises and voices in the distance, but we’re not sure. Should we try to join them if they are more sure of the way, or are they border guards or something worse? We walk.

The woman travel companion is unhappy because my mother is wearing a light beige coat. The woman whispers that she needs to take it off, that we’re easy targets. My mother refuses. The woman says that they are leaving us then. Fine. Good luck. They walk off in a different direction. We never see them again.

We walk most of the night. We find a dirt road, but nothing that looks like a border. We walk on the road for quite a while thinking there might be some indication of where we are, but there are no signs, no markers. Finally, on one side of the road, we find a tiny village. Just a few houses, all dark. We’re afraid to knock. Are we in Hungary or Austria? We find a lean-to with some hay and sit to ponder for a while. “There’s nothing to lose,” my father says, so we walk around the village. We see a guard tower and my father in a foolish daring moment shines a flashlight up the tower. The tower is abandoned, but the framework for the machine gun is still visible. We choose a farmhouse and pound on the door. Desperation.

The door opens. There’s a man standing in the light of the doorway. He’s tall. Behind him hanging on the wall is a holstered pistol. In the one-room house there are about seven children sleeping. In whispers he asks what we want. My father tells him that we want to cross the border. Where are we? He says that we’re a few hundred meters still inside Hungary, but he’ll take us, for a price. He’s a border guard, he says, but he has a family to feed. My father gives him everything we have left, a fistful of nearly worthless Hungarian currency, a half bottle of vodka, something small and gold. The man puts on a coat, straps the sidearm on, shuts the light off, and comes out closing the door quietly behind him. If the wife is there, I never see her. He says to follow him, but do so very quietly. The guards are everywhere, and there is no schedule. He crouches and walks fast, nearly at a run, back toward the road we’ve been walking on. Just before reaching it, he jumps into the ditch next to the road and flattens himself. The three of us do the same. He whispers that this is the border. This is the border? And this is where we were strolling a while ago? He says that it’s heavily mined, to follow his path across the road exactly, otherwise… He runs in a straight line just to one side of some kind of marker, then my mother, then me, then my father. Cold sweat from fear mixes with warm sweat from the effort. The woods are silent. In the ditch on the other side, he says he cannot go any further, we are in Austria, he must go back to his family. Without waiting for an answer, he crouch-runs across the road and disappears.

Where are we now? Have we been duped again, this time for our very last bribing items? Nothing to do but walk away, keeping the dangerous road behind us. There is a hint of dawn. One way or another, we will be in daylight soon and either in grave danger or safe. We walk through the snow and dense forest. Then, my father says he recognizes the place, he thinks we’ve been walking in circles. We’re not sure. He thinks he sees some woodcutters in the distance through the forest and wants to head toward “them” and ask where we are, but the direction is back toward the dreaded road. Maybe they’re not woodcutters working a seesaw, but only trees in the wind. We have no binoculars, no compass. We walk on, still away from the road, we think. Then, a clearing. New territory. The rising sun is behind us; we seem to be walking west…the direction is right, but where are we? There is a forest on our right, and it runs straight into the distance as if cut like that on purpose…maybe a windbreak. A large expanse of an open field is in front of us. We walk in the open through the snow and the dead stalks of summer corn leftovers. I realize that this is dangerous, we’re easy targets from the forest, we should be walking near the tree line not in the open. I mention this and my father can’t take it any more. He sits down in the snow, and he cries. He cannot continue, he says. We have no food, we’re lost, we’re cold, someone will come and find us, and then we’ll know our fate. I can’t have this! I left all my toys and my friends behind. I yell, but in a whisper, “After all you’ve been through in your life, you can’t quit now. If you sit in the snow, I’m sitting with you, but I can’t. We have to keep going into the fate that awaits us.”

Mother and I pull him off the snow and we trudge on. At mid-morning, there’s something in the distance that looks like a thatched roof, a building, perhaps the farmhouse, not sure. As we get closer, the side of the building becomes visible…there’s a huge red cross painted on it, obviously hand drawn, crooked like a big red plus sign drawn by a child, but what a happy sight!! We finally reach the building. There are others there, mostly Hungarian-speaking, but there are volunteers, too. It’s a barn made into an emergency shelter, but this is Austria! There are cockroaches everywhere, but we get some coffee and bread. We flop down on the stinking hay-beds on the dirt floor. I try to sleep, but it’s not easy; it’s cold.

Later, we will try to find out where we go from here and how. But, for now, it’s enough that this Austrian hay, cold, and bread all taste of freedom.

pencil

Robert has been writing occasionally for 40 years. He says, “Being retired is a gift of writing time.” He has published a humorous essay in a soccer refs’ book. “Escape” is fictionalized autobiography. Robert can be reached at Socref419[at]aol.com.

Always In My Heart

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Kit Tunstall


“Is that girl from down the street going to water my plants too?”

“Yes, Gram.”

“Did you tell her that my ficus needs special attention?”

Tara sighed as she checked the restraint of her grandmother’s seatbelt. “Yes, Gram.”

“Mitzi needs her pills.” Anxiety laced her watery blue eyes; once as bright as Tara’s, but now dimmed by age. “The vet said…”

“The yellow pills in the morning, and the blue one at night.” Tara shook her head, briefly wondering if her dark brown locks would fade to the same shade of yellowed white as Gram’s. She patted Dorothy’s hand. “Susie knows what to do.”

“But…”

“Don’t worry, Gram. We’ll be back on Friday.” Tara squirmed at the lie, but Uncle David had been adamant that she not tell Gram why she was really going to Utah.

Dorothy’s wrinkled face was still pinched with worry, but she subsided into silence. Tara was able to leave the suburb behind and merge into Denver’s busy traffic before her grandmother spoke again.

“I feel sick.”

With a sigh, Tara fished in her large purse for the box of pressure bands. She found it, raking her finger on the sharp cardboard corner. “Dammit.”

“Watch your mouth, Tara. Cursing isn’t ladylike.”

She swallowed back a retort as she pulled out the box. “Put one of these on your wrist.”

“My doctor says…”

“Just do it!”

Dorothy’s lips trembled, causing her dentures to click together. She took the box with a shaky brown-spotted hand, slowly removing one of the bracelets. “What does this do?”

Her voice was so meek it made Tara wince. “I’m sorry I snapped at you, Gram.”

Her grandmother turned her head away without answering.

Giving up, Tara said, “The bands control nausea.”

“Well…” Dorothy frowned down at it, but slipped it on. Then she returned her gaze to the car window.

Tara was guilty to feel relieved by her grandmother’s silence, but she didn’t feel like engaging Gram in conversation. They had nothing in common, and she wished there had been someone else available to drive her to Utah. As usual, the others had refused, so she had shouldered the burden of Gram.

As they ate up the miles, passing from the city into the mountains, Tara turned on the radio and started to sing along in a quiet voice. Once or twice she saw Gram tapping her fingers against her leg, but she didn’t join in.

The farther they got from the city, the fuzzier the radio became. Tara fumbled with the dial, searching for a station. She caught a signal and tried to get it in more clearly.

“You are always in my heart
Even though you’re far away
I can hear the music of–”

Tara wrinkled her nose at the man’s smooth voice, then flipped the dial.

“Wait!”

“Huh?” Tara’s head snapped toward Dorothy at her urgent tone. “What’s wrong?” She frowned when she saw the blissful expression on her grandmother’s face. Was she delirious? Had she forgotten her pills? Could she be having a stroke?

“That was Glenn.”

“Who?”

Dorothy shook her head. “Glenn Miller. He was the greatest.”

“Oh. Do you want me to turn back to that song?” Even as she asked, Tara had tuned in the ’40s station again.

“This was our song.”

“Yours and Grandpa’s?”

“Um hm. The night I met Edwin, this song was on the jukebox.” Dorothy’s eyes were dreamy. “He asked me to dance, and he looked so dashing in his uniform. How could I say no?” She sighed.

“What happened?”

“He had to ship out, so we spent the night together.”

“Gram!” Tara’s mouth dropped open in shock.

A blush tinged Dorothy’s cheeks. “Not in that way. Goodness, no. I lived in San Francisco in those days, so we walked down the length of the Golden Gate Bridge, talking all night.”

“Did he leave you?”

She nodded. “He had to. But before he left, Edwin gave me a ring, and I promised to wait for him.”

“So you got married when he returned?”

“Yes. We played ‘Always In My Heart’ at the wedding.”

“Did you–?”

“Sh. Listen to this part. It’s my favorite.” Dorothy closed her eyes as her lips moved to the words.

“I don’t know exactly when, dear,
But I’m sure we’ll meet again, dear,
And my darling, till we do
You are always in my heart!”

As the last notes faded away, Tara said, “The song is so old.”

“So am I.”

“Did you really wait for Grandpa?”

Dorothy’s eyes flickered away. “It was a lonely time, dear. Everything was so uncertain.”

She blinked, wondering if she was getting Gram’s meaning. “Did you cheat on him?”

“We weren’t married then.” Dorothy’s face was defensive.

“You did. Whoa.” Tara’s eyes were round with disbelief.

“Why are you so surprised? It happens too many times to count.”

“I didn’t think you would do something like that.”

“Why not? I’m human, you know.”

“No, you’re my grandmother.”

Dorthy’s papery skin wrinkled as her mouth formed a smile. “I wasn’t always your grandma, Tara.”

She was reluctant to concede that point. Tara preferred Gram remain in the neat mental compartment she’d created for her–prim, proper, and a pain-in-the-ass with her doctors’ visits, weekly shopping, and Tuesday night bridge games that no one else was willing to ferry her to. “Did you tell Grandpa?”

“Yes. He understood.”

“What else did you do, Gram?”

Dorothy shrugged a bony shoulder encased in a bright polyester floral-print shirt. “That’s enough revelations for today.”

Tara sighed as another song came on. “Do you want to listen to this one too?”

“No, thank you. I never liked that boy’s music.”

She bit back a grin as she flipped the dial, searching in vain for any station to fill the silence in the car. All she found was static, so she reluctantly snapped the dial off, waiting for Gram to start in with her typical complaining.

Instead, Dorothy said, “Tell me the truth, Tara.”

She stiffened, and her hands tightened on the wheel. “About what?”

“Why are we really going to Utah? I don’t believe it’s because David’s daughter had a baby.”

“She did.”

“I’ve never met the girl, so why would she want me to meet her little girl?”

Tara’s mouth grew dry, and she reached for the soda in the cup holder. “Well, she told Uncle David she wanted to get a generational picture.”

“You’re a terrible liar, dear.” Dorothy’s tone was almost bland, but her eyes were sharp.

With a sigh, Tara gave in. “They want you to move out to Utah.”

“Posh. That woman hates me.”

“Aunt Kathy?”

“Yeah. She’s the reason I never met my granddaughter.”

“Don’t you want that to change?”

Dorothy shook her head, causing thin strands of yellowish-white hair to fly up before they settled back into the permed style. “Are they going to put me in a home?”

“I don’t know.” Beads of perspiration dotted her forehead.

“Tara?”

“It’s a nice retirement community.”

“Why? I’m happy in Denver.”

But I’m not happy having you there. I’m tired of running your errands, and holding your hand. She left the words unuttered. “Perhaps Uncle David just wants to have you close.”

Dorothy seemed to pick up on her thoughts anyway. “Did you ask them to deal with me? Are you tired of taking care of me?”

Tara wanted to lie, but somehow the truth slipped out. “Yes. Uncle David needs to do his share.”

“Am I the millstone about your necks, good only to be passed around now?” Her words were bitter, and her eyes shone with unshed tears.

“Gram…” She took a hand off the wheel to reach for her grandmother. Dorothy pulled away. “I can’t do it all alone, and no one else will help me. It’s too much for me right now.”

“It’s that boy, isn’t it?”

“Marcus?” She didn’t mean to sound defensive. “What about him?”

“I know he doesn’t like me.”

She swallowed. “He likes you fine.”

“But he doesn’t want to be encumbered with me, does he?”

Tara shook her head. “I want to marry him. He proposed, but…”

“Not if I’m around?”

Tara glanced at her grandmother, surprised by the acceptance in her voice. “Yeah.”

“I see.”

“I’m sorry, Gram. I really don’t want to do this.”

“Yes, you do. I can see it in your eyes. You’re relieved to be rid of me.”

Tara didn’t bother to refute the statement, knowing she couldn’t. Gram would see through the lie.

“I was a person once. Not this old husk, but a vibrant young thing like you.”

“I’m sure you were.”

Dorothy snorted. “Don’t patronize me. Think what you want, but I know the truth.” She leaned her head back against the headrest. “You’ll get old too.”

“Please don’t be angry.”

“I’m not. I wish things were different, but you have to do what’s right for you and your young man.”

Gram sounded so old–defeated, even. “You’ll probably love the nursing home, er, retirement center.”

“Why didn’t we bring Mitzi?”

She sighed. “They don’t allow pets.” Tara looked at her grandmother in time to see a tear streak down her cheek.

“David couldn’t find me a home that would let me keep my dog?”

Tara shrugged. From the speed of the arrangements, she would guess he’d chosen one at random from the phone book. Probably the cheapest too.

“Will you take her? She’s a good little dog.”

“I can’t. Marcus is allergic.”

“What will happen to her?”

Tara shrugged again, knowing it was one of the myriad problems she must deal with upon her return to Denver. “I’ll find her a good home.” “Don’t destroy her, please. She’s only a few years old. Unlike me, she has her whole life ahead of her.”

“Don’t talk like that. There will be others around your age. Uncle David said they have daily activities, and…”

“What? Keep breathing?” Dorothy shook her head. “I don’t want to talk about this now. I think I’ll sleep.”

“Okay.” Tara let the tense silence grow, unsure what to say to her grandmother. How could she make her feel better about becoming an inconvenience? When had Gram changed from a young girl to the elderly woman in the seat beside her? When had “Always In My Heart” faded to a dusty memory, seldom heard, and forgotten by everyone else? Would Gram fade away as the song had? Tara sighed deeply, wondering if she could keep Gram in her heart, or if she would let her go when she wasn’t part of her life anymore. When she returned to Denver–and Marcus–how would it be? The relief she expected, or sadness at their parting? Was she doing the right thing?

*

Two hours later, Dorothy awoke from her nap. She sat up, blinking. “Where are we?”

“Almost home.”

Her mouth twisted. “Utah will never be my home.”

Tara felt for her hand on the seat, squeezing it in hers. “No, we’re almost back in Denver.”

A hint of hope darkened Dorothy’s eyes. “Did you forget something?”

She nodded.

“What?”

“That we’re family. I called Uncle David, and he knows we aren’t coming.”

“Really?”

“You belong in your own home, Gram.”

Dorothy frowned. “What about Marcus?”

Tara swallowed. “If he can’t accept you’re part of my life then I don’t need him.”

“Brave words, but love is not so easily swayed.”

“I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to do the right thing.”

She sighed. “I hope you won’t regret this, dear.”

Tara gave her a bright smile. Her words were as confident as she felt. “I won’t. Now, why don’t you tell me more about the Dorothy I never met?”

pencil

Kit Tunstall lives in Idaho with her family. She is a full-time freelancer, with publications in several ezines and magazines. She is also poetry editor of Dog-eared. Kit can be reached at kitssubmissions[at]prodigy.net.

Psalm II

Poetry
Sean Patrick Murphy


Imagining
I awoke
to a shock of sunrise
to watch the sun
heal the long broad wound of night

I speak to you, and you alone
in the wilderness
with the compass of my
affection
always pointing North

I deride the smallish pleasure
in being lost,
secretly feeling the rush
of blood
a torrent of plasma and platelets
rushing to my brains
lost at last

You and I
believing for a moment
that we are shadows,
blackened by the cinders
of being
are a wishful breath
on a dandelion

Submerge, submerge, submerge
into what can only
be
the nighttime
of our devotion

Past the mantle,
past the crust
nickel and iron
everywhere
in our descent

Invisible your words
are to me, your
brave laughter and
holding the power
of innumerable smiles,
of immeasurable
kindness

Walk with me again
in the wide open
plazas, past
the garden where
they grow jasmine,
thyme, and
saffron

Unmake the
angel’s creation,
a lump of clay
begging for a raise
stewing over ill-treatment
worried about the
smallest of things
shatter the dolor
of day to day
and pass a finger
in ceremony, over
my body
corpulent and grateful
remade

Where shall I wander?
Into whose hearts
shall I walk and
then sit for a while?

Will the torrent,
the deluge, the river
of questions ever cease?
Can’t somebody else seek
the answers for a bit?

“You were born to hunt
your mind,” my asshole
deity reminds me

Back to the doldrums
let me print the
word “ennui” and
practice dart throwing
at the page on the wall

Frenetic is the pace now
I won’t live very long
turn up the flame
and burn, and sear, and
warm and glow
get to writing and just go

Demolish your raw perception of me
I am what you think
you define me
in a silly conversation
I await your
words to conjure
up my looks, my
response, your
syllables measure
the meter of my pulse

I am a slave to
everyman

But what shall I be
two years or two
seconds from now?

Lift the anthem
from my lungs
to soar above
the crowd in the stadium
full and strong
vibrant and
unreconstructed

A love song
to myself–a golden
poem-thing
unfettered to
fly
over the wall
like a home run

I sing in the
shower, not so
much as to capture
the song
but more to
liberate my voice

After a Sunday rain
I see the shafts of
sunlight beam through
bruised clouds
the furnace of Heaven
betraying its
azure companion

The chimes in the church
speak to a deaf audience
we kneel
we try to pray
we hate long gospels
and begin to wallow
in selfish brooding
about the Lord our God

Should the world
be inhabited by such
malcontents?

In the living space
we render for ourselves and others
I will sing a small song
to all that there is
and hope it is enough.

pencil

Sean Patrick Murphy is a 1988 graduate of Bennington College. He is a consulting editor at Current History magazine, and the assistant online editor for the Foreign Policy Association. He has had two poems published by Concrete Wolf. He can be reached at lojano[at]attbi.com.

The Prettier Sister

Poetry
Lindsay Vaughan


I used to enjoy snooping through my mother’s things.
I found a stash of condoms once–
raspberry, vanilla, chocolate flavored,
jumbo-sized and edible.
Another time, notes written to a bartender
on the backs of cardboard coasters
when she and her sister were still friends:
“You know you love me the most”,
“Meet me out back later. –the prettier sister.”
At age fourteen I found a ten-year-old letter from my father:
“I’m sorry about the drinking…
she was just a ploy to make you jealous.”
A skeleton key, a beat up address book,
the only photograph of my grandfather I’ve ever seen–
he looked like Cosmo Kramer.
All the teeth I’d ever lost,
shoved into a brown box
beneath an old pack of playing cards.
My mother never kept a diary,
or else I would have read it
and marvelled at her secrets.
The only things she never told anyone
were the only things that would prove
she loved somebody.

pencil

Lindsay Vaughan was born in Chicago in 1983 and is currently living in Dublin, Ireland. She’ll be returning to Chicago in October of 2002 to attend the College of Dupage, where she is an English major. She and her fiancé are working on bringing out their own e-zine, dreamvirus, by late August. Lindsay is obsessed with mashed potatoes and Charles Bukowski, and may be reached at lindsay[at]dreamvirus.com.