30 is a Magic Number

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Erin “Billiard” Nappe


Days before my 30th birthday, I got an early present.

Smack in the middle of my forehead was the biggest, reddest, nastiest pimple you’ve ever seen. Seriously. I’m talking Mount Vesuvius, here. My roommate kept telling me it was my “birthday zit.” Thanks, that makes it better.

At the same time, I found myself obsessively picking through my hair, looking for rogue grays. I get them. They’re usually short and wiry, with minds of their own, poking out from my part screaming, “look at me!”

I look with dismay at my blemish-ridden skin. What kind of cruel trick of nature is that? Gray hair and zits?

Sigh. Such is my lot in life.

I had been looking to this day with a mixture of anticipation and dread for about the past two years. On my twenty-eighth birthday, I had a bit of a meltdown. Why? Because suddenly, I felt, I had crossed an imaginary line. I wasn’t just 28. I was almost 30.

A lot of people, women in particular, use their 30th birthday as a benchmark, a measure of success or failure, a means of comparison, of evaluation. It turns into a list of “supposedtobes.”

Supposedtobe successful.

Supposedtobe to be rich.

Supposedtobe married.

Supposedtobe a homeowner.

Supposedtobe a mother.

Some of them are my “supposedtobes” and some of them are general “supposedtobes.” What I definitely was not supposed to be was single, underemployed, underpaid, and sharing an apartment with my best friend.

But I think that perhaps the scariest thing about leaving my twenties behind and entering the rank of “thirtysomething” is this:

I am now officially an adult.

Now, I know… that technically happened 12 years ago, when I gained the right to vote, but let’s be serious.

Some might say that it happened when I graduated from college, got my first job, or moved out of my parents’ house. When I began paying my own bills and being (gasp!) responsible for myself.

But I say it happened two weeks ago, when I crossed that symbolic threshold from young adulthood into actual adulthood.

When I turned 30.

I certainly don’t feel like an adult. I don’t feel like I’m any older, wiser or more mature than I was two weeks ago. I haven’t suddenly been handed the Secret Code to the Universe. But still, here it is, and here I am… and something funny happened along the way.

I’m okay with it. I’ve made peace with my station in life. I realize that the choices I’ve made have led me to where I am. I realize that life is not a race, and getting there first (wherever “there” is) does not make one person better than another. My life has changed dramatically in the past few years, in good ways and bad.

I decided, at 28, to go back to school and begin a new career. My relationship with the person I thought I was going to marry ended.

It became a time to let go of all my old expectations, to set new goals, build new dreams, look forward instead of looking back. It became a time to embrace the inner me.

Said roommate and best friend did a wonderful job of easing the turning-30 pain for me. She organized get-togethers, gifts, surprises, and filled the entire weekend with all of my favorite people. Instead of moping around and feeling sorry for myself, I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire time.

On Saturday night, we went to see one of my favorite bands. My friends got me sufficiently tipsy, and I flitted about all night smiling and dancing, wearing my flashing “Kiss Me, It’s My Birthday” button with pride. One young ‘un, about 21 years old, asked me how old I was.

“Guess,” I told him.

“Twenty… three?”

“Oh my God, I’m going to hug you.”

I told him I was turning 30, which prompted him to exclaim, “Wow! You’re the hottest 30-year-old I’ve ever seen!”

I think I’d like to keep him.

But seriously, it all just goes to show that the cliches are true. You’re only as old as you feel. Growing old is inevitable, growing up is optional. Age ain’t nothin’ but a number.

I am 30. Hear me roar.

Now hand me some Clearasil.

pencil

E-mail: billiard[at]toasted-cheese.com.

Danny

Best of the Boards
Robin Hillard


In her article on grammar, Beaver says that ‘anymore’ does not mean ‘nowadays’, so her friend should not have said, “Anymore I shop at the Pottery Barn.”

That made me think of one particular seaside holiday, and a child who made the same grammatical mistake.

*

“Anymore I can swim,” Danny said when we met on the beach, “and anymore I got a Batman shirt.”

I was not interested in talking to Danny; he was only a little kid. I went on making a sand tower, and when he could not get my attention he wandered off.

Our parents had rented a holiday house, and Danny’s mother lived next door. There were only the two of them and I wondered where his father had gone. Mum told me Mr. Chandler was away.

“Put away,” said Dad.

As I was going outside I heard Mum talking about “an unfortunate woman,” because someone called he would soon be “getting out.”

“They should have thrown away the key,” Dad growled.

I was not interested in grown-up conversation, and once we were I home forgot about the little boy.

Then, when it was nearly time for the next holiday, I saw him again. He had come to our school, and was in the babies’ class. The teachers called him “Ann”, and I might not have known him, in his pink dress if I had not heard his shrill little voice: “Anymore my Dad has a car.” And, in answer to a question, “Anymore we live here now.”

I only knew one child who talked like that, but when I called him he started to cry, and ran behind the shed. I did not bother to chase him. Who wanted to play with the babies? Not me.

I wanted to be with the big boys, Peter’s friends, but my brother always sent me away. “You’re too small,” he said. “And girls can’t play football.”

But things were different now. As soon as I saw Danny wearing his pink dress I knew what I was going to do. If Danny Chandler could turn into a girl, with pretty clothes, why shouldn’t I be a boy?

I did not make the change at once, because I was a fairy in our class play, and boys could only be trees, but I decided that after the concert I would play football. I was too excited to keep my plan to myself.

“Soon I’m going to be a boy,” I said at breakfast time, “so you’ll have to let me play with you.”

Peter spluttered into his milk. “Mum, Jandy’s going to turn into a boy, so she can play football. Jandy thinks she’s going to be a boy.”

He went on and on until I started to cry.

“I can be a boy,” I insisted. “Danny Chandler was a boy last year and now he’s a girl. I am so going to be a boy.”

“It’s very sad about Daniel,” Mum said. Then she went on with some silly stuff, talking as if Danny disappeared. As if he was lost. “I’m sure he’ll be all right,” she added, in the voice she uses when she’s not telling the truth.

“Of course he’s all right,” I was cross. All this fuss about a little kid, when I wanted to talk about me. “Danny’s here. At school. He’s in the babies’ class. And he’s a girl.” That was the important thing. “He has a pretty pink dress. And he cries a lot.”

Mum told me not to be silly, but Dad wanted to know about the little girl. “What makes you think she’s Dan?”

“He just is. ‘Anymore my Dad’s got a car’ and ‘Anymore I live here now.'” I copied Danny’s voice, running the words together like he did.

Dad said something quietly to Mum, and they sent me out to wait for the school bus.

My friend Maryanne had a new Barbie doll, so I did not think about Danny/Ann again, till, right in the middle of spelling, Dad came into the class, with a policeman and a nurse, both in their uniforms. They took me into the office and Dad made me tell them all about Danny.

“You should check it out,” he said, before sending me back to my room.

My desk was by the window, so I saw Danny with the nurse, getting into the policeman’s car. He did not come back to school again.

That night we had my favourite pudding, ice cream, and chocolate cake, and Mum kept saying how clever I was. She used a lot of words I did not understand—“kidnapping” and “custody”—so I had more pudding and let them to talk.

Then Peter wanted show me off to his friends. “She’s a real little policeman,” he said. But Maryanne was coming to Saturday lunch and I did not have time to play with the big boys.

pencil

Robin Hillard has taught in Australia, England, and Canada. She has published a book of poetry and had stories and poems published in a number of print magazines and ezines. She now lives in Toowoomba, Queensland. E-mail: robinhillard[at]ozemail.com.au.

R.A.

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Richard C. Harrison


R.A. drives up in his new 1954 red Olds convertible, his left arm hanging over the driver’s side door. His right hand grips the chrome neckers’ knob attached to the steering wheel. It’s dusk, as he pulls up to where I’m standing with my sister and two of her friends in the beach parking lot. He has a brush cut but with the sides left long in a DA.

He is a college sophomore. He looks terrific.

“Hi girls,” he says to my sister and her friends, ignoring me.

“Hi, R.A.,” the girls say in unison like the chorus in a 45 single.

The girls talk with R.A. while I look over the car. The top is tucked into the well with a white cover. What would I do with a car like this? I would never dare drive it. I would be afraid of cracking it up or something. I can see my mother’s face after I had the accident.

I told you not to buy that expensive car, but you went ahead and did it, and now where are you? Out the car, out the money and out of luck.

Yup, that’s Mom. But I just like thinking about owning a car like R.A.’s. Like the song says, you can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking.

I have a car, a 1937 Ford wagon. The wood in my car is so rotten that it’s falling apart. I paid $35 dollars for the car: more than it’s worth, the piece of crap. But it runs. And at thirty-three cents a gallon I can buy nine gallons with three dollars I budget each week for gas. Unless we go down to Alton to the drive-in I can make it through the week on the three dollars. One night on the way to Alton I hit the high beam button on the floor. The lights go out. There we are, driving along in the pitch black. I hit the button again and the lights came back. They are awful dim, but they sure look good coming out of the black.

R.A. works the girls. “Hey girls, want to go for a ride?” he asks them.

“OK, R.A..” That chorus again.

“Hey, what about my brother?” my sister asks, halfway into the front seat.

R.A. doesn’t even look at me. “Yah, sure, shoehorn him in back,” he says.

I sit in the middle between my sister’s friends. Not a bad spot.

So R.A. drives us around the lake. It feels like we’re going fast because of the wind. There’s a nice moon so I can see the trees and as we go by the lake the moon makes that long light on the water. I close my eyes and let the air flow over me, lift my head, feeling the pressure of the girls’ thighs against mine. Boy, this is living.

The girls are all chattering about high school and stuff. They ignore me like always. They think I’m a kid because I’m a sophomore and they’re seniors. Plus, I don’t drink or smoke and, worst of all, I’m in Explorer Scouts, and don’t play sports. The tough guys usually ignore me.

There are exceptions. One day I go to school, and Kenny asks me, “Who roughed up Peter?” I tell him, “Danny Compari.” At recess Danny Compari comes out to the playground, walks over and hits me in the balls. I bend over crying, and he punches me in the face. I just lie on the ground crying.

“Don’t talk about me, kid,” he tells me quietly.

I never again mention Danny Compari’s name to a living soul. I also never learn to fight, so I become invisible. When in doubt, I fade.

So, I don’t exactly provide a striking figure for the girls to admire. I never do. I even hate the Y dances. I go but I really sweat under the arms. I like dancing with the girls but I hate asking them.

So, we pull up to a spot overlooking the lake and R.A. says, “Hey, you want to run the bridges?”

None of us know what that means, so we all say, “Sure.”

R.A. leads us down a long gangplank to a dock on the lake. That moon is still up there steady and shining. The boat is a lapstrake Lyman runabout with a 35 horsepower Johnson outboard and a deck with running lights, red and green. We all pile in and sit on cushions damp with night dew. R.A. starts the engine and leaves it idling as he gets out of the boat to release the lines.

“When I say duck you keep your head down under the level of the deck.”

“OK,” the chorus answers, plus me. My heart pounds.

“The water is high this year. When we get to the bridges I will steer the boat dead center, we all duck, and then we clear the bridge. I’ll get the bow down by getting her going as fast as I can. She’ll plane out and flatten, and we’ll make it under the bridges.”

R.A. jams up the throttle and the boat takes off. Dark sits heavy on the shore, but the moon makes a rippled sheen on the water. R.A. gets the boat planing flat. We are moving right along. I feel the wind again. Then the bridge is ahead. It makes a dark low arch with the water. R.A. speeds the boat at the middle of the bridge.

“OK, duck!” We all flatten out under the level of the deck. R.A. catches the bridge dead in the middle. I look back under my armpit. He ducks at the last minute to get under. The red and green running lights reflect off the flecked stucco underneath the bridge. The water gushes and the motor sound echoes. The bow is about six inches below the underneath of the bridge as we pass out the other side.

“OK,” R.A. calls.

We put our heads up.

He shouts, “Down!”

We all duck again. R.A. catches the second bridge dead center. Same reflection, same roar of the engine. None of us breathe.

Out on the other side. R.A. shouts, “Last.”

We duck again and are now into the lake proper. The moon is bright. We have cleared the bridges. One of the girls leans over and gives me a hug. I can feel her boobs underneath her sweater press against me.

“Wow, that was great!” she says.

“Yeah, it was,” I answer.

We had to run the bridges to get back, but it wasn’t quite as thrilling the second time. Back at the dock everyone is talking at once about how terrific it was, and how good R.A. is at piloting. Then R.A. turns to me.

“So, what did you think, kid?” R.A. asks.

I look at him out of the corner of my eye. “It was great R.A., thanks for taking us.” He gives me a quick punch to the left shoulder and smiles. “No sweat, I’ll run you home.”

“R.A., my car is back at the beach. Could you drop me and my sister there?”

He nods. “Hop in.” We make our way back through the moonlit trees and the yellow line on the black road, and I feel like I’ve been to a place where I want to go again.
pencil

Richard Harrison has published several short stories and numerous poems in The Seasons, a quarterly devotional journal. His stories, “The Jumper” and “The Cat Murder,” were accepted by the 2004 Marblehead Arts Festival, and in 2002 he won Best of Show for his story, “The Lake Shore Limited.” He continues to concentrate on writing short fiction in Marblehead, Massachusetts where he lives with his wife Sarah. E-mail: pic[at]marbleharbor.com.

On: Frozen Foods, Fresh Produce and Young Love

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Katherine Vondy


City living has changed me. My driver’s license meaningless, I traipse the streets of New York coveting fashions I would have previously found abhorrent. When my friend tells me she’s looking at renting a 3-bedroom house in Richmond for $1,200 a month, I accuse her of lying; $1,200 is the price of a nice one-room studio. I have adopted an edgy disdain for chain restaurants like Chili’s and Ruby Tuesday’s, as well as movie theaters that show only the biggest-budgeted of motion picture events.

But more than anything else, what has changed are my feelings toward grocery stores. Leagues away from the pristine culinary oases—well-stocked aisles of olive jars and granola bars, bounties of exotic imported produce, tundras of frosted cupcakes in glass cases—that comprised the grocery store in small-town Virginia, the local Brooklyn supermarket is a disgruntled affair, populated with dusty boxes of indiscriminate cereal, overpriced yogurts, and withered tomatoes. I shy tragically away from the deli section, filled with regret and yearning for gourmet pasta salads. In short, the supermarket has ceased to be the exquisite, enchanted place it once was.

*

I applied to work at Martin’s Grocery for a variety of reasons. For one, I had just graduated high school, and needed a cash reserve for college. For another, I loved food and loved grocery shopping, loved easily maneuvering a shiny cart through wide aisles, looking for the best bargain on frozen spinach. For another, my parents were threatening to make me flip burgers at McDonald’s if I didn’t find another job soon.

But mostly, it was Daniel.

I had first become smitten when I picked up the prints from a roll of film I had dropped off at the customer service counter. Daniel (as his nametag informed me) smiled past his slightly-snub nose as he handed me my change. His clothes were loose in an accidental way, and his plain brown hair was the awkward style of a preppy cut that has gone too long without maintenance.

“Could I fill out an application?” I asked.

“For what position?” he said.

“Cashier,” I said, in what I considered to be a seductive way.

“You’re in luck, we really need cashiers right now.” Daniel handed me a form.

I saw it blossoming before me, a summer romance among unreachably high towers of toilet paper and lusty cuts of beef. Surrounded by an ambient mist from the vegetable sprayer, Daniel and I would see past the gray-striped shirts and vests that were the Martin’s uniform, and to the inner cavities of each other’s beautiful souls.

I signed the application and passed it to Daniel.

“Chris!” he shouted. A thickly spectacled woman emerged from the room behind the customer service counter.

“Here’s an applicant to be a cashier.”

Chris eyed me from behind her spectacles.

“Can you train right now?” she said.

After receiving my diploma, I had planned for all my mental faculties to be on hiatus for the summer. However, I had never anticipated the intellectual storm that learning register etiquette and produce codes would prove to be. My training was harrowing and traumatic.

As a bag of kiwis approached me on the conveyor belt, I panicked. I couldn’t find their produce code on the laminated list hanging nearby. The irate homemaker in front of me was narrowing her eyes a millimeter more every second. I took a chance.

4050, I typed into the register. Cantaloupe, responded the monitor.

The homemaker’s eyes were suddenly bulbous.

“Those aren’t cantaloupes!” she notified me. “Those are kiwis.”

“Sorry, sorry,” I said to the laminated list as I urgently searched it for kiwifruit.

I cancelled the cantaloupes. 4030, I retyped. Kiwi, answered the machine.

“That’s better,” said the homemaker. My pride, formerly the volume of a watermelon (4031), had shrunken to the size of a grape (4022).

*

Each evening when I finished my shift, I carried my money tray into the small room behind the customer service counter to count that day’s gross income. Only a glass window separated me from Daniel, still dutifully servicing customers in front. I counted stacks of bills and coins multiple times, just to prolong the number of minutes Daniel and I would be in such close physical proximity. The claustrophobic, windowless money-counting room was saturated with romantic possibility.

“Bye, Daniel,” I would call when I forced myself to leave work.

He would open the glass window, poke his head through to watch me leave.

“Bye, Kat,” he’d say, and as I walked through the automatic sliding doors and into the parking lot, I would wonder if the heat I felt was the sun radiating off the cement or the passionate flame of love.

I determined that my emotions had nothing to do with asphalt on an afternoon in late June. Daniel had the day off and I was not looking forward to a day at Martin’s without him. I petulantly scanned credit cards and stowed personal checks in my cash drawer. The day plodded along at the same rate as my conveyor belt.

But at the end of my line of customers, I recognized a particular nose-arc and characteristically lackluster brown hair. Daniel was buying a box of donuts and a quart of milk.

“Couldn’t stay away?” I asked him.

“Missed this place,” he said, but I knew he meant I think you are phenomenal. I handed him his change and felt great affection towards my summer job.

*

Halfway through the summer, Martin’s introduced Triple Coupons. The premise was simple: cut them out of the newspaper and affix them to a pre-existing coupon. The value of the coupon increases threefold; fifty cents off oatmeal suddenly became a dollar-fifty. Seventy-five cents off pudding cups escalated to a swarthy two dollars and twenty-five cents. It was a time of great joy for coupon clippers across the county. With the sunlight streaming in the windows in the front of the store, glistening off polished vegetables and polyurethane-wrapped meats, shopping bills were reduced by dollars every minute.

The most diligent pennypincher had an endless supply of coupons for $1.50 off a box of Vienetta ice cream. Vienetta cost slightly less than four dollars. When attached to a Triple Coupon, the Supersaver’s savings were slightly more than four dollars, meaning that every time she bought ice cream, the Supersaver actually made a profit. It began to be typical to peer down my conveyor belt and see a cavalcade of Vienetta approaching, with the Supersaver close behind, counting coupons and ice cream cartons to ensure the numbers were the same. I would scan the bar codes of the boxes, then scan the coupons and press “x3”. I would bag the ice cream—double bagged, to reduce the possibility of melting. Then, after pressing the “total” button on the cash register and finding a negative number, I would pay the Supersaver for taking food from the market.

*

One afternoon I heard Chris frantically saying that Becky, who was supposed to work overnight, had gotten sick.

“I’ll take the shift,” I said.

“You’re really stepping up to the plate,” said Chris. This particular plate paid time and a half, so I didn’t mind stepping up in the least.

By eleven PM, Martin’s was deserted. I took a magazine back to my register and started reading about the latest star scandals. At irregular intervals late-night shoppers appeared to make purchases—bachelor men buying a week’s supply of microwave meals, mothers-of-two who could find no other time to stock up on napkins and glass cleaner. I alternated reading about the hottest new actors with attending to young college students with desperate needs for pre-made cookie dough.

At twelve-fifteen I looked up from a Drew Barrymore interview to see Daniel walking with his familiar wobbly gait through the sliding doors.

“What are you doing here?” I said. “It’s past midnight.”

“I snuck out,” said Daniel. “My parents go to sleep early. They don’t know I’m gone.”

“But why?”

“I thought you might be getting bored.”

I tried to think of something clever and winsome to say in response, but I failed.

“You snuck out of your house to go to the grocery store?” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Most people sneak out to go to parties.”

“I snuck to the grocery store.”

Daniel didn’t stay long, but after he left I could no longer concentrate on my Hollywood reading material. The night passed dreamily, soundtrack provided by the Celine Dion and Luther Vandross songs being broadcast over the supermarket speakers. For the first time, they seemed poignant and touching.

In the early morning the sound of soft rock suddenly started merging with the scent of multitudinous baked goods emerging from the ovens, ready for the day’s bakery shoppers. This was a sensory world I’d never known, the promise of the precipice of morning. As I was released from my shift, I remembered Daniel’s illicit midnight visit. I hummed along to Fleetwood Mac singing “Silver Springs” as I bought myself two fresh muffins.

*

The Triple Coupon Phenomenon continued; the Supersaver and I had struck up a friendship. Each time she came through my line, she wrote down my schedule for the coming days. She sought my register faithfully with her cart full of ice cream. Each week brought a new shipment of Vienetta ice cream. Each week, a new series of interactions with Daniel. We swapped stories of overprotective parents and made fun of boy bands. We shared stories of wacky customers. He’d served a man who had bought thirty ears of corn (4078) and nothing else. I told him about the Supersaver.

“You know,” he said, “you’re not supposed to triple coupons if the triple coupon will be more than the cost of the item.”

This was news to me.

“Whoops,” I said.

The next time the Supersaver came through my line, I took a deep breath and prepared for the confrontation. She was buying five boxes of Vienetta.

“I’m not allowed to triple the coupons if they’re going to be worth more than the price of the item,” I told her sorrowfully. “This is the last time I’ll be able to triple your coupons.” I felt like I was breaking up with her. It’s not you, it’s me. I want us to stay friends.

“I understand,” she said. I bagged her ice cream, gave her the $2.50 I owed her from the Triple Coupons and we prepared to part ways forever. She began to walk towards the automatic sliding doors and the parking lot beyond, then paused. She turned around.

“I want you to have this,” she said, taking a box of Vienetta out of her bags.

“Oh, no, I couldn’t take that from you!” I said.

“Please take it. It’s my way of thanking you,” said the Supersaver. “You’re the best cashier I’ve ever known.” She left the ice cream at the end of my conveyor belt and disappeared without another word.

My shift wasn’t over for another three hours. I despaired; the ice cream would melt before I could take it home to the freezer.

My despair was interrupted by the manager: “Kat, you can take your fifteen-minute break now,” she said. I seized two plastic spoons from the salad bar and led a bagboy to the bench outside the front door.

Outside, it was dark. The humidity was dissipating. The fluorescent lights inside Martin’s shone through the windows onto the parking lot, but diluted, and gently. The ice cream had already begun to dissolve in sugary rivulets inside the box. It seemed that everything was getting softer.

“Help me eat this,” I told the bagboy.

“The two of us can’t finish that entire box of Vienetta,” he said, aghast. I handed him a spoon.

Time was limited. The ice cream was melting. We finished in the requisite fifteen minutes. I threw away the box and utensils, returned to my register. The bagboy started collecting abandoned carts from the parking lot.

Many moments occur too quickly, gone before you’ve realized they’ve happened. A few days later, the Triple Coupon promotion ended.

*

Two days before I left for college, Daniel asked me to lunch. We went to Ruby Tuesday’s; I had the day off and his shift didn’t start until evening. We sat in front of our meals, naked without our store-issued shirts and vests. It seemed odd to be eating food, not selling it. After we ate we went for a drive through the countryside. Daniel parked on the shoulder of a dirt road and we walked into the woods.

It was dusk. The leaves and branches sieved the sunlight. We sat on a log and tried to think of things to say. His shift was starting soon. We got up, started walking back to his car.

“Wait,” I said. He stopped. I kissed him. It was getting dark. Things were ending.

*

The summer had slipped by without my knowledge; it was suddenly time to abandon my hometown and my home friends, to buy discount luggage and fill suitcases with attire appropriate for college. It was time to move on, move up. Move north. I handed in my nametag and my gray-striped shirt and vest. I collected my last paycheck and did not bother to look fondly down the orderly aisles or let my gaze linger on deli panoramas. Backward glancing did not cross my mind. I did not yet understand the nature of things never being the same.

And time has passed, and grocery stores have changed. A month after I moved into my dorm Daniel called me from his school in Florida. He wanted to see me when we came home for Thanksgiving break. I was ambivalent. I was writing papers, and going to parties, and complaining about the dining hall food but secretly loving it all the same. I did not have the attention span to venerate the summer. I did not speak to Daniel again.

And in the grocery store now, in the cramped and raucous Brooklyn supermarket, I choose citrus fruits and tomato sauces without sentimentality, and without the pulsing thrill of possibility.

What did I love: was it Daniel, or was it the grocery store? The oversized cornucopia of fresh and packaged foods or the tenuous anxiety of blossoming teenage romance? Or maybe they meant nothing separately, and mystique only materialized when they existed together? Something has been lost, along with the flirtatious exchanges at adjacent cash registers and the haunting scent of freshly-baked pastries in the darkness before sunup. I miss produce codes, I miss Triple Coupons, I miss Fleetwood Mac. I miss the magic of the supermarket summer.

pencil

After two years working in the Financial District of New York, Katherine Vondy will begin pursuing her MFA in Film at USC in the Fall of 2004. Her work has appeared most recently in Red River Review and in The Lunatic, The Lover and the Poet, a short story compilation from Ginninderra Press. Katherine spends her spare time creating bad puns, watching reality television and waxing nostalgic for the past. E-mail: kavondy[at]yahoo.com.

Every Single Thing Matters

A Midsummer Tale – First Place
Loretta Mestishen


“Every single thing matters. Know that. I don’t care what anyone else tries to tell you. They are lying. They are wrong. They are selling something. Everything matters. To someone. It might not be to you. At least not at the moment. But it’s hard to tell. When you’re in it.”

She had grabbed my hand hard and didn’t let go the whole time she was talking. I wasn’t even sure who she was, just some relative or friend of the family or something. Just some blonde lady in a cheap black dress that kept slipping low on her left shoulder, letting her white bra strap gleam there like a new tooth. I had just come back from the kitchen with a plate heaped with slices of coconut cake when she cornered me in the hallway, pressing me up against the dark paneling until I could feel the long routed lines of it through the back of my dress.

She smiled at me and past me. There was lipstick on her teeth and I figured I should tell her it was there but I didn’t want to. Every so often she would squeeze the hand she was holding, giving it a short quick burst of pressure with a little shake at the end. My other hand was getting tired. The cake plate was too heavy. It was a milky white thing with half round bumps all along the edge of it. Mom said it used to belong to some dead somebody I should care about.

She didn’t say anything for a long time, just squeezed my hand whenever I shifted or looked beseechingly through the archway into the living room. None of the adults saw my predicament.

“Um, I think I need to get this cake out to the buffet.”

“Ok, honey,” she said without looking at me.

She gave my hand another squeeze but didn’t let go. Instead she brought it roughly to her mouth and kissed the palm of it, leaving a streak of lipstick that looked like a wound. With that she turned back into the kitchen and banged through the screen door out onto the porch where the men were smoking and holding court around the rented keg.

They had whiskey out on the porch and probably Boilo too. Cigar smoke floated into the hall replacing the smell of perfume and beer and pantyhose that had clung to the lady. I waited, watching her leave. There was the sound of men laughing a moment after the door closed and it brought me back. I headed into the dining room and slid the plate in among the deviled eggs and kielbasa and halupki.

I swear people just go to funerals for the food afterwards. It was like a party. The only person who seemed sad was Uncle Mike’s sister Helen. She was sitting in the middle of the couch with one of her kids on either side and people kept getting her things, a soda or a plate of food. Once Mom disappeared upstairs and came back with a small pink pill that she tried to hand to Helen without anyone noticing. She looked at me and made a disappointed face when she saw me looking. I didn’t know why that was wrong.

Later, after everyone had eaten I went out back onto the porch. The men were still there although they were quieter than they had been earlier and the lady in the dress was gone. Cousin Bobby gave me a shot of Boilo and said it would put hair on my chest and all the men laughed. I only took a little taste and spit it back into the glass. It was gross but they laughed at that too so I grabbed the glass and drank it all down. Bobby slapped me on the back so hard it hurt but I knew he meant it as a good thing. I went outside and tried to catch lightning bugs as they rose from the grass. I would catch one and then let it go so I could catch another. Finally Bobby yelled out from the porch, “Why don’t you go get a jar from the garage? Then you can catch a bunch of ’em.”

The garage was around the side of the house and hadn’t been redone when they put on the new siding. It was old and covered in diamond shaped brown and green tarpaper shingles that made it look like the skin of a dragon. There was no light in the garage, just the light from the street lamp at the corner of the driveway and whatever came through the little window on the far wall that faced the house.

I didn’t know where the jars would be. At home we kept all our mason jars in a couple of bushel baskets under the table in the woodshed, so I started looking low. All I found was an old lawnmower and some wooden crates. There was a workbench over in the corner on the other side of the car and I could just about see something shining in the light from the window. It was a jar full of nails so I dumped them out on the workbench and climbed back around the car. Cousin Bobby was standing in the doorway with a bottle of Boilo.

“D’ya find a jar?”

I held the jar at arms length, showing him my prize.

“Here. Let me see that.” He took the jar and poured a little liquid into it swishing it around for a minute then dumped the liquid onto the zinnias just outside the door. He poured more Boilo and the neck of the bottle knocked hard against the lip of the jar.

“Oooop,” he laughed, “don’t wanna break the glass now do we?” He handed me the jar but I shook my head.

“Come on,” he said, “let’s have a drink to good ol’ Uncle Mike.” I just looked at him. Something in the way he said that scared me. “You’re not scared are you? Well, it’s a man’s drink anyway.” He started to turn away but still kept his hand with the jar in it stretched toward me, watching me out of the corner of his eye. I snatched it from him and chugged the vile drink, nearly choking myself in a fit of coughing.

He put his hand on my back patting me, asking if I was going to make it. I tried to talk but the Boilo had gone down the wrong pipe and I couldn’t stop coughing that horrible croupy cough that made my eyes water and wouldn’t let me catch my breath. He kept his hand on my back and walked me over to the car.

“Here. You need to siddown.” He put the bottle on the roof of the car and opened the back door, ushering me onto the seat. Squatting down in front of me as I sat, legs dangling out of the car, he pulled out a handkerchief and gave it to me.

“You gonna live?” he asked.

“Yes, ” I sputtered, trying to sound in control.

“You want some water? Or another shot of Boilo?” he laughed jerking his head towards the roof of the car.

“Thanks. I’m fine,” I said, and crossed my legs, sitting up straighter.

Bobby looked at me then shook his head. He poured more Boilo into the jar, tipped it in my direction, and drank it.

“You’re stealing my jar,” I said.

“Huh?” He hadn’t moved but was looking around the garage, squinting into the darkening corners.

“Oh. Yeah. Yeah, your jar.” He set the bottle down on the concrete then pulled a bandana out of his back pocket. Bobby’s eyes locked with mine as he swiped the jar clean and held it out to me. I took it with both hands and held it on my lap while I waited for his to get up and let me out. He kept watching me.

A lightning bug landed on the window of the open car door, drawing his attention.

“See, ” he slurred, reaching up and brushing the bug into his hand, “you don’ even have ta try ta ketch ’em. They’re comin’ ta you.”

I held out the jar for the bug, but he kept it in his cupped palm and held it close to his face.

“Hey,” he said, looking up,” you got pierced ears?”

“Not yet.” Unconsciously, I brushed my hair behind my ear. “Mom says I can get it done for my birthday.”

“Oh yeah? How old you gonna be?”

“Thirteen.” I said.

“A teenager.” He took another drink, this one straight from the bottle. “Ya know. I think a pretty girl like you should have special earrings.”

“My friend Kim says you have to get studs when you get them pierced but I really want a pair of little gold hoops. I saw the exact ones I want at the Piercing Pagoda at the mall, but they’re thirty bucks.”

He put the bottle down again and was playing with the lightning bug, flipping it over on its back and pinning it to his palm.

“Mom said she’ll pay for the piercing, but if I want the hoops I’ll have to use my birthday money and buy them myself.”

“I think you need real special earrings.” He flicked his thumb across his hand and it came up glowing, a small nugget of light stuck to his fingernail, a smear of luminescence on the hand he wiped on his jeans. Before I knew what he was doing, he broke the glowing bit in half, reached up with both hands and pressed the pieces to my earlobes. “There. That’s better.”

“What did you do?” I asked, dropping the jar as my hands went to my ears. They felt cold and sticky and came away smeared with greenish glow. The jar rolled under the car, crunching hollowly on the uneven concrete floor.

“It was the bug,” he said, looking at me like I was stupid. “Didn’t you ever make lightning bug earrings?”

“You mean you killed it?” Looking at the smear on his pant leg I saw the front half of the bug stuck to the fabric, legs flailing uselessly. I tried to get up, rubbing my ears and my hands, but he didn’t move and I fell back onto the seat. The glistening stuff was all over my hands, my clothes.

“It’s blood!” I nearly screamed. “You killed it!” I tried to stand up, grabbing the doorframe and pulling myself out of the car.

“Hey, relax!” he yelled over me, grabbing my hips and pushing me back onto the seat. “It was just a bug.”

“You got it all over me!” I was ready to cry and couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t just let me go.

Suddenly, the light from the door was blocked.

“Bobby!”

He started slightly. “What?” he snarled, obviously recognizing the voice.

It was the lady in the black dress. “Bobby get out here. Leave her alone.”

“Relax, Lisa. We were just catching lightning bugs.” He stood up and slowly folded his bandana and put it away, then he bent down to pick up the Boilo bottle.

“Let’s go, Bobby.” She seemed like she was really upset, but was trying not to show it. “Now. Come on.”

He started toward the door then turned back and said, “I think you looked real pretty with those earrings.” The lady looked past his and glared right at me. “Go back in the house,” she said in a mean way. “You shouldn’t be out here.”

“Ok,” I said. She kept glaring at me then shook her head and walked back to the porch with Cousin Bobby. When they got there I could see they were arguing, and she pulled him around the side of the house, and finally went to a car, got in and slammed the door. He just stood there watching her go, then he looked from the garage to the house. He walked back around to the porch and left the half-empty bottle of Boilo leaning against the railing on the edge of the steps.

I got out of the car and crawled underneath to retrieve the jar. I slid the nails back in and left it on the workbench. Suddenly I was trespassing. I heard a car start and walked outside. Cousin Bobby was in the car with the lady. Neither one of them was talking now, but as they pulled away, she watched me through the window and I knew then that she hated me.

Back in the house I sat in the kitchen, eating cold halupki and coconut cake. Mom banged into the kitchen balancing a tray full of dirty plates and glasses. She looked at my plate.

“That’s a nice combo. Is that all you’ve eaten today?”

“Yeah. I had some chips earlier.” I smashed a piece of cake with my fork, pressing the icing through the tines.

“You were a big help today,” she said as she sat down next to me and forked a mouthful of cake. She looked at me strangely for a moment then reached over and rubbed my ear between her fingers.

“What’s this?” she said, studying the luminescent smear.

“Nothing,” I said. “It’s nothing.”
pencil

E-mail: LMestishen[at]aol.com.

Question Mark the Sun Spot

Beaver’s Pick
J.D. Nelson


Snow on the ground
on April Fool’s Day—
I come slamming back
to this world,
screaming.

The walls are shaking
& the possibility
of an eruption
is very real.

Who knows for certain?
These clever priests
& scientists,
w/ their clipboards
of polished steel?

It’s too light outside
to close my eyes.

I’d like to be floating
in the blue oxygen room
down the hall.

pencil

Space-Cowboy Poet J. D. Nelson lives, writes and wrangles in Colorado, USA. His work has appeared in several online and print publications, including The Best of The Dream People Poets chapbook. J. D. has appeared as a guest on Dr. Andy’s Poetry and Technology Hour. Visit J. D.’s website for more. E-mail: milehighstyle[at]yahoo.com.

Struck By A Sparrow

Beaver’s Pick
Apryl Fox


Struck by sparrows flung
in a dark cage,
the snow has been
gone for seven long summers.
There is cake sitting

out on the stove but
it’s none of my concern:
the birthday party
was last week.

Then the postman, someone who
was much like my father,
told me I could no longer come home
anymore: he didn’t
like the way my hat rested

on my head.
That was the last I
heard of old Belfast,
the old man who once gave
me my bread.

pencil

Apryl Fox, 22-years-old, has been published previously in The Rose and Thorn Ezine, The Morpo Review, and Star/Line. She has a poetry chapbook forthcoming from Foothills Publishing. E-mail: aravenatmidnight[at]yahoo.com.

Have A Safe Day

Baker’s Pick
Gary Dudney


“How’s your rice, dear?” Mother asked.

“It’s weird,” Shelli said, poking at the small pile of rice with her fork. “Can I just take my pills?”

“Shelli!” Mother implored. “Remember what the doctor said. We need to try new things.” She leaned across the table and whispered, “…for Anton, dear. You understand.”

Shelli shrugged. “I think Anton’s all right. You just never let him do anything.”

“Enough of that,” Shelli’s father said sternly. “I think your mother and I know what’s best for Anton.”

Everyone looked over at Anton, who sat tucked in the corner of the booth playing quietly with a flashing cube in his hand. Mother placed a finger under his chin to lift his face so he could see she was smiling at him. He twisted away, put the cube on the table, and pointed at his sister’s plate of rice. “Try some?”

Shelli started to push the plate across to him but Father’s hand reached out to block it.

“Oh, no, son. Choking hazard.”

“Maybe he could try a little,” Mother said.

Father glared at her. “I thought we had an agreement. We do this by the book.” Father pulled a thin plastic card out of his shirt pocket. He held it up to his lips and whispered, “Feeding precautions.”

The foggy surface on the plastic cleared and Father read, “Up to age six, it is safest to keep children on liquid diets.” He looked up and said pointedly, “I believe our little Anton is five.” Then reading on, “After that you may switch to pills. Be ever cautious with the old foodstuffs. They were not designed to be as safe as today’s products and can cause choking and stomach discomfort.”

“There,” father said triumphantly. “Better safe than sorry. I think we can agree on that.”

But before Father had finished, Mother had reached over to Shelli’s plate and taken two grains of rice. “We’ll mash them,” she said as she placed them on a small plate, crushed them with her fork, and slid the plate in front of Anton.

Anton quickly pressed his finger down on the rice and put the flattened grains in his mouth. He swallowed with a thoughtful look on his small face.

Father stiffened and held his breath like he expected Anton to suddenly clutch his throat and turn purple before his eyes. Instead Anton grinned happily.

“There, see,” Mother said. “I believe that was just what Anton needed.”

Father shook his head. “Let’s not forget about Shelli’s finger, shall we? I believe that was your idea, too, now wasn’t it, dear?”

“Oh, Father,” Shelli said. “That was nothing!”

“Let’s have a look at that finger. Is there any scarring?”

“Mother. Make him stop.”

“It was just a tiny splinter,” Mother said.

“A splinter from that old toy that you insisted on giving her. What was wrong with the approved blocks, like Anton’s?”

The hard plastic block in Anton’s hand flashed off and on. The letter B appeared on the sides of the cube and a soft voice was coming from the block, “B…B… as in boy and big…B…B.”

“She liked the old ones…the ones made of…now what was that called?”

“Wood. A very dangerous material.”

Shelli rolled her eyes and slumped back in her seat. “Never mind, Father.” Shelli reached into her pocket. A faint suggestion of music came from the tiny implant in her ear and she was lost to the rest of the family.

Father looked out the window. The restaurant was built on the edge of the water overlooking a small harbor. There were rowboats and motorboats anchored just below them. The water was as smooth as glass. In the distance, a gleaming white seawall curved out into the bay. The seawall blocked the waves and restless motion of the ocean beyond.

“Well,” Father said, “we came all this way to see the ocean so perhaps we should go. Better give Anton his jacket. There might be a breeze.”

Father paid the man at the counter as they left. “Thank you, folks. Have a safe day.”

Outside, Shelli was the first to reach the sidewalk conveyor. Anton watched as she paused next to it, leaned forward, and then quickly stepped on and was carried away. Anton rushed up for his turn.

“Not so fast, little man,” Father said as he came up behind Anton and swept him into his arms. “Don’t want to take a nasty spill.”

Anton struggled but Father held him tight. Just then a young lady wearing the distinctive powder-blue body suit of a Safety Monitor glided up to them.

She smiled at Father. “Cute boy,” she said. “Now be sure and lean forward when you step onto the walk. No small children unattended. Use the handrail once you are on board.”

Father stepped carefully onto the moving walk. He put Anton down and the three of them stood in a small knot against the handrail. Shelli was up ahead. The conveyor took them slowly beyond the buildings and along the edge of the harbor. They went past where the seawall curved in to meet the shore. Once they were in sight of the ocean, Father led them off the walk onto a platform.

“Will you look at that?” Father said, as he held out his hands to keep the family back. “I believe the ground is covered with grass.” A freshly clipped lawn spread out before them. At the edge of the lawn was a tall fence, which stretched as far as the eye could see down the shore. A few people stood along the fence looking at the ocean in the distance.

An older gentleman in a Safety Monitor uniform stepped up to them. “Help you folks?” he said.

“Is it safe to walk on the grass?” Father asked looking uncertainly at the people down by the fence.

“Oh, sure,” the man said. “Was a time when people had their own grass, you know. Used to walk on it all the time.” He noticed Anton peeking out from behind Father’s leg and gave him a wink. “Kids used to love the stuff as a matter of fact.”

Father reached down and held Anton firmly in place on the platform. “We’ll see about that,” he said and pulled his card from his pocket. He read for a moment and said, “Ah, ha. Says here there are germs in the grass and something called ‘chiggers.’ Now what about that?”

The safety monitor shrugged. “Never heard that it hurt anyone to play in the grass, Sir.”

Shelli had had enough. She pushed by Father and ran down to the fence. Mother said, “Let’s risk it, dear. I think Anton will be all right.”

“But the germs,” Father sputtered, but Mother had already pried Anton from Father’s grip and was leading him across the lawn.

Soon, they were all standing at the fence, looking at the ocean beyond. From where they were, they could barely hear the sound of the waves crashing on the beach. Even Father seemed a bit disappointed that the fence kept them so far from the water. “Well,” he sighed. “It would be terribly unsafe if people could just walk right out to the water, now wouldn’t it?”

He had barely finished speaking when they saw a small figure beyond the fence dart across the sand not far from where they were standing. Shelli was the first to react. “Ah, oh,” she said.

Father and Mother gasped together as they recognized Anton. He was marching across the sand toward where the seawall swept in and met the shore. “I thought you were watching him,” Father said angrily to Mother as they ran along the fence.

“I thought you were,” she cried.

They found the spot where Anton had crawled beneath the fence. The ground had given way and left just enough of a gap for a small boy to fit under. Father grabbed the bottom of the fence and began yanking but it wouldn’t give. He ran off searching for a way over or under. Trying hard to control her voice, Mother called out, “Anton. Stop right there. Turn around, dear, and come back here. Stop, Anton!”

Apparently Anton could not hear her because of the noise of the waves and the steady breeze blowing toward the shore. He had reached a set of steps that led up to the top of the seawall. He climbed the steps with surprising speed.

Father returned dragging the Safety Monitor, who was fumbling with a gadget in his hand. “I can’t get this thing to work,” the man was saying.

They all watched as Anton began making his way along the top of the seawall heading out to sea.

“Oh, my God!” Mother said.

Father was shaking the Safety Monitor by the shoulders. “He’ll be killed if you don’t do something quick. He’s five years old. He has no idea what’s safe. He’ll walk right off the wall into the water and drown. Now get help at once!”

The top of the wall was smooth and flat. Anton thought it looked like the moving sidewalk except there was no rail on either side. He stayed right in the middle and walked along slowly. On his right, the water was calm and smooth. On his left, the water was churning up and down, foaming and slapping at the rocks below.

Some brightly-colored shapes on the rocks caught his eye. He lay down on his stomach and slid his legs carefully down the slant of the wall until his feet touched the rocks. He sucked in his breath when the cold water lapped up over his shoes and socks. There were starfish and other creatures attached to the rocks. Anton reached down into the water and felt their leathery skins.

Suddenly, two sleek brown heads appeared out of the water nearby. A pair of sea otters wreathed around one another, slithering back and forth. They looked at Anton and he looked back at them. Then he heard an odd barking sound, a deep-throated, hoarse “arhp, arhp.” He looked up to see brown sea lions scattered on the rocks farther along the seawall. One raised his head and shook it as he barked.

Mother clung to the fence with tears streaming down her face. Shelli held her around her waist. Father was still cursing at the Safety Monitor who in turn was cursing at the gadget in his hand. Then Mother gasped. Two small hands had appeared on the edge of the seawall right where Anton had disappeared a moment before. The rest of Anton appeared. He began calmly walking back to shore along the top of the wall. He climbed down the steps and ran back to the fence where his family stood.

Mother and Father each took an arm and dragged him back through the hole under the fence. As soon as he was through, Mother locked him in a bear hug, sobbing violently.

Anton struggled to free his face. He was grinning from ear to ear. “There were nice animals out there,” he said. “The water is very cold. There are orange things stuck to the rocks and big animals barking!”

“Anton, you should never have gone out there,” Father said shaking his finger, but Mother stopped him.

“What’s important is that he came back,” she said. “Thank God.”

Father thought about that for a moment. “Gosh, Anton, why did you come back? I mean…well…you came right back.”

“I had to come back.”

“But why?”

“Because, Daddy, it wasn’t safe.”

For once, Father was speechless.

“You know what,” Mother said. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s find a place where we can all go right down on the beach. We could even build a sand castle.”

Everyone looked at Father. He started to reach for the card in his pocket but stopped when he saw the frown appear on Anton’s face.

“Well,” he said after a long pause, “if we all stay together, maybe we could.”

Shelli gasped with surprise. “Gee, Daddy, that would be awesome!”

pencil

“I’ve been freelance writing both fiction and non-fiction for the past 4 years with some success. For the past 22 years, I’ve worked for CTB/McGraw-Hill in Monterey, California, in achievement test publishing. Before that I lived in Poland for four years teaching English as a Second Language on a Fulbright Exchange. I’m married with two teenage children.” E-mail: gdudney[at]ctb.com.

Holy Water

Creative Nonfiction
Charles P. Ries


Beyond the predictability of my father’s work and prayer habits, there was one ritual he performed without fail. He blessed our beds. Each night after he’d washed and prayed, he’d come up to the two bedrooms on the second level of our home and make the sign of the cross over his children as they lay sleeping. Carrying a small glass bottle with a cross etched on the front, he sprinkled us with holy water. In his mind, he was showering us with a protective blanket of grace that would fill our room with angels and hover over us until morning. Most nights I was already fast asleep when he made his rounds, but on occasion just as sleep neared, I would feel a drop of holy water fall on my face or hand. It was a good feeling. An act of love that made the night safe. This rite of passage into the night was as sure as the sun rising in the morning. He’d silently come into the room I shared with my three brothers and bless our two beds. My father’s world was built on routines and rituals. They kept his feet on the ground. They made the world a safe predictable place for him and for us. In these silent acts of kindness he extended his heart. These were the hugs and kisses he never shared with us. Through this twilight ritual he came as close to touching our souls as he ever would and ever did.

*

I’d go through the same routine every time I visited. I’d tell him I loved him and then sit in silence looking at him. Waiting for him to say something. I wanted to run, but I owed it to him to stay there and say the words. He had earned at least that much respect. I repeated, “Dad, I love you,” one final time and saw what I thought was a trickle of tears coming from his eyes as he sat hunched and strapped in his wheelchair, unable to talk, his body shaking uncontrollably. I wasn’t sure if what I saw was the disease or a moment of real feeling. I had long given up on him, but still held out for a sign. I waited for the feelings buried deep within him to finally come out and breathe the same air with me.

As tears rolled down his cheeks, I was certain I had finally seen him. I was certain that the curtain of his disease had parted for a moment and he was sharing something real with me. The view made me pity him all the more, but I could not reach down and find tears for him. I had stopped crying years ago. I would not weep for him now.

After a series of small strokes and following the administration of the Last Rites, he mercifully died. His eighty-eight year life was over. “What am I to feel? How am I to be? It’s my father, who just died.” But I felt nothing. He had taught me well. I now had a firm grip on my feelings. They were stored a million miles away where they could do me no harm.

*

“My father was not a warm and fuzzy kind of guy,” my brother Joe began his eulogy. “He wasn’t a very playful person—he taught us how to work and all of my brothers and sisters know how to do that very well. I’ve learned some things are more important than being able to tell a good story or being able to entertain friends—things like integrity, sincerity, decency—in other words, faithfulness to one’s beliefs.”

I waited for something to open me up. For some sweet memory to find me and send me my tears, but nothing came. I was still angry with him. Angry that I had to shut myself down. Angry that I couldn’t remember him hugging or comprehending me. I had no connection with this man other than the holy water he sprinkled on my bed each night.

Every Tuesday night and often on Sunday, my dad would go to St. Vincent de Paul meetings and then would go out to visit and help families in need. My dad wasn’t a do-gooder, though, because that implies superficiality. What he did, he did from his heart. He did what he did because of a deeply held belief that it was just the right thing to do.

As my brother continued, I stopped listening. I withdrew and looked forward to the after burial luncheon and drinking a few brandy old fashioneds to my old man, the best minker that ever lived.

*

With closed eyes, I reached back and searched for my memories. The meaning of who I had become would be discovered by carefully remembering these building blocks of my nature.

A series of snapshots, smells, colors, and dreams passed before me—the mysterious pieces of a boy on verge of becoming. Splashing in a puddle created by a late August storm with my younger brother. Feeling the close quarters of my dad’s 1949 Buick as the nine of us crowd together en route to my Uncle’s for Easter Sunday dinner. Abducting my aunt’s poppy seed tort from the desert table and carrying it into a nearby clothes closet so I could have all its creamy goodness to myself and then crying hysterically as my mother discovered me and liberated my friend from my intoxicated fingers.

Snapshots. Fragments of memory.

Green farm fields. The chirping of my father’s mink after weaning and the smell of pelting season. Snow forts, ice-skating in the swamp and my mother’s garden with its raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb, and vegetables. The smell of bread baking in the kitchen. A world of constancy nestled in the heart of Wisconsin.

Our red brick house that stood next to my grandparents’ cream brick home. And next to our home my uncle’s and just thirty feet further south my aunt’s. We’d laughed and called it Riesville. Four homes along a blacktop country road populated with seventeen children and eight adults. The only things that ever changed were the weather, the seasons, and our ages.

It felt as if we had always been here. My ancestors homesteaded this land 1810. Fresh off boat from Austria, my great-great-grandfather bought his stake in America. Two more generations of dairy farmers followed and then came my father who would raise mink rather then dairy cattle. Hard working, church going, frugal men and women who made good use of their time on earth.

The earliest days of my life were without surprise or pain. There was nothing to distinguish one day from the other. Until my eyes started to open and as natural as life itself, I began to see. And the life I remember began.

*

“Chucky, is the mail truck here yet?” my mother called from the kitchen.

“Not yet. I’m watching,” I called back. My nose pressed against the window that looked north toward my grandparents’ house. Their home, and Riesville’s large postal box, stood beneath an Oak Tree whose branches reached like protecting arms over the sky blue roof and soft yellow brick exterior of their house.

“Well, it’ll be here in a minute or two,” she replied.

I was old enough for my first chore. At four years old I was big enough to find a place in the factory of my father’s farm.

“I can see it! I see the mail truck,” I shouted as I raced through the kitchen and out the back door, running with short urgent strides. Propelling myself along a foot worn path that carried me and a procession of mail collectors before me through a sparse orchard of crab apple trees toward the mailbox into which all of the mail destined for Riesville was placed.

“You must be the new delivery boy?” a voice called to me from the mail truck.

“Yes sir. It’s my job.”

“Think you can carry all this stuff? You’re just a little guy,” I heard the voice say as a tanned arm reached out of the side window and placed the day’s news, bills, and letters into my outstretched arms.

It was the commencement of my working life. It was the day I became a little man.

“Well look who’s here,” I heard my Grandmother Mary say as I opened the screen door leading to her kitchen. “So, you’re in charge now, huh?” she said in her thick German accent.

“I’m in charge of mail,” I replied, holding the overflow bundle. Hugging it and making sure not one item escaped my embrace.

“I see that. Well you just put the mail there on the table and sit down,” she said pointing to the chair where she wanted her grandson to sit. “You look hungry. You have three more houses to go before lunchtime. You need some apple pie,” she said in a way that always sounded like an order.

“Grandma, I have mail to deliver now,” I tried to explain, letting her know I knew my job.

“You will. But first you get some pie. You work. You eat. Little men have to eat,” she said placing a wedge of pie in front of me from one of the four she’d set on the table to cool. It was my diploma to manhood—a quarter-pan man-sized certificate of achievement. As I sat and took a forkful of the warm treat, I realized I wouldn’t complete my route until I’d finished her pie. As I ate, she talked to me in her short matter-of-fact sentences. “God gave us a good day. A good day for picking raspberries and canning tomatoes,” she said as she sorted the mail, not looking up until she had placed the day’s delivery onto four neat piles. She tied each pile with a piece of butcher’s twine and then took a long admiring look at the young man sitting at her table and nodded affirmatively, mentally noting that he was right on track to becoming a good, productive little Ries. Her gift of pie was God smiling on my life.

As I neared the end of my sweet tribute the phone rang, “Yes, Chucky’s here. Sure, he’ll have plenty of room for lunch. He’s busy with Grandma now. We’re talking. We have business to do. He’ll be home soon. He has mail to deliver,” she said to my mother who’d called wondering where the new mail carrier had disappeared. With my plate now spotless, I got up and received an uncharacteristic hug from my grandmother and resumed my route. She’d laid the three bundles of mail in my arms, “You get moving now. Your mom’s got your lunch waiting. Scoot.”

I bounded out of the kitchen and saw my Grandfather Peter coming up the gravel road that lead to the carpenter shop. “Better get moving Chucky, everyone’s wondering if the mailman thought you were a letter and mailed you to Green Bay.”

“Okay Grandpa, I’m moving now. Grandma had pie for me.”

“I’m sure of that,” he said as he watched me make my way back along the path, through orchard and over a wide mowed field where we played softball.

I walked the final hundred yards to the far end of Riesville where I delivered my aunt’s and then my uncle’s mail. Knocking on each door, handing the bundle through the opening to a, “Thanks Chucky, you want to stay for lunch?”

“Nope. I had pie at Grandma’s. Now I have to get home for lunch,” I said as I sped back across the softball field and entered the kitchen where my six siblings were already halfway through with their meal.

“All done?” my mother asked.

“Yup, done for this day.”

“Well, take a seat and have some lunch or did Grandma fill you full of pie?” she said, seeing the telltale sign of early desert on the corners of my mouth and clinging to the front of my shirt.

It was my first day of work and my life’s first memory.

pencil

Charles P. Ries lives and writes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has completed a novel based on memory titled, The Fathers We Find: The Making of a Humble, Pleasant Boy. Holy Water is excerpted from this work. His second book of poetry titled Monje Malo Speaks English was published in January 2003 by Foursep Publications. He is on the board of the Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee. His work was nominated for a 2003 Pushcart Prize by Anthology. Also in 2003 his poetry won top honors in the 30th Annual Mississippi Valley Poetry Contest and the 2nd Annual Milwaukee.com Poetry Contest. His poems, poetry reviews, and short stories have appeared in over seventy print and electronic publications. Some of these being: Clark Street Review, Free Verse, Staplegun Press, Latino Stuff Review, WordRiot, Circle Magazine, Pearl, Philadelphia Poets, Pidjin, Thunder Sandwich, Wisconsin Review, Halfdrunk Muse, Remark, Pitchfork, Zygote In My Coffee, Pudding Magazine, and TMPoetry. He can be reached at charlesr[at]execpc.com.

Wenceslas Square

Creative Nonfiction
Marissa Priddis


He glanced through the plate glass window, his eyes darting from sky to street. Normally the sight of Wenceslas Square, of Prague, of his home, filled him with a sense of pride and belonging.

Today it filled him with dread.

Wenceslas Square had been the center of all activity in the city—a place where the women minced along the cobblestones in their high-heeled shoes, the children ran between ice cream vendors with shouts of glee and the men stopped to greet one another in the streets with wide smiles and pats to the back.

It had been the center of everything until the tanks came.

When the tanks came, the Czechs had quickly learned you either lived with communism or you didn’t live at all.

Not in the truest sense of the word, in any case.

The two young men before him held their collective breath as they waited for his decision. The two young men were good men, faithful employees, great Czechs. He had relied on them often to work on new business proposals and to rack up sales for his company.

Today, he relied on them to live for him.

They had come to him, asking for permission to go to Italy on a “promising business venture,” but he knew better.

They were going to cross the border, and they were never coming back.

As he had passed their offices in the last few weeks, he had heard snippets of whispered conversations—“America,” “getting out for good,” “a great house in the Caribbean”—that weren’t meant for his ears.

They were leaving, and they weren’t coming back.

But only if he signed the paper that lay in front of him, granting them permission to leave on business and swearing on his life that they would return and continue to contribute to the new, communist way of life in Czechoslovakia.

Swearing on his life.

As he stared at the paper that awaited his signature, he knew that by swearing on his life, he would also be calling it forfeit.

But in signing, he was giving his two employees a chance at life. Vaclav had a young wife and daughter; Jirké had a wife and a baby on the way.

He was hoping for a boy.

Slowly, he picked up his pen and with a flourish, he scrawled his signature at the bottom of the page. Vaclav and Jirké gave him grateful smiles as their let out their breath, and he stood up from his desk, his arthritic knees causing him to wince a little in pain.

Their goodbyes were perfunctory and lighthearted for the benefit of all who worked in the office. As far as they knew, Vaclav and Jirké would be back in a matter of days.

He knew they wouldn’t be back in this lifetime.

He was an older man than they, and he had to trust that these two men would take their families and create a life that every Czech deserved. A life free of oppression, of prying eyes and whispered conversations of plots and fear.

He had to trust in that.

Two weeks after signing his flourished signature, he was arrested and placed in a state prison. For two painful years, he thought every day of the two men he had set free with the power of his pen, wishing and hoping that they had indeed “gotten out for good”, and that their lives were what he had hoped.

He had to believe that they were living a full life—it was the only thought that made his penance worthwhile.

He knew he would never be able to know of their travels and families, of their trials and triumphs. The two men knew well enough never to contact him, no matter how great his sacrifice in giving them their freedom.

*

Forty-one years later, he sat dozing in his recliner with a copy of the Czech newspaper in his lap. The headlines were bold and triumphant—celebratory in the Czech victory over communism, in the return of their lives and their way of life.

The Czechs were dancing in the streets, but he was long past dancing.

The knock on the door roused him and he slowly crossed the room to the door with a slight scowl at the interruption of his nap. As he threw open the door, he gasped in disbelief.

Vaclav and Jirké, in the flesh and on his front stoop.

With whoops of glee and thankfulness, they threw their arms around one another and talked simultaneously, making up for forty-one years of silence. They showed him pictures of grandchildren and swimming pools, of grand houses and Christmas dinners. Tears streamed down their cheeks as they learned his fate at being left behind while tears streamed down his own cheeks as he learned of their success.

The moment he had seen the two men and the sheaf of pictures they had brought, he had known it was worth it.

They had lived more in those forty-one years than most Czechs had in ten lifetimes.

And for that, he was grateful.

They stepped out into the sunshine, intent on buying him dinner, and with a smile, he realized that Wenceslas Square once again filled him with a sense of pride and belonging.

He would have sworn on his life that he would never feel that way again.

pencil

Marissa Priddis is a librarian in a public library in Indiana, having received her Master’s Degree in 2002. When she’s not reading stories, she’s writing her own. She has been previously published in All Things Girl, Reading Divas, and Mosaic Minds. Marissa delights in NASCAR, Nine Inch Nails, stitching, dancing, and that very first slice of pizza. E-mail: theloudlibrarian[at]yahoo.com.