Nineteen Days

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz


In January, I decided to pick up the completed manuscript of my first novel and clean it up to query again. I cut thousands of words and wrote thousands of words. I changed the ending, eliminated characters and altered some of the language in the prose. I bundled up my changes and sent the manuscript off to my writer friends for critique (and praise, of course).

I knew what would happen if I began editing it right away: I would e-mail them every day with changes and annoy them to the point where they’d never finish reading it. Since I needed the feedback on the changes but I was in a writing kind of mood, I decided to pick up a manuscript I’d begun in 2002. I’d set it and all of my creative writing aside when my daughter was born in 2003. I picked it up again and did some work in 2004 and 2005, only to get stuck and set it aside yet again while I was pregnant with my son. In March 2005, I did a little more work on it, found I was still stuck and set it aside.

During the down time, I thought about the story and the characters. I knew the general story I wanted to tell and I had some plot points and an ending in mind. When I opened the file on January 18, I had 64 pages and about 37,000 words written. I saw that sticking point and I made a decision: end the scene and write something else. So I did and 1,800 words later, I closed the manuscript, knowing where I was headed the next time I sat down to write. The next day I wrote 3,939 words. Then 3,147, 4,953, 3,825, all on subsequent days.

On January 22, I crossed the 60,000-word mark: officially a novel. I wrote 4,676 and made it to the point of my next major plot point. Years before, I’d written part of the scene and a scene that followed that plot point. That word count was 4,100. Then 1,465, 2,190, 3,701, 3,480 and 2,850 on a day where I made extra time to play with my kids and make a nice meal for the family. I suppose that getting so much work done increased my confidence and gave me extra mental and physical energy. That was ten days after I began.

On January 29, I reached 80,000 words. I had written 36,000 fresh words in ten days and I had no idea how I managed it. I blogged through all of it and did some updates in my regular blog as well, which means I wrote even more words than that.

On Groundhog Day, I broke 90,000 words. I wrote over 6,000 words on February 4 and the next day I worked about two hours, produced 2,600 words and finished the manuscript. In three weeks, I wrote 118 pages, 63,000 words. Suddenly NaNoWriMo didn’t seem so daunting.

I shipped the new manuscript off to writer friends (who now had two manuscripts of mine to cope with) and I began rereading and hand-editing the first book. Immediately after, I did the same with the second.

The whole time I wrote those 63,000 words, I wondered how I was doing it. What’s the secret? What can I tell people so they can do the same?

First, I allowed distractions. I wrote while I cared for my two small children at the same time. I could play with them outside, join them for a game, read books, etc. and still have lots of time to write. I think the frequent breaks kept me from getting bogged down.

I wrote offline. It’s too tempting for me just to “look something up quick” but get distracted at Wikipedia, Amazon or even Toasted Cheese. I made notations and look things up later.

I knew when to stop for the day. It didn’t matter if I wrote 1,000 words or 6,000. When I got tired or just wasn’t inspired, I didn’t write any more.

“When you stop, have an idea of what to write next.” This is some of the best advice I ever got from a writing professor and it’s why I was stuck for so long: I didn’t know what the next little bit would be. Once I solved the problem by ending the scene and beginning a new one, I followed this advice for the duration of the project and it made it easier for me at the next writing session.

I took days off. I got a bout of good weather, invitations from friends, took time off to be with my family and declared “no writing” days.

I didn’t set a specific goal. I didn’t say “I must write for at least two hours” or “I have to reach 1,500 words today.” My only goal on days when I wanted to write was “write.”

I wrote portably. I used a laptop for most of this story but I began it in a furry leopard print blank journal while waiting in a parking lot for my husband. I wrote in our playroom, our kitchen and in my son’s bedroom. I also edited hard copies, which were even more portable. I finished both edits in a matter of days. Flexibility was the key.

I rewarded myself. If I had great word count one day, I’d quit early the next and read a new book, watched a movie or took my kids out to play. I took breaks to do other creative things, like knitting, blogging or taking photographs.

I came out of this with a lot more than a novel. When I felt like writing, I discovered that I could find the time and the means. I showed myself that it’s possible to complete a NaNoWriMo-style project. I accomplished, even exceeded my writing goals. That translated into confidence, energy and the desire to accomplish other goals as well.

There’s no feeling in the world like completing a novel, but completing a second novel comes mighty close. I also love editing so having two manuscripts to edit was sheer heaven. I’m not as much a fan of querying, researching agents, all the business that comes with sitting on a complete manuscript. At least I didn’t think I was. Last week I found some free time to research agents and found many more resources online than I’d had when I went through the same process in 2001–2002. Dare I say that I’m excited to start querying again?

I guess when it comes down to it, I love writing. Pure and simple. Not just the joy of watching something new unfold but of sharing it with people, fine-tuning and honing it, putting it out there for rejection or acceptance and all of the business that goes with it. The creation is a small part of the whole for me and finding that I have the time to create is an invaluable gift from my long-absent Muse.

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

Among the Herd

Best of the Boards
Emma Steinfeld


I enter the lobby of the medical office building and check the directory on the wall between the two elevators. I’ve been here a thousand times—okay, that’s a slight exaggeration—but I’ve certainly been here a lot more often than I would like, so you would think I would remember what floor my doctor is on, but I never do. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing. My mind is trying to trick me. It thinks that if it doesn’t tell me the floor, I’ll just turn and leave. Ah, if only…

I push the up arrow button and watch the race between the floor-o-meters above the elevators. The right elevator appears to have gotten waylaid on the second floor and the left one wins. There’s the obligatory ding sound, and the doors open. I enter the lift and push my floor button just as a woman enters the lobby and walks toward the elevator. I glance at her out of the corner of my eye as she enters, careful not to make eye contact as per Elevator Etiquette, and can’t help but notice her condition.

We exit the elevator on the third floor and make a left down the hallway, passing the offices of all the various ‘gists—an ophthalmologist, a cardiologist, and a nephrologist—until I arrive at my doctor’s office with my elevator companion right on my heels.

I sign in on the receptionist’s clipboard and take a seat. The waiting room is about three-quarters full, but I spot a chair that will enable me to sit by myself, as it has a table on each side of it. I don’t like talking to strangers to begin with—probably a result of having the Dangerous Stranger warnings drilled into my head as a child—but I really hate doctor’s-office-waiting-room stranger chitchat. Especially the kind elicited by being in this particular doctor’s waiting room. I walk through the maze of bellies, taking special note of all the feet sticking out in the aisle, lest I trip and fall into someone’s girth.

The tables on either side of me are replete with reading material—a fortunate situation, since I forgot to bring a book or magazine with me. I peruse the choices the doctor has provided me. There are several cardboard displays of medical pamphlets and I scan them, thinking maybe I will be able to diagnose myself and won’t need to sit around and wait to see the doctor. My choices consist of: How Your Baby Grows: A Monthly Diary of Your Baby’s Development, Baby Basics: Your Month by Month Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy, Smoking and Pregnancy, Drugs and Pregnancy, Alcohol and Pregnancy, Prenatal Care, Men Have Babies Too, and Cesarean Birth. For a moment, I think I may have found a winner with Eating for Two, but realize they aren’t just talking about having a healthy appetite. Even if I were pregnant, I don’t see a pamphlet that would be of use to me, since none of them seem to include the number for the local suicide hotline. Apparently, pap smears, uterine fibroids, mammograms, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, tubal ligations and other methods of birth control, cervical dysplasia, and menopause are not important enough topics, when compared with pregnancy, to warrant even a pamphlet or two.

I turn to the selection of magazines: Parents Magazine, Prima Baby, American Baby, Pregnancy Magazine, and Parenting. I consider whether I might have time to scurry down to my car to grab my Toyota Prius owner’s manual, as it would surely be more riveting than the material provided here.

In my boredom, I scan the waiting room. The furniture, paint, and wallpaper are all particularly nauseating shades of pastel blue and pink. Not a color scheme I would think of as particularly adult-like. Why are gyn/ob offices decorated for those yet to be born instead of the actual patients who are, with any luck, mostly adults?

There are only two of us who are not visibly pregnant—the other woman appears to be in her early- to mid-60s. Of course, with the recent news reports of women giving birth well into their 50s and 60s, it’s quite possible that she’s simply not showing yet and I am, indeed, the only woman in the room with an uninhabited uterus.

With the exception of the older woman, every last one of the women in the waiting room is visibly pregnant. If nothing else, the crappy clothing selection alone would keep me from reproducing. They’re all wearing shirts that are different colored and patterned versions of a babydoll nighty. And they’re all—every last one of them—pastel. What’s with all the pastels?

Every two or three minutes a nurse enters the waiting room and calls out a name, causing one of the maternal masses to have to do the grunt-strain-shimmy-shake boogie out of her seat and then waddle across the room. Perhaps they should install a little mini crane to help their patients get up. Or they could invest in some of those electric chairs for the elderly I’ve seen advertised on television that rise up and gently dump out the occupant.

The entrance door opens and another obviously pregnant woman signs in and joins her herd. She unzips her coat and struggles to get her arms out of the sleeves. She doesn’t appear to look like she’s old enough to drive, let alone give birth. When she finally gets her coat off, she reveals something other than the babydoll-esque shirt the rest of her covey is sporting. She’s togged up in what appears to be a non-maternity T-shirt that might well have been too tight even before her bun started baking. Her shirt and pants do not meet over the vast real estate that is her stomach, revealing dark red stretch marks and a funny looking circle that, once upon a time, must have been her navel. I try not to stare, but it’s like a car wreck with ambulances and fire trucks… you don’t want to look for fear of the ghastly sights you may observe, but you just can’t help yourself.

“Emma,” a nurse calls from her intermittent post at the corral gate. Ah… music to my ears. I grab my purse and bolt toward her. I’ll have to wait a while longer once I get in the examining room, but at least I won’t feel like the silver pinball in a room full of bumpers.
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Emma Steinfeld publishes the web-log EriePressible: The Blog and helps edit the BrockLog. When not at her unfulfilling job, she spends her time blogging, writing, attempting to learn Italian, and working with friends to open a literary center in Erie, Pennsylvania. She resides in Erie with her inamorato and their dog, a feisty PugPei they rescued from a shelter. E-mail: emma.steinfeld[at]gmail.com

The Lamplighter

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Laura Magalas


The average light bulb in our house lasted six months. There were some exceptions, of course. Bulbs in lamps that were rarely lit, such as those that had their home in the guest bedroom, lasted longer. They were hardly ever on, as we hardly ever had guests to use them, save for the old sailing friend of my uncle’s here and there who was passing through.

Others lasted shorter amounts of time, such as the one that sat on the large oak desk in what was now my office, and was once my uncle’s library. I replaced the bulb in that desk lamp almost every three months, as my uncle had when he’d used it.

There was, however, one incredible exception. There was one bulb in our house that had never been replaced. At the end of the hall, above the front door, was a brass lighthouse. In that lighthouse was a bulb that my uncle had placed in it when he’d first mounted it to the wall. As long as my uncle lived, he’d never had to replace the bulb.

I’d though it was as ugly as sin the first time I saw it. I had been eight and had come home from school to see my uncle up a ladder, fluidly twisting a screwdriver in his hands.

“Whatcha doin?” I asked, shrugging off my heavy winter coat.

My Uncle Silo had been a tall man, thin with a well-built frame. The guys he had grown up with in the shipyards had called him Slim, an evident crack at his lack of appearing as strong as he was. I’d often heard the term “hidden strength” thrown around later in life, mostly in reference to an intellectual or emotional prowess that only emerged at certain times. With my uncle, it was true. I often suspected that pure lithium flowed through his veins, titanium deposits in his bone marrow. He didn’t show muscle, but he was strong. He was the sole reason I never in my life judged people by their appearance. He often wore an old cap, the kind that Jack Kerouac probably sat around smoking in. Kerouac would have worn it low like my uncle, just above the eyes so you could peer out at others from under the black fabric. His eyes had peered down at me like that from under the brim of his cap at the sound of my question.

“I’m putting up a lighthouse here, Eddie boy!” he’d said, putting down the screwdriver into the toolbox that sat on the top step, motioning to it with a proud thumb.

What my uncle poorly described as a lighthouse was a triangular lantern that had a lighthouse moulded on two of its three sides, the third used to secure it to the wall. It was a simple design as far as lighthouses went, with a triangular base that moved upward into another rectangle. The light was supposed to shine through this small opening in the fashioned brass mold, past small bars positioned across it to make it look like a window. A semi-circle that was presumed to be the dome was above it. I’d frowned at it.

He’d scratched at the little grey tufts of hair that peaked out from under the sides of his cap. “Something wrong, Eddie?”

I’d shrugged. “It’s not so special.”

My uncle had smiled, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He’d held out a hand to me. “Pass me that bulb in the box, would you?”

I’d looked down at my feet to see a small cardboard box. I’d opened it and pulled out the white bulb. He’d taken it from me and carefully reached over the two conjoined lighthouses, sliding his hand behind and twisting it slowly. Finally, his hand had come back without a bulb attached, and he’d stepped down from the ladder.

It wasn’t until that night that I’d understood the twinkle in my uncle’s eye. Appearances were deceiving. The lighthouse had seemed like nothing in the daytime, just a couple of bent up pieces of faulty brass. But as I’d walked past the hallway that led to the front door, the brightness of the bulb caught my eye, and I’d turned.

The lighthouse was majestic. I stood in the hallway right now as I had when I was small, simply staring at it, glowing with ethereal light. The light shone out of the windows bright and beautiful, providing just enough illumination to protect the hallway from the night’s dark cloaking powers.

As I stood there admiring it, I heard my uncle’s voice echo in my head of what he’d said the first time I’d seen the lighthouse illuminated. “You know what a lighthouse is of course, don’t you Eddie? It was used to protect sailors and their ships on the water. A lamplighter would go up and light the lamp in the top of the tower. The light would show them where the rocks and crags were in the water, so they’d be safe. It would help guide them all home. All day and all night it stays on, just like it does in this house.”

I’d frowned up at the lighthouse. “You mean it never goes out?”

He’d looked down at me from under his cap and had given me a wink. “Well, maybe when all the sailors are safe. When all of the ships and sailors come home safe to the harbor, the lighthouse’s job is done. Only then will the lamplighter extinguish the flame.”

His voice faded from me as I heard the sharp ring of the phone in my ears. I turned to the sound, stunned for a moment from my memories and trying to get my bearings. I turned and headed for the kitchen. As I started to turn the corner, I was suddenly plunged into darkness.

I turned. The hallway was dark.

The lighthouse had gone out.

The phone stopped ringing. Time seemed to halt entirely.

I felt my chest lock, my gaze frozen in place. My eyes were still adjusting to the sudden loss of light. Even though I couldn’t see it, I knew it was still there. I half expected my uncle to come around the corner and comment on the lighthouse, and could I get him the ladder from the closet. I could almost feel his hand on my shoulder, when he’d placed it there a few weeks ago.

“You be sure to take good care of the house for me while I’m gone,” he’d said, his other hand clutching worn out handles on a bag that used to contain his fishing gear.

I’d given him a big smile. “I’ll try my best.”

“That’s my boy,” he’d said as the front door opened. An old friend whose name had escaped me leaned in, a large coat to best the frigid winter outside wrapped around him tightly. “Let’s go, Slim.”

He’d slid on his parka and turned to his friend. “All right, Pat,” he’d said as my gaze had drifted to the illuminated lighthouse above his head, now glowing brighter with each passing moment in the early dimming, wintry evening light. First appearances had been deceiving, all right. And to think I’d thought it ugly at first.

“She’s a beauty,” I’d found myself saying aloud, coming back to reality upon hearing the sound of my voice.

Pat had gone and so had my uncle’s bag. My uncle had smiled at me and looked over his shoulder at the lighthouse. “It’s not so special,” he’d said with a smile and a wink, “but you be sure to take care of it.”

I’d nodded. “I’ll be sure to keep it lit until you get back safe, I promise.”

“Good boy.” After a warm embrace and a promise of our reuniting soon, he had been gone, venturing out into the snow that swung on the wind, and as the door closed behind him, I had stood by myself. I stood by myself again now, only this time, I stood in near-darkness. Time seemed to start again.

The light in the lighthouse was still out. My eyes adjusted a little more now, and I could make out shapes in the hall, slowly becoming illuminated by the rising moon. As I debated whether or not I should attempt to replace the bulb, I heard the ring of the phone again. This time, I made my way to the kitchen and successfully answered.

“Hello?”

“Eddie?”

“Yeah, who’s this?”

“Eddie, it’s Pat. Slim’s friend. I tried calling before.”

“Sorry about that. What can I do for you?”

He sounded like he was shifting his weight on the other end. “I was wondering if you’d heard from your uncle. He took off a day or so ago, said he had somethin’ to do, and I ain’t heard from him since. Not that I’m worried or nothin’, it’s just— it ain’t like him to be gone this long. You know what I mean?”

I frowned. “No, I haven’t heard anything. He hasn’t called me.”

He made a request and I obliged and said I would call him at the number he provided if I heard anything from my uncle. I had only taken two steps after ending Pat’s call when the phone rang again, seeming louder than before. Being closer this time, I grabbed it on the first ring.

“Hello?”

“Eddie?”

I knew the voice, but its return after a long absence made my heart clench. The last time I had heard it was from another room.

“I don’t know what to do,” the voice had said.

“I’ll tell you what to do,” my Uncle Silo had answered, “You leave him here with me, and you go. Hell, he’s spent half of his twelve years of life here with me anyway. Won’t be that much of a change for him.”

“But I don’t want to put you out.”

“Baby sister, you know damn well that what I just said is what you were hoping I’d say. Now I’ve said it, so you go on now. You go and get yourself fixed up. You’re in no condition any more to care for that boy. When you’re ready, you send word and I’ll come down and see that you’re better.”

The voice had let out a sob, just as it did now on the other end of the phone in response to my questioning tone. “Mom?”

She let out another short sob. “I’m so sorry, Eddie.”

“Mom, what’s wrong? What’s the matter?”

“It’s all… my fault, Eddie, my fault. He was— he was coming here,” she somehow managed to choke out.

I took a step, the cordless phone tightly pressed against my ear. “Mom, it’s okay. What’s wrong?”

I heard her voice crack on the other end. “Eddie… Eddie, there’s— Eddie, there’s been an accident.”

She attempted to stumble over the details, but I didn’t hear her after the next group of words she managed to struggle out. “Eddie… your Uncle Silo… He’s dead, Eddie. I’m so sorry.”

I turned to look down the barely illuminated hall, swimming now in shades of blue from the curtains filtering the moon. I saw it clearly from where I stood. The lighthouse, no longer lit, now seemed to have sunk to the bottom of the ocean as waves and shadows of blue and grey drifted across it. A ship gone down with its captain.

A lighthouse gone out with its lamplighter.

“Eddie? Eddie!” My mother’s voice said, growing frantic. “Are you okay? I’m sorry I had to be— to be the one to tell you.”

“No no, it’s okay… Actually, you didn’t,” I found myself saying, my eyes never leaving the end of the hall. I watched my Uncle Silo again ascending the ladder, ready to put into the lighthouse the only light it would ever need in his lifetime, throwing me a familiar smile. I suddenly warmed. “Don’t worry Mom… he’s safe.”

I heard her pause on the other end of the phone. “How— how do you know that? How can you be so sure?”

I watched as my younger self carefully reached up and handed him the bulb. “Because he already told me.”

“Who did?”

I watched again as he headed out the door for the last time, out into the swirling snow, his retreating back slowly fading and disappearing among the flakes. I felt a tear slide down my cheek.

“The lamplighter, Mom, the lamplighter told me.”

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Laura Magalas is currently working on her Honors B.A. in English. She enjoys writing in her spare time and tends to daydream excessively. E-mail: atellix[at]hotmail.com

Wailing Station

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Kristi Petersen


On the forsaken Antarctic island where I was unfortunate enough to grow up, the snow littered the volcanic sand like a thousand dead terns on asphalt. At night, the brittle winds whipped across the plain and carried with them the forlorn cries of elephant seals burdened by their tire-rolls of flesh, starving Orca whales, and lonely penguins in search of mates. These animals had such pitiful wails to express their miseries, wails that haunted the landscape like spirits in a burned-out building.

Glasgow was my only friend in that forgotten place, and if it weren’t for his bright red coat he could have been mistaken for an indigene. His hair was a tuft of white like feathers; his skin was sallow like the dirty bellies of penguins; his eyes were the black of the volcanic sand beneath our feet. But Glasgow was afraid of nothing, and when we found the baby Orca on the beach he boldly touched its rubber skin.

“It’s a ghost!” he exclaimed. “See how pale it is!”

The beast grunted, then moaned like a ship’s horn.

“It’s dying,” I said. “We should try to save it. Maybe it could be a pet.”

Glasgow eyed me and his crooked smile revealed one gray tooth. “Ya think your pop would let us?”

But Pop came with a shotgun and four large men. He looked at me with sad eyes. “It’s better off out of its misery, Carrie,” he said. And I watched as the men dragged the battered body across the black sand, up over the rocks and toward the station. I asked Pop where he would bury it, maybe up in the cemetery next to the little white church that had half-collapsed in a volcanic mudslide two years ago, but he didn’t. That night and for many nights thereafter, I heard the whale’s desperate moaning, drifting across the barren land, forcing its way under the thick pane of my window, pummeling my fitful long-johnned sleep. I saw Pop, his gun aimed at the creature’s head, and I saw the whale, begging me right before it was shot, eyeing me with something like pleading.

But each morning I woke, and I knew Pop had done the right thing. I should have known Pop would never have let us keep a whale as a pet, and the animal would not have stayed around very long anyway; animals and sometimes even people had a way of suddenly disappearing. For a long time, I thought they would stow away on the supply ships that—when they could get through—came every once in awhile. But men and pets would disappear before that. And no one said anything. I asked Pop once, and he just told me, “Don’t go poking around.”

Glasgow and I were the only children on that dangerous whaling station. Ninety-nine of us lived in Wildman House, where we slept in separate, tiny rooms with desks and cots. Outside, the frigid air smelled of iron, damp, mud, creosote, and always the pungent odor of garbage and guano. Glasgow’s pop had come there on the beckoning promise of monumental cash after their house burned to the ground and there was no insurance to re-build. My momma came with my pop before I was born; Momma taught me and Glasgow in a small school room behind the infirmary until she died a few winters ago of flu, which Pop said she could have survived if the supplies had arrived in time. I hugged Pop a lot, then, but he did not stop saying they were going to leave us all here to starve.

Once Momma was gone, Glasgow and I were left to look after our own education. And many days we didn’t study. We stole the rusty shovel from behind the blacksmith’s workshop. We went behind Wildman House and dug a hole in the sand. The island was geothermal, so the sand was warm, and if we dug a hole, it filled with hot water, like a hot tub. We stripped our clothes and sat in it with only our cheeks and noses burning from cold, our red parkas lying on the white snow like patches of blood. Always Glasgow had his eye out for his pop or mine, because they would haul us out like boiled rabbits. “The water’s dangerous,” Pop told us. “If the volcano gets to erupting, your little bath there’ll fill with acid and cook ya crispy as a couple o’ fried chickens.”

But no threat of paternal or geologic fury could stop Glasgow. Not even the unholy baleful cries that echoed across the zebra-striped mountains. He said they came from Light House, where both our pops, and the rest of the men at the station, worked. And what they did in there, I didn’t know. All I knew was their cadaverous morning routine: like zombies in the cold dark the men rose from their cots, went to Commissary House to eat power breakfasts of bacon and slabs of ham—they were the greasiest and thickest meats I had ever seen—and then waddled with their meager lunch pails and hooked tools to Light House. They vanished inside, and the last man in was always Pop.

Our tub was not anywhere near Light House, but a dolorous screech, the sound of twisting metal, pierced the air.

Glasgow grinned. “Those are the ghosts,” he said, moving forward in the tub through the fog of steam. “The ghosts in Light House.”

Despite the fact that sweat was pooling underneath my eyes, chills spread from my feet up to my budding breasts. “What kind of ghosts?”

“Whale ghosts. Like the one we saw on the beach.”

“Get out of here!” I splashed water at him.

He squinted and held his hand up. “Stop it! What do you think they do all day in there? They kill whales. That’s how they get the oil for the barrels.”

My eyes slid across the long plain to the mountain of oil barrels at the water’s edge, near the docks. I knew better. I saw the supply ships and how they took the barrels of oil and gave us new ones. “No way! Pop only killed that one because it was sick!”

He splashed me back. “No, he kills them all day. All the pops do. That’s why they won’t let us over there and if we get caught we get whipped. They don’t want us to see them beating those poor whales to death, because the ghosts will leave the building and come after us. Our pops are trying to protect us.” He slid his frail body next to mine and dropped his voice, glancing suspiciously up at the windows of Wildman House. Three of the windows that were boarded up during the last gale still hadn’t been uncovered. “What do you think happened to poor Mr. Tomien?”

Mr. Tomien had been the last person to disappear a couple of weeks ago. The adults never spoke of it; there was no lumbering processional to the pathetic half-buried cemetery with the body.

“That was the whale ghosts. The ghosts are mad, and if they get too mad, they pick one of the men and kill them off. Why do you think there’s so many guys that disappear? Maybe the next one will be your pop.”

“You’re wrong.” But I thought of Momma’s funeral. I thought of the men carrying her body on a stretcher, the procession like a rook of Emperor penguins marching to the sea. I thought of the hole in my stomach when they came back without her. I could not lose Pop. Then I would truly be in the world alone.

I decided I was too hot and raised myself up out of the hole, feeling less the shock of cold and more the grit of the volcanic sand in my cotton panties. And I heard the wailing once more, this time like the sound the men made when they blew across the tops of their beer bottles, and the tinkle of the wind chimes outside Wildman House.

The heartbreaking shrieks, moans, and cries carried into the night. In Commissary House, the men ate and grumbled at long, rickety tables. “I am out of here on the next transport boat that comes through,” harrumphed Jix as he pushed away his bowl of pork stew. “I can’t take this no more.”

“One more day in that stinkin’ Light House is going to kill my back,” moaned Mr. Grommet. He was a bean pole. He wasn’t hired by my father. My father chose only fat men.

Me and Pop ate in the back room, because he was the boss, and since I was the only girl-child here, they didn’t want me near the men. The stew was as nasty as Jix said. The potatoes were like stones in the bottom of the brown broth. It reminded me of the guano I had seen over near the chinstrap penguin colonies, where Glasgow and I liked to explore. “Where is Mr. Tomien?” I asked.

Pop pegged me with that glass, milky eye of his that had no iris. After an accident in Light House, he had no eye for a long time, until a supply ship brought something he could use. “Why d’you want to know?”

“Glasgow says that the pops kill whales. And the whale ghosts are in Light House and that’s what got Mr. Tomien.”

Pop wrapped his stubby fingers around his amber bottle and swallowed his food. He was wearing his red gloves, the ones with the holes in the fingers, and he gobbled his dinner greedily. “That Glasgow kid is trouble. You should be studying, not running around with him.”

Outside in the other room, Jix said something about price per barrel.

I picked up my spoon, then put it down again. “Is it true?”

That time he squinted at me with his good eye. “Now you listen, Carrie. Sometimes, better off is better off. And you’re better off understanding that we’re doing what’s best. That’s all you need to know.” He swung his leg out from under the table and stood up. He had the red stains down the side of his leg again. At least once a week, I saw those red stains, because, he said, the buildings there were painted red and the stains rubbed off on his pants. I always tried to wash them out, but I decided then and there I shouldn’t do that again. It would be like trying to erase the As Momma used to put on my best papers.

“Pop?”

He turned to look at me.

“What if the ghosts don’t understand?”

He gestured at my bowl. “Eat your food.”

I gave him a small smile, and he took his woolen cap from the hook by the door and fit it on his head.

That night, as I chased sleep, I heard the woebegone cries and imagined them coming from the bloody mouths of the ghosts of the whales. Normally, I slept with the lantern on full next to my bed, watching happy tongues of light lick my wool blanket; that night, I shut it off, wondering if perhaps I was burning their very body fat. That if just one of them were to escape Light House and see the sliver of my lamplight under the wooden shutter that covered my window, they would know that I, too, was guilty, and they would take me as they’d taken the others.

I opened the shutter that was on the inside of my window. At first I saw nothing. Then I looked at Light House, and against the indigo snow, a hunched shadow figure skulked about. Oh my God it was coming for me. I had not put out the light soon enough. I slammed the wooden panel and it rattled the window in the frame. I held my breath to see if anyone came, but no one did. Music poured from the Great Room, where I was never allowed because Pop and his friends gathered there to play cards and talk. The heavy smell of deep-frying bacon leaked down the halls and under my door.

I took a deep breath and climbed back into my cot.

The window rattled. Knock knock knock… I screamed, clamored for the oil lamp, and made ready to light it. I would set the ghost ablaze on a pyre of its own lard.

“Open up!” It was Glasgow. “Come on! It’s just me!”

I flailed for the latch on the shutter and pulled it aside and pushed open the glass.

“What the hell was that screaming about?”

“You scared me,” I whispered.

“How come you don’t have the light on in here?”

I didn’t answer because I felt foolish.

“What’s with the blood on your shirt?” He pointed.

I looked down. Speckles of blood dotted my light green flannel, and that’s when I felt the sting in my lip; I must have bitten it. I wiped it on my shirt sleeve.

“I’m going to Light House,” he said. “I read in this book that if you apologize to a ghost you can send it back to where it came from. I want to put them out of their misery.”

A pair of doleful shrieks, like women at a funeral, reached our ears.

“I’m not going down there. They sound mad. And didn’t you see the shadow before?”

“That was me, you idiot.” he whispered. “I found a way in that’s not locked.”

“I don’t think we should.”

“What are you, chicken?” he sneered. “This is the one way we can protect our pops.”

I thought of putting my pop in the volcanic ground, and again I felt encroaching isolation. I looked behind me at the dingy room. There were footfalls in the hall, the tromp-tromp-tromp that used to scare me when I was little until I learned it was just one of the men. Glasgow reached out his spindly hands sheathed in thin gloves, and I took them.

We booked across the midnight wasteland, and the snow crunched beneath our feet except for where the volcanic sand was warm and had melted it. We raced toward Light House, and the wailing, like whimpering dogs, pursued and pierced my arm bones like metal rods. I reached out and stopped Glasgow. “We shouldn’t.”

“We have to know!” He was out of breath. His exhales made clouds in the shapes of one-legged animals. “Come on.” He pulled me, but I struggled to keep up with him, and then my boot whacked something hard and… thwack! I was down in the sand, my chin a scraped burn.

I had tripped on some large white bones.

The building was not as angry-looking close-up as it was from far away, but to be that close gave me a strange tingle. I touched the board nearest me, and the peeling paint caught on the knit of my gloves. Bang! “What’s that?” I chirped.

“It’s just a metal panel, see?”

Above our heads, a corrugated metal door blew and shimmied against the wall, the sound of a hundred barrels plummeting down a mountainside.

And then there was the wailing.

“I’ve changed my mind,” I said.

But Glasgow had already lifted up a panel from the windowless wall, and the opening belched a stench of rust and hot oil and… something else. Bacon grease. “Come on!” He bent down and eked through the opening.

Another wail, like that of a starving cat.

I was considering staying outside, waiting for Glasgow and his foolishness to be done with. But in the cruel night canvas, there were only the zebra mountains, the sentries of our warm station buildings, a lone penguin or something hobbling about in the distance, and barrels of oil in a pile that loomed like the humps of sea monsters. The wind stirred a wallop of snow and stung my face like pine needles.

“Don’t you want to save your pop or what?”

I swallowed and scuttled through the opening.

Inside was nothing like I imagined a place Pop would work. It was not like the bright infirmary, full of syringes, comfortable beds, and bandages for the ill and dying. This place was windowless and black as the sand, the air rife with sickness and dead animals. I stretched my hand out and it hit something sharp and cold, and I screamed.

“Shut up!” Glasgow hissed. “You want them to hear?”

But the noise that came after was far more offensive than what had come from my own mouth. A sorrowful bellow that trembled the metal walls, and upon its silence there was a rattling of what sounded like heavy tools crashing into one another.

Something snorted and sighed and I wanted to vomit in fear. In the distance was the echo of a drip, like the dripping of the sink, and it rose and fell like a heartbeat. “I don’t want to go!” I rasped, closing my eyes as he guided me. My foot kicked over a bench with several jars and horrible instruments; one was a long rod with serrated edges that barely missed grazing my snow suit. I couldn’t imagine what Pop would do with such a thing, what Pop would do with any of these horrible things.

That was when we saw the creature lying in the corner chained to the wall in the dying light of a small lamp. It barely moved, but it had been the thing making the sounds; it curled and writhed and I could see as I got closer it had a leg missing and rough gouges cut from its flesh. I had seen this ghost before. I knew its identity.

“Mr. Tomien!” Glasgow gasped.

“H-h-h-hellll…p,” he wailed.

When he shifted his limbs, the smell of rotting flesh clouded the air.

I couldn’t say anything except “Wh-what?”

“They eat us,” he cried. “When they don’t give… enough… supplies… they… they… take a chunk.”

Glasgow seized my arm and wretched beside me. I thought about the pork stew. The smell of bacon wafting down the halls at night. The missing men. This is how Pop was feeds us all when supplies ran low, I thought. My mouth filled with saliva and the back of my throat burned.

“Please,” Mr. Tomien pleaded through mashed lips. “Please save me… they’ll come back… cut more.” He was wheezing. “And they… keep me alive… fresh meat…”

“What are we going to do now?” trembled Glasgow, and I sensed that for the first time, in his life, probably, he was afraid.

I thought about Pop, his missing eye, his fingerless gloves, his crying in the night after Momma had died, his cursing the supply ship captains. Now you listen, Carrie. Sometimes, better off is better off. “Put him out of his misery,” I said, and I glanced up at the row of hooks and sharp metal rods dangling from an overhead rack.

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Kristi Petersen’s fiction has been featured in New Witch Magazine, Afternoon, The Circle, Citizen Culture, Mud Rock: Stories & Tales, Sinfully Twisted, The Wheel, I Like Monkeys, The Adirondack Review, Split Shot Magazine, Waxing & Waning: A Journal of Creative Pagan Fiction, and a dozen others. She lives in Danbury, Connecticut with her cat, Poe, and is pursuing her B.A. in Creative Writing and Literature from Burlington College in Vermont. E-mail: petersenschoonover[at]gmail.com

Life’s Beacon

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Lark Lucente


Sophie ate the fortune cookie, fortune and all. What worried her was not that she’d forgotten to crack the cookie before eating it, but rather that she would never know the fortune. She didn’t receive duplicates. Her collection stuffed away in the coupon drawer proved that. So after lunch as she walked across the street to Job Temps for the interview, she knew that she would seem distracted, not knowing.

“You missed your appointment by thirty-five minutes.” With a quick glance, the receptionist ordered, “Come back day after tomorrow, at 11:00.”

“Will it be the same position?”

She didn’t look up. “No.”

“I’m not usually late.”

“You missed last week’s appointment. You should have called. Come back Friday. Last chance.”

She couldn’t go home, not just yet. It was only 2:30. There would be too many vacant seats on the bus and no standing passengers to block the ad posters. She didn’t want to see the blinding white gleam of a ship, even if she felt the winter chill grow stronger every day, for she would never take a cruise. It wasn’t the voyage that was troublesome. She dreamed of such adventures, but to get to a ship, she would have to take a plane, board a train, or drive.

When she found herself at the curb, head down bracing against the wind, the only solution seemed to be to go back to the warmth of the Golden Sail to her booth, third one on the left. Seated there she’d see the illuminated painting with the moving waterfall. The bluish green hues and cascading sounds comforted her. It gave her a focus. She thought of getting lost behind the waterfall.

Inside only a few lunch buffet customers remained picking at the last of the crab legs and dishes of pastries, fruits, and almond cookies. She’d just have tea. Tea and a fortune cookie. They’d give her a fortune cookie. She needed to find out whether to return the day after tomorrow.

She couldn’t see the entire waterfall; he sat in her booth. Lodged up against the wall, his body ruined everything, threw everything out of balance. Her seat. Her painting. Her place. She closed her eyes and saw swirling patterns of black-amber dots. Her fingers gripped the wooden handles of her bag. Feeling the circled smoothness, she forced measured breaths and anchored her feet to the doorway’s clinging welcome mat.

She felt a light touch on her shoulder. “The blue glasses case, it’s yours?” The hostess went behind the register counter to retrieve it.

She didn’t even know that she had left it. Just then the man in her booth stood up, tossed a few dollars onto the table, and walked out the side door. A gust caught the door’s wind chimes that tingled into the nasal music. She moved quickly to claim her space and familiarity.

As she slid into the booth she noticed the edge of a fortune cookie sticking out from under the plate, along with a tattered book of matches. Impulsively she grabbed the cookie as if it were a lost wallet. She then picked up the red matchbook, drawn to the cover’s shadowy image of a lighthouse. “Life’s Beacon, 23 Charlotte Street” announced itself in black letters.

“The buffet’s almost over. Do you want it?”

“Just tea and a fortune cookie.” She clutched his cookie in her left hand, afraid that it would keep her from getting one. Her fortune, not his.

“They don’t come with just tea. Do you want tea? The waitress, sensing her hesitation, pulled a cookie from her pocket and placed it on the table. “Look honey, just take the cookie. And the tea’s on me. You come in here enough and the temperatures dropping. Enjoy.”

Usually random kindness evaded Sophie. Self consciously she grasped the teacup, then let the steam wash over her face. After she put “his fortune cookie” in her coat pocket, she cracked her cookie, and peeled open the message: “Drink deeply and believe.”

Believe in what? She fingered the matchbook and stared at the dark lighthouse. Its black beam intrigued her, so much so that she hardly noticed her waterfall. Suddenly she gulped down the tea and set out to find Charlotte Street.

Not yet three o’clock, the overcast day seemed later. The wind continued to whip about her as she found her bearings. She knew that it was off a side street down a few blocks from the restaurant, as she’d noticed it on a map when weeks earlier she had searched for the quickest bus route to the employment agency.

Barely feeling the cold, she propelled herself down the sidewalk, ignoring the smartly dressed business crowd and store windows dressed with merchandise she could not afford. After five blocks, she stopped instinctively at the corner and turned left.

Upscale businesses gave way to a street narrowed by worn storefronts. She passed a thrift shop, a shoe repair store, and a tattoo parlor, before she saw it. At the end of the street the red-and-black lighthouse sign swayed back and forth. Its hypnotic movement stopped her, beckoned her.

On either side of the doorway, bay windows crammed with Tiffany-type lamps, flowered china plates, and figurines seemed out of place with the shop’s logo. Yet underneath the door’s window a lighthouse bell announced her entrance.

Here, winter gloom vanished. Though narrow, the shop was deep. Tables upon tables and shelves of colored glassware cast a warm glow reflected from hanging light fixtures. Ornaments, bowls, translucent dishes, and numerous ticking clocks mystified the quiet place.

On the side walls, pink shadowboxes trimmed in gold paint harbored lighthouses made of black glass.

She tiptoed through the aisles toward a lucent plate displayed upright in the middle of a back table. A shimmering blue wave leaped out at her. It rose upward from the left and peaked at the plate’s mesmerizing center. Leaning closer she watched the wave “transform” itself into a dolphin.

“You came. I thought you might. Only a few do.”

Sophie startled upright hitting the table. Her hands trembled against the clinking treasures. She turned awkwardly and found herself staring into the pensive face of the man from the restaurant.

“That plate’s a curious piece.”

His voice, barely above a whisper, seemed almost as hypnotic as the shop’s sign.

“You. You’re… you were…”

“In your booth? I prefer to think that we share it. It can be a bit of a curse. That waterfall is rather distracting, don’t you think?”

The unfolding events baffled her, silenced her.

“You ate the fortune and missed your appointment. You lose time, Sophie”

His use of her name and knowledge of her actions shook her. She backed away from him.

“I mean no harm.”

She watched him exit through a curtain at the back of the shop, then thought about leaving. The matchbook, the black lighthouse. Spotting him earlier. His presence here. He knows my name. How does he know? Do I lose time? She found herself asking out loud, “Who is he?”

The clocks ticked on, some more urgently than others. She knew she should leave; she felt compelled to stay. On one of the tables, she noticed a group of long-necked bottles. A stinging memory chilled her.

Her mother had collected “poet’s bottles” such as these with messages etched into the glass. She’d never seen them anywhere else. Each contained a single top word combined with phrases at the base of the blue and green bottles. On her fifth birthday her mother gave her a bottle. Unlike the others, hers was frosty white. Three days later Sophie broke it accidentally. That night her mother died in her sleep. She thought her carelessness had caused her death.

The man emerged from the curtain and came over to Sophie. He put one of the lighthouses into her hand. “You should have this.”

The glassy smoothness warmed her palm. Immediately the memory seemed less threatening. “The black is just so odd, unexpected.”

“Yet it drew you to it.”

“Perhaps. Yes, I guess it did. Look, I don’t really know why I came, or who you are, or…”

He reached under the table and brought out an oblong white box with a red ribbon. “Just take this, Sophie.” He smiled, then once again departed through the curtain.

How bizarre, but accepting the gift seemed so natural, so right. After giving the shop one last look around, she walked out and closed the door quietly behind her. No bell jangle. Suddenly she remembered his fortune cookie.

She turned back to a vacant shop. No merchandise in the window, no sign, just an empty store. Yet there she stood clutching the lighthouse and package, proof of its existence. She should have felt disbelief, confusion. Instead she felt a sense of peace.

For what it was worth, she placed the cookie in the hanging mailbox and put the lighthouse in her pocket. She opened the box and carefully pulled back the tissue paper.

Impossible. There lay her bottle. Gingerly she removed it from the box. “Comfort, warmth, solace and soothing dreams” wound itself around the glass. She turned it upside down to see her purple initials she’d painted there so long ago.

“Drink deeply and believe,” flashed at her.

She made her way back to the bus stop. The gray day waned and street lamps glowed prematurely. She boarded the bus and sat in the seat at the back exit door and cradled the package to her chest.

An elderly woman sitting next to her asked, “Sweetie, you’re so young to be by yourself. Do you know where to get off?”

“My name’s Sophie. Today’s my birthday. I’m going to meet my mommy. She’s at work. 23 Charlotte Street.”

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“I am a secondary school English, drama, and creative writing teacher. I have also taught freshman English courses for Rappahannock Community College in Saluda, Virginia. Currently I am taking a break from teaching. I now have more time to write and read for pleasure.” E-mail: larknjim[at]verizon.net

Coffee Cups

Billiard’s Pick
Charity C. Tran


Coffee and cigarettes were Jason’s cologne. He was the scattered stream-of-conscious novelist. His coffee was black, two packets of Sweet’N Low, and an air of disgust to anyone who suggested he add milk. Everyday, he sat with a black laptop and a yellow notepad in a coffee shop on Third Street and Oak.

This morning Jason’s attention was directed toward his laptop screen, ignoring briefly the yellow notepad that held his great American masterpiece. He was piecing together another spare-change article, something that fed his mouth more than it nourished his mind and soul. He hated this world of column lengths. If it wasn’t for the money, the only role he would accept in this world was one of the scathing editorial writer. Unfortunately the newspaper had plenty of those and they weren’t interested in his “perspective,” so he drank his coffee, gritted his teeth, and walked the line of lackluster news.

Then Rebecca walked in and writing became second in his mind.

Today she was in empowering pink: a rose Ann Taylor silk blouse and a black Donna Karan suit. Her hair was pulled into a neat coil, highlighting the diamond studs on her ears that matched her tennis bracelet. Her left hand fiddled with this bracelet as she stood in line behind a man yelling on his cell phone about stock options.

She tried momentarily to avoid looking at Jason in his self-proclaimed corner property, but the effort was soon lost and her eyes found themselves in his direction, taking in his tousled hair and gray eyes. As the businessman ordered a venti soy latte, she smiled and Jason grinned in return.

“What would you like today?” asked the cashier.

Rebecca said Jason’s favorite words: “Venti drip coffee, no room for milk.”

While she waited for her order and fiddled with two pink packets of Sweet’N Low, Jason scribbled a few words on his yellow notepad. They were always observations of her beauty and her grace—the way the flecks of gray in her hazel eyes seemed to speak to him.

Jason and Rebecca had a history, an on-going love affair through glances.

It began at approximately 7:35 a.m. when she walked in two years ago. Both were fresh out of college. He was less bitter and jaded. She had a mind full of goals and her eye at the top of the corporate ladder. He saw her first; she caught his gaze, and then they both smiled. In their heads was the outline of an adventurous romance. They would live together after having a rushed exchange of “I dos” in a Vegas chapel. They would own a Downtown LA loft overlooking the city where the kitchen smelled of brewing French Roast coffee every morning. Jason would write his novels by his desk to this aroma, and Rebecca would grab her thermos of coffee, kiss him, and then hurry out to her CEO career.

This romance, however, could only exist in this coffee shop, through these glances.

If she knew, she would wrinkle her nose at his dingy studio apartment above a Chinatown restaurant because of its location, because it smelled of mushroom chicken and chow mein. Without an established career, he would be too uncouth, too eccentric for her business crowd. With a life too busy for anything but self-interest, she would only pretend to read his novels, spouting off automatic praise without much thought—the brilliance of its darkness, the raw genuineness of America portrayed in his words. She was in love with the idea of being with an artist, but loved herself too much to ever spare any time for him.

In his head, she was an innocent lost in the cutthroat world of corporate business, but her perfect shell would crack and shatter with any knowledge he had of her non-fictional life. He knew nothing of her drinking habit—two glasses of dirty martinis most nights out of the week. He would never envision that in her Downtown LA loft that very morning she had left her second lover of the week lying naked and drowsy beneath her Egyptian cotton sheets. This lover would be gone by the time she came home, and she would never return any of his calls.

Rebecca and Jason stopped their romance before hello, not because of these details but because they were content. In her, Jason had a muse. In him, Rebecca had a relationship that could actually function because it was perfectly untrue, untouched by her destructive manicured fingertips. Anything else would have been like pouring milk into perfectly dark cups of coffee.

At 7:45 a.m., they shared one last glance before her exit. Their love affair would continue the next morning and in subsequent tomorrows to follow for another year before Rebecca stopped coming in.

After a few months, Jason was forced to write her out of his script: she could no longer handle his growing fame as a great American novelist and their relationship ended in a stormy, bitter divorce.

Rebecca, meanwhile, had transferred to a management position on the East Coast, forgetting entirely that she had left a lover in a coffee shop on Third Street and Oak.

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Charity C. Tran is a Los Angeles native who frequents public transit, arts, and culture. She currently studies in the Masters of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, where she also graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and two minors in Web Technology and Applications and Psychology and Law. She can be found randomly updating her website and traveling Los Angeles through experienceLA.com. E-mail: charity[at]intellichick.com

Blackbird Calling

Baker’s Pick
Margot Miller


Vigilance hangs, endlessly, in the hot, jagged air. Lorena Hardcastle paces back and forth in her kitchen. Avian eyes dart urgently here and there and find nothing to do. Lorena has grown thin; her nearly all-white, unstyled hair is drawn off her face in a child’s headband. The ends graze her ears and neck. Her eyes, steel gray, but paler than before, reflect the white January glare from the naked windows, a sign of her habitual, intimate economy.

The whole house smells of Lorena and her husband, Paul, their things, mothballs and plastic caught in dusty memory; the cloying odor of cigarettes and coffee grounds linger over the furniture that has not been re-covered since they quit smoking; a vapor rises from the In-Sink-Erator, a film on the walls that could use a fresh coat of paint. Lorena quit smoking years ago to get life insurance—part of her estate plan to avoid taxes—and if smoke no longer streams from her nostrils, an acrid residue remains, sucking up any available freshness from the dim light at the windows streaked with the watermark of winter and the leaching of the aluminum screens on the glass. There are cobwebs in the corners. Lorena doesn’t want to pay for a housekeeper, even though she can afford it. Cleaning women, she says, are invariably unsatisfactory. They all quit, usually the first day. There is too much furniture for the house and its too-small rooms. Houseplants and piles of mail clutter the dining table and the floor. Heaped on the counters and breakfast table in the kitchen are vitamins, unshelved canned goods, open packages of paper napkins and Kleenex, a box of store-bought, assembly-line cookies.

Never sure where the next incursion might come from, what needy person might demand her husband’s attention, Lorena kept watch like a junkyard dog, deflecting over a lifetime any who could be turned away, all except those who would have complained if access to a man of the cloth had been denied. In time, there were fewer supplicants. She did not let down her guard but, over the years, she systematically narrowed the space to be patrolled. The children had been fairly easy to pack off to boarding schools. Now, they were coming, all of them, all in her house at once. Death would bring them. They could no more be avoided than a recurring dream, no more easily shed than the shape of one’s bones.

Lorena senses someone watching. Impossible. He’s wasting away in there, barely able to get out of bed, secure in his satisfaction. He’d been protecting her, she’d heard him say to one of the children when he didn’t know she was listening. In fact, they had been each other’s souffre-douleur, each the depository of the other’s inexpungeable, unpardonable guilt. She hates him for what she can’t accept from him, for what she can’t accept in herself. He hates her for what he could not allow, still cannot acknowledge about his own patience, long since yellowed into something else. She had wanted a confessor, someone who would know her truly and deeply and love her still. He, she supposed, had wanted someone to rely on, to look after him like a mother, someone who would allow him to regress at reasonable intervals. Sometimes, days would go by filled with long serrated silences that made her eyes feel like straight pins stuck into pale blue-gray butterflies. He went about his business, quietly content—or so she imagined—that she was at least silent. If he or one of the children asked if something were the matter, she scoffed, “Oh, is that what you think? Really, you have so much to learn! Ha, ha! Pitiful! Just pitiful, all of you!” Then she would sigh heavily and wag her head. “What a sorry lot you all are. See if you can’t figure it out for yourselves.” Closing her eyes with a clucking groan, the dreadful condemnation settled its weight on them. “If you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you!”

Lorena no longer resists the relentless knowledge that she has gotten it all wrong, that the nightmare isn’t a dream. She longs for assurance that in Heaven, if there is a Heaven, she will be recognized. In Heaven, someone will acknowledge her. She will be known and forgiven. She will be protected; there will be no regrets, nothing more to lose, and no reminders of what has been forfeited. A life glossed over but not, surely not, forgotten.

At the end of the week, the children and grandchildren arrive. He’s been waiting to see them. He speaks a few minutes to each one, photographs are taken, and then, obligingly, he lets himself go.

Lorena refuses to bury him where he has asked, in the place where they had met and spent thirty summers together. She chooses instead a local burial garden into which the ashes are lowered in only a linen bag, which in time will disintegrate, allowing other ashes, hers, to be laid on top. Her brother-in-law lowers the linen sack into the ground, barely in control of his grief. Suddenly, a warm wind stirs the barren canopy above the sleeping garden and lifts the leaves scattered on the ground. A blackbird glides to the garden wall. Everyone looks up as if they hear someone speaking. It is going to rain, hard.

*

Lorena puts a frying pan on the stove to loosen some caked grease. She’s cleaning her kitchen a month after her husband’s funeral. She pours the coffee grounds from the percolator into the sink and begins emptying the refrigerator of foods that have been waiting around for weeks, or months, to be eaten; foods that have grown mold or shriveled into dust on their own. As Lorena stuffs expired remnants into the garbage disposal, grinding them down the drain into the PVC plumbing that carries the shredded remains away, she hears the frying pan begin to crackle and spit and turns toward the stove. She grabs a potholder, throws the pan into the sink on top of the food in line for the chopper. There is a hiss as the hot steel hits the wet wasted nutrition. When she turns on the tap, steam rises into her face. She waves it away.

Luckily, there is only a little smoke damage. She is, nevertheless, rattled and within a month moves into an Assisted Living facility around the corner from her oldest daughter, Janet; she takes two apartments, one for her bed-sitting-and-kitchen, the other for her office and storage.

She introduces herself modestly, listening patiently to old people telling their past to a new audience. She repeats phrases she’s heard Paul use in his pastoral duties. She allows, when pressed, that her husband had been paranoid, delusional even, but she prefers to remember what a wonderful man he was in his youth. At last, people seem to appreciate her. Still, she keeps her door locked.

One day, in the middle of the morning, Lorena feels numbness on the left side, and a glass of water slips from her hand. Then she feels it in her leg; it’s hard to walk. So much clutter to navigate around. Back to bed. There. The phone, where is the phone? Who should she call? Carla, the youngest, the dearest, the only one now, even though she lives clear across the country. Lorena had asked Janet, who lives a block away and who resisted helping her properly, why they all hated her, and Janet had replied, astonishingly, “Because you want us to be perfect and we cannot be perfect. We can only disappoint you.”

“What nonsense. God wants us to be perfect! You have to be perfect for the IRS!” It was almost a question. “You get anything wrong, and they slap you with a penalty. They’re watching all the time. You have to try to be perfect, for Pete’s sake!”

Carla is the one with medical knowledge. She’s a phlebotomist. Lorena finds this inadequate but, “any port in a storm.”

Carla’s phone rings. She answers it in the haze of early morning on the West Coast.

“I think I’m having a stroke.” Lorena never announces who is calling; she just starts in as if her voice should be recognized by anyone she would call. What she had to say was too important for greetings and salutations.

“What are you feeling?”

“Numbness.”

“Where?”

“Left side, my face, my hand, my leg.”

“As much as that?”

“What will it be like to die of a stroke?”

“Like going to sleep, suddenly, if you’re awake. You won’t even notice if you’re asleep.”

“Ah, that would be good. Can you talk to me until I fall asleep?”

“What about calling the doctor?”

“No. No, I don’t want any interference. Just talk to me.”

After three hours Lorena hangs up, still alive. Maybe it will be tonight. She arranges her will and other papers, checks the file cabinet, locks it, puts the key under her pillow, and goes to bed even though it’s only late afternoon, hoping for an unconscious death.

Carla bounces back and forth between her parents’ expectations and disappointments. Theo, the oldest, had disappointed their parents by not earning a prize for his scientific interests. He’d become a writer, fiction no less, instead of pursuing what he was trained for. Janet, the oldest of the three girls, had been sickly; they’d been surprised that she even lived, and then she’d given up nursing school, become a painter, and retreated behind the counter of a health food store. Molly, the middle daughter, had become an academic, inserting herself between alternating layers of need and knowledge. Carla feels the terrible weight of being the identified good child, the one who seems to read Lorena the best, anticipate and provide for her mother’s needs. At age six or seven, after Molly had been spanked for an offense they’d committed together, Carla stole a candy bar from the newsstand next door. No one knew to this day. The more faults she had to confess, the more Lorena ignored them and fawned over her as the good one, trying to suck the life from her. Carla senses satisfaction coming. This death is overdue.

But Lorena wakes up, and things seem “normal” again, until she coughs up some blood a few days later. Janet takes her to the doctor and there are tests; Lorena is quietly diagnosed with cancer as well as the mild stroke. It’s in her lungs, spreading quickly. She’ll be gone in less than a month, they say.

*

When the time comes, Janet’s husband calls Theo and Molly. Speaking in his undertaker’s hushed tone that washes over the listener like a slow-motion wave of sympathetic nausea, he says, “I’m sorry to say your mother has… passed away.” As if it were unexpected, as if it could be a poignant death, her soul slipping into the night, gently, a tender transition for a beloved, doting parent. As if she might be at peace.

Carla is alone. She and Janet have spent the last few days with their mother. Her husband has joined her, yet she is uncomforted. At breakfast before the service, she and Janet describe the last days to Theo, Molly, and Molly’s husband. Lorena’s lawyer had been called. The hospice had sent companions. Everything was ready; she could go. As the cancer quickly filled her liver and kidneys, her bones and brain, the routine mistrust of life grew fat on morphine. Yearning slipped into the furtive excesses of paranoia.

“That woman in there… It’s a heist! A heist, I tell you! She’s going to kill me and take everything.”

“Stop it! Stop it this instant!” Carla exploded.

“You stop it! Get out! I am calling the police!” Lorena fumbled back into her room, dragging her oxygen tank, and began punching the buttons on the phone, pathetically. Finally, she reached 911.

“My children are robbing me. The address is…”

The nurses thought she would come around at the end, ask forgiveness, dispense forgiveness, seek peace within herself and with others, die a good death, a graceful death. But she refused to see any of them. While they waited, Janet and Carla worked quietly in the adjoining room with the common doors closed. Lorena had a fortune in five local banks and almost $20,000 in cash in her file cabinet, which they set aside to divide four ways at the hotel. They filled three dumpsters with the paper and cloth residue of Lorena’s life. It had taken four days of steady work to clear the two rooms.

A small group stands once again in the sad little burial garden, in weather well below freezing: a few relatives, and the children and their families, but no friends, no neighbors.

There is no eulogy, no sanitized version of Lorena’s life, no humorous account of her charming imperfections. What can be said, in any case? Lorena is dead. Dead—every hope for all that never was: genuine tenderness, kisses, a warm smile, a soft look, a gentle touch, interest, a discerning wisdom, patience, confidence, the twinkling hint of endearment or a mischievous moment. Gone, every hint of longed-for indulgence, the spicy scent of calm, curiosity, encouragement, a belief in the future, hope. The only residue of the missing maternal is cold cash. Were they being compensated? Would a jury have awarded as much, as little? What is the price of a lifetime of sustained sorrow, years and years—more than fifty for them, almost eighty for her—decades of separation? Or is this gross inheritance the only sign that she would have loved her children if she could have, if she had felt herself loved by anything at all in the universe? There will be no nostalgic tearful moments, no fond memories. Lorena died as she lived, disappointment and frustration seething from her pores. She died unheard, angry and alone; she died impacted. The suffocating weight of invisibility, the absence that is the ash of never-was, lifts a bit for her children, but it cannot be dissipated. They will go to the funeral accompanied by a husband, a wife, a son, a daughter, but each of them will be alone, wondering how the pain of the absent mother colors the lives it touches, crowding out all other forms of love. How is the maternal void written into consciousness and transformed into something bearable so as to not be passed on? This mother, dead to her children for so many years, lost now for eternity.

The priest recalls how Lorena had her own ideas, how he would not forget her. The small group stands shivering, watching the linen bag followed by the sand going into the ground. Everyone is dissembling sorrow at the lost possibility, detached curiosity, searing anger, unqualified relief, as the linen bag clears the PVC collar and descends into the columbarium where no one will ever come back to see her.

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Margot Miller served as an adjunct professor most recently at the School for Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington D.C. and now writes fiction as well as translating stories for publication use at the Academy of Lifelong Learning, Chesapeake Maritime Museum, St. Michael’s MD. She divides her time between the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. E-mail: miller.margot[at]gmail.com

How to Express Who You Are While Keeping Messenger Bag Adornments at a Minimum

Beaver’s Pick
Lyndsey Aho


In class,
you glance over at my beverage of choice
and casually remark:
“Oh, Rockstar? They sponsor me.
So I get, like, tons. For free. It’s great with whiskey.”

(You fucking tart.)

***

Thus I dub thee Rockstar Boi
So fitting—
like your cocktight jeans
and tiny vintage T-shirts,
So thin
thin
thin
(I can see your nipples.)

Rockstar Boi—
at the bus stop:
miniature girls in oversized sunglasses
greet you with a squeal,
throw their scrawny arms around your neck
avowing that

Last weekend was, like, the MOST. FUN. EVER.

You stand with your hands in your pockets
and pause

endearingly

in conversation,

Feigning that social awkwardness
made so trendy by Wes Anderson.

However, Rockstar Boi, we both know that Bloomfield Hills Jews
aren’t famous for being
shrinking violets,

And your witty banter
and 1057 facebook friends
out you for the social slut
you are.

But Rockstar Boi—

Keep on listening to The Smiths
and Radiohead,
and reading Choke and Breakfast of Champions,

Continue folding shirts at Urban Outfitters
as you were this balmy afternoon,

For I have seen your experimental videos

And they are so soft and muted,
yet electric
(like nighttime),

That I can’t hold your checked slip-on Vans
and brimmed brown chook

Against you.
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Lyndsey was born and raised in Upper Michigan and is currently attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. E-mail: lyndseya[at]umich.edu

My Grandfather’s Ear

Creative Nonfiction
Linda C. Wisniewski


I hold in my hand a shell, brown and white. It curves inward; light purple colors the shadow inside, like the dark depths of my grandfather’s ear. I long to crawl inside it.

I want to know him again and for the first time. Who was he, what were his innermost thoughts behind that shell-like ear I remember?

I believe I could get to him, his essence, through his ear. At the end, he lost his hearing. The details of his final illness are vague to me now; I was only fourteen. I knew he was ill. He was seventy-four. Standing together in the middle room of the second-floor flat he shared with my grandmother and their son, my uncle, I was almost as tall as he was.

“I can’t hear you anymore,” he said, waving a hand toward the side of his head. Did I comfort him? Probably not. By then, I was already practiced in the stiff upper lip, never “breaking down” if I could avoid it. I may have said, “It’s all right.” I felt his love in his grieving.

We weren’t alone in the room. There was always someone else, my mother, grandmother, sister, uncle. My mother, trying to cheer him, told me to show Grandpa my nails. I had polished them in the popular color for eyeshadow and nails that year. “Blue!” he said and smiled. But then we were silent again, not having the words.

My grandfather was a small, quiet man, a peaceful presence in the life of my extended family. When I was a child, he was often in our house, taking care of me and my sister while our parents worked. One day, she and I got into a fight over something I’ve long since forgotten. We ran around the house, yelling and crying. Grandpa was at least as upset as we were. He followed us from room to room, pleading, “Stop,” “Don’t cry,” “She didn’t mean it.”

My grandfather’s ear was well-trained in Russian. He learned the language as a boy growing up in Poland. Which words did he learn first, the Polish or the Russian? I wish I knew more. Polish at home, I think, and Russian at school.

Once he read to me from the New York Daily News. In a page one picture, people carried signs printed in Russian. It was during the Cold War, 1960. Americans were interested in what was going on in Russia, but I’ll never know what it was that day. Grandpa was pleased, I know that. He pointed to the signs and carefully pronounced the Russian words for me. If I sat here forever, I would still not remember what they were, or the sound of his voice reading them to me. I wasn’t interested, then. Fourteen, and head of my class, I didn’t need to know any of the things he tried to teach me. The Old Country stuff was for old people like him, and though I loved him, it was a patronizing kind of love for an old man whose time had come and gone.

At the end of a typical day at St. Stanislaus School, I walked into the little club where Grandpa tended bar. Dark wood, sparkling bottles and a big mirror behind him, he reached under the bar and brought out a Hershey chocolate bar. He took me as a toddler on his lap, and showed me liquor ads in men’s magazines like Esquire, teaching me to recognize Old Crow, Four Roses and others.

My grandfather’s ear was small, like him, and always open for me, like his face. A half-wreath of black hair encircled the back and sides of his otherwise bald head. Even at the end, his hair never turned gray.

My mother told me a story that happened when she was a child. Grandpa worked in a butcher shop and one day, a man walked in the door with a young lamb in a sack. He asked Grandpa to butcher the lamb. Grandpa didn’t like the idea, but he agreed. Alone in the shop, he cautiously peered into the sack. The lamb looked up at him. After a bit of time, he gathered the courage to put the sack on a table. He then removed the lamb from the sack, took out his knife and quickly cut the throat of the lamb, but not before the lamb looked at him again and baaed.

Grandpa later told me himself that it was a true story and that the lamb was crying “Mama.” He told the man to never again bring a live animal to the store.

I saw him smile, I saw him cry, but I never saw him angry. With him, I felt safe. I wish I could feel that way again.

My grandfather’s ear was clear, translucent so that light came through the outer shell and lit the tiny black hairs inside.

Now that I am sixty, I have time. Done with school and career, my days are my own creation to do with as I wish. And what I do now is sit and look at this little brown-and-white shell in my hand, turning it over.

What I am now is a woman frustrated by my inability to know the only man who loved me without condition, who died the year I was fourteen, long before I realized that who I was might have something to do with him.
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“I am a librarian living with my family in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where I teach memoir workshops at the local community college. My work has been published in the Christian Science Monitor, Mindprints, The Rose and Thorn and the Philadelphia Inquirer. I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Mindprints. In 2008, my book-length memoir, Off Kilter, will be published by Pearlsong Press.” E-mail: lindawis[at]comcast.net

Thirty-two Suns

Flash
Rebecca Nazar


Gary, his fingers like melted candle stubs, holds up a candy wrapped in gold cellophane: a small sun rendered in butterscotch. Once molten, now mottled, his skin looks like putty, but it’s stiff and winces against his broad knuckles. He pulls the ends of the wrapper, challenging the simple twists that bind the sweet. I wish the cellophane would squeal or growl to match his effort, but it only crackles a bit, which is cruel.

This morning, at The Chapel of Eternal Love, our vows completed, we were showered with handfuls of these candies. They grazed our heads and shoulders. We flinched. The cherub-faced chapel hostess then stooped and gingerly weeded the barrage of candies from the frayed blades of green shag, placing each in a purple velvet bag festooned with a firmament of rhinestones. She whispered the candy tally to Elvis, who officiated.

With a wry grin, The King pressed the bag into Gary’s and my hands, intoning in a warm baritone, “Thirty-two.”

“Thirty-two years we’ll be married?” I asked, gripping the celestial candy bag to my chest, confident it was a boon imbued with a cosmic affirmation of our union.

“No, thirty-two times you’ll do it on your honeymoon,” the angelic chapel hostess proclaimed, tenderly poking my belly.

This afternoon, at Hoover Dam, all Gary said was damn—as in damn it’s big. Over and over the wiseass said damn. He’d look up at the dam—daaamn! For about two minutes, this way and that, he pointed in amazement at the concrete monolith—daaamn! I giggled; most stared.

Then with his maimed hands he mimed buttressing the dam, shoring the sky, balancing the sun: he was a god.

Gary winked at me as he savored the comical moment. He craves them; they slice through the prosaic haze of the pills.

Now, tonight, after months of physical and psychological counseling at the VA hospital, buoyed by a cocktail of painkillers and antidepressants, he’s dogged. The wrapper yields within seconds, not minutes. The candy falls into my trembling hand and clinks against my wedding band. He clumsily nudges the candy, rolling it across my warm palm. A golden sheen ignites within the sweet and flits over its smooth, golden surface. “Hunka, hunka, burning love,” he moans in my ear. He places the candy on my tongue; the sweet melts, tasting of clover honey mulled in butter.

Gary moves across me like the horizon: blackened skin on red, swollen fingers, layers of worthless flesh, exfoliating baths, grafts, pills, tantrums, tears, and brutal nightmares stumble and wane in the corners.

My tongue tugs on the candy, forcing it against the ridges of my palate. The sun shatters in my mouth. Thirty-one remain.

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“I live in central Maine with my husband and two daughters.” E-mail: becca67[at]verizon.net