Success Stories

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


A couple weeks ago, someone asked me if Toasted Cheese had any success stories yet. By which I think he meant, “Anyone written a bestseller yet?” (As far as I know, not yet, but please enlighten me if I’m wrong!) But it got me thinking: TC has had a pretty good streak of successes of late. Maybe it’s time for a little run-through.

TC Editor Stephen W. Simpson (Macfisto) is the co-author of the recently-released self-help book, What Wives Wish their Husbands Knew about Sex. He has two more books in the works: another self-help book, and a memoir. Look for an interview with Steve at Absolute Blank in August.

Former TC Host Janet Mullany (Elailah) has published a regency romance, Dedication. She has two more books scheduled for release soon, one under her own name and another as Jane Lockwood. We’ll try to schedule an interview with Janet in the not-too-distant future.

Congratulations on your writing successes, Steve and Janet, we are so proud of you!

Both Steve’s and Janet’s books can be purchased at TC’s Amazon Store. We encourage everyone in the TC community to support these authors by buying their books (and TC by purchasing them through our store!).

Our Amazon store highlights books by and for TC’s writing community. Every cent Toasted Cheese earns as an Amazon partner (and from our Cafe Press store and donations) goes toward site fees and contest prizes. We invite you to check out these new sections:

  • Books by the Crew & Friends features books by current and former TC Editors and Hosts, as well as books by authors published in the literary journal. If you have a book you think should be here, please contact us; we’ll be more than happy to add it.
  • At Absolute Blank Books, you can find books by authors interviewed at Absolute Blank, as well as other books featured in Absolute Blank articles.

We’re equally proud of the critical recognition that Toasted Cheese has been receiving of late.

For the second consecutive year, a story published in Toasted Cheese has been selected as one of the Million Writers Award Notable Stories. Congratulations to Gina Sakalarios-Rogers, whose story, “Pillaged,” was selected as one of the Notable Stories of 2006 (the 2005 list included “Cravings” by Trish O’Brien-Edwards). If you’re looking for something to read (besides TC, of course!), you can’t go wrong with the best online stories of the year.

TC now nominates for the Million Writers Award and the Pushcart Prize; you can find a list of past nominations on our Submission Guidelines page.

But the kudos don’t stop there. For the fourth time, and third consecutive year, Toasted Cheese has been chosen as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest.

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TC also made the list in 2006, 2005, and 2002. We were also delighted to see that Toasted Cheese got a mention in the introduction to the Online Markets section of the 2007 Writer’s Market. Our thanks to both Writer’s Digest and Writer’s Market for their continued support of TC.

We have always enjoyed getting thank you notes from our forum members and the writers we publish. But it’s an unexpected treat when people with no affliation to TC refer to it as an “awesome website” that’s “extremely helpful” and to the literary journal as a “superb literary e-zine.” We’ve started keeping track of what people are saying about TC around the blogosphere; check it out at Conundrums to Guess.

Remember, if you love Toasted Cheese, you can show that love (and support TC at the same time!) with fabulous TC Wear from our Cafe Press Store.

im_writing_about_this

Here TC Editor Billiard poses in her awesome “I’m writing about this.” long-sleeved T-shirt (also available in black!). There are plenty of shirt styles to choose from, as well as other fun TC items. (Do you have a TC shirt? Send us a photo! Maybe we’ll start a gallery…)

Thanks to everyone who has supported TC over the years and here’s to many more successes (we’ll get that bestseller yet!) in the future.

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

The Lesson

Best of the Boards
Alan Walkington


I’d always wished I was smarter, then maybe Papa Jed wouldn’t have whupped me so often. It’s not like I didn’t try. I really did it’s just that I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Like when Papa Jed was teaching Ma some manners and I should of just minded my own damn business like Papa Jed told me. But my mouth come open all by itself and I said please don’t you hit her no more please don’t. Mama told me hush child I got it comin’ but it was too late cause Papa Jed was already pulling his belt out of his britches and it had that big old brass buckle on it which hurt something fierce. It didn’t do no good anyway cause when he was done with me he went back to giving Mama the rest of her lesson. Mama said it was her fault anyway she should of knowed to have dinner hot for him even if he did come home so late.

Papa Jed was big on giving lessons. He always said he gave his best lessons when he’d got some good liquor inside of him and I guess it was true but he did a pretty fair job of it just about any old time.

I remember once when I was squatted down besides him while he was changing the tire on our old Chevy truck and I handed him the tire iron when what he wanted was the lug wrench. He said Jolene, if’n you was a boy like you shoulda been you’d have knowed proper what to hand me. Instead now I gotta teach you. He gave me a real good lesson right then and he wasn’t liquored up a bit. If’n I’d had shoes on it prob’ly wouldn’t have hurt so much. Mama said my toes wasn’t broke or nothing but I remember I sure did hobble round for a week or so.

Papa Jed’s lessons wasn’t all bad. He taught me to take quail and dove with the twenty gauge and rabbits with the twenty-two. You know when a rabbit is running out of a field sometimes it stops just at the edge of the bushes and looks back? That’s when you want to shoot it. Bang. One shot in the head so you don’t spoil the meat and Papa Jed got rabbit stew for dinner.

Usually I can get two of them so Mama and me can have some too. Mostly he don’t whup me for using the extra shell as long as I don’t miss. He taught me about missing real early on in the lessons telling me kid you better bring something back for each one of them shells I give you cause I’m sure as hell gonna count ’em when I get home.

Mama and me was hanging out the wash one day and she was looking at the sky and sayin’ Lord I hope it don’t come up a storm this afternoon. I said maybe we should wait to hang it out but she says no child this is wash day and Papa Jed expects to see the wash on the line when he comes in for supper and if that was what Papa Jed wanted then that was what we’d better give him. That afternoon it blackened up good and we got thunder and lightning and it blew like it weren’t never gonna stop and for a few minutes the rain come down like to choke a frog. We had to chase the wash halfway over the hill in the mud. Mama was sayin’ oh God oh God oh God like it was some kind of prayer but I guess God wasn’t listening cause Papa Jed come back while we was still trying to get the wash hung back up. He gave us both a good lesson on how important it was to watch the weather and all that and especially how important it was to have his supper on the table when he come home. It did hurt some but I guess I’m getting used to it cause I didn’t cry much at all. Mama didn’t look so good though and Papa Jed said don’t you croak on me woman till that bitch pup of yours is big enough to take your place.

Papa Jed had took to being around when I had my Saturday bath. He’d just sit back in his chair rockin’ and spittin’ in an old paper cup and watching me in that big copper tub by the wood stove. He’d say to Mama growin’ up some ain’t she and Mama’d clamp her lips tight together and not say nothing at all. Then Papa Jed would laugh and say you want me to dry you off sweety? I didn’t see what there was about me to give him any interest. I mean I got nothing nowhere no tits no hips no butt nothing I’m straighter and skinnier than a stick of kindling. Mama whispered to me don’t you let him near you child but what am I supposed to do? Anyways he ain’t never done nothing but look.

Sometimes I’d ask Mama about my own sweet pa who didn’t come back from the fighting. I wished I could remember him better. Mama says I don’t remember him at all I just remember what she’s told me cause I was too little when he went away but I don’t think that’s right. I remember a man holding me who didn’t smell like liquor and I remember being held in strong arms that tossed me way up in the air while I laughed. I think I do anyway. I want to. I don’t ask too often cause it makes Mama cry. Once she told me child I’m so sorry it shouldn’t be like this for you and I said Mama how else could it be I’m just a natural bad seed like Papa Jed says but she just cried harder so I didn’t say nothin’ more.

I found out a while back that my real pa was Papa Jed’s baby brother so when he got killed over there it was just natural for Papa Jed to take over. He’d been in prison so they hadn’t took him for a soldier like they did my real pa. Papa Jed said that even if Mama was spoiled rotten it wasn’t no hardship on him to take her on cause he figured he could straighten her out pretty quick and anyway his own woman had got sick the lazy bitch and went and died on him. And then he’d say that back then Mama was a real pretty little thing just barely fifteen even if she’d already whelped once and shit just look at her now.

It must of been harder for him to teach Mama the proper ways of things then he figured on cause he kept on having to give her lessons. He gives them to both of us, now, cause I’m a natural bad seed he says. I ain’t sure I know what he means cause if I’m just naturally bad how is he going to teach me any different? Sometimes he says it seems like he’s trying to teach a pig to whistle.

I used to wish I had me a little sister to play with. I almost had one called Bitsy but the poor little thing never got a chance to grow up. Mama says she was a colicky baby and she just cried and cried. Papa Jed told Mama woman you better make that little shit shut her damn noise hole before I do. Mama tried but Bitsy just kept on crying. I said to Mama that I didn’t think you could die of colic and Mama said that wasn’t what she died of and hush child don’t talk about it. Every now and again Mama has me put on a dress and we walk down the dirt road to the gravel one and up over the hill to the old church graveyard and visit her plot and get rid of the weeds and stuff and put some wild flowers on it if there’s any around. It was most of seven miles there so we didn’t go all that often. When we did, Papa Jed’d just laugh and say whyn’t you grab some of them fake things from some other grave they wouldn’t miss them then you wouldn’t have to go back so often. Mama usually just cries and hugs me tight. Like I said I’d have liked a sister but It’s probably best Bitsy passed over when she did.

At least I’ve got a dog. Had me one I mean. Brownie is his name was his name since he’s in that hole over there. He used to be Papa Jed’s dog but even though he wasn’t a pointer Papa Jed kept trying to get him to hold point. He just couldn’t and he kept breaking and flushing the birds before Papa John was ready. Mama said Jed that poor dog don’t have the slightest idea what it is you want from him but Papa Jed said women you better keep your damn mouth shut unless you want to get out here and point birds your own damn self so she shut up. He finally had to give up after he dusted off Brownie with birdshot for flushing a covey too quick.

Brownie was gun-shy after that and anyway couldn’t see all that good with just the one eye. Whenever Papa Jed was around he’d crawl under the porch and stay there. I used to sneak under there with him all warm and cozy and he’d roll over and let me rub his belly. Sometimes I’d take a nap there with my head on him for a pillow so that made him my dog I guess.

Yesterday after supper the bitch from the Cullen’s place come over the hill all in heat and sure enough Brownie was having at her right out front when Papa Jed came home all liquored up. He’s yelling you son-of-a-bitch which I guess was true in Brownie’s case anyways and he grabbed a stick of firewood and started beating them two dogs with it. They finally broke loose from each other and the bitch takes off back over the hill but Brownie twisted the wrong way and got hit up alongside the head. He run off under the porch yelping and shaking his head with blood flinging off all over the place.

Brownie kept crying during supper and Papa Jed said that he’d better stop making that damn noise or by God he’d go out there and stop it permanent. I wanted to go out there and get under the porch with Brownie but Papa Jed said hell no you stay right here I don’t want you bring all them fleas back inside and Mama said hush child don’t make it worse. I was really scared for Brownie until he finally shut up. I guess I was still scared even after.

Next morning after Papa Jed left I crawled under the porch with Brownie. At first I thought maybe he was all right but when he turned his head and licked my face I saw there wasn’t nothing but dried blood and pus where his good eye ought to be. I might have screamed I don’t really remember. I do remember Mama putting her arms around me and saying good sweet Jesus why have you let this happen to me and we both cried. I cried for Brownie and I guess Mama cried for everything.

Papa Jed come home for supper and said Jolene he’s your damn worthless dog He’s gonna die anyway you get rid of him or I’ll just cut his damn throat and let him bleed out right there. Mama said God’s pity on you, you cursed miserable man how did you live this long you worthless excuse for a human being and he punched her in the stomach and I screamed I’ll do it Papa Jed I’ll do it but he kept hitting her anyway. Mama served him supper all hunched over. I tried to help her but she just said oh child go outside with your dog now please now. So I did. I wasn’t hungry anyway.

Papa Jed give me one shell for the twenty-two and went back to the fields saying listen good brat you’d best have got rid of that damn dog when I get back for dinner. I went back in the house as soon as his boots left the porch and saw mama sit right down in the middle of the floor with bright red bubbles coming from her mouth. Her eyes are closed and I take her head in my lap and she whispers oh God sweety you gotta leave right now there’s some money I hide in the bottom of the flour bin oh it hurts so much go go please don’t let him do it to you too please God help her like you never helped me oh God oh and she stops talking for a moment and then she opens her eyes and says in almost her normal voice I saw it back during the mine accidents Jolene there are ribs stuck right through my lungs and I’m dead already I just ain’t stopped breathing yet take the money and leave anything is better than this I’m so so sorry child I love you so much.

Then she closes her eyes and in a minute she does stop breathing. I drag her over to the bed and manage to lift her up. I’m only eleven but I think I weigh more than she does. Did. I don’t know why I ain’t crying.

I go outside and do what I have to do with Brownie and he takes forever to die. His legs keep scrabbling in the dust and he keeps trying to lick my hand so I keep it where he can reach it till he stops moving. I’m finally crying as I dig the hole for him and it takes me all afternoon cause the tears keep getting in my way.

I’ve wiped the snot off my face and I’m sitting on the porch steps with the twenty-two acrost my lap when Papa Jed comes home for dinner. Papa Jed looks at the doggie-grave and at me and at the twenty-two and says well it looks like you finally did something like I told you to do and I said yes Papa Jed except I used the knife like you were going to. He stops and looks at me funny and says where’s your mama, girl? But I’m not paying him no mind anymore.

I let him see me break the rifle open, slide that shell into the breach and click it back closed. I say to him you taught me good Papa Jed I’m only gonna need me the one shell. Papa Jed takes a couple of steps back real slow and then he turns and runs for the bushes but right beside the outhouse he stops and looks back. Like I said, he’s taught me good, Papa Jed has.
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“I am a retired software engineer who was born and raised in Santa Clara Valley, but lived for years in Tennessee and Idaho. I am now fulfilling my dream of being a full-time RVer. Or was that a nightmare? The jury is still out.” E-mail: ursus[at]walkington.org

Off-Duty

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Christopher Glenman


At about half-past midnight, David Gannon leaned out over the rail from the top of the pedestrian ramp that provided access to the platform of Tyrell Street Station. To anyone watching, he might have appeared to be doing what any good detective would do—taking advantage of his elevated vantage point to get a feel for the crime scene he was about to enter.

What he was actually doing was stalling for time.

Forty-five minutes earlier, he’d been woken from a shallow sleep by his phone, fidgeting around like a dying fly on his nightstand. It was set to silent, but the impatient vibration that signalled an incoming call was always loud enough to wake him.

“Hello?”

“Detective Gannon?”

“Yes?”

“It’s happened again.”

“Oh God. Not Gut-Man?”

“Yes.”

“Jesus Christ.”

Gut-Man was the cute moniker the newspapers had invented, but pretty soon everyone internal to the case had started calling him that too. It had an ironically superhero-type ring to it that might have almost been funny if it wasn’t so tragically apt. Gut-Man, the anti-hero. Gut-Man, the elusive. Gut-Man the bringer of writhing, unpleasant nightmares to every poor uniformed cop or detective or forensic investigator who’d ever had to attend a crime scene exposing them to the visceral works of Gut-Man.

 

The first thing Gannon observed when he stepped onto the platform was that there was only one train present, sitting silent and still. The tell-tale fluorescent glow from the first carriage told him that the investigating team had commenced work already. It was going to be a long night. A familiar face stepped from the passenger door of the carriage and approached.

“Hello Anthony.”

“David.”

“You’re coordinating here?”

“Yep.”

“Good. I feel better already.”

“You won’t in a minute.”

“What do you mean?”

For a second his expression changed—a flinch—then returned to normal. Unreadable. “We’ve got a witness.”

“Huh? What are you saying? Someone saw the guy?”

“He was there David. He was on the train. While it happened.”

“My God! Is he okay?”

“He’s not harmed, if that’s what you mean.”

“Have you talked to him yet?”

“Actually, we were waiting for you.”

Detective Gannon’s reputation for obtaining vital information was well deserved. Getting details from people is a difficult job at the best of times. Gannon regularly got reliable facts out of people who’d witnessed terrifying crimes. Rapes. Murders. It was a delicate balance—building a comfortable rapport and trust without being outwardly supportive or sympathetic. Let your witness collapse into a blubbering, weepy mess and you risk walking away with nothing useful.

“So you haven’t even got a description?”

“He didn’t see a thing.”

“What? I thought you just said he saw the whole thing?”

“I said he was there. I didn’t say he saw anything.”

“How is that possible?”

“See for yourself.”

David followed Anthony’s gaze. A short man and a dog stood facing the tracks at the far end of the platform. The man faced forward impassively, like he might have just been waiting for a train. David squinted into the dimness at the pair. He’d seen that breed of dog before. What was it? A Labrador?

“My God, he’s blind.”

“Bingo.”

 

The man’s dark sunglasses looked quite out of place on the dimly lit platform. His hands clenched tightly around the harness as Gannon approached. Despite the company, he looked very small and alone, clinging to the dog like a life-raft. Lost at sea.

David announced his approach.

“Sir, I’m Detective David Gannon. I was hoping to ask you a few questions. Can we sit down a moment? I just need a few minutes of your time right now. The rest we can do tomorrow.”

“Yes. Of course.”

David guided him to one of the rudimentary bench seats bolted into the stone wall that backed the platform, and pulled a pen and notepad from his inside pocket. “Sir, what should I call you?”

“My name’s Karl Bear.”

“Bear?”

“That’s spelt B-A-E-R”, and that’s Karl with a K.”

“Karl, straight up, is there anything you could tell us that might make it easy for us to identify this guy?”

“Well there’s probably a lot I could tell you. I was there, remember.”

“Yes, but—”

“You think I’m not that useful because I didn’t see anything?”

“Not at all Mr. Baer. I’m not suggesting—”

“But what you’d most like is a physical description.”

“Well, ideally, but—”

“Well, I can tell you he’s tall.”

“How would you know that Mr. Baer?”

“His footsteps. The weight of them. The pace of his walk.”

“Well, how tall would you say?”

“Same as you maybe. What are you, six-foot-two?”

“Very good. You got that just from hearing me approach?”

“Mainly. The timbre of your voice also.”

“On the train, did you hear him speak?”

“No. I heard him get up. He was sitting right near at first.

“Okay.”

“He has the beginnings of a beard also. Like a three-day growth.”

“Really? I’m sorry again Mr. Baer, but how….”

“I heard him rub his face. It was definitely bristly.”

“Are you sure? I mean, could have been the hair on his arm? Or the sound of rubbing a jacket?”

“I’ve been blind all my life Detective. Trust me.”

“But there was someone else in the carriage of course.”

“Yes. A woman. She was wearing high heels. Stilettos?”

“Karl, listen, this useful stuff you’re giving me, and I’d like to ask you some more questions. Do you mind if I examine the scene a few minutes before I ask any further questions?”

“Go ahead.”

Detective Gannon was no stranger to murder. He took his cues from the forensic guys that processed the scene, and tried to behave accordingly. They seemed to possess a Zen-like professional detachment that allowed them to remain sharp and observant, despite the horrors they were exposed to in their everyday work. However, since the Gut-man murders began, everyone was looking spooked. Grim.

He didn’t want to look.

She was perhaps 18. Much of what belonged inside of her abdomen was spilling onto the floor of the carriage through a zigzagging opening in her side. Gannon looked at her face, and audibly gasped. Her eyes were wide, but opaque, as if the retina had been removed somehow. “Oh God! Why? What… What did he do to her eyes?”

“Yes I know. That’s what I asked myself at first, but then I realized, he didn’t. She’s actually blind. Probably has been since birth. What are the chances of that? Her and the witness.”

“Oh no!”

“What is it, Detective?”

Gannon rushed for the open door and launched himself out into the night. From the shadows, a Labrador retriever padded slowly towards him, with that same grim, haunted look he’d been seeing everywhere lately.

“Isn’t that his dog? Where’d he go, though?” asked a voice somewhere behind him.

Gannon said nothing. The Labrador licked his hand, and then sat down at his feet, resting its chin on his shoe. Detective David Gannon flopped down weakly next to it on the asphalt, rubbing his fingers through the soft fur on its neck.

“I thought you weren’t supposed to pat guide dogs when they’re working. They get confused.”

“This one’s off-duty.”
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“I am an ex-foreign language teacher who now works in a technical role in the IT industry. I have written a number of short stories several of which have been published in user-moderated online communities. I would consider writing as a hobby.” E-mail: zombieholly[at]hotmail.com

A Shift in Balance

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Laura Magalas


Balance McKay was thinking. Deeply too.

She sat with one arm over the side of her chair, intertwining her fingers in the spokes of one wheel, eyes closed, the other elbow bent against the armrest, her fist pressed firmly under her nose. Finally, after a long moment, she sighed and sat back in her wheelchair. “Let’s go over it again.”

“What, all of it?”

“Yes.”

“You’re kidding.”

She simply cast me a glance over the rim of her glasses. “Again, Jack.”

“This will be number four.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“I don’t think you’re paying me enough for this.” I was kidding and she knew it. As far as assistants go, I was one of the highest paid in the city. Because if you had a problem, and you had money, the only person you went to was Balance McKay. And as a result, when you worked for her, you were very well paid. That having been said, I can also say I’ve never been assaulted, beaten, or shot at more times in my life. Working for Balance attracts that kind of trouble. Of course, every time I begin to feel the need for sympathy, I get a good look at her wheelchair. Changes my mind every time.

Once I asked London, the butler, about how her wheels at her hips came about, but I didn’t get a lot because he started talking over my head. Something about her immune system. She can’t leave the premises or else she can get real sick. So when she needs to have something, she needs someone to get it. That’s where I come in. She’d had me run to Quincy Street and back. When I’d returned to her South Side apartment and found her in the sunroom, she’d asked for an update. And again. And again.

And now again.

So I let out a loud sigh of displeasure. She didn’t seem to care but it made me feel better. I leaned back in my white wicker chair opposite hers and started flicking a red flower on a potted bush nearby. “Michael King, twenty-eight years old. Lives on upper Patterson. No kin of any kind. Pays rent for his apartment on time, landlady says she’s never had a problem with him. Until the night of his suicide.”

I caught her glimpse and realizing my error, corrected myself, “Pardon me, the night of his death.”

She nodded and I continued. “At ’bout ten o’clock, landlady hears arguing. Swears she hears a woman’s voice. Minute later, it’s all quiet. Landlady hears someone start to leave, peeks out the door and sees a woman leave the apartment. Next day, someone comes looking for him.”

Balance suddenly let out a violent cough. Quickly reacting, I jumped to her; her body was shaking horribly. She held a hand out to hold me back, her glasses slipping down her face. After a few moments, she seemed to have control again and the fit ceased. She waved her hand and motioned for me continue. I stayed standing, and tugged a nearby rope that hung from the ceiling, a bell for London, before continuing. “Guy who worked with King, Derek Austen, finally got the landlady to open the door. Apparently he’d been trying to reach King. The two open the apartment door, King’s lying on the floor, dead as Shakespeare. Cause of death was an overdose of the drug opium.”

“Could Austen account for his whereabouts during the time Michael King was absent?”

I nodded. “Much to my disappointment he informed me of a very solid alibi he happened to have, which you are going to love.”

“Enlighten me.”

I grinned. “He claims to have been with the same lady that was in King’s apartment. Justine Teller.”

“And you spoke to this Justine Teller,” she said expectantly.

“Yes. Says her purpose for being there was to break an affair with King. He got angry and threw her out. She left. Austen was waiting outside. They claim King was staring down at them from his balcony until they left. That was the last time Austen saw him until he found him. They were together the rest.” Thus concluded my fourth description of the case. I sat back in my seat and noticed London in the shadow of the doorway.

Balance spoke. “Where was Michael King’s apartment?”

“Place called Haddon Heights. Second floor, facing the street.”

“If you’re looking at the building, which side?”

I thought for a moment. “The right side. Above the door.”

“And the opium… was it taken orally?”

“According to Brandon,”—a coroner we were both familiar with—“he injected it. Liquid opium. Gave it another name though… something called—”

“—laudanum,” Balance finished. I saw her stiffen noticeably. Enough to make London take a step.

“Balance—”

“In a minute,” she said, looking back at me. She started taking deeper breaths. “Any bruising on the body? Fingerprints on the needle?”

“Bruise at the back of the head, which Brandon says can be from falling after the laud… law… the l-stuff kicked in,” I said, “No fingerprints on the needle, but he was wearing gloves when they found him.”

London, who seemed to decide enough was enough, stepped forward. “Balance,” he said firmly, “it’s time for your dose.”

She sighed, frustrated, but gave him a nod. London approached, wheeling a small silver tray with assorted bottles on it. I saw the needle on the tray. So did Balance. She instantly looked away, holding out her bare arm perpendicular from her body. She gave a shudder and I stood.

“I’m fine,” she said. “Sit down.”

I stayed standing just to be difficult, then crouched in front of her to serve as a distraction. I took her hand. She didn’t comment.

“Do you know what it is that makes me react like this to needles, Jack?”

I shook my head.

“Aichmophobia,” she said. London injected her and she squeezed my hand. Tight grip for someone so fragile. She continued, “It’s a pathological fear of needles or anything sharp. My case is mild, so I can handle shots, but I wouldn’t be able to stab myself.” She heaved a sigh as London finished and folded her arm. “You know Doc?” she said, referring to her doctor, whose name I nodded at, “You get him drunk enough, he breaches patient confidence. Told me once he had ten clients who had aichmophobia like me in his clientele, and he named them.” She stopped to take a breath. “Michael King was one of them.”

I stopped. “So he couldn’t have—”

“—injected himself, no,” she finished. “If it’s the same Michael King. And one other thing,” she said, finally shaking my hand off, “I’ve seen Haddon Heights. Michael’s apartment shouldn’t have a balcony. It has a fire escape, but no balcony. Check it out.” She suddenly coughed violently but continued. “Call Doc. Get him to pull King’s file.”

“Won’t the cops and Eric have that?”

“No. Psychological information isn’t normally on their medical records. And tell Eric to haul in both suspects.”

I grabbed my hat from the chair and gave a wave. “Oh, Balance?”

“What?”

“Try not to die while I’m gone.”

She gave me a smile, but I could see the hourglasses in her eyes. “Are you still here? Get going.”

I left.

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Laura Magalas is finishing her B.A. in Honors English. She lives for writing and tends to daydream excessively. She hopes to one day have one good novel to her name. E-mail: atellix[at]hotmail.com

The Fall

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Jennifer Ruddock


“He was pushed,” opined Detective Miguel Fuentes, rummaging in the pocket of his leather jacket for a lighter. A Marlboro protruded jauntily from his bottom lip, adhered by saliva. A charred and smoldering corpse lay at their feet near the base of a high tension power line tower, surrounded by burnt circle of weeds. Nearby a bevy of empty liquor bottles ran the gamut from Coors to Absolut. “He probably broke his neck or back in the fall. I’ll bet someone tried to burn the body.”

“Why?” asked his partner, Michelle Noonan. Her high heels were sinking into the sandy ground and she shifted her weight uneasily.

“Maybe it was a fight with a drinking buddy, Noonan,” Fuentes said. “Or better yet,” he continued, jabbing his cigarette at the corpse for emphasis, “maybe the guy had an enemy. Maybe this enemy thought if he burned the body up, no one would be able to identify the victim.”

“I don’t think that theory’s going to work out for you,” a uniform said, approaching the two detectives. “Unless the killer was really unobservant.”

“Why’s that?” snapped Fuentes.

The officer poked a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of a car parked under a streetlight. “That car appears to belong to the vic. 1985 Dodge Diplomat. My grandmother has one just like it. His wallet was in the glove compartment.”

He handed Noonan a banged-up leather square, which she opened. “Thanks, Townsend. Andrew Loupos,” she read. “127 Millbury Street, Apt 12A.”

“I know that name,” Townsend said. “Liquor store robbery about two weeks ago. He must have gotten bailed out.” Townsend laughed a little and ran a hand through his thinning grey hair. “He was a smart guy, right? Three weeks ago, someone breaks the front window of the Montgomery Street Liquor Depot. The owner shows up, says nothing’s missing. Really weird stuff. Then, the following week, same day, same exact time, we get a phone call from dispatch, broken window in the front of the same store. We were in the neighborhood already. We get there, this idiot is loading booze into a box. He admitted he did the first break-in to time our response.”

“Anything weird about the arrest?”

Townsend shrugged. “The owner of the package store was pretty worked up when he found out we had to take the stuff as evidence. If you’re looking for enemies, you could do worse than starting with him.”

Fuentes snapped his fingers. “Maybe the guy took something of real value. Pisses off the store owner… snap, crackle, pop—he’s crispy!”

 

“Yeah, we get broken into all the time,” Arnold Wendus said. He was a big man in his late fifties. He had a full head of white hair and a sizeable beer belly. “I’ve been thinking about selling the place. I bought it about ten years ago. It makes good money, but sooner or later I’m going to get shot. It’s only a matter of time.”

“You live in town?” Fuentes asked.

“Man, I don’t even live in state. I’m from over the line, in Massachusetts.”

“Long commute?”

Wendus shrugged. “Forty minutes, give or take. The commute isn’t the issue. It’s idiots like… what did you say his name was?”

“Loupos,” Noonan offered. “We heard he broke in twice.”

Wendus laughed humorlessly. “He comes down here one week, breaks the window, times how long it takes the cops to show up, figures he has at least that much time. The next week, here he comes again, only this time we had replaced the window with stronger glass.” He rolled his eyes at the store front. “The people in the apartment across the street saw the first rock bounce off the glass a few times and called you guys. Loupos, he wasn’t willing to give up so easily, figures he’s safe because the alarm hasn’t gone off. He goes out back, gets a chunk of asphalt and smashes the window good. He climbs in and… well, that’s where they found him.”

“A number of items were taken as evidence?”

Wendus nodded bitterly. “Yeah, half my stock of Grey Goose, a few cartons of cigarettes… some other crap. Lottery tickets, mostly. Maybe a few hundred dollars worth of stuff, total. You guys have it all still, if you want to take a look. I’d really like to get it back.”

“Loupos turned up dead early this morning,” Fuentes said. “Mr. Wendus, where were you last night?”

“Home with my wife,” Wendus answered. “Why?”

“We’re just trying to piece together a scenario,” Fuentes said, snapping his notebook shut.

“Hey, I’m the victim here,” Wendus said stiffly, blood suffusing his cheeks. “I’m the one he robbed. If I went after all the guys who broke in here, there’d be bodies all over the place.”

Noonan cut in with a winning smile. “There is some good news to all of this, Mr. Wendus.”

“What’s that?” the owner asked, still glowering.

“No trial, no need to hold the evidence. You should be able to pick up your stuff this afternoon.”

Outside in the fading afternoon light, Fuentes opened the car door. “There goes that theory. Where’s that leave us?”

“Let’s go talk to the coroner,” Noonan suggested.

 

“Cause of death, electrocution,” Polaski, the coroner, said. “You found him near high tension power lines?”

Noonan nodded.

“I think he was pushed,” Fuentes supplied. “You’re sure this was electrical in nature? He didn’t break his neck and then get burned up?”

“The only thing that I can find that looks even marginally like an accelerant is a trace amount of alcohol,” Polaski offered. “I haven’t finished the tox screen yet, but I’d guess he was probably drunk.”

“That makes sense. We found a dozen empties at the base of the tower. How’d he get from the top of the tower to the bottom, dead and on fire, if he wasn’t pushed?” Fuentes mused out loud.

Noonan tapped a nail against her front teeth. “Obviously he got electrocuted at the top and fell,” she said finally. “But there wasn’t any sign that he came in direct contact with the lines.”

Polaski grinned suddenly and unexpectedly. “You know, there’s a delicate balance between good judgment and bad. For that matter, there’s also a fine line between being safe on one of those towers and being… well…” she motioned at the body, “marshmallow on a campfire.” She pulled up her mask and leaned towards the crotch of the body, poking and peeling with a scalpel. “And sometimes… when you’re drunk, your better judgment is impaired. The top of a high tension tower is not the best place for that kind of moment.” She paused and looked up, her blue eyes blinking owlishly through thick magnifying glasses. “Point of entry for the electricity, crotch.”

“What?” Noonan and Fuentes asked together, crowding closer to the body.

Polaski straightened. “I’m going to have to do a more thorough examination, but I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say that your victim here got drunk at the top of the tower and decided to take a leak. And, for whatever reason drunk guys have… target practice maybe… wasn’t watching where he was going… instead of pissing off the edge, your Mr. Loupos urinated directly into the high tension lines.”

“Ugh,” whimpered Fuentes, crossing his legs.

“Now that’s a real pisser,” quipped Noonan, unable to resist.

pencil

Jennifer Ruddock is a graduate of the University of Hartford. She’s an aspiring novelist, full-time web designer, the head writer for a small online text-based RPG, and a contributing writer for Revolt Media. She is currently working on a children’s book with illustrator Denise Griffin. Jennifer currently lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband and three teenaged stepchildren. E-mail: macky610[at]yahoo.com

Tractor

Beaver’s Pick
Jacoba Mendelkow


I am twenty-three. I leave the cool darkness of the house and step into the heavy sunshine. The light stings my eyes, and I shade them. I walk across the over-watered grass. I cross a patch of heavy clay dust, toward my grandfather’s tractor. The domed robin’s egg blue shed layers shade across the yard. Surrounding me are pieces of machinery, long since broken, littering the space just beyond the grass and the driveway. The combine my father was nearly killed in is hunched in the corner, ancient and broken. Old trucks, parts of tractors, pieces of sheds, and piles of trash litter my grandmother’s Nebraska farmyard. The old tractor stands alone. Rusted in places, majestic.

Tractor comes from the Latin, tractus, to draw. All of my life I have been drawn to the tractor and the world it represents. I don’t want to live on a farm or marry a farmer, but I know that there is a part of me so deeply ingrained that I can never really escape it. Somehow I am attached to it. I honestly don’t know why. I don’t know how hydraulics work or how much horsepower it takes to do a task. I don’t know what makes one person’s hay better than another’s when they look the same. I know nothing about the different brands of tractors and I don’t understand the difference between a combine or a swather. I do know that where there are tractors and men who know how to run them, this is where I belong. And even though I am lost as to the reasons why, this is my home.

I am three years old. We have left the farm, moved to Utah, and returned to visit. Grandma takes my picture. My brother is with me, along with one cousin. We climb the metal tires of the tractor and we fight over the seat. Grandma threatens us, and we all smile our genuine smiles for the camera.

I am six years old. We are home because Grandpa is dead. We wipe the tears from our faces and Grandma follows us out into the yard. We pass our dust hills where we play Matchbox cars; we look down as we walk to not step on one of Grandma’s beloved toads. Grandma loves her toads; she says that they keep the bugs down and keep her flowers “purty.” We cross the driveway, pass the sky blue shed, and soberly climb onto Grandpa’s tractor. My Grandpa is dead, but Grandma wants to mark this day. There are more than three of us now. There are seven. Our parents sit in the darkness of the house, talking about how to divide Grandpa’s things. Daddy will take his gun, the muzzle loader. His brother will take a shotgun. We children each get a keychain: “Mack R. Nutt, McCurdy Seed.”

Farming is a risky career choice. A farmer must rely completely on the weather during the entire year. A beautiful thunderstorm with lightning and hail can devastate a farmer, completely wiping out months of effort and draining bank accounts. A winter with too little snow will cause irrigation problems the next summer. The National Safety Council’s 1999 “Injury Facts” reports that agriculture is the second most dangerous industry in the nation. Deaths on farms are more than 22 per 100,000. Tractors are involved in 19% of the deaths that occur on farms each year, and seven percent of injuries require time in the hospital.
     My step-uncle was killed by his three-year-old daughter more than twenty years ago. The swather was broken and he was fixing it. While under the blades, his brown-eyed daughter kicked a lever. The blades fell and he was crushed. His eight-year-old son found him, his innocent daughter crying alone in the cab.

I am twelve, and my father has moved out. It was shocking and heartbreaking the day my blue-eyed, mustached father moved out of our log home. He had found a new woman to love, a woman with a new family, with an infant daughter who looks so much like me. My parents still fight, screaming at each other on the phone, name calling and swearing.
     My mother calls me at the neighbors, she tells me to pack myself a bag because we are going home. We drive through the night, my mother taking caffeine pills to stay awake. The “home” we find in the early morning hours, twelve blurry hours later, is my father’s childhood home. My grandma—the one my mother still calls “Mom”—embraces each of us. We all cry like there has been a death, and for us, there has been. My mother and father exist no more as they had for thirteen years. But we are comforted by the things that we remember: the flowers and the toads and the mounds of oat-colored clay, the kittens and the fields and dinners of Swiss steak and mashed potatoes. The blue shed has faded, but the turquoise steel still stands. The house is sticky, and the crickets sing at night. My mother cries in her former mother-in-law’s arms. We children play with newborn kittens wrapped in dishtowels. My grandfather’s grave is gaudy with silk flowers: blues and pinks and yellows. His headstone has a tractor engraved next to his name while Grandma’s name is alone except for her birthday. We stay only a few days but as children we know why we have come home. This is the place my mother remembers as her home. She needed to see the corn fields and breathe the moist air. She needed to be reminded. It reminds me of my father.
     Before we leave, we climb onto the tractor. I stand in front surrounded by my four brothers. The sky is grey with rain clouds that are threatening to cry, heavy with rain clouds threatening to release their weight, baptizing us with their cleansing and violent bursts. Grandma asks us to smile and we do, but our eyes are glistening because we are sad. Our smiles are no longer genuine but pained. We are missing something. Someone.

I am sixteen. My parents are divorced, and my mother has found out that a neighbor’s wife has left him. He is handsome and vulnerable. He is also a farmer and farms the patch of property west of our house in northern Utah. My backyard is large, weedy grass and few trees. The trampoline sits on the only level piece of the property. My mother wears a red bathing suit; she lies on the trampoline, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man in his tractor as he cuts the alfalfa. She hopes that he sees her—as near to naked as her strict morals will allow. She wants him to move first. I am forced to watch my mother want this man. I am subjected to her foolishness; I watch her, I call my friends, and we laugh at my crazy desperate mother.
     The man enters the piece of land next to our home. His tractor is red. The tractor ambles slowly into the waist high alfalfa and he begins to cut it. The grass falls in rows to dry; the sweet summer vapor fills the air.
     My mother has had enough waiting. She climbs off the trampoline and enters the house. Some minutes pass, and she is walking toward the shed to saddle her horse. She climbs on and rides into the field, her chestnut hair bouncing with each step the mare takes. Woman and horse trot up the hill and the man in the red tractor follows.

A country singer named Kenny Chesney recorded a song when I was a teenager. The song is called “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” “She thinks my tractor’s sexy” is repeated eight times in the song. The woman in the song brings the singer “a basket full of chicken and a big cold jug of sweet tea.” She is later mentioned as having a “dream,” a dream that consists of “a small farm and a yard full of kids.” I am not drawn to the dream of a farmer’s wife. I don’t want these things, yet I feel as though I am bound. I lived by the ocean for three years. I miss the smells of salt and fish and rotting sea weed. I miss smog and unsmiling, unfamiliar faces. And yet I came home. I came back to dirt and wheat and open acres of wild land. I cannot escape this.

I am a child at seventeen. My boyfriend drives a tractor. His tractor is new and is the color of over-watered grass. He farms for his aunt who allows him to live there as long as he stays out of trouble. No more beer parties, no more cigarettes and chewing tobacco. No more pot. He drives straight rows through the fields, cutting and chopping, slicing the sweet grass down like wounded soldiers. He sits in an air-conditioned green tractor and listens to the stereo play a Metallica CD. I see him at night and I smell his sweat and his hands. I search for the smell of the summer—the smell of cut alfalfa.
     I call him one day when he does not come to see me. I call to make sure that I am not forgotten. After all, I am in love. I call him again, again. My messages become angrier, each one shorter with more bite in my voice. He does not call back.
     My car drives fast, 75 miles an hour. 85 miles an hour. I am viciously angry, hating him because I know he is cheating. I can feel the knot in my stomach grow, and soon I am at his farm. I see his truck parked in the driveway, but this does not stop me. I want him to know how angry I am. I drive around the back of the house, past the feedlot of black and white cows. I spot his green tractor, dancing in the large alfalfa field with no trees. My stomach unknots. I turn the car around and go home. I wish that I could erase the messages I have left on his phone; I want the messages to disappear like the feelings of biting anger I felt only minutes before. I drive home slowly, my mind somewhere else. I am thinking about my mother on her chestnut mare. I hate that I am her, I hate her motivation and her love of farmers, I hate her temper and her persistence. I dread the phone call where I will be answering my lunacy—what am I going to say?

According to Vintage Farm Tractors by Ralph W. Sanders, the first tractor to use gasoline as fuel was invented by the Charter Gasoline Engine Company of Sterling, Illinois. The Charter Company, in 1887, developed a “gasoline traction engine”; the term “tractor” was later coined by other companies who manufactured this piece of farm machinery. The John Deere Company began manufacture of its most famous tractor, the Model B in 1934, as a 1935 model. This is the tractor owned by my grandfather. This is the tractor that stands alone rusting, documented each passing year with pictures, showing the passage of time like an elementary school student’s yearly photograph.
     My grandfather’s tractor allowed him to breathe the air he was affecting with the vapors of his tractor. I imagine a straw-hatted farmer wearing overalls as he leaves his home and climbs onto his tractor. I imagine him floating over Nebraska farmland with wheat-straw hanging from his lips. I see the seas of greens and golds, and I smell the air he breathes. His nostrils and lungs expand, his pores bleeding sweat and purity from the sweet summer air. Instead young men and women drive air-conditioned enclosed tractors. Music blasts in their ears while the science of harvesting sustenance follows behind them. Large rectangular summery bales drop from mechanized balers—sweet honey green bricks of animal feed.

Wendell Barry, agrarian writer and proponent for a return to the older ways of agriculture, says: “No matter how urban our life, our bodies live by farming; we come from the Earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh.” He beautifully describes his feelings as well as his argument in “Staying Home”:
     I will wait here in the fields
     to see how well the rain
     brings on the grass.
     In the labor of the fields
     longer than a man’s life
     I am at home. Don’t come with me.
     You stay home too.

I am twenty-three and my daughter is five. We have gone home to see Grandma, who is aging fast. Her mind and her body are strong, but her blood is old and her eyes are tired. She is suffering from macular degeneration. She has sold her cows and her hogs; she says that it is just too much for her anymore. But she is strong. She cleans offices once a week and runs the Senior Citizen Center. She meets her sister-in-law every day at four for a Coke at the Co-op. She watches TV from far away, never really knowing what is going on, and plays Frisbee with her dog, Spook.
     The house smells like dust and Lysol and Dove soap. It warms me and reminds me of Thanksgivings, and Matchbox cars, and oatmeal mush for breakfast. The flowers bloom without care every year, reds and pinks and purples and lush greens exploding from the fertile soil. The toads, perhaps the children or grandchildren of my childhood toads, lie on the cool earth beneath the flowers. When it rains, it is necessary to look down before each step—Grandma gets angry when you hurt a toad, especially if you step on one. My daughter dances under the same sunshine and on the same grass I knew when I was a child. She runs with the dog, she catches the wild kittens, she plays in the fine dust of the driveway. She climbs the old tractor in the yard and sits on the rusted metal seat. She always gets the seat, she is the only one left. I stand next to the tractor to watch my child play with the levers. I laugh as she tries to force the rusted steering wheel to move. We look up, and we smile at my aging beautiful Grandma without being asked. Snap. One more year together and another (perhaps the last) visit is recorded in a photo.

pencil

“I am a graduate student in American Studies at Utah State University where I am the editorial fellow for Western American Literature and the editorial assistant for Isotope: A Journal of Literary Science and Nature Writing.” E-mail: jmendelkow[at]english.usu.edu

No Good Reason

Boots’s Pick
Michele M. Feeney


It just happened they were visiting Stonewall when the construction started, the Monday morning after Thanksgiving. A yellow backhoe maneuvered to and fro, deftly lifting heavy loads of dirt. Linda found the rhythm of the movement and the roar of the machine, punctuated by moments of silence while the driver planned his next assault, hypnotic.

Linda didn’t visit her folks much; she liked to think she’d left Mississippi in almost every way many years ago. But now, with a grandchild in the picture and her folks older, she and Scott and Trevor drove down every Thanksgiving.

Linda was always ready to head back to New York by Saturday, but Scott didn’t like to drive on holiday weekends. They usually stayed until mid-day Monday, then drove through the night, nursing coffee from a thermos while Trevor slept, arriving at work and school bleary-eyed early Tuesday morning.

Linda glanced over at Scott, who appeared enthralled by the equipment. His forehead showed pink under beads of moisture; he should have worn a hat. Trevor gazed at the equipment, also transfixed. He had precious little chance to see heavy equipment in the city. Just a few more minutes.

A biker, sweating and winded from his workout, paused next to Linda.

“What’re they digging for?” she asked. She couldn’t imagine; there was little new construction in Stonewall. The sorry little town weighed on her.

“They’re digging up the old swimming pool,” he answered. “I heard it’s in perfect shape. Hope to have it open by next summer.”

The swimming pool. Linda cannonballed back to 1974, when she was just eight years old, a year older than Trevor was now. The September the pool closed for good.

*

“Why are they sucking the water out of the pool?” Linda asked her father, tall in steel-toed work boots and pressed jeans.

Linda could barely see the lip of the pool across the two lanes of traffic, and couldn’t see the surface of the water at all. Small brown birds pecked at the rivulets running from a big hose down the gutter of Hamilton Street.

“Looks like they’re draining it, sweetheart.”

It was mid-September, still over a hundred degrees in the afternoons.

“It’s still so hot.”

“Maybe it’s broken. Maybe something got in it and died.”

“Maybe they’re cleaning it,” Linda said, imagining the pool like a big bathtub, a sponge the size of her mattress spreading Clorox all around its slimy sides.

Her father took her hand and pulled her along faster. He needed to be back to work at the grain elevator by the time the four o’clock train passed through.

*

“I didn’t know there was a swimming pool here,” Trevor said. “Why don’t we come here in the summer?”

“There hasn’t been a swimming pool here for many years,” Linda answered. “Not since I was a little girl.”

Scott looked at her quizzically, but she didn’t elaborate.

*

Linda asked her father to walk down the other side of Hamilton Street the following morning, wanting to pass a little closer to the pool.

“Sure, baby,” her father agreed. “There’s a good chance you’ll be learning to swim in that pool next summer. Have a look.”

“I’m going to learn to swim?”

“Why not?” Her father smiled.

Linda imagined herself a dolphin, arching up, sparkling in the sun, then deep into the dark water. She giggled, making her father grin.

When they got up close, she stepped off the sidewalk, dropped her book bag, and put her nose right up to the chain-link fence. The pool was a bone-dry cavern, white as chalk.

“Bet you it’ll look a whole lot better by this afternoon,” said her father, who was tall enough to look over the fence. “Best be moving along.”

It was hot that day, almost as hot and sticky as the middle of the summer. Linda thought about the pool on the dusty playground playing kickball, and again at her desk in the close afternoon. The vision brought her sweaty self comfort. She imagined the baking rectangle full of sparkling cobalt blue water, cool like her grandma’s well water. She drew the pool during free time, from above like a bird flying over Stonewall would see. She filled the pool with water, using the silver crayon to add sparkle. That’s what she expected to see on her way home, when she and her father crossed Hamilton Street to get a better look.

Where was it? Were they on the wrong street? Where the pool had been was a flat, level, dusty lot, just like all the other flat, level, dusty lots in town.

“Are we on the wrong street, Daddy?” Linda asked. “Did we go a different way?” She pivoted around. The same houses as yesterday, the same signs. Just the pool was gone; in its place, an empty lot. How could a whole pool be gone?

“No, sugar. It’s the right street. The same street as yesterday.” He shook his head, lips pursed, eyes half-closed.

“Where’s the pool?” She looked again just to make sure she wasn’t imagining the raked-clean surface of the empty lot.

“I don’t know, sugar.” He took up her hand again. “Let’s go.”

He pulled her along toward home, even faster than usual, his jaw tight. He didn’t ask about her day, what grades she got on her papers, nothing.

*

Trevor was the one to ask, “Why was it filled in?”

Scott, a country boy from Vermont, waited for her answer with the same curious look as Trevor. He would be incredulous that what she was about to tell him could happen in the United States in the mid-1970s. She readied herself for an afternoon of well-meaning, but ultimately tedious, support.

“It was filled in because they didn’t want the black children using it. The law said it had to be open to everyone. So rather than follow the law, they got rid of the swimming pool.”

“So then nobody could swim?” Trevor asked.

“That’s right. It was closed.”

“Nobody could use it?” Scott’s eyes were as wide as Trevor’s.

“Nobody.”

Scott and Trevor stood silent, seeming to consider the irony of closing a pool to everyone just to keep the black children out.

Finally, Trevor asked, “Isn’t it really hot here in the summer?”

“Yes. Really hot.” Linda remembered in a rush: round fans on the windowsills with grates she mustn’t put her fingers near, moldy towels in the bathroom cupboard, a freezer not cold enough to keep the ice cream hard. “Humid, too,” she added, thinking of rice in the salt shaker.

“Could you ever swim in the pool?”

“No. I never could.”

*

Folks met at the Crossroads Bible Church the night they filled in the pool. Linda was usually glad for a meeting instead of prayer services. A meeting meant the children would all go down into the basement and play, giving the grown-ups their privacy. This night, Linda huddled on the stairs rather than playing, barely aware of the racket from below, straining to overhear what the grown-ups said.

“The children I mind,” one woman said. “They were crying today about how they can’t swim this weekend. Crying to me.”

“You can’t blame children, Donna,” someone answered. “They only know what they’ve been taught.”

“I know, I know,” the first voice interrupted. “But my own children have never, ever been swimming. I don’t let them go into the branches. My brother drowned down there, down past the fork. I know I can’t expect children to hear themselves, to understand, to see my place, but still…”

Linda thought about the pool. It was just a pretty pool. None of her friends swam there or even anybody she knew. It wasn’t until the very last day her father suggested she might ever swim there. She hadn’t even really gotten used to the idea before the pool was gone.

*

“Mommy,” Trevor asked, “could I have gone to that pool back then?”

“No, baby,” Linda answered, looking at Trevor’s creamy brown skin, black curly hair, and deep brown eyes.

“Could Daddy?”

Scott’s face reddened to match his forehead. Who knew when a painful topic would come up with a child? Still, Linda owed Trevor an honest answer.

“Yes. Daddy could have gone swimming there. Back then, when I was a girl and he was a little boy, he would have been welcome. Today, if there was a pool, or if we come back next summer, we can all go together.”

“That wasn’t fair,” Trevor said quietly. “You must have been mad.”

“It wasn’t fair,” Scott started, and Linda made a tamping-down gesture with her hand, silencing him. He meant well, but that man could talk the paint off the wall. This was something she and Trevor shared; it was her voice Trevor needed to hear.

“I was just a little girl, sweetheart. I wanted to go swimming, but…” she hesitated. “Adults get mad about things like that. Your grandfather was angry. I didn’t know any different.”

There were a few seconds of silence. Linda tried to imagine what Trevor’s next question might be.

“How did you meet Daddy?” Trevor finally asked. “I mean, if you couldn’t even go swimming together?”

How to explain to a child the atmosphere of New York University back in 1982, when she met Scott? An interracial couple was still a novelty, but the only pointed response was outspoken endorsement. And Trevor’s New York City, a generation removed from she and Scott’s courtship and a continent away from Stonewall, Mississippi in 1974, offered no context for the buried swimming pool.

“We met in college, sweetie,” she said. It was as good an answer as any.

*

The meeting lasted a long time, so long Linda fell asleep on the stair, leaning against the wall. Linda’s daddy carried her home, her head on his shoulder. Names and ideas and plans volleyed back and forth between her parents as they walked home that night, but, as it turned out, her father’s anger and the meeting came to absolutely nothing. It was just one more thing that didn’t change according to plan. By then, people were scared. Linda knew her father was scared, by the careful way he talked and acted around white people, so different from his jokey self around home and his friends. Her mother was scared a little, not so much, but Linda couldn’t imagine her feisty momma scared anyway. What changed that summer, when she was eight, is that her daddy started telling her, whenever he got the chance, that she wouldn’t be living in Mississippi when she grew up. That scared Linda.

*

“Why are they opening it now?” Trevor asked.

“Nobody remembered there was a pool,” the biker answered. “A dog was digging on the lot one day and exposed the edge of the pool. Somebody put two and two together and realized that was where the old pool was.”

Linda had forgotten the young man, who was still winded, standing off to her left, so startled a bit when she heard his voice. She felt irritated he’d stood by during their whole conversation, then reached over and squeezed Scott’s hand, hoping he’d take the hint. It was time to go.

They all watched in silence a few minutes more. The construction equipment was making quick work of the dirt in the modest-sized swimming pool; the bulk of it would be out by noon.

The biker continued, “The machine work’s going to be done in a couple of hours. What’s left has to be hand dug. That’s an old-fashioned plaster surface. Volunteers are coming down here around five this afternoon to finish the job. I’ll be down here myself.”

Linda regretted her irritation of a moment ago. Wasn’t she the interloper here? This young man had every right to stand by and watch the progress of the project.

“When are you going to fill it back up?” Trevor asked.

“Tomorrow, we hope. We’re installing new filters and equipment first thing in the morning. Equipment’s waiting up at the train station right now. We hope to start filling late morning. Gonna have a dry run, so to speak,” he chuckled, “then shut it down again. Open it up on Memorial Day with a big party. Like in the old days.”

Linda looked sidelong at the young man. He had no more concept of the old days than Trevor. As far as he was concerned, finding the pool was a happy accident, and its restoration a gift. A fine excuse for a town party, skin tones reflecting a wide palette.

Forty-eight hours, Linda thought. That’s all it took to reverse thirty years of mean-spirited retirement of the main source of summer entertainment for white children in Stonewall. Then she pictured the easy way other women crossed the pool at her health club, and contrasted her own awkward stroke. Not quite reversed, she thought. Swimming is one of those things you have to learn in childhood to be truly graceful.

*

Even though she knew her daddy didn’t want to talk about the pool, Linda had to ask. “Why? Why, Daddy?”

“Why what, sweetie?”

“Why don’t they want me to swim?”

“It’s not you in particular, honey, it’s all of us. You can’t take it personal.”

“Why, though?”

Her daddy thought for a few minutes, pulled some of the mints she liked out of his pocket, offered her one, took one himself, sucked on it a minute, and finally said, “I don’t know, sweetie. No good reason I can think of. No good reason.”

*

“Why didn’t they want you to swim there?” Trevor asked.

“It wasn’t just me, honey. It was anybody with brown skin. I didn’t take it personally.”

“Why didn’t they want anybody with brown skin to swim there?”

Of what benefit to Trevor was it to understand hatred? Sure, history was somewhere in the curriculum of his life, but why today, at seven? Then again, who knew when kids would ask the tough questions. Linda debated. Finally she answered.

“No good reason, honey. No good reason.”

That answer felt inadequate.

“It wasn’t fair,” she added, realizing she’d used Trevor’s exact words. And Scott’s, she then thought, regretting her earlier impatience. She searched for more words, then appreciated it was one of those times more words wouldn’t help a bit.

“Can we come back tomorrow, Momma? See it all filled up?”

They’d planned to leave shortly, and get back to the city early tomorrow. Linda secretly loved seeing the New York Skyline at dawn; it was the moment she felt the holidays began. Seeing the pool filled with clear, blue water would mean staying an extra day, missing more school and work. Linda looked over Trevor’s head to Scott, a question in her eyes. He nodded, and she smiled.

“Sure, honey, I’d like that,” she answered, tied for a moment to the little girl disappointed by the dusty lot. “We’ll bring your grandpa.”
pencil

“I am the mother of four, living in Phoenix, Arizona. I work part-time as a lawyer and write whenever I can.” E-mail: mfeeney7[at]cox.net

Lies

Ana’s Pick
Danielle Vermette


I do not practice lies as I go up the stairs. For one, I am tired. For two, I am bored with pretending. I want to walk into the room and tell him it is over. Five years is a long time.

Yes, I have been telling you that I am unhappy. Yes, I enjoy the way he wraps his body around mine, the way I find him so early in the morning, reading his newspaper, with his grown-up glasses resting at the edge of his nose. This is what I practice as I go up the stairs.

My head is clear but my steps are choppy and sick. They suffer from lack of commitment. I might go to raise my hand to the sky and the furthest it will reach is my shoulder.

I take the stairs slowly. On my clothes, I smell a curry from some other kitchen.

I open the door. He lies on the futon we bought in college. He wears the only sweater I ever knit.

“Do you remember,” he says, “when we moved here and spent our last five dollars on the last tank of gas?”

“It’s true,” I say. “I do remember.”

He props himself up on his elbows. He picks particles from the sheet and flicks them to the floor. I study his face. I wish I could see it in some new way, but I only see another face.

“Where were you last night?”

I bend over at the waist and lay my hands on the ground to stretch. The back of my legs pull and tighten. I can still feel.

“I drove to the coast.”

“Were you alone?”

I bend deeper into the stretch. My face is red and hot because blood is moving to it. I try to breathe deeply, to send breath to every part of my body. My mouth is chewing my bottom lip. I count to five in English. I count to five in French.

“Well?”

“No,” I say. “I wasn’t alone.”

“No” he says, “I don’t imagine you were.”

I raise up and look at him. I cannot read his face. He stares into the sheet like it is an open window. He moves his hand over the fabric, then balls his fingers into a fist. He moves the fist back and forth over the sheet. It makes a dent in the fabric like the arc of a rainbow.

“Someday, though, you will be.”

In the old days, I would have said, “Don’t say that! I’m a highly suggestible person!” I would have told the story about never finishing a project after hearing that Geminis start things but don’t finish them. But now I say nothing because I can’t remember how to be light with him.

“I don’t mind loneliness,” I say.

He falls back down on the futon and turns his face away from me.

“In fact,” I tell him, “I am looking forward to it.”
pencil

“I am a touring actor who is based in Portland, Oregon.” E-mail: daniland23[at]gmail.com

Two Poems

Baker’s Pick
J.R. Salling


The Somnambulant Fish

On my insignificant island
the beach delivers crimes for which
there are no answers.

They disturb me like scars
in their anonymity,
the way they conceal old wounds
in their mouths.

Often my eyes put me on a leash.
They tie me to a clump of palms
where the hours sour and rot
until I snatch away the opera mask
from a suppurating sea.

The subconscious beast thus exposed,
briny scales glitter at my feet.

 

The Reunion

Using 8mm films from the war
we select the brown smiling faces
of infant soldiers, bare chested
and beer guzzling,
who relax on a playground of clay
between their field gun
and a distant fence of jungle.

With each subject
the cog slips to permit focus
until the frame yellows and blisters
like something turned inside out,
or aged prematurely.

Then the film breaks.
All is white and quiet
except for the cackling of celluloid
and the weak farts of old men.
pencil

J.R. Salling is an antiquarian book dealer, who specializes in the history of science and medicine. E-mail: sallinigenovese[at]hotmail.com

This Teacher Talks Too Damn Fast

Creative Nonfiction
Megan Stielstra


When I first started teaching, I thought it was going to go like Dead Poets Society: we’d rip up our textbooks and quote Whitman and play soccer to opera music, and if ever anyone was in trouble I’d know just how to save them.

That was eight years ago, and I’ve gotten a bit more realistic. College textbooks are expensive; there’s no way we’d rip them up, and my students don’t listen to opera, they listen to emo or trip-hop and I can’t save anybody. I teach creative writing—voice, structure, point of view, imagery… none of that’s going to help Rachel who’s pregnant or Kyle with the anti-depressants or Dennis who’s waaay more interested in pot than he is in class and I have these days sometimes where it’s like, what the hell am I doing here? This past semester was especially rough and on the last day, as I was packing my things for winter break, I thought: I could walk away.

What if I walked away?

On the way out, I grabbed my mail—memos, a stack of student work, and a book. I checked the cover—some lit journal from a community college—and was all set to toss it when I noticed a page was marked with a Post-it note. I opened it to a short story, saw the name of author and stopped. Okay, in order to explain what happened to next, I need you all to imagine that I’m a character on Grey’s Anatomy. I’m thinking specifically of the episode where Izzie gives up being a doctor—she’s got eight million dollars from her dead fiancé and she goes to say goodbye to Doctor Burke who first taught her how to do a running whip stitch and she tells him, “I’m sorry,” ’cause it’s her fault he got shot and has a tremor in his hand and maybe can’t be surgeon anymore and he says, “Don’t you be sorry because of me. You have two good hands and you’re not using them, be sorry for that!” At this point, some pop song by a new up-and-coming band will start playing—Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol, perhaps, or a Regina Spektor tune—and Izzie’s face jerks as though she’s been slapped. She stands there, confused and frozen in Burke’s office until slowly, slowly, she looks down at her hands, holding them in front of her like she’s about to play the piano. She studies every finger, every wrinkle, and turns them so the palms face upwards. We stare at those hands, all of us, imaging the thousands of lives they might save and the camera pans back to Izzie’s face, her lovely blue eyes wide and determined. My God, what am I doing? she thinks. How can I give up becoming a surgeon? And then, the song crescendos or maybe changes chord in some significant way and—she smiles. It all becomes clear then: she’s not going to quit. She’s going to stay and be a great doctor and here, here is the important part: It might never have happened if it hadn’t been for Burke.

Just like that lit journal in my mailbox means nothing unless I tell you about Andrew.

It was my second year of teaching. I was twenty-three and still naive enough to think we could all recite Whitman standing on our desks—except we don’t have desks in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College, we sit in semi-circles so you can look everyone in the eye. It was the first day of class and I was calling out attendance.

“Elizabeth?”

“Here!”

“Spencer?”

“Here!

“Andrew?—”

“Andrew?—”

I looked up. “Andrew?—” And I will never forget this, he said, “I’m fuckin’ here already.” This guy was nineteen, South Side Irish Catholic complete with the accent, very baggy jeans belted just below his crotch and these giant headphones that he would not turn off unless you told him to, like “Andrew, we’re starting class, can you lose the Eminem please?”

“Whatever,” he’d say, which was pretty much all he ever said—not because he was shy, but because he just didn’t give a fuck. I’m sure if you ask some educational psychologist, they’d tell you his defiance was a façade meant to mask his insecurities, but I wasn’t asking a psychologist. I was asking Andrew.

“I don’t give a fuck,” he said, when I told him he was failing. It was the fifth week of classes and he’d missed three already. When he did show it was an hour late, headphones blaring, sitting in the back of the room a good ten feet away from the rest of us in our semi-circle and it’s very, very difficult to continue reading Faulkner under those circumstances, for one: Faulkner and Eminem do not go well together and two: everyone is more interested in seeing how the teacher will handle such an interruption than they are in The Sound and the Fury so all the concentration that you’ve just spent an hour building is shot to hell. Had I been the teacher I am now, I would’ve told Andrew he could join us after the break, but then? I wanted to save everybody, remember?

“So if you don’t give a fuck,” I asked—Michelle Pfeiffer said the word fuck in the movie Dangerous Minds and after that all her students totally respected her—“Why are you still coming to class?”

Andrew’s hair hung past his nose—I wanted to tell him to move it so I could look him in the eye. “My mom’ll freak out if I don’t,” he said.

“This is college,” I said. “Your mother doesn’t—”

“Look, I fucking paid for the class,” he said. “I’m fucking gonna come to it.” In that moment I was afraid of Andrew—not that I thought he’d hurt me physically, but that maybe he could tell I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

“Fine,” I said. “But you have to write. We’re a third of the way through the semester and you haven’t given me any writing and it’s a writing class, Andrew, you have to—”

While I was talking, he stood up and opened his backpack, taking out a couple typed pages and dropping them in my lap. Then he turned and walked out, leaving me mid-sentence and trying to remember if this had ever happened to Michelle Pfeiffer.

His writing was really, really good, except it was about a guy who wanted to kill himself. Now, lots of my students have written about suicide, but this felt different. It didn’t feel like fiction. Usually, in such situations, you’ve got three options:

  1. Ignore it, which really isn’t an option so far as I’m concerned so—
  2. Contact somebody who knows what they’re doing. I called the college’s counseling hotline—and, for the record, I felt like a total asshole, like I was ratting out this guy’s creative work but me being an asshole seemed better than him being dead. Turns out, there are all sorts of legal implications to this stuff. This is college. Andrew is an adult—he has to choose to seek out counseling. I could suggest it but not enforce it, which brings me to—
  3. Talk to Andrew directly.

Halfway through the semester, we do one-on-one conferences with every student—an hour-long sit-down to go over the strongest elements in their work. These are held in closet-sized cubicles in a hallway off the Fiction office, which is good because of the privacy but also a little unnerving, like picture you and a semi-stranger locked up in a bathroom for an hour. Now picture Andrew and me during his conference, the two of us in this tiny, cramped space and I’m making suggestions for his writing, like, “Could you maybe slow down the scene? Right here, when the character is taking all those pills and drinking all the vodka…” because that’s my job, right? To focus on his work? And then say something very subtle that’ll inspire him to seek help on his own but it is not, not, not that simple because sometimes those perfect words get all stuck in your throat and you end up saying the absolute worst thing possible, like: “Sooo. How’re you doing?”

“Fine,” he said.

“Fine?” I said. “Like, really fine?”

I couldn’t see his eyes through the hair, but I knew he was looking at me like I was nuts. “Okay,” I said. “Look. Do you need to… talk to somebody? I mean, there’s people here who—” Just like last time, he was on his feet and packing up. “Andrew!” I said. I wanted to reach out and grab his arm but figured that touching him would be as far from appropriate as I could get. “I’m just trying to help!”

He turned and faced me then. “It’s fiction,” he said. “Isn’t that what this class is? A fiction class?” And then he was gone.

I sat there in the cubicle for a really long time. I don’t remember my exact train of thought, but it went something like: Why can’t I get through to him, how do I reach him, how do I save him. I didn’t know then what I do now: it is so much fucking bigger than my little one class a week. Everybody think back for a second to when you were a freshman in college. What were you the most focused on? Me: my folks were splitting up, my boyfriend back in Michigan was seeing somebody else and I shared a twelve-by-twelve foot dorm room with a girl looped on ecstasy four nights out of the week. I will tell you what, teachers were the laaaast thing on my mind.

My job is to help their writing, not save their lives.

Right?

I gave Andrew an F, and on the last day of class I asked him to stay after. “You failed to fulfill the standards and policies of this class,” I told him. “It doesn’t mean that you’re not a good writer.”

“What the fuck ever,” he said. “I’m done with this school bullshit anyhow—” And then, like always, he was gone, out the door with zero fanfare.

At the end of every semester, teachers turn in grades and all copies of students’ work to the fiction office, at which time we’re given our student evaluations. I flipped through the stack and found one that hadn’t been filled out except for a single line in Andrew’s handwriting. It said: I can’t smoke pot before this class. This teacher talks too damn fast.

I thumbtacked that evaluation to my wall and looked at it for a while. Then, I put it in a box under my bed. Shake it off, I told myself. New students, new chapter. The first day of the spring semester I walked into class, called out attendance.

“Kelly?”

“Here!”

“LaTasha?”

“Here!”

“Brian?—”

“Brian?—”

“Brian?—” I looked up and it was total déjà vu. The same baggy pants, same headphones, same fucking accent even! Except this wasn’t Andrew. It wasn’t Andrew. It was Brian, slouching in his seat and looking at me like All right sweetheart. What are you gonna do for me?

He didn’t show up the second week of class.

He didn’t show up the third week

On the fourth week he rolled in an hour late and sat down in the back of the room. That’s when I sort of lost my mind. “All right, out in hall,” I told him. “Everybody else—read something… or something.” As I left the classroom, I tried to calm down. This is not Andrew, I told myself. Don’t put Andrew on this guy.

“I’m sorry,” he said, moving the hair out of his face. He had blue eyes. “The past couple of weeks have been pretty fucked up.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “But that doesn’t excuse—”

“My friend killed himself,” he said. “That’s not your problem, I know, I just told you so you don’t think I’m slacking off.”

I exhaled, wondered briefly what the world was coming to and said I’d help him catch up after class.

“Cool,” he said. “But actually, my friend? He was a student here. And I know they’ve got some of his work in the office and I was wondering if you could get it for me. ‘Cause I know he wouldn’t want his parents to see it.”

I’m telling this story now and it’s so easy to see what’s coming next, but in that moment I just didn’t get it. I said something about the legality of the situation, how I’d have to ask the chair of my department and did he know the name of his friend’s teacher so I could speak to them directly?

And he said— “It was you. You were Andrew’s teacher.”

In class I tell my students there are words for every emotion and it’s our challenge as writers to find them. I have tried over and over to explain how I felt in that moment and every time I fail. I can tell about the guilt, about how part of me, the idealistic part, died right then and there; I can tell you how horrible it was but I won’t even come close. “Excuse me,” I said to Brian. Then I went into the office and down the hall, locked myself into a conference cubicle and cried. It was the first time I’d ever done that, and it certainly hasn’t been the last.

The full-time faculty in my department were really wonderful, and I might not have gotten through it without their support and advice. “Do the best you can,” they told me. “Turn your attention to the students you have now.”

For me, that meant Brian.

He came to class sporadically, but when he did he was really involved and even, I think, had a good time. He told stories about growing up on the South Side, specifically a series of instances about the Catholic school he and Andrew attended when they were kids. I don’t know if it was therapeutic for him to write about Andrew, but it sure was for me to read it.

In the end, I gave him a C, and on the last day of class I asked him to stay after. “You got a C ’cause you weren’t here half the time,” I told him. “It doesn’t mean you’re not a good writer.”

He smiled, sliding those giant headphones over his ears. “School’s never been my thing,” he said. “And this place costs too fucking much anyway.” He made it halfway through the door before he turned back around. “You know, Andrew told me to take your class,” he said.

I waited. What I wanted to hear was: He said you really helped him, or He said you were inspiring, or He said you almost saved him. What I heard instead was:

“He said you were… interesting.”

That was eight years ago. Sixteen semesters ago—twenty-seven if you count summer school—multiply that times three classes at two schools equals eighty-one classes times approximately twelve students per class at a grand total of nine hundred and seventy-two students and through all of it, all the names and faces and page upon page of writing I have never once forgotten Brian.

So picture it: I’m standing in front of my faculty mailbox, getting ready to walk out the door for winter break or maybe a hell of a lot longer, and I find this book, some lit magazine from a community college, and when I open it, there’s Brian’s name on the top of the page. I stare at it for a while, remembering him and Andrew and how I once thought I could Save the World, and some John Mayer song kicks in—maybe Imogen Heap. The story is about Brian getting kicked out of Catholic school for calling his teacher a whore. “What are you going to do with your life?” his mother asks as they walk to the car. “What are you going to do?” I remember when Brian first told the story, eight years ago in my class the week after his best friend’s funeral—and then, right after the chord change, I get it: my job is not just story structure and point of view and imagery. It’s about Brian putting that book in my mailbox. It’s Chris calling me the night before he shipped out to Iraq. It’s Rudy writing from prison and Kate getting a Fulbright to write overseas and Byron’s thank you card when he started his own business and all those people who’ve sat in my semi-circle over the years and let me learn from them. I imagine a camera closing in on my face then; my eyes are wide and determined. My God, what am I doing? I think. How can I give up being a teacher? It all becomes clear then: I’m not going to quit.

I can’t say whether or not I’ll be a great teacher, but it’s worth my time to try. At the very least, I’ll always be interesting.

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Megan Stielstra writes collaborative stories with musicians and filmmakers and has performed for the Chicago Poetry Center, Neo-Solo at the Neo-Futurarium, Storyweek Festival of Writers, Undershorts Film Festival, The Dollar Store and 2nd Story, a monthly wine and storytelling series in Chicago where she serves as Director of Story Development and regularly tells stories to drunk people. Her fiction has appeared in recent issues of Punk Planet, Venus, The 2nd Hand and Otium and she currently teaches creative writing at Columbia College and the University of Chicago. E-mail: megan[at]mygreenlife.org