Stranger Than Fiction

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Amanda “The Bellman” Marlowe


“Some people are heroes. And some people jot down notes.” —Terry Pratchett, The Truth

To writers, everything is material. Random images, overheard comments, tangled webs of relationships. We pull ideas from everywhere. And one ever-flowing river of ideas flows from the strange news stories that pique our imagination and curiosity.

Sometimes it’s the puzzle that draws us. Take, for example, The Mysterious Affair of the Severed Feet. It started out innocently enough. I shared an odd news story with Beaver. Two severed feet were found on a street near Chicago. Odd. Wonder what’s behind that? But then… very odd. She’d just had her own severed foot story—a right foot in a sneaker washed up on a beach in British Columbia. This was the second right foot found there that summer. We speculate, hunting out connections and puzzling it out. The Chicago mystery is solved fairly quickly. It was a hit-and-run accident. No connection to the two feet in British Columbia. But then another severed foot, also a right foot in a sneaker, washed ashore in New Zealand. Then a third right foot shows up on a beach in British Columbia. And, just recently, they found a fourth right foot in British Columbia. They’ve since confirmed this is, like all the others, a right foot in a sneaker.

It’s only human, and particularly writerly, to speculate like mad at this point. Canada is investigating the possibility the feet all came from a plane crash. (Mystery writers, take note: apparently right shoes and left shoes are different enough the two will drift in different directions.) There’s also some speculation the foot thing is a punishment meted out by a drug cartel. Or is it some foot severing cult? The writer in me has taken over, and I’m mentally crafting the motivations and character sketches for the sort of people who might start up a foot-severing cult. Why right feet? Why toss it in the ocean? Is it some sort of punishment? An initiation rite? Are there dead bodies that go with the feet, or are there a group of people out there who now have a prosthetic right foot? If I can’t know what the real story is, I will make up several stories of my own.

Then there’s the story of the woman who sat on her boyfriend’s toilet for two years. The toilet seat had to be removed surgically because her skin grew around it. What compels someone to sit in a bathroom for two years? Why didn’t the boyfriend do anything to get her out of there? The little information we’re given aren’t very satisfactory. Again, questions flow, and potential stories come from the attempts to answer them and explain the unexplainable.

The world is an odd place, and and a lot of stories stem from our attempts to understand things that don’t make sense to us. The old saw that “truth is stranger than fiction” holds true because, at the end of the day, a work of fiction needs to make sense. Truth and reality, on the other hand, are under no obligation to make sense at all.
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E-mail: bellman[at]toasted-cheese.com

A Call from Virginia

Best of the Boards
Vela Damon


The chirp of the cell phone awakens you, the modern day rooster crowing at dawn. But it’s Saturday. Nowhere special to be, no need for an alarm. Who could be calling at this hour? You squint at the caller ID, eyes muzzy from lack of eyeglasses and sleep. Virginia, you think it says. But you don’t know a Virginia.

You set the phone aside unanswered, roll over to catch a few more winks.

Later, the memory is gray, uncertain. No missed calls. No Virginia.

During supper, the phone chirps again. You move to answer it, but your husband moves faster. He takes the phone into the bedroom, closes the door. You sit at the table, staring at the food growing cold on his plate. So specially prepared, such a waste. Surely he hasn’t been eating enough.

You wonder which one of you will miss him more when he finally does.

You, or Virginia.
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Vela grew up in the south surrounded by kudzu and not much else. For fun, she had a choice between books and mischief. Usually she chose books. Now she lives in a kudzu-free region of the Lone Star state. When she’s not writing, she hopes to run across some of that mischief she passed up as a kid.

Bloom and Die

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Beth Sawicki


My daughter has never exactly been brilliant. She’s not a genius, or even very smart, and she doesn’t have some kind of talent that’ll get us enough money to move the hell back to America. But she’s pretty clever when it comes to getting dirty. There’s not a single unstained T-shirt in her closet, and her mouth is permanently surrounded by a sticky red ring. Once, I watched her run into the valley, fall in a mud puddle, roll around in some type of animal shit, and then sink to her knees in silt when she got to the lake, all in less than a minute. It would be impressive if it wasn’t so damn pathetic.

Last week, I didn’t even recognize her under a crust of mud when she came running up the back steps and shoved a purple flower at me. “Damnit, Katie,” I said when she stopped right in front of me and grabbed my leg for balance. Now there’s this big brown splotch on my nicest pair of jeans.

I tried to rub the dirt out of my pants, but Katie kept pulling on my arm and pointing to a patch of dead grass next to the patio. I had no idea what she wanted, but my favorite jeans were ruined, so it’s not like I really gave a crap. I gave the flower back to her, and she ran into the house with it and somehow managed to get mud on every inch of floor from the back door to her bedroom.

I assumed the flower came from the valley. I haven’t really been down there since we moved to this godforsaken house last fall. We lived near Rome for a while and in London before that, which was awesome. But then Giacomo’s grandmother croaked and left him this crummy little shack in a valley at the base of some mountains on Italy’s border with France. And instead of selling it when I told him to, he decided that we needed to move here and “keep it in the family,” like this piece of junk is a monument or something.

God, Giacomo. It’s been a hell of a long time since the days of lunch break Italian lessons and please, call me Joe. I became his temp when I was nineteen and fell in love around my second day on the job. His divorce was final, and his monster of a son was living with his ex-wife in Sacramento. I don’t believe in fate or divine intervention or any of that crap, but I will say that I had kickass timing with “Joe,” as people in L.A. called him. If I’d gotten onboard only a couple weeks later, he might’ve actually gone for that slut in HR who definitely had a thing for him.

That night, Giacomo told me that only white flowers grow in the valley. Katie was sitting Indian-style on his lap, spreading her grime all over his work pants, with that purple flower pinched between two of her fingers by what was left of its stem. She twirled it close to her face and squinted whenever the petals brushed her nose. Giacomo squinted too, at me, like I was dumber than Katie because I didn’t know what grew in that stupid valley. It’s not like I ever go out there to see what color the flowers are. I don’t even want to be here. If I had it my way, we never would’ve left England. No, actually, we never would’ve left L.A. I was born and raised there. I’d barely been outside the thirty-mile zone before I met Giacomo. And now I’d give anything to be back in it.

I followed Katie outside the next morning and got ready to count the seconds until she messed up her pants. But then she started babbling in Italian and ran to the patch of dead grass. About five or six more of those purple flowers had grown overnight. Katie kneeled next to them and looked up at me with that retarded smile of hers.

But she was sobbing a few hours later when the flowers suddenly wilted and turned brown. Mirra, the ancient woman from town who helps take care of Katie, tried to get her to shut up. I hate the sound of the kid crying, so I sat outside on the back steps and stared at the valley. The mountains in the distance were covered with snow. They still are, even though it’s practically summer.

I almost shit my pants when I saw snow for the first time. Me and Giacomo were in London, and I was so pregnant that it looked like I was about to explode. I was sitting on the sofa in our flat, freezing half to death, counting down the hours until he got home from work, when I looked outside and screamed so loud that the girl next door banged on the wall and asked if I was going into labor. I was just hypnotized by the snow that day. Now I can’t stand it.

I looked at that patch of grass to get my mind off the fact that I wasn’t in L.A. anymore. A few sprouts were poking through the ground around the dead flowers. I went inside and grabbed Katie by the arm to show her. She stopped crying, like somebody turned off a damn tap. Mirra said something that could’ve been either a curse or a prayer.

That cycle repeated itself for the next couple of days. A few flowers grew and died, and Katie would have a panic attack until new ones came up. She didn’t pick any of them during the hour or so that they lived. She just sat on the patio, staring, sucking on two of her fingers like she was concentrating really hard. The first flower, the one she picked on the day she destroyed my favorite jeans, lay on her bedside table, still alive and bright purple.

I tried to talk to Giacomo about it. He always gets pissy when I speak English. I’m sorry, but I’m not nearly as interested in learning Italian as I was when we met. He used to take me to lunch and teach me useful phrases, like the cow ate the chicken that lived on the moon. Really stupid stuff, but it made us laugh. He told me that he left Italy because he wanted to “find riches on the golden streets of America.” He married a Sacramento woman to become a citizen, and had a son who sounded like a total brat and is getting ready to graduate from high school now. But then he got homesick. “I feel the tug of Italia,” he told me. “It is my blood. It is my life. I was born in Italia, and I must die there.” He accepted the job offer in London, which was obviously so much closer to Italiathan Los Angeles, on the same day I found out that Katie was on the way.

Since my Italian sucks now, Giacomo finally backed off and told me in English that the people in town believe that the dead are always giving signs from beyond the grave. Giacomo’s grandmother, the one who was kind enough to leave us this p.o.s. house, keeled over on the patio near that patch of dead grass. Apparently, she had this theory about how our time on Earth is short and cyclical: as soon as one life ends, another begins and takes its place. “It is the reason that the flowers bloom and die so quickly,” Giacomo said. “And she loved porpora .”

Well, it sounded like a big steaming pile of small-town superstition to me. I wanted to go outside and test that story with a bottle of Roundup. I never thought Giacomo was religious or believed in that kind of crap, but he looked dead serious. His grandmother is buried in the cemetery up the road, but he honestly thinks that some part of her still lives in this house.

For the next few days, the flowers grew so fast that the new ones didn’t even wait for the old ones to die, but just pushed them out of the ground from underneath. Katie had a field day watching them, clapping her sticky hands and shouting through the kitchen window at Mirra. I spent yesterday morning with my English-to-Italian dictionary, trying to figure out how to tell Katie that her dead great-granny was fertilizing her new garden, but when I finally grabbed her and spit out the phrase, she just looked confused and pointed to the flowers. Stupid kid.

Around dusk, she and Mirra said some kind of prayer over the flowers. I watched them from the steps and listened to their fast Italian. As far as I know, Katie doesn’t understand a word I say. She spends most of her time with Mirra, who doesn’t speak English, or Giacomo, who won’t speak it anymore. I just hope that she decides to learn my language someday. After all, she is half-American.

Mirra took Katie inside for a bath when it started to get dark. I kept sitting and staring at the mountains, pretending that they were the Santa Anas and snow didn’t exist. Then I look over at the flowers and, I swear to God, I actually saw a new sprout pop out of the ground. And I’m not kidding when I say that it was mocking me. Its petals opened wide to show me its sneering little face.

So I walked over there and ripped that flower out of the ground, roots and all. God, it felt good. I pulled up another one and tossed it onto the patio. Then I started stomping the rest of the flowers. Purple and brown petals floated around my feet. I kicked at the dead grass until huge chunks of dirt went flying.

When I turned around, Giacomo was behind me, home from his job in town, holding one of the flowers. Before I could say anything, he took off toward the valley. I watched him until I couldn’t see him anymore and then went inside, where Katie was standing next to the kitchen table in one of Giacomo’s huge old T-shirts. The ten seconds after her bath are the only time she’s ever clean.

Dov’è Papà?

I looked down at my daughter, the reason I eloped with Giacomo, the reason he stopped going by Joe and moved us from England to Italy so she could grow up like he did. She was holding that first flower, which was still purple, and staring at me with her mouth open. I turned around and went back outside to sit on the steps. The mountains and valley and even the patio had completely disappeared in the dark.

I’ll be twenty-four next month. But I feel even older than Mirra. How did it happen? How did I go from being in love to living this life so quickly? I feel the tug of America. It’s where I was born, and it’s where I want to die. So what am I doing here?

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I’m an Atlanta native who made the brilliant decision to attend college in the frigid Midwest. 2007 marked my graduation from Miami University. (That’s in Ohio, not Florida.) Now I’m back in my hometown and working as an editorial assistant for a magazine publishing company. E-mail: beth.sawicki[at]gmail.com

Lily’s Miracle

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Shannon Schuren


On Monday, Jonathon Foster stepped outside the police department door and immediately wished he hadn’t. The first day of spring was only a week away, but apparently no one had notified the good people of Lily, Minnesota. Here, winter still had its icy grip on the town and its occupants, as evidenced by the piles of gray snow shoved up against the sidewalks and the way the passersby skirted them without looking up, faces turned down to block the wind. They also ignored the slush that spattered their boots as they crossed the street with an indifference that Jonathon couldn’t help but admire. His own boots were still clean and shiny, although he expected that wouldn’t last long.

“Why don’t we grab some lunch over at the diner?” the sheriff asked, coming up behind him.

Cliff Echols was a big man, born and raised on the little island off the eastern shore of Minnesota. Jonathon had quickly learned that Cliff’s thick beard, flannel shirts, and laid-back attitude both comforted the locals and camouflaged the sharp mind and penetrating gaze that were pure law enforcement.

“We need to discuss some scheduling issues.”

Jonathon was confused. He and Cliff were the only two members of the department, aside from their dispatcher, Kate. And though he’d only been in Lily a short time, he’d thought they’d settled into a nice routine. Cliff handled most of the repeat complaints, such as snowplowing disputes and domestic squabbles, and Jonathon tagged along. Up until now, despite boring him to tears, the system had seemed to be running smoothly.

“This week, things are going to get busy,” Cliff said.

“Sir?” Jonathon stared at the empty sidewalks in disbelief.

“We’re going to need to start patrolling out by Glen Woods. And how many times have I told you to call me Cliff?” he added as he held the door of the diner. When they’d been seated on cracked vinyl stools, a waitress appeared with a coffee pot and a pencil tucked behind her ear.

Cliff waved away menus. “We’ll have the special. Two of ’em. Along with two slices of pie,” he added, shoving his coffee cup toward her. “And keep that hot coffee coming. It’s cold out there.” He mimed shivering in his department-issued parka, and the waitress giggled.

The elderly man on the stool next to Jonathon looked over and nodded. “Afternoon.”

“Afternoon, Hap.”

Hap was a fixture in the town, and so far the only one who had gone so far as to begin a conversation with Jonathon.

“I hear you’re from Norfolk,” he said now. “What brings a city boy like you this far north?”

Jonathon forced his frozen lips into a smile. “Change of scenery,” he answered, staring out the window at the snow-covered pavement.

Hap followed his gaze. “Not much to see this time of year,” he allowed, “but just you wait until the miracle.”

Jonathon furrowed his brow and turned to Cliff, who had a wide grin plastered across his face. Before he could ask, the waitress laid two plates in front of them. Heaps of whipped mashed potatoes mounded his platter, topped with a lake of yellow butter that pooled on top and flowed down the sides to mix with the peppered gravy, the chunks of sausage islands in a vast sea of cholesterol and salt. Crisp sausages lined the edges of the plate, their skins fried to bursting. Flaky biscuits were cradled in a basket and covered with a cloth to keep them warm.

Nearly drooling on his food, he forked up a mouthful before remembering his question. “What miracle?”

Cliff began to laugh, and Hap joined in.

“You’ll see,” was all they told him.

An hour later, Cliff pulled his Ford Ranger into a parking lot on the outskirts of town. At least Jonathon assumed it was a parking lot. The snow had been plowed flat beneath their tires, and another car was parked nearby, its grill nosed up against a snow bank.

They made their way across the flat surface, the crunching of their feet on the packed snow the only sound on the frigid afternoon. Jonathon had questioned him about the miracle on the drive, but Cliff had refused to comment, so he’d let the matter drop.

Now they were headed into the woods, with Cliff leading and Jonathon following.

“Here it is,” Cliff proudly proclaimed, when they’d walked so far that Jonathon had given up hope of ever feeling his feet again. They’d come to a clearing in the trees where weak sunlight illuminated a small fence and patchy snow beneath the pine trees. Another man leaned against the fence, one foot up on the lower rail.

“Anything yet?” Cliff asked expectantly.

The man shook his head, tossed another glance over the railing, then zeroed in on Jonathon. “Who’s this?”

“This is Jonathon Foster. My new deputy.” Cliff wandered to the fence and peered over, his face falling as he did.

Jonathon also moved forward, both intrigued and irritated. “What is it we’re looking at?”

“Nothin’.” The second man hoisted himself up and spit.

“Sir?” Jonathon asked, his patience waning. “Am I missing something?”

Cliff fell to his knees, muttering to himself. “Too much snow this year.” He began clearing a spot near the fence, pulling the snow forward with his gloved hands.

“Did somebody lose something?” Jonathon dropped his voice. “Or bury something?”

Cliff barked a laugh and squatted on the balls of his feet. “Lord, boy, things like that don’t happen around here. I can see it’s going to take you some time to get used to the quiet. No, I’m just looking for the Easter lily.”

Easter lily. Jonathon mouthed the words. “Sir?” he ventured. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, but Easter lilies aren’t indigenous to Minnesota. And they never bloom this early in spring.”

“This one does,” Cliff argued. “It’s our miracle flower.”

Jonathon stared, trying to figure out if this was some sort of hazing ritual. Should he play along? He tried a tentative smile.

“Spring comes late to these parts,” Cliff continued as he stood and gripped the fence post. “Winter is long and hard and lonely on the island. Once the ferry docks for the season, folks start feeling stir-crazy. Sick. Desperate.” He glanced at Jonathon. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you.”

Jonathon averted his eyes.

“But when the lily blooms, we know that spring is finally here. It’s not just about the flower; it’s about hope.”

“So what you’re saying,” Jonathon began, “is that an Easter lily blooms here, in this spot, every spring?”

Cliff nodded.

“But that’s impossible. Easter lilies can’t survive the winters here.”

Cliff bobbed his head. “I know. That’s what makes this one a miracle.”

They turned at the sound of cracking snow, as a woman and two small children snowshoed their way down the trail. Cliff shook his head slowly at her expectant smile. “Not yet, I’m afraid.” His voice was soft. “But I’m sure it will be any day now.”

The children’s faces fell as they turned back, shooed by their mother.

“It’s got to,” Cliff added under his breath.

By Thursday, Cliff’s normally cheerful countenance had turned grim. “Something’s wrong,” he fretted, poking a toe gingerly at the soil. “At this rate, we’re going to have daffodils before the lily comes up.” He stated this in a tone that would be used to announce the presence of noxious fumes.

Jonathon cleared his throat. “Sir? I’m not sure I understand the problem. Daffodils bloom in spring.” He glanced over the fence. “Unlike Easter lilies. I know you all believe in your miracle, but…”

Cliff interrupted. “The lily always blooms first. The only year she didn’t was ten years back. Some hikers found a crocus out near the old Anderson barn. And then Lily Hopkins died.” He narrowed his eyes at Jonathon. “You may have us pegged fools, Foster, but folks around here take these superstitions seriously. If someone finds another flower first, we’re going to have a lot of hysterical people on our hands. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how quickly that can turn ugly.”

“So what do we do?” Jonathon had dealt with rapists and murderers back in Norfolk, but the thought of hysteria brought on by a lily left him clueless.

“I think we’d best check with Hap,” Cliff said at last. “He knows plants.”

He headed down the path further into the woods, navigating the twists and turns with ease. Jonathon was imagining a death due to exposure, his body chewed by wolves, when they turned a corner and came upon a small cabin. A hand-lettered sign out front read “Hopkins Estate.”

Cliff climbed the steps to the porch and knocked on the front door. When no one answered, he cupped his hands and peered in through the front window.

“Hap?” he called. “You in there?”

“Maybe he’s gone out,” Jonathon ventured.

Cliff waved an arm. “There aren’t any tracks.”

Jonathon realized it was true. It had snowed Tuesday night, and the white blanket lay completely untouched save for their prints up the stairs. No one had gone in or out of the house in at least two days. Cliff tried the door and found it unlocked. “Hap?” he called again, pushing it open. “Is everything all right?” He stepped into the living room, then stopped and backed out.

Jonathon scrambled up beside him, gun drawn.

“Put that thing away,” Cliff said, pushing down the firearm and removing his wide-brimmed hat. “He’s dead, and even if he weren’t, Hap Hopkins never hurt a fly.”

“What if his killer is still here?” Jonathon asked.

Cliff blinked. “Killer?” He shook his head and sighed. “Hap was eighty-seven.” He moved aside so Jonathon could take a look. “I’m guessing he just fell asleep in that chair and never woke up. It was probably that damn lily,” he muttered.

Jonathon moved to the dead man’s side and took his pulse. Finding none, he turned to study the cozy room of the cabin. His eyes fell upon a workbench in the corner, where a sunlamp was beaming down over a flower pot.

He jerked his eyes to Cliff, who was staring silently at the lily on the table.

For a long time, neither spoke. It was finally Jonathon who broke the silence. “We’d better get going. We’re going to need to notify his next of kin.”

“He didn’t have any family left,” Cliff said softly. “His only son was killed in Vietnam. And Lily, well, the cancer took her ten years back.”

He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand before stepping outside to make the call.

Jonathon remained standing near the workbench, marveling at a man who had lived his entire life on the same small, isolated piece of land. Hap had outlived his entire family, and while Jonathon had detected a sadness in his eyes, there had been strength there, as well. Strength born of hope.

“Coroner’s coming. It might take him a while to get back here.” Cliff glanced around the cabin as he came back in, his eyes falling on the still man in the corner. “We can wait outside, if you’re more comfortable.”

“Actually, Cliff, I think I’ll take a walk,” Jonathon answered, holding his coat shut as he ambled toward the door.

Cliff studied him a moment, glanced at the empty table, then nodded. “It’s about time you called me Cliff.”

That afternoon, the miracle lily bloomed once again.
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Shannon Schuren lives in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin with her husband and three children. Her work has appeared online at Writer’s Weekly and Wow! Women on Writing, and in a recent issue of Writer’s Journal. Her first middle-grade novel, How to Host a Ghost, is available at major online bookstores. E-mail: schurshan[at]hotmail.com

Forever Saffron

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Melynda Sylvestre


Saffy knew Grandpa would never have forgotten her birthday—no matter how many other parts of his life he may have forgotten before he died. Even at the end, he had still recognized her every time she visited. Even when he was unsure of his own name, he would greet her with hers—the one he chose for her when she was born.

“I’m just mad about Saffron…” he would croon at the sight of her. When he no longer had the breath left for singing, he would hum her song. If he sometimes called her Carolyn during her visits, she knew it didn’t mean he was unaware of who she was. He had always told Saffy that she was the spitting image of his wife, the only other girl he had ever loved. He’d been calling her Carolyn by accident for years, and it had always made her feel good.

Since Saffy and Grandpa had been so close, her whole family was surprised at how well she was taking his death. She heard them muttering about shock, watching her carefully as she spent her Sweet 16th at his funeral. They didn’t understand; she was sad, but Grandpa would never be gone, not for her. She was more upset by the adults insisting that Grandpa wouldn’t be playing the Birthday Game with her this year. He had started dropping hints about this year’s Game before they found out about the tumor, and Saffy knew that Grandpa lived his life the way he played chess—carefully planning for every move his opponent might make, ready to change strategy at a moment, always winning the games he considered important. Grandpa was the smartest person she knew and, with two professors for parents, she had met a lot of people who considered themselves quite intelligent. Grandpa wouldn’t have let death outmaneuver him.

But no one would listen to her. They had returned to Grandpa’s lovely old house from the cemetery and promptly started arguing. It appeared that Grandpa hadn’t left a will, and his children were so involved in dealing with his estate that no one was paying any attention to her. Her two aunts were claiming that everything would need to be sold, and the money divided up evenly between them and Dad. Saffy knew that Grandpa had wanted her to have the house when she grew up, and that he would’ve left it to Dad for her; he had told everyone—including his daughters—this many times over the years. Grandpa had always referred to them as scheming harpies, often to their faces, and insisted that he wasn’t leaving them anything.

Once, when Saffy asked him why he was so harsh, he had told her that he didn’t feel like they were his children at all. The girls had begged to be sent to a fancy boarding school when they were thirteen; overwhelmed with grief for his wife, who had just died, and not sure what to do with teenage twins, he had agreed. After that, he had hardly spent any time with them. They embraced the Me spirit of the eighties, were embarrassed by their father’s “hippie” ideals, and spent as much time with their preppy friends as they could. He admitted to Saffy that it was his own fault; he should’ve kept them home, raised them properly, been there for them. But he didn’t, and they turned into the kind of people he had been rebelling against in the sixties.

Aunt Evelyn lived closest to Grandpa, and had spent a lot of time at his house once he was sick. That is, once he got sick enough that he couldn’t protest. He never could stand having her around for any length of time, and had always worked hard at driving her crazy so she would leave quickly. Saffy knew that a number of Grandpa’s nicer things had disappeared while her aunt was around. Aunt Judy, with her prissy way of saying the nastiest thing possible and her awful lawyer-husband—the one Grandpa called a pompous bore who couldn’t find his own ass with both hands and a map—was telling everyone which laws said the estate had to go in equal shares between the three of them. The harpies were enjoying it all, very much.

Saffy tried to convince Dad that Grandpa must have hidden a will, or that one of the dastardly aunts could’ve stolen it, and he should do something. But he just looked sad and resigned, and told her there was nothing he could do. It made Saffy so frustrated and impatient with him, another thing she had in common with her grandfather. Grandpa had loved her father, but found him to be too meek and wishy-washy. Saffy felt much the same, but her love for her dad made her try not to walk right over him the way Grandpa had.

Saffy knew that Grandpa hadn’t been perfect; he was judgmental, impatient and occasionally self-absorbed. But she had loved him anyway, and he had found her to be the true child of his heart. He taught her to play chess; took her on camping trips where they would hike or paddle for days to get to some special spot; gardened and built with her, caring for the old house that he’d lived in ever since he had married her grandmother. The two of them loved that house, and he always told her that it would be hers forever.

But, to Saffy, the best thing they did together was the annual birthday treasure hunt. He would plan it months in advance, and it became more complex and challenging every year. Like chess, he would arrange the pieces to build a mystery that she had to use all her abilities to solve. He taught her to observe carefully, and to search for clues until she deduced where her gift was hidden. It was fun, but it was real; if Saffy couldn’t solve the riddle, she didn’t get her gift—she found her 10th birthday present three months late, when she finally understood a chess defense reference Grandpa had made.

Today was her 16th birthday. Grandpa had made a big deal about it, told her he had started planning it years ago. She knew what the prize was this year; as long as she could remember, Grandpa had told her that when she was sixteen he would give her Grandma’s jewelry. Saffy suspected that it was almost as much a way of upsetting his daughters as it was a sign of his love for her. When Aunt Judy announced earlier today that she couldn’t find the jewelry, Dad—with a rare show of backbone—accused his sisters of stealing it when Grandpa was in the hospital. They retaliated by saying that Saffy had likely taken it. Things quickly degenerated from wake to rumble.

But while Saffy could believe her aunts would have wanted to destroy the will, and that they would’ve stolen the jewelry if they’d had the chance, she still felt that Grandpa had out-foxed them. Somehow. And it made her angry at herself that she hadn’t figured out how. Because this was the ultimate birthday hunt, and she was letting Grandpa down. He would’ve expected her to work it out. He would’ve planned everything.

She tried to explain this to her father one more time.

“Honey, I know Grandpa would never have ignored your birthday if he had a choice. But the tumor removed all of his choices; he was in the hospital for the last two months. He didn’t have time to hide your present.”

She knew she was missing something, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. She kept asking her father questions until he started to lose his customary easy temper.

“For crying out loud, Saffy, give it a rest! I have too much to take care of as it is, without you acting like a little child over a birthday treat. Your grandfather left things a mess, dying without a will. He didn’t give us any warning, even though his doctors told him what was happening back in early autumn. It wasn’t until he started blacking out around Christmas that we knew what was going on. And he was incoherent and into the hospital two months later. I know it wasn’t like him to leave things undone, but he must have been affected much earlier than we realized, and just wasn’t able to take care of things. He couldn’t have done anything for your birthday this year; you know he always arranged it so you couldn’t figure it out beforehand. And he just couldn’t hold on until April 11th. I’m sure he wanted to, honey.”

Grandpa knew he was dying? Back in the fall? No one had told her that part before. She wasn’t sure how, but it changed everything. He was still normal back then; they had worked together harvesting and putting the garden to bed. He had been sharp and funny and teasing her about her birthday even then. If he had known he had an inoperable brain tumor then, he would’ve known that he wasn’t going to be around in the spring for the Game. He would’ve planned his moves right away.

Leaving the squabbling relatives in the house, Saffy pulled on her sweater and strolled out to the familiar driveway, where the arching redbud trees were just starting to flower. Behind the house the early spring garden, in all its barren loveliness, brought the first tears to her eyes, with its reminder of growing seasons spent working beside her grandfather. Early daffodils sprouted in clumps along the edge of the woods and throughout the sleeping garden beds. She imagined she could hear Grandpa’s wonderful off-key voice singing her song as she wandered around the house perimeter.

“I’m just mad about Saffron; hmmmhmmm; and Saffron is mad about me…”

Saffy relaxed and just tried to observe. Looked for anything that was different. Anything that could’ve been changed in the fall. There. Under the big apple tree. A patch of purple crocuses. She was certain there hadn’t been any there last spring; she and Grandpa had preferred Snowdrops and Siberian Squill for spots like this.

They had bloomed early this year and were already starting to drop their petals, leaving the saffron-gold stamens standing alone on the stem; another few days and it would be almost impossible to tell where they had been, the newly green grass would grow higher and hide the delicate leaves.

Ignoring her black skirt, she climbed up the old tree to her favorite branch. When she looked down, the crocuses below appeared to be forming a lopsided heart. Tears began to course down her cheeks, and she laughed through them. Grandpa might have been a genius in some ways, but he drew about as well as he sang.

She hated to disturb the patch, but she knew that if she dug carefully most of the bulbs would survive to bloom again for her every year. Grandpa was no fool; she’d be willing to bet her every memory of him that there was a very sturdy waterproof box down there. And that there would be a will inside of it; as well as the sparkling treasure he had saved from the first girl he had loved. The jewelry was special, and to live in this house would be a joy for her, but she knew that this was his final and greatest gift to her—his absolute faith that her love and trust for him would lead her to play their game, even after he was gone.
pencil

“I have intended to be a writer since I was 8 years old, but my powers of procrastination are well nigh invincible and it has taken 30 years to write this story. My favorite way to avoid writing is reading, and that will probably never change. But with the help of remedial discipline, nagging teenagers and contest deadlines I hope to someday achieve my lifelong goal of being able to answer the question ‘What do you do?’ with ‘I’m a writer.'” E-mail: info[at]vermontait.com

Foreign Affair

Boots’s Pick
Neil Weilheimer


Despite a sore back and calloused hands, Diego Montalvo picked up his shovel, broke through the first layer of dirt and began digging a six-foot-deep hole.

Carving out graves was indeed hard and bleak work. But it was better than the time he picked bell peppers in California. And it was far less noxious than when he cleaned stalls on a horse farm.

Nobody bothered Diego here in Arizona, except for the occasional belch from an equally strong Korean man, who chipped away at the earth alongside. For hours, the two hardly spoke. When they did, it was mostly to gesture the boss was nearing or that it was time for a water break.

“Must be in nineties today,” said the Korean. “Go slow.”

As their shovels and pick-axes removed layers of stone, the men’s grunts grew louder. Diego rarely questioned, at least publicly, why Americans weren’t more receptive to the simplicity of cremation. Nor did he waste time thinking about why six feet was the socially accepted depth to bury someone.

The job paid well enough, certainly more than he earned building homes in his native Mexico, where his wife and two daughters lived.

By five in the afternoon, the rectangular hole was ready. The two men sat in the ditch with their backs against the cool, freshly hollowed dirt, opened their coolers and each guzzled two Pabst Blue Ribbon beers.

“Look like you have heavy thoughts,” the Korean worker said.

Diego stared at the sky, unresponsive to his partner’s comments.

“You need girl. That help with your troubles, my friend.”

Diego smiled. He thought of his family back home and how he’d sing “Duérmete Mi Niño” to his daughters before bed. Sweet dreams, my baby. Their eyelids trying to beat back sleep but eventually succumbing. He longed to hold his wife, Magdalena, to smell her pillowcase after a night’s rest and to eat her hand-pressed corn tortillas, with refried pinto beans and moist orange rice on the side.

It’s been more than two years since he last saw them. But Diego feels closer to home every Friday, when he sends most of the week’s pay across the border. Thanks to the money, Magdalena was able to take their daughters to the doctor’s office for the first time. Soon, they’ll rent a larger place to live.

“I know nice Thai girl. Here, call her,” said the Korean man, handing over a business card that featured an illustration of two naked women.

To appease him, Diego took it and tossed the card in his cooler.

Later that night, Diego lay on his back on the torn couch, smoking, with his big brown toe poking through an old sock. The apartment, a converted skid row motel across from some defunct establishments, was small, even though he lived alone. A bed, leaky toilet, mini-fridge and a portable grill also furnished the room. The walls were tinted lemon curry, much like a newspaper that’s sat around too long.

Diego sent one smoke ring after another toward the ceiling, thinking about how he told Magdalena he’d quit months ago.

“I’m so proud of you, Diego,” she said over the phone.

“It’s best, for me, you, the girls.”

“We miss you. When will you becoming home?”

“Not for a few more months. There’s lots of work here in the summer. Many old gringos drop dead from the heat, you know.”

“So when, Diego?”

“I’m sending more money this week,” he responded, trying to both appease her and change the conversation.

“The girls keep asking for you. They’re getting big.”

“I want to bring you here,”he said.

Diego had tried to convince her before, but it always led to a fight. Even with the promise of more money in the U.S., Magdalena didn’t want to leave Mexico, especially Torreon. She loved the city and its simplicity. It’s where she grew up, and her parents, brothers and cousins all still resided. Magdalena didn’t mind her job, despite having to clean the bathrooms and change the beds at the tourist-friendly Fiesta Inn. And she never had to look far to feel comforted by the extended, welcoming arms of the Cristo de las Noas.

“Stop, Diego. You’ve always wanted more. But home is here.”

“Kiss Rosa and Frida for me. I need to sleep now.”

As Diego replayed that conversation, he lit another cigarette. He took a quick, powerful drag and let out a slow exhale. Soon Diego’s stomach began to hurt, from loneliness and hunger. He opened the mini-fridge. It was empty save for two beers, a half-eaten Snickers bar and a grapefruit he’d planned to have for breakfast the next day.

Diego grabbed a beer, slammed the little door and headed to his cooler to see if anything was left from lunch. Inside he found a few pieces of sandwich crust and the business card the Korean man had given him earlier. Diego looked at it closer, rubbing his thumb over the hot-pink raised lettering.

Full-body treatment. Erotic massages. Private parlors. Asian angels galore and more. In calls and outcalls available.

With each swig of beer, Diego’s need for companionship seared deeper and the possibilities of the card came alive. He called.

Just after 11:00 p.m., he sat in a waiting room chair, with two other strangers nearby. None of them made eye contact. Diego was nervous, though not nearly as tense as when he trekked across the U.S. border, navigating a desolate stretch of Arizona’s southern desert with eleven other men, one of whom was a thickly built man with scruffy facial hair, a tattooed neck and no front teeth.

Now a small woman entered, and in broken English asked Diego if he was ready.

After forking over $30 for a thirty-minute massage, Diego was ushered through a doorway veiled only by hanging strands of beads. The room was mirrored all around. In the center, milk crates elevated a mattress. On the far wall, a small but clearly visible sign stated that solicitation of sex is punishable by law and anyone asking for favors of the kind will be ejected from the building.

Overhead, some type of music from the Orient played. For some reason, Diego started to think of rickshaws, dragons and chopsticks.

“Take clothes off,” said the woman. “Somebody with you very soon.”

Diego disrobed slowly and placed his clothes and muddied cowboy boots in the corner. He sat on the bed and stared at himself in the mirror. He was much thinner than he remembered, though still muscled, and he had deep pouches under his eyes. Diego thought he saw a patch of gray hair. As he was about to take a closer look, a slight Thai woman entered.

She smiled and nodded at him. The woman unrolled a large bath towel, spreading it over the bed. Diego removed his underwear, the last remaining piece of clothing, and lay on his stomach. The woman began to knead and press, first across Diego’s shoulders and back, then down his legs.

“Flip,” she said.

After Diego turned over, the woman gently pushed the towel aside. He was completely exposed.

“Should I rub everywhere?”

Diego nodded.

She picked up a bottle of massage oil, squeezed and carefully wrote the number fifty on his chest. Diego knew what that meant. No words needed to be spoken. He nodded again.

When they were finished, Diego reached into his jeans and handed her the fifty dollars.

“I’m Tasanee.”

“Diego.”

She offered him water in a wax-coated paper cup.

“Thank you.”

“You haven’t been here before.”

“First time.”

Tasanee had seen many men like Diego, all with looks of victimhood and vulnerability, like they were passive participants in their own existences. Most of them came to her because they were either drunk or just trying to work through their loneliness. “Where you from?”she asked.

“Mexico.”

“There’s family there, right?”

“Wife and two kids.”

“It’s hard to be away. I can…”

Diego interrupted. He didn’t want to talk about his family. Instead, he asked about her. “And you?”

“From Phuket. You know, in Thailand. I left after the tsunami took everything that mattered. I lost my parents, two brothers, a husband and son.”

“Sorry.”

The woman who ushered Diego back to the room peeked in. “New gentleman here for you.”

Diego smiled at Tasanee and left.

For the next several days at work, Diego replayed his brief time with Tasanee, the way she glided her hands over the length of his body. She was much younger-looking than his wife, with shinier hair, more defined cheekbones and a jutting chin. He guessed that she was about 28 years old, though she was really closer to 40. On the outside she appeared joyous and flirtatious. It was the very thing Diego craved.

Now, though, he couldn’t have such thoughts. On this particular day, Diego and his partner, the Korean, have to dig four ditches, one of which has to be large enough for the body of a 400-pound woman. The men dug at a furious pace, removing one shovelful of freshly tilled soil after another.

“Special coffin coming,” the Korean had said. “Dig wide, not down.”

Diego understood. The heavier caskets would often sink themselves over time. At first, he laughed. But then he began to wonder how she died. Was it because of her weight? Was she alone, without anyone to confide in or be intimate with? Does she have family that will attend the burial? How long had she been dead before someone found her? Diego imagined she had housecats, furry unkempt ones that probably had urinated on the bedroom carpet by now.

Nobody came to the funeral. It was just Diego, the Korean man and a bright noon sun that left them both squinting.

Lowering her into the grave had tested them. The coffin was heavy. And the casket was so wide they had to do it manually, straining their lower backs and hamstrings. They couldn’t use planks to lower her because they were prone to snapping. It would have to be by rope. Just before they had the woman all the way in, the Korean man felt himself being tugged forward.

“Can’t hold her no more,” he said.

The casket plunged into the hole, landing with a dampened thud. At least she didn’t flip, Diego thought, and have to be buried face down. They shoveled dirt back in. Eventually sod, along with the standard cemetery-issued tombstone that etched in name and lifespan, would cover the plot.

Diego suddenly wanted to see Tasanee again.

After work, he called the number on the business card with the two naked women on it, and asked for Tasanee.

“Do you want to come in for massage?” the woman on the other end of the phone asked.

“No. Just to talk with her.”

“What’s this for?”

“I came in a few nights ago.”

“Hold on.”

Several minutes passed before anyone returned to the line, which had been looping a batch of local ads.

“Hello?”

“Tasanee?”

“Yes.”

“This is Diego…”

“Okay.”

He paused. Clearly she hadn’t remembered him. “From the other night.”

“Is this for an appointment?”

“No. You started to tell me about your family. I wanted to see you again. To talk more.”

Tasanee recalled his face and the cheerless eyes. “Come by the parlor at 10. I’m done early tonight.”

As he waited for the hours to pass, Diego thought about bringing some flowers or candy, but wasn’t sure if she’d take that to mean it was a date. Instead, he ironed the one dress shirt he owned, clipped his fingernails and shaved.

Diego arrived early, occasionally strolling past the storefront’s entrance. To calm his nerves, he sat on the curb and looked across the street. A 99-cent shop, laundromat and two corner liquor stores book-ended the block. An airplane rumbled overhead. Diego leaned back to watch it.

“Going somewhere new or returning home?”

Diego turned to the voice coming from behind him and grinned. “Thanks for seeing me again,” he said.

“Have you eaten?”

“Not since lunch.”

“I can fix you something, if you like,” Tasanee said. “I live a few blocks from here.”

The air was hot and still. As they walked, Diego started to reach for her hand, quickly pulled back and then reached again. But he had missed because she was a stride ahead. Tasanee had seen the gesture, though, and put her arm around his elbow, nuzzling herself close.

Diego didn’t mutter a word. He was unsure of himself and felt much like a teenage boy who had already fallen behind his peers in knowing how to talk to girls.

“Do you like it here?” asked Tasanee.

“Very much. I can work. I can make things happen, my family can live better. Here, I can hope, there’s always promise,” said Diego. “But I worry a lot, about being caught and losing it all.”

Tasanee nodded, staring ahead with a blank expression on her face. “Let’s go inside,” she said.

The apartment she rented for $350 a month was on the fourth floor of a five-story walkup. The hallway smelled, thought Diego, but not in a bad way. The air had traces of meals cooked the night before and from the landlady doing laundry in the basement. Tasanee’s home was small but much nicer than Diego’s. Doilies hung off end-tables. Ancient-looking, expertly-carved wood trays and elegant vases accented the living room. The bedroom featured handmade paper lanterns with bright rainbow patterns. And there were hints of money: a flat-screen television, ceiling fan, and well-stocked refrigerator.

“Relax. Put your feet up.”

In the kitchen, Tasanee prepared a side-salad, slicing up cucumbers and shallots. She chopped cloves of garlic, fresh hot chili peppers and coriander roots, and worked them into a thick, smooth paste. Then she minced and fried chicken in a wok. A soft but sharp aroma soon made the place feel warm.

For the first time in months, Diego felt connected to something. “You have a lot here,”he said.

“I have mostly memories. Some very good, like how my family and I used to celebrate Songkran every April. We’d start the new year with fireworks, drums and dance. And eat so much. It was beautiful. Others disturb me. When I sleep, I often see swirling waters and hear people screaming. The other night I saw an innocent, wide-eyed girl clinging to a floating piece of wood, drifting, looking for her mom and dad, wondering why they weren’t helping.”

Diego just listened. When she finished, he hugged her. Tasanee gripped him tight, pressing her head against his chest. Diego could hear muffled sniffles and then saw tears coursing down her cheeks.

“Where’s your booze?”

She pointed to the refrigerator. He found all the right ingredients: tomato juice, hot sauce, lime wedges, and a bottle of Worcestershire. Diego grabbed two mugs, rimmed them with salt, and mixed everything together. Then he poured in cold beer and handed Tasanee a full glass.

“To better times,” he said.

She raised her glass and responded, “And to new friends.”

The table was set. Cucumber salad, bowls overflowing with spicy, fried chicken and rice. Diego was scooping up forkfuls of the dinner, as if he hadn’t had a good meal in years. After each bite, he drank.

“There’s plenty, Diego,” Tasanee said. “I’m glad you like it.”

“My tongue is tingling, like it’s dancing in my mouth.”

“Let me see.”

He stuck out his tongue and wiggled it side to side. He was at once taunting and flirting.

“That your tongue tango?”

The alcohol was setting in and they were laughing with ease.

“Tango’s not my people,” Diego said. “I’ll show you how to really dance.”

Diego turned on the stereo, finding a local station known for playing a mix of Mexican music. Thumping his hand against his thigh, Diego smiled. “Listen,” he said, as the volume became louder.

A rollicking, up-tempo norteña sound boomed out. Accordions, guitars and saxophones powered the song, which had filled the room. The lyrics were poetic and angry, about longing and loss.

“Los Tigres del Norte,” Diego said as he reached for Tasanee. “Do you feel the emotion, the struggles? They’re speaking right to me.”

Tasanee put down her glass and joined Diego. They started to bounce to the beat, two-stepping around the room. At first, slow. Then, as the music quickened, fast. They tried to keep up with the wheezing accordions, but only became clumsy, bumping into things. They didn’t seem to care.

When the dance ended, Tasanee jumped into Diego’s arms, holding her like a bride on her wedding night—an image that wasn’t lost on either of them. Diego carried Tasanee into the bedroom, which had a Buddha statue prominently displayed on a nightstand in the corner. He kissed Tasanee gently on the forehead, the nose and then hard on the lips, which were full and wet with beer. Soon they were on the bed, naked and fucking.

After, they lay side by side, with only the points of their elbows touching. Tasanee turned away from him on her side. “Hold me, Diego. Hold me till morning.”

Her breathing slowed to a steady, easy pace, and soon she was asleep. Diego watched her, tracing the silhouette of her body with his eyes. After a while, he moved away and for the first time that night, he thought about his family in Mexico. He considered how long they could continue to live apart and whether his arduous journey had been worth it.

To get here, Diego traveled more than 400 miles before slipping into the U.S. in the middle of the night. He had been one of the few to make it, crossing the open desert with just a jug or two of water, a few cans of food and cloves of garlic—he’d heard that that would help repel snakes. At pone point, Diego wanted to give up, wishing the border patrol would catch him and send him back home. His tongue had become so dry it had turned a chalky white, and he even had hallucinations of mermaids splashing about in fountains. Diego’s legs were rubbery, with the knees often buckling—and they had been bloodied from walking into cactus spines at night, when the bulk of the scrambling was done. To make matters worse, one of Diego’s brothers, who had also hoped to escape poverty, dropped dead in the desert. Saddened, but too exhausted to cope, Diego could only bring himself to take his brother’s food and the little money he had taped to the underside of his testicles, supposedly the best place to protect it. There wasn’t time for a proper burial. It would be several days before he was safely inside the U.S. and able to call home, informing the family that his 23-year-old brother died and that he had been lucky enough to make it.

Now comfortably in bed, Diego started to shiver. The thought of not knowing what had happened to his brother’s body haunted him. For the next hour Diego tried to fall asleep, but he couldn’t shake the image. Diego went into the living room. He opened a window and stared out at the purple-hued sky and the dust particles swirling around the street lamps. The night was silent outside and life was still. Diego felt like he was in two places, two homes. No matter where he was, somewhere else would be better, he thought. He started to sing, somewhat muffled, the words to his daughters’ favorite lullaby: “Go to sleep my baby. Go to sleep my sunshine. You’re forever in this heart of mine.”

When Tasanee woke up in the morning, she saw that Diego wasn’t there and he hadn’t slept next to her all night. She called for him. With no answer, she shouted his name again, but with more urgency, if not fear, in her voice.

“I’m here, Tasanee,” he said from the other room. “I’m right here.”
pencil

Neil Weilheimer is a journalist in New York City. He’s reported on business trends and some of the most colorful boardroom executives for more than a decade. Away from the newsroom, Weilheimer spends most nights reading better writers or watching reality TV. He is currently working on a book of short stories. E-mail: Nweilheimer[at]aol.com.

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Baker’s Pick
Liz Nazer


Her stories were all written with mundane plots. The protagonists were often lonely, brooding characters exiled from excitement. I often wondered if her writing was this way because she wanted to make her own boredom beautiful, her way of excusing herself from taking any risks herself by romanticising routine.

But she wrote about making love beautifully. It is difficult to write well about this. The most important act in the world to everyone in the world, and yet the most difficult thing to write about without producing something that deserved to be sold in the bargain bin. There have been booby prizes given to A-grade writers who write about sex badly, talking about earthquakes and quivering mountains. But she wrote about in a way that really did make your spine tingle. Reading about it was almost as good as doing it. In fact, it is difficult to write about how her sex writing made you feel without producing something that deserved to be sold in the bargain bin.

She sent me her stories in envelopes, stuffed with pretty, miscellaneous things like pressed flowers, colourful leaves and pretty buttons. She really excelled in the art of letter writing. I am glad no one had told her about texts or emails. Or maybe they had told her and she had decided that they were soulless and she had decided to ignore them. Fortunately she wasn’t irritating enough to handwrite all her stories. Her handwriting was beautiful and totally illegible. I think she deliberately favoured vocabulary rich with is and consonants with tails, like gs and ys.

I wondered how she got so good at writing about making love. I didn’t know her very well, I had only met her the once and since then she only sent me letters, so I saw her as a conglomeration of her central characters, who had their converging features. I knew she lived somewhere in a corner of Wales, and that she lived outside a little hamlet of houses that was outside a little village. She was remote even from the hub of the remote. But she was so adept at the art of letters and I wasn’t sure of her employment situation, so maybe she simply spent time conducting her affairs with the assistance of the local postman. I imagined her as an exiled artist, with her own postman, like that film, Il Postino, with Pablo Neruda. Though I don’t think she was revolutionary. She wasn’t that earth-shattering. She wouldn’t flirt with Stalinism, make friends with Yeats. She wrote about the lonely young man who collected petals and knew the songs of all the birds that visited his birdfeeder, or the old woman who stuck love notes in the top of the milk bottles for the milkman (whom she never saw because she was blind and agoraphobic).

I didn’t care what she was. She told sensual, banal stories. Knowing anything else would ruin it.
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24-year-old housewife with 8-week-old baby girl, wondering why people are so put off by the term ‘housewife’, and so much more interested in the degree in Law and Anthropology she completed last year and the career she may go on to pursue. Finding motherhood just as challenging as her previous positions as life model, ESOL teacher, advice worker and care assistant and her travels to Uganda in 2002. Lives near Kilburn, London. Likes writing, drawing, walking, cooking and cooing at her daughter. E-mail: lizzynazer[at]yahoo.co.uk

Three Poems

Beaver’s Pick
Kathryn Jacobs


Ocean Maps

Bad news, as usual: the big black holes
our axis made in shish kabob-ing through
are growing big time, and they’re dangerous:
apologize, Columbus. Studies show
they look like doughnut holes. And if the earth
is round like doughnuts, should we reassess
our view of Chris’s sailors? Here’s a hole
that plankton won’t set tail in, big enough
to suck Australia down and still have room
for Captain’s ego, after. You’d balk, too.

Now, as to why they’re growing: scientists
(as usual) blame warming. Don’t ask them,
ask me. Because to me it’s obvious
that these look just like whales with appetites.
See how that hole elongates, flipper end
making tsunamis over Papua?
He’s got his head by South America—
and folks, he’s hungry: if you have to swim,
remember Moby on the inside ring.
Last but not least, to all those cruise ship fans:
beware, and stick to shore trips. I admit
that he’ll devour us all eventually,
but if you let him rush it—don’t blame me.

 

The Tin Woodman

We lop off toes and fingers. All it takes
is one quick side-swipe; the familiar grace-
of-god and knock-on-wood near miss. Mistakes
like this just turn your hair grey. Don’t replace

the digits: it’s not worth it. Not to boast,
but I make do with eight. Your legs and arms
are serious, however—and in most
cases replacements don’t fit well: the palms

look lopsided, or your left foot kicks air
when standing stiff-legged. Not to mention costs
like pain and therapy; or wondering where
they got it from, and how. There’s so much loss
to go around regardless that you’re bound
to get your share, but if you can—postpone.

 

The Musical Dead

Like coins in water: drop, and sink, and gone.
The ripples from a cemetery spread
till they disturb the motions that belong
to other human anthills. The not-dead
dart scattershot, a dance of random jerks
that die out, trying: bounce off, butting heads,
equal and opposite, until berserks
drop them like 8-balls into narrow beds.

The dead however thrum in varied chords,
so disciplined by death, the waves of sound
rise and resound, crescendo without words:
a tidal-wave emerging from the ground
like organ-music, swell and fade again,
stirring our souls to listen—now and then.
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I am a poet and medievalist at Texas A&M–C, with a chapbook called Advice Column forthcoming at Finishing Line Press later this year, and a doctorate from Harvard University. My poetry has been published in a wide variety of journals, such as New Formalist, Measure, Acumen (UK), Pulse, Slant, Candelabrum (UK), DeCanto, Quantum Leap 07 and 08, (UK, “featured five” poet), Texas Poetry Journal, Mezzo Cammin, Deronda Review, The Same, Contemporary Rhyme, Ship of Fools, Eclectic Muse (five poems), Barefoot Muse, Mobius, Chimaera, Poetry Midwest and Eclectic Literary Forum, among others. I also publish scholarship—another book, and sundry articles. E-mail: Kathryn_Jacobs[at]tamu-commerce.edu

Three Poems

Ana’s Pick
Brittany Ober


Dreams Below the Bowery

He licks the sweat right off my neck and bites
my ear on the dance floor. Nicholas shouts
over “Music is My Hot Hot Sex”
that he’s actually a song writer; his student gig
at NYU is for his parents’ kicks. He drags me
into the coat check and we hide
behind a pink trench and faux leopard
bomber. My tongue traces the letters
of his name on his stomach, and he pulls
a red corduroy coat off its hanger. Some bitch
with pink lipstick slurs high-pitched and wasted
into her phone and gives us a dirty glare,
so I grab Nick’s Razr out of his back pocket,
punch in my number and leave. He follows
me past the bouncers at the door
all the way back to my brownstone.
We pull each other up the three flights
and I fumble with the locks, only to crash
to the hardwood floor. His vodka breath
sloshes all over my lips, shoulders,
elbows. He mumbles he’ll write a song
about this tomorrow because ink pours straight
out of his pen when he’s hung over,
and for a minute I believe him.

 

Cars

I hear that people drive on the shoulders
in Boston during rush hour. No wonder
the cars get tired. How lucky they are
that they can slide between two straight lines
or six inches beside a curb and not be bothered
until the next ride. How sweet to glide
over bridges whirring to the sound
of your own engine, to count the miles
without bias, to be so quietly intimate
with a particular city, and to rest on streets
that never ask your name.

 

My Lover, the Subway

I got on the 7 train, but it stopped
in between Queens and Manhattan.
For years I sat on the orange-and-yellow plastic seats,
next to aging blue-collar immigrants, children stuck
on the way to school, and rich businessmen in slick suits.
We did not eat, our iPods died in three days,
and we did not sing. The underground put us to sleep
like euthanasia-ed patients.

Only I woke up years later
to find the train littered
with my lover’s needles. The 40-ton car,
now emaciated, stood bare steel bones and ash.
Frayed subway maps hinted
at a multi-colored schedule:
the 1-2-3 red, the 4-5-6 green,
and the A-C-E blue. The metro
coughed black-and-white smoke
and made way only for tangible remnants: overexposed
photographs, pencil scrawled
on lined notebook paper, spare change,
and dead watch batteries.

If a flood took over the underground
and water ran through the tunnels
for a hundred years in a row,
the soaked garbage would remain.
My lover will never get clean.
Banana peels, metro cards, used condoms,
and strands of human hair—these are the residents
of darkness that will not go away,
no matter if they rebuild the mosaic-ed halls
and vestibules, no matter how many people
go thru the turnstiles, or how many platforms
are swept by orange-vested workers of the MTA.
pencil

Brittany Ober was born in Lititz, Pennsylvania. She holds a B.A. from Muhlenberg College in English and Art History. Her work has been published in Canteen. Brittany currently lives in New York and works in an art gallery in Chelsea. E-mail: brittanyober[at]gmail.com

Potpies, Mudpies, and Macaroni: On Learning to Cook

Creative Nonfiction
Vivian Wagner


Our recipe for mudpies involved adding two parts dirt to one part fresh water from the creek. When I was about eight, my sister Ann and I would carefully scoop the sand with its bits of mica and quartz up from the garden, trying to remove any stray stones or bits of leaves or twigs. Then we’d mix the dirt with water from the hose, stirring until it was just the right consistency for spreading.

Once combined, the mixture would go into little metal tins leftover from Banquet chicken potpies. We spread the dark brown mud into them and packed it down, smoothing the top with a Popsicle stick. We’d lay out an old board in the sun, and turn the pie pans over. Then we’d carefully lift them off, leaving on the splintery board little flat pies with wrinkled edges.

The pies would bake for a few hours in the hot mountain sun until hard, eventually cracking like the floor of a dry lake bed. The deep, unfathomably delicious smell of mountain sand, the coolness of the water, the imperfect circles of the pies: this was one of my first experiences cooking.

We got all of our little silver potpie pans from our weekday dinners when my mom, who worked full-time as a mathematician, would come home from work tired and spent. Often, all she could do was put a potpie or a TV dinner in the oven and then collapse on the couch. I learned to tolerate chicken potpies, with their thin golden gravy, their crunchy, buttery edges, their bits of meat and vegetable. And Salisbury steak TV dinners, with their surprisingly moist cherry cobblers tucked in the upper corner.

It’s not that my mom didn’t like to cook. In fact, on weekends, she’d work with me to teach me how to brown pork chops, how to make pie crust, how to use the pressure cooker, how to make peach jam. She taught me how to read recipes, to substitute ingredients, to make them my own. She taught me the spirit of cooking, and the fun of it.

But on those late weekdays, TV dinners and potpies were all she could muster, and somehow I understood, and was able to hold in my mind these two moms: the weekend housewife with exacting standards and a flair in the kitchen, and the weekday working mom who could barely turn the oven to 350 degrees.

As I got older, sensing mom’s tiredness and anxiety and guilt about the TV dinners and potpies, I took over more of the cooking duties, even on weeknights. Putting the spaghetti in the water, making a sauce with tomato paste, water, and an envelope of seasoning; mixing meatloaf with crushed saltines and egg; frying burgers. While I’d cook, my mom would put in a load of laundry, or iron shirts, or just sit on the couch, collecting herself.

On weekends, I tried more elaborate projects: making piecrust with shortening or lard instead on my mom’s preferred oil, baking whole wheat bread, and making minestrone soup. Those early weekend lessons that my mom had given me paid off, and soon I cooked most of the family meals. And we didn’t have TV dinners anymore.

I think of my childhood now when I come home, exhausted and spent, putting cheese and crackers and strawberries in front of my children before lying down on the couch, my eyes closed, trying to center myself after a long day of teaching.

“Can I make macaroni and cheese tonight?” my eight-year-old daughter, Rose, asked me one night.

I looked at her, seeing a glimmer of creativity, hope, and independence in her deep brown eyes.

“Sure, honey,” I said, feeling suddenly more like my mom than I ever had. “Find the box, read the instructions, and get started. Just let me know if you need any help.”
pencil

I am a freelance writer in New Concord, Ohio, where I also teach journalism at Muskingum College. I have written for American Profile, Bluegrass Unlimited, Relish, Miranda Literary Magazine, The Pinch, Vegetarian Times, VegNews, and other publications. One of my essays, “Under the Gun,” originally published in The Pinch, was shortlisted as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2007. E-mail: vwagner[at]muskingum.edu