In Search of the Stand Up Guy

Fiction
Jonathan Slusher


Jakob's graduation
Photo Credit: Vicky van Santen

It should have been called off or postponed for another day. Instead thousands of students and their sharply-dressed friends and family were told—in the interest of time—to please hold their applause. As the barometric pressure fell, the university’s white-haired president sped up the process. The anxiety in the crowd collected itself into a confused beast that neither wanted to get caught in a downpour nor return to do it all over again. The gloomy skies turned threatening, but a graduation ceremony already in progress couldn’t be cancelled. There was no turning back; instead, diplomas became relay batons and the congratulatory handshakes resembled high fives.

“Thanks for the hundred thousand bucks,” I mumbled nasally into the camcorder. “Down low.”

When the rain finally did come, it fell hard and all at once. A moan passed through the crowd, people ran, umbrellas opened, and jackets were held overhead. The granny in a wheelchair next to me was escorted away to shelter. I casually pulled my cap low, took a responsible-sized tug from the hip flask, and scanned the crowd for my wife. She needed to know I was here and that, in spite of the rough weather, I was sticking around. Things had changed. I was becoming rock solid and not even rumor of the purest, pearly white Bolivian Marching Powder was going to get in my way. Cold rain stretched its fingers through my suede jacket and I smiled in response.

Finally those receiving bachelor degrees in philosophy made their way to the podium. My son was towards the back of the group trying hard to keep his body under control and concentrating carefully on each step.

But Vic couldn’t blend in, and all eyes in the crowd were suddenly drawn in to his facial spasms and jerking involuntary movements. What was the matter with him? Would he embarrass himself? How could he be receiving a degree when it didn’t look like he could even hold a pen in his hand?

I don’t know how many onlookers there were: six, eight, or ten thousand. Not one of them could understand how hard it was for Vic just to keep his feet moving in the right direction. I wanted to dance down the aisles and slap their stupid, staring faces. My son had worked ten times harder than anyone else up there.

Here were a bunch of collegiate family snobs. What were they all looking at? Vic’s mind was still sharp; after his accident it was just no longer connected as well to all of the other parts of his body.

When I saw him climb those steps and make his way across the stage I had to look away from the camera, just for a second, to capture the moment through my own eyes. Thin gray hairs glued themselves flat onto my forehead. It was raining too hard for anyone to tell, but I cried for the first time since he was born. Maybe I hadn’t been there for all of it, but I understood what Vic had gone through to get to that moment. These gaping-mouthed jackasses had no idea, not a goddamned clue.

Three years ago, this was the exact moment when the tall guy in the blue raincoat stood up and started to clap his hands.

The Stand Up Guy was only a few rows from the front. I’ve watched the video dozens of times.

Vic grabs his diploma, then turns towards the crowd, trying to identify the person who is cheering for him. Who the hell is he? Twenty seconds pass by and the man doesn’t sit down, he just keeps clapping. Finally a few others start to rise and join in. By this time I am screaming so loudly that the camera shakes and the video looks like earthquake footage. Methodically, the rest of the wet, cold crowd rises to its feet. Even the most miserable become swept up in a sudden addictive torrent of good spirits.

Standing self-consciously, Vic waves once then turns to go, but the cheering continues, louder, much louder. The steady rain pours down and still no one wants to let him leave the stage. After two minutes my son finally holds both jittery arms aloft and everyone goes crazy, just nuts.

The applause lasts for three minutes and fifty seconds.

Watching it still gives me chills. Electric. That sounds clich&#233, but that was the certainly the feeling. For four unbelievable minutes one giant, wet, wretched mass—hot moms, teenage freaks, cute little kids, old grumps, shitheads, everyone—was plugged into the same high voltage source.

Once Vic descends the steps, the plug is pulled and the cheerless monotony instantly returns. Silence.

It was over. It was impossible. Had it even happened?

Tom Fletcher is the name of the poor soul who is next in line.

The remaining half-hour is a procession of unfamiliar figures and names accompanied by the recorded static noise of rain. The ceremony settles into an efficient pace with applause willingly held until all of the names have been called for each degree program.

From behind I zoom in on this person who started the standing ovation. There he is. Here is the spark that brought a dismal crowd to its feet. But he’s always impossible to identify. The image is just a blurred, shadowy blue raincoat.

The Stand up Guy. He could be anyone.
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Jonathan Slusher is a Garden State native now living in the San Francisco Bay area. He is a stay at home father who writes mostly during late nights and naptimes. You can find more work from Jonathan in Paper Darts Magazine and at waterlanding.net. Email: jonathan[at]waterlanding.net

Floodwater

Fiction
Samantha Abrams


Sickle-cell anaemia
Photo Credit: wellcome images

01.

The first time we speak, he leans against a vending machine, his forearm against the glass, his head against his forearm. He asks me about animal crackers: if I like them, if I’d like to share some with him. He’s not a complete stranger; I’ve had class with him, so I say yes, I will. Then he asks to borrow a quarter. I hand him one and his fingers, cold and hard, take it from my palm. His nails are unusually yellow, his skin dark.

“What are you studying?”

“Political science,” I say.

He smiles a slow smile, only one side of his mouth turning upward. “Oh yeah?” He turns his attention back to the vending machine, searching for the animal crackers, his pointer finger dancing around in circles against the glass as he does. His tall frame leans delicately against the cool surface. “I thought about political science for a while.” He finds them and taps the glass once. “But I decided against it.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.” He bends down, the vending machine snapping as he reaches in for his snack. “I guess I never cared enough.” There is a light honesty to his words.

We share animal crackers and talk about his wardrobe, his family, his grades, his commute to school. He wears clothing pulled from the folds of a magazine, the colors vibrant, the buttons of his sweater fragile and small. I tease him effortlessly about the way he dresses, sophisticated and expensive, and when he laughs but does not take offense, it is loud and it bounces off of my skin, the walls, the chairs we sit in. He has the kind of laugh you hope someone will have, the kind of laugh they mean and don’t use unless a comment has truly earned it.

About halfway through our first conversation, he announces that he is from a different country. He says it right after I say the word “calendar,” my Chicago accent bleeding through the simple word. “You guys and your accents,” he says, dismissive.

“Well, what about you?” I ask.

He brushes his hands against his pants, invisible crumbs falling to the ground, and chews as he talks. “I’m allowed to have an accent,” he says, noting that he comes from a part of Africa most Americans couldn’t find without a labeled map.

“Oh,” I say. “Then why are you here?”

I notice the way he looks away when the question strikes him, breaking eye contact. “School,” he says. “A better education.”

It is not until months later, after missing two days of classes here, two days of classes there, that he casually says he’s sick. When he says, “I have Sickle Cell,” in plain English to a class full of twenty, he does it with the confidence of someone who’s born with it, that unflinching prowess that those who lack it seem to envy. He tells us not to worry, that modern medicine will have him healthy in no time, and we believe him.

But at home, under the foolish protection of three in the morning and the privacy of a laptop computer, I research Sickle Cell. Something pulls at my stomach, a nervousness that feels like betrayal, as if researching a potentially fatal disease goes against his unspoken wishes, but I do it anyway. I read about the blood disease, the one that develops from childhood, the one that is far more common in African children than American children, the one that leads to death if treatments don’t work.

The next time I see him, a hospital identification bracelet wrapped around his wrist, I don’t tell him what I know, and he doesn’t tell me what he knows.

 

02.

What are you supposed to know about death?

Everything I know, everything I’ve experienced, deals with sudden loss: complications from alcohol, heart attacks, all-but-hidden cancer that spreads like wildfire. I have never had the privilege to experience the slow turn from healthy to sick in a loved one. I have never seen the threat of death and sickness—cancer detected early, dementia that runs in the family—flex its muscles for show periodically, reminding you that the possibility for terror is there, allowing you to come to whatever peace you’ve created, giving you the chance for a goodbye.

I assume eventual death—drawn out, over time—unfolds like a flood. Over an eclipsing number of days—a winter transitioning into spring, eight weeks of a brutally wet summer—the water comes and never leaves. Residents of the floodplain notice it, perhaps pass whispered remarks about it, but choose to ignore it. It won’t get bad, they say. It can’t get bad. There’s hardly enough water here to become a problem.

And then one day they open their front door, and the water’s knocking. It’s murky and it’s dangerous and they should have noticed it before—why didn’t they notice it before? They cannot comprehend, cannot explain, how a few feet of water here, a few feet of water there, lead to ultimate destruction. Their properties, filled with cameras and books and unorganized memories, are left destroyed; their sense of security, this false understanding that they’re safe from excess water—so long as it does not rush in and overwhelm at once—shatters.

 

03.

Beneath the sun, he seems fine.

I ask him if he’s warm, his body wrapped tight, safe in his sweater, but he shakes his head and comments on the lovely afternoon. That’s the word he uses: lovely. It does not fit his demeanor, his tall frame, his threatening eyes, which is likely why he chooses it.

He is teaching me to make the perfect paper airplane as we sit on the quad, the grassy needles beneath our legs poking through the fabric of our clothes. He folds the paper exactly, using his thumbnail to sharpen the creases he’s created. This will allow the plane, formed from old notes, to fly further.

He looks at the plane I’ve created. It’s too simple, he says. It won’t fly. “Do you not understand how to make a paper airplane?” His intentions are playful, but the sound of his voice, scratchy and quiet, makes him sound serious.

Still, I say I’m doing the best I can. “Making paper airplanes isn’t exactly my forte.”

He stands, reading his hands for the first throw. “Neither is answering your phone.”

I smile at him, but do not protest. “You always feel like having hour-long conversations about beer.”

He returns the smile. “I’m keeping you well-rounded.” He tosses the airplane, a simple flick of his wrist, and it soars about ten feet before it dives headfirst into the soft grass. He cocks his head towards the paper crash and tells me to retrieve it.

“What if I really needed to talk to you?” he shouts.

I bend to pick up the airplane, shrugging as I do. “Beer isn’t urgent.”

When I close the distance between us and hand him the weightless airplane, his eyes are pointed toward the ground. His mouth hangs open slightly, as if he has something to say, and he shakes his head.

I know what he wants to say, so I finish. “Fine. I’ll answer the next time you call.”

 

04.

When a death occurs suddenly, the pressing issue becomes the aftermath.

When you wake up one morning and your father is missing and you call the police, the only thing you have to worry about then, really, is your reaction when the responding officer, located at your front door, tells you that your father’s passed due to a heart attack while jogging. And when the officer apologizes, his long eyes and frown teetering on the edge of genuine and professional, the only thing you can do is thank him for his help and lock the door behind him when he leaves.

Sudden death crosses your life absent of that drawn out, tired demand. You don’t feel those long nights, cold and desperate, after second opinions and third opinions and treatments that only worked in passing daydreams of desire.

 

05.

He calls me late one evening, on a weekday, and breathes in deeply before he says anything. No “hello,” no “how are you,” no “what’s going on,” just a long pause, breathing breaking the silence.

I let him talk when he’s ready.

Once the silence ends, his raspy voice cuts sharp. He talks quickly, says he’s at the hospital, says he’s not feeling well, says he doesn’t know what’s next. I try to stop him, desperately wishing he would explain what he’s talking about, but he continues. He says he’s sick, says he’s dying quicker—“I’m dying quicker,” he says, just like that—says he doesn’t know what to do.

I say: “Like, now?”

“What?”

“Are you dying now?”

I think he shakes his head. “No, I just—” He stops.

I want to ask him when, want to ask him how, want to ask him how much time he has, but I don’t. I never do. It doesn’t seem appropriate, has never seemed appropriate. The questions, the medical questions that are so often asked, are too formal for our relationship, too final for the friendship we have. To spring them on him now, to bring those words into reality, casts a shadow of discomfort over everything.

“Where are you?” I ask.

“The hospital.”

“Which hospital?”

He swallows. “No. I’m not telling you.”

“Why?”

“You can’t see me like this, nobody’s allowed—” A pause. “I’ll see you soon.”

There is an air of false hope in his voice, one that I’d desperately like to cling to and comment on. But I don’t.

After one last uncomfortable pause, he talks as if he’s smiling. “So there was this girl, at the bookstore, who I want to ask out—”

“Oh.” I breathe. “Yeah?”

 

06.

There is no telling how long floodwaters can take to recede. You have to consider certain factors: how much water there was to begin with, how dry the air is following the downpour, the forecast for the coming weeks.

For a long time, after a flood occurs, you stand there, helpless. You stand there with your hands on your hips and you look at your house and your possessions, all of them, floating visibly by windows, buoys in the stagnant water. The devastation leaves you breathless and confused, the firm footing you had weeks before, shattered by something as necessary as water: something you drink, something you bathe in, something you’re familiar with.

A sudden death doesn’t understand, and instantly shatters, the idea of creeping, steady movement. A sudden death is violent and shocks your senses quickly; devastation is its intent from the beginning. A sudden death yellows the face of an elderly grandmother overnight, wakes her husband beside her in a cold sweat, alerts him that something is desperately wrong, and leaves him years short of the solution. Deaths like this leave you disoriented and wholly convinced that, maybe, you could fix things if you could just, impossibly, return to yesterday, the day before, whatever familiarity you once had.

But a gradual death, over time, becomes part of you, a warning-light in the back of your mind. You think about it and you obsess and you question and you shake your head. It weaves its way into your conversations—yes, I picked up groceries, yes, I mowed the lawn, no, I don’t have any updates about his condition. Gradual death very nearly melts onto the surface of your skin, burdening and impermeable. It leaves you standing there helpless, your hands on your hips, watching the unfamiliar destruction sweep away your sense of calm and ease, with the unusual effect of still weight, light on your skin, heavy as you resist it.
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Samantha Abrams studies creative writing as an undergrad at the University of Iowa. This is her first published short story. Email: sabramse[at]gmail.com

Coffee Shops: A Love Story

Flash
Diane D. Gillette


Receipt Paper Blog Post
Photo Credit: Ronald Heft

She used to want to sit in coffee shops and write poetry about the people she would see there. She often thought she would like her lover to come with her.

There was a picture in her head. Her lover sat with some Serious Work of Nonfiction, scribbling notes in the margins with a slightly-chewed yellow pencil. She sat with a leather-bound notebook, its pages coming loose so that she had to hold it together with a wide, red rubber band. There would be a knitting group in the coffee shop on Tuesdays, and she would write a delicately brilliant poem about the tattooed man in the leather jacket knitting a sweater for his dog to guard it against the pending bitter Chicago winter. She would show it to her lover, and he would gladly take a break from his Serious Work of Nonfiction to smile over the clever way she made knitting into a metaphor for the biker man’s life.

The only problem with this perfect picture was that her lover never wanted to go to coffee shops with her. In fact, he never once came with her. And even if he had gone with her, he didn’t much care for people, so he would have spent the evening ignoring his Serious Work of Nonfiction to criticize everyone around him. Especially the man in the leather jacket knitting a dog sweater. And, occasionally, her.

And so she never went to coffee shops. Not even once. She did not buy a leather-bound notebook that would eventually need to be held together with a red rubber band.

Then the day came when she let him let her go. She was without a lover. Without any coffee shop poems. Which was just as well because she had no place to put any such poems anyway. So she wandered the streets of Chicago until she got brave enough to go in a coffee shop.

Alone.

It was a Thursday. There was no knitting group. And all she had to write on was the back of a grocery store receipt.

She hated her first poem about the mime on his coffee break, arguing with a customer service rep on the phone about a discrepancy in his phone bill. She felt the presence of the empty chair across from her.

But she went back. And soon she had a whole manila envelope of poems scribbled on the back of receipts. She barely gave the empty chair a second thought. Until it wasn’t empty anymore. And she was surprised to find it was filled by a new lover. This one did not read Serious Works of Nonfiction. He instead did crossword puzzles in red ink. He was left-handed and so always laid his right hand across the table to hold her left while they worked.

He liked the mime poem.

He smiled at everyone around them.

And somehow this made an even prettier picture than the one in her head.

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Diane D. Gillette is a writer living in Chicago. She has an MFA from Emerson College and has had the pleasure of seeing her work in many fine literary journals, including Sniplits, Hobart, Inch, and Every Day Fiction, among others. When she is not busy earning a living to support her cats in the fashion to which they have become accustomed, she is working on her first novel. Email: digillette[at]gmail.com

Frankie’s

Flash
Walter Campbell


Tommy's - Late Night Snack
Photo Credit: Ernesto Andrade

You’re at the Frankie’s Chiliburgers that’s downtown, fries still untouched, when you get the call from your vet telling you that Becky’s surgery went well, tumor removed like a skater in a country club. You rejoice by using a spare fry to scoop up some chili you dropped on your shirt because your shaky hands couldn’t hold the tray steady.

You found Becky seven years ago—marred and malnourished—while at a Frankie’s on the south end of town, wiping spilled chili off your clothes. You offered her a fry, and timidly, she approached.

Two days after Becky’s surgery, right before she’s supposed to be released, you’re at a Frankie’s in the suburbs when the vet calls again.

“I don’t want to worry you,” he says, which worries you, “but we want to go in for exploratory surgery.” The word “exploratory” makes you think of that time you and Becky devoured chiliburgers after a ten-mile wilderness hike.

You’re at the Frankie’s near the vet’s office when you learn that the exploratory surgery didn’t go so well, and your interpretation of exploratory surgery immediately changes. These guys aren’t Lewis and Clark, you think, they’re the killing squads of Cambodia, proclaiming death like it’s nothing. But you aren’t going to shoot the messenger, so you politely ask about chemo.

“I’m sorry, at this stage chemo isn’t likely to help. It’d be a lot of pain with almost no chance of recovery. I’m sorry.” Damn Khmer Rouge.

For a year prior to the cancer’s discovery, Becky couldn’t run much, so you’d pretend that you wanted to go to one of the further-away Frankie’s so you could drive. You finally took her in for a check up a month ago, after you went to the Frankie’s an hour away and she didn’t eat even one of her fries.

But this guy doesn’t work for Pol Pot, you think at the vet’s office as he tries to console you while petting Becky. Far from it. The cancer is Pol Pot, the spreading cells are his ruthless army, and this guy’s just trying to get Becky on the first flight out of Cambodia. It’s not his fault that all he can do is offer you guys a plane; it’d be nice if he could overthrow the violent totalitarian regime, but you can only expect so much from one man in loose-fitting baby blue scrubs.

Frankie’s, with its endless vats of chili, non-stop burgers, and unceasing fries, is open 24 hours a day, and there’s rarely a time when it’s not busy. But if you wait there all night, ordering boxes of chili fries, way too many burgers, and a maybe a few drinks for good measure, eventually you’ll find a time when no one’s ordering. And if you find enough of those times, you’ll also find a time when the staff steps away from the window. That time is the only time when you can scatter a dog’s ashes at Frankie’s without anyone noticing.
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Walter Campbell lives and works in Philadelphia, went to school in New England, and grew up in LA, but he’ll write pretty much anywhere. Recently, his work has been published in Dog Oil Press. Email: walter.campbell02[at]gmail.com

The Urge to Stay

Poetry
Shannon McKeehen


Front (…and back)
Photo Credit: Albert Palmer

I tend to go where I feel wanted,
regardless of whether it bears
fruit: ripe and shining. We wait
by the steps, in front of the door,
the knob glowing apple red.
I don’t have any goals, not anymore.
The seeds from my pockets are gone.

I gave you so many chances, love
sown with each attempt, each bitten
lip. Maybe you never cared about me,
never fought the temptation to forgive me,
but I still tried, waving a ripe fruit
under your nose. These wishes are
meant for plucking. A part of me is
still so sorry, aching, and sour.
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Shannon McKeehen is a fresh-faced, second-year creative writing MFA at Mills College, in Oakland, California, USA. She writes often in her poetry blog and otherwise enjoys reading and responding to the work of other writers, young and old. She also enjoys listening to music, painting and drawing, eating, and engaging in heated political debates. Email: smckeehen[at]gmail.com

Drawing in the Sheets

Poetry
Karen Kelsay


Twin Beds, Guest Bedroom
Photo Credit: Martin Selway

And now, my parents lives have come
to this—they’ve taken separate beds.
At eighty-four, my mother’s moved
into the extra room. Her dresses
line the closet.

They’ve lost their battle with the toss
and turn, the irritating reading light,
arthritic nights, long shadows waiting
for the dawn. A quiet harbinger

of change lurks in the hall
and scribbles words: alone, alone.
They heed them, following the lines,
before the fates interpret
on their own.
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Karen Kelsay is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of five chapbooks: A Fist of Roots (Pudding House Press 2009), Somewhere Near Evesham (The New Formalist Press 2009), Song of the Bluebell Fairy (Pudding House Press 2010), Buttercup Garden (Victorian Violet Press 2010), and In Spite of Her (Flutter Press 2010). Her book, Dove on a Church Bench, will be published next year by Punkin House Press. Karen is the editor and creator of Victorian Violet, an online poetry magazine. She lives in Orange County, California, with her British husband and two cats. Email: pkincalif[at]yahoo.com