Long Time Going

Fiction
Kimberly Greene


Rock House Front Porch View HDR
Photo Credit: Susan Sharpless Smith

It seemed like such a simple concept, really. Grab some essentials, toss them into a bag, and leave. Leaving was the important part. Everything else could be sorted later. But as I looked around, I felt my resolve slipping away, as it had so many times in the past. It wasn’t as if I really wanted to leave—because I didn’t, not really. But it had gotten to the point that every time I woke up, I felt unstable and off-kilter. I didn’t recognize myself, and I didn’t like what I saw. I put down my duffel bag and reached into the closet, catching whiffs of laundry detergent and whatever it was that the wind had blown into the weave of fabrics when they’d been left out on the clothesline. Was this all there was? I couldn’t decide if it was stupid not to let this thing run its course, or if it was smart to actively follow a path that I hoped would lead to a better place for me. Deciding to leave or deciding to stay, well, that was something. That was real. Failing to make a decision just wasn’t an option.

We moved into the house three years ago last spring. It wasn’t a complete fixer-upper, but it was far from ideal. We ripped up the linoleum and searched high and low for reasonably priced reclaimed hardwood flooring, we steamed and vinegared enough flowered wallpaper to make me dizzy, we inhaled enough paint fumes to cause damage to an infant—and that was the simple stuff. What no one ever tells you about renovations, even purely cosmetic ones, is that they take forever to do yourself. So for the two of us working amateurs, it took the better part of a year to do all the stuff that our realtor assured us could be “easily changed.” Couldn’t blame her for the hard sell, really; we had stars in our eyes from the moment she showed us the listing. And we got a great deal. Still, we often spent Saturday mornings bemoaning all of the work left to do while happily biding our time on the front porch. We loved that porch. We planted flowers, we bought rocking chairs, we hung windchimes. The warm Carolina summer evenings meant sipping sweet tea on the porch until it was so dark we couldn’t see each other and the bugs started to eat away at our legs. I began to miss those evenings even before the fall chill crept into the morning air, knowing that anything could happen in the months before their return.

Sam’s mother got very ill very quickly. Sam flew out to Pennsylvania and stayed for several months, calling with updates at least once a day. I missed the extra warmth in bed, the voice calling to me from the other room. We moved from Ohio when Sam received a promotion in the way of a transfer, and although we hadn’t been together that long and enjoyed our separate spaces and circles, we left our individual lives behind for a better life together. I figured it was as good a time as any to get serious about what I wanted out of life, even if I couldn’t put my finger on what that was, exactly. But when Sam was gone, just a few short months after we were starting to get settled, I was faced with the fact that this first step may have been a misstep. For the first time in my life, I felt truly lonely. I was waiting to be assigned a classroom, and I was spending my days obsessively checking my email and going for walks around the new neighborhood. In spite of how many times I told people that “the air down here is unbelievable!” or “it’s just so nice to make a fresh start,” my decision was beginning to weigh me down. I’d always enjoyed being alone, but here, in this place, I almost felt like hiking a trail and never looking back, or taking my shoes off and walking into the ocean until I could no longer walk. Unbelievable air down here, indeed. When Sam called, needing me, I was on my way to the airport in less than half an hour, just as much for my own reasons as for anything else. No one should be alone when their mother is dying, and no one should be alone in a big empty house when they’re needed somewhere else.

When we flew back to North Carolina three weeks later, I was convinced that we still smelled like the cardiac care unit of Mercy Hospital. I loved Mrs. Nash. I was convinced that I would always be thinking of something we could’ve done better for her, something more we could’ve done to make the end of her life—and yes, her death—more bearable. What’s more, I was convinced that I’d never get that piece of Sam back that was left behind the minute we headed back south. I was convinced it was now my job to take care of Sam, and that no one could ever do a better job.

Things got better. My students, while not the best I’d ever had, certainly showed the most improvement of any class I’d ever taught. I couldn’t help but think that it was partly because I was on a mission. I was on a mission to make the best out of things, to shake off the weight I’d felt since we returned. To erase the guilt I felt over my situation when Sam had been sleeping in hospital chairs for weeks on end. To make Sam comfortable and happy here, instead of wishing for a life back in Ohio, a life that no longer existed. With a bit of effort from both of us, things eased a little at a time, to the point where, if we weren’t content, we were at least comfortable. And often, we were happy. The nights of tossing and turning didn’t happen much, and the fights were never long enough or strong enough that they wouldn’t fizzle out within a few hours. We raked leaves, put out the garbage, left the bed unmade, baked double chunk chocolate cookies, laughed at bad movies, made love less than we should’ve, argued about what to have for dinner and who to invite when we had a party. We passed the weekend in pajamas or in the park, slept late and went to bed early. Planned lots of vacations that we knew would never happen. Drank lots of wine.

I woke up at 2:06 a.m., without knowing why. The television was on, as were the lights. And then I heard it: three raps on the front door. I lept off the couch and my first thought was to grab the heaviest thing I could find, which just happened to be the poker next to the fireplace. It never occurred to me that someone coming to do harm probably wouldn’t knock. No, it’s the good guys who knock on your door in the middle of the night. The good guys take off their hats and, after verifying your identity, ask to come in. They say words like “accident” and throw in phrases like “the ravine off of route 15” and “rushed to the hospital.” They appear to be genuinely concerned while still managing to look authoritative. They don’t act surprised when you cover your mouth to keep from vomiting all over the dark reclaimed hardwoods. They speak quietly when they ask to take you to the hospital and identify the body. They help you put on your coat. They don’t make small talk in the car.

I peeked into the spare room serving as an office, wondering if Sam had read all of the books on the bookshelf. I’d never asked, just assumed. There were a lot of things that I’d never asked. I walked downstairs, deciding that I had to have the piano shipped. I couldn’t forget about that. Did I need to take all of the pictures on the mantelpiece? Which ones couldn’t I love without? Which ones would have to wait, perhaps indefinitely? My stomach began to clench, to twist in on itself. And it hurt. Everything hurt.

I first thought about leaving when last summer began to wind down. I’d gone to visit my family and greeted them all with open arms and a wide smile, assuring everyone that I was “doing okay down there by myself” and that I’d “really come to love the place.” Which was true, in a way. I was doing okay, I was getting by. I was functioning. But every time I walked back into that house, stuffy and still and quiet, I knew that I missed myself. I missed who I had been with Sam. I missed us. And in our house, us was everywhere. Us hit me in the face when I woke in the big bed every morning, teased me when I ate dinner in front of the television, poked me when I weeded the garden. I went to the neighborhood barbeques, I volunteered. I let the bugs bite my legs. I tried to rebuild. Isn’t that what they tell you? To find a way to make your life fit again? Moving on and all that? When school resumed after winter break, I’d told the principal that I’d be resigning at the end of the school year. And I did. But here it was, another August, and all I’d managed to do over the past couple of months was wander through the rooms, memorizing every inch, every color on every wall, every painting, the view from every window, everything that we’d changed and everything that was still on our list to do.

I was running down the street. My T-shirt was soaked with sweat, and I couldn’t make out the numbers on any of the houses that I passed. The sky was a grayish-green and the air was heavy with water, almost suffocating me as I gasped for each breath. But I couldn’t stop running; if I stopped, I’d never start again. Somehow you always know certain things in dreams, and I knew I’d never again look for whatever it was that I knew I’d find. I didn’t get back to sleep after that, and when I got out of bed sometime after daybreak, it was over. I didn’t really decide, you see. It was decided for me. If I had to live without her, I wanted to live my life, not our life. It didn’t feel as mighty as it should’ve felt, and I still didn’t know who I was.

I just knew who I wasn’t anymore.

pencil

Kimberly’s work has appeared on Brave New Traveler, as well as in the New York Resident and Fine Art Magazine. She currently works in the publishing industry and is busy trying to keep her sanity intact while navigating the pitfalls of immigrating to a new country. This is her first submission to Toasted Cheese. Email: kimberly.d.greene[at]gmail.com

The Faint Light of Heaven

Fiction
Lisa Ahn


girl in a polka dot hat
Photo Credit: Bonnie Natko

I’m too old to begin again with Grace. Seventy-one is past time for raising a child.

But this morning there she was, stepping off the train with such awkward care you might have thought she was keeping her skin on by force of will. Six years old, left in the hands of the conductor, her name pinned slantwise on her sweater. God knows what her mother was thinking, and surely even he might pause, if he had a mind to look. Truth is, I haven’t understood my own daughter in a good long while.

It doesn’t help that it’s the middle of winter and bone-chilling cold, everything frozen solid. In the spring, there will be new calves and shoats and lambs, and the baby chicks that she loves and tiny ducklings and goslings on the lake. But it’s too early for all of that. We putter through the house instead, skirting the edges. Grace sits by the television watching an endless loop of cartoon characters chase and maim and mock each other. Her face never changes.

I hold my breath, waiting for the grief. It burns inside my chest, aching, as if I’ve been shaken loose from dreams. There’s no expiration date on loss. Grief can run so deep it thins out time past the point of bearing weight. That, I know. That, I lived too—the shock of falling, headlong, into impossibility. The realization that the person who birthed you might not, in fact, bear you any love.

*

I was younger than Grace when I first came to the farm, but it’s not a journey I could forget. Nor could I forget what came before—the soul-grimed kitchen where I slept curled like an apostrophe by the stove, under a thin, gray blanket with bugs that were even more persistent than the cold. My mother’s tight red lips that burst into an exaggerated smile whenever a man walked in. She had none to spare for me. I remember the odor of stale sheets and whiskey and unwashed men and something else that I was too young to understand but that I did not want to know.

I had a little doll back then that I made from a stick and odd bits of string, her eyes and smile scratched on with a nail. She was the only thing I owned completely. The doll’s name was Rose and I loved her so much, you wouldn’t believe she was made of bits of nothing and scraps. I used to whisper to her, marvelous stories of faraway places where everyone was polite and clean and smelled of flowers. I was much too young to wonder then how imagination could reach so far from where I was.

I cried for half the train ride, missing Rose. I’m sure she was thrown out or burned when they found me gone. It was one of the other women who woke me in the depth of night, when even our house was quiet, woke me with a hand over my mouth and a whisper in my ear. She was young, I remember, with golden hair and sad, pinched eyes. She hadn’t been in the brothel long, already a favorite with dockworkers and shipmen. With a finger to her lips, she promised me a surprise. I was so befuddled with sleep and the rarity of gifts that I left Rose behind, not knowing I wasn’t coming back.

We walked a long time, and my feet were bare and nearly frozen. She carried me after a while, and I think I must have drifted back to sleep because all of a sudden she stopped and I opened my eyes to a building that loomed in every direction at once—to me, trembling in the dark chill, it looked like an entrance to the far edge of nowhere. I started to whimper, and my escort shushed me into silence and set me down to face her. She looked hard and broken in the castoff light of distant stars, and I realized that she was much, much younger than I had thought. She smiled, brittle, and told me that I was going to a new life, now, just like in my stories.

That’s when I knew I wasn’t going back, and I thought of Rose, left all alone. I cried and struggled to break free, but the girl-woman held tight and dragged me towards the massive front door. Before she knocked, she knelt down once more, pulled a thin worn medal from her neck and placed it around my own. St. Christopher it was, patron saint of travelers. That was all she gave me by way of explanation. Her knock was loud on the door—louder than any noise I would have imagined she could make. The boom seemed to chase itself down the street as several dogs woke and set up a racket. The woman who answered was fully dressed as if it weren’t the middle of the night. She looked us up and down, lingering on my pale bare feet, and then she took my free hand firmly in hers. The girl-woman let go and the door closed over her face with a dull and resonant thud.

That night I became the ward of a children’s aid society. They cropped my hair very short and gave me a new, clean dress and shoes, real ones with hard soles. All the children ate together in a large room insulated against chatter. We slept on long rows of cots, tossing whispers back and forth when the matron’s footsteps faded down the hall. It was a crowded place, a jumble of noise and chores and lessons and rules.

I hadn’t hardly settled in, nor lost my early bruises, when the matron told me I’d be leaving on the next orphan train, headed to a new home out west. No one asked me what I thought, and I don’t think I could have answered if they had. Staying or going didn’t seem more than two sides of the same coin of solitude and grief. I didn’t try to explain that my mother was still alive, and I doubt it would have mattered. We were all called orphans, even those with both a mother and father alive who could claim them if they would.

Before we left for the train station, we were scrubbed and polished and dressed as neat as pins. There were about twenty of us in all, chaperoned by a lady and two gentlemen. I was the youngest and smallest to be chosen. When the whistle blew and the wheels began to turn along the ground beneath me, I started to cry for Rose, quietly to myself. I held onto St. Christopher dangling from my neck and kept my face to the window as the city rolled by until it vanished. Sometimes I slept. Sometimes I tried to eat the apples and bread and mustard they gave us. Mostly I wondered if where I was going would be any better than where I had been. After a while I didn’t cry anymore, since there wasn’t any point.

I watch Grace carefully today, her frozen resignation, and see a mirror to my childhood’s stalwart grief. Her tears have dried up harsh behind her eyes, as the landscape rolls away beneath her. I’d like to offer up my hand, my history, my promise that she’s not alone, that here is where she’s meant to be. But it’s too soon for all of that. She hasn’t yet the space in her flayed heart to listen.

*

I was just as close-shuttered when I got off the train in Geneva, almost seventy years ago. We were all tired from the journey, but the excitement of reaching our destination was catching, and soon I began to peer around me as we walked into town. Lots of folks were there, casting eyes at us. There weren’t many children in the crowd, and I heard one of our guardians say that the Spanish flu had hit hard the year before. Nearly every family in the area had lost a child or more. That’s why we were there, to replace the ones who’d gone. I felt a bit sick inside at that, thinking I’d come to take the place of a ghost child, a double sort of haunting. I clenched my hands tight to my sides and looked down then, keeping my eyes pointed at the toes of my round brown shoes.

We were bustled into a big, warm building with large arched windows and carvings on every surface—later, I knew it as the Opera House, but back then it was a mystery and a wonder. I was ushered up onto a wooden stage along with the other children. All the townspeople were down below and we could hear them as they looked us over and decided who they might want to take home. I kept my eyes down, even when the lady who brought us there told me to look up and smile so that someone would want to keep me. She wanted me to be amiable, but I could hardly stand for shaking.

I could hear the folks below saying that this boy looked strong enough to work the farm, and that one looked like he had a mean streak, or that girl looked too frail and wouldn’t last, but this one could help in the kitchen for sure. Most of the other kids, especially the boys, were bolder than I and were calling out their good qualities as if they were selling fruit in a market stall. Only a few of us, the youngest and shyest, held back, and soon I found myself towards the rear of the stage, mostly out of view. Then some sort of signal must have been given because everyone started to move at once, and the people from the town were coming up on stage a few at a time and kids were moving off with them and going away. I backed up a little farther and started to cry. I wanted Rose, or that old scratchy blanket, or my mother. I wanted something, someone I knew, who knew me, even if it hurt.

I must not have heard Agnes when she first knelt down to speak to me. At some point I guess I just realized that she was there, in a pretty blue dress with little yellow flowers, kneeling down and wiping my cheeks with the whitest handkerchief I had ever seen. A man stood by her side—even with my eyes lowered, I saw the ends of his brown boots and the worn crease in his denim. His hand rested on her shoulder while she spoke to me in a voice as soft as a breeze in July. She asked me several times if I would like to live with them. I had stopped crying by then and looked up. She had a face washed with kindness and sorrow and laughter all at once, and eyes that crinkled lightly all around the edges. I nodded, mute. She squeezed my hand and Albert took my other hand and together they led me off the stage. They didn’t let go once, not even when they signed the papers. Outside, Albert lifted me up into the wagon and Agnes right behind me. They covered me with a thick warm fur, tight against the cold. Then Albert cracked the reins and the horse bells rang out and we began the journey home.

Since then, I’ve learned that home is mostly a question of lost and found, of what we carry and the ghost-echoes of everything scattered. It was not a lesson for childhood. We all want to go back, sometimes, to bend time, to break it. We all wish for the space before loss. We race ghosts past their own inception, clattering the days. There is never any easy return.

Grace must dream it, even if she disavows the longing. She must feel the pull, back to the home she lost, to the time of “before.” Before her brother disappeared into the hands of a stranger. Before her parents sought to heal their own wounds by sending her away. In Grace, I see my own life refracted, transposed onto another skin. It is a strange sort of haunting.

It’s hard to imagine that parents who lost one child could so easily give up on the other, but that’s what they’ve done. That’s what they’ve done, and we are left to mend the pieces blown.

*

We’ve had a rare warm spell lately, days so bright and sunny that the mounds of snow have begun to melt and we’re surrounded by isolated hillocks of dirty slush and troughs of half-frozen mud. Ben took Grace out this morning before the sun to help with the milking. As soon as her feet hit the squelch, a smile popped back onto her face. Leave it to her grandfather to realize that nothing can restore a child to herself like messes to be made.

There’s not enough mud in the world, though, to make up for what is still to come. Her mother called last week and asked me to enroll Grace in school. Her records arrived in the mail today. Every time her parents call, she asks them when they are coming to bring her home. There’s always a pause, a silence, a change of subject, but no answer. Angelica is waiting for me to break the news, the truth that Grace has been abandoned, that we, old and worn, are all she has. The truth that home is here, now, this.

*

The first time I saw this place I thought it might swallow me up. In the gathering twilight, the lake was a wide blue-gray seam that stretched out to the other side of nowhere, and the land filled with trees was a rushing of shadows towards the sky. The neat square house on the hill was filled with light—and strangers. There were Albert and Agnes, and Albert’s twin brother, Matthew, along with Matthew’s two sons, Charlie and Jacob. A whole family not my own, and most of them men. I pulled my children’s home coat tighter across my chest, but Agnes brushed a cool and gentle hand along my forehead, knowing.

In Five Points, in the brothel where my mother worked, there were no private rooms for girls who didn’t earn their place. That’s why I slept in the kitchen. It was a busy room, but chilly, so I always tried to cozy up to the stove. It was a dance, that was, trying to get close enough to the stove for warmth, but not so close that I’d be noticed. More than once I woke to the prodding of a boot in my stomach, gruff laughter, and glances that felt, even to me, so young, like something slick and heated with its own exposure.

When Agnes led me upstairs to the little room in the eaves, there were no men, no potbellied stove, no dirty dishes to wash or damp clothes hanging from lines. Instead, I found honey-colored furniture and bright quilted warmth. A clear square window looked out across a lake blanketed with stars. I had never seen anything like that room. It felt too clean, too bright, too cozy and safe to be anything of mine. I backed up into a corner, curled up like a cat, and pulled the edges of my heart closed around me.

Agnes knelt down at the rim of where I was. Her cool hand on my cheek felt like… well, like stories of Christmas, light and smooth and dulcet with the clear jingle of a sleigh bell. She held her hand like that, against my cheek, for a long, unreckoned moment. A universe was unwinding between us, vast and spiraling and unspeakably new. Her voice, when it came, was soft and warm like the fur of a cat, but what she said in words had already unraveled itself between us in the cool touch of her hand. This room was mine, she said. Just for me, she said, just for me—the bed, the wooden chest, the desk and its chair, the lovely cushioned rocker by the little square of sky, and the quilt, the marvelous quilt with its bright stars of color, the points all touching as if they were holding hands, the quilt she had stitched together, just for me. She held out her hand and I took it, and she lifted me up and tucked me deep in a nesting of quilts, running her cool palm across my cheek once more before she smiled and left me to my wonder.

I did not sleep that first night on the farm. I stayed awake, watching the stars and the moon slowly glide across the clear square of night. I traced the quilt patterns in the faint light of heaven. I stroked the softness of the sheets and pushed hard against the pillow to see how far my hand could sink. I crawled to the edge of the bed and slid down, landing softly on the braided rug with its picture of an apple tree in bloom. I opened up the smooth wooden chest with its carved figures on top—an apple, a bee, and a cat. Inside, nestled among sweaters and blankets there were a few carved blocks, a spinning top, a sack of marbles, and a small wooden horse—all worn with much love and play. I handled each as if it might shatter, before putting it back exactly as it had been. On the wooden desk, there were two thick books, some chalk and a slate, all carefully tended. I picked up the books and, though I couldn’t read the words, I traced the outlines of the pictures under the scattering light that comes before dawn.

I stayed out of the bed, though it was bitterly cold, until I heard stirring below, and then I scrambled back onto the mattress and crawled beneath the quilts. I closed my eyes and listened, waiting, until the heaviness of sleep crept over me. I slept until the sun was high in the window and all was quiet below. And I knew somehow the way only a child can know that they were quiet because of me, because I slept. I knew without knowing that she had come again and again to the door, had stood there and listened to catch my breathing. That she had gone below to tell the men, who kept coming in from their work, that I slept, that I breathed, that I was still there, still there. I knew that they were the only people who had ever listened for my breath, and when I felt Agnes’s hesitant hand on my shoulder, I knew I was crying and I knew I was home.

Oh, I must be old, for the memory of that first night and morning has me crying an old woman’s tears. Ben reaches out and pats my shoulder in comfort, even as he sleeps. We have been together a long, long time, he and I. Years stretch behind us, beaded with memories.

We are too old to begin again with Grace, but we will do it all the same. Together, we will sift through everything lost, everything reclaimed. We will offer up our history, mourning’s echo redeemed. From loose bits and faded time, from the reinvention of hope and faith, we will weave together a new incarnation of home, golden-hued and tucked carefully within the eaves.

pencil

Lisa Ahn’s short fiction has appeared in Prick of the Spindle and Spectra Magazine. She has also published narrative nonfiction on Writer Unboxed and at Real Zest, and literary criticism in the journals Criticism, Texas Studies in Language and Literature, and Twentieth Century Literature. “The Faint Light of Heaven” is an excerpt from her first novel, Grace Blinks. Email: flowerpotsun[at]gmail.com

The Man Who Made Her Late for Work

Flash
David Meuel


Peet's UTC
Photo Credit: Mike McCracken

Was it him? Linda wondered as she rushed out of the Menlo Park Peet’s Coffee with her latte. Shit. Darryl was talking to another man on the street, and they were standing just a few feet away from her car. She needed to get to work, but she didn’t want to speak to him. And she knew that, if she went to her car, she would have to stop, smile, and try her best to be pleasant.

She went back inside the Peet’s, sipped her latte, checked messages on her iPhone, and kept looking to see if Darryl was still there. Five minutes went by. Then ten. It was just like him to make her late for work and not have a clue he was doing it.

At the twelve-minute mark, in the middle of a sip of her latte, she laughed. It wasn’t a big laugh, just a small smirk of recognition at the absurdity of the situation. She was being silly. It had been more than two years since she had talked to him. But the sight of him, standing there pompously spouting away, made her insides churn. How long had they been married? Seven, eight years? Thank goodness they didn’t have kids. What a nightmare custody would have been. Thank goodness they both could go their separate ways. That is, she smirked, until now.

At the fourteen-minute mark, Darryl and the other man shook hands, the other man got into his car, and Darryl walked away.

Finally.

Linda gave herself a full two minutes before she ventured out.

Safely inside her car and on her way to work, she heard Beethoven’s Seventh beginning on the radio. That’s all she needed—Darryl’s favorite piece of music. At first, she was going to change the station, but she kept listening. Darryl always insisted that they stop talking when this was playing. That was, it seemed, the only time he ever stopped talking. But the music was beautiful, and, as she listened, she remembered other times when they heard it together on the radio, on CDs, and at concerts. It had been wonderful to feel that happy.

But that was then, she thought, when Darryl was the centerpiece of her life, her one and only. That was then. Again, she moved her hand over to change the station, and again she kept listening.

pencil

David Meuel has published more than 100 poems and numerous print and online articles on subjects ranging from theater to marketing communications. He is also the author of two poetry collections, Islands in the Sky and Realms of Gold. A lifelong resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, he currently lives and works in San Jose, California. Email: dmeuel[at]comcast.net

Dead

Flash
James Armstrong


Savasana: Cálido y tenue reposo
Photo Credit: Bindhi Mehndi

Let’s play a game called Dead. Here’s how you play:

I lie here absolutely still and pretend to be dead. I won’t move a muscle, just lie here, hardly even breathing, like I’m dead, you see, but you don’t have to worry, because it’s only pretend.

Now you get to do anything you want to me, because I’m dead after all, and I won’t feel it, even if you do it a million times.

See, here’s the hard part. I have to lie completely still no matter what you do to me. You can pinch me or bite me, kiss my lips or caress my thighs, but you’ll always get the same reaction, because I’m dead, you know.

If you want, you can even walk away, leaving me completely alone, and I’ll just lie here, waiting for you to come back, only I’m not really waiting for anything, just lying here in silence, dead.

But you get to have complete power. You can beat me or embrace me, abandon me or stay at my side. Go ahead. Kiss me. Touch me. Stick your hand down my crotch. You can even make love to me if you want—I won’t mind.

Because I’m dead, you see. Isn’t this a fun game? I can’t wait to start. I’ll lie here and be dead, and you’ll be sad at first, and you’ll cry over my body, and then holding me in your arms, you’ll softly kiss my neck, and then my chest, and then your hands will roam down to my ass, and you’ll give it a squeeze, and then kiss me hard, but then you’ll be angry when I don’t kiss you back, and you’ll storm out of the room, and I won’t know where you’ve gone, and when you come back you’ll have alcohol on your breath, and you’ll start ranting and raving, only I won’t hear you because I’m dead, and you’ll kneel down by the bed, and you’ll kiss my hair and stroke my cheek, but then you’ll get mad again, and you’ll hit me—hard—like you mean it—even though we both know it’s only a game—and then I’ll pretend like it doesn’t hurt, and if I’m really good I won’t cry or call out, but just lie here like I’m dead, because that’s how you play, you see, and then you’ll feel sorry for me, and hold my limp body, and apologize for what you’ve done, and then it will start all over again.

Won’t that be a fun game? Only now, we can’t possibly begin to play, because, you see, we’ve been playing all along.
pencil

James Armstrong’s stories have appeared in 34th Parallel, Literary House Review, Midwest Literary Magazine, The Main Street Rag, Iconoclast, and The Rockford Review. He holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Carnegie Mellon University. Email: jstanleyarmstrong[at]verizon.net

Gloves

Poetry
Mary Odenbach


Working Man's Tools
Photo Credit: Bill Gracey

Worn, leather gloves forgotten on the kitchen table
She watches her husband’s friend
Get in his pickup, pull away.

Her eyes follow his path in reverse
Back to the table, to the gloves
She eases toward them
Contemplates.

Deftly, she lifts them
Slides her hands in, feels him
Warmth radiates up her arms
His days, tasks, separate life.

She stands, gloved palms touching
Long enough, sliding this moment
Into the deep place
She will revisit.

Placing the gloves
On the table
She starts supper.

pencil

Mary Odenbach is a secondary English teacher who lives in Wyoming. Email: mlodenbach[at]yahoo.com

Four Poems

Poetry
Natasha Kochicheril Moni


Mormon Metalmark, Apodemia mormo autumnalis
Photo Credit: Bill Bouton

Nightstand Lover of Lepidoptera

Beyond Monarch he commits
species to mind

something like Azure, Metalmark
Fritillary, Dusky Wing

or Luna who for one
day rose

not as insect
but spirit

drifting soap-like
above Sol Duc River

they fell
color of grass

collapsed
color of herons’ bills

gone diving—
he remembers from lectures

searches for names
cannot place them—

some morning
he will step

out of his head
take a net, find himself

palm over wooden
handle, eyes

above page line
toward possible flight.

 

There are times when it is best to forget

the mice in the closet, go
ahead and water the cactus

once more, ignore the violet screaming.
Tell your man his dieffenbachia
is dying, that you will steal

it when he isn’t
looking, transplant
and keep it to yourself.

The mice rest
in your storage, a falling-
apart sleeping

bag you meant to toss
becomes their summer
home, the waterline their super-

highway for those nocturnal times
you once absorbed in sleep. Sleep
is nothing. Sleep is for the meek, the violet

says to herself and wishes for a sip
from the cactus
that bathes on a sill too far away.

There are times when you will think
yourself wicked for all the ways you debate
extermination. Arm yourself in bed

with a copy of The New York
Times, even the mice will find
this threatening as they opt

for a sail on the Unicef
cards from the box
you never meant

to keep. Below your window
there are dogs, the color of spoiled
cream, and they dig

up your land-
lord’s garden, sweet
basil uprooted, withering.

 

Notes While Looking For Elk Antlers
Dosewallips River

Call your friend with marrow lust.
Elk antlers are dropping.
We’ll search the Dose.

Ready to arrest mice with similar notions,
we three bushwack. M uncovers the first treasure

decaying collie on the stick of its spine,
muddied red collar. You answer his whistle.

I see what you see.

Remove my Pentax, shoot.

Never did like dogs.

We separate, find each other in a mess
of fern, moss, no antlers. Too early: the chorus

of February. Before we leave you stumble on a bear.
Hit on the road, knocked over slope, skeleton divided

into ground, above Here, I will find claw, learn my fingers
like talon, grasp underneath the belly of desire, seize.

 

Massage School Translations

Sometime second term you will discover your sits
bones are ischial tuberosities—every tuberosity
is a protuberance, a process. And you will find ways

to hassle your Anatomy and Physiology
teacher, point to your nose and claim it
noseus process: a joke only a fellow

A+P student could enjoy. Sometime mid-second
term you will palpate for these ischial
tuberosities. On yourself and a partner

locate these bony prominences, remember to stay
away from the gluteal cleft. And you will
watch a room full of adults sitting on their

hands, some coping like cranes, one appendage
waving for balance, another diving underneath
a cheek, searching for solid below

flesh. Thankfully, this will precede the construction
men across the street, a host of workers sparking
fire to metal. Here you rely on earth, the process

of calcification, the mutual adjustments of language
from ass to ischial. There is a bowl in your
pelvis, it has been there no matter whether

you have acknowledged it, it holds
space for the adductors you never knew
you had, a family of muscles who flex.

pencil

Natasha Kochicheril Moni recently completed the Postbaccalaureate Premedical program at Mills College. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Web 2010 and Best of the Net 2009, published in journals including: Rattle, Verse, Indiana Review and The Pedestal Magazine and acknowledged as a semifinalist in Black Lawrence Press and Crab Orchard Review first-book competitions. Email: natashamoni[at]yahoo.com

Five Poems

Poetry
Christie Isler


Blackberry Bush in Our Garden
Photo Credit: meganpru

Volunteers

He sets his mug on the grass and jams the
shovel in, raising the roots of berry
canes anyone else would tear out for dead.
He says, When you plant them, give them space, they’ll
spread eight feet a season. I’ve just met him

over a low fence between our yards and
already I know his rye grass will be
turned under for six kinds of potatoes,
that two blocks away lives a wild bee hive
and just last night, he put his wife in the
hospital. Heroin, he says. I guess
she wouldn’t want you to know it, though.

He tramps the yard in a leather Harley
vest. He drinks his coffee black and offers:
an heirloom gooseberry sprout, a plum sucker
seedling, rogue raspberry canes. Volunteers—
shoots blithely hopeful—that in gardeners’
code we pass from bed to bed and ape their
optimism in poor soil. They multiply
like memories, but these we dig and hand
out, these scraggly vines that might bear fruit.

I straddle the wire fence, cradling
all his naked roots. He wants no thanks. I’ve
got to dig them anyway, he says. He
shrugs. It’s then I finally ask his name.

 

Beet Harvest

Hearts in the soup pot float in stew
stained red, roots threaded through

resembling vasculature leaking as if egg dye ran
vermilion. Burlier than eggs, like clenched hands,

they bob in broth of wine-doused
blood, just three of them, silent about

their origins, whose chest they filled,
whose blood they tilled,

boiled soundless lest the telltale
hearts reveal soil beneath my nails.

 

Last Dancing Girl

You opened the door, snuck me past alarms and
slipped me to your room. You laid a feast—morsels
sauced in stories of the last girl—as we deposed
her bedroom lace. (Nothing more than laundry.)

Easy up and down we danced on your command.
You slipped the keys on my chain and maps
in my memory so I might get to you in the dark.
You asked me to swear. Swear you’d never be alone.

Then you pressed me down the laundry chute.
Easy come, easy go! One dance grows old!
I stole maps and copied keys. I tattooed your voice
on the petal skin inside my wrist and trailed its pulse

like ultraviolet nectar guides for bees. You led me here.
And now I stand on the steps of your brick house.
I’ll knock on your door. I’ll use your key.
The little key that cracks the room where she dances now

on a pedestal to a tinkling tune, twisted in ribbon
secrets, secrets outing me. Me, the last dancing girl.
You’ll feel me fill your old spaces, tug the strings
to our old dance and comfort familiar will creep,

summer slate cool on feet, soft like faith, vestigial muscle
memory of me, loving you. What will you do then?
Because baby, I promised. No matter how you lock
yourself away, I can’t leave you alone.

 

Editorial

The period to a line of questions.
End paragraph, end ignorance, end fret
over sentences wandering in want
of closure. Closing statement, marked in red.

Red, for once, a beautiful, bejeweled
dot, carmine captured in glass, true hue
imbued with certainty
of engines, cherry stains, brass band and squeal
at the stoplight, two AM.

Viscous strands unraveling, nets
dissolving, curled and unfurled commas,
semicolons; brief breaths that fuel the story.
How was red ever an ink of mistake?

 

Construction Project

She begins alone, just a girl and a
bag of pieces she unzips on the grass.
Improbable bits of aluminum pipe,
canvas in tangle, delusions

of floating. She builds, slots into notches,
pins and pivots like skeleton joints and
the curiosity of it draws them in
like flies—men. Men of that certain age, with

boating or dreams of boats bobbing in their
blood. Men of a certain fascination
for the bones of things that look to outlast
them—bones of houses, bones of fantasy,

bones of boats. She slides on skin, canvas tight
like that red dress and those men, they see the
craft the parts are meant to be and she is
beautiful. She is miraculous. She is

watertight and full of grace. She puts in,
improbably afloat inside her tight
skin drum, built of pieces as they watched, from
tangle to torpedo and they lifted

no hand. It’s a sin and a miracle,
they think. She paddles out, leaving them on
shore; those men, go home having seen something,
after years of having seen it all.

 

pencil

Christie Isler teaches ten-year-olds during the day and writes poetry and short fiction around the edges. To date, she has published several pieces, both poetry and short fiction, in a variety of online journals including Shoots & Vines, The New Flesh, Identity Theory, Infinite Windows, Bolts of Silk, Four and Twenty, Poetry Quarterly, All Things Girl, Every Day Poets and Every Day Fiction. Christie makes her physical home outside of Seattle, Washington and her online home at Letters Home. Email: christie.isler[at]gmail.com