The Google Ate My Homework

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

My dog ate my homework
Photo Credit:

I confess. I work for a major publisher. I confess, this major publisher does accept some kinds of unsolicited manuscripts. I also confess, I have occasionally received unsolicited manuscripts. Recently a manuscript for a children’s picture book crossed my desk. Addressed to me, personally. But hang on a minute before you rush me your manuscripts.

Thing is, I don’t work for the part of the company that produces the stuff that ends up on The New York Times Bestsellers List. I don’t even come close to dealing with book acquisitions. I work for a completely different part of the company—the educational division. If you aren’t one of our textbook authors, or one of our writers, or one of our editors, I won’t be looking at your writing. The most I can do for you if you send me a trade book manuscript is to look at your contact info and let you know you sent it to the wrong place.

So how did I end up with the occasional manuscript on my desk?

I suspect LinkedIn.

My guess is that some folks who were trying to do their homework didn’t like the fact they didn’t have a specific person listed with the submission address to whom they could address the cover letter directly. After all, the prevailing advice is that it is better to address it to a person than to “Dear Sir or Madam.” So they looked around on LinkedIn under my company’s name, and found my name, and somehow decided I was the lucky editor they would write the cover letter to. In one case, it made some sense. In the others, I have no idea why they picked me over my multitude of coworkers.

This story has a moral, of course, and like most morals it can be summed up in a catch phrase:

Don’t let The Google eat your homework.

If you are casting around for a real name to send your material to, make sure that person works for a relevant part of the company. If you can’t tell what part of the company someone works for through LinkedIn or other searches, don’t just pick someone at random. Seriously. Someone who writes standardized tests for a living isn’t interested in your picture book. You might be lucky and hit someone like me, who will point you in the right direction. Or you might get someone less helpful, who just looks blankly at your packet before tossing it in the trash.


Email: bellman[at]

The Toucan Magazine

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Theryn Fleming

The Toucan Magazine was founded in 2008 by two students at Columbia College Chicago, Liz Baudler (whose story, “It’s All Ice,” was published in Toasted Cheese 11:1) and Laura Rynberg, who style themselves as editrices.

The Toucan is published five times a year, online and in print. The online version, which I’m reviewing here, is hosted on Blogspot. The background of the page is a bright lime green; the body is pale orange and white. Immediately below the masthead is a sticky post, welcoming readers and writers. At the top of the right-hand sidebar are the submission guidelines.

What I like about the layout: the text is plain, but readable. The toucan artwork—by Tom Besson—in the masthead adds an original touch to the standard blog template. The sticky post at the top of the page orients first-time visitors and the location of the submission guidelines makes them impossible to miss. The guidelines themselves are clear and succinct.

What I’m less fond of: the blog-as-magazine format can be difficult to navigate, especially when reading archived issues. While each piece gets its own post/page, it’s surrounded by the sticky intro post and sidebar, which feels a bit cluttered and can distract from the writing. There are also some issues with the formatting (fonts, colors, line spacing) of the posts.

The Toucan publishes prose, poetry, and artwork. The artwork appears alongside the poetry and prose selections. The images are quite small, and it would be nice to see them on a slightly larger scale.

As of this writing, The Toucan has published sixteen issues online, the latest in May, and thirteen in print (the print issues seem to be on hiatus at the moment). Some of the issues are themed. Each issue begins with an introductory post with table of contents and concludes with a post of contributors’ notes. Most issues also include an “Editrice Note,” a bloggy version of the traditional editor’s note. Liz appears to do most of the editorial writing, and her voice is friendly and enthusiastic.

The contributors come from a wide range of backgrounds and include both new writers and those who’ve published extensively. I recognized some names from here at TC: Gale Acuff, John Grey (who appears in this issue), Corey Mesler, and Kristine Ong Muslim.

In Issue 16, John Grey’s “These Hollows” depicts a scene many writers can relate to—writing through the night while one’s partner sleeps:

I’m at the computer
pounding away
like an insomniac’s heart.

In “Autumn Evening” by Tony Burnett the melancholy of the farmwife narrator who’s missing her only child, who has left home to travel the world, is echoed by the bawling of a cow who has lost her calf. The claim that “all is well” in the final line is belied by the unsettled tension in the story:

“Will she quit bellowing soon?” I ask. I know the answer.

“Not anytime soon.”

Later, after he washes away the prairie, we lie beside each other in bed. He kisses me softly and pushes a strand of gray hair away from my eye. We kiss again.

“Sweet dreams,” he says. We don’t waste any energy creating unnecessary heat.

“Good night,” I say and turn off the bedside lamp. All is well.

Issue 16 also includes fiction by Beau Johnson, Theodore Obourn, Nikki Dolson, T.W Townsend, Kato Harris, and Rory Margraf, and poetry by Michael Estabrook, Prairie L. Markussen, L. Ward Abel, and Davide Trame, as well as artwork by Eleanor Bennett and Denny Marshall.

According their introduction to the issue, Liz and Laura just graduated from college, so we offer our congratulations and best wishes with The Toucan and all their future endeavors.


Email: beaver[at]

Pumpernickel Blue

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Eleanor Ingbretson

New Moon Rising - Worsted
Photo Credit: Brianna Mewborn

“Isn’t that a distinctive blue?” asked the owner of the yarn shop.

“Very,” I said, admiring the wool.

“The dye came from the exoskeletons of beetles that destroyed the Westphalian rye crop three years ago. There was no pumpernickel bread the next year,” she sighed, “so out of respect I named it Pumpernickel Blue. Very short dye lot.”

“I’ve seen this yarn before,” I said.

“Highly unlikely. I had only enough dye for seven skeins!”

“Maybe so, but I have seen it before,” I said, and ran the yarn through my fingers, envisioning a sweater for what, my mother’s dachshund? “How much?”

“Two-fifty a skein, and only two left. That’s two-hundred-and-fifty dollars,” she added, cutting short the beeline to my wallet. “It’s costly because of the dye.”

“Then that certainly was an expensively dressed tree I saw.”

“What do you mean?”

“Last autumn I participated in a yarnbombing. One in daylight, not one of those clandestine guerrilla knitter hit groups, though some masked knitters did attend. Anyway, we decorated such a pretty little grove of trees. I wrapped a fair isle design in grays and greens around a young ash.”

I was invited to sit and have some iced tea.

“You were saying you saw my Pumpernickel Blue there,” she prompted me.

“Oh, yes. In the center of the grove, a slender aspen was enrobed in a trunk length wrapping, in this very Pumpernickel Blue,” I said. “There is no question in my mind that the two yarns are identical.”

“It’s not only the color, it’s the exoskeletal bits in the fibers that make it so unique.”

“Don’t see them everyday,” I agreed.

“Especially not ones that glow under infrared light.”

We both laughed. She had to be kidding.

“I didn’t really look at the yarn until the artist left, but I think her mask might have had some of the same blue,” I said.

“Are the trees still wrapped?”

“Maybe, if the puffins haven’t carried the yarn away for their nests.”

“What town is it in?” she asked, ready to go.

“The bombing was in Reykjavik. Where the puffins are?”

“Oh.” She sounded disappointed. “There’s no way I can account for any of this wool being in Iceland. I sold two skeins to a woman who made a gorgeous vest, and I gave three to my daughter. That was a waste.”

“Hasn’t she made anything yet?”

“She finished a beautiful sweater. She blocked it and put it in her garden to dry. For the scent of the flowers you know.”

I nodded, sucked into knitter nattering.

“Going out to check, she found someone trying to steal it! Can you imagine?

“What did she do?”

“Lizzie tried to stop the woman. They each had hold of the sweater and were pulling it all out of shape. When the thief brandished a pair of scissors and began to hack at the sweater, Lizzie instinctively let go; she didn’t want to get cut.”

“Oh, my.” This was rough stuff for a knitter.

“She fell backwards and hit her head on a rock. Knocked unconscious! The thief escaped.”

“Is your daughter all right now?

“Yes, she is, thank you for asking.” She leaned in a little closer. “She and I are doing a covert yarnbombing tonight. Would you like to join us?” She asked this shyly; after all, though we’d spilled our guts, we were still strangers.

“I’ve never done a covert before.”

“We could use someone to help stitch the pieces together on the trees. Come. It will be fun.”

“What time?”

“We’ll rendezvous here at twenty-two hundred. Are you in?”

My new friend seemed sincere, and her kindly attitude belied the sinister terminology, so, though I had to be up at 5 a.m. the next morning to get back to Boston, I agreed to go.

“Wonderful! I’m Ethelina Zarkowski, by the way. Call me Lina,” she said.

“Very happy to meet you, Lina. Mary Warner.”

I bought five skeins of a lesser-priced yarn and was about to leave when some new patterns caught my eye. I browsed, and Lina took care of a customer who had come in with two little boys. From the next aisle, I could hear the boys whispering and laughing. One bet the other he couldn’t say ‘that word.’

“Can too.”

“Can not. Prove it.”

The dared sibling said quite clearly, and correctly: “Eyjafjallajokull!” followed by a juicy raspberry noise.

“Joey! Don’t make bad noises,” said their mother, without turning from her conversation with Lina.

I brought a pattern to the counter and was introduced to Judy, who would be yarnbombing with us.

“Excuse me, Judy, but how did your son learn to say that?”

“Eyjafjallajokull?” She smiled. “The au pair taught us last year, and we want to surprise her when she returns this afternoon for the summer. You’re familiar with the name?”

“I was taking a knitting class in Reykjavik when the volcano erupted. At the time I kept wishing it had been Mt. Hekla.”

I left the shop, wondering what to wear to my first covert yarnbombing. There were six of us: three teams of two, all darkly dressed. Lina, my partner, handed me scissors, ten large-eyed needles threaded with different colored yarns, and a pair of infrared night vision goggles.

“Very necessary piece of equipment,” Lina whispered, and, at her signal, we all switched on.

Each team had a large bag filled with pieces of knitting and crocheted granny squares. Our objective was to yarnbomb the three oaks in the town square. Lina held pieces up to the trunk of our tree and I laced them to each other as snuggly as possible. We went up as high as the lowest branches, and covered them also.

I was astraddle a low branch, sewing the last pieces together, when I heard the sound of a car coming and ducked. We’d had to do that several times, always remembering to flick our goggles off till the car drove by. This time it was a van that slowed and parked not ten feet from me.

I watched as four women in form-fitting black clothes jumped out of the van leaving the driver, balaclavaed in red, in the van with the engine running. The four on the ground, also wearing balaclavas, adjusted their night vision infrared stealth goggles over their eyes and went to work yarnbombing a maple in the middle of the square. In ten minutes they had finished, jumped back into the van, and sped away. One of them dropped her balaclava. I climbed down and snatched it.

We regrouped at the maple to critique their work, unfavorably if possible, when Lina’s sharp intake of breath startled me.

“Put on your goggles and see what they’ve done!” she said, pointing to the knitted snowflake design low on the trunk.

I personally never yarnbomb that low because of dogs, but this group was different, very different. I looked at the design through my goggles; some very tiny bits glowed when the infrared light hit them. Carefully working out a strand of yarn from the snowflake, I gave it to Lina.


The exhibits were on the table: a balaclava knit in an Icelandic pattern, the points done in Pumpernickel Blue wool, and a ten-inch strand of the same. Lina and Lizzie were distraught; both pieces evidenced the carnage of Lizzie’s beautiful sweater.

If I ever expected to get any rest before my drive to Boston and a full day’s work tomorrow, I’d have to leave this happy group now. I tried uselessly to interject my adieus into the conversation.

“Did they know we were going to bomb tonight, or was it just coincidence that they showed up?” asked Lizzie, and added, “I hate them.”

“Who were they?” asked Esther, Lizzie’s partner.

“The only other group who yarnbombs on the Cape claims to use only old salvaged knits,” said Lina.

“One of them pointed at me, and I know I was hidden,” said Judy.

“If you saw them, your face was showing,” said her partner, Louise. “How many of us mentioned where we’d be, or what we’d be doing tonight?”

“My husband and I talked about it while we were doing the dishes,” said Judy. “The kids and Sigrid came in then, but none of them care about this.”

My hand was almost on the doorknob, but I went back to the table. “Lizzie?” I asked. “Didn’t you see the face of the woman who stole your sweater?”

“I must have, but I hit my head when I fell and can’t remember more than a blur for the face.”

“Do you think she might have been wearing a mask, or a stocking pulled over her face?”

“I remember everything else; maybe she did have a mask.”

“Judy, dear,” I said kindly. “You need to match some of Sigrid’s hair with any you might find in this balaclava. If there is a match, you really should get a new au pair. Pulling apart a newly-made sweater for the yarn is not recycling. It’s a crime.”

I went to the door and opened it. “Goodnight, ladies. It was fun, but now my pillow is calling.”


Formerly a denizen of N.Y.C and then Boston, Eleanor Ingbretson now lives in the backwoods of New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, a goose and a duck. That information she only dreamed of one day being able to append to something she’d written! She’s a brand new writer; “Pumpernickel Blue” was only the second story she’d ever sent out. The first got her a very lovely rejection notice. She was intrigued by this Toasted Cheese contest. To write a story in forty-eight hours, premise unknown, word count to be announced: what a great challenge! She is so curious to read what the Gold and Silver authors did with their yarnbombing stories! Email: s3misw33t[at]

Mother Earth Breeds Nothing Feebler than a Man

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Arwen Dewey

Tree Monster
Photo Credit: Steve Cyr

“Mom, look, the trees are wearing sweaters!”

Kids and adults milled around, churning up the mud beneath the grass, loudly admiring the effect of a park full of trees dressed for winter. A banner facing Third Avenue proclaimed Violence? Crime? Lack of Community? Knitting is the cure! Cute. There’d been a rash of disappearances and kidnappings in the past month, most likely gang-related, but they’d left people uneasy. I personally wasn’t convinced that public knitting would help, but it had transformed the park from a haven for drug deals and the intoxicated homeless to a surprising work of art, for the moment at least. That had to be worth something.

“How’d they get the arms so perfect? They look real!”

It was the third park that the knitters had hit, but it was by far the biggest and most popular, and their night’s work had attracted a lot of attention. A dozen different tree trunks were covered in thick layers of yarn, from the ground right up to where the lowest branches began, higher than my head. The really amazing part, though, was that almost every tree had shapes molded into the knitting. There were outlines of faces, noses protruding and eye sockets sunken into the thick layers of green or purple or gold. A few even had appendages reaching out from the trunk, as if the trees were kicking an invisible soccer ball back and forth, or holding their arms out to embrace the world.

“How do you manage to get all this done in one night?” I heard a father ask, holding his squirmy six-year-old by the hand.

He was talking to a trim, dark-haired woman standing beneath the banner. “Oh, it just takes a little old-fashioned elbow grease,” she replied. A gray paisley shopping bag dangled from her left hand. There was multi-colored yarn and a pair of blue plastic knitting needles sticking out of the top.

“Well, it’s nothing short of miraculous. Are those branches underneath, making the arms and legs and whatnot?”

“Could be.” She smiled.

The man’s little girl had stopped tugging at his arm and was now staring big-eyed at the woman’s knitting bag as if it contained magical implements. “It must have taken you forever,” she said.

The woman laughed, and I saw that the rusty-brown yarn stitched around the tree to her right matched her eyes perfectly. Burnt ocher. Beautiful.

“Your work is amazing,” I said, jumping into the conversation. “I can’t imagine how you make them so lifelike with just a little yarn.”

She turned to me, still smiling, and I felt a warm tingling start in my feet and work its way slowly up my body. “Oh, it’s not just me!” she protested. “There are many knitters working on the project.”

“But you’re one of the artists?”

She blushed a little and nodded, lifting a hand to tuck one deep chocolate curl back behind her ear.

“So how do you create the arms and legs, and the noses? Cotton stuffing? Wire?”

“Oh, we have various tricks up our sleeves, but we like to keep them secret.” She winked at the little girl, who burst into a noisy fit of giggles. “Mostly it’s just many, many layers of knitting enhancing the natural shape.”

“That’s truly amazing. Hey, what’s your name?”

“Penelope. Penny to friends.”

“I’m Andrew. Andy to friends.”

She laughed.

“Penny, do you give lessons?” I asked, leaning towards her just a little. “I’ve always wanted to learn.”

She frowned. “No, you haven’t.”

“Yes, I really have.” Too much too soon, apparently. She really was shy. “I don’t mean to come on too strong, I’m just so impressed with the creativity here, and with its purpose.” I gestured up at the banner. “I’d love to be part of it.” Of course she was right. Knitting had never occurred to me until that moment. But it looked like an interesting hobby, and it would be a solid excuse to see Penny again.

But the frown remained, and her voice didn’t sound as self-effacing as before. “It doesn’t work out well when men take up knitting.”

“Really? Why?” I looked around for male reinforcements, but the dad had already allowed his daughter to drag him out of earshot. “Because traditionally it’s only women who knit? Hey, I’m a sensitive guy, but I don’t feel like my masculinity is threatened if I don’t fit in with the macho-man stereotype.” The vocabulary from that Women’s Studies class I took back in college always did come in handy. I hid a self-congratulatory grin and waited for Penny to be impressed by my new-age-man persona.

“Maybe you should. Feel threatened, I mean. Men shouldn’t interfere with women’s business.”

“Whoa. Women’s business? Isn’t that kind of sexist?”

“Did you really look at what our banner says?” She pointed up, over our heads, to where the sign flapped in the breeze. “It says knitting is the cure. And everyone knows it’s men who are the problem.”

That threw me a little. “What? How do you figure?”

“It’s men who cause violence, men who commit crimes. Everybody knows it, even if you shall we say non-traditional types don’t like to admit it.” Was that scorn in her voice?

“Well, I’m sure statistically there are more…”

“Women are the victims.” Her ocher eyes were hard, convinced.

“But wait a minute. Not all men are like that. Not me!”

“Oh no?” Her eyes flicked to the side, where a group of girls were coming towards her, gushing about how amazing the trees were.

She had some strange opinions. But that was intriguing, refreshing even, compared to the careful, politically correct conversation fare I was used to. “Wait!” I said. “At least give me your phone number. We could get together for a drink, someplace quieter. You’ve got to give me a chance to defend my right to knit!” I laughed. She didn’t.

“Why don’t you give me yours, Andy. Maybe we can work this out. I’ll call you tonight.” She smiled again, but it wasn’t the shy, friendly smile she’d given me before.

It was a smile, though. And an invitation. “Tonight? Sure, great!” I pulled out my wallet, extended a business card. Her fingers barely brushed mine as she took it, but I felt the electric shock of her touch all the way up my arms.

The rest of the day passed in a blur. She must have called, because I remember her pulling into the driveway. She wouldn’t come in for a drink. I remember riding to the park in her Lincoln so she could show me something about the project, one of the trees that she said needed a little extra something. Leaning back in the leather seats once the car was parked, taking a sip from her flask. Leaning towards her again, even though it occurred to me as I moved in that she didn’t seem like the kind of person to carry a hip flask. The sudden dizziness. Bile in my throat. Blacking out.

Coming to. I was upright, pressed against a rough, hard surface. A voice, not Penny’s, was whispering “purl, purl.”

My throat was dry. There was something in my mouth, a damp, stringy wad, too big to swallow. I strained my eyes trying to see. Nothing. A layer of narrow, frizzy cord was pulled tightly over my face. Yarn, of course. As I breathed, its loose fibers scratched my lips, pulled free and were inhaled, stuck in the back of my throat. I couldn’t turn my head, or lift a hand to pull the yarn away.

“Penny?” I croaked, but I could barely hear myself.

The voices heard me though. “Said you wanted to knit, didn’t you?” said a whisper.

“You, a man, learn to knit?” hissed another. “More likely trying to get in someone’s pants, weren’t you?”

“Whether she was interested or not,” murmured a third, contemptuously.

“Trying to pull the wool over her eyes, wasn’t he?” whispered the first. Dry laughter, in hiccup counterpoint to the faint clicking of needles. Then silence.

Dizzy from lack of water, lack of air, and the press of the knitting, I slipped in and out of consciousness. Sometimes I thought I heard the clicking needles again, closing in on my body. Sometimes I thought I was smothering under a giant pile of animals, their fur and skin melding with mine, becoming one with whatever was left of my feeble body.

At some point I realized that light was filtering through the layers of yarn. I heard voices in the park, laughing in surprise, admiring the latest work: the nose, the eye sockets, a tree holding its arms out to embrace the world. My arms.

The people were so close. I tried to pull my jaws apart, move any part of my body, groan or wheeze or make some sort of sound, but nothing came out. I was bound too tightly.

“Wonder how they get those silhouettes in? Cotton? Hon, you should try some of this stuff on our trees back home.”

I felt a slight pressure on my arm as someone tested the strength of the work. “Hardly budges! That’s got to be wire inside.”

“Well, for goodness’ sakes, don’t break it!”

The voices slowly moved away.


Arwen lives in Seattle, WA, where she works in musical theater and medicine and glories in the rain. She has published stories in Smokelong Quarterly and Toasted Cheese, and is a three-time NaNoWriMo winner. She is currently working on a children’s novel. Email: hokadinkum[at]

What Would Madame Defarge Do?

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Melynda Sylvestre

Visiting Homespun, a Yarn Store
Photo Credit: Adam Kuban

In the chill air of an early spring night, a dozen members of the Guerrilla Grannies surrounded the backdoor of Missy’s Yarn Shop, large gauge metal knitting needles held at the ready. If any of the hands shook, it was only the tremors of age—not fear. Few of these women would ever admit to even a passing acquaintance with fear. They formed a loose semi-circle in front of the door; the four women appointed as guards for this break-in stationed towards the back, facing the alley, as the rest of the group contemplated the heavy metal lock in front of them.

At twenty-one, Aggie was the youngest member of the Grannies by at least four decades. She had only been included because she lived with her Great-Aunt Hester; Great-Aunt Hester hosted the meetings and allowed the members to assemble their larger creations in her studio. Of course, Aggie loved to knit and crochet just as much as the more experienced women did, which was the most important thing. She had felt honored to be accepted, and worked hard to earn the ladies’ respect. But there were times that they exhausted and overwhelmed her with their energy, inventiveness, and sheer bloody-mindedness.

When they had made their plans to break into the shop earlier that evening, she hadn’t questioned how they would get into the locked building. She’d rather assumed that one of the resourceful women had access to a key—everyone in the city’s fiber arts world seemed to know these grand dames of yarn. Aggie was growing used to the way they could pull strings she didn’t know existed. She was surprised when sweet, petite Mabel Robinson, the quintessential little grey-haired granny, pulled a shiny but obviously well-used set of lock picks out of her ever-present oversized knitting bag and approached the door with a grin of sheer mischief.

With a speed that bespoke long, and possibly recent, practice, Mabel fiddled with the lock and gave a rather unladylike snort when the mechanism yielded to her with ease. “Stupid git,” she said in her refined English accent. “When he changed the locks after Missy died and he took over, he put in the cheapest ones on the market. Somebody should have burgled him ages ago.” The gleam of scorn in Mabel’s eyes suggested to Aggie that she rather wished she’d thought of it before now.

“Hush, Mabel.” A tall, Junoesque woman whispered in the voice of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Miss Martha Ashford had been a teacher for almost fifty years, and there were few who would not still find themselves fearing for their recesses when she bent her stern look upon them. As the de facto leader of the Guerrilla Grannies she provided the perfect frontman; no one who met her would ever have suspected her of improper grammar, never mind illegal activities.

Walking carefully to avoid creaking floorboards, and to favor replaced hips, they slipped into the cavernous storage room at the back of the city’s largest yarn and fiber arts supply store. They all had experience with clandestine projects in the dark of night, but the mood tonight was not the usual one of cautious exhilaration. Tonight, they were looking to clear themselves of murder.

Early that morning a makeshift gallows had been found erected in the city’s central park. Dangling from its truncated arm was the portly body of Thomas Martin, current owner of Missy’s Yarn Shop. While this was unfortunate for the knitters of the area, it wasn’t what had caused such consternation amongst the members of the Guerilla Grannies. It was the image, flashing from the screens of every television in town, of the scaffold that the murdered man had been hung from—it appeared to be wearing mad, multi-colored woolen long undies. Yarnbombing had suddenly taken on a new, macabre, dimension.

The people of the city had developed a fondness for the weird yarnbombing that had started last fall: legwarmers appeared on statues, striped knitwear warmed the trunk and branches of venerable trees in the parks, lampposts sported jaunty mufflers and bike racks boasted bobble-covered covers. Through a dreary, wet winter the citizens of Gotham enjoyed the whimsy and color that the granny graffiti had provided. Bets were made about where the next installation would appear. City officials had to say, officially, that this was illegal and that perpetrators would be prosecuted if caught. But no one ever tried too hard to find the nutty knitters. The locals, who were loving the sheer silliness of it all, would never have stood for it, and the Chamber of Commerce had recently pointed out that the yarnbombing sites were becoming tourist attractions, ever since pictures of the sites had gone viral in early February.

Cynthia Brown’s son William was a detective on the city police department, and up until today he had resolutely refused to know anything of his mother’s more dubious activities. This afternoon, when they had gathered in Great-Aunt Hester’s studio to discuss the implications of the murder and the rib-knit gibbet, Detective Brown called his aged mother on her cell phone. She drifted away to listen to him, and spoke sharply before snapping her phone shut again. She came back and reported to the other women: “He says that he can’t pretend he doesn’t know that we’re the yarnbombers anymore, and that we must come down to the station to make statements so he doesn’t have to come and arrest us as suspects. ”

Voices rose in consternation. Cries of anger mingled with indignant protests of innocence and a couple extremely rude and anatomically impossible suggestions of what Cynthia’s William could do with his detective’s badge—the loudest and crudest one coming from the poor man’s own mother. Aggie had always felt rather sorry for the much put-upon Detective Brown. Martha called them back to order, and the meeting moved on to plan what they would have to do to clear their names, unknown though those names may be to the rest of the city.

And so, Aggie found herself in a deserted yarn shop at midnight with a bunch of geriatric housebreakers. Not certain what they were looking for, they had decided ahead of time that they would break up into two groups; the first would search the storage area for anything suspicious that could give them a clue as to why someone would want to kill Sissy Borkowski’s rather slimy nephew. The other cadre would head upstairs to the office and try to look for any records that could help. Aggie had always wondered which of the ladies had brought this organizational expertise to the group, but was too afraid of the answer to actually ask.

It didn’t take long for the warehouse search to reveal at least part of the story—the first box of imported yarn that Aggie plunged her hands into cushioned a dozen very deadly-looking guns. She shakily held one in the air and waved it to get her compatriots’ attention. Before anyone could comment, the sound of the key in the re-locked back door had them all ducking for cover with the practiced ease of experienced yarnbombers. Young Elizabeth (at only sixty-two, she was so-called to distinguish her from 83-year-old Elizabeth) was closest to the stairs, so she flitted up to warn the other half of the invasion party.

Aggie cowered behind the box of weapons and prayed that no one would be too badly hurt. She had a feeling that things were about to get very strange. When the yelling began she closed her eyes and covered her ears…


And the breaking news this morning is that the killers of yarn store owner Thomas Martin have been captured. Police received an anonymous tip in the early hours of the morning that the miscreants would be found in the storeroom of Missy’s Yarn Shop on Main Street. Police found the back door unlocked and three men wanted for international weapons trafficking bound and gagged, surrounded by almost a million dollars worth of stolen armaments, apparently smuggled into the country by the late Thomas Martin. Preliminary investigations suggest that Mr. Martin may have been trying to cheat his partners and was killed in retaliation. More details should be known later today when authorities go through the records found in a hidden safe in Martin’s office.

The city will rejoice to hear that while the newly captured criminals refuse to say anything about their arms dealing, they have repeatedly stated that they used store-bought legwarmers to approximate the look of our unknown yarnbomber in hopes of framing the yarnbomber for the murder. The police department has released an official statement that the yarnbomber is no longer a suspect in this case, and that they believe the yarnbomber may have been of assistance in solving this case so quickly… Wait. Just in, a WXTF exclusive… we have received a photo of the captured criminals as they were found this morning… coming up onto the screen, now…

All around the city, people laughed over their morning coffee as their television and computer screens filled with an image of three burly men bound hand and foot by duct tape, gagged by more of the same, and cocooned in artistically chosen layers of colorful yarn. Each man had a custom-made cozy on his head—not unlike the strange creations so common in the seventies which had covered toilet paper rolls and Kleenex boxes in bathrooms throughout the country. Thick skeins of wool had been twisted together into a rope and crocheted into a chain that wrapped the three together. And embroidered across their chests, in glittering fuzzy metallic yarn, were the words “ART IS POWER.”


At the age of 8, Melynda learned to type on an antique cast iron typewriter, and began to write poems and stories for her family and friends. They told her that they liked what she wrote, and she chose to believe it. Tales of teen-aged angst followed, then a long hiatus while she put off writing for more important things—like staring into space and playing with the cat. Thanks to the magic of the digital age, she is back at it and having a great time. Email: melynda[at]


Baker’s Pick
Jennifer Hurley

Piled up
Photo Credit: naraekim0801

Tina repeated her mother’s mistake, only at a younger age. She was fifteen when she got pregnant with John’s baby. He gave her money for an abortion, money he must have borrowed or stolen. When Tina came back to school two days later, she told Robin, Melissa, and Yolanda—her best, her only friends—that she’d had an ovarian cyst removed. She couldn’t tell them the truth. Unlike Tina, they were real Catholics, obedient, believing.

After the abortion she broke up with John. She told him they were too different; probably he thought it was because he was white. He put his hands over his face. She was thinking how beautiful his hands were, admiring his long, pale fingers, when she realized he was crying. A terrible chill passed over her. She wanted to take everything back, to beg him to forgive her. But that was the whole problem with John, the thing she could not accept: he made her needy. Days when he didn’t call her she became panicked, hopeless, short-tempered—the way her mother was when a man was getting ready to leave her. A long time ago, when she was a little girl, maybe seven years old, she overheard her parents having sex in the one-room apartment, her mother saying, “Te quiero, te quiero,” her voice frantic. Shortly afterwards her father left. He had not been seen from again.

Two years later, Tina was pregnant again, the fault of a torn condom. The father, Balzac, was Mexican but dyed his shoulder-length hair blond and talked like a surfer. He played bass in a punk band that held gigs in people’s garages. Tina had sat on countless washing machines listening to him play. She was proud of how Robin, Melissa, and Yolanda cheered after his solos. And she loved Balzac’s family. They made a competition of insulting each other in colorful ways, and they were always laughing. They did not condemn her for being pregnant, as her mother had. In fact, Balzac’s grandmother offered to pay their rent on an apartment. She crocheted blankets and a pair of tiny yellow socks for the baby.

A month after Tina dropped out of school and moved in with Balzac, she finally called her friends and asked them to come see her. She thought she would surprise them with the news that she was pregnant. She wanted to show them how her belly button had popped out. It turned out to be bad idea. Robin began to cry, and Melissa berated her for ruining her life. Yolanda was quiet, searching Tina’s face with her soulful, mascaraed brown eyes.

Tina didn’t care anymore what they thought. She hated high school with its rallies and tests. She was sick of heating up a can of spinach for her dinner while her mother was out on dates. She wanted to show her mother how a family ought to be run. In their new apartment, she and Balzac hosted dinner parties for his family, frying tempura-battered vegetables in a stockpot or stewing black beans in beer. Balzac was a vegetarian. After the baby was born, they went to the Hare Krishna temple on Sunday mornings and ate as much of the free buffet as they could stand. It got so that the smell of turmeric instantly killed Tina’s appetite.

Balzac would carry the baby on his shoulders or tied to his belly with a swath of fabric. He prepared the baby’s food in an ancient blender from overripe produce in the sale bin. At night he kissed Tina and then the baby, gently, on the tops of their heads. Often Tina would think that she loved Balzac, but then an image of John would pass through her mind, refuting the notion. In the neighborhood where Balzac’s grandmother had found them the apartment, there was no chance of running into John, but still she looked for him. It was a loud, angry place to live. At all hours of the night ambulance sirens sent the baby into fits. It was Balzac’s idea to name her Afrika, and sometimes Tina wondered if she were screaming to protest the name.


Tina and Balzac argued about the baby. Balzac was suspicious of electronics, including baby monitors, which meant that one of them, usually Tina, had to sleep in a chair next to the baby’s crib. He was philosophically opposed to plastic, including packaged diapers and pacifiers and televisions—all of the things that would’ve made Tina’s life bearable. When Balzac found out that Tina had fed the baby corporate baby food from a jar, he launched into one of his tirades, shouting that the manufacturers of baby food also made weapons. Was she just ignorant, or apathetic? Tina put her hands over her ears and said nothing.

One afternoon, when she was so tired she thought she was losing her mind, Tina put Afrika into her stroller and walked the seven blocks to the dollar store, where she spent $16 buying all the plastic crap she could find: bottles and pacifiers, a rainbow of plastic keys on a plastic chain, a squishy foam football, and a miniature doll with a bright smear of mauve paint across her plastic lips. Back at the apartment, she spread everything out on a blanket and sat in the middle of it, holding Afrika to her chest, waiting for Balzac to come home. Either he would laugh, or he wouldn’t. Staring at the doll’s obscene purple mouth, Tina predicted which way it would go, and she was right.

But it did not end as she thought it would, with a grandiose fight. Instead, she and Balzac continued to live together, interacting only when they had to. After a while Tina realized that Balzac was detaching from the baby. He no longer kissed her on the head goodnight or carried her in a sling around his neck. Tina could accept that Balzac slept on the very edge of the bed, so as not to accidentally touch her while he slept, but to watch him ignore Afrika—this was unbearable. She asked him to go, and he did, leaving her the apartment and enough money for two months’ rent. She telephoned Balzac’s grandmother with the intention of telling her everything, but Nana didn’t want to listen. She was angry about something, Tina couldn’t figure out what. A few weeks later, she sent Tina a threatening letter written in flowing cursive in which she said she’d hired a lawyer to fight for custody of Afrika. This was the same woman who’d called Tina her “sweet potato.” Tina read and reread the letter, clutching the sides with sweaty fingers.

When Tina thought about someone trying to take Afrika away, her jaw clenched with rage. She would not let anyone take her baby, even if it meant going on WIC and food stamps, as her own mother had done. She found a job as a hotel cocktail waitress, where she wore a bikini top made of coconuts and endured the indifferent lust of businessmen.

The custody battle cost thousands of dollars, which Tina paid with credit cards. Every few months she found a new card offering a no-interest balance transfer. She couldn’t understand why these companies were offering her more and more false money to spend, but it was there, and she spent it. She had heard about people declaring bankruptcy and cleaning the slate on all their old debts. When Melissa found out about the credit cards, she yelled at Tina, calling her naïve, while Robin calmly mentioned that she could’ve convinced her uncle to do the legal work for free. Yolanda started to cry and told everyone to stop talking.

Tina broke off contact with her friends after that. They were going to the local college and had boyfriends and uncomplicated lives. They would never let her be better than she had been. They would never accept that Tina and Afrika were fine. Tina now had a job as a receptionist at a company that installed home heating systems. Afrika was in first grade. She had beautiful tanned legs that looked too long for her body. The grandmother had developed emphysema and wasn’t angry anymore. But Balzac had become eccentric in new ways. He cut his hair, started wearing sweat-stained suits with bow ties, and carried a diminutive Bible in his breast pocket. When she dropped Afrika off at his apartment for visits, he gazed at Tina through the screen door as though he were meeting eyes with the devil. Once, long ago, he’d made a prank call to get Tina out of school, picked her up on a bicycle, and pedaled out to the bay, where they stole someone’s canoe for the afternoon. Trying to get inside they rolled the canoe several times, laughing so hard that they could barely get their balance to try again. Tina thought about that day a lot. It made her feel happy until she snapped back into the present.


Alejandro came along just as the bill collectors were beginning to harass her. He loaned her money before she could work up the nerve to ask for it. He was one of the heating system salesmen, a handsome, compact man whose dark skin looked striking against his clean white shirts. He was a traditional Catholic who went to church twice a week and was against premarital sex for women. On their third date he told Tina he forgave her for having gotten pregnant with Afrika. He was so earnest that Tina was amused rather than offended. He was different from Balzac in every way. His apartment, a small condo overlooking an office park, was tidy to the point of being barren. Weekends when Afrika stayed with Balzac, Tina lay all morning in Alejandro’s bed, inhaling the lemony fragrance of his sheets, feeling relaxed and giddy. Alejandro looked directly into her eyes and said that he wanted to save the sex for after they were married. Tina’s heart fluttered with nervous hope. She prayed, for the first time since she could remember, that she would manage not to screw things up.

It was important for Alejandro to marry in the Catholic church, so Tina had to finish the confirmation classes that she’d abandoned and make confessions to a priest. Kneeling in the confessional, which smelled of mold and furniture polish, her mind went blank. What were her sins? Was it a sin, the sex she’d had with John? Probably so, although it felt like a lie to say so. The sex with Balzac had been too unsatisfying to be a sin. The abortion—that was a monstrous sin, too unforgivable to confess. What ended up coming out of her mouth was strange. She said to the priest that she had abandoned her mother, and her eyes filled with tears. The priest mumbled some things she didn’t understand and assigned her seven Ave Marias. Out in the fresh air, Tina felt an acute sensation of relief, as it she’d unburdened herself, even though what she said wasn’t true—she hadn’t really abandoned her mother. Her mother had screamed at her, called her a puta, and Tina had moved out. After that, neither had contacted the other. Her mother had not even seen Afrika, but that was her own choice.

Alejandro had two wedding gifts for her: a pair of two-carat diamond earrings, to match her engagement ring, and a new house in the suburbs of Rancho Bernardo. The ceilings were so high that she was startled by the echo of her own voice. Sunlight blazed through the French doors, making her eyes water. Tina had always lived in dark places, the windows covered to protect against thieves or dreary views. Now she felt like she was coming out of cave onto a bright plain without shade.

On nights when she couldn’t sleep, Tina would wander through the house. She’d drink a little tequila with lime, peer into Afrika’s bedroom and watch her sleep, and then go back to her own bedroom and watch Alejandro sleep, his face scrunched up like a little boy’s—in sleep looking more like a child than Afrika, who was now eight. Finally she went into the kitchen and peered inside the refrigerator, impressed each time by the clean, cold, orderly containers of food. Even now, Tina came into her own kitchen half-expecting to see her mother at the stove, making tortilla de papa, as she sometimes did late at night after coming home from dancing. She and Tina ate it straight out of the cast-iron skillet, sharing a fork, her mother still wearing a slinky skirt and traces of red lipstick. One night Tina started to make a tortilla herself, at midnight, but she changed her mind after cracking two eggs, worried that she might wake Alejandro and Afrika if she tried to clean up afterwards.

Life in the suburbs was almost too perfect. There were block parties and potlucks and parades, and when Tina became pregnant, women in the neighborhood walked around the manmade lake with her in the evenings and offered to go with her to Lamaze class if Alejandro didn’t want to. Of course he did want to. His parenting books were flagged with colored tabs and had notes penciled in the margins. He would never make baby food in a blender or carry a baby in a sling, but he was concerned with buying the right toys that would encourage proper intellectual development. He confessed to Tina that his own father had been distant, something he was determined not to replicate.

When she was six months pregnant, Tina got a phone call from Robin. She had heard Tina was married and had tracked her down online. Her friends gave her a baby shower. They bought her gifts wrapped in pretty paper that she couldn’t bear to throw away. Yolanda had brought a roll of toilet paper and they all had to guess how much it would take to wrap around Tina’s big belly. They were all married now, all happy with their adult lives, and none of them could remember why they had lost touch.

The baby was a girl, and Tina named her Henrietta. She was a serious little Buddha baby. Tina thought that this was how Alejandro must have been as a baby. Every day Tina noticed something new about Henrietta, some gesture or sound, and she was eager for Alejandro to come home so she could tell him about it. On the weekends, they would rent kid movies and sprawl out on the enormous orange sectional in front of the gas fireplace. Alejandro would make real popcorn, in a pot with oil, and a margarita for Tina. Afrika would dote over Henrietta, massaging her feet and carefully combing her wisps of hair with a pink plastic brush. During these moments Tina often thought about her mother. She wished her mother could see her in this new, luxurious life. It took some of the pleasure out of it—that her mother wasn’t around to regret not being the one to offer all this to Tina.

It was around Henrietta’s second birthday that Tina started feeling restless. Henrietta would be playing outside in the sandbox Alejandro had built for her, and Tina would wander through the house, trying to think of what to do. The other mothers on the block liked to push their strollers through Target, browsing the clearance racks, but Henrietta hated to be in a stroller—she hated to be anywhere except outside. Tina tried sitting outside with her, reading a magazine, but she couldn’t concentrate. She did her Pilates video every day, and prepared meals, and tidied up the house. With the completion of each of these chores she felt worse. When she felt really bad, she would leave Henrietta with the next-door neighbor and pick up Afrika early from school. She took Afrika for an ice cream, even though the girl was already too chubby. She had lost the gorgeous long legs that Tina had loved so much. Afrika didn’t care that she was overweight, or that she was falling behind from missing so many classes. She was always up for new adventures, she was always loud and cheerful, and she made Tina feel better.


One afternoon Tina showed up at Afrika’s school, but the secretary refused to call her out of class. She was taking an important test, the woman said, peering at Tina over the top of her gold-rimmed spectacles.

“It’s a family emergency. I need to see her,” Tina said.

The woman lowered her voice. “Every week it’s an emergency, Mrs. Hernandez. Just let the child alone.”

Tina’s face burned with rage and humiliation. She started yell, as her mother would’ve done, but the words caught in her throat. The woman gave her one last glare and turned back to her computer.

In the street she had a wave of vertigo. It was a hot day, the perfect day to take Afrika for an Icee in the park. But instead she was alone, her day was ruined, and she was so dizzy that she worried she might not make it to her car. She was passing a bus stop when the bus pulled up. The doors opened, emitting a blast of air-conditioned air, such delicious cool air that Tina found herself mounting the steps, rummaging in her purse for some change. She collapsed into a seat, tilting her head back to get the full effect of the cool air. She didn’t know where the bus was even going. She did not take buses anymore, but she remembered them. She remembered being on a bus as a small child with her mother—the heat, the stench of fish coming from the pink plastic bags carried by Chinese ladies, the unpleasant vibration beneath her feet. Tina used to close her eyes against all of it, hoping that when she opened them next, they would’ve reached their stop. Probably her mother still took buses everywhere—she could never keep a car running for long.

Tina almost expected to see her mother on the bus. She scanned the women’s faces. It had been almost nine years since she had seen her mother, and maybe she wouldn’t even recognize her face.

“Tina,” said a voice.

She looked up, startled, her heart racing. It was not her mother. It was some man she didn’t recognize, but who seemed to know her.

“It’s John,” the man said.

All the times she had imagined encountering John, it had never been on a bus. It had never been when she was hot and sweaty and feeling ill. She brushed her hair back from her face, worrying about whether her lipstick had rubbed off, whether her lips were chapped. He was looking right at her face, and it was making her blush.

“Stop looking at me,” she said.

“OK,” he said. He sat down beside her and stared at the ridged, rubber floor of the bus.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“I must have scared you,” he said.

He was thinner than before, his fingers longer and paler than she had remembered. His hairline was receding. He was wearing jeans and a red track jacket and boots. The top of his right boot was peeling away from the sole. He was such a pitiful sight that Tina wanted to hug him, to tell him everything would be fine.

“It’s so strange that I would see you,” he said. “Just this morning I was just thinking about that night with the kittens. Do you remember those kittens we found in the tire?”

She nodded, then covered her mouth with her hand and began to sob.

“Baby, what’s the matter?” he said.

“I must look terrible,” she said.

“You look just like yourself,” he answered, and held her small brown hand between his two long, pale ones.


Five months later Tina got a divorce from Alejandro, gave up Henrietta, and moved into the house where John used to live with his parents before they died. Tina snuck onto the school grounds and found Afrika at recess, and told her they were leaving. Afrika did not need to be convinced. It was a great adventure for a girl of ten—a meeting conducted in whispers, a suitcase stuffed with messy piles of clothes, a new house, ice cream whenever she wanted. She was getting very fat, but Tina could not deny her anything.

She expected Alejandro to fight her for Afrika, simply out of spite, but he didn’t. He was not anything like she’d expected. When she told him she was sleeping with John, he was silent for a few moments and then began brainstorming solutions. His voice shaking, he told her he understood, he forgave her, he was sorry for not realizing how much she was suffering. Obviously she was bored being a stay-at-home mom—maybe she would be happier with a job.

“Teeny, we’ll get past this,” he said.

“But there’s nothing to get past. This isn’t the past,” Tina said. She’d been so afraid to tell him—afraid of what wrath might be buried beneath his calmness—but now she felt embarrassed for him. She could not bear to look at his eyes, which were so full of pleading. Eventually he accepted the divorce, but he refused to say a word against her.

Her friends, on the other hand, were livid. Robin and Melissa defriended her on Facebook and would not return her calls. Robin went to the trouble of writing out a letter by hand, three pages of insults and accusations. Tina kept thinking she would write back and try to explain herself, but she couldn’t counter any of what Robin had said. She was a cheater, a slut, a selfish bitch, a demon, a pathetic excuse for a mother. She had abandoned her baby girl and her husband, who had rescued her when she was broke and alone. She was an embarrassment to her gender, to Mexicans all over the world, to humanity.

But she had John. She loved him desperately. His eyes, a foggy gray-blue, could see into her. When they made love she clutched at his shoulders and kissed him all over his neck and face.

“I love you, I love you, I love you,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” he said, but of course, she worried.

Her mother heard about the scandal through Yolanda, and she could not resist the temptation to come by and see what a mess Tina had made of her life.

She stood in the doorway of John’s parents’ house. Tina could see her critical eye taking in the plastic flower arrangements, the faded floral-print draperies, the sagging sofa.

“Don’t just stand there. Come inside,” Tina said.

“I can hardly see you, it’s so dark in here. You look like a shadow.”

Without greeting Tina, she strode over to the draperies and pulled them open. When Tina smelled her mother’s perfume, her body prickled with goosebumps and tears stung the corners of her eyes. It wasn’t fair, her mother wearing that same perfume, which smelled of Tina’s childhood.

“That’s better. You just needed more light.” Her mother stood in the middle of the room facing Tina, sunlight illuminating the sleeves of her red blouse. She was thinner now, and her clothes were nicer. Her hair was pulled back from her face in a way Tina had never seen before. She was not at all the same mother that Tina had been conjuring in her head all of these years—she was a lovely, fascinating stranger. It made Tina ache, how little she knew her own mother. And then a chilling thought occurred to her: that Henrietta would look at Tina someday and feel the same thing.

She could not permit herself to think of Henrietta. “Do you want to meet Afrika?” Tina asked her mother.

“Later. Let’s sit.”

They sat down on the sofa, sinking deep into the cushions, the same cushions on which Tina and John had created an almost-baby a million years ago.

“Tell me about you,” her mother said.

Tina couldn’t think of what to say. All the events of the past ten years were like a giant tangled knot in her head. To find even one end of the thread felt impossible. She said, “Too much has happened. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”

Mija, just start talking,” her mother said.


Jennifer Hurley’s fiction has previously appeared in Tidal Basin Review, Front Porch, The Mississippi Review, The Arroyo Literary Review, Stone’s Throw Magazine, Natural Bridge, Brain Harvest, Slow Trains, and of course, Toasted Cheese. Website: Email: jenhurley[at]

Concrete Love

Beaver’s Pick
Marchell Dyon Jefferson

I love NY & the Hand I'm Holding
Photo Credit: Jason L. Parks

I laugh at words. My mouth is open all the time. As I pass streets, not swell with petals, below a hazy city sun. When my face isn’t press to yours, I see a carnival of oil slick traffic kaleidoscopes. My vision blurs between bakery smells and armpit avenues that make my nose flare; on a very public bus, we get stares. A fat woman with her eyes dares us to stop what we’re doing, but like everyone else; she stares only long enough then leaves us alone. What a pair we are; a likely Romeo and Juliet and not like them at all. Our ebony faces defiant, making out in back seats. We are, all rev up in each tango taste, till saliva, melts away the tongue.


Marchell Dyon is from Chicago, IL. She has taken various poetry workshops; she is eternally addicted to audio books. She is currently working on her first chapbook. Her work has appeared in Ouroboros Review, West Ward Quarterly, Lily Review, and Corner Club Press. Email: marchelldyon[at]

A Photograph of Emma

Broker’s Pick
John Grey

Mother and Daughter 1950s
Photo Credit: Sam Salt

She finally settled on hat and dogs.
The canines were retrievers,
eager to be elsewhere I am sure,
pulling wounded ducks out of the water
or, wet with blood, from the long grasses.
And she parades the hat so confidently
atop her long dark hair
like she can’t imagine there would
ever come a time when women
no longer wear the blessed things.
It’s 1939, war breaks out in Europe,
Hitler’s army’s on the march,
but you wouldn’t know it
from the serenity of her face.
Her eyes widen.
Head tilts up.
A nondescript smile
creases her lips.
Fact is, I know more about her circumstance
than she does.
Four years on from that moment,
she loses a husband in France,
and only one of her three children
survives into the fifties.
It takes a resilient heart
to sit for a photograph like this.
But then again, I’m not posing


John Grey has been published recently in Echolocation, Santa Fe Poetry Review and Caveat Lector with work upcoming in Clark Street Review, Poem and The Evansville Review. Email: jgrey10233[at]

And Another Thing

Creative Nonfiction
Nathan Evans

To Do List
Photo Credit: Taylor Sloan

Despite all appearances to the contrary, I am very far from an ideal husband.

For a start, nothing is ever my fault. I realised this very early on in my marriage; something unfortunate would happen and my automatic first instinct was to find someone to blame who wasn’t me. When you live with someone, and it’s just the two of you, this process never takes very long and there’s only ever one result. Strangely, the idea that things might happen by accident or for no reason at all has not really caught on with me.

“I just tripped over that pile of magazines! Who left those there?” I might say, throwing an accusatory stare in for good measure.

“You did.” will come the reply, with only a slight hint of weariness. Remarkable, as it’s probably the hundredth time I have asked a question like that and the answer is always the same.

“Oh. Well, why didn’t you tidy it away?”

Of course, tidying away is only the right solution to things when I say it is. I want things that I don’t want or need tidied away (and not by me, either), but when they are things I want or need it’s a different story altogether. The heretical idea that objects might move from one category to the other as part of day-to-day life is another of my many blind spots.

“Where’s that letter from the hospital?” I might say the following day.

“I don’t know, why are you asking me?”

“I’m asking you because I put it on the table. And it’s not there.” Those final words will be deliberately weighted, as if to say without speaking that only one logical explanation exists for the object’s disappearance. This tends to be the point where I stand defiantly waiting for a confession—but one hasn’t come yet in seven years of cohabiting, and there’s no reason why it should start now.

“Did you properly look?”

I swear she says this to annoy me. It represents progress from the classics of my childhood, my mother asking Where did you last put it? or saying It can’t have gone far but nonetheless, it doesn’t fit with my clear picture of what has definitely already happened.

“Of course I properly looked. I always properly look. You’ve tidied it away, haven’t you? You always do this. Why can’t you just leave well alone? I know where my stuff is and then you tidy it away. Every single time!”

“Let’s have this conversation when you’re not being such a twat.”

I will find the letter minutes later on the table, underneath something else, in a location which would have been obvious if I had properly looked. When this happens, I will be shamefaced and penitent. I will try to pretend that it was invisible, or sneak it into my bag and hope she won’t ask about it. She does though, because I deserve to feel uncomfortable and we both know it. She will mention it the following day.

“Did you track down that letter from the hospital?”

“I can’t remember,” I will say, and then I’ll get a hard stare that says You’re not getting off that easily, I know perfectly well how good your memory is. “Oh, that. Yes, I think I did.”

“Where was it in the end?”

“Oh, you know. Around.”

“It was on the table, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was,” I will say, desperately trying to think of a way of saving the situation. I ought to just apologise, but I can’t help myself; after all, nothing is ever my fault. “I found it in the end after looking all over, and guess what? It was underneath some of your stuff. Why didn’t you tidy it away?”

Here is another thing I do: I start talking to her halfway through a conversation.

“So yes, we’ll definitely need to stop into Marks this afternoon.”

“Excuse me? What are you talking about?”

“Stop into Marks and Spencer. You know, to buy some salad to go with dinner tonight.”

“No, I don’t know. That’s the first time you’ve mentioned it. That first bit was just in your mind, wasn’t it? You do this all the time.”

It’s true; because there seems to be little or no boundary between what I think and what I say to her, sometimes it all blurs into one continuous conversation in my head. So I will be pondering something to myself while squinting at my mostly-shaved face in the steamed-up mirror, trying to work out whether I’ve missed a stubbly patch near my Adam’s apple, and when her face appears behind my reflection telling her the next thought in my mind seems like the most natural thing in the world. Apparently this is not endearing, it’s just very, very frustrating.

The converse also applies. I sometimes share only the start of a conversation with her.

“So…” I will say on a Sunday evening, standing over the ironing board and trying not to think too hard about the fact that the weekend is coming to an end. Ages will then pass in comfortable silence before she speaks next.

“So? Go on.”

That’s when I’ll realise that I had started thinking out loud but decided not to share the rest of my thought processes with her. The cogs continued to grind but my mouth stayed closed throughout. The remainder of the conversation has been with myself, and meanwhile she has sat there on the bed taking off her make-up, looking up at me with the strange sort of expectant expression you wear when you absolutely know you are about to be disappointed. Some spouses have a whole list of conversation topics that are off limits; their in-laws might be verboten, or money, or work, but everything else is fair game. By contrast, I’m prepared to talk about anything with my wife but there are huge random holes where instead I have the discussion with myself. It’s not deliberate, just haphazard and exasperating. And yet it’s women who are constantly accused of wanting their partners to be mind-readers.

If only the problems with my powers of communication stopped there, but I’m also a shocking listener. Sound travels through the air slower when I am involved. The rustling of clothes being taken out of a basket, shook out straight and hung on an airer takes minutes to traverse our long hall and make its way to the living room, takes just long enough in fact that by the time I stand up and walk to the spare room the very last item is neatly laid out on the very last white rod. The same thing happens over shorter distances, too; the clatter of dishes going into cupboards, the clank of a forest of teaspoons being planted in the dishwasher, the rumble of the sink filling with soapy water, they all take an eternity to trickle through the open doorway and make their way to the sofa where I am ensconced doing nothing.

When I do eventually get up and make my way to the only room where something is happening, the question I ask is always the same.

“Can I help?”

The reason that my wife has taken to starting things without me is that I have to be asked to do something again and again before it will actually happen. I plan to do it, honestly I do—just after I finish doing whatever I’m doing, although what I’m doing is never anything important. Whenever I’m asked, even if I am asked for the first time, I describe it as “nagging.” This means that the moral high ground is guaranteed to be mine, which is important as good intentions clearly matter far more than actual attainment. When I do eventually do what is asked I go back to her with an expectant face, like a dog that has brought you a stick you didn’t even want.

“Do you want a medal? There’s a lot that goes on in this house that you don’t know anything about.”

I know she’s right, but half of the time I’m not properly listening.

It’s not a problem with my hearing, because I had it tested a few years back. I remember sitting in a dark room—it was more like a cupboard, really—with a big clumsy headset on and a button in my hand which I was to press it every time I heard a noise. And there were so many noises; long low beeps, little short blips, sounds that seemed to be right up close and ones that I thought must be coming from miles away, even though the booth was only small. Every single one led to a push of my thumb on the button, led to a dot on a graph and a cross on a chart and between them they built up another view of what was supposedly going on inside my head. Afterwards, the nurse sat down with me and told me my hearing was perfect. I was so expecting the answer to be different, ironically, that I had to ask her to repeat herself.

I start things at the last minute. I am late for everything. I dawdle. Those three facts are all connected. I have big ideas at bedtime, and the wrong ideas too. As the main light goes off and the paperbacks are opened, I will decide it’s time to reorganise the photo albums, or work out what needs to go to the charity shop. I will be lively and animated when it’s a time for soft, quiet words or for no words at all. Even writing this now I get a clear picture of how irritating it must be to be around, and yet I don’t mean anything by it. I have had a whole evening to talk to her and haven’t done it anywhere near enough, and as the day draws to an end suddenly I can see all the things I should have done and I don’t want to be asleep, because being asleep means you’re awake and it’s the next day and time to go to work and be parted, and I don’t want that. And I think to myself It’s okay, it’s not too late.

“Why do you want to have a conversation now? It’s bedtime. It’s far too late.”

I ask rhetorical questions all the time, which I’m told is especially wearing. The worst one is this: “Aren’t you pretty?”

“I wish you wouldn’t say that. There’s no right answer. I can’t say yes because that’s vain and I can’t say no because that’s fishing for compliments.”

“There’s not meant to be a right answer. I was just saying you’re pretty, that’s all. I’m sorry, I forget, you find rhetorical questions really annoying, don’t you?”

She looks at me.

“Ah. That’s a rhetorical question too, isn’t it?”

It would be funny if it was deliberate but it isn’t, and that makes it even worse.

My dad told me once that the worst thing about his marriage to my mother was the three little words she would say when they argued: and another thing. They would argue about something, and the argument would stop and then my mother would say those magic words like a coin dropping into a slot and the jukebox of recrimination would start up again. And another thing. And another thing. And another thing. Does it make it better or worse that I already know what my list of another things would be?

I mention to my wife that I’m thinking of writing a piece about how tiresome I am to live with. It becomes a running joke over the course of a week or so, whenever I do something she doesn’t like, which is quite often. “Is that in there already?” she says. In many cases, it wasn’t; this piece could easily have been four times longer, and maybe if I was a better listener it would be.

I can tell looking back on it that I’ve missed out so much. Doing half a job because the second half of the job is too difficult. Leaving the fridge door open when I’m in the kitchen doing things which do not involve the fridge. Putting off making phone calls or doing emails and pretending to be helpless when the truth is that I just don’t want to do things I don’t like the look of. Deliberately mispronouncing words for comic effect all the time when it wasn’t even funny first time around. Leaving my boots lying around in the living room, or in the hall, or anywhere else where they are an accident waiting to happen. Leaving the cupboard doors open when I’m in the kitchen doing things which do not involve the cupboard. I leave things open all the time, not all of them literal.

We’ve been married for seven years and she makes me so happy that I can’t begin to express it, but I find myself thinking about just how much happier we could be if only I was perfect. We would be in the Guinness Book of World Records and on all the chat shows, the official Happiest Couple In History, but we’ll never make it and it’s all my fault. We’ll have to settle for being extraordinarily happy, or at least I hope we will.

One night last week we were sitting side by side staring at something on my laptop, and the page was taking ages to load.

“Did you know that when you’re waiting for your computer to do something you constantly move your mouse pointer round in circles?”


“You do it all the time. It’s not going to make anything happen any faster. You should put that in your list.”

I told her I would. It seemed like the least I could do.


Nathan Evans lives in the United Kingdom and has been writing for about three years. He’s had work published in Esquire, decomP, The Pygmy Giant and Hippocampus, and his regular CNF blog Mr London Street has been shortlisted for “Best European Blog” at the Bloggies for the last two years running. Email: nathanevans101[at]

Crying Cancer

Creative Nonfiction
Hayley Cooper

Open Window
Photo Credit: Deann Barrera

I was only a Nurse’s Aide at the nursing home for a little over one month when I saw someone die.

The first week of work wasn’t so bad. Here’s how you make a bed, here’s how you feed pureed peas, here’s how you dress them, bathe them, care for them. That was easy. The second week, they took me upstairs to do it on real people. It was harder then. The beds looked sloppy, pureed peas slid down the front of my new Mickey Mouse scrub top, some of them refused to wear clothes at all, none of them liked showers. It was hard to care for the creatures… or to get rid of the guilt I felt for thinking of them like that. But it wasn’t until I watched a woman die that I realized just how difficult this job would be.

Her name was Rosemary. She’d recently come to the nursing home from the hospital. She came to die. The other CNAs and I were told to try to make her comfortable. I tried, really I did, but the other CNAs told me that that’s what the doctor and nurses tell them as a matter of principle. It’s not really possible, especially for a cancer patient like Rosemary.

My grandmother died of cancer just before I turned five. I was too little to go to the Intensive Care Unit, so I sat with Dad in the cafeteria and ate cinnamon ice cream. Later that night, my brother, who was big enough to go to the ICU, told me stories about Grandma and her room. He said that Grandma didn’t have any hair. I didn’t believe that because Grandma had always had perfect hair—brown and wavy and never tangled like my own dirty blond hair always was. I know now that Grandma wore a wig for almost two years to keep from scaring the grandchildren. He also told me about Grandma’s sausage fingers. I giggled at that. He said the medicine made her look all swollen, like a balloon that had taken in one too many breaths. But I hadn’t believed that, either.

Then, he told me the scariest part—the thing that caused nightmares for weeks. He told me about the curtains. They were a pastel blue or green, it was hard to tell which. And they were closed. “Nah… no way!” I exclaimed. Grandma had lived on a farm her whole life. She loved the outside, even when she was inside. I had seen her on many occasions sitting in the window seat with a book in her lap. I never saw her actually read. Grandma sat, looking out the window, watching the birds, smiling at squirrels. When I asked her what she was doing, Grandma grinned and said, “Just watching the corn grow!”

He told me that when Mom bent to pray and Grandma closed her puffy eyelids, he went to the curtains and pulled one aside. It was heavier than he thought it would be, but when it finally gave, he lifted his chin and looked through the thick glass. Brick. That’s all he saw, he said. Just brick. A window that opened to a wall—no way out. He screamed and started to cry then, so Mom swept him up and took him to the cafeteria for cinnamon ice cream.

When someone dies, the other CNAs told me, you have to open the window or their spirit won’t leave the room. That’s what they said, but I know now that that wasn’t exactly true. It was the smell. It seemed so cliché—The Smell of Death. But it’s really there and for once the cliché is accurate. The dying woman had had cancer for so long that it had finished eating up her insides and was munching its way out of her yellowish, waxy body. It made oozing yellow-and-white sores all over her chest and back. The sores had opened one day and never scabbed over. Blood, pus, and life just ran out on the sheets and no matter how many times the sheets were changed and the woman was bathed, the smell of rotten skin and pus never quite left the room.

But when Rosemary died, I was in the room helping the charge nurse change her IV. The nurse had removed the first IV because the wasted woman’s vein had collapsed, cutting off her supply of morphine. Now, the nurse was poised with the needle, ready to insert it, but set it down on the bedside table. She frowned and put her fingers on the woman’s wrist. Her frown deepened.

“Go get the blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope and tell me if this lady is an orange dot,” the nurse said softly.

I jogged to the nurse’s station, grabbed the cuff and stethoscope and pulled Rosemary’s chart. The orange dot, the Do Not Resuscitate code, was affixed to the front. I looked, then again, then one more time to make sure it was Rosemary’s chart and the orange dot wasn’t my imagination. As I looked, the realization smacked me in the face. Rosemary was dead.

I called out to Mike, another CNA walking down the opposite hall, and told him to go to room 272 and prepare for post-mortem care. I went to the closet behind the Nurse’s Station, unlocked it, and hauled out the EKG machine. I thanked God it wasn’t my job to notify the family.

I learned about the procedures you have to go through when someone in a nursing home dies. Death is defined as a lack of vital signs. I searched Rosemary’s wrist for any sign of a pulse. I didn’t find a pulse, and I tried to ignore Rosemary’s eyes as I fit the blood pressure cuff around the limp arm, positioned the stethoscope above the brachial artery, and began pumping. The needle on the dial didn’t waver once as it traveled back to zero. I never heard the lub-dub of a heartbeat. I shook my head at the nurse and Mike, who came in during the procedure. He started applying the adhesives from the EKG machine to different parts of Rosemary’s body: her wrists, her elbows, her feet.

I looked away and began running water in the sink to get it warm. I looked at myself in Rosemary’s mirror. I marveled at how calm I looked, how together I appeared to be when my insides were alternately falling to my feet and then springing back up into my skull. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“Flat line,” the nurse said quickly. She and Mike began removing the adhesives. I moved a basin into the sink to catch the now too-warm water, turning on the cold and adding soap. When it was almost full, I threw several washcloths into the basin, grabbed four or five towels and turned to face Mike and Rosemary. The nurse left with the EKG machine to notify the doctor, family, and funeral home.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes for a little longer than a blink, and stepped forward.

“Are you gonna be okay?” Mike asked. This was unusual. He usually gave me a bunch of crap, but now he seemed sincere.

“Yeah. I think so,” I answered. “My first time.”

“Oh,” Mike responded. “You never forget your first time. I still remember mine. A man named William. Colon cancer.”

I smiled thinly and set the basin on the bedside table. Mike pulled Rosemary’s hospital gown off as I pulled the sheet up to keep the dead woman covered. I wondered if it mattered. It did.

“Wait!” Mike said. He jogged over to the window and pushed it open.

A blast of cool air hit my face as I raced to the tiny bathroom. I hadn’t realized that the Smell was that strong until I breathed fresh air. I fell to my knees and began heaving into the toilet, thinking of all the people who sat there and what they did. I wished I could vomit, but I hadn’t had my supper break yet. The cool air was so light. The air near Rosemary was heavy, thick, like breathing melted cheese. I heaved again and again.

After eternity, I wiped my mouth, dried my eyes on my sleeve, went to the sink, washed my hands, put on fresh gloves, and returned to Rosemary. Mike had waited for me.

I began gently washing Rosemary’s chest, careful of her sores. Mike washed her face, then put his fingers on her eyelids and held them down. After a few seconds, he removed his fingers. The left eyelid slowly rose again. I, trying not to look at that blue, staring eye, moved on to wash an arm, lifting it oh-so-carefully, and replacing it softly on the bed. Mike washed her other arm. We both got fresh washcloths. We washed her stomach and her legs. Clean washcloths. Feet and in between toes. Clean washcloths. Her vagina. Clean washcloths. Mike rolled Rosemary toward him. Her back. Clean washcloth. Her buttocks. Clean washcloth. The backs of her legs. We were careful to cover whatever we weren’t washing and to dry immediately whatever we had washed. Habit, I suppose, nothing more.

But that eye was watching and I didn’t want to do anything that would disappoint her.

Neither of us spoke.

Mike rolled her back onto her backside and I went to the closet to get an adult diaper. When someone dies, they lose all muscle control, including control of the sphincter. CNAs put diapers on every dead person, even if they never wore one while alive. We changed the sheets and pillowcase, put a fresh gown on her body and pulled the sheet up to her chest. I raised the head of Rosemary’s bed so the face wouldn’t discolor before the family viewed the body and Mike succeeded in getting the other eye to stay shut. I combed Rosemary’s hair carefully; a difficult task, since it was falling out. Before leaving the room, Mike closed the window. We de-gloved and washed our hands. I sighed and Mike put his arm around my shoulders.

“Don’t cry now,” he whispered. “If the family comes in, you don’t want them to see you cry. You never cry in front of doctors or families.”

I felt my chin tremble, but I didn’t cry.

I didn’t cry.

I cried at my grandmother’s funeral, not because I understood death or even recognized the lady in the casket as my grandmother. I was confused about that. It didn’t look like Grandma in the casket. Somebody had made a terrible mistake, I had thought.

I cried because I saw my mother cry. When you are only five, mothers are supposed to be strong and supportive. I’d never seen my mother cry. I didn’t know that she could. Something terrible must have happened to make Mom cry.

It was wrong, all wrong. Mothers weren’t supposed to cry. Mothers are invincible, strong, comforting to others who cry, but never actually crying themselves. I burst into tears then. My two aunts crowded around me, trying to console me with comforting sounds and stories of how we’ll all meet again in Heaven. I was crying too hard to tell them that I wasn’t crying for Grandma, but for Mom.

It has been two-and-a-half years, since Rosemary died. I have done post-mortem care on an innumerable number of residents in the nursing home. I have even played Mike’s role several times, comforting newbies and instructing them as to what is acceptable and what is not. I have never forgotten Rosemary. Or my grandmother. I haven’t forgotten the nursing home, or the charge nurse who was with me that day. I will always remember that smell. I even remember the generic name of the funeral home director (John Anderson) who came to “collect the body.”

But the thing that sticks out in my mind more often than all of that other stuff is the window. I’m still not sure I believe the story of “open the window or their souls won’t leave.” I kinda think that maybe the window is more symbolic than anything else. You know, new beginning, a release, whatever you want to call it. Sometimes I go into that room and just look out that window. If it’s open, I close it. I look into my own eyes and the trees beyond them. I imagine Rosemary’s face there. I imagine Grandma. I see my mother, red-faced, puffy-eyed, helpless.

And, finally, I cry.


Hayley Cooper is a 28-year-old housewife who has had many jobs and many life experiences. She is grateful for these opportunities, as they afford her the possibility of great writing. Hayley studied English at Truman State University in Kirksville, MO, and has had poetry published in a campus-wide magazine. She is also an avid reader with two dogs. Email: cooper.hayley11[at]