Cancer Pirates

Fiction
Julianne Pachico


New Plant! Yes!
Photo Credit: Margaret Shear

She would have never guessed that radiation for prostate cancer didn’t make you lose your hair. That’s what she wanted to tell him when he opened the Volvo door, but as usual she lost her nerve and kept her mouth shut. Instead she just plopped herself down on the passenger seat, on top of all the random crap he called his “office supplies”: the Walgreens pharmacy bags, the Depends receipts from Walmart, the pages of stapled medical documents.

“Oh, wait!” he said. “Just, um. Nevermind.”

He drove away like he was perfectly okay with everything.

Now they were parked outside the plant nursery, the engine still running as he ran inside to get something: more suet for the birdfeeder, a thermometer for soil, fuck if she knew. Dealing with nature was his thing, in the same way that writing Yelp reviews of restaurants she’d never been to was hers. She kept her eyes on the dashboard clock: if he came back in the next five minutes, and they didn’t hit too many red lights, they’d still be able to make it to the radiation session on time. He liked going to the early morning ones because you’d see fewer of the worst cases. “Dying people are late risers,” he’d said once, cracking his knuckles in the waiting room, and she’d looked up at the ceiling and asked him if he thought Cosmopolitan magazine was sexist. The Walgreens bag squeaked every time she moved her butt.

In order to feel like a nice considerate girlfriend instead of a stupid useless one, she started pulling out papers out from beneath her and tossing them in the back. It felt good to just throw shit everywhere, like she just plain did not give a fuck. It was especially delicious when the coffee-stained WinCo receipt hit the window’s bull’s-eye. WinCo was where the cashier had asked her if she’d liked to make a donation for cancer, forgetting to say “research.” “For cancer? I’m against, motherdick.” She’d left without grabbing her pennies from the little cup.

They were already in Week 3 and she still had no idea what it was like. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to ask him. Was it a laser beam they shot at his body, a giant cancer zapper? How did it know how to detect tumors? Did they light up on his body like a Christmas tree? She used her fingernails to pick the loose dimes off the floor.

Or maybe it was a big machine that they wheeled you into on a gurney, like on those medical TV shows she couldn’t watch anymore: a black machine, beeping and blinking. Maybe being inside was peaceful, like a meditation retreat, a way to finally get away from it all. Or maybe it was like being inside a coffin. Maybe designing it that way was the medical establishment’s way to prepare you to be dead, a sick kind of heads-up. Doctors. She wanted nothing to do with them. She yanked on a Google map so hard it ripped.

The last thing she pulled out was a thin pamphlet. She held onto it for a second because it had those sharp pointy edges that were perfect for cleaning fingernails, but then stopped and stared. It was a pamphlet for a Catholic liturgy, with a big picture of Jesus holding his arms towards her: angry or ecstatic; it was hard to tell. What did liturgy even mean—was that the thing you put in your mouth?

Before she had time to think or even curse, there came a rapping on the window. She looked up with the same guilty expression she’d had that one time he’d caught her drunk and jerking off in the car, late at night waiting for him to get back from the ATM. Now he was standing there with a big grin, his arms bear-hugging a giant plant in a black plastic pot.

She leaned over to open the door for him. “What… who?” It was hard to decide what question to ask first. He leaned in and shoved the plant in the backseat. Some soil spilled onto the crumpled medical documents.

“Come on lover, don’t you remember?” He wiped his hands off on his jeans, a gesture she hated: it made putting hand sanitizer on so useless. “I told you all about these trees. You know, from my childhood?”

He pulled off a leaf and waved it in front of her face. She stared at the single drop of milky liquid that had formed on the stem, swollen between his fingertips.

“Come on now,” he said, starting to frown. “Don’t tell me you don’t remember. We called them lecheros—milkers. Ficus leaves always have that little white drop on the stem when you pull them off.”

“I must have been drunk when you told me,” she said.

It was a mean thing to say and they both knew it. He got into the car without speaking and they drove away. She didn’t want to tell him how it had scared her, him waving that drop of liquid in her face like that. It had almost pulsed; it seemed so clean and alive. She hated that plant already, so pure and organic, sitting there on the ripped leather seats. She could feel it judging her, especially the pumpkin ashtray rolling around in the back trunk every time the car took a turn (neither of them had smoked since the diagnosis). That white liquid squeezed between his fingers had looked like something leaking out of him, getting lost.

While waiting at the stoplight, she touched his arm. “Lover,” she said. “I don’t remember the ficus, but I remember the story about the rubber tree. Didn’t you guys hack it with your little plastic swords, because you loved seeing the rubbery liquid come out? And then it died because you cut it up so much, and you felt so guilty about it.”

“Our swords were sticks,” he said, his eyes never leaving the road. “We didn’t run around with Thundercat swords in Medellín, not like you lucky guys here in Portland.”

“Ha, ha.” But she could feel it, him forgiving her the way he always did, like something warm spilling in her lap.

As he pulled onto the freeway she shoved the pamphlet deep into her purse. “I remember what games you guys played too,” she said, using the clean nails on one hand to clean the dirty ones on the other. This had become one of her favorite things to do, especially in the waiting rooms with the really uncomfortable chairs. It was almost as good as a vacation. “You guys played pirates. I was never into piracy. I really liked Napster when it first came out, though.”

“Mm.” He opened his mouth wide and let out a long burp that sounded like saying “aaah” at the dentist. Did he understand the Napster reference? She suddenly had that one thought she usually only got lying awake at night, up too late yet again from writing fake Yelp reviews: Who is this old man, lying in bed with me? How did I get here?

“Do you think I would get along well with the Somali pirates?” she said in a voice loud enough to chase the thought away. “I heard on the radio the other day that they’re the best group to kidnap you, because they have the lowest number of deaths among their victims.”

He swerved sharply into the next lane, scaring her a little, though she didn’t show it. Hiding her feelings was one of her best skills, besides staring down people in bars who made racist comments or asked if he was her father. “Does your dad always buy you that many tequila shots?” they’d ask.

“I think Mexico has the highest death rate, which doesn’t surprise me.” She hadn’t even finished the sentence before he let out another burp, a long one this time that went on forever, a sustained musical note at the opera. He groaned softly once he finished. She tried to hold her breath so that she couldn’t smell it.

“Remember that story you told me in Bogotá?” He almost hit an orange traffic cone and she had to press her lips together. “The one about that girl and her mother who were kidnapped at gunpoint, and then their kidnappers just drove them around in a car for hours?”

He shook his head, still not looking at her. Another foul smell was filling the car, deep and eggy, and she tried breathing through her mouth as quietly as possible. If you could view smells under a microscope, would this one be a mustardy yellow or a rotten egg greenish brown?

While he parked the car at the hospital she tried to make a lot of noise rummaging in her purse so that he wouldn’t be conscious of how she could hear his diaper rustling. When he got out she threw her head back and studied the broken sunroof intensely so that he wouldn’t see her noticing the wet patch on his jeans.

“I do remember,” he said at the same time that she slammed the door so hard the whole car shook. Somebody standing far away by a garbage can said, “Whoa, lady!”

“What?” Her voice still sounded like motherdick.

“The story in Bogotá.” He stood in front of the hospital the same way he drove: calm and undeterred, his hands steady.

“The daughter told me,” he said, “that what scared her most wasn’t how the gunman slapped her mother’s face every time she spoke. She said the worst thing about the experience was the way the driver’s hands shook uncontrollably at the wheel. That’s what gave them away as amateurs. Nothing like real pirates. Yeah.” He smiled. “At least for my near-death experience I’m in the hands of something that knows what it’s doing.”

“No,” she said. “You’re not!” She was thinking of the tumor, bursting inside him like flowers pushing out of the earth. She opened her mouth to say something distracting but something else came out instead: “Did you go to church and not tell me?”

“What?”

“The next time you go,” she said. “Tell me. So that I can come with you.”

He started rubbing his beard. She wanted to start cleaning her fingernails so badly it was like she could taste it, but she forced herself to keep her hands still and at her sides.

“Just maybe,” she said. “If you feel like it.”

“OK.” His voice sounded small. He reached out and pulled her by the elbows into a hug.

She didn’t want to say it out loud, not then, but what he didn’t know is that she’d been a pirate for weeks now. She’d been sailing the Internet seas and attacking the message board harbors. She had raided and scavenged all the information that the two of them would ever need. She had Prostate Cancer 101 sheets and FAQs printed out and tossed back in the car somewhere with the flattened Lucky Strike cartons. When the time was right and she felt brave enough to actually do it, to sit down and finally have the conversation, she would pull them out. She knew all about interpreting PSA test results. She knew it was good news for a Gleason score to be under 7. She had so much information about Chinese nutrition and hot and cold foods, he’d be blown away. She even had a list of punchlines about digital rectal exams.

She wasn’t ready for that just yet though. For now it was nice to just be held by him in the parking lot. But it was weird to suddenly think of the tumor only inches away from her, growing steadily away, alive and organic. She felt sorry for it all of a sudden. Stupid tumor. What did it think it was doing? Didn’t it know that if he died, it would die too? And yet it didn’t have a choice. All it knew how to do was grow. It was just nature and stuff. She suddenly remembered the words she’d glimpsed on the pamphlet right before shoving it away, the long cursive words drooping up and down: Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

She would tell him the good news about not losing his hair later. For now, she pressed herself against his body as hard as she could, hard enough so that there was maybe a tiny chance she could squish it out of him, just like that. Squish it hard.

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Julianne Pachico lives in Norwich, England and tries to blog at never-stop-reading.com. Email: pachicoj[at]gmail.com

Missing Notes

Fiction
Hall Jameson


Piano
Photo Credit: Nikos Koutoulas

Henry’s last suicide experiment was at the end of January. His sister, Mia, discovered him slumped over the kitchen table in his apartment, cheek resting in a pool of vomit. Six weeks later, while she sat at her piano, Joplin, musing over notes and phrases, Henry reappeared. He entered her house without knocking, as was his style.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey.”

“Heard you and Joplin talking. Sounded nice. Manilow?”

“Very funny,” Mia said, holding back a smile. “Ravel.” She studied her brother’s face, pale cream, eyes underscored by dark seams, chin covered with rusty stubble. “You look like hell,” she said.

“Thanks. Nice to see you too, sis,” he said, chuckling.

“How was rehab?”

“It was surprisingly helpful. Got a new plan.”

“Really? Does it involve sticking your head into an oven?”

“Nobody kills themselves that way anymore, Mia.”

“Oh sorry, I’m not wise in the way of contemporary suicide methods,” she said, staring at him coolly. “I’m glad you got some help, but I’m still pretty pissed at you.”

“I’m sorry. I wish I could explain, but it would sound lame.”

“Try me.”

“Okay.” He sighed and examined his fingernails. “I guess I’m just trying to figure a few things out.” He paused. “I wish I was more like you. That I could disappear into music the way you do—the way Dad did. I know you discover something special in the sounds, and you affect those listening and don’t even realize it. That is an amazing gift. I envy it. You’re connected to him in a way that I never will be.”

Mia shook her head. “So by trying to kill yourself, you feel more connected to him? What a load of crap. It’s been ten years since he died. At some point, we just have to move on and try to live a better life. I doubt we’ll ever know why he did it, since he didn’t bother to leave a note. Music certainly hasn’t told me why; it just makes me feel better.”

“No, there’s more to it than that. You uncover something when you play. Dad did too. Outside your playing, I never discover anything that surprises me. I never find answers.”

“You swallowed a bottle of pills and drank a fifth of bourbon, what does that have to do with finding answers? I think it has more to do with being a coward, and disregarding everyone who loves you, which is exactly what Dad did!” Mia stared at the sheet music in front of her, lips drawn, blinking back tears.

“I see something in that moment before everything fades; a glimpse of something more. It’s hard to explain…”

“Seven so-called experiments in the last ten years. You are eventually going to screw up and it will be permanent, and still you’ll have no answers. I’ll be left alone to fade away, just like Mom did.”

“You’re stronger than that, Mia.” Henry watched her with shining eyes. “You’re stronger than both of them.”

“So are you, brother.”

He nodded, wearing a slight smile. “I’m going to make a change for the better, I promise.” He grew quiet, eyes on her. Mia traced the black keys with her index finger, but did not play. Henry punched her arm playfully. “So, what have you been up to? You meet anyone interesting while I’ve been away?”

“Nice subject change. Very smooth.”

“Come on! Enough heavy stuff. I haven’t talked to you forever. I want to know what’s been going on.”

“Let’s see, there’s Sam at the rec hall. Joseph at the old folk’s home. Eric at the community theater…”

“Not pianos, Mia, men. Are you seeing anyone who is actually human?”

“Why would I want to do that?” she said. “Men aren’t nearly as interesting as pianos.”

“You’re a little disturbed.” He laughed. “If the pianos didn’t talk back so incredibly well, I’d really worry about you.”

“Oh, I’m a little disturbed?” she said, and Henry grinned. “You hear that Joplin?” She placed her fingers lightly on the keys. “We’ve got something to say about that, don’t we?” She began to play Chopin, glancing once at Henry. His eyes were closed, head tilted to one side, face smooth, listening. She ended the piece with a couple bars from “Copacabana” and he grinned.

He looks so much like Dad.

Mia returned her focus to Joplin, rolling into a Haydn Sonata, closing her eyes. When she opened them again, Henry was gone.

*

It was May, two months since Henry’s disappearance. Mia ran her fingers along Joplin and examined the dusty smudge on her fingertips. She had not touched him since Henry’s disappearance, not even to lift the key cover and run her finger along the keys.

There were no answers under there.

*

June. The evening was warm and pleasant, crickets sang as the heat made way for the cool ocean air. Mia walked to fill the waiting space, otherwise her mind would crawl to unspeakable places: Henry hanging by a rope from the stout branch of an Oak tree; Henry pale and dead in a small town motel; Henry locked in the garage with the engine running…

She paused in front of The Candlestick, a divey Italian joint trying to be hip, succeeding in being tacky. A man sat alone at a table in the window, his hair, strawberry-blonde. He looked up and caught her gaze, his eyebrows raised. He nodded to her.

I am harmless. I am lonely. Please sit with me.

Mia pushed through the front door of the restaurant, staring at the man. He was older than Henry; the nose too pointy, eyes blue instead of dark brown, but the hair was exactly the same cut and color.

She stopped short when she noticed a boxy form over the man’s shoulder. A Boston upright from the 1920s sat against the back wall, a dashing instrument with clean lines and firm shoulders. She took a step forward.

What is such an exquisite creature doing in this place, tucked away in the corner where no one speaks to it?

The man at the table rose, smiling. He extended a hand, but she brushed past him.

She discovered his name was George—the piano, not the man—and they bonded immediately. She and George discussed Vivaldi for thirty minutes and when they finished their conversation, the restaurant had become true to its intentions.

Stay close with old friends. Don’t let them gather dust, George whispered between the notes. Mia left the restaurant perplexed, while the cheeks of the other patrons were rosy, even the man remained, alone at his table, smiling faintly. She barely heard their applause as she slid out the front entrance.

Henry was wrong about finding answers in music. George, though spirited and bright, had not revealed any helpful information, only more questions.

*

July. The days drifted by since Henry’s disappearance, Joplin, silent, solemn, and ignored. Then Mia made a hopeful discovery: she found Henry’s shotgun in his apartment, wrapped in a quilt and tucked in his bedroom closet. This discovery erased one of several horrible scenarios from her imagination.

The discovery of the shotgun put Mia in a daring mood, and during her evening walk, she ventured into the mansion district, passing one Victorian after another. At the end of the block, she heard laughter and happy banter as she approached a sprawling, three-story structure, painted dark green with blue-and-gold trim. People milled about the wraparound porch dressed in long gowns and black jackets. Mia wandered up the front steps, drawn by the warmly lit interior. A thin woman with the bulging wide-set eyes and long face of a Nubian goat, nodded to her, eyeing her sweatpants and hoodie with a thin smile. She slid past the woman toward a large oval mirror with a gilded frame, and for a moment, her mother stood there, looking back at her, tired and drawn. Then, something else in the mirror caught her attention.

An old mahogany upright sat against the far wall of the parlor, with a lovely carved front and ivory keys. He had to be at least seventy-five years old! She exhaled and wormed her way through the crowd over to him.

A small placard rested on the piano—antique, please do not play! She tossed the placard to the floor and lifted the key cover, the action a secret thing. What came next, even though it was between her and Victor, the name he whispered to her when the key cover rose, could not remain a secret.

She sat on the worn leather cushion and rested her fingers on the keys. She struck the first chord, and the conversation flowed—he was a dashing old boy, and a bit of a devil!

He told her about his life at the mansion. The owners traveled often, but when they were home, the house brimmed with activity. He enjoyed conversing with the owner’s young children, their rhythmic banging—his laughter.

Some say this place is haunted.

People often heard music coming from the mansion when no one was home, but it was only Victor. He spoke to the dusty drapes, the overstuffed chairs, the grandfather clock that chimed every hour, and the mice that scurried inside the walls. They were all his friends.

I would gladly welcome a ghost too, as long as he or she played.

They ended their discussion with Chopin, perfect conversation for this particular crowd, whose own discussions ceased as they eavesdropped on Mia and Victor’s intimate musings.

Mia, don’t let the things right in front of you disappear into the familiar, you may miss something important.

“What?” Mia said, as the conversation ended. She stood, frowning slightly. The sound of applause filled the room. She turned and smiled shyly at the partygoers jammed into the room behind her. A hand fell upon her upper arm, squeezing, and the Nubian-goat-woman guided her from the room, smiling brightly at the other guests. She guided Mia out the front door, her narrow face no longer friendly.

“I don’t know who you are, but you were not invited to this function. How dare you barge in here,” she chuffed. “That piano is an antique. You could have damaged it. I really should call the police.”

“Every piano longs to be played, not tucked away in some back room to collect dust. Victor is no different!”

“Victor? What on earth are you talking about?”

Mia shook her head and jogged down the steps, leaving the woman in her wake. Victor would be okay. Their conversation echoed in her head as she walked. When she arrived home an hour later, she ran her fingers over Joplin’s key cover, but did not raise it. Instead, she took Henry’s shotgun and sat on the couch, pressing the cool steel against her cheek, closing her eyes.

“Where are you, Henry?” she whispered.

*

August. It was early morning, but warm already. The air was heavy as she walked through the sleepy streets.

Still no word from Henry.

Still no words with Joplin.

Mia, tetchy from a lack of sleep, longed to talk with Paul, one of her oldest friends.

She pushed open the heavy side door of the cathedral. The early morning light seeped through the stained-glass windows, creating pastel smudges on the gray tile. She rushed to the altar, past the pulpit, and found Paul there, in his proper place, beneath the rose window. He was a humble spinet, overshadowed by the clunky pipe organ. Mia frowned at the organ—whiny, impudent, attention-craver!

She pulled up to Paul and ran her fingers over his keys. She caressed Middle C, applying gentle pressure, smiling at the most familiar of sounds. Her other fingers made their selections, and she and Paul discussed Bach, Handel, a little Scarlatti, but not Debussy, not here, never here. After a while, they progressed to a comfortable silence. She leaned her head on the arch of his music stand and let out a shaky sigh.

“I love you, Paul,” she whispered. Her eyes drifted to the main room of the church, where the pews should have been empty, but were not. The congregation murmured. One hundred faces looked back at her. Over her shoulder, Father O’Brien stood smiling, his hands clasped together. Mia’s cheeks grew warm.

“Hello, Father,” she said hoarsely.

“Hello, Mia.”

“Sorry, Father, I forgot it was Sunday.”

“That’s okay,” he said. “Please stay. We’re going to sing.”

“Thank you, but I really should go,” she whispered, getting up.

“Please come back again. I so enjoy hearing you play, even when you interrupt my sermon. Your notes are always lovely.”

Head lowered, she shuffled to the side door, bursting into the sunshine, a smattering of applause following her out the door. Moments later, singing floated from the interior of the cathedral, led by Father Obrien’s rich baritone. Mia leaned against a statue of the Virgin Mary and started to cry. Henry was gone. The pianos did not know where he was, they responded in frivolous tones. Life is perfect, Mia. Life is beautiful. Listen to us, we know the truth. Everything is going to be okay.

But Mia did not believe them. She believed her brother was dead.

*

September. The air smelled like snow. Henry had been gone for over six months. Mia walked downtown, catching her reflection in the broad window of a corner pub called the Moosehead Bar. Her hair sprouted from her knit hat in frizzy waves, and her puffy winter jacket made her appear about thirty pounds heavier than she actually was. She looked a little like her stout neighbor, Mrs. Tubac, who Henry always called “Mrs. Tuba.” She laughed, but the sound caught when she spotted a familiar bulk inside the bar. She pressed her face to the glass, the tip of her nose pushing up into the snout of a pig. Her breath fogged the glass and she swiped at it impatiently.

The bar was crowded with Happy Hour customers. Several glanced at her—the strange tuba-pig-woman. The object that had caught her attention was against the far wall, but there were people in the way. She needed to get a better look.

The bartender, an attractive man with straw-colored hair and hazel eyes, nodded to her as she approached. She blinked, her cheeks growing hot. Over his shoulder, the head of a moose hung on the wall, a cigarette dangled from its mouth.

A real man, Mia. You should talk to him. Henry’s voice said from inside her head.

“Shut up!” she said.

“Pardon?” the bartender said.

“Oh… um… I’ll have a glass of milk,” she said. In the mirror behind the bar, her cheeks were the color of a beet.

“You got it,” he said. She stared at the moose until the bartender slid a frosted glass of milk toward her. She tried to smile, but her mouth crimped into a crooked line. She placed a ten on the bar. Placing the milk on a stool, she slid onto the piano’s bench, sweeping her fingers lightly over the chipped keys.

He was a charming old fellow. His name was Louis. Lou for short.

The conversation was easy. They bantered like old friends, discussing ragtime and the blues, and musing about Scott Joplin. They argued about Rachmaninoff, and disagreed very loudly over Beethoven—a discussion close to perfection. A cheer erupted when she struck the final notes, and she smiled at the eavesdroppers. She grinned at Lou; their lively conversation had lifted her spirits.

“Thank you, Lou,” she whispered.

She glanced at the bartender on the way to the door. He looked back with sparkling eyes.

“That was amazing,” he said. “I hope you come back and play for us again.”

“I will,” she said softly. “My brother would like this place.”

“I’ll have a glass of milk waiting for you.”

*

October. Mia retrieved the paper from the front step. Her skin prickled and she turned. The empty porch swing swayed in the autumn breeze. It felt like someone had been standing there just seconds ago. She shivered.

“Henry?” she said, eyes drifting to the garage. She had checked there right after Henry disappeared, but hadn’t been in there since. Suddenly she had a sick feeling.

She descended the porch steps, her breath creating frothy plumes in the crisp air. She pushed the side door of the garage open and the thick odor of exhaust assaulted her. The family station wagon was parked inside; her father slumped over the steering wheel.

Except it was not her father, but her brother.

“No!” she yelled, the sound snapping her back to the present. The garage was empty and clean, the walls void of any rakes, shovels, gardening tools. There was no vehicle parked inside. It was just as they had left it, years ago. She walked back to the house on quaking legs and went directly to Joplin. She swiped at the dust on his surface and spread a piece of sheet music above the keys, the paper whispering excitedly.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, lifting the key cover. She looked down and gasped. A folded slip of paper sat squarely on Middle C, Mia written on it in Henry’s handwriting. She ran her thumb across the writing, staring in disbelief.

Her hands shook as she unfolded the note. She read each precious sentence, eyes lingering on the last line.

Keep playing. I’ll be back soon.

“You knew where he was all this time,” she whispered to Joplin.

She pressed the letter to her chest, before refolding it and placing it on top of Joplin. Her fingers fell to the keys. Together, they discovered new notes and released them into the air.

There was a soft jingling behind her, and she spun around on the bench. A figure filled the doorway. The falling sun cast an orange glow around his head, making his hair appear on fire, but that was the true color, strawberry-blonde. Her father. Her father’s ghost.

No.

Her brother.
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Hall Jameson is a writer and fine art photographer who lives in Helena, Montana. Her writing and artwork has recently appeared, or is forthcoming in, Crossed Out Magazine, 42 Magazine, Redivider, and Eric’s Hysterics. When she’s not writing or taking photographs, Hall enjoys hiking, playing the piano, and cat wrangling. Email: halljameson[at]hotmail.com

Waiting

Fiction
Bea Chang


DMZ (7)
Photo Credit: Ben Kucinski

They all look the same. The Korean girls in uniformed navy skirts and white blouses, their faces oval like the petals of white lotus flowers, have placed themselves between Kenneth and Tony. At night, the schoolgirls let their silky hair fall down, rippling with silver halos, soft like the flow of Imjin River—giggling, all of them, high-pitched and unbroken when the two white men drape their hairy arms over their slender shoulders. They hold up two fingers, their porcelain skin pulled back into tight-lipped smiles.

I stare at the screen of the camera, and for a moment I am distracted by my own clownish reflection. I have allowed my beard to grow out, my cheeks so hollow I doubt my parents will recognize me—if they are looking for me at all. My legs shake under the table; it is a habit I used to hate about my younger brother, a restless, edgy energy that I considered it my duty to subdue, but I find that I have been doing it a lot lately too. I start snapping pictures before they are ready—click, click, click.

In the no-name gogigui here in a quiet seaside town, the Sunday night is bustling. Red meat and raw vegetables are sizzling on the grill. None of the roomful of Koreans pays us much attention; we have long been the only three foreigners in town. I push the button and the shutter flutters. It pisses me off that when the schoolgirl grabs her camera back, she studies the photograph without looking at me and walks away. Such is the way of the world, I know: In Malaysia they thought me the Norwegians’ walking guide; in Burma the Canadians’ hired driver. Somehow, without my knowing it, I have been condemned to a second-rate existence, relegated to an ancestral line of servitude. At least, my backpacker friends joked, you get into museums for free. I pick up the glass of soju and tilt it all the way back. The alcohol burns down my throat, swirls in my stomach, scalding and nauseating and wonderful.

I wave my metal chopsticks at Kenneth and Tony. I command, “Come on, let’s eat.”

Tony brushes back his wafer-thin hair and grumbles, “Great, back to school tomorrow.”

“Well, here’s to a good weekend away,” Kenneth says. He is a large, red-headed Australian with the physique of a former wrestler, thick-necked and plump-faced; yet, beneath that round curve of belly, he stands on a pair of legs so lean that his whole body seems to be built in the shape of an inverted stupa. Kenneth picks up a slice of meat I placed earlier on the grill and drops it into his lion-like mouth. “I can’t believe it took me so long to visit the DMZ. What a shame.”

Tony says, “It was surprisingly informational.”

Kenneth replies, “Seriously, mate. I had no idea. I mean, North Korea, what are you doing digging tunnels underneath Seoul? It’s not the 1950s anymore!”

“Yeah, but they don’t know that,” I tease.

Beside us, a party of young men, hunched over the table, elbow-to-elbow, raised their soju glasses and slurred, gunbae! Behind me, where the schoolgirls sit, I can feel their chairs trembling against mine, fits of giggles so rhythmic and beautiful and dark like the ringing of the Brahma bell.

Kenneth points at us with his chopsticks, using them for extra emphasis. “The guide was great. Gave us a little bit more insight to really see the world—really understand it, know it, you know what I mean?”

Silently, I am chuckling. I find it comical when Kenneth tries to provide some sort of a high-minded commentary, a wanna-be know-it-all, wisecracking in a philosophical way as if he was the only one trying to understand the universe.

Tony murmurs, “I didn’t know the Korean War is still going on. That’s kind of strange, interesting I guess, living in a country that’s still at war.”

“Ha!” Kenneth bursts out laughing, “Okay, America, when was the last time you weren’t at war?”

I open another bottle of soju and pour it into my glass, still stunned by the curious reappearance of the woman I seem to be following all over Asia. I noticed her earlier this morning when row-by-row all of us paying customers rose to file off the tour bus. Some angle of her face caught my eye, that dip in her chin I knew so well. She was alone, plain and unguarded, styling the red Aladdin pants that women travelers wore all over.

As we fanned out from the bus and dragged ourselves behind the guide toward the Reunification Monument, I kept my eyes on her, half-expecting her to turn around and embrace me. Beside me, Tony was grumbling about the Lehman Brothers and how since then, even with his master’s degree, he couldn’t find any jobs in the West. I’d heard all about it. So I sped up. I pushed through a bunch of college kids in jeans and sweatshirts yapping oh-my-God the North Koreans are coming to get us. I passed a family of seven or eight—also Americans, I knew right away—the grandfather sneezing with an explosive loudness, the little boy clinging onto his father’s shorts, his mouth pulled apart, cheeks wet, wailing about this and that, and the father shhhhh-ing him. I wondered if he would grow up to hate his parents too.

Two men, green-eyed and blonde with surfers’ faces, strolled beside the woman. There was a gap between them, a distance of strangers; yet, soon her head tilted up to one of them and she laughed. She touched his arm. I tried to speed up toward them, but Kenneth caught up to me and chuckled, Backpackers, he said, they’re the new Jews. The wanderers of the earth, cheapskates. They don’t know how to participate in the world—filthy, lost souls. I watched the other man lean toward the woman, saying something I could not hear.

In the gogigui, Tony asks me, “Dude, how much of that are you drinking?” His collared shirt is buttoned, as always, his face clean-shaven as if he is perpetually prepared for an interview. He picks up a can of Coca-Cola.

“Screw him, mate!” Kenneth places his fat palm on my back. “Drink up!”

Tony purses his lips, “We have to teach tomorrow.”

Kenneth says, “One thing that I’ve learned in three years is that in Korea, we drink!”

“I still can’t believe you’ve been here for three years. Aren’t you bored?”

“What’s not to love, mate? The booze, the food, the ocean, the women? Look at us! We’re educating the future of Korea!”

“Don’t you want to go back to your real life?”

Kenneth picks up a piece of meat, “Mate, you can go home whenever you want. No one’s stopping you.”

I glare at them, glossy-eyed. Kenneth’s smile is so gleeful and Tony’s so pained that I hardly believe we are altruistic and innocent, neither helpers nor bystanders to the plight of the world. My sense of the universe is growing dimmer—the black-hearted fury, a sort of melancholy rage, is catching up to me again. It has chased me all over the Asian continent with the quickness and ferocity of a dragon. Birthed sometime before it drove me from my own country, the creature—in whatever shape it assumed back then—came during those not-entirely-random strip-searches, those uniformed officers touching my legs up-and-down and the stares of all those people, at once sympathetic yet snickering, I knew, with a ha-got-you-Al-Qaeda laughter.

When Kenneth speaks again, I can see the chewed-up meat in the back of his mouth. “So the guide today told me that he thinks reunification will happen within five or ten years.”

“Bullshit,” I say, picking up a piece of kimchi. I watch as it leaves a trail of red dots all the way back to my plate.

“What, mate, you think it was all just propaganda? I mean, I guess one way or another, everything’s just people trying to inflict their view of the world on you.”

The expatriates look at me. I glance at the young waiter behind the counter. He looks like our guide at the DMZ. Or the driver in Mongolia. But maybe not. I say, “I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out.”

Lately, I am trying to remember my life before I started traveling. I know I must have had one—it was not that long ago: the long sunny days studying the human anatomy, sprawled out with my friends on the quad at Columbia and the wonderful nights dancing with my girlfriend under disco lights. But these images have the feel of a slideshow that belongs to someone I do not know. What I do remember, in whatever scatterbrained manner my mind seems to be functioning these days, is the Belgian woman and the Portuguese man in Mongolia approaching me in the hostel and asking in a heavy accent, Do you speak English? I replied with a sudden air of arrogance, I am American. They laughed, and soon invited me on their five-day journey into the steppes. We rode out from the crooked thing of a street in Ulaanbaatar. Through a haze of sand and exhaust, I saw women squatting on the side of the road, eyes dark and vacant, as well as a circle of chocolate-colored men shoving a defenseless Han Chinese, pushing him, enraged, for a thousand untenable reasons. But soon, we left all of that behind. Within minutes, we were driving through a flat, empty earth running for as far as I could see until the land bent away into the horizon.

After a while, our guide, a woman of nineteen or twenty, turned around from the passenger seat, and asked me where I was from. The United States, I said. But she insisted, No, where are you really from? I repeated that I was from the United States. The Belgian woman and the Portuguese man laughed. So the young guide, after she studied me up and down, touched my leg and asked me to marry her.

That night, we sat cross-legged around the fire pit in the ger and sipped on mugs of airag. I watched the Portuguese man place his hand on her knee, stroking it gently. When she told me about the summer she had spent on Long Island, I imagined him reach his hand higher up her thigh, caressing it. She said, laughing, the teenagers at the park asked if Belgium was a city and the oily sunbathers on the beach asked her why she spoke English. She raised her hand into the air, and the strings of bracelets fell down her elbow. Poor Americans, she chuckled, they don’t know any better.

I find myself laughing out loud.

Kenneth looks at me, “What is it, mate? What’s so funny?”

I shake my head. Nothing. Nothing is funny. Nothing and everything. The next afternoon that couple and I stood within the walls of a monastery banished to the forgotten interior of the continent. Except for a couple of temples, its grounds were bare and baked, soft and sandy like dirty flour. Three monks in gray robes nodded at us with the same sweet-strained smiles as the elderly villagers in Tibet, placid in acceptance and patience, as if they were offering us an object lesson in clarity. It is so empty here, the Portuguese man lamented. Our guide stepped toward us and said, This was the largest monastery in all of Mongolia. Ten thousand lamas lived here once, until the Soviet Union burned it to the ground. She lowered her head and walked on. The Belgian woman squinted at the cloud of dust whipped up and stirred, her Aladdin pants fluttering in the hot desert breeze.

I have to get up. I want to pace, but in the gogigui there is no room. I push my chair back, “I’m going to pee.”

Tony suggests, “Just wait until you get home. It’s a hole in the ground.”

“It’s called a squat toilet, man.” I feel the blood rush to my face when I move close to him, exhaling my alcohol breath on him, “We’re in A-s-i-a.” I stand up, stumble over the empty chairs at our table, almost fall down.

I remember a city somewhere in China with a half-paved, half-crumbling four-lane road lined by dull bunker-like concrete buildings. At a renovated hole-in-the-wall, one of the only air-conditioned spots in town, I sat across from a woman whose color could have been black or brown, yellow or white—I wasn’t sure. She laughed when I asked her about her ethnicity, tossing her dark curly hair backward. Maybe I’m purple. Maybe I’m orange. She said, I’m from Ottawa. She squinted at me, judging. You have no idea where it is. You must be an American. I laughed. Touché.

I listened to her stories, from living in the Sacromonte caves in Granada and hitchhiking through Iran in a hijab. Everyone tried to convert me! She cried, flinging her arms. They called me a soulless woman! But how can we—she asked—how can anyone, especially those of us who travel as much as we do, ever believe in one organized religion? Buddha or Confucius; God or Allah. Who the fuck cares? Maybe I believe in magic carpets, blue aliens. For fuck’s sake, maybe I believe in Dorothy and Toto and the Wicked Witch of the West!

Four travelers soon sat down with us and when they asked us where we were from, I shouted, proud and patriotic, America! She laughed, I’m from Canada. Yes, America! I added, aiming my thumb at her, but she’s orange and I’m purple. Laughing, she almost hit her forehead on the table. I swelled with warmth, the alcohol filtering through the veins in my body. For a moment it felt as if we had known each other for a long time and, often that night and in the nights since, I tend to forget the truth: I’d only known her for a couple of hours.

When the four travelers left and it was just the two of us again, I asked the Canadian if she wanted to stay for another drink. What are we going to do? She replied with a curious grin crawling up a side of her face, Share our troubles and sadnesses? She told me that she would see me in another life, and she crossed the street with a wave over her shoulder. In truth, I saw her again the next day, far away down the street. I dodged into the souvenir shop and watched her bouncy gait pass by. In another life I might have married her. We might have stayed, somewhere, and built a life.

When I come out of the bathroom and make my way back to our table, I feel the owner of the gogigui watching me, judging, as if she knows I forgot to wash my hands. I turn. I wink at her. She growls.

I pull the chair out and study the expats. I want to punch out Tony’s dull expression and Kenneth’s wanton eyes. What a strange collection of foreigners here at the end of the peninsula! I ask them, “What did I miss?”

“Nothing, mate. Tony was just muttering about whether they should build a mosque.”

“I’m not muttering,” he nods toward the television box in the corner. “It’s on the news.”

Behind the reporter I see photographs that can be anywhere: Caucasian and Mexican men in hard yellow hats and neon orange vests standing among concrete blocks and metal cranes, either demolishing the buildings or erecting them. But it is not just anywhere. I have walked past it a hundred times; these were the only times in college when I considered calling my parents—but I never did, for the memory of our weekend trip to the city passed too swiftly. I was around ten back then, and it was the only time I had ever seen the towers before they were erased from the world. I had thought nothing of them, really, but I was mesmerized by the view from the observation deck. While my parents spieled on about freedom and opportunity, I was trying to dissect the anatomy of the Lego-like skyscrapers somehow pieced together, and to understand the toy cars and plastic people moving beneath us.

In the images on the television, people in suits in the background are caught in mid-motion, half-blurred, with coffee cups in their hands, all of them unaware of the camera—unaware of Ground Zero, of terrorists and deaths and fighting, of everlasting war. I look away. “I didn’t even know there was a TV here,” I say, taking another gulp of soju.

“Whatever, I’m just telling you guys that there’s a debate going on in the U.S. now. You know, it wouldn’t hurt to keep up with the news once in a while.”

Kenneth shrugs, ignoring Tony. So I say, “There’s always a debate in the U.S., man.”

Kenneth chuckles, “Haven’t you been arguing about the right to bear arms since 1776?”

“Hey,” Tony grunts, glaring at Kenneth, at least we’re not riding kangaroos and shooting boomerangs.”

“Ha! And he has a sense of humor!” Kenneth pats Tony on the back, a little too violently. “But, mate, I think that says more about Americans than Australians! Waitress! Another Coca-Cola for my American friend!”

I glance around the gogigui. It has emptied out since I last noticed it. One of the tables is occupied by businessmen, their cheeks flushed pink, and another by a mother and her teenage son. The empty seats around them are haunting like lotus leaves without Buddhas.

When we finally reached the DMZ this morning, the tour guide told us in a practiced sigh and melancholy that he had never met his uncles or grandfather or cousins. Staring across four kilometers of fenced-off, overgrown scrubland in a theatrical sentimentality that almost made me gag, the guide said he grew up falling asleep to the sound of his grandmother’s wheezing sobs. On that cold early afternoon, we watched North Korean soldiers march along their side of the wilderness, silently pacing, patiently waiting. They look just like us, the guide said. They’re our brothers and our sons and our fathers. He nodded at the meshed fence, Sometimes we leave messages here for our families in the North.

I felt a sudden urge to be alone, here, in the depressing cool mist, so I waited for the tour group to depart. I watched, impatient and disgusted, the American family snapping pictures and, as they walked toward the bus, arguing and wailing about whether to spend their evening at the pool or at the movies. I noticed soon that the woman in the red Aladdin pants was lingering too; I thought that perhaps we were wondering the same thing: what if—just what if—North Korea’s the one that got it right, shutting itself off from the rest of the world like that.

There had been a baseball player at my college, a well-loved pre-law student, who had caused a stir when he vanished from Columbia at the start of the semester. We talked about his disappearance for days, speculated, scoured the news and the Internet, until most people realized that they didn’t actually care; they just liked the drama of it. Maybe, I thought, maybe that was where he disappeared to—North Korea. One place in this world you would never be found.

But before I could think of anything to say to the woman, she flashed me a grin and walked away. The bus was honking.

It is time to go. I finish the last gulp of soju. “Yo, I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”

“Already?” Kenneth asks, “You don’t want to stay a bit longer?”

“No, man. I’m done. Peace,” I push the chair back and stand up.

It is time to go, my father called up the stairs. He was dressed in a black suit and a British top-hat he always insisted on wearing in public. From my bedroom I could hear the engine running in the driveway, and my brother changing the music every few seconds, but my mother was not ready yet—she was still yelling at me about filial piety, about the repercussions of failed familial obligations. I was a junior in high school then, and I was beginning to discover the terrible inadequacies of my immigrant parents. Their thick accents became for me an unforgivable source of humiliation, and their drinking of tea and singing of bhajans were aspects of my life I was learning to hide from my friends. My mother swung her arms in the air, the gold bangles clinking against each other. She yells, Your grandfather is going back to India! It is our duty to drive him to the airport! I tell you you can miss school and you say no! In my bed, I rolled over. She was still shouting, I tell your grandfather you are too busy running around chasing after a soccer ball! Ay, ungrateful child! The horn honked. She lifted up her purple sari and hurried out of my room. She shouted downstairs to my father, Coming! Coming!

A couple of hours later, I was sitting in biology class when my teacher rolled in a television set and turned on the news. None of us whispered a word; none of us moved. Behind the reporter, I watched the second plane from our city vanish soundlessly into the tower.

And then everyone went shit-fuck crazy.

As I head down the quiet and empty street, the cold of the ocean breeze slowly sober me up. The sky is clear and dark, and I find myself suddenly awake, studying the Korean neighborhood as I first saw it in all of its sharpness and clarity: the silhouette of the layered stone tiles on the traditional roofs, blue-gray against the crescent yellow moon, scattered among the bleach-white blocks of modern houses. On both sides of the road, cars, bicycles, and mopeds idle for the night. I walk away from the only streetlamp in town in the direction of my apartment where I have been sleeping on a box-spring on the floor. Maybe it is time to go again.

On nights like this, I often feel nostalgic—for what, exactly, I do not know. And sometimes I like to imagine walking past Tony in a crowded avenue in some American city, years from now, his palm wrapped around a fucking Coca-Cola can, catching his leaden eyes and nodding in an almost imperceptible nod, until a moment later, after both of us have conjured up the same image of big-mouthed Kenneth drinking away in a Korean town, we continue down our separate ways.

I stop in the window of a house. I almost never do this, but tonight I cannot help it. The light is still on. Behind the fluttering curtain someone moves, two people, it seems like—a husband and a wife. I catch glimpses of leather couches with butt-shaped depressions, a coffee table splayed with open magazines and stained cups, and slanting rows of picture frames on the spruce lid of a piano I just know belongs to their great-grandmother. I am half-expecting to see my mother dragging us boys upstairs, grabbing our soccer balls and threatening never to return them. But, it turns out, it is just a slightly older man in pajamas, turning off the light.

At the train station today, at the last stop of the tour, there was an elderly man dressed in black, a British top-hat over whiskers of his white hair. His face was so wrinkled and pale like a crunched-up paper that I could barely make out his ethnicity—though I figured that he must be Korean. I sat down three or four seats away from him, taking glances at him out of the corner of my eyes. He held his face stern, his lips tight, his eyes fixed on the trains on the rail. There was something about him that reminded me of the man I met in Laos. His wife, a mid-aged woman, smiled the sad, tired smile of life slowly seeping away. Look at this, she told me. She pushed back her sleeves and held out her forearm and showed me the hand-woven bracelets she had gathered from each country. She sighed, I should have done this a long time ago. The man placed his hand on hers, and glared at me with the gravity and expectation of a father. Let me tell you something. It is going to be young travelers like you, he said, pointing his trembling hand at me, who are going to have to save the world.

The train station was almost empty, except for the few American troops and the paying tourists. The woman in red Aladdin pants sat down too, across from me. She was exhausted, teary-eyed, her elbows resting on her knees. I tried to think of what to say, how to break the silence and let her know that I knew her sadness too. But I said nothing. There was so much to understand, so little we actually understood. The two of us, I think, were staring at the trains parked there on the tracks, according to the guide, since the 1950s. There was only one destination displayed on the signs: Pyongyang. It occurred to me that I had never seen a station so quiet, so lacking in commotion and hassle and motion. So still. So terribly sterile.

Our group slowly drifted toward the bus—it was time to go again. But the woman across from me did not move either, so I sat for a little bit longer. I glanced at the Korean man in the top hat again, his back straight like a ruler, his posture patient and military-like, his hands folded in his lap. They said one day the train was going to start again. And I could only imagine that perhaps the man was waiting for the train to take him home. Maybe that is all we are doing, each in our own ways, waiting—waiting for the war to end.

pencil

Bea Chang received her BA from Haverford College and MFA from the University of Washington, Seattle. Email: changb.10[at]gmail.com

Eating Now

Flash
Andy Cochran


BLT!
Photo Credit: Dana McMahan

I half-wake to her voice sounding in my ears, lilting and tumbling till she laughs, then fluttering on, a butterfly skipping through a yard then over a fence and gone. Can’t make out the words the way I couldn’t have counted the flecks on that vanished butterfly’s wings. She asks another question, her voice fainter, pitched higher, a hint of anxiety. It’s a one-syllable question—maybe my name. I hope my name. Again she asks, now tired and frantic. And quieter. That’s the worst. Distant—as if she’s lashed to the floor of a boat drifting off into fog.

I keep my eyes shut and listen. No voice. No her. Nothing but fog.

I listen.

When I open my eyes, I open them to a dark room, blinds pulled shut against the sun.

Rise, dress, leave my room.

In the kitchen: Dad standing at the end of the island, biting into a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. A second BLT on his plate. Bacon sizzles on the stove. Next to the stove, two plump tomatoes he picked from the garden that for the first time this year she did not plant. The rows aren’t straight, the plants not explosions of growth. Just plants.

Dad pushes the plate with the BLT on it to the other side of the counter. “Enjoy.”

“It’s yours.”

“There’s more on the way.”

My stomach snarls as I sit on the stool.

He sends four more pieces of bread down into the toaster and slices one of the tomatoes. He’s already showered and shaved, his hair combed. His face was ashen when he said goodnight to me but now it’s colored up.

I consider telling him how I woke up hearing her voice. How it faded. How losing her voice felt like losing her all over again.

His head nods with the slicing blade. He’s into the rhythm of the slicing, as if it’s music.

I wait till I’ve swallowed another bite of BLT—which, I begrudge, is delicious—to say, “What’s with you?”

Dad spreads the toast in a row on the counter and picks bacon out of the pan. “I’ve decided to have a good day.”

“Didn’t know you could decide such a thing,” I say through another mouthful. “Thought the world just sort of smites you or doesn’t.”

“Who cares?” He tamps down the just-made BLTs and drops one on my plate. Lifts the other to his mouth, takes a huge bite, and looks over my shoulder.

Chewing, I turn to follow his gaze.

Sunlight streams in through the sliding doors and showers the garden where she stoops no more to coax plants from the soil and never will again.

The weather has his him feeling high.

The weather.

I turn back around. Put my head down. Eat.

pencil

Andy Cochran has published short fiction in Saw Palm, Foliate Oak, and The Rectangle. He teaches composition at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University as well as an MA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida. In The Ghoul, his novel-in-progress, a young man in 2297 searches for his mother’s killer. The first iteration of “Eating Now,” very much a story about grief, emerged while he was at work on The Ghoul. Email: andrewgeorgecochran[at]gmail.com

Absence

Flash
Sarah Clayville


Pedestal Sink
Photo Credit: Boyd/rb3wreath

You will never hear this message. This message is for me. I’ll erase it before you listen, slip my finger along the blinking red button and leave you snoring in your bed. Nothing ever wakes you. Not the monstrosity of a garbage truck rumbling down our alley. Not the clatter of dishes when my hands are unsteady from the latest miracle drug the doctor you recommended prescribes for me. I used to think these drugs were meant to make my body whole again. Instead they’re there to make me forget what I’m missing.

My voice echoes in our bathroom from where I’m calling, crouched between the sink and the wall. It sounds like there are ten of me, so you might think that I’m at a nightclub or more likely surrounded by the women from the support group who sit on ratty sofas and advise me to leave you between uttering words like barren and infertile. You sleep through everything, and now you’re sleeping through my exit strategy.

You only wake for silence. The absence of a baby’s cry, the silence of my womb no more capable of speaking up to you than I am. The toilet is running. You ought to fix that before the next woman falls for you and finds herself trapped in this rigid apartment packed wall to wall with expectations and not an inch of sympathy when life doesn’t act politely with its legs neatly crossed at the ankles. Life is messy, and the next woman here may not be so patient with things that don’t work.

I don’t care if you miss me or forget me or torch our collective belongings in a bonfire in the barbecue pit just to prove that something can be born from the disaster of us. But I do need to say two very tiny essential words and at least let the machine hear their rhythm.

I tried.

I tried with syringes, charms, test tubes, red wine, white wine, midwives, nearly upside-down sex, pills, potions, embracing God, cursing God, herbs, yoga, lunar cycles, thongs, granny panties, acupuncture, jealousy, humility, hunger…

I tried.

You slept through it all, and now I’ll fix the toilet before I leave you. I’ll reach my hand in the tank of cool, surprisingly clean water and fidget with the dangling rubber loop until it catches and the toilet is silenced from its restless growl. I am fully capable of doing things, of making them right.

See? There is no reason for you to hear this message. Nothing is broken anymore.

pencil

Sarah Clayville’s fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review, StoryChord, Central PA Magazine, and Toasted Cheese. She is a high school teacher, mother of two adorable offspring, and she tends to write about characters in crisis just as they’re finding their ways. She is currently at work on a young adult novel as well as a collection of short fiction entitled Women in Jeopardy. Email: sarah.clayville[at]gmail.com

Even the Wind and the Waves Obey Him

Flash
Jamie Burke


Goldener Bilderrahmen - gold picture frame
Photo Credit: Eric Wüstenhagen

He told me once that Rembrandt painted himself there with Jesus on the boat in the Sea of Galilee so I went to see it, or where it used to be. The empty frame hung on the wall and it reminded me of someone in a coat too thin for the winter or a child pushing her tongue out from the space where she’s lost a tooth. It looked sad, but hopeful I guess, and I thought about when he tells me to meet him somewhere and he’s late and every person that passes could be him so I look up but they’re not him. It’s just waiting, you know, because the painting has to be someplace, taken, and we just don’t know where. He called me later and I asked him what he thought of it, where he thought it might be, because I wondered what you do with a thing like that when everyone knows it’s stolen. He suddenly got real quiet on the phone and he didn’t say why but I figured his wife just walked in and he had to get off the line real fast. He has two kids, you know, and they’re young I guess though I’ve only seen their pictures. He says that’s how it’s got to be between us, that he can’t take me to the museum now. But, he said, he’s been before and I start wondering if we’ll ever go together and maybe that painting will be there, maybe somebody will have found it by then.

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Jamie Burke is a graduate student at Emerson College, pursuing her MFA in Fiction. Her writing has been published in Pachinko!, Postcard Shorts, and BURN Magazine and her story “7-11” was a finalist in the 2013 Lascaux Flash Contest. She has a cat and hopes she will soon fulfill her lifelong dream to appear as a contestant on The Price is Right. Jamie cannot tell you what her shirt idea is because it is really good and she fears you will steal it. You’ll just have to see. Email: jmeburke[at]gmail.com

Three Poems

Poetry
Joan McNerney


One Leaf Left
Photo Credit: Bev Currie

This Autumn

A flying carpet of
sugar maple leaves
unfurls along on my road.

Just enough light to glimpse
silhouettes of yellow trees
against the dove grey sky.

Tenacious… one leaf
clings to the bough
after today’s wind storm.

After evening showers,
a garden of bright stars
blossoms.

Amazing how many stars
fit inside my windowpane.

 

The Subliminal Room

That weepy October
marigolds were so full.
I made an omelet with
them. Do you remember?

All November, leaves
mixed with rain, making
streets slippery. We
listened mostly to Chopin.
Leaves droop in September
too ripe and heavy for
trees. I was careful
not to slip, dreading
when leaves would grow
dry and crumble.
Some live all winter
through the next spring.
Chased by winds, they
huddle in corners,
reminding me of mice.

I confessed to you
how I loved Russian
poets and waited for
a silent revolution,
revealing my childhood
possessed by rosaries
and nuns chanting Ave,
Ave, Ave Maria
. “Your
navel exudes the warmth
of 10,000 suns,” you said.

We still live in this
subliminal room.
Jonah did not want to
leave the whale’s stomach.
We continue trying to
decipher Chopin. Your
eyes are two bunches of
morning glories. Sometimes
the sky is so violet.
Will we ever live by the
sea, Michael, and eat
carrots? I do not want
my sight to fail. Hurry,
the dew is drying on the
flowers.

 

Tonight

Chimes tap against our
windowpane. This evening
becomes starry sapphire
as seagulls rise in
flight over rooftops.
Winds wrapping around
trees tossing leaves.

The courtyard is full of
aromas from dinnertime.
Shadows growing longer
each minute. Lights go
on and I wait for you.

pencil

Joan McNerney’s poetry has been included in numerous literary magazines such as Seven Circle Press, Dinner with the Muse, Blueline, Spectrum, three Bright Spring Press Anthologies and several Kind of a Hurricane Publications. She has been nominated three times for Best of the Net. Four of her books have been published by fine small literary presses. Email: poetryjoan[at]statetel.com

Plot Line

Poetry
D.C. Lynn


Lakewood Memorial Park
Photo Credit: Natalie Maynor

I awake each day as blind as all the rest
to jack the java…
only because I can’t spell coffee and make it sound
like “cough” which is strange really. But English
isn’t spelled like it sounds and coffee
in any genre
in any negative capability
usually looks and smells better than it tastes.

My father always called coffee “cough” or “a cup a mud.”
He lies now on the side of a hill a mile or so from where he lived and worked for most of his life.
My mother puts artificial flowers on his grave.
It has a flat marker.
It says he was a sergeant in the Second World War.
She has a hard time ’cause the flowers fade with the sun and get blown into these weird positions by the wind.
She has a walking problem and the hillside takes its toll on repatriation.
Sometimes I wonder if they got a discount on the plot.

I was climbing in the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus when he passed.
They couldn’t locate me when he died.
Out of the blue
he suddenly collapsed at the back door of his house.
My mother called the ambulance but he was dead-on-arrival.
After a few years she abruptly sold her small wood-frame house of many mansions.
She couldn’t keep it up.
It was in a working-class neighborhood. She still took a huge loss in the dismal real estate market.

My mother was undone by it all.
She just didn’t see any of it coming.

Hopefully I can make her passing…
it will make or break the taste and smell
of sightlessness.

pencil

D.C. Lynn is an American university lecturer of English language and literature who has lived and worked outside the United States for most of his academic career. He has published widely in the USA and abroad. Among others, his publication credits include: Hawai’i Review, Mastedon Dentist, Bare Root, Orbis (U.K.), Rose & Thorn, Wilderness House, Black Market (U.K.), Foliate Oak, Caveat Lector, Chiron Review, Other Poetry (U.K.), Quiddity, Chronogram, Perigee, Ranfurly Review (U.K.), Battered Suitcase, Pirene’s Fountain, Rockford Review, Ditch (Canada), and Skive Magazine (Australia). He was nominated for the 2009 Best New Poet’s Award by the Dead Mule of Southern Literature and for the 2011 Pushcart Prize by Willows Wept Review. Email: armando50[at]yahoo.com

Two Poems

Poetry
Sean Lause


roll book
Photo Credit: Ken Stein

Class roll

I stand before them,
pretending to a wisdom I don’t own.
I call each name, smiling, a life,
check mark, a life, check mark, a life…
I make my marks sure and strong
to cover my awkwardness
(that land-locked pelican).
I name and name, patiently,
like Adam circling the garden.

Next door I hear chattering chalk
from a teacher not as cautious as I.
These are lives after all, some here in confusion,
a name attached to a mystery, some young,
with bubble gum, and an assurance
held together with safety glue, some older,
keeping their wisdom silent for now,
some truth seekers, eyes eager,
pencils cocked in a salute.

And perhaps a few
who carry in their pockets
beans they don’t yet know are magic.

 

Ancestral dance

Here is a photograph—
My grandparents dance motionless
around their apple tree, deep-rooted,
their stone house planted solid
in their dreaming, fertile fields.

Their embrace whirls through time
to touch my name, my hands that
hold the picture like a breath a prayer,
this forever lost, this here, as I
let myself enter the fading frame.

In distance the fields lay free, cut by the merci-
ful scythe, in the captured light as I
watch my ancestral lovers in their dance
while heavy honey bees find broken apples,
hang in them upside down, cling and burrow.

A butterfly flutters by eternity,
the endless flow of borrowed time
as I spot my mother, nine, reading
Wuthering Heights under the tree, caught
in a dream, not yet dreaming me.

All this is gone as yesterday Saturdays,
futile to become again, and yet
so relentlessly present. This dance,
cupped in the palms, a moon charm
for the lunatic vanishings of time.

pencil

Sean Lause teaches courses in Shakespeare, Literature and the Holocaust, and Medical Ethics at Rhodes State College in Lima, Ohio. His poems have appeared in The Minnesota Review, The Alaska Quarterly, The Beloit Poetry Journal, The Saranac Review, The Atlanta Review, Sanskrit and Poetry International. His first book of poems, Bestiary of Souls, was published earlier this year by FutureCycle Press. Email: lause.s[at]rhodesstate.edu

Unsolicited Advice

Poetry
Tyrek Greene


I Remember Pizza On Friday
Photo Credit: Duane Romanell

(inspired by Jeanann Verlee)

On the sixth time in middle school when your Jewish History teacher
plays butcher with your first name, say it twice, but this time louder
than the first. Tell her it means king in Swahili. Know that you’re completely
lying about this. When the bullies call you Steve Urkel, fight them. When the boys in recess ask you to play tackle football, laugh.
When the girls say you move like one of them, accept it. When your friends silently
think you’re gay, don’t flaunt your daisies around them. When your father
slaps down your arms grabbing your hips, smile. Remind him that he made you.
When the space between you and her is steam and two burning chests, don’t act on it.
When you say I love you, mean it.
When you say I love you, know her better than a prayer.
When she calls you king, leave immediately.
When she calls you home, offer an alternative. Don’t just sit there. When your mother smells the coffins in your closet, invest in
locks. Know that this won’t hide anything from her. Know you’re as see through
as shattered beer bottles. When someone calls you Tariq instead of Tyrek, correct them. say it twice.
louder than before. When the bullies are at recess and you’ve become a ragdoll, fight again.

pencil

Tyrek Greene is a twenty-year-old poet from the Bronx by way of Baltimore, MD. He is currently a junior at Wheaton College in Norton, MA. Email: tyrek.greene[at]gmail.com