Or So They Say

Fiction
Heidi Vornbrock Roosa


Mr. and Mrs. Jones dancing
Photo Credit: State Library of Victoria Collections

True love is forever, or so they say.

A half an hour before we found the bodies of Ralph and Edie, John was singing under his breath, as carefree as the wind that feathered my hair as we drove out of Great Barrington toward where they waited, lifeless. We didn’t know they were there, of course, or else John wouldn’t have been singing.

Or maybe he would have been. As many years as we’d been together—and yes, this trip was all about exactly how many years it had been—I was becoming unsure if there was anything that could dampen John’s spirits. He seemed the same boy I’d met way back.

He was the same boy I’d met way back.

“Ah-five, ah-two, ah-three, four,” he sang over and over, somehow hammering the syllables to fit the tune of “I’m Awfully Glad I Met You.” His thick, ash-blond hair blew back from his clear, unlined brow, and his blue eyes looked ghostly pale against the sun that shone too brightly down on us. The Auburn Speedster, John’s favorite of the six cars he had kept garaged outside the city for the last three years, floated easily through the heat. The light yellow paint of its hood appeared a washed-out white to my eyes, the hood ornament the only contrast between it and the hazy sky as we crested another hill.

“I wrote down the code, you know, John.”

I had. I’d written down all four of the codes the Realtor had given us. The other three were for summer rentals, most just a couple miles out into the Berkshire Hills around town. But the code John kept singing was for a house for sale.

“It’s not a typical house, as you can tell from the photos,” the Realtor had said, a man in his middle forties, tanned and salt-and-pepper distinguished, casual in his chinos and hiking shoes. There was something attractive about him, I managed to think through the shock I felt at what he was showing us, something calm and nice about his age and experienced air. “It’s a ways out. Housatonic. But it’s been converted, the building. Used to be a dance hall, built at the turn of the century, or so they say.”

“1909,” I had murmured, there in the office on Railroad Street, my words floating from nowhere while my eyes stayed fixed to the spread of photos before me on the glass-topped table.

The Realtor glanced down at the listing sheet. I knew he didn’t see the actual date. I suppose they didn’t keep such great records back then, and he wouldn’t know there was anyone left to remember, anyone who could know more accurately, who could state the fact without that offhand ‘or so they say.’ Certainly, he wouldn’t have thought of it as something I, to all appearances a gal of just over twenty, would be able to tell him.

“What’s a decade or so?” he asked flippantly, and gave a chuckle. John laughed along with him, both of them missing the hard stare I gave him before John looked over and put a hand on my knee and squeezed.

The Realtor had gone on about how the interior was redone in a design purely rooted in this century. I could tell that, seeing in the photos all the stained wood and stainless steel of the kitchen tucked in the corner of the open living space, where once couples had danced.

I didn’t want to go to see it. But John did.

The Realtor had no problem giving us the codes for the ones John picked out, including the dance hall. He’d seen the car after all, seen the money that it and our rings, clothes, hair, everything, spoke about us. He urged us to go out this afternoon, even though he had an open house to attend to. They were all tenantless, no need for a formal appointment, and we should get back to him right away, call him on his cell even, as there had been some couples who were also interested in certain of them.

John knew I didn’t want to see it, but then, I hadn’t wanted to come back to the Berkshires at all.

John stopped singing the code after my comment, but switched to humming. I turned from him and tried to listen only to the wind, tried to pay attention only to the road we drove. The trees covering the hills seemed too close into the sides of the narrow road. They seemed to drip the hot, moist air over us, their green not a cool relief, as one would expect.

It had been years since we had been back. I didn’t recognize anything.

What’s a decade or so?

Multiply one by ten and it was long enough. Too long.

“Come on, Trudy,” John had exclaimed as we pored over the map in our Manhattan apartment. “It’s our anniversary.”

That line had long ago worn out its ability to excite me.

“And this is a biggie,” he continued, with his constant boyish enthusiasm. “It would be damn odd to celebrate it anywhere else in the world.”

We had lived all over the world, moving every three years or so. It got awkward after that, you see. It was his turn to choose too. We’d finished our last four books living in a building off Central Park, but it was time to go, just as it was time, yet again, to change the pseudonym we wrote under. An author could only have a career of a certain length before the invitations for lifetime achievement started to come in, and they were even harder to turn down than the other invitations to appear at conferences and to meet our eager editors, so it was time to find someone new to be and somewhere new to live. To start it all over again. And if John wanted the Berkshires, the Berkshires it would be.

But the dance hall? It was too much of a coincidence. John hadn’t been as shocked as I to see it in the agent’s window there on Railroad Street. I realized that now. Had he seen it on the Internet, a toy he loved more than any of the other technological goodies he’d acquired over all our years together? Had he planned this, thinking it would be an anniversary gift like no other? After all, John had given me plenty of anniversary presents over the years, and I’m sure it was difficult for him to keep coming up with something that excited him as much as this one seemed to be doing.

I looked over at him. He was humming and smiling, and when he caught me looking, he reached for my hand and squeezed my fingers, making the wedding band dig into my skin. I gave a brief smile, which always was satisfaction enough for him, and he placed his hand back on the wide steering wheel, turned his eyes back to the winding road.

He was as handsome as when I’d first laid eyes on him, in the same dance hall we were barreling toward just now. When we’d pulled up today to the curb in Railroad Street, John wedging the boat of the Auburn in between a tiny Boxster and a Subaru wagon, it wasn’t just the rarity and flash of the Auburn that made people stop, made them turn and stare while holding shop doors half-open, made them forget their hurry and errands. He had always been a beautiful boy. Twenty-something shopgirls emerged onto the sidewalk, looked him up and down as he dashed around to get my door, thinking they recognized the vitality of one in his prime, assessing for a quick, but calculated, second whether they might be a match for me, wondering what it was I had that they did not.

Years, I would have told them. I’ve got years.

It was the inaugural dance at the St. Stanislaus Dance Hall, a country place whose opening excited talk in three counties, when I had first seen John. I had come with Ralph, my second cousin, whose family I was staying with before my last year away at Miss Price’s. Ralph wore a check-woven lounge suit. I was self-conscious, in a square-necked silk dress of his sister’s. There was cake and punch, a band with brass and strings, and even a flower seller.

Also, a gypsy woman set up in a dim corner to tell fortunes. Spiritualism was all the rage those days. Her scarves, rings, and fissured face when first I glimpsed them were only props adding to the excitement of the dance hall. Nothing more than props.

John was leaning against the far wall, scanning the dancers. He wore a suit even newer and more handsome than Ralph’s. His hair was a bit longer than he wore it now, but it was slicked back as was the style then, the same almost as it was now with the wind blowing it back as we moved through the air in the Speedster, though the hair oil of back then had made it a bit darker, a nice contrast with his pale blue eyes.

We’ve written a bit of romance into each of our mysteries over the years, and each successive editor had always cried that those romance lines were what would be missed most when we told them we, as the pseudonym they didn’t realize was only our most current, were retiring. It was those romance bits that sold so many books, and couldn’t we reconsider, write a bit longer, a bit more? As much as literary critics damn the trope of love at first sight, we included it in our books almost half the time. It worked in the stories, we said to each other, because we knew it worked in real life.

We’d experienced it ourselves that inaugural night.

In the books, we wrote in a lot of racing hearts and widening eyes, but it really hadn’t been like that. It had been a strange, comfortable sort of first glance—John tapping a foot as he surveyed the dancers, one eye on the stairs to see who would be next to arrive, looking dapper and at home, as if he were the host of this party. It was like we had known each other a long time and were only now meeting again, right then as I came up the stair, on Ralph’s arm, his neck craning as he looked at all the other girls, making it clear we weren’t a couple. I had felt a welling up of something mellower than passion when John first noticed me across the floor. His pale blue eyes met mine. He flicked a stray hair back from his forehead, cocked his head, and let his lips curl away from his teeth in a most engaging smile. I felt a warmth and sense of well-being; a great happiness is the way I described it to John in a whispered confession on our honeymoon. He said the same was true for him, and the passion grew from there.

There had been something in the air, as well as in the punch, and it was soon after I saw John that Ralph saw Edie. He abruptly dropped my arm when first he saw her, approached a neighbor girl who was with her, and garnered a quick introduction. It wasn’t long before he had left me with the neighbor girl, and Ralph and Edie were dancing.

I was lost in this memory when John pulled off the road and headed up a gravel drive. From the overhanging trees emerged the dance hall. The renovators had painted the barn-like building a bright, unnatural orange. This delighted John. He gave a hoot and hit the horn, bleating out a jaunty call. He braked hard and tore out of the car, leaving his door flung wide, and ran up to the steps.

“Can you imagine, Trudy?” he called, spreading his arms wide, as if he wanted to take the whole tangerine expanse into his arms. “A hundred years. And look at it!”

I did look at it. In fact, I sat in the car, unable to get out, transfixed by it, even as I was repulsed by it.

It wasn’t the same, but it was.

John already had the code he knew so well punched into the lockbox, had pulled wide the high, carriage-style door that split in the middle, and had disappeared inside.

I got out of the Speedster then, felt the give of the gravel, and almost thought I could sense each stone through the soles of my shoes, like I had that night in my thin, silk slippers, with just a shim of heel. Like I had that night when I’d alighted from Ralph’s father’s cart, feeling timid, but just a little high, as if something magical were truly going to happen.

‘Little did we know’ was a cliché our editors frowned upon in the last decades. We’d stopped ourselves using it as a device, but I knew that it was sometimes appropriate. It was the exact truth that someone watching might well have thought that night. The gypsy woman in the corner, with her scarves and crystals and cards. Perhaps that was what she had said to herself that night as she watched us.

John had come up to me without waiting for an introduction, made a show for a moment of flirting with Ralph’s neighbor, whom he knew in a vague way. But it was my arm he took even as he waited for my answer to his quest for a dance. He was brash then, and was still now as he’d been. It had attracted me to him right off, so many years ago.

Now, it only made me tired. And it wasn’t just his brashness I was tired of. I was tired of his impulsiveness, tired of his eternal youthful buoyancy, his rakish, unchanging grin, his bright, open acceptance of each and every new day as if it were truly a wonder.

Now I realized I was tired, too, of looking at the caustic orange of the dance hall. I think I finally made my way in through the doors simply to be rid of the pain the color brought. I came up the stairway, which at my last memory had been lined with courting couples holding punch cups and fans. Above me, I heard John opening and closing what must have been cupboard doors in the new kitchen. When I reached the top of the stairs, I saw that they had situated the kitchen where the band had sat that night. John had flipped on all of the electric lights over that space, and he had his nose in one of the ovens as he said, “This one’s convection, Trudy. The other’s gas. Perfect, wouldn’t you say?”

I didn’t say anything. They had left a rug, wide and abstract in purples and golds, on the wood of the floor, which had been sealed with many coats of varnish, leaving the surface so glossy it shone. I remembered how dusty and rough it had been, how loudly it echoed with the men’s hard-soled shoes, the women’s heels. And during the country dances, the old folk reels, it sang with a rhythmic clatter.

I had left the side of Ralph’s neighbor, left her alone, which I saw now was cruel, but as soon as John had lightly touched my arm, I knew there was nothing, not propriety, not care for another, not the wishes of our parents, nothing that would ever separate us again.

Not time itself.

Now I left John to explore the workings of the near-silent exhaust hood, and I walked the wide carpet, then went further onto the bare boards again, away from him. There were lights recessed into the wood planks that lined the pitched ceiling, but I didn’t bother to put these lights on to help me see anything more than the sun from the windows could show me.

It was only right that the corner where the gypsy had set up her rickety canopy poles and table was now dim, windowless, and in half-shadow. It had been that way then as well.

I had caught her staring at us as we danced. The gypsy woman did not seem to scan the dancers, as she might have if she were looking for couples to dupe, for clues of what to say when she had someone seated across from her at the low, fabric-draped table. Some girlfriends and I had dared each other into the carnival tent of someone like her during our last summer’s holiday. We had giggled over our bags of peanuts the whole rest of the evening about the ridiculous and nebulous predictions she had given each of us.

But this woman did not seem to look at anyone but me and John. Every time John spun me, every time I looked up from John’s magnetic eyes, every time I waited as he fetched me punch, I would find her watching us, with eyes just as fixed, yet terrible. Deeply blank, but foreboding. Asking Edie later, I found that she too felt that uncanny stare on her, only her, the whole evening.

“Trudy, I’m going to see the bath,” John called, then took the stairs down in leaps and bounds. “It has a hammered copper tub, the Realtor said.”

I heard him on the stone floor below, opening doors.

Edie and I had asked the boys for a break from the heat and press of bodies, but they were reluctant to let us from their arms. They relented when we suggested that we take our ease at the table of the gypsy woman, whose low stools were empty when we approached. If they paid her handsomely, I imagine they thought, she might be made to utter the words that would make us theirs for good and ever. They did pay her well. Too well, it seems now. Though maybe she chose to offer what she did because she saw in us the possibility of true love, the possibility of something as transcendent as what the susurration of her words promised.

If we truly loved, she murmured in a voice as smooth as churned cream, we could hold this moment with us forever. If we wished, if we dared. We were of a time that felt that was just as it should be—that love was to be found at first sight in a dance hall, love was to be giddy at first and then sure, constant and forever.

But with this gypsy woman we were transfixed. We felt the gravity of her stare. The lightness I had felt with girlfriends the summer before was not here. Here, from a mouth full of rotted nubs, from lips so cracked and lined, came an offer as sure and serious as an exchange of vows. A grave promise.

Only allow her to drape her scarf over our first kiss, and we should be joined eternally, locked forever in this very moment of our love’s first consummation.

There was no awkward embarrassment at the import of her words. Though the dancing had been only hours, our love felt settled, and yes—true.

She beckoned us close, brought the scarf—a diaphanous black—to drape like a low cloud above us. John and I kissed there and then, without hesitation, without words, without regard for the crowd dancing behind us or for our families. Ralph and Edie did the same.

Did she gain something from us, that gypsy woman, something beside the discreet fold of bills the boys passed over, as she wrapped herself again in the scarf that had sealed our promise? I don’t know. When we left her, headed back out onto the floor, we thought of her no longer. Our thoughts were only of each other, of the feel of our lips pressed together, of the times we saw ahead of us in our future.

Little did we know—yes, I’ll say that here—little did we know that our future would not be what we thought.

It was just as I saw the shadowed heap that was Ralph and Edie on the boards a bit beyond where the gypsy woman had sat darkly, that I recalled that whispered conversation with a still bright-eyed Edie seven years after we’d acted as bridesmaids for each other. No children had blessed either of us—how could they when we were in stasis, our bodies locked in the moment that they’d inhabited at that first kiss. Did I think? Did she? And the boys—did they know? Realize? Care?

If they did not then, it wasn’t long after that they couldn’t help but know. Soon we had to move away and avoid seeing family. And then we did not see even Edie and Ralph, perhaps so we could pretend there was nothing odd about the way we lived, as seeing it in another made it so very clear. But we had run across them last winter in a Manhattan restaurant, and though there was a strain of discomfort beneath every word, they seemed as we must have. Newly married, fresh and fun.

And now I saw them here. In a pile they lay, husband and wife, wrapped around each other on the shiny wood boards.

But they were not the same as I’d seen them last. They clasped each other in the form of a dancing couple, just as I saw them in my mind’s eye, an image from so many years before. Dancing—yes, they’d been dancing. But they were not bright and young any longer.

Their bodies had shrunk as they’d aged, until they resembled huddled, gray children rather than man and wife. Ralph’s hair had gone white and then just gone, and Edie’s was long and silver, but oh, so thin and wispy. The skin of their faces was deep in wrinkle, etched with years they experienced together right here, in a matter of minutes, I would guess. Their eyes were open—they each had brown—and those eyes looked clouded, deep, tired. And sad, just a bit.

But they had died looking close at each other. Their frail bodies—bones hurting, I imagined, as they came to lie curled here—made a nest where the cloth of their clothes pooled, as if they really were now children. Playing, hiding, dressed in found adult costumes, nestled together to be smaller, harder to see, yet waiting to be found.

If anyone else had found them, that person could not have known them for the young couple who must have graced the same chairs as we at the Railroad Street Realtor’s. Even if they had recognized the linen dress Edie wore, Ralph’s cotton khakis and thin-striped shirt, the bodies in them were now the barest slips of themselves.

I crouched there, over them, their arms and fingers and rings intertwined, and I envisioned them as they had been when first their hands had touched, one hundred years before. It had been love, I saw then, and saw now. It had been love that softened and intensified the gaze, that made the grasp of the hand so gentle, and yet possessive, a bit greedy with want. The bodies that wished to be closer than decorum allowed, the lips that longed to be meshed, the fingers… They had been destined for each other, had been together for years, loving and living, making true the promises of those first gazes. Or had they?

They had returned here to what—relive that moment on this floor? Or to put an end to the endless one they had lived for so long? So peaceful, they seemed to me, that I knew it didn’t matter. Whether they’d come thinking only to reenact their happy meeting, or had known how to bring all this time since to a close, they had been of one mind in this year, just as then, when they’d first stepped out on this dance floor. I saw from their locked eyes that they had been of one mind in their last moments.

I heard suddenly, below the boards, John begin to hum again. The jolly tune faded, then became louder still, as he moved toward the stairs and up.

When was it we had last been of one mind?

You see, John would not understand what he saw if he were to find them. They would not be Ralph and Edie. And if I told him, if I explained, he would grab me by the arm, drag me behind him out the high carriage doors, and drive me away down yet another endlessly long and winding road. He would never agree to come back, would never consider an end, not in a decade, or three, or five.

Not in another ten decades. Not even then.

I heard as his feet hit the floor boards at the top of the stair, and he danced a quick soft-shoe. His humming had turned to whistling, and his shoes played percussion.

“Trudy?” he called, not spotting me across the dim expanse of boards. “Trudy, you going to let me finish this number all by myself?” he called, then took up his whistling again.

To dance with John now. To allow him to pull me onto the floor, knowing as I did what would happen. To let him spin me once, twice, how many times before his hair would begin to silver and thin, before lines would form around eyes and mouth, then deepen as skin grew slack? How many times would he dip me right or left before he realized I was aging in his arms, before he realized the ache he felt in his body was growing?

Before he realized his wife of one hundred years was killing him.

I stood from my crouch and turned to him just as he noticed me across the floor. His pale blue eyes met mine. He flicked a stray hair back from his forehead, cocked his head, and let his lips curl away from his teeth in a most engaging smile.

I looked at him and felt a warmth and sense of well-being, a great happiness. Felt the possibility of relief.

“Trudy?” he queried, sensing something, something new in the look I returned him.

“John,” I answered.

He smiled then, reassured by the simple fact of my voice. “Shall we dance?” he asked, and held out his arms for me.

“Yes,” I said, moving away from the shadowed tumble that was Ralph and Edie, and into John’s arms. “Yes, darling, let’s dance.”

True love is forever, or so they say. What they don’t say is that forever is an awfully long time. Awfully long.
pencil

Heidi Vornbrock Roosa completed her graduate degree in writing at Johns Hopkins University. Her work is forthcoming in Pear Noir! and has appeared in The South Dakota Review, The Summerset Review, and Literary Mama, among other journals. She is the Gallery curator at The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. Email: heidivornbrockroosa[at]comcast.net

Top Dog

Fiction
SJ Bradley


This old dog is one of the sweetest creatures I've ever known
Photo Credit: Jeff Moriarty

Sleep came sparingly that first week. Dozing evenings, Lucas heard Lilla and Peepers moving around in the room upstairs. He often woke again when it was dark, hearing the sound of twigs tapping the glass. It made him lousy. What his housemates must think of him, knackered, and too worn out to do any of the things they’d brought him in for. Nobody said anything, but he knew they must think it.

It had a long list, the housing co-op. People wanted in for the security and cheap rent, for the knowledge that you weren’t necessarily thrown out for not paying. Lucas had vaulted them all with his promise to be handy around the house. “I’ve got all of my own tools,” he’d said. Yet now, instead of putting them to use, he spent his afternoons lying on the bed, looking at the insides of his own eyelids, and trying not to think about Shelley being on her own in the flat.

In the mornings he walked the postal route eyes half-closed, muddling the house numbers. A fat-calved woman came thundering out of 8 Carson Avenue to complain about having her neighbours’ mail. “It’s not my birthday,” she said. Lonely, he thought, and with nothing better to do than argue with the postman.

Down by the telephone exchange he discovered a dog. It was an old thing with brindle patches, and a grey-whiskered muzzle. The early morning mist clung to its bony haunches. “Come, come boy,” he said. He reached down to it and the dog, giving him a desperate look, cowered away. Lucas bundled him up, put him in the mail sack, and carried him around the rest of the route. “I will call you Bogle,” he said as he pushed envelopes through the doors. “And you can come live with me in my little corner of Anarchist utopia.”

When he arrived home there was a welt in his shoulder from carrying the sack, and his other housemate Yeurtes was waiting in the hallway. He took one look at the dog and said: “You ought to have called a meeting first.”

Lucas said, “Sorry.” He took the dog upstairs and gave it some biscuits. It sniffed them mournfully, and chewed a small mouthful for a long time. Then it sighed, lay its head between its paws, and looked sadly at the rest of the food in the bowl.

“I’m going to set up the radio, Bogle,” Lucas said. He crouched and shook the receiver gently. The afternoon news came in and out of focus, like a ship passing through heavy fog. “Once I get this working,” he said to the dog, “You and me will be able to listen to Woman’s Hour.” The dog resettled his head and looked at him sideways. “Don’t look at me like that,” Lucas said. “This is the first day of the rest of our lives.”

There was a knock. Lilla came in, wearing a washed-out clown outfit, and carrying a tennis ball. “I’ve heard we’ve got a new housemate,” she said. She rolled the ball along the floor and the dog watched it pass, closing his eyes as it settled into the corner.

“I think he’s pretty old,” Lucas said. With the door open, he could smell the damp from the hallway carpet.

“All the same,” she said, scratching the mutt between the ears, “This is a good dog.”

Letting go of the transistor, Lucas tapped the lid. The fizzing stopped. “There,” he said. “Yeurtes said I had to call a meeting—about keeping a pet.”

“Let me tell you a secret,” Lilla said. She rubbed Bogle’s side. He yawned, and a musical squeak came out. “Yeurtes loves dogs. Don’t worry about it.” She stood. “Well, it’s my turn to cook. See you for dinner.” She went out.

Standing by the stereo, Lucas looked at the bare room. The dog and the radio were the only things interrupting the long lines of the floorboards. Fleas or not, it seemed cruel to make the brute sleep on the floor. He sat on the bed, slapping his thighs gently. “Come up,” he said. “Come, boy.” Bogle watched, as though not knowing what welcome meant. “Never mind,” Lucas said. “You rest. I’m going to have a look at those shelves.”

He went and got the stepladder out of the utility closet. Here he was, fixing shelves for three virtual strangers, and still not knowing where things had gone wrong. A year of sofa cuddling and Shelley had suddenly gone quiet, wearing a look like she was in the distance. The end had come, as he’d known it would—he’d been bracing himself for it—and she’d said: “Don’t feel that you have to move out. You can sleep on the sofa as long as you like.” It had left him reeling, and wondering why, when she no longer wanted to be together, she was being so kind?

Peepers was sitting in the living room window, the last of the ebbing light landing on his shoulders. In the alcove beside him the shelves bowed. Books slid down the gaps at either end.

“All right if I start work on these?” Lucas said.

“Yes,” said Peepers, leaping up. “I’ll help.”

Lucas looked at the jumble. A novella had forced itself a new home between a dictionary’s leaves. Radical gardening pamphlets were squeezed together like takeaway menus. In trying to save the earth, the housemates had used whatever reclaimed wood they could find, and ended up with this mess. The shelves were too short, and had no support in the middle. Never mind: it was easily fixed. He tapped the tape measure against his leg, and felt the familiar excitement that came with the prospect of cleaning up a mess. “Here,” he said. “I’ll show you how to measure up.”

“Sure.” Peepers put his book down on the chair arm. “Take the books off first?” He was up the steps, handing them down an armful at a time. “Careful when you come in, Lilla,” he called through the kitchen arch. “We’ve got books all over the floor in here.”

The front door opened, and Lucas paused. He heard a quiet metallic jingle in the hall. Then the sound of Bogle coming down the stairs in a slow, arthritic thump, one step at a time.

Yeurtes was standing by the front door, a chain-linked dog lead in his back hand. “Now look, I don’t want to preempt tonight’s discussion,” he said, waving his big, bear-like arms. “So don’t take this as an indication of my opinion one way or the other.” Standing by the foot of the stairs, Bogle wagged his tail slowly. “But I found this lead in a skip and thought that if the house meeting decided that the dog was allowed to stay…” He trailed off, lifting the hand holding the lead.

“If,” said Peepers. He twisted around to Lucas, winking. “If.”

Lucas had never had a pet. Not even an old, ailing one like this, one close to coughing its last breath. His old landlord said that their fur and claws ruined the furniture—in a house where the sofa looked like it had already been through a house fire.

Loping into the room, the dog settled its hind legs down by the bookshelves, and looked up at Lucas expectantly. Walking around the table, he scratched it behind the ears. “It looks like you might be able to stay,” he said. “You lucky, lucky thing.”

*

Lilla suggested that Bogle could be a working dog. Earn his place by mousing the vermin, or keeping out intruders. But the dog had a clement temperament, and was not good for either. He allowed mice to run over and around him, and hardly looked even when they scampered over his paws. Strangers to the house were greeted with a sad look and a resigned whimper, a combination that said, “Why are you in my seat?”

Lucas took the dog with him to work. He was spending too long in his thoughts, and liked to have the company. It was a good way, he’d decided, for it to get the daily exercise it needed.

Taking the hound slowed him. For one thing it couldn’t go any quicker than its rheumatic joints, and for another it was a nice dog, and people would stop to pet it. He met a lot of women that way. Even joggers would slow, come to a stop, and scratch Bogle’s thin head. “What’s his name?” they’d say.

“Now you are really earning your keep,” Lucas would say, after another smile from a pink-flushed lady in Lycra.

They were coming out of Carson Close one morning when Lucas saw a woman half-chasing down the street after three dogs. There were two tan spaniels and a blotched one, all tongues lolling. Bogle leapt forward, tugging at his collar. His tail whipped hard against Lucas’s leg. It was the only time Lucas had ever known him excited. He had no idea the old man could be so strong; it left a burn in his palm. “Steady on,” he said.

The woman laughed on her way past. The sun caught her eyes like light landing on the sea. “Bet he keeps you busy,” she said. She went by, in the direction of the park.

Lucas decided that it wouldn’t kill the occupants of Carson Drive to not get their bills for another hour. “Come on, Bogle,” he said. The two of them ran down the road after Bogle’s new friends.

The park lay behind a short stone wall. Beyond a square of grass used by the local boys for cricket was a bench, and after that a slope of dandelions and wildflowers. Lucas took up a spot on the seat, and watched the spaniels gambol on the hill.

Bogle lay in a patch of daisies, legs folded under him. The younger dogs ran for sticks, darting past with their ears flowing in the wind. The old professor looked like he was having the time of his life.

The woman was standing under a tree, the shade speckling her broad face. She was older than he’d first thought, he saw, with a wedding ring on her left hand. “Oh well,” he said. She was throwing treats, the dogs snuffling the ground for them. He watched the blotched dog snout the earth. When it moved away he saw a familiar head behind the stalks. Blonde, unkempt, and smiling at somebody lying on the ground beside her.

He stopped himself from calling out. It was none of his business now, where Shelley went, and what she did. Hand in pocket, fingers touching the edge of the kibbled dog treats, Lucas kept staring, looking for the other head to rise. He wondered who it was, and waited for the sting to start.

Bogle appeared, putting his jaw on Lucas’s knee. His eyes contained a world of sadness, an expression that disappeared as soon as the biscuits came out. Lucas let him lick them from his palm, and glanced at the top of Shelley’s head. She was giggling in a way he hadn’t seen since the day they’d first gone out. Seeing her so different like that—it was like looking at a stranger.

The dog harrumphed, tacking its paws on the concrete. “I know, dog,” he said. “We’ll go and do the rest of the post soon.” Bogle set his nose to sniffing Lucas’s trouser pocket. “You’ve had your lot,” Lucas said.

He looked again, saw her face disappear downwards. The sight of the green made him think about the garden at home, about Lilla’s raspberry canes fruiting at the front of the house. More would be ready for picking today, hot pink and ripe, perfect for fruit crumble. The dog licked his trousers, leaving a trail of damp over his knee. “Man’s best friend, eh?” he said, trying to wipe it dry. It was no use: the trail was already setting, and the trousers would need to go in the wash. “Couldn’t have brought you home if I’d been in the flat, could I?” Lucas scratched the lone triangle of fluff behind Bogle’s left ear, and thought about rigging up a clothes drier. A wooden one that could lift by a pulley away from the floor, and stop the mice making nests of their drying clothes. “Come on, beast,” he said, getting up. “You and I have got work to do.”

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SJ Bradley is a writer from Yorkshire, UK. Her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies, and in 2013 she was shortlisted for the Willesden Herald International Short Story prize. Her novel, Brick Mother, will be out from Cinder House Press & Dead Ink Books in early 2014. Email: sjbradleybooks[at]gmail.com

Gone

Flash
Melissa Reddish


puddle
Photo Credit: Gratiela Dumitrica

It didn’t start with blood. First there was an ache, smaller than hunger, that nestled just above bone. It flushed through my body like an embarrassed schoolgirl, then contracted to a point just above my pelvis. I remembered the charley horse I had gotten last Tuesday when I insisted on bringing in the groceries. Halfway to the door, I doubled over and shattered the Cabernet, my half-glass sliding down the sidewalk, irretrievable. I remember you rubbing my back through hiccupping gasps. You even tried to make a joke: “No use crying over spilt wine.” How could I explain that every loss scraped down to the center of me, past Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, past the organic carrots and peas, past the vitamins big as horse pills, right into his pitter-patter heart? This pain was something else, though—a different kind of twisting. You were sleeping on the couch downstairs, afraid of waking me, even though I was the one who tossed from side to side, wanting nothing more than to sleep on my goddamned back for a change. The pain became pinpricks, became knives, became an army of chittering ants marching straight through me. I knew I should call out for you but I didn’t. If I moved, I would no longer be able to hold the night still—it would be lights and an ambulance and a man with a clipboard shaking his head. When I finally pulled back the sheets, I knew it had been too long since I felt his restless shuffling. The doctors say I should use his name—Timothy, my Olympian diver, my home-run hitter—but in that moment, there was only a brick-hard body swelling with absence and sheets the color of wine.

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In 2008, Melissa Reddish graduated with an MFA from American University. Her work has appeared in decomP, Prick of the Spindle, and Northwind, among others. A chapbook of flash fiction is forthcoming from Red Bird Chapbooks. She is also the co-faculty editor of Echoes & Visions, the student literary publication of Wor-Wic Community College. Email: mspaster[at]gmail.com

The Girl in the Movies

Flash
Bill Gaythwaite


warner bros. water tower
Photo Credit: Fabian Gonzalez

My mother was released from her film contract the same day her tooth happened to abscess. That’s how she met my dad. He’d just opened a dental practice in Encino. It was 1956. After getting dropped from the studio, Ma had no interest in hustling for another one, so she eventually married the good-looking dentist, let her hair go back to its natural color and became a regular housewife. They had four sons in five years and settled in The Valley. Looking back, the combination of a rotten tooth and a scuttled movie career seems like the logical starting point for my parents’ divide and conquer relationship.

Ma had gotten a Hollywood screen test after winning the Santa Rosa beauty contest and that’s how she became a contract player at Warner Bros.—where she said they treated the fledgling actors like stupid, wayward children. Mostly she did bits and extra work, but once she had a couple of scenes as Doris Day’s peppy kid sister in a film set in snowy New England, though it was all shot on a Burbank soundstage.

At home Ma was like the other mothers we knew, in that she was occasionally exhausted and fed up, but she also did her best to see that my brothers and I didn’t end up concocting our own branch of the Manson Family. She wasn’t particularly diva-like, as you might have expected from someone who’d been in the business. My dad was the one given to angry scenes and stomping around in a theatrical fashion. He walked out on us when my brothers and I were teenagers, taking up in a predictable way with the dental hygienist from his office, though by that time it was the seventies in California and certain behaviors had stopped surprising anyone.

The Doris Day movie used to come on television sometimes. We all treated it like a family joke, an excuse for my brothers and me to gather around the set and howl at this early, unrecognizable version of Ma—her laboriously tweezed eyebrows, the shellacked and platinum hair, her “Gee Whiz!” line readings. It was fucking hilarious. She’d laugh with us, too, while we watched, but one time, before she caught my eye, I saw something mean and curious pass over her face. I didn’t have time to ask her about it, because almost immediately she’d adjusted her expression and recovered enough to crack, “Yeah, that’s me all right, the girl in in the movies.”

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Bill Gaythwaite is the Program Coordinator for the University Committee on Asia and the Middle East at Columbia University. His fiction has appeared in The Ledge, Third Wednesday, Alligator Juniper, Word Riot and elsewhere. His work is also included in Mudville Diaries, an anthology of baseball-themed essays and reminiscences published by Avon Books. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Email: wgaythwaite[at]hotmail.com

Winning

Flash
Cezarija Abartis


DSC_6945
Photo Credit: markconsidine33

Her muscles ached, shoulders and back from leaning over the bike, quadriceps and calves from pumping the pedals. She had cycled the course a couple days earlier, past the grade school, church, cemetery, past the abandoned paper mill where her father worked fifteen years ago. He had said life was complex, memory was complex. He wanted to forgive his own father and his grandfather too. She had not rested enough. Her muscles had lactic acid to dispel, but mostly she wanted to outrun the past. She surged ahead of the pack.

When she cycled, she was in The Zone, unthinking, a machine of gears, pedal strokes dissipating confusion and fear, leaving behind the bruises of her memories.

Her lungs burned. One more turn and, farther ahead, the glare and cheers of the finish line. Her heart bumped like a rock rolling down a hill, like a staggering drunk, like her father thumping on the closed door of his own bedroom, Mother and Father screaming and soon weeping and, after that, laughing. They shrieked at each other: about money, the future, the child. She used to put her hands over her ears then.

But when she cycled, she was not that frightened child. She was a pair of pistons; she could as easily have been a blade of grass or a dandelion. Light flashed in her eyes. She brushed by a weed on the roadside. Nobody in front of her.

“My little flower,” her father used to call her. Her father had taught her how to ride a bicycle, balance a checkbook, peel a potato, trim a forsythia bush, dance the Charleston. She did not want to outrun those memories.

Sunlight streaked through leaves. Her tired legs slowed. She took a cutting breath, and two cyclists passed her. The finish line gleamed ahead. Let them win. It was all right.

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Cezarija Abartis’s Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Per Contra, Pure Slush, Toasted Cheese, and New York Tyrant, among others. She loves to participate on ShowMeYourLits.com and Zoetrope.com. Her flash “The Writer” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf‘s Top 50 online Fictions of 2012. “The Argument” was chosen by Beate Sigriddaughter as a runner-up for the Fourteenth Glass Woman Prize. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Website. Email: c.abartis[at]stcloudstate.edu

Two Poems

Poetry
Diane Webster


nowthatwehavecomesofar
Photo Credit: Rene de Paula Jr.

Gone or Closer

Only three days gone
marked by three newspapers
stacked for you to read,
stacked on the chair
no one sits in,
stacked so the cat
in a playful fit
of hunter/prey
doesn’t shred the print
into bite-sized pieces
eyes and hands find difficult
to jigsaw puzzle together.
Only three days gone;
three days closer to return.

 

Water Thirst

I am tame water
tapped into a glass;
content to soak
in bubble bath foam
or pretend I am a vase.
I want to be wild water
scratching, clawing
through rock mud rubble
like a premature burial victim
until free to run
discarding ground-colored garb
for sparkling clear laughter,
to slide by smooth stone
or jagged granite
no never mind to me
I’m free
to pool against boulder,
to bask, to laze,
to titter with wind ripples,
to twiddle a pebble
and another and another
until like a dog to scent
I tunnel
to a somewhere destination.

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Diane Webster’s goal is to remain open to poetry ideas in everyday life or nature or an overheard phrase and to write from her perspective at the moment. Many nights she falls asleep juggling images to fit into a poem. Her work has appeared in Philadelphia Poets, Illya’s Honey, River Poets Journal and other literary magazines. Email: diaweb[at]hotmail.com

London

Poetry
Lisa Parry


Lost, Lonely and Lethal
Photo Credit: Kristaps B.

He’s a man on the King’s Road—macintosh,
trilby hat—who kisses me by the newspaper
stand, says Come on babe and off we go,
on a bus over Chelsea Bridge to the locks
and market in Camden Town. He holds my hand,
says he likes to watch me age, play catch-up,
and he educates me, privately, during evening
South Bank strolls, buys me secondhand books,
recites the history of The Tower, tells me
about ice skaters on the Thames and how
Shakespeare and Marlowe would slap his back
after shows at The Theatre and Globe. But my man
sleeps with eyes open and those eyes are old.
I watch as he snores, dive down those pupils
and feel his river pulse through my body,
see the decaying faces of those it conceals.
The lights of Soho tickle my skin but even now
I’m not taken in by him. I’m not his only lover.
Why should I be? We’re unfaithful to each other.
Even though he makes me feel I matter, more than
anyone else has done or ever will, I can’t
give up everything to be with him. So I watch
my children play elsewhere in a garden we can
afford as I cyberstalk him on my phone,
imagine his sweaty body moving on top of me.
And I’m sniffing his pheromones and the thought
of him overtakes me again and part of me yearns
to be on a train back to sirens, lights, and fumes.

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Lisa Parry resides in the UK and her work has appeared in several new writing magazines there, including Aesthetica, Magma, Orbis and The New Writer. She also writes drama and her plays have been performed in leading new writing theatres across the country; two of her shorter pieces have been staged in New York. Further details about her work can be found on her website.

Three Poems

Poetry
Cindy Clarke


Love Is...
Photo Credit: Coal Miki

You Bring Me Coffee

Even though you don’t drink it
and don’t much like the smell of it
you know I need it
to warm me and wake me
so you make a pot
before I’m even awake
bring a cup full and steaming
to the room where I am already at work
in the blind morning

and when I return, you are here
sitting in the big red recliner
watching a show about factories
lost in the whir of spinning wheels
cogs, courses, rollered causeways
you notice me enter
and turn it off.

At night, you lie beside me
your head turned away
because you know
warm breath on my face
keeps me awake.

Your leg touches mine
in the dark.

 

Grief

Grief grabs you,
drives you out into rain
when damp and grey
makes you want to cling
to warm flannel sheets
curl up with two dogs at your feet
remind yourself to breathe,
just breathe.

Grief tugs at your elbow
bursts out of its mask
into rippled pain, tears at you
shifts under your feet
even as you turn to face it.

Grief doesn’t sleep or do the dishes
or pretend reruns are all you ever wanted.
Grief screams at the thunder
calls down the lightning
dares God to care
or just sits, staring

and when you are spent with grief’s persistence,
exhausted by rain and wind,
Grief tucks you in again,
cracks the window
for a breath of wet air,
calls the dogs up beside you,
settles into the armchair
and waits.

 

Pieces

Words drift and shift
fall windless between—
neither of us
brave enough
to set in place
what’s left unspoken.

For months you’ve stayed
a mute piece of a larger puzzle—
blocks with interlocking pieces
intact in their individuality
too isolated to initiate,
scattered across the floor
too incoherent to fit.

Abandoned now
we lie barely awake.
Light traces clues
across the carpet, whispers
into our silence.

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Cindy Clarke lives and works in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. She has had poetry published in several journals including Freefall, Ottawa Arts Review, and The Antigonish Review. Cindy recently completed an apprenticeship in the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild Mentorship program. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Curriculum Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Email: cindy.clarke[at]spiritsd.ca

Three Poems

Poetry
Jared Carter


In Love
Photo Credit: Griffin Stewart

Inscription

Now these initials carved in bark
will, when this tree
No longer stands, still in our dark
enchantment be

A witness to that moment when,
as we undressed
Within its shade, we were again
caught up, possessed

By passion that cares not if time
soon overgrows
The marks one thought to leave behind
with brier and rose.

 

Mercy

“Had to be put to sleep.” How strange
those words seem now,
How difficult to rearrange,
back then, the how

And why of you, till it became
a kinder thing
To put you down. Where is that flame
that sought to bring

Me safely through the autumn trees?
That ran ahead
Into the dusk? And why those leaves
all turned to red?

 

Pilgrimage

Crows in bleak winter do not keep
together in
The bitter cold. Aloft, each sweeps
across the thin

Light, scattering the sky’s expanse.
No wind can freeze
Their sudden rising, or their dance
out through the trees

Beyond, where darkness falls—now gone,
released, unbound
By any rule, yet hurrying on
toward ancient ground.

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Jared Carter lives in Indiana. His fifth book, A Dance in the Street, is available from Wind Publications in Kentucky. His sixth, Darkened Rooms of Summer: New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. Email: jaredrcarter[at]gmail.com

The Napkin Trick

Poetry
Ana Maria Caballero


Glasses and napkins
Photo Credit: Nick Treby

It’s been done before:

The need for conversation
starts and ends with a slow walk
around a familiar, short block—
the light purse or empty pocket.

(Tonight
after all
should only call for some cash.)

A set of doors is chosen
but not broached,

and reluctance comes as a reminder

of isolated drinks
where music from cars
(circling the block in search of a parking spot)
is forgotten
on the front and back
of a red paper napkin.

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Ana Maria Caballero currently lives in Bogotá, Colombia with her husband and eleven-month-old son. During her son’s naps, she created a blog where she shares her poems and love of literature. Email: amc[at]licorela.com