On Simultaneous Submissions

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Stephanie “Baker” Lenz

Photo Credit: Jameziecakes/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Jameziecakes/Flickr (CC-by)

What follows is part of a response I wrote to an author who sent a note to TC after my latest Absolute Blank article about submissions:

I wrote as “I” not “us” so these checkpoints apply to my criteria for submissions.

Simultaneous submission means just what it says “simultaneous.” Many journals do not accept simultaneous submissions and TC is one of them. A simultaneous submission is one sent to several journals at once, the metaphorical equivalent of “casting a wide net.” The reason we don’t accept simultaneous submissions is that, too often, we shortlist or accept a story that has already been accepted elsewhere, sometimes published elsewhere.

This is clarified in our submission guidelines. We’ve embedded a link to the announcement of when we decided not to accept simultaneous submissions in our guidelines for those who are confused about what a simsub is.

We shortlist every month, as you know, and we notify authors of shortlisted submissions of acceptance or rejection on a quarterly basis, usually within 90 days of even the oldest submission for a particular issue. If a journal doesn’t communicate with you about the status of your submission in a timely way, I think it’s wise to consider it rejected. We’ve heard from authors who thought a piece had been rejected, then submitted to us, then had the piece accepted. That’s no fault of the author. That’s a shortcoming of the editor(s) of that journal. I don’t consider that a simsub.

Simsubs were a huge problem when we decided to be firm about not accepting them. The simsubs dropped off, then started up again. Theryn began to include in our shortlist notifications a note asking the authors to reply and confirm that the submission is not under consideration elsewhere. Some authors don’t reply to this (we note this lack of response when we do final read; personally, it factors into my consideration). Some authors reply that it is but they’ll withdraw it, either from TC or from the other journal(s). Most reply, quickly, that it is not.

In my experience, the authors we shortlist are excellent at following the submission guidelines. The ones whose work we accept have followed the guidelines to the letter. We don’t shortlist or accept them based on their ability to follow directions. It just so happens that the people who pay attention to a journal’s guidelines and respect and follow them are the ones who provide work we want to publish.

We’ve had another uptick in simsubs lately and the disappointment of “this was already accepted” combined with the frustration of seeing multiple journals as recipients of the same generic email got me thinking: what if people don’t know what a “simultaneous submission” is? So I added a quick & dirty definition to our submission guidelines, along with that beautiful explanatory essay crafted by Theryn more than 10 years ago. A search for “simultaneous submission” turns up the definition in big letters in a box from Writer’s Relief.

Some authors include “this is a simultaneous submission” in their cover letter. If I happen to catch that before I read, it saves me some time. That said, I appreciate the honesty. I would rather an author be upfront with the original submission rather than reply to a shortlist notification with “yes, I have it out to ten other journals.” I keep thinking of George Costanza’s “Was that wrong? Should I not have done that?” feigned ignorance speech.

Simultaneous submissions are such a black-and-white matter and so important to editors and literary agents that when we fill out forms about our journals or their guidelines, there is always a separate question asking “Do you accept simultaneous submissions?” Journals with a very long response time or high submission volume tend to accept simsubs. Journals with a quick turn-around or moderate- to low-submission volume tend not to accept simsubs.

I have absolutely no problem with an author sending a note asking to clarify our submission guidelines. I do have a problem when authors make no attempt to familiarize themselves with the terms editors and publishers use or when they believe that submission guidelines are for other authors, not them.

That’s why simsubs are in the #1 spot on my list of how to make sure your piece doesn’t make the cut. It means you either didn’t read our guidelines, disregarded them, or didn’t understand them. Our guidelines are standard. They have been our guidelines, with a few tweaks, for the 15 years of Toasted Cheese‘s existence.

pencilEmail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

Crossing the Lines by Tony Press

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Lou Gaglia

Crossing the Lines by Tony Press

Crossing the Lines by Tony Press

I am partial to the short story form, and especially enjoy stories within a collection that express a common theme. Tony Press’s book Crossing the Lines (Big Table Publishing) is a mix of thirty-three such stories, in which a variety of major and minor characters struggle over love and loss and grapple with truth, however evasive.

In “Always Present, Always Watching,” Kenneth, in a failing marriage and killing time before his counseling appointment, comes across a book written by a teenage friend, LaDonna, whom he hadn’t seen in almost thirty years. Sitting in “a stuffed chair in a back corner” of the bookstore, Kenneth flashes back to vivid scenes of his friendship/near romance with LaDonna, which ended when she was forced to move away. Kenneth the adult remembers LaDonna’s lips, which looked “like someone—Van Gogh? Michelangelo? God?—had painted roses or peaches and transformed them into lips.” She is a unique, complex character, and when she moves away the reader misses her, as Kenneth did. There is a touching contrast in this story between the freshness of Kenneth’s teenage experiences, and his grown-up experience of going through the motions of a failed marriage. This story, about love and loss and memory and a search for the truth about others, is at the core of Press’s book.

Within this collection there are other stories about love and loss, including an interesting series of relatively short pieces in the middle of the book, all related to the Vietnam War. They are led by a moving short piece called, “Pancakes,” which takes place in 1970. Over breakfast in a diner, young Jake can’t get enough of the news, and “would have arranged for a daily paper to be delivered to the door of his dented but beloved bus.” His friend Rob, however, growls to Jake that he doesn’t want to “hear the body count every… day.” Still, Jake continues reading the paper until he comes upon news that hits home for him—the death of Jimi Hendrix. He leaves the breakfast table to walk outside, and soon Rob joins him. By the story’s end, we feel the loss with Jake, and we sense his friend’s compassion in a beautifully understated ending:

The guitar was put back into its case, returned to the van and tucked safely among the pillows and sleeping bags. He (Robby) drove, and the guitarist ate cold eggs with a plastic fork.

Later, in “Cookie and George” two unique high school boys named George, are both killed in the Vietnam War. They are very much individuals—delightfully nonconformist and peaceful in nature, but the story is mostly about the effect of their deaths on the narrator and his good friend, the sister of one of the Georges. As the narrator puts it:

…young men are almost always marching and shooting and dying in the name of something that just might be oil, might be patriotism. We touched their names with our hands, our two Georges among the fifty thousand.

Of the many fine stories in this book, the most memorable to me is “Cultural Anthropology” about two likeable college students. April becomes pregnant, and her boyfriend, the narrator, fails to be with her when she needs him most. April’s presence is felt most in the scenes in which she is absent from him—or perhaps more accurately, when he absents himself from her. At the end of the story, she tells him over the phone that “she felt dead,” that “her parents didn’t know, and it was hard not telling them,” and that “all she did was hurt.” The absent April, a strong character to begin with, feels most present to the reader then. Press deftly, patiently, and methodically guides the reader through the experience of this young couple. It is a story about a betrayal, about love and loss, and perhaps crossing lines from which one can never retreat. We feel for both characters.

The stories in this collection, in which Vietnam and post-Vietnam settings are palpably present, remind us how precious relationships are, and how every action changes the lives of others in perceptible ways. Tony Press is an excellent short story writer, and Crossing the Lines shows what can be done with the short story form, in the right hands.


Tony Press lives near San Francisco and tries to pay attention. Sometimes he does. His publications include over one hundred stories and poems (and occasional non-fiction pieces). His writing has appeared in Silver of Stone Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Connotation Press, Fiction on the Web, and Toasted Cheese.  Tony has been nominated for the Pushcart, Best of the Web, and the Million Writers Award. He is grateful to kind editors and receptive readers.

pencilLou Gaglia‘s short story collection, Poor Advice, received the 2015 New Apple Literary Award for Short Story Fiction. His fiction has appeared or will soon appear in Menda City Review, Forge, Toasted Cheese, Serving House Journal, Frigg, Halfway Down the Stairs, Rappahannock Review, Thrice Fiction, and elsewhere. He is a long-time teacher and T’ai Chi Ch’uan practitioner, first in New York City and now in upstate New York. Email: lougaglia[at]yahoo.com

Feeding by Cody L. Stanford

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter

Feeding by Cody L. Stanford

Feeding by Cody L. Stanford

Cody L. Stanford’s self-published (2015) young-adult novel, Feeding, is an edgy coming-of-age story told by a young gay protagonist, Tajo Borrego, in an interesting mix of mad-scientist science fiction and urban romance. The exposition begins in a declarative and confessional hook: “I know what happened to Daray Gillard. I’m sort of responsible for his disappearance.”

Tajo’s tale takes off somewhere in the middle and works its way forward and back to the very beginning with flashback, backstory, foreshadowing and cliffhangers that leave the reader dangling along with the characters. Yet, it is clear that Tajo is a trustworthy narrator who always knows what’s coming. He lets the reader in on a need-to-know basis and it is well-played as it adds excitement and a sense of urgency to the plot. The structure works.

I was intrigued by the conversational narration of this thirteen-year-old protagonist, who slipped in and out of first-person point-of-view, into second, and sometimes rounded to third. Indeed, Stanford has created a very round character in Tajo whose voice is loud and strong and full of teenage edginess and angst. His narrative is so close that it almost seems like he’s sitting across from the reader eating a hotdog and burping soda, oozing with wit and poignancy: “Pop looked at me sadly; probably picturing me in my dance tights and wondering where he went wrong. My father thought that way still, like there was something wrong with him because his son was gay.”

Stanford’s story take places in New York City and the setting creates a dramatic backdrop that is also reminiscent of epic monster movies like King Kong and Godzilla, who hide their giganticness in unlikely places and whose monster plots cleverly use their city settings to spike their stories with an even greater potential for terror and, of course, collateral damage. How does one hide a giant snake in a Queen’s apartment building? Stanford took his time with the setting, slowing down time in thoughtful detail. He describes the Queensborough Bridge:

The girders sloped down toward the upper deck of the bridge. I was riding a roller coaster on the back of a gigantic snake! I looked down to my left. The bridge traffic was still pretty heavy. Cars sizzled past and their colors flashed in the streetlights; white and red and black and silver, mixed in with the yellow darts of cabs. I heard trucks rumbling on the lower deck… Out past the pedestrian walkway, it was a long, long way down to the East River.

Thoughtfulness also extends to the characters. Meet the building custodian. Stanford takes an old cliché and gives it a fresh makeover:

And there he was passed out on the cellar floor next to that big old pile of junk, not far from the boiler and Daray’s den… The super. Everyone called him Vinnie, but his real name was Wienczyslaw Bogucki … Vinnie was fifty bazillian years old, and he started in on the vodka everyday by 10:00 a.m. His white hair looked like a dirty bird’s nest, and you could have made a map of Wrinkletopia out of the lines on his face, not to mention the glow of his boozy-red nose that would make Wrinkletopia look like it had just been nuked.

Tajo is a complex character who loves to dance:

Why do I dance? … Can you imagine what it’s like to be a bird and fly, to break free of gravity and soar up to the clouds? I don’t know a single kid who hasn’t dreamed at least once about flying over the towers of Manhattan, but ballet kids feel like we can actually do it… I love feeling my body move, using all these different muscles that I never knew I had. Aunt Lola took me to see Billy Elliot on Broadway… and when it was over, I was shaking so much I could hardly walk.

Tajo also claims to have no filter and the same is true for some of the other characters, my favorite being his potty-mouthed little sister, Tanna. She is a scene stealer. “Tanna had a dirty mind for a ten-year-old. I think she watched too much TV.” Tanna is also a major player in the story—a switch hitter. You never know if she is friend or foe. She is watchful and shifty. Likewise all of Stanford’s characters are robust and real and sometimes raw. Stanford doesn’t hold back. Some of the scenes are edgy and some are more than a little provocative. Tajo isn’t a perfect character and the things he does—although done for love—make him more appealing because sometimes good people do bad things and bad people do good things. Tajo does both. Stanford gets this and that is why Tajo, along with his fabulous supporting cast, is such a terrific teen character, so believable with his old-soul, wise-cracking, kid-cussing ways. Clearly, Stanford gets teenagers and is fluid in their speak.

The epicenter of the story is the relationship between Tajo and Daray, whose character is also full of heartache and whose transformation and its aftereffects eventually divide the boys. Cody L. Stanford’s Feeding is pure allegory as it symbolizes the darker side of love and the dangers hidden within the fragile teenage heart.


Cody L. Stanford lives in Kansas. He attended the University of Missouri at Kansas City and is fascinated by the arts, history, mythology, sexuality, and other elements that shape the forces and foibles of human nature. His stories and novels have been published in Midwest Literary Magazine, Aphelion, Gypsy Shadow Publishing, Storm Moon Press, Etopia Press, Collective Fallout, Blood Quarry, The New Orphic Review, and Toasted Cheese. When not writing, he occasionally spends time working with tigers and other exotic cats at a nearby feline conservation park.

pencilShelley Carpenter is TC’s reviews editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com


Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Erin McDougall

Photo Credit: Robyn Jay/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Robyn Jay/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

“What do you mean, ‘He’s not there’?!

The screechiness in my mother’s voice rose to such a painful pitch, I had to hold the phone away from my ear. Sure enough, she launched into a full-on tirade, her words audible to the people waiting across the room.

“You had one job to do today, Olivia. They knew you were picking him up at 11:30, didn’t they? Where is he?” she demanded even louder this time. The others in the lobby exchanged pitying looks and glanced away quickly when I caught them. All I could do was shrug apologetically and turn back to my phone and my panicked mother. Her irritating jab at my failure to do my ‘one job’ today aside, I vowed to keep my head, no matter what she said.

“Mom, they knew I was picking him up. The nurse said he was waiting in the lobby earlier, but he now he’s not here,” I replied as calmly as I could. “And that’s all I know so far.” There was a split-second pause on the line—all the warning I needed to hold the phone away again.

“Did they even bother to look for him? He could have fallen or something. Where did he go?” she shrieked. “Never mind, I’m almost at the hall… I’ll have to stall everyone. Just… find out where your grandfather disappeared to on his 95th birthday!” She hung up.

I was severely tempted to throw my phone in frustration. Any other day, I would have laughed at how Grandpa was pushing my mother’s buttons in that perfect way only he knows how. But not today. Exasperated, I leaned against the antique lamppost and let out a long sigh.

A cloud shifted outside and the sun suddenly poured into lobby’s tall front windows. It reflected blindingly off something on the floor directly into my eyes. I blinked and noticed a pair of glasses sitting next to the lamppost. As I picked them up, I realized with a start the glasses belonged to Grandpa.

The lobby was empty, except for the nurse at the desk. As I approached her, she glanced up nervously. I felt bad for her. The staff here at Grandpa’s seniors’ condo does a great job and he’s never complained about anything, except the Early Bird Special, which he insists he’s still too young for. But my mom always finds something to criticize and the poor nurses continuously take the brunt of it.

“I’m so sorry—I really don’t know what else to say,” the nurse began anxiously. Her nametag read Carmen. “He was right there and then I had to take a phone call. When I turned back, he was gone… he has a remarkable amount of energy for someone his age—”

“It’s not your fault,” I soothed, and showed her the glasses. “Aren’t these my grandfather’s? They were on the floor, by the lamppost.”

She shrugged and offered to take the glasses back to his room.

“Thanks, but I’ll take care of it. Maybe I’ll find him hiding in there too,” I said casually, but I was starting to get worried as I made my way quickly down the hall to his room.

“Grandpa? It’s Olivia,” I called as I knocked. No answer. As I stepped inside, I breathed in the familiar scents of Old Spice aftershave and strong coffee. It was the first time I’d ever been alone in his room. Had it always been this small?

“I only plan to be in here to shit, shower, shave and sleep. And maybe read.”

I remembered him saying that when we moved him in four years ago, after Granny died. He was adamant he was only moving for the social aspect, because “my health is perfectly fine, goddamnit!”  I eyed the shiny golf clubs in their leather bag near the door and grinned. In his nineties and still plays 18 holes twice a week, all summer.

I ran a hand along the smooth, polished mahogany of his beloved dresser—the one he built for Granny as a wedding gift and insisted he bring here with him. It was full of photos and mementos of their life together: their children and grandchildren, Grandpa’s military days, their many travels across Canada and Scotland, their prized garden. Their beautiful black-and-white framed wedding photo was front and center.

A can of brown shoe polish and a freshly-used rag sat to the right of the photo. Three blue patterned neckties lay discarded on the armchair along with a white dress shirt and a grey jacket. It looked like Grandpa had decided to wear something else today. I glanced quickly in his closet and noted his best blue suit was gone.

Something felt off as I turned towards the bed in the corner of the room. I saw his glasses case on the bedside table and as I bent to put them away, I let out a gasp when my name suddenly leapt out at me, in Grandpa’s meticulous handwriting on a folded piece of paper.

My dear Olivia,

I know the family has some grand plans for my birthday and that you are responsible for getting me there. Forgive me, but there’s somewhere else I need to be today. Please don’t worry, but since I know you will, you’re welcome to join me—if you can find me…

I left my glasses by the lamppost because I knew you’d return them here. But if you remember our scavenger hunts from when you were little, you know there’s more to it than that. You are my cleverest girl. I know you can solve the puzzle. When you do, we’ll have lots to celebrate.



I stared at the note for a long time, willing it to spill the secret. I know you can solve the puzzle… it was so like him to make this a game. I reread it a few times, each time feeling a different emotion—relief, confusion, and finally, a small twinge of excitement. But then the impossibility of the task settled in. How was I supposed to find him?

“You’re Frank’s granddaughter, aren’t you?” A singsongy voice suddenly called to me, making me jump. A tiny woman was peering into the room, smiling at me from behind enormous glasses.

“Yes, I’m here to take Frank out for his birthday today,” I replied, taking her extended hand and giving the warm, withered palm a gentle squeeze.

“He suspected there might be something like that today,” she murmured. “But looks like he has other ideas…” She nodded towards the note.

“Have you seen Frank today? Do you know where he is?” I asked, but she shook her head and let out a rueful chuckle.

“Lovely day for the pictures, don’t you think?” she asked airily, clearly enjoying herself and in on the game. “Please wish Frank a happy birthday—if you see him!” She winked and shuffled slowly down the hall.

…you know there’s more to it than that…

My mind raced as I glanced around the room and my eyes landed on the small record player beside the armchair. He might have an iPad and a smartphone, but Grandpa still prefers his music from a record player. I flipped through the stack of records just to be doing something.

Each album was a testament to Grandpa’s wide variety in musical taste: from the fedora-clad Frank Sinatra, the haunting Ella Fitzgerald, to Gene Kelly hanging from a lamppost in Singin’ in the Rain.

Hanging from a lamppost…

Lovely day for the pictures, don’t you think?

Singin’ in the Rain had always been Grandpa’s favorite film. Could that be something?

I held my breath as I turned the record over in my hands and shook it, waiting for some kind of revelation. But only a wad of crinkled candy wrappers tumbled out.

“Oh, come on!” I burst out and flung the record onto the bed. Then I spied his umbrella stand next to the bedside table and on a whim, pulled out the umbrellas. More crumpled candy wrappers fell out, along with some whole pieces of candy. I recognized them as the same candy he and Granny used to have in a little crystal bowl in the foyer of their house.

I scooped one up and indulged a moment as I untwisted the ends and popped the boiled sweet into my mouth. A sweet and creamy mix of strawberry and vanilla flavours greeted me. I twirled the candy around in my mouth and remembered the glee of sneaking handfuls into my pockets every time I visited Granny and Grandpa.

But so what? The initial sweetness of the candy memory was fading away and I was still no closer to figuring out where Grandpa had gone. I gave the candy two hard crunches, swallowed the bits and gathered up the wrappers. I was about to pull out my phone and concede defeat to my mother when I noticed it peeking out from behind one of the picture frames.

The same little crystal candy bowl from their house.

It made the same tinkling sound it used to when I lifted the lid, and I wasn’t surprised to find it full of candies. But there was something else buried under the sweets at the bottom of the dish.

I pulled out something I never thought I’d find in a candy dish: a two-inch long, brass rifle shell.

I held it gingerly, away from myself like it was a grenade and felt my heart quicken. I really had no idea where Grandpa was going with this clue, or if this even was a clue. I thought back to the stories he’d shared with me about his WWII experiences. I couldn’t remember all the details but as far as I knew, he had spent some time in the UK before heading to France, where he’d been wounded.

I put the shell gently down on the dresser and gazed at the photographs. Grandpa’s smile looked the same in every photo—delighted, charming, and comical. What was he doing keeping a rifle shell in his candy dish? I searched for the photo of that man among all the Christmas and family gathering snapshots.

The closest I found was the black-and-white photo of him in his uniform, a young man at barely eighteen, his arms around his stoic parents, his smile still the same. How many times had that photo been pointed out to me? And how many times did I actually look at it?

I picked it up for a closer look and felt something tucked in behind the frame. I carefully pulled it out and saw it was a yellowed ticket stub from the old cinema downtown. What I saw when I turned it over almost made me drop the picture frame.

Scrawled on the back of the faded ticket, in Grandpa’s perfect handwriting in ink that was over 50 years old but just as clear as though it had just dried on the page—Rendez-vous May 21, 2016.

Today’s date.

Lamppost, glasses, candy, rifle shell, movie ticket, today—I had all the pieces but how did they fit? Only one person could help me with the puzzle. I bolted out of the room and didn’t stop until I’d parked my car outside the historic Bijou Cinema downtown.

But it hadn’t been a cinema in years; it was now a French bistro and confectionery.

At a small table in the corner, dressed in his best blue suit, his greying hair carefully slicked and combed and his brown shoes gleaming, sat Grandpa. His same delighted, comical, charming smile spread widely across his face as he saw me and he stood up and extended his hand. I had never seen him look so happy and all my questions and confusion evaporated on the spot.

“My dear Olivia! I knew you could do it!” He had tears in his eyes as he gave my hand a hard kiss and a firm squeeze. “Let me introduce you to someone very important.” He gestured to the woman opposite him, who I didn’t notice until now. She was maybe ten years younger than him, impeccably dressed in a lovely floral dress with a pink silk scarf tied chicly around her neck. She stood up timidly, took my hands and planted a soft kiss on each of my cheeks.

“Annette, je vous présente ma petite fille, Olivia,” Grandpa said, in near-perfect French. When and how did he learn to speak French?

“Olivia, this is Annette Vallois. She and her family saved my life back in 1943, when I was wounded in France.”

“Enchantez, Olivia,” Annette said softly.

The room was spinning and I felt the blur of tears running down my face. I looked at my grandfather and back at his friend. I realized, because of this woman, my grandfather is alive and my whole life exists. She smiled and gestured to the empty chair. I sat down heavily and both Grandpa and Annette waited calmly for me to respond.

“Annette, it’s so nice to meet you too,” was all I could say.

pencilErin McDougall is an educator, dancer, writer, proud Canadian and great lover of life. She taught dance, drama and English in Canada and she is currently teaching English as a Second Language in Velizy-Villacoublay, France. She is also an avid blogger, sharing her favorite sandwich ideas and tips with Sandwiches are Beautiful, documenting her adventures in dance, theatre, art and culture with A Dancer Abroad, and exploring photography and visual storytelling with the photo blog Bridges and Benches. Erin plans to continue pursuing her life-long passions for dance, theatre and creative writing while exploring the cultural playground of Europe. Email: eamcdougall[at]gmail.com

Bus Stop

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Brian Behr Valentine

Photo Credit: Matt/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Matt/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I was greeted with smiles, jeers and whistles as I walked through the large room full of desks. All city precincts are alike—attitude and clowning. Nothing is holy. It has to be, or you go insane. And if you’re not one of the gang, then you are shown respect, but given little. I’m not on the force anymore, but I’m still one of the gang, and they definitely respect me, though an outsider wouldn’t know by the clowning.

“Hey Jewell, we’ll push our desks together if you’ll strip!”

“Sorry, I’m going down to the firehouse later and dance for them… they have a pole!”

Laughing grumbles followed this as I went into the Captain’s office.

“What’s up, Bud?” I asked, noting he was getting closer to the Lou Grant look everyday.

“Thanks for coming, Jewell.” He indicated a seat. The ancient air conditioner in his ancient office buzzed fitfully.

“What is it this time, Bud? Need me to sneak into another board meeting, church social, or political rally?” Now that I was off the force, I was extremely useful to them. I knew what to look for, and, as a private detective, police rules did not govern my conduct.

“Nah. I got a case bothering me. I’m about to mark it closed, but… my hand won’t put it in the file cabinet.”

“Hmm. A mind of its own. Just what kind of things does your hand get up to, now that Janet’s left?”

He turned red. “The same as before she left and none of your concern.”

“Okay,” I smiled. “Before you call me a cruel bitch again, what’s the case about?”

“Looks like a mugging that caused a heart attack. Found this fat, middle-aged accountant lying on the sidewalk, tits-up, just past the bus stop where the overpass drops from Old Town Heights across the six-lane. Guy had a really bad heart condition. He rode the bus everyday and his apartment was ground floor, half block from the stop. He was tasered from behind. His wallet was missing. He had abrasions on his hands and forehead so we know he initially fell forward. His glasses were found about five light poles down the overpass from the bus stop… and that’s it.”

“How did they get down there?”

“The glasses? Dunno, maybe some kids kicked them down the street.”


“And that’s it. Looks like he took a short walk, got mugged, had a heart attack, and died at the hospital.”

“Sounds solid. So, what’s the problem?”

“He was a very important suspect in an organized crime case.”

“Why wasn’t he in witness protection somewhere else?”

“He was. We’re the somewhere else. Case is from the West Coast. We now know that he compromised himself in several ways.”


“Calls to his wife. His brother. Who knows who else he may have called. I think the safe house was the most exciting thing to ever happen to him.”

“Well, he was an accountant. ”

He agreed with a shrug.

“You think it was a hit?”

“My brain tells me it’s cut and dried, Jewell. My… hunch tells me different.

“Well, Bud, anyone who knows you would take your hunch over the meager offerings of you brain any day.”

He game me a tired look. “You’re never going to forgive me for firing you, are you?”

“Would you?”

“No. Now will you take a look at this goddamn case? Please?”

“I’d do anything for you, Bud.”

“God, how I wish that were true, Jewell.”

“You have four heart bypasses. Best it’s only a tease.”

“I don’t know. Death might be worth it,” he grinned.

“Oh, I guarantee it would be worth it, Bud. I guarantee it.”

He shook his head, handed me the case file, and left red-faced but chuckling. I sat at his desk and read. It did look cut and dried. Except for one thing. The glasses were found five blocks away, out on the overpass. In the picture, the gold-framed glasses lay folded, lenses up next to a rusty, cast iron light pole, looking put aside with care. Neither muggers, nor the dying man would have done this.

“Um, Jewell?

I looked up to see Debussy—Conan O’Brien in a blue uniform.

“Yeah, Gregg?”

“Bud said I was to assist you,” he stated softly.

“Gregg, the paramedic’s report said he was laying next to a light pole near the bus stop. But his glasses were five light poles away from the bus stop. How did they get there?”

The cop that wrote it up had only what the paramedics told him. The veteran bus driver knew the man by his picture, like he knew everyone in the city by their picture, he said. He had no recollection one way or the other of the man getting on or off that day.

I had Debussy drive me to the paramedic squad house. He was too quiet.

“What is it Debussy?”

To his credit, he was forthright about it. “They fired you. Even though everyone says you’re the best detective they ever met.”

I didn’t respond.

“You saved that little girl…”

“I did.”

“And they fired you… Why did you strip?”

“To gain the suspect’s confidence, Gregg. It was the only way. Her life was on the line.”

“But you lost your job for stripping.”

“There are things more important than a job, or a uniform, Gregg.”

He didn’t respond.

“Gregg, if the job is more important than justice, you will never make a great detective. You will automatically stop seeing clues that would lead you down a bad career path. You become permanently mediocre. If you’re good, though, you end up betting your job against solving every difficult case. You might not have a long career, but there are other things waiting.”

“Like being a private detective,” he queried.

“Or a stripper. Think you’d look good in one of those Chippendales G-strings?”

He had a Harrison Ford self-deprecating grin. “Not really.”

Neither paramedic could recall exactly where on the overpass they found the man. They also claimed they had not seen the glasses. I was getting pissed.

The quiet one leaned to his partner and whispered in his ear.

“Oh!” The talker looked me up and down with a slow smile building.

Debussy moved his hand to his gun. His look said: “She’s one of ours! One of ours! And if you don’t want an angry six-foot-four cop pistol-whipping you into a tearful puddle, you’ll be respectful.” The paramedic’s smarmy smile leached away.

“We…” He kept looking from me to where Debussy’s fingers petted the grips of his pistol. “We found him laying by the light pole on the overpass, just down from the bus stop.”

“Which light pole?”

“Don’t know. I was kinda busy.”

The quiet one shrugged.

“You found him on his back, though?”


“Which one of you hit him with the defibrillator paddles?”

“I did,” said the quiet one.

“And what were you doing?”

“What? Getting him…” he glanced at Debussy and calmed his voice. “…ready.”

“Go through it.”


“Are you deaf?” asked Debussy, dangerously.

“Okay, okay. After I cut his tie off, I pulled his jacket open and then…” He hesitated.

“What?” I demanded.

“Damn! I took his glasses…”

“Stop.” I pointed to the floor. “Show me.”

With a glance at Gregg, he knelt down, tugging at his partner to come down and play the dying accountant. “I opened his jacket. I saw his glasses in his shirt pocket. I grabbed them and…” He hesitated, then twisted around and lay them down. “…laid them next to the light pole.”

“Like this?” I asked, showing him the picture.

“Yes! That’s it.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Driving back I said, “So, Gregg, you never come to see me down at the strip club like some of the others.”



“Most of the guys won’t. They think you’re beautiful, but… the police basically forced you to become a stripper.”

“That’s not true. I became a stripper on my own.”

“I’m still not coming to see you.”


“I like you just like this. I want…”

“What, Gregg?”

“I want to become a detective and, you know, bring justice to the world. I hate injustice. Hate it!”

“Then look for the odd things in the cases you are on. Little things that most people overlook. Like these glasses.”

“But what does that tell us?”

“In Bud’s file it says he was found south of the bus stop next to the light pole. This proves the man was found five light poles south of the bus stop.”

“What does that tell us?” Bud asked, when we got to the station.

“It tells us he didn’t get off the bus at the bus stop,” said Gregg.

“Very good.”

“But… you haven’t proven anything.” said Bud. “He gets off at the bus stop and takes a little constitutional out across the overpass. Someone mugs him. His tie gets grabbed in the struggle. A second operator shoots him in the back with the Taser. He goes down, face forward; they grab his wallet and run. The paramedics try too revive him but it’s too late,” finished Bud.

I indicated Debussy should explain where he was wrong.

“Well… it was way too far for a man in his health to walk in that heat on purpose—it was ninety-eight. And it’s downhill so he would have had a real hard time getting back uphill.”

“He would not have done it,” I stated. “Never.”

“So… he must have gotten off the bus where we found his glasses,” Gregg finished.

“Right.” I beamed.

“But what does… why would the bus let him off there?”

Debussy was out of ideas now.

“To kill him out of sight, Bud,” I said.


“He was tasered in the back, right?”


“Have the Medical Examiner check the body to see if the Taser shot was angled downward.”


“From the top step of the bus,” piped up Gregg excitedly.

“Very good. I’ll be back in the morning for the answer.”

“He was tasered from above.” said Debussy. “The toothpicks the ME stuck in the Taser wounds were at an angle.”

“The bus would have been full of people,” said Bud.

“They could’ve used another bus,” Gregg countered.

“How the hell would they have gotten away with that?”

“The driver controls the sign,” I said. “After getting him on the bus the driver could have changed the sign so that no one at other stops saw it as their bus. He tells the passengers that did get on that he is having trouble with the bus and everyone who isn’t getting off at the overpass stop, needs to get off at the next stop.

“And the real bus would be coming along behind, so no one would have a complaint.”

“Very good, Gregg. You’ve got my replacement coming up here, Bud.”

Bud looked the beanpole up and down regretfully. He had a love/hate relationship with detectives.

“You can see how it goes,” I said. “The bus passes the bus stop and he yells, getting pissed off. The driver stops five light poles out onto the overpass. The driver tells him that he either gets off there, or goes all the way around again. This makes him even angrier. He steps onto the sidewalk and gets a Taser in the back. The huge bus blocks the view of anyone close. The driver steps off, grabs his wallet, flips him over, and flees the scene. The whole thing takes less than thirty seconds because he has practiced.”

“His wallet was in his back pocket. Why turn him over?”

I looked at Gregg and he grinned.

“To tighten his tie.”


“Sorry, that doesn’t wash. We’ve looked into the driver. Nothing odd or bad. All the drivers have been accounted for, on and off duty. You’ve got nothing.”

“If I were you Bud, and I am so glad I’m not…”

“Thanks, Jewell.”

“I’d— no. You do it, Gregg.”

He looked panicked.

“Calm down. What’s the dilemma? Take your time. How do you solve that dilemma?”

“Uhm… all the drivers have been accounted for… so…” He looked down, then up quickly, “But not all the people who can drive the bus!”

I smiled. “Excellent.”

“What?” asked Bud. “Who else?”

“The head bus mechanic. He knows how to operate it as well as any driver, and could cover by saying he was test-driving it.”

I clapped and his face turned as red as his hair. Bud personally escorted Gregg down to arrest the head mechanic. He’d been given twenty-five thousand to pull the caper off and had almost gotten away with it.

After we met in Bud’s office, I offered Debussy lunch and he accepted.

“You like these kinds of cases, don’t you?” Gregg asked at lunch.

“Like dogs love tennis balls.”

“I understand why you stripped now. It was for justice.”

“Right. I would have died for that little girl. I almost did die for her, and I would do it all again, gunshot wounds, coma and all. What was a little nude dancing against her life?” I started tearing up. “I see her occasionally. She’s becoming a niece of sorts.”

He handed me his kerchief and I sniffed into it while he smiled at me.


“It’s passion that drives you.”

“Sure… Oh, I see. You’ve been taught to keep passion out of it. Sometimes passionate righteousness is all you’ve got to go on, Gregg.”

“Thanks for the lessons, Jewell. I’m gonna make you proud.”

pencilEmail: behrvalentine[at]excite.com

First in Time, First in Right

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Meredith Bateman

Photo Credit: PeacockArmageddon/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: PeacockArmageddon/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

First in time.

Davis Nichols woke to the branch he needed to trim scratching his window, just as the sun brought grey to the horizon. He got himself coffee. Took a quick shower, he’d done well with Violet, his daughter. She’d seen all this conservation stuff coming a mile away. It was sensible and so was she.

He fed the chickens, watered the corn he would later feed the chickens. She’d talked him out of pesticides, antibiotics. He missed her, but as much as she could hold her own on the rugged edges of tiny towns, she belonged in the city. She was going to make the world a better place. She was a voice for the silent men like Davis.

It was normal to miss Violet though, just part of the day. It had been lonely since she’d gone. The most memorable thing to happen so far was the branch; he kept his place in good repair. He would take care of it after he checked the mail. His post office box was in town.

Davis checked it every other day with Otis, his bloodhound, the most- and least-friendly dog in the world, depending on if he knew you. The new postal supervisor wouldn’t let Otis in the office anymore, even just the box section, so Davis went when he wasn’t working.

Otis followed him, sat right at his side as he opened the box. Lay at Davis’s feet as he dumped any junk directly into recycling. Violet had told him there was a way to get them to stop sending it completely, but it had involved filling out an online form and he’d told her he’d need her help with it next time she came on back home and she laughed and agreed.

The day the branch woke Davis up got unusual when he pulled out his mail and there was the sound of unwrapped metal, something small, as it fell from the stack of papers. He reached in and pulled out Abigail Clark’s broach. It had been her mother’s. Davis didn’t have much of a mind for jewelry; Abigail had stepped in and helped Violet accessorize for dances and the like after Charlotte died.

There was a photo of the broach on his mantle. He’d spent a frantic hour looking for it after it had fallen out of Violet’s purse as she’d told him over and over again how irreplaceable it was. When they had told Abigail she had laughed, but she never lent anything of her mother’s to Violet again.

Davis went into the main office, Otis at his side. Sam began to shake his head no.

“Sam, I found this with my mail. It’s Abigail Clark’s.”

Otis growled. The supervisor had come in early. He had been crossing behind Sam and stopped to stare Davis and his dog down.

“Got to get out of here with that animal.”

“I’m getting out of here. I just wanted to know how this got in my box, with no postage or wrapping.”

Otis growled.

The supervisor reached for the broach. He sneered.

Davis held it back.

Otis snapped.

“I know who it belongs to.”

Davis left. The supervisor was yelling at his back, saying things about come back, impossibility, and police. Davis had known Joel Harris, the sheriff, since grade school, he would have been happy to surrender the broach to Joel. He was Abigail’s neighbor.

As they walked back to the truck Otis was riled up, bristling and jumping like a dog half his age. Davis looked down at the dog and said, “I don’t like him either. It’s okay.”

That was when he saw the glasses. Joel’s glasses sitting at the base of the lamppost. Joel had been legally blind since anyone had thought to ask him how well he saw. With them he saw everything, he was a hell of a sheriff, but he never went anywhere without them. He picked them up. It was unsettling, carrying things that meant so much to his neighbors.

He drove to Joel’s and Abigail’s. There was nobody at either home. It made sense that Joel would be at the station. It made sense that Abigail would be tending her peas and raspberries. They wove in the wind, in a lonely dance.

Davis and Abigail were friends, that was all, but he ached to see her in her garden. He wanted to see Violet beside her, ribbons in her hair. They would all be laughing. The girls outright, Davis something silent at the edge of his lips.

He circled their houses, looking in windows. When he found nothing there was nothing to do but leave.

He stopped at the sheriff’s office. It was unlocked and empty. With a force of four and crime amounting to those speeding through on their cars and an occasional occupant in the drunk tank, teens and Sam Chambers, one thing or the other wasn’t that unusual. But unlocked and empty was strange.

Davis stood, hat in hand. Otis circled him. There was work waiting for him back home. It could wait, but for what, for Davis to stand in an empty station with his hat in his hands. He circled it around.

Allen, the deputy walked in from out back.

“Davis, how can I help you?”

“Have you heard from Joel today?”

“Sure thing, called in sick. Never thought I’d see the day.”

“I was just by his house. He wasn’t there.”

“I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe he was sleeping.”


Allen reached to pet Otis. The hound didn’t growl, but he circled behind Davis, slow, unthreatened, and away from Allen’s hand.

“I found his glasses.”

“At his house? Did you go inside?”

“Wouldn’t go in a man’s house without invite. They were under the lamppost outside the post office.”

“That’s awful strange.”

Davis stood, Joel’s glasses in his hand. Allen stood back.

“I can take them and give them back to Joel when he comes back. Maybe he got a new pair.”

“Maybe so. Still, it’s strange where I found them.”

“It is.” Allen took the glasses and put them on the desk. “Folks should be careful when things are strange like that.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

Davis left the station, got back in his truck, stared at the sky. For the life of him he couldn’t think of why he hadn’t mentioned Abigail’s broach. There was a storm at the horizon. He could tell by looking it would roll through fierce and quick.

He needed to cut his branch. Nothing in his past served as a frame to make a plan for this. He started up the truck and headed home. Otis lay down on the seat next to him. Davis wished he would stick his head out the window like normal.

The hound held the storm in his bones.

At home Davis put the broach on the counter. He went out back and got his hand saw. Headed to the tree. The branch was dangling at a strange angle. It hadn’t grown to reach his house without Davis noticing. He prided himself on noticing all about his farm before even needing to. That was how to keep it going.

On the branch was Ben Goodwin’s medic alert bracelet. Davis’s mouth went dry. It tingled and his knees matched the branch’s strange angles. Everything within him was as foreign as the farm he gave his life to. He pulled the bracelet of the branch. He got the feeling Ben wasn’t home either. Wondered if his friend still had use for the bracelet.

He sawed away anyway. It was something he could do, had been in times lean and fat. His face was wet with tears and though there was no one around he hoped the storm would come. Folks were dropping and if Davis could be all the things he was always supposed to be he might be able to see the world Violet was making.

He turned around and wasn’t surprised to find he wasn’t alone. He was surprised to see Otis sitting at the feet of the visitors. They’d met before. He sat right between the two of them, eating a steak. A dog is a dog.

First in right.

“Davis Nichols, father of Violet, widow of Charlotte,” he looked at his palm and turned something around it. “Lifelong resident of Eagle, Colorado.”

“Just outside of Eagle,” the other one said. He looked at a finger.

The first speaker tossed the broach. “Abigail let Violet borrow this once, right? I thought I saw that in one of the pictures.”

“Did you see the ring he bought for Charlotte?”

The man extended his ring finger. Charlotte’s ring was at the very top of his finger, he held it out to his friend to look at.

“I like it. It’s simple.”

The storm cracked above. Even Otis looked up from his bone.

“Let’s go inside,” the man with the ring moved it down to pull his coat aside revealing a pistol. This hadn’t been necessary and the other man didn’t bother. There was no one for miles and a gunshot would just blend in with the thunder.

Davis had a rifle, but he didn’t carry it around with him to cut branches. He brought his saw with him inside. He should have gone straight for his rifle as soon as he got home.

As soon as they were inside the man with the ring put it on the counter. The other set the broach next to it.

“No matter what I wouldn’t keep it,” the ring man said. Though Davis would want Violet to have it, somehow that made it worse. They sat down.

“Do you know what this is about?” the broach.

“I have an idea.”

“What’s that idea?” said the ring.

“Are they all right? Abigail, Joel, and Ben?”

“I think you know the answer to that,” the ring man said.

“Joel didn’t have senior rights.”

“Joel was a decent sheriff,” said the ring man.

“Allen, now he’s more reasonable. Anything that happened to Joel, not that I’m saying anything happened to Joel, didn’t have to happen to him,” the broach said.

“Joel was decent.” The ring.

“You’re right, they did have to happen to him.” The broach.

“What did you do to him?”

“See, Davis, you never have to find out.” The broach.

“Where do you keep the rights?” the ring asked.

“I have a daughter…” Davis said.

“Violet. She’ll probably let you stay with her. We’re paying and taking the water rights, or you’re paying and we’re taking them anyway. You won’t actually have to leave even,” the ring said.

“We’re not pretending you can keep farming.”

“No one’s saying that.”

“What do you think is going to happen? If you let the ground go fallow? If this land is allowed to dry?”

“Our interests are far enough away that we have no interest in the dust,” the ring said.

“It will reach you.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. We’re reaching you now,” the ring said.

“All you want is for me to sign over my rights.”

Davis looked out at what had always been his whole life.

“Don’t think too long,” the broach said.

“Not much to think about,” the ring.

“This place is my whole life,” Davis.

“This place and Violet.”

“I raised her right. Abigail helped.” Davis’s eyes stuck to the horizon. “She knows how to do.”

“Think, Davis.” The ring put a picture of Violet on the counter in front of Davis. “Do you know what you’re saying? Do you know what you’re giving up?”

“I’m not giving it up. You have to take it.”

“Think again, Davis. All you have to do is sign the papers,” the broach said.

“For killers you don’t seem to want to kill.”

“Never set out to kill, just work for people who want their water,” the ring.

“It’s my water.”

“It was your water.” The broach. “They pay well. They pay well enough that men who never set out to kill would do anything. They’ll pay you well, then we don’t have to do those things.”

“Davis, did you think again?” The ring.

Davis answered by lunging at them with the saw. He had never done anything like that before. It wasn’t that he expected to get away from such a confrontation with his life.

The ring grabbed his left wrist, the broach his right. The broach squeezed and he dropped the saw. It dented the floor. Davis couldn’t help but notice that it needed cleaning just then and he smiled, and the rain started outside, but they were so close to each other that it was warm and they could feel each other’s breath.

“What do you want for Violet?” the ring asked.

“She stands to inherit the rights, doesn’t she?” the broach said.

“Out of everyone we’ve had to visit she’ll be the prettiest,” the ring said.

“They’ll catch up with us eventually. It would be nice to visit with someone pretty before they do.”

“It would.”

“What do you think, Davis?” The ring let go. He took a pen out of his pocket.

The broach let go of his right. “You don’t want us to visit Violet.”

The pen sat between them. Lightning cracked loud and oblivious outside. The sky opened and rain poured off the roof, onto the land, out to the sea.

pencilMeredith Bateman is a creative writing student in Denver, Colorado, a place where water is first in time, first in right. Email: nuclearmirror[at]gmail.com

Baby’s Breaths

Beaver’s Pick
Greg Metcalf

Photo Credit: Ari Landworth/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Ari Landworth/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Your baby is pulling down your shirt and exposing your bra strap. Maybe you’re used to his hand there, gripping, maybe the feel of his strength—is it a boy?—satisfies some primal need, proof of life. Do you watch him sleep and not just because you love him? How long do his pauses between breaths last before your eyes come wide open? We all pause between breaths when we’re content, when we’re happy. You haven’t, have you, since you had him? Wrapped tight with angst and loneliness. You’re lonely when another person is as close as could be, close and clutching, tugging at your clothes to get to skin. Lonely with your responsibility. All ease has been flushed from you and sleeps swaddled, oblivious except when he cries and that is on you. Are you jealous? Is that why you woke from that nightmare, rushed to where he slept, eyelids vibrating, scooped him up, woke him, squeezed him, and rocked him while both of you cried? Nothing will ever harm you, you promised, but this is just another thing you’ve committed yourself to for eighteen years and more: making promises, explicit and implied, that you don’t have the power to keep. He pinches the loose skin of your side against your bra strap, but you like the pain. The force in it. In a baby book, you read that infants have the strength, right from birth, to hold their weight with that grip. You attempt to ease your fears with this useless trivia; as if, if it comes to it, you could always dangle him from somewhere while you solve any problems that arise. From the time you were ten, you’d always wanted three: a boy, a girl, and then nature could decide, but now all you want is to have him to hold and feed, to listen to him continue breathing. Your husband is a sudden invader. You duck from the window at the sight of the mailman. The urge to love him is sometimes so powerful you can’t help contemplating the logistics of putting him back in. He’d have your heartbeat again, your oxygen, diffusing into him, and you wouldn’t have to worry about your baby breathing ever again.

pencilGreg Metcalf is the author of Flowers on Concrete, a novel, Hibernation, a YA thriller, and the memoir Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific. He has three other completed novels, unpublished to date. His short fiction has appeared at Boston Literary Magazine and Metazen. He is a contributing author in Indiestructible. He blogs at My Free Sentences. Email: hershelaa[at]aol.com

An Unexpected Truth

Baker’s Pick
Jhilam Chattaraj

Photo Credit: Daniel Mennerich/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Daniel Mennerich/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I liked him a lot. Every time I walked into the store, he would greet me with folded hands and politely say, “Namaste, Madam, how have you been?” He would walk me through the latest collection of clothes and make suggestions from time to time. His name, he said, was Nicholas. He had been working as a salesman in the store for about a year. I would tell everyone about his courteous behaviour.

My husband, however, was very dismissive of my admiration for Nicholas. He would try to convince me that Nick, as I would often call him, was simply doing his duty. His chivalry would disappear the day he found a new job. But I rooted for Nick. In fact, I told many of my colleagues that they should visit that store and Nick would help them make an affordable yet sophisticated choice. Nick’s behaviour made me debate with others who, influenced by the present media, concluded that India was no more a country safe for women. As a feminist, I believed in standing up for men too. I argued with them stating that our country still had good and caring men.

I was so determined to prove them wrong that one Monday morning while travelling on a public bus to my office, I began typing on my tablet, a post for a blog. My idea was to raise an alarm against the gender crises in Indian culture as represented by popular mass media. I was citing examples of men like Nick, when I realised that my bus was nearing the stop. I quickly dumped all my stuff into my bag. Before I could step down off the bus, several young men and women came running to get into the bus. I managed to get down. Just when the bus was about to leave, I saw a young man, very familiar, running towards me to catch the bus. He did not recognise me. In a hurry, he dashed against me. I was hurt. I fell down. Everything in my bag rolled out on the road. The young man did not look back.

As I tried to get up and collect my stuff, I realised that the man was none other than Nicholas. He was wearing a blue shirt with an ID card dangling down his neck. Some of the people around helped me get back on my feet. They advised me to sit for a while and drink some water. While I tried to shake off the unexpected jolt in my ordinary day, it struck me that the ID card bore the name, Pawan Kumar. I refused to believe what I experienced. I took my phone and called the store. It was 10 a.m. already; surely they would be in business. I asked them about Nicholas. They said that he had left the store on Friday. And they did not know if his name was Pawan Kumar.

pencilJhilam Chattaraj is currently working as an Assistant Professor at R.B.V.R.R Women’s College, Department of English, Hyderabad. She loves to explore the world through literature, culture, and photography, especially bird photography. Her area of interests in literary research includes Diaspora Studies (MPhil) and Popular Indian Culture (PhD). Her academic and creative writings have been published in journals like Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Muse IndiaIndian Book ChronicleLanglitEast LitIndialogue FoundationWomen’s Web, Birds.com, and Indian Bird Photographers. Email: c.jhilam1984[at]gmail.com

Indolence and Rhyme

Steve Passey

Photo Credit: Jim Mullhaupt/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Jim Mullhaupt/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled poets to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean. —Socrates.

Tania spent the first four hours of every Saturday caring for a mentally handicapped adult man named Shiloh.

“Shiloh?”  She asked the program co-coordinator when she and Shiloh were introduced. “For real?”

“Shiloh,” the woman said. Her name was Gretchen and she had some problems herself.  Gretchen looked at Tania and said, “Don’t talk about him like he’s not here. There is a person inside there, just like you and I.”

“Terkle,” Shiloh said.

They settled into a routine quickly enough. Tania would walk him around the bike path down by the river. She’d ask him, “How did your parents come to name you ‘Shiloh’, Shiloh?”

And he’d say… “Terkle.” and point at the river.

They’d walk a little farther.

“So you are saying you named yourself? After an imaginary friend you had when you were nine? That’s actually pretty cool,” she’d say. Shiloh would laugh a half a laugh, like the last person in a room to get a joke but the one who enjoyed it the most. His laugh was the essence of his humanity, “Terkle” the essence of his “otherness.”

So four hours would pass, at eleven dollars per, and she’d be forty-four closer to making rent and feeding the cats. That’s what “Respite Worker” pays. She worked Mondays to Fridays at a call center. Mondays always started with an admonition to “upsell” and Fridays ended with people calling in sick in the morning and then other people quitting and walking out at noon. “I don’t need this shit,” they’d say, and they’d be gone and Tania and whoever was left that needed to make rent or feed the cats, would hang on.

Tania needed “the shit.” A thousand bucks a month base and then another six-hundred to seven-hundred in commission and she needed that shit. At least Shiloh was easygoing, as far as mentally-handicapped adults go. He never soiled himself. “Terkle” and a wave of his hand and that was that.

Forty-four dollars. But that was before taxes and withholdings.

After she took him back to the home she’d wait at the bus stop for the one p.m. to go home and feed her cats and smoke a fucking bowl with the TV on and the sound off. After a week in a headset Tania didn’t need to hear human voices. They would just disturb the equilibrium the bowl brought her. She’d fall asleep on the couch and dream sinsemilla dreams until Monday when she would have to get up and shower and go back to the call center and try to get people’s credit card numbers from them without being too-too clear about what the limitations were on the warranty they were buying. “You sell what’s good for the house,” her manager hissed at her once. The manager needed this shit too.

There was a card and gift shop next to the bus stop. If any creepy homeless fucks were in the stop she’d go into the card shop and idle around. Some of the cards were funny. A man sleeping in his own urine in a bus stop is not funny. In one section of the shop was a collection of journals, leather- or fabric-bound things with little brass clasps. Blue and black and red and brown. Some were blank; some had “My Journal” on them in embossed lettering.

Tania remembered when she used to write poetry, when she’d first started smoking, and she felt good all the time and always wrote high and was sure she was going to be something other than a call-center captive and wheelchair jockey. She and her friend Shellie would write poetry in their journals and read to each other and buy those “streak and style” kits from the discount pharmacy (or shoplift them when they didn’t have any money) and color each other’s hair with reds and greens.

Shellie’s poetry was good; it always rhymed. Sometimes Tania could not get hers to rhyme. One time they had smoked a little too much weed maybe, or written a little too much poetry longing for this boy or that or whatever and Shellie had written something nice about her. Tania could not remember the poem at all, but she did remember that they had made out a bit after Shellie read it to her and stopped after they had French-kissed and Tania didn’t know if she liked it or not. She opened up the journal to the frontispiece and read:

“Forever is Composed of Nows”

—Emily Dickinson

What if your nows all suck, she thought. My nows all suck. That’s why they feel like forever. She wished she could afford to smoke a bowl Saturday and Sunday. But “that’s how rich people live, not us,” she’d once told her cats, when thinking it out loud. Occasionally she allowed herself a bowl Thursday because Fridays were the sucky now, squared, at the call center. She wished that Shiloh had a prescription worth stealing but apparently he had nothing. “He’s off his meds” was never a phrase uttered in regards to Shiloh.

She took a pen out from her purse, looked around to see if anyone was watching, then wrote: “Go fuck yourself Emily”  under the quote and put the journal back.

She noted the price tag—$18.99—a little less than half of what she’d net pushing Shiloh around after taxes so she took the journal back out and wrote: “Yea, go fuck yourself, verily”  under her first phrase.

The rhyme made her happy and she was pleased that her printing was still neat. “I don’t print like a stoner with three cats and no life,” she thought.

She opened it again and wrote another line yet, to make it read:

Go fuck yourself Emily

Yea, go fuck yourself, verily,

You and your fucking nows

She put the journal back quickly then left the store and waited for the bus stop. $18.99 for a journal? She could pack a bowl for less and she needed the bowl more. Speaking of which: time to go home and pack that bowl. This was going to be a good one. She could feel it.

The next Saturday she picked Shiloh up. “Hey Shiloh! Wanna go Terkle-ing?” she said. He laughed his delayed-reaction laugh, pure and simple, and seemed really happy. Truthfully, she thought, he’s not hard to like, in his own weird way. Gretchen watched them walk out, and waved. Tania noticed that Gretchen had no hand, just a stump. Strange how I had not noticed that before, she thought. Maybe she’d had an appliance on. One of those plastic and metal contraptions. I wonder what happened?

When she brought Shiloh back she stopped to talk to Gretchen. “How much does this pay,” she asked, meaning Gretchen’s job. “To be honest, not much,” Gretchen said. “In fact, it’s a subsidized position anyways. I live from grant to grant. If they—the organization—don’t get the grant, I’m unemployed. Another fact: It’s grant application time now. If I’m not here in a month, you know what happened.”

“Did you always want to do this?” Tania asked.

“Nooooo,” said Gretchen, drawing out the “no” for emphasis. “Never even thought about it. I’m an introvert. I wanted to be a writer. A poet actually. How silly is that? I have a ton of little journals at home filled with my writing. No one has ever seen them. Then this happened.” She held up her stump.

“How did that happen?” Tania asked.

“Meh. It’s a long story.” Gretchen said, looking away. “Let’s just say it was electrical and leave it at that.”


“Yes. Electrical. The thing is I wrote everything in longhand. And I’m right-handed. Now with no right hand…” she sighed audibly. “I can’t write anything more than my name left-handed. Occupational therapy tried to teach me but that was it. Don’t even suggest typing. Typing is for data entry. You can’t type poetry. Maybe some can, but I can’t. It wouldn’t be right. For me anyways. Well, at some point in the process I told the rehab people I was a poet and they thought about it and found me this job. A grant came in and here I am.”

Tania nodded. She noticed that Gretchen had a lazy eye too. She wondered if that was “electrical.”

“You know, I like you Tania. That’s why I gave you Shiloh. He’s our star. Never shits his pants. Never grabs a boob.”

Shiloh wasn’t within earshot so it was all right to talk about him as if he wasn’t there.

She left Gretchen and her electrified stump and eye and went over to the gift shop and straight to the pink fabric-covered journal. She’d had one just like it when she and Shellie had kissed. The girl at the counter was texting on her cell phone and didn’t acknowledge Tania when she came in. The “Emily Dickinson” journal was still there. Tania smiled at that. She checked again and sure that she would not be seen opened the fabric journal near the middle. With her pen she printed:

You will read this

And then

You have twelve years

Nine months

And three days

Before you die

Use it well

Or not at all

It’s up to you

There is nothing else you can do

Try not to dwell on this

The thought of someone finding that after filling the previous pages with hearts and their “married” name when thinking of their crush really pleased her. She had an opinion of who bought fabric-covered journals and of what went into them. Rhymes about sadness never actually experienced personally, and ballpoint pen drawings of hearts and flowers and surnames from boys who would never talk to the writer because they were stupid and never knew what they were supposed to do. Her printing was neater than ever. Thank God she still had her right hand, she thought. At least I have that.

It did not rhyme, but Tania had never been a good at rhyming. She thought of Shellie and wondered if Shellie would be able to make it rhyme. They had lost touch but she did not wish to find her. What for? To talk about that one time they kissed and how they used to write poetry together but now no one could make ends meet even on two jobs and they all had roomfuls of cats and no one wrote anymore?

On the way out, the girl at the counter looked up at Tania. She was quite fat and spoke very nasally. “If you are thinking about buying one of the journals wait a week or two. It’s not official but the owner is shutting this place down. No one buys anything anymore. Those journals are $18.99 now but they’ll be half that in a month.”

“Thanks,” Tania said, and then, “I’ll be back. For sure.”

She walked out to the one p.m. Once she was home she smoked her fucking bowl and it was even better than the last one. She dreamt that she had no hands and was naked in a shopping mall. No one looked at her. She didn’t care. She was weightless, ascendant, and no one spoiled it by looking. Then Shellie came into the dream, Shellie, only one-hundred pounds heavier than she had been when they wrote poetry together all those times and even kissed. Shellie told her to “get her shit tighter” and all of a sudden Tania was dressed but still had no hands. “’Get your shit together’ doesn’t rhyme, Shellie,” she said, and Shellie said, “What are you talking about?” Shellie’s belly poked out from under her shirt and over her jeans. She was leading a small boy by the hand and Tania said, “Shiloh?” and the boy said, “Terkle” and laughed and Shellie yanked on his arm and led him away from Tania. Tania, heavy-legged and slow with the weight of sleep again, unascendant, could not keep up.

Tania woke up and wasn’t even mad. That was some excellent weed, she thought. The cats looked happy too. They can feel your mood but not dream your dreams. They dream of cat things. Murder, copulation, sleep—if it is possible to dream of sleep, cats would dream of it. She could not be sure how a little second-hand marijuana smoke affected them but they never complained.

Monday came and she started thinking about doing a Thursday bowl by 10 a.m.

Saturday came and she picked up Shiloh for their terkle-walk. Gretchen was with him.

“Guess what?” Gretchen said. She had her appliance on. It looked good, almost like a real hand. The nails even had red polish or were painted to look like polish so it looked like she’d just had her nails done.

“What?” Tania said.

“Less grant money this year. This is the last time you’ll see me. Technically I’m here to month-end but I have a bunch of unused holiday time they want me to take so I will take it and use the time to look for another job.”

“That’s terrible,” said Tania.

Gretchen’s electrically bad eye looked up and away, perhaps at her uncertain future. Or maybe a terkle. Who knows?

“No worries,” said Gretchen. “I’ll get something else. Maybe some call center work, they’re always hiring. I can handle a headset and I can work the phone keys easily. Especially if they have touch-screens. Ever work on a touch-screen computer? They’re awesome.  As long as I don’t have to write anything I’ll be ok and believe it or not I still qualify for some disability. Who knows but that I could be back here and you could be looking after me? Hey Shiloh? Wouldn’t that be something? We could all walk along the river and look for turtles.”

“Terkles,” Shiloh said, quite loudly. It was the happiest Tania had ever seen him.

“Turtles? Tania said.

“Yeah—turtles,” Gretchen said. Her bad eye had come around, she looked almost normal. “He likes turtles. He calls them “terkles” because he thinks it’s funny. Either that or they were called “terkles” back where he was from originally. He’s a bit of a hillbilly. I told you there is a person in there. You’re a bit of a joker, aren’t you Shiloh?”

She reached over and mock-punched him in the shoulder.

He laughed his easy laugh, quicker than usual, and longer. He beamed.

Gretchen kept on, “He thinks turtles live in the river. They don’t. Not in these parts. Too cold. Maybe they did back where he was from. But he’s pretty sure that one day, he’ll find one. I’m surprised he hasn’t told you. But he can be shy.”

Tania looked at Shiloh. He would not look back. He just smiled and waited.

“At any rate, you two look after each other.”

Tania took Shiloh out along the river. No turtles appeared.

After she returned him she went back to the card shop.

“One more week,” the counter girl said. “Then everything is on sale.”

Tania went to the journals. She picked handsome one, red leather with metal at the corners and a little clasp. She opened it and smelled the paper. Paper always smells good. The better the paper and the older it is the better it smells. This journal in particular smelled really good. She watched the counter-girl until she was sure the girl was engrossed in her phone again, then took out her pen and on the very last page of the journal wrote:

When I was young

If you had asked me

I would have said that all

I wanted to do was write poetry

I wanted to be a poet more than anything

Now I work in a call center

And look after a “cognitively impaired” man

I have three cats

I need the money

But it’s not always enough

I smoke a lot of weed

It gets me through

But it’s not always enough

I would be smoking every day

If I could afford it

And I don’t write anything, anymore

At all

Her printing was perfect, sublime. I wonder who will find that one, she thought. Someone is going to buy that journal someday, maybe for half-price, and some girl is going to get it and draw and write poetry—maybe with a friend—or maybe just by herself. No one will ever see it. She’ll fill the book and then she’ll get to that poem and she’ll be mad that she got a used journal or maybe she’ll think it was a friend and be mad at them for ruining her book or maybe she’ll think it’s a ghost and be excited and buy an Ouija board and try to contact the ghost of the writer. If I am a ghost, Tania thought, if I am that ghost, I won’t come when the Ouija board calls. Maybe, and more likely, she’ll never even see it because she’ll get about four pages into the journal and quit because she’s a popular girl and she doesn’t have to write poetry in a journal because she’ll have friends and boyfriends and play volleyball and get a car for her birthday and the journal will turn up in a garage sale her parents have twelve years after she got it and the cycle will start again with a new girl.

Tania went home and smoked her Saturday bowl and it was harsh and it burned and it was fucking wonderful and she slept deeply and dreamlessly for twelve hours. When she got up she fed the cats, restless with hunger and irritable, or possibly just filled with cat-ambition from their inscrutable feline dreams. The cats fed, she smoked her Thursday bowl on Sunday night with the TV on and the sound off.

pencilSteve Passey is from Southern Alberta. His fiction and poetry has been published in Canada, the UK, and the USA in publications ranging from Existere Journal, Minor Literature[s], and Chicago Literati. Email: steve.passey[at]hotmail.ca