Not for Art Nor Prayer by Darren C. Demaree

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Not For Art Nor Prayer by Darren C. Demaree

I had the pleasure of reviewing a second and recent collection of Darren Demaree’s poetry titled, Not For Art Nor Prayer (8th House Publishing, 2015). The poems are structured in four categories with the first two parts being an existential and eclectic mix of adorations and adulations addressed to a milieu of real people on various subjects. They are followed by the Wednesday Morning numbered poems created on or about that particular day of the week and the collection concludes with the eternal odes to Emily that also appear in different forms in other collections by Demaree.

The “Adorations” were my favorite. The titles were numbered and varied. And I liked how they were tributes to friends, acquaintances and strangers. I especially like the poems addressed to strangers. I felt a sort of kinship with the poet as he described common people doing common things that most people can relate to doing or watching in progress—voyeurism, more or less. I admit it: I’m a people watcher. Here’s one I liked. I think I might have been there.

Adoration #90

for the manager at the Krogers

Yes, I saw, in fact I read it
out-loud to my daughter that we
we’re not supposed to ride inside

the cart, but with my son sitting
under buckle, we had no choice,
but to chance that she might, at some

point, stand up to reach for pancake
mix. The running and singing was
my fault. We were having such fun.

Other poems are not such visual eye-candy to me. Some I have no clue what they are about, but I like just the same. I like Demaree’s word choice and I like how the choices are gradients, words that belong on the far side of their spectrum of their meaning or that they are in an original, intriguing context such as the many comparisons and metaphors he creates. I’m no poet, but I know what I like. Here’s one with dueling images and sounds.

Water Always Leaves the Knife

For Tuscaloosa

How the chip
& hammer,
so paused in both,

that we live with the carry
& away
of that sun sum

of what fingers do
when it’s char
or the painted red faces

of about, of about
the town. Rats,
lost scorpions,

the full ribs
of such beauty
is blood, is fat, is ship.

I wrote in my annotation that I had no idea what this poem was about. It was like a secret. And I don’t think I’m far from the truth. I had the pleasure of meeting Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky a few summers back at Boston University’s Favorite Poem Project. I recall Pinsky reminding the audience that poetry is meant to be spoken. He also said in so many words that you do not have to understand the poem to appreciate it. You don’t have to take it apart to enjoy its essence. (And yes. I shared a favorite poem.)

Here’s another of Demaree’s poems I especially like:

Emily as the Cicada’s Song Crests

That sound, that was never there
before has now always been there
& if that sound is about to fade,
to grind deeper into the ground
of my subconscious, to the place
where I’ve left my almost children
& my almost arrests, the littered
moments where I was almost
a monster, will I be able to remember
the lovely things Emily said to me,
when we had to be louder than
a million magic bugs, singing their
only song, without waver? I will
know Emily as the woman next
to me, and I will love her for that.

I would have to literally dissect the poem to say why exactly I liked it aside from its natural imagery. Keeping with Mr. Pinsky’s philosophy, I think that to do so would be like pulling the wings off a butterfly to see how it flies. Instead, I will say that I like the way the words in the poem sound when I read the poem aloud, their alliteration and consonance sounds, how they float in the air for a moment, stirring and wonderful as the words take form and meaning deep inside me. Vocal-candy.

Pinsky in his book The Sounds of Poetry also discusses the idea of “the human body as the medium of poetry … how the reader’s breath and hearing embody the poet’s words,” as well as the idea that poetry is the keeper of memory, that it is an immortal medium for expressing ideas and feelings swiftly and sensuously, and most profoundly meant to be shared with the deceased as well as future generations. It gives me the chills. Demaree’s poems contain this ideology in their lovely and sensuous details. The subjects are an organic blending of bodies and images from nature and beyond, full of desire and soul. Demaree creates infinite worlds visually and vocally using his art and the human breath as his medium.


Darren C. Demaree is the author of five poetry collections, most recently The Nineteen Steps Between Us (After the Pause Press, 2016). Many of the poems have appeared in Toasted Cheese and numerous journals and magazines. He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology and Ovenbird Poetry. He lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.

pencilShelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]

The Net

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Gail Webber

Photo Credit: Austin Kirk/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Austin Kirk/Flickr (CC-by)

We didn’t get to Franklinton very often, and a new pet store was a pleasant surprise, but the three dead guppies in the first aquarium I checked were a bad sign. There was no one to tell except a man at the cash register who was on the phone. He was old, maybe thirty-five, and so thin he was almost skinny, but he had great eyebrows. When he saw me he smiled and held up one finger, universal sign language for, “Be with you in a minute.”

My mother was up the street looking for clothes to fit my surprise baby sister. In the little lake town where we lived in the early 1960s, there was a post office and a great ice cream store, but the only clothing available was fancy stuff for the summer people. To get reasonably priced things you had to drive to Franklinton where there was a department store. I went along that day because I knew that store had a pet department in the basement and I had fourteenth birthday money from my grandmother. When the department store fish proved uninteresting, I left to explore town and that was how I accidentally found the pet store.

I had just over an hour before I was supposed to meet Mom at the car, so while I waited for the man, I peered into the tanks one by one. There were some fish I could identify and even distinguish males from females, but there were others I’d only seen in books. I took my time. As soon as the man was done talking, he came over and said, “Hi,” but nothing more. I learned later that “hi” was how he wanted his employees to greet customers, considering the usual “Can I help you?” unfriendly and pushy.

“You’ve got a couple dead guppies,” I said and pointed. His smile faded and he turned toward the guppy tank, but then the phone rang again.

“There’s a net in that methylene blue wash,” he said on his way back to the counter. “Over there in the corner, see it? Go ahead and scoop them out and bring them here.” He indicated the glass counter where the register was, and then picked up the receiver. “Franklinton Pet.”

Really? I was perfectly capable of that little task, but it seemed a strange thing to ask a customer to do. Why not, I thought, and picked up one of the nets. I shook it a little to get the excess off, and then fished out the dead guppies. The man nodded to me and mouthed “thank you” when I put the whole thing, wet net and dead fish, on the counter.

It wasn’t until I was inspecting the baby Jack Dempseys that I noticed the nickel-sized blue stain on the yellow T-shirt I’d just gotten for my birthday. I groaned, knowing how methylene blue stains—I’d used it before to cure itch. But my new shirt! I didn’t get many new clothes, not with the way things were at home. The baby clothes Mom was buying that day were going to be the big splurge for the month.

Behind me, I heard the phone being replaced in the cradle, and then a ripping sound. When I turned, I saw the guy put a long strip of masking tape across the front of the tank where the dead fish had been and write NOT FOR SALE on the tape. “Mouth rot,” he said to me. From his pocket he pulled a blister pack of capsules and emptied two of them into the tank. They turned the water orange. Then he reached in and pulled out the box filter, leaving the air hose to bubble, and dried his hands on his pants. When he saw me watching he explained, “Charcoal deactivates tetracycline so you have to take the filter out.”

I nodded, though that was new information. Apparently this guy wouldn’t sell fish from an infected tank. That impressed me, and I thought maybe I’d get fish from him after all if I could find some I liked that would get along with what I already had. I figured I’d have to go back and look at prices, though.

He surprised me by saying, “Oh, no,” while he was looking at my chest. I didn’t know what to think and felt myself blush. I was used to guys at school looking there, but not most grown men. As far as I was concerned, my new shape was mostly a good thing, but sometimes my cup size was an embarrassment. Everything I ate or drank seemed to land on that shelf.

“I feel responsible,” he said. “Vinegar and vitamin C.”

I had no idea what he was talking about but was grateful he was looking at my eyes. “What?”

“It gets methylene blue out of clothes.” He nodded at the stain on my chest and then found my eyes again. “I know because I’ve done that a hundred times. Crush up a vitamin C tablet in one part vinegar and five parts water and soak the spot as soon as you get home.”

I don’t even remember exactly how it happened, but by the time I left with a trio of killifish, I had a summer job working for Richard at Franklinton Pet. I didn’t even have to spend any birthday money because the killies were my pay for an hour of cleaning water spots off the aquarium fronts. This would be my first job that didn’t involve mowing or painting. I knew the hour bus ride each way would be a pain, but I was looking forward to all the money I could save for college. Plus I’d be learning new things.

It was June, so I figured I’d have the rest of the month and then all of July and most of August to work as many hours as Richard would let me. His wife had just had their third child, all girls he said, and the baby made it harder for her to come in to help like she used to.

I guess her having the three kids made other things problematic, too, because by the middle of August, Richard was showing more than a casual interest in what I was wearing and how I did my hair. In those days, you dressed up for a job, even if it was one that involved catching snakes and chameleons, and cleaning hamster runs and bird cages. I even learned how to put my hair up in a twist because he said he liked it and I thought it made me look older. I was a good worker, and he always complimented me, but not just for doing a good job. Honestly, I liked the attention, and I don’t know, maybe I needed it. My only boyfriend so far—albeit a rather platonic one—had dumped me for a senior girl, and nobody else was asking me out. I had come to believe I must not be girlfriend material—that my first boyfriend had been a fluke, and I was destined to be alone for the rest of my life. Maybe that was why Richard’s approval was important, why I wanted to believe it meant something.

My job was supposed to be just for the summer, so my parents were surprised in September when I asked if I could keep working during the school year. My grades were excellent, and I was involved in everything from student government and debate club to all the sports they would let girls play in those days, and Mom and Dad said they thought working would be too much. I argued that my friends managed that same kind of busy schedule as well as boyfriends, and that since I didn’t have one, I had extra time especially on weekends and vacations. I told them how much I’d saved for college that summer and they were surprised. After they finally agreed and I had time to think, I considered looking for a different job. The truth was that despite Richard’s interest in me being exciting and affirming, it confused me. But I stayed.

It was the month before Christmas that year when we started keeping the store open on Sundays, and Richard’s wife offered to let me stay over at their house on Saturday nights because as she said, it made better sense. Being open that extra day made a big difference in the weekly take, something I knew because a few basic accounting duties were added to my responsibilities. But as the month wore on, it seemed there was more and more to do after Richard and I closed the store on Saturday nights. At least I assume that was what he told his wife. I knew it was wrong, and I blamed myself, believing that I must be a truly bad person to get involved with him at all, and worse for not calling a halt to what was going on. It was my first experience with guilt that ran so deep, and it changed how I saw myself. I was two people, the honor roll student during the week and something else the rest of the time. All the time.

“Tawdry” was a word I came to understand that first year, and over the next two I found myself thinking of men quite differently than I had before Richard. I lost myself for a while, who I was and who I wanted to be. Still, I kept working there and I kept up those relationships—the one with Richard and the one with his wife and children—until right before I graduated and left for college.

Even after I was far away I felt guilty enough to wonder if I’d ever feel good again. The longer I was gone, the less I understood how I could have let myself be used like that, and I hated myself for being so stupid. After the self-loathing came fear that I’d ruined my chances of ever having an authentic relationship with a man. It was the 1960s, and though attitudes about how women should behave were supposedly changing in the cities, most of the same old expectations held for women where I lived and where I went to college. How could anyone love a woman who’d done what I did? I couldn’t expect that anyone else would respect me when I didn’t respect myself.

But someone did, and that changed everything again, this time for the better.

By the end of my freshman year when I went home for the summer, I wasn’t much older, but I was a more savvy girl than the one who’d left ten months earlier. I was more confident and outspoken, and in some ways harder. I was also angry. There had been no contact between us after I left, but I intended to see Richard, not for the reason I knew he’d expect, but to confront him. What he’d done was wrong and I wanted to tell him so. I wasn’t without blame; I wasn’t exactly a child when it started and I let it go on. But I’d also been clueless… and he was the adult.

I went in the propped-open front door of his store and stopped with my back to it, about ten feet from where he stood at the counter. No one else was in the store.

“Look at you!” Richard grinned. He didn’t approach me as I expected, and instead leaned back against the wall behind the register.

He looked older than I remembered, with dark circles under his eyes, and his hair looked oily. Even from a distance I could see the dirt under his too-long fingernails and realized there had always been that black line where the white of his nails stopped.

“With that long hair and your clothes, you’re a cute little hippy girl, aren’t you.” He said it like it was a fact and not a question.

All that I planned to say to him, every stinging and freeing thing I wanted to say to him, flew out of my head and I just stood there mute.

“We hoped we’d hear from you, but then I guess you had lots going on.” He cocked one knee forward and put his hands in his pockets.

We? Really? I thought. And what is “going on” supposed to mean? All in my head, but then I knew where to start. “You had no right,” I blurted. “Back then, you had no right.” If he’d looked ashamed or angry, I would have known how to continue, but the quizzical expression on his face and the crooked half-smile shut me up.

“No right about what?” he asked me. “I can see you’re pissed about something, kiddo, but I have no idea what you mean. What’s up?”

Anyone watching would have thought he was innocent. My throat closed up and made that choking sound it always does when I’m caught off guard and try to talk, so I stopped. I’m not sure how long I stood there before I heard someone’s footsteps behind me. When I turned, I saw her, a young girl in a purple pleated skirt and sweater. Her blonde hair was piled up on top of her head making her look like she was playing dress-up, and she carried a bag with a familiar logo. Tony’s Place was where we used to get meatball subs.

“Hi,” she said to me as she passed by on her way to the counter, and then to Richard she said, “Ready for some lunch, Ricky?”

pencilGail Webber taught science, middle school through college, for thirty-two years, and then worked with children and teenagers considered at-risk. Since retiring, she has returned to her old love, writing fiction. She lives and works on a tiny farm in western Maryland. Gail is new to the publishing arena, with one middle grade novel published three years ago, and short stories appearing in The Tower Journal and Persimmon Tree. A second novel is out for consideration, and she says that a third is keeping her up nights. Email: gail_webber[at]

Liberal Arts

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Heather Finnegan

Photo Credit: Alexander Boden/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Alexander Boden/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

The security guard could tell immediately that the young girl was wearing layers of stolen lace underwear beneath her shirt and tight jeans. He did not even have to see the look on her eyeliner-smudged face when she saw him in the Sears elevator, floor five.

“Oh,” he said. “The elevator’s broken. Been stopping at every floor for no reason all day. But it’s fine to use.” The girl, who had greasy brown hair and smelled like sticky buns, stepped on nervously. It was the summer between his first and sophomore years of college—they didn’t use the word “freshmen” at his school because it excluded women from their daily vocabulary—and he had just finished a seminar on ethics where he learned about stepping into another’s shoes. Maybe, he thought, she couldn’t afford the underwear she needed. Maybe her dad just died of a ravaging brain cancer or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and her mom, who’d dropped out of college to birth her and her two triplet-sisters, was still trying to pay off the debt of his medical bills with only a seventy-five-cents-to-a-dollar minimum wage job. It was possible, he thought. He should be nice to her. She could probably use a little kindness and guidance in her life.

“So,” he said. “Having a good day?”

“Fine,” she said, crossing her arms.

“That’s good,” he said. “Mine was good too. Would be better if it weren’t for this elevator though.” The door opened onto floor four, home goods and as-seen-on-TV items. The security guard often came here during his breaks to use the scalp scratchers. The girl didn’t say anything. He held down the close door button. “So,” he said. “You in school?”

“It’s summer,” she said.

“Right,” he said. “But… in the fall?” She told him she would be starting high school but didn’t say where. He thought maybe she went to the “inner city” school and was embarrassed to say so. “Do you think you’ll go to college?” he asked.

She shrugged.

“I study at a liberal arts school,” he said.

“Cool,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Liberal arts schools are cool because they teach you how to think instead of what to think. It’s way different than high school and vocational schools. Good different.”

“Cool,” she said.

Then he thought, what if she couldn’t afford a fancy liberal arts school? He had been lucky, winning a scholarship for badminton, but what if she wasn’t supposed to go to college? Plenty of people weren’t supposed to go to college. Maybe she was supposed to be a sales representative or a hairdresser or a full-time surrogate or something. Then he thought those were typical women’s jobs and maybe she could be a plumber or a construction worker or a security guard like himself. Also, he should use the word “cosmetologist.” Not “hair dresser.” The elevator stopped on the third floor, which was full of lots of overpriced, nonsensical books. The security guard had only visited the floor once and got scared because he couldn’t tell where the floor ended. The rows of books situated in little hexagonal displays seemed to go on forever, like an endless beehive or something.

“But it’s not all great,” he said. “Liberal arts school. Once I read this graphic novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for an English class. It was okay but I didn’t like it because it was all in black-and-white, only I couldn’t tell my professor that,” he said. “I had to tell him I didn’t like it because it showed a really harsh bias toward the Palestinians by not mentioning any of their violent acts in ancient or in modern times. But I don’t really know much about the Palestinians’ violent acts because that book didn’t teach me any and no one’s taught it in any of my history classes. I was just kind of bullshitting,” he said. Shit, he thought. Did he just tell her college was about bullshitting?

“Cool,” she said.

The door opened on the second floor which sold no goods at all but housed a large concrete gate with an old, peering gatekeeper and a sign labeled “das Gesetz.” He started to panic. He was running out of time.

“But I could have learned more if I wanted to,” he said. “I could have studied abroad in Jerusalem this summer. That graphic novel, it said that you can find whatever you’re looking for in Jerusalem as long as you know what it is you’re looking for.”

“Wow,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “ I didn’t go because I couldn’t afford it. But I could have found grants and scholarships and stuff if I tried,” he said so as not to discourage her. “And I got this job for the summer which has been cool,” he said. “College is full of great opportunities like that. Like, if you work hard then you can learn about whatever it is you want to learn about. But it’s like that The Mamas & the Papas song. ‘You gotta know where you wanna go,’” he sang. “Just have a goal and go for it,” he said.

“I think it’s ‘Go where you wanna go,’” she said.

“Right. Same thing,” he said. “What I mean is college is a really cool opportunity. It can be really important,” he said. “Or not,” he said. The door opened onto the first floor which, like most department stores, sold makeup and perfumes and fancy watches. “Cosmetics,” he thought. Not “makeup.” “There are lots of parties,” he said.

She stepped out of the elevator and power-walked toward the exit.

He stepped out, too, and called to her, “Have a great day!”

“Thanks,” she said, which made him feel accomplished.

He remembered that he was supposed to have gotten off on the fifth floor to relieve another guard for break, but the elevator door had already closed. He pressed the button and played Candy Crush on his cell phone while he waited for the car to return.

pencilHeather Finnegan’s work has appeared or is soon to appear in The Interlochen Review, Cargoes, The Quaker, and Litmus. She is graduating from the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities and will be attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. Email: finneganhr[at]

The English Girl

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Sarah Evans

Photo Credit: Anthony Conti/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Anthony Conti/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

After the day’s work, they gathered round the fissured table that sat beneath the shading branches of a fir tree. Today it was the turn of the English girl to cook. There had been teasing, inevitably, about English cooking, which felt unfair given Swiss cuisine stretched no further than melted cheese. Her style in any case was not typically English: tonight it was a casserole of Mediterranean vegetables and lentils.

The English girl. It had started as a joke. Already when she arrived, there was a French girl called Marie, and although the two could have been distinguished by the form of pronunciation, nationality provided a simpler distinction. The English girl smiled when she was called that. She didn’t seem to mind and the name stuck.

The day had faded into evening and the earlier warmth of the sun was released back from the hard-baked earth; it lingered as a glow on skin. The English girl’s nose was peeling in small, white flakes—raw pink beneath—and it would burn again if she weren’t more careful. The backs of her hands were stained nut-brown, the deepness of pigmentation continuing up her arms, until close to her shoulders the colour lightened by degrees, reflecting the varying sleeve lengths of the four cotton shirts which she rotated, rinsing one out each evening.

That night there was someone new at the table. She saw him first in profile, from a distance, knowing instantly from the rapid ease with which he chatted to Anneliese that he was one of the permanent staff.

The English girl had volunteered to work for Fourth World for three months, the whole of her university summer holiday. She had arrived with a rucksack, whose weight she had struggled beneath on the long walk from the station. She had been there a month now and people had come and gone. Permanent staff moved between locations. Most volunteers worked only for two weeks or so.

As she approached the table, the large earthenware dish weighing heavily under her hands, she was aware of how her arm muscles had strengthened over the weeks of light manual work. She concentrated step by step, fearful that a tree root might set her tripping. Her stomach growled with the aroma of herbs and garlic and she observed how, even sitting, the newcomer appeared short and squat. His skin was gypsy dark, the type of brown that comes from living outdoors; his hair was black dots against his scalp, continuing into the stubble on his chin. Thuggish looking was her first thought, registering simultaneously that a certain type of ugliness—Jack Nicholson ugliness—can be attractive in a man. She noticed those things even before the moment when—food delivered safely to the table—she turned her eyes more openly on him and felt his gaze on her, unsettling in its masculine conceit.

‘This is Johannes,’ Anneliese said, in her German-accented English. ‘And this is Marie. The English girl.’


The end of that week marked some local festival, providing the excuse for a party with folk music playing on a battered CD, and a roughly-built brick barbecue filling the air with smoke and the smell of burning fat. Sitting in the cool of a falling evening, eating burgers dripping grease between torn hunks of rustic bread, the English girl found herself perched on the end of a bench with Johannes at her side. All week she had been conscious of his presence, while he had shown no sign of noticing her.

Johannes pushed his plate away, declaring himself—‘How you say? Stuffed?’—slouching forward over one elbow, the skin of his forearm dark, the hairs darker still, one hand reaching for his chunky glass, the other under the table and settling on the English girl’s knee. The heavy feel of it frissoned through her. She abandoned a burnt nub of meat and sipped her lukewarm beer, its hue almost black, its taste heavily hopped and bitter. She focussed on her expression remaining smooth.

English was the common language for the group, the only language which all of them—the French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish—knew at least a little of. Johannes was talking, his bad English lapsing sometimes into rapid German, which Anneliese translated in summarised form. He shifted further forward over the table, the bulk of his body lending weight to strong opinion, his legs spreading so his denim covered thigh now pressed the length of the English girl’s. She was wearing wide shorts which reached halfway to her knee. His hand followed the ridge of her leg, then curled inwards so his thumb hooked over the top of her leg and his fingers rested on her inner thigh.

And all the time he talked.

The English girl sat unmoving and silent. She had no particular desire to talk to Johannes or to thrust herself into the conversation. She liked the fact that he was the natural focus and everyone was listening and that what he expressed chimed so fully with her own beliefs.

The Fourth World. She had tried to explain it to friends at college. Poverty exists in all societies, she said, feeling self-conscious and anxious that she would sound pious. Even in the most affluent countries there exists a substrata, outside the common flow, who remain trapped. The Fourth World, like a fourth dimension, coexisting with and yet invisible to those who prefer not to look. The centre where she was spending the summer would provide an alpine holiday for poor families; she and the volunteers were carrying out essential maintenance—building wooden fences, turning an old horse carriage into a children’s playhouse and preparing flower and vegetable gardens—before the centre could open. She remembered the scepticism on her friends’ faces. Poverty? In Switzerland? ‘You should see my bank balance,’ Thomas had said. ‘I think I must qualify.’ She had smiled politely and felt a flash of dislike.

Sitting here now, she could feel Johannes’ passion transmitting through his faulty English, through the heat of his body and his gesticulating hand; his passion mirrored her own notions of equality and fairness, views that her friends—firm believers in the magic of markets and capitalism—declared naïve. She liked that others here would see how the line of their bodies was pressed together without seeing what was happening beneath the table.

His fingers reached higher. She remained perfectly still, aware, vaguely—because everything that evening felt vague, perhaps due to the beer, perhaps more fundamentally—that to surrender so easily with no indication of her own will, went against all her feminist principles. She thought, but only fleetingly, of Thomas, who she had started dating towards the end of term, and whom she had so far fended off as far as full sex was concerned. What was she waiting for, he’d asked, exasperated.

Johannes said something—‘but there it is, no?’—bringing his diatribe to an end and removing his hand from her leg equally abruptly. Dismay crashed and crushed, and stupid thoughts chuntered through her brain, that he would not like her precisely because she seemed so readily acquiescent. He shifted away, turning his back on her, swinging a leg to straddle over the wooden bench, all the while laughing and talking unintelligibly fast to Anneliese. The English girl smiled with muscle-ache inanity.

She stared down at her brown hands and cupped them around her empty glass, certain suddenly that Anneliese, that everyone, would see how she had been discarded. Then she felt the touch of his hand on her shoulder. ‘Kommst du,’ he said, his head jerking towards the clearing and the others. ‘Come.’ She scrambled to standing, banging her hip hard on the wooden table, fearful that if she hesitated she would lose the moment and its momentum.

The cassette player had been replaced by an accordion, played by the Spanish guy whose name was Jesus, the awkwardness of which made her shy to talk to him.

People were dancing to a fast French jive and Johannes had taken her hand and was pulling her towards the centre of the group.

‘No,’ she said, pulling back and laughing, conscious of just how much she hated dancing, aware that allowing yes to groping then saying no to dancing was perverse.

Johannes stood his ground, gripping her hand firmly, and he stood there—squat and insistent—ignoring her no, and gesturing to the group of dancers with his stance. Her resistance slackened and she was drawn into a dance that she had no knowledge of.

The music rollicked and rolled. Johannes’s rhythm, his sequences of steps, became hers. He pulled her in close—chest to chest—then cast her outwards to arm’s length. They circled round, then rapidly changed direction. Partners were swapped, without her having any say in it, and suddenly she was in someone else’s arms and her fleeting gracefulness deserted her; she felt clumsy, acutely aware of why it was she’d never liked dancing. Johannes reclaimed her, or perhaps it was just the chancy outcome. She felt herself lifted off her feet; her thighs tightened round his hips as he swung her around and then she was tilting downwards so it seemed her head might bounce along the ground. But it didn’t, because he knew precisely the moment to swing her back upright.

She found herself passed along again, this time landing with the Polish guy who’d been trailing her all week and whose bumbling movements served to exaggerate her own ineptitude. Out of breath, she mumbled excuses and extracted herself from his clinging hold to draw back to the edges of the group, standing under the shadow of trees, watching. Waiting.

A figure appeared out of the darkness beside her and the two of them stood there. She listened to his breathing and the shuffle of pine leaves beneath his feet. Then he took her hand, pulling her back amongst the firs. Vegetation crunched and the world smelt of dried-out green and sunsoaked earth. It was dark, getting darker amidst the thickening branches, but at the same time her eyes were adjusting and shapes in denser shades of black emerged and there was a path of sorts, forming a silver ribbon through the trees.

Johannes stopped when they came to a narrow clearing, lit by a sliver of a moon. Something swooped in near—a bat perhaps—and she jerked away from it, turning into him, feeling his hands touching her shoulders and the damp heat of his breath against her neck.

He pressed her against a tree and whispered low, guttural words. Her hands reached behind to the textured bark, which was rough like the stubble on Johannes’s chin as his mouth met hers.


She woke next morning in the ancient bed with its sagging mattress, under a bedspread that was poked through with the sharp ends of feathers. Light filtered through the flaking, green-painted shutters in sharp lines. The air smelt of wood resin, of stale sweat and sex, and she thought of what had happened in the woods and of how Johannes had returned with her to this bed, then slipped away at first light. She stretched her body out long and thin and contemplated the effort of walking down the external wooden staircase to the outside toilet. Her hand touched the smooth rawness of her face and she remembered Johannes’s skin sandpapering hers. Sex as exfoliant. Glancing at the pale glow of her alarm clock, she realised how much she’d overslept.

A little later, she emerged from the weight of feathers and pulled clean clothes over her unwashed body. Descending the steps, she waved at the farmer who had donated the use of his room and called out, ‘Grusse!

Walking down the hill took ten minutes and her heartbeat rose as she opened the door into the large wooden chalet, finding everyone already finishing breakfast. Everyone except Johannes.

‘Hi!’ She offered a vague salute from the doorway as she made straight for the bathrooms, where she could get a shower and emerge fresh and clean.

Anneliese rose from the table and headed purposefully her way. She could feel the heat of her face and the stink of her body radiating outwards. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘For being late.’

Anneliese’s smile was wide and tight as she delivered an instruction that the showers needed cleaning, which could easily have waited. The English girl’s simple pleasure on waking transmuted now to embarrassment and she wondered if Anneliese and Johannes were lovers, or might once have been.

Johannes appeared at lunchtime, and there was nothing to indicate that she was any more to him than anyone else, less in fact, because the English girl didn’t speak any German and his English was bad. He sat beside her as they ate, not touching, but nonetheless sitting a little closer than he needed to. And by evening, he had gone.


Time moved forwards; people arrived and left; gradually the days shortened and the humid heat gave way to thunderstorms, breaking on the distant jagged peaks. Until it was her last day.

Anneliese proposed a farewell party.

‘There’s no need,’ the English girl said.

‘But we must do something,’ Anneliese insisted in her somewhat correct and distant tone. Of course, Anneliese always had such a lot to do with new volunteers turning up and needing to be instructed; she had little time for friendship.

Johannes hadn’t visited for ten days. The English girl had never understood the schedule by which he appeared and then went away. She began to think that she would leave and not have seen him to say goodbye.

The weather had turned cooler and they ate indoors. An iron fondue pot—containing four types of laboriously grated cheese—was placed in the centre of the table and served with roughly-cut cubes of bread alongside large carafes of local, yeasty wine.

Please would Johannes come. It felt an awkward type of prayer.

Then just as she was willing him to be there, just as it seemed hopeless that he would come, he materialised in that way he had, appearing with a magician’s flourish as if from a hat. He greeted Anneliese in German, explaining something at length, before offering a vaguer greeting round the table and then nudging in beside the English girl whose skin was flushing hot beneath her tan as she passed him the basket filled with bread.

‘So,’ he said to her, scraping the bread across the layer of cheese that by now was congealing at the bottom of the pot, ‘English girl.’ She was sure he must know her name, though she couldn’t remember him ever using it. ‘You go home tomorrow.’

‘Yes,’ she said, her voice far too bright. ‘I’m afraid so.’ And she thought it was a strange phrase, and that she was in fact deeply afraid. ‘My summer’s up.’

‘A pity,’ he said. ‘Wir werden dich vermissen.’ He’d miss her, or, more accurately, they would miss her.

‘Me too,’ she said, ‘Mich auch,’ thinking how much she would miss the shifting community she been absorbed into, the broken communication which operated at a deeper dimension than the competitive chit-chat of her college friends with their constant striving to entertain.

The evening continued with more wine, talk and laughter. Finally, she separated herself to walk up the hill. She walked slowly into the darkness and waited for Johannes with his unhurried footsteps to slip in beside her, the way he had done, on and off, all summer. They walked, hand in hand, beneath the wide scattering of stars.


The next morning, he rose early from the ancient bed in the wooden house, and he parted with a simple, ‘Bis bald!’—he’d see her soon—despite the fact he wouldn’t.

He was gone by the time she descended to the centre for breakfast. She set off shortly afterwards, carrying her large rucksack back along the road to the small station where she would take a local train, and then more trains and then a ferry, which would deliver her back to England. England, where her tan would fade and her muscles slacken, and the summer turn to anecdote. England, where, she would cease to be the English girl. Where she would rebecome Marie.

pencilSarah Evans has had over a hundred stories published in anthologies, magazines and online. Prizes have been awarded by, amongst others: Words and Women, Winston Fletcher, Stratford Literary Festival, Glass Woman and Rubery. And publishing outlets include: the Bridport Prize, Unthank Books, Bloomsbury and Best New Writing. She has also had work performed in London, Hong Kong and New York.

The Last Time I Had Brunch

Baker’s Pick
Jeff Bakkensen

Photo Credit: Lindsay Ensing (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Lindsay Ensing (CC-by-sa)

“The last time I had brunch,” says the one, and stops to think. “I literally can’t remember the last time I had brunch.”

“The last time I had brunch was with Robert at Yvan,” says her friend, sitting. “Remember? After Beck’s birthday party?”

“Wait.” A third. “Where was I?”

“Weren’t you there?”

“Were you there when we had brunch at Trio?”

The third one again: “I don’t remember that.”

The second: “I think you were there.”

“Was I?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

The man next to the one who’s sitting joins in. “I was having brunch when that man was killed at 59th Street a few weeks ago.”

They all pause.

Two beats.

“Oh,” says one standing. Their eyes all meet in the middle and they smirk.

“You didn’t hear about this?” asks the guy. He’s got shoulder-length dreads and a sort of urban militant flair. “It was raining and someone uptown stuck their umbrella in the door to try—”

“Beck’s was December 17th,” says the one sitting. “Maybe you were at home?”


The third: “Were you with us the morning of the marathon?”

Sitting across from the guy in dreads, black suit, no tie: “Don’t talk about that stuff while we’re on here.”

Dreads: “Don’t talk about what? He was waiting on the platform and the umbrella hit him in the—”

“Did you hear about the guy who got stuck in the revolving door?” This from a white kid looking up from his paperback.

“Because it’s bad luck to say that stuff.”

“—finished eating and I get down there. This massive, unbelievably vibrant puddle—”

“Remember Adrian that time we were at Wondee? When he picked up the fork and stabbed it through his own—”

An olive-skinned woman seated down the car, tight black dress, uncrosses her legs and fixes me with her eyes. Is it a smile?

“—severed three fingers I think when it swung—”

“—like ‘Hey bitch, why don’t you’—”

“I had brunch,” says an older woman, “the morning of September the 11th,” and we all swivel towards her. Sheepishly, “Of course I’ve had a few since then.”

In the middle of the car, two passengers hanging off the center pole who’ve up to now shown not a mite of interest in each other suddenly swing together and find each other’s lips, holding for a few heartbeats.

We decelerate towards a stop. The doors open.

“I’ll see you tonight,” the one says, and turns to find her way off.

The other watches her go, eyes darting between strangers, tracking her window to window.

A man walks in, suit bruised with grime. The doors close behind him.

“Ladies and gentleman, I don’t beg, I don’t steal.”

The doors close and for thirty seconds more, we’re alone with each other, hurtling through the tunnel into the dark.

pencilJeff Bakkensen once came in second place in a George Washington look-alike contest. Recent fiction can be found in Oblong Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, The Antigonish Review, and Straylight Literary Magazine. Email: jeffrey.bakkensen[at]


Broker’s Pick
Richard Dinges

Photo Credit: web4camguy/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: web4camguy/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Flesh and breath,
sweat and oily sheen,
bald head, freed from
hair and gray,
muscles bulge then
fall flat, sag into
flatulence, hips
once were hills
to be explored, now
rounded mysteries
under frayed comforters,
night no longer
an exploration,
now a dark cavern
in which to hide.

pencilRichard Dinges has an MA in literary studies from University of Iowa and manages business systems at an insurance company. Abbey, Pulsar, Rio Grande Review, Studio One, and Common Ground Review most recently accepted his poems for their publications. Email: rdinges[at]

Alcaics: on a hashtag

Beaver’s Pick
Judith Taylor

Photo Credit: baldeaglebluff/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: baldeaglebluff/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

What happened? Who knows? No one can read a mind
scroll back the thoughts like seismograph traces, see
just where the quake struck. We are left here
sifting the wreckage for scraps, for reasons

—some prop that gave way, broke under sudden shock,
brought down the whole house. Then we could make ourselves
safe, make our own house safe: the next quake
won’t pull us down, we’ll be ready for it.

It’s that we’re human. That’s what we do. We make
home, shelter; fire, hearth. Structures to keep us safe.
Crops, pasture, fields hacked out of dark woods;
calendars, numbers against the vast sky

that drifts above us. Patterns of when and why:
verse; music; carved stones. Pictures and glossaries.
Faith, hope and love. Just law and mercy.
Everything keeping us sure of our selves,

each other’s selves. So much we can only take
on trust, and walk as if we believe there’s ground
to bear our weight. We have a place here,
that’s what we say in the frightened, quiet time

we try so hard not ever to give ourselves.
We have a home; if not a place, a tribe.
Kith, kin. Or one heart somewhere for us.
Structures we build on a spinning planet

we need to tell each other we trust in still.
If one looks down, looks over the edge, we might
all fall. We need these explanations
—not why a house tumbled down, but why ours

still stands. That hashtag, something we need to hear:
depression lies, we tell ourselves. Something struck
this house or that; some monster drew this
person or that to their self-destruction.

Sounds like a glib line, telling you what you feel’s
false: silence once more slapped over what you know.
More, though, it’s our own mind we talk down,
begging it, almost, to give us good news

tell us we’re part of a world we think true,
can live in, can think we belong in.
We build the house still, tremulous as the ground is.
Stay, please, we say. Stay. Help us to keep it standing.

pencilJudith Taylor comes from Perthshire and now lives and works in Aberdeen, Scotland. Her poetry has appeared widely in magazines and she is the author of two pamphlet collections — Earthlight, (Koo Press, 2006), and Local Colour (Calder Wood Press, 2010). Her first full-length collection will be published by Red Squirrel Press in 2017. Email: j.taylor.09[at]

The Goddess of Sunday Brunch

Creative Nonfiction
Autumn Shah

Photo Credit: Sam Howzit/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Sam Howzit/Flickr (CC-by)

The Tiki gods look forlorn, their power stripped. Pale yellow sticky notes with numbers written in Sharpie adhere to the sides of their wooden heads. One Tiki, the size of a seated Labrador, sits on the ground, posing beside a stack of old phone books and printer manuals. Another, with a blue scowl, cowers under a metal workbench while a third waits by a dimpled brass umbrella stand, a highly perturbed look on its face.

I have never been to an auction before. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I pictured something a little more distinguished. I thought auctions were quiet, tense affairs with lots of money on the line, where people spoke in nods and raised eyebrows. I thought they took place in grand estates in the country or auction houses with Rococo chairs and heavy, velvet drapes, not in small warehouses tucked behind the outerbelt, items stacked everywhere next to junk that hadn’t sold in past auctions. The warehouse looks like a rummage sale booth at an antiques mall.

This stuff is barely old enough to be in my grandmother’s basement, though. The Kahiki Supper Club, where the current auction items came from, opened in 1961. It would have been a unique attraction for any city, but it was an especially big deal for unassuming Columbus, Ohio. Suddenly there was a sea dragon soaring off of a dramatically-sloped roof built to resemble an enormous Polynesian fighting boat, looking right out over Broad Street.

It was an extraordinary thing in the 1980s, when I was a shy teenager searching for something—extraordinary or otherwise—inside myself.


From the time I was very young, my sister and I had begged for a peek inside the restaurant. We drove by it probably once a week on our way downtown or to the strip mall across the street where our mother’s favorite clothing stores were located.

“It’s not really a place for children. It’s too fancy and too expensive,” Mother would say.

She had dined there several times. Each new boyfriend sought to impress her by taking her to Columbus’s most unique restaurant.

My mom was blonde, vivacious, and beautiful. And to trump it all, she was British. Other than the Kahiki, she was the most exotic thing in our nook of Columbus. Friends and teachers gushed over my mom’s beauty and her accent. Inevitably, people would ask me, “Where’s your accent?” I never admitted that I secretly wanted one, or that I could put one on if I chose. Because at what point can you decide you’re something else and not be called a fake? Somehow my mom’s accent lifted her above our grungy apartment and the precariousness that was our life after my dad left.

My mother told us about the swaying bridge just beyond the doors, waterfalls and birds, even the cracks of thunder. She told us there was a “Mystery Girl” in a grass skirt who served bubbling drinks in a large bowl after offering it up for a blessing from the Tiki god. It was so wrong, even taboo to my Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, but so fascinating.

Most compelling was the giant Tiki god himself, who, she said, towered over everything, his eyes burning red and a fire raging in his mouth.  “As soon as you walk in, he’s right there!” she said.

As my mom regaled us with descriptions of the Kahiki I pictured myself in her place, being served flaming food with pineapple and cherries while sitting among birds in a rainforest. I longed to be my mom: beautiful and sought after, making conversation with men in fancy restaurants and sitting in wicker butterfly chairs. I promised myself that some day, I too would sit in a butterfly chair and order dinner with fruit in it.


I didn’t come to the auction to buy anything, just to reminisce. Twelve years have passed since the Kahiki closed. As I wander around, I can’t imagine taking any of this stuff home. I try to imagine the carved wooden warrior mask with googly eyes on the bare wall above my piano, a light fixture that resembles a puffer fish over the kitchen table.

There had been a souvenir shop inside called The Beachcomber that stood off the restaurant’s foyer which was commandeered by a feisty old Chinese woman. Rows of Zombie and Headhunter mugs were sold, along with other Kahiki souvenirs, Tiki kitsch, and Asian knickknacks.

I’d like to have a single Headhunter mug to replace the one trapped in my mother’s attic in a box. I kept the original as a souvenir from my first trip to the Kahiki.


I walked through the parking lot beside my mother, who was bouncing in excitement or perhaps because of the frigid December air. It was so cold that year I could taste it on my tongue. For my sixteenth birthday I was finally going to step through those doors. Daniel, my mother’s boyfriend, loped along on my other side.

The parking lot lay to the side of the entrance so that when we walked around the corner we were transported to another world, another time even: primitive, geometric designs colored the façade; the roof overextended, pointing outward and upward; the sea dragon looked about to take off into the ocean of sky.

As we approached the Easter Island heads standing sentry on either side of the hexagonal doors, my stomach tightened in the same way it did when I was called to the board to do a math problem at school. Flames from the torches on their heads snapped in the chill wind.

We walked across a swaying bridge and through the front doors into a cave hung with greenery. I marveled at the tape-generated sounds of birds and the walls trickling with water. We stepped through another door into a circular foyer dominated by an eerily-lit, unfriendly-looking monkey-head fountain. Through the foyer, to the hostess stand, we entered the main area of the restaurant. A thatched hut village sprawled out before us, surrounded by palm trees and tropical plants with leaves larger than my head, Tiki torches staked throughout.

A hostess with soft waves of black hair, dressed in a Hawaiian sarong, greeted us, but I barely heard her as I gawked at the fearsome, angry-eyed Tiki god looming at the far end of the restaurant. His prominent, square forehead and elongated nose, nostrils flared, accentuated his disapproval.

My mother told the hostess that we wanted to sit next to the aquarium or the birds.

“Do you have a reservation?” she asked in a melodic, accented voice.

“No. We’re here for my daughter’s birthday.” My mother beamed and I blushed, because even I knew that at a fancy restaurant you need a reservation.

“Well, there are no bad seats, so don’t worry,” a woman with white-blonde hair said, taking charge. She took up her pen, examining her map, then told us there would be a bit of a wait.

As we waited, I watched the servers flit around in their floral uniforms and leis. I felt as if I were in another country—all the servers looked Asian, the scent of the food was tangy and fruity, the music that played in the ether was a twangy calypso-rock blend.

We finally followed the hostess through the dining area and my heart beat faster until we were led to a booth surrounded on three sides by wicker walls. No butterfly chair, no birds in sight. I could see the aquarium if I looked between two poles that served as a corner into the aquarium seating section.

“You don’t have anything next to the aquarium?” Daniel asked.

“No. You need reservation,” the hostess said, her English abrupt.

Once the hostess put down our menus and turned away, Daniel got up and my mom looked at him questioningly.

“I’m going to go see if they can get us something better.”

“Daniel, no. This is nice! Isn’t it, Autumn?” Mom said, her eyes wide and eyebrows high.

It wasn’t, but I slid into the booth. Something in my chest pinched in disappointment.

“We can see the aquarium behind us just fine, can’t we?” she prompted me. But I remained quiet.

Every now and then I heard a bird screech in the distance. The drinks menu, which was as lengthy as the dinner menu, listed cocktails with names like Blue Hurricane, Jungle Fever, Headhunter, and Zombie. They came in sculpted mugs in the shape of a Tiki god, a warrior or a totem-like animal. Daniel ordered a fancy drink so that I could have the headhunter mug it came in.

I don’t recall what I ate but I remember thinking it was nothing special; it tasted like Mark Pi’s drive-thru Chinese that we brought home once a week—with the addition of pineapple.

Toward the end of our meal, the ukulele-playing waiters delivered a small cake and set it in front of me. I bashfully blew out the candle. The manager who had assigned our seat came to our table right behind the musicians and told us we could tour the restaurant. I was embarrassed enough about the cake, but somehow I was coerced. I made sure from my sloped shoulders and dour expression that people knew I was being forced to look over their food at the scenery behind them.

We walked along the aquarium side where fish with flowing tails and dorsal fins glided past diners’ faces. On the opposite side of the restaurant, in the rainforest section, it rained and thundered every fifteen minutes and the cockatoo fluffed its white, wet feathers.

We threaded our way through tables under a thatched roof hung with colorful, bizarrely-shaped lanterns to return to the front of the dining area. I stood at the threshold and looked up at the ceiling, seemingly as high as the sky.

I felt I was under the scrutiny of the Tiki god, felt the warmth of the fire that raged in his gaping mouth. I imagined that in the rainforest of New Guinea or at the foot of a volcano in Hawaii, the sight of this would make my knees shake. I wanted to know the secrets of this place. I wanted to be a part of it.

I took one last look at the formidable monolith and, on an impulse, asked for an application on the way out.


I find a Sauder bookcase displaying various mugs. My heart races as I wonder what the starting bid is for just one Headhunter. I look down at the auction list I was given. The mugs are being sold by the case. I peer down into a box of Zombie mug shards. I’m wondering why anyone would want this when a large shadow falls across the box.

“Are you a mosaic artist?” a thick man in a shiny, gray suit asks me.

What a bizarre question, I think. But then I realize that must be what you would do with a box of shards.

“No, I’m just looking,” I say, trying to sound casual but not really knowing how to behave since I am an impostor here, posing as someone who might actually buy something.

He holds out his hand and introduces himself. He’s the auction writer, the manager. He has a waxy, ruddy face and puffy eyes. His blonde hair looks unnaturally slicked back, like he chooses to fight with it only during these auction preview days.

“Do you have a connection to the Kahiki? Or you just like Tiki?” he asks.

“I worked there as a hostess when I was sixteen,” I say.

“Really?” He leans back, as if to assess my face to calculate how long ago that actually was. I don’t help him out.

“That’s lucky!” he continues. “What an experience. We’ve had a couple people come through that used to work there. I wonder if you knew each other.”

I often think about some of the people I worked with and how easy it should be, with all the social media, to look them up, but I have no last names. There must be a hundred thousand Lisas, a million Joses.


No matter the weather outside, the atmosphere in the restaurant was constant: artificially lit to perfection, cool breezes from the cave entrance and warmth from the blazing bamboo torches and the Tiki fires.

It was closer to school than it was to home so I often went straight there and waited for the dinner shift to begin. Sometimes Lisa, the manager, was already there when I came in, conducting a server’s meeting around a rectangular table in Ship or sitting at the bar, a fizzy, clear drink beside her, scrutinizing important-looking papers. I respected her privacy and her absorption and skirted around her. I’d pick an area that suited my fancy that day and do my homework or read before changing into my green floral polyester sarong and pink lei.

Above the low-playing music and the fall of water, no other noise invaded the hushed atmosphere of the pre-dinner hour. The occasional busboy sat at a table rolling softly-clinking silverware into cloth napkins, the birds behind the glass perched with their heads tucked beneath a wing. Even in the kitchen, with its slick, oily floor, the sous chefs chopped, unhurried, in the temporary calm before the maelstrom of diners blew in.

Once the shift started, I stood at attention waiting for Lisa to give instructions on the general strategy for the evening. She was in the habit of wearing ruffled white blouses that accentuated her already-large breasts. She disguised the rest of her plumpness attractively beneath A-line skirts and tailored, flared jackets that made me feel under-dressed and overexposed in my V-neck sarong.

On slow weeknights, like Mondays and Tuesdays, it was often just the two of us. Between us, we mapped out seating, controlled the music and the thunder, restocked boxes of matches, wiped down menus, and dusted plastic foliage.

I wasn’t quite sure what to think of Lisa. Her authority and my own curiosity about her intimidated me. She was ten years older than me and about ten years younger than my mother. She was part of a world more secret and sophisticated than mine. She went places late at night after the restaurant closed, she ran in flustered from other unknown places at 4:30 in the afternoon. She often arrived to work disheveled, her chest red and splotchy, but once she was all tucked in and buttoned up, she was ready to command. I watched this transformation and it set my mind to imagining who she was when she wasn’t at the Kahiki.


I try to find an excuse to buy something, to take a piece of history home with me. If I could simply take an item up to a register and walk out with it, I would. But the process of an auction requires more dedication and perseverance than I have.

Aside from a single mug, the only item I might consider is a cheaply framed 11×17 photo of the Kahiki taken from the outside. In its heyday, celebrities, such as Milton Berle, Robert Goulet and Zsa Zsa Gabor visited, fresh flower leis were flown in a couple times a week, and a wahine on a giant billboard winked seductively, advertising the restaurant. The photo evokes that time and is still striking as flames and outdoor lighting illuminate the building beneath a purple-pink Ohio dusk. It highlights the anomaly of this otherworldly structure that should be surrounded by hibiscus, and palms bearing coconuts rather than sparse fir trees and blacktop.


In the 1960s, most of the servers and all of the Mystery Girls were Caucasian but when I worked there at the beginning of the 1990s a variety of nationalities held those positions. Josephine, the most seasoned hostess, was vivacious and as outspoken in English as she was in Tagalog. She had long, straight hair with severely cut bangs. She was petite and sassy and her hips swayed in the grass skirt that at least one of us was required to wear. Maggie and I were always grateful that Josephine happily donned it.

Josephine was my best friend at the restaurant. When I started at the Kahiki, Lisa trained me in my duties but Josephine guided me on the ins and outs: which servers to seat lightly and which ones could handle anything, how to gauge their moods, and which cooks gave leftover cake after the buffet. She shooed the busboys away when they hung around me too long. She pinned a tight grass skirt and taught me how to say ‘I love you’ in her bird-like Tagalog—mahal kita—and ‘I’m hungry’—nagugutom ako.


As I turn away from the rows of mugs, I entertain the thought of buying a case and imagine myself trying to talk one of my daughters into having a Tiki-themed birthday party with Headhunter mugs for the party favor. If I were a more charming person, maybe I could charm that auction manager out of just one little, itty-bitty mug.

The few butterfly chairs are scattered throughout the warehouse, perched alone, out of their flutter, their weave unfurling, the bamboo strips frayed. I wonder about the assortment of people these chairs have held in their wings. It calls to mind a photo I have, one that I will rush upstairs to search my albums for once I get home.

All of my pictures from the Kahiki are of the people I worked with; I suppose I didn’t dare to point a camera at the Tiki god himself. When I search, I find the one I am looking for. It is a Polaroid of a silver-mopped man in oversized glasses, an open-mouthed smile on his face, sitting in a butterfly chair with Josephine on his lap. I don’t know how I ended up with this picture; it should have gone to the silver-haired man but must have been discarded for a retake. He is one of the hundreds of strangers she had her picture taken with. When I examine the photo now, after so many years, I notice that Josephine looks different from the way I remember her. She has the same haircut, the same rose-tinted, butter-pecan complexion devoid of makeup, the same red floral bikini. But now I notice the dark look on her face. I stare at the picture and try to guess what she’s thinking. She sits stiffly, facing the camera but with her eyes averted.

For the first time, more than twenty years later, I think about how she might have felt sitting in all those men’s laps as the Mystery Girl. She was an immigrant woman from the Philippines with a poor command of the English language. What kind of life had she come from? Did she have other aspirations, dreams she wanted to follow in this country? When she made her plans to immigrate to the U.S., did she imagine herself hanging leis around men’s necks so they could pose for photographs with a “native”?


I don’t remember if I was told beforehand that I would have to wear the grass skirt outfit on Sundays. As self-conscious as I was, it still would not have deterred me. After all, I was working on breaking out of the mold I had put myself in, trying to figure out if I was the type who could wear a grass skirt and bikini top in front of people. The outfit was the same one that the Mystery Girl wore. I was too young to be mysterious and thankfully deemed too young to award a kiss and a lei. A server carried the smoking bowl while I gave a weak-armed thump on the gong with herculean effort—a much more anti-climactic ritual.

No matter what I did, I looked like a pale, spindly, uncooked shrimp in the grass skirt outfit, my skin so white it was almost blue. The cloth of the outfit was frayed, the eyelets stretched, the colors fading. I wondered if the get-up had been around since the sixties when the restaurant first opened. I tried to cover as much skin as I could. I wore pantyhose underneath the grass skirt for warmth as well as to give some color to my legs (no underwear, because mom always said, “Don’t stifle yourself down there—they put built-in panties for a reason.”). I piled on the leis to hide as much of my sunken chest as I could. I used a half-dozen pins to keep the multicolored floral bra on; it was made for someone much bustier than I was.

One slow Sunday, as they’d all been lately, the cleaning lady let me in after I knocked on the inner door several times. I started the atmospheric soundtrack and the slack-key and ukulele music. The servers spent the last few minutes folding silverware into napkins and Jim, the less scurrilous bartender, dried glasses and poured out fresh maraschino cherries that he would sneak to me throughout the day.

I moved the hostess podium to the walkway in front of the bar, where I would be more accessible to greet and also seat guests. I fiddled with my bra and adjusted the pins on my skirt as the first guests entered. It was an elderly couple, coming straight from church, it appeared, by his grey suit and her powder-blue dress.

“Welcome to the Kahiki. Do you have a seating preference?” I asked as I gathered two menus to my chest.

“Surprise us,” the husband said with a wink.

The couple moved slightly ahead of me, gawking at the Tiki god as I swished around the podium.

A sudden cold rush of air swirled around my legs and bottom. And just like in the cartoon when Wile E. doesn’t realize he’s just run off a cliff until he looks down to see the empty abyss below, I looked down. And yelped.

My skirt was gone.

I looked up and there was Julio—a charming, flirtatious, yet moody server. He stood gaping at me, eyes wide and his face flushed pink. He dashed back from the direction he had come.

I looked behind me and saw my skirt hanging from the bamboo wall where it had gotten snagged. I used the menus to cover myself and with my free hand snatched the skirt, wrapped it around myself as best I could, and held it in place as I proceeded to seat the couple. They had been so entranced with their surroundings that they had not noticed a thing.

I pinned the skirt back in place as I detoured through Fish and returned to my podium. My face was on fire and a bubble of dread floated in my chest. I imagined Julio laughing and teasing me as soon as he got the chance. Even worse, I could hear him telling everyone, so that when I came for my next shift, the whole crew would point and snigger behind my back. It would be like middle school all over again.

I’d quit. Yes, I’d call Lisa now, tell her I was sick and never show up again.

Back at the podium, I avoided looking at Jim, not wanting to know if he had seen too.

On my way to seat the next group in Rain, wishing the ground would swallow me up, Julio caught my eye and put a finger to his lips. I melted with relief.


Working at the Kahiki was liberating in a way I couldn’t comprehend at the time. Like the butterfly chairs and the Tiki gods in the auction house, I was out of my element. My wings were unfurling: I was metamorphosing into someone others found interesting and fun. By placing myself amidst a community of so much diversity, I was the unique one and also privy to another world. I wasn’t just dining there across from men who wanted to flatter me; I was digging deeper into this culture and into myself.

Without a reputation, without a history, I could be who I wanted to be. No one there knew me as the mousy bookworm who had cried at my desk over Lassie Come Home in the third grade or the girl who sat out gym class because she couldn’t stand the humiliation of being chosen last and with obvious reluctance. There was no one there to compare me to my mother.

The confidence I gained carried over to school. I found that if I could make decisions (and mistakes), prove myself indispensable, then I could also raise my hand in class. I could make myself stand out to be chosen in gym class, rather than slinking to the corners. I could take responsibility for my schoolwork and activities. If I could banter with strangers on the way to a table in Fish, maybe I wasn’t as shy as people always said I was. At the Kahiki, I could reinvent myself, and I didn’t even need an accent.


There is a Sauder computer desk minus the computer and a chair, displaying cloth napkins and cocktail napkins, old menus, and banquet information pamphlets. While I browse, I think of Mr. Tsao, the second and last owner of the Kahiki. He came in several times while I was working and his heft seemed to fill the room, his body spilling over the bar stools. He was bigger than life, just like the Tiki god itself, except that he wore a smile to light up the room and possessed a big belly laugh. Because he was such a comforting presence, it alarmed me to see him talking over papers in hushed, serious tones with Lisa or with men that none of us recognized. I realize now that the restaurant, even then, was in trouble.

I remember the physical signs: the shredding bamboo walls, the crackly static of thunder in the bathroom, the rain that sometimes clogged in Rain, the threadbare carpet, the sputtering fountains. There were sections of the restaurant that we didn’t use, or only for special occasions. I remember how, near the end of my time there, patrons went from wearing their finest to dropping in wearing jeans or shorts and flip-flops. How it became a sad decline of campy, Polynesian pop culture.

I think of when the Kahiki closed its doors for good in 2000, almost ten years after I quit. Bits of it were sold off and shipped around the world before the beautiful fighting boat was conquered and destroyed by a wrecking ball. The local news showed coverage of the monumental Tiki god being hauled out in sections by a crane from a hole in the roof, his face ripped off. Seeing him at the mercy of cables and levers, he didn’t look so fearsome. I remember having to look away with that heavy, tugging feeling at witnessing someone else’s humiliation. His kingdom had fallen with the swipe of a pen and the historic landmark was junked for a chain drug store.

I take a last scan around the warehouse, breathing in the scent of musty carpet, hoping to see something that will ignite a lost memory. But they’ve all become mere objects, so incongruous that I barely recognize them. There is a blood-red, crackled glass orb with veins of purple that once hung, lit, from the walls of a hut. Away from the wavering lights of the flame, it has lost its essence.

As I leave empty-handed, I realize that working at the Kahiki was liberating in a way I couldn’t comprehend at the time. Like the butterfly chairs and the Tiki gods in the auction house, I was out of my element.

It saddens me to think of the once formidable, enigmatic Tiki and where he ended up, supine on a bed of rotting leaves in Vermont, a tarp pulled tight over his face.

pencilAutumn Shah lives in Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus where she is a stay-at-home mom of two girls. She graduated magna cum laude from Ohio State University in 2001 with a degree in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. She has worked in information technology and as an ESL teacher. She likes to write creative nonfiction essays and is currently working on a novel. Email: autumn.shah[at]

Terror on the Beach

Gina Sakalarios-Rogers

Photo Credit: Keoni Cabral/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Keoni Cabral/Flickr (CC-by)

When my bar’s invaded by snowbird oldsters and the local diet-soda-and-whiskey sets the atmosphere cloys. No matter how peppy the music on the juke or how festive the décor and lighting, these crowds alone are enough to make anyone swear there are no companionable evenings to be had in a bar. Mix them together and no one emerges at the end of the evening without feeling tainted by the experience.

The problem lies in the contrast. Snowbirds far from home on a warm beach in a cozy bar can feel they are momentarily outside of time, outside of the cares of the world. The essence of vacation, right? Throw in the girls in too-tight dresses with bikini strings showing around their necks and leg muscles taut from balancing on their spiky heels or tanned to their flip-flop-gripping toes and a bit of the past intrudes. The visitors from colder places sip at their diet soda and liquor of choice through little red straws with glossy wet lips and the gin-and-tonic with a lime wedge doesn’t taste so much of vacation anymore.

Confronted with these young things and the suitors that inevitably trail in their wake, the snowbirds get a bit less fun loving and little more judgmentally bitchy.

I’d refused yet again one woman’s request for “something fruity with an umbrella in it, like a Mai Tai” when I’d had enough and handed it all over to my bartender. He’s a smartass, but he keeps himself around by putting up with the shit I won’t.

“Hey,” he said to the woman, “this ain’t Hawaii. It’s Florida. Closest you’re gonna get to fruity from me is a lime in your tonic or a token strawberry in the daiquiri premix.”

Sometimes he does it better than me.

I strolled out of the bar happy to be leaving. Got in my little old brown Datsun truck and enjoyed a warm mid-June breeze blowing through the windows. It’s a good truck. Late 1960s model just a couple of years older than me. It’s been reliable since my uncle passed it on to me in the eighties. It survived the big island-wiping hurricane a few years ago because it was off-island with me.

Now it faithfully rolled me down Pickens Road to the main beach parking lot. My feet took me the rest of the way. Past the new lifeguard building and the large lights keeping the cement strip between tarmac lot and sandy white beach bright for the nighttime crowd at the restaurants and bars. On down to the spot on the beach just next to the fishing pier where the guys and I always meet.

Only one of them was there. Nick. Young one with an old demeanor. He stood with his hands in his pockets, watching the surf build.

“You all alone out here tonight?”

Yeah,” he said. “I think Lyle might be out in a little while. I called him. Think it should get interesting out here soon.”

A storm front coming in from the west had the Gulf roiling. The breakers were getting large, rough, and sloppy.

Nick pointed down the beach just outside the pool of light cast by the large chain restaurant trying to look quaintly seaside. Three young guys had stripped off their shoes and shirts and were tempting each other into the surf. Guys like these get drawn in by whatever magnetic force attracts fools with no adventure in their lives to dropping barometric pressure.

“They’ll go in you think?” Nick said.

“Oh sure, hope they’re sober,” I said.

“Doubt it,” he said. “Hope Lyle gets here first. He swims better than me.”

That’s Nick, thinking ahead.

“Man,” I said, “Let’s just stop them.”

“Good luck with that, D.”

“You’re not going to help me?”

“I’ll follow you down there, but I’m not getting involved.”

“Sure, let the woman do the work.”

What a puss. At least he followed me. It’s always easier to be a hardass with a friendly body standing behind you.

We moved slowly, taking our time since it looked like these three fellas were having a hard time convincing each other to go on in. I was thinking maybe I wouldn’t have to get loud with them when the first one went for it.

He was the shortest of the bunch, curly blond hair, bright red board shorts. Maybe he’s a surfer, I thought. He’d know how to handle the waves then. It was a brief thought, one of those that forms without your bidding. Just pops up in your mind even though you’ll dismiss it immediately as foolish wishful thinking. If he’d been a surfer there wouldn’t have been enough novelty in the roughening waves to entice him. It was all messy chop.

Nick grunted.

I said, “Morons.”

The two friends moved closer to the water’s edge, cheering their buddy on. The guy managed to stay on his feet, splash around a bit and run back out to his friends before Nick and I made it to them.

They were slapping him on the back, he was pointing out at the gulf, urging his friends to go back in with him.

It looked like they were going to follow until they saw us. The short one waved, said something about needing to cool off, and then they were moving back up to the restaurant. Maybe Nick’s park ranger button up looked official enough to be trouble for them. It certainly wasn’t my five feet and three inches or Nick’s skinny physique that worried them.

“Well, that was too easy,” I said.

“You wanted it to be difficult?”

“Just wanted to have a little fun with them.”

“You always been such a mean little bitch?”

“Nah,” I said. “I was very nice before my house got wiped off the beach and my best friend was eaten by crabs.”

Nick sighed. He has no compassion for people who hold grudges against intangible forces of nature. “You’ll let it go one day and be much more content.”

He followed me back to the pier and we waited for Lyle. Who showed up with hoagies and Corona. We had a good night.


You can’t sleep on the beaches anymore. Back in the early eighties we did it all the time. Perfectly natural thing to do. Nowadays it’s loitering, I guess. No way for us to have slept down by the pier anyway with all those damned lights.

Couldn’t sleep in the truck either. Cops roust the parking lot looking for drunks sleeping it off in their cars. Everyone should be in their own homes, tucked up nice in their beds. That’s the responsible citizen thing to do.

Instead I stretched out behind my house. Not much beach, just scrubby beach grass on the small strip between my back porch and the bay. I used to sleep on a hammock out on the dock Mr. Scott and I shared. That’s gone now. So’s he. I don’t eat blue crab anymore.


Since I woke up feeling mellow the next morning, I decided to cruise across the bay and on through the intracoastal waterway to Perdido Key. The bay was rough with the storm still edging ever closer, but the sky stayed sunny and the wind kept me from sweating too much.

A nice day until I spotted Gary banging on his outboard on the Perdido side of Pensacola Pass. It looked like he needed help, so being the kind (to friends) woman I am I idled my small Bayliner up next to him and got out to help.

His wife’s another sort.

Two steps off the beach, ankle deep in Pensacola Pass, Gary’s wife was screaming “Shark! Shark! Getoutofthewatershark!

There were only two other people on the beach. They were laid out on their blankets unmoving, either uninterested because they weren’t in the water or unconcerned because no one else was really in the water.

Gary looked back over his shoulder, away from the sputtering motor.

“There. There,” his wife yelled again. “Get out of the waterwheresthedog! Joe! Joe!”

Joe lounged on the front of the boat, unconcerned about the shark menace, since he’d already enjoyed his obligatory Labrador water romp. After which he required uninterrupted relaxation in the sun. Sharks be damned. He didn’t even bark.

“Where’s Joe?” Gary’s wife yelled once again. “Get out of the water!”

A fin arched out of the water barely 50 feet off the stern of the boat.

Dolphin. One, two, three.

Gary turned back to his motor.

“They’re dolphins,” Gary said.

“How do you know? There it is again.”

“Dolphin, smaller dorsal, arcing, more than one. Sharks don’t swim in pods, Cheryl.”

His wife, still frantic, but daring to step into the water, said, “I’m not getting in this boat if the motor isn’t working right. Call the tow.”

Gary waved me over. Wanted to know if I had any idea why his motor wasn’t getting any gas.

We puttered over it a while longer. Cheryl kept her eye on the dolphins, still convinced they could be sharks. Joe kept sleeping.

“Gary.” I wanted to know. “Why don’t you have any tools in this boat?”

He gave me a sideways look. “You don’t either.”

“I have a rope. Give you a tow?”

He hated the idea, but didn’t turn it down.

We got to maneuvering the boats into position, not noticing the other two beach-goers had wandered over to Cheryl until they all three started hollering at me.

I’m waist deep in the water, trying to keep the small chop in the pass from shoving my stern too close to Gary’s bow.

They were pointing at me, waving, the old fellow jumping up and down. His companion, a young blonde woman in a red striped bikini charged into the water. She headed towards me, determinedly.

Gary’s yelling at Cheryl.

Cheryl’s waving back.

Joe’s paddling towards the young bikini woman, barking. He was ready to protect me, I suppose.

It all distracted me so much I didn’t feel the rope wrap around the foot of my motor, so when the chop nudged the boat away from me, I naturally tugged the rope to keep it close and, not having as much slack as I expected, I pulled the boat right into myself. I went down. Under the boat.

The sandy bottom was all stirred up from the activity, so I couldn’t see a thing. I stayed calm, pulled myself along the rope, untangled it from the motor, and swam clear of the boats.

I’m ready to yell at someone, give them full on scathing fury. I couldn’t.

The scene already too ridiculous.

Gary dove into the water to find me. Joe swam splashy circles around the bikini woman, not letting her retreat to the beach or dive into the waist deep water to help Gary search. Cheryl was still yelling incoherently from the beach and the old guy moved slowly towards his companion and Joe.

I’m fully on the beach, squeezing the salt water from my shirt when they finally notice me. I don’t know who saw me first, but it was Cheryl that came running my way.

I held my hand up in a halt gesture, stopping her before she cleared Gary’s boat.

“You just stay over there, Cheryl,” I said. “You and those damned dolphins caused all this. Dolphins, woman.”

“I can’t help it. I can’t see they are—“

“Dolphins!” I yelled.

Gary started some yelling of his own. The boats had drifted too close.

The husband-being-crushed threat trumped the husband-being-attacked-by-dolphin-possibly-shark threat. She charged into the water. “Help! Help!” Yelling yet again. “He’s going to be crushed!”

Joe continued circling the bikini woman. Her companion tried to coax Joe away when I waded past them to my boat. I could have called Joe off, but he looked happy.

Once Gary and I had the boats safely hooked up and I’d fired up my motor and pulled the line between us taut, Gary hauled Joe into the boat.

Cheryl sat in her seat, not looking at anyone, lips pressed firmly together, arms across her chest. She wouldn’t even pet poor innocent Joe when he nudged her with his nose.

The old guy and his companion moved back onto the beach without a word.

We made it back to Little Sabine before the sun set and without any more terrifying dolphin encounters. Gary pressed some bills into my hand for the extra gas I used towing him, and I told him to come by my bar for a few free ones later. Once he got his wife calmed down.

“Bring the dog along,” I said.

“Sure thing.” He snapped his fingers, the universal gesture for having a surprising thought. “Hey, dolphins heading into the Gulf means the storm’s not coming in here.”

“They were headed the other way, Gary.”

The bar opened slowly for a Saturday night and it stayed that way. A few snowbirds in and out, but none stayed for long. They were, no doubt, back in their comfy condo rooms watching the Weather Channel closely.

The televisions in the bar weren’t on. Gary came in with faithful old Joe around seven o’clock and sat at the end of the bar with me.

“Storm weakened. Coming this way. Just gonna be a tropical though. No big deal.”

My bartender gave him a Jack and Coke and a small bowl of water for Joe.

“Lyle’s bringing some oysters over from Peg Leg’s,” Gary said. “Fried for you.”

The raw oyster is a disgusting thing. I’ve tried it at different points in my life. No one has ever found a way to persuade me that there is any pleasurable value in slimy, salty, goo sliding across my tongue and down my throat. No intensity of hot sauce makes the oyster go down any easier. My gag reflex cannot be so easily fooled.

We hang out, talking of this and that. Nick shows up. Then Lyle comes with the food. Things stay quiet like I said until right before closing.

Lyle wanted to mine us for our opinions, once again, on the new condo towers going up on the edge of the National Seashore.

“Bumped as close as they can get it to the protected part of the island,” Gary shook his head. His most extreme bodily reflection of disgust. “Let ‘em that close they’ll find a way to push in more.”

“That’s what I said,” Lyle added.

Nick, the young one, didn’t agree. “The condos are an economic thing as much as the protected beaches. Without something protected and left undeveloped no one’s going to want to live here or visit. They’d kill the economy.”

“Developers don’t give a shit,” I said. “They get their money and run.”

“You know that’s not true,” Gary said.

I did, but I wasn’t going to admit it. The vitriol had been my solace for too long to give it up now.

“All these tourists and beach residents keep you in business,” my bartender said.

“That’s right!” Nick raised his glass and bonked it against the bartender’s raised fist.

“I get the tourist hate, D. Know where that comes from,” Gary said, “but what’s your problem with the locals?”

“Half of them aren’t locals,” I said. More forcefully than I intended, sure. “They moved out here just to say they live on the beach.”

“Oversimplification and generalization,” Nick countered, feeling smart.

“I know that.” Forceful on purpose now. “Who’s the former professor here?” I pointed at myself. “So here’s my analysis. They like the beach, have the money to live out here, so they do. It’s a status thing now. You can’t live out here now on a middle class salary anymore, can’t even rent that way. Used to before Ivan came through, but that was a stellar opportunity for certain factions to wipe out the old bungalows and build fancy, expensive. Upscale.” I hoped the ooze I saw dripping off that last word could be heard.

“It’s just the money thing you hate?” Nick said.

“No. It’s part of it. They move out here, like I said, because they like the beach, want to say they live here because that reflects their status. They like the view, but they aren’t beach people. They are neighborhood people.”

“Now what the hell does that mean?” This from my bartender who must have decided he doesn’t need a job anymore.

“They aren’t sleeping on the beach, so no one else can. They don’t want loiterers, but what the hell else are you supposed to do on a beach? They want it generic. The only changeable, unpredictable thing they want out here is the environment.”

“And you like that, right? The unpredictability?  The adventure?”

“Sure.” I said it too tentatively. I knew it wasn’t true.

“Hurricanes washing everything out. People sucked out and brought back to feed the sea life?”

Smartassery is one thing, cruelty is too far. Gary said something that sounded vaguely mediative, trying to defuse. It must have gotten through because I didn’t fire the bartender.

“Shouldn’t you working. Wiping something down. Closing the place up?”

I always shut the place down at midnight. No later. I have no interest in serving that later night crowd. They’re up to no good or headed that way, no need for me to contribute.

The guys retreated to the pool tables to give me some space. The final rituals of the night were performed in silence and I used it to calm down, think about why I have to be so angry. The guys clacking pool balls around in an attempt to get one in a pocket over Joe’s head so he’d bark was the only sound, so the noise of a couple loud vehicles sliding into the small lot out front carried right on into the bar.

“Hey,” I said to my bartender. Quiet. “Go lock that door before any stragglers get in here.”

“Sure thing. We wouldn’t want stragglers,” he had to keep up the sarcasm. I held my tongue somehow. He vaulted over the bar. He knows I hate this.

His sprint the few feet from bar to door woke up Joe, who jumped up and started barking.

The guys let out a cheer.

My bartender put a hand on the door and reached out for the lock. Not soon enough.

The door hit him in the face. He hit the floor. Three young guys came in ahead of their fourth, the troublemaker king, Nevin.

“No, no,” I yelled at him. “You get the hell out of here. I’m not serving you one single drink.”

“Shit.” My bartender pulled himself from the floor with help from Lyle, his nose bleeding.

“You broke his nose, man,” one of Nevin’s companions said. He’s new. Looks much younger than Nevin’s usual crew.

Nevin came my way, looking determined. That look he always gets when he’s working himself up to some ridiculous new frenzied act of vandalism. Nevin considered himself an eco-terrorist. Most of his victims and the police considered him a nuisance.

“This is gonna be the big one,” he said to me. Leaning on my bar. Like I’m a confidante.

“I don’t care,” I said. “Get the hell out and get on with it.”

“You got a room in the back. Let us use it tonight. No one will look for me here. Everybody knows you can’t stand me.”

“Hate wouldn’t be too strong.”

His new young friend was holding my bartender in a chair so Nick could pop his nose back into place. I recognized him. He was still wearing the bright red board shorts.

“Good to have an old corpsman in your crew, huh?”  Nevin was trying to be chummy.

“Get the hell out of my bar,” I said to him, knowing with the intuition briefly granted to us all when a bad situation happens that my bold words weren’t going to have any effect.

Nevin’s other two buddies, the ones I knew, flanked my friends. Arms crossed in stereotypical bad guy posture.

Red Boardshorts let go of my bartender. “Let’s just go,” he said to Nevin. “We can hole up in my hotel room over in Navarre. No one’s gonna come that far to find you.”

“No,” Nevin said, “I want to stay close, so I can hear it go off. Feel the island shake.”

Explosives now? No more petty vandalism for him.

“What are you blowing up?” I asked.

“Those ugly towers going up near the National Seashore,” one of Nevin’s buddies said.

Red Boardshorts chimed in all peppy proud, “A blight on the beach!”

Nevin’s always been a charmer, and he has a good eye for the naïve. Red Boardshorts, whose name was Peter, had obviously showed some sort of minor concern for the environment or made some comment about how beautiful the beaches are here, and Nevin had jumped on the opportunity to fire up the poor fellow to a frenzy of environmental righteousness. He’d tried that with me the first time he came dragging in here.

A phone rang. Gary pulled it out of his pocket and told his wife he’d call her back. “Got a situation here,” he said. Then he shoved the phone back into his pocket.

“There’s no situation,” I said, rounding the bar and striding right up to Nevin. Too short to get in his face, tall bastard, but my palms made firm enough contact with his chest to knock him into a table. “Get out now, Nevin. Take your idiot crew with you.”

“We are staying here for the boom,” he said, shoving me hard enough to topple me into a bar stool. I sprawled on the floor, so my view of the gun as he pulled it from his waistband was much more dramatic than anyone else’s. I had that perspective you always get in the movies, slow motion from the gun wielder’s hip. Close up shot of the slow reveal, grip to sight.

He saw me see it, so didn’t take time to address its presence with me. Instead he tried the common ground approach. “I know you don’t want them going up either, so just do your part to save the beach.” He turned so my buddies and bartender could see it. “Put your phones on the pool table and sit on the floor.”

Joe barked.

No one else protested. We did what he said.

Nevin’s buddies got worried after an hour passed with no explosion. They had a quiet conference in a booth on the other side of the bar. I sat against the front of the pool table with my bartender. He had a few suggestions about how to take them out. Like he was in some damned action movie. Big dumb hero. I’m sure he had planned some sort of catchy one-liner to deliver as well.

I twice talked him out of tripping one of Nevin’s buddies, and laughed when he attempted to talk Peter of the Red Boardshorts down. Maybe I should have been more helpful since the guy had a gun. Hindsight often makes me feel like a blind asshole.

This bartender of mine always did a good job behind the bar. He kept the place clean, made decent drinks, and held me in check when I wanted to berate a tourist or a dumb chick too drunk to make good decisions. I’d never been quite nice to him. Always gave him the impression that I tolerated him. I think he knew I respected him because I didn’t fire him when he pushed me too far.

He pushed Peter too far, and the dumb kid started yelling at him. Kicking at his legs. We all laughed at his tantrum.

He shot my bartender.

He may have said something like, “Now who’s laughing.”  Or one of Nevin’s other stooges said this and Peter was the one who said, “No. No. Oh, no.”

The voices were vague. I knelt over my bartender. Gary scooted up to his other side.

Peter reached for Gary.

Joe jumped over Gary’s head in full growl. He clamped his jaws onto Peter’s gun arm and shook. Peter’s hand reflexed open and the gun fell into my bartender’s lap.

I grabbed and sighted on Peter. I could pull the trigger and maybe get lucky like Peter had and hit a vital organ, deflating it like he deflated my bartender’s heart. Nick said something to me though, and I did not squeeze the trigger.

Peter went down, Joe holding on now, no longer shaking, but silently maintaining enough pressure to keep Peter crying out in pain.

“Shit, man,” one of Nevin’s other two stooges said. “We gotta go now. Just leave him here.”

Nevin nodded, his gun already put away. “Sorry, D. I didn’t mean for it to go down like this. Alec was a—”

“Shut the fuck up,” I yelled, sighting the gun on him now. My hands shook, and I knew I couldn’t have hit him if I worked up the guts to pull the trigger. All my bravado was trapped in my head. I couldn’t get it out through my fingers or through my mouth. All I could funnel from my brain were obscenities strung together in nonsensical patterns.

Lyle took the gun from my hand and laid it on the ground behind him. He pointed his finger at Nevin. “You gave him the gun and the ideas.”

“Come on man,” the second of the remaining stooges said. “Let’s go.”

Peter whimpered, quietly not to arouse Joe to greater bite force. “Don’t leave me.”

We all heard tires sliding into the parking lot. Sirens approaching. Pounding on the door and female voices demanding the doors open.

“It’s your wife, Gary,” I said. “You know she doesn’t like you out this late.”


While the medics packed my bartender into a body bag and treated Peter’s dog bites, I had the selfish thought that now I would have to deal with the snowbirds and drunk chicks all alone.

I sat on the floor against the bar, stroking brave Joe’s warm fur, thinking about Alec. Good bartender. Good guy who put up with me, made my life in here easy enough that I could just get up and leave whenever the crowd got on my nerves. I’d never thought about how much I trusted him. I relied on him, took advantage even. He laughed at me and I took it. Hell, we were friends; I’d never taken notice.

What a bitch.

No one had spoken to me. The cop knew me well enough to save me for last.

When he finally got to me, I told him what happened, every detail sharp.

“You think you guys have Nevin this time?”

“He didn’t pull the trigger, D.”

“No, he worked the guy up though. Brought them all here, held us at gunpoint. He’s got explosives rigged up on that new condo. What the hell else do you need to get rid of him!”

I’d let go. And he let me. I ranted. I jumped up off the floor and smacked my palms flat on the bar a few times. Kicked over a couple of bar stools. Pointed at the body bag. Pointed at Nevin and his buddies piled up against the far wall, cuffed and complacent.

But Nevin had the nerve to smile.

“Can’t you just find a reason to shoot him? Aren’t you cops good at that kind of thing?”

I went too far. He escorted me, not too gently, out of the bar, put me in my truck, took the bar keys, and sent me home. “Gary can lock it up for you.”

“Let Joe loose on him. He’s got the chops for it.”

“Go home, D.”


The guys took over the bar for a few days so I could wallow in the grassy shallows behind my house and grumble at the emptiness of the lot next door. Mr. Scott and I could have sat out at the end of the dock and talked this out without actually talking about it. I’d mourned his gruesome death, weathered it alone, but it’s easier to mourn someone you cared for, you don’t have to feel that you aren’t allowed, that your grief is melodramatic self-indulgence.

My bartender, Alec, and I never socialized outside of the bar, never really inside either. He was one of those people that are part of your life outside of established or courted friendship, who you don’t think too much about until they are gone. Not gone like moved away, but dead gone. Didn’t know shit about him.

Just took advantage. Like I do when someone amuses me. Or deals with the shit I won’t. Or takes responsibility when I can’t. Or is generally a better person than me.

I sat on the small strip of beach behind my house and thought about what I didn’t want to think about. Thought about myself. Shifted over to the broader stretch of beach on Mr. Scott’s abandoned property and tried to do some communing with him spiritually.

Such bullshit.

All of it.

So I picked myself up off the sand, out of the hollow I’d dug with my ass, took Mr. Scott’s bike out of my garage and rode it off island.

pencilGina Sakalarios-Rogers lives in Pensacola, Florida. She has published fiction in The Bare Root Review, Toasted Cheese, Flash Fiction Online and Foxing Quarterly. She was nominated for a 2006 Pushcart Prize and was voted a notable story of 2006 in StorySouth Million Writers Award. Email: ginaasr[at]

Food for Thought

Michael Retzer

Photo Credit: Joel Kramer/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Joel Kramer/Flickr (CC-by)

More time awake is spent at work than outside it. A person gets to know their coworkers real well during the week, throughout the years. I’d worked at Don’s Pizza for six. Years. Yeah, it’s not a glamorous job—I’ve received enough patronizing looks from acquaintances when they learn a thirty-one-year-old is tossing dough—but time is money, and my rent is a nightmare, but whose isn’t?

So about three-and-a-half years ago, my boss, Don Fonzarelli, he hired a new girl onto the crew. Shannon Austen was a junior at Millington High School, my alma mater, which I’ll always remember had great views of the Pike River from its north side.

Don gave Shannon the interview at Table One: Don on one side of the table, Shannon on the other.

I was busy shaping a piece of dough to send through the mechanical roller and saw the whole thing.

Sexual desires work in the way of a computer that is programmed to recognize square shapes. Codes tell the computer that this surface meeting this surface at that angle in a particular array of intersections makes a square: the computer recognizes the square in a millisecond at most. Humans are a bit slower—requiring maybe an entire second—but the genetic codes of sexuality are programmed to do one thing: perceive their programming. It was midsummer—July—and Shannon Austen had shorts on during her interview. I think that’s all I need to say. But don’t worry. The acknowledgment never went any further than it did. For, unlike computers, humans have something called a Good Conscience.

By the time I had the pizza made, Shannon had the job.

It was up to me to show her the ropes of the business. Don sure as hell trusted me, and why shouldn’t he? I’d put in enough of my time, made enough money, and Don knew I was probably going to be around for a while longer yet—

Sorry—perhaps I’m bitter—forgive me, please—this isn’t about me.

Don, during that entire first week, he scheduled Shannon both when he knew I’d be on the clock and when business would likely be slow. This way Shannon could learn the ins and outs of the restaurant without wanting to close her head in the brick oven.


The bell above the door chimed as Don left the restaurant; I was alone with Shannon Austen for the first time.

“Don said you’re a junior?”

“Technically I’ll be a senior this year,” she said. “But the new school year hasn’t started yet—so yeah, I suppose I’m still a junior.”

I nodded. “I guess you are.”

“So you gonna show me the ropes, Elijah—or what?”

“Quite the talker,” I replied.

We’d been standing in the middle of the kitchen. I turned and moved towards the back then.

“My dad has always taught me to stand my ground,” Shannon said, following.

I turned and faced her at the sinks.

“As much as I respect that, you have no reason for that here. We’re sort of a family here at Don’s. You’ll meet Manuel and Berta, the other two long-timers, later in the week—just Don and I run the shop on Mondays—and you’ll meet the others, a lot of them closer to your age, when you’re scheduled for your first weekend shift. Weekends are busy, is all—why Don waits to schedule you on them, once he knows you’re up to par on how things work. Tips sure as hell are nice though.”

She nodded. Having put in six years at the place, I knew enough to know when one of the newbies from the high school was paying attention versus simply looking for a desired sum of money to later cop a quarter-ounce of weed with.

Shannon wanted to keep her job. She’d be around for a while.

“So here’s the sink,” I said. “We wash in this bin, sanitize in the middle one, and rinse in this one.” I moved right to left. “Dishes obviously go in the drying rack on the end.”

“Is someone assigned to do dishes?”

“Not officially,” I said. “Usually we just lend a helping hand when possible. On weekends when it gets busy we might unofficially assign someone as dishwasher for the night, usually the newbies… hey, don’t hate the player, hate the game,” I said.

She stopped rolling her eyes and grinned then.

“And over here is the prep table, where we prep non-pizza items on the menu: things like your cheesy bread and bread sticks and subs.

“Over here is the fridge and freezer, freezer on the right, fridge on the left. I’m not even going to try showing you where everything is in there because chances are you’ll still forget like I do, and I’ve been here for—well, I’ve put in my time.”

“And I take it this is where we make the pizzas,” Shannon said. She walked to the mechanical dough roller and ran a finger across the board, collecting flour, and wiped the flour on her leg. It was August on her first day—but all in Good Conscience, remember.

“That’s where we start making pizzas,” I said. “This,” I said, patting the long rectangular cutting board nearby, “is what we call The Line around here, and pizzas are made on The Line. See all your ingredients inside the plastic containers in the topping refrigerator up there above The Line?”

“Yeah. Reminds me of Subway when they make your sub. Green olives, green peppers, pepperonis, sausage—”

“You got the idea,” I said. “And so you move down The Line with your dough, that’s what that first machine you touched is for, and after the dough is perforated and cut to the proper size with those pre-sized stencils, you start with your sauce and then move down The Line and put on whatever the customer asked for. We keep a copy of the menu on the wall there—” I pointed to the wall space above the topping refrigerator. “—for when a customer orders a patented pizza, say like the Honcho: sausage, pepperoni, Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, and bacon.”

She leaned forward, scrutinizing the menu.


She shook her head. “I’m just still sort of confused—is there a certain order we put the toppings on?”

“Ah, yes,” I replied. “And good question. That sheet of paper on the wall there next to the menu, with the pizza diagrams, they tell you the procedure. The alternating green and black dot patterns signify where to put your solid meats. I’m talking sausages and hamburgers, the meats that can be formed into solid balls. Sheet meats, such as your pepperoni and Canadian bacon, are placed on top of the solid meats, and if there aren’t any solid meats then just give the pizza a single layer of sheet meats. Things like your pineapple tidbits and green olives—loose toppings—you just want to sprinkle those evenly across the pizza. And the toppings go on in that order: solid meats, sheet meats, loose toppings. Cheese last, and then a sprinkle of Don’s special seasonings.”

“Can we make one?”

I cocked an eyebrow. “Most people are a little intimidated by all the information right off the bat—you sure?”

She cocked an eyebrow back. “I’m working here now, aren’t I?”

“That you are.”

“Let’s do it then,” she said.

“We have to wait for an order to come—”

The phone rang. We made a pizza.


Shannon Austen’s first day went pretty well. Her first week went great, and after a month she was making pizzas a hell of a lot better than Manuel. Between you and me, there was a pragmatic reason we always had Manuel running the oven: he couldn’t make a pizza worth a damn but he sure could time them: not too crispy, but crispy enough. Although, I had Shannon run the oven one day, and she did it just as good as Manuel, and in only a month’s time—

You get where I’m going with this.

Shannon was a wonderful employee. Don sure as hell knew it, scheduling her more than the high schoolers that were technically higher on the restaurant totem pole. However, as much as Shannon Austen was a stupendous employee, she was perhaps an even better coworker.

Can you believe me?

Thirty-one and a seventeen-year-old was becoming my best acquaintance. After about seven months—Shannon well into her senior year of high school at that point—we started talking at work, see. Because by then Shannon knew the ropes well beyond enough as to be asking questions all the time, so when we worked the slow shifts together we talked, we got real.

I remember asking her once if she liked her classes. It was maybe ten after six on a Tuesday, and business was crawling. We were sharing an unpaid pizza at Table One, but Don was out of town at a convention for restaurant supplies so there was no chance we’d get caught.


I asked her which class she liked best.

“Probably psychology,” she said.

“Psychology, huh? What about it?”

“The possibility.”

“I don’t think I follow.” I took a bite of pizza, watching the cheese stretch as I pulled the slice away.

Shannon broke the strand with a finger.

“Thanks,” I said, my mouth full.

“Welcome. But it’s such a new science, psych is. And beyond popular belief—I’m talking pop psychology, the stuff everyone thinks they know when they ask ‘Why would you study psychology, what is it you don’t already know?’—but so beyond popular belief, psychologists have just cracked the surface. And once neuroscience gets more on board and directs some of its funding towards the psych field—” Shannon stopped, setting down her slice of pizza as to then pantomime for emphasis. “Once neuroscience gets on board, it’ll be like exploring. The Marianas Trench. For the first time.”

“Metaphor for the mind,” I said.

She picked up her Honcho slice. “Glad to know you followed.”

“Hey now, just because I work, well—” I looked around the restaurant. “—doesn’t mean I’m not at least halfway there in my head.”

I waited for Shannon to finish chewing.

“I was fucking with you,” she said.

“Well, before you do,” I replied. “Have you yourself ever considered college? Otherwise who is to say you won’t be here next year right along with Manuel and I?”

The strangest thing happened then.

Shannon seemed to crawl into herself. She’d been in the process of pulling another slice of pizza from the pie and stopped, flicking a precariously placed sausage off the damned thing instead. “I don’t know,” she said.

“Hey, Shannon, I was just horsing around. Don’t worry about it.”

She looked up from the pizza. “I’ve thought of Gustavus.”

“Private school, huh?”

She nodded.

“That’s great!”

She shook her head. “My dad could never afford it. And there’s no way what I’ll have made here by next fall will cover near anything enough. Plus, my dad sort of needs me… I could never leave him—you know?”

I leaned forward, resting my forearms on the table. “Hmm. Well I don’t know about your dad but my sister went to school,” I said. “Augsburg. My family didn’t have money either, we were actually pretty dirt-poor, but turned out that worked in our favor cause the government gave Danielle—that’s my sister—more money because of it.”


I nodded, taking another slice of Honcho pizza.

“Maybe I’ll look into it.”

“I think you should. You’re a smart girl.”

She smiled. It was a normal smile. But her eyes frightened me. Her eyes widened, see, as if that’d been the first time she’d ever heard anything like it—it being my compliment, I mean.

But what did I know? I only made pizzas.


It was January when we’d had that conversation over a Honcho pizza; Shannon still had plenty of time to apply to school. I never mentioned it again, figuring it wasn’t in my place to do so, and in the meantime all of us down at Don’s spent more time making money. Shannon became quite close with a few other employees during that time, Berta and Manuel especially: Manuel, because Shannon never gave him a hard time when busy circumstances required Manuel to make a shit-poor pizza, and Berta, because Berta, who’d never had kids herself, sort of saw herself as a mother figure to Shannon, I think, once we learned Shannon didn’t have a mother. Had not a clue where her mother was; she’d apparently run off with a guy from Hard Times Saloon last year. Shannon lived alone with her dad. Probably why she’d said her dad needed her.

She could never leave him—her dad—you know.

Her words, not mine.

And her dad had always taught her to stand her ground. Shannon never let us forget that one. It seemed to be the only time she ever mentioned her father—and time is funny, see, because there is a thing called hindsight and in hindsight, after the money has been made, a sense of clarity is purchased. You see things that weren’t clear the first time.

I guess time sort of changes in this regard.

But this is all speculative. I’m telling you all this looking back. I’ve paid my dues.


I think it was March.

“I applied to some schools,” Shannon said. It was just the two of us in the restaurant again. It was Thursday, and Manuel wouldn’t be punching onto the clock for another hour, when the pace of business would presumably start picking up.

“Yeah? That’s great, Shannon.”

We were in the back by the sinks. I was busy running a few daily prep-work dishes I’d dirtied earlier in the day through the wash-sanitize-rinse cycle. I’d washed a whisk and the large dual-handled cheese knife before I realized she’d gone silent. Grabbing a reasonably dry dishtowel, I turned away from the sink, patting my hands.

“All right, what’s got you down?”

“You know how you ordered a pizza on your day off last weekend?”

“That was a good taco pizza—you make it?”

“I used your address. I just want you to know.”

“My address for what?”

“My return address,” Shannon replied. “For the college applications.”

The nearby freezer hummed. One of the three faucets behind me dripped.

“Okay,” I said. “That’s fine, I guess.” I tossed the dishtowel back onto the sink. “Can I ask why?”

Shannon in a way resembled a provoked and frightened turtle after I asked the question, her body slinking into the protective shell the fabric of her sweatshirt provided.

The faucet dripped behind me.

“Just never mind all right—” I began.

“It’s my dad is all.”

“What about him?”

“I told you I could never leave him and I just wouldn’t want him to get worried before I even know.”

I thought of Shannon’s mother not being in the picture, imagined a lonely man weeping over his wife that’d run out on him, clinging to the spitting image of her that was his daughter, that was Shannon, holding on to what was already gone the best he could. “Right,” I said. “That’s fine then. Have your acceptance letters sent my way.”

“How do you know I’ll get accepted?”

I winked, and went to answer the phone that had started to ring.


I’d never been to college, remember: a few odd jobs after high school, and Don’s Pizza had been my place of my employment since I was twenty-five. Don’t know why I never went. Just didn’t feel it, I suppose. Also don’t know why I stayed at Don’s. Guess the money that’d got me by thus far brought with it a purchased sense of comforting stability. Nevertheless, I wasn’t aware of the length of time it took universities to respond to applications. Shannon told me she’d applied in March, and it was mid-April when the first acceptance letter showed up in my mailbox. It was maroon, and in bold-printed gold font said ‘Congratulations!’. It was from the University of Minnesota, not yet her first mention of Gustavus, but I was ecstatic nonetheless.

Of course I was. I’d worked with the girl for almost a year at that point. We knew each other as much as any coworker knows another coworker. Perhaps more. Probably a lot more. I can’t explain it. Because it wasn’t like we’d shared any heart-to-hearts: we just talked, chewed the fat, shot the shit. Perhaps I’m referencing the subterranean nuances of emotion that conversation conveys.


I think so.

So anyway I set the maroon-and-gold envelope on the felt passenger seat of my out-of-date Nissan Maxima and drove over there. In all this time we’d failed to exchange cell phone numbers, and I’d never had any reason to look it up from the sheet Don kept attached to the back of each month’s schedule. I didn’t want to wait to tell her the news, and neither should Shannon have to wait to hear it. Luckily, I knew she lived in the puke-green rambler on Ninth Street in the west side of town, from one of the many times we’d talked. The street had trees on either side. They were just barely—and only on some—beginning to bloom, it being mid-April, yet the slow cruise on the spring-moistened asphalt was serene indeed. Most of the houses were beige or an off-shade of white—some even various shades of maroon—but only one was puke-green. And why had I never seen it before? I’d driven through the area thousands of times during the thousands of dollars worth of time I’d spent working for Don’s Pizza, making deliveries.

Conscious perception sees what it wants to see, I guess—

—and wait until you see what I was about to see.


The car lurched into park. I was excited.

I rang the doorbell, twice.

The front door had rectangular windows flanking either side that were the same length as the door itself. Translucent curtains covered the interior side of the windows. After some time a silhouette peeked through, and stared. I waved. The door unlocked, opening slow. The silhouette had been Shannon. I had my hands clasped behind my back, concealing the envelope.

“Oh—hi,” she said. She looked behind her. The house was dark, the way a house gets dark during the middle of the day when all the curtains are drawn and the lights are off. She looked back to me. “Why are you here?”

I stood there smiling.

She looked behind her. Looked back at me. “Just cut to the point, Elijah?”

“Fair enough,” I said. And I couldn’t blame her. At thirty-one I still didn’t enjoy unexpected visitors on my days off—who does?

She looked behind her. I brought the envelope into view, holding it chest level. She looked back at me. Her eyes widened. At seventeen years old she carried herself as much older, had since the day I first saw her with Don during her interview, but in that moment she looked just her age, a girl on the brink of womanhood. Taking the envelope, she ripped it open as a child does on his or her birthday—as if she didn’t already know what was inside the thing marked ‘Congratulations!’

I bent down and picked up the scraps of paper while she skimmed the letter.

“I got in,” she said in a single short breath.

“Congratulations, Shannon. You deserve it more than anyone.”

She gave me a hug then, although I didn’t hug her back. Something in my conscience, and so I waited for her to let go. But this was when things got weird. Bizarre. Shannon wore a tank top and a pair of shorts. This made sense, it being mid-April. But I had a solid hunch that they weren’t her day clothes she’d chosen that morning. Because as she released me from her hug and began rereading the acceptance letter, I noticed the disheveled wrinkles in the clothing, the way clothes get after they’ve sat in the dirty clothes basket for a few days.


At the time, everything I’m telling you was marinating in my subconscious.

Hindsight. But of course you know all about that by now.

The house was dark.

“I should get going, Shannon,” I said. “Have to work in—” I checked my watch. “Twenty-five minutes. Figure I might as well make a sandwich before I clock in. Just wanted to stop by and give you this.”

She looked up from the letter. “Thank you, Elijah. For everything.”

“I only brought you a letter.”

She bit her lower lip, stared up at me, her eyes misting over. The house was dark, and an atavistic psychic twitch… Get out of there, man!

But it was too late. If only I’d had more time.

I heard the footsteps before I saw Shannon’s old man step into the entryway from a room off to the right. He had slicked back gray hair, was shirtless, and wore brown corduroy trousers. He had a Pabst Blue Ribbon in his hand.

“And to whom do I owe the pleasure!”

Shannon tucked the envelope under the back of her shirt and took a few steps back, away from the door. “Dad, this is Elijah. I work with Elijah at Don’s.” Her voice had gone up a few octaves.

The old man watched his daughter while she talked. “Is that right?” he said, his head bobbing to the cadence of his words. He looked to me then. “Any friend of Shannon’s is a friend of mine—Bill,” he said.

At thirty-one I’d shaken my fair share of hands, and I fucking hated the way Bill’s claw felt. “Nice to meet you,” I said.

“Firm handshake!” Bill replied, staring at the connection between us.

He released his grip then and hoisted up the corduroy trousers. They had that same wrinkled look as Shannon’s clothes, that fresh-out-of-the-dirty-clothes-basket look. Bill and Shannon hadn’t been expecting company, remember, it being Shannon’s day off, a Sunday—

Unplanned clothes—clothes thrown on in haste—taken from the dirty clothes basket at a moment’s notice—

When Bill let go of his beltless pants the fabric dropped a bit too far. He didn’t have any underwear on. I saw the upper fringe of salt-and-pepper pubic hairs. Then, using the same hand he’d adjusted his pants with, the same hand I had just touched, he patted between Shannon’s shoulder blades. And patted. Patted. “I like that,” he said, his head bobbing to the cadence of his words. “Good to know someone with a firm handshake is around my daughter. I don’t want anything happening to her, not Shannon—she’s my girl!”

Bill shot me a grin, his teeth yellow. He bent over then, directing the smile at Shannon, and kissed her on her forehead. When he stood up, two things: one, Shannon had her eyes pinched shut, lips pursed tight, her entire face pulled into a grimace; and, two, Bill had lost the smile, his eyes glazed over as he ran his tongue from one side of his lower lip to the other. He guzzled the rest of the Pabst, crushed the can over his thigh, letting it clank to the floor, and ran both hands through his greasy gray hair.

Good Conscience? Not there, not in Bill.

Bill Austen was plastered; the alcohol had fried his computer.

He’d always taught Shannon to stand her ground—her words, not mine.

“I have to go,” I said. “See you at work tomorrow, Shannon.” I turned. “Bill,” I said, nodding.

And I left.


The next day.

“Don’s Pizza.” Don answered the phone. I was busy scraping bits of burnt pizza off of the brick inside the oven. “Uh huh, I see—okay then,” Don said. “Get better,” he said, and hung up. He went back to counting the money in the register, thumbing the bills with the efficiency of experience—


And then he stopped.

“Shannon’s sick,” he said. “You don’t mind working for two today, Elijah, do you?” He looked over his shoulder. “I can call Manuel if you want.”

I looked at the most recent of the burnt-pizza scraps I’d been working on. I stared at it, a charred glob of cheese with a crusted pepperoni sticking out. “I’m fine,” I told Don, and pushed the metal scraper across the brick, knocking the stuck debris free. “I’m fine,” I said.


Are you fine?

My Good Conscience wondered this. It especially wondered when Shannon succumbed to the elusive phantom illness again on her next shift, and was then ‘sick’ so much she stopped showing up entirely. Don, the ardent, meticulous businessman that he is, he got fed up, and was, to his dismay—he’d said—forced to fire her. There’d be none of that on his watch, not on his time. I could’ve looked up her cell number from the sheet attached to the back of the monthly schedule… but what would I have said? I have no clue… and besides, Berta called her, to give her a heads up, let her know Don was furious and that she’d better watch out, but Shannon hadn’t answered, Berta then resorting to a sorrowful and withdrawn voicemail. Shannon didn’t answer when Don fired her over voicemail either… was she ashamed to answer? Had Bill… did he know that I might know… but what was there to officially know?

For a week I asked myself this, and a week later I received an acceptance later from Gustavus in my mailbox. One from Augsburg three days later. The following week a University of Wisconsin acceptance letter. But I remembered the way Shannon had hid the letter I’d given to her behind her shirt. She’d used my address for a reason, because her father couldn’t live without her, and so the damned letters remained in my possession. They sat on my kitchen counter, in the corner, collecting dust. They said ‘Congratulations!’ whenever I grabbed a beer from the fridge.

Bill Austen drank beer…

Should I have done something? No, really, I’m asking you, because I lost enough sleep over the whole ordeal during the months that followed. But what would I have done? What was there for me to prove? I was going on hunches, after all, and at the time I was baking in the oven of an angry Good Conscience, where sensible thinking burns away. And anyway, had I said something, Shannon would’ve probably held her ground and denied whatever it was I had only ostensible proof of.


I don’t work at Don’s Pizza anymore. Don was sad to see me go, of course, and I felt bad—terrible—leaving. I volunteered to train the two new guys Don hired to replace me. As a parting gift, call it. Thing was I had to leave. There was no question about it. That day on the Austen’s front stoop changed me, as a man. Millington haunted me after that. And the nightmares were brutal: I’d awake in a cold sweat, stuck to the sheets, and in my mind’s eye Bill Austen would be staring at me, standing in the corner of my dark bedroom, drinking a Pabst with his free hand down the front of his pants. I don’t even want to guess how many post-nightmare drives I took, cruising by the Austen home, five miles per hour at three-thirty in the morning. Some nights I’d even get out of the car and trot to the front stoop, where I’d stand staring at the door for minutes at a time, the acceptance letters clenched in my sweaty hands, before my senses—whatever was left of them—returned.

Okay, so maybe I did run. But I got a nice place in the cities now, been working sales at an appliance store for a solid year. And although I waited around five months before I burned the letters on the banks of the Pike River the night before I got the hell out of Dodge—I believe I knew I was gone the second the phone rang. When it was just Don and I down at the shop. The day after Shannon received the University of Minnesota acceptance letter in my mailbox. After I met Shannon’s old man, and scraped much more than burnt cheese and pepperoni from the brick oven…

Oh yes.

But time changes in hindsight, and memory might as well be as malleable as dough while it moves through the mechanical roller of time—am I sane in my recollections?

As I finish writing this, on a day off from the ApplianceSmart over on Doswell Avenue in St. Paul, I sit in the grass of the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Mall. I am out of place, thirty-four years old, amongst thousands of passing students—waiting—wondering if I’m not wasting my time.

And I’m hungry, could really go for some pizza.

pencilMichael Retzer is a recent University of Minnesota graduate, working as a mortgage processor when he’s not reading or writing.  He enjoys drinking craft beer, and lives with his girlfriend and cat.  Currently, he is at work on a mystery/suspense novel. Email: retze012[at]