Megan of the Mists by Bill Lockwood

Candle-Ends: Reviews
Shelley Carpenter


Megan of the Mists by Bill Lockwood

I had the pleasure of reviewing Bill Lockwood’s second novel, Megan of the Mists (Wild Rose Press, 2017) published this spring. The story is historical. Its setting is the Northern Ireland turmoil of the 1970s, a time in history that was interesting to me as well as a familiar subject on TV and in kitchen table conversations back in the day. For readers who may be unfamiliar with this time reference, Lockwood introduces the historical backdrop in his Author’s Notes on History and Myth in the first pages, detailing the struggle for Irish freedom from 1690 to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

In the novel, Lockwood explores this through two lenses: the Irish protagonist, of course, but interestingly, also the reader. He says, “For us Americans in the ‘Irish’ bars of this country the revolution and ongoing struggle in Northern Ireland was in the 1970s as romantic as the fairy stories of old.” In addition, he shares his own historical ancestry and points a finger to that “romanticism” in American settings such as Long Island that kindled and fueled Ireland’s politics in their rebel music, the stories retold, and in the many “donations” funneled from Irish-Americans to the IRA when the “hat” was passed around the bar.

Lockwood’s first chapter begins with a bang, full of action in Ulster. Shortly after, he introduces his main character, Megan. She is a lively young rebel who transports a mysterious contraband over the border: “I’m using my running talents for the nation.” She doesn’t know what it is that she carries in her backpack and is shocked when she finally does. The juxtaposition of this knowledge and the fact that she is a Catholic elementary school teacher is disturbing to Megan. She begins to come around to this idea when she experiences firsthand how deep the politics run in her community when she receives unexpected and unpleasant visits from the family of one of her students. Megan’s eyes are finally opened wide when she fully understands the oath of allegiance her boyfriend and handler told her after her recruitment: “Once you’re with us, don’t ever say no.”

Translation: She’s not helping them, she is one of them and they will never let her go.

“Here’s how they explained it,” Brian said. “Ya go in the pub, an’ ya sit it down by your chair, under the table, maybe. Then you pull that extra strap they got comin’ out the top. Then ya got ten minutes. Ya go to the loo an’ slip out the back door…”

Lockwood builds the story, cranking up the tension page by page, chapter by chapter, as Megan’s involvement becomes more personal when she is assigned to spy on people very much like her own. She is no longer a courier but an active player in the most dangerous game of her life. When she falls for a British officer in a northern “proddy” pub that she is assigned to case, the game becomes high stakes and takes a sharp turn that catapults Megan into more trouble and terror when the game moves to America.

Lockwood’s Megan of the Mists is plot-driven and with much of the detail focused on action. Megan’s backstory is revealed mainly through character introspection and in some of the dialogue. The only off-note is the resolution. Though satisfying, I would have liked to have seen it in play. I also think an opportunity was missed with the fairies mentioned so frequently throughout the novel. I was hoping this thread would have been further explored perhaps in Megan’s character development.

Overall, Lockwood’s writing is superb. He sets up the reader with historical fact and then grounds the reader in the setting with description and character movement that is clear and succinct. The dialogue is spot on. I heard the Irish brogues and slang clearly. Even when the story shifted from one continent to another, the voices continued to be distinct. Another hallmark of Lockwood’s writing was that, in essence, I could see movement as well as hear the characters: I was the proverbial fly-in-the-room hovering above them. I was there.

*

Bill Lockwood is a retired social services worker for Maryland and Vermont. He was an avid community theater participant in the early 1990s where he wrote reviews and feature articles for the Baltimore Theater Newsletter and the Bellows Falls Town Crier of Vermont. He was awarded the Greater Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce Person of the Year in recognition of his work as Chairman of the Bellow Falls Opera House Restoration Committee. Lockwood has four published short stories and published his first novel, Buried Gold in 2016. He lives in New Hampshire.

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Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

I Ask You for a Cigarette

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
SK Elliot


Photo Credit: Douglas Eshenbaugh/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

An R.V. coughs to a halt in the parking lot. I want to rest in this quiet dry moment until the end of time. But I know that cannot be so. We are standing above the visitor’s centre on a scenic platform. We’ve been on the Appalachian Trail for 112 days. And this is where we peel off. We’re supposed to go to a funeral. Part of me likes being able to look out over what we are quitting. Like I am finally making some peace with years of failure that have crept up on me. Then, I lift my heavy legs, walk over to the railing, and ask you for a cigarette.

In the gift shop you rifle through a tourist book of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My feet are sweating and tingling from standing around. Something in me wants to keep walking. Even if it is nothing more than my feet. I am aware of that feeling in my gut again. It haunts me. A frustrated, sad, stuck feeling.

I can tell that your flesh is warm so I reach out to touch it. You look up from a glossy page and at that moment I want to tell you exactly how much I love you. I want you to know how tenderly my entire heart is wrapped around you. Even though it curls back at times. But this feeling saunters by and I look up at you without knowing what to say. “Are you hungry?” and I am not talking about a physical hunger.

“Yeah, a bit.”

I could feel nothing of that kind of passion the night before. We shared a meal of beans and wieners with a Swiss couple hiking in the other direction, towards Maine. Her name was Sophie. Blond, big blue eyes, a tight tanned body. Every inch of her was gorgeous. It is a nice name to say out loud; Sophie. You kept saying her name and then pausing. I noticed that you were lost in an uncertain moment of time.

“Sophie,”—leaves rustle, a morning dove coos—“would you pass me my beer there?”

“Sophie,”—the water boils over the edges of a pot and sizzles on the burner—“what do you think of America?” There was something in that long space. After her name. Space that shouldn’t have been there.

Later when you touched me your being seemed to be elsewhere. Your mouth tasted unfamiliar, almost like metal. Like some strange chemistry coursing through your veins. When I closed my eyes I saw a little boy full of excitement. All over my body I could feel your grown-up hands with complex needs. And that made me want you more. I wanted you everywhere at once. I wanted our two bodies to fill up the space after Sophie’s name.

“Well then, breakfast?” You say this with your eyes sucked back into the world of gloss. But I am not hungry, not for food. I am hardly ever hungry for food. Though the roundness of my thighs and the breadth of my stomach tell another story.

We get a ride into town with the woman who has just cleaned the toilets at the dam. I ask her what time she starts work.

“Five a.m., girl. I hate it but ain’t much else to do round here. Times are hard. The economy ain’t what it used to be.”

I nod, mostly to prove that I am listening. But I have never known hard times, not the kind she’s talking about. I grew up in Montreal. In a big, old house that sat on an immense lawn with big, old trees. My professor parents made lots of money and squared it away like good soldiers. There were no hard times in Montreal, at least not for me.

A song on the radio chases down my thoughts. It’s been ages since I have heard music. It hasn’t even been playing in my head. Despite the heat I shiver. “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, the quintessential break-up song. A voice that is like velvet and rust slowly dancing in an empty pool hall. I lean back into ripped vinyl and watch my wrist bumping up and down on the baby seat. Its movement and the song and the heat of the day pack together into a tiny little speck. I am utterly mesmerized. Something like gratitude washes over me and I sing along with Stevie.

We get into town. The cleaning lady lets us off at a diner.

“Git the waffles, they’re delicious.”

My belly grumbles as if to thank her. Once we have picked a table we order two coffees and two waters. I realize we haven’t sat down in front of each other for some time.

While hiking we ate our meals mostly in silence, sitting on hot rocks. Looking out over the towns below, the endless sea of blue-green. The hazy silhouettes of more and more mountains in the distance. Once the sun was down they would transform into ominous, dark masses sprinkled with glowing dots. I would lust for what was below. A different me: thinner, more agile, less achy.

Soon I realize I have guzzled my coffee. I flag down the waitress. She fills up my cup and I vow to stay present for a few minutes. If only to enjoy a hot cup of coffee. “What are you going to have?” I lean over towards you. I notice your eyes on my breasts. They are cradled in my bra. My dirty, sweaty shirt dangling, barely covering them. Your eyes slowly retreat back to the menu.

“Mmmmm, waffles, I guess. And a double side order of bacon. You?”

And as if I could really hear what you are asking, I go for it.

“What will we do, Johnny?” It’s like a half-born question to try to nudge you into a conversation about what was and what is to come.

You look up again. I am sitting up straight this time. I can feel the curve in my back, all the way down to my sitting bones. I can feel the flesh of my butt splayed around those grounding bones. I can feel my thighs firmly resting on the bench. Moist, sticky, glowing from all the sun. And like a bud, my tightly packed insides open. Cautiously at first and then I can feel it, the alive and the breath.

I am not sure what you’re thinking. You always keep an even temperament. Even back in Virginia when we learned about your uncle’s truck, smashed into hundreds of pieces on the highway. You take a sip from your glass of water. You clear your throat and drink some coffee.

“I don’t know, Becky. I don’t know what we should do.”

And I love you all the more for this answer. It is entirely perfect, this answer.

The waitress comes over to our table. She can’t be more than nineteen. Some menus under her arm, a pen behind her ear. Her hair a pleasant mess around her flushed cheeks. Her skirt is short, her legs long and lean. I sneak a glance at you to gauge your level of interest in this attractive creature. But your face is buried in the menu again.

We place our order and stare out into the room. Worry rolls into my mind again like fog in a seaport. There is a young family sitting at another table. A little girl and boy are driving their forks through a city of cups, salt and pepper shakers. Their parents are lost in an intense conversation.

You never had much luck with women, or at least that’s what you told me the day we met. The apple trees were in full blossom and you were sitting on the boardwalk looking out at the lake. I stopped to take a picture and you came up to me.

“I know this is crazy,” you said later at a bar downtown. “I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail this summer and I know we’ve just met and I know we’ve had too much bourbon but would you come with me?”

When I fell asleep that night, your long body folded around me.

We sit in silence till the food comes. I eat like an abandoned cat. Licking at the last traces. My body’s metabolism is still in full tilt. I sigh as I think about regaining the ten or more pounds that I lost on the trail.

“What?” you say.

“Oh, I’m just thinking about Mars. That Rover thing, the data it’s collecting.” This is one of your favourite topics and I cannot admit the ordinary truth. My preoccupation with weight is ridiculous and embarrassing and I could never explain to you how I constantly battle with the fluctuating size of my body.

“Unhun,” you say. You lean back into the wall and put your feet up along the length of the bench. You also ate fast and are in the midst of a digestive haze. “Well, Beck, I don’t know either. I have had a really good time.” You look up like you’re carefully hanging heavy keys on a little thumb tack.

I feel exhausted. Not from hiking. The kind of exhaustion that is hardly ever there when I first wake up in the morning. It’s the kind of heaviness that comes with slowly remembering all of steps and missteps that cannot be retraced. Like being in a maze, with no start and no finish. I ask you for another cigarette and tell you I’ll be outside.

When I step out into warmth I see the mountains. I feel sad and alive in equal parts. My body bends gently into crumbling steps. I light the cigarette. I inhale and the smoke fingers the walls of my mouth. It hits the back of my lungs and then I let it out. I am breathing deeply. I don’t know what I want to do but I know what I can do. I won’t go to the funeral and I won’t go to Asheville with you afterwards. Instead, I’ll go back to Montreal, to my parents. I’ll crawl up in one of those big, old sugar maples and sit and be still. And for a moment things will feel easy again, uncomplicated and manageable. I’ll look down on the world and you won’t be in it. And I won’t ask you for a cigarette.

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SK Elliot is currently undertaking a degree in Biochemistry. She lives with her husband in a small farm house in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Email: sarahzadie[at]gmail.com

A Pot of Tea

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki


Photo Credit: 約克夏飼主/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The first week of summer vacation, Olivia and her grandmother bake scones. Nelle sits her granddaughter down at the island in the middle of the kitchen, tosses her ingredients to measure and weigh.

“Lavender in the scones?”

“A girl after my own heart,” Nelle says. Nelle uses lavender for more than baking—her favorite thing is to add a teaspoon of it to a pot of Earl Grey tea. After they shape the scones and put them in the oven, Nelle gets hot water ready and measures out the tea.

“Mom never measures out the tea,” Olivia says, and Nelle laughs.

“Which is why mine is always better.”

But Olivia isn’t sure—her grandmother’s tea is consistent, and her mother’s isn’t. Sometimes it’s sharp and bitter, other times too pale in color, but once in a while it’s the best cup she’s ever had.

“She thinks hers is better,” Olivia says.

“You’ll think yours is better soon enough.”

The hot water boils with a sharp whistle. Nelle takes the kettle off the stove with a kitchen towel wrapped round the handle—they have an electric kettle, sitting in a corner, but Nelle refuses to use it.

Every morning, Olivia is awoken by the whistling sound of the kettle as her grandmother makes a morning pot of Earl Grey.

Nelle pours the water carefully, then carries the blue china teapot to the island in the middle of the kitchen where Olivia sits. “Get the cream and the butter, Olive,” she says, and goes to check on the scones again.

Within minutes they are sitting down to an afternoon feast of scones and tea. Olivia breaks open a scone, watches steam rise in great curls. She slathers it with butter in a rebellious sort of way—Nelle would never comment on it, but Olivia can just imagine the way her mother’s eyebrows would rise.

“I noticed you’ve been over at Angela’s a lot lately,” Nelle says. She pours Olivia a second cup of tea. Olivia stirs in one sugar cube and a bit of cream, taking a sip to get scone crumbs out of her mouth.

“Yeah, I have.” Angela is loud and she’s funny and she’s Spanish and her mother always smokes at the kitchen table during breakfast. Angela wears black nail polish and she even dyed her hair once. And she’s sixteen to Olivia’s fifteen—it’s only half a year difference in age, but it’s enough.

“Don’t listen to your mother about her,” Nelle says matter-of-factly, as if she disagrees with Olivia’s mother all the time. “The important thing with friends who are louder than you is to know what’s in here,” Nelle says, and she reaches over to tap Olivia’s chest, right where her heart is.

“I know what’s in there,” Olivia says, but Nelle’s words prick at her skin. Does she? She is only a few years a teenager and Angela is already sixteen, big and bold and beautiful and so very sure of herself.

“Have another scone,” Nelle says, and she puts two on Olivia’s plate.

When the pot of tea is about to run empty, Olivia knows without asking that it’s time to make another. Always two, Nelle says, three if we’re desperate.

 

“How did she die?” Angela asks, tucking her legs beneath her.

“Heart attack,” Olivia mutters. They are sitting on Olivia’s bedroom floor, a tub of cookies that a neighbor brought over between them. Olivia has eaten five of them and she’s nibbling on a sixth.

“I’m so sorry, Liv.”

“Yeah.”

Olivia keeps glancing over at the teapot, beautifully white with blue flowers curling around its sides. It was Nelle’s favorite teapot, and, after Olivia begged her mother, Diane let her have it. But it doesn’t feel right to use it without her grandmother there.

“If you ever want to feel her presence again, I know something we can do,” Angela says.

Olivia shoves the rest of the cookie into her mouth. She knows what Angela is talking about—magick. Angela is a proud Wiccan, and she’s always trying to give Olivia crystals to carry in her pocket, gifting her with candles and herbs. “Maybe,” Olivia says.

The next morning, there is no whistle of a teapot. Instead there is the gentle chime of the hot pot. It sounds like the noise a stone makes in an empty cave.

There is no dessert for a week, not until Olivia drags out Nelle’s favorite cookbook and puts a chocolate cake in the oven. She proudly serves a slice to her mother after dinner, careful to make sure it’s a small piece.

“Lovebug,” Diane says, eyeing the size of the slice Olivia cuts for herself, “I don’t think it’s good for our health to have sweets around the house all the time.”

At night, Olivia turns on Jeopardy, but it isn’t the same without Nelle’s voice shouting all the wrong answers. When she can’t sleep and her throat hurts from trying to cry quietly, when her nose keeps running and her bed is too hot, she slips down the hall and into Nelle’s room. Diane made the bed. It looks exactly the same, just quiet. Olivia lies on top of the covers, cool and soothing against her cheek.

The next day, she goes over to Angela’s.

 

“Ready?”

Olivia nods. Her stomach is a writhing pit of worms, and there is a hard rock of guilt in her throat. Nelle, who went to church every week, probably wouldn’t approve. But Olivia is desperate. So here she is, sitting on Angela’s bedroom floor, praying to a god, any god, that this will work.

Angela uses a stick of chalk to draw a circle around them, sets a black candle in the middle of the circle. Olivia takes the thyme she brought from Nelle’s garden and they twist it into a wreath, encircle the candle. Angela has Olivia light the candle with a match.

“We have to say it at the same time,” Angela says, “and think of Nelle when you say it.”

That won’t be hard, Olivia knows. They speak, haltingly, together: “You who lived yesterday, I’ll call you from my mind to yours, come back from the shadows into the light and show yourself here.”

Olivia waits. Her skin goosebumps. She thinks of Nelle and how she kneaded her bread by hand even though they had a mixer, how she thought there was something alien and magical about crop circles, how she liked to tell stories about Olivia’s early years (sometimes so fantastical Olivia suspected she was lying).

The candle’s flame flickers, and Angela’s face splits into a wide grin. “She’s here.” Angela whispers, “Can’t you feel her?”

When Olivia closes her eyes, she is sure that she can. It is almost as if her grandmother is right there, pressing a cheek against hers, as if there is a hand around her heart, squeezing softly.

“I think so,” she whispers back.

“Do you have any questions?” Angela asks.

“No,” Olivia says, keeping her eyes shut, afraid to open them—afraid to ruin whatever it is she feels, deep in her bones, warm and familiar. “Just… I miss you.” She stays there for a while, her heart pounding madly, her palms turned toward the ceiling. There is pressure on them, just a little, just enough for her to know.

“We should let her go,” Angela says after a while, and Olivia’s eyes flicker open. The candle between them has burnt down to half its size, and the room smells like thyme.

Olivia nods, and they speak together, “You who lived yesterday, thank you, now fly away from this earth and join the world of spirits.”

Angela blows out the candle.

 

Olivia builds herself an altar in her closet. She takes cardboard boxes and stacks them on each other, turning them to create little levels, little platforms, on the corners of the lower boxes. Draping scarves over the boxes, she lines them with little candles, herbs, a large abalone shell that she rests her smudge stick in. After looking up altars on the internet and finding websites with flashing icons and black backgrounds, she reads about the god candle and the goddess candle, a pentagon. She adds some of those things, but mostly she makes it her own. She steals one of the lighters kept in the kitchen, and Diane muses out loud once that she swore there were two of them and goes out to buy another.

She even buys a goblet when she is out at the mall with Angela, unsupervised and with two twenty dollar bills in her pocket. It is tarnished and embellished with curling Celtic knots, and it rests heavy in her hand. Angela coyly suggests she borrow some wine from Diane for a spell here or there.

And even though Olivia calls Angela up, asks her about this spell or that, she does not show Angela her altar. It is a thing for only her. Olivia takes Nelle’s teapot and sets it at the back. She chooses rose quartz down for love, hematite to fight negative energy, aquamarine for courage, blue tourmaline for healing and opening (sometimes she has trouble breathing).

When her lungs do close up, or when Diane is shouting about the mess in the living room, or when it’s so hot outside and her body aches like little fairies have been using it as a trampoline, Olivia will open her closet and slide the door closed, sit down in front of the quiet altar. There is a sliver of light from where the doors don’t quite meet, a line that comes down right across her lap. She lights her candles. If there is still a tablespoon of wine left from when she poured a bit into her ceremonial goblet after her mother had gone to bed, she will sip it carefully. She pretends she is a priestess and the wine a gift from the Goddess, and, in the dark of her closet, it doesn’t feel silly at all.

 

Angela’s mother goes away for the weekend and, after nagging at her mother for several days, Olivia is allowed to stay with Angela. On the first night, they read tarot and do a spell to ensure that they stay best friends forever. Angela jokes about how “middle school” it is, but both girls eagerly join hands in the circle, prick their fingers with needles and mix their blood.

The second night, they light a fire in the backyard. It’s a new moon, and the sky is clear, stars like little pinpricks in a black sheet held taut over the sun. In firelight, Angela strips down, tossing every bit of clothing behind her. Olivia, fingers shaking, follows suit, but she cannot help the way her hands slide to cover the softness of her stomach, the thickness of her thighs.

As they spin, dizzily about the fire, Olivia cannot stop looking at Angela—her dark hair falls down her back in wild waves, her skin alight. It is in this moment that Olivia finds herself believing in the truth of magick. She feels it deep in her gut, down to her toes, and when Angela pauses to smile at her, to take a hand in her own, Olivia forgets to worry that she is naked. She forgets to care about anything beyond the light the fire casts as they dance, together, in mad circles around the fire.

 

One morning, Olivia goes downstairs to make tea and finds that Nelle’s old kettle is gone from the stove. Rage and righteousness well up and out of her eyes.

Diane finds her in the garage, throwing rotten banana peels, papers covered in coffee grounds, and unidentifiable chunks from the garbage can and onto the floor.

“What are you doing!” Diane shouts, but Olivia is beyond words. She keeps going, her hands wet and stomach turning. Diane tries to grab her arm but Olivia has spotted the kettle. She wrenches away from her mother’s grip and yanks it out of the bin, holds it in the air like a trophy. Diane lets out a heavy sigh.

“Lovebug, we don’t need that anymore.”

“Yes, we do,” Olivia says, stalking into the house. Diane follows her, watches as her daughter washes the old kettle thoroughly in water so hot that her hands turn raw and pink.

Diane tucks an escaped strand of frizzy hair behind Olivia’s ear, rests her palm against her daughter’s cheek. “It might be good not to have so many things of hers lying around. It can make things harder.”

But Olivia just fills up the kettle with water and sets it on the stove to boil. She makes sure to glare at her mother. “It’s already hard.”

Diane leaves the kettle alone after that.

 

In early July, Diane’s ex-boyfriend brings over a bottle of vodka. Diane makes a face at it and chucks it into the trash without pouring it down the sink. (Diane has been throwing a lot of things away. Her own things, Nelle’s things, Olivia’s things. Olivia thinks it’s a phase.)

Thinking of Angela, Olivia makes her way back to the garbage sitting in the garage, digs it out from where it smells of rotting meat and other bottles Diane couldn’t be bothered to recycle. She rinses it in her bathroom sink, squinching up her nose, and drips lavender essential oil on the outside of the bottle to get rid of the clinging garbage stink.

It occurs to her that Nelle would disapprove.

She puts the vodka beneath her bed. It is a few weeks before she has the guts to get it out, to present it to Angela like the grandest gift she could get her.

“Oooh!” Angela squeals, and she breaks its seal, a scent not unlike rubbing alcohol drifting up. Olivia gets up off the bedroom floor to light incense.

“Let’s be careful though,” Angela adds, pouring out just a couple of glugs into a mug. She sips it, winces, and hands it back to Olivia, who does the same.

“Have you ever kissed anyone?” Angela asks when they are on their second mug of vodka. She is swaying a little to the music Olivia put on, her eyes half-closed and dreamy.

“No. Have you?”

“Yeah, a couple boys, but they were all terrible.”

Olivia smiles down into the mug. “Well, of course they were.” She can’t imagine ever wanting to kiss a boy—she wants to kiss Angela, who is sitting across from her in a black dress, a Wiccan pentacle tied around her neck. Angela has lips that are a beautiful, plush pink.

“Because they were boys?”

“Duh!”

“You think you could do better?”

The vodka makes her bold. “I know I could,” Olivia says with a grin, leaning in just a little, just enough—

Angela moves forward onto her hands, presses warm lips against Olivia’s. Olivia’s chest is an empty cavern, striving for air. She tries to do what she’s seen in the movies, what she has practiced on pillows and on the back of her hand since she was eleven.

It’s over in a heartbeat. Angela leans back, picks up the mug again.

Olivia raises her eyebrows. “Well?”

“You were right.”

 

After several nights of quiet, furtive hands and lips, the girls grow bold. Angela slips a knee between Olivia’s thighs—Olivia lets her fingers graze lower than the soft rounding of a breast.

Angela leans against Olivia’s shoulder on the couch, watching TV with Diane. Olivia holds Angela’s hand at the mall. Diane comments on how close they’ve grown, and Olivia barely stammers when she replies with a “yes, very.”

Angela suggests that they perform a ritual for power, sitting across from each other. When they hold hands, Olivia’s entire body is electric. After the ritual, they wind up in Olivia’s bed, limbs a tangle, nearly caught by Diane bringing them lemonade.

When Olivia is alone after a particularly bold session with Angela, her fingers wander to her lips, red and swollen, and then there is something on her chest—like a mountain, like a clamp around her heart squeezing the blood right out of it.

She invokes the Goddess, but her voice shakes and the weight grows. Her lungs shrink. She does a spell for peace, leaping out of bed to light a blue candle, fanning sage above her head. But the panic is stubborn. Her mind is a slippery wine glass, like the one she dropped in the sink washing dishes the other day. No amount of chanting or candles can stop it from shattering.

She imagines Nelle, watching from heaven, thinks how disappointed she must be. Her granddaughter can’t keep herself together and now she’s turned to witchcraft despite all the times Nelle put her in Vacation Bible School as a kid.

Olivia tries to will her away, push the weight off her chest, but the altar in her closet feels less like safety and more like a lie.

It takes a couple glugs of the vodka beneath her bed to get the weight to ease. Her pillow remains soaked with tears and black mascara streaks, so she finds a dry corner and presses her face into it. She is an empty seashell. Hollow, but hold it up to your ear—

Can you hear something?

 

One day in late July, Olivia returns to her bedroom from a quick bathroom break, and finds Angela standing in front of her open closet, staring at her altar. Olivia’s cheeks run hot and she hurts like her ribs are curving inward.

“What’s this?” Angela asks, bending, her fingers skimming the blue-and-white china teapot.

“An altar. I made it a while ago,” she says, hoping her voice sounds dismissive. Olivia is all too aware of how different it looks in sharp midday light, all magick sucked away—a cardboard fantasy built by a stupid, naive little girl.

“Quaint,” Angela says, and Olivia does not—can not—miss the mocking in her voice.

Sharp anger hits her in the stomach. She steps forward, slams the closet doors closed. Angela touches Olivia’s arm, seeming to regret her words.

“Olive, I’m sorry.”

But the use of Nelle’s pet name adds pain to her anger, and Olivia just snaps, “Don’t call me that.”

There is no kissing that day.

 

There are quiet apologies made, but the next time Olivia and Angela wind up naked in bed, there is something different. A recklessness that pushes them further. It’s a need. It’s power and control. It’s the same feeling Olivia had when she first did magick—nagging guilt, rush of pleasure, something deep in her blood urging her on.

Later, Diane invites her out to sunbathe on the porch, and Olivia feels like a different person. She thinks of the neediness of it all, watching a red sun through her eyelids—of the line crossed from fooling around into sex, of the detached loneliness that comes after a hard spike of pleasure.

 

Angela mentions that she knows a spell that could help them find true love. Olivia has known for a while that they are not each other’s, but the suggestion makes her body hurt like her friend just drop-kicked her across the room.

“Sure,” Olivia says. They have to write down who they want their true love to be, and they write at the same time. But Olivia finds that she can’t—there is a vivid pain across the bridge of her nose, and she just scribbles nonsensical words down after she sees that Angela has written “he.”

 

Olivia’s sixteenth birthday approaches, and she and Angela have stopped kissing. Olivia thinks Angela might have crossed a line she never planned. Kisses and touching were things girls just did sometimes, but they moved beyond that. Angela’s true love would be a man—Olivia’s would not.

Would Olivia have told Nelle everything? She always had, always inherently trusted her grandmother where her mother had to work for that trust. For the first time, Olivia wonders if Diane resented that. Not for the first time, Olivia wonders if she would have fallen for magick or for Angela if Nelle hadn’t died—where would Olivia be, then?

And would she give up Angela to have Nelle back? Would she give up her brief affair with magick, with control, with love? Would she give up her first time, tangled in sweaty limbs and sweet lips? She wonders if that’s how death works—how death gets you, keeps you submerged, how you lose the fight. But still.

She would give anything.

Later that day, Diane catches Olivia unable to breathe—Olivia has dropped Nelle’s teapot. The lid chipped, a sharp little nick on one side, and suddenly her lungs were empty and closing in like fake walls in a haunted house.

Diane names it—“Are you having a panic attack?”—presses her cool hand to Olivia’s forehead, instructs her how to breathe, holds her tight.

The following week, Olivia is prescribed a little jar of pills to take when her lungs are trying to kill her. They work much better than praying or magick or even vodka. She needs to take one after she and Angela go to the movies and Angela tells her she kissed a boy named Roberto.

 

Olivia’s sixteenth birthday party is loud and drunk. Olivia invites all of her friends and Diane invites all of hers. Diane decorates, stringing white lights all through the house, hanging red Chinese paper lanterns and star lamps in the corner of every room. Scarves and bejeweled pillows cushion every seat and chair—Olivia thinks it looks like the inside of one of those hippy dippy shops that always smells of musky incense.

In previous years, Nelle spent all day in the kitchen. Olivia remembers the way it smelled—of roses and sugar and sweet, moist cake. Olivia would poke her head around the corner, and Nelle would tell her to come taste, stick a frosting-covered finger in Olivia’s mouth. She always made the same cake for Olivia’s birthday: a honey cake frosted with rose and cardamom, covered in fresh, soft figs.

Olivia’s favorite thing about her birthday is the timing—fig season.

This year, though, Angela informed her that wasps and figs go hand in hand. The wasp crawls into the male fig, lays eggs, and dies. The babies emerge, and the cycle continues. Olivia finds it fitting—death and her favorite fruit.

When Nelle would have Olivia taste the frosting, Olivia would always tell her to add more cardamom.

This year, there is no honey cake. Olivia will turn sixteen without Nelle and without figs. But she does have her mother, who is kind despite how alien Olivia finds her, and she has Angela, who arrives to the party an hour early.

Olivia answers the door, and Angela stands there in all of her Wiccan glory, wearing a pentacle necklace and holding a box of beautiful figs.

“Happy birthday,” Angela says, and Olivia hugs her until she manages to blink the tears out of her eyes.

And then it’s almost seven o’ seven, the exact minute of her birth sixteen years ago. All of her mother’s friends are loud and drunk and all of her friends are loud and sober. Diane stands behind her daughter, finishing her toast, and Olivia holds a glass of punch.

Every face at the party is watching her. The clock clicks over to seven o’ seven, and Diane hurries—

“My daughter, my heart, how happy I am to know you. What a woman you will be.”

Cheers. Olivia sips her drink, and everyone congratulates her. It makes her feel a bit strange, a bit lost—all she has done is grow up, and she had no choice in that.

Her mother’s friends, dressed in bright colors, their cheeks flushed and lips loose, kiss her and wish her well. Olivia’s friends titter about how nice she looks, dressed in a pretty white sundress, her light brown curls wild and long. They lean on her shoulder and bring her punch.

Right when Olivia starts to feel tight in the chest, her fingers shaking, unable to say “thank you” to another person, Angela finds her. She pulls her into the bathroom, locks the door. The roar of the party quiets. A candle flickers across Angela’s dark features. Olivia breathes.

“Here,” Angela says, and out of her pocket she pulls a handful of figs.

“Oh, yes,” Olivia says with a moan. She eats them in seconds, licking her fingers. Then Angela hands her a glass—it is full of golden liquid.

“Cheers,” Angela says.

“What is it?”

“Tequila. The liquor is all very unguarded in the kitchen.”

Olivia takes a big sip. It burns but it also makes her insides feel lighter.

“Thank you,” Olivia says, handing her back the glass and sitting on the toilet lid.

Angela hovers over her, dark eyes sparkling. She takes a sip herself, winces, takes another sip. “Listen, Liv… if you don’t want to do Wicca anymore, it’s okay.”

Olivia’s chest feels tight. “I’ve lost the… truth of it,” she tries to explain. She’s lost the truth of the two of them, too, but she thinks maybe she found a new one. With friendship instead of kisses and a different kind of pleasure.

Angela touches her friend’s cheek, a gesture that sets Olivia’s heart on fire. “It was a summer love,” Angela says, and Olivia knows she isn’t just talking about the magick.

They finish the glass of tequila, brush their teeth to try to get the pervasive scent off their tongues. Olivia’s head is full of clouds as she turns to her friend, grinning widely. “Can you smell it on me?” she asks.

Angela leans over, presses warm lips against Olivia’s, a final offering. “Not at all,” she says. When they leave the bathroom, Angela offers Olivia her arm as if she is a gentleman and Olivia her lady, and they head, giggling, back into the party.

 

After the party has ended and Diane has collapsed in her bed, drunk and snoring, Olivia makes her way back downstairs, tiptoeing through streamers and party hats, into a kitchen whose counters are cluttered with glasses and plates and forks sticky with cake. She pulls out the teapot, fills it with water, and sets it on the stove—she waits.

She measures out Earl Gray, adds a teaspoon of lavender. She thinks of the saying “a watched pot never boils” but she also knows that it has to boil eventually, even if she never takes her eyes from it. At the first soft whistle she snatches it off the stove.

Then she thinks of her grandmother, the way she would pour so carefully. Olivia pours like she always does, nearly overfills it.

She hasn’t turned on a single light, and everything is awash in blue darkness. Olivia thinks that it suits the teapot very well, with its blue china flowers, the stark white of it dulled in the dark. When she pours the tea it feels as ritual as the spells she’s been doing all summer, and even though she knows it isn’t magick, there is something magical about it—tea at three in the morning, the dead quiet of a world asleep.

She adds a bit of cream, whiteness blooming within her teacup, settling into the perfect creaminess. It is perhaps the best pot of tea she has ever made, and there is an ache at the thought. She lets the ache sit there, lets it find a home in the hollow of her throat. After a while, the tea washes it away.

She gets up to make another pot.

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Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki’s favorite thing to do is weave together imaginary worlds (often with magic), but she also frequents used bookstores and enjoys a good cup of tea. She lives in South Carolina with a very inconsiderate cat. She won a mini-contest with On The Premises and has been published with Twisted Sister Lit Mag. Email: v.levinpompetzki[at]gmail.com

The Formula for Skipping Stones

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
LS Bassen


Photo Credit: Owen Jones/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

For two summer weeks, on and off, we’d seen one another, the fisherman and I. He was in an old motor boat out at the end of the C of the New Hampshire cove, and I was sitting on a boulder well within the center of the letter at the lake’s edge. I’d just turned fourteen, brought by my aunt and uncle to take care of my cousin. When three-year-old Kenny napped and my aunt did whatever she liked in the large cabin, I was free to search about the woods and shore. I often ended up at what I named Lonely Rock that looked out onto the wide Winnepesaukee. The water around the giant rock was deep and clear. I often watched minnows in miniature schools. Out at the pine-covered point of the cove was the fisherman. I never waved at him, but each day he brought the boat in a little closer. By the end of two weeks, I could see more than the silhouette of the man. He looked old, in his late fifties, his long face a mottled tan. It seemed to me that every time he threw in his line, he reached back with a shining fish he’d admire and then toss back before it drowned in air.

When he brought the boat right up to Lonely Rock, I held stiff as the stone.

“Hey, you,” he said, his thin body shaking at the steering wheel. I knew how to handle a boat as big. My uncle rented one, and I was proud he’d taught me to dock the twenty-four footer easily even though home in New York, I was two years too young even for a learner’s permit.

I didn’t answer him. The breeze blew across his back, from the lake toward the land. I breathed pine and water, pipe smoke and sweat stink. It was a strong male smell, like the beer another girl in the cabin colony and I had discovered. The brown glass bottles had been hidden in a stone-covered roadside culvert. Kathy and I tasted some of the beer before we broke all the rest, shattering them against a low stone wall nearby.

“Hey, you,” the fisherman repeated. “Wanna ride?”

He nudged the boat up against Lonely Rock. In the stern, I saw feathery lures arranged in a metal tackle box. I looked over my shoulder to the hill clearing and cabins.

“Wheah ya friends?” he asked.

“I don’t have any friends. No one’s talking to me.”

“Me eithah.”

“What did you do?” I said.

“Long stawhy,” he said.

The teeth he wasn’t missing were brown-speckled, like pebbles in the sand at the lake’s edge.

He moved quickly for all his shaking, leaning over the boat’s glass windshield, giving me a hand stepping onto the bow. Then I climbed over and sat on the mate’s seat. He turned on the ignition, which coughed wetly a few times, and backed the boat out into the cove. In a few moments, we were well beyond it, on the open lake. Speed lifted the prow out of the water and gusted the summer air. I shook out my loosened braids.

“You look’t like a Penacook boy,” he said, disappointed, “but ya eyes ah blue. Y’act like a boy. Why’s no one talking to you fah?”

“It’s a long stawhy,” I imitated. Then I blurted, “I did something bad.”

“Who ain’t?” He cut the motor.

“No one likes me anymore.”

“I don’t like guhls. Name’s John.”

“Well, John, where’s all this forgiveness you hear about in church?”

“Guess that’s wheah it stays,” he said.

“How do I act like a boy?”

“Got no brains. Like t’go fast?”

He started up the engine again and raced us across the water faster and farther than I’d ever been out before. We must have been miles from the cove. Still, there was more and more lake, more bends and curves we took at high speed, water splashing in our faces when he steeped a turn. I stood up to feel the spray hit, and John yelled over the motor noise, “Siddown goddammit!” He reached out and pulled me into the seat and slowed the engine. Gasoline fumes sweetened the lake air. He turned the boat around and headed back to the cove. He left me off not at Lonely Rock but on the narrow lip of beach by the point where he usually fished.

“Next time weah a suit so ya can swim,” John said.

*

Every day it didn’t rain I went out on a different boat with Old John. I didn’t tell anyone about him. I thought it served them all right since no one was talking to me. My aunt was tight-lipped around me and kept shaking her head, muttering about my father and what would happen when I got home. Meanwhile, she didn’t have any problem with me playing Cinderella to her Wicked Stepmother. She told me the unidentified bites or rash I’d gotten were fair punishment. I had to wear dishwashing rubber gloves and couldn’t go swimming, she said, because it could spread. So I sat in the big white Adirondack chairs on the hill, watching my little cousin race his toy cars in and out of the elaborate pine cone obstacle course I’d created for him. I looked down the hill to the lake where Kathy, my beer-smashing pal from Beverly, Massachusetts, was off duty from babysitting her four younger brothers and sister. She was swimming with the Swampscott minister’s son Tim, his thirteen-year-old half-sister Diane, and Jay, the townie boy from Passaconaway. Both boys were handsome.

Some days, standing on the beach, the boys skipped stones. Jay’s always flew farther than Tim’s. While I wondered what Galileo or Newton could make of it, Kathy and Tim’s half-sister cheered the boys on.

In our first week at Winnepesaukee, Diane and I had taken out a row boat and shared stories about our older brothers.

“Behind a billboard?!” I choked. Diane rowed the boat in circles while I reached to regain the oar I’d dropped. When I tried to explain what incest was, she refused to believe that she was no longer a virgin.

During my cousin’s afternoon nap time, I’d go sit on Lonely Rock. I imagined how it locked into the lake in winter when Jay said you could walk across the ice. Jay lived on a farm. He said that after the frozen months what New Hampshire looked forward to most was the coming of the new lambs. He said he’d pulled live lambs right out of ewes. In the summer, he also worked at a bakery in Wolfeboro where I’d seen him “selling overpriced cookies to overweight tourists.”

I’d hear whatever boat Old John was in that day before I’d see him clear the point. I’d jump up and run through a pine-needled forest hemming deeper woods, running over the rocks and hollows among the trees, fleet as the Penacook Winnepesaukee natives I imagined there long before. The boat sputtered in neutral. I got on without Old John’s help. He snorted at my aunt’s orders.

“Found a fine place to fish,” he said, before he gave me the wheel and I pushed the throttle into drive, “and ya go ahead swim.”

He directed me around turns to a new, hidden cove. I couldn’t tell one bend in the lake from another, but they seemed recognizable to Old John. By this time I’d confessed to him, and we had a way of doing things beside one another. Some talk, Old John tied knots, taught me Cat’s Cradle or fished, and I’d swim. He’d show me a fish and name it and tell me its ways while it squirmed in his shaking hands. He’d lean over the boat and let the fish back into the water near enough to where I was treading to make me squeal at the thought of it swimming through my legs. It always made Old John laugh, and then I’d laugh, too.

“What do you do?” I eventually asked when were returning to the point at our cove.

“Always keep one for supper and one for breakfast,” he avoided. “Wha’d’ya do?”

“I go to school, of course. I’m going into ninth grade. What’s your profession?”

He snorted again. “I do what I can.”

“I mean it, John.”

“I’m an escaped convict.”

I was thrilled. “Like Magwitch in Great Expectations! That’s a book on our list for next year so I read it ahead. So I’m Pip? You steal these boats? I could change my name.”

“Bahrrow ’em. No one the wiseah. Ya name’s okay. ‘Leenda,’ they say. Means pretty. Changed mine to John. Lotta Johns. Lotta leaves ont trees, ev’ry one jus’ ta leaf.”

I agreed. “It’s my father’s middle name. Dr. Theodore John McDermott. He makes me eat calcium tablets bigger than communion wafers because the Russians resumed above ground testing, and he’s afraid the Strontium-90 will leach calcium from my bones.”

We neared the point, and I slowed the boat. He held the wheel as I turned, reached for a sweatshirt. While it was still over my head, Old John said, “It wasn’t such a bad thing you done with eitha boy, the ministah’s son. Was t’othah one, Jay’s fault, talkin’ ’bout you.”

I’d described kissing Jay when he’d walked me back from the beach in the dark and confessed about going into the apple orchard behind the cabins one night with the Swampscott boy, how I’d run away from Tim after fighting him off.

With the sweatshirt still covering my face, I said, “No, I was all wrong. Diane told me what Tim did. I knew Kathy liked him and didn’t tell her. When he said to meet him, I did. Back home in New York, I’m a Good Girl. Up here, they’re all blond and I’m not, so they think I’m a…” I couldn’t repeat the word Jay had called me.

Old John pulled the sweatshirt down so my turtle head popped out. “Jus’ ’cause you wanted some kissin’ and have th’sense of a buttahfish?”

We were at the point then, and I started clambering off the boat, but not before Old John caught my sleeve. I thought it was to steady me. He made me fall back against him. His smoky, sweaty smell was friendly by then. But he pulled me to him and kissed me harder than either boy had. Those mottled teeth hitting mine! He tasted sickening of beer and age, and I pushed him with enough force that I fell out of the boat. My heart thundered with adrenaline. Stunned, I tread water and saw minnows scatter. Old John backed the boat away.

“You said you didn’t like girls,” I shouted.

He yelled over the motor, “I like you!”

*

Linda was neither an old child nor a young adult. On the number line, she saw herself going up only to fourteen for her recent birthday, a primer page in a Universal encyclopedia of possibly infinitely numbered, disconnected dot-to-dots. She’d heard a singsong: Freshmen don’t know they don’t know; sophomores know they don’t know; juniors don’t know they know; and seniors know that they know! Linda didn’t know that she didn’t know she possessed any agency, nor that she lacked fear. She only knew things happened. The Earth moved around the Sun, and the Moon around the Earth in ways better explained by science than mythology, which is what Linda called religion ever since, at eleven, she had been stunned by her mother’s reaction to Sputnik, “But where does God live now?”

The convict’s kiss shocked, flattered, repulsed, and disappointed her. Those were some dot-to-dots to try to connect. All the recent kisses had no different effect from her secret practice at home against the wooden leg of a Queen Anne chair while the family had watched TV. So far, kissing was all mechanics and momentum, no communion. She thought there must be something wrong with her. She was like the Betsy McCall paper doll on the last page of her mother’s monthly magazine. She had stopped cutting out and playing with them but still looked for them every month. Betsy McCall was flat, two-dimensional, a little girl. Linda was a big girl who acted like a boy and felt nothing when kissed.

The next day, Linda was in hiding, waiting at the point for Old John.

He was surprised to see her emerge from the pines. He had been sitting behind the wheel trying to calm his shaking hands by tying knots. It was late August, autumn chill in the air, leaves turning. There wasn’t going to be much time. Beside him on the mate’s seat was last week’s newspaper whose rumpled front page reported that in Moscow, downed American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers had been convicted of espionage against the Soviet Union and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Ten years didn’t sound long.

Linda was dressed in jeans and a thick sweater. The motor idled.

“Why did you do that?” she demanded.

“Why’d ya come back fah?’

“To say goodbye. We’re going back to New York later today. To ask.”

“What?”

“Why do you shake all the time?”

He held up a sloppy bowline knot. “Parkinson’s. Ev’ry thing’s got a name when they don’ know whah t’is.”

“I didn’t feel anything with you either.”

He laughed. “Me, neithah. Ya not a boy, jus’ a green apple. Ya shoulda felt scaihed.”

“What are you scared of?”

“Not much left t’. Surpris’d ain’t bin found, but maybe wasn’ much lookin’.” He tapped the newspaper. “Don’ worry so much about Russians and bombs. But don’ you nevah go nowheah with a strangeah again.”

*

My father smelled like the brown bottles and Old John. It was the cherry pipe smoke and sweat. My father didn’t shake, but he looked sad. Kathy and I had smashed the beer against the low stone wall, laughing at the explosions of foam, glad to be rebelling against grown-up deception.

When I returned from New Hampshire, my parents and brother were waiting in the car in front of my aunt and uncle’s house. After the long drive and longer summer, it was good to get out of the car, a new 1960 Buick station wagon, that Clydesdale of automobiles. I hugged my father, but he didn’t come inside where I carried my sleeping cousin. I put Kenny to bed while my uncle went around opening windows, and my aunt did something in the kitchen with my mother and brother, who, I noticed, hadn’t stayed with our father. Just another disconnected dot.

As I came out of the bedroom, my mother grabbed my shoulder and pulled me into the pink-and-gray hall bathroom. She shut and locked the door.

“Your aunt told me. You are just like your father,” she hissed.

I’d never seen her that angry even during the Kennedy–Nixon bouts she had with my father. They argued about everything, but before I’d left for the summer, it was politics. He’d voted for Eisenhower, and she and my aunt were not only Democrats, but also Catholic like Kennedy, who I only cared was handsome.

“It will take every cent we have—and my uncle who is a State Supreme Court judge—to keep your father out of prison and save his license!”

I became so dizzy, I fell. It took hours of that day and years later to make sense out of my mother’s fury. At home that same night, she sent my older brother to my bedroom.

“Are you chaste?!” he demanded.

For the first time in my life I said, “Fuck you.”

Later that September, before the Kennedy–Nixon debate, the family drove up to Troy in the huge Buick station wagon. I sat in the smaller rear seat with Kenny, feeling carsick facing backwards at the past rather than ahead to the future. I attempted and failed to keep Kenny busy for awhile playing with string; a three-year-old’s attention span and finger control were equally unreliable. I did a few of the eight turns Old John had taught me: Soldier’s Bed, Candles, Manger, Diamonds, Cat’s Eye, Fish in a Dish, Clock, and Cat’s Cradle. My uncle was at the wheel, and my aunt sat beside him. With my maternal grandmother, my mother was crammed between my father and brother in the middle. The radio was on in the front of the car, and my uncle was explaining about “payoffs” when my brother snapped, “You’re stupid.”

There was some swerving and yelling, and Kenny didn’t know whether to cry. My brother’s cramped position—also as firstborn and family genius—he eventually won a Nobel—kept any hand from being raised to smack him.

In November, Kennedy won the election. Three years later, after skipping my senior year of high school, I felt the same dizziness again. I was a freshman at a college where tests were administered on a non-proctoring honor system, so it was a shock when our French professor entered, crying, “Ah, mademoiselles, on à assassine Le President!”

Even before we’d left New Hampshire, I knew my aunt had been wrong about swimming spreading the rash. In time, I ripened and mastered Cat’s Cradle, studied geometric topology, and won a minor award in 2007 for a paper chronicling the 1867 faulty atomic theory known as the Tait conjectures that quantum theory eclipsed for awhile. By the end of the twentieth century, knot theory had reemerged. Useful regarding DNA and polymers in biology and chemistry, its related braid theory figured in the development of quantum computers’ resistance to decoherence.

My father’s license was suspended during my college freshman year, but thereafter he practiced medicine until he died the year I was pregnant with my firstborn. To his wake, one of his immigrant patients who had paid in barter since the fifties, brought jugs of homemade wine and frozen packages of deer he’d hunted. A Guinness World Record for stone skipping was set in 1992, thirty-eight bounces, filmed on the Blanco River in Texas, bested once in 2007 and twice in 2014. Galileo and Newton had gotten the laws of motion moving, but it was a French physicist who developed a formula for estimating how many times a stone would skip based on spin and speed. The key to a good skip, Lyderic Bocquet said in 2004, lay in spinning the stone. Engineers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory proposed a HyperSoar airplane, which would skip along Earth’s upper atmosphere at five to twelve times the speed of sound.

In 2010, Boeing was reported designing an experimental military weapon that could fly twenty-five miles above Earth, then drift up into space and down again. When it hit the denser air of the upper atmosphere, it would bounce back up like a stone hitting water. Eighteen skips would be enough to get HyperSoar from Chicago to Rome in seventy-two minutes. As of June 2015, the U.S. military was reportedly developing such a new hypersonic vehicle that could take flight by 2023, building upon research from a 2013 test flight of the experimental X-51A Waverider.*

What’s it to be, then, sorrow over the depths to which a stone may sink or celebration of its defiance of gravity? Kathy surprised me by calling at the very end of that August at the beginning of the sixties. She put her phone up to her radio and told me to listen to the song that had just come on, the one we’d sung to each other all summer. Then with the radio in the background, Kathy sang and once again together we imitated Brenda Lee’s melodious growling of “Sweet Nothings.

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Website: lsbassen.com  Email: LSBASSEN[at]aol.com

Closure

Beaver’s Pick
Alex Shishin


Photo Credit: Jamelah E./Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

In February, Bart Kozlov, a professor at Ikeshita Women’s University, learned that Emiko Toyohashi, taking her Semester Abroad in America, was having homestay trouble. The homestay family’s emails said Ms. Toyohashi had gone mad; she had locked herself in the guest room and had not eaten for days. The English Department chairwoman was departing for Los Angeles to bring Ms. Toyohashi back home to Nagoya.

There was still time for Ms. Toyohashi to enroll in classes at Ikeshita Women’s for April. The chairwoman informed Bart that Ms. Toyohashi was assigned to his English Composition seminar and his American Literature lecture class. “This is her fifth year. She is severely short of credits, as you know. Have you worked with her before?”

“Never,” he said.

“Do your best, Kozlov-sensei.”

Upon entering the seminar room, Bart felt Ms. Toyohashi’s glittering presence. Her hair, dyed fiery red, seemed to reflect in the sheen of her white mini-dress. Long red fingernails accentuated her small hands. Her lightly freckled face bore an expression of somnambulant vagueness. She sat rigidly at her desk, surrounded by a dozen chatting young women.

His ex-wife, a fellow American, also glittered, he recalled. She had run off with a blond tennis-playing millionaire a decade before.

Bart wrote his name as Bart and Bartholomew Kozlov on the whiteboard.

“Bartholomew,” Ms. Toyohashi said.

“Good pronunciation!” he said.

Ms. Toyohashi nodded but did not smile.

In her first in-class essay, Ms. Toyohashi wrote, “I want to work in a boutique. It is my dream.” She concluded, “I am making my parents sad.” On the other side of the paper she wrote, “Dear Professor Bartholomew Kozlov-sensei: “I am sometimes away because I am unstable. I also catch a cold easily. I am sorry. Please excuse me.”

She was gone the next week and the week following. Ms. Toyohashi was splendidly groomed from head to toe when she returned, but her face was blank. He guessed she was sedated; his girlfriend, Tsuki Ogori, an orthopedic surgeon, had told him in Japan doctors treated psychological illnesses mainly with drugs and not talk therapy.

Ms. Toyohashi gave him two make-up essays for English Composition and a note saying she had read “Fever,” one of the two Raymond Carver stories assigned for the American Literature class. The other story was “Jerry and Molly and Sam.”

The essays, likely written under sedation, were just comprehensible. In the first she wrote about becoming a flight attendant. In the second she wondered if she could be a fashion designer.

At the close of the semester Bart had his English Composition students write an in-class essay on a theme of their choice. Ms. Toyohashi was not there.

That afternoon there was a knock on Bart’s office door. Ms. Toyohashi entered, redheaded, bleary-eyed and mini-skirted. “May I write the essay?” she asked.

“Sit at this table, Ms. Toyohashi,” Bart said. “Here is paper. Here are pencils and erasers. Take all the time you want.”

She wrote nervously for half an hour, often erasing or scratching out words and whole sentences. She stood as he read the paper.

Her essay was about free schools, jiyu gakko in Japanese. Free schools were for truants and dropouts: girls and boys who had escaped regular schools because they were bullied or misunderstood. Though somewhat loose in organization, the content and her command of English were good.

“You’ve passed English Composition,” he said and handed her the paper.

Ms. Toyohashi appraised Bart with a puzzled look.

“You passed. You may go, Ms. Toyohashi.”

She did not move. Then she smiled. Bart smiled.

“Don’t miss American Literature this Friday,” he said. “Okay?”

“Okay,” Ms. Toyohashi said. “Goodbye.”

The final paper for American Literature, an in-class open book essay in English, was the only major project for this class. Because it was a make-or-break assignment, Bart spent three weeks reviewing the theme. He was worried because during that time Ms. Toyohashi was absent.

There were thirty-two students in the American Literature class. Ms. Toyohashi was there on time and sat in the back. She was the last to leave. He face was blank when she handed in her paper and thanked him.

Bart read her paper first. It started out by saying that “Fever” was unrealistic. The protagonist’s wife had run off with his colleague and friend and he was too nice about it. He and his wife were too nice to each other. The children were too nice. His girlfriend was too tolerant. Mrs. Webster, the housekeeper, had a too easy time of taking care of the children whose mother had abandoned them. On the other hand, “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” a story about an alcoholic man cheating on his wife, was very realistic because it was filled with bitterness and cruelty. The part she found most poignant was where Betty tells Al: “I know you don’t love me any more—goddamn you!—but you don’t even love the kids.”

Bart was shocked by what he read next. It was about her homestay family’s domestic unrest: the parents shouting from morning and into late at night, the slaps, the tears, the broken dishes, the unhappy children who threw tantrums. She felt unsafe outside the locked guest room and deeply regretted missing her classes, which she enjoyed. She concluded: “I have not told anyone else. Because I don’t want to cause more trouble. Who would believe me anyway?”

Over dinner, Tsuki, said, “She was not the crazy one! You have a duty to report this before another homestay student is abused.”

The department chairwoman said, “Let me keep Ms. Toyohashi’s paper for a while, Kozlov-sensei. Only until I take care of this matter. Please, sensei, keep this to yourself. It could hurt our Semester Abroad program. I’m glad Toyohashi-san passed your classes at least.”

“Not any others?”

She shook her head.

Prior to spring break, Ms. Toyohashi came to Bart’s office. “Sensei, I want to do a tutorial with you on Raymond Carver next semester,” she said.

“Certainly,” Bart said. “Your Carver essay showed you have a good command of English, a fine eye for details and a good mind for literary analysis. It all needs to be refined, of course.”

“Can we start with ‘Preservation,’ sensei? About the man with no job who spends all his time on the couch. My boyfriend is like that. He is always in his room. He never leaves the house. I try to help him.”

“That is really good of you!” Bart said.

“Sensei, I want to teach in a free school. I know I’d do well there because I’m an outsider.”

“I am too,” Bart said.

“Eh?”

“I found solace in reading Carver at a time when I felt I didn’t belong at my university. Ironically, I married a woman who acted as though she owned the place. When I came here I knew this was where I belonged. My ex-wife hated our university, hated Japan, and hated everyone I cared for. Finally she hated me.”

“Poor sensei!” She said. “I will always be your friend.”

“Thank you, Ms. Toyohashi. I need to catch the bus.”

“Me too! We must hurry!”

It was raining and only Bart had an umbrella. When they reached the bus stop the bus had already departed.

With the umbrella between them they were both getting wet. There was no other shelter. Bart remembered that Ms. Toyohashi was prone to colds. There were taxis close by. He also remembered the administrative admonition to the staff not to take taxis with students.

“We’re taking a taxi,” he said.

In the taxi, Ms. Toyohashi asked, “Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Yes. A doctor.” He told her which national hospital she worked for. “She is also a professor.”

“I want to meet her!” Ms. Toyohashi said. “Could I meet her today, sensei?”

Bart called Tsuki on his cellphone and then told Ms. Toyohashi, “She wants to meet you. She’s at our usual café.”

Tsuki was waiting at their usual table. She had changed into blue jeans and blue work shirt, and had unfurled her long straight hair. Today she was wearing the gold necklace Bart had given her for her birthday. She stood when they entered. The women bowed to each other and introduced themselves.

“You’re beautiful!” Ms. Toyohashi said.

“Thank you! So are you!” Tsuki answered.

Rapport established, Ms. Toyohashi poured out her life story to Bart’s girlfriend. Bart listened.

“I am unstable and I know why,” Ms. Toyohashi began. She never liked her parents’ business, yet she would inherit it because she was an only child. Her parents told her to study law. She failed to get into every law department she applied for. She was only accepted for English at Ikeshita Women’s University. It was located not far from her home and carried a good regional reputation. Her parents should have been pleased, she said, but they were disappointed. At the university she became bored. “I can never do what people tell me to do,” she said.

In his office that autumn, doing Raymond Carver with Ms. Toyohashi, Bart asked, “Do you understand why Carver chose the title ‘Preservation’ for this story?”

“Yes. The man is sad because he cannot find a job. He stays on the couch because he does not want to be hurt any more. But by preserving himself that way he becomes like the mummy man from the peat bog. Sensei, why don’t you marry Tsuki-sensei? Don’t you love her?”

“We love each other very much. But we were both betrayed and went through painful divorces. We’re like the man in ‘Preservation,’ I guess.”

“I kissed my boyfriend for the first time,” Ms. Toyohashi said and covered her mouth.

At the weekly English department meeting in late January the chairwoman announced that Ms. Toyohashi’s mother had written to say that the family would no longer be paying tuition. Privately she said to Bart, “Emiko-san disappeared a few days ago. Her parents are frantic. Please find her. We know she was close to you.”

“So everyone no doubt knows about the taxi and us meeting here,” he said to Tsuki at their usual café. “They presume I know where to find her. I haven’t a clue.”

“She may find you,” Tsuki said. “I’ll keep an eye out for her.”

Thanks to serendipity Bart found Ms. Toyohashi sitting on a bench and reading in Sakae, Nagoya’s downtown. She was wearing blue jeans and a denim jacket. She had stopped dyeing her hair.

“Bartholomew-sensei!” she exclaimed and stood.

“Are you hungry, Ms. Toyohashi?” he asked.

“Yes, very hungry.”

“I’ll treat you to a good lunch on the ninth floor of that department store over there,” he said pointing.

On the ninth floor Bart showed her around the various restaurants.

“I don’t belong here,” she said. “I feel like a Raymond Carver character.”

“Me too,” Bart said. “But we are hungry Raymond Carver characters. Let’s take another look around. When you find a restaurant that feels right let’s eat there.”

Over lunch she said, “Oh, by the way, I like ‘Fever.’ The people remind me of my parents. My mother and father are gentle. They have never punished me. They only look sad when I do something they don’t like.”

“They are very worried about you. Don’t you want to go home?”

“Bartholomew-sensei, I slept in Internet cafes and ate cheap food because I didn’t want to go home. I left because my parents wanted to put me to work in the business right way. Yesterday I found a job at a free school in Osaka. I start in April. I don’t know what I’ll do until then. I know they’ll tell me to forget the free school and work in the business. I can’t go home.”

Bart did not know what to say. Ms. Toyohashi ate her sushi slowly and with delicacy.

“Maybe Tsuki can help you,” Bart said. “Like write a letter to your parents explaining you have found meaningful work that will help society.”

She put down her chopsticks and looked up.

Bart called Tsuki on his cellphone. She was on her lunch break.

“You’ve done a brilliant job, darling!” she said. “Now let me take over. Hand Emiko-san your cellphone.”

After the next department meeting the Chairwoman told Bart not to worry about Ms. Toyohashi. She was safely at home.

The grateful parents, meanwhile, had sent Bart and Tsuki lavish gifts and invited them to dinner.

The parents were non-stop talkers. They were jovial. They were witty. They were captivating. They were the kind of gregarious people, Bart thought, who could, without meaning to, perpetually upstage a child trying to find herself. Ms. Toyohashi, like her mother, wore a kimono. Unlike her mother, she did not say a word or look at Bart and Tsuki.

Her mother and father told wildly vivid anecdotes about their travels around Japan. They had been to all forty-eight prefectures and even to the disputed islands above Hokkaido. Bart was dying to tell them they were brilliant storytellers and they had no doubt inspired their daughter’s interest in literature. It would break the ice for a talk about her future.

Suddenly it was over. Tomorrow was busy day. Before Bart and Tsuki knew it, they were in their shoes and the family was kneeling at the genkan and bidding them sayonara.

Months passed without a word from Ms. Toyohashi. Bart fretted to the point where Tsuki had to ask him if he was in love with her. He answered apologetically he only wanted closure.

One spring day it occurred to him that he was not entitled to closure. Ms. Toyohashi was none of his business.

In June he married Tsuki, his longtime girlfriend.

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Alex Shishin is an award-winning fiction and non-fiction writer widely published in print and online.  Shishin’s non-fiction includes the travel memoir Rossiya: Voices from the Brezhnev Era. His novel Nippon 2357: A Utopian Ecological Tale and other ebooks are published by Smashwords. Originally from San Francisco, he is a university professor in Kansai. Email: magwitchv70[at]gmail.com

Spare

Baker’s Pick
Helen Coats


Photo Credit: Tim Evanson/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Two tickets, free, addressed to him. That was all. He waited by his mailbox for days, expecting to receive an invitation to the premiere, but it never came. No matter—he could attend a showing with the public. The welcome mat of the cinema was his red carpet, the buttered popcorn, a five-course meal. He wore a tuxedo so that the other moviegoers could pick him out from the crowd. They would recognize his beard, a red bush, and whisper,

Whoa. That’s Fisherman #2.

You can see him behind Chris Pratt in this shot.

He caught a bass on camera.

Maybe someone would want to see the fish again. Maybe someone would ask for his autograph, his spare ticket. He would be generous. He would personally accompany them to the show, would regale them with a blow-by-blow account of backstage mishaps and happenings. He would recount how ecstatic he was when he caught the fish, how it weighed down his line like an anchor. He would share this, his one venture into the spotlight, and he would make a friend. But the more he thought about the prospect, the more he grew ashamed of his papery dream. Instead of waiting, he spent the extra ticket on next Sunday’s matinee. As always, he went alone.

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Helen Coats is from Rock Hill, SC, and is currently enrolled as a Liberal Arts major at Purdue University. Her work has appeared in Litmus and Visions Literary Magazine. Email: coats.helen[at]gmail.com

Japan

Creative Nonfiction
Mary Street


Photo Credit: peter-rabbit/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The tires on the rental car crunched on the gravel as we pulled into the parking area. We could see the lights on in my mother’s first floor apartment, a sign that she was waiting up for us. My brother and I had spent the day flying to the Eastern Shore of Maryland from California where we lived. We came to sort out why my mother had collapsed on the sidewalk and could no longer walk. She was later diagnosed with a brain tumor.

Aunt Millie greeted us at the door, since she had been staying at the apartment to nurse her sister, our mother. We weaved our way through an overcrowded living room to the back bedroom where my mother lay. I had last seen her one year ago, and she had shrunken in size and spirits since then.

At her bedside we kissed and hugged, trying to seem brave and cheerful in the face of what was transpiring before us: she was dying of cancer.

Her final passage at the end of her life was as peaceful as we could make it. Having been a nurse, she knew her body was winding down, and she accepted this with grace. True to form, she cared more for those around her than for herself, so she bore her sorrow with great dignity.

We had her readmitted to the hospital for palliative care, and we contacted her siblings to come visit her there. Her older brother, my Uncle Bill, met me in the hospital’s waiting area. While my mother slept, he and I sat on the red vinyl sofa, speaking softly about her condition.

Uncle Bill grew quiet, folded his hands on his lap, and contemplated his fingers. He stood up slowly and walked toward the window, which looked out on a massive elm tree whose lush green branches extended toward the building.

“Oh, yes… the day she was born was a special day in May,” he said. His back was to me as he addressed the tree outside the window, his voice growing deeper and richer in tone as he recalled that day. Uncle Bill was an extraordinary storyteller.

“Me and Calvin and Mildred, we were told to leave our mother in peace. So we ran down to the barn to be out of her way. We found old Howard near the mare’s stall. He was anxious about that mare. She was giving him signs that her foal was ready to be born. And, do you know? That very morning the mare did give birth to a beautiful foal. A beautiful colt. All sleek and shiny black. We children had never witnessed anything like that on the farm until that morning. Oh yes, oh my, we were so thrilled and excited. Why, we ran out of that barn and on up the hill to the big house. All the way up the hill, we shouted ‘the mare has a new baby colt!’ And, do you know? In our great excitement when we ran inside the kitchen, we were told to hush up now. Our mother, Miss Annie Rebecca, had just given birth to our own new baby sister.” Then he turned away from the window and faced me. “And that was Louise, your wonderful mother. Oh yes, oh yes, it was a very wonderful day in May.”

After she died, a crew of family members courageously sorted her belongings at her apartment. She was a saver, but most of her treasures were destined for the thrift shop.

Of all the items that I came across, including childhood drawings, photographs, and other mementos saved by a loving mother, there were three significant things. She kept every letter I had ever sent to her over a thirty-year period. She had a box of many white kid gloves, elbow-length with pearl buttons, the kind of gloves that would be worn in another century with a full-length fancy dress. I kept both of those boxes.

The third box held something that I could not keep, even though it took my breath away when I opened the box. Inside was my hair. Until I was thirteen years old, I had never had my hair cut. My long blond ponytail reached my waist. She had kept this remnant from my youth like a relic preserved in a box.

One year later, I travelled to Kyoto, Japan, on a textile tour. It seemed fitting to make this trip, since my mother and I had shared a passion for sewing. She made most of my clothes, picking out the patterns and fabrics with me. When I was old enough, she taught me how to sew and gave me a sewing machine. I felt she would be looking down on me as I visited kimono designers and ikat dyers in Japan.

As I wandered through a flea market in Kyoto, I saw many old kimonos and obis for sale in the stalls. I was told that the Japanese are superstitious about wearing a dead family member’s clothing, so the clothes are sent to the flea market. I thought of the box of my blond, wavy hair that my mother could not bear to throw away.

Since then, I’ve tried to travel lightly, without too many possessions to weigh me down. But no doubt, once my life is completed, there will be a raised eyebrow, a shrug, a little laughter, as others sift through the things I have chosen to carry on my journey.

I still have the box of gloves.

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Mary Street will have her work published in Inscape NCC Literary Journal in September, 2017. This submission is part of a memoir she is writing. She is a graduate of California College of Arts and Crafts and resides in California with her husband. Email: marystreet65[at]gmail.com

Ethnography of an Adult Ballet Class

Creative Nonfiction
Laura Marostica


Photo Credit: Angie Chung/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

The Old Lady, first, is important to the adult ballet class (“adult” here carries not a hint of eroticism). The Old Man also occasionally makes an appearance, though because he is frequently outnumbered or simply alone, his is a quiet presence. The Old Lady ranges in age from late forties to early eighties, her title used primarily because of the contrast she provides to most students at a ballet school. She and her fellow Old Ladies can make up as much as forty percent of any given class. She may be attending because it was the joy of her youth and now she can return to it at her leisure. It may be an intrinsic aspect of her exercise regimen, supplemented with Pilates and perhaps Zumba.

Not every Old Lady is motivated by nostalgia or endorphins. Sometimes she has built up a brood of Old Lady friends. They lean their forearms on the barre and discuss children and home additions, brought back to class again and again by the companionship that blossoms between breaks in the music.

The Old Lady contingent provides two key components to the adult class environment: enthusiasm and indignity. She complains cheerfully of her sore hamstrings from the grueling class the day before and her inability to quite master the petit allegro combination. When the teacher asks another student to demonstrate a particular step, the Old Lady will often proffer an admiring comment of her own or a smattering of applause. Sometimes the Old Lady will throw up her hands during jumps—her knees are giving her problems again—and sit to the side, rubbing her joints and watching class as avidly as if this were the Royal Ballet, the students not a mélange of sweaty women in leggings, uncoordinated and barely keeping up with the patient pianist, but the corps of Swan Lake, arms lifted in flight, head pieces glimmering as Tchaikovsky’s wailing violins fling them up, up, up—

The Old Lady contingent is good for morale. Some may be irritated by their chattiness, their indifference to musicality, their total lack of spatial awareness. Someday, though, all dancers join their ranks, grasping the barre with gnarled fingers and lifting unpointed toes just barely off the floor, too deaf to notice the piano but sure, so sure that dance will never leave the body.

The presence of the Old Lady, the future, is tempered by the frequent attendance of the Student, the past. The Student also takes adult class for a variety of reasons. Perhaps her training program is off for two weeks after Nutcracker performances, and she wants to stay in shape; perhaps she is visiting from another city, and takes class to stay in shape; often she is neither of these, but a current student at the same studio, and she takes class twice a day, to stay in shape. Students take class. Always take, never go to, never have—they take the experience into themselves, drink it, capture it, keep it—because it is the timepiece for living. The barre is as familiar as the dining room table, more welcoming than the desk. A week without ballet class has the same feeling as the first week of summer vacation: disorienting, aimless.

The Student stands out for her discipline and adherence to ballet class conventions. Her hair is frequently in a neat bun, perhaps pinned and hairsprayed. She wears a leotard and tights, the inescapable, universal ballet uniform ideal for identifying misaligned hips, observing muscle groups, and crippling self-esteem. (But because she is taking adult class, the Student is probably wearing black tights instead of pink, worn fashionably over the leotard and rolled low on the hips).

The Student lends an earnest note to the adult ballet class. Her movements are precise and musical, arms gracefully supported but airy and relaxed even as her legs move with lightning speed. Every head and hand movement is coordinated, in sync with the piano, even when the combination has just been demonstrated for the first time.

If her pirouettes are off that day, the Student will spend time in the corner of the studio, practicing the turn again and again, her head whipping around to spot her own fierce face in the mirror, one, two, three times before landing. She will always stretch carefully before and after class, not unaware of the envious glances directed at her from the Old Lady cluster nearby.

Indeed, the Student demographic may heighten the tension of the adult class atmosphere. This is especially the case if the teacher is prone to pay more attention to these participants than to others—which, of course, he almost always is. (For mysterious reasons, teachers of adult ballet classes tend to be male.) He is captivated by the presence of a work-in-progress, a student in line for performances and maybe even a career, so he will shower the Student in corrections. And corrections to technique, in ballet class, are signals of a teacher’s admiration; dancers who are passed by without comment are beyond help.

This degree of attention is often disgruntling to the Old Lady, as she and her friends faithfully worship the Teacher, laughing at all his jokes, clustering around him like preening hens.

The Teacher may deal with preening in a number of ways. Sometimes he is oblivious to it, preferring his own pearls of wisdom to class conversation. Example A: “If I were born a musical instrument, I would have been a trombone. But I would have wanted to be a viola.” At other times, in other studios, he appreciates preening and selects a few participants to flirt with during class, leaning across the barre, stopping to chat during grands battements. Example B: “You should do hair commercials.”

Interestingly, the Old Lady is not disgruntled by the presence of and attention received by the Professional, another common demographic of the adult ballet class. The Professional, like the Student, may be in class because she is off-season—in which case she is simply taking class because it is her life’s work—or she may be coming back from an injury, in which case she must take a class below her normal company level to ease herself into recovery.

It is in fact impossible to be disgruntled by a Professional in class. The Professional is disinterested in taking attention away from anyone, although naturally she accumulates stares. Her grace is unstudied; teacher and fellow dancers alike lose sight of the combination’s particulars and are simply moved by her movement. She is likely to be sloppily dressed. She will frequently not follow combinations as they’ve been explained by the teacher, or stop in the middle of them to stretch. No one minds. She is lovely to behold in every position; in arabesque her leg stretches behind her in a sweeping arc and her back lifts in a supple bow. It is breathtaking—

Because there is nothing in this world so beautiful as a good arabesque, and because that is why I’m in class, in my faded leotard from the tenth grade and my ill-fitting sweatpants. Here I am, the Lost Dancer: nowhere near a Student (not anymore), light-years away from the Professional, but still beyond the gentle interest and rudimentary technique of the Old Lady.

The Lost Dancer is the unmoored dancer, who knows that life has moved forward, outward, upward without ballet, but who cannot bear to leave it. We are legion, found in classes the world over, standing at the back of the room.

I wonder if my teachers can see from the timidity of my movement that half the time I hope they don’t look my direction at all, ashamed as I am of my diminishment. I wonder if my teachers can see, the other times, the asterisk that I will so desperately to glint above my left shoulder when I go to class: the one that says, “I know her extension isn’t what it was, and she can’t remember the combinations as well anymore, I know her feet used to arch better and jump higher, but look how much she loves this! Look at her dance to this music!”

For the Lost Dancer, adult ballet class is pleasure and pain. Pain because visions of Sugarplums dance in her head all months of the year, choreographed and set to music; pain because she knows that when she chose college over dance, she closed a door that has sealed and will not, will not open again; pain because she might always wonder what was over its threshold.

Pleasure because of this: there is a moment before every combination, before the pianist plays the opening notes that start every dancer’s metronome, when we wait in fifth position. Then as the teacher says “And” to signal the music’s beginning, we move one arm in preparation—a gentle extension from the elbow, six inches, a bit more.

Just a breath. Just that.

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Laura Marostica’s writing has appeared in, among others, Rum Punch Press, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Buzzfeed. She blogs inconsistently at lauradomenica.wordpress.com. She lives in Northern California with her husband. Email: marostica[at]fordham.edu

Deflation

Fiction
Tara Kaprowy


Photo Credit: Jeremy Brooks/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The sun couldn’t reach inside the fire hall. John David, alone, eating watery chili and drinking sweet tea, felt the cool cement floor through his shoes. He sat at a long fold-out table that had been covered with a thin plastic tablecloth featuring veiny fall leaves. He wasn’t hungry, he’d filled up on a pancake breakfast at First Baptist that morning, but the thing to do was to finish the offering.

Finally, a lone square of chopped onion remained beached in his bowl, and he put down his plastic teaspoon, which was now stained orange. If he didn’t get moving, Humfleet would pin him down with a piece of red velvet.

He managed to avoid her and joined the group of volunteer firefighters standing outside the hall smoking. It was a pretty Kentucky afternoon in Pine Knot, the sun more golden than yellow. The fire hall faced the curvy road, which was banked by a wall of limestone that always looked wet.

John David joined Ron Townsend’s group, their beefy backs bent over to protect the flames of their Bics.

“Sure is a pretty day for a chili supper,” he commented, and Townsend nodded. “Reminds me of the kind of days when I used to go with my grandfather to the old homestead, visit the old cemetery. You know the one in Eubank?”

“Near the lake?”

“By the dam. Some of those stones date back to Civil War times. But still well maintained. Still well maintained.”

Townsend nodded as he inhaled, squinted as he let the smoke out. “Pretty spot.”

“Just goes to show that if you let people handle things themselves, they will,” John David said.

The comment referred to a recent vote denying county funds from being apportioned to cemeteries with less than a hundred plots. John David had voted to deny the money and he knew Townsend agreed with him.

“You’re damn right,” he said.

“That’s one thing we did right. Though I tell you, getting anything passed these days is a miracle. I mean, there’s a way to do things, manuals sent from the state, the whole bit. But Sparkman will come in and do things just how he likes. I mean, he will do things just how he damn well likes.”

More people were listening—now the wives had joined, almost all of them with their hair cut so it spiked up in the back. This group always showed up at the polls. John David switched the topic to zoning, how he’d confronted Sparkman on that, too, “because he’d tried to bully us again and I just wasn’t going to have it.” His speech rolled out of him so it was impossible to interrupt and not appear rude. It was a gift, his gab.

Humfleet came up to him and offered him the predicted block of cake.

“Honey, I’m no sweet eater. And anyway, if it gets any better than your chili, I don’t want to know about it.”

She smiled. He liked to think he was famous for his “honeys.” He held on to the “hon,” would cock his head, lower his jaw, before releasing the rest of the word. The overall effect could be construed as a mild admonishment, an inside joke, a prelude to some juicy gossip or just a feature of his charisma.

The men had had their smoke now and their kids were getting antsy in the driveway. He saw a boy pick up a handful of gravel as another boy danced around him, taunting. The boy cocked his hand over his shoulder, threatening the other, a few shards slipping out, but hesitated to fight his conscience before he released the rocks. The hesitation had given the other boy time to escape, and the gravel sprayed over the driveway, hitting nothing.

*

By the time John David pulled into his garage, it was dark. He’d attended two more events, the car show downtown and a fall festival at one of the elementary schools. He had three more weeks until the election, and though he was the incumbent for the sixth-district magistrate seat, he never let anything go to chance.

He could feel smoke and funnel cake grease on his skin. An orange cat greeted him with insistent meowing as he walked inside. As John David pulled off his shoes, the cat extended her front legs and made a ramp of her back to stretch it.

“Hello, Hester,” John David said, lifting the animal into his arms.

He deposited a can of Friskies onto a paper plate and went to turn on the shower. He was in the midst of renovation, the old pink tile stripped so now only ribbed cement remained on the walls. He bent over the pink sink to get a good look at his skin in the mirror. He could feel a cystic lump forming on his chin and pressed on it, feeling the pain from the build-up inside. He’d have to treat that before bed and first thing in the morning if he wanted to get a handle on it. He turned his head and examined the burgundy acne scars speckled along his jaw, passing the pads of two fingers very softly over them in a way meant to detect future eruptions but avoid contamination.

He was nearly 42 and, still, here he was, his skin at once inflamed and cratered.

Otherwise, he was attractive. He had kind, grey eyes, thick brown hair and his body was lean and fit. But he’d given up trying long ago. The stress of a first date would inevitably make his skin break out so that he’d have to suffer the humiliation of the woman across the table trying not to look. A few times, he’d gone on dates with women who’d also had an obvious deficit. His friend Cassidy had once set him up with a woman who sweated uncontrollably. Just past appetizers, amoeba-shaped stains had spread under her arms, so that by the time they reached dessert, she was forced to drastically restrain her hand gestures, pinning her upper arms against her body. She looked like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. He’d felt badly for, but disgusted by, her and was disappointed to learn he expected generosity from people that he, himself, did not possess.

No one was Jeannie anyway, so it didn’t matter.

He scrubbed his skin with sulfur wash thinking of her. They’d met sophomore year at Eastern Kentucky University, after mascot squad try-outs had narrowed down he and Jeannie as the two new Colonels. There were four members on the squad, each expected to spend about 100 hours a year inside the costume, which featured a giant head that looked much like Colonel Sanders and a maroon suit complete with frock coat and string tie.

John David had come into the try-out by accident, his roommate’s friend telling him he was the right size and it came with a partial scholarship. Jeannie had gone to every football and basketball game with her dad as a child and was fascinated by the Colonel.

In the costume, John David quickly learned he was no longer a shy, unappealing virgin. Instead, he was a beloved, silent jokester who wandered the aisles of the screaming stadium sliding down stair railings, stealing people’s popcorn, giving high fives to women sporting EKU tattoos on the apples of their cheeks.

Of the four students who played the Colonel, John David was the best at it, and Jeannie—blond, dimple cheeked, who had a habit of addressing people by their last names sports-team style—marveled at his natural talent as they sat over beers after the games. He loved her completely.

John David dried off and put on some track pants and an old, holey EKU T-shirt. He’d taped a new episode of Justified, and the new issue of his cycling magazine had come in. First though, he sat down and looked at his calendar, which featured space views taken from the Hubble telescope. He’d be free of commitments tomorrow, but Tuesday was Rotary in the morning and Wednesday was the Chamber luncheon. He’d need his game face on, something that was worth noting, but not really a hardship.

In the end, that’s the most important thing his time as a mascot had taught him. Even without the costume on, he had figured out how to become the embodiment of the Colonel: garrulous and likeable, but tactical, not easily interrupted. With two first names, not one.

When he returned to his hometown after college, armed with the degree he needed to take over his father’s accounting business, he perfected this public persona, surprising old friends and relatives with his new loquacious, down-homey confidence. Eventually, he discovered that the most natural place for the Colonel to shine was on the political stage. If he couldn’t have love, he could at least have power.

Hester, whom he’d inherited from his grandmother, jumped up as he sat and he scratched her back just above the base of her tail before she turned, once, twice, and finally settled on his lap in a curl much like that of a crescent roll.

It was, he decided, enough.

*

John David pulled up alongside the woman bent over the wheel in the Wendy’s parking lot. Her long brown hair whipped in the wind. The tire was a love handle puddled on the asphalt. The scent of fried meat hung in the air.

John David climbed out of his truck and pulled out the Colonel’s friendly voice.

“I’m not one to state the obvious, but it looks like you have yourself a bit of a problem,” he said and she looked over, surprised.

“I do,” she said.

He sat down on his haunches beside her. “Whewee, that’s a bad puncture.”

“I was lucky to pull in here. I was getting gas and was about to get back on the Interstate when the car suddenly starting shaking.”

Her accent was foreign. European.

“Hit a pothole or a curb?”

“No.”

“Maybe it was losing pressure for a while and suddenly just gave out. Well, let’s get you back on the road.”

She stood and she was tall. “I can’t ask you to do that.”

His answer was automatic, sounded as if it were coated in Teflon: “You don’t need to ask, ma’am. I’ve already offered.”

He smiled, looking at her briefly in the eyes for the first time. Her skin looked like cream.

He opened her trunk, which was filled with luggage.

“I’m going on a trip,” she said as they both pulled out the loaded bags. They were exceptionally heavy.

“These could be your problem,” he said. “An overloaded car is hard on the tires.”

As they stacked the luggage in the empty space beside them, cars inched forward to gain access to the drive-thru. It was nearly lunchtime and the Wendy’s always did a brisk business. Many people honked and waved at John David as they drove past. He was very aware that some of them were voters who would see him helping a stranded woman five days before the election.

He pushed the wrench with the palm of his hand to loosen the lug nuts and crawled underneath the old Civic to place the jack. He smelled grease, its bluntness, and thought of his dad. When he’d taught him the technique, his father had said there were two things never to be too busy for: stopping for a funeral procession and helping a woman on the side of the road.

“I still can’t believe you’re helping me,” the woman said. She wore a long, flowing dress, swirling with paisleys, and it swayed in the wind, so, from his vantage point, he could see her slim ankles. “It is making me wonder if I would help someone like this.”

“Honey, it’s no trouble,” he said. “I’m glad to do it. I would want someone to help my sister or my mother if they were in the same spot.”

He jacked up the car six inches. The wind had obscured the warmth of the day, and it took little for him to feel too hot in his jacket. He took it off and was about to put it in the truck.

“Here, let me hold it,” she said.

She folded the windbreaker over her arm and patted it once with her free, ringless hand. He removed the lug nuts and pulled off the defeated tire, replacing it with the spare.

“This will do you for a while, but you really should replace the tire. How far do you have to go?”

“I’m driving to Key West.”

He whistled loudly. “You’ll want to replace the spare before then. I can suggest somewhere here that will give you a good price, if you’d like. Where are you coming from?”

“New York,” she said.

He whistled again, a piercing crescendo that conveyed the enormity of her undertaking. He saw her wince in response to its sound.

“What is this town?” she asked.

“You’ve landed in Pine Knot,” he said, more quietly.

“Pine Knot,” she answered, as if trying out the words for the first time.

At that moment, someone honked from the drive-thru and John David looked up and waved. It was Don Marshall, owner of the car dealership.

“Whatcha got there?” he asked.

“Just doing my civic duty,” John David answered.

Dan honked his horn twice and John David waved again, a big, wide arc.

The woman looked at him, considering him thoughtfully. “Why don’t you let me take you to lunch? It’s the least I can do to repay you.”

“That’s not necessary.”

She nodded, deciding. “It is necessary.”

*

Frothy pies rotated in a glass display case at the entrance of Frisch’s Big Boy. The restaurant smelled of pork chops and gravy.

“It’s busy here,” the woman commented.

The room was mostly filled with grey-hairs sitting together having coffee or returning from picking up parlor dishes of Jell-O from the buffet. A decorated group of ladies with the Red Hat Society occupied a table of twelve in the center of the room. John David quickly said hello to several people before they sunk into a booth with brown, pleather seats, air exhaling from them in a swish.

“What’s good?”

“Well, it’s a burgers and fries kind of place. But there is the buffet too. Green beans, corn, mashed potatoes, stuff like that. Just simple country food.”

John David felt both embarrassed of the little restaurant—he could hear Crystal Gayle on the speakers—and loyal to it. He knew the woman would be out of place, but she’d asked for something more formal than Wendy’s, and there weren’t a lot of options in Pine Knot.

She ran her index finger down the laminated menu. Her nails were neatly filed, unpolished. He was very aware his forehead was in different stages of peeling from the medicine he took.

“I think I will have the Big Boy,” she announced and smiled. “When in Rome.” She pushed her hair over her shoulder in a wave. “Thank you again for helping me.”

“You don’t need to…”

“I understand it’s polite to decline thanks, but, yes, I do. I do need to thank you.”

He felt the discomfort that came from accepting the acknowledgement, like swimming up current. “Well, you’re welcome.”

She smiled and small wrinkles appeared beside her brown eyes. He guessed she was in her mid-40s.

“See? That wasn’t hard.”

“No, I suppose not.”

She was looking straight at him, her eyes wanting his to meet hers. It was hard for him to look back, feel her eyes assessing his face, and she seemed to know it, but didn’t mind insisting.

The waitress came to take their order, placing glasses of ice water on the table. She and John David had gone to high school together and she asked him how his mom was doing.

“She’s getting along OK,” he said, his voice booming suddenly. “Good days and bad days. You know how it is. Thank you for asking. I’ll be sure to tell her.”

“She was one of my favorite teachers.”

“She has a heart of gold, honey. She sure does.”

John David could see the waitress assessing the woman. When she left, the woman leaned in, her hands together and pinned between her chest and the table.

“She thinks we are on a date,” she said playfully.

John David took a sip of water, pushing a cube of ice against the roof of his mouth before he chewed it.

“You seem to know a lot of people,” she said.

“Yes, it’s part of my job. Well, not my job, really, but my second job. I’m a county magistrate.”

“Oh my. Are you up for election?”

“I am. It’s on Tuesday.”

“I see.”

She tapped her fingers on her lips. Karen Carpenter crooned.

“So, what’s bringing you to Key West?”

“It’s a long story,” she said. Her hand was around the red, pebbled plastic of the water glass and her skin was very white. She exhaled. “Actually, everything in my life is turning out to be a long story.”

“Well, everything in mine is short. So who’s ahead?”

He surprised himself by saying it. It was meant to be funny, but betrayed a wisp of bitterness that she latched onto immediately.

“Finally. I see you. Thank you for being honest.”

She told him she was leaving a lover, she used that word, and was headed south because she had a friend there. The man in New York had become too serious, was pushing her toward marriage. She didn’t want to stay with one person forever and he’d known that, she’d told him that, but, still, he was putting pressure on her.

“He had these big, thick wooden hangers, ones meant for suits. When he would get home from work, he would hang his pants on them, matching up the crease in each leg before folding them over on the rod. Then he would place his jacket on it. He would take off his shirt, but he would keep his socks, big, tall socks, on while he looked for the outfit he would change into.”

She looked at John David in a way that conveyed that she badly wanted him to understand. He did not; how else was the man supposed to undress? He considered laughing it off, politely telling her that men were clueless, as the women in town would expect him to say. But the thought of doing that suddenly tired him.

“I don’t understand what he did wrong,” he said.

“But it’s the same. Each day.”

“Everyone’s life is the same each day.”

“Not mine,” she said. “I couldn’t stand it.”

Their food arrived and he absorbed the idea that in an hour she’d be gone and that, for once, maybe ever, he could say anything.

“Well, was he a nice man? Was he good to you?”

“He was very nice. He is a good man. I do know that.”

“Is it possible you’re just spoiled then?”

She sat back against the booth, the pleather compressing. She knitted her hands together and put them under her chin. He expected her to be insulted and braced himself.

“Yes, maybe I am. That’s a good point.”

She examined her burger and bit into it, its height requiring her to open her mouth wide to accept it. The sandwich squeezed with her bite and gooey cheese dripped onto the plate. She wiped her hands on her dispenser napkin, which she’d unfolded and put on her lap.

“So now I’ve had a Big Boy,” she said smiling.

He watched her eat. He’d had no idea eating could be sexy.

“And what about you?” she said. “Do you have a lover?”

She asked it offhandedly, picking up the dropped cheese with the side of the burger. He wiped his mouth. He could feel anger swirling in a far-off place. She would have to know his answer. So was she laughing at him?

“No, ma’am.”

“Ma’am?” She laughed loudly. “Surely we aren’t going backwards.”

She held out her hand, wet from the meat of the burger, and he took it.

“I’m Marie.”

“I’m John David.”

“It’s nice to meet you. John. I’ve liked every John I’ve ever met.”

He didn’t correct her to tell her he used both names.

“So no wife? No girlfriend?”

He pinched his lips together and took another bite of his salad. But when she caught his eyes, he could see she was sincere.

“No, neither,” he said quietly. He looked around to see if anyone could hear them, but the noise from the red-hatted ladies was swallowing everything else in the room.

“So what is it? Are you shy?” she asked.

She raised her eyebrows in question, but it annoyed him, felt like goading. It occurred to him he could get up and leave and never see her again.

“Are you manipulative?” he responded instead.

She didn’t flinch. “I can be, but I am not being that now.”

“Well, you’re certainly steering this conversation.”

She dipped a French fry in her ketchup. “Ahh, but didn’t you manipulate me? Changing my tire to make yourself look good for your election?”

His fork paused in mid-air. “There is such a thing as doing the right thing.”

“It’s always motivated by something.”

“That doesn’t make your tire any less changed.”

“OK. Then me asking about your life. Your real life, and about you, none of the bullshit. That doesn’t make it unkind.”

He looked out the window, the trimmed boxwoods in the restaurant landscaping swaying as a unit. Beyond them stood the chubby statue of the Big Boy with his red-and-white checkered overalls, pompadour hair and 1950s optimism. She touched the pads of her fingers over his nails.

“You’re angry. I can see that you are. But why waste time being polite and saying nothing? Don’t you see? We have so much in common. I am running away and you are hiding. That is the same thing.

*

Marie ordered a milkshake for dessert and John David had a slice of pecan pie. She told him she’d come to New York from France to escape another lover. That was two years ago and her Visa was long expired.

As she spoke, about the waitress jobs and roommates she’d had, lifestyles that didn’t befit a woman of her age, John David watched her. Marie spoke often with her hands and, at one point, knocked over his cup of coffee. She didn’t clean the mess well, pulled out too many napkins from the dispenser and then left them in a wad on the side of the table, the still-fresh napkins eventually ruined because of the wet ones underneath.

Her life would always be untidy and unsteady, he decided. Here she was pouring her heart out to a stranger, something she could get away with because of her beauty; she knew men would listen. But then she asked him if he’d ever been in love.

“Once.”

He took a bite. “Pie’s good.”

She folded her hands on the table. “So? Once?”

“A girl in college. But it didn’t work out.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I never really told her. I mean, she might have known but if she did, she never told me.”

“Unrequited love is the most perfect love.”

“Except you don’t actually get to be happy.”

“Well, why didn’t you try for her?”

“It wasn’t a matter of not trying, it was probably a matter of not being wanted.” He gestured to his skin, something he had never done before.

She squinted, considering. “I’m not talking about getting her. I’m talking about risking.”

“I didn’t want to ruin the friendship.”

“Are you still even friends?”

“We lost touch.”

“Exactly.”

He felt a sudden shedding. She sipped her milkshake.

*

Marie kissed him on each cheek before getting into her car. She said she’d get her tire fixed when she got to Atlanta, though he doubted she would. She honked twice at him as she pulled away and he smiled at how American that was.

John David got into his truck. He had to pick up groceries at Walmart, and might as well get windshield washer fluid there while he was at it. He had to make a deposit at the bank. And Glen at Cumberland Appliance said they’d be willing to put up one of his election signs, so he needed to drop one by there.

He pulled out of the parking lot and turned left on Main Street. Then he imagined what music Marie would be listening to in her car. Probably something French. Or folksy—she seemed like the type. He rolled the window down and felt the wind on his scarred face.

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Tara Kaprowy lives in Somerset, Ky., where she works as a journalist. She has had work published in North Dakota Quarterly. Email: tkaprowy[at]gmail.com

The Nun Who Loved Rammstein

Fiction
Natasha Cabot


Photo Credit: Celine Nadeau/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Sister Mary Moira Frances O’Shannon stands naked at her window, smoking and fingering herself as she watches the boy and girl across the street drink whiskey and make out. If they were to look up, they’d see the naked nun but they don’t so they won’t. She sees the boy kiss the girl’s neck while the girl reaches down and rubs the boy’s crotch. Their mouths connect again with an inelegant grace. The boy pushes the girl down on the concrete steps while he roughly grabs one of the girl’s breasts—Sister Mary Moira thinks it is the left breast but from this distance, she cannot be sure. Her eyesight isn’t what it used to be.

She’s jealous of the girl. Age has made her bitter and filled her with numerous regrets. Her most notable regret is never having fucked someone. As a Bride of Christ, she will have instant entry into heaven but she’d give it all up to have been fucked at some point in her life. Christ will have many brides, she tells herself. And he’ll fuck none of us.

She stubs her cigarette out on the windowsill and pulls a wet hand out from between her thighs.

She sighs, somewhat satisfied but not entirely. Masturbation is no substitute for actual sex, she thinks.

Sister Mary Moira walks into the bathroom and stares at her reflection as warm water pours over her left hand. The harsh, fluorescent light magnifies every large pore, every facial hair, as well as the spider veins crawling along the tip of her nose.

She looks at the moles on her face and the grey hairs that poke out of them. To pluck them would be vain and vanity is a sin, she’s been told. So she doesn’t pluck and the hairs grow and grow and they curl at the end. When she walks, they flap gently in the breeze. The other nuns don’t notice; they have their own facial hair issues, too. The good thing about living with other ugly women is no one notices anyone else’s physical faults.

She takes a wash cloth, runs it under very hot water, and places it between her thighs and scrubs hard. This is her penance. She does this every time she masturbates. It hurts but feels good at the same time. She enjoys the feeling of the hot cloth rubbing against her dilapidated clitoris.

Now fully absolved, she goes back into her room and walks to the window. The boy and girl are gone and the concrete steps are empty. Opening the window a bit, she inhales deeply—wanting to catch any remaining scent of the boy and girl but it has left. Too late, she tells herself. Again, I’m too late.

The nun walks away from the window, goes to her desk, and pulls out her iPod, which she won at bingo one night. She lights another cigarette, closes her eyes and listens to Rammstein. She finds almost as much salvation in the voice of the singer as she does in Jesus Christ. She feels protected by him even though she doesn’t speak German. There’s something about his deep, rumbling voice she finds safe and that allows her to momentarily forget about the cast-iron hymen lounging inside of her cunt.

She closes her eyes and falls into the music while her lungs fill with smoke. Sister Mary Moira Frances O’Shannon once again imagines what it would have felt like to be fingered and fucked at age 15.

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Natasha Cabot is a Toronto-based Canadian author whose work has been published in numerous international journals. She recently finished her first novel and hopes to begin work on her second soon. Email: natashacabot22[at]gmail.com