Bird Watching

Baker’s Pick
Thaddeus Rutkowski


Photo Credit: J. Robinson/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

My family acquired a duckling at a local carnival. The bird was a prize in a game of chance. The way the game worked was, contestants threw ping-pong balls at small glass vases. Most times, the tossed ball would bounce off a lip and dribble into a trough, where it would be redirected to the next player. On one throw, however, someone in my family hit a cup and won a duckling that was dyed blue.

The duckling appeared to be female—she had a wide chest and a relatively short neck. She grew fast, and soon all of her blue down fell out. The bird, who wasn’t named, became her natural color—white—as feathers grew in. She also outgrew our living room, where she had been living on newspaper sheets spread on the floor. I didn’t miss the newspaper duck nest; we already had two dogs that made the kitchen their home.

To accommodate the growing bird, my father built a coop in the yard. He made a duck house out of plywood, with two-by-four legs to keep it off the ground. The coop had a wire-mesh front so the bird could see out—and we could see in. My father scattered straw on the wire-mesh floor.

She seemed to thrive there. Sometimes we let her out so she could roam the yard, though someone had to watch her all the time. She clicked her beak as she walked. She was snapping at insects and so was reducing the number of pests. But her snapping action might have been a threat; she looked like she could deliver a strong pinch. When she came toward me with her beak clacking, I got out of her way. I didn’t want to be “goosed.”

I remembered seeing an artist’s illustration of a child herding ducks with a stick. The image was in a book of Mother Goose rhymes, though not all of the animals in the book were birds. The inclusion of ducks among the verses seemed coincidental; the only bird with a purpose was Mother Goose herself. She had to tell the stories through rhymes.

In any case, the birds in the Mother Goose book were running away from the stick as the child held the weapon over their heads.

I tried the stick method with our duck. I picked up a branch and held it behind her head. She was afraid and didn’t want to be touched. With the stick in my hand, I was in no danger of being pinched. But I didn’t know where we should go, she and I, so I “herded” her in random patterns in the yard.

Over the weeks, the duck laid eggs, and my father collected them. The eggs were larger than a hen’s eggs, and the shells concealed a tough inner skin. Nevertheless, my father cracked the shells, pierced the skin, and cooked the eggs. He served me one, sunny side up. The yolk was darker than that of a hen’s egg, and it was larger than the egg white. “Eat,” he said.

I complied gingerly. I picked at the egg with the tip of a fork.

Whenever I was outside, I didn’t look in the straw of the coop. I didn’t want to find an egg and have to turn it over to my father.

Presently, the duck began to fade. She spent her time sitting in the straw that lined the bottom of her coop. Maybe she was brooding over her eggs; more likely, she was unhappy with her captivity.

My father transferred her to the house cellar, where she did even worse. The darkness and dampness got to her. Now and then, my father went down to feed her, but otherwise she received no attention.

I wanted to free the duck from the basement. I found a large cardboard box and gathered my brother and sister to help me. We went down to the damp, stonewalled room and pulled a string to switch on a bare lightbulb. The duck was sitting on the dirt floor. She didn’t get up when she saw us.

My brother and I carried the duck to the nearby creek; our sister followed. I had the idea that our duck would find a new life in the stream. She was a descendant of wild mallard ducks, bred by the Chinese to be white and relatively tame.

She still didn’t stand up when we placed her on the ground, so we put her in the water. She floated slowly away, with her neck extended and her head up. When she reached a distance from us, she looked like a white flower bobbing on the surface.

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Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of six books, most recently Border Crossings, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers Workshop’s members’ choice award, and his book Guess and Check won the Electronic Literature bronze award for multicultural fiction. His received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Email: Thadrutkowski[at]aol.com

Beautiful, Ordinary

Baker’s Pick
Kimberly Lee


Photo Credit: Angelune des Lauriers/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Maddie wandered through the house, pausing intermittently to give high scrutiny to some benign object, as she would in a museum. Well, it was a museum… now. The Madeleine and Albus Museum of a Beautiful Ordinary Life. MAMBOL. She smirked briefly at her own inventiveness, then felt the muscles of her upturned lips slacken, gradually pulling her mouth back down to its normal, flatline position. No one would implore her not to touch anything here, like the cabinets he’d just done up with shellac, darkly stained, as she wished. Or caution her not to walk anywhere over there, like on the hardwood floors he’d just refinished. He’d picked her up by the waist that day, locking her in an awkward, elevated hug, her head above his, maneuvering them both over a patch of the wet, gleaming floors as she shook with silent laughter.

She’d always been waiting, anticipating the big, exciting thing. She had no real sense of what that thing would be or what it would entail, couldn’t visualize or imagine it. It was abstract, amorphous, but would bring with it a feeling of weightlessness, a sustained buoyancy that would place them on a higher frequency, a more colorful, flavored existence. The tasks, the routine, the day-to-day, she did these cheerfully. They were a prelude. Scraping the soft, grey lint off the dryer’s lift-out screen after washing sweatshirts, left damp with perspiration from their Sunday morning hikes. Running warm soapy water over the teapot that sat on the stovetop, left coated with grease splatter from the afternoons he played hooky and surprised her with pan-fried pork chops and sautéed greens. Settling in on a rainy Friday night with two movie selections—agreed upon only after a stimulating debate that could’ve won the approval of Roger & Ebert—and a deep dish pepperoni pizza.

She grabbed at the mismatched stack of blankets, kept in the den, on hand for warmth, cuddling. She took one by its corner, felt the weight of it as its bulk opened and cascaded to the floor. She put it up to her nose and inhaled once, then again, trying to pull his scent out of the fabric. She wrapped the blanket around her as he had on many nights. Those times, that feeling, that was the big, exciting thing. She hadn’t realized it as it had happened, as the minutes and moments of beautiful had ticked by. And then they had stopped. All she could do now was wait, pray, hope, somewhere down the line, for another chance at ordinary.

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Kimberly Lee is a former criminal defense attorney who happily left the practice of law to focus on motherhood, community work, and creative pursuits. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Mama, Thread, Calliope, and The Prompt. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three children, and is currently at work on her first novel. Email: kimberlyylee[at]icloud.com

Oenaville, Texas

Baker’s Pick
Erica Hoffmeister


Photo Credit: Woman of Scorn/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

She was eleven, but the way he was staring at her mouth he could’ve guessed her at least sixteen. I was sixteen, but the way my narrow shoulders met her chest made her look even taller, broader. Her body a map laid across a table and pressed from corner to corner, asking your fingertips to run across water ridge lines with a smooth spinning compass pointing south.

I took the cherry sucker from her mouth and popped it into my own. Hey! She screeched with the tone of a girl who just got her period for the first time. Her knees were still unaccustomed to the weight of dying blood.

He carried his gaze through gas-stained coveralls, looked back to the pump, sweat on his wrists. The sucker protruded my cheek like an abscess, rotting my back teeth until I threw it at our feet.

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Born and raised in Southern California, Erica Hoffmeister earned her MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University’s dual degree program in 2015. She has had work published or forthcoming in So To Speak, Split Lip Magazine, Rat’s Ass Review, Shark Reef, and Literary Mama, among others. Her poems have: been nominated for Best of the Net in 2107, received runner-up for the Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize in 2016, and she’s also received an honorable mention for the Lorian Hemingway Award for Short Fiction in 2014. She currently lives in Denver with her husband and daughter, Scout Séverine, where she writes, teaches college English, and perpetually misses home—wherever that feels like at the time. Email: zhoffmeister[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

Four Poems

Baker’s Pick
Jim Zola


Photo Credit: J. Mark Dodds/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

To the Nail Found Under the Pew

Mine is the church of the smoldering limb,
the burnt self, the flesh missive.
At work, Geraldine sits across from me
plump in front of her screen
sings from shift start to shift end—
hymns, gospel. I call her Sister Hummingbird.

The church of the cracked jelly jar,
the knocked over bucket,
the broken spoke.
After I quit, Gina calls to tell me
Geraldine passed, hospitalized
for simple surgery, she never woke.
What church do you go to?
The first question asked when we moved South.
Church of the nevermind, church of the random
rancor, of the chewed nail.
At the service, we are whitecaps bobbing in the sea.
A blue-robed choir and four-piece combo lead the way.
The bass player has someplace else he needs to be.
The preacher shouts how the dearly departed wouldn’t want
wasted tears. The woman next to me shoots up,
slaps her thigh three times in praise.
Church of the ball peen hammer,
of the rusty shiv,
of the rotted plank.

 

Purlwise

I’m dreaming of beautiful trains bedazzled
in graffiti balloons, body part clouds adrift

upon random cars of sky. Sitting
at the crossing I watch this cumulus

of mysterious cargo pass into
eternity, into a heavenly

sadness that I long to wear like a sweater
my grandmother knits each Christmas, always

wrapped in shiny red paper. Eventually
she knits herself into an afterlife

of beautiful trains in clouds of red paper.

 

Sonnet Wearing a Mask as Disguise

This not answering the phone’s bring-bring is a kind of a sonnet
or a mask you buy because someone says it looks good on you
but the truth is it makes your monstrous head appear even bigger
than it already is. Back to the sonnet—bring-bring
it refuses to rhyme and the lines grow ragged, a single mom
waiting to order McNuggets for mistake number one
pinching the fat wailing cheek of mistake number two

while outside clouds sing like Ray Charles. See the girl
with the red dress on, she can do the Birdland all night long.
Because isn’t it all about desire? Fornication grows
ordinary. One chicken hawk waits on the leafless branch
for a nut drunk squirrel. Somewhere construction workers break
for lunch, pails filled with corrugated stars
and the homeless hold hands and pray for us all.

 

A History of Selfies

We had them.
We had mirrors for posing and zit checks.
We had other reflective things—
shop windows, hubcaps, butcher’s knives.
Not puddles, although more romantic types
might disagree. But their faces are
rippled and wet. We had shadows, still do.
We had artists, if that’s what you call the guys
at the World’s Fair who did
caricatures. Then our selves
had elephant ears, ski slope noses
and crazy cowlicks. We had Polaroids
to point and flash and wait and shake
while cheesy smiles magically emerged
from paper, first outlines then ghostly more.
We had photo booths with dusty curtains,
boxes guaranteed to produce giggles
and goofy mugs once the quarters
were inserted and the signal flashed.
I had a brownie camera held together
with lots of tape. I used it to take
pictures at the Berlin Zoo. Now,
all I have is a photo album full
of cockeyed stills of the giant walrus
who never ever smiled when I took his pic.

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Jim Zola has worked in a warehouse, as a security guard, in a bookstore, as a teacher for deaf children, as a toy designer for Fisher Price, and currently as a children’s librarian. Published in many journals through the years, his publications include a chapbook, The One Hundred Bones of Weather (Blue Pitcher Press), and a full-length poetry collection, What Glorious Possibilities (Aldrich Press). He currently lives in Greensboro, NC. Email: jimzola[at]hotmail.com

Judy

Baker’s Pick
Kathryn Pallant


Photo Credit: Martin Rødvand/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The three of us meet at Starbucks on Main: me, her and her husband. The minute I see them perching on bar stools at the end of the counter I know it’s them. He’s tall with that air of wealth and hurry that comes with success in business, but his hair is grey. Next to him she looks like a tiny aerobics instructor with a lot of glossy hair, and smooth skin. She’s wearing a tight jersey dress that holds her like a negligee. Her sandals show me she has long toes and a shiny pink pedicure.  Her husband’s knee is juddering; it’s hard to tell why except they’re often uptight like this.

I order my coffee first. I can see they have drunk theirs already. David, that’s what the husband is called, has slugged a double espresso, to judge by the empty cup on the table and the last of Beth’s latte is visible in her mug. I get the usual; a double shot cappuccino with caramel and low foam. Low foam. I almost laugh. Guess that’s why we’re here.

It’s not that I do this for a living or anything. Beating off into a cup every day is the pastime of cash-strapped and embarrassed college kids. I drive an Escalade, dress in Hugo Boss and wear Tod’s loafers. I’m not the polystyrene type. I’m a professional man. I’m married. I run my town’s chapter of the Insurer’s Guild, I hold down a tough job and everyone thinks I’m a pretty great guy. My wife’s got nothing to complain about. She works part-time on reception at the firm, and the rest of the time she steams her face and walks the dogs and keeps herself in shape. We’re not the kind of people you worry about. We’re the kind you ask over for dinner.

It was at one of the dinner parties that this first came up. A good couple, Deidre and Frank, friends of ours for years now, hosted us for Thanksgiving. We’d got to the part of the meal where people, maybe a little drunk on the old Californian, raise a glass and tell people that know anyway what it is that they’re grateful for. We’d had the predictable enough starters from others around the table. Mark Hanson said he was grateful for the holiday bonus that had bought his new Chevy—who wanted to walk to work? There was a bit of laughter at that, mostly at his expense but no one said so. His wife Charlotte was grateful for their family and home; they have two daughters and one of them suffers with Down’s Syndrome. It’s a struggle for them; they get tearful late at night if someone asks them how it’s going. Tears of tenderness Charlotte calls them, though it’s clear she spends her life striving to stay on the level.

Anyway, Frank gets to his feet a little unsteady, grips the edge of the table and says how grateful he is that he’s firing blanks because he gets to sleep in on a Sunday morning instead of changing diapers and driving the older ones to Little League while his gut circumference grows by a couple of inches a year. It’s almost worth, he says, having to sit with Deidre on the edge of the tub once a month while she weeps about it. He slops wine out of his glass onto his shirt and sits down with a thump. Next thing you know, Deidre’s up and thanking God that this website she’s just found lists people who’ll give her a good fuck without worrying about the consequences of a baby. That shut him up.

We talked about it in the car on the way home, my wife and I, as you might expect. This was a couple we’d known for years. Chances were it’d be days or at most weeks before I’d be unwinding their insurance policies so Frank could make his alimony payments.  Judy, my wife, was very shocked. She kept saying that she couldn’t believe it, and just when you thought you knew people. She seemed a little misty eyed which was puzzling because we were solid and it’d been a long time since we’d put the idea of kids behind us. It was something, we agreed, that God just didn’t intend for our partnership. As Judy and I talked, I kept thinking about the look on Deidre’s face: satisfaction and hunger all at once, and something else that I couldn’t quite name.

So when she came into the office two weeks later, I did the insurance business for her and asked her as casually as I could about the website she’d been frequenting. She gave me what I wanted and I gave her what she wanted against the filing cabinet, the whole thing shaking and clanging, mostly so she wouldn’t tell my wife what I’d asked her about, but also owing to that ripe as a plum look she’d had, shining with lust right there at her Thanksgiving party.

And so it went on. There was something a little unsavoury about the anticipation of a hook up but the fucking was worth it and I got to leave afterwards, no questions. The women just waved me on my way. After a while it got so it was like having a good workout at the gym, and I’ve always kind of thought that the fucking is a bodily need like any other, why get worked up about it, if you know what I mean. Deidre was pretty focused on the act while it was underway, and all business afterwards. She’d set up my profile on the site but never talked about the other women. We just zipped up and got on with our days. It might’ve been the times with her that made me do the same with the others. Maybe I set the tone and they fell in with it. Frankly, why dwell on it when everyone’s happy.

So I’d walked into Starbucks, and they were both there. It wasn’t the first time a husband had got in on the act. It wasn’t my favourite thing, but I figure I’m going to bang his lady, so whatever he feels he’s got to do. The few times I’d met the husbands, they disappeared at the critical moment, which suited me, because who’d want a dude in the room at a time like that? And it left their wives free to enjoy what they were getting. Pretty soon it’d be all logistics for them, pregnancy tests and a note from the site administrator to close up the association, as they called it. Job done, time to move on. Suits me fine.

But there he was, and historically the husbands have had a few questions. They are using the site to avoid the legalities, the hold ups, the medical insurance, the what have you. And on your side you want minimum fuss. You don’t want to bring a child into the world, have nothing to do with it, and then have it turn up when it’s eighteen asking about what you’ve amounted to and what this means about who they really are and why you don’t care about any of it. I’m comfortable with where I am. I’ve talked you through that already. Wife, house, a little money, some fucking and being left to enjoy your liberty. But anyway, the husbands want no strings. They’re the ones who want to be the daddy. Another one would get in the way. But they still have questions, so you humour them. The sooner you do that, the sooner you can get to the point. And Beth, without wishing to offend, is a point I’m pretty keen to get to.

The husband’s jittery from his espresso. The knee jigging keeps up. He lets me know up front, he’s doing this for Beth. She’s desperate for a child. I enjoy my coffee and wait for the talk to be over. I glance at her at this point and it’s true she looks a little haunted. But the wives, in my experience, might be thinking of a child before I get there, but then I arrive and they get focused pretty quickly on the next hour and a half. They get into it with a reliability that is gratifying. There are a few things that gratify that way. There’s not a whole lot in the insurance world that’s new to me, and I’ve been at the game for a while now. But there’s a quality in a pile of completed and filed applications at the end of the week that makes me feel pretty satisfied, since you ask. There’s a commission coming and everyone’s content, and I appreciate that the way I feel good about there being a little give in my waistband even after a long lunch. It’s like being one of the few at your high school reunion that still has his hair and a wife you wouldn’t turn away on a cold night. You know what I mean.

So when this guy starts with the questioning, I’m clear that it’ll be over soon and Beth and I can move on to the hotel upstairs for the business end of the deal. She’s sitting cross legged on the bar stool examining her manicure and I’m confident she’s waiting for this bit to be over too.

“You don’t look much like you went to Harvard,” David says. “What was your year?”

I’m wearing a good suit and I’ve got good posture and I’m pretty pissed by this, so I say, “Class of ’95, buddy. Didn’t see you there.”

“I was at Yale,” he says, like I give a shit. And he says it in this kind of way that makes you feel you’re already judged and found wanting. But I’m about to fuck his wife so I give him the benefit for a minute. Meanwhile I store away the Harvard thing. I don’t know what else Deidre wrote on that site. Who cares, right? It gets me in the door. But it’s handy to know from time to time, particularly when the husbands come out fighting.

“And you have no children of your own?” he says.

“No, ironic—isn’t that what you Yale grads say?” I give him a smile. “The wife’s not able,” I say. Not that it’s his business but he should know it’s not me or else Beth and I won’t get to the money shot.

“And your IQ is…?”

“Listen, buddy,” I say to him. I’m getting impatient now and Beth’s started to stare across the coffee shop like this isn’t anything to do with her. She’s looking far away and a little upset and it’s an effort getting past that later. I reach into my jacket. I know how to hold it so the label shows, and the lining flashes to its best advantage. Cerise satin, this one, on grey flannel. Boss makes them just so. And I hand him a business card. It gives him the low down on my business and the good neighbourhood I live in. Give him some comfort, I think. I’m all about transparency. The Harvard thing and whatever IQ Deidre’s stuffed out into cyberworld just don’t have anything to do with success, at the end of the day.

“I get results,” I say to him. “Never had an unsatisfied customer.” And I smile the way you do when you just know it’ll go your way.

Just then he gets all courteous. He looks closely at my card and raises his eyebrows. He’s impressed. He files it in his breast pocket and pats it through his jacket.

“Gabe,” he says, “thank you.” Very earnest he is, and I enjoy that. So when he says he needs just a little more time, that he and Beth have to talk—at this, she looks at him and squeezes his hand—I think well, what’s the hurry? They’ll be back soon enough. He gives me one of those crushing Yalean handshakes and she puts a perfumed kiss on my cheek and we agree to meet up again once they’ve had that talk.

The next week I’m in the office. I’m pretty relaxed after a decent hook up, and there’s a knock on the door. There’s a bailiff there, a squat man that smells like a row of sneakers in the locker room at the Y and he starts barking about fraud and Chapter 7. He hands over one of those business cards that’s like a high class wedding invitation. I have just enough time to reflect that the only person I’ve met lately who’d wield a card like that is David before the bailiff’s crew start confiscating filing cabinets and the breakfront Judy bought me for our fifteenth anniversary. I can see that out in the reception area—it’s not Judy’s day today—the secretary’s already reaching for her handbag and jacket.

I’m feeling a lot of rage and humiliation so that I can hardly drive, but somehow I’ve got to get home. On I-95 it feels like if I go fast enough I can stop the asteroid that’s about to fall on my house, but as soon as I pull into the driveway and turn off the engine, I know. Not much is different, but there’s one blind drawn in the window of the den and when I get to the front door I can hear the clink of the chain out back where Snowflake must be sniffing around. If she’s not in her basket while Judy’s doing the washing up and singing, if Snowflake’s not sitting on my wife’s knee while she watches Oprah, if she isn’t inside there’ll be no comfort for her. For Judy, my Judy, who stood up on Thanksgiving and gave God thanks that if she couldn’t have the family of her dreams, she had Gabe, the man of her dreams, and a happy, happy home.

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Kathryn Pallant is a fiction and poetry writer studying for a Creative Writing PhD at Manchester University, England. Her first novel, For Sea or Air, is represented by the Lucas Alexander Whitely agency and her poems have recently appeared in Cake and Antiphon magazines. Email: kpallant[at]hotmail.com

Delicacy

Baker’s Pick
Timothy Bastek


Photo Credit: haley8/Flickr (CC-by)

Cynthia saw the winged boy today. He was the last of his kind, an ancient race who once dwelled in the jungles far to the south. He did not give Cynthia or her classmates notice when they approached the cage. He just sat in his tree, his back facing them, his features hidden behind his dirty wings. The zookeeper explained the winged boy was dying and would not last much longer, possibly not even through the night. The plaque at the cage’s base said a team of archeologists had found him in a ruined temple cowering by the bones of his ancestors.

When the first colonists arrived two centuries ago, they saw the winged people of the South as nothing more than food. Their wings were considered a delicacy. It did not matter if the cities they built deep in the jungles were a treasure trove of knowledge for modern architecture, nor did the colonists care if their histories and legends revealed the wisdom of an ancient race. All the colonists wanted were their wings, to cut them from their backs, pluck off the feathers, fry them in oil and sacred herbs from the jungle, and dip them in sauces finely crafted from the from the winged people’s own harvest. Besides, the jungle languages were too savage and barbaric for the refined and civilized colonists to understand.

As her class passed through the zoo’s gates back to the bus, Cynthia glanced in the open doors of the restaurant that stood near the entrance. Inside, a wealthy man gave instructions to the chef, who nodded as he sharpened his knives.

pencilTimothy Bastek is from Chandler, Arizona. He’s been fortunate enough to have spent a year studying in Sweden. His stories have appeared in Tales of the Talisman and HelloHorror. Email: timothybastek[at]gmail.com

The Last Time I Had Brunch

Baker’s Pick
Jeff Bakkensen


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

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

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

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

“Wait.” A third. “Where was I?”

“Weren’t you there?”

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

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

The second: “I think you were there.”

“Was I?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

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

They all pause.

Two beats.

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

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

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

“Yes!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“—like ‘Hey bitch, why don’t you’—”

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

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

We decelerate towards a stop. The doors open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Unexpected Truth

Baker’s Pick
Jhilam Chattaraj


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aspire Dinnerware, New from Villeroy & Boch

Flash
Sherry Welch


Photo Credit: ume-y/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: ume-y/Flickr (CC-by)

I thought this is the kind of cup someone should want. Not white, but ivory instead, speckled and delicate like an egg, lavender stamped elegantly around the handle. Unwrapped, bubble-wrap tossed next to, not in, the trash, I set it alone on the counter. I lifted it, pleased at the delicate C my fingers shaped, and used my other hand to wipe away forgotten cereal Os.

I tried to be the person who loved this mug: I drank European coffee, and tried Earl Grey tea, too. I told myself to drink from this mug instead of a bottle of dark amber beer or two-buck chuck. When I filled it with powdered cocoa, it almost felt like home. I thought of pine trees and snow storms, missed my mother. In the bright sun of the west coast, I guiltily scrubbed it elegant again.

Sometimes, for weeks, it sat in my cabinet, upside down, and out of mind. Still, it reminded me to read the paper each morning, stay late at work, visit my friends’ terrace parties full of ties and heels. It would be proud of me, sometimes, and sometimes not. My promises were intermittently kept. The cup would probably have forgiven me if I could have just avoided drive-through windows, read that bestseller, turned off prime-time. When I was sick of doing three people’s jobs for the pay of half of one, and I thought I was finally done with it—I remembered the person who owns that mug is not a quitter.

I thought that mug was stronger than it was, as I slid it into the gentle cycle in my dishwasher. I was almost relieved: through Cascade-steam, that mug was ended in powder and pieces.

pencilSherry Welch has an MA in Writing and Publishing from Depaul University and currently resides in her home-town of Chicago. Email: sherrene.welch[at]gmail.com