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.

pencil

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.

pencil

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

More

Baker’s Pick
Ryan Dempsey


Photo Credit: Marissa Garza/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Marissa Garza/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I need to see you again,” Erik texted Sarah that morning from the store. He owned Sam’s Spud Hut close to Ninth Street. His dad Sam gave it to him before he passed and Erik still used the same fryer as when the store opened fifty-three years ago. Resting his elbows on the counter, he looked out over the boardwalk and at the ocean. The boardwalk was full of walkers and bikers, families on rumbling surreys and summer girls in bikinis, all out to get their sun before the forecast storm hit later that day. But it was too early for any of them to want fried potatoes. So he watched and waited for the phone to rumble a response between his arms.

“Rough night last night?” An old man startled Erik. He wore no shirt and had very tan and pickled skin. He was a regular but Erik could never remember his name and just called him Skip. Skip stopped by every morning around ten-thirty to get “the first in the oil” as he liked to say.

“No,” Erik answered as he stood from the counter and yawned. “Just the sitting here and waiting kills me. If I could work all day and keep moving I’d be fine and still have enough energy to nail the wife.” Skip laughed, but Erik knew he wouldn’t be getting anything from Molly; she was angry with him again. He picked at a drop of hardened cheese on the counter. She had no idea what was going on; she had no right to be mad.

He moved to the fryer to fill Skip’s order: double potato curly. The grease bubbled and boiled hot as the phone vibrated on the counter next to him. He wiped his hands on his apron, regarded the white cloth and decided he would order black ones as soon as he could. But that wouldn’t help with the smell. He shouldn’t have to do this; he owned the damn place.

Through the glassless window above the fryer he could see the rest of the boardwalk and the other stores. He remembered being here with his dad and every one of the stores down the wooden walkway was owned by a different family or person. Kites used to own the sky, but now all Erik saw were cranes towering over the tiny shops. One by one the shops he grew up with were being destroyed to make room for the franchised food vendors and T-shirt chains.

He took the fries from the fryer, piled them into a cardboard bucket and handed it to Skip. He remembered his phone. “I have dinner tonight with my family. But we can get together after.

Erik smiled. “I’ll meet you after dinner.”

As he responded, the phone came to life in his hands and he almost dropped it into the hot oil. “Can you come fix the roof before the storm?” It was Molly. It was the third time in almost half a year he had to patch the roof above their bedroom.

He talked to Skip for a while only half-listening before he told him he had to leave but that he’d be back later. He watched Skip waddle off down the boardwalk. Coming out from inside the shop, Erik pulled the crimped sheet of aluminum over the front opening and lowered the sheet of steel he used over the open window above the fryer. He secured each with a padlock and a sign that said, “MAY RETURN THIS EVENING.” He’d had Molly write one up for the evening time as well, for when he closed early: “CLOSED FOR THE NIGHT.”

He wandered a few stores down, through the line of patrons waiting outside Pete’s Potatoes, weaving in and out of the groups of kids and parents that stood in front of Sammie’s Shirts and Shorts to the corner ice cream store, Duke’s. Duke knew his father. Sam, Duke, Pete and Samantha were all friends, starting their businesses around the same time. Duke Sr. was the only one left; all the others had passed their businesses along to their children. Duke’s recently moved to the corner building because he needed more room. There was a line there as well.

“Duke around?” Erik asked the cashier. A few teenage kids buzzed around her.

“I don’t think so,” she said in a Russian accent, turning her head to look for her boss. She wore a white apron, the same color as the ice cream. “I think he is at home. No. He is away on vacation. He only stops in once every few weeks. I can have you talk to the supervisor if you like.”

“No, that’s fine.” Erik looked past her. They had tables and small booths but mostly people waited at the pickup counter. “Geez, it’s not even eleven yet.”

“Duke changed the hours and now we open earlier and longer.”

“Good for him, good for him. Yeah, I’m just leaving for a few hours and I wanted him to keep an eye on the shop.” Erik pointed towards The Spud Hut.

“I will let my supervisor know.”

“Thanks,” he said

She smiled and he wondered if Duke was nailing her.

“I can hardly wait to see you again,” Erik texted Sarah from the top of a ladder that leaned against the vinyl-sided surface of his home. The clouds had started to come across the sky and he could see the line between the morning sunshine and the coming afternoon rain. He dreaded climbing the ladder but the roof needed to be fixed. He was sick of just patching it; he needed a new roof. But in order to actually replace it he needed money and in order to get money he needed to work. “But there’s no time for that,” he said aloud. “All because of those goddamn corporate companies throwing their goddamn money around and taking my goddamn business.” He hoisted himself onto the roof, the shingles warm against his palms.

“Watch your language!” Molly raised her voice from the bottom of the ladder. She was ten years his junior. She held their child who straddled her hip.

“He can walk, you know?” Erik said. He looked at the roof and cursed again at the situation, never at home because he needed to be at the store, at the store all the time because he needed the money. He thought about hiring Skip but he’d probably eat through the entire stock of potatoes. He poked angrily through the shingles with a stiff hand. His son started to cry and he listened as Molly walked away with him into the house.

Erik climbed the roof further so he was at its peak, where he got the best reception, and checked his phone. Nothing from Sarah. She was probably getting ready to go to out. He met Sarah like he always met them: at the store. And he always knew which ones were worth the time. It was never that Molly wasn’t worth it but it probably would have ended much the same way all the others did.

His son screamed.

Erik started on another row of shingles. The leak was probably from a previous search on the roof. Maybe he had disrupted how the sheets sat on top of each other. He knew the futility in searching but he had to keep the rain out before the storm really pulled through. Had the leak been anywhere other than their bedroom he could have let it be. But the drops of water started falling straight into the middle of their bed, creating a division that forced them to far opposite sides of the bed and eventually him to the couch. The thing was, it wasn’t just a leak. “We need a new home altogether!” he yelled at the shingles. And this reminded him again of the boardwalk, his threatened business and money.

“This is all because of them,” he muttered to himself again. He sat on the roof, the breeze from the ocean stronger now with the storm just over head. At first he was proud that he stood up to them, as slowly he felt each store around him becoming another carbon copy of the last one built, except for Duke’s and Sharon’s Sunshine Shop. And Bill’s Bicycle Rental and Amato’s Pizza and the other small shops whose names still blazoned their front signs and archways, shops whose names Erik could not remember.

He would probably have to give in and sell. Probably make a good chunk of change and he could probably buy a new a house, but Erik knew that wasn’t the point. The point was his dad had started the business and built it up to a sustainable form of income. There was a certain pride in that that was no longer there. Apparently his name didn’t mean much anymore. It was all about more. More, more, more. More stores, more patrons and more money.

It began very slowly like most summer storms. He hadn’t realized how windy and dark everything had gotten. First he saw the lightning then heard the thunder. He felt the mist from the rain as it blew in at him. It thudded into the roof like chisels pounding into a wall. It fell like that for maybe a whole minute before any struck him. Then suddenly it became a downpour, churning down the roof and overflowing the gutters. He let it fall on him and it felt good.

His phone vibrated then and he almost dropped it taking it from his pocket.

“You still haven’t fixed it!” His wife stood at the base of the ladder under an umbrella, their child in a diaper beside her.

“Yeah, yeah.” Erik shooed his hand towards his wife’s voice, his hair saturated, clothes soaked through, eyes transfixed on his phone, regarding Sarah’s message.

pencilRyan Dempsey currently resides with his wife and daughter in the Pittsburgh area. Ryan’s fiction is published or forthcoming in such places as The Portland Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Gravel, Drunk Monkeys, and Almost Five Quarterly. Email: ryandempsey82[at]gmail.com

Fat Peanut

Baker’s Pick
Nancy Nau Sullivan


Photo Credit: Helen Haden/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Helen Haden/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Ann raked through the dresses on the sales rack. A blue dress with a chain link pattern. A Pucci. Pucci’s back.

Most of the good stuff was gone. She remembered when this shop was a wood hut where the islanders—the real islanders—bought cheap beer, cigarettes and salami. Now Pine Avenue was turquoise and pink, with a designer donut shop and shop after shop of this stuff. Her hand dropped down the polyester sleeve of a yellow-and-pink top with swirls from neck to hem. My sister could carry that one off, I couldn’t.

The grizzled old Floridians were gone. The island was peopled with fat rich white northerners who smelled of expensive soap and talked, loudly, about nothing.

The woman standing next to Ann pulled a short white dress off the rack. “I like it but I’d have to iron it,” she said.

“No one irons anything any more. They like to look wrinkled.”

The woman was wrinkled and stylish with shiny blond-grey hair and liquid-blue eyes, so light they almost disappeared into the whites. She had diamonds in her ears the size of cocktail peanuts.

The woman twirled the dress back and forth. She hung it up and then took it out again. “I really like it.” She mostly talked to herself like Ann wasn’t there. The woman seemed to be used to an audience.

Ann decided to be nice. Sometimes she had to make the conscious decision. “A good cut on you. Jag.” It was more of a beach top with breast pockets and pearl buttons. Ann liked it, too. If the woman didn’t want it, well, maybe…

The sun was bright and warm on the porch of the shop where all the sales hung. Forty percent off.

“It’s 87 dollars,” the woman said.

She was a snowbird flown from the cold, landing on this island off the coast of Sarasota. Ann couldn’t place the accent. Boston? Maine?

The woman suddenly dropped the dress to her side, as if reading Ann’s mind. “Where are you from?”

“Chicago,” Ann said. “Originally.”

“My daughter’s in Indiana. At Butler. She’s there because she’s a professor,” the woman said. As if the daughter needed a legitimate reason to be in Indiana, which by the way, Ann was about to point out, is not Chicago.

Ann let it pass. Snowbirds were one thing, one irritation in life’s island cycle. As soon as the first Easter egg came out of the basket, they would all be gone up north to their lilacs and tulips. Ann couldn’t wait. She wanted the roads and grocery stores and beaches back. But she couldn’t have it all back.

“Where are you from? Can’t quite place the accent,” Ann said.

“Ohio. Hubby’s in cardio.”

“Oh?” Ann felt like a snowball had been stuffed down her back.

“Yes, We just love this island,”

Ohio, maybe Cleveland. Cardiologist.

The Cottage.

Ann had lost their beloved cottage to a cardiologist from Cleveland. He’d swooped in with more money than God and bought it out from under them. Ann’s uncle had been the instrument of destruction. He’d taken the matter to court, and under the laws of partition, he forced the sale of the cottage. He took $840,000 in the deal, making the most of real estate before the Crash of ’08. Ann and her brothers had tried to buy him out, but he wouldn’t have it. He worked on the cardiologist from Cleveland who hung in there with a slew of lawyers, pushing for the deal until it was done. Ann had looked over at her uncle in court, his white, bald head bent and shining, the orb of evil. She could not look Uncle Neil in the eye after that. She didn’t have to because he died. She used her share of the sale—$130,000 of Judas money—to pay off debts. She’d wanted to throw it in the Gulf. It would have made as much sense. But the money was gone, and so was the cottage. To someone like this woman, someone from Cleveland. She remembered the name. Hurley, or Huntley.

The woman took the white dress out again. “I’m going to try it on,” she announced brightly.

The first thing the cardiologist from Cleveland did was tear down the cottage. He built a tan McMansion with orange shutters and a green barrel-tile roof and filigreed balconies, leaded glass coach lamps and Tiffany glass in the front door. Hideous. The cottage had stood on two gulf-front lots, so there was plenty of room for the grand mansión, finished off with its trucked-in Disney-esque garden of hibiscus and palms. They called it The Condo, it was so big, towering over that little house on the corner next door that now was completely cut off from view and sunshine.

Her grandmother found the cottage on a sunny day in 1956. She’d been reading The Bradenton Herald, crinkling the want ads. She tapped the crumpled pages of the newspaper with a pencil. “Ha! Let’s go out there and have a look.” Ann didn’t know what she was talking about, but she was excited. In her six-year-old brain, she knew this had to be something special. “Out there” meant the beach. On the island.

They drove out to Anna Maria Island in her grandfather’s new hunter green Cadillac, the bulbous versión with the pokey little fins. Ann had her bathing suit wadded up under the front seat, just in case. Off they went, her grandfather with the cigar in his mouth and her grandmother with a frill of white hair blowing in the humidity, clacking over the wooden drawbridge, past the tall spindly palms and the mangroves, the Brazilian berries and the Australian pines, out to the white beach and turquoise wáter. Burning pitch wafted from the fireplaces in the new little stucco ranch houses at Key Royale, Sand Dollar Haven, Coquina Corners.

The cottage stood on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico on stilts, slightly crooked on the white sand. The logs were interspersed with swaths of white stucco; it was a striped house with a rusty-red shingled roof. The white-framed windows on either side of the faded green door, like two great eyes, saw right into Ann’s soul.

Ann’s grandfather laughed when they pulled up to it and got out. “Liz, the gulf is right up to the house!” She just laughed. She was falling in love, and so was Ann standing next to her, the two of them looking out at the wáter, while Ann held her silky fingers. She squinted up at the sun, yellow, soft, golden sun. She opened her eyes, and the turquoise wáter dazzled her from that minute on. Her grandfather chomped the cigar, paced the short street of crushed shell. He nodded at her grandmother, both of them grinning. She raised the edge of her floral housedress and waded into the foamy surf. Ann flopped into the waves beside her, bathing suit forgotten.

Her grandmother had saved “egg money,” tucked in her rubber stocking. She made the down payment on the cottage and four surrounding lots—most of them underwáter—for $5,000. The seller was glad to get rid of it.

Over the years, they piled in and drove out to the cottage. The beach changed, receding and advancing, until finally they ended up with a football-field-sized playground of sand like white sugar. They jumped into the fierce winter waves and rolled in the sand until they were sugar cookies. They hid in the sea oats and ran out in shrieks of laughter; they buried each other up to their necks, dug for coquinas and made horrible soup with shellfish (from an Old Cortez récipe). They scoured the beach for sand dollars and periwinkles. They watched dolphins and fed lettuce to the manatees and stale bread and cereal to the sea gulls.

All day they were on the beach, and at night, they watched the white edge of the gulf from the window. The wind creaked and sang through the cracks between the logs. Ann went to sleep, listening to the waves that rolled up close to the window, some nights, lapping against the cottage. The splash was thrilling. Her grandfather said the pilings under the cottage went down seventeen feet into the sand, and that they would be safe in the best place on earth.

It was magic, winter after winter, into March for St. Patrick’s Day and Dad’s birthday in the sun and under the moon, until it stopped. The time was gone, but Ann held on to it. It was there in the burning pitch, the musty sea, the sound of gulls. It all brought her back there instantly to the cottage. As long as there was memory, it would always be there.

She stood behind the woman, the blue dress looped over her arm. Ann saw the woman write Hurley on the charge slip. Hurley from Cleveland.

Ann felt the sharp twisting in her soul.

She wanted to strangle the woman, follow her out to her Mercedes, probably, and key the side of its impeccable paint job, maybe even trip the woman on her way out—before she strangled her.

The woman turned. “Well, you have a wonderful day. Enjoy your dress. That is a fabulous color for you.”

Ann’s lips worked as she plastered on the fake smile. She wanted out of there. “You, too. Have a great day, and a safe trip. Back to Cleveland.”

“Cleveland? Why would I go to Cleveland?”

“You said you were from Cleveland.”

“Lord, no. I can’t imagine why I said that. Ohio, yes, Cleveland, never.” The woman juggled the white shopping bag with the Jag dress in it. She shifted her Fendi bag to the other arm. “Didn’t you say you’re from Chicago? No, we’re not from Cleveland. We’re from Chicago. Just like you.”

pencilNancy Nau Sullivan is a Chicago area writer who recently returned from the Peace Corps in Mexico. Prior to service, she taught English, and for many years, was a reporter and editor at newspapers in the Midwest. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Marquette University. Amphorae Publishing Group will publish her memoir, The Last Cadillac, in February. Her stories have appeared this year in The Blotter, The Atherton Review, and Akashic Books online. Email: nabns[at]aol.com

Remaining Balance

Erin Charvet
Baker’s Pick


Pontones
Photo Credit: Alberto Romero

Hal McHugh walked into the crowded, dingy waiting area and scratched his head. The last things he remembered were the antiseptic hospital smell, the masked faces of the doctors and some shots that had made him feel funny and fall asleep. Then a prolonged, annoying electronic beep had announced with apparent glee the permanent cessation of his vital functions. He’d done what they’d said and gone toward the light, but he hadn’t expected to wind up here, in this poorly lit place with a bunch of bored-looking people and no available chairs.

Had he died and gone to the DMV?

“Take a number, please,” said a frumpy woman sitting behind a window.

She slid a small slip of paper into the little metal tray beneath the slot at the bottom of her window. Hal picked it up. He was number 10,491,602. Glancing up at the large digital display on the wall, he saw that they were only currently on 533,754.

“Great,” he groaned. “Just my luck.”

He looked around for a sign indicating where the restrooms were, figuring he could kill some time that way, but didn’t see one. Then he realized that having relinquished his physical body, he wouldn’t need things like restrooms anymore. And if he didn’t need restrooms anymore, what else didn’t he need? This line of thought led him down a long, circular path of speculation that took up some time. A little while later somebody got up and he took their chair, so he was able to close his eyes and nap for a while. Napping—or rather, trying to—took a good bit of time as well, seeing how there were so many people shuffling about and arguing and asking one another for cigarettes and whining about being dead.

At last he stood up and began to wander the room again, contemplating his situation. He determined that although it was highly disagreeable, death at fifty-eight wasn’t the worst thing in the world that could happen. He’d had a respectable (albeit much-hated) mid-level management job for the past thirty years, a four-bedroom house in a good neighborhood and a wife who still wasn’t half bad to look at, even if she was hardly fit to boil water in the kitchen. His kids hadn’t wound up as cult members or with their faces on any America’s Most Wanted billboards, so he felt it safe to assume that his parenting had been equally satisfactory. His life hadn’t been the least bit exceptional, but he supposed that he’d gotten as much out of it as possible for someone who’d never sought even the shadow of remarkability. He might have lived another ten or fifteen years at most, had those clowns not botched his heart surgery.

After no certain amount of time spent wandering the room, sitting and standing again, striking up (and instantly regretting) conversations with the people in his immediate proximity, and examining water stains on the ceiling and walls with the closest to thing to scientific interest of which he was capable, Hal’s number was called. The woman behind the window pointed to a door, which he hurried through with the urgency of a man whose pants are on fire. Beyond the door was a colossal warehouse full of desks and ringing phones. He wandered down an endless cubicle corridor, overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the place.

“Mr. McHugh?” someone said.

Hal looked to the left and saw a pudgy, red-faced man in a tweed suit that perfectly fit his ideal of an IRS auditor. The man’s smile was so wide and artificial that Hal half-wondered if he were about to hear a sales pitch for a timeshare in Pensacola.

“That’s me,” said Hal.

“Name’s Dwight Strickland,” the man said, holding out a hand. “I’m your eternity officer. Wonderful to finally meet you in person.”

“Eternity officer?” asked Hal, shaking hands with him.

“I’m like a loan officer,” said Strickland. “Except this relationship really lasts forever!”

“I see,” said Hal. “So what is this place, anyway?”

“Sort of a stopover en route to your final destination, wherever that might be,” said Strickland. “Not quite what you were expecting, I take it?”

“Well, I’m not sure I—”

“Excuse me just a moment,” said Strickland, whose phone had begun to ring. He picked up and listened to whoever was on the other end with much intensity. There were a few uh-huhs and hmms and head nods. Then he thanked the caller and hung up. “Bosses!” he sighed, with an eye roll and a dramatic toss of the hands. “Just because we’re all dead doesn’t mean they’re any less demanding.”

You have a boss?”

“We all have bosses. You might’ve heard of mine—Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, Satan, etcetera. Some of your former associates have dealings with him on quite a regular basis.”

“What?” said Hal, blinking. “Like who?”

“Stan Ridgemore, who sold you your boat, for example. Fran Wyzinski, your old boss, and Dennis Neidermeyer.”

“My accountant was colluding with the devil?”

“We try to avoid terms like collusion here,” said Strickland. “Heaven, hell, purgatory, all it really boils down to in the end is business… and a slight temperature difference. Anyway, let’s get down to it.”

“To what, exactly?”

Strickland looked at Hal as if he were an escaped mental patient. “Your debt, of course,” he said. “Got to calculate what you still owe.” He took a big calculator from a drawer in his desk and began punching in numbers. “First of all, you were still sixteen years away from paying off that second mortgage you took out on the house.”

“That sounds like a lot.”

“Perhaps, but you really needed the money at the time. Remember how Holly just had to go to that fancy New England school with lots of big oak trees around? What you’d ‘put away’ for college barely covered her first year of tuition. Then she had to join a sorority, have a monthly allowance and get an apartment all by herself.”

“Fine, I get it,” said Hal. “Just tell me what the bill is.”

“Shortly,” said Strickland. He continued calculating. “There’s also the credit card debt, of which you still have over $48,000, not counting future interest. They’ve bumped up your rate three percent while you’ve been here, by the way.”

“Three percent already! How is that possible?”

“You’d never know, but you’ve already been dead for over a year,” said Strickland. “Sense of timing differs for the dearly departed.” He punched in more numbers. “Next we have the car.”

“But I’ve had my car since 1996!” Hal protested. “And Linda only got the Subaru because her Saab’s transmission was shot. That’s been paid off for years!”

“Not your cars,” said Strickland. “You co-signed on the purchase of Kenny’s Mercedes. Remember how he insisted on five-hundred horses under the hood and an all-leather interior being essential for what he so aptly referred to as ‘networking’? Well it turns out that Daddy’s little C-student wasn’t quite the entrepreneur one might’ve hoped for. As a result, the last several payments have been missed.”

“What else?” asked Hal, groaning.

“You owe the hospital for your heart surgery. Big time.”

“Oh no, that must be a mistake,” said Hal, holding up his hands. “I had excellent health coverage.”

“You are aware, of course, that your insurance company only covers sixty percent of the cost of successful operations?”

“But I died!” Hal protested. “I shouldn’t have to pay a single dime for that operation. If I were still alive I’d be dragging those incompetent jackasses to court right now!”

“Sound logic on your part, but here’s the kicker: if you were still living, you would have only been accountable for a forty-percent deductible, or approximately $37,600 for the operation. But because you died the insurance company pays nothing, making you liable for the entire cost.”

“That makes no sense!”

“Guess you’d better read the fine print next time,” said Strickland. “Now let’s see, where were we?” Hal put his hands over his face, the infernal clack-clack-clacking of the calculator knocking around inside his skull like marbles rolling around in a wooden box. “Now, with the new roof, remodeling of the kitchen, landscaping in the front yard, last year’s taxes, gas, electricity and dry-cleaning bills, we wind up with a grand total of $702,853.47.”

“Now hold on a second,” said Hal. “I also have a million-dollar life insurance policy. Haven’t you factored that in?”

“Correction,” said Strickland. “You had a million-dollar life insurance policy.”

“What happened to it?”

“Your wife threw a wonderful post-funeral party catered by Chez Hubert and picked out a reeeeeeally nice casket for you too. Macassar ebony and platinum with an incredibly comfortable satin interior. Top of the line, really. Almost makes you want to die all over again!”

“But the whole amount couldn’t possibly have gone to my burial, could it?”

“Oh no, of course not!” said Strickland, chuckling. “Linda went shopping on Rodeo Drive, got some plastic surgery and bought a beach house down in St. Thomas. She’s getting a foot massage right now from the cabana boy she picked up earlier.”

“Why would Linda think she needed work done?” Hal asked.

“Who knows,” said Strickland. “TV, magazines, marketing… but I tell you, she’s never looked better!”

“So now what?”

“Now we put you to work until you’ve paid off your remaining balance. Keep in mind, however, that you’ll be earning considerably less than you were at the time of your death.”

“Why less?”

“We subtract what you would have normally spent on food, which for you was a considerable chunk of your paycheck,” said Strickland, standing. “Now I’ll show you to your desk. Come with me, if you would.”

Hal followed him down the corridor for what seemed like several miles. After an uncertain number of turns, they arrived at an empty cubicle. On the desk was a rotary phone, a pen, an ancient typewriter and a yellow notepad. Strickland snapped his fingers. A huge metal cart overloaded with files came rolling their way. He stopped it with his foot.

“You’ll be reviewing these reports, and then reporting on what you’ve reviewed,” he said. “All you have to do is read through each file, type up a recap of the contents and place what you’ve typed into a new file.”

“Sounds pointless and dull,” said Hal.

“This job calls for a very particular skill set. Thirty years of mid-level management made you the perfect candidate.”

“So how long will I be here, then?”

“Shouldn’t be longer than fifteen or twenty years,” said Strickland. “About the time you would have retired anyway, if you’d made it that long. Then it’s on to good old ‘Rest in Peace’.” He looked at his watch. “Wow, getting to be that time. Enough witty banter for one day. I’ll let you get to it then. Good luck!”

Strickland spun on his heel and took off in the direction from which they’d come. Hal watched him disappear around the corner. Then he picked up one of the files, sat at his desk and began to read through.

pencilErin Charvet is an Atlanta native who studied journalism and psychology at Georgia State University. She’s been writing poems and stories ever since she can remember, and hopes to continue for as long as possible. She comes from a large family with whom she is very close, and currently lives in Paris with her husband. Email: erincharvet[at]gmail.com

Negative Space

Baker’s Pick
Sandra Fees


negative space
Photo Credit: mollybob

When sand is so hot on the feet
you forget how to walk

and when prayer is the shape
of a teacup

Because the young woman tells her boyfriend:
negative space is cool

and because the room is too big
and the world too small

After you drink holy water
in the Narayan temple

and sacrifice what was
for what is

Then everywhere is a tree
wanting to be climbed

and everywhere arms press
into sleeves of air.

pencilSandra Fees is a poet and minister. She studied creative writing at Syracuse University in the 1980s and was editor of the Harrisburg Review from 1994-2001. She’s an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and lives in Reading, Pennsylvania. Email: sandrarfees[at]gmail.com