Dry Rope

Broker’s Pick
Timothy Pilgrim


Photo Credit: maciekbor/Flickr (CC-by)

Hiking in, her weight, constant,
seven pounds, be it rain,

snow. Tented on glacier,
summit above, always curled,

her, sinuous pillow for my head—
not left out, laid straight, wet

under anemic stars, knots
pre-tied tight, night icing

each coil and twist. I confess,
I love my dry rope,

pamper her when we go down—
a warm bath, rubbed dry,

draped across the bed,
sinuous, supple, brown.

pencilTimothy Pilgrim, a Pacific Northwest poet and emeritus associate professor of journalism at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., has published over 300 poems—with acceptances from journals like Seattle Review, San Pedro River Review, Third Wednesday, Prole Press, Cirque and Toasted Cheese. He is author of Mapping Water (Flying Trout Press, 2016). His work can be found at timothypilgrim.org. Email: pilgrimtima[at]gmail.com

Night

Broker’s Pick
Richard Dinges


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

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

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

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

Whiteboard

Eileen Gonzalez
Broker’s Pick


There's a new (old) dry erase board in town...
Photo Credit: Zach

January

My first thought when Kelby walked in was he looks normal enough, and I immediately regretted it. Of course he looked—was—normal, and if he was going to live with us for the foreseeable future, I’d have to stop thinking of him as abnormal or weird or non-binary or anything besides Kelby.

Caleb set the suitcases by the door as Kelby, with his hunched shoulders and stormy features, stood there not resembling his perpetually sunny brother in the slightest.

“All right then, Kel, this is my girlfriend Simone. Simone, this is Kelby.”

I smiled and shook his hand and said how nice it was to finally meet him. Just the standard script, but I tried to sound like I meant it. Kelby said nothing, perhaps sensing my reticence, perhaps being an ungrateful brat. Caleb nudged him with an elbow, which only earned him a sharper nudge back.

“Your room is down that hall, first and only door to the right,” I said.

Kelby snapped up the suitcases.

“I’ll help you unpack,” said Caleb.

“No thanks,” said Kelby.

He stepped lighter than his posture would predict, like stomping was beneath his dignity, and disappeared into the guest room.

“Your family’s nice,” I said.

“He isn’t always like this.”

“So you’ve told me.” And told me and told me and told me. As ambivalent as he felt about his parents, Caleb had nothing but unconditional love for his mopey sibling. So when Kelby got tired of fighting his parents over pronouns, Caleb insisted he stay with us. Only after Kelby accepted did he think to ask me.

“He needs a safe place to stay,” he’d said.

“I thought he was supposed to be mad at you for saying gender-fluidity is a load of bull cookies.”

“That was years ago. I’ve been trying to make it up to him since then.”

“And it worked well enough that he agreed to live with us.”

He nodded, shuffling his big-booted feet against the strip of hardwood between the dining room and living room carpets. I opened my laptop.

“I’m not going to un-invite him,” I said. Caleb looked like he wanted to thank me, but I started typing. I hadn’t even opened a window yet, but I needed that conversation to end, so I put on my work face and faked it. When I actually worked instead of pretending to, I maintained social networking sites for several small-to-medium businesses, including the Book Worm, a bookstore in Hartford; Fluffy Friends, a toy store with outlets in New Britain, Southington, and Waterbury; and Angelo’s, a swanky New Haven restaurant. I liked working for Angelo’s best. Their Facebook page was a constant stream of scrumptious photos and recipes even Caleb couldn’t ruin. On Kelby’s first night with us, he made lasagna rolls.

“Lasagna’s his second-favorite food,” Caleb told me. “I’d make his first favorite, but then he’d know for sure I was trying to spoil him.”

“I take it that’s a bad thing?”

“It is according to Kelby.”

Sure enough, Kelby thanked his brother for dinner with a mildly suspicious dip in his brows, though that didn’t stop him from taking seconds. Caleb made valiant attempts to grab his attention as we ate.

“You know, Simone is fluent in Korean. Learning about other languages and cultures is kind of a hobby with you, isn’t it?”

“I prefer Scandinavian languages, but that’s cool.”

“That sounds interesting,” I lied. “How many languages do you know?”

“None real well.”

And that was that. Well, no one could say I didn’t try.

 

February

As a lifelong Connecticut resident, I always feel obligated to tell outsiders that I can count the number of white Christmases I’ve had on one finger. White Groundhog Days, however, are a semi-regular occurrence, and it was on one such February 2nd that Kelby marched into the kitchen, announced they had no definable gender today, and insisted we use they to refer to, well, them. I beat my inner Grammar Nazi into submission as Caleb and I nodded.

The snow had largely melted two days before Valentine’s Day. Last year, we celebrated by going to Gillette Castle, the stately home of a long-dead stage actor whose idea of fun was to put guests in one room and watch them puzzle over the door’s odd locks from upstairs via strategically placed mirrors. I knew Caleb was The One when he said he would have used such a set-up to keep the kids out of his hair.

Kelby didn’t count as a kid, at least not to us; they were a year into college and paid for a good chunk of it by working at a comic book store four days a week. They stayed in their room most of the time too, studying or texting or whatever it was they did. So when they emerged from their self-imposed solitude to make a sandwich, I figured I might as well give cordiality another shot.

“Hey, got any plans for Valentine’s?”

“Study. Play Guitar Hero. Steal some of the super-expensive chocolates Caleb’s out buying for you right now.”

I gasped and smiled at once.

Kelby raised their eyebrows in a parody of surprise. “Was that a secret? Oops.” And if the words weren’t insincere enough, they smirked as they said them, but I laughed along anyway. I mean, c’mon. Chocolate.

“No, but seriously, no plans?” I said. “You’re adorable when you’re not angsting.”

“Yeah, well, no one is interested in having a girlfriend when they go to bed and a whatever when they wake up.”

They didn’t even have the courtesy to look upset about it. At least then I would have known how to react. No, they just smiled like we were talking about spring fashion. I tried to smile back in the vain hope it would banish the burning coal lodged in my chest.

*

The next day, Caleb bought a little whiteboard and hung it on the fridge.

“This’ll make it easy,” he said, holding out a purple marker. “Write your gender here so Simone and I don’t have to worry about screwing up.”

Kelby took the marker and wrote ‘Hello, I Am They’ on the board. It remained that way for most of the month. By the time ‘they’ got replaced by a lime green ‘she,’ the Grammar Nazi was black and blue. He’d get over it. Who listened to Nazis anyway?

 

March

Kelby sat on the couch, fiddling with his dark hair while reading a geography textbook. We never had to nag him (or her or them) about homework, and any time a presentation came up, he could spend hours practicing in front of the square mirror mounted on his bedroom wall. In short, surprisingly studious for a part-time brat. He didn’t even look up when I settled in the recliner beside him.

Work that day consisted of updating the Book Worm’s Twitter feed with news of St. Patrick’s Day savings on any book by or about the Irish. Someone asked if we’d be serving free Guinness. I didn’t dare respond, so my thoughts drifted over the coffee table (was Caleb allergic to coasters?), skimmed the couch (orange floral print seemed like a good idea at the time), and landed on Kelby. Kelby. Caleb and Kelby. Weird combination. I met their parents once, and they didn’t seem the type to go all matchy-matchy with baby names. But Kelby didn’t seem the type to give himself a name that honored his brother, so…

“Is Kelby your original name?”

“Why does it matter?”

“It doesn’t. I was just curious.”

He flipped the page in a manner that suggested I was fortunate he hadn’t flipped me the bird. Awkward, but it didn’t make the Book Worm’s Twitter feed any less stupid, so I grabbed a controller and settled in for some quality video game time.

“If you want quiet, you might want to leave. Mama needs some stress relief.”

I heard him close the book. I assumed he left until suddenly he was right there, watching over my shoulder.

“You want to play too?” I said. “It’s not hard.”

“Sure.”

I handed him a controller and brought up the Create Character screen.

CHOOSE YOUR GENDER

MALE          FEMALE

“I thought you said this wasn’t hard.”

“Sorry, I never really thought about that before.”

“Well, I’m a dude today, so we’ll go with that.”

He named his character Medieval Starlight and dressed him in the most distracting outfits the game provided. I blamed his initial bout of beginner’s luck on the ridiculous reindeer pelt that wiggled its antlers every time the wearer scored a hit. I swore in Korean. Kelby covered a snort with a cough.

“I thought you said you only knew Scandinavian languages,” I said.

He chuckled and shrugged. It was the closest he’d ever come to an apology, but after pounding Medieval Starlight into the ground a few times, I felt more inclined to forgive.

 

April

Sun poured through the bedroom window in direct defiance of trusted proverbs (“April showers” my foot) and my plans to sleep past six o’clock. The glow of my muted cell phone didn’t help.

Caleb didn’t wake as I stretched far, far away from the cozy warm comfort of our bed to grab the cold, cold phone. I just missed a call, apparently. The number belonged to one of my bosses, Michelle, who ran Fluffy Friends with her sister. They were nice enough, but Michelle had to be living in her own private time zone to think anyone appreciated her predawn check-ins.

I left the bedroom, mentally cursing all the way, and hid in the bathroom. Michelle spent at least a minute thanking me for returning her call so promptly before launching into a list of toys she wanted me to plug. Lacking pen and paper, I wrote on the mirror with Kelby’s lipstick.

By the way,” she said, one ruined tube of lipstick and a barely-legible mirror later, “I saw some of your more recent Tweets, the ones plugging the computer games we just got in?”

“Yeah?”

I know Twitter is hardly a bastion of good grammar, but you keep using ‘fun for all ages and genders,’ and that always looks awkward since there’s many ages and only two genders.”

“Actually, some people identify as a third gender or as being both male and female, others shuttle between two or more genders, and still others don’t have any gender at all. I didn’t want to exclude them, so I went with ‘all genders.'”

…”

“Plus it’s easier to fit in the character limit than ‘fun for boys and girls of all ages.'”

Oh, okay. Keep up the good work, Simone.”

Yeesh. Did I ever sound like that?

I felt a little less like boss-punching by the time I joined Caleb and Kelby at breakfast. Kelby wore a plain button-up, jeans, and a face full of make-up. The whiteboard read ‘Tell HER About It.’

“Hey, babe. Hey, Kelby.”

“Hey,” they chorused. They could have been the new Queen with harmonies like that.

Kelby cocked her head. “You okay? You’re making an owl face.”

“Does that mean I’m cute? Owls are cute.”

“No—”

“You are cute, though,” Caleb said.

“—it means you’re annoyed. Owls always look like someone drank all the orange juice and put the carton back in the fridge.”

“Did Caleb do that again?” I said.

“It wasn’t empty!”

“Yeah, you left like a whole teaspoon,” said Kelby.

I left them to bicker in favor of retrieving much-needed coffee. Out the window, two squirrels chased each other across a roof. I superimposed Caleb and Kelby’s squabbling over the scurrying squirrels, biting my lip so as not to interrupt the comedy routine behind me, and forgot all about Michelle until Kelby discovered her poor lipstick.

 

May

“You are not going out dressed like that!”

“I’m not five years old! You don’t get to dress me anymore!”

“Obviously I should! Is this what Mom and Dad let you wear?”

“Why do you think I’m wearing it now?”

Kelby stormed into the living room wearing a metallic black skirt and a ruby top. Nothing looked too tight or too skimpy, but Caleb must have seen it through Big Brother Vision and I knew better than to interfere in a sibling fight for any reason short of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Which, by the way? Never happen in Connecticut.

“Get back here and change!”

“You’re just embarrassed that your brother wants to go out in a dress!”

“That’s not—”

Whatever it wasn’t, Caleb couldn’t say it before Kelby snatched a clam-shaped clutch off the armchair and slammed the door. That didn’t deter Caleb from yelling, “I bought you that clutch!”

“No wonder it’s so ugly!”

I finally let myself laugh, which made Caleb mope like a puppy too short to reach a burger on the counter. He spent a full hour that way, slouching over the couch until he was almost on the floor, pouting at the television, checking the clock every thirty seconds. I was supposed to blog about the wonders of Angelo’s liquid nitrogen chocolate bars, but after the fourth sigh, concentration finally slipped from my grasp.

“Would you rather she didn’t have a social life?”I said.

“No.” His tone suggested a walrus-sized ‘but’ would be forthcoming if I waited long enough. I typed one whole sentence before it came. “I just wish she’d show half as much interest in spending time with us as she does alone or with her friends.”

“Did you want to spend every night with your family when you were in college?”

“Not every night, but I didn’t run away at the mere mention of a night with them, either.”

He returned to sulking and I returned to work. Those chocolate bars wouldn’t sell themselves. Okay, yes they would, but my boss didn’t pay me to state the obvious.

*

Around eleven, Kelby came back sober, dressed and smiling. I went to bed, but Caleb stayed up to hear every detail he could drag from his beaming sister.

 

June

Caleb reached for the scarlet tie draped across his pillow. I smirked into the mirror. He wore a dress shirt and slacks every day, but it never seemed to suit him. He should have been a construction worker or a sailor instead of an accountant. A very handsome accountant, but still.

I half-expected Kelby to barge in and make the snarky comments I withheld, but they had finally given into their parents’ request for a visit while Caleb and I went out for an anniversary dinner at Angelo’s. I tried not to mention the dinner around Kelby. It made them shut down, and asking why just drove them into an hour-long sulk. I remembered their comments at Valentine’s Day and kept my excitement to myself.

“Hey, help me with this, would you?” I waved my hand at the necklace that downright refused to fasten. His fingers brushed warmly against my skin as he did the clasp, promising a night of fond reminiscing and quiet laughter and then the front door slammed.

I froze for only a moment, but it was enough for Caleb to beat me out of the room. By the time I joined him, Kelby was storming by us, eyes glistening and left cheek burning red. Their only response to our concerned inquiries was the slam of their bedroom door and the intermittent sound of sobbing.

*

Caleb and I reheated last night’s macaroni and ate in the living room, just in case Kelby wanted to talk.

*

The sound of my fork scraping up eggs may as well have been the climax of an action movie. Caleb cast frequent, furtive glances at the bathroom door; Kelby had emerged from their room an hour earlier only to vanish into the bathroom and turn on the shower before any greetings could be shared. They’d been in there for forty-five minutes when Caleb finally gave up and left for work without brushing his teeth or a word to his sibling. I promised to text if something happened.

Two minutes later, in a puff of steam, Kelby crept from the bathroom. Their cheek had faded from red to purple.

“Morning,” I said.

“Hi.” They poured a glass of orange juice and took their usual place at the far end of the bar. They drank slowly while quizzing me on the weather and my job and the latest soccer scores. They didn’t say anything about the previous evening. I didn’t ask.

When I finished my own meal I told Kelby to leave the dishes.

“No, I got it,” they said, the only sign they knew of Caleb’s and my spoiled evening.

I texted Caleb of Kelby’s emergence.

How do they look? he texted back.

They LOOK fine…

Damn.

*

Caleb must have gotten Kelby talking at some point because a week later, he whispered to me that Kelby had asked their parents to use the correct pronouns. They received angry resistance and ultimately a slap for their efforts.

He asked me not to tell Kelby that I knew.

“I don’t think they wanted me to tell you, but I figured you deserved it after what happened.”

We never talked about it again, and I certainly never mentioned it to Kelby. The bruise vanished under concealer and rouge along with any lingering hurt. I crushed the temptation to hug them and let them beat me at gender-clueless video games.

 

July

Slate clouds spat at us, though thankfully not enough to interfere with Caleb’s pre-birthday balcony barbecue. My job was to bring in the raw meats and vegetables from the kitchen and dump dirty plates in the sink. Caleb and Kelby’s job was to bicker over how well-done to make the burgers. Siblings were stupid, and so was my ‘let siblings fight in peace’ philosophy.

“Guys, you’re not gonna share the same burger. Just make one the way Caleb likes it, one the way Kelby likes it, and one the way I like it, which is nonexistent because I prefer hot dogs, which I do not see on this grill. Ahem.”

“But he likes to burn his and the smell ruins everything else,” said Kelby.

“It’s my party and I’ll burn burgers if I want to,” said Caleb. Kelby huffed an “Argh, fine” but he smiled as he said it. Caleb made a show of opening the packet of hot dogs and placing them on the grill one by one. I stuck my tongue out and disposed of the hot dog packaging.

Fight resolved. Score one for me.

 

August

I slammed my laptop shut. No more overly peppy tweeting about self-wetting baby dolls today!

Abandoning the laptop on the bed, I went to retrieve Kelby for our weekly video game mini-marathon. I almost felt guilty about planning to stay indoors on such a bright day, but we couldn’t possibly play video games outside. The TV was too heavy for us to drag all the way down to the courtyard.

Kelby’s room contained lacrosse gear, fat books, apples both natural and technical, several Beanie Babies and a stylish black coat, but absolutely no Kelby. Huh. I knew she came home on time…

Before worry could set in, Kelby returned, holding a few envelopes and a bagged newspaper.

“The old guy across the hall said he’s going to visit his grandkids for a week,” she said. “He asked me to pick up his mail while he’s away.”

George Kozlowski. He’d lived in this building since before Caleb and I moved in, and he’d probably still be there after we moved out. He seemed nice enough.

“Clearly he doesn’t know you as well as we do,” I said.

“Please. What am I gonna do, steal his AARP magazine?”

“Hey, they’ve got interesting articles.”

 

September

George came home on Labor Day. Kelby gave him an hour to settle in before gathering the bagful of junk mail and newspapers that had accumulated in his absence. She returned with a smile like summer vacation.

“He said I look just like his granddaughter,” she said, and she glowed for the rest of the day.

 

October

Kelby and I sat by the front door on barstools borrowed from the kitchen. At the sound of small running footsteps, I put on my top hat and Kelby brushed imaginary dust from his long dark dress. Yes, his. After initially resisting the Halloween spirit, he made a last-second decision to dress as Elphaba, even though he had written ‘HEre’s Kelby’ on the board that morning.

“Are you trying to make my head explode?” Caleb joked.

“It’s Halloween,” Kelby said, laughing and stealing the last strip of bacon off my plate. “You’re supposed to dress as something you’re not.”

Me, I dressed as Willy Wonka because then no one would look at me funny if I snuck a chocolate here and there (“I’m getting into character!”). Caleb just threw on a trench coat and called himself the Highlander, the lazy bum.

Caleb watched Ghostbusters while Kelby and I slowly gave away our bowl of Snickers, Almond Joys, and Hershey’s. We’d planned on giving Reese’s as well, but between the three of us, they hadn’t survived the weekend.

A knock at the door. On the other side stood Sara Hardy the pink pony from two floors down. We gushed over her cheap generic costume and gave her an extra candy for being so cute. We did that for everyone who wasn’t a six-foot teenager with a pillow case, but Sara and Sara’s Mom didn’t have to know that.

Ghostbusters ended and Caleb kissed the top of my head before disappearing into our room for the night. Kelby and I manned our posts for another half-hour. A parent or two gave Kelby odd looks, but as far as the little sci-fi villains, princesses, jack-o-lanterns and bumblebees were concerned, anyone who answered the door with candy on Halloween was fine by them.

 

November

After moving straight from my parents’ house to the apartment with Caleb (and later Kelby), being home alone still felt weird. Kelby had stayed late at school to work on a group project about the Hiroshima bombing or something equally cheerful. Caleb had gone to pick up new light bulbs to replace the dead one in the bathroom. The silence bounced around my ear canals until I popped in my earphones and turned on my Get Your Butt to Work playlist. It worked until Caleb returned, wrapping his arms around my shoulders.

“Take a ticket and don’t cut in line, sir.”

“There’s a line?”

“Yes, and this Facebook post is at the front of it. Then my email, then Scarlett Johansson, then you. No, wait. Email, Scarlett Johansson, everyone from Queen, then you.”

“Ouch.”

Caleb settled his chin on my head as I tried to think of tolerable autumn-related puns to plug Angelo’s seasonal dishes. ‘You’ll FALL for our black bean soup!’ ‘Don’t LEAF without trying our cranberry apple salad!’

“Are you trying to stimulate people’s appetites or kill them?”

“And who are you? Shakespeare?” I said, deleting the (admittedly terrible) wordplay. “Like you could do better.”

“For your information, I have a spectacular idea.”

“And it is?”

“Let’s go out. It’s been a while since we did anything.”

“Yeah.” Five months, to be exact. I missed couple time. “We could go antiquing. Because we obviously don’t have enough junk lying around.”

Caleb laughed and agreed and out we went, the wind stinging my ears with a hundred needles as we tread the familiar path to the antiques shop five blocks away. The cramped, cluttered shelves smelled of old cloth and good wood. We squeezed past ornate dining chairs we didn’t need to examine nineteenth-century jewelry boxes we didn’t want, all to the ticking of a grandfather clock that had stood in that same corner for three years now. I looked and hmmed and sneezed and critiqued but mostly I held Caleb’s hand, basking in the tranquility.

 

December

I returned from mailing Christmas cards to find the apartment looking and smelling like the world’s sloppiest bakery. Caleb and Kelby loved Christmas more than you’d expect from people who vigorously toed the line of atheism. We hadn’t even cleared the Thanksgiving dishes when Caleb cranked up the Christmas songs. Kelby dug The Muppet Christmas Carol out of his closet and we watched it that same night, snuggled under the poinsettia-covered quilt Mom bought us several Christmases ago. Sadly, that gusto failed to manifest itself as non-mutant gingerbread men.

“You know I bought cookies like three days ago, right?”

“That was the problem,” said Kelby. “We knew, so we ate them.”

Figures. Still, it was hard to argue with the scent of ginger and molasses and the sound of two very similar laughs warming the kitchen. I shed my coat and purse and leaned against the counter. The cookies looked even uglier up close. Biting their heads off would be a pleasure.

“We were thinking of giving some to our parents, but they’re a little too deformed, I think,” said Caleb.

Kelby pressed a decorative button into a cookie with unusual force. Uh-oh.

“I don’t want to go home for Christmas,” he said.

“Come on now,” Caleb said. “You agreed. We spent Thanksgiving here, so now we go home for Christmas.”

“I changed my mind. You’re supposed to have fun at Christmas, not get yelled at for ignoring anyone who uses the wrong pronoun.”

Caleb’s jaw twitched. I dug my fingers into my arm. Let it go, babe. You know you and Kelby will never agree about this. Don’t fight about it right before the holidays.

He exhaled through his nose and said, “You haven’t seen them since summer.”

“That recently?”

Another twitch. Please don’t do this, guys.

“I don’t think one day is too much to ask,” Caleb said.

“It is when it’s Christmas.”

“You agreed!”

“That was just to get out of seeing them at Thanksgiving!”

“Time out!” I said. Their boiling glares flattened into a simmer. “Now look, I know Kelby agreed, but maybe he could go home for Christmas Eve instead and then come spend Christmas with me or his friends.”

Kelby instantly brightened, turning to Caleb for approval.

Caleb threw a glob of green frosting onto a one-legged gingerbread man and smeared it around with a spoon. “Christmas Eve,” Caleb said. Serious. Confirming.

“Yes. Promise.”

“You try to weasel your way out of this one and I withhold your presents.”

Kelby laughed and nodded. The tension melted like snow on a sunny day. I smiled around a bite of deformed, lumpy gingerbread.

“Oh hey, we finished decorating the living room,” Kelby said. “Wanna see?”

I followed Caleb while Kelby skipped ahead, turning off the living room lights so the Christmas lights twinkled in the sudden darkness. The lights were strung from the fan in the middle of the ceiling, looping outward and framing that stupid grandfather clock we bought just to wipe the resigned pout from the shop owner’s face. Red and green garlands draped over bookshelves, and the small tree boasted ornaments shaped like snowflakes and superheroes and silver stars. Beneath the tree sat a modest assortment of ceramic houses nestled among white blankets, with tiny figurines spread about to bring the little town to life. Cheap plastic snowflakes shone like sun-warmed crystal.

“Wow, this is great! It looks like something out of a fairy tale.”

“‘Fairytale of New York,’ maybe,” said Kelby.

Caleb slapped him upside the head and offered to make hot chocolate.

Not being idiots, Kelby and I accepted and waited among the lights, looking around with wide eyes. Kelby turned on the radio at some point. Moments later, I reveled in the warmth of my drink and my family’s love as the first verse of a loosely familiar carol… wait.

“‘The Night Santa Went Crazy? Really?” I said, even as Caleb frowned at the incongruous violence wafting from his innocent stereo.

“It’s one of the only holiday songs I like,” Kelby said with a shrug.

“Guess I shouldn’t have gotten you that Michael Bublé Christmas album then.”

Kelby looked at me, expression wavering between suspicious perplexity and murderous intent. I managed to hold the poker face for three seconds before a giggle slipped free, and Kelby deflated with relief. Caleb took the opportunity to change stations, settling on Johnny Mathis. Kelby rolled his eyes but didn’t change it back, instead reaching for the steaming snowman mug on the coffee table. We all squished into the couch, cocoa in hand, and bickered over the music until sundown.

pencilEileen Gonzalez is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. Her short stories have previously appeared in The Potomac Review, Toasted Cheese and Helix Magazine. Her first novel, Jury’s Greatest Hits, will be available on the Kindle in December 2014. Email: piedpiper59[at]ymail.com

Stats for the Living

Broker’s Pick
Sandra Fees


Summer Night Softness
Photo Credit: mtnbikrrrr

for Yehuda Amichai

For every person in a hurry to die,
there are three to pull her back.

For the dying who can’t die,
the living to push them through
and the dead cajoling.

For the weary,
plenty of shoulders.

For the lonely,
those who will take their money.

For morning people,
the unrelenting hunger of goldfinches
and garbage trucks rattling
up and down streets with unwanted
tins and wrappers that can’t breathe or stop breathing.

For evening people,
there is the memory
of what no longer loves
but can still be loved

and there is sleep,
crowded by cicadas,
by dreaming and you.

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

Perennial

Broker’s Pick
Jay O’Shea


Untitled
Photo Credit: Charles Fredrick Gruber

I stood at the window as the new girl arrived. Mrs. Sutani was out so I went downstairs to meet her. I took her bags and caught the scent of something floral, synthetic but appealing.

“On your way home?” I asked. With her olive skin and hazel eyes I thought it could go either way.

“No.” Her English was accented, with an inflection I didn’t recognize. “I’m from Corsica.”

She looked so small and fragile, I wanted to take her in my hand.

“It’s an island,” she added. “In the Mediterranean.”

“Well, be careful here,” I said. “This is no tropical paradise.”

“Neither is Corsica.” She smiled, the corner of her mouth turning up, just on one side.

I’ve lived in this house for over a year. There’s no point in buying my own place on the island, with my wife and child back home. Besides Mrs. Sutani likes me. She finds it comforting, a respectable man like myself here while so many others come and go. Not that this is a hotel or a boarding house. Everyone who stays here has a personal recommendation. But no one’s as constant as me.

Mrs. Sutani and I are the same age. You could see she was a looker once. But a woman loses her beauty so soon. Nothing she can do but stand by and watch it fade, like a flower cut and brought indoors. Doesn’t help that she lost her husband in the war. On leave and killed by a bomb meant for anyone at all. Imagine: he put in years of service and died running errands.

I saw action myself and I know I’m not safe here. But at least the missus and the little one are at home. But then, there’s another difference, right? It’s man’s job to go out into the world and take risks. I can’t hold Mrs. Sutani’s flaccid skin and thick body against her; it must be hard to stand by, while someone else faces danger.

At dinner, the girl sat across from me. It was just the three of us. I asked her name. Her clear eyes locked with mine.

“Rosa.” Her lips inched back into a smile.

Rosa, I repeated to myself. Rose. A blossom not yet faded. Not even picked.

I found myself talking. She brought it out of me; maybe it was her eyes, with their open, trusting look. I felt she would listen, that she would understand.

I was military for twenty years and none of it was light duty. The worst of it was here, on this island, in the northern desert. You have to wonder who’d want to form a country up there. If it were up to me, I’d say, let them have it. They wouldn’t last more than a few months. Even water is scarce. Fresh water, anyway. Plenty of salt water. It seeps in and ruins the land for farming. That land was for fighting on, not fighting over.

But the battle: on the narrow strip, the tendril that connects the peninsula to the rest of the country. Sunlight seared our eyes so that we, with our tanks and guns, sat blinded, waiting for their attack. The guerillas bided their time, then swarmed in from the patches of jungle that rested at the edge of the pass.

I don’t even know how many of my boys fell that day.

And the worse part, I said, looking at the two women next to me, was when I saw the guerillas’ faces. They had girls on their front line. Not even women. Girls. Bright-faced with hair in braids, looking like they should be in school. Until you saw their eyes. You only see eyes like that in a soldier. They had made a life of this and they were, what, sixteen?

“I’m surprised you stayed,” Rosa said, her voice cool as the water in my glass.

After dinner, I sat in the back garden and smoked, listening to the cicadas buzzing and birds chattering before they went silent for the night. The traffic on the road was a whisper. The servant woman’s child laughed as he ran through the garden. He was prattling away but I couldn’t understand him; I’ve never learned the island language. Why bother? It’s irrelevant, spoken nowhere else in the world, barely more than a dialect. And it sounds like nails rattling in a can.

Rosa sat down. She said nothing and I wondered if I’d upset her, with my talk of the war. The light from the kitchen threw a shadow across her face. Her neck was long and graceful and it arched as she turned her head to look out into the garden. Her blouse had a neckline that dipped to the edge of modesty. I couldn’t see a swell of breasts. All I could see was her collarbone, an even edge with a tight valley behind it. Without meaning to, I thought of my mouth on her shoulders, of my tongue caressing the line of that bone.

She stared at me. I sat back. I ran my hand through my hair and took a drag off my cigarette. She couldn’t have guessed what I was thinking. Could she?

“I’ve met him,” I said, dropping the name of the rebel leader.

He’s notoriously elusive—you don’t run a jungle campaign for fifteen years by calling attention to yourself—and not many people get to see him. Certainly no one else from our side has. It’s a good story. Not one I get to relay very often. I told it well this time, filling in its edges with detail.

“What do you do, Rosa?” I asked just before I went to bed.

We were standing on the stairs. I felt how close she was. I looked down at that perfect head and thought about what it would be like to pull her into my arms. She just might acquiesce.

Then again, she might not.

“I’m a journalist,” she said, with that half-smile. It might have been unnerving at first but I’d come to find it charming.

“Well, I hope tonight is off the record.” I laughed.

Her lopsided smile didn’t move, didn’t spread to her cheeks or her eyes.

“Of course.” She ran her hand along the banister.

“Where do you go from here?” I asked.

“The Peninsula.” She looked at me for a moment longer than was comfortable, then turned and walked to her room.

I called in sick the day she left. I hadn’t planned it that way; I woke with a scratchy throat and thought about what it would be like to see her go. I carried her bags to the car.

“Maybe you should leave something behind,” I said.

She raised an eyebrow as she took the bags from me. Skin flashed under her loose sleeve. A straight line ran down her forearm where the muscle cut in. These young girls with their fitness obsessions: don’t they know making themselves hard is not attractive?

“You can come back anytime,” I said, although it wasn’t my place to offer.

The hours after she left reduced her to disconnected snapshots: the hint of curves underneath flowing clothes, her skin, creamy, eyes hazel like a cat’s. I worried about her up there, in the North, on her own. She didn’t know what she was getting herself into. A fragile blossom in the midst of all that danger and devastation. So easily crushed.

My Mediterranean rose.

She wasn’t mine. But the words caught in my head.

I argued with my wife on the phone that night. I couldn’t help but make the comparison, not just between Rosa’s sleek little figure and my wife’s soft, spreading flesh, but between Rosa’s quiet acceptance and Rupa’s constant questioning. Rosa just listened; Rosa took me as I am. Rupa pushed me away with her nagging and haranguing.

Later, Rosa’s image eluded me. I looked at my own loose body. I told myself to make up with my wife.

Then it was morning and I woke to the television’s blare. I heard the servant woman shout and Mrs. Sutani’s slippers slap against the floor. The servant calling the mistress, I thought, amused. Then I realized there must be something wrong for Mrs. Sutani to run like that.

I walked out in my bathrobe, smoothing down my hair as I opened the door. They stood on the landing in front of my room, poses identical. Two statues, one old, round, and pale, the other young, dark, and skinny, arms clasped around their chests, faces pinched. Standing in front of the television. Watching an international news channel. Voices in English.

The servant woman kept talking and I could barely make out the broadcast. But I saw the pictures: a body crumpled by bullet wounds, curled up tight as it was lifted onto a stretcher. A few other dead, who no one was bothering with. Fire in the background. The shell of a building, surrounded by rubble. It took me a moment to recognize the destruction as war damage, not connected to the assassination.

Assassination. I finally heard the newscaster’s voice. The rebel leader was killed. Shot in the early hours of the morning by a sniper from a rival faction.

A woman, traveling on a foreign passport, under an assumed name.

The camera caught a shot of the assassin. Hands cuffed behind her back, she stumbled as two scruffy policemen pushed her along. Her head dropped like a blossom cut at the stem. The shirt slipped from her shoulder as the police edged her toward the door of the truck.

I didn’t have to look to see the straight line of her collarbone.

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Jay O’Shea is an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction. Her essays have been published in three languages and six countries. Her novel Alchemy of Loss is currently seeking a good home. An enthusiastic, if somewhat inconsistent, practitioner of yoga, rock-climbing, and martial arts, she lives in Los Angeles with her partner, child, and pet Rottweiler. Email: j.b.oshea[at]gmail.com

A Photograph of Emma

Broker’s Pick
John Grey


Mother and Daughter 1950s
Photo Credit: Sam Salt

She finally settled on hat and dogs.
The canines were retrievers,
eager to be elsewhere I am sure,
pulling wounded ducks out of the water
or, wet with blood, from the long grasses.
And she parades the hat so confidently
atop her long dark hair
like she can’t imagine there would
ever come a time when women
no longer wear the blessed things.
It’s 1939, war breaks out in Europe,
Hitler’s army’s on the march,
but you wouldn’t know it
from the serenity of her face.
Her eyes widen.
Head tilts up.
A nondescript smile
creases her lips.
Fact is, I know more about her circumstance
than she does.
Four years on from that moment,
she loses a husband in France,
and only one of her three children
survives into the fifties.
It takes a resilient heart
to sit for a photograph like this.
But then again, I’m not posing

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John Grey has been published recently in Echolocation, Santa Fe Poetry Review and Caveat Lector with work upcoming in Clark Street Review, Poem and The Evansville Review. Email: jgrey10233[at]aol.com

Cars

Broker’s Pick
Griggori Tyler Taylor


Back to Back
Photo Credit: Johann/::: mindgraph :::

Dylan and I,
we are cars going in different directions.

We are both the only child of the parent we live with.
He is eight years younger than me and into things
I’ll never give the time to understand.
But when our Grandma died
we drew close like two cars on a collapsing bridge,
drawn together from opposite ends.

There are days I still see us
wandering hospital halls waiting.
Our diets grew to be Starbucks and Subway,
and I grew to know each lustrous employee by name.
We’d entertain ourselves with cards
and checkers on preset tables.
Only then had I ever let someone win.

I love him like a brother.
That’s why once a year
I stop my mental waterfall to watch the playoffs.
That’s why he listens to REM,
allowing me to tell people
“Man, my eleven-year-old cousin has better taste than you!”

It gives us something more to talk about.

So when he stares with eyes already gone and asks,
“Would you rather have a crazy dad, or a dead dad?”
I’m left shuffling through records to find something
to fill the void.
I draw blanks so I say
“I don’t know”
and I don’t.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m still left without a father.”

And no college band or football player
would ever leave me with an answer.

Like clockwork he reminds me
he’s not even twelve yet.
That he shouldn’t have to worry about this.
That a suicide note shouldn’t be sleeping in his voice mail.
That Xanax and hallucination shouldn’t be part of his vocabulary,
which is vast because he was plucked to grow up too young.

I worry about him sometimes.
That he’s already looking at things from perspectives I missed.
That his smile might be lost and he can’t reel it back in.
The news scares him more than it does me,
and I find him asking about things like being bombed.
Like wars.
Things I didn’t think of as a child
but I guess this is how things are now.

And I wish I could tell you
it’s all a story.
That I’d spin it all into a nice metaphor
but I got nothing.
I wish I could tell you it’s making him stronger
but Dylan and I,
we are cars going different directions.
I am speeding to witness the edge of the earth,
Dylan,
He has passed it.
Now,
he just wants to rest.

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Griggori Tyler Taylor is a performance poet and visual artist from Paducah, Kentucky. He is a member of Paducah Writer’s Group and is a frequent performer at Etcetera Coffeehouse. His work has appeared in Notations and Word Riot (under pen-name Ivan Snow). His first book of poems, Picking the Lovely, is due to be published April ’12. He enjoys writing in third person. He is wearing a hat and drinking a frozen peppermint latte, not constantly, just currently. Email: ivan.snow[at]hotmail.com

Beginners Too

Broker’s Pick
Alonzo Douglass


Cinema
Photo Credit: Marcelo Acosta

Yesterday I sat in Theater No. 1 at the Broadway Centre with my friend Darvel. This is where people in Salt Lake go to watch indie, foreign, and obscure movies. This is one of the venues for the Sundance Film Festival. This is also my childhood theater. No, not the actual one, but one that is so close in nature it always makes me feel as if I’ve gone home.

As I sat in the low-backed chair, looked at the cloth-covered shapes hanging on the walls, remembered how small screens used to be, and expected the exit sign to be lit and in my eyes for the next ninety minutes, I was at peace. I felt comfort.

I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of the one movie I saw in my hometown theater that I can still remember—Fantastic Voyage. Here Steven Boyd was strong, handsome, and fearless Grant and Raquel Welch was top-heavy, sex-bomb Cora. I was nine years old when the movie was released, and one Saturday afternoon I went to see it with all my prepubescent friends. When they left the movie, they could see Raquel’s breasts and feel her body in their minds, and they never looked at older girls the same way as they did before. I know one had impure thoughts about our friend’s mother.

I took Darvel with me to see Beginners. We are not longtime friends. I think we’ve known each other three years. Yesterday Darvel was just being nice to me. He doesn’t like what I call “highbrow” movies. He’s The-Fast-and-the-Furious type. Give him Jordana Brewster and Vin Diesel. Give him Michelle Rodriguez and Paul Walker. Dammit! Give him Raquel Welch.

When I walked out of Fantastic Voyage with my nine– and ten– and eleven-year-old friends, I didn’t imagine Raquel’s breasts and crotch, hips and legs. I didn’t imagine anything. I needed more time to find out who I was. When I did, I came to the knowledge I wanted to see Steven Boyd with his shirt off. I wanted to touch his skin. Beginners is my story. I liked Oliver and Anna. I was captivated by their romantic chase, their split up, and their reconnection. Still my story was told by Hal, Oliver’s gay father.

I love Darvel. He is everything I want. Look and you will see someone who is just shy of my height, who is slight but muscular, who has a full head of hair that looks good hanging over his collar or cut to a quarter-inch, who has absolutely no hair on his arms and legs and chest (I don’t know what it means), and who is missing his left lower canine tooth. His one defect doesn’t make him ugly. Like his strong-sounding name, it makes me love him more.

When Hal came out to Oliver, when we met his boyfriend Andy, when we saw the number of gay friends he made, and when we came to the realization his truth set him free, I sat knee-to-knee with Darvel.

“Dear, dear friend,” I said in my mind. “I am Hal. Come be my Andy.”

Then I remembered Andy is a bumbling fool. Darvel couldn’t be Andy. So, I said, “No, I’ll be Andy. You be Hal.”

Then I thought of the dog and said, “Let me be Cosmo. That way I can live with you, see you every day, and be close to you. Maybe you will let me sleep on your bed, and every night I will say, just like Cosmo did that once, ‘Are we married, yet?'”

Then I begged him to take my hand or touch my knee or, God willing, grab my chin, pull my face into his, and kiss me. The only touch I felt was my hand lightly resting on my knee.

Then I told myself what I’ve always believed. When Darvel was nine years old, he dreamed about top-heavy women like Raquel Welch. He wanted to see the older girl who lived next door naked, and he wanted to touch her. Perhaps he had impure thoughts about his best friend’s mother. He is Oliver. The person he wants is Anna.

When the movie ended, we watched the credits to the end. I hoped. Darvel fidgeted. When we stood up to leave, he said, “Let’s go get a beer.”

“Did you like the movie?” I asked.

“Well, you gotta know, it’s your kind of movie, not mine.”

“I was just wondering.”

Outside on the sidewalk, I said, “Who did you relate to the most?”

“No one.”

“Do you see yourself chasing after a girl like Anna?”

“Yeah, I could. I definitely could.”

My heart was pounding. I wanted to shout, “I love you!” This made me choke up inside, but I felt resolved.

“I’m…” I said. My throat was tight and my voice was slightly above a whisper.

After a short pause, I tried to speak again, but my vocal cords, tongue, and mouth refused to hear my commands.

“You are…?” Darvel said.

I took a full minute to find my voice. Finally, I said, “I’m Hal.”

Darvel stopped walking. I wanted to run, but I made myself stop beside him. He turned his eyes to stare at the buildings across the street, and I knew he understood me. When he took three to four steps away from me, I thought he was going to walk away and leave me and I wouldn’t see him again. Then he came to me, put his arm around my shoulders, and said, “I’m not Andy.”

His words hit me like a bullet to my chest. I was embarrassed and scared. My hope was false. Now I was vulnerable. Could he hurt me? No. Could he cause problems for me? Not many. Still I felt afraid.

“Let’s do this,” Darvel said. “We can start tonight. Let’s go find your Andy. I know where he goes Friday night, and guess what? They serve beer there.”

Once again, I loved him and wanted him.

“I would like it, if it’s okay with you,” I said, “if my Andy was like someone I know. He has a funny name. It’s Darvel.”

“Nope. Can’t be done. There is only one Darvel you will ever know.”

Darvel put more force into the hold he had on my shoulders and started pulling me down the street. I couldn’t move my feet as fast as he wanted me to. My entire body felt as heavy as the pavement I was walking on. Finding someone is hard. I was hoping Darvel was the one. He’s so perfect for me, but all he is a brother, one who at that moment was trying to get me to goosestep down the street with him. Then I thought, “Take some of this weight I’m feeling off me Darvel.” When I decided to believe he would, my steps felt lighter.

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Alonzo Douglass holds a master’s degree from Westminster College of Salt Lake in communication with an emphasis in writing. By education and from work experience, he knows how to write everything from a media release to a feasibility study. He does not know how to write fiction. However, he volunteers at Salt Lake Community College’s Community Writing Center. His job is to mentor the LGBTQ writing group. The incredible people who come to his group write fiction, and, because they do and they encourage him, he’s starting to step outside his comfort zone. Email: dw4731[at]gmail.com

The Journey

Ana’s Pick
Pamela Kung


Dramatic Guitar Player
Photo Credit: Justin Scott Campbell

“You won’t make it, Lee. You’re throwing away your college education for nothing.”

“Your father didn’t mean that. It’s just… how are you going to earn money as a musician, sweetie?”

“I need someone who has a plan in life. I can’t wait around for you. We’re over.”

“You’ve got a good sound, but the club’s booked right now.”

“Did you see this flyer? That club’s hosting a talent show.”

“Give it up for Lee Hampton—the winner of a free pint and a tray of hot wings!”

“You scored another gig downtown? Awesome!”

“Wow, you’re playing there tonight? Any chance of a free ticket?”

“I’m an agent and I know that I can make you into a big star. Here’s my card. Call me.”

“Son, your mom and I are proud of you. Congratulations on your first album.”

“And this year’s Grammy for Best New Artist goes to… Lee Hampton!”

“I’m so sorry that I broke up with you. I didn’t mean it. We were so good together. Forgive me?”

“I just got off the phone with Modern Records! They want to produce your next album and send you on tour. Whoo!”

“Sweetie, isn’t it time to settle down? You haven’t had a single girlfriend in over five years! When do I get my first grandbaby?”

“And that’s the latest single by Lee Hampton. What do you think? Call in and let’s talk. You know the number—1-800-New-Beat.”

“Lee, your mom is ill. You should come home, son.”

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Julia Anne Hampton will be remembered for her kindness and spirit.”

“You can’t just give up your music career to move back home. What are you even going to do? Work at the local hardware store?”

“Would you like to make a donation? We’re raising money so the school doesn’t shut down our music and arts program.”

“You’re going to walk away from the fame? The fortune? At the pinnacle of your career? You are making a huge mistake, kid!”

“Mr. H.? I finished my assignment. May I use the restroom?”

“I’d like to take a few minutes from our faculty meeting to congratulate Lee on taking our high school band all the way to Nationals this year!”

“I’m Marie, the new English teacher. Do you know how to get this copier to work?”

“I do.”

“Dad? We have great news. You’re going to be a grandpa!”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Hampton. I did everything I could, but there were complications.”

“Thanks for doing this interview. Fans of your music have often wondered what caused you to abruptly leave the music industry.”

“You have stage three colon cancer. I’m afraid you don’t have much time left.”

“I don’t how I’m supposed to live without you, Lee. You’re my world—you and this little one here.”

“I love you, son. Say hello to your mother for me.”

“The entertainment world mourns tonight. Lee Hampton will be remembered for his talent and generosity.”

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Pamela Kung is a former middle/high school English teacher who has yet to decide on what her next profession will be. She is partial to puppies, rock climbing, going to farmers’ markets, and of course, reading and writing. She enjoys traveling, lively conversations, receiving letters in the mail, and the occasional good glass of wine. Email: ppkung[at]gmail.com