Bird Watching

Baker’s Pick
Thaddeus Rutkowski


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dunes

Broker’s Pick
D.W. Moody


Photo Credit: Bernd Thaller/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

the dust swirled around us
the house
lost in view
behind hills of sand
we ducked and hid
winding our way
through the maze of hills
unseen from the world
the others somewhere behind
lost around
one or another turn
there in the sand
that caked my skin
I touched your hair
looked into your eyes
desired what my mouth could not say
as you turned
to the sounds of the others coming
I let you slip from my hand
like the grains of sand blowing through our hair

pencil

D.W. Moody grew up between California and the Midwest, lived on the streets, hitchhiked around the country, and held a variety of jobs in Kansas and Southern California until settling into life as a librarian. His poems have appeared in Shemom, The Avalon Literary Review, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. As a new father, life is busy juggling the demands of work and being a committed parent: he writes when he can. Email: d.w.moodysmailbox[at]gmail.com

The List

Broker’s Pick
Joseph McGrail


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

Will Tallent smoked his fourth, and last, cigarette of the day, reached over to the bedside table, took a sip of cold coffee, and got out of bed. The shower was hot, his jeans were roomy, his sweater was warm, and his slippers were soft. It would be hard to get motivated to leave the apartment, but “Doing something is better than doing nothing,” he repeated to himself. It was his mantra, a mantra more of hope than accomplishment.

Will had a blog, which some day would lead to success, and a high paying job offer, which in turn would lead some woman to fall deeply in love with him. But a blog only worked if you had fodder for it, so now he had to get fodder.

“Human interest writing,” he had told his coworker at the bagel shop, “that’s what the blog is about. Like a Charles Kuralt or a Bob Greene. I go around, talk to people, make them sound interesting, and write about them for other people to read.” His coworker looked at him with the blank, patronizing stare of the young to the old.

That day’s fodder involved a curious incident with a library book, The Twelve Greatest Ideas, which had been written in the fifties by a “Great Books” associate of Mortimer Adler. Tallent had picked it up from the sale table at the front of the library. Christianity was a great idea, as was the Enlightenment, as was Confucianism, and then Tallent lost interest. Then he saw that someone had playfully written their own list on one of the blank end pages: “The Twelve Greatest Love Stories of All Time.”

“Adler would be proud,” Tallent thought. “He was always a big advocate of writing in books.”

Some of the entries were obvious: “Romeo and Juliet,” “Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor,” “Dante and Beatrice.” Most of them displayed a literary sense, and even some Biblical knowledge: “Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale,” “Jane Eyre and Rochester,” “Tristan and Isolda,” “Lancelot and Guinevere,” “Tobias and Sara,” and “Rachel and Jacob.” And there, right after “Antony and Cleopatra,” and “Heloise and Abelard,” in the same penciled script, was the final entry: “Ilsa and Patrick Demarest.”

And who were Ilsa and Patrick? Tallent imagined them, a young married couple, the wife pretty, blonde maybe, wearing a sweater, royal blue with a simple pattern of white snowflakes, glasses certainly, she read a lot. The husband, studious as well, heavy black glasses, hair unkempt, moustache, beard or both, and since Tallent was indulging in stereotypes, a tweed jacket. The husband reads Nabokov, and not just the one with the nymphet, the really obscure ones. They are sitting at a library table, each with their stack of books. The wife is getting impatient to go, she grabs this book from his pile, starts glancing at the ideas, gets a smile on her face, and starts writing something. From time to time she asks the husband, “Who would you say were the greatest lovers in history?” He, engrossed in his reading, absentmindedly throws out an idea or two, and she writes it down.

Curious, the husband looks over at her. He’s appalled, she’s writing in a book! “It’s only pencil,” she says, “lighten up.” He looks at her list, smiles and then smiles again. Maybe he affectionately rubs her back. “We should go,” she says.

Tallent couldn’t let the list go, who was this Ilsa Demarest? What happened to her and Patrick? Where were they now? One question that might be easily answered. There was a deputy D.A. who came to the bagel shop and Tallent had heard him complain about how easy it was to look someone up in Colorado as all the voter rolls were published on the web.

“I could have sent a guy to prison,” the man had said. “He gets out, spends two minutes on Google and comes gunning for me.”

Tallent agreed. No one was ever going to come gunning for Tallent, but the thought was worrisome.

Nonetheless, Ilsa Demarest was easily found. Not so with Patrick. Maybe Patrick didn’t live in Colorado anymore, or maybe he had died. The book had been published in 1956, and there was nothing to show when the list had been written. Or maybe Patrick didn’t vote, and he and Ilsa were still together, he with his tweed jacket, she in the tasteful blue sweater.

Ilsa lived in Oak Creek, way out near Craig, as much as it was near anywhere. Too bad it was so far from Denver. But Tallent would follow through, call her and set something up.

He put in the number.

“Hello?” a woman’s voice answered, wary and cautious. It was hard to tell her age, certainly not young nor crackly-voiced old.

“Is this Ilsa Demarest?”

A pause and then, “Who is this?”

“Well, you don’t know me Ms. Demarest, but I’m a journalist of sorts and I’d like to sit down and have a chat with you.”

“A journalist of sorts?” She gave a cynical laugh. “What kind of scam is this? I’m going to hang up now, please don’t bother me again.”

“Wait, wait! I found a book.”

“What?” she said, confused.

“A book, a library book. You had written a list in it, I don’t know how long ago—‘The Twelve Greatest Love Stories.’”

She didn’t say anything.

Somehow he knew that he had made a mistake, that he was bringing up something that embarrassed her, something that should have been left in the past. He had hoped that Ilsa and Patrick were still together, an older couple whom he would meet and they would be holding hands and joking about the time she made that silly list.

She still didn’t say anything, and then, “Did Patrick have you do this? You’re friends with Patrick aren’t you? Why would he—?”

“No, Ms. Demarest. I’ve never met you or Patrick. As I said, it was what you had written in that book. That was it. I’m sorry.”

“I’m hanging up now. Please don’t call me again.”

“Wow,” he thought, rubbing his hand through his hair. “That didn’t turn out too well. I guess I’m back to searching for some other human interest deal, hopefully not one as far away as Oak Creek.”

He pulled on his jacket and headed to the coffeehouse. Maybe someone at Dietrich’s had a lead on human interest. But the normally voluble crowd was oddly quiet. The fishmonger from down the street, the fellow who actually looked like a fish, was finishing a Danish. Tallent could interview him, something like, “Selling Seafood Thousands of Miles from any Ocean.” It would only work if Tallent could include pictures, the owner posing with a redfish or something. But Tallent’s mind was far from human interest and his blog. At least in making bagels you never got the impression you had brought pain into someone’s life, poppy and sesame seeds, and onion only, never pain.

After the coffeehouse, Tallent advanced upon Mead Street Station, the Dew Drop Inn, and Twins Tavern, so the next day his hangover persisted through his shift at the bagel shop, and his afternoon nap, but was ebbing when his phone rang.

“Hello?”

“If I speak with you, you’ll write an article about what I wrote in the book?”

“Ms. Demarest?”

“Yes. It’s me. Will people read this article? Does anyone actually read your blog?”

“Yes. I have a number of readers.” The number was seven, but he didn’t need to provide details.

“You don’t know Patrick?”

“No, no, I don’t know Patrick.”

Oak Creek had already gotten some snow. Luckily the steep streets, including the one Ilsa Demarest lived on, were clear.

“Quaint town,” he said after she had let him into her frame cottage. “I like all the Victorian gingerbread.”

“Yes,” she answered. “Hard to maintain though.”

She was blonde, starting to show bits of white, and indeed wore thickish glasses. She was taller than he had imagined, and pretty. She was pretty and about fifty.

“So,” he asked. “What do you do here in Oak Creek?”

“I’m the high school librarian.”

They both laughed, and he said, “I see you’re now using your powers for good, not evil.”

She offered him tea and he accepted, and they sat at opposite ends of a green plaid sofa, a plate of cheddar scones on the coffee table. She sat quietly while he tried to think of something to ask. If he had been a real journalist, he told himself, he would have all of his questions written out on a legal pad in a clipboard or better yet, written out on Demarest.doc on the laptop he would have brought.

Instead he opened up the tiny notepad with the faux leather cover he kept in his vest pocket.

“Do you mind if I knit?” she asked, picking up two needles with a project started in grey wool.

“Not at all,” he said, happy the ice had been broken. “What are you working on?”

“Socks for my son, and no, he’s not Patrick’s child. I’ve been married twice since Patrick. Ronnie’s my son from the first marriage. The second marriage altogether, the one after Patrick.” She looked embarrassed, and Tallent thought again of how he should just have left her alone, though questions were now coming quickly to mind.

She had uncovered a book when she picked up her knitting.

Crampton Hodnet,” he said, “You read Barbara Pym? She’s my favorite.”

She looked at him as if he was a little odd, being a man who liked Pym, but it made him likeable.

“Have you ever read this one?” she asked. “It was written when she was first getting started and not quite as good as her later ones.”

“Oh. I haven’t seen it. I liked Some Tame Gazelle, the one the library had.”

She was about to say, “I could lend you some others…” but that would presume a friendship that was not there.

“Tell me about writing the list, where you were, what spurred it, did you come up with it all on your own?”

“The kitchen table with a bottle of wine in front of me, we had broken up and gotten back together, and yes.”

“Yes?”

“’Yes’ to your question, ‘Did I come up with the idea on my own?’”

“Did you realize when you were writing the list how tragic so many of your couples were?”

“Like Patrick and me, huh? Or as we turned out? No. When you are twenty-seven and in love or struggling with a love, those names look like great romantic lovers, tragedy and romance all mixed together, and tragedy…”

“Doesn’t seem so bad?” Tallent offered, “Not a lonely, depressing thing that simply leaves one miserable and ultimately may not have a point?”

She laughed nervously. “Boy, you are a cynic. But that’s how fifty-year-olds think, not twenty-seven-year-olds.”

“I’m not even sure why we had broken up,” she continued. “Maybe it was his idea, maybe mine. He moved to a small apartment in Arvada and I was still living in Denver. I started calling him, asking him to come over and have dinner.”

Tallent asked, “This was after you were married, but had broken up?”

“Yes. So we had dinner and he was in the living room of my place doing one of these complicated crosswords he liked.”

Tallent saw how her eyes were bright, and she was smiling at the memory.

“And he’d brought over a pile of library books, I’m not sure why, maybe I’d already asked him to start living with me again. I picked up one of them to look at and I’m thinking, ‘The Greatest Ideas of All Time? How about the greatest love stories?’ I have a pencil because I’m trying to teach myself to sketch while he’s there with his crossword, and I just start writing the list, planning to tease him about it afterwards.”

“Did you?”

“Oh yes, he was very teasable. He had good sense of humor. He scolded me for writing in his library book, and then laughed and gave me a big kiss…” She stopped.

After her reverie, Tallent asked, “So what happened to this greatest love story of all time?”

“Whatever happens to them. You’re my age, you know.” She gave Tallent a glance and went on. “He was very smart, but immature, and I was impatient, I wanted to get on with things, a house, children, and he wasn’t willing to work hard enough at it. I’ll often think how Patrick was when I read about men living in their parents’ basements or having PhDs and working at Burger King. Of course, he ultimately grew up, after we’d gotten divorced and I’d moved on. I’ve heard he has kids. He’d sometimes talk about wanting a small ranch in Nebraska. I wonder if he’s there now.”

“And you?” Tallent asked, glancing out to see snow falling thickly from the sky. “You ever think about getting in touch with him?”

“Why, isn’t that why you’re here?” she mocked. “Aren’t you going to put this on your blog and Patrick sees it and comes back to me? And finally we’ll have the chance to live happily ever after, fulfill the greatest love story destiny? The real answer? No. I’ve seen too much of life. I’ve been married twice more. I have a son at college. I have my job and my knitting. I even do some sketching still, animals mainly, pictures from magazines. You need more tea?”

He really should have gone, but he said, “That would be nice,” and they moved into her kitchen.

She lit the burner on a gas stove with a match.

“It’s hard to keep this place warm, drafty old windows,” she said. “When my son Ronnie was here, he’d bring in firewood all the time.”

“May I,” Tallent asked, “go get you some firewood?”

She laughed. “That wasn’t a hint; I was just feeling the cold.”

Tallent brought in some split wood from a shed in the yard. The snowflakes were larger and more numerous, and he realized again that he should leave. But Ilsa’s yellow house was warmer than she gave it credit for.

Though it had been years since he had built a fire, he placed the wood on the embers and managed to stir up the flames.

“That deserves another scone,” she said, and had him sit back on the couch. A hot mug of tea awaited him as well.

“It’s very comfortable here, but I’ve got to get going.”

He was disappointed when she agreed. “You should. This valley is hard to get out of in a snowstorm.”

“Is there a hotel in town?”

“Not really, nearest would be Yampa or Steamboat, if you get through on the highway.”

He got his coat and she helped him put his scarf on in an almost affectionate manner, or perhaps that was wishful thinking.

“I almost forgot,” she said. “When you were outside, I picked up the Barbara Pym novel and read something. Here…” She walked to the coffee table and got the novel.

He read:

A great unrequited passion was hardly in Mr. Latimer’s line, she realized, the sort of love that lingers on through many years, dying sometimes and then coming back like a twinge of rheumatism in the winter, so that you feel it in your knee when you are nearing the top of a long flight of stairs.

She said, “That’s my feeling towards Patrick, a great unrequited passion that dies sometimes and then comes back.”

“So, ‘thanks a lot,’ you’re saying? Thanks a lot for bringing it all back like rheumatic twinges?”

She laughed. “Maybe. Oh, look at it now, you had better get going.”

And then Tallent was on the road and headed out of town. Why couldn’t she have said, “Oh, look at it now, you had better stay here, I can make up a bed on that couch”? But it hadn’t happened and he was too worried about bald tires, landing in ditches, and paying for a motel to give it much thought. He would contact her again, let her review the article before he posted it, but she was too smart a woman, she could see through Tallent, realize he was a bit of a poseur of a journalist, realize the chances of Patrick seeing the blog were very slim and then she would feel foolish for having revealed herself. Unless Patrick was having his own rheumatic twinges, and happened to see the blog in a search for the long lost Ilsa. And where would that leave Tallent? Why, with another human interest article of course.

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Joseph McGrail has written stories since eighth grade, and a few years ago had another story published in a journal called Inklings. He is currently at work on an episodic novel set in Nebraska and Kansas, as well as other stories. Along with writing, he enjoys drawing and being in the outdoors. He was a probation officer for several years, though little of his writing involves crime, and is now looking for other work. He resides with his family in Denver. Email: joseph.mcgrail.28[at]gmail.com

Beautiful, Ordinary

Baker’s Pick
Kimberly Lee


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

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

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

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

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

Oenaville, Texas

Baker’s Pick
Erica Hoffmeister


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

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

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

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

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

The Heart of Song

Broker’s Pick
Roger Singer


Photo Credit: Nicole Marie Edine/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Two blocks into Harlem. White shirts,
black ties, flowered dresses, patent
leather shoes, tattoos and beautiful hair;
the streets are always alive.

The beat mixes up. The man
with a full beard smiles, exposing
a picket fence for teeth. Conga drums
call out the dance in people. Red and purple
cotton hats jive like released shadows.
Tired feet get the sleep slapped out of them.
A guitar strings out a solo,
drawing an applause from a child.

A warm unexpected rain washes everything
down. Clouds soon part. The city
begins again.

pencil

Email: Cabanaph424[at]verizon.net

Five Poems

Poetry
Bibhu Padhi


Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks/Flickr (CC-by)

Sickness: Morning

A dry mouth troubles this
body, the mind is stuck
to the taste of sand.

The salt-taste is long gone
into some other mouth,
its residence far from mine.

Drops of Hanneman and Nash
are believed to be an assurance
against further loss, any savage rite.

But the body, now getting slowly
introduced to a tired unevenness,
looks for consolation elsewhere.

Limbs go cold, like winter,
curled around themselves
to restore warmth and peace.

I go slow with things, like a leaf, pray
for a return to the basics, even as
the mind is a prisoner of disbelief.

 

Mother

I recall the day I saw you for
the first time. The white cloth on you
shone like the stars, like sunlight on

northern snow. You lisped my words
in numerous ways, so I might repeat the same,
my joy filling rooms and corridors

in magnificent forms. I wonder
if you taught all your children
the signature of your pain.

Would you mind if I misspelt a word
that was attached to your name.
Something tells me you will not;

you always misspell my name.
Mother: Today, you seem to be far
From me, in another sphere,

Under another name. Do you see me
From where you are? Do you feel worried
because I am nowhere near you—

thrown away by a wind that shakes
hills and plains, the sea’s divinity? Are you
still in the sea, the hills and the plains?

 

Once More, Faith

However you try, the surrender
is hard to come. All aspirations
have touched only the periphery
of the place where she is believed

to stay, have stayed back with you
or dissolved in the long night sky.
The stars might have seen these
just as the heart somewhere here.

How does acceptance come,
in which miraculous way, which
modes of faith and submission,
which postures of prayer?

You have merely heard about
the subdued matters, the last
line of giving oneself away,
the first words of superior grace.

Waiting is not the only answer.
It should have been over by now,
given you enough to live with
and distribute, to live for.

 

Nothing Shows Clear

Summer is large over the small
town. March is hardly here.

Margosa buds have shown themselves
earlier than it has been in years.

I touch my dumb eyes behind which
another pair rests, ready to take over.

How far is meditation from a mere
closure of the eyes, a stiff brown gaze,

the inspiration of the first view
of transparencies, heaven’s gate?

The answer seems nowhere near, like
the last winter, the first rains of the year.

 

Thinking the Now

What comes is only other than
what you thought you would receive.
The struggle for the whole continues
beyond the boundaries of reason.

Some say that is how things come,
even delay in arriving where
they are awaited by eager hands
and minds, all that is darkened

by the world’s grim ways, useless
intent for passions and possessions,
blocked by the mind’s old habit of
looking back and discovering the lost.

You have to be cautious in choosing
things, shed your past and memories, all
that you held so proudly as your own—
your body’s performances, mind’s dreams.

You must know that you might lose
what is with you now, under a sheet—
the half-line that would not come
to completion, the likelihood of its loss.

pencil

Bibhu Padhi has published eleven books of poetry. His poems have appeared in distinguished magazines throughout the English-speaking world, such as Encounter, The Contemporary Review, The Poetry Review, Stand, The Rialto, The American Scholar, Colorado Review, Confrontation, Mid-American Review, Poet Lore, Poetry (Chicago), The Southwest Review, TriQuarterly, The Antigonish Review, The Toronto Review, Queen’s Quarterly, The Bombay Review, The Illustrated Weekly of India, and Indian Literature. They have been included in numerous anthologies and textbooks. Three of the most recent are Language for a New Century (Norton), 60 Indian Poets (Penguin), and The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry (HarperCollins). Email: padhi.bibhu[at]gmail.com

Closure

Beaver’s Pick
Alex Shishin


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

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

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

“Never,” he said.

“Do your best, Kozlov-sensei.”

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

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

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

“Bartholomew,” Ms. Toyohashi said.

“Good pronunciation!” he said.

Ms. Toyohashi nodded but did not smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ms. Toyohashi appraised Bart with a puzzled look.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not any others?”

She shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

“I am too,” Bart said.

“Eh?”

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

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

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

“Me too! We must hurry!”

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

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

“We’re taking a taxi,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bartholomew-sensei!” she exclaimed and stood.

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

“Yes, very hungry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She put down her chopsticks and looked up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In June he married Tsuki, his longtime girlfriend.

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

Spare

Baker’s Pick
Helen Coats


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

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

Whoa. That’s Fisherman #2.

You can see him behind Chris Pratt in this shot.

He caught a bass on camera.

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

pencil

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

Four Poems

Baker’s Pick
Jim Zola


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

To the Nail Found Under the Pew

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

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

 

Purlwise

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

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

of mysterious cargo pass into
eternity, into a heavenly

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

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

of beautiful trains in clouds of red paper.

 

Sonnet Wearing a Mask as Disguise

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

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

 

A History of Selfies

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

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