Four Poems

Baker’s Pick
Jim Zola


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

To the Nail Found Under the Pew

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

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

 

Purlwise

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

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

of mysterious cargo pass into
eternity, into a heavenly

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

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

of beautiful trains in clouds of red paper.

 

Sonnet Wearing a Mask as Disguise

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

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

 

A History of Selfies

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

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

Anniversary Waltz

Beaver’s Pick
Donna Pucciani


Photo Credit: Jenn Vargas/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

November 24, 2016

I’ve always hated
the dark of November, the suddenness
of night at four in the afternoon,
after custom has dictated
the changing of the clocks.

As it happens, we were married
forty years ago this day, while
the world was still light.
The autumn afternoon slanted
our shadows on a leaf-strewn lawn,
colored us through the stained glass
of the university chapel.

We never feared the night,
never even thought of
the blunt forces of darkness.
Now I’ve learned to hold my breath,
awaiting the inky tentacles of time
to squeeze the life out of our
blissful dailiness.

We’ve spent the past in noisy classrooms
of adolescents resisting Chaucer.
What we know now are
four decades of drifted leaves,
friends and cousins falling
in the wind, backlit by a setting sun.
The real pilgrimage begins here,

in our small house silhouetted
against a reddening sky and the arthritic
fingers of surviving trees. Our eyes
tire of the light, perhaps readying
to frame the arc of a harvest moon.
We are a floater in the eye of winter,
its aura reflecting the whiteness
of our breath.

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Donna Pucciani, a Chicago-based writer, has published poems on four continents.Her work has been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Italian and German, and has won awards from the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, the Illinois Arts Council, Poetry on the Lake, and others. Her seventh and most recent book of poems is Edges (Purple Flag Press, Chicago). Email: dpucciani[at]yahoo.com

Judy

Baker’s Pick
Kathryn Pallant


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And your IQ is…?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travelling With Ashes

Beaver’s Pick
Gwenda Major


Photo Credit: Enkhtuvshin/Flickr (CC-by)

When Bob dropped down dead as he was hoeing between the rows of leeks, the last thing on Ellen’s mind was the trip to Budapest. And yet here she was, sitting on the balcony of the Hotel Gellert with a cup of tea and looking down on the huge squat tourist boats gliding along the sparkling Danube below.

“Do you think Dad realised how noisy it would be when he booked this hotel?” Rebecca sipped her tea and sighed again as a long yellow tram squealed and creaked its way off the Freedom Bridge and on to the riverside rails. Rebecca had been doing a lot of sighing since she and her mother had arrived on Tuesday.

“I don’t know love—but it wouldn’t have bothered him anyway. You know how he loved to watch traffic. Just look—you can see trams, cars, buses, boats and bikes—and there’s even a metro entrance over there. He would have been in heaven.”

“Mum—that’s inappropriate” Rebecca chided, frowning. She’d also been doing a lot of frowning in the last few days.

“Sorry—just a turn of phrase.” Ellen did not want to get into a pointless argument about semantics with her daughter. There was enough tension in the air already. “Can I get you another cup of tea? And aren’t you glad I packed the travel kettle? Why is it they never have hospitality trays in the rooms?”

“No, thanks—the tea just doesn’t taste the same—I suppose it’s the water.”

Rebecca had always been hard to please, reflected Ellen. Even as a little girl. I don’t want that dress, I want this one. I don’t want gravy on my vegetables, just on the side. I don’t want to see a film, I want to go ice skating. Contrary by nature. Bob doted on her of course. Couldn’t do enough for her. And Rebecca had always known she could wind him around her little finger. Just a pout or a frown and she’d get her own way. Ellen had given up arguing with Bob about it after a while. Saw it was useless.

 

The sad thing was that Bob had always wanted to see Budapest. “One of the best public transport systems in Europe,” he’d said. And had then added in a tone of wonderment, “and eighty percent of the city was destroyed after the Second World War.”

The Hotel Gellert was his choice too. Naturally he wasn’t to know he would die from a sudden massive heart attack only two weeks before their departure date. Which was a blessing really. No one wants to dwell on their imminent mortality do they?

Ellen had initially thought that setting off only days after the funeral seemed a little hasty. Lacking in respect somehow, but Rebecca had persuaded her—“Dad would have hated the idea of wasting the flight and the hotel booking,” she said. And going together meant they could share memories of Dad, make it a sort of tribute to him. Ellen had her doubts on that score too but said nothing. But when she mentioned she was thinking of bringing some of Bob’s ashes with them, Rebecca reacted with horror.

“I thought you said he always wanted his ashes spread at Morecambe—on the sea?”

“Well yes he did—where his family spent their summer holidays. And I will—most of them. I just thought it would be a good idea to bring some with us, so that a small part of your dad will have made it to Budapest after all.” In actual fact Bob had never given any indication of where he wanted his ashes spread—he hadn’t quite reached that age where it seems sensible to consider such matters. Ellen had thought the little white lie might be helpful to Rebecca, give her a focus for her grief. She should have known better of course.

Ellen stuck to her guns this time but then Rebecca went and googled ‘travelling with ashes’ and discovered it was recommended to carry a copy of the death certificate as well as the cremation certificate, plus a statement from the crematorium confirming the ashes belonged only to the person named. As if you would mix them with someone else’s, Ellen thought. The advice went on to say it would also be a good idea to inform the airline and possibly even contact the embassy in your destination country. “So you can see it’s out of the question mother,” Rebecca concluded with a note of satisfaction.

“That’s ridiculous” Ellen had argued. “I’m only bringing a token amount, not the whole contents of the urn. Nobody will be any the wiser.” She was quite firm about it so there was nothing Rebecca could do—except sulk. Which she did and was still doing—on and off.

 

Ellen gazed across at Gellert Hill. She’d read that Saint Gerard had been thrown off from the top in a barrel in the eleventh century, poor man. And further down was the entrance to the caves that had been a chapel and then a field hospital for the Nazis. It seemed Budapest had been invaded by all and sundry over the centuries. So much misery and pain. No wonder a lot of the Hungarians looked glum. Not surprising after what they’d gone through.

Rebecca didn’t seem very interested in the history which was a shame. She seemed to have decided that her being there at all was an act of great sacrifice on her part and that she was only doing it for her father. Whereas Ellen suspected she hadn’t been able to resist the idea of a free holiday—especially after her split with Mark. Maybe I’m being uncharitable she thought—but I do wish she would stop finding fault with everything. Like the hotel for example—the exterior of the Gellert was unquestionably magnificent, rising in its Art Nouveau splendour above the banks of the Danube, but it couldn’t be denied that the rooms were very dated and on the edge of shabby.

“Just look at that bath, Mother,” Rebecca had declared, pointing at the brown water stain below the taps. “And that shower head isn’t fixed on the wall properly.” Within minutes of arriving she had started to make a list of all the defects: the chipped tiles around the toilet, the rough surface in the bath where the enamel had worn away, the threadbare areas of the carpet, the dreary curtains. “I’ll do a review on TripAdvisor when we get back,” she said with grim satisfaction.

“Faded grandeur,” Ellen attempted in the hotel’s defence. “I agree it could all do with an update but I like it.” She wandered around on her own on the first morning, taking in the marble pillars, the luminous stained glass on the stairs, the wrought iron work and wood panelling. It’s like stepping back in time, she thought.

For the first few days they did the tourist round—a tour of the city on an open-topped bus, a cruise on the Danube, a trip to Margaret Island in the river with its water fountains and parks and a funicular ride up to the Royal Palace and National Gallery. On each trip Rebecca would murmur, “Dad would have loved this” or “poor Dad, he’ll never see this now” with a sniff and a wistful look. But she refused to accompany her mother into the famous Gellert baths next to the hotel, saying it would be a breeding ground for bacteria, so Ellen found herself sitting alone in the hot outdoor pool watching the dappled sunlight dance on the water. Later on she padded down to the tiled splendour of the thermal pools. I feel like an ancient Roman, Ellen thought to herself as she stretched her legs luxuriously in the forty-degree water, smiling indulgently at the sly kissing cherubs above the tiled doorway.

 

On their fourth morning Ellen crept out of bed at six and dressed quickly and quietly in the bathroom. She thought about leaving a note for Rebecca but decided she’d be back before she was missed. She eased the door open carefully and walked softly down the wide corridor. There was nobody about. Rather than use the lift she tiptoed down the graceful staircase to the lobby where a sleepy receptionist nodded at her without curiosity. Outside Ellen paused for a moment, breathing in the fresh chill air with its hint of sulphur. A hazy mist floated over the metallic surface of the Danube. It was very quiet. Ellen crossed the road and started climbing the steep concrete steps that wound up Gellert Hill. After ten minutes she reached a spot where there was a view down over Freedom Bridge and right along the river towards the Chain Bridge and the Parliament buildings. Her heart was pounding with the effort of the climb but her mind was clear. Carefully she took out the little Tupperware box from her pocket and prised open the lid.

No one can ever know what goes on inside a relationship, Ellen thought, and she had no intention of trying to tell Rebecca now. She had her own image of her father and that was only right. Bob had not been a bad man but he had been a difficult man, a bully who lacked empathy and consideration, a man who had never made Ellen feel wanted or happy. Perhaps she had been wrong to stay with him all these years. She accepted she was partly to blame.

 

Ellen shook out the contents of the little box on to the grass that sloped down on the other side of the railings. The ashes descended in a powdery cascade and then lay in a silvery sheen on the dewy grass. “Goodbye Bob,” she murmured. Ever since the funeral Ellen had still half-expected to hear his car on the drive and his voice shouting, “I’m home.” But now she finally knew he was gone. The sense of relief was overwhelming. Ellen gently tapped out the last of the ashes—let the bad go with the good. And then, taking one last look at the view, she turned and made her way cautiously down the uneven steps back to the hotel.

“Where on earth have you been mother?” Rebecca’s voice was shrill. “I was worried sick. I was just on the point of phoning Reception to report you missing.”

“Don’t be silly, Rebecca. I wasn’t missing. I just thought I’d go and spread your father’s ashes quietly on my own. I didn’t think you’d mind—we can do the rest together at Morecambe when we get home.”

For once Rebecca seemed to have little to say. Sitting up in bed in her pyjamas she looked more vulnerable and much younger. “What were you thinking of mother?” she wailed.

Deliberately misunderstanding her daughter Ellen replied, “Well, actually I was thinking how nice it would be to do one of those river cruises. After we get home I might look into it for next year.”

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Gwenda Major lives in the South Lakes area of the UK. Her passions are genealogy, gardening and graveyards. Gwenda’s stories have featured in numerous publications. She has written four novels and two novellas; three have been either longlisted or shortlisted for national competitions. Email: gwendamajor[at]hotmail.com

That Yellow Sun

Fiction
Jay Merill


Photo Credit: broterham/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

That yellow sun, so hot, so blinding. It blocked all thought though I could still hear the scream. I held my hand up over my eyes, trying to see things: the beach, that drifting sand, odd bits of dried-out wood, the sea with frills of foam. They seemed to fade to nothing. But the scream went on. At the time I didn’t realise it was coming from me.

Liane recalls these details and talks about them later at her new apartment just off the Fulham Road, sitting with friends over drinks. How it all had been, how she’d felt then, married to Franz. ‘What is love?’ she finds herself asking. Then she’ll give a shrug, the shrug saying probably you won’t know, nobody will. ‘Well, happiness then. What is happiness?’

‘I’d had that accident, cutting my foot badly. Blood was just oozing out onto the sand. Then you know, I’ve always wondered, maybe it wasn’t an accident. I could have done it on purpose, I was in that much of a state. But it’s all such a jumble. The glint of glass on the dune, the surge of red, also the pain. I was so angry with Franz and so desperate for him to love me. That much I did know, though I was confused about everything else. Maybe it was like this—I saw the shard of glass, my own naked foot, and thought, I’ll take the misery out on my own body, or, I’m going to punish Franz. Though I’m not saying it wasn’t an accident, it could very well have been.’

Liane talks a lot about that day, says she can still feel the prickly sweat of her body and the agony in her cut foot. Can even recall how the sand on which she lay had a ribbed surface embedded with curved lines of shells. Looking up suddenly she had watched as three grey birds went flying through the sky. Behind it all, her own agonised cries.

She shrugs, spreading her hands helplessly as she comes to that part of the story when she’d screamed alone on the burning slope of sand and Franz hadn’t come to her. Her eyes wince and darken as she lifts up her wineglass, replaces it, then picks it up again. Next she takes a piece of cheese from the central plate, then a biscuit or a wedge of bread. She chews a little, dabs at scattered crumbs, pours more wine from the bottle. Her eyes are everywhere. She looks at the wall, looks at the untidy pile of plates. From object to object she goes, her voice rising and falling.

‘It used to be so hard to swallow,’ Liane says. ‘But really, you know, that day was the start of things beginning to get better, even though there was worse to go through first. If that makes any sense.’

Outside it’s getting dark. The lights in the flats on the other side of the communal gardens are going off one by one. Her balcony door is still open. Breeze comes in, and it feels good. Liane sighs, leans back in her seat. As though to locate herself in the present she flicks her hand through her hair and smoothes one finger along the edge of the table. All solid, all in order. Good. She continues with her story:

‘These friends, Andy and Nina, were with us for the weekend. Franz and I were having a row which lasted the entire time. They were upset by us I think.’ And she laughs saying, ‘That was nothing, rows could last two weeks or more, or they’d subside and start up again, blowing in all different directions like the wind can up there in the Frisian Islands.’ She catches the side of her finger on her collar, the nail snags, she makes a face.

‘I crashed into the soft powdery dune and lay in a crumpled heap but with my bleeding foot sticking out straight. Blood gushed out and got absorbed in the sand. So dramatic. My blood, I thought. And the pain was terrible. Had I meant to do this to myself or just fallen on the glass? Part of my screaming was the terror at the not knowing. I so longed for Franz to come, but the row between us had been bad that whole day and he did not. In the end it was Andy and Nina who came back for me, just the two of them. Actually, I think that day was the crossroads. I turned away from Franz. I’d always been hanging on you see, waiting for things to get back to what they’d been at first, or move on to some new bright point, but this was the moment I let go of all hope. And you know something, I started to become stronger.’

Outside in the London street darkness settles. A few night sounds can be heard—the slam of a car door, occasional laughter, music here and there in snatches. There’s the soft zoom of a plane overhead, and the sudden swoosh of night wind. The late-talking hour.

Liane is an architect, when she’d married Franz she was just starting off. Franz had an import-export business. They’d met when Franz had come to London from Rotterdam and he’d moved in with her after only a few weeks. Then later, they’d bought a little house, a rundown sort of a place on one of the Frisian Islands where they’d first gone on holiday together. Terschelling. They had cycled through the pinewoods. Dreamlike echoes, bird cries. Liane remembers rambling through a wild marshy part of the island purplish pink with orchids. And they’d walked hand in hand, so necessary to keep on touching then. Just ahead of them, a tall spiky grassed bank in the shadow of which they had sex. Easy and happy. Liane says she’d felt blended in with nature. All this before the island had come to mean grief, because her marriage was grievous.

After the time of the cut foot Liane began to leave Franz by stages, trying out being separate in her mind before making the real ending happen. Franz noticed no changes, living to the full his blithe London existence. Liane’s first stage of leaving was going out herself whenever Franz went out. It got more frequent. Franz was never home. He went away for the weekend, most weekends. So Liane did too—not that he knew. Franz’s business was doing well. Now he had money he had flings, the two seemed to go together with him. Another stage in the leaving was giving up caring about his infidelities. She used to be in a torment and rage. Franz had told her, ‘But you’re my best girl.’ Liane repeats this odious phrase of his to friends in the late night recollections. She’d been desperate, and then she wasn’t any more. Franz was away on business quite a lot, going to Brussels and Rome. On one of her weekends away Liane had a one-night stand herself, later she began an affair. In this way she had started on her new life. At last she said to Franz they should have a trial separation, that she couldn’t bear things as they now were. How were they? Franz had raised his eyes as though asking this question. ‘You’re my best girl,’ he reminded her. Liane said she thought he should go to Terschelling and fix the house up when he wasn’t away on business. She agreed to go out to him every couple of months and they’d see how things went.

Liane in the bright kitchen of her new flat entertaining friends. They sit at the table sipping wine, chatting, later they loll around in the cushiony living area, addressing issues, enjoying the night. Liane says things like: ‘What is for real? What is fooling?’ What she keeps going over is Franz’s attempted suicide. She’ll never give up trying to understand that.

She says, ‘How could he have done that to himself? When he looked down at his arm, did he hate that arm?’ Liane uses her own arm as a model; taps at it, asks: ‘Did he say, Arm you’re not going to be any more, you’ll be dead?’ Her little performance gets her a laugh. She’s hardly expecting anyone to come up with an answer.

Terschelling. That yellow sun. Liane had gone up to the island for two weeks. Franz had renewed hopes. He’d given up his mistresses now he told her in a voice bold and emphatic. There was just this one tiresome woman who was hard to drop, one who hounded him. But there was really nothing in it, he just saw her now and again. Franz looked hopefully into the amber eyes of Liane. The greater his hope the more she had to disillusion him so the greater her coldness. The sex between them was distant in her case, desperate in his. The greater his renewed hope the more he was capable of blotting out her indifference, so the more she had to punish him with a show of apathy. Liane says she got some sort of pleasure out of the idea he loved her and couldn’t let go; that she was becoming addicted to his hopeless zeal. ‘Was I just craving retribution for the years when things were safe for him and when he hardly noticed me?’

Liane feels at ease in her Fulham Road flat, friends round, soft music on, balcony door left open all weathers. She’s been with clients all afternoon in her office at Mansion House. It’s good being part of the noise and rush of the centre when you know you’ve got your peaceful nook to come back to at the end of the day. Here, where it’s all quiet sociability, a place for night-chat, she works through the details of the past.

‘Out there in Terschelling it’s a different life experience, such a beautiful spot. There you can find another kind of happiness and I’ll tell you about that in a while. But what’s right for one time may not be right for the next. And I didn’t feel comfortable on the island after things fell apart with me and Franz and he went to stay in the house full time. Franz thought I was punishing him, and partly I suppose I was. Yet he didn’t seem to imagine what it would be like if we were to stay together. Strange he wasn’t able to foresee a life of despair, of bitter recrimination, when by now we could hardly bear to see one another do a simple thing like walking on the beach.

I always went carefully after that accident, skirting the dunes, stepping round sharp stones, blobs of scum, tangled seaweed. Everything. Franz was more casual, missing the bad bits naturally but yelling if he didn’t. It’s scary how much we annoyed one another with our different styles. I can see Franz walking moodily, kicking up foot-loads of sand, feeling, I’m sure, that this glitch in the relationship was all my fault. He said I mustn’t leave him. It hardened me. When we had sex those days it was tense because this was the way I reminded him that I had nothing left for him. I held back, refusing to be fluid. When I went away, back to London, he took to brooding, did drugs, slept during the daytime, refusing to accept it really was over between us. He spent so much emotional energy in the effort of hiding from the inevitable ending. We walked separately in a state of tension, tormented by pity and dislike. I remember wondering if there could be a resolution or whether we were doomed to go on like this forever.

I’d bought a beach ball, gaudy, red-and-blue-striped, a light air-filled ball. We threw it between us without enthusiasm, and it was always just out of reach, slipping to one side, falling. Was it the wind doing that? So light that ball, no substance to it, and there was this smell of soft perishable plastic.’

In the living room of the London apartment Liane lies back on her sofa, legs thrown over one of the arms. Friends recline on various chairs, the sky outside passing from pearl to grey to black.

Liane: ‘What is for real and what is only fooling? Even if Franz had said, Arm you’re gonna be dead, he mightn’t have really meant it. Most likely of course, he never thought about his arm at all or any other part of his body. But I was afraid, because even if he was only acting the part of being suicidal he still might have killed himself. He was in a bad state. You know, suppose he was acting all the time, and just meaning to punish me, or punish himself, then oops, the breath was gone, the arm inert, and it had happened. All over, meant or not. Drowned. Silky-salty water lapping round him, making the pink parts of his body look pinker, a swirl of loose sand shaly against his knees. Franz lying down in the water and saying he was going to kill himself. Out of malice, out of hate, out of anger, out of pain, out of terror, out of what? Well, for one thing, as if to say, You’d love me then, you’d be sorry. And you know something, a terrible part of me needed to know that he really was going to do it—that insecure, worst part that wanted to believe he couldn’t live without me.’ And Liane recognises there is still that in her which needs to know she really has been loved. As if this will make her into one of the lucky ones, a success story, no matter what.

‘He said his life was empty, that he was going to end it, but as for me, when I saw him lying there, helpless with resentment, I knew I would never love him again and also that I had to be strong, to get both of us past this terrible moment. The sad thing is, this threat of suicide was the last emotional experience between us, a great force which drove both of us, almost a bond, and maybe neither of us really did know whether it was genuine or a sham.

Franz said to me, ‘You don’t want me any more.’ He said, ‘You just want to destroy me. You don’t care what happens, do you?’ He said, ‘I’m going out into the sea, the North Sea, and I won’t be swimming! I’ll be drowning. Drowning! Then you’ll be satisfied.’ His face which had gone a dark beetrooty brown, looked frightening, unresponsive, sealed off from any possibility of hope. He took off all his clothes and left them on the sand in a careless heap and waded out. I called him back, called and called till my voice went hoarse.’

Tears have come into Liane’s eyes, remembering. ‘He just kept on walking, as though he couldn’t hear me. I thought, he’s really going to do it. He didn’t falter though he must have been able to hear me calling. Didn’t even look back, you know, and the water out there was getting so deep. Not even when I called his name would he turn round.’ Liane’s hands start to shake with the memory. ‘I could not believe it. That Franz would do a thing like this. But on the other hand I had to put the idea it might just be a game out of my mind. It would have seemed too churlish not to have taken him seriously. Maybe that’s what he wanted, I don’t know.’

Liane takes a sip of her wine. ‘If it was a game it could have been a dangerous one, tempting an accident, flirting with it. People can die in a game if they’re crazy enough. To hell with intention.’

‘He’d chosen a stretch of water where the current was strong. If you were a cynic you could say he knew I knew that. One part of me hated him, for being out of control or being too controlled, whichever it was. The main thing was, I hated what was happening. He went out further and further and still I was shouting and still he never looked back and didn’t start swimming. And then I went in after him. I cried out, “Franz, you’re not to do this thing. I don’t want you to. I’m sorry.” Yes, I had to say things like that. I told him I loved him and I said I’d stay with him, that it wasn’t all over. I had to.’ She wipes sweat from her face.

‘And still he wouldn’t look back. He was much further out than I was. I was up to my neck, I couldn’t get out that far, you know I’m a poor swimmer. And I wasn’t sure if he could still hear me. I felt sick agony as though it was all over. Then, on the beach which seemed so far away now, I saw moving shapes. Silent and unreal, silver shadowed. Two moving shapes. With the agony inside me I waded back towards them shouting as loud as I could. And they heard me. It was two Australians, guys here on holiday. They swam across. By this time Franz had slipped down under the water. I couldn’t even see him. Whole minutes went by and I thought that was it. But the guys got him out. Thank God, they got him, and they hauled him back to the beach. He’d gone so white I thought he was dead anyway. But they lay him on the sand; pumped the water out of him. He just lay there completely still. He was ok though. Thank God for that.’

Very few lights are still on in the flats across the gardens, but now and again you can hear spurts of music, talking, coughing, as people pass close by. Once or twice there’s the quick burst of a car horn from the Fulham Road, discordant, high-toned, and now as it gets later, the wind shudders making the curtains puff out. There’s the rustle of leaves on a nearby tree, the occasional hum of a plane overhead. Shifting sounds settling us into night. Liane’s voice gets softer, goes back further.

‘I have an earlier memory of us. Me and Franz on holiday. I never wanted to leave this place. Before we bought the house, it was. We were stretched out at the base of this embankment in a band of shade. We lay where we were on spines and prickly tangles, not minding, postcoital, coming to. Finally we got up, arms still wrapped around one another because we couldn’t let go. It took us a while to climb to the top of the bank this way as we kept on toppling and having laughing fits. At last we made it and sank down out of breath. Pinkish haze of flowers all around us, that yellow sun. Below us the long line of the sea stretched grey-blue to the horizon, ending in mist. Terschelling, with its own kind of perfection, its power. Being there can absorb all the possible questions, can make you think of nothing. You have this sheer unburdened happiness, you feel quite free.’

pencilFiction by Jay Merill is published or forthcoming in 3 AM Magazine, Berfrois, Epiphany, Hobart, The Irish Literary Review, Per Contra and Prairie Schooner. She is a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of the Salt Short Story Prize. Further work has appeared recently in Anomalous, Citron Review, Corium, Foliate Oak, The Galway Review, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Literary Orphans, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, tNY, Wigleaf and other great publications. Jay lives in London UK and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing. She is the author of two short story collections published by Salt—God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies—which were nominated for the Frank O’ Connor Award and Edge Hill Prize. Email: jaymerill[at]talktalk.net

Delicacy

Baker’s Pick
Timothy Bastek


Photo Credit: haley8/Flickr (CC-by)

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Time I Had Brunch

Baker’s Pick
Jeff Bakkensen


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

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

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

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

“Wait.” A third. “Where was I?”

“Weren’t you there?”

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

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

The second: “I think you were there.”

“Was I?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

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

They all pause.

Two beats.

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

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

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

“Yes!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“—like ‘Hey bitch, why don’t you’—”

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

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

We decelerate towards a stop. The doors open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alcaics: on a hashtag

Beaver’s Pick
Judith Taylor


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

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

What happened? Who knows? No one can read a mind
scroll back the thoughts like seismograph traces, see
just where the quake struck. We are left here
sifting the wreckage for scraps, for reasons

—some prop that gave way, broke under sudden shock,
brought down the whole house. Then we could make ourselves
safe, make our own house safe: the next quake
won’t pull us down, we’ll be ready for it.

It’s that we’re human. That’s what we do. We make
home, shelter; fire, hearth. Structures to keep us safe.
Crops, pasture, fields hacked out of dark woods;
calendars, numbers against the vast sky

that drifts above us. Patterns of when and why:
verse; music; carved stones. Pictures and glossaries.
Faith, hope and love. Just law and mercy.
Everything keeping us sure of our selves,

each other’s selves. So much we can only take
on trust, and walk as if we believe there’s ground
to bear our weight. We have a place here,
that’s what we say in the frightened, quiet time

we try so hard not ever to give ourselves.
We have a home; if not a place, a tribe.
Kith, kin. Or one heart somewhere for us.
Structures we build on a spinning planet

we need to tell each other we trust in still.
If one looks down, looks over the edge, we might
all fall. We need these explanations
—not why a house tumbled down, but why ours

still stands. That hashtag, something we need to hear:
depression lies, we tell ourselves. Something struck
this house or that; some monster drew this
person or that to their self-destruction.

Sounds like a glib line, telling you what you feel’s
false: silence once more slapped over what you know.
More, though, it’s our own mind we talk down,
begging it, almost, to give us good news

tell us we’re part of a world we think true,
can live in, can think we belong in.
We build the house still, tremulous as the ground is.
Stay, please, we say. Stay. Help us to keep it standing.

pencilJudith Taylor comes from Perthshire and now lives and works in Aberdeen, Scotland. Her poetry has appeared widely in magazines and she is the author of two pamphlet collections — Earthlight, (Koo Press, 2006), and Local Colour (Calder Wood Press, 2010). Her first full-length collection will be published by Red Squirrel Press in 2017. Email: j.taylor.09[at]btinternet.com