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

The Day We Stopped Talking

Flash
Stephanie Gail


Photo Credit: Dan Hodgett/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Dan Hodgett/Flickr (CC-by)

The day we stopped talking was a Monday. We sat at the dinner table, you and I, cutting our hamburgers apart like it mattered. We never ate them with bread, always on a bed of spinach. Yours with ketchup and mustard, mine with barbeque sauce and globs of ranch dressing. You commented on the dressing before we stopped talking.

The day we stopped talking was a normal day. For the most part.

The invitation was hidden under a stack of mail. Your mail. I’d hidden it there after you opened it. But as we’ve been not talking, the sounds of a fork and knife slashing through the spinach, I know it’s there. I feel its presence in the absence of our words. The ink seeps through the stack of mail, like blood or tears or something.

I haven’t looked at you since we stopped talking. I grab a fry off the plate in the center of the table—the one with the paper towel seeping up the grease. I peel the thing apart and consume it bite by bite. We’re still not talking, but my eyes focus on the next fry instead of your face.

Your hamburger is half-eaten. Your fork scrapes against your teeth and makes that sound that makes me cringe. Since we’re not talking, I can’t tell you to stop. So you do it again. Fork against teeth and the invitation still hiding.

I almost ask how work was today, before I remember we’re not talking. Before I remember that invitation. Before I remember how I can’t tell you how I’m feeling. What I’m feeling. It’s weird not to tell you. Not to talk. But we’re here. With the spinach and the burger and the fork and your teeth.

You get up and walk outside. Probably to turn off the grill. The funny thing is, when we’re talking you always say “remind me to turn off the grill” when we start eating. And I always say “turn off the grill” right after that. And we smile.

But now you are up without instruction. And I am sitting at the table, not looking at your mail pile and not thinking about the invitation. And we’re still not talking.

I wonder how long this will last. How many days or weeks or months. I wonder if we will continue to stop talking and even though I know you are thinking about asking me to marry you, we stop talking and we end things one day and we marry other people and have children with other people and grow old with other people and when we are about to die with those other people by our sides and they are telling us it’s okay to go, that they love us and it’s okay to leave them, we stop. Just before our last breath. And we think back to our dinner table and us, you and I, and our one last regret is the day we stopped talking.

pencilStephanie Gail is a high school English teacher who finds it ironic that reading and writing time are hard to find during the school year. Since it’s summer, she finally has time to write and read things that don’t involve phrases like “formative assessment” and she is very happy about it. Email: stephanie.gail1618[at]gmail.com

Baby’s Breaths

Beaver’s Pick
Greg Metcalf


Photo Credit: Ari Landworth/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Ari Landworth/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Your baby is pulling down your shirt and exposing your bra strap. Maybe you’re used to his hand there, gripping, maybe the feel of his strength—is it a boy?—satisfies some primal need, proof of life. Do you watch him sleep and not just because you love him? How long do his pauses between breaths last before your eyes come wide open? We all pause between breaths when we’re content, when we’re happy. You haven’t, have you, since you had him? Wrapped tight with angst and loneliness. You’re lonely when another person is as close as could be, close and clutching, tugging at your clothes to get to skin. Lonely with your responsibility. All ease has been flushed from you and sleeps swaddled, oblivious except when he cries and that is on you. Are you jealous? Is that why you woke from that nightmare, rushed to where he slept, eyelids vibrating, scooped him up, woke him, squeezed him, and rocked him while both of you cried? Nothing will ever harm you, you promised, but this is just another thing you’ve committed yourself to for eighteen years and more: making promises, explicit and implied, that you don’t have the power to keep. He pinches the loose skin of your side against your bra strap, but you like the pain. The force in it. In a baby book, you read that infants have the strength, right from birth, to hold their weight with that grip. You attempt to ease your fears with this useless trivia; as if, if it comes to it, you could always dangle him from somewhere while you solve any problems that arise. From the time you were ten, you’d always wanted three: a boy, a girl, and then nature could decide, but now all you want is to have him to hold and feed, to listen to him continue breathing. Your husband is a sudden invader. You duck from the window at the sight of the mailman. The urge to love him is sometimes so powerful you can’t help contemplating the logistics of putting him back in. He’d have your heartbeat again, your oxygen, diffusing into him, and you wouldn’t have to worry about your baby breathing ever again.

pencilGreg Metcalf is the author of Flowers on Concrete, a novel, Hibernation, a YA thriller, and the memoir Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific. He has three other completed novels, unpublished to date. His short fiction has appeared at Boston Literary Magazine and Metazen. He is a contributing author in Indiestructible. He blogs at My Free Sentences. Email: hershelaa[at]aol.com

An Unexpected Truth

Baker’s Pick
Jhilam Chattaraj


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tango Tuesdays

Flash
Tara Roeder


Photo Credit: Karl Lindsay/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Karl Lindsay/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The couples dancing class was, in retrospect, the worst idea I’ve ever had. Worse than the rooster sanctuary. Tango Tuesdays—my alliterative downfall.

I didn’t even know that astronauts were still a thing. Who could compete with her? Lunar boots and a rose in her mouth? That tiny, diaphanous dress? It just wasn’t fair.

I knew where you were the night you never came home. I didn’t believe the story about the hospital, or the fake scar. I could picture the two of you floating together, bodies entwined, triumphantly defying gravity.

When I emerged from the flooded basement that morning, I saw it in your eyes. A calculated, assessing look. The stars, or this waterlogged woman triumphantly gripping a monkey wrench?

No one could blame you. But if you answered my calls, you wouldn’t regret it. When I said I was going to poison you, I didn’t actually mean it and you know it. It was the gin talking.

pencilTara Roeder teaches writing in New York City. Her work has recently appeared in venues including Hobart, The Bombay Gin, Two Serious Ladies, Cheap Pop, and DOGZPLOT. Her chapbook, (all the things you’re not), is available from dancing girl press. Email: roedert[at]stjohns.edu

Years ago, in Firenze

Flash
Andrew Bertaina


Photo Credit: Amélien Bayle/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Amélien Bayle/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Years later, long after we’ve left one another, I visit again, the serpentine streets of Florence. I search down those cobblestone streets, past Saint Mark’s and the street vendors, for the sandwich shop where we had prosciutto Parmesan sandwiches and two glasses of red wine a decade before. Back then, the shop was run by two brothers, jovial men, who wore all white, including large chef hats, as they sliced the cheese and meat in precise portions. Then they pulled the wine glasses, catching light and turning iridescent, from the small rack above the counter. For hours, I walk the streets in vain, peering in variety shops and shoe stores. After an hour or two, it becomes clear that the shop and the brothers and the wine glasses are gone, and I’m here in Florence, searching for all the things that I’ve lost.

pencilAndrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in more than twenty publications including: The Three Penny Review, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Literary Orphans,Sierra Nevada Review, Eclectica, Prick of the Spindle, Bayou Magazine, and Catamaran Literary Reader. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast. Email: abertain[at]hotmail.com

Aspire Dinnerware, New from Villeroy & Boch

Flash
Sherry Welch


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Crucible

Flash
Melissa Ostrom


Photo Credit: Amie Fedora/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Amie Fedora/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

When the yet-to-be daughter ignored the humbug about forty weeks then disregarded the day after the due date then snubbed another day and another and another, the almost-mother, a potter by profession, couldn’t sustain her suspense. She didn’t exactly lose interest in this prologue but turned prosaic, figured the child would come when she came and, if the lateness lingered too long, knew the doctor would induce labor.

Her thoughts instead swung to the studio where, in anticipation of a newborn, she’d already wrapped up her summertime throwing and gotten as far as bisque-firing the greenware. The shelves and work counter were lined with the fleshy pink of half-baked pots. These porous bowls, cups, colanders, and pitchers still needed glazes and a hotter firing to finish them.

With the baby a week overdue and apparently in no hurry, the potter eyed the waiting pots with renewed interest. She’d made her peace with leaving them undone. She never anticipated this bonus of unfettered time.

So though the supper hour had long since passed and though usually, by this time in the evening, she was in bed beside Michael, her head propped with pillows, her swollen feet also propped with pillows, and her book propped on a stomach that undulated with her child’s slow turns; the potter decided to stay in the studio. She tied back her hair and began the homestretch of the pot-making process, brushing wax on the pots’ feet, stirring vats of glazes, dipping, pouring, and overlapping her favorite combinations then swiping clean the residue that beaded on the waxed bottoms. She dragged fifty-pound glaze buckets across the studio’s cement floor, hauled heavy shelves into her kiln, bent, heaved, and hefted with indefatigable determination, for the first time in months, not feeling her aching back, not noticing her sore feet, not even paying attention to the hour.

Her husband checked on her at two in the morning, but she couldn’t talk. She was busy. She had to finish. She would finish.

Finally, filthy and panting from exertion, she situated the last pot on the shelf, closed the cover, and started the fan and kiln. She hauled the glaze buckets to their corner, washed the floor and counters, and turned off the studio lights. At last, she returned to the dawn-grayed house for her shower.

As the water coursed her clean, her stomach started with a seizing grip. Now, now that she was weak and drunkenly clumsy with sleeplessness, the child had decided to be ready.

Ready?

Here was her new crucible:

Let the mother from the onset learn what it means to wait. To wait then to rush. Let her understand the quagmire of exhaustion. Let her, from this moment on, know profound anxiety. Yes, let her discover suspense is, indeed, sustainable. And watch how—compared to the child, pinkly naked and diminutively perfect—everything else becomes secondary: an unattended, half-done, shelved world.

pencilMelissa Ostrom lives in rural western New York, where she serves as a public school curriculum consultant, teaches English at Genesee Community College, and writes whenever and however much her five-year-old and seven-year-old let her. Her fiction has appeared in decomP, Juked, Lunch Ticket, Monkeybicycle, Soundings Review, and elsewhere. Email: mostrom[at]rochester.rr.com

Milk

Flash
Christina Sanders


Photo Credit: scjn/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: scjn/Flickr (CC-by)

Her hands could hew stone, knead dough to crusty loaves and straddle the moon. At night she lowered her hips to the pelt of her husband’s belly, pulling him deep inside. He carved a crib from an old byre, sanding wood silvery smooth. She knitted blankets soft as catkins while rain beat down the barley and puddled in the yard. When New Year passed and still her belly refused to swell they drove to Bury to see a doctor. There were tests; to Colchester; more tests.

“Defective sperm ducts, nothing to be done,” she wept down the phone to her mother. Through the window she watched her husband lead the bull from the field, its muscles straining against the leather halter. The stone barn turned black in the rain.

Adoption was discussed. In a Home in Bury he held a baby, kissed her coffee-coloured face, her body soft as a fish against his chest and smiled at his wife.

“Cuckoo babies,” she said, “cuckoo babies without a nest.” She’d wait in the car.

That night he killed a hen, trailing back feathers and blood across the flagstones. She followed him to the sink with a rag.

Snow hardened to ice. He dreamed of children threshing channels through the corn, clutching blackberries in their sticky palms.

When it was time he brought the cows stamping and lowing to the barn, waking her one night to help with a breech calf. She gripped the halter fast while the cow, white-eyed, bucked between her hands as he reached deep inside to free the calf with his saw, the ancient reek of blood and birth filled the dark and the calf’s head, white lashes, pink wet snout fell to the straw, and the cow reared, thrashing its pink tongue to reach it.

That night she took him to her breast, rocked his body to her own. Sleet thudded heavy on the metal roof. All day and night she nursed him, through snow and thaw, the bluster of spring and spiky shoots of new grass until inch by inch his body shrank, limbs softened, his hair thinned to thistledown and blew into corners. One by one his teeth loosened, tiny chips of porcelain fell between the boards.

When he could no longer speak or stand she slipped him from her breast and laid him in the cradle. Up on the top pasture cows roamed wild, udders dry.

pencilChristina Sanders has been writing short stories for over ten years. She has had short stories and flash fiction published in literary magazines including: Litro, TFM magazine, Writing Women, QWF, Peninsular. She has also worked with The Nightingale Theatre in Brighton on ‘live literature’ performances. She has recently completed a collection of short stories on the theme of ‘compromise.’ “Milk” is from this collection. She is currently working on her first novel, for which she recently received an Arts Council bursary, for a literary appraisal and recommendations to take it to a second draft. Email: chris.sand12[at]gmail.com

End of the Slide

Flash
Ajay Patri


Photo Credit: Javcon117*/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Javcon117*/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

I help her up the steps. She gurgles, her mind probably fascinated by how, even though she repeats her action of climbing the rickety yellow steps one at a time, she keeps going higher and higher. Standing on the ground beside her, my arm steadily stretching upwards, I wonder about the design of a playground slide, making children spend their energy climbing all the way to the top only to find themselves crumpled in a heap on the ground at the end of the journey. Did the person who invented it derive some sadistic pleasure out of it, only to be stumped by how much happiness the simple contraption actually generated? Did that person spend the rest of his or her miserable life trying to create a more ingeniously hurtful toy while the simple slide made its way around the world, including this nondescript corner of a prison yard?

She reaches the top and freezes, still bending down to clutch my hand. As gently as I can, I withdraw my hand from her grasp. I see horror spreading on her face at this action of mine. For a moment, I fear that she will start crying but she turns out to be much too brave for that. Her two tiny hands hold onto the bars that form a protective cordon on either side. Still crouching, she looks at me with those questioning brown eyes. What am I supposed to do? A wild image pops into my head, to climb up myself and give her a gentle shove from behind to help her on her way. But that would surely be an unwise move. The guards would jump at an opportunity to flex their muscles and I would probably join her with my face in the dirt.

Her mother, sitting on the bench nearby, draws my attention with that little tilt of the head that she always reserved for me.

“You need to be there at the end.”

What does that mean? I want to ask but I don’t. As if understanding my predicament, she points to the little ditch that lies at the end of the slide, dry now but usually stagnant with water after the rains.

“You need to be there for her at the end of it.”

This time I nod to show that I understand her. I walk over to the edge and look up. Her face breaks into the smallest of smiles, but it is enough to make me realise how much I have already missed, of how distracted I have been. Her smile widens when I kneel down in the dirt. She knows that I will be there for her at the end of this journey.

pencilAjay Patri is a twenty-three-year-old lawyer from Bangalore, India. He has been published previously in Spark, The Literary Yard, Hackwriters, Every Day Fiction, Mobius Magazine, The Word Couch, Muse India and was a finalist in the DNA—Out of Print Short Fiction Feature 2014. He is also an active member of Bangalore Writers Workshop. Email: ajaypatri[at]gmail.com