Missing the Snark

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming

Happy Beaver
Photo Credit: stevehdc/Steve

While working on this piece, I ran across this anecdote from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s address to the Princeton graduating class:

The billionaire’s parable centered on a story of himself at ten years old, traveling along on a road trip with his grandparents. Bezos … calculated how many years his grandmother had cut her life short by smoking, and then told her. His grandfather stopped the car, made him get out, and said, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”

Now I’m sure this is being tweeted as a Pearl of Wisdom, but let’s just back up a bit.

What was 10-year-old Jeff Bezos’s motivation for calculating the toll smoking was taking on his grandmother’s life? Was he, as his grandfather said, trying to show off how clever he was? “Look, Grandma and Grandpa! I’m a math whiz!” I’d hazard a guess he was not. What I think he was doing, in a roundabout 10-year-old way, was saying, “Look, Grandma, smoking has already taken X years off your life. Please stop now. I don’t want you to die.”

It might have been harsh, and Grandma might not have wanted to hear it, but in my opinion, it was also kind. He was telling her how much he cared about her. He was trying to be helpful by offering her some information he (at age 10) might have thought she didn’t have.

Kindness isn’t always a warm fuzzy.

Nearly ten years ago, the founding editors of Toasted Cheese wrote a mission statement that read in part:

Our primary reason for creating Toasted Cheese is to provide a place where writers can get honest feedback on their work and honest information about issues important to writers. … Toasted Cheese is committed to being an independent site, where all opinions are free to be expressed, as long as they are expressed in a polite manner. … Snark, aside from being a mythical beast in a Lewis Carroll poem, is what we call all those things in our writing that make it less than its best. Our mission is to hunt it out and get rid of it, and to help other people do the same.

In that statement are the three things I think every good critique needs: honesty, politeness, and, yes, a little snarkiness. Give credit where it’s due, but don’t lie, don’t over-praise. Avoid personal attacks; “you suck” is not a valid critique (nor a valid response to a critique). Be critical, but provide justification—and while you’re at it, don’t be afraid to be funny. Any adult who is reduced to a puddle by a little snark needs to develop a thicker skin.

A good critique is the writing-world equivalent of saying to a friend, “Hey, you know I love you and the outfit’s great, but that hat? It looks like it ate your head.” In a sane world, friend laughs and says, “Thanks for telling me. I had a feeling it was too much. What do you think of this one instead?” Friend is spared embarrassment, the two of you share a laugh, friend picks out a better hat, and all is well.

But these days, it probably wouldn’t be unusual for you to hesitate before saying anything about your friend’s outsized hat, thinking: Will she take offense? Maybe I should not say anything. Well, I have to say something, she’s waiting. “Er, nice shoes!”

Lately I can’t seem to shake the feeling that we’re living in a UPOP (Unqualified Praise Only, Please!) world, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Recent articles note this trend to a world where we can like things but not dislike them, attributing it social media and a generational shift. In a world where friends, or rather “friends,” are currency, the “dry, sarcastic, snarky” wit of Gen X has given way to the inoffensive pleasantries of Gen Y.

These days, if you decide to go ahead with the hat-ate-your-head remark, you take the chance that your friend will react by bursting into tears and sobbing, “You’re just jealous! This is a $3,000 hat. I knew you hated me. You’ll be sorry!” as she tweets and facebooks about your egregiously offensive behavior (you snarked at her hat!), working herself and everyone around her into a frenzy of vitriol that makes “that hat looks like it ate your head” look like a compliment.

Because the flipside of this new mindset is that it’s apparently all right to be vitriolic as long as it’s couched as a defensive maneuver: “She said my hat looked like it ate my head. She’s so mean and also stupid! It’s supposed to look like that. It’s a $4,000 hat. It’s designer!”

The fact people are so quick to take offense at even mild criticism (not to mention leap to the defense of the offended) points to a fundamental misunderstanding of why people critique. Just because someone has some issues with something you wrote doesn’t mean they’re out to get you. Instead of thinking of critiquers as enemies, I think we need to start thinking of them as friends. Real friendships don’t crumble because one friend asks, “So, what you’d think of my story?” and the other replies, “Well, I had a few problems with it. I think it needs some work. Here’s why.”

Sure, maybe your critiquer isn’t actually a friend. Maybe you don’t know them. Maybe they really are your archrival. But if you take the feedback in the spirit of friendship regardless, it shifts the critiquer from “mean person who attacked me” to “a fellow writer who took the time to reflect on something I wrote”—and that makes a huge difference, for both of you.

A defensive response to a thoughtful critique overlooks the fact that a critique is also a piece of writing, a hard kind of writing, and the critiquer probably wrestled over not only what to say and how to say it, but whether to say it at all.

Just as young Jeff Bezos didn’t calculate the effects of his grandmother’s smoking to impress his grandparents with his math skills, you did not tell your friend that her hat looked like it ate her head to dazzle her with your flair for figures of speech. Sure, you might have giggled a bit at the sight of the oversized hat on your friend’s head (who wouldn’t?), but you stood your ground, telling her, “I don’t care if you paid $5,000 for that hat; it isn’t working. You look like the Mad Hatter” because you were looking out for her best interest. Your friend, of course, is free to disregard your opinion. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have offered it.

A couple months ago at Design Observer, Alexandra Lange lamented the lack of critical discourse in the design blogosphere. She wished there could be something like Go Fug Yourself for design rather than the proliferation of blogs that seem to do nothing but admire and fawn and gush. She wrote, “Celebrity chatter is my guilty pleasure, but the Fug Girls call the puffery to account. No, she does not look good. No, American (sic) will never love her. Yes, we can see your Botox. The acid is so refreshing. And yet we know they are still fans.”

And yet we know they are still fans.

Exactly. We don’t spend time dissecting and discussing and critiquing things that we have no interest in. We snark because we care.

There’s not a whole lot of value in engaging in disagreements with people you don’t like or have fundamental value differences with. We know how those kinds of discussions end up. But I see a great deal of value in being able to express your disagreement with people who you like and admire. As Lange says, “[W]hen you are primarily writing a sweet review, it is important to add a dash of pepper. Love doesn’t mean you have to love everything.”

And yet, these days, you could be forgiven for thinking that it does. If you play by the rules, you can like something—without reservations—or you can say nothing. Many book bloggers, for example, only write about books they liked. In a perverse way, it makes sense. In a world where connections are currency, you don’t write a book review to process what you took away from it, or to provide potential readers with an honest evaluation of the book, or even to provide the author with some potentially useful feedback. Rather, by naming a book or an author, you are declaring your fandom. The book review is no longer a critical evaluation, but a device to connect you with other fans of the book/author—and maybe even the author herself:

aspiringwriter @favoriteauthor, I love your books!
favoriteauthor Thanks! RT @aspiringwriter @favoriteauthor, I love your books!

I’m not going to deny that would be a thrill, even if all @favoriteauthor does is thank you for your compliment. But you know what? I believe that in this case you can have your cake and eat it too. Because if @favoriteauthor is worthy of that title, she understands that her truest fans are not the ones who gush uncritically over her work, they’re the ones who dissect and discuss and critique it.

The ones who aren’t afraid to snark.

Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

Dying in Reverse

Best of the Boards
Kate Miffitt

The new empty house
Photo Credit: _StefwithanF

It was the day her couch disappeared. She didn’t know where it went, not that it much mattered anymore. She lay on the ground along the wall where the couch used to be, and looked up at the ceiling instead of out to the empty surrounding rooms. She was waiting for she didn’t know what. Perhaps the roof to rip off so that she could become one with the sky.

She hadn’t talked to anyone in thirteen days. She wasn’t even sure she could. She could speak, but she didn’t know if she could be heard. Or seen. So she just stayed in her increasingly empty home. She hadn’t left the house in ten days. When she woke and found her car was gone, she just went back to bed, because she still had a bed.

She didn’t know what was happening to her, or why. She knew only this: one thing disappeared everyday. And there wasn’t anything left.


It started with a brush. A hair brush that just wasn’t next to the sink in the bathroom one morning. She cursed herself for leaving it in her gym bag, and then instead of running out on the windy autumn morning to get it from her car, she finger-combed her long hair into place. Only later, when she went to the gym in the afternoon, did she realize the brush wasn’t there.

Four days later, when the air turned crisp, she wanted to curl up in her favorite sweatshirt and watch movies on the couch. When she opened the drawer, the faded navy-and-gold sweatshirt wasn’t there. She opened all the drawers, then the closet, but couldn’t find it anywhere. She begrudgingly put on the less-warm and baggy red one, and wondered where she had left it.

She had these days of feeling forgetful, disorganized, or careless, and they scared her. This was not like her. She was never disorderly. She did not lose or forget things. She worried that this was what happened when you turned thirty, that your mind just betrays you and you are no longer yourself. She worried that this was what happened when you lived alone for too long, that you lose yourself when you’re not anchored to another. She worried that her job, which had become increasingly more stressful, was ruining her.

And then she came home, and the picture was missing.

She stood in the living room the afternoon of October 21 and stared for a long time. Something wasn’t right. The hairs rose on the back of her neck as she worried if someone was in the apartment with her. She didn’t move, only turned her head to look around. And then she saw it. The empty space over her couch, where a framed print used to hang. A black-and-white pop print of an iris. It was gone.

Something shifted in her head, and all the frustration she had directed towards herself dissipated. She did not misplace a 24-by-36-inch wall hanging. She did not accidentally leave it at work, or in the car.

Something strange was happening, but she didn’t know what.

She reviewed all the things that she thought she lost over the past few weeks. A brush. Sweatshirt. Pen. Coffee mug. Nearly one thing every other day. She wondered if there were more things missing, and started looking in cupboards and closets. One plate short. Blue towel gone. She had lost more than she knew, and this frightened her. She did what she always did when she was scared and unsure—she made a list.

She approached these occurrences of missing objects like a detective investigating the occult; she was methodical in the face of the illogical. It was inexplicable, yes, but it was not without order—items could be inventoried. Patterns could be identified. Causes hypothesized. She had a purpose in the chaos, and it invigorated her.

She awoke early the next day, almost eager to see if anything new was missing. When she pulled the iron from the closet to press her clothes before work, she eyed the contents. Everything seemed to be in the right place. She showered, and found everything she needed for grooming—soap, shampoo, lotions, toothbrush. Hair dryer, tweezers, mascara.

As she ate cereal from a bowl that completed a set of four, she felt disappointed. The loophole that she uncovered that suggested that she might not be crazy or senile was closing. The kitchen items were intact, whereas she was not. Split-personality. Amnesia. Manic Depression.

With fifteen minutes to spare now before she had to leave, she laughed at the thought of getting nine cats and filling the cupboards with tuna, to immerse herself in her insanity. She stirred the remaining milk in the bowl, half-hoping that an image would appear, a vision of a future that made sense.

“Fuck.” She put the bowl in the sink, and went into the living room. She opened every drawer in the desk. Fingered every book in the bookcase. Fluffed the pillows. Then she went back to her bedroom. She looked into the mirror, and the face looking back was somewhere between pretty and plain. But she did not look crazy, or unlike herself. She lifted the top to her jewelry box. And there it wasn’t. The charm bracelet her father had given her when she finished grad school.

A slow smile spread, and she added another item to the list.

Her alarm went off at 6:15 a.m., her new wake-up time since her investigation began. It was getting harder to get up early as the winter air made unwelcome any space outside of her bed. She turned on the light, confirming that the lamp was still in its place. She walked down the hallway to the kitchen, and took the coffee grounds from the freezer. She walked to the counter. The coffeepot wasn’t there.

“Shit. Fuck. Shit.”

She could handle losing a mug, a pair of jeans, a pen, a book—despite the obvious mystery about it. But she could not handle losing her coffeepot. Until this point, the disappearances had been a nuisance, yes, but they had also given her a profound sense of purpose that she hadn’t felt in a while. She enjoyed working on figuring it out, but she couldn’t do anything without coffee.

She gave up on her morning, and instead threw a few things in a gym bag and left. She had no desire to work out before the sun was even up, so she headed into the steam room. As the heavy steam filled the air, she watched as the visible space around her receded. Just like her life. Things disappearing, and she couldn’t see what was really happening. She showered, dressed, and then headed to the diner next door. The bar was lined with suits and retirees at 8 a.m., and she grabbed an empty seat and waited impatiently for her first cup of coffee.

A waitress who looked like a Myrtle came by, wearing a name tag that said Rose. She had purple-gray hair in an updo that never came down. “What are ya having?”

“I’ll have a coffee. And an egg and toast.”

As she sipped her bitter, weak coffee, she decided that she couldn’t go on just losing things. She didn’t have that much to begin with in her apartment, and she cared about good coffee too much to just lose an appliance.

She looked around at the other people sitting at the bar—the thin old man wearing the brown cardigan, the mid-30s guy wearing a suit and too much gel… Were they losing things too? Could this be happening to everyone? Why would it just be to her?

She had to talk to someone, preferably someone who would not think that she was totally crazy.

Michael was the first person she told. On the day that she added the 34th item to her list, she called and asked his voicemail if he could meet for lunch. They had met for lunch a few times over the past year, to try out being friends. This time it would be different. This time she really needed him.

She got an email from Michael right before her 11 a.m. meeting, and lunch was set. At noon, she grabbed her coat, and headed out into the cold air for the four-block walk to the cafe. Michael was there already, seated at a small table in the corner. She noticed two mugs. He had already gotten her drink.

She walked over, and he stood and kissed her cheek. Their eyes met briefly, and up close she was sure she still loved him. And then she backed away, and from a different angle he was the guy who broke her heart. Arrogant. Selfish. Introverted. If only she could just look into his eyes forever.

“I was surprised to hear from you. As I recall, our last lunch ended with you saying you never wanted to see me again.”

“I know. And I meant it. But… I have something I need to tell someone, and you’re the first person I could think of that already thinks I’m crazy.”

“You have something to tell me? And here I thought we were going to be friends.”

“It’s not about us. Something weird is happening to me. Too weird to even say out loud. But I need to tell someone.”


“I wouldn’t tell you if I wasn’t totally desperate. So, about a month ago, I started losing things. Little things, like my hairbrush and stuff. And then one day I came home and the print above the couch was missing.”

“The one we got from IKEA?”

“Yes. And ever since then, I’ve been keeping a list of what’s missing everyday.” She pulled a folded piece of paper from her pocket and handed it to Michael.

He scanned the list quickly, and then looked up at her. She braced herself.

“Do you have some crazy stalker or something? Have you seen any weird guys hanging around lately?”

How had this not occurred to her? “I… didn’t even think about it.” She thought about the weird guys she knew. The one religious guy at work who tried to recruit her whenever she looked sad, which had been often this past year. The neighborhood homeless guy who was always friendly when she walked by. The one bad date she went on since leaving Michael when the guy just kept asking about sex. None of them seemed like the stalker type. Was there an unknown person with access to her apartment?

“We’re getting the locks changed on your apartment now. And you’re not staying alone tonight.”

Michael searched every possible entrance of the apartment to make sure it was secure, and then sat down on the couch to wait for the locksmith. He put his feet up on the coffee table, the same way that always drove her crazy. She sat down next to him stiffly. He self-consciously glanced at her, and smirked as he put his feet on the floor.

“I’d offer you coffee, but…”

Michael laughed. “Do you have any wine?”

She put two glasses on the counter, and worked on opening the bottle. She looked at Michael sitting in the other room, and a wave of relief rushed over her. She’d told Michael, and he didn’t think she was crazy. He thought she was in trouble. Like her, Michael was action-oriented, and she felt like together they could figure this out.

They were on their second glasses when the locksmith came, and they giggled as he worked on the door. They were getting drunk at three in the afternoon, trying to solve the mystery of the disappearing coffeepot, instead of sitting in their cubicles. Michael tried to put on a straight face as he accepted the new keys and paid the locksmith. As he closed the door and latched the new lock, they both burst out laughing.

She awoke a few hours later, her neck cramped from being curled into the corner of the couch. Static was on the TV, and Michael was asleep at the other end. She had only stayed awake for fifteen minutes of the movie, she was sure. She got up carefully, and immediately noticed the ache in her stomach from the wine and lack of food. She placed a call for their favorite Thai delivery, and watched Michael sleep.

The aromatic pumpkin curry and pad thai woke Michael, and they ate quietly in the darkened living room, each dealing with their respective early hangovers. Without the wine buzz, it was weird that they should be sitting together like they had so many other times, eating takeout, and yet not be that couple they once were.

Michael finished the last of the noodles, and sat up straight and looked around. She knew he was taking a mental inventory of the place.

“Thank you, Michael, for coming over. I know it hasn’t been easy.”

“Today was fun, actually. I’ll sleep on the couch so I can keep an eye on the main entrances.”

She was surprised that her first reaction was disappointment, but she settled on relief that they would not share a bed, and that he was the one who suggested it. She kissed him on the forehead. “You know where everything is. Good night.”

She awoke to Michael shaking her shoulder gently. She smiled and stretched and tried not to breathe directly on him. She had slept better than she had in a while.

“Hey. You’re late getting up.”

She popped up. Her alarm hadn’t gone off. She pointed in the direction of the nightstand. “The alarm clock is gone.”

Michael’s face darkened. “Are you fucking with me?”

“No. Seriously, it’s not here.”

“What I mean is, are you fucking with me? Like, is this your elaborate plan to get me over here? Because no one came in or out last night, and it’s a little suspicious that something is missing from the room you were in.”

It took her a second to process his accusation. Then she was livid.

“Yes, Michael. I hid my alarm clock. I want to be late for work, and have this shitty morning, all to get you back. Do you think I’m like a desperate 14-year-old girl or something?”

“Well, things don’t just disappear.”

“That’s exactly why I came to you. Because they are. But you want to make this about you, like always. You want to be the hero. You want me to go crazy over you. You can’t stand that I’m fine without you, you narcissistic fuck.”

“I’m narcissistic? I came over here because I was worried you were going to get hurt.”

“Yeah, well I’m not. And certainly not again by you. Just get the fuck out.”


She sobbed soundlessly, the air emptying out of her as she curled to protect herself from the pain in her stomach. She ached as she realized that she had loved, and been loved, and that rather than a comfort, it hurt to have had all that, when only that was never enough. Today, it was enough. Today, the couch was gone, and there was nothing left.

She didn’t know what would happen when the morning came, but she longed to say goodbye. She didn’t have a phone. She didn’t have a pen. She didn’t even have clothes she could put on to go out. But there were people out there that she wanted to tell that she was scared, and that she loved them.

Michael. She couldn’t help but miss him the most, in spite of herself. She felt comforted and incredibly alone at the same time when she thought about him. He was the one who really knew her, and she him. But even that secret knowledge wasn’t enough to keep them together. Perhaps it was the insight into their darker selves that drove them apart; he saw the things in her that she hid so well from herself.

It was his arms that she wanted around her while she faced the inevitable disappearing. It was his words that could soothe, and give her the real courage that she was so good at faking on her own. And it was to him that she had so much more to say.

Her mom. Her sister. Julie. Sarah. Uncle Jim. All these faces flooded her imagination, fraught with confusion, sadness, anger, helplessness. She knew her existence was essential to their sense of order, and her withdrawal was akin to waking to find your couch missing.

She stood up. She went to the window in the kitchen and searched outside for divination. If this was the end, she was determined to name it, to mark it with a ritual goodbye. A so-long to this world and the people in it who wouldn’t understand, and would be lost a little without her. A wish for each of them. A sign that said she was here.

The April sun was bright, bringing with it the first new life of the Spring. She scanned for a clothesline, fancying an elaborate escape from her situation like a prison break in the movies. But there were no such props. As she gazed into the calm afternoon, she almost forgot why she was at the window, and then she saw it. About ten feet from the back door. A dark piece of charcoal.

At the door, she looked quickly to either side and saw no one. She hopped the few paces and picked up her rock. The black soot colored her fingertips, and she laughed through her tears. She looked up at the sun, as it caressed her skin with warmth. The sensations of whatever cellular activity tingled within, and she knew she was still alive with a certainty she hadn’t felt in days. And with that, she ran back inside.

She started to write.


Kate Miffitt is an instructional designer by day, and a procrastinator by night. When she’s not procrastinating, she can be found cooking, playing drums, obsessing over the Lost finale, and even occasionally writing. She aspires to write magical realism, but often settles for witty Facebook status updates. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two dogs. Email: katemiffitt[at]gmail.com

A Complaint from Harvey

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Bronze
Robert Bennett

I'm blue…
Photo Credit: Stewart Chambers

I’d copied the words from the back of a small, quart-sized paint paddle before I handed it over to Sheriff Joe Baxter. But studying the encryption now, sitting at the kitchen table, I can see Harvey’s handwriting had been better than mine, but the message is unmistakable:


The front side of the paddle stated, in bold blue lettering, EARNWRIGHT’S BUILDING SUPPLY, and it hadn’t taken long to decode the message, but if you’d just murdered somebody and your heart was racing, you might miss the fine, cultured nuances. That’s what Harvey must have been banking on.

The entire story, and the ensuing tragedy, actually started decades earlier, but the more pertinent parts only developed over the last six months.


It had never been a closely-guarded secret that Harvey Earnwright married Bunny Taylor for her father’s money, but they seemed to get along. A generation earlier, folks would have said Bunny’s problem was an insatiable sweet tooth. She was the heaviest kid in class when we graduated eighth grade, and the pounds continued to pile on through high school and college. She never lost an ounce after any of her pregnancies—two girls and a boy—and at the local supermarket she’d cruise around on a motorized cart, her flesh restrained by the vehicle’s back and armrests.

As folks began to notice her gasping and wheezing, they’d speculate she probably wouldn’t live long. It was Harvey, however, who met with an early death and everyone was shocked to hear it.

Harvey and I belonged to the shooting club, but we were more academic about the sport than other members. They’d talk of long-ago game shots, near hits and misses, while we would discuss muzzle energy, breech pressure, and ways to flatten trajectories. I would work up loads for rifles and try them out at the range, but Harvey would still hunt game from time to time, and that’s what led to his undoing.

On the first day of deer season he often went to Eight Dollar Mountain, but this year he went to some property of Bunny’s up around the headwaters of Williams Creek. It was heavily timbered; Harvey always said the healthiest deer lived under the big evergreens. He knew how to read trails and signs, never wanted to wound an animal and have it run off, and he always took care there was high ground to backstop a bullet if he missed. When he didn’t come home that night, Bunny called me, then some other shooters, and when that didn’t lead to answers, she called the sheriff.

I went out to help search. We found his body the following morning; he’d been shot in the head. Authorities on site thought he’d tripped and discharged his rifle, and termed it a hunting accident. But the whole thing didn’t add up to me, so the following morning I went in to see Joe Baxter. He’s been the sheriff here since before I could remember.

“Harvey was the most careful guy I knew around guns,” I said, as he handed me coffee in a Styrofoam cup.

“Seemed like it,” Joe replied, “huntin’ with that old Marlin, usin’ iron sights. Not many folks go out equipped that way anymore.”

“He didn’t take risky shots, Joe. He used a 45-70 so the bullet wouldn’t ricochet off a rock and take out a windshield half a mile away. Besides, I was the first one to find him, and that entry wound didn’t look nearly big enough to have been made by a 45.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I saw that, too.”

“They find the bullet?”

“They’re out there lookin’ now,” he said.

I drove by the Earnwright house on my way home, but there were other cars in the driveway. I didn’t stop.

I called the sheriff the following morning. I wanted to know if they’d found the slug.

“We found a bullet,” he said.

“Which means?”

“We found a fresh bullet hole in a small fir about fifty yards west of the body,” he explained. “We cut a plug out of the tree and sent the plug to a lab in Eugene.”

“If Harvey had fallen on his own gun,” I told him, “the bullet would have gone up in the air. There’s no way it could have hit a tree.”

“It couldn’t have anyway,” he said. “Earnwright’s gun hadn’t been fired that day.”

The following morning Bunny pulled up into my driveway, followed by two young men in a U-Haul truck. She got out and made her way to the house with the use of a cane. I went to greet her.

“Bunny,” I said, “I’m so sorry about Harvey. I—”

“I brought Harvey’s shooting stuff to you,” she interrupted. “He’d want you to have it.”

“What about Willy?” I asked. Willy was their ten-year-old son. “Won’t he want Harvey’s—”

“When Willy turns twenty-one,” she said, “if you want to give these things to him, that’s up to you. As for now, I don’t want them in the house.”

I nodded and went out to help unload the truck.

Everything of value was in a large steel gun safe. Until the door was opened there was no way to know what was in it. I didn’t think Bunny would know the combination, so I called a locksmith and made an appointment for him to come out that afternoon.

Then I went back down to the sheriff’s office.

He was civil and offered me coffee. “The medical examiner says the entry hole measures 6.5 to 7 millimeters,” he said, “and the lab says the bullet diameter is point-two-seven-seven inches.”

“A two-seventy.”


“So where does that take us?” I asked.

“Right now we’re calling it a hunting accident,” he said. “We’re assuming someone with a two-seventy fired a round off into space, and it traveled, unimpeded, until it made contact with Harvey Earnwright’s head.”

It seemed like kind of a stretch to me.

“By the way,” he said, “there are some things at the medical examiner’s that need to go to the family. Do you want to take them?”

I told him I would, and went to pick them up. Everything was in one small box. I took it home, thinking if Bunny didn’t want the gun stuff, she probably wouldn’t want these things either. With the exception of a wallet and pocketknife, there was nothing but clothes.

The last thing I pulled from the box was his hunting vest. I laid it on the coffee table, and that’s when I noticed the paint paddle—a small, quart-sized paddle. I pulled it out, wondering what would become of Earnwright Building Supply. When I turned the paddle over I saw the cryptic message, written with a fine point, felt-tipped pen. Turning it upside-down and sideways the solution to the message jumped out at me: SOME WIGGED OUT ASSHOLE IS TRYING TO SLAY ME.

Harvey must have written it as he lay on the ground, under siege, so the shooter would have discharged more than one round, which negated the official theory of death by a hunting accident. I reproduced the message on a sheet of paper, put the paddle back in the vest pocket, and took the whole thing to the sheriff.

“What now?” is how he greeted me.

I put the vest on his desk, pulled out the paint paddle, and said, “Look at the back.”

“It’s gibberish,” he said.

I picked up a pencil and pointed to the words as I read—backwards and upside-down.

“Holy shit,” he said.

“Anybody find a felt-tipped pen out there?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I’d better send some folks back to the site,” he said.

“You might look for more slugs,” I told him, “now we know there are more. Did you find out what the rate of twist was on the last one?”

“Why, does it matter?”

“Ninety percent of all two-seventies will have a one-in-twelve twist,” I said, “but some custom rifles and Weatherby’s have a one-in-fourteen twist. It could help nail down the rifle.”

But that’s where the investigation bogged down. They didn’t find a felt-tipped pen—so we knew the killer came up to examine the body. They did find another bullet, which confirmed what we already knew, and the lab said the rifle had a one-in-fourteen twist, but there was no clue as to who might have done the shooting, or why.

But then I saw Bunny emerging from a local restaurant with a guy I’d never seen before. It seemed strange—Bunny had always been a stay-at-home eater. Later, I saw the two of them motoring down East Avenue in Bunny’s car; the stranger was driving.

The following day I went to the local elementary school and asked the principal if I could talk to Willy Earnwright. He agreed, and Willy confirmed what I already suspected. There was a man staying at the house; his name was Jim Dutton.

I went back to Joe Baxter.

“Here’s what I think happened. First, this Dutton guy scouts around until he finds an odd couple—for lack of a better term—a man who has married for money, and a woman who married a trophy husband, so to speak. He then knocks off the husband and, after a time, he puts the bum’s rush on the widow. He’s never had any contact with either of them in the past, so no one would suspect him. If he’d been having an affair with the wife before the murder, he’d be suspect number one, but he moves in after the fact.”

“That’s pretty far-fetched,” the sheriff said, but he agreed to look into the possibility, and to bring Jim Dutton in for questioning.

Two days later, I called Joe Baxter to find out how it went with Dutton.

“Not his real name,” Joe told me. “Name is James Gilchrist; he’s done time for embezzlement. He’s still on parole.”

“How about the rifle?” I asked

“He got real squirmy about that. We’re keeping an eye on him, hoping he’ll lead us to it.”

That afternoon, I ran into Bunny and Jim Dutton at the supermarket. She was whizzing around in an electric gizmo and he was getting things that were too high for her to reach.

After she introduced us, I informed her that the sheriff had re-opened the investigation into Harvey’s death. “They’ve got a lead on the gun, and Joe mentioned something about a felt-tipped pen.”

Dutton’s eyes acquired a look of desperation; I’d struck a nerve.

The next afternoon I spied the wideness of Bunny Earnwright on a bleacher, watching a Little League game in which Willy was pitching. I walked across the grass to talk to her.

“Where’s Jim?” I asked.

“Packed his things and left in the middle of the night,” she said. “I don’t know what got into him.”

I shook my head at the marvel of it all.

“He’ll be back,” she confided. “He told me he loved me.”

I patted her hand where it rested on the crook of her cane. “I’m sure he will,” I said, and turned to leave. Bunny is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known. It was awful this had to happen to her.

Robert Bennett is a regionalist writer from Oregon. Much of his material is centered around the Pacific Northwest. Email: trombone2[at]hotmail.com

What They Tell Me

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Ann Ang

dead sparrow
Photo Credit: magnetisch/Thomas

It was a Sunday morning when I opened the front door and noticed a slip of yellow paper on our copy of the news. “Make me a channel of your peace,” I read. I hid it quickly.

From the teak cabinet by the door, the phone rang: a mundane sound shrilling over the tinkle of the neighbors’ piano. I picked up the phone and they told me that my daughter is dead.

“Be prepared,” the police said. “Stay at home, Mrs. Tang. Make sure your husband does too.”

I handed the receiver to him.

My husband said that we must be prepared; the police will be over in half an hour.

I replied, “This is rubbish. How can we know that Kelly is dead?” So much of what we hear today is unreliable, made up of accidents and half-truths: Daisy milk lighter and sweeter than a yoga pose, Dettol shower foam that protects your family against 99% more bacteria than regular soap, a world made of Cadbury chocolate. The headline from The Straits Times squawked, “Obama risks losing chance to build ties.”

Half a year ago, before our daughter left for university, we hired a new Filipino maid. Six months after, she began burning the rice and leaving the kitchen floor wet and slippery, I took one of his cigarette stubs and branded her arm, twice. “Now you’ll remember. It’s very simple,” I said. “Two parts water to one part rice. Measure it with your finger. Dry the floor.”

My husband paced the hall. “My girl, my little girl,” he said. “Lying out there beside the road next to the park.” He picked up the phone twice and each time he put it down as if he were placing a dead sparrow in his pocket. He covered his face and breathed through his fingers. “Those church meetings. Those cell groups. Coming back late.”

I said nothing, folding the bright yellow slip into a small square.

“I knew there would be trouble when she said that mega-church wanted ten percent of her salary. I knew she wouldn’t give it.”

“She’s not dead,” I said calmly.

My husband came over and put his hand on my shoulder. “We need to find out what happened.”

“Why do you have so much faith in the police? In what they tell you?”

He stood up. “Is this more of that God-rubbish you said you left behind?”

“No, but I am prepared.”

I have always prepared her as I have prepared myself. When Kelly was six months old we sent her for the necessary vaccines, but when Father Wong called I did not answer the phone. I’ve learnt how not to respond when you are angry, like when Sister Anna came to look for me. God was there, but you lived on, focused on what was important: money for food, a secure job, paying off the house.

A year later Kelly had her boosters. I started her on books at a year-and-a-half and phonics classes when she was three. She topped her class in nursery. When she entered primary school, I told her to say nothing during prayer time. I wanted her to have a carefree childhood—I knew what it was like to stand before stained glass and have one’s soul exposed and stolen. The light lifted your limbs; you felt the urge to weep; time passed. Why subject a child to all this? In our country, decent people try not to talk about such things. They remind us that we are different: Malay, Indian, Chinese.

So I have prepared her for a prestigious scholarship. She has gone for piano lessons, for brain fitness lessons with Adam Khoo. Now she is in medical school: a concerned and careful citizen. I have prepared her for life by hiding the crucifix and the statue of our Lady. I wouldn’t burn them: I let God go his way and I say nothing. I have absolute faith in Kelly. She did not join that church.

My husband now knelt before me. “You must understand: Kelly is dead. She is dead.”

“You are jumping to conclusions. Have you seen her body?”

He stood up and took me by the shoulders. “Why can’t you understand this simple thing?” he yelled. “Why can’t you believe?”

I held him by the waist and rested my head against his shirt. Pity must smell like this, I thought, like slept-in cotton. My husband was not a religious man, though he was raised in a house with a Taoist altar and ancestral tablets which he offered joss sticks to. Still he believed in ghosts and curses—he needed something to believe in.

“Look here.” I handed over the square of yellow paper and shrugged him off. I headed over to the old newspaper pile to retrieve various other slips that had been left at our doorstep over the course of two weeks.

When I returned he had smoothed out the yellow slip. Wordlessly, he took the others from me and spread them slowly on the dining table.

Make me a channel of your Peace.

Where there hatred, let me bring you Love.

Where there is injury, Pardon.

Where there is death, Everlasting Life.

He looked tired at first, as if this was what he had expected. Then he touched each slip briefly and tentatively. “She brought them back.”

“She didn’t bring them back.”

“Then how did you get these? I thought you would have tossed these away.”

“Someone has been leaving them at our door.”

“When? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want to bother you.”

“They were important enough to keep,” he said. So he touched the papers again, this time with just his forefinger, as if they were talismans. At the bottom of each slip was a small motto printed in font size eight. “Filipino Christian Association 2010,” he murmured. He turned slowly to me. “And you hid these?”

I made no reply.

“Are you mad or what? You abused two Filipino maids.”

“I did not abuse them. They asked for it.”

He went on, “Then all these suspicious messages show up on our doorstep. And you hide them.”

“It’s bad luck to throw them away.”

“You’re crazy, I tell you.”

“Shut up,” I gulped. “Shut up! Shut up!” This was why I had to give it to those maids. They were senseless like my husband now. They refused to focus on the facts, on what was necessary: that the bed needed making, the blankets folding, the water boiling. They paid no attention to their work. They ironed pants flat, without a crisp crease running up the middle, and spent endless hours on the phone to their friends. They ate tin after tin of Khong Guan biscuits. They daydreamed. Once Maria made some fish soup that left us retching for days. Kelly was so weak she couldn’t stand.

My husband sat at the table with his fists clenched together. He looked as though he might be praying. “They were watching us,” he murmured. “These women, these dirty foreigners. I’ve seen a group of them on Saturday night at the park. That’s their day off.”

He went to the window where large Angsana trees screened us from a distant view of the park. He laughed suddenly. “You killed her, that’s what you did. Now do you believe it?” He strode savagely up to me. He placed one palm on a chair for support. It toppled to the ground. “If you had the sense to put two and two together, Kelly would still be alive.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong to those maids.”

“You fed Maria on dog food for three days! You beat her all over! They found bruises on her breasts!”

Then she ran away to the police, because she had tried to poison us. Charges were raised and dropped.

The doorbell chimed: a four-note descending chord. The police. My husband put his hands over his face again, but he composed himself and went to the door.

“Good morning, brother,” said a bright Filipino voice. “Have you received the Word?”

“You get the hell out of here.”

“Your house,” the voice persisted, “has been specially selected to receive messages from our outreach group. You may have noticed several flyers at your door in recent days.”

I heard my husband hurl himself against the locked gate. “You killed my daughter!”

I walked quickly to the door where I heard quiet voices conferring outside.

“May we say a short prayer for you?”

“You scram before I call the police, you hear?”

The first voice persisted.

“O Master grant that I may never seek

So much to be consoled as to console

To be understood as to understand—”

“Do you want me to kill you now? Do you want me to go and get a knife?”

“—to be loved as to love with all my soul.”

I held onto my husband’s arm. I told the young men to go. They went quickly. They wore T-shirts tucked into their high-waisted jeans.

“I will tell you what happened,” I said. “I went out last night when you were already asleep. At around ten. You know, that’s the time when she walks back from the train station after cell group, through the park.”

“Oh God,” he moaned. “Oh God.”

It seemed as if someone else was speaking through me. “I saw her. She was walking quickly and when she saw me, she came up. She asked what I was doing here. ‘Nothing in particular,’ I told her. ‘Why don’t we sit for a while at that pavilion?’ I think you know it, the cream one beside the main road.”

“Stop.” I heard my husband sob. “Stop. I don’t want to tell them I heard this.”

“I told her she needed to break herself away from that church. That an independent person is a healthy person. We are simply who we are, we make of ourselves who we are. That she was my daughter. She was stubborn. She said she was no daughter of mine. All her friends were in that church. I slapped her and she ran away, towards the road. I came home. I heard and saw nothing.”

“I do not believe you,” he said.

There were sounds from the corridor outside. Two policemen came, belted and capped in dark blue. We must have looked ridiculous: a man in a singlet and a woman in a cotton shift, behind the bars of their own gate.

“I’m sorry we took so long, Mr. and Mrs. Tang,” the older one said, “but we must ask you to come to the station now. We confirm that your daughter has been involved in a hit-and-run accident.”

“I do not believe you,” I said.


They tell me there was a funeral. But I was not brought to any. There were white wreaths and singing and many friends. My mother-in-law, all of seventy-seven, made ginseng tea: that I do remember. As for Kelly—there is no proof. I have not seen her, but I have faith in her. I’m sure she’ll come walking up someday, smiling or perhaps she will walk by, indifferently.

I am prepared.


Ann Ang was educated at the National University of Singapore and the University of Pennsylvania. Her ambition is to write a travel novel about the holiday trials and tribulations of a Singapore family abroad. She has been published in Eclectica and Love Gathers All: The Philippines-Singapore Anthology of Love Poetry. Email: annang[at]sas.upenn.edu

The Woman in the Attic

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Tara Kenway

323 - 19 November: Another macro
Photo Credit: Darren W

“You dare speak to him again, and I’ll stick you!”

Mrs Campbell put her keys down next to the answerphone, and frowned. She pressed play again.

“You dare speak to him again, and I’ll stick you!”

She wondered if it were one of her girls playing a joke on her. They’d been studying Brighton Rock recently and the message had an air of Graham Greene to it.

She pressed delete and thought no more about it.

She took off her beige jacket, hung it next to her red one, and went into the sitting room. Her cat, Jones, was sitting near the window, planning his escape.

“Jones, how was your day, you furry beast?” she scratched his head, and he purred, almost smiling.

Mrs Campbell sat down in her armchair, and looked through her post. Nothing very interesting. The usual bills and bumph, telling her she had to buy her new sofa now as there was 25% OFF ONLY FOR TODAY! She tore it up—she didn’t like flyers that shouted.

She didn’t really like shouting in general. It was why she had left her husband—he shouted at the television, on the phone, at the postman, in the train. She found it embarrassing to be with someone who made other people embarrassed on your behalf. She saw them looking at her and wondering if she realised her husband spoke at the same volume as a ranting two-year-old. She did realise of course. She had realised when he shouted “I do” in the church so loudly that the candelabras wobbled and she thought Father Williams might faint.

It was one of those things that she thought she would get over, that her ears would adjust to. Instead they became more and more sensitive until the only solution she had was to ask for a divorce.

“Divorce?” he bellowed. “Why?”

Mrs Campbell looked over at Jones, who was still staring out of the window, frowning at something that mere humans couldn’t see. She glanced out of the window to see if anyone or anything was there, but there was nothing. Just the silence of the suburbs on a Saturday evening.

She had just finished dinner and was washing up her plate when the telephone rang again. She didn’t answer, preferring to let the answerphone take her place.

“This is Whyteleafe 7813. Please leave a message.”

“I’m telling you! You stay away from him! …” The line sizzled as the person stayed there, waiting.

Mrs Campbell looked at the phone, rather perplexed. She started as the phone spoke again, a different voice this time. Calm. Patient.

“Who are talking to, darling?”

“No one.”

“Well, if it’s no one you can hang up, can’t you?”


Clearly not one of her students then. She didn’t recognise either voice. She dried her hands, went to the phone. The number was a local one.

She tried to think of some slight she could have done to someone, but apart from her students and Jones she didn’t talk to that many people, certainly no one who would leave this type of message.

She had had an affair with a maths teacher many moons ago, but he had been a widower, and their affair had ended when he decided to take early retirement and go overseas with the VSO. Since then, there hadn’t been much passion in her life. Certainly not enough to warrant having someone stick her.

The phone rang again.

“Don’t think you’ll get away with it! Bitch!”

Now Mrs Campbell started to get irritated. Being threatenedà la Greene was one thing. Being insulted in her home by some unknown woman was something else. Her teacher hormones kicked in.

She picked up the phone.

“How dare you speak to me like that!”

There was a pause.

“Are you still there? Not so easy when there’s a voice, is it?”

She could hear the woman breathing.

“Now, I’m only going to say this once—stop calling here. You have the wrong number. Is that clear?”

She didn’t wait for an answer and hung up.

She stared at the phone, daring it to ring again, but it stayed silent.

“Good decision,” Mrs Campbell said, and went back to her washing up.

Three days later and Mrs Campbell had heard no more from the woman. She assumed that was the end of it.

That evening, when she arrived home from work, the light of the answerphone was flashing.

“Hello? I’m phoning about my wife. I believe you spoke to her. Could you call me back? My number is—”

Mrs Campbell picked up the phone.


“Oh, hello. I was leaving a message, but then you know that.”

“I heard. What can I do for you?”

“My name is James Thomas. I wanted to check if my wife had called you again.”

“Your wife being the woman who called and threatened me?”

He sighed. “Yes, that would be her.”

“No, she hasn’t. And I hope she doesn’t either!” Mrs Campbell added.

“She’s a little disturbed. She gets it into her head that I’m having an affair—”

“Are you?”

The man laughed. “I wasn’t expecting that question. No, I’m not. Not right now.”

Mrs Campbell could still hear the laughter in his voice.

“Perhaps you should. Seeing as your wife thinks you are already,” she suggested.

“I did consider it, but she takes up rather a lot of my time. I don’t think I could find the time for an affair as well. Anyway, the reason I was calling was to ask if we could meet. It’s about my wife.”

“How does she even know me?” Mrs Campbell asked.

“That’s what I would like to explain.”

Mrs Campbell thought about it for a moment. This could be a scam that the couple ran to target vulnerable women. Perhaps they had been watching her for weeks without her knowledge, planning and scheming, waiting until she was at her weakest. She didn’t feel especially weak, but then perhaps that was a sign of weakness.

On the other hand, she didn’t fancy spending another evening alone with Jones and the television.

“Do you know The Fox and Hounds?” she asked.


“I can meet you there in half an hour.”

“Perfect. I’ll have Schuster with me.”


“He’s a Great Dane. You can’t miss us.”

She hung up and glanced at herself in the hall mirror. Perhaps she should wear some lipstick.

Half an hour later Mrs Campbell was in the pub with a glass of white wine. She didn’t usually drink, but then she didn’t usually meet unknown men with Great Danes and mad wives either.

She saw Schuster first, an enormous dog that lumbered through the door, followed by a wiry man with a wisp of a moustache. She wondered how it resisted the wind.

“Mr Thomas?” she said, making room for the dog.

“Mrs Campbell?” He held out his hand which she shook.

“I thought people and animals were supposed to look alike. I pity you if Schuster looks like your wife.” She smiled.

“But no pity for the fact that she calls strangers and threatens them. Interesting logic.” He signalled to the barman to bring him a half. “You don’t beat about the busy, do you?”

“Too much time with teenagers. I’m sorry.”

Don’t worry. I just thought I should explain what the situation was. How she got your number. Why she chose you.”

“Go on.”

“She does it every three months or so. I had an affair years ago, and since then she’s been insanely jealous. Any woman I mention she assumes I’m seeing on the sly.”

“But I don’t know you.”

“Yes, but I know you.”

Mrs Campbell raised her eyebrows.

“You teach my daugher, Janine.”

Mrs Campbell’s brain flicked through her directory of students. “Janine Thomas. Third year.”

He nodded. “She likes your lessons and has spoken about you. I picked her up from school a few weeks ago and she pointed you out.”

“So I must’ve met your wife. At Parents’ Evening.”

“Yes. That’s how she knew who you were. She followed you, and then got the number from the directory. You really should go ex-directory you know.”

“To protect myself from people like your wife?”

He shrugged.

“Perhaps she should get help. Speak to someone,” Mrs Campbell suggested.

“Probably, but she’s a stubborn woman and doesn’t like to think she needs help.”

“But you agree that she does.”

“Oh yes. Clearly.” He frowned. “Are you married, Mrs Campbell?”


“Good choice. I thought about it but I’m worried it would push her over the edge, slipping from cranky to insane.”

“If she’s really insane, she’ll get there all by herself, no matter what you do.” Mrs Campbell had finished her wine, and her tongue felt looser than usual. She could see her lipstick, red smeared on the edge of her glass and wondered what Mr Campbell thought of her.

“Perhaps. But I don’t know if I can take that risk of pushing her there before she’s ready to go. Maybe I should just lock her in the attic.”

“Very Jane Eyre,” Mrs Campbell remarked.

He smiled. “Unfortunately I don’t have an attic.”

He ordered another round of drinks.

A few weeks later Mrs Campbell’s phone rang again. She stood in the hallway, touching up her lipstick, the red the colour of a bullfighter’s cape. She let the machine do its job.

“I warned you! I’m going to stick you. And then him!”

The speaker slammed the phone down.

Mrs Campbell sighed. She leant over and pressed the delete button, wiping the message clean away. The messages came every day now, but she didn’t really care. She hadn’t been stuck by the wife, and she doubted she was going to be.

Jones walked past her, slithering between her legs, on his way to the kitchen. She checked he had enough food and went into the sitting room, and turned on the television.

Mr Thomas came into the sitting room and she smiled up at him. He sat down next her, slipping his arm around her shoulders.

“Who was that?” he asked.

“The woman in the attic,” she smiled.

Tara Kenway is a Paris-based writer. Email: tkenway[at]gmail.com

Build Us A Home

Bonnets’s Pick
Amy Bernhard

Photo Credit: Matt Rife

A crane descends and rips the roof from our house while my sister and I watch from the sidewalk. Neighbors are peering out their doors, wondering what the Bernhards gotten themselves into now. First it was our parrot waking up the whole block with its screeching, then it was my mother answering the door dressed as a cow for Halloween, costume complete with bloated plastic udders. And now the Fergusons gasp as the crane almost swings the roof into our crab apple tree while my mother screams.

Without its roof, our house looks like an architectural ground plan, stark and penciled in, every plank outlined, exposed. An airplane flies overhead, and I wonder if its passengers can see inside our roofless home from the sky—a refrigerator covered in stickers, piles of sneakers stacked by the front door, mother and father’s bedroom, their bathroom, the broken shower. How would these strangers judge the things that make up a life, our life, together? From the sky, I imagine our house to look like a miniature dollhouse, and my family its plastic inhabitants. Frozen in our tiny world, we wait for a stranger to reach through the open top and move us up and down, up and down the stairs.


Mother had been complaining about our cramped one-story for months—there is no room for my fabric in the study, she protested, and not enough cupboard space in the kitchen. Father mostly ignored her grievances, waving his hand as though swatting a pesky fly. It’s fine, we’re fine, he grumbled, now how about let’s get some dinner started. Our parrot squawked along with the indignant clanging of Mother’s pans as she stomped about the kitchen, burning the pork chops on purpose.

One night she crept into the bedroom my sister and I shared. Mother argued with Father that the room was too small for seven- and ten-year-old girls who needed to stretch their toes. My father lived in the attic of his house when he was a boy. I pictured him curled into a ball on his mattress, ducking his head to avoid the low ceiling. If he could do it, so could we.

Mother sat on my bed and fidgeted with the comforter, tucking it in, untucking it, tucking it in again. “There is no space for my fabric in the study,” she cried. I knew even then that our cramped suburban life was not the life she wanted; she dreamed of the city. Bright lights, sound, bustle.

She cried and told us she wished she had her own room again, like when she was a little girl, all flowers and frill. She wished her mother were still alive to tuck her into bed. She wished she still played her cello.

I lay in the dark and thought about Mother as a child, soft and girly, smelling like bubblegum and grass. I wanted to stitch her a house from her closet full of fabric, a house with violet walls and lace tablecloths that she would never have to set, because I would do it for her.


The stranger comes to us the next morning. His name is Frank, and he is here to build our new home. He ushers us around our kitchen table and shows us pictures of elegantly-tiled bathrooms and oak staircases. Pick what you like, he says, you can have anything!

Mother stirs at “anything” while Father scratches the bald spot on his scalp and squints at the pictures. He is always hesitant. Hesitant to agree to a family vacation at Disney World. Hesitant to move us out of the suburbs, away from his parents. Hesitant even to marry my mother, who was red-cheeked and young and longed for him.

My parents were set up by their mothers, who met at a knitting circle. “I hadn’t dated many men,” my mother told me once at the kitchen table. “None of the boys liked me. It was because I didn’t have a chest. Boys only care about boobs, remember that.”

I told her she was pretty. “Your father told me that when he met me.” Father proposed a year later, on top of the roof of his parents’ house. He did not have a ring. “Maybe we should get married someday,” he said.


Father finally decides on the oak staircase and four spacious bedrooms—one for me, one for my sister, one for him and Mother each. “So you can escape my snoring,” he jokes, as Mother smiles and points at a picture of a Jacuzzi. She is glowing.

After more squinting, Father is pleased. He shakes Frank’s hand conspiratorially, as men do when they know they have done something manly. Frank promises to return over the weekend to put up plastic in the living room before the crane removes the roof. He tells us our house will crumble, that the plastic will help to contain falling pieces of plaster. There will be quite a bit of dust.

“Like an earthquake,” Father explains before he tucks me in. “Some splitting and pulling apart, only this will be much less scary.”


In second grade we were assigned to draw a picture of our home. Instead of drawing our squat ranch with Mother’s snapdragon bed, I drew a mansion with wrought-iron gates and a pool in the front yard. I drew Mother and Father waving from one of the windows. “Whoa,” a friend from class breathed when I showed her. “Can I come over?” I did not tell her this was only my dream house.


Frank returns toward the end of the week with a truckload of plastic. He wipes his muddy boots on our welcome mat, leaving a smear of dirt across it. He takes off his jacket, revealing a thin muscle tee that stretches tightly across his broad chest and an orange tan that I suspect he keeps year-round. His arms are seasoned with sun.

He covers the living room with large sheets of plastic. Plastic thrown over the carpeting, the couch, the chairs. Plastic hanging above the entranceway to our living room, like a shower curtain. Plastic everywhere. My sister and I stomp on it, delighted to hear the satisfying snap underneath our feet. The whole house smells like rubber.

Frank takes me aside, tells me he will leave the television uncovered; he knows I must love to watch it. He chuckles all too eagerly, as though we are old friends sharing a familiar joke. But Frank is not familiar, he is a stranger. I turn away from his elastic smile, teeth that are clean and white and shine like danger.


Shortly before our roof was removed, my best friend came over for dinner. Mother prepared a summer pasta salad and corn on the cob. After setting the table, she asked us to bow our heads and pray. “We don’t do that at my house,” my friend said. Father asked my friend if history was still her favorite subject in school.

“Did you see that program about Napoleon on TV last week?”

My friend nodded.

“Yeah, they’re wondering if maybe the guy just blew his brains out.”

Mother asked me to pass the corn. We watched each other eat.


Frank has been working on the second story for a few days now. I hear him thudding around on the roof while I watch TV in the living room. Mother has taken time off from her job as a nurse so she can supervise the construction while my father is at work. She spends afternoons on the roof with Frank, keeping him company while he works. She checks on me occasionally, peeking through the plastic with a schoolgirl smile and glossy cheeks. She looks like an ad in Seventeen magazine.

Frank leaves around 4:30, the time my father arrives home from walking his mail route. Mother kisses him and collects his postal uniform as he relaxes into his chair, laughing as my sister and I rush to him. Father favors my sister because she is young and sweet. I am too old now for him to pull me onto his lap, although I used to love when he would return home from work smelling like rain or snow or sky, whatever weather he had walked in that day, tossing his boots onto the welcome mat while I scrambled to climb up his legs. We watched the Weather Channel together, thunder bellowing across the Midwest while animated lightning bolts sliced the edges of our state. Father had wanted to be a weatherman since he was a boy. During tornado warnings he stood at the edge of our garage and traced the sky with his middle finger while my mother, sister, and I huddled in the crawl space.

“How long until it clears?” my mother asked. Storms made her nervous.

“Maybe a half-hour or so. Just a few nimbus clouds, nothin’ to worry about.”

The three of us emerged from our hiding spot, Mother ushering my sister inside while I joined Father at the edge of the garage. He recited the names of the clouds—cumulus, nimbus, stratus—while we stood and watched them crash together.


Father paid my sister and I more attention than he paid Mother. We were his “little imps,” he liked to tease, because we were always up to some mischief. One day my sister played a Christmas recital in the local mall. She sat at the bench in a green velvet dress and plunked out the notes to “The First Noel.” After she took her bow, Father patted her head and told her how beautiful she looked, what a good little musician she was. I thought I caught a glimmer of envy in Mother’s eyes, longing for Father to touch her hair and tell her she was beautiful, too. But he never did. The only time I remember them being physical was just after Mother had tucked us into bed one night. I crept downstairs for a glass of milk and spotted them embracing at the bottom of the stairs, the hug strained and uncomfortable, like one you would receive from a distant aunt on Thanksgiving Day.

Father saw Mother as his wife. She was not a nurse, a cellist, or a quilter. Her primary function was to cook the dinner and keep the house clean, an archaic view of marriage influenced by the domesticity shown to my grandfather by my father’s mother. He was often disappointed with Mother’s inability to keep the house tidy, as she worked long hours at the hospital and taught cello lessons in the evenings. Our toys were scattered everywhere like pebbles hidden in the sand, lying in wait to scrape your bare feet. The kitchen counter was always speckled with crumbs, the floor always covered with bird seed, which fueled Father’s hatred for the parrot that Mother had brought home one day without telling him.

Frank seems to think Mother is funny. The two of them swap jokes in the kitchen, Mother’s laugh tinkling brightly, like piano keys. I’m not sure what they talk about, but it seems secretive, their heads bent close together in confidence. Their laughter is similar to the laugh tracks on sitcoms: automatic, empty, loud, like a slap.


I am sitting in my plastic shroud, flipping through channels, when I come across a soap opera. A man is holding a woman by her shoulders. They are screaming at each other. Then they are kissing. Their hands roam up and down each other’s bodies, the woman’s lipstick smeared across her cheeks, lips, neck. They look wild. The man reaches beneath her shirt and she reaches beneath his and then they are on the couch, rolling over and over in a tangle of arms and legs.

My cheeks burn. I glance around for Mother, but she and Frank are on the roof. I return my attention to the man, to his broad shoulders and hard stomach. I imagine what it would be like to touch him, warm, like June sand. I study the woman, the graceful way she swivels her hips and squiggles her eyebrows up and down, up and down. She is a beautiful ballerina, poised on her toes while tangled bodies fumble around her.

Each afternoon at three, I watch the man and woman while Mother is on the roof. Inspired by their movements, I create my own ritual. Each time they kiss, I touch my lips. They embrace, and I squeeze my arms around my shoulders, holding myself tight. I rub my neck, my chest, my legs. I kiss my arm just to see how it feels, skin and lips together. I practice in front of my mirror, squiggling and swiveling and shimmying until I hear Mother’s footsteps on the stairs, returning from the roof.

The show ends at four each day. The man and woman stop writhing on the couch and scream at each other some more. Sometimes a friend or a family member enters, and all three of them scream. They scream and slap and roll over each other. Today I switch off the TV after the show ends, the screen crackling with static as it sighs into darkness. I keep watching as the shadows of a man and a woman fill the blank screen, locked together in an embrace. The man pulls at the woman’s curly hair as she laughs and slaps his hand away, giggling like a schoolgirl with rosy cheeks.

The two of them freeze, suddenly aware of the silence behind the hanging strips of plastic. “Honey?” my mother asks.


My friends and I liked to ding dong ditch when we were little. We crept to a stranger’s porch in the middle of the night and pressed their doorbell, shrieking as we ran for shelter behind the bushes. Sometimes I would ding dong ditch alone, when I could not sleep at night. I would leave my house and ring a stranger’s doorbell, studying the sleepy-eyed victim who answered. Sometimes it was a man, scratching his head in confusion. Other times a woman, her eyes fresh with fear. Whoever it was, I imagined my life in their home. I imagined descending an oak staircase in the morning, sitting down to breakfast cooked by the red-cheeked woman who lived in the ranch house on Jensen. I imagined shooting hoops with the bald-headed businessman with the three-car garage and rottweiler on Seil. I imagined these people, and our lives together. Then after the last house had closed its doors, I emerged from the bushes and walked home.


Two weeks later, Frank is gone, along with the plastic. The front yard has scabbed over with pieces of leftover debris, little slivers of white plaster sprinkled like confetti over the grass. The crane has impatiently slammed the roof back down on us, leaving us with the dulled expressions of those who have just returned home after adventuring to some exotic land. We are despondent and bored as we wander the spacious new bedrooms, our possessions small in the presence of the rooms’ empty space. “They looked bigger in the pictures,” Father mumbles, scratching his head and standing listlessly in the doorway of his new room. Mother has returned to her job at the hospital, coming home in the late evenings to prepare dinner. Eventually she stops cooking and buys us microwave dinners. She floats up and down the stairs in a daze, sighing and dragging her body behind her. She asks me one night if I would come with her if she ever left our home. We both know what she means. I have to think for awhile. “Yes,” I finally agree, “I guess so.”

The house is large, now. There are places to hide. Mother hides in her bedroom while Father sits in the Jacuzzi, sometimes without any water running. My sister and I hide in our respective rooms, quietly as mice. Sometimes the four of us yell and slam our doors, but mostly we hide, tip-toeing around each other. Mother buys a cuckoo clock and hangs it above the kitchen table. It clicks while we eat, like a metronome, a pulse. She stacks new high heels by the front door, leaves the dishes piled in the sink. She waltzes in and out of the house, trailing a scent of smoke and dark places behind. I am not sure where she goes at night; she creeps inside without a sound. Only during her lessons do we hear the groan of the cello, strings that sing as the four of us spin delicately past each other in a blur of arms and legs, weaving up and down the stairs, waiting for a coming crescendo.


Amy Bernhard is a student of the University of Iowa’s creative writing program, and this is her first publication. Email: starrlit71[at]gmail.com


Baker’s Pick
Caleb True

Photo Credit: Madeline Brownstone

The entire class was seated quietly when Mr. Garritt came in and gave us instructions. Write for twenty minutes. I want plot, people. Give me character. A thousand words, max. Twenty minutes.

I began to write.

I made Mr. Garritt younger than he was. I let him keep his grey hair. I gave him a shave. Then, before putting the razor away, I went ahead and shaved his legs, too. He’d need that.

I gave him agility. I put him in clinging exercise tights, which went just past the knee. I gave him the upper body of a wrestler, the thighs of a dancer, the calves of a cyclist. The thighs were accurate.

I had Mr. Garritt bop around a little, do a pirouette, an arabesque. I had him assemble in fifth position, change to fourth with corresponding arms, and then do a hell of a turn, spotting. I was in front of him, sitting in a desk, so he spotted using me. I was the mirror.

I had him leap resoundingly up onto his desk at the front of the room. The impact sent ripples through the cup of coffee on the desk. He landed on one bouncing leg, and he steadied himself gracefully. The muscles in his thigh rippled as he bounced. Small beads of sweat were running down his smooth face. I noticed some wrinkles around his eyes, and took them away. He smiled at me, was happy to have his wrinkles taken away. He looked down, noticing his shaved legs, which alarmed him for a second, but then realized how formidable he looked. He’d never had muscles like that in his life. Mr. Garritt was mesmerized for a quick moment by his rippling thigh, as I had been. He looked back to me with a sexy smile, and a wink. His teeth gleamed.

Then I put slacks on him. It was okay, though—he kept bouncing on one leg, and his thigh’s majestic rippling showed through the slacks. Pants startled Mr. Garritt for a moment, but when he saw that they were European designer, he was all right with that, too. They were flattering for his body.

I looked around nervously for a second, but none of the other students had noticed Mr. Garritt’s amazing transformation. They were busy writing. It was all a show for me.

Mr. Garritt called my name, looked straight at me intensely.

It was like he was in love with me or something.

“I am in love with you,” he said in voice like warm molasses. I had given him that voice, had heated some molasses on the stove for a while until it burbled and was ready.

“Do you love me?” I asked Mr. Garritt.

He nodded.

Show me.

So I made it Halloween. Then it was time for a change of clothes. Mr. Garritt was completely naked for a split second, and then wearing a dress before he could realize he had been exposed. He was Grand Duchess Josephina, Princess de Bourbon de Parma, Duchess of Nassau, Princess of Belgium, Countess Palatine of the Rhine for Halloween. He could pull it off.

And so he started pulling it off.

With a poof of purple smoke, bass and drums filled the room through a fantastic sound system. As the smoke cleared, Mr Garritt started a striptease up there on his desk. He pulled off that ridiculous hat first, and threw it at me. I caught it. It was a miracle.

Where’re y’ from? You sexy thing, sexy thing you.

I believe in miracles, Mr. Garritt.

He mouthed the words while he stripped. He spent a while on the baroque dress but was soon down to Victorian wrappings and hosiery.

Then Mr. Garritt yelled “Time” in his ordinary old man voice.

We brought our writings up to him individually. It was a grandiose waste of time for those waiting. Mr. Garritt put on his reading glasses from 1980 and read the stories while each student stood there. Other students had nothing to do so they sent text messages and horsed around. When Mr. Garritt looked up at them scowling they stopped. Mindy was getting her calculus homework done, damn her.

“Rosetta,” Mr. Garritt called.

I went to the front and gave Mr. Garritt my story. My heart was beating fast as I watched him thumb through my four scribbled pages. I tried to read his expression but he had played poker while a younger man, he had told us once, and now he was using his most expressionless expression. I thought he was dead for a second, until he turned the page. His eyes flicked up towards me for a second, but they were back to the page just as fast.

When he got to the end of the words, he drew a red A Minus on the last page and circled it. He handed back my story. “Imaginative, Rosetta. Be careful with pop culture references and colloquialisms.”


Caleb True is a student, jazz musician, and has published articles, cartoons, and short fiction. Email: calebtrue[at]gmail.com

The Gig of a Lifetime

Boots’s Pick
Walt Trizna

Fred's Fingers
Photo Credit: Kelly Taylor

Sweats Connelly was having the time of his life. He nodded to the rest of the band, a band made in heaven, and played his heart out. A glowing fog obscured the audience, but he knew they were there, listening as he gave them his sweet music.


Jerome Connelly grew up under the care of his unwed mother on the hard streets of an unforgiving city. His skin was rich ebony, and from the time of his birth, he was rail-thin with the delicate features of a father he never knew. His nickname was Sweats, a direct result of the mean streets he called home. His friends gave him the name because, even on the coldest winter’s day, Jerome would arrive at school drenched in sweat.

His friends would ask, “Hey man, why you always sweating?”

He would mumble something about running late, wipe his face, and head for class. He couldn’t tell his friends that he was sweating from fear. The walk to school was through streets where drugs were dealt, where people were shot for no reason, where life was cheap and held no promise.

First his friends, then everyone he knew, began to call him Sweats Connelly. It wasn’t long before there wasn’t anyone who called him Jerome except for his mother.

Sweats began playing sax in his middle-school band. He continued to play into his high school years, but alone for his own pleasure. With money earned doing odd jobs, he managed to buy a used alto sax, which quickly became his most prized possession and his only close friend. Hours spent playing in the safe solitude of his bedroom sharpened his skills. He was good, and with time to focus on his playing, he knew he could be a lot better. Now sixteen, Sweats felt he was wasting his time in class. He had discovered the meaning of his life and none of the classes he took furthered that purpose.

Sweats returned to the small apartment he called home one day after school and carefully closed and locked the door. His mother, Martha, suspecting that something had been bothering her son for some time now, asked him, “What’s wrong Jerome? You just not yourself lately.”

“Mom, I can’t take this shit anymore.”

“You watch your tongue,” his mother warned.

“Okay, I can’t take school anymore. I ain’t learnin’ nothin’. I want to play my sax, that’s all. I’m good Mom, and someday I could make some real money.”

Jerome’s mother always bristled when he talked about dropping out of school. “I want you to do something with your life, Jerome. Not be like the bums you see everywhere on these streets.”

Martha said to her son, “It’s against my better judgment, school is important…”

“I know Mom, but playing my sax is important to me. I promise to get my GED, but I need time to practice.”

“Oh, Baby,” cooed Martha.

Sweats knew he had her.


Sweats dropped out of high school with his mother’s reluctant permission. He still poured sweat, but now it was the perspiration of passion and emotion while playing his sax, not fear of his surroundings.

One day, while darting through the neighborhood on an errand, Sweats saw a sign hanging in the window of one of the local run-down clubs. JAZZ MUSICIAN WANTED, proclaimed the placard. Sweats went inside.

It was eleven o’clock in the morning and the place was mostly empty. There were a few customers sitting at the bar nursing their drinks, behavior born from hopeless lives. About a dozen tables were set up, and across from the bar, was a small stage. Behind the bar stood a man washing glasses and preparing for the day’s business. His name was Mac Shorter, a tough-looking man who had evidently led an equally tough life. He was the bartender and owner.

Sweats approached him and said, “I’m here about the musician’s job.”

Mac looked up at Sweats, and asked, “How old are you, boy?”

Because of his height Sweats looked older than his sixteen years. “I’m eighteen,” he replied. Eighteen was the minimum age to work in a place that served liquor.

Mac was a keen observer. He rubbed his whiskered chin in disbelief. “What instrument you play?” he asked.

“Alto sax, sir, and pretty damn good,” was Sweats’s response.

“I’ll be the judge of that. Come back with your instrument tonight, about nine o’clock, while the band’s here. We’ll see if you have anything.”

Sweats knew his mother would be working the night shift at the café.

“I’ll be back tonight, sir,” Sweats responded as he made for the door. He knew that tonight he would have to play like he never played before.

As he was leaving, Mac yelled, “What’s your name, boy?”

“Sweats Connelly, sir.”

Sweats went home and practiced more intensely than ever. By the time he was done his fingers were stiff, but he knew he was right on for the audition. He left a note for his mother saying he would be out late and headed for the club.


The four band members began filtering in at eight o’clock, nodded to their boss, and began setting up the stage.

Mac walked up to the stage.

“What’s up, boss?” asked Joe the piano player.

“Might have a sax player for y’all.”

Frank, the drummer, said, “That’s great! About time somebody saw your damn sign.” The other band members laughed as they nodded in agreement.

“Don’t get too worked up,” said Mac. “He’s just a kid. I’m sure he lied about his age. But there aren’t many musicians in this part of the city, and those there are wouldn’t work in a dive like this. Hell, by this time of night, there ain’t many sober folks of any sort in this part of the city. He’ll be here at nine. We’ll see if he has anything.”

At nine sharp the door to the club opened and Sweats walked in, carrying his sax in a beat-up case.

Joe took one look at Sweats and muttered, “Shit.”

Sweats walked to the stage.

“So they call you Sweats,” Joe said. “Does your mom know you’re here, little boy?”

Sweats’s forehead instantly grew a glistening sheen.

After studying Sweats’s face, Joe said, “I take that to be a no. Well boy, I’m sure it’s going to be a waste of our good time, but we’ll give you a try.”

Sweats hurriedly took out his sax and scanned the sheet music handed to him while Joe introduced the band. Pointing to each member, he said, “This here is Frank. He plays drums. Leroy, over there, plays brass and Fats plays bass.” The musicians looked Sweats up and down. He could see the ridicule in their eyes.

The band began to play the first set. Sweats was nervous at first and made some mistakes, causing Joe to wince. But halfway through the second piece, Sweats fell into his groove and took off. The rest of the band had to work to keep up with him. One by one, the band members stopped playing and listened. The conversation in the club died down. Only the sweet sound of Sweats playing his sax filled the club. Sweats was lost in the music. He was at a level the band members tried for but never attained. At that moment, his entire world consisted of his sax and the notes it produced. When Sweats was done, he was drenched; the club was silent. Slowly, the audience began to clap. The enthusiasm of the crowd picked up with shouts for more.

Joe handed Sweats more music and the band played until one. As they were packing up, Joe said, “See you at eight tomorrow night, kid. We play Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. That okay with you?”

“That’s fine, sir.” Sweats was getting ready to leave when Mac called out his name and motioned him to the bar. “Look’s like you got yourself a job, kid. I got to tell ya, kid, you fooled me big time.” He handed Sweats two twenty-dollar bills.

He had totally forgotten that he would be getting paid to play. However, his euphoria ended when he thought about going home and facing his mother. He knew she would be home before him, probably waiting for him now.

Sweats made his way home on the darkened streets to the apartment he shared with his mother. Entering quietly, he locked the door behind him. He put down his instrument in the hallway and walked into the tiny kitchen. His mother sat at the beat up table drinking coffee.

“Where in the hell you been, boy?”

“I got the job, Mom,” Sweats said as he laid his pay on the table and pushed it across to her.

“What kind of job, and where you working?” she said as she looked down at the money.

“Playing my sax, Mom. I’m getting paid to play. Shit, I’d play for nothing if I had to, but they’re paying me.”

“Watch your mouth, boy.”

“Sorry, Mom.”

“Listen, Jerome, the streets around here aren’t safe during the day, never mind at night.”

“I’ll be careful, Mom. I’m playing with a band and I love it.” As he said this, Sweats pushed the money closer to his mom. She looked at the money. Sweats knew they were barely making it.

“Oh, Baby,” said his mom.

Sweats knew he had her, again.


Sweats had been playing with the band for a few weeks when Joe approached him, as he was getting ready to head for home. “Hey, Sweats. Good session, man.”

As he packed up his instrument, Sweats said, “Thanks, Joe. I love playing with you guys. The best time I have is when I’m up here on the stage.”

Joe said, “I’ve got to tell you, kid. When I first laid eyes on you, I had my doubts. Shit, they were more than doubts, but you proved me wrong. Telling you honest, we all play better since you joined the group. Hell, Mac hired us to provide background music while folks sit out there and drown their sorrows. But you notice something about the people now?”

“No, sir,” Sweats said. “Can’t say I do.”

“They’re listening to us play, Sweats. When we start up, the room quiets down. You’re good and playing with you is making us better.”

Sweats responded, “Thanks, sir. I appreciate that.” But he was embarrassed by the praise, and deep inside, knew he still had a ways to go.

He made for the door, then turned and said, “Thanks, Joe, for the encouragement.”

As soon as he left the club, he broke into a heavy sweat. The excitement of playing with the band initially blocked out the fact that he would still have to walk the same dangerous streets he had walked to school, but now at night. His mother’s words came back to him. He felt a new level of terror as he walked the streets past midnight. On the way home, men he knew by reputation approached him. During the day, they were around but kept a low profile. Nighttime was the time they owned the streets, when the fears that gave Sweats his name became reality. The only time Sweats felt alive and safe was when he played his music. Feeling the frustration of his life, he shouted into the night, “I just want to play!” He was tired of his life bouncing between the deepest fear and the greatest ecstasy.

What Sweats didn’t know was that his plea was heard.


The following Friday night, the band was setting up when Joe turned to Sweats and said, “Can you feel it, Sweats? The air is electric. We’re going to be right on tonight.”

Sweats looked at Frank, Fats and Leroy, who nodded in agreement. As soon as he walked into the club that night, he had felt it too. He just didn’t know what “it” was.

As soon as the band began to play, Sweats knew that Joe was right. All five members of the band found their groove and inhabited their own musical heaven. During Frank’s drum solo, Sweats looked out at the audience. They were clearly enjoying the band. His eyes drifted to a table in front. There, sitting alone, was a man he recognized. The man smiled broadly as his head bobbed back and forth and his hands rapped on the table, keeping time with the music.

After the performance was finished, backs were slapped and high-fives passed around the band. Frank said to Joe, “Man, were we on tonight, or what?”

Joe said, “Shit, man. We were beyond on. We were on holy ground!”

Frank, Fats and Leroy walked to the bar to celebrate. After they left, Sweats approached Joe and asked, “Say Joe, did you happen to get a good look at the audience tonight?”

“Sure, kid. I gave them a look. There were some sweet women out there. That what you talking about?”

“No,” answered Sweats. “There was a man sitting out front. I recognized him. I can’t believe he came to hear us play.”

Joe asked, “You mean a friend of yours came to give us a listen. He sure caught us on a good night.”

“No, Joe. It wasn’t a friend of mine. Sitting there in the front row was Miles Davis.”

“Shit, kid, you must be crazy.”

Sweats insisted, “No, Joe. I’m sure it was Miles Davis. I recognized him from his CD cover.”

Joe stepped back and looked at Sweats, then said, “I don’t know who you saw, but it wasn’t my man Miles. He passed away about two years ago.”

“But, Joe, I’m sure…”

“Go home and get some rest. And next week, if you see Satchmo in the crowd, let me know.”


When Sweats arrived home, his mother was waiting for him. She waited up every night he worked with a hot meal. As he sat eating, she said, “You know, honey. I was reluctant to let you quit high school, but then you got your job, and the extra money is helping out. And you seem to be happier than I’ve ever seen you. You’re a man now, and I’m proud of you.”

Sweats sat quietly eating, thinking. How could he tell his mother that his life was still a nightmare while he lived in this neighborhood? How could he tell her that all he wanted was to play his music? Nothing else mattered.

There was an uneasy quiet as his mother watched him eat. Sweats decided to tell her what happened at the club. “Mom, tonight I thought I saw Miles Davis in the audience. Joe said that he’s dead. Is that true?” He knew his mother loved jazz, had been to the club a couple of times to hear the band play. Then she would walk him home, talking about his music and how proud she was of him.

“That’s true, baby. Miles died a few years ago. It had to be someone who just looked like him.”

Sweats just nodded and went on eating. He was sure it was Miles.


The following Friday night the air was the same—electric. Everyone in the band was smiling, joking and having the time of their lives. They were “on” again; their boss, Mac, knew it and the audience knew it. Half way through the evening, during a piano solo, Sweats once again scanned the crowd. He blinked his eyes in disbelief. There sat Miles Davis again, out in front. Beside him was someone Sweats also recognized. The man wiped his brow with a white handkerchief. Sweats could easily hear his gravely voice. It was Satchmo. Louis Armstrong was watching Jerome Connelly play. Sweats was numb with excitement and fear. He had no doubt that he was looking at two dead men. They were his idols, but they were dead. When it came time for Sweats’s sax solo, he flubbed the piece. His playing was terrible. There was no way he could concentrate on playing his sax with Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong in the crowd.

When the night’s work was over, Leroy walked over to Sweats and said, “Don’t worry kid. No one is on all the time.”

There was no way he could tell Leroy why he was off. He avoided all contact with Joe. Sweats walked home doubting his sanity.

Another Friday night and Sweats was living up to his name. He usually calmed down after he arrived at the club. But now, even the club wasn’t his sanctuary. There were dead men watching him play and he couldn’t tell anyone about it. He always found solace in his music. Now even that was gone. If dead men kept showing up to hear him, his only sanctuary would be destroyed.

The band began to play. Sweats didn’t dare look to the front of the audience but couldn’t help himself. There, at Miles’s table, sat Louis Armstrong, along with Duke Ellington and one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time, Gene Krupa. Sweats could tell they were enjoying the music. He didn’t understand what was happening, but he played his heart out. They were part of the audience and deserved to be entertained. He never mentioned the patrons of the ghost table again. He just played as well as he could for them.

The next Friday was the last Sweats ever played with the band. The ghost table had a new member. It was John Coltrane. He sat deathly still, just staring at Sweats, his gaze never wavering. When the band was done for the night, the ghost crew was still there. Sweats was totally unnerved. John Coltrane was motioning him to the table.

As Sweats left the stage, the lights of the club dimmed and a milk-white haze enveloped all but the ghost table. Sweats sat down in the only empty seat.

In a quiet voice, no more than a whisper, Coltrane said, “We’ve been following you Sweats, not only your music, but also your life. We want you to join our group. It will be the gig of a lifetime. We have an audience that spent their whole existence loving jazz, living it. Say yes, and the fears, the streets you dread, will be gone forever.

Sweats agreed, and was never seen again.


The band missed Sweats. Joe said to the group, “I guess Sweats got himself a better gig. He deserved it. I think we were holding him back. With the right group, no telling what he could do.”


It was late Friday night, actually early Saturday morning, and Mac was closing up his club. Lately, he always made sure he was alone when he locked up Friday nights. Friday nights were special. Just before he turned the key in the door he would stand there, with the door slightly ajar, and listen. From afar, he could hear the sweet sound of Sweats playing his sax. But it wasn’t just Sweats playing. There was also a tenor sax, drums and more. The music was the sweetest Mac had ever heard.

Mac lived for closing up on Friday nights.

Walt Trizna writes horror and science fiction and has had many stories published in Bewildering Stories, Black Petals, and Necrology Shorts, among others. Email: wtrizna[at]comcast.net

The Missing

Billiard’s Pick
Dianne Rees

Marsh in the woods
Photo Credit: Jeff Myers

Tom had been missing for three weeks. His mother and father had not called the police because Tom had a habit of dropping out of sight and then slouching back as if no time had passed at all. Appearing in the kitchen or hallway like a revenant, his eyes would narrow angrily and his shoulders would hunch in a pugilistic stance if one threw a questioning look his way. Disliking confrontation, his parents soon stopped asking where he went. His boss at the electronics store, also used to Tom’s erratic behavior, was grateful for this final unexplained absence which now gave him an excuse to terminate Tom’s employment. Tom had no girlfriend who could be reached to discover his whereabouts, though there were two dark-haired, flint-featured young men that he hung out with. His mother Jane supposed they were her son’s friends. They never came inside the house, but Jane had seen them lurking about the fence posts—much like her own son who also lurked as if not wanting to lay claim to the house he’d grown up in.

One of the young men, Deke, or Sam, rasped into the phone one day that first week, “Tom in?” and Jane, who’d picked up, confessed that he wasn’t. She thought for a moment of asking if the caller had any ideas about where Tom might be, if only to learn the possible repertoire of habitats he frequented these days, but she hesitated and the moment was lost. When Deke or Sam hung up, she didn’t feel regretful. What would she have done with the information after all, but file it away as another part of the puzzle that was Tom? She’d decided years ago, it was a puzzle she might regret piecing together.

The days of missing Tom soon settled into habit and Jane sometimes caught her breath at her imaginings that he’d finally pulled up stakes and got his own place as he’d always threatened to do. True, Tom was only 23, but his presence in their home was a constant ache, sometimes dull and sometimes sharp, and made worse now that Nick was retired. Nick, who could never back down from a fight or turn away from some vicious thing the boy said, as if it was still in his power, after all these years, to change his son’s behavior.

Jane knew it was wrong but she felt a prickling of exultation when Tom disappeared. The atmosphere in the house was like an exhaled breath and she was finally able to step off the eggshells she’d felt herself poised over whenever her son was around. Nick too, was more relaxed. The flustered, harried look on his face slipped away as the days of Tom’s absence turned to weeks. He settled into his recliner with books that Tom would have denounced as trite, watched television shows that amused rather than educated him. The tightly strung bow of Tom’s sensibilities no longer set off its corresponding resonance in her husband and this stilled Jane’s own inner vibrations.

In the weeks when he was gone, Jane found herself revisiting the earliest moments of her life with Tom, always comparing her experiences to those with her older children. Mark and Sarah had been born twelve and eight years before Tom. They’d certainly gotten into scrapes. But they’d healed and they didn’t wound other people, or leave deep, abiding sorrow in their wakes. If either of them had gone missing, Jane would have felt a boundless chasm in her life. What kind of mother was she to relish the peace that Tom’s absence had brought?

She was a terrible mother, she thought again at the funeral, watching the priest clasp his hands together in prayer. His face obscured by sunlight, Father Francis spoke of a stranger, some shadow Tom she’d never known. “Who can divine God’s plan?” the priest intoned. Jane’s gaze snagged Nick’s, both of them weighing their culpability if not their sorrow. Beside Nick, Sarah stared straight ahead, her head slightly canted as she chewed on an errant strand of her hair. Beside her, Mark fiddled surreptitiously with his Blackberry.

Jane was not unmoved by the fact of Tom’s death, his body found the way it was, torn apart by dogs in the marshy part of the state park. There was hardly anything left to look at, but she’d forced herself to look, just as she’d forced herself to look at the small pile of bones and feathers that had been neatly piled in the corner of the woodshed ten-year-old Tom had claimed for his clubhouse. Just as she’d forced herself to look into Tom’s eyes, narrowed with the incandescent rage at her invasion of his privacy. She’d looked and looked. She’d tried to summon from some deep maternal well her love for him to say the right thing to save him. “Wash your hands, Tom, when you come in the house” was what she’d said instead, stepping away finally. She’d been stepping away from him ever since.

Nick, listening to the priest saying various silly things about the kind of young man his son wasn’t, glanced at Jane, whose eyes were reddened but not watering. He inclined his head to take in his remaining children. Sarah looked confused, as if she was trying to replay the story of her brother’s life and found the film snipped apart and randomly spliced together. As for Mark, he seemed resolutely annoyed to be pulled into Tom’s final drama. He looked again at Jane, catching her eye this time, knowing that she was tied to him by the guilty relief they shared. Their youngest boy, the hopeful experiment of their more settled years, such a resounding failure.

He’d been a querulous, grasping child from birth, easily startled as if the lights were always too bright, the texture of his Onesies too rasping, the sounds around him too discordant. He’d arrived and remained with his own peculiar sounds—piercing shrieks he let loose when things displeased him. And his features—he didn’t resemble either side of the family. His head, lumpy and round on his angular body, made him look like a pumpkin boy, some Halloween fright. His eyes were too close, his mouth too large, and those teeth… In the early days of Tom, Nick had thought, well, all babies are ugly, wizened creatures, aren’t they? But though Tom’s body had grown, his face had remained both cunningly infantile and malevolently ancient, and when he’d tried to cling to Nick, grasped by some petty insecurity, well, God help him, Nick had had to push him away. There was just something about the boy that was too repulsive.

Then there was that incident at school with Tom’s injured classmate. Nothing had been proven, but there were claims made nonetheless and Tom was in the principal’s office denying everything, so angry at being falsely accused. He’d been so convincing that Nick, referencing his memories of his other nearly perfect children, had nearly believed him, until, just as he turned from shouting at the principal that he would not let his son be falsely accused, he caught a glimpse of Tom’s small, slipping away smile, revealing those gray, slightly pointy teeth. Catching the merriment in his son’s eyes, Nick recognized with a chill that his son’s conscience was only very loosely tied to him. Though he could not hide his disgust, he’d grasped his son’s hand and pulled him from that office nevertheless, as if they were the righteous ones.

Nick knew it was not a natural thing to feel that the mangled boy in the closed coffin, lanced by sunlight, had finally focused all his destructive tendencies on the right victim. It seemed almost profane to have him up there by that alter of mercy and redemption. He felt Jane take his hand and squeeze it. Her fingers were cold. He practiced saying the words to himself. “We are burying our boy.” Like a sneaky thief, other unspoken words followed, “We are putting an end to him.” Nick looked at Jane and knew she would not hate him for this thought. He squeezed her hand in return.

Mark glanced up from his last text message to see where the priest was in the service. His investment was going through the roof and he felt the predatory thrill of knowing that all the players had come together exactly as he’d seen they would. He shifted in the pew. He was hot and uncomfortable in his suit and tie and the air in the church was close. He felt put upon that he had to pretend to mourn his shit of a brother Tom. He was only here for his mother and father. He knew it was a terrible thing for them to be here in this church, even if it was to grieve for a psycho son.

His brother had fit all the stereotypes; he’d been a whiny, sneaky loner from the start. Mark hadn’t been able to shed him fast enough when he’d gone away to college, relieved of the burden of keeping Tom from being beat up by the neighborhood kids. He’d always seemed to bring it on himself. He had a way of speaking, of needling you, that made the red mist descend even on boys who were not otherwise inclined to violence.

Mark had tried to speak to him once. “Look you have to stop acting like this.”

“Like what?” his eight-year-old brother had asked, genuinely puzzled. But what could Mark say—like yourself, like someone who enjoys it when another kid trips or gets reamed by a teacher? Like someone who concentrates rage and hate and… otherness?

As the priest murmured, “We hardly knew this young man,” Mark snorted, then covered the sound with a sneeze. He knew his brother all right and though he begrudged this day which had been stolen from him, he would not linger upon it too long. He texted his girlfriend that he would be home soon and would pick up dinner.

Sarah flinched at the sound of her brother sneezing. Self-consciously, she plucked a strand of hair that had escaped from the braid she’d been chewing on. She was embarrassed as usual that she could not make herself right. She could not contain her hair neatly, could not refrain from ingesting it, could not manage to find the right clothing for a funeral, could not summon the right emotions with which to bury her brother. She tried to imagine what Tom’s last weeks had been like. Had he too needed to put all the pieces together and failing once again, finally put an end to things? The medical examiner had found drugs in his system but not enough, had found signs of a body abused by cold and the elements, but had not identified anything clearly fatal that might have reached Tom before the dogs did. Had her brother met someone—a dangerous boy or girl who had captured his heart and then cast it fatally away? Someone who had met her brother’s violent nature with a violence of his or her own? Sarah shook her head. She shouldn’t transfer her own proclivities to fill the emptiness that lived inside her Tom.

Tom had always perplexed her. He’d always seemed like a mirror of an awkwardness she’d flirted with and cast aside or at least had managed to disguise. She used to get so frustrated with him; he let himself be such a victim. But she never knew what to say to him and he was a boy and the strangeness of boys was different from the strangeness of girls. She’d always assumed that Mark would take him in hand and then when he hadn’t, well, by then it had seemed too late.

She supposed it was strange that she was weeping. She must look a fright. Everyone else had so much more control. She tried to picture Tom inside his coffin. She pictured herself in there with him, nudging herself beside him. Like the way she used to crawl into his bed when thunderstorms came, knowing he’d be too frightened to leave his room to crawl into her own bed. As the house rattled and the lights flared outside the windows, they would cling to each other. He’d been so terrified. Or had she been? She remembered the warm heat of him beside her, his muddy eyes acquiring unexpected depth when the room lit up and the tree branches snapped against the window like whips “Don’t be afraid,” one of them had said. “I’m here,” one of them had whispered. “Always,” one of them had lied.


Dianne Rees is a writer and instructional designer living in Irving, Texas. Her fiction has appeared in Vestal Review, Farmhouse Magazine, Spillway Review, Neon, Bartleby Snopes, Storyglossia, Offcourse Literary Magazine, and other journals. Email: diannerees[at]sbcglobal.net

Going Out

Beaver’s Pick
Melodie Corrigall

Photo Credit: DieselDemon

“Eat,” her mother urges, shoving a spatula of home fries at her daughter. The girl recoils. Usually her appetite is as hearty as her younger brother Geoffrey’s but today food sticks like woodchips in her throat.

If she blurts the news out at the supper table, the film will freeze mid–frame: broken faces, arguments, her father’s jaw melting like cheese on a pizza. Better to toss it over her shoulder as she runs across the tarmac—there’ll be less chance for recriminations.

“What’s the problem Jenny? You love the plane ride,” her mother sighs.

“Leave her alone, mother,” insists her heavy-set father collapsed at the end of the table. “I know damn well the problem: going outside—to the city. Even with Aunt Ruth and her school friends, it’s lonely down there.”

Late one night after a few drinks he’d complained to his daughter how home wasn’t home without her. How the house felt hollow, just the sound of the furnace turning on and off. No guitar strumming into the night, no shouting matches between her and her brother, no cackles as she gossiped with friends on the phone, no long walks, and no fishing. “Three isn’t family,” he kept saying.

She knows it’ll be like that tonight. Her father will light the fireplace; her mom, dad and Geoffrey will look at that new sitcom on TV. Then mom will finally start the new 750-piece seashore puzzle she’d bought on sale at the Bay. Geoffrey, confined to the house because the hockey rink is closed over Easter holidays, will pass the time complaining about the TV reception.

“You’ll throw up if you eat all those sausages,” Geoffrey threatens, hoping to jostle his sister out of a link or two.

“I never thrown up,” the girl sneers.

“You did after Trevor’s party.”

“I never thrown up on a plane,” the girl insists, eyes sharp as pins.

Her father leans over, and squeezes her hand with the fingernails polished plastic pink, “Don’t worry sunshine, only a couple of months ’til summer and you’ll be home again. And a grade 12 graduate to boot.”

“We’re putting Geoffrey down the basement,” mother announces from her outpost by the kitchen door.

The boy protests, “Not putting me. I offered. And I get a new bike.”

“I’ve talked to Mr. Robins,” father nods. “It looks good.”

“Maybe she doesn’t want to work at the bank. She could work at the Bay again,” mother suggests.

“No. She’d have to work Saturdays. We couldn’t go fishing.”

“Go Sunday.”

“The bank’s nicer. Cleaner work.”

“Well, I like the Bay,” mother insists.

“It’s Jenny working there not you,” he growls.

She’ll tell them now; why argue about where she’ll work? She hates the bank. It doesn’t deserve the title ‘bank’. It’s a trailer not much bigger than her bedroom. Like a jail cell with only two full–time workers and a part–time clerk in the afternoon. Every day she’d just be sitting there handing out dollars and small talk. At least at the Bay there were young people.

“Is that the door?” the girl asks, jumping up. Through the window she sees Jake, shuffling about on the front porch. Too shy to give a good bang, he hangs about waiting for someone to notice him. Jenny glances at her watch. For once Jake isn’t half an hour early.

“Hi,” she mumbles, leading him towards the kitchen.

Jake pulls off his toque, shakes the snow from his coat, and brushes off his pants. “Hi, all,” he smiles, stationing himself in the corner.

“Sit, sit,” mother insists. “Want some coffee?”

“We don’t have time,” father says, pushing his plate away. “Got your stuff ready, Jenny?”

Her ‘stuff’ has been ready for two days; the hours counted off like penance. Walking back from the store the day before, she had recorded every house. Standing by the river, the ice cracking, a nasty wind abusing the branches, she had placed every image in a box, for later. To be enjoyed quietly, sitting in her own small room, the bed folded for night, a cup of herbal tea warming her hand, her mind savoring the next day in the city.

“Yeah, I’ll get them,” she nods but Jake is struggling to get upstairs first. “Let me carry them down.”

Tumbling awkwardly down the stairs: two suitcases, a plastic bag, the quilt for Aunt Ruth, and the cookies that are better than store-bought, the gangly young man jokes, “There’s enough gear to live in town forever.”

The girl feels powerful in her city clothes—the same long hooded coat she wore the day she arrived. Left in her closet all visit, except for the party. Jenny’s mind hums with how she looks, what she’ll be doing soon.

She’s almost makes it to the car when her father corners her, “I ordered some great new fishing rods for us.”

Now is the moment. She’ll hit him quickly, step around his face, and they’ll all pile in the car. Her father grabs her arm, pulling her to him, as if she were drowning. Laughing gruffly, he walks her along, squeezing her against him, his red plaid jacket rough and worn. “Won’t be long, you’ll be back.” She aches to give him a bear hug, but she keeps moving.

“Laddie wants to come,” Geoffrey shouts wrestling with the mangy collie.

“All the kids will be back,” her mother sings. “The town will liven up. You can have wiener roasts on the beach.”

Wiener roasts? The girl hardens. She’s not a kid.

“Hazel and Barbara are staying in the city this summer,” the girl spurts, hoping to blurt out her news before she can retreat.

“Why’re they doing that?”

“They’ll make more money.”

“They haven’t told their mom. She’d be alone; Jim’ll be in the bush all summer.”

“Anything more for the trunk?” Jake calls, proudly indicating the extra space.

“Sure this car will make it?” Geoffrey asks, kicking the front fender where the salt has eaten through.

“It’s just the body that’s gone,” father offers cheerfully. “It’s a good car.”

“By summer I’ll have a new one,” Jake says. “Not new but without holes. We’ll pick up Jenny in style.”

Passengers and suitcases settle awkwardly into the car: Jenny wedged in the front between her father and Jake, Geoffrey in the back with the dog.

“Thought we were leaving that hound at home,” father grumbles.

“He thinks we’re going to the lake.”

“He don’t think, that’s his problem,” father shrugs, then leans out the windows and shouts, “Mother, hurry up.”

Out she comes, flustered as always, pulling the door behind, dropping the keys in the dried flowerpot near the door.

“God, woman you don’t need to lock her up,” father yells, “We’re only going to the airport.”

The woman waves impatiently, arms clutching her large red purse, a paper bag, and her coat. “Get that dog out of here, Geoff,” she protests, as she squeezes into the back seat.

“He wants to come.”

The woman sighs and stares out the window.

“We’re off,” Jake cries. Checking for traffic along the empty road, he slowly backs out the icy lane into the street. A bony old woman bursts out the door of the bungalow opposite, and hurries towards them, waving her arms.

“Stop, Jake,” mother urges. “Mrs. McIver wants something.”

The old woman hurries to the car and thrusts a package at Jenny. “Something to eat on the plane,” she says, then beams, “Gees, you look good in that coat.”

“Thanks,” Jenny smiles, seeing herself an eagle with hooded eyes.

As they drive off she watches the thin body disappear from view. A strong wind could blow the old woman away, she thinks sadly, suddenly realizing that this could be last time she ever sees the old dear alive.

“Fifteen minutes, folks, and we’ll be there,” Jake announces, proudly checking his digital watch.

The girl studies the dusty dashboard; the broken fuel gauge floats from empty to full with each bump. She sure can’t tell them in the car, trapped there as her father and Jake silently deflate at the news.

Attempting to keep their mind off the inevitable, they gossip on the way to the airport: Will Fred come back from the camp? Who is the new guy at the station? To Jenny, it’s as distant as the newspaper headlines. She has left. Her room, sectioned off from the living room, is now a museum: the half-filled school scribblers, the mementos, the posters of teenage idols, the stuffed animals lined up against the wall. Her thoughts are now on the next bed, tonight.

“We’re here,” Jake announces, proudly wedging the car between dirty piles of snow in the parking lot. Everyone crawls out and stands expectantly as the young man moves purposefully to the trunk. Jenny frowns at the sky: the sun is hidden by heavy clouds; the cover is too low.

Her father shepherds the group into the squat prefab building: the town’s pride, brought in on the barge two years earlier to replace the small wooden shack. There are two washrooms, three vending machines—one for cold drinks, one with bitter coffee, and one with chips and donuts—and a service counter where Tim Preston, when not working at the local store, processes the tickets.

“Back for the last term of school, eh?” Tim says as he carefully reads over Jenny’s ticket. Other passengers move behind her to form a straggling line; one of them is a stranger from outside. Jenny wonders who he was visiting.

The ticket and safety inspection complete, Jenny stands with her parents by the window, peering at the sky. Only ten minutes ’til it’s due and it might come earlier. The girl’s stomach churns fretting how she’ll give her news, and escape.

“The man from the ranger station, ignoring the No Smoking sign, pulls a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and shakes his head, “Real low those clouds, might not make it.”

What an airport, Jenny thinks in disgust. Haven’t they heard of radar? She’ll be glad to get out.

Jenny’s eyes are riveted to the sky. The ticket area soon deserted, the coffee machine brewing its last. Three knee-high kids play tag, pushing against their parents’ legs. “Hey, outside, you kids,” someone shouts.

And then the faint sound, the hum; the crowd sways towards the door, pushing against the glass. The ticket man stands sentinel. Passengers are kept off the tarmac until the plane lands.

The drone swells, like a hungry mosquito, invisible but ready for action. Jenny pulls her suitcase towards her, hugging her carry-on bag to her chest. Now is the moment. Just as it lands, just as they are hurrying out, she’ll call over her shoulder.

“This is it, Jenny,” her father grins at her. “Next time you see this old airport, you’ll be home for good.”

The girl presses to the front of the line. The sound is growing, drowning out the mutters and goodbyes. Those who are leaving mumble final words while their eyes watch anxiously for the plane to break through. Behind the heavy gray clouds the buzz swells.

“I may not be back,” the girl hisses urgently, her arm tugging at her bag, leaning to run.

“What?” her father asks, startled.

Jenny clutches her bag, shoves her suitcase forward, her face rigid. “I’m not coming back,” the girl repeats, throat heavy. “Not to stay.”

Her father’s face collapses.

“It’s not landing,” a woman clutching a baby moans. “We’re socked in.”

Everyone freezes, even the kids hush. The buzz thins, slowly shrivels, and disappears. The crowd leans forward, hoping the plane will turn around and make another attempt. The minutes pass, the sky is silent.

“Sorry folks,” the ticket agent says. “Guess it can’t make it down.”

The crowd breaks into groups, grumbling as they shuffle towards the door. “Where’s grandma’s plane?” a child yells, banging the waiting room window.

“We’ll try again tomorrow,” mother says, pulling her daughter for a hug.

Driving back to town, everyone worries what to say next.

“Can we get a video?” Geoffrey finally offers, “Jenny can choose.”

Jake chuckles, “I said next time I drove Jenny, I’d have a new car. Just shows, eh?”

The girl glances back as the small building disappears behind a snow drift. She senses her father’s bulk pulling away to press against the window. “The forecast this morning promised clear skies,” he mutters. “Now this.”

Melodie Corrigall is a communication consultant who focuses on strengthening community. Her stories have been published in BC Woman, Kinesis, Room of One’s Own, Fact, Fancy and Fiction, Horizon Magazine and Dalhousie Review. Email: corrigall[at]shaw.ca