The Flood

Fiction
Mari Carlson


Photo Credit: Jo Zimny Photos/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

On May 5, 2021, while I was doing laundry, the basement toilet gushed a nasty torrent that sent me panicking for cover in the pantry. This corner closet, built like a bunker or a dark room, sealed out moisture and light. We used it as storage.

The water inching up against the pantry door, I called a friend.

Oh, Merrian, she said, this is just what you need with all you’re going through.

All I was going through was that, through the pandemic, my husband flitted manically from job to job, hoping each was the one. In this position or that one he’d finally prove he could do well in the world, or so he thought. He fell deeper and deeper into despair as none of them worked out. Finally, he reapplied to drive city bus again, a job he’d left a few months prior, in order to accept a better offer, which turned out worse than driving bus. He came home on May 4, his first day back behind the wheel, and announced he wanted to smash his head in and be done. The string of jobs, we concluded, was the tip of the iceberg to some deeper trouble.

Heck of an accident. Hang in there, kiddo, my dad said when I called him.

My mom: Oh, honey.

I called my husband between bus routes. It’s my fault, he apologized. I should do better at home maintenance.

I called my son to warn him not to come downstairs when he got home. Geez mom, are you okay?

My family and friends’ little speech bubbles of concern felt like pats on my head. I felt inert, an innocent victim of household chaos like the pair of sunglasses missing one lens, a bike light sans battery, or an empty bottle of sunscreen, all deposited on the windowsill inside the back door. Forgotten ornaments of ordinary life. We toss these things like perfunctory threshold kisses, not thrown away exactly, but not cherished, either. Like them, I was neither here nor there, in pantry purgatory.

Underneath a holey wool mitten was a key that had been on the back door windowsill since we moved in. The realtor who sold us the house handed the key to me when he and I were touring the kitchen and my husband was checking out the stained glass windows in the living room.

Now, this, he explained, is the key to the basement pantry room. Used to be the canning room. Driest room in the house, even if it is in the basement. People used to keep their valuables in there. Wouldn’t never think of it, but they did.

He was a stocky man, not much taller than me. From his shaved head, grey stubble peeked out of perspiration droplets. I could see the twinkle from his younger years in his crystal blue eyes, laughter chiseled into their edges. But his red nose told me he’d had lots to cry at, too. He looked at me as he placed the key in my palm. Like I was already the homeowner. Like he was bestowing it to me. His thick fingers lingered a moment on my skin. He winked at me and turned around to address my husband.

I never saw it, but people told me the realtor built a stone staircase in the middle of his backyard. I figured it was a rock ‘n’ roll stairway-to-heaven symbol, or maybe just an artistic experiment. I saw him around town in a tie-dye T-shirt and once in a leather kilt and bare feet. He loped when he walked, took his time. He always waved at me. I would wave back and smile.

The door creaked against the weight of the rising water. I ran my finger along the pantry shelves. Not a lick of dust. I leafed through boxes of my old journals and sketchbooks. I made art every day when I was young. I got through freshman orientation at college hunched over in my folding chair, drawing the peppy resident assistants and the bored crowd around me. I scratched and shaded in agitated attention. I took in the rules and expectations, as well as the hype about community and scholastic achievement, through my pencil.

One evening, during his second pandemic job, my husband lamented all the jobs he’d ever held. He sobbed the regret blues. So long ago, I’d fallen in love with his blues, my own private concerts. Now, I dismissed myself after an hour, when our tears had dried, the silences longer than his verses.

I have to practice, I said. I played violin until I heard him climb into the tub. Then I headed to the basement with a box. I took a tub of his baseball cards out of the pantry, stuffed it under his workbench, and put my box in its place, wiping down the shelf with a damp cloth.

My phone rang. I was missing a violin lesson. The student was waiting in my studio. Where are you? I’m sick, I lied. Water gurgled on the other side of the door like my fake queasy stomach.

The basement toilet sits between the washer and a cabinet where I keep cat supplies and extra toilet paper. The litter box is in front of the cabinet. When I use this toilet, I add an extra wad of tissue to my dump. Then I scoop the cat poop in and flush.

Sometimes, over these years, even before the hazy pandemic months, when I’ve had my fill of my husband’s woes, I keep listening. I resist his words like sticking my hand out the car window on the highway, leaning into the gale force. I keep sitting there, letting his cyclone of sentiment gush around me. I’m the eye of his storm. The center who holds. I must hold. Even when I feel broken and vacant and hardened, I have remained beside him, listening.

And not listening. A tune rumbles through my brainwaves. I strategize how to get my youngest student to hold his violin up tall. I stare at my husband’s stray eyebrow hairs and paint a portrait of him. In my imagination, he’s surrounded by gears and levers, boiler pipes, and railroad tracks. The sinews of his forearms taut with exertion, he wields tools that belong to none of these trades.

The realtor warned us the toilet was old.

I might get rid of it, he said. Almost as bad as an outhouse. He looked at me, waiting. Would I get rid of it? he seemed to ask. Or was I old-fashioned and unsanitary enough to use the rusty relic? He tested my allegiance to the house with his stare. Of all the houses we’d seen, I liked this one the best. Sturdy and small, it seemed up to the task of our nomadic family.

Let us think about it, but we’re leaning toward buying, I said, without consulting my husband. I like the toilet, I added. My husband will appreciate it when he works down there. His man cave.

It’ll do you well, ma’am, he said.

The pantry became an echo chamber, all outside sound blocked. I leafed through old quartet music I hadn’t looked at since before the pandemic. I could hear the puns our cellist made and the first violinist’s witty responses. Perdendosi, or, dying away, we were called. The other three musicians were older than me, retired and playing just for fun. I followed their wabi-sabi bow strokes into joy. We launched those dots soaring off the page.

A few days before he started driving again, my husband and I had sex. It had been a while. He fell asleep afterwards. I got up, naked and sticky, and started to sweep. From the top of the house to the bottom, I went at it ferociously. I attracted dust like our cats roll in dirt. I bathed in the grime I stirred into the air. Come, you mess, and find your home. I swept it all into the basement floor drain.

His first day back, my husband sat in the bus driver’s seat for twelve hours, going nowhere. He drove in circles around town, sinking into his seat, stuck in an endless loop. He had five passengers all day. He was as empty as the bus, lonely on the inside and out, he said.

In my pantry ark, I sat on a stool I’d dragged in. How long had it been since I’d just sat? I was tired and hungry and relieved. My papers and mementos and books, in their layered piles, seemed to float. Released. The shelves swayed to the tide rising outside the door. Maybe I was starting to hallucinate. I drifted through time, my past all around me, flying me forward. My eyes, full of darkness, sensed forms and shapes keeping me company. While my husband found the bus a dead end, I found all those things, those memories, those emotions I set aside in order to hold steady. Now, they held me up. I wasn’t sinking in the pantry; from my stool I rode a massive wave. Yeehaw! I groped around, found a pencil, and I wrote on the cement wall.

On May 5, 2021, a plan I’d been hatching for months came to fruition. I clogged the toilet and the floor drain on purpose, waiting for an explosion. Meanwhile, I replaced my husband’s storage with my own prized possessions in the safest room we have. I was not doing laundry when the toilet erupted, but upstairs in the kitchen. Whatever I was doing, I was alert and ready. As soon as I heard a whoosh, I put on rubber boots I kept handy by the basement stairs. Then I grabbed the pantry key, which I’d set on the windowsill right after the closing of the house sale, and fled down into the flood. I locked myself into the pantry with only a slick of water accompanying me and when I let myself out, I will show you what else I can accomplish.

pencil

Mari Carlson teaches and performs violin/voice, writes, and makes art outside of Washington, DC. She spends summers in Minneapolis area with family and friends. Email: mlcarlson1[at]usfamily.net

Influenza

Flash
Hibah Shabkhez


Photo Credit: Sue Thompson/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Nelui painted the three men simultaneously, one feature at a time, which was perhaps why, despite being of different ages and races, they seemed like triplets. All of the heads had the same bestial quirk of the jaw, the same distressing pinch of nostril, and the hair-tufts seemed to bore into their half-skulls like grotesque trepanation commercials. Their leering right irises were ghastly in thick-browed almond-shaped sacks when set beside the closed eye-rims sunk deep into their left cheeks.

I cleared my throat. ‘Look, I think it’s amazing. But… I don’t think it’s a good idea to… most people won’t understand it, you know. And—they—do you know what they could do to you?’

‘Thank you for the lie—and for the truth,’ she added a final dab of paint to their noses, bulbous jutting things hooked more like cliff-tops than falcon-beaks. ‘And yes, I know exactly what they could do to me.’

I pretended to try again, though I had already yielded before her fury and her resolve, too suppressed and concrete to be born of anything other than a pain lived and remembered. ‘Maybe you could call this something else, something abstract or surreal, and paint another official portrait of them?’

Nelui smiled and went on painting.

I did not have the courage to attend the unveiling, so I sent a card with a flu-excuse and spent the next week reading the reviews—in the incognito window, and through a vpn. Of the art jargon I understood nothing, but I could see one thing: either it was either hailed or execrated—there was no middle ground. And the triplets, as the whole world was calling them now, remained silent. If they had sued Nelui, or railed against her in the press, I would have been reassured. But they did nothing. Nothing at all.

It was not they who threw stones at her studio and set fire to the canvases, screaming of blasphemy and profanity. It was not they who carried the guns, not they who fired them, not they who faced trial for murder—though nothing was proven against anyone in the end, so that did not matter anyway. Of course they did none of those things. No, they mourned her, that bright talent lost so early to the cancer of fanaticism, and founded a generous memorial trust for young artists in her name.

pencil

Hibah Shabkhez is a writer of the half-yo literary tradition, an erratic language-learning enthusiast, and a happily eccentric blogger from Lahore, Pakistan. Her work has previously appeared in Plainsongs, Microverses, Sylvia Magazine, Better Than Starbucks, Post, Wine Cellar Press, and a number of other literary magazines. Studying life, languages, and literature from a comparative perspective across linguistic and cultural boundaries holds a particular fascination for her. Linktree. Email: shabkhezhibah[at]gmail.com

Three Poems

Poetry
David Sapp


Photo Credit: Tony Hall/Flickr (CC-by)

Courtroom

It was the same wooden sound
As the pews at Saint Vincent,
The same complaint of arthritic joints,
The same burnished surface
Slipping beneath my fingertips,
The same lemony redolence of polish
And something more: the stale
Remnants of previous tears,
Rage, fear, despair, finality.

The wood of the courtroom
Did not evoke the same assurance of
Or comfort in salvation or redemption
As in the church nor a reason to gaze
Upward at predictable but reliable
Narratives in stained glass—
Where my mind might wander
Over Mother Mary and the Trinity.

In the passage from witness room,
A heavy door to witness chair,
I looked at none of them,
I acknowledged none of them,
I resented all of them,
Mother, father, lawyers, judge,
As I was merely a utensil—evidence
To confirm the tawdry domestic
Details in their melee over children.

Initially, an anxious young man,
My responses were wooden. And then,
I suddenly comprehended the battle
Over my little sister’s sanity—
And why young men are willing,
Eager, to be led off to war,
To die on a distant, obscure shore.
Their idealism and purpose is pure.

 

Blackberries

I am astonished
By the skepticism
As they walk past
This abundance.
At the edge of the meadow,
The nice young couple
Afford me an overly
Generous berth,
An eccentric old man
In a funny hat, bent
Picking wild blackberries,
A mess for my wife’s
Breakfast. Berries, berries,
Everywhere berries,
Who wouldn’t covet
These berries flying plump
On vines, irresistible,
These roly-poly cherubs?
In their indifference,
These two could not know
That with this plethora,
Daring the pricks of thorns,
I am ecstatic in nostalgia:
Fifty years ago,
My aunts would stop
Their day for berries.
In her flowered cotton dress,
Aunt Martha gathered
Cousins, pails, and
Grandpa’s dog, Henry,
To make a morning of it,
Chatting happily,
Scheming preserves,
Pies, cobblers, crisps,
Blackberry jam spread
Over warm bread,
A poignant memory
Of a ripe summer day
In the heart of winter.

 

Solitary Temperaments

Where the trail turns
Further into the woods,
Densely lush and leafed,
Where encounters are infrequent,
Dainty hooves pierce the dirt.
Long-legged creatures, two
Does, wander into my path,
Heads high, ears keen,
Eyes wide and wary,
Their lean flanks rippling.
And two young women,
Runners for the team,
Sprint by, flash a chary glance,
Shoes sucking the mud,
Their lean thighs rippling.
Apparently, we are the odd pair,
The lonesome fox and I.
She’s up early, darting about,
Crimson piercing viridian,
And pauses. Our mutual
Astonishment turns to
A fleeting, unabashed regard,
Each as curious over the contrast:
My bright neon-yellow jacket,
Her ruddy red coat—
Black socks fashionable in June.
Our hearts beat faster
As we are slightly skittish
Over our chance rendezvous.
“Why, how do you do?”
And then there’s a recognition:
We are as reclusive as the other,
Disinclined to apologize
For solitary temperaments.

pencil

David Sapp, writer, artist, and professor, lives along the southern shore of Lake Erie in North America. A Pushcart nominee, he was awarded Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Grants for poetry and the visual arts. His poems appear widely in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. His publications include articles in the Journal of Creative Behavior, chapbooks Close to Home and Two Buddha, a novel Flying Over Erie, and a book of poems and drawings titled Drawing Nirvana. Email: danieldavidart[at]gmail.com

Four Poems

Poetry
DS Maolalai


Photo Credit: Gauthier Delecroix/Flickr (CC-by)

Snores

they come rolling,
floating
like storm-
broken ships
with masts
and with rigging
hung ragged.

the wind
blowing hard
through a long-
empty mine shaft,
catching spars
sawed through, wet
rot and woodworm.
it’s pleasant
by no means; all
twisting treed
orchards and smashed
by car crashes
but still,
I do love it.

I do:
Chrys, lying
with her mouth half open,
her hand
against her cheek
making dimples with the fingers
like a lady
checking the freshness of a pear.
out of her mouth,
incongruous,
these sounds
like slaughtered animals.

I love it.
I do. it’s the sort of thing
I love.

 

A weathered down hill of a mountain

his mind was the landscape
just south of the city—
it was dull, disappointing,
blunt and unimpressive.
something which didn’t
get sunsets behind it
and wouldn’t have known

if it had. and his life was the same—
was a weathered down hill
of a mountain—god he was awfully
dull. he drank and he talked
about drinking quite often.
and lived in a flat
overlooking the river
with this woman he liked
and who liked him.

he could play the piano
in a dull sort of way.
knew paul simon songs.
knew elton john songs.

 

Threat

driving to work
on the N4 this morning
and I cut someone
accidentally off.
got home about five,
checked the letterbox—
out fell three fingers
like curled frozen shrimp.

 

Walking the bruise

a fine night,
and peaceful. rising
3am—wanting a cold
glass of water
and walking the bruise
as it flows
with midnight
through our kitchen—
deep blue, falling
through uncurtained windows;
some mixture of yellow
and the black which makes
blue. I thumb off the faucet,
go back to the bedroom.
stand by our window
in blue silhouette. in bed,
my girlfriend stirs
and pulls her feet under
the covers. and in
through the window
night comes with a rush.
when she wakes
I’ll be gone: just
the shape of a shadow,
outlined by the breeze
of this mild
winter night.

pencil

DS Maolalai has been nominated nine times for Best of the Net and five times for the Pushcart Prize. His poetry has been released in two collections, Love is Breaking Plates in the Garden (Encircle Press, 2016) and Sad Havoc Among the Birds (Turas Press, 2019). Email: diarmo90[at]live.ie

North Haven, Sunday

Poetry
Nathaniel Krenkel


Photo Credit: Jim McDonough/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

You were leaving on the last ferry
Down to Portland to see old friends
And so,
While you were at work
I packed the car with your bag, put a can of seltzer
Between the seats
Then walked to the terminal
To purchase your ticket
I stopped at the gallery
Susan was hanging her collage show
We talked about juxtaposition, John Cage, Elvis and
How beautiful water damage can be
Afterward, I waited on the porch, listening to the rain
And then I saw you
Walking up Mills Street
Your work shoes making you taller than I’m used to
I saw you first
But soon after you waved
I said, I got your ticket
And you said something kind
I think it might be fun to write a crime novel
Or paint a wall pink
Or unfollow everyone
But for now, I’ll stay sitting on the cushion you made
And imagine you
Out on the water, in the middle of the bay, in the rain
Looking at pictures of the kids on your phone
Or just looking out at the grey swells
Thinking about nothing except the smallest of things
Like what a bird does
Once its belly is full.

pencil

Nathaniel Krenkel runs a small record label. He is a graduate of Bowdoin College, grew up in a small town in Utah, spent time in Glasgow, Scotland and NYC, and currently lives in Portland, Maine. Email: nate[at]team-love.com