Two Poems

Beaver’s Pick
Jenny Hockey


Photo Credit: Donnie Ray Jones/Flickr (CC-by)

Weaned

Submerged in our north-facing bath
I remembered you’d had no evening feed.

Tummy to sheet in your cot,
by then you were soundly asleep

and so they were over for good
my long damp hours in big white bras,

so soon in our years of making a start.

 

Lost for Words

Miss Stanage is usually mute, lies on her bed
being ninety—a swaddle of plaid blanket,
a long, thin shape. It haunts me

now I’ve seen them wheeling Elsie
to the morgue, careful to block
the view of the armchair-bound,

nags me like the question of how well
you and I are not getting on
and whether I should leave,

of whether I can complete
my research on old age
that no one has funded

and what to do about my shoes
that make me sound like Matron
and frighten staff on a sly puff break.

Miss Stanage rarely speaks—
I go round scouring the sinks,
suddenly mute when she asks me:

‘So what are your special interests in life?’

pencil

Jenny Hockey lives in Sheffield, UK. She belongs to Tuesday Poets, Hexameter, The Poetry Room and Living Line – with poems in magazines such as The North, Magma, The Frogmore Papers and Orbis. She retired from Sheffield University as Emeritus Professor of Sociology to write and read more poetry and in 2013 received a New Poets Award from New Writing North. Oversteps Books published her debut collection Going to Bed with the Moon in 2019. Twitter: @JHockey20 Email: j.hockey[at]sheffield.ac.uk

The Not-Boy

Creative Nonfiction
Kolton Knapp


Photo Credit: Angela C./Flickr (CC-by-sa)

A regular boyhood is defined by cuts and scrapes and bruises. The sound of my boyhood was my mother’s anxious screams—my father’s hand clasping my shoulder and saying “you’ll be a man someday.” I remember my father’s hands: coaxing, soothing. They guided me vaguely—shadows of instructions that gave me small parcels of help. For the most part, boyhood was about being left in the woods to discover what being a man truly means.

While my boyhood had its fair share of leaping and bleeding, I didn’t bruise the way most boys did. They bruised in black and blue, and I, in rouge and pink. My bruises grew on my skin like wildflowers, but the bruises of other boys were placed on them like war medals.

 

The trampoline in the backyard of my childhood home sat in the shade of a tree. I loved climbing above the leaves, using my body weight to sway the branches. I’d watch as the leaves danced and crinkled with the movements of the wind. I’d hoist myself backward violently, bringing the bending branches to a horizontal position before throwing myself from the tree. I’d catapult in the wind, falling abruptly on the stretchy surface of the trampoline.

In other words, I was a ‘typical boy’ in that respect: a curious child with an eye for danger. I loved scavenging the woods, and late nights by a campfire with the smoke burning my eyes.

There were other things I enjoyed, however, that were unexpected.

For my fifth birthday, I was given a Spider-Man wallet. I remember the confusion I felt when I opened the gift. I was familiar with the character—how could I not be?

What confused me, was the fact that it was given to me.

“You like Spider-Man, right?” my grandmother asked eagerly. Without waiting for an answer, she turned away and began another conversation. Of course I liked Spider-Man, she had assumed. All little boys love superheroes.

I hated the picture. It was clunky with different shades of blacks and reds—my two least favorite colors. Spider-Man extended his arm, a string of web flying towards me from behind the two-dimensional fabric. The web looked sticky, with silver goo dripping from its thick strands. It seemingly yearned to break the fabric open and latch onto me.

I let the wallet slip from my palm to my fingertips and imagined it was something else.

I could see the vivid purples and pinks. The wallet was bigger than palm sized—it was a purse. Like the one Daphne wore in the Scooby-Doo movie.

So I stole my mother’s scarlet Halloween wig and put on a pair of rain boots. I walked around the house clutching the wallet as though it were a purse. Flipping my red hair about, I would utter Daphne’s catchphrases. “Creepers,” I’d gasp, feigning exasperation. I’d pretend to be a damsel in distress—the pretty girl everyone wanted to save. I was the face without a blemish, the dress without the body.

My impersonation of Daphne confused everyone. I should do boyish things—like wrestling (which I did) or disobeying the rules (which I also did often). My mother frequently found me in places I shouldn’t be—the sewers, the roof, or hiding in the tops of trees.

But I wasn’t regular. I played with dolls. I liked Disney princess movies. When my father forced me to join baseball I would sit in the outfield picking the heads off dandelions. The ball would roll past me, and I’d be busy sewing together a daisy chain.

The other boys hated me for this. In school they told me I was gay—I never corrected them; I had no idea what it meant. They told me I was a sissy who liked dresses and dolls.

 

I wanted to play with the boys, but something separated us. The web that stretched out from the wallet seemed to stretch between me and my peers. I couldn’t cut through it—the other boys held the knives. I would sit on the other side of it, shaking it with balled up fists, begging them to let me in. I realized they never would and began spending my recesses walking around the playground—singing to myself.

I knew the boys hated me. They hated me for being ‘gay’—whatever that meant. They hated the daisy chains I made, jewelry from the outfield.

And then, suddenly, it all made sense to me.

I’m not a boy. Not to them. To them, I was no better than a little girl.

So, I befriended the girls.

But there was still something holding me back from them. I could come for the birthday party, but I had to leave when the sleepover began. The girls I was friends with developed deeper relationships with each other—and without me. When night fell they would spill secrets they’d never tell in the daylight. Secrets my ears wanted to hear, but never would.

The fathers of my friends refused to smile at me. They would lay a heavy hand on my shoulder, hands that felt nothing like my father’s, and their eyes would fill with the rage of a storm. The hands of these men were firm, as though they were holding me back from something.

“Now, you may think I don’t know what you’re up to, son.” Their father’s voices were all deep, dragging across the floorboards the way horror villains drag their axes. “But I know what you want. I know what all of the boys want.”

It took me longer than it should have to realize what these strange old men were saying to me.

What do I want? I’d wonder as I braided my girlfriends’ hair.

 

I realized what they meant when the other boys went through puberty. I’d listen to them with disgust as they talked about a girl’s breasts or the shape of her curves.

“It’s all I notice,” my male cousin told me when we were about twelve.

I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me.

I saw none of what the other boys saw—just the bright red lipstick, their diamond-like faces. I could see the pretty dress, but I was blind to the body beneath it. My silence in these conversations damned me. It reinforced what I had been trying to run from my entire life.

I am not a boy.

I don’t belong in the boys’ club. I don’t have the same ‘wants’ that the fathers of my friends believed I should have.

When I was thirteen, I told a youth pastor my favorite color was pink and he ‘took’ my figurative man-card from me.

So now I don’t even have that, either.

 

I was a foreign species. Everyone saw it. Even the girls could see I was different. I remember hearing my friend scream at her brother: “No boys are allowed in my room!” I was sitting on her bedroom floor, cross-legged. It was a birthday party, and there must have been at least ten other people in the room. I was the only boy.

My presence was noted by a girl I didn’t know. “Why is he here, then?” She gestured at me. My friend laughed at her like she had just said the dumbest thing she had ever heard. “That’s just Kolton, he’s not a boy. No offense, Kolton.”

And I said it didn’t bother me. I laughed because it didn’t bother me. Her words felt like a form of endearment, as though she could see the web spreading out before me that kept me from being a boy.

There was something that settled over me after that, and the feeling lingered like a bad aftertaste.

It did bother me. I hated myself for it, but her words crawled under my skin—embedding themselves into me. I wanted to embrace what she said like the intimate words I believed them to be, but something stopped me. There was a part of me that wished the words weren’t true.

I wanted to be a boy.

And I knew I couldn’t be a girl.

So, if I couldn’t be a girl, and I couldn’t be a boy—what was I?

 

I was a child made of glass, transparent. Everyone could see what was inside me, before I could see it myself. My femininity couldn’t hide behind my skin, it glimmered in the sunlight. I might as well have it etched into my forehead: ‘Not-a-boy.’

I thought I could hide the things that made people see me this way. I could walk differently. I could speak in a deep, monotone voice. I could restrict my hands, which move like the wind when I talk. No matter what I’ve done, everyone seems to know the truth.

When I turned sixteen and got a job, people seemed to identify me with my feminine behaviors. I was called a faggot long before I came out as a homosexual man. Angry slurs were uttered in whispers by pissed off servers at the restaurant I worked at. Sissy was often used by managers.

“All the girls are jealous of you,” a man who washed the dishes said to me once.

“Why?” I asked, confused.

One of my friends, who served alongside me, laughed at his comment. “We were just talking about the way you walk—we wish we walked like you.”

“You don’t walk,” another server corrected. “You strut everywhere you go.”

I was completely flattered—I felt my cheeks flush. Part of me swelled with pride, beaming at the compliment. But the pride faded quickly. The flush in my cheeks turned into burning shame. Just like when my friend had called me a “not-boy,” I wanted to feel only elation.

Yet, it was a feminine trait of mine. It was the girls who were jealous of my walk. The boys held no envy for me—the child trapped in the spider’s web. I’ve tried to strangle my femininity for years, but it has proven to be unstoppable. The sway in my step, the voice like wind chimes, the bruises made of wildflowers—no matter what I try to smother these traits with, they survive. In fact, I can never seem to get these parts of me to leave.

 

“You’ve got something on your eyes,” my father said to me sarcastically the other day.

“It’s called eyeliner,” my stepmother—a goddess—corrected him. “And he looks amazing.”

I smiled at her compliment, but my father’s passive voice lingered in the back of my mind. He had never been the aggressive type—always saying vague statements that could be misunderstood or misconstrued. Sitting at his dining room table, it reminded me of another time, years ago.

I was eleven when I wore a dress for the first time. I had snuck into one of my older sisters’ room and rummaged through her closet. I found what I was looking for—her golden sparkly Easter dress with a tulle skirt. I rushed into the bathroom with excitement churning in my stomach. I slipped the dress on over my head and looked at myself in the mirror. It wasn’t me that stared back. A beautiful princess stood in my place.

I smiled at myself before taking a deep breath. Keeping the dress around my shoulders, I stepped out of the bathroom. I walked into the dining room where all eight of my siblings and both of my parents were eating lunch.

My mother and sisters burst into laughter immediately. I laughed too, spinning in my gold sparkly dress. I felt gorgeous. I never wanted to take it off—and I didn’t care if they were laughing at me or with me.

But then my father’s deep voice broke through the noise. “Go take the dress off,” he said blandly. He wasn’t angry; his voice never rose. I looked into his eyes and all my emotions shifted. His blue eyes froze over like a crystallized swamp. He wasn’t mad; that wasn’t the feeling that pierced my soul. He was disgusted.

I turned quickly and ran up the stairs. I slammed the bathroom door shut. Turning to the mirror, I no longer felt pretty. I watched tears well up in my eyes as I realized the princess had vanished. A little boy stood in front of me, wearing a dress that hung limply from his body—a dress he could never hope to fit into.

And then I felt disgusted with myself, too.

When will you learn? My father’s eyes seemed to shout at me—almost begging me. When will you learn to be a man?

 

Only one person knew how confused I was—how lost and lonely I grew up. She was the only one who knew that I had no idea what being a man was. She knew because she felt the same way.

My sister, Keisia, was my solace. As children we’d climb beneath blankets like they were a cave. The darkness would hover around us as we whispered.

“I hate being a girl,” she told me. “I hate going to tea parties with mom, and I hate playing with dolls.”

I told her she was ridiculous. She was the one with the perfect childhood and I was the one who was forced into a mold I knew I would never fit into.

She disagreed. “I want to go hiking with you and dad,” she whined. “I want to be a boy, like you.”

I shook my head. “I want to be a girl. I don’t like how the other boys make fun of me.”

My sister put her arms around me. “They only make fun of you because you’re smarter than them. They wish they could be like you.”

I didn’t believe her then, and I don’t believe her now.

We continued holding each other, even without the blankets to hide us. She was forced to be the perfect little girl, and I, the perfect little boy.

Yet every Christmas, when I got the Nerf guns and she received the Bratz dolls, we would trade them in secret. We knew we saw each other for who we were.

She was a little girl. I was a little boy.

She liked getting dirty. She wanted to go hiking, to play in the forest. She wanted to get bucked off of horses while riding them too fast.

I wanted to play dress up or read a good book.

Everyone hated that we wanted these things—they hated that I’d put wildflowers behind my ears. They couldn’t see her, placing the petals in delicate rows along my blonde hair. They couldn’t see me, running along muddy creaks with my sister who should’ve been inside sipping tea. I realized then that we both stood behind the same web, trapped from being who we felt we were—ostracized from the other kids.

We grew up with the childhoods the other wanted, just centimeters apart.

Yet, we stood on opposite sides of the world.

 

The pain and confusion I felt as a child has subsided. The pressure to conform to the standards of masculinity, however, has not.

Around a year ago, I started seeing a therapist. I knew I had wounds that needed healing, but I was certain I could not cure them myself. Her voice is soothing, like a salve on the fear of vulnerability that nearly crippled me the first few meetings. Eventually, I began to truly speak—not just about traumas, but emotions that I was confused by, worries that lurked in the corner of my mind. I told her I didn’t know who I was. I knew I could never find him—because, maybe I didn’t want to find him.

My therapist told me in order to truly know myself, I must find a way to look in the mirror and see who I am. Then, I must accept what I see.

She asked me, “What is the first thing that comes to mind when I ask you what your personality is like?”

I knew the answer immediately. I’m feminine.

It was the only definition I could think of at the time, as I was completely lost to myself in the fray of life.

My tongue held me back. I’m not feminine, I had always told myself. I had known from my time as a femme boy that being girly meant I was weak. The internalized misogyny that hovered over me wouldn’t let me admit the truth to my reflection. Even though that reflection only seemed to show me dainty trinkets and glass skin. I can be feminine at times but that’s not who I am, I would insist to myself.

In that moment, with the excuses running through my head, I realized something I should have learned a long time ago. If I deny myself who I am, I will never learn who this creature is that I am forced to spend the entirety of my life with.

I denied myself—because I was still disgusted with myself.

Flashes of who I am in other’s eyes flickered before me like an old fashioned film reel. I saw me the way the other boys saw me, a weak and shriveled flower. I saw me the way grown-up macho men saw me. I could only see the things I was not—masculine—and so I hated myself for who I was.

I didn’t blame the boys for holding me at arm’s length. If I was in their place, I would segregate myself as well—as if femininity in a man was a disease.

My therapist’s office was dimly lit. There was a faint scent of lavender and mangoes that coupled with her soothing voice made me feel like I could speak.

So I told her everything. Spider-Man with his web, shooting towards me, reaching for me—though I never asked for it. The boys and their knives, and the web that held me back. I told her about my father telling me that I’ll be a man someday. I told her I had no idea what that meant.

I told her about the fathers of my friends, with their angry hands and rough voices.

“Those boys aren’t here anymore,” my therapist said. “Their knives are dulled, the web needs only to be swatted away.”

But it could never work that way. The web seemed to stretch over the entire earth—and if I dare even touch it my flesh would get stuck. It would wrap around me and feed off of me until all my femininity was gone. But I knew what she meant.

 

Every day, my femininity sparkles on the surface of my skin. I’ve spent my entire life trying to hide it behind baggy clothes or crumpled in the palms of my hands, tucked deep in my pants pockets. I’ve grown tired of hiding it. It’s become too exhausting. Forcing myself to see my own face when I look in the mirror has all but cured me of my want to be masculine.

I wear eyeliner on my eyes, a choker clasped tightly to my neck, and a crop top that vanishes around my abdomen. I’ll go out in the city—to the bars, to the lake, or to parties—and I get the same reaction every time I step out in the light of day. Old white men will gawk at me shamelessly. People whisper as I pass by, as if they’ve never seen a man with a sense of fashion. They tuck their faces behind their hands—afraid I’ll read their lips—as if I care enough about what they have to say.

With all the eyes on me, I throw my shoulders back. I strut like I own the sidewalk, the city. In the clubs, I dance with reckless abandon. I tell myself to ignore the stares. My body naturally moves in a feminine way, even when it’s the music that moves through me.

There’s always at least one comment. Without fail, someone’s tongue lashes out at me like that web from Spider-Man’s outstretched arm.

“What is that?” A man will cringe in disgust, pointing at me obnoxiously.

“I love your confidence.” A talkative girl will offer this as a compliment, but I know that it’s not. You’re not supposed to wear that, she says with her eyes. Yet here you are, bare skin under a belly shirt.

“Are you asking for a hate crime?” a friend will ask me, concern sewn delicately into their voice.

Pretending to be masculine was exhausting, but this… this is exhausting.

I go home every night and I wash off the eye liner. I hold back tears, symptoms of hurt that I despise to feel. Something heavy congeals in my chest, turning my strut into a slouch. What was I thinking? I ask my reflection.

I feel the web as it closes in around me. It ties me up, longing to suck the rouge itself out of my cheeks.

I’m never doing that again. I will never go out wearing something like that again. I vow to myself to burn all my clothes.

I curl up in bed and force myself not to cry. These words mean nothing to me—but if that’s true, why is the eyeliner washed away?

These nights, once I’m safely inside, I think of all the femme boys who are forced to pay a steep price for their femininity. Boys get beat up; they get murdered—crimes inspired by the same anger I see in the eyes of men who look at me and decide immediately that they hate me for what I am wearing.

In the morning, I’ll have to try again to be less feminine, I think to myself. It’s a dangerous world to be a not-boy in. It’s for the best—for my own safety.

But in the morning, I wake up, and with shaky hands, I’m lining the edges of my eyes again.

Nobody knows if I’m worth the potential price. Perhaps one day I’ll live to regret letting my femininity be so obvious.

But until then, I will let myself live.

 

I have found myself turning away from the web. I’ve stopped seeing myself in the eyes of others, at least in this one respect. Spider-Man’s web still reaches for me, but it will never have me.

I am feminine. I like dainty things—like quiet conversations on busy streets and lemon in my iced tea on warm afternoons. I like my hair long, soft, and wavy. I blare Britney Spears from my car’s stereo. I crop way too many of my T-shirts and wear them any chance I get.

I dress up as Marilyn Monroe for Halloween. I go to parties in her white dress. I wear my rouge on my face along with red lipstick and a fake beauty mark placed directly above the corner of my lips. I go into public as her and nobody sees me. They see her—the image of femininity.

It’s what I want them to see. I want them to see the not-boy: free of the webs and expectations I can’t hope to learn to live up to.

And I tell myself that I can shatter the mold of what a man is capable of being.

So, I wear my high-pitched voice like a necklace. I strut with a sway set low in my hips.

I wear makeup. I’ll wear a dress.

Because, damn it, my ass looks good in a dress.

pencilKolton Knapp was raised in Des Moines, Iowa in a family of 11. Currently enrolled at Drake University, he intends to graduate in the Spring of 2022 and pursue a career in writing. Email: koltonknapp202[at]gmail.com

The Charm of Novelty

Creative Nonfiction
Elizabeth Bernays


Photo Credit: Linda, Fortuna future/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

In the small, shabby living room of an old house in downtown Tucson a dozen women sat waiting. We were at a lesbian support group run by Wingspan—a non-profit center for the LGBTQ community. The large facilitator came in, plonked down on a dilapidated armchair, and greeted the group as she passed around a sheet of paper for names and email addresses to be shared. She then asked each woman to speak about herself and what brought her to the group.

It was a motley gathering and each woman had a different concern.

“How’m I going to talk to my husband about being gay?”

“What’ll happen to my children when I tell them I’m a lesbian?”

“It’s so lonely being a lesbian. I got no friends.”

Most extraordinary was the small, swarthy woman with a strong London accent, who ranted and raved about a guy who kept trying to kill her. There were other stories of loss and despair. Several women expressed real hatred of men. After having had a wonderful husband for thirty-seven years and still mourning his death, I found them annoying, but did wonder what experiences had caused such powerful aversion.

Across from me a darkly tanned woman in shorts cried uncontrollably, but she finally managed to explain. “I’s married to a man who knows I’s gay, and I had this lover, but she’s just dumped me.”

This was Linda, whom I noticed in particular as I sat diffidently, amazed at the story. Did he really tolerate a wife who had affairs with women? And what was that rough-sounding accent?

There was no way I could tell the whole story of how close my husband, Reg, and I had been, how perfectly woven together our passions for research, classical music, reading and theater. Our marriage had been one of true soulmates, and we worked together on biological problems in different countries all around the world. Quietly, I simply spoke about misery since the death of an adored partner, and the emergence of an intense physical attraction to women.

I sat in subdued clothes with my hands awkwardly clutched. Later, Linda told me that she thought I was a timid housewife type. When the session ended I took note of the three emails belonging to women who had mentioned the complication of a man in their lives. I thought we might have something in common. Then we scattered and each of us went off alone.

At home, I emailed the three women who had husbands, but it was only Linda who replied. She sent the cursory message: “See ya next time.”

As the same old stories were recounted two weeks later at the next group meeting, I looked across the room to Linda and our eyes met. I felt there was a mutual recognition that this was going to be tedious, but a connection had definitely been established between us. At the end of the session we left together.

Linda said, “Did ya hear that girl whose been going for six years? Fuck, that’s not for me.”

I replied, “If people need it for so long, it can’t be all that useful.”

I looked at Linda. I was strangely attracted to this boyish woman, with unfamiliar mannerisms and speech. “Let’s not go back.”

We were silent for a while, and I desperately wondered how to prolong our walk back to the parking area. I said, “Want to go and get a drink?”

“I guess.”

Not much enthusiasm I thought, and then it turned out Linda didn’t drink wine or beer; didn’t want tea, coffee, fruit juice or soda. I was perplexed, but we went to a small café where we sat at bare wooden tables and drank plain water. I thought, this is weird—I got her in here but what the hell do we talk about? We sat in silence and the minutes got longer. So I began.

“Where are you from?”

“Dallas, and you? I don’t recognize your accent.”

“Oh well, I am Australian really but lived in England for twenty years. Been in the States since 1983—hybrid.”

We looked each other over. We were of similar height but that was where the similarity ended. Linda’s fine tanned skin, very bright dark eyes, and black hair in a buzz cut somehow made her look younger than her 49 years. By contrast, I had wavy hair, fair skin and a distinctly female figure. At 62, I too looked somewhat younger.

Linda gulped down her water. “Whatcha do for work?”

“Retired from teaching. And you?”

Linda looked away and after a long pause replied, “Freelance photojournalist. Where’d ya teach?”

“I was at the University of Arizona.”

“Gees, you a professor or something?”

“Yes.”

“I never met a professor.”

I took a sip of water, wishing it was something alcoholic as I desperately tried to think of something else to say. During the long minutes of silence, her face grew serious, and I felt the evident ache she suffered. Seeing her sadness made me feel my own deep ache, made me feel closer to her. The short hair made her seem vulnerable and I decided that for sure she was very attractive.

Eventually Linda leaned over to me. “I dropped outta school in eighth grade, but you gone ta college!”

“Yes, I went to University in Australia, and also in England.”

“God.”

I laughed and went on, “I studied insects and got a PhD in entomology.”

“Well! I thought you never been anywhere the way you sat there all prim and proper.”

She smiled at me and it was a smile that lit up her tanned face so her eyes seemed brighter than ever. This sassy boyish woman was unlike anyone I had ever met.

“What else?” I said.

I took in the Texan accent as Linda proceeded. “I dropped out, like I said, and didn’t want to work a regular job, and guess what, I was stoned outta my mind for years and years.”

Everything we each said made it plain that no two women could have backgrounds that were so different. I had had what my mother called a “proper” upbringing in Australia, and then, after a period of going a bit wild and drinking in every pub in London, became a scientist and then a university professor. But I was attracted to a new side of life. Linda seemed doubtful about a weirdo from a world she couldn’t even imagine. Later she told me that she did think to herself, At least she don’t seem uppity.

We left the café and wandered to our parked cars. I found her so physically attractive and fascinating that I turned to her and suddenly said, “I love you.”

“Oh no you don’t,” she replied with surprise and impatience, upon which we parted with awkward goodbyes.

I was quite excited by the very idea of a possible relationship with someone so different from everything and everybody I had ever really known. It satisfied another part of me—delight at bucking convention. I was careful, though, not to reveal how much I was physically attracted to her in case it was not reciprocated. It was such a new feeling to be attracted to a woman after a relationship with a man I had loved for so long. Reg had been a lover and best friend. We shared everything. Our tastes were so similar and our communications often required no words, even as he lay dying in our desert home. It was after eighteen months of loss and desperation, that I discovered Wingspan, and a support group that concerned friends had been pressing me to find.

Linda and I emailed each another, and a week or so later she agreed to visit me at my ranch house in the Tucson foothills. We ambled around in the pristine Sonoran Desert landscape looking at cottontail rabbits, lizards, and quail. Look at that tarny bunny, and that big o’fat lizard, he’s a football! Linda was always fearful of snakes and when she saw a stick: Wot’s that thang? Whoa, looks like a snake. In spite of the possible dangers she seemed to enjoy our walk and my sharing occasional bits of natural history. Until, I’m wore out, and we went in.

Inside, Linda gazed around at the large old ranch house with huge beams, red cement floors, and picture windows looking out to desert views of saguaros and prickly pear with the Santa Catalina Mountains beyond. She took in the oil paintings and watercolors on the walls and was fascinated by a picture of African village life created in bas-relief on beaten aluminum.

“What’s that?”

“Reg and I bought that when we were working in Nigeria. The artist is Asiru Olatunde, and he worked with just a hammer and nails. We got it for just a few dollars back then, but it is worth thousands now.”

“Cool.”

She looked around the Arizona room with its metal stove, old TV, and glass sliding doors leading out to a big patio and the desert beyond. Finally, she looked at all the shelves of books.

“You read all these?”

“Mostly.”

Then she saw my old Bible among the poetry books.

“Your religious or something?”

“Not at all, but I had a religious phase when I was a teenager, and I never throw out a book.”

“Yeah, well I knew I as an atheist when I got to about ten and just stopped going to the church with my parents.”

“What did they say to that?”

“They never said nothin’ against what I did.”

After a short silence she smiled. “Well, we got something in common, eh?”

Conversation stalled and Linda took to organizing the books on one of the shelves so that the titles all went one way. “Gotta have them straight.”

“I only need to know where things are,” I replied.

At last we both relaxed a bit and Linda went on in her Texas dialect and drawl. “I guess I like reading. I got a list of 100 top books from the New York Times, bought them second hand at Bookman’s. I’s reading them one by one.”

Clearly, this attractive unschooled woman was not just smart and funny. She read books.

“Would you like tea?” I offered.

“Nah, just water.”

“What about some dinner?”

“I gotta go home.”

She was sitting on the old leather sofa as I stood in front of her. We looked at one another for several minutes. I saw that round smiling face with dimpled cheeks and badly wanted to kiss her. Perhaps Linda saw that because she quickly left with scarcely a goodbye.

A couple of weeks later we agreed to meet at a Wingspan social. Linda mixed with dozens of others, chatting and laughing, making me feel my awkwardness, but I eventually struck up a conversation with a woman of about my own age who was interested in conservation. We discussed places to visit for bird-watching, and the woman recommended a new book about birding in Arizona. I took out my ever-present notebook to write down the title and author.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, Linda was there kissing me on the mouth.

“She’s mine,” Linda shouted.

I laughed with surprise and pleasure. “Look, she’s told me about a great book on birding.”

Linda exclaimed, “I was over there talking and thought you was getting her phone number and Brenda said, Watch out that lady is taking your new friend, so I come over to get you. Well, nothing but a stupid book—let’s see.”

She looked at the notebook and then at me. We gazed at one another for a time that seemed endless but was probably no more than a few seconds before Linda broke the silence with a loud laugh. She was excited now, too.

Later, Linda said Brenda told her that scientists in lab coats were the most exciting for sex. “Not that I care what Brenda thinks, but it is pretty funny—do you wear a lab coat?”

That evening, as I sat looking out at the desert scene I had come to love, I thought about the social. I had met a very diverse group and what a new experience it was to meet a lot of lesbians. In the normal course of events in my life there was no way that Linda and I would ever have met. If we had somehow been brought into contact, neither of us would have recognized the other as someone to know or befriend.

Next time we met it was on a date. Linda picked me up in her old Toyota truck on a warm, summer Saturday evening, and we drove to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It is a place and time for great sunsets, stars, night-blooming cereus and evening primroses, bats and raccoons coming out from their daytime sleep. That evening we were tense and awkward, each aware of the other’s attraction. We were also exhilarated by a storm over the valley, with dramatic clouds and intermittent thunder and lightning. It presaged an exciting chemistry between us, but I wondered if Linda might be hesitant about being involved with a professor type. We made occasional awkward comments as we walked along the paths.

I wondered, Will I ever get to know this curious Texan?

I know now that Linda wondered, What the hell am I doing with a fucking professor?

On the way home Linda drove into a lonely picnic area surrounded by Palo Verde trees and cactus where we kissed seriously for the first time. I wanted to linger, but before I could say anything Linda started the engine and drove back to my place. She left immediately, almost without a goodbye.

It wasn’t long before she came to visit again when I proposed cooking dinner. By this time I knew that Linda had a very limited diet—nothing fancy or spicy or unusual. I served steak, potatoes, and beans, which met with her approval.

Linda was at ease and affectionate while making fun of me or others. On the other hand, I needed wine to relax and make talking easier. I felt, though, that we were gradually learning to understand each other. We each had a bath and we kissed, then Linda suddenly left me to sleep in the spare room. I was mystified.

The following week Linda offered to cook the meat on the barbecue. I could see her in baggy plaid shorts, T-shirt, and sneakers out on the patio through the sliding glass doors. No bra, shapely brown legs, confident walk, happily wielding tongs by my old Kettle barbecue grill. I watched her with pleasure and desire as I drank my wine.

“When did you leave Australia?” she asked as we ate.

“When I was 22, I left Sydney by ship with my friend Lucy. We disembarked in Gibraltar and hitchhiked all around Europe.”

“Then what?”

“Well, we had a bit of a wild time, then I taught high school, and eventually I did a PhD at the University of London. After that I was a British Government Scientist and worked in places like India and Nigeria and Mali.”

Linda kept sipping her water, then, finally putting down her glass said, “Well, I don’t know whatcha want with a dropout who did nothing.”

“You were a photojournalist, so that’s something.”

“I guess. I did sell stuff to the Dallas Fort Worth Times Herald and the AP; mostly I worked with the Fire Department.”

It wasn’t until a lot later that I discovered she was a pro when it came to any photographic work involving quick decisions. Linda was friends with the local fire chief in Dallas and began by taking photographs of fires and first responders. She said she enjoyed the adrenaline rush and always got to the scene fast. I knew she was quick so it made sense that she would be the one with the best shots. Not until a year had passed did she show me the papers nominating her for a Pulitzer.

Linda turned to questions that I had no quick answer for: What do you do for fun? What do you watch on TV? But she didn’t really seem to need answers. She spread out on the sofa, seemingly relaxed.

I said, “Would you like a massage?”

“No.”

“Well then, here I come,” and I leaned over to kiss her.

“No, you don’t,” she said, jumping up.

Later, she would say, “You pounced on me that night.”

On other occasions she left quite suddenly and without explanation. It was not until much later that Linda confessed she had sometimes left because she was nervous about me and nervous about anything physical. Alone, I was left wondering. What made this woman tick? What kind of relationship did she have with her husband, John? Is she interested in me really?

One summer day she suggested that I come to a bowling alley where she and John would be bowling and I would meet him. It turned out that the date, August 13th, was their wedding anniversary so it felt terribly awkward. Still, nothing was going to stop me from going to see her bowl. Only later did I find out they had not been intimate for years.

I watched them; they were both good bowlers. They had their own balls and they often made strikes. My eyes were mostly on Linda, so alive and so limber, joking with all and sundry. Her tall husband with scruffy hair and beard was quietly friendly. How was it possible that John accepted me, knowing that Linda and I were already close? In any case he apparently became aware of electricity in the air.

“Lin, do you and Liz want to take off?”

That’s all it took. The two of us went to my house and we sat in the Arizona room, watching Gambel’s quail marching around outside.

“Does John really not mind your having an affair?”

“Oh, he got used to it when I went with Kim. John and me’s friends, and we got Trooper. He’s a yellow lab and the best dog we ever had.”

“Did you always have dogs? I’m more of a cat person, but we couldn’t really have a dog with Reg and me working long days.”

“We got Wookie too. You would love him. He’s a Yorkie and such a character. When it’s raining, he can open the doggie door and pee through it without going outside and getting wet. He’s got a million tricks.”

I thought back to my teenage years when we had Australian terriers that are very like Yorkies, but Linda had moved on from dogs. Another time.

We ate dinner on the patio just outside the open sliding glass doors where a breeze from the swamp cooler bathed us in cool, damp air. It was the usual—steak, potato, and beans, while Linda drank water and I had my favorite red wine. Bats flew by and stole sugar water from the hummingbird feeder, javelina trotted past the patio, and a coyote howled in the distance.

Later, I was in bed when she came into the bedroom and announced, “I am going to make love to you tonight.”

I found this amusing. I lay there warm and excited from alcohol and pondered this strange relationship as she showered. There had been a time, perhaps twenty-five years earlier, when I began to fall for tall, handsome Sandy, an imposing woman who reminded me of Miss McCallum, the math teacher I had a crush on in high school. It was Miss McCallum who taught me I was actually good at math and not the hopeless student I believed myself to be. Well, nothing was going to interfere with my relationship with Reg. He was everything, so I stopped seeing Sandy, who anyway had her own partner. The short lesbian flash faded completely.

I was still musing on the past when a warm damp Linda jumped in beside me and we kissed. Slowly then, we explored one another’s bodies. And so began the affair and the most unlikely partnership, with each of us unsure if it would lead anywhere in the long term.

Linda joked, “Anniversary of our first night gonna be the same date as me and John’s wedding anniversary!”

pencil

Elizabeth grew up in Australia, became a British Government Scientist in London, and then a Professor of Entomology at the University of California Berkeley. From there she was appointed Regents’ Professor at the University of Arizona where she also obtained an MFA in Creative Writing. She has published forty nonfiction stories in literary magazines and last year, her memoir, Six Legs Walking, won the 2020 Arizona/New Mexico Book Award for memoir. Email: eabernays[at]gmail.com

House Cats

Fiction
Ann Zhang


Photo Credit: Helen Haden/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

My second cat Janie has some rudimentary understanding of physics. Ever since she got spayed she’s been moving like a lizard, her neck a downward slope from her elfin shoulders to her head, which looks larger than usual wrapped in the vet’s semi-translucent cone. She’s tried rubbing the front of her body against wooden objects, moonwalking until her hind legs hit the kitchen wall, and if no one had invented Velcro, her tricks would be working.

I was too young to remember the weeks after my parents took my first cat to the vet. Meow-Meow was a grey tabby who liked to catch flies in his mouth, sometimes a wasp of below-average mobility. In his middle age, he impregnated the cat two doors down the street, whose owners demanded one hundred dollars and Meow-Meow’s punctual castration, or at least that’s what my brother told me. Before he told me that, my brother counted the stitches on Meow-Meow’s stomach aloud, explaining in psychedelic detail how the vet carved the balls out of our cat. He said to imagine my own balls as walnut seeds.

Sometimes I can’t help but think about Janie in terms of Meow-Meow: her eyes far bluer, her existence a touch less ordinary. She has a downy white coat that makes her the feline equivalent of a very pretty girl. Just then Janie begins grinding her cone-ridden head against the maple leg of an armchair where Meow-Meow used to sit, licking his stomach while my brother tapped out one-handed rock covers on the electric keyboard.

The one thing my brother was really good at was speed stacking, that game where you build pyramids out of cups and then take them apart in the smallest possible number of motions. He set a world record in the 3-3-3 stack, actually. There’s a video online with thousands of views and adults in the comments raving that he’s the fastest eleven-year-old they’ve ever seen, and that he should consider learning classical guitar.

On the edge of the table across from Meow-Meow’s favorite armchair, my brother kept a bright blue place mat and a special timer that he would smack with both hands whenever he finished his routine. Plastic cups splayed across every flat surface of the house like party aftermath, memorialized: a red set, a purple set, a glow-in-the-dark set the color of honeydew. By now my parents have donated boxes of my brother’s stuff to our younger cousins who wanted to catch up with him, never came close. Although a kid from Korea soon stuck a new world record.

Around the time we thought about adopting Janie, my parents and I were the only ones left in the house. My brother had wrapped up his high school legacy of state-school grades, skipping homework to drive into the night with such urgency that I suspected he played a pivotal role in some secret mission to save the world. Turns out he was visiting girls’ houses as soon as their parents left town, and now he was somehow off to West Point. At the animal shelter, my mom kept asking me which cat I wanted. I cried on the cool, paw-printed floor because I couldn’t bring myself to choose.

Four years later, we came back, and my dad helped me calculate the shelter’s nicest cat. Janie liked to brush her face against my hand, which my dad deemed a signal that she wanted to befriend me. She’s been trying harder than ever to befriend me these past few days, probably since she can’t quite scratch her own face with the cone. I have to itch her myself, especially the bald patches in front of her ears, the solid bridge of her nose. Afterwards, I run to the sink to wash my fingers of the wet crust that tends to accumulate around the inside corners of her eyes.

My brother sends home bi-monthly updates about his life at West Point. Last I heard, he was in the middle of survival swimming, a unit that consisted of leaping with all your clothes and equipment into a simulative pool of massive waves. For the final test, his superiors hoisted the crests even higher, added lights and fog for limited visibility, recordings of machine guns and people screaming. When my brother couldn’t unclip his vest, he had to drop his rifle and use both hands. He would be required to retake the course in the spring.

I remember that right before Meow-Meow died, the poor cat started crapping in different rooms around the house. Back then I was spending a lot of my free time tracking tropical storms, probabilities blazoned in yellow, orange, red. A hurricane swept into Texas from the Gulf of Mexico on the same day that we found Meow-Meow motionless, curled into a ball inside the walk-in shower that my brother and I used to share.

The main reason my mom eventually drove us back to the animal shelter was not that she had in any way pardoned my lack of resolve, but because Meow-Meow’s body was decomposing beneath the peach tree in our backyard. On the ride there, my mom kept asking if my brother ever texted me. He didn’t, and I couldn’t figure out how to lie to her. While my dad led me through the aisles of cats in cages, on suspended platforms, crouched around metal bowls, I spotted my mom holding her hand out to a litter of grey tabbies. Bird-sized things that wouldn’t stop shrieking as we left the room.

pencil

Ann Zhang is a student at Yale University. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri. Twitter: @annleezhang Email: annleezhang[at]yahoo.com

Zookeepers

Fiction
Minh-Tam T. Le


Photo Credit: Dan Weisz/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Kalisa straightened the black silk ribbon wrapped around her red straw boater. Pinching the wide-brim edge, she balanced it on her silver head and smiled as it found its usual landing. She waved at the director—a man young enough to be her son.

“We’re almost ready Mrs. Lomidzei. One minute,” said the director holding up an index finger.

She nodded and turned to fix Hubert’s bowtie—ocean blue with diagonal red stripes. Even in their seventies, she still wanted them to look splendid. After all, the animals were counting on them.

Hubert grinned at her through a suppressed yawn. He had stayed up late with their great-great grandson Leo working on a tropical rain forest diorama.

Staring out at the crew around them, Kalisa felt like a coral reef fish in a glass bowl. She was used to being in front of crowds, but this was different. The audiences would be invisible, tucked behind their screens.

“Let’s lock it up,” yelled someone.

“Pictures up,” said another.

“Rolling, rolling, rolling.”

A girl with a pixie haircut and crew uniform held up the clapperboard in front of the camera. “This is scene 1, A, take 1.”

Kalisa made a mental note to google some terms. Hot brick. Clapper loader. Strangely, that reminded Kalisa of the flappers. Her grandmother was a flapper. Always with a neat bob and an almost tangible Georgian accent. Although she didn’t touch alcohol after pancreatic cancer became a thing, Bebia hung onto the Slims until her last breath.

“Marker.” The pixie hair girl snapped the stick shut and moved swiftly from the camera’s view.

Kalisa smiled at the camera, despite the butterflies in her stomach. She leapt into her rehearsed intro. “Good morning animal lovers. I’m Kalisa Lomidzei.” After a few seconds of silence, she glanced at her husband, snoring loudly beside her in the velvet loveseat. Nudging him, he sat up straight as a board.

“And I’m Hubert Lomidzei.”

“We’re the zookeepers of Bonnie and Clyde.” They grinned as practiced in front of the bathroom mirror at least three dozen times.

Kalisa watched the subtle shift of the camera onto the two songbirds.

Hubert tugged at his bow and smiled. “We’ve been the proud zookeepers of the Grand Adventure Zoo for forty-three years and we can’t wait to see you during the next three Sundays.”

Together, they animated the discussion of their roles with Bonnie and Clyde singing and hopping from one shoulder to the next. They repeated it in segments another three times before the director was satisfied.

“Cut. That’s a wrap. Good job everyone,” said the director. He sprang from his black chair and shook their hands. “My children are fans of your bird shows.”

Kalisa sighed with relief as the air lost its tense vibrations like the exhale of a child after spotting a ruby-throated hummingbird over honeysuckles.

After the director left, she turned to Hubert. Kalisa’s eyes softened. He was already asleep. The birds were nestled in his silver waves. Well, more like silver strands. She missed those days, running her fingers through his wavy mahogany locks. They were once thick and soft like plumes of a young ostrich. Leaning down, she kissed his nose.

Hubert stirred and opened his eyes. Moonlight broke on his lips. “The show’s over already?” he murmured.

“Yes, darling. Let’s go home.” Instead of driving to their bungalow at 21 Privet Drive, Kalisa parked their Volkswagen van in front of the zoo. She grinned as sunlight burst from a flock of clouds onto the zoo’s entrance. They were blessed as the zookeepers, aka “badass guardians of Grand Adventure Zoo.” That was Leo’s name for them.

Hubert puffed out a burst of air between snores as if in agreement.

Kalisa leaned back, feeling the soft hum of their love and chuckling at the image of them in a squad with Jane Goodall and Steve Irwin.

pencil

Minh-Tam Le is a primary care physician assistant in Winston-Salem, NC. Her most recent publications are in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Down in the Dirt, and Literary Juice. She won a place in the Writer’s Digest’s 87th and 82nd Annual Short Story Contest, Mainstream/Literary category. From 2012-2019, she served as a blogger and then a board member of Sparks Magazine, a student-run, mixed-media platform for the Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) community. Twitter: @takikoazn Email: tamle.nihon[at]gmail.com

The Rabbit’s Head

Fiction
Omid Fallahazad


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

At first, she didn’t want to leave the house. He had to threaten her, then entice her, both tactics involving how much screen time she would get on his iPad, and she finally yielded. He thought they needed to go for a walk, with all that was on the news, just to get some fresh air.

It had rained all night, soaking roof shingles and leaving the tree bark a shade or two darker in color. Now it was drizzling with the confused wind of late March. He took their umbrellas from the stand. She giggled when opening the umbrella. He, too, felt childishly giddy going through the motions—the soft, springy release button, the way the canopy opened with a flapping sound, the gentle pitter-patter of the first raindrops landing overhead.

But then a gust of wind blew from behind and snatched his umbrella. For half a second the handle was out of his grip, the umbrella suspended in the air like magic. The man clasped the handle just in time and drew it back. The girl screamed. The wind was lifting her umbrella too, pulling it until the yellow, duck-faced canopy popped inside out. The metal ribs rattled hard. He turned about and gave instructions, yelling. She managed to point the top of her umbrella against the wind. It instantly popped back into shape, dignified, as if nothing had happened. The wind suddenly dropped, and he recovered his umbrella, too. He told her to pay attention to the treetops, to watch for ripples in unmoved puddles, any sign that helped to read the wind. She listened intently.

“You stick to me if we see someone’s coming our way, you understand?”

She nodded.

“And don’t say hello. No hellos.”

She held the handle close to her face, white-knuckled, wide-eyed, and nodded again.

They walked through the long U-shaped suburban neighborhood without a word. On the outer side of the curve, the sloping lot, stood colonial houses, imposing and a bit too angular. Water sprouts were shooting from the pruning wounds of a large birch tree. There was a bicycle left on the pedestal of a stump near a mailbox post. Opposite, on the flat surface of the inner side, was a handful of snug ranch homes, each surrounded by a modest but manicured lawn and dark-soiled flowerbeds. A couple times, the man had to stop for the girl to catch up with him. No matter how slow he strolled, she kept falling behind. As he waited, he stared at the picture windows of the houses, drawn to the eerie serenity of their dim interiors.

“Faster,” he called, and twirled the umbrella handle. Large droplets flew off the rib tips in a helix pattern. The air smelled of pine cones. In fifty yards or so, they would reach the main road. Time to decide. Should they turn around and retrace their path through the neighborhood to get back home, or go ahead and complete the loop by taking the main road, which connected the two ends of the U? Similar lengths, but one with possible predicaments. Predicaments, if anyone else decided to come out during that hour, like the lean bandit man the other day. But even an eager jogger like the bandit man could do without such miserable, spitting drizzle. That was what the man hoped for.

The girl was in no rush. The sleeves of her parka were wet up to her shoulder seams. He could see why. She was carrying the umbrella bindle-like, drifting along the edge of the grass, talking to herself, or to the imaginary characters in her head.

He walked up to the main road and scanned the sidewalk all the way to the bridge over the muddy river. It looked deserted. Nothing moved in the rain-slicked, single-lane road either. Regardless, the decision had triggered a fluttering in his chest, and he knew it wouldn’t go away until they’d reached the next corner and veered off back to the safety of their neighborhood. She was still lagging behind by ten paces or so. There was no sign of the jogger.

Last time, he had appeared from the other side of the road, apparition-like, and crossed the empty street with nimble side strides. Red-faced, forehead glistening in sweat. Workout layering all in black, like a thin-limbed bandit, except that he had no mask, nor scarf. The man had acted by instinct, placing himself between his daughter and the jogger’s projected path. He had assumed that the jogger would jump over the curb into the bike lane to maintain some distance between them, but he didn’t. He stayed his course and came at them. It felt like watching the act of predation from the prey’s point of view. The man put his arm around the girl and made a shield of his body for her. The pull caused a stumble in the girl’s quick steps. But then she did the unexpected. In a singsong voice, she blurted out: “Hello!”

The response, a massive, guttural “Hi” that the jogger barked back at them, shocked the man. His body went slack. He saw a stream of sweat and spittle shedding off the jogger’s jowls, or so he imagined in his nightmarish replays of the encounter. It was like the old Gatorade commercials in which athletes’ blue and orange sweat went off flying into the dark. Dribbling sweat while dribbling the ball, all shot in an artistic rim light. A recent viral video showed how laser beams were employed in some darkroom lab to highlight airborne spittles issued from a person speaking. The phosphorus light traced the particles just short of the microbial level. Amazing how far they traveled, how many of the concentric circles they reached. Who knew that death would become the human body’s most easily transmittable trait? Death, not love, not intelligence, not happiness. Death and disease, spreading like a yawn.

“Look at this!” the man called, standing before a rain puddle on the sidewalk.

At first, the girl couldn’t see what he saw. At her height, the reflection of the clouds masked everything. He held his umbrella above the puddle.

“What is it?”

“Look!”

But he lost it, too. He could only see a pine needle afloat pointing northward, compass-like. A little squinting, a little bending, and the grainy asphalt came to focus. A tooth-size piece of gravel. A few bits of wood chip, mulch or not, cinnamon-colored and fibrous.

“What is it?”

“A worm.”

“A worm?” She squatted down with a sympathetic moan.

“It’s dead,” he said.

“It moves.”

“Water makes it bob,” he said. “It doesn’t wiggle.”

She reached for a twig at the edge of the lawn.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go.”

“Wait, Daddy,” she murmured. He could hear her swallow as she prodded the flesh-pink worm with surgical focus. Her dark curls, raindrops beaded in them, covered the nape of her neck.

He began to walk away, irritated with himself for showing her the worm. Perhaps it was habit rather than impulse. Every walk was punctuated with pauses like that, to point out the living things: a bird, a bug, dandelions, shoots, bumblebees. Now that he thought of it, maybe it was more to marvel at dead things. Yes, the dead. The hollowed tree trunk oozing decomposed cork powder. Rustling dry leaves clawing the pavement in the wind. The squashed bird, bones and feathers matted up under the sun, turning into a dusty felt whose mere proximity made their skin itch. A long-legged frog’s carcass, so hardened black that he thought there must be something he could make from the leathery piece, a patch of armor or a knife sheath, if only he had inherited the artisanship of some ancestors from a buried civilization. Dead ants by the dozen, belly-up roaches, coiled spiders. Bees, curled up as if stabbing themselves in the heart with their stinger, in seppuku, maybe. Did they even have hearts, the bees? And if they did, could they die from a heart attack? Another peculiar thing he could puzzle over. How had his eyes managed to see such things in the first place? Like this dead earthworm, putrid pink in the bottom of a rain puddle. It could be mistaken for anything, for a stringy, red root, or a tender, leafless offshoot, snapped when the wind made branches cross sabers. Or even a piece of yarn, a snagged thread of a sort, discovered as giggling guests got out of their car and rang the bell, bottle and chocolate dessert in hand. It must have been a cold evening, a Christmas party, when the wife spotted the red snag on the husband’s ugly sweater and yanked it right before the jolly host opened the door and invited them inside. The snow buried the small piece of yarn, and now that the ice had melted away, it had re-emerged, soiled and faded in the puddle. It could have gone unnoticed, plastered to the pavement until its total disintegration by the elements, except that it hadn’t. More importantly, it wasn’t a snag. It was a worm, a dead one, and she was carrying it on her tiny stick, her face crinkled up in the needling drizzle.

“You’re bringing it? What for?”

“For a funeral, of course.”

A funeral? He smirked, dumbfounded, but then turned, alarmed by the syncopated pop, pop, pop of a car’s exhaust. He saw the vehicle in the distance, a white pickup truck about 500 yards away, on the bridge. It swerved violently to the opposite lane, and its fat tires under the extended fender flares hit the sidewalk curb. The wet surface of the road bled red with the reflection of the brake lights. It must be something in the current, or maybe the lapping river itself, that had caught the driver’s eye.

“Hurry up.” He grabbed the girl by the wrist, but she cried in protest, and he had to switch to her other hand, the one that held the umbrella, not the stick.

“Can you run,” he asked, “just to get to the corner?”

She couldn’t, not with her eyes glued to the worm dangling from the stick. The truck was creeping back to the left lane, straightening itself. He knew that they wouldn’t make it, that there would be some overlap, them being on the sidewalk and the truck passing by. He could hear the fizz of tires on wet asphalt louder, nearer. Mist clouds plumed around the truck, and he suddenly had another fit of anxiety, this time at the prospect of an accident: he saw a steel object, something polished like the head of a golf club, coming off the spinning truck, going airborne with an impossible trajectory toward his daughter’s skull.

“Run!” He pulled her and the truck kept coming towards them. Ten yards from the corner, they passed each other. He locked eyes with the driver. They looked puffy, menacing, a day-long wrangle in them. The stubbled young driver had one arm in a sling. And of course, there was a dark-haired woman in the passenger seat, disturbed-looking, clinging to the dashboard. The truck looked sleek and unused.

The man and his daughter turned the corner, the noise quickly fizzling out behind them. From there he could see his lawn, cocooned in the quiet of the U-shaped neighborhood.

“I dropped it,” the girl whimpered. “I dropped the worm.”

“Look there.” He pointed at another puddle, this one on the neighborhood’s sidewalk, elongated and murkier than the first one. The girl immediately squatted down next to the water and began scraping the mud with her stick. The man’s toes felt cold in his dampened shoes. He checked his pocket for his phone, then remembered that he had left it at home on purpose, not so much to protect it from the rain but to save himself from the news. He’d had enough of the news. If it wasn’t the charts and radiating maps, it was bystander footage of refrigerator trucks and body bags forklifted onto them, or selfies of racoon-eyed nurses during their “mask break,” or scenes of burials with undertakers in all-white, resembling a moonlander crew. That could drive anyone insane, could force them out of their homes, drunk or not. And if you’re in the middle of a domestic fight, driving recklessly on an empty road, a muddy river was an invitation to darker thoughts. Better keep certain things out of people’s heads. Dissection wasn’t meant for everyone. Leave some stones unturned, some stuff unstudied, like the rabbit’s head.

He had come across the bloody head about a week ago, during one of their furtive walks. It sat on the sidewalk, its exposed front teeth just an inch from a pea pod of dark droppings. The head was missing the lower jaw, so cleanly severed it looked like a pencil drawing in a zoology textbook. He rerouted the girl to avoid the scene. But the eerie mystery of it, the Wiccan composition, bothered him. Why the droppings? Were they the predator’s? A coyote’s, perhaps? How could the rest of the carcass vanish without a trace of blood, without a tuft of fur?

Pop, pop, pop. The noise had returned. He eyed the main road. The girl was trying to dislodge a rock with the ferrule of her umbrella. Rain dripped from her springy curls. The loud engine sound caromed through the nearby houses. He saw the pickup truck drive by again, churning up mist clouds, tires hissing on wet asphalt. He saw the woman’s face. It was squished against the side window, not in a playful pig snout but in profile, cheek flattened on the glass, an eye contorted shut. And he registered the movements, the flailing hands fighting his arm that repeatedly hacked at them. That, he saw.

He came over to the girl. Under her umbrella, she was absently cooing at some living things. He picked up the wet rock and returned to the corner. The truck had stopped on the bridge in a peculiar position, two wheels on the road and the other two propped up on the curb. The rear windshield wiper was running fast. The door on the passenger side opened and closed. The man could make out a deadened yelling. Again, the door flung open, and the woman’s head and shoulder appeared with a jerk and disappeared inside the car. That happened a few times, like a cuckoo clock, each time the torso swinging out with a greater force until her hips were pushed off the seat, suspended in the air. But she hung on to the cab, hands clinging to the frame and heels hooked behind the sill.

Hey,” the man yelled, taking a couple steps forward. The woman found a moment to pull herself back inside and slam the door shut. Whether or not the driver was watching him in the rearview mirror, he could not tell. He squeezed the wet stone in his fist, muddy water dribbling through his fingers.

“Daddy, Daddy!”

He waited still. The truck door stayed shut. Then the red and white taillights came on in succession, a sign that the driver was working the gearshift.

“Daddy, hurry up,” his daughter called.

He glanced at the first house, the one closest to them, at the shut, quiet door behind strands of water dripping from the eaves.

“Daddy. Daddy.” The girl was walking to him. “I need to save them.” She had left the umbrella by the puddle. In the muddy cup of her hands, he saw the worms, two dirty filaments of flesh twitching violently.

“Away from the road,” he waved her off. “Go, get your umbrella, go!”

“I need a jar.” She gave him an exasperated look. “Why don’t you listen, Daddy?”

He cocked his head in the direction of the bridge. He didn’t know what to expect—a screeching over-steer for takeoff, or a slow, reluctant dispatch. He wasn’t sure how to account for any of those possibilities.

“I’m going home,” the girl announced and marched off, leaving her umbrella on the ground. It looked like a spinning top at rest. Her parka glistened wet all over. The man waited at the corner, listening to the drum of rain. Finally the truck moved and tires slowly came off the elevated curb, one at the time.

He watched the truck for a few more seconds, a last attempt to decipher any characters on the license plate. Pointless. Then he turned and started toward the yellow umbrella. A mellow gust of wind got ahead of him and teasingly tossed it into the puddle. About four houses farther, the girl had stopped to pack some more dirt around the worms in her hand. The man was in no rush. For once, let her be the one who had to cool her heels. Just as he reached the umbrella, the wind picked it up again and sailed it over onto the neighbor’s lawn. Uneasy, he invaded the lawn, but the wind swept the umbrella again, and it landed behind a sphere boxwood. Well, there was life and there was death, and there were all things in between, ridiculous things. Better get a hold of this umbrella before it turned into a circus. This time, he zeroed in on it with open arms and a wide-based gait, as if trying to catch a wild turkey. He snatched the handle, and, much relieved, shook it and collapsed it closed. Things in between, whatever it meant, he needn’t get doubly drenched like that.

When he returned to the sidewalk, he saw that the girl had stopped again, this time one house before theirs. She was holding out her arms, showing her precious finds in the palm of her hand to a bent-over, beaming bandit man.

pencil

Born and raised in Iran, Omid Fallahazad is a bilingual writer. His works of fiction in Farsi include a novel and two short story collections, all published in exile. He has also been a contributor in a number of Iranian diaspora publications and media outlets by giving interviews and as a writer of reviews and essays. His English writings have appeared in literary journals and anthologies such as Paul Revere’s Horse, World Literature Today, Tremors, and My Shadow Is My Skin. His short fiction, “Arrested,” won a prize and was published in Glimmer Train Magazine in 2016. Email: omid.fallahazad[at]gmail.com

Permission

Flash
Natalie Schriefer


Photo Credit: Michael Muccioli/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

I didn’t mind, at first. Answering phones. Making copies. The silence between semesters, the students on break, the professors’ doors closed. I was five dollars above minimum wage, after all. I could walk to the beach during lunch, search for sea glass, ships.

I drowned my doubts in TV. In Futurama reruns.

Eleven days after my grandfather died, I reached the bureaucrat episode. We are who are, Hermes sang, and he was a bureaucrat. I wasn’t. Fresh off bereavement leave, I knew I wasn’t a secretary, a receptionist, an administrator. I was an editor. I wanted my own business. I wanted clients and retainers and contracts. I wanted my grandfather back.

That night I lay awake, cocooned in a rainbow of blankets. Moonlight arced along the curve of the blinds. My neck ached from hunching over my desk, and in the quiet, massaging the base of my skull, I couldn’t avoid what Futurama hadn’t meant to ask: What was I waiting for?

I built a website the next day. I printed fliers. Sent emails. Set rates.

Two weeks later, I gave my notice. A month later, I was free.

pencil

Natalie Schriefer received her MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. She started working as a freelance writer and editor in 2016, and has yet to look back. You can find her on Twitter @schriefern1. Email: schriefern[at]gmail.com

Two Poems

Poetry
Timothy Pilgrim


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

Montana Watercolor

I dip my brush, paint a depression
turned from fawn to gray,
beyond the wheat, next farm down.

Re-dip, add old age, barn, weathered,
sagging—rafter rot most likely—
roof caved. Good lives faded

like Big Sky mist, a still-white,
blizzard-frozen, drifted to edge,
off canvas, across road, piled on fence.

My plan—four paintings, montage,
a single homestead gone to ruin.
These two, large, plus hope,

gold sun-streak daubed small
through corral, past manure pile
to muddy stream. Last, the ravine,

willowed, wending, steep. Chickens,
sheep, strayed, the moving van,
blackest black. Children, inked waves

from truck bed, huddled in back.
Memory complete, almost dry,
I rinse my brush, put it away.

 

Grief

from the loss of her
comes over me in waves,
a tsunami intent on some island

already struggling to stay
above sea level after a convoy
of icebergs melt by. Or like a tidal bore

not holding its breath twice a day,
headed upriver, murky torrent
choking sawgrass, anemic, half dead

from salt left to cake both banks.
Or, perhaps, disbelief any sun will rise,
casually dispense heat sufficient

to dry blood, the grieving heart
pinned like her wet virus mask
on some tattered clothesline—

in wait for a wolf to lope by,
pause at the scent, leap,
rip red, run, feast.

pencil

Timothy Pilgrim is a Montana native, Pacific Northwest poet and 2018 Pushcart Prize nominee. He has over five hundred acceptances from journals such as Seattle Review, Santa Anna River Review, Windsor Review, San Pedro River Review, Hobart, Toasted Cheese and The Bond Street Review. He is the author of Mapping Water (2016) and Seduced by Metaphor (2021). Email: pilgrimtima[at]gmail.com

Ironing Day

Poetry
Vicki Mandell-King


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

In bygone days, it was not just this drudgery
that could make a housewife want to run away.

Still, this is a weighty thing—

the heat, the steam, the heft of the iron,
the effort to press down,
smoothing out to crispness.

But today, Jane tells me she will
wash and iron new sheets for company.

When I protest that lovemaking,
and all the snores and dreams
in the toss and turn of night
will wrinkle and rumple them—

she scoffs, Then why dust, why mop?

After a pause, she turns pensive, adding
in her matter-of-fact way of speaking true,
It’s the small things that bring pleasure.

pencil

Vicki Mandell-King has been writing poetry most of her life, even during a thirty-year career as an Assistant Federal Public Defender. Her poetry has been published in numerous respected journals. She has three published collections, titled: Tenacity of Lace, Shrinking into Infinite Sky, and Hurry, Open the Gates. Her fourth collection, Singing My Pockets Empty, is in the process of publication by Main Street Rag. Email: vmkengage[at]hotmail.com

Four Poems

Poetry
Joanne Holdridge


Photo Credit: Thirteen of Clubs/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Giving This Back

In my grandmother’s kitchen
alone with you
you cut my hair.
Trembling with fear, not desire
I stumble through the words
while your hands linger in my hair
brush against my shoulders
make this haircut one long
painful seductive act.

I tell you I don’t want
to suck you off in the back
of your van, in your apartment
when your wife is out
anywhere at all anymore.
Except those aren’t the words
I use because I’m fourteen
and I don’t know what to call
what you made me do
only know that with you
I feel like a dry chewed-on bone
buried in hole after hole
hidden and alone.

You put your hands over your heart
say you’re crushed, you’re hurt
can’t believe I won’t
anymore, you still want me
and I feel guilty, trapped in your pain
even while my mouth is glad
it won’t have to touch you anymore.
When you finally put your scissors away
pull your keys out of your pocket
head out to the driveway and your van
you say I remind you of the Dylan song
“Just Like a Woman,” how I break
just like a little girl.

I’ve carried this memory, humped it
swam leagues underwater with it
hurtled it out into space
only to have it return like a honing beacon
but now finally I’ll say out loud
what I have long known
of course, I broke just like a little girl
I was a girl, I broke.

 

Accidents, After the Fact

A woman driving and talking on her cell phone
almost hits me while I’m on my bike
I stop in time instead and fly,
judging by the bystanders’ reactions,
spectacularly over my handlebars
not a bad way to go all things considered

amazingly I’m barely hurt
just torn jeans, scrapes, bruises
glasses stuck in my left cheek
my husband takes me to the ER
where they are kind and efficient
my face only needs a couple of stitches

all lucky and a gift I report to my baby brother
while he grills me in our father’s voice
on how exactly this happened
makes me show him with a fork and knife
where I was, where the car was, how precisely
I ended up with my face in the street

explaining to my brother’s satisfaction
much more time consuming than falling was
but he can’t seem to stop asking
so desperate is he to find some way to undo it
affix blame, rationally understand
why I wasn’t more damaged

until I can hear like a hive of bees
my father muttering to himself over and over
why he didn’t finish college, hire the right contractor,
fix the retaining walls before they collapsed, all the ways
he could have not gotten my mother pregnant with me
after she was

 

One Step Ahead

Moving to Florida for the winter
convinced my grandmother she might
not have to die after all

the sun was still strong there
leaves thick and green
grapefruits hung heavy on the trees
“Mortality,” she whispered, hanging tight
to my smooth hands with her knobby arthritic fingers
“might not be what I’d imagined,” I nodded

wanted to ask what she meant
but she had already dropped my hands
shrugged off the rumors of sickness and death

and slipped away to drive her boat of a Chevy Impala
as close to the sea as she could without
actually stopping or getting her feet wet

 

To My Grandfather All These Years Dead

When you saw me standing at the end of the dock
new in my womanhood, sure I was alone
you didn’t call to me from the porch
or tell me to put my clothes back on
but watched me strip them off
and stand for a moment or two
debating whether to get wet or not
then the clean dive into cool water

For years I wished you had said something
told me my body was my own
that you regretted silently watching
but telling me later not to let my grandmother
catch me doing that kind of thing
but now I feel only wet-eyed gratitude
at least once before you died
you saw me and didn’t turn away

pencil

Joanne Holdridge lives in Arlington, MA and has recently published poems in Coal City Review, Illuminations, New American Writing, Poem, Talking River Review, and Willow Review. She has work forthcoming in Mudfish and The Midwest Quarterly and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Prior to Covid-19, she spent winters on skis in northern NH and taught poetry and literature classes to ESL students at Bunker Hill Community College for thirty years. Email: joanne[at]meltzer.net