TABLE OF CONTENTS
ELIZABETH R. CURRY POETRY CONTEST WINNERS
Marginalia Inter Alia
Christopher C. Slomiak
First, There Is a Mountain
Fondly Do We Hope
The American Homeland Preservation Society
Forgive Me Father, For I Have Sinned
Museum of His Bumper Stickers
Under the Bed
Newspapers and Knives
Aimee R. Cervenka
For Sale: Wedding Nightgown Never Worn
While Paint Dries
After a Science Lesson, Teacher Contemplates Change
The Woman from Estonia
Our Island in Alaska
What I Should Not Say to the Girl Who was Scalded in her Tub on the Holiday that Commemorates MLK’s Birthday
Ochre and Charcoal
A Murder of Crows
Mary Catherine Harper
We Drive Toward the Fire
The Reproduction Blues
Funeral Procession Etiquette
Lament of the Right Hip
Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
Burning the Horse
Breathing the Air of Africa
Two Views of the Harbor
The Indefinable Armoire
TEXT & IMAGE
ELIZABETH R. CURRY POETRY CONTEST WINNERS
Marginalia Inter Alia
Found the word lonely
sketched next to the first poem
and revenge, and love,
and poor scribbled on other pages.
A smudged happy by the line
“Here by myself, I do as I please.”
Nothing after page 9. Unread?
The rest of the poems rest
like pods of birds I saw lift off of
a telephone wire this morning.
I thought about
how easy it is
to find words for this and turn them
into a poetic line.
In fact, I’m sure
this line has already been written
a lightly penciled freedom.
Even so, we sing of dreams
and say we’re not guilty
of what we’ve been accused
and look for rescue in cues
taken from augury, jury verdicts, fame,
anything that erases
the names we give to things,
a tourniquet of etiquette we turn into
a word to sum up what we feel when
the train derails in the rain
and we hear of injuries and deaths. In this life,
so full of flaws and accident, what is it
that calls us to wonder,
that breaks into our logic and wrecks,
what we thought the world was
before we took note of it
and wrote it down?
I am sorry:
That look you gave me last night
was the same one I gave you
that Thursday in March.
The ground remained frozen,
the plants deeply asleep
from an overly long winter.
I meant not a word of that look.
My feelings were there or here or neither.
I wanted to take it back, stow it under the bed,
seal it with wax, erase it from our hard drive,
tuck it away from your line of vision,
bury it in remote furrows of a barren field;
place it in the deepest recesses of a box,
so you could only find it
when frantically looking
for something else.
Forgive Me Father, For I Have Sinned
They say that whiskey
is Devil’s juice,
but that night, I mistook
it for holy water.
By the end,
I was crucified and nailed
to the couch,
like a sweaty rag doll.
There was a time
we loved suitcases. Our young bodies
hiked in whatever city
had a train station. No thought
of fatigue, obstreperous bowels
or a bad knee.
But now the plane has landed,
and we shuffle through long lines
that never existed before. We hoist
luggage from the merry-go-round.
For the first time in all our journeys,
we are glad to return. We admit this
with some reluctance, shoulders aching
from hauling overstuffed bags.
Our house is unfashionable,
modest, the yard speckled
with weeds, the furniture
ghosted with a thin layer
of dust, sighing and settling.
We have slept in attic apartments
in Rome, up a hundred steps in Florence,
mosquitoes humming in our ears
all night from the Arno. We have seen
the Tiber, the Pope, and a tower
that leans but never falls.
But here at home,
dandelions breathe puffballs
in the brightening wind,
the plumbing works,
our brains relax into
a blunt Anglo-Saxon tongue,
and a coffee pot waits.
We Drive Toward the Fire
We drive toward the fire
my beard flecked with drought-dust
sweat drying salt-crust
by your exposed bra
brotherly love rockin’ from 90.5 FM
like blowback through our open windows
Toward the crack in the windshield
you point, green nails
chewed to the pink,
the yellow film of smoke-fire
spreading over the empty sky
blood seeping over the eye of the sun
You state the central valley
was once an ocean
that if we had to we could ditch the car
and last a week without water
staunch and prophetic, like you graduated
I flick my eyes off the road
the sun’s forecast miraging
the watering hole we never reach
your black enamel hair
snapping like a salute
like Shit, officer, I was not speeding
while she was giving me head
Once, tired of hearing the
fan belt of your last word
I used my knife
just below your clavicle
to convince you of my point
it sealed in a glossy lump of skin
you tattooed around it
the scar a shooting star
night with lightning and driving rain
called it your wedding announcement
When I don’t hate you I love you
shackle myself to that blue vein
in your neck. God’s country
a swampy sea I lick and
want over and over again
This is how we’ve made it
without killing each other
like a rigor mortis joke
like the ten dollars we
buried with our partner
six feet under
out in the middle of Desert Hell
a hundred miles back
the rest of his share soon
our waterfront property
stretched out on the horizon
of Crescent City
The Reproduction Blues
I hear you two are “trying.”
Was it a shock to hear that babies
come easier to those
who do not care so much?
Don’t you just dread that word
“barren,” a medieval curse begging
modern science for a cure,
lingering like a plague.
You will begin to understand
the idea of gambling
at the casino for reproduction.
You will spend time at the slots.
Hold your breath,
pull the handle down.
Cross your fingers,
open your legs,
spend your savings.
It becomes an obsession,
dreadful to stop just before a win.
I remember the clinic:
they laid me out and tried
to find a royal flush in my ovaries,
my womb withholding what my heart desired.
I developed luck-enhancing rites.
Have you stood on your head
after lovemaking yet?
Consulted a palm reader?
At the slots, younger players stand next to you,
thinking only of the body’s sweet desires,
drinking, laughing, and showing no respect.
They don’t want the jackpots they so easily win
and you may have the luck to redeem.
Christopher C. Slomiak
I was six when I learned that life wasn’t the fairytale people made it out to be, but a minefield of hidden sinkholes. The more you carried, the higher the risk of falling in.
I slipped my naked Barbie into a toilet-paper gown and squiggled a bowtie with a Sharpie on a lighter named, “Prince Bic.” The family of bottle caps sat in rows on the groom’s side, the prescription vials on the bride’s, and President Obama served as pastor in the center—a newspaper cut-out I taped to the wall. There was a perfect spot where the smears in the floral wallpaper crossed like my own crucifix and stained glass window. My favorite book rested beneath—the bible for the ceremony.
After the newlyweds shared a kiss, they flew off in a carriage to a glass palace to live happily ever after. It was my favorite scene from my favorite book. Except my carriage was a broken heel and my palace was a tower of plastic vodka bottles. That was the beauty of pretend. If I submerged into the fiction deep enough, I could even blur the meaty slaps and heated groans vibrating at the bathroom door.
That is . . . until the doorknob jiggled, and it all shattered like a glass rose.
I snatched Bic and Barbie, scrambled to our mattress, and slid under the covers, flat on my stomach. It was my stop, drop, and roll. I peeked through a snag in the blanket as the rusty brass time bomb twisted around.
Ma staggered out first. Imagine drowned road kill. Her fried blonde hair had dampened, the ends knotted and dripping. Her hot-red lipstick had smudged on to her hollow cheeks like the remnants of a bad nosebleed. Her grey T-shirt—and only piece of clothing—was stained between the breasts, blackened by sweat. She leaned against the doorframe and flipped through some crumpled cash, a panty dangling from her pinky. This was Ma’s version of a yard sale. Bruised bony legs and a deflated ass for a couple bucks each. Everything used of course.
I knew the man stepped out when the musty stench of rotted onions pricked the inside of my nose. I blocked the snag with my palm and hunkered down. I figured that one of Ma’s visitors could be my dad, and if so, I’d rather not see. There was no avoiding the sounds though. I knew those by heart. The jingle of a belt buckle. A zip at the crotch. The mindless bickering that would end in a door slam.
“No tip?” Ma asked, trying a seductive tone through her cracked sandy voice.
“Look at you,” he said. “Someone should tip me.”
“I’m an asshole that can go somewhere else too.”
“You know I’m just playin’, baby.” She tried her schoolgirl voice this time. “I’ll see you next week?” The door slammed shut and his boots thudded down the hall. In truth, I hoped he would come back. We might not eat otherwise.
I poked my head out to Ma stampeding around the apartment—the usual after she got some cash. She went from hopping on one foot as she tugged on sweatpants, to shuffling through a mound of lingerie for keys, to swatting empty beer cans and bottles in search of a single cigarette. My stomach pricked.
“Oh hey, baby,” she said without looking over. She plucked a half-singed cigarette off the floor, her eyes glistening as if she’d found a cure for her despair. She blew over it twice for dust, and then pinched the butt between her lips.
“I’m hungry,” I said. I crawled out with Barbie and Bic, one in each hand.
“Well, Momma’s hungry too.” She dropped on all fours, her cheek squished against the hardwood as she plunged arm-deep under the fridge, under the armchair, behind the toilet bowl. “Where the hell is it?” Then I realized; she needed something else for that smoke. My fingers tightened around Prince Bic as I drifted him stealthily behind my back.
“Are you gonna get some breakfast?” I asked.
“Lila, can you just shut up for a sec? I’ll get something.”
She stomped into a pair of black fuzzy slippers and tugged the front door open. I thought I was in the clear. That she was going to leave and come back with some pancakes maybe. Then midway out the door, she stopped, like some revelation had poured out of the ceiling and over her head. Her eyes curled back around and drilled into mine.
“What do you have behind your back?” she asked. My chin sank. Her slippers strutted forward until they settled at my toes. “Hey, I’m talkin’ to you.”
“N–Nothing,” I stuttered. Her long pink fingernails clamped into my arm, so I winced. She bent over, her face so close to mine that I smelled the rotted onion seeping out of her breath.
“Liar,” she said. Her hand yanked forward so hard that Prince Bic tumbled out of my palm and on to the floor. When he slid to a stop at her feet, all I could think was, I’m doomed. I didn’t need to look up to feel Ma’s pulverizing glare. I crumbled just the same.
“I’m sorry!” I blurted out, my head still tucked into my body. “But that’s Prince Bic, and–and him and Barbie just got married”—I pointed to the wedding—“and so, they’re supposed to go on their honeymoon now!” I rambled so fast that I didn’t even notice Ma’s hand rise—WHACK! Her palm against my cheek sounded like a snapping branch. My head whipped to the side. I dropped Barbie so my hands could shield up for cover. My cheek burned like a nest of fire ants was gnawing away at it.
Ma swiped Bic off the floor and held him at my face as she scolded. “I’m dyin’ here, tryin’ to have a drag, and you’re hiding my lighter for some bullshit!?” I stood hunched, head down, tears cascading from my drenched eyes. She whipped around and stormed towards the wedding. “Get these stupid ideas out of that retarded little head of yours. You hear me?” Her slippers kicked the wedding guests across the floor. She picked up my book and flung it, the pages flapping through the air. I tried to hold it in, but tears leaked anyway.
I usually liked the quiet that came when Ma left. But that day, after the door slammed behind her, I huddled in bed with Barbie and we cried together. It was the last time we saw Prince Bic.
The deadbolt unclasped in the middle of the night. I scurried to our only lamp and flicked it on, hoping it was time to eat. Ma wobbled in like an infant learning to walk. She was empty-handed, her palms sliding against the wall, supporting her body as she lugged her feet across the room. Her knees dropped into the mattress. Her face followed, headfirst into the covers. I noticed a white bandage wrapped around her elbow. That was where the food went.
“Momma, did you bring anything?”
“Oh, hey baby.” She smiled with glossy half-sunken eyes. They looked like they were floating somewhere off in the distant universe.
“My tummy feels like it’s dying.”
Ma sighed and flopped over on to her back. Then, with her eyes still closed, she spoke with a voice lighter than she ever used before. So gentle that it felt genuine. “Sorry, baby…but sometimes, you gotta just let things die.” I just stood there for a few seconds afterwards, wondering, Did she mean me?
My stomach stung like it was digesting daggers. I searched her things, digging through her pockets, but there was nothing. No food. No money. I needed to eat. I had to. So I picked up Barbie, wedged my book into my armpit, and tiptoed over to the front door.
“Don’t you ever go outside without me,” Ma scolded once. “There’s bad people out there,” she said. There were bad people here, too, I decided.
I dragged a stool over, stepped up to unlock the deadbolt, and twisted the knob. It was my first time leaving without Ma, but I wasn’t scared. I was too hungry to be. I climbed down three flights of creaky stairs until my feet soaked from the cold, wet concrete. It had just stopped raining. I spotted a police car half a block away. Ma didn’t like them, but I knew they were supposed to help. So I ran, Barbie and book clutched tight, my head swiveling back and forth to make sure she wasn’t following. The officer saw me right away.
“Hey there,” he said. “What’re you doing out this late?” He scanned the area, probably searching for my parents. I pointed to my building, still panting.
“My Momma”–I paused for another deep breath–“She wants to let me die.”
Over the next month, I heard these words as I moved around: abuse as grounds, termination of parental rights, no next of kin, ward of the state. All in that order, which led me to Brimmer and May Orphanage for Girls, where I lived until right after my tenth birthday. By that time, I was considered by eight sets of parents, actually considered by three, and not even looked at by over a hundred. But at least I had three meals a day.
I sat on my bed at the orphanage, my nose stuck into the newly released sequel of my favorite book, whispering along as I read the last lines, “And the queen rested beside her king, as they held their beautiful newborn princess, gazing into each other’s eyes. This was what they were meant for. This was the greatest gift given—to cherish, to care, to love.” I eased the book shut and sighed out the butterflies. If I left Ma earlier, Barbie and Prince Bic would’ve had a baby by now, I thought.
Then, like stepping on broken glass at the beach, the door creaked open. Miss Rita, our afroed caretaker, wobbled her hot air balloon body down the aisle of bunks. She had the sacred clipboard in hand, which meant that every girl in the room would prop up and gaze with sparkling hopeful eyes, waiting for her to announce the lottery winners.
“The O’Connells will be here in two hours,” she said. “After their visit last week, they want to meet with”—I could hear the drum roll in my head—“Shannon, Emily, Immogen, and . . . Lila.” With each name called, the winners sprung up as the rest of the girls slumped back into misery. Shannon performed an electrified running-in-place. Emily wiggled her hips in a dance. Immogen gave a subtle grin, although we all knew the mischievous plans scuttling through her mind. I stayed seated, my book in my lap, Barbie beside me.
I didn’t know this until I lived it, but when prospective parents came to an orphanage, the whole place transformed into a mudslinging Miss Universe pageant with claws. The difference was that we didn’t compete for status or a crown. We competed for a life.
“Miss Rita,” I called, raising my hand. “I’m going to pass this time.”
She and everyone else gawked like I’d been stripped of all sanity. “Are you sure?” she asked. “They were a sweet couple.”
“Well, it’s up to you, of course.” Miss Rita scratched her pen over my name on the clipboard. When she left the room, Shannon, Emily, and Immogen shoved through the other girls and charged over. They cornered me. A pretty pack of pit bulls.
“What do you know?” Immogen interrogated.
“Did you see bruises on the wife or something?” Emily snipped.
“Maybe she googled them,” added Shannon. “Did you google them?”
“No,” I said. “It’s nothing. I just didn’t really like them.”
“What’s not to like?” asked Emily. “They drove a Benz.”
“I don’t care about that stuff,” I said. I looked down at Barbie to avoid eye contact. The girls had made fun of the toilet paper gown, so she wore a schoolgirl uniform now, one I made out of paper and colored with crayons. The only problem was that her right leg was missing.
“Forget it,” said Immogen. “Let’s go. We all know she’s stupid. Her druggy mom didn’t let her go to school, remember?” The girls nodded in agreement like it all made sense now.
I felt a twinge in my chest. It hurt when I thought about Ma.
I waited thirty minutes before I crept into the bathroom and found Immogen where I knew she’d be—in front of the mirror. She was one of the few girls already proficient in makeup. That was her thing, like others prepared a song or sewed bows on to their favorite dresses.
“Want me to do yours?” she taunted when she noticed me in the reflection.
“Not after what you did to Beth,” I said.
“Come on,” she laughed. “She’s only been here a couple weeks. It wouldn’t be fair if she got picked already.” She powdered her forehead. “So are you going to use the bathroom, or just stare at me?”
“Actually, I came to tell you something–”
“–Tell me what,” she cut in, her hand stuck in midair with a brush.
“I–I overheard Shannon and Emily talking. And what they said about you, it sounded horrible.”
“What? What’d they say?”
“I heard them say they were gonna make something up about you . . . so that the O’Connells would choose between them instead.”
“Like what?” She marched over with her forehead still splotchy. I gestured for her to come closer and then whispered it into her ear. “Those bitches! I’m gonna kill them!” She tossed her brush into the sink and stomped towards the door, but I stepped in front of her.
“That’s probably not a good idea.”
“If you do something to them, it’s really gonna look like, well, you know.” She stopped, realizing I was right. “Why don’t you just do what they were gonna do?”
“You mean. . . . ”
“Whoever says it first wins, right? Anyway, I thought you should know, and . . .” I hesitated, my eyes drooping to the tile.
“And I thought maybe . . . I could have it back.”
“Ha! I can’t believe you actually care about that thing.” Her hand burrowed into her makeup bag and pulled out Barbie’s missing leg. She tossed it to me.
“Thanks,” I said. I knew it was only a piece of plastic, but it felt great to have it back.
“Hey, Lila,” she called as I headed for the door. “Why’d you really drop out?”
“I know what you girls do. I’d rather wait than go against you three.”
“Maybe you’re smarter than I thought,” she chuckled.
“Maybe I am.”
The door swung closed behind me and I headed back down the hall. Shannon happened to be walking the other direction towards me. She gave me a smirk, and then as she passed, she leaned in and whispered, “Thanks again for letting me know.” I nodded and smirked back.
When I got back to the bedroom, I went straight to the girl whose thing was hair.
“Hey Charlotte, can I borrow your curling iron?” I asked.
“I thought you weren’t meeting with this family,” she said.
“It’s not for today. I just want to try it out for next time.”
“Oh, okay.” She handed it to me, so I took it to my bunk.
I looked around and when no one was watching, I stripped one of my pillowcases off and wrapped it around the curling iron. Then I snuck with it to the pantry in the back of the cafeteria—the place for veggies and things like that.
Immogen, Shannon, and Emily stamped into the bedroom minutes apart, a half hour before the O’Connells arrived. They glared back and forth at one another, sitting pretty on their beds, waiting for their moments to strike. Miss Rita poked her head through the door exactly on time.
“Alright, girls,” she hollered. “The O’Connells are here. Please make your way to the–” Before Miss Rita could finish, the three girls bolted off their mattresses and sprinted to the door. They nearly knocked her over as they squeezed passed, snarling and pushing.
“I’m going first!” shouted Immogen.
“No, I am!” Shannon and Emily followed, one after the other.
“Girls! Calm down!” Miss Rita bellowed.
When the door clicked shut, I made my move. I tore off my pajamas, slipped into a dress, and then slid my hand under the mattress for a peeled onion—one I stole from the pantry. I held it up to my eyes as I paced to the door. The rest was like a masterful symphony. I gathered the perfect amount of tears and sniffles, tossed the onion into the trash, and then listened to the mayhem through a crack in the door.
“Those two have been touching my private parts!” screamed Immogen.
“She’s a liar!” shouted Emily. “They’ve been touching mine!”
“No! That’s not true!” yelled Shannon. “They always touch mine!”
I peeked down the hall to the three wild girls, tugging and jerking at Mr. and Mrs. O’Connell, who both paled like they were surrounded by banshees. Miss Rita’s eyes bulged so far out of her sockets that I thought they might fall out.
“Girls!” she roared. “To my office! Now!”
The girls shriveled the way we all did when Miss Rita’s tigress emerged. She apologized over and over to the O’Connells as the girls dragged their feet to the office. They nudged and pinched one another until they disappeared through the door. When I poked my head out, Mrs. O’Connell recognized me right away.
“Lila?” she called. She still seemed startled, but she gestured for me to come out, so I did. I crept around the corner and sauntered down the hall, keeping my eyes anchored to the floor. Still sniffling, still teary-eyed.
“I thought you didn’t want to meet,” said Miss Rita when I reached them.
“The girls threatened me,” I said, sniffling some more. “They told me that they’d do it again if I tried to meet with the same family as them.”
Mrs. O’Connell squatted beside me and took my hand in hers. “Do what, dear? You don’t have to be afraid. We’re here now.”
I pulled my dress up to show them the curling iron burn on my thigh.
I became a princess after that day, and my fantasy included mansions, picnics at the park, trips to Hawaii, birthday parties, hugs, kisses, grandparents, puppies—the works. Even Barbie had it good. Mom and Dad bought her a real school uniform our first week together. Plaid skirt, cute white button-up, stockings and a book bag. It wasn’t until I was sixteen when I witnessed it.
I was tucked under the duvet in my bedroom, giggling through the third novel in my favorite series when I flinched from the crash of a broken glass. I put the book down and propped up. It sounded like it had come from downstairs, so I slipped out of bed and tiptoed forward. Muffled voices came from behind the door. I turned the knob, pulled, and then it blared in. My parents were shouting, screaming even.
“You’re such an arrogant shit!” Mom screamed. “Think you’re some kind of king because of your money.”
“You get what you ask for, baby,” shouted Dad. “Don’t think I don’t know why you married me. With the life I’ve given you, you should treat me like a king. Small-town girl lives like a queen now, and all she does is bitch.”
“You make me sick. I can’t believe I thought adopting a child would fix this marriage.”
“Well, it’s too late now, isn’t it?”
I shut the door.
The next morning, I brushed up with lightning speed, threw on my clothes, and darted down the stairs. I saw through the window that Dad’s Benz was already gone, but Mom’s hairdryer still whirred from her bathroom. I didn’t want to see either of them.
“Bye, Mom!” I shouted as I leapt out of the front door.
“Bye, sweetheart!” she shouted back.
I’d walked nearly all the way to school when I stopped for a frantic toss through my book bag. She wasn’t there. I was so flustered that I’d forgotten Barbie—one of the only times in my life. I decided to go back. I’d gotten to school early anyway and I could probably avoid Mom if I was quiet enough.
I stepped on to the front porch and peeked through the window to the first floor. No one was there. Mom was probably still in her room, which hopefully meant she wouldn’t hear me. I creaked the door open. No response, so I continued up the stairs, hunched like a burglar. When I reached the top, Mom giggled from her room. Perfect. She was on the phone.
I slipped into my bedroom and grabbed Barbie off the bed. Then another giggle, but this time, I froze. It was a man’s giggle, which meant Mom wasn’t on the phone. I checked out the window to the driveway. Dad’s Benz was still gone.
The giggling turned to laughter, then to kissing, until it all melded into sounds I knew too well. I eased the door shut and slumped into the carpet against the foot of my bed, just watching the doorknob. Tears welled, but I wouldn’t let them spill. Not this time. I rubbed my eyes and when I placed my hand down, it landed on something solid. It was my book. I picked it up and peeled it open. I flipped through some of the pages as I waited for the sounds to settle back into laughter, then chatter, then silence. Mom’s car hummed out of the driveway.
I stood up with the opened book in hand, tightened my grip, and then ripped along the spine as hard as I could. I threw the torn halves in the trash.
During the following weeks, I couldn’t help but investigate. I left early for school, without actually leaving, hiding in the bushes instead to see what car that man drove, listening to his laughs and conversations with Mom as they both left the house, learning what he did for work. Then I realized that maybe when Dad left in the mornings he was driving to some woman’s house too. With each day that passed, a pain grew in my chest like someone’s hand was gripped around my heart, occasionally clenching, free to crush it at any time. I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted to get rid of it.
I waited in the kitchen for Dad to get home.
“Hey Dad?” I said as soon as he stepped in.
“Oh hey, Lila, what’s up?”
“I need to tell you something.”
He put his suitcase down and walked up to me, looking concerned. “Are you alright? What is it?”
I swallowed a heavy gulp and then I leaned closer. “I–I think. . . . ”
“Go ahead, Lila. You can talk to me.”
“I think I need to see a doctor.”
“What? Why? What’s wrong?”
“My chest hurts, and it won’t stop.”
Two months later, a couple days after my seventeenth birthday, I laid in a hospital bed while Dr. Goldberg studied my file through his thick glasses. My head and eyebrows had been shaved cleanly off.
“Can you explain it once more?” I asked.
He took a deep breath and tugged at his shirt collar. “It’s called bronchogenic carcinoma,” he said. He kept his eyes in the file as he spoke. “Lung cancer. Stage four, which means the cancer has already spread to the rest of the body. The timeline can range anywhere from weeks to days. It’s hard to say.”
“And this makes sense because my birth mother smoked around me so much?”
“Is there anything else?”
“That’s it,” he said, closing the file. “You sure this is what you want?”
“Positive. It’s exactly what I want.”
“Alright, well, he should be here soon. Should I just let him in?”
“Please. And doctor, don’t feel too bad. Things happen. It’s life.”
He gave a frail nod, stepped out, and then closed the door behind him. While I waited, I admired Barbie and brushed her thick blonde hair with my hand. She was different now. Sunglasses, a scarf, a trench coat and a handbag—the things I requested for my birthday this year. Barbie finally looked how I always wished she would.
Someone knocked and the door creaked open.
“Can I come in?” asked an older raspy voice.
“Please,” I answered.
A thin man with a peppery beard stepped in. “May I?” he asked, pointing to the chair beside me.
“Of course.” I put my hand out when he sat down. “Lila,” I said.
“Jake Martin,” he replied, shaking it. “So, my story is your wish, huh?”
“Yes, sir,” I chuckled. “It is the most read series of all time. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I used to recreate your scenes with my Barbie,” I showed her to him.
“I’m flattered,” he laughed. “So, why don’t you tell me a little about yourself since you probably already know a little about me?”
“Didn’t they send you my letter?”
He laughed again. “I guess I know a little bit about you too.”
“I think this is all I left out”—I pointed to my bald head— “I’ve got bronchogenic carcinoma. Stage four lung cancer. My birth mother smoked around me when I was little. That’s just life I guess. Not everyone gets your fairytale endings,” I chuckled.
Martin smiled and then scooted his chair closer. “I’m going to be honest, Lila. I wasn’t totally comfortable with this at first, but I’ve decided to trust you with it. After the foundation told me your story, I have to say, the things you’ve been through and endured, it’s more valuable than any piece of fiction could ever be. So, I don’t plan on finishing the series for at least another ten years, but I do have most of it mapped out and I’m honored to share it with you as your wish.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Let’s get to it then.”
I snuggled deep into the mattress with Barbie in my arms, closed my eyes, and listened.
At the end of the two hours, when Jake Martin said the words, “The end,” I let my tears flow one last time. I knew now that stories like these weren’t real, but it was still one of the most beautiful endings. Truly a masterful creation. I thanked Mr. Martin, he gave me a hug, and then we said our goodbyes.
When he left, it was Barbie’s turn. I tidied up her coat and accessories. I thanked her with a small peck on the cheek. One more snuggle. One more tear. And then I broke her down. Head. Arms. Legs. Torso. Each piece fell to the bottom of the trashcan beside me, and like that, she was gone. I wiped my face as I waited for Dr. Goldberg to return.
“Get what you wanted?” he asked, stepping in.
“Yup.” I tugged the blanket off and swung out of bed on to my feet. The doctor’s face wilted like someone had died.
“How much will you get for it?” he asked.
“Hopefully enough for me to be on my own.” I reached behind the pillow and pulled out an audio-recorder.
Dr. Goldberg shook his head. He held the diagnosis file up. “I’ll process the death in a week. If anything, this didn’t come from me.”
“Of course not. And you haven’t been fucking my mom either.”
His eyes settled on the audio-recorder in my hand. “You’re really going to do this, huh?”
I smirked. “It’s just a story.”
“Yeah, but your life isn’t.”
“That’s exactly right, doctor.”
On a fall afternoon, ten years later, I sat in a coffee shop with a trench coat draped over the back of my chair and a scarf wrapped around my neck. My sunglasses rested on the table. My handbag sat in the chair beside me. I noticed a girl walking by, holding the newly released final novel to Jake Martin’s series.
“Is it better than the version that leaked?” I asked, pointing to the book. She stopped and held it out.
“No,” she chuckled. “But still good.”
“What’s good about it?”
“It’s much darker, but in a way, it makes it feel more real compared to his others. I think there’s something to appreciate about that.”
“That’s how fiction works, I guess.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s never real, but somehow, we always find a way to fall for it.” The girl nodded in thought. “Anyway, I’d better let you get back to it.”
“Beth,” she said, holding out her hand.
“Trina,” I said, shaking it. “I hope you enjoy the ending.” She smiled and then left.
I loved those types of days: my peaceful moments alone. Settled and relaxed without anything to do, without needing to move forward or back. Nothing and no one to affect. I lifted my latte to take a sip.
“Lila?” said a woman’s voice.
I put the coffee back down before looking up. It was an older blonde woman in a barista uniform—green apron and visor. Her hair was sleek and tied into a tight ponytail. A sweet white smile stretched into her wrinkled cheeks as her eyes honed into mine, glossing over, but with such a different gloss than the one I’d known.
“I–I can’t believe it’s you,” she said. “It’s me. Momma.”
“Excuse me?” I tilted my head.
“I’m sober now,” she urged. “It’s not like before. I’ve been working. See?” She looked down at her clothes.
“I’m really sorry, ma’am, but . . . my name’s Trina.”
“No, Lila, you don’t understand. I’m different now.” Tears trickled down her face as she pleaded. I sighed and put on my sunglasses. Then I stood up, swung the trench coat over my shoulders, and slung the bag on my forearm. I leaned towards her, so close that I could feel her shivering breaths against my neck.
“Sorry baby,” I whispered. “But sometimes, you gotta just let things die.”
My mom usually asked me to wait in the yard while she performed miracles. Sometimes she’d come out onto the patio once it was all over, still wearing the purple bathrobe she embellished with sequins and beads, a cigarette wedged in her sturdy potato-stick fingers. The cloud billowed up into the cool vaporous atmosphere, sneaking off with the chimney smoke from the neighbor’s house. She’d see me peering at her from the swing set and with her wicked red lipstick mouth she would say: “That’s the miracle vapors floating away.” She’d flick her cigarette in the wind, wave her potato fingers up to the heavens. “Bye bye!”
Other times, I waited in the basement, which was covered with carpet squares she found at a church flea market, or my bedroom, seasoned with incense. It was self-preservation, her keeping me away from the one good thing she could do.
I should have been in the basement when Ruby appeared outside the living room window, coming up the porch steps. My mother’s houseplants were engaging in their daily ritual with the sun before the blinds crushed against their waxy arms. Mom yanked on the cord and the plastic rungs slapped down to the sill. She lifted me off the ground by my armpits as if I were much younger than thirteen. My feet slid on the hardwood floor a few times before I could stand and yank away from her fingers. “Out, Jocelyn, gone with you!” she ordered, giving me a second to disappear, enough time for her voice to melt back into the sticky, throaty melody of green tea drenched in honey. She opened the door, and from the hallway, I could hear her voice lean up against the snowy silence seeping inside.
Ruby was with her mother, whom I had never met, but I knew Ruby from elementary school when we rummaged around in the lost and found, stalling for time until recess ended. We both skipped when it was cold outside but acted like we were trying really hard to find something that was missing. It was weeks before we spoke, coming clean about having never lost anything, laughing at the ridiculousness, me thinking I had made a friend. That had been years ago. Through the window, she looked like a wisp of her mother, a lean shadow following her inside.
I caught Ruby’s eye through the slats in the blinds before my mother banished me. Her eyelashes looked like the delicate combs braided into the black hair of the woman on our world history textbook. When she blinked it reminded me of kissing.
Ruby and I never talked anymore, our relationship cryptic or maybe nonexistent. I didn’t know where we stood. I remembered her teeth from the time we went on a field trip to the orthodontist office across the street from the school. They crammed wet alginate in our faces to take molds of our smiles. Little ceramic trophies to take home to our mothers and show them the evidence—”I need braces, mom,” I came home and pleaded. “Please, please, please!” She pocketed my mouth and told me, “Braces are for rich girls.” She squished 44
my cheeks in her finger and thumb and said, “You smile just fine.” I found my teeth later in the loose change bowl on the dryer, a chip in the left incisor.
In the classroom, after the little plaster trophies had dried, we played, “Guess whose mouth that is?” holding our classmates’ teeth in our palms. The spaces between my teeth looked like two pieces of corn had been knocked out of their row on the cob, a bunch of deformed little kernels clustering around them. Ruby’s mold was made of straight little pony beads all strung up in a crescent-moon row. I ran my hand across the rough cement of her smile and wished people would think her teeth were mine.
My mother ushered Ruby and her mom inside. I could hear their footsteps creaking above me. Most of the time, I didn’t mind being banished from the main house when my mother performed readings, so I could pretend she was at an office somewhere, at some made-up “real” job. My pretend mother, who could drive herself to work, who went to office parties and made deviled eggs and casseroles and didn’t wear anything veiled or sequined. But this was not my mother whose too-long acrylic nails made it hard to even peel a hard-boiled egg without butchering it.
Once they were on the patio, I crept back upstairs, loitered a moment in the kitchen as their voices drifted in through the screen door. The leaves on the big oak turned inside out and the tea candles flickered. Mom’s hands always got almost too close, stirring up some drama in the psychic atmosphere without setting anything on fire. This trio—a psychic, a mom, and her daughter—looked diced and fractured through the screen window. She left the glass door cracked open, so their words wafted inside. I pretended to myself that I was just passing through to get a drink of water, that I wasn’t paying attention, that I didn’t care. I opened and shut the cabinet doors. But what did it matter? Nothing my mother ever said was true, anyway.
When I was nine or ten, Mom would wake me up by swatting me with the paper, horoscope page folded over so I could read them to her before we began our days. We were both Tauruses. She liked to hear the pretty little verses inscribed to us so she could relate to the supernatural scriptures. She would close her eyes, tap her cigarette in an ashtray next to my covers and say, “Mmmm, tell me more, sweet girl. What’s in store for us?” if she liked what she was hearing. I learned to only read her the Taurus horoscope if there was something good in it, and for all the other times, I read her the best parts of the other signs. I quit trying to make it coherent after a while. I told her contradictory things, and she just closed her eyes. Like a coherent life wasn’t the one she was looking for.
On the patio, my mother’s own little incoherent lies drenched the tablecloth more thickly than the rain that eventually poured all over Ruby’s mother’s reading. Her mother was crying, this starched and stoic woman with blonde hair wearing a blonde suit as she choked through a story about making Jell-O for her son.
“He slumped over when I had my back turned, into the bowl of unsettled Jell-O. His sleepy face covered in red, inanimate—I knew right away something serious was wrong and took him to the doctor. The tests came back a couple weeks later, and that was when we learned. . . .”
She shook her head, fidgeting with a tissue in her lap. My mother said, “A bad omen, the red stain.”
“They say he won’t live past childhood.”
My mother linked hands with mother and daughter so they formed a chain, a perfect trifecta of spiritual energy. Her body quivered. She threw her head back, too elegantly, I thought—too much like a model in a shampoo commercial, her hair falling lavishly in the rain. It was too artificially beautiful to be convincing, but mother and daughter’s eyes were too obscured in tears to notice. Mom bowed her head and said, “There was . . . darkness surrounding you both when you came into my house. Darkness surrounding your boy. But it has been lifted.” She used combinations of words that sounded mystic, insightful: “inflictions of the aura,” “shaking off those demons,” “the haunts at his bedside.”
Later on, after they were gone and my mother’s feet were boiling in a foot spa with her shows blaring in the sitting room, I said behind her back, “What are you, an exorcist now?” loud enough so she would maybe hear. She didn’t.
Even so, standing there beside the patio door, feeling her voice and the rain pounding inside my chest, I admit I closed my eyes too and tried to ride away with them on their strange belief.
Ruby slid a piece of folded paper into my notebook. The whisper of paper touching paper sounded like her voice asking a question. I thought at first that she was asking me to her birthday, which I knew was soon. Birthday parties at our school were all-inclusive because there weren’t very many of us. For mine last April, I invited all the girls in my class to go bowling—this year I was considering roller skating or ice skating, anything to keep them out of the house. But usually the other girls had them at home, their mothers lingering in the kitchen comparing recipe notes about lemon cupcake frosting. We wore the newest J.C. Penney dresses or thrift store knock-offs if we could get away with it.
Ruby paused a moment, her hand still sitting on my notebook, a folded little teepee. She dismantled the connection one joint at a time, pulling her fingers away. It was really much quicker than this, but I was so absorbed in the gesture.
But when I looked closer, it wasn’t an invitation. It was a folded piece of scratch paper that opened to a drawing of a ghost, the gray smudgy lines intersecting the stark blue ones. It looked like me, the shape of its face similar, rounded, but maybe that had been accidental.
“What is that?” Tanya, my friend since second grade, poked her bug-eyed face over my shoulder to see the message and frowned like it wasn’t juicy enough for her. Then her eyes followed Ruby to her locker. “Oh, a Ruby scribbling. She’s a real lezo, ya’ know.”
I spotted an actual invitation wedged in Tanya’s pocket and grabbed it before she could dodge. “From her?” I said.
“You bet. You going?”
“I don’t know. Are her parents going to be there?” I thought of her mom’s streaky face in the rain, the Jell-O on her brother’s cheeks that I wasn’t supposed to know about.
“Yeah, but whaddya think, bet I can get away with smuggling in wine coolers?”
“I’ll bring some thermoses,” I said.
I had to climb up onto a chair to reach them, but most of the thermoses had cartoon characters or picnic themed spreads—red and white check prints with lines of marching ants obstructing the symmetry. In the way back were my dad’s old flasks, which seemed a sleeker, bolder solution. I held one loosely when I heard my mother coming in and dropped it quickly in favor of a Mickey Mouse thermos.
“What’s all this about?” She reached over and shut the cabinet as I pulled back, thermos in hand.
“Tanya and I are bringing orange juice to the party. All Ruby’s parents’ have is filtered water to drink.”
Mom didn’t comment, just scooted the chair back into the kitchen table. I almost wanted to ask her about the reading she had with Ruby and her mother, to hear it straight from her mouth rather than the filtered version I heard through the screen, but I was afraid there would be variations or that her lies would surface plainly before me—that she would tell something differently from what I heard. I wondered if there had been anything about ghosts in the reading that I had somehow missed.
Ruby really did scribble lots of different things—animals and faces, mostly, on locker doors and other people’s class notes (hers were diligent, neat)—a tiny rebellious streak or a desperate attempt to be heard. I wasn’t the only one to ever receive her graffiti. But the ghost was specific. It existed in my mother’s world.
There used to be three people who came to my mother asking her about the apparitions they saw floating out of walls and floors at night. One woman had silver wispy spirits inhabiting her carpet. She tried sprinkling diatomaceous earth in the corners of her home, but they didn’t go away— they just started crying. Another woman claimed they were messing with her vision, making lights appear in the corners of her eyes whenever she looked at her dead husband’s picture. Then there was a man with ghost problems who didn’t really think they were a problem—he just wanted them to quit being so flighty and sit down with him for a beer and a cigar sometime. My mother said a lot of people with ghosts are just lonely.
If Ruby had ghosts and was trying to tell me, I could mentor her through it. Not like my mother who would confirm their reality and banish them. No, I would do what people were meant to do—I would sleep over at her house on her tandem bed (which I imagined she had), stuff notes in her locker, stop her from being lonely. She would realize there were never any ghosts to begin with.
Tanya knocked on the front door. Mom ushered us both into the basement before her clients arrived.
“I couldn’t find any wine coolers,” Tanya admitted once the door shut.
“That’s okay. My mom’s wine cellar is down here.” We browsed through the cabinet by her antique turntable, reading labels and pretending we could evaluate the aromas through the sealed bottles. We settled for a pink wine, most likely a gift she’d never miss because she only drank red, and squeezed Capri-Suns and Daffy Duck orange juice into it. We poured a Dixie cup to sample, swirled it around in the cup and each took a sip. It didn’t taste like alcohol or like juice, but Tanya said it tasted different enough from anything else the other girls were used to, so they would believe us when we said it was mostly alcohol.
“Sangria!” Tanya said. “That’s what we’ll tell them it is. They’ll believe anything.”
I checked my watch to see when we needed to leave. Tanya started listing the people she thought would be there.
“Oh god! I forgot . . . what about her brother? He won’t be there, right? I heard he’s super contagious. Why would they even have the party at her house?”
“He’s not contagious, he’s terminal,” I corrected her. “There’s a difference.”
“How do you know? He could be contagious.” Tanya sniffed the thermos before taking another sip. I kicked over an old microwave box, climbed onto it and looked out the glass block window. A slushy rain was starting to pick up.
“We’d better start walking if we want to get there in time,” I said.
My mother couldn’t drive. The more miracles she pumped out, the less practical things her body could do, like there were two women inside of her fighting for control. She used to drive. I knew because she told me stories about when she delivered pizzas, about how she looked in all the customers’ coat closets while they were getting the money and stole forgotten dollars out of their pockets. But when she divorced my father, she couldn’t afford to keep her car, and then it didn’t matter anymore if we had one or not.
We went to an old man’s house a year ago to look at the car he was selling. We had to take a bus all the way to his neighborhood and walked until we found the address listed on Craigslist, but when she got in, her hands—her miracle-giving hands, they just gave out. “What is all this? That man must have been tampering with it,” she said angrily, looking at the perfectly normal controls. But then she quit lying to herself and started sobbing, saying, “What do I do, Jocelyn?” Her hands hovered over the wheel, looking plastic and stiff. She couldn’t even figure out how to put it in reverse to get it out of his yard.
She cancelled all her sessions with clients that week because she said she needed the sleep and then came back two inches taller with gems punched into an old pair of heels from the back of her closet.
I could hear the floorboards creaking as she stomped above us, probably joining hands with the client and swaying or circling around a spiral-bound notebook or an old cigar box the client said was cursed until my mother deemed it safe. Her best miracles were the ones that called for theatrics, a chance to dance around in her bedazzled shoes.
Maybe it was her curse, that she had to become extraordinary, that she could not be a pizza delivery girl, a petty thief, my father’s wife—she had to be something else. And magic was what she chose.
Tanya and I slipped out into the rain through the empty garage, leaving my mother to her flirtations with the sticky magic in her living room.
Ruby’s house was pristine, antiseptic. The ceilings were all high and cavernous, etched with a rough texture in the plaster—rolling peaks splayed out like flowers. They had no paintings, no plants, no music boxes, or Precious Moments statuettes, just tepid little studio photographs of their family that might as well have been spritzed with sanitizer. In the adjoined living room, Ruby’s younger brother was confined to a hospital bed with tubes that wound around like crazy straws stuck all over him. Everyone else was huddled in the dining room playing Cranium when we got there. I thought Ruby’s brother was asleep, but every time the girls yelled or laughed, a shadow of life would pass over him, and he would smile, watching. I didn’t see the parents anywhere. I wondered if this was him on a good day—the rumors all played out a scenario where he was comatose. I had pictured him drawn in faint lines, powdery white and ghost-like, but his cheeks held color ever so delicately.
They were too far into the game to let us join, so Tanya and I sat at the table and watched. Tanya whispered something that I couldn’t hear to the girl next to us, Katie, and then handed her the thermos. Katie cringed when she sipped it and then giggled, wiping her mouth with her hand. She was wearing a red and white chevron patterned dress, made out of that stretchy fabric you can buy off the bolt and sew up the seam to make a dress that looks like it came from a department store. Lots of moms made their daughters dresses like that.
Katie looked at me with a smirk. “The guest of honor arrives! Finally.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that Ruby has the hots for you. Can’t stop talking about Jocelyn. I’d watch out if I were you unless you want to kiss her.” Katie and some girls listening in broke into giggles. Then it was Katie’s turn to roll—she winked and blew a kiss before prancing around on her toes until someone guessed that she was a gazelle.
“Katie’s full of shit,” Tanya said under her breath to me.
But a part of me wanted it to be true. I wanted to have a secret and for that secret to be Ruby—the victim of my mother’s false prophesies. I could comfort her through her grieving when she found out Mom was a fraud. If she loved me (or thought she did), she would see that I didn’t have anything to do with it. That meant I would have to come clean, to confess that my mom was a liar and that her brother was a ghost who wouldn’t pass over into the living world just because my mom said so. She would probably cry, maybe even want to hurt me at first, to punch me in the eye, which would be understandable. We would work through it, over time. It was possible she wouldn’t forgive me for years.
I had dug around in my mother’s jewelry box for hours that morning trying to find something beautiful to give her. All I found was a silly pin shaped like a cat with a long skinny neck and a wobbly head. I knew she wouldn’t like it—nobody could—but I wanted to hear what she would say, what she would write me later if her parents made her send out thank-yous. Maybe she would think I was trying to start an inside joke with her, and she would smile understandingly as she peeled back the wrapping paper.
My mom never disclosed any personal details about her clients to me—I had to give her credit for that, at least. I didn’t know what was medically wrong with Ruby’s brother. At school other kids would whisper their speculations, standing just close enough to Ruby so she could see their lips moving but not hear. “Car accident, maybe?” “No, nothing that middle class. Probably he’s allergic to money or something.” “I heard it’s contagious—have you seen those marks on Ruby’s face? I bet she’s getting it.” Lately Ruby would come to his defense, as if the accusations of sickness were the reason behind his decline. She would say things like, “He’s on track to get better,” and “It won’t be obvious, but he’s coming around.”
The parents wheeled his bed around in the living room so he was facing the party while Ruby opened presents, but his eyes were droopy, and a tuft of straight blond hair stuck up at an odd angle. Everyone in the living room tiptoed around him as if his bed housed a collection of precious teacups they couldn’t afford to replace.
They were so hyper-vigilant of these things, and Tanya so possessive of the thermos, that they didn’t notice me sneaking upstairs. I wanted to see her open the present from me, but more than that I wanted her to look around the room when she opened it and see that I wasn’t there. I wanted to make her come looking for me.
Besides the vases full of fake flowers on almost every surface, Ruby’s bedroom reflected her parents’ style of striving to appear unlived-in, untouched. None of the drawers peeked open with spilled over sleeves. The furniture was sleek and modern, nothing leftover from childhood. She had perfume bottles on her nightstand, which I thought made her very elegant, like she was an old soul or someone who would someday date college boys even while she was still in high school.
Some people downstairs laughed, and I wondered if Ruby had opened the cat pin. I didn’t go back down. I promised myself then that I wouldn’t, that I would wait for Ruby, and then there was the part of me that felt like I was hiding from Ruby instead, that she wouldn’t come upstairs at all.
I leaned back and thought about the clean walls that surrounded Ruby’s existence. I loved the house, the order of it, the way everything was where you would expect it to be. Even with her sick brother and the smell of rubbing alcohol braided into the afghan on the couch—those things were predictable and they belonged. And there on her dresser was the perfect set of pony bead teeth. I closed my eyes and tried to be so still it would seem like I was asleep, and then at some point I was.
The door creaked loud enough to wake me when Ruby slid inside. She stood over me but did not look alarmed. “I saw the light on from the hall,” she said. “Tanya’s been looking for you. I think she already left.”
“That’s okay,” I said.
“So I guess you work for your mother, right? You’re her secret spy or something. That’s what I always think when I see you in school.” Ruby ran a brush through her hair, recoated her candy pink lips with shimmery lip balm.
“It’s not really. . . . ”
“No, it makes perfect sense. You’re making sure the magic is working. I knew you would be here.” She pulled out every blonde strand from the hairbrush and shook them off her fingers into the trash before she sat on the bed next to me.
“Let me look at your hands,” she said.
These were my mother’s words, her lure. It was the warmth of another hand that made people feel assured when she issued the verdicts of their palm lines.
Now Ruby was saying these words, her knees folded and socked feet wedged into the gray and yellow patchwork quilt.
I put my palms out for her to see, and she took them, picking them up like two bags of soap beads, careful not to crush what was inside. “This is what your mom did when we came to your house, but she could read the lines.”
“She can’t really read the lines,” I murmured, taking my hands back. “She’s a fraud. That’s what I wanted to tell you.”
Ruby shook her head. “My mom doesn’t think so. Your mom was right about everything.”
She turned around to reach for a red pen off of her nightstand and unfurled my fingers, taking back my palms and tracing tributaries in red all over the creases. “Here. There you go. Now you do mine.”
Ruby took me outside to her backyard. I felt like there should have been gates and manicured bushes lining the house, but instead there was a wilderness nestled outside the back porch, the beginnings of a pine grove swathed in foggy blankets. The trees held each other, their shadows leaning into us, and Ruby held my hand. I thought the trees and the fog were everything she wanted to show me. I felt like I was on the edge of understanding something from seeing it, but then she tugged on my wrist to stop me and shook my hand roughly.
“We have to do the thing!” she said. “To make the positive energy surround us like your mom taught us to do. I’ve been coming out here and doing it everyday to make the dead hamsters come back.” She knelt down into the pine needles and brushed away the muddy slush. The dirt and needles were loose like someone had been scratching around in it. “See where they’re trying to get out?”
I tried to be gentle, tried to hold her hand again, but she was faraway and gazing at the hamster ruts. I touched her dirty fingernails and said, “I don’t think it works like that.”
“You said your mom was a fraud, but she’s not. She can bring people back to life, like what she did to Tony, waking him up from the coma. In a couple days, he should be able to get out of bed, the doctors say.” She crossed her legs like she was about to meditate, and I tried to inhale the smell of her perfume, but the fog had carried it all away. I wanted to tell her to stop behaving like a child. “I remember when my mom spent the end of her pregnancy in that hospital bed from complications. It used to be in my parents’ bedroom where she would sleep all day, and then it moved to the spare room—Tony’s bedroom—and then all around the house, following me. Now where will it go?”
My feet crunched the pine needles as I stood up. I felt surrounded by the possibility of hamsters coming out of the earth. I didn’t want to have to explain them. “I think I have to get home soon.”
Ruby was still planted in the earth. “Did you notice how he’s there but not there?”
I shrugged. “Maybe just don’t worry about it,” I said. “It’s really lucky, that’s all—a miracle. You’ll be happy later. But it has nothing to do with my mom.”
She looked down at the scratch marks, touched the dirt, and said, “Maybe.” Her body started swaying like it was moved by something else, something she had found on my patio when my mother trilled about positive energy, and Ruby just closed her eyes. The dirt quivered just a bit, ready to turn over.
Fondly Do We Hope
Dr. Jacob Carter barely recognized his old neighborhood. Once echoing with life, most of the tall houses on the oak-lined street were shuttered and dark, as silent as the residents of the new cemetery on the hill across the Potomac. The former inhabitants, most of them Confederate sympathizers, had fled as the war turned against them and this once—Southern city turned its face forever northward. The Carters’ house—home to one of only three Unionist families on the block—sat in the middle of the row, as quiet and lifeless as the rest.
His eyes welled as he gazed upon his home for the first time in four years. He wasn’t sure what he had expected—wreckage, perhaps, or widows weeping in the street—but it hadn’t been this. Not this unrelenting emptiness.
But it turned out it wasn’t empty, not quite. As Jacob stepped out of the carriage and onto the muddy street, he dodged a steaming pile of cow paddies, which he promptly jumped into when a pig darted out from behind a house and rushed toward him, cutting to one side at the last second. Wrinkling his nose, he wiped his boots off on the wheel of the carriage.
“Well, Hannah,” he muttered as he adjusted his rucksack on his shoulder. “I’m home. Such as it is.”
A snarling dog shot past with a half-eaten piglet clamped in its jaws, and Jacob rested his right hand on the grip of his Colt .36, taking comfort in the cold metal strapped to his hip. It was the one memento of his army service he had kept. He’d thrown his bloodstained uniform into a campfire a week ago.
He heaved a sigh and strode toward his house. He nearly tripped over a grimy man lying motionless in the gutter nearby. The man’s scraggly, unkempt beard hung halfway down his chest, and the uniform he wore was so muddy and tattered that it was impossible to tell whether it was Union or Confederate. Flies buzzed around his head—never a good sign. Though he never wanted to tend to another soldier, Jacob instinctively knelt down and felt for a pulse.
“Whassa matter wi’ you?” the man demanded, snapping awake. “Can’t a fellow get any sleep ‘round here?”
“Sorry,” Jacob mumbled. “Just seeing if you were all right.”
The man told Jacob where he could go and what he should do with his mother when he got there and then rolled over and went back to sleep.
Shaking his head, Jacob dug a brass key out of his pocket and trudged toward the house. The porch creaked under his weight as he approached the front door. The lock was cranky from neglect, and he had to jiggle the key a few times to make the sliders click into place so he could swing the door open.
Dust wafted down from the chandelier overhead as he stepped into the dark foyer, and he sneezed twice as he lit a lantern on the hall table—the shuttered windows blocked all 132
daylight from coming into the house. An elderly neighbor had promised to keep an eye on the place while he’d been away at war, but like most of the neighborhood’s residents, the man had left town a few months ago. He’d written to say he was moving in with relatives in Baltimore and that if the government had any sense they would move the capital and abandon Washington. Seeing the town for himself, Jacob had to agree.
As his eyes adjusted to the lantern’s glow, Jacob stepped into the sitting room and set his rucksack on the floor. Like all the furniture in the house, the sofa and armchairs were draped with sheets, once brilliant white but now dingy with dust. He strode to the fireplace and ripped the protective sheet off the large portrait that hung over the mantle.
“Hello, ladies,” he whispered to the figures smiling down at him. He gazed up into the eyes of his late wife, Hannah. In the portrait, she stood behind their daughter, Josephine, then nine years old, seated in a chair. After Hannah’s death, her older sister had tried to persuade Jacob to sell the large home and move to a smaller house near hers in Boston, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave the house that Hannah had loved so dearly. The house was Hannah. She had selected every stick of furniture, every curtain, every tablecloth. She had given birth to Josie in an upstairs bedroom where she died ten years later. It was home.
He shifted his gaze to Josie’s grinning image, and an ache settled in his chest. He hadn’t seen his daughter since he’d sent her away from Washington at the outset of the war. Now twenty years old, she’d written to him often from his brother’s cattle ranch in California, her most recent letter asking when he might send for her. She’d loved California, but she missed her father desperately. Jacob could get the house back in order easily enough, but there was nothing he could do to reverse the city’s decay. He and Josie could both tolerate the mud and the crumbling buildings, he supposed, if not for that god-awful smell. Washington City’s sewage had barely been adequate before the war, and he was certain that much of the excrement now lying in the streets was of human origin as well as animal.
“It’s all right, Josie,” he whispered. “We’ll work through it, you and me. Just like we’ve always done.”
Too exhausted to start opening up and cleaning the house, Jacob trudged upstairs, yanked the protective coverings off of his bed, and lay down on top of the musty quilt. He pulled out his pocket watch and opened it to the small portrait of Hannah that he kept tucked into the case. He laid it on his night table and dropped his head onto his pillows. He ignored the puff of dust that wafted up around his head. Though it was only late afternoon, he closed his eyes and quickly dropped off to sleep.
He did not sleep well.
He hadn’t slept well for two years.
Being a surgeon had amplified the horrors of the war for Dr. Jacob Carter. The bloody day at Antietam had been bad enough, but it was the three long days at Gettysburg that haunted him most. Three days with no sleep and little food as he dodged bullets while trying to treat soldiers on the battlefield as the fighting raged. Most of those men—boys, really—had not survived anyway. Almost 3,200 Union soldiers had lost their lives, often after suffering at the blade of a bone saw as Jacob and his fellow surgeons frantically tried to save them.
He woke up screaming four times that night.
In the morning, he headed to his clinic a few blocks away. Many of his fellow Army surgeons had gone to work in Washington’s Army hospitals, treating returning soldiers, but Jacob had wanted only to return to his private practice. He’d had enough of gangrene and amputated limbs. The boarding house that sat next to his clinic, once a respectable establishment favored by congressmen, had at some time during the war been put to other purposes. The new proprietor had transformed the first floor into a large saloon, and it didn’t take much imagination to figure out what the rooms upstairs were being used for. In the absence of law enforcement, sex and liquor were the only two businesses still thriving in Washington.
Jacob let out a long breath when he found his own building unmolested. Squatters had infested many of the city’s closed businesses, and he wasn’t keen to use the revolver still strapped to his hip—he knew too well what bullets could do to a human body. The air inside the clinic was musty from being boarded up, but it was better than the air outside; The new saloon stank of urine and stale beer. All the same, he needed light, so after placing a small portrait of Hannah on his desk, he pried the shutters off the windows and spent the rest of the morning sweeping out the dust and creating a list of medicines and supplies he needed to order. He had to reopen his practice if he wanted to bring Josie home.
At midday, he walked to the post office to collect his mail.
He should have hailed a carriage. Its closed window curtains could have blocked the view of the shantytown he was passing. The carriage driver yesterday had told him the locals called it Murder Bay.
“Sprung up when all them freedmen came into the city after President Lincoln issued that damned Emancipation Proclamation,” the man had grumbled. “Police don’t even bother tryin’ to arrest murderers there. Too many scoundrels and not enough officers. Ain’t gonna get no better now that we got all these soldiers comin’ home an’ lookin’ for work that ain’t there.”
As he walked past Murder Bay, Jacob pulled his shirt collar over his nose to try to block the stench from the old city canal that ran alongside the shantytown. Its original purpose forgotten, the canal was now a sewer and storm drain, reeking of feces. Surely it couldn’t be long before typhoid, cholera, and dysentery swept through the already desperate population.
He glanced to his left at the looming figure of the White House and then back at Murder Bay. Two young colored boys, neither of them older than ten, fought in the mud over half an apple core.
He would have laughed at the irony of the situation had it not been so sad.
“Hundreds of thousands of lives lost,” he muttered. “For what?” The freed Negroes must feel so cheated.
He quickened his pace, wanting to leave the destitution behind as quickly as possible.
When he reached the post office, the postman surprised him by handing him a small sack of mail. Jacob hadn’t expected much—his family and friends had all known to write to him care of the Army of the Potomac. Back in his clinic, he dug into it to discover a small archive of periodicals from the past four years; he hadn’t thought to cancel his subscriptions before he’d left. But mixed in with old issues of Scientific American and The New York Times was a recent letter from his brother, William, in California. He wrote that he hoped Jacob had returned home safely and that Josie was looking forward to seeing him again.
“We’d all love to see you,” William’s letter read. “Come to California, Jacob. Spend some time here on the ranch before going back to your work. You deserve a respite.”
“Older brothers,” Jacob muttered with the first little smile he’d broken in months. “I’m forty-six years old, and he still thinks he can tell me what to do.”
He stayed late at the clinic, trying to avoid the emptiness of the large, dusty house. Someone started playing the piano in the saloon next door, and he soon wearied of the drunken shouting. Tossing the old newspapers into the stove to burn the next day—he had no desire to relive the war through four years of headlines—he stepped out onto the porch. As he turned to lock the door, the skin on the back of his neck prickled.
“Hey fella,” a sultry voice purred. Jacob started. “Sorry about that.” The woman laid a hand on his shoulder. “Didn’t mean to startle you.” She stepped closer, her hot breath wafting over his ear. It smelled of cheap liquor. “You feeling lonely, fella?”
There was something familiar about the woman’s voice, and he turned around, squinting through the waning light.
The woman jumped back, her hand snapping away from his shoulder. “Dr. Carter?” Even in the twilight, Jacob could see her blushing. “Dr. Carter, I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize you, I-” She spun on her heel and fled toward the saloon. Jacob sprinted after her, catching her after only a few yards.
“Alice.” He searched for words, but for a moment could only point at the saloon. “Why are you working here? What happened to Henry?” He flinched. He shouldn’t have asked. He already knew the answer.
“Henry’s dead. Sammy, too.”
“Sammy? What happened to Sammy? He would only be what? Six?”
“Seven. Typhoid. Last winter.” Her tone was flat and emotionless.
“Oh, Alice, I’m so sorry.” Jacob dug into his pocket and pulled out a gold coin. He pressed it into her hand.
She took it without acknowledgement and tucked it into her low-cut bodice. “Where’s Josie?”
“California with my brother. I’m sending for her tomorrow.”
“Don’t bring her home. Don’t let her see this.” She gestured to the street with a sweep of one hand. From somewhere behind them, a baby cried.
“You don’t have to work here. Do you need a place to stay?”
“Goodnight, Dr. Carter.” She disappeared under the shadowy eaves of the saloon.
Jacob looked around at the street, once smooth and flat, now covered in six inches of sticky muck, the boarded-up businesses, and in the distance, the noxious fog rising off the canal. The city itself reflected the war’s brutality on its inhabitants. His eyes glazed over as his mind drifted back to the hilly battlefields of Maryland and Pennsylvania. When the crash of shattering glass rang out from the saloon, he dropped flat onto the rotting wooden sidewalk. He threw his arms over his head and lay there trembling until he felt a nudge in his ribs. In one swift motion, he ripped his Colt from its holster and aimed at the dark shadow looming over him.
“Easy there, mister,” a deep voice drawled. “War’s over.”
He jammed the gun back in its holster and apologized. After receiving Jacob’s assurances that he was all right, the man continued his shuffle toward the saloon. Jacob almost followed him—maybe a drink would settle him down—but he turned and raced for home, one hand on the grip of his Colt the entire way.
After another restless night, Jacob emerged from his cavernous home and set off to wire his daughter. The path to the telegraph office took him past the unfinished Washington Monument, whose grounds the Army had turned into a slaughterhouse during the war. He ripped his handkerchief out of his pocket and pressed it to his nose to block the metallic odor of gallons of fresh blood. So much like Gettysburg. A pig squealed as a butcher slit its throat, and he collapsed onto the splintering sidewalk, his hands clutching the sides of his head as the screams of maimed soldiers rattled his brain. He dug into his pocket again and pulled out his watch. Flipping the cover open, he focused on his wife’s portrait. As his heart slowed, he forced himself to his feet and continued down the street, still staring at Hannah’s picture.
Halfway to the telegraph office, Jacob remembered he’d left his list of needed supplies at his clinic the night before, and as long as he was wiring Josie, he might as well wire the apothecary in New York City too. He took the long way back to his clinic to avoid going past the slaughterhouse again, and as he approached the clinic, he saw a few overnight patrons stumbling out of the saloon. He cringed. At least one of the scruffy men had probably spent the night in Alice’s room.
He was so distracted that he nearly stepped on the little bundle in front of his door. At first, he thought it was just a dirty shawl that someone had dropped, probably as its owner reeled out of the saloon. He was about to kick it aside when the bundle began to cry. He dropped to his knees and unwrapped the dingy blanket to reveal the red, howling face of an infant. The baby screwed up its face as its toothless mouth gaped open, sending up an ear-blistering squall. Without a moment’s hesitation, Jacob scooped up the child, unlocked his clinic with his free hand, and burst inside.
With the screeching baby tucked under one arm, he began pumping water into the sink of the little kitchen at the back of the building. As the water flowed, he pulled his handkerchief—still clean, thank goodness—out of his pocket and dampened a corner. Sitting down at the small kitchen table, he twisted up the wet corner of the handkerchief and poked it into the infant’s mouth. The baby’s eyes popped open, and the tiny mouth instinctively began sucking on the damp cloth.
“Sorry it isn’t milk, little one.” Jacob caressed the baby’s downy head. “But it’ll have to do for the moment. Now, where did you come from?”
Hoping to find some clue to the baby’s identity, he unwrapped the gray blanket. He presumed it was once white, but like everything else in Washington, had lost its luster to the war. Underneath, the baby was wearing nothing but a soggy diaper. He spread the blanket on the floor, lay the baby on it, and searched his cabinets for a diaper. Surely he still had one around someplace, or at least some bandages large enough to serve as one until he could buy some. The baby suckled happily on his handkerchief while he scoured his cabinets. Finally, in the very last cabinet, Jacob found a stack of diapers. The top one was dusty, so he grabbed one from the middle of the stack along with some pins and knelt on the floor to change the baby.
“Congratulations, Dr. Carter, it’s a girl,” he chuckled as he pulled off the wet diaper and swapped in the dry one. The baby spit out the handkerchief and smiled at the sound of his laugh. Her brilliant blue eyes stood out in sharp contrast to the wisps of black hair on her head, and Jacob smiled back at her. “You look just like Josie did as a baby,” he told the child. She smiled at him again. “Let’s get you something to eat and then see if we can figure out where you came from.”
He picked her up and wrapped the blanket back around her. Fortunately, the general store only a block away was still in business, and in less than thirty minutes, Jacob had purchased a bottle and several cans of condensed milk. He sat down on a bench outside the store and cradled the baby in one arm as he held the bottle to her mouth with the other. The little girl placed a chubby hand on each side of the bottle and stared up at him as she drank. For a moment, he was twenty-six years old again, feeding his infant daughter to give his exhausted wife a break.
“Oh, Hannah, I sure wish you were here right now,” he whispered.
When the baby finished her meal, Jacob deposited the empty bottle and the extra cans of milk at his clinic and walked to the police station. When he stepped through the doors, the young man at the counter didn’t even look up from his paperwork.
“Whatcha need, mister?”
Jacob held up the baby. “I need to report an abandoned infant.”
The clerk glanced briefly at the baby and then looked at Jacob. “Whatcha expect us to do about it?”
Jacob’s jaw dropped. “Find her mother, of course! Charge her with abandoning a child and then find some relatives to care for this baby!”
The young man laughed in his face.
“Mister, we ain’t even got enough men to go after all the murderers in this town. You think we got time to deal with a baby?” When Jacob’s mouth gaped again, the clerk explained. “You ain’t been in town long, have you? There’s at least a dozen babies abandoned every month. Ain’t unusual to come across a dead one as you’re just walkin’ down the street.”
Jacob’s toes curled in his boots. He gazed down into the face of the sleeping child and then back up at the clerk. “Why don’t they get taken to the orphanage?”
“Orphanage is full. War left so many kids without parents that they’re near to bursting.”
“What about a church? Any of them taking children?”
The clerk shook his head. “Most are treatin’ soldiers.”
“What am I supposed to do with her?”
“Way I see it, you got two choices: keep her yourself or put her back where you found her.” He returned to his paperwork, making it clear that the conversation was over.
Jacob’s shoulders slumped, and he carried the baby back outside. He headed to the telegraph office and wired the orphanage in Baltimore to see if they could take a baby. He sent Josie a telegram, too, letting her know he was home safely but that she should sit tight in California for now. He was all the way back to his clinic before he realized he hadn’t wired the apothecary for new supplies.
Jacob spent the afternoon cleaning his clinic, taking breaks to feed or change the little girl as needed. When the pair arrived home that evening, Jacob set the baby on a blanket on his bedroom floor while he scrabbled around the attic for Josie’s old cradle. Next to the cradle, he found a carton of Josie’s baby clothes. He smiled as he pulled the tiny items out of the box. He hadn’t known Hannah had saved them, but he was grateful she had. They would see new use in the coming days. Before retiring, he gave the baby a bath, buttoned her up in one of Josie’s old sleepers, and laid her in the cradle next to his bed.
“Good night, little one,” he whispered, kissing the baby’s soft forehead. “Tomorrow we’ll figure out what to do.”
He woke up four times that night, but not to his own screaming. The baby demanded food at midnight, three o’clock, and six o’clock and a fresh diaper at one-thirty. But Jacob didn’t mind. Each time he lit the oil lamp next to his bed and gazed down at the tiny red-faced human in the cradle, he smiled. He’d raised a daughter of his own and delivered and treated hundreds of infants over the years, but he still marveled at the baby’s hands, her tiny toes, the way the tip of her nose turned up ever so slightly. She was so beautifully formed and so—there was no other word to describe her—intact.
He took her with him to the clinic again the next day and alternated between tending to the baby and scrubbing his exam room. It occurred to him that one of the girls at the saloon next door—perhaps even Alice—would know the baby’s origins. But then again, the child’s mother had abandoned her. What good would it do to confront her with her shame? It wouldn’t make the poor woman better able to care for the child. Still, he shouldn’t get too attached. The orphanage in Baltimore might have space for the baby, in which case, it would be the best place for her. They could find her a home with two young parents.
Three days ticked by, and Jacob and the baby fell into a pattern. They would spend the day at the clinic and return home in the evening for supper, a little playtime, a bath, and bed. He even started receiving patients—all civilians—at his clinic again. A few of his colleagues had expressed thinly-veiled contempt for his refusal to continue his service at the military hospitals, but one look around the city made it clear that the civilians were in dire need of medical attention, too —and sprained ankles and bumps on the head didn’t aggravate his nightmares. He still hadn’t wired the apothecary in New York, but the local druggist had had enough quinine, Epsom salts, iodine, and bandages for him to tend to the simple ailments the citizens arrived with.
On the fourth day, Jacob received a telegram from the Baltimore orphanage saying that they, too, were past capacity. Perhaps he should try one of the establishments in New York City which were sending children on trains to the Midwest to find families. Jacob glanced down at the little girl, who was chewing happily on her fist. Based on her size and the two little nubs trying to push their way through her bottom gum, Jacob guessed she was about four months old. He tried to picture her in the lap of some stranger as she steamed west on a train to be taken in by more strangers, and his chest ached. He set her in his lap and looked in her eyes.
“I’ll be an old man by the time you’re all grown up,” he said. “But I’d be honored if you’d have me as your papa.”
The little girl cooed, and Jacob cuddled her close to his chest as tears streamed down his face.
“We better go wire Josie and tell her to come home. We’re gonna need her help. Should probably think about naming you, too.” A frantic pounding on the clinic door cut his chuckles short. He set the baby in the crib he’d purchased secondhand and ran to the door. On the porch stood a man about his own age holding the limp figure of a young woman. The left arm of the girl’s dress was soaked with blood like she’d taken a bullet. Jacob recoiled.
“Dr. Carter!” the man sobbed. “You have to help us! Please, my daughter!”
Jacob saw himself in the man’s eyes, and he snatched up the girl and carried her into the exam room. Swallowing the bile that had risen in his throat, he laid her on the table and sliced off the sleeve of her dress with his pocketknife. The young lady moaned but did not open her eyes.
“We were attacked.” The man trembled so violently that Jacob worried he’d fall over, and he pointed him toward a chair. The man sat down and continued. A man, he tried to rob us. Amy was too slow giving up her handbag, and he stabbed her!” He buried his face in his hands and broke down.
Jacob examined the wound. Amy was lucky. The knife had gone through the fleshy part of her shoulder, missing her artery. She had lost a lot of blood, but she’d pull through. His heart pounded, the familiar terror trying to seize him, and Jacob shifted his gaze to the young woman’s face. Her blond hair swirled like a halo around her head; her long eyelashes brushed her cheekbones. Nothing like a soldier, and yet another casualty of the war. But she was one he could save. His pulse slowed as his practiced hands moved almost of their own accord to stop the bleeding and stitch up the gash. The young lady came around soon after, and Jacob gave her some brandy and told her to lie still for a while. When the girl and her father left a few hours later with instructions for her to rest for the next several days, Jacob snatched the baby out of her crib, held her close, and wept for the second time that day.
His nightmares left him alone that night because he never slept. He spent the night prowling through the house, his Colt belted around his hips. He jumped at every sound and once drew his gun on a mouse in a hall closet. The baby cried only twice, and after the second feeding, Jacob went into Josie’s bedroom, yanked the protective cover off of her bed, and wrapped up in the musty quilt that Hannah had made when she’d discovered she was pregnant with Josie all those years ago. He lay there, wide awake, until the sun rose.
After breakfast, Jacob gathered up the baby and hailed a carriage to carry them to his attorney’s office.
“Jacob!” Abner Lawson greeted him, arms wide. Jacob’s arms were full of baby, so Abner pulled him into an awkward half-hug. “Good to see you! I’d heard you were back in town, and I hoped you’d drop by. Who’s this?”
Jacob explained how he’d found the baby and had decided to keep her. Abner raised an eyebrow, and Jacob knew he was thinking of the legalities that should be conducted to establish his guardianship of the child.
“No one’s going to ask, Abner. This town has bigger problems.”
“That much is certain. But what really brought you down here? Something tells me this isn’t a social call.”
“It isn’t. I need you to sell my house and clinic.”
Abner’s other eyebrow shot up and nearly disappeared into his hairline—a remarkable feat given how quickly his hairline was retreating from his forehead.
“But you love that house. And what about Josie? Isn’t she coming home?”
“I can’t bring her back here.” Jacob thought of Amy. “She’d be nothing but a target.”
“What about you? And your new friend here?”
“We’re leaving. This city is dying, and I’ll not stand around and watch it tear itself apart. I’ve seen enough death.”
Abner’s eyebrows dropped to their usual latitude, and he laid a hand on Jacob’s shoulder. “Yeah, I guess you have. I’ll take care of everything, but I have to warn you. There are few people around here with the money to purchase a house like yours, and those who do have the good sense not to live here.”
“It’s got plenty of rooms. I’m sure someone could turn it into a brothel. We’ll be out in two weeks.”
Abner nodded and bid his friend goodbye, reminding him to write when he was settled and let him know where to reach him. Jacob thanked him and turned to leave. As his hand reached the door latch, Abner called him back.
“You said she was four months old?” He pointed to the baby.
“Near as I can figure.”
Abner smiled. “You know that puts her birthday. . . .”
“Right around the end of the war. I know.”
“What have you decided to call her?”
Jacob had puzzled over this exact question for much of his sleepless night. He’d considered naming her Hannah, but when Abner asked him so directly, a different name slipped out of his mouth before he even knew what he was saying.
“Hope. Goodbye, Abner.”
That afternoon, Jacob boarded his clinic back up and returned home, where he spent the next two weeks packing up the house. He didn’t keep much: Hannah and Josie’s portrait, his medical texts, and his and Hope’s clothes. Everything else he donated to local charities that were helping soldiers put their lives back together. Halfway through the process he received and ignored a telegram from Josie begging him to let her come home.
On the last morning, he gazed around his empty house.
He’d hired a carriage to carry him and Hope to the train station where they would catch a train to Baltimore. From there they would board a ship to ferry them southward down the coast, around Florida to the Gulf of Mexico, and across to Panama. Another train would bear them across the isthmus, where they would catch a second ship to San Francisco, and from there, a stagecoach for the final leg of their journey.
As Jacob carried Hope out to their waiting carriage, he turned and gazed one last time upon his wife’s house.
“I’m sorry, Hannah,” he whispered. “But this isn’t our home anymore.”
On the way to the train station, Jacob asked the carriage driver to stop at the telegraph office. It took him only a moment to send a brief message to his brother:
TO: William Carter, Lucky Star Ranch, Placerville, California
FROM: Jacob Carter, Washington City
MESSAGE: Coming to you STOP Will wire from Panama STOP Jacob
Balancing little Hope on his hip, Jacob climbed back into the carriage, beckoned to the driver, and left the ravaged, stinking city behind.
Two Views of the Harbor
A high summer day, end of August, Bar Harbor, Maine. Tide’s out. We stand squinting on a metal pier some 25’ above the water, queuing up for a windjammer sail aboard the Margaret Todd, a 151’ four-masted schooner. Once they open the gate, we passengers must make our way down a steeply inclined grate to a floating dock at the end of which we will go up a set of wooden steps to come aboard the ship. It’s only 10:00 a.m. but the heat is increasing with the rising sun which glitters on the harbor, already burning our bare arms and legs.
It’s a two-hour sail out of the harbor and around Frenchman’s Bay. The dock is filling with tourists. A lady next to me has brought a baby stroller holding a dachshund who blinks out at us through the screening. “You should have seen her this morning,” the lady laughs, her red-lipsticked mouth agape. “I don’t know what was wrong with this dog. I had to drag her along! She wouldn’t use her back legs and stand up.”
Her friend pokes her to get her attention. “Hey, your mother is hanging over the railing with her phone trying to get a photo of the boat. She’s gonna drop it.” The mother, an excited woman in her eighties with steel-wool colored hair is rushing back and forth on the platform snapping pictures of the harbor, the islands, the schooner below us and the people waiting to board. A family with two red-haired boys, about six and seven, stands behind us in the line. The kids already have the jitters and are trying to escape their parents’ grasp.
“Alright, we’re going to start boarding in just a few minutes,” a young woman in a “Margaret Todd” t-shirt announces. We all step aside as a lady in a wheelchair is steered through the crowd to the gate by her husband and two young male crew members. It takes all three men to stop the chair from racing down the sharply-inclined ramp with its occupant in it. Holding our breath, we all strain forward to see what will happen. All goes well until the wheelchair gets wedged in-between the rails of the wooden steps. Several other crew members yank it free, lifting the lady safely aboard.
She and her husband are in their forties and neither of them change their expressions while all of this is occurring. “MS?” I think to myself, as I watch them secure her chair on the port side, up front. Now the rest of us scramble aboard, choosing our seats. Dan and I get a bench facing two South American women seated at the rail. The red-haired boys and their parents are in-between Dan and the wheelchair couple. Stretching out on the bench, the boys began teasing each other until the mother moves to the rail with one son, separating them.
A lady in a long skirt, grey hair in a French twist, takes a seat with her husband and a group of older men and women.
People trickle on in small groups. We still have five minutes before the cruise starts.
“I’m boiling,” I tell Dan. “I wish so many people didn’t wait till the last minute.”
“Once we start moving you’ll be cool enough,” Dan replies. The last passengers board; a young couple carrying a curly-haired strawberry-blonde toddler.
We feel the ship move beneath us like an earthquake.
The captain’s microphone crackles to life as he welcomes us. “We request that until we are out of the harbor and raise the sails, everyone remain seated. All children must be in physical contact with an adult when walking around the deck.” The parents of the two boys both tighten their grips on each kid. Anyone can see the brothers are dying to get at each other across the isle.
“Look, Dan. These are two of the Porcupine Islands.” We pass in-between the islands; tall, tree-covered and rounded. “I think they look much more like hedgehogs than porcupines.”
The sails are unfurled and raised, and the Margaret Todd sails past several rocky shoals as we enter Frenchman’s Bay. We’re allowed to walk around the deck now. Almost everyone but the couple with the wheelchair ends up on the starboard side, straining to see the sleek bodies of harbor seals playing around the rocks.
“OOOH!” A shout goes up as a harbor porpoise leaps out of the water near the bow on the port side and all the passengers hurry back across the deck to stare fixedly into the froth, hoping for another sighting. The lady in the wheelchair sits open-mouthed, having clearly seen the porpoise rise out of the water into the air, like an unexpected gift; sudden, precious.
“You were right, Dan,” I say, zipping up my fleece hoodie. “It is cold out here!”
We tool along with only the wind moving us, as the crew tries to maneuver in-between the thousands of lobster traps that bob on the dark blue water like colored balloons.
Halfway through the sail, one of the halyards becomes entangled in one of the blocks. Everyone becomes quiet as two young crew members, a woman and a man, leap aboard a stack of life rafts to untangle things.
“The wind out here in the bay is so strong that we need to lower most of the sails to get back around the Porcupines and into the harbor,” says the captain. I glance at the lady in the wheelchair, whom I haven’t heard speak. Her brown hair whips around her face; she appears to be lost in thought. Her husband returns from standing at the rail and takes a seat beside her, giving her hand a squeeze.
Just then, the little toddler cries out, “Daddy, up, up . . . Daddy, Daddy . . . NO . . . NO!” I turn to see a small thrashing shape in pink, spread-eagled and furious, strawberry curls bouncing.
“She looks just like a little red starfish,” I tell Dan.
The wind stills and we glide by Sheep Porcupine Island.
“Look up at the top there and you will see an eagle’s nest. Yup, there’s an eagle; maybe one of the chicks. They’re just about fledged,” the captain tells us. Sure enough, a small white shape can be seen against the blue-black shadows of the dark green pines riding the air currents like a dandelion seed. . . .
“Daddy, Daddy . . . NO! up . . . DOWN!!” The child’s screams cut through the air. Everyone tries not to stare but takes a peek as the ship docks.
“Somebody needs a nap!” I hiss to Dan over the hysterical child. Even the boys can’t look away. The woman in the wheelchair looks wistful. Makes me wonder if she has children. I’m betting it will be a real challenge getting her back up that steep ramp.
The Margaret Todd docks without issue. Dan and I move towards the wooden steps, anxious to be away from the screaming child.
“One last thing,” our captain adds as we depart. “Those of you who plan to walk out on the sand bar to Bar Island over there, (he’s pointing) need to know that the tide will be coming in and within an hour you won’t be able to walk back. Your legs will be useless once that sand bar is 6’ under water.” The lady in the wheelchair and her husband will be the last passengers to leave the ship. I look back to see her being lifted down the wooden stairs and wonder what it’s like when your legs are useless.
Jack is determined to take me on the windjammer sail. I would have been happy to do something on the shore but I wanted Jack to have a good time on our holiday. We arrived at the dock half an hour ahead of schedule, but neither of us reckoned on the tide being so low. Here’s the thing: If you have never been helpless, I mean, where you really can’t walk, you can’t imagine all the obstacles you will encounter.
First of all, I can see that the water level is about 6’ below the high-water line. What this means is that somehow Jack will have to get the chair down a long, very steep ramp just to get us to the floating dock. As I look down, I am picturing Jack losing his grip, the chair accelerating until, “BANG!” It hits the floating dock, tips me out. As I slide across, I can see the sparkle of blue water in-between the slats. My last thought before I slip into the icy harbor is, “Jack was determined to take me on this damned boat ride!” I hear myself scream, shrill and high-pitched. . . .
“EEEECH!” The gulls circle above us, screeching as we wait atop the pier. Jack stands behind the chair as two strong young crew men run up the steep ramp and grab the arms of my wheelchair. The three men provide the brakes as I am inched down the slope to the floating pier. By now, a crowd of fellow passengers stands, fascinated by the spectacle, watching from above; even the children, hoping . . . no . . . maybe just imagining my chair breaking loose.
I am rolled across the floating dock to a little portable wooden stairway, which acts as a gangplank with hand rails to help passengers climb on board. Of course, my chair gets wedged in-between the rails. A few more crew members run over, muscling me loose and lifting the chair on board. Jack wheels me as far forward as possible, parking me next to the roped-off area at the ship’s front. He takes a seat next to me.
“See?” he says, sweat rolling down his forehead. “That wasn’t hard.”
Two red-headed boys and their parents take the seat next to Jack as the passengers swarm on board. The kids pay me no attention as they poke and pinch each other until they are separated by their parents.
“We request that until we are out of the harbor and raise the sails, everyone remain seated. All children must be in physical contact with an adult when walking around the deck,” the captain announces over an intercom. The parents, facing each other, exchange significant glances.
We wait, baking in the hot August sun, for the tardy passengers. Not a cloud in the sky; not much wind here in the harbor. Finally, a young couple with a tiny red-haired toddler hurries aboard and, amidst much scrambling on deck, we feel the Margaret Todd’s powerful engines backing us out of her berth. Turning slowly, as though we were in a blimp, the schooner motors in-between the rounded, forested islands they call “The Porcupines.”
Oh, look! We’re out of the harbor and they’re hauling up those huge red sails. Even Jack is helping. I think they just ask for help to make the passengers feel like they’re true sailors.
“Now that we’ve raised the sails, feel free to move around the deck and explore,” the captain announces. Jack stands at the rail, watching the water, somewhat in front of me, but I can see a little smile on his face. It’s the same smile he usually wears. But the way the light plays off the wrinkles around his eyes tells me he’s somewhere back in time, back before the accident. With his silver hair blowing across his forehead I still see a twenty-year-old Jack, freckles and that reddish hair. There’s a wildness about red hair. . . .
Now that people may walk about, the two little boys are more interested in knuckling each other than observing the water.
“Captain’s shut off the motor, honey,” Jack says, and, sure enough, the ship glides quietly through the bay like a great white swan. He and I sit together; most of the passengers have relocated to the sunny side of the deck. We tip our faces upwards, eyes closed, breathing the fine salt air. I am glad for my sweater, especially in the shade of the sails.
“OOOOH!!!” A harbor porpoise vaults out of the water before us in a graceful arc. Now people’s gazes are glued to the water, hoping for another sighting. The Margaret Todd threads her way through a sea of colorful lobster traps, past several rocky shoals. Two slick brown seals play at the shoal’s edges, too far away to be seen clearly without binoculars. Passengers begin to settle down, lulled by the ship’s motion and the sun’s warmth.
“Listen. . . .” I whisper to Jack. “It’s so quiet!” The only sounds were the luffing of the sails and a distant bell ringing in a buoy. We can hear the cries of the gulls that trail the occasional lobster boats. White, white birds whip through the blue wind above; the sharp prow of the schooner parts the deep blue waters like a young lover. Seals and porpoises, slip, unseen; swift dark secrets below all of us.
I am imagining myself escaping my wheelchair and rolling towards the the rail. Before anyone knows it, I pull myself overboard, into the icy cold chop. As I sink down, down through the bubbles, I open my eyes, feeling my body grow sleek and streamlined. These useless legs become strong fins that propel me forward with each muscular stroke. I don’t feel the cold; just an exhilarating sense of freedom . . .
“DADDY . . . DADDY! . . . NO . . . Up! . . . Up!” a toddler’s voice splits the air, shocking me so that I nearly do fall out of my chair. If I turn my whole upper body I can see the commotion halfway down on the other side of the deck. Simultaneously, the crew has begun to lower the sails, one of which’s lines have somehow become entangled.
“As we return to the harbor, look up at the top of Sheep Porcupine Mountain there and you will see an eagle’s nest. Yup, there’s an eagle; maybe one of the chicks,” the captain tells us. We can barely see the bird against the dark foliage. The crew takes their places as we enter the harbor.
“Passengers, please return to your seats now while we start the engine to come into the dock.”
We are all straining to hear the captain over the screaming child. With her strawberry ringlets, her little pink sweater and pants, she had worked herself into a tantrum, flailing her arms and legs out to the sides.
“She looks just like a little pink starfish,” a woman tells her husband.
“Daddy . . . Daddy . . . NO UP! . . . Down!” she howls, commanding the attention of all the passengers. As we watch, the furious toddler kicks herself free of her father’s grasp and hangs by one arm, limbs akimbo, exactly (indeed) like a starfish.
“Boy, somebody needs a nap,” the lady near me says. “Glad we’re back in port!”
The child’s piercing shrieks nearly drown out the captain as he thanks us for sailing with him and warns us about walking out on the sandbar to Bar Island. I think he’s saying something about the tide coming in but all I hear is, “Your legs won’t do you any good. . . .”
I watch the child’s mortified parents climb down the wooden stairs carrying the little girl, whose screams are subsiding into a loud wail. Her little legs, however still flail so hard that one of her shoes flies off, nearly slipping into the water. Such strong little legs!
I am the last passenger to exit the ship. Jack and the other crewmen drag me and my chair backwards up the ramp towards the shore, where, I know everyone will complain about how long it takes to get their “land legs” back.
Jealous of her eyebrows. Jealous of her waist. Jealous of his clear skin, her shiny hair, his thin nose, her long, long lashes. Of white teeth, straight teeth, of that cupid’s bow smile. Jealous of high cheek bones, slim thighs, sloping fingernails. Of confident bodies. Of big eyes, any color but brown.
Jealous of eighty-dollar leggings. Of that perfectly distressed pair of jeans that can only mean money. Once, I considered saving up for a Vineyard Vines shirt until I realized the only difference between that and my other t-shirts was the associated name. Jealous of the ability to call $30 cheap. Jealous of hands warmed by chai tea lattes, Septembers with back-to-school wardrobes, and replacing beat up shoes. Every time I buy groceries, I think about how studies show that using those insidious little plastic cards in our wallets instead of paper money separates the pleasure of consumption from the pain of payment. Jealous of those who don’t notice dimes on the sidewalk, jealous of saying yes to dinner plans. Jealous of living without the weight of expenses. Of financial stability, of choosing a college based on what you dream, not what you can afford.
Jealous of living without the anxiety from still trying to dream, anyway.
Once back in grade school, I pocketed a large quartz rock from my friend’s car while her mom drove us home, then turned to show her through the rolled-down window as if I had just discovered it in my front lawn. The stone burned in my hand. As the car disappeared back around the corner, I threw it into the bushes.
Jealous of those who look sincere when they apologize. Jealous of those who weep during sad movies without feeling ashamed.
Jealous of tap experience, physiognomic dexterity, eye contact, vibrato, nasal resonance, she who could belt above a high C, he who could slip into personalities like second skins, they who fit the director’s visual cast of the character. The it cliques in my high school drama department were corroded by years of exposure to peer comparison, hierarchical power structures, and survival-of-the-fittest mentality. To befriend was to envy; at the end of the day, we were all enemies clinging to one another.
Athena’s jealousy created war, snake-haired gorgons, and spiders. Mine just perpetuates pathetic self-pity.
Jealous of realistically drawn portraits, well written prose, new ideas; jealous of feeling that invigorating spark of the creative genius, of the semblance of originality. Jealous of conveying exactly what I mean out loud, not only on paper. Of the minds that create around me, if only because they are not connected to my own. Jealous of enough sleep. Of foreheads without furrows, yet also of foreheads furrowed in concentration. Jealous of un-torn lips, hairlines without bald patches from constant pulling. Of easy grins. Of small acts of kindness, a listening ear, thinking without bias, the ability to be selfless. Jealous of calming voices, caring hands, of quick trust and incautious friendship. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains, but I have to drive over every one I come across. Of internal monologues without the corruption of static, and being able to defend the truth in the face of blackmailed affections. Jealous of integrity. Jealous of loving others far from the looming guillotine of hyperbolic thoughts.
The truth is I like my eye color. Only in photographs do I find it lacking.
The Indefinable Armoire
You’re in Pier One, a sort–of upscale Oriental import store, about to spend $800 on an armoire the saleslady tells you is from Indonesia. You’ve been stalking the armoire for weeks, popping into Pier One on your lunch hour, wandering amidst tinted blue glassware ringed with red rubies, a mirrored bedroom set you find totally undesirable, and rattan love seats with matching chairs and ottomans painted an unattractive maroon like the color of the Ford Spitfire your parents had in the 1950s. But the armoire you’ve been eyeing has a delicate indefinable color, a cross between lime green and teal blue that reminds you of summer and the scent of the ocean.
You have outgrown your hippie days when rent was a bourgeois obligation you felt entitled to ignore. You no longer stuff your underwear into a milk crate and push it under your bed. You now have a law degree, a well-paying job, a dresser, credit cards, woolen suits, high heel shoes.
Despite the mini-drama of your lunch-hour comings and goings, you know you’re going to buy the armoire. You just need gestation time. The saleslady has a high tolerance for 236
your strain of aberrant behavior, feigned ambivalence, as natural for you as gravity’s pull, always present, weighing you down.
It should be, you think, the simplest of formulae: See. Like. Want. Buy. But nothing is simple for you about wanting.
Twelve years old, you and your mother are on the subway barreling towards the department stores in Downtown Brooklyn. You secret your teenage heart’s passions—the plaid-pleated skirt all the girls are wearing, the baby-blue cardigan, soft as desire—inside your not-quite-blossoming body, two bullets for tits is mostly what you remember. Your mother insists on rummaging through the sales racks at May’s, the marked-down, everything’s-a-bargain mecca for those who hurt for money, and those, like your mother, who can’t stand to spend it. Your mother heads for the Junior’s department in the sub-basement, where miscellaneous rejects—a cardigan minus its buttons, a skirt missing a zipper—hang in out-of-size order.
As the escalator clanks down, you reluctantly ask, “How about going to A & S?” telling yourself, don’t let her know how much you’d prefer it. A for Abraham and S for Strauss is the upscale store down the block.
“Don’t be fooled by chichi labels and fancy names,” your mother says.
You scour the miscellanea until you find a lemon yellow blouse. You pull it off the rack, count the buttons, hold its billowy cotton up to the florescent lights, checking for stains. You say to your mother, “I think it’s ugly,” for in the exhausting strategy you perfected in childhood you know that your not wanting the blouse may be reason enough for your mother to buy it.
Now at Pier One, there’s cash in your checking account and credit on your charge cards, so money’s not the issue. The saleslady recognizes you, the recidivist ruminator, and slogs over.
“So, how’s work?” she asks.
“The usual,” you say, curt and dismissive, the way you usually talk to your mother.
“Is today finally the day?” she asks.
You’re about to say “yup” when suddenly all you can think is, what would my mother say?
But you know what your mother would say. After ogling the price tag, she’d say, So much for an armoire? Really? Or she’d say, What’s wrong with closets? Or say, Such thin wood. You should get a darker color, even though the thickness of wood has nothing to do with its color.
The saleslady takes out her pen. She begins to scribble the model number on a pad she’s pulled from her apron pocket. But instead of “yup,” you say “stop.” You tell her you want to think about it, because first, you have to deal with your mother.
“Your mother’s here?” she says.
“Often,” you say.
You sit in a black-and-white rattan chair, its back arced into the shape of peacock feathers, part of the outdoor patio display. A combination flamboyant fowl and Oriental throne, the chair sells for $450, and you can’t imagine anyone who would be out of her mind enough to buy it.
“It’s my money,” you say to your mother once you’ve settled into the rattan chair.
“So, go spend it,” she says. She bends go spend it into its opposite: Why in the world would you want to buy that stupid armoire?
So you say, “Don’t be nasty.”
“Who’s being nasty?”
“You know exactly who’s being nasty.”
Then she says, “I know who’s not being nasty.”
You’re about to say, “yeah, who?” but before the gunfire gets out of control, you realize you’re never going to get your mother to drop the who’s-being-nasty-to-who stuff. She is, like you’re afraid you’ve become, stubborn.
The saleslady waves from across the store. You wave back, so she saunters over.
“What’s up?” she says. “Did you get through to your mother?”
“Still trying,” you tell her.
As soon as the saleslady’s out of earshot, you say to your mother, “What do you really think of the armoire, Mom?” though you don’t know whether what your mother thinks makes a difference to you anymore, or you just wish it did.
So you don’t know why you’re making such a fuss, or why you’re stuck in the peacock chair waiting for your mother to tell you the armoire’s a fascinating color, a teal that’s tender, like green, and a green that feels blue, like the color of the ocean.
Then you remember running zigzag over the scorching sand, pail and shovel in hand, resting your burning feet on other families’ blankets while your mother lugs the cooler, blanket, and chairs to where her friends sit. You are seven, a spry girl but a tentative swimmer. “No,” your mother shouts as you race towards the ocean. The spray tickles your face. The wet sand soothes your feet. Birds caw. Shrieks of delight merge with the roll of the ocean.
You picture your mother. The straw hat, the sunbaked skin, the unruly hair, the ruby lips, her fulsome breasts packed into a dark navy bathing suit, hands on her hips, planted like a monument in the shifting sand.
You pull yourself out of the peacock chair and wave to the saleslady who’s kept her cautious eye on you. You wonder whether she’s concerned about the sale or worried about you. She hurries over.
“Today’s the day,” you tell her.
“You got through to your mother?” the saleslady asks.
You want to say yes, whether or not it’s not true. But before you can, your mother whispers, “Tell the saleslady I never said ‘no,’ ” though she knows that’s not the truth.
Your mother follows as you proceed to the cash register. She hovers, like bated breath, as you wrestle your Amex card, both rigid and bendable, out of your wallet. Once wrenched free, you grip it like an unruly child, afraid it might slip from your hands.
“One of my favorites,” the saleslady says, pointing past the chaos of the tinseled glassware and the clamor of neon blue to the armoire, its elusive color a wish, an ache, an inchoate longing.
TEXT & IMAGE
Questions and Answers
In Addition to providing a biography,
our contributors answered the following:
1. What’s is the best thing you can get for a dollar?
2. If you could live in the world of any book, what would it be?
3. What was the most embarrassing thing you ever wrote?
4. What is the worst film you’ve ever paid to see?
5. If there was any literary character you could kill off, who would it be?
6. What is in the trunk of your car?
7. What is something you read but wish you hadn’t?
8. What song is your guilty pleasure?
Cathy Allman earned her MFA from Manhattanville College. Her work has appeared in Blue Earth Review, California Quarterly, Crack the Spine, Front Range Review, The Potomac Review, Sanskrit, Talking River, Terminus, Town Creek Poetry and Word Riot, among other journals. See her work at <cathyallman.com>
1. A dollar store magnet that said: “Count your blessings in dog years.”
2. I would like to live in the world of Gatsby, but as Nick, not as Jay or Daisy.
3. A love letter to a one-night stand.
6. At the time of this question, in the trunk of my car contains: a sweater, umbrella, reflective shade to block sun from windshield, golf tees, and sand.
7. New Jack: Guarding Sing Sing.
8. “Blurred Lines.”
Carl Auerbach is a professor of psychology at Yeshiva University, specializing in the psychology of trauma, with an emphasis on collective trauma and mass violence. His work has been published in many literary journals and he has been nominated for four Pushcart prizes. He lives in New York City.
1. A Hershey bar when I am very tired and hungry.
2. Don Quixote.248
3. A short story about a sexual experience that I am too embarrassed to describe further.
4. I can’t remember the title but it had something to do with sunsets and adventures.
5. Julian Sorel in The Red and the Black.
6. I don’t have a car but in the imaginary trunk of my imaginary car there is an imaginary body of a university administrator.
7. Norman Vincent Peale on positive thinking.
8. The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”
Richard Bentley is the author of several books, poems, articles, and reviews. His work and information about buying his books can be found online at <www.dickbentley.com>.
Laurie King Billman has been published in 13th Moon, San Pedro River Review, MacGuffin, Penmen Review, Rambler, Streetlight Magazine, Mom Egg, Not What I Expected: The Unpredictable Road From Womanhood To Motherhood, and Night Whispers. She holds a master’s degree in guidance and counseling, and works as a mental health therapist.
1. Stamps to mail an old fashioned love letter to someone I loved thirty years ago.
2. Robin Hobbs’ world of sea magic, as a dragon.
3. I wrote a stupid love poem and actually gave it to my subject.
4. The last Hobbit movie.
5. I would kill off everyone who doubts The Old Man and The Sea.
6. I have gloves, charger cables, Mickey Mouse wrapping paper, and a pair of black socks in the trunk of my car.
7. I wish I hadn’t read that Trump is president.
8. The Doc McStuffins theme song.
Doug Bolling’s poetry has appeared in Posit, Niche, Connecticut River Review, Redactions, Slant, Isthmus, Visions International, and others. His work has received Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations and, most recently, the 249
Mathiasen Award from Harmony Magazine (Arizona’s Medical Humanities Program).
1. A smile and goodbye.
2. The collected poems of Neruda.
3. My attempted novel at age twelve.
5. Hawthorne’s Chillingworth.
6. You don’t want to know.
8. “White Christmas.”
Francesca Brenner has studied with Jim Krusoe, Jack Grapes, Mark Doty, Ellen Bass, Dorianne Laux. Read her work in OxMag, Crack the Spine, Cutthroat, Common Ground Review, After the Pause, FRE&D, Sanskrit (soon) or hear her during readings by the LA Poets and Writer’s Collective, of which she is a member.
Barbara Brooks, author of the chapbooks The Catbird Sang and A Shell to Return to the Sea. Her work has been accepted in Boston Literary Magazine, Agave Magazine, Peregrine, and Tar River Poetry.
1. A Wendy’s Frosty.
2. Eye of the Albatross.
3. A corny love confession that will never see the light of day.
4. Now You See Me 2.
5. Hercule Poirot.
6. I have a station wagon but it does have the spare.
8. “Tennessee Mountain Home” by Dolly Parton.
Kayla Cash holds an MFA from the University of New Hampshire and is originally from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Her poetry can be found in BOAAT, Gravel, Hollow, and By&By, among other places.250
1. Juicy Fruit. You could actually get a few little packs.
2. I would geek out if I could live in Middle-earth.
3. I was very convinced I could write song lyrics, but instead figured out I knew nothing about music.
4. My arm was twisted to see a Josh Peck movie called Battle of the Year: The Dream Team.
5. Well, Iago really deserves to die from the mess he made of Othello . . .
6. Bottled water, which sometimes doesn’t end well in winter.
7. Basically every fluff Huffington Post thing I’ve ever clicked on.
8. I listen to current pop music stations in my car, so that’s about as guilty as a person can get.
Aimee R. Cervenka recently relocated from Florida to Washington State for the second time in her life. She holds a B.A. in Biology from Rollins College and an MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University. Her poetry has appeared in Poet Lore, The Ampersand Review, Ascent, and others.
1. Something claiming to be chocolate.
2. The Golden Compass. Who wouldn’t want a furry animal companion to share all their thoughts and feelings with?
3. Anything written to an ex.
4. The Hobbit, any of them—that there is more than one is reason enough.
5. General Woundwort from Watership Down.
6. I don’t have a trunk, but if I did it would be boringly empty.
7. A Song of Ice and Fire.
8. “Adia” by Sarah McLachlan.
Daneen Church, once an ad agency staff writer, now enjoys the creative freedom to spin tales and to paint landscapes of the beautiful Susquehanna River Valley surrounding her home. Her writing has appeared in The Writer, Stuffed, and Central Penn Business Journal.
1. The best thing anyone can get for a dollar is the satisfaction of leaving a few extra in a tip.251
2. I would choose to live, at least for a short while, in the Venice that Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti knew in his younger years.
3. I wrote a screenplay many, many years ago that I intend to toss into an evening bonfire one of these nights.
4. I can’t name the worst film I’ve ever paid to see because I delete them from memory after being disappointed.
5. I have no desire to kill off any literary character; even the most despicable is entertaining. Besides, the author usually takes care of paybacks.
6. The trunk of my car is too well-organized and typical to be of any interest.
7. I read a handful of personal letters when I was cleaning out my dead brother’s things and wish I hadn’t.
8. I still belt out The Monkees theme song every now and then.
Orman Day’s prose and poetry have been published by such journals as Creative Nonfiction, ZYZZYVA, Los Angeles Review, Portland Review, Third Coast, Weave, Potomac Review, and Stonecoast. To view a short parody he made with his elderly aunt, go to YouTube and type “Ormie and Aunt Lucille’s Shark Tank.”
1. When the local Dollar Tree is carrying them, I like to spend a dollar of my Social Security check on a carton of fortune cookies, which I nibble like a parakeet at my keyboard.
2. On the Road.
3. In an attempt to bring humor to the pages of a California newspaper, I was assigned to write stories about logrolling against a dog in a lagoon at Knott’s Berry Farm, swirling a red cape in front of angry baby bulls in a Tijuana stadium, etc. I was accused in a letter to the editor of cruelty to animals and of nearly killing my feathered friend. You can imagine the ridicule I faced in the newsroom.
4. I really wanted to love Easy Rider but the cinematic depiction was nothing like the sedate reality.
5. The Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist. I hate pickpockets and other thieves, having been victimized in Tanzania, New Zealand and Brazil (three times).
6. A softball mitt last used in a game two decades ago, some softballs still 252
in their plastic wrapping, torn maps of Maryland and Pennsylvania, coolant, burr-dotted blankets and assorted whatnots caked with dust.
7. When I worked for a California university, I helped judge a regional contest for the best press release. One of them reported the findings of a professor whose research revealed why some bowel movements float and others sink to the bottom of the bowl.
8. “The Sound of Music.”
Michael Estabrook is retired. No more useless meetings under florescent lights in stuffy windowless rooms, able instead to focus on making better poems when he’s not, of course, endeavoring to satisfy his wife’s legendary Honey-Do List.
Jim Garber found his poetic voice decades ago in an old junk shop behind some unstrung banjos. In his work he revels in the rhythms and tones of everyday speech interspersed with quotidian absurdities. His other passions include singing and playing music on fiddle, mandolin, guitar and ukulele.
1. 100 shiny pennies (more quantity than quality).
2. Time and Again by Jack Finney and The Alienist by Caleb Carr—I love historic books taking place in old New York City.
3. A love letter to my teacher in second grade. I don’t know why she didn’t tell me she was married.
4. Barfly with Mickey Rourke though I have lately been reading Bukowski’s poetry. I may have to re-watch that film.
5. The narrator in Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” during the supreme madness of the carnival season.
6. Certainly a spare tire and a jack. I am afraid to look. Possibly a family of raccoons. What’s that scratching noise?
7. The nutritional info/fat content of my favorite dark chocolate.
8. Tom Wait’s “Hold On” – a full length movie with cinematic imagery in just a few short verses.
Aaron Garretson is currently on hiatus from Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Opium, Night Train, Hermano Cerdo, and The Village Voice, among other places. 253
1. A pencil.
2. Either Treasure Island or The Guermantes Way.
3. A wedding speech.
4. Too many to count.
5. Tom Buchanan.
6. A beach blanket and a stroller.
7. There’s always something to be learned, even from the bad ones.
8. “The Lady in Red” by El DeBarge.
Mary Catherine Harper has poems in The Comstock Review, Cold Mountain Review, Old Northwest Review, Pudding Magazine, and MidAmerica. She received the 2013 Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, and her chapbook Some Gods Don’t Need Saints was recently released. She organizes an annual SwampFire Retreat for artists and writers. See <www.swampfire.org>.
1. The curly fries at a local bar/restaurant in Defiance, Ohio—food of the gods. Why are crispy potatoes dripping with oil so damned good?
2. The space-station world of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves—for all the conflicts among the humans, for all the angst over the demise of life on planet earth, the science of space life is fascinating.
3. A novel—autobiographical, I confess—about an impoverished rural family “weathering” snowstorms, tornadoes, and drought . . . that’s when I realized I was a poet. I’m much too melodramatic to write fiction.
4. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the best-worst film I could count on for Friday midnight excursions.
5. The Corinthian of several of Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels. As the truly horrific side of human nature, he just keeps coming back to terrorize us. I’d like to end him for good.
6. Bags of recycling materials, mostly plastics no. 1 and 2 and steel cans, but some empty spaghetti sauce jars also. On my road trips out to Kansas and Colorado—I recently got stranded in an ice storm in Missouri while trying to get to Dodge City for a family wedding—I never have enough room in my trunk for luggage. Recycling in the trunk, luggage filling the back seat, granola wrappers and music CDs covering the passenger seat, that’s my car.254
7. Though I find myself reading The Body Artist about once every two years and love other novels by Don DeLillo—Underworld, White Noise, Point Omega, Falling Man—Eric Packer of Cosmopolis truly irritated me. I wish I could have laughed at the satire, I truly tried.
8. Tom Waits’ “What’s He Building in There,” just because it’s so abnormal but so common. Paranoia about neighbors who are different from us is something we’re not supposed to feel, but we do, we do, I fear we do.
Delaney Heisterkamp studies Creative and Professional Writing at Miami University. After a short lifetime of writing flash fiction and creating surrealist drawings, she now explores poetry, creative nonfiction, and paper sculpture. Her poetry has been published in Inklings, and she has another nonfiction piece forthcoming in Catfish Creek.
1. Either a cone of soft-serve ice cream or a used poetry anthology. Forget diamonds; second-hand bookstores are a girl’s best friend.
2. J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World. As a bibliophile weaned on the Harry Potter series, all I ask is that I end up neither squib nor muggle should this longstanding wish come true.
3. A short tale where an island of talking animals maintained peaceful relations while observing the circle of life by digging magical meat from the ground instead of eating one another. The story won awards within my school district, too; I currently keep the original copy hidden underneath my bed.
4. Jupiter Ascending. The most terrible aspect was that I had somehow managed to enter the movie theater with high hopes, which was my first mistake.
5. Kill is such a strong, irreversible action! When I say I wish I could kill off Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, I mean I wish the monstrous aspect of his story arc wasn’t as relevant to the novel’s overall message as it is.
6. A dead car battery, twelve battered cookbooks, and a reusable shopping bag from Blick. As my sister noted, there’s still enough space in there to host a card game.
7. Brave New World—one dystopia that didn’t do as much for me literary-wise.
8. “Bailando” by Enrique Iglesias.255
Sarah Hendess holds a B.S. in Professional Writing from Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania (as Sarah Clark, class of 2003) and an M.A. in History from the University of Central Florida. She teaches history in Lake Mary, Florida, where she lives with her husband, son, and too many pets.
2. I was born to be a queen of Narnia.
3. Love notes to my high school boyfriend.
4. The Wicker Man with Nicholas Cage.
5. Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye. I can’t stand that whiny brat.
6. Jumper cables, an air compressor, and a tarp. Apparently, I expect disaster.
7. See #5.
8. “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees. I cried when Davy Jones died.
Anne Hosansky’s books include the popular memoir Widow’s Walk and four other books. Her short stories and poems have been published in the US, Canada, England and Israel. She teaches writing in New York. In her “other life,” she was an actor.
1. One hundred shiny new pennies, because a new penny supposedly brings good luck.
2. I’d live inside Andersen’s fairy tales so I could have a personal fairy godmother. I’d also request a magic carpet, so I could avoid rush hour traffic.
3. I’m ebarassed about the fat-thin articles I wrote when I edited a newsleter for Weight Watchers.
4. Worst film must have been deleted from my mind.
5. I’d like to kill off David Copperfield’s cruel stepfather.
6. I sold my car last year. I wonder if the new owner keeps the trunk as messy as I did.
7. I don’t usually regret reading any book but perhaps it should be Comrac McCarthy’s The Road, because it’s so bleak and terrifying—and possible given the terrible state of the world now.
8. I confess my secret guilt about a tun is “Happy Birthday to You.” I get embarrassingly weepy whenever it’s played. Lost childhood?256
Myke Johns is a public radio producer in Atlanta, Georgia, where he co-anchors Write Club, a live lit series which kicks the ass of most any poetry reading you’d care to name. His work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, Creative Loafing Atlanta, The Tusk, Used Gravitrons, and the anthology Bare-Knuckled Lit.
1. My first instinct with dollar items is to list candy or stuff off fast food menus (that $0.99 chocolate Frosty is for real, y’all), but I think the best thing you can get for a dollar is four plays on just about any pinball machine. Me? I really like the Addams Family machine that was a tie-in to the 1991 movie. I spent a good bit of time in shopping mall arcades in front of that one.
2. I’ve wanted to climb into James Gurney’s gorgeous book Dinotopia since I was eleven years old and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
3. The vast bulk of my written output is deeply, scarlet-facedly embarrassing to me, so there’s a lot to choose from here. There was a story I wrote after that one soul-denting breakup in high school (you know the one) which never left my notebook and was just the most tortured, self-destructive bit of crazy. I let exactly one person read it, and boy, the look of horror on their face was the kind of sobering moment I hope never to need again. The most embarrassing thing I’ve written which still exists is probably my resume.
4. My friends and I saw a lot of crap at the multiplex back in high school. Like, Mortal Kombat was terrible, but I don’t actually remember much about it apart from the last-second cliffhanger ending they tacked on to set up a sequel no one asked for. The Dennis Quaid/Sean Connery buddy-comedy-disguised-as-a-medieval-action-film Dragonheart was just awful and I remember in that beat between the end of the movie and the beginning of the credits, in the silent, darkened theatre my girlfriend blurted out “That SUCKED,” and that was hilarious enough to maybe make that worth sitting through once. But I think the worst film I ever paid money to see was the George Clooney/Arnie Schwarzenegger Batman & Robin. That movie is garbage.
5. Tom Sawyer when he shows up in the last act of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We’ve been on this harrowing journey with really high stakes, and then this fuckin’ rich kid shows up to play pretend for the length of a Bible. GOD. Go home, dude.
6. In the hatchback of my car right now, I’ve got a bag full of XLR and ¼” cables and a few SM58s.257
7. Something I read but wish I hadn’t? The last act of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
8. I don’t really go in for the whole “guilty pleasure” thing. If you like something, own it, it’s okay. Like, I’m not going to play ashamed at how much I like Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Making The Most Of The Night” (a whole hell of a lot, that song rules). There are certainly corners of my music collection I don’t talk about much, mostly because the number of people willing to nod and smile while I enthuse about, let’s say Ferrante & Teicher’s Hot Latin Nights album (two pianos, y’all. Now that’s a party) or Plebeian Grandstand’s absolutely terrifying catalog is approaching zero. The closest I’ve got to a guilty pleasure might be t.A.T.u.’s Russian language stuff. Yeah. Judging by the number of times I’ve typed and deleted that, I guess that qualifies.
Michelle Kubilis is a recent graduate of Lesley University, where she received a B.A. in Creative Writing with a minor in Psychology. She has been published in Boston Poetry Magazine and Commonthought. Michelle has also completed two editorial internships at The Marble Collection and DigBoston Magazine and plans on pursuing a career in literary publishing. Her portfolio can be found at <michellekubilis.wordpress.com>.
1. A Hershey’s Milk Chocolate King-Size bar with almonds. The perfect snack for a queen while she’s Netflix n’ chilling by herself.
2. Harry Potter. I’m still holding out for my Hogwarts acceptance letter. It’s only about a decade late . . .
3. When I was a young lassie, I used to run a Twilight RPG forum. I was the only participant, so I created in-depth character profiles and role-played from each of them . . . with myself. Cringe.
4. The Room is both the best and worst film that I’ve ever watched. Written, directed, and produced by Tommy Wiseau, The Room is a wannabe drama that comes across as a “how you SHOULDN’T make a movie” movie. It’s absolutely breathtaking.
5. Holden Caulfield. He’s whiny, overly obsessed with “phonies,” and a little too reminiscent of our Commander in Chief.
6. I don’t have a car because Boston drivers terrify me.
7. Twilight. I wrote better fanfiction than that when I was twelve. Step it up, Stephanie Meyer. 258
8. I rock out HARD to the Pokémon theme song. “I WANNA BE THE VERY BEST. THAT NO ONE EVER WAS” BUM BUM BUM. “TO CATCH THEM. IS MY REAL TEST. TO TRAIN THEM IS MY CAUUUUUSE.” BUM BUM BUM.
Christopher Kuhl, a native of northern New York state, holds bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and music composition, as well as two masters of music degrees and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Arts. He reads and has been published widely. His other interests include classical Greek and Hebrew, as well as drawing and music.
1. An egg slicer.
2. The Hobbit.
3. “Christopher Dreaming” (a love/hate relationship for me).
4. Mockingjay Part 1.
5. Helen of Troy.
6. I don’t have a car.
7. Portnoy’s Complaint.
8. “The Man” (Aloe Blacc).
Abbie Lahmers is a fiction MFA candidate at Georgia College and State University and the managing editor of Arts & Letters. She is also an editor of 2040 Books, a multicultural imprint from the Santa Fe Writer’s Project. Her work has appeared in Pif Magazine, Beecher’s, and Flyway: A Journal of Environmental Writing.
1. A can of cat food.
2. Any of the worlds in Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble.
3. The steamy romance sci-fi novellas I ghost-wrote for petty cash this summer.
4. I Am Number Four.
5. The Bird Man in Swamplandia.
6. Sleeping bag, jumper cables.
7. “Dog’s Death,” John Updike.259
8. “Just Like Heaven,” The Cure.
Naomi Ruth Lowinsky won the Blue Light Poetry Prize for The Little House on Stilts Remembers. A new collection of essays, The Rabbi, The Goddess and Jung: Getting the Word from Within has just been published. Lowinsky is a Jungian Analyst. She blogs about poetry and life at <sisterfrombelow.com>.
1. A pen.
2. Little, Big by John Crowley.
3. An attempt at a novel, Nina in Progress. Nina did not progress well.
4. Ghostbusters. Didn’t work for me since ghosts are my regular companions.
5. The Inquisitor who condemned Giordano Bruno to be burned at the stake for his heretical ideas about multiple worlds, as described in Czeslaw Milosz’ poem “Campo dei Fiori.” The Inquisitor never shows up in the poem, but we know he’s responsible for Bruno’s terrible death and that of so many others.
6. Bags for shopping, an ancient pair of sneakers and a backpack with supplies in case of an earthquake.
7. People magazine.
8. “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bakini.”
Lisa Meckel, presenter for the Big Read honoring poet Robinson Jeffers, has been published in Rattle, Nimrod International Journal, Reed Magazine, Mirboo, North News, Victoria, Australia and many other journals. She has received first prize for poetry three times at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.
1. I can get a small happiness by giving it to a homeless person.
2. Jane Eyre.
3. A very short play I wrote when I was six that was published. I earned a dollar!
4. A film I walked out on full of an excess of violence staring a “heartthrob” of the time. I’ve repressed the name of it.
6. Hard copies of my poems and novels. I live in a drought environment and fire danger is a constant so I’m ready to evacuate.260
7. I don’t read books I’m going to regret reading.
8. “A Change is Gonna Come” sung by Sam Cooke and “Space Oddity” by David Bowie, sung by Chris Hadfield.
Jesse Minkert lives in Seattle. In 2008, Wood Works Press published a letterpress collection of his microstories, Shortness of Breath & Other Symptoms. His work has appeared in about fifty journals including the Georgetown Review, Confrontation, Mount Hope, Floating Bridge Review, Poetry Northwest, Common Knowledge, and Harpur Palate.
1. The only thing I can get for a dollar is a bus ride, but only because I have a disability pass. Normal people pay $2.50.
2.The world of Grill Saga because it is a world full of artists constantly getting in trouble. Don’t rush to Amazon to buy it, not just yet. It’s mine and it’s not quite done.
3. I once wrote a short story in which the protagonist was an image of who I thought I was at the time.
4. I went with my wife to a movie in Victoria, BC, about the Paris commune. About halfway through, the theater owner came out and told us the movie was so bad he couldn’t force us to watch any more of it. He gave everybody refunds. It was a pretty strongly leftist move. His judgment may have been colored by this. However, it was agonizingly long and slow, and in French.
5. Raskolnikov, definitely. All of the Karamazov brothers. Everybody in Chekhov can live, except Gusev, of course. Every single character in Infinite Jest, starting with the FBI agent in drag and the wheelchair assassin.
6. I don’t drive.
7. A Conspiracy of Fools.
8. All of my songs are guilty pleasures. Probably the guiltiest would be Charles Mingus’s “Devil Blues” on Changes One, but when I play it I don’t feel guilty! I feel like I’m riding the Drifter through a thunderstorm!
Frank C. Modica is a retired special education teacher living in Urbana, Illinois, with his dachshund, Nero. He likes bicycle riding, history, brussels sprouts, dark beer, and asparagus. Since his retirement he volunteers with a number of arts and social service organizations in his community.
1. A decent pair of sunglasses for riding my bicycle. 261
2. The world of The Lord of the Rings.
3. A love note to my seventh grade girlfriend; I accidentally dropped it on the school playground, and the principal read most of it to our class.
4. Modesty Blaise.
5. I would kill Richard III before the Battle of Bosworth.
6. I have jumper cables, a blanket, and a shopping bag in the trunk of my car.
7. Answered Prayers by Truman Capote.
8. “When You Close Your Eyes” by Night Ranger.
Linda Reardon Neal wrote her first poems in high school. She’s always been fascinated with words and feelings and the relationship between them. She studied literature at Pomona College, earned a degree in linguistics and a master’s degree in clinical psychology. Dodge & Burn, her poetry memoir, came out in 2014.
1. A big “thank you” from the Salvation Army volunteer who’s ringing the bell for charity.
2. So many worlds created in literature fascinate me, from the Tahiti of Charles Strickland in The Moon and Sixpence, to the landscape of Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer and the other-worldly land of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.
3. I once wrote a letter to a poetry teacher and minor star in the literary world calling her a bitch—and I mailed it.
4. Earthquake was so predictably bad that I walked out and left my family in the theatre. Trouble was I could hear it all from the lobby where I sat doing needlepoint. A surprise walk-out was The Railwayman which I thought I would like because it starred two greats, Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, but I found it tedious and overwrought.
5. Even the worst villains usually have some redeeming qualities. Besides, without the bad guys, there’d be no story.
6. The trunk of my car is a treasure chest of hats, sweaters and extra shoes, along with an out-of-date emergency kit.
7. After she died, I read my mother’s rambling diatribes, mostly about me. I should have burned them sight unseen.262
8. Any song by Damien Rice goes deep. Probably Elephant is the one. I watch his concert at the “Best Kept Secret Festival” in Holland when I want “a fix.”
Judith I. Padow received an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She was a semi-finalist in the 2016-17 Tucson Book Festival nonfiction essay contest, and has had her work read at “Above the Bridge,” a reading series in New York City. Also a lawyer, she practices unionside labor law.
Alita Pirkopf became increasingly interested in feminist interpretations of literature after receiving a master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Denver. Years later she enrolled in a poetry class after which poetry became a long-term focus and necessity.
1. Assorted candies for grandchildren at several visits to Annie’s Café.
2. I was big on dog stories and loved Lad of Sunnybrook. I would in that case be a dog. Maybe some people treated Lad badly, but I think there was a freedom and warmth, something that has remained with me all my life.
3. Love letter to disinterested recipient.
4. I don’t remember any movies that I paid for that didn’t have some merit.
5. Raskolnikov, but not really. Siberia was better.
6. Fragrant cider spill from a bottle with a top that blew off when accidentally left in the car during an Arctic cold spell.
7. A book about Hitler describing scientific experiments.
8. “Strangers in the Night.”
Irena Praitis is the author of five books of poems, most recently The Last Stone in the Circle, winner of the 2015 Red Mountain Poetry Prize. She was a Fulbright Scholar to Vilnius, Lithuania and teaches creative writing and literature at California State University, Fullerton.
2. The world of Pride and Prejudice but only if I get to be Elizabeth Bennet.
3. An apology poem to a high school friend.
4. Star Wars: Episode II— Attack of the Clones.263
5. All of the characters in Sanctuary. Runner up: all of the characters in Journey to the End of the Night.
6. Nothing. Really.
7. DeLillo’s White Noise.
8. “When Doves Cry” by Prince.
Donna Pucciani, Chicago-based writer, has published poetry on four continuents in such journals as Poetry Salzburg, Istanbul Literary Review, Shi Chao Poetry, Journal of Italian Translation, Acumen and Feile-Festa. Her work has been translated into Italian, Chinese, Japanese, and German. In addition to five Pushcast nominations, she has won awards from the Illinois Art Council and The National Federation of State Poetry Societies, among others. Her seventh and most recent collection of poems is Edges (Purple Flag Press, 2016).
1. Another day.
2. Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal.
3. My first poem.
4. I Am Love.
5. St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre.
6. Sensible stuff like the spare, snow shovel, etc.
7. Ivanhoe (on my high school reading list!).
8. Anything by Tony Bennett or Henri Salvador.
Kelly Quigg is a proud recent graduate of Slippery Rock University and former staff member of SLAB. Her favorite pastimes include obsessively analyzing song lyrics, daydreaming about keeping an owl as a pet, and ingesting an unhealthy amount of sugar.
1. The library I work at has a used book room that sells paperbacks at two for a dollar. That’s probably the best use for a dollar I could ever think of. I get cheap books and the library gets money; it’s a win-win for everyone.
2. Walden. I would accept a life as a hermit on a lake in a second if I could. (I say this, but I’d be stir-crazy in a week, if that.)
3. A song when I was five. There were several problems with it, most importantly that I cannot sing, but also that the song repeated the same meaning264
less eight words over and over. I think it had something to do with the stars being happy.
4. Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist that is another level of screwed up. In the first half, you think it’s just a movie about a depressed family after a tragedy, but the second half will leave you horrified and cringing. I am scarred from this film, and I’m a horror fanatic that is tough to rattle, so do with that information what you will. It’s on Netflix, so check it out if I made it compelling enough for you.
5. Catherine from A Farewell to Arms, the most pathetic female character in the history of novels. Catherine, get your shit together!
6. One emergency duffle bag (jumper cables and flashlights, not fake passports and hair dye), an empty cupcake box from my days as a baker, and about five cinderblocks because winter weather is terrifying to drive in.
7. There is no book I regret reading. Even the shit ones teach you something—typically, it’s as simple as “don’t read that author again.” Looking at you, E.L. James.
8. “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction. I typically listen to songs written by forlorn men in way-too-tight skinny jeans, so 1D’s happy teen vibe is far from typical for me. I hope that doesn’t sound as pretentious as it is.
Demi Richardson is a California native and a Pennsylvania transplant. She studies writing and identity theory in contemporary literature. Her work has previously been published with Words Dance and Broken Tooth Press, and is forthcoming with Red Flag Poetry. She is an avocado junkie and nap enthusiast.
1. Multiple cups of lemonade from some kid’s stand.
2. Alice’s Wonderland, FOR SURE.
3. When I was really young I wrote a bunch of short stories about goats on a farm that had their own system of government . . . that was a weird time.
4. Ew, definitely The Vow. I regret every minute and penny spent on that experience.
5. Beowulf, from, uh, Beowulf. Before he actually dies. (Sorry, spoiler.)
6. Hopefully a spare tire. Realistically: too much junk.
7. Pretty much everything in my newsfeed immediately following election 265
8. “Fashion” by David Bowie (except it’s just pleasure—no guilt involved whatsoever).
John Roth lives in Akron, Ohio. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in places such as The Bitter Oleander, Gargoyle, and Off The Coast.
1. A 32 oz Polar Pop from Circle K.
2. Fifty Shades of Grey. What can I say? I’m kinky like that.
3. Choose any one of the poems I’ve ever written. That’s it.
4. The Hobbit. Come at me Tolkien fanboys!
5. Holden Caulfield. This might extend to teenagers in general though.
6. Not without a search warrant.
7. My thesis. Dear Lord that thing needs some help.
8. “Scooby Doo” by Elephant man. Dancehall is fiya!
Bradley Samore currently lives in North Carolina and is a high school English teacher. Bradley previously worked for the Spanish Ministry of Education as a culture and language assistant in Asturias, Spain.
1. A pencil/pen.
2. The Lord of the Rings.
3. Love poems to a woman who I thought loved me.
4. Bad News Bears (Billy Bob Thornton version).
5. Sauron from The Lord of the Rings.
6. Jumper cables, emergency roadside equipment, two towels, a recycling bin.
7. A calculus textbook.
8. “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley.
Rikki Santer’s work has appeared in various publications including Ms. Magazine, Poetry East, Margie, Slab, Crab Orchard Review, RHINO, Grimm, Slipstream, and The Main Street Rag. She was a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee and her fifth collection is due out this spring from NightBallet Press.266
Christopher C. Slomiak became a full-time hotelier by day and aspiring writer by night after graduating from Boston University with a degree in English Education. His first short story, “Untouchable,” was published last year in Heart & Mind Zine and was given the Judge’s Choice Award for being the highest-rated story of the issue.
1. A McChicken sandwich from McDonald’s.
2. I’m a fan of fantasy, so I would love to quest through Tolkien’s world.
3. My brother asked me to be his best man, and since I had no idea how to write a speech, I wrote a poem instead. It was well received, but I remember sweating through the entire speech.
4. My friends convinced me to go watch Get Rich or Die Tryin’ . . . . I couldn’t take 50 Cent or the movie seriously and remember laughing at how absurd the film was throughout.
5. Joffrey Baratheon . . . he’s already dead, but I’d do it again.
6. There’s nothing in my trunk. I keep my car very, very clean.
7. I started Fifty Shades of Grey because of the hype and regretted it almost immediately. I never got even close to finishing it.
8. I used to sing this in the shower when I was in elementary school without even realizing what the lyrics of “Woman in Love” by Barbra Streisand said.
Marc Tretin is a retired attorney. His book, Pink Matress, was just released by New York Quarterly Press. He lives with three cats, an eighteen-year-old yellow mutt, a bunny, two underemployed adult children, and a wife who loves him more than he deserves.
1. Any used book with passionate underlining.
2. Tristram Shandy.
3. My Mother’s Recipe for Belly Button Lint—the Dietetic Version.
4. Hard Candy.
5. Achilles in The Iliad.
6. Unwashed gym shorts, rock salt, a broken umbrella, and a flashlight with dead batteries.
8. “She is More to Be Pitied than Censured.”
Elizabeth Underwood is a fourth-generation Californian (rare species). She has been writing poetry since fifth grade and copywriting and copy editing for advertising since 1992. She has been an on-air talent for six radio stations. Currently, she volunteers at KWMR as host and programmer of To Hell and Bach, which (eventually) integrates almost all genres of music and spoken word.
1. A tangerine.
2. I’m pretty astounded by the world I live in now, but: Island of the Blue Dolphins (except I would want the company of humans).
3. Definitely an email sent to the wrong recipient.
4. Eraserhead. (I know—a highly acclaimed art film by David Lynch, a great director. Still . . .)
5. Littlefinger in Game of Thrones—but I’m pretty sure he’s going to get his soon anyway.
6. I have a VW van, so I don’t have a trunk, I have a bed.
7. Generally speaking: the news.
8. “Walking on Sunshine” (Katrina and The Waves). Totally guilty! (Less embarrassing: “Not Enough Time” by INXS.)
Marcel Lamont (M.L.) Walker is a lifelong resident of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and graduate of The Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He works as a freelance illustrator, graphic designer, comic-book creator, photographer, and art instructor. For several years he taught comic-book creation classes, workshops and camps for children and adults at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. He continues to instruct at Pittsburgh’s ToonSeum, where he is also a member of their Board of Directors. He has also contributed artwork for their NORTH and OAKLAND anthology comic-books. He is the lead artist, book designer, and project coordinator for Chutz-Pow! Superheroes of the Holocaust, an anthology comic-book produced by The Holocaust Center of Greater Pittsburgh. He was also the featured artist in Comic-Tanium! The Super Materials Of The Superheroes, a sciences-and-art exhibit sponsored by The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society that toured nationally in 2015. As the creator, artist and writer of the independent comic-book Hero Corp., International, he has recast his friends and associates in a world of coporate American superheroes. For the next installment, he received a 2016 grant from the Advancing Black Arts 268
in Pittsburgh Program courtesy of The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments. See his work at <marcelwalker.com>.
1. Time for a friend to park their car for a while, so we can get coffee and catch up.
2. Somewhere really docile, where I’d be the weirdest, most threatening thing in existence. I was going to say the Paddington Bear or Winnie the Pooh books, but living toys are actually pretty weird already.
3. I sent a friend an email once, chastising him for being so unpleasant to be around after he’d just broken up with a mutual friend. It was such a blunt message that, to this day, I’ve never re-read it. Surprisingly, it worked and I’m still really close to both of those friends!
4. Van Helsing was a colossal waste of an opportunity. You know a movie is bad when you walk out of the theater with a better spec script already composed in your head.
5. Mister from The Color Purple, and Bob Ewell from To Kill a Mockingbird.
6. Since I don’t drive, and my car is therefore imaginary, I’m going to say my identity-relocation bag. And Twizzlers.
7. The reader comments on any positive online post about Barack Obama.
8. “We Built This City” by Starship. I’m a child of the ‘80s, without question.
Lucinda Watson has published her poems in The Louisville Review, Inkwell, Poet Lore, Healing Muse, The Lindenwood Review, Stickman Review, Pennsylvania English, Penman Review and Jelly Bucket. She is a member of American Pen Women and published a book of nonfiction in 2001, How They Achieved (Wiley).
1. An apple
2. Little Women.
3. “My Autobiography”—A description of all my cars.
4. By the Sea.
5. Melanie in Gone With the Wind.
6. Backpack for earthquakes, dog bowls and water, a blanket, French books, and lipstick.269
7. The Goldfinch.
8. “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.”
Bobbie Wayne has a BA (music) and an MFA (Art.) She was a painter (Abstract, Portrait, and sign), music therapist, singer/songwriter, Nashville songwriter and plays Celtic harp. She studied writing at Grub Street in Boston. She has been published in The RavensPerch, and Intrinsick.
1. A cup of coffee for a cold person down on their luck out on the street.
2. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling, but only if I were a talented young witch and one of Harry’s classmates.
3. “You Can’t Find a Bathroom in the City of New York,” a hilarious patter song which was published in Vicky Rovere’s book, Where to Go. The song followed me around, regardless of what other serious or beautiful works I wrote, eventually being quoted by Clive Barnes in The New York Times. I’m sure it will end up on my gravestone.
4. A Brigette Bardot film, the title of which I have (mercifully) forgotten. Very little story line and a repetitive musical theme which crescendoed (like a dentist’s drill) at every love scene. It’s the only film on which I’ve ever walked out.
5. There are no characters, literary or otherwise, whom I would kill. That said, the George Harvey character in Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones would be first on my list for permanent incarceration.
6. My car’s trunk contains a broken first-aid kit, a tire iron, several ropes and bungies, my work-out bag and a large granite rock.
7. One particular New York July, when the temperature never dipped below 100 degrees, I was so overwhelmed by the heat and humidity that I spent the entire month sitting naked on my couch swearing and crying, reading a perfectly awful series of Scottish romance novels recommended to me by a Scottish harper friend.
8. From Dvorak’s opera, “Rousalka,” the aria is Rousalka’s “Song to the Moon,” a song so full of yearning that it breaks my heart. I wish I had written it.
Ken Williams worked as a social worker for the homeless in Santa Barbara, CA. He is a disabled combat Marine veteran of the Vietnam War whose writings have been published both at home and abroad.270
1. Lotto ticket.
2. In Spain, 1930s—Homage To Catalonia, George Orwell.
3. A union leaflet with a LOT of misspellings.
4. Love Story!
5. I am a neo-pacifist so I would not kill anyone, but I would displace, isolate or otherwise contain Big Brother in 1984.
6. Jacket. First-Aid kit. Flat tire kit. My novels.
7. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. I was deeply depressed for weeks.
8. “Moon River.”
Tim Wood is the author of two books of poems, Otherwise Known as Home (BlazeVOX, 2010) and Notched Sunsets (Atelos, 2016). He is an associate professor of English at SUNY Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York.
1. A hundred pennies.
2. Milton’s Paradise before it was lost, but only because I imagine it as a grownup version of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.
3. A villanelle elegizing my cat, Corazon, after he was hit by a car.
4. Dirty Grandpa, on the recommendation of my teenage son, especially since I also paid for his younger brother and his grandma to see it with us.
5. I would rather save Elpenor in Homer’s Odyssey than kill a character off. But if pressed, I would get rid of “the little boy” in The Giving Tree. We must do what we can to protect the environment from human avarice, and it seems right to save that pathetic but super empathic tree from the boy’s constant taking!
6. A basket of wetsuits, surf wax, changing towels, some leashes, a couple of personal floatation devices, a first-aid kit, and a snow scraper.
7. The 2016 U.S. presidential election results at 2 a.m. on Nov 9.
8. “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley (although I’m more inclined to listen to the Ataris version these days).
Kirby Wright’s second play, Asylum Uncle, opened at the Secret Theatre’s LIC Festival in New York on November 4, 2016. Wright was the 2016 Artist 271
in Residence at the Eckerö Mail and Customs House in the Åland Islands, Finland. He is working on a poetry and flash manuscript set in Helsinki and Stockholm.
1. Stickers at the dollar store.
2. The Wasteland.
3. A love letter to a girl who despised me.
5. Tom Buchanan.
6. Trump voodoo dolls.
7. You Can’t Go Home Again.
8. The theme song for Magnum, P.I.