Issue 11.1

A Kitchen Full

By John Ballantine

he chicken breast is soft, moist, and succulent, covered with a gentle crust. Crispy with no grease, just the warm smell of centuries of song cooking the fried chicken. Henrietta rolls the floured chicken leg in the light breadcrumb batter. It blankets the leg with a thin layer before slipping slowly into the simmering oil—four minutes later, a perfect lightly-browned leg is placed on the platter next to the breast, thigh, and neck.

Looking in at the cast iron stove, set deep in the cooking alcove, and a flour-spattered tin table at the center of the kitchen, you would see the rhythmic movements—back and forth from table with parboiled chicken rolled in flour and dipped quickly in the breadcrumb batter before it makes its way to the black frying pan with bubbling oil. Each piece of chicken is deliberately put in the cast iron pan, worn dark by years of cooking, and then as the batter browns, it is gently moved to the platter on the counter.

Henrietta flows with music I cannot hear, but I see her as she touches the history of frying chicken on Alabama sharecropping farms. Special Sunday meals for the poor black folk after church. The soul of black-eyed peas, carrots in butter, mashed potatoes, and fried chicken is all you need to keep you going through the tribulations of living down South. Each week families gather, amens fill the air, heads are bowed, and hands reach across the table.

Food is love. It binds the soul and fills the heart with history and all that comes at you. I did not know the written history or hear the songs when I was eight, but I tasted the sustenance of life. Henrietta shared her time with us in the kitchen, passing on the wisdom of years slowed down, meandering songs, and the sermons that hold us together.

It was not just the fried chicken, apple pies, or greens that let us white folk, her black children, and grandchildren learn that the kitchen was safe. A sanctuary from the world out there with all of its shouting, misery, and meanness. We gathered each day with Henrietta as she shushed the noise, “Now quiet down, listen up, and take that hand away from the food. Don’t spoil your dinner.”

I was taught the kitchen ritual; I was part of it each morning and night. We all were in our ways. Cleaning up, clearing the dishes, and witnesses to the dance of meals. At first Henrietta pulled the dinner together by instinct and years of watching—no books, no words—then, with tutoring and gentle guidance from Joy of Cooking that sat on the counter, her repasts grew—learned after years of lessons. Henrietta only read the Bible and passed-down cookbooks.

She knew batters, the silky smoothness of mouse, the English custards, legs of lamb with rosemary and garlic, and even the French sauces. Her affinity with the vegetables, chickens, and grains was uncanny. No schooling taught her the ingredients or measures. Just a touch of salt, a little curry there, two dabs of butter, and this spice and that sprig of rosemary or basil. The kitchen was full of magic and song; a goodness warming all who wandered in.

Of course my first meal—my mother’s milk—was a sweet, warm flow squeezed from her breast. My eyes closed, slowly opening with the May sun. I held my mother’s body, full of images: yellows, and grays, and even the dark pulsating purples of the womb. I was out in the world, slapped awake with a cry, and put into my mother’s care. Neither of us knew what to expect or where we would walk.

Soon I rolled on the blanket, looked at the sky, and crawled on my stomach. The pabulum and baby foods, ground up to keep me going, were terrible. Spit out and thrown against the wall as I sat locked in the baby high chair. Gerber tried to feed us right, but scientists forgot to ask kids the essentials of baby rearing. Cries were heard across the land. I was just one of the red-faced children looking not as cute as the baby ads. Mothers were distraught; Spock did not know how to feed his offspring.

We were thrown from the spinning Ferris wheels. The kaleidoscope of the 1950s pushed black sharecroppers from the farms, opened schools to black and white with Federal marshals, and created Madison Avenue men in gray flannel suits who knew nothing about child-rearing. The mushy food and jars of syrupy vegetable mixes littered the floor. Traumas were spawned everywhere.

My sister Chia and I were saved from these ill-thought-out lessons: not by design, but serendipity. Henrietta came by a long bus journey from Alabama with grown children soon to follow. She did not read or know how to drive, but kindness and gentleness flowed from her hands. Her quiet smile, soft voice, and firm hand was all my mother needed. At three I was too much, with Chia climbing out of the crib, Henrietta brought order to the family. Her room was over the garage—separate and part of our family.

Early on I pushed the liberties: talking back, grabbing, and taking what I wanted. Smack, a fast slap on the hand, “Don’t you do that.” She walked me on the leash before I ran too far ahead, put me to bed as my parents played with other adults, and cut the carrots, greens, and meat just right so I could eat all I wanted. My life was not like the other kids on the block. Food was love.

The miracles of the kitchen, the flour on the counter, the songs hummed with cut apples, corn meal, and crusts that crumbled in my mouth soon became our manna. We all sat at the kitchen table, heard the stories, the aphorisms, and the chuckles that rolled with the kneaded bread. Her arms wrapped around me as I grew taller with the years; we rocked back and forth knowing that love flowed from the food, the kitchen, and the songs that held us firm.

Here I stood as a small boy, teenager, and man pushing through the walls of controversy—the injustice and the questions of living in a world of white and black, brown and immigrant, poor and rich. We sat in the kitchen, equals sharing what held us together. There was nothing magical or divine about the food, yet care and love bathed me, my sister, and my family. Henrietta felt the wisdom of the fields, the land that birthed us all. We held court in the kitchen and learned how to walk into the storms that rose outside.

The kitchen meals were the center for me before I knew why we prayed or how to hold the ones I love. Henrietta filled her sanctuary, our kitchen, beyond her children, her black and brown grandchildren. She held me each day with the steaming pots, the aromas of freshly cut beans, clean milk bottles, and the lightly-sprinkled lamb leg with garlic, rosemary, and touch of maple syrup. Here I began each day, safely held with a huge hug, and a “Get going; you’ll be late.”

What fell in between, all that stuff out there, was just white folks stirring the pot. Henrietta feeds me still, as she sways back and forth in her special place up there. “And you had better believe me, or I will smack you real good.”

 

——————–

An economics professor at Brandeis International Business School, John Ballantine took his Bachelor’s degree in English at Harvard, with an M.A. from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Economics from NYU Stern. He has published economic commentary in Salon and the Boston Globe. His literary work has appeared in Crack the Spine, Existere, Green Hill Literary Review, Penmen Review, Ragazine, Rubbertop Review, Saint Ann’s Review, Santa Clara Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, Slippery Elm, and SNReview. He writes to understand the world we walk in and stay in touch with essential truths.

Bury Your Children, Bury Your Bones

By Joe Baumann

hey bought the house because of his new job and her pregnancy.  Travis liked to think of it that way, that each of them had come to their cramped dining room table with something to offer, a reason to escape their peeling paint and flickering light bulbs in the rental that smelled like cabbage and was powdered with fruit flies because the woman next door never threw away her trash.

The house, a sprawling modern suburban two-story with vinyl siding and green shutters, sported enough space for an office and guestroom and a nursery.  She loved it.  Hardwood floors were great, even though Rhys’s sneakers squeaked as he shuffled in and out of the living room and hall washroom, looking at the walls like he was in a palace.  A fresh construction, the realtor had called it.  Most people would love this, Travis thought: a chance to begin with a blank slate, to mold and color a place with one’s memories and scents without having to wash away what came before.  Even the smell—fresh linen and springy flowers, a hint of chlorine—was new, exhilarating.  But Travis thought that the house lacked charm, everything echoing with an empty quiet, a carbon copy of the neighboring homes, identical to those across the street.

The agent was all cheekbones and eyeliner, her skirt wrinkle-free.  They wore her down like sharpened pencil asking questions, but she had all the answers, about the school system and the HoA fees—none!  She squealed it out like she was yelling surprise! at a kid’s birthday party—and when she showed them the back yard Lenna put a hand on Travis’s forearm and she squeaked.  Everyone was squeaking at something or other and he knew she would have to have this place.  It fell in their price range, under budget, and the backyard with the pool and the little garden already growing—your heirloom tomatoes, Travis, Lenna said, voice low like she was trying to seduce him—and the back deck with a grill there (for show, of course, but the realtor said it like that was a cover story, that, with the greasing of some palms, the stainless steel, the side burner, the temperature gauge could all still be there when they moved in).

“Okay,” he said when they were out of earshot of the realtor.  Rhys was plucking at grass in the yard.  Travis ran his hand over the smooth cedar porch rail and mustered a wide smile.  “Let’s do it.”

 

Lenna would often wonder about the coincidence of it all: him coming home in a flurry, his tie’s twisted knot going slack, yelling about the new job, the huge pay raise, while she gripped the pregnancy test in her hand, the third one she’d taken, the third one with the two blue lines.  She’d let him calm down, the hugs and kisses and excitement fading before she showed him the test, and Travis went quiet for a moment and then declared, puffing out his chest and reminding her of a peacock, that they would have to find a new house.

And how perfect it was, what, the thirteenth, fourteenth house they’d looked at?  And so inexpensive and ideal.  She could tell that Travis wasn’t in love with it, though she didn’t understand why, and of course Rhys hadn’t a clue or a care, running down every new hallway they looked at, stomping up and down every flight of stairs with wonderment at the unfamiliarity of everything.  Lenna ignored the iciness of Travis’ shoulders as their realtor told them about the vaulted ceilings and central air, two things they certainly didn’t have now, which Lenna could swear the woman just knew; they gave off that vibe of we don’t know these luxuries, we’re not that kind, not yet at least but you could change that, couldn’t you

“What kind of trees are those?” she asked when they toured the back yard, which was, of course, perfect: sure, the pool might not be the safest with Rhys being his rambunctious self, unable to be corralled by the kindest cooing or loudest yelling, but the fence was great and the yard long, sloping down to two thick trees, broad leaves like hands that reached out to each other, the long branches nearly touching, a perfect place for a canopy, a picnic table, maybe a hammock.  And Rhys had taken swim lessons and been promoted to Shark so quickly—the fastest ever, Lenna liked to joke to herself—able to kick and paddle himself above water with only moderate splashing and whooshing water, the plastic lane lines waving like palm fronds.  He would be okay back there.

“I’m not sure what they are,” the woman said, leafing through her paperwork.

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Lenna said.  “I was just curious.  They’re gorgeous.”

If only she’d known.

***

Rhys was the first to notice them, when he was done splashing in the pool and enjoying the tickling feeling of the water drying off his skin like dozens of little fingers poking at him.  His parents were lounging on the deck, cooking like hotdogs, and he was bored sitting on the chair whose taut plastic strips stuck to him like bandages, so he traipsed down to the trees.  Looking up, he saw small budding growths, yellow like an old person’s teeth, the size of thick toothpicks.  He leapt, trying to reach them, but his fingers were too short, his jump too low.  He grunted and groaned as he sprung up, but the tree seemed to laugh at him, the branches pulling away at the last moment like an older boy’s torments: grab it from my hand and it is yours, but I know you’ll never reach.

He ran to the porch, flopping his feet against the wood, the last bits of wet leaving behind soggy, elongated prints, and he stood over his father.

“Something’s growing on the trees,” he said.

“Oh yeah?”  His father sat up, the hairy pooch of his stomach crinkling.  He was normally pale like bleached bed sheets, but his skin was cooking an Easter pink.

“Yeah,” Rhys said.

They traipsed down the slant of the back yard, and his father stared into the trees.

“Holy shit,” Travis said.

***

He knew a botanist, a guy he’d played poker with a few times.  They drank beers together, met through a work buddy, and so he called the botanist and stumbled through the greetings.

“I have this tree, and it’s growing stuff.”

“Oh?”

“I think it’s growing bones.”

The botanist didn’t say much except that he could come over on Saturday, nine a.m. maybe, if that would work?  Travis didn’t want to get up that early on a Saturday, especially now that Rhys was finally starting to sleep in, he was nearing that age where seven a.m. and cartoons and fruity cereal start to lose their luster, and he and Lenna were enjoying that bit of quiet, especially knowing it would all go away again when the baby came.

But Travis said, “Sure, great,” and gave the botanist the address.

The bones had been bleached white by the time Saturday rolled around, and some had fallen from the trees, dropped like elongated bombs into the grass.  These were heavier, adult-sized, as if a dozen arms had been picked clean of muscle and tendon, the knotty bones all that was left behind.  Travis hadn’t touched them but the botanist did, just reached down and picked one up like it was a piece of fruit.

“It’s certainly not a piece of fruit,” the botanist said.

“No it isn’t.  What is it?”

“A bone.  You have a bone tree.”

“Is that a thing?”

“It is now, it appears.”

 

Lenna called her ex-boyfriend, the one from before Travis, because he was a coroner.  “We have bones,” she said, when he asked what she wanted.  He had a nasally voice, something she hadn’t really noticed when they’d dated but now seemed so obvious, his nose-y chug-a-chug-a breath when they had sex sounding like a limp steam whistle.  He was thin but smart, and he had a strong hairline, and he did know bones.

She led him down to the trees, Rhys traipsing after them.  Her son was obsessed with the bones, and she knew he was playing with them even though she’d hissed at him too many times not to, repeating herself enough to know that there was nothing she could say to stop him.  She’d have to get over it, let him do whatever he wanted, she supposed, because when the baby came—they didn’t know the sex, they didn’t want to, they liked the idea of the surprise and having to pick out neutral colors for everything—Rhys would be on his own in a way, in a you’re-not-the-baby, you’re-not-the-only-one-anymore way that made her heart sink just so.

“They’re human, alright,” he said.  “You might want to call someone about this.”

“And tell them what, exactly?” Lenna said.  “That we have human bones growing in our backyard?”

“Good point.”  He ran his fingers over the lowest-hanging bones like he was petting an animal.  He bent over and grabbed one of them, tossing it in his hand.

“Dense,” he said.  He took it between both hands and groaned, and when that didn’t work, he huffed, cheeks red, and smacked it against the tree until it eventually cracked open.  He knelt in front of Rhys.  The interior looked like a grapefruit, pulpy and orange-pink.  The coroner stood and gave the end of the bone several more tough whacks against the trunk of the tree until the knobby end split open.

“This,” he said, “is the epiphysis, the end of the bone.”  Rhys moved closer, raising a hand to touch it, but he pulled his hand back as if he had brushed something hot, and satisfied himself with a close-up look: the inside was like a honeycomb, gossamer-like.  The coroner looked up at Lenna.  “They’re real, alright.”

She sucked in a whisk of air and bent over with a groan.  “Oh god,” she said, holding her stomach.

 

Rhys kept a small one in his pocket and rubbed his fingers against it because he liked the feel, at once smooth and gritty, like the edge of a stack of paper, ridges that if you weren’t careful could cut you.  Rhys felt like he and the bones understood one another, like allies.  He’d learned that word in school when the teacher taught them about World War Two, that allies were a good thing, that America had been an ally.

He was sitting in the hospital waiting room, which smelled like the Laundromat where they used to clean their clothes before they moved, a place strewn with bluish sticky stains from spilled detergent.  The coin machine liked to eat dollar bills so the harried woman who ironed clothes behind a puke-green counter would have to shuffle to the register and pluck out quarters.  She’d often yelled at Rhys for trying to climb atop the washers when his mother wasn’t looking.

His parents had disappeared into a room, and he sat under the not-very-watchful eye of a woman in confetti colored scrubs stapling papers behind a desk.  On television another woman with perfect skin and hair was talking about something he didn’t understand, a riot.  The woman in the scrubs had offered him a lollipop but he said no, because he wasn’t supposed to take candy or stuff like that from strangers.

When his father finally appeared, he was pale and he didn’t say much to Rhys, except that it was going to be a while, because something was wrong.  Rhys didn’t respond except to grip the bone in his pocket harder, the ridges digging into his fingers.  Wrong: another word he didn’t truly understand, fuzzy and amorphous as cotton candy.

 

When she went into labor with Rhys, Lenna had thumped into the living room and pressed a hand against the recliner, stopping Travis’ back-and-forth sway.  He’d been waiting for the detective show he liked to start.

“He’s coming,” Lenna had said, and he’d leapt out of his chair and grabbed his keys in one fluid motion that was so smooth that anyone who saw it would have thought he’d practiced it every night in anticipation.

Traffic was light, as if all the cars recognized that their baby boy was on the way and they were parting like the Red Sea for Moses so Travis and Lenna could get to the hospital no problems, no delays, no complications.

Rhys was fine.  He was pink and swirly like an ice cream cone, his hair plastered to his gooey head, and he cried for a few minutes but then he quieted and almost seemed to be purring like a kitten.  When Travis looked at him and then at sweaty Lenna, he felt full and perfect and content.

He found Rhys waiting patiently in the lobby, his Velcro shoes slapping against the legs of a plastic chair.  The boy was like two different people: at home a whirling monster, unable to sit still for more than a moment, his utensils rattling like drumsticks against the table at dinner, his footfalls pounding away on the carpet when he should be doing math problems.  But taken from the house he became angelic, stoic almost, and when he looked up at his father it took everything for Travis not to break apart, to let burst out everything that had taken up in his chest in the last hour.

 

She remembered Rhys being so easy.  Yes, Lenna had lain in her hospital bed for interminable hours, and the pain of pushing him out was, even with the oooh oooh ohhh breathing she and Travis had worked on for weeks prior, the most immense, blinding thing she’d ever experienced and she was sure she must have crushed a few bones in Travis’ hand while she squeezed and squeezed, but out had come the baby, cawing like a newborn should, the afterbirth following with smooth ease, and she had seen his little arms wriggling, tentacle-like and purplish with tiny fingers that looked like gummy bears.  They’d given him to Lenna after cleaning off the vernix that looked like a sheet of cottage cheese, and everything was as she’d imagined, the doctors sighing and content. She felt split in half, but in a raw, achingly pleasant way, like the emptiness in your lungs after a long, incisive run.

But this.  This was something else.  The baby didn’t resist, Lenna barely had to do any work, and it came slipping right out and she just knew something was off, the world tilting out of balance.  The silence in the room, from the doctors, from her husband, from, worst of all, the baby that should have been crying and screaming because that’s how babies were.  The doctors and nurses were frozen like they’d been petrified.  She wondered if she’d gone deaf, but then she heard herself asking, “What’s wrong, what’s wrong?” in a clear, bright way that was the opposite of what it’s like to shout under water, but no one responded to her and suddenly the baby was scooped up—yes, that was the word, scooped, like it was an unaccounted mass, a puddle of water being siphoned into a bucket—and disappeared.

She asked what had happened but no one would look her in the eye and the room started to empty in a slow, deliberate way until she was alone,until the last nurse let the door swing shut.  She wanted to scream and so she did, asking where everyone had gone and where was her God Damned Baby.

Travis came in with the doctor, finally, and their mouths opened and shut like fish and she said someone better tell her Right This God Damned Minute What Is Going On.

And the doctor did.

He said that her child, although alive, did not have any bones.

***

Even though his parents had told him not to, Rhys shoved a bone in his backpack, bigger and whiter than the ones he kept in his pocket, the length of a pencil and thick like a chair leg.  He showed it to his friends at lunch.

“What is it?” they asked, leaning over their pale lunch trays covered in square, squeaky pizza and radioactive green Jello.  The cafeteria lady had a mole on the tip of her nose so no one liked to look her in the eye when she scooped them the creamed corn no one ate.

“It’s a bone.”

“Is it real?”

“Yeah.”

One of the boys, Ryan O’Brien, who was short and pudgy and something out of a comic strip, snorted.  Ryan O’Brien always snorted, and Rhys didn’t like him much, but Ryan followed Rhys and his friends around like a viral infection, sticking to one of them and then another until he was back at the start again.  “I bet it’s fake.”

“It isn’t,” Rhys said, withdrawing his hand.

“I would know,” Ryan said, crossing his arms.  “My grandpa needs a bone marrow transplant.”

They all knew this.  Ryan’s grandfather was in bad shape, lying in a hospital bed, where he’s been for the last several weeks while his family waited and hoped that his name would float to the top of the donor list and that a match magically appeared.  He almost died last week, apparently, a fact that Ryan blared out like a fire alarm.  His face grew flush, as it always did when he was upset.  His cheeks changed shades so often the boys thought of him as a living mood ring.

“Maybe it will match,” Rhys said, before he could stop himself.  And he held the bone out to Ryan.  The gesture just came to him, like flicking at a mosquito that lands on your arm, or seizing up into a ball when someone jumps out at you from around a corner.  Ryan plucked up the bone and, scowling at it, shrugged, depositing it in his pocket.  The tip stuck out like a mole peeping out from its hole.

Rhys stared at his empty hand, weightless and phantom.

 

The knock on the door surprised them both, because visitors had been few and far between, unlike the days following Rhys coming home, when their tiny home had been a revolving circus of cooing relatives and awwwing friends all poking at their son, declaring him gorgeous and cute and precious and some of them playfully asking if they could hold him, Lenna or Travis saying of course, of course, passing their peachy bundle in his blue hat and matching footies to whichever visitor wanted to ogle him up close.

But now the house was silent; they’d told no one that Lenna had given birth, not even her mother.  Lenna had been discharged, no side effects from the birth, perfectly a-okay, they needed the bed so she would have to go, please, while their sagging, empty child that was alive in a way no one could explain was kept intubated and under close watch, the heart monitor blipping out the beats that fluttered under its gloopy chest.

Travis answered the door because Lenna was spending all of her time lying on the couch.  He recognized the woman, red-haired with a splash of freckles over her nose and under her eyes, so many they might have been a wave of spray paint.

“Hello,” he said.

“Hi.”

There was a pause.

“Can I help you?”

“I’m Ryan O’Brien’s mom, Patricia,” she said.  “He’s a friend of Rhys.”

“Okay.”

The woman dug into her purse.  “I wanted to ask you about this.”

She held out a bone, off-white like a freshly-brushed tooth.

 

Before Lenna could process the whole cavalcade traipsing into her backyard, her house was filled with people: scientists staring up at the trees, gawking at the miracle bones, reporters who wanted interviews, greasy, grizzled cameramen aiming the big glassy lens eyes on their faces, erected lights blinding them.  No one bothered to ask her about their tragedy, no one knew about the drooping, boneless child still being watched in the hospital, clinging to life.  No one was hemming or hawing over that miracle, that child born as a messy pile of muscle and tendons.  No one cared about a deformed baby.

But, she thought with a sour tang on her tongue as she pulled the covers over her shoulder and rolled away from Travis after those strangers had finally gotten the hell out for the day, if you find bones that are a universal match for people needing marrow, everyone wants to hear about it, and why not?

Ryan O’Brien’s mother, it turned out, had taken the bone that Rhys had smuggled to school and had it tested on a desperate, thoughtless whim, not even wondering why or how her son had come into possession of a human bone.  A perfect match.  The first match they’d been able to find for her father, who would now live.  Words did what they did, flowed like a river, and suddenly everyone wanted to pluck from that tree, take what they could while trampling around in Lenna’s wonderful backyard, not even saying thank you.  Travis wanted to throw every stranger out, but he couldn’t say no to their desperate pleas to study the bones, could he?

“This will change the world,” one of the scientists said.

“A revolution in medicine,” a spunky reporter yelped into her camera.

“A place where miracles come true,” Tom Brokaw’s voiceover, deep and resonant, announced while the image on the screen panned over Travis and Lenna’s back yard.

“Please turn it off,” Lenna said as she thunked a bowl of pasta down in front of Rhys.  They were eating dinner while a worker plucked bones from the trees in the yard, dropping them into a burlap sack like apples.

***

Rhys watched from the back porch, huddled against the rail, as strangers stepped in and out of their home.  The more that came, the more the bones went away, and this terrified him.  The trees started thinning, their leaves drooping and washing out, the green turning to a brittle yellow.  After dinner, the sun a pearly pink dipping below the roofline, Rhys trundled down to the trees and searched for the bones that might have been missed.  The people picking them tended to take the larger, plump ones, those whose outer layers had turned as white as could be.  They propped ladders against the trees and muscled their way up into its highest boughs to find as many as they could.

He’d asked why, and his father had only said, “To help people.”

Rhys found a handful of yellow, unripe bones, so tiny he thought they might snap in his grip, and he took them to an untouched corner of the yard where no one went, far away from the bone trees, and he used his hands to dig out a place for them, dropping them into the ground, pushing the loosened soil back over.  Then he took some pool water, which was getting colder as the days grew shorter, scooped it right into his curled palms, and told himself his fingers were glued together as he ran back to the buried bones.  Rhys imagined the ground sighing with relief when he poured the water onto the mound.

He found his mother watching him from the porch.

“Why did you do that?” she asked, her arms wrapped around her waist, the belt of her bathrobe swaying like a streamer.

“To save them,” he said.

Lenna said nothing, but she tugged on his head and drew him close, the fuzz of the terrycloth itching his cheek.

***

When the phone rang, Travis somehow knew.  Deep down in his gut, a stirring gurgled when he heard the brazen trilly ring, and he knew it wasn’t another reporter, another scientist, another grateful recipient who was cured of whatever disease Travis couldn’t pronounce.  It would be something about the baby they still had not named, and he felt for a moment that this was why it was just a sagging bag of body parts that didn’t have shape or real breath or real life: a thing without a name is just a thing.  It cannot be a person, cannot have eyes or fingerprints or a voice that you can recognize when it calls to you from across the street.  It cannot have a scent, a wafting cloy that grabs you when you hug, chins hooking over each other’s shoulders.

The baby was missing.

Travis asked how that could happen, how babies—especially those with no bones with which to move one’s legs, or the puddles of skin shaped like candy canes that one would normally identify as legs—could possibly go missing.

“We think,” the voice on the other end of the phone said, “that it was your wife.”

 

Lenna knew Travis wouldn’t call the police, but she waited until after dark anyway, slinking around the side of her own house, the baby in its scratchy hospital blanket.  She felt like she was carrying a wet loaf of bread and she had to pause and adjust her grip every few minutes.  A melting ice cream cone, so she only had so much time before it seeped through the fabric.

Not once had it screamed or gurgled or cried out or spit up or slobbered on itself.  She’d so hoped it would, that there would be a sign, a something, anything, a piece of evidence to prove she should stop.  But no.  Nothing.  She wasn’t even sure the thing was breathing.  Lenna didn’t know if her baby could breathe.

The back yard was dark, the pool pump humming and burping.  A frog leapt across the gray concrete and splashed into the deep end.  It would probably get sucked into the filter and die, she thought.  She pictured the frog, squashed and grayed-out, after flailing in the endless pool, trapped by that overwhelming dragging force with no dry edge in sight.

She chose the corner where Rhys had buried the bones.  She tried not to upset her son’s garden, the little flabs of soil that he watered each day, scooping water from the pool—finally using a plastic cup she’d nudged his way—and dousing the soil to sponginess.  He had not unearthed his bones, nor had anything broken through the surface, not one epiphysis.  She liked the word epiphysis, the way her lips rolled around, tongue still.  Like labyrinth or ellipsis, words that felt more gymnastic than they maybe really were, words she never used in conversation but liked to say to herself.

The ground was runny and malleable, and it took her no time to scoop out a cubby with her hands.  She set the baby down, the unmoving mass, and felt herself start to cry because of the finality of it.  Lenna felt like she was on a teetering scale: this was it, wasn’t it?  All around her, in the trees, in the ground, in herself, so many bones, a myriad of those strong white sticks that hold everything together, that give shape and size and structure to things, and here she was, staring down at some thing with none of that, no sound or rhythm or air.  She pushed the scooped-out earth over the child and waited for a reaction that, of course, did not come.  When she finished she remained on her knees, patting the earth tight, thump, thump, like the way people clap each other on the back during platonic, rejuvenating hugs, the sort that say, it’s good to see you, bucko, or, keep your chin up, these hard times will pass.  She did this over and over, letting the tears leak out of her, in little Morse Code blips, hiccups that echoed in the darkness.

 

Rhys would never tell what he saw from the porch.  He’d slid the patio door with a slow patience, the squeaky track quiet as he nudged the glass open.  Even his footsteps, normally skittering and clamorous, were steady and measured.  He watched his mother bury the baby, keeping his breath low and deep.

She knelt in the grass for a long time, and her crying made his stomach clench.  Then he looked up toward the second floor of the house.  He couldn’t see through the dark glint of the window, but he knew his father was there, looking down in the dark.  Could his father see his mother?  Did he want to?

None of them moved for a long time.  Rhys wondered what would happen in the morning, when the place was crawling with people taking the bones, people talking about them, murmuring about the future.  The future, he wondered: would someone come for the baby that was down there under the grass?  Would they uproot it like they’d taken the bones from the trees?

He heard his mother squeak a slippery single word: “Why?”

Rhys wondered, too.  Why?  Why the night, why the bones, why any of it.  Why couldn’t the sun bring new life, where everything bloomed and burst from the center of the earth?

 

——————–

Joe Baumann’s fiction and essays have appeared in Zone 3, Hawai’i Review, Eleven Eleven, and many others.  He is the author of Ivory Children, published in 2013 by Red Bird Chapbooks.  He possesses a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and teaches composition, creative writing, and literature at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri.  He he has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and was recently nominated for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2016.

Eva’s Gift

By Nancy Gerber

ude studies the black polish on her nails as she shivers at the bus stop near her high school on Cedar Street. It’s chilly this November afternoon; she wishes she’d listened to her mother and worn her winter coat. Once again the bus is late. It’s usually five to ten minutes late, and no matter how many times she explains this to her supervisor, Mrs. Goldberg always complains. “It’s in the judge’s order you show up promptly at three,” Mrs. Goldberg repeats wearily, as if Jude is conspiring with New Jersey Transit to keep the buses from arriving on time. Jude is edgy; she knows Eva is impatient to see her and she doesn’t like to keep Eva waiting.

At the end of August, right before the start of sophomore year, Jude was caught shoplifting eye shadow and lip gloss from Target. Because this was her first offense, the family court judge, a gray-haired woman with tortoise shell glasses who looked like an owl, opted for leniency in the form of community service. “You will report two afternoons a week to Valley View Nursing Home for the next three months, starting in September,” the owlish judge declared. When Jude breathed a loud sigh of irritation and rolled her eyes toward the courtroom’s yellowed ceiling, the judge added, “And since you don’t seem to value clemency, you will also write a paper on what you’ve learned from your experience.”

At Valley View Jude stops to sign in with Mrs. Goldberg, but the small office is empty. She takes a yellow Post-it, scrawls “3:10 p.m., bus was late,” and leaves it on top of a large stack of manila folders piled precariously high on the cluttered desk. There’s no point in fudging the time; she’s already tried this and was caught because Mrs. Goldberg was talking to another social worker in the office next door. Jude pulls off her black cardigan and walks quickly down the hall to the community room to find Eva.

Eva is different from the other women in the unit. Her nose and cheeks are sharply chiseled, while the others have faces that look like melting ice cream. Her hair is crazy—a tangled mass of silver and white threads spreading outward from her skull as though she’d stuck her finger in an electric socket. Eva is completely lucid; she speaks loudly and clearly in full sentences, whereas the other women mumble softly and incoherently. Eva’s lilting accent makes Jude think of dark forests and deep rivers. Also, Eva is the only woman missing a leg. Because of diabetes, one of the nurses told Jude.

The friendship between Eva and Jude began on shaky ground. On Jude’s first day at Valley View while she was helping Allison, the activities director, pass around a green plastic tray filled with Chips Ahoy cookies and apple juice in paper cups, Eva stared at Jude and said, “Does your mother know how you dress? In all that black you look like a witch.”

“What’s wrong with witches?” Jude had asked.

Eva had snorted, and Jude sucked in her breath. It was bad enough to be stuck in a hellhole that stank of piss and Clorox with a bunch of women who looked like zombies, or as if they might drop dead any minute, without a total stranger criticizing her. She had her mother for that.

Later that first afternoon, a heavyset nurse wearing white pants squeezing her large bottom came in to speak with Allison and took a cookie. “You need to watch your weight,” Eva had called out.

“And you, Miss Eva, you need to mind your own business,” the nurse had said. Jude realized she found it amusing when Eva directed her sharp tongue at someone else. She’s really nasty, Jude had thought.

When Jude’s mother, Lynn, picked her up from the nursing home, she asked her daughter what she’d done during the afternoon. “Nothing,” Jude had said.

“Judith, I know that’s not true,” Lynn had replied with irritation. “You’re telling me you sat and twiddled your thumbs for the past two hours?

Jude did not answer. Her mother’s refusal to acknowledge her new name was infuriating. Her mother always began a conversation with Judith or Judy, as if she’d forgotten when they’d left the courtroom Jude told her she would no longer answer to those names: She wanted to be called Jude. Now that she was an outlaw, she needed an outlaw’s name.

“What’s wrong with Judith? Lynn had asked. “It’s so lovely—biblical and timeless. I’ve always wanted to be named Judith.”

“Yeah, it’s good if you want to serve up someone’s head on a silver platter.”

“Well, Jude is a ridiculous name for a girl.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“You are very rude,” Lynn had said.

Jude and her mother live in a three-bedroom, sixties-style ranch in Mountain Ridge, a New Jersey suburb twenty miles from New York City. Jude’s older brother is a senior at Rutgers who didn’t come home from school over the summer, saying he preferred to stay on campus and work in a pizza place.

Last year when Jude was a freshman, her parents separated and her father moved to Los Angeles to be with his girlfriend, whom he’d met on a business trip. This woman also has a teenaged daughter and a college-age son. A brand-new family, complete with replacement children. How very convenient, Jude had thought when her mother told her about her father’s new living arrangements. Her father was gone, he’d left her without any more thought than he’d give a trash can, and she doesn’t know if she can ever forgive him for the hurt in her chest each day. A few weeks after her father left, she began stealing candy from a local mom-and-pop convenience store and was caught on camera the very first time she tried to shoplift at Target.

On this cold November day Eva sat in her wheelchair, dressed as she always dresses—in a gray sweatshirt and a wrinkled navy cotton skirt that comes to the middle of her right calf, which is clad in a thick black stocking covering a foot in a red pull-on sneaker. For the first week Jude could not stop staring at the empty space where Eva’s left leg should have been, but now she is used to it. Eva never mentions the phantom limb, and Jude doesn’t either. Eva is small with delicate bones, barely five feet tall. Jude’s initial impression was that Eva was taller. Jude realized she thought Eva was taller because her voice sounds so much bigger than her body.

The two became friends at the end of September, during Jude’s first month at Valley View, when Eva offered to show her how to play gin rummy. Jude had not played cards since the days of Old Maid and Go Fish. For some reason, this cranky old woman with the Gypsy-sounding lilt wanted her company. Jude could not remember the last time her mother had asked her to spend time together. As for her father, who even knew if she’d ever see him again.

“Do you play cards?” Eva had asked while they were sitting at a small dark table, Jude listening to Eva complaining about the meat loaf. Jude shook her head.

“Here, would you like to learn gin rummy?” Eva patted her skirt pocket and took out a deck of worn cards wrapped in a blue rubber band. Jude nodded and pulled her chair closer to the table.

They played the first game with the cards face up on the table, so Eva could better explain. “Gin is based on strategy and luck.” Eva made a laughing sound in her throat. “You have to pay attention, not just to the cards you hold in your hand but also to this,” and she tapped a bony finger on the discard deck. “You need to be thinking about the cards your opponent gets rid of just as much as the cards you want. It’s like having two stories in your head at once.”

Jude nodded. Eva’s intensity about the game was intimidating, but Jude knew her own memory was strong. Jude lost the first game they played after they turned the cards face down but won the second. Eva snorted with pleasure.

“You’re good at this!” she said. “Now it’s interesting!”

Jude felt her cheeks flush.

Eva was wild for cards and taught Jude poker. They played each time Jude came to visit, first for pennies, which Jude confiscated from the jar on her mother’s kitchen counter because Eva had none of her own. Sometimes they ran out of coins, so Allison found a used set of poker chips in the community room closest. This did not satisfy Eva. “I want to show something for my winnings,” she complained. When Allison told her she could exchange the plastic disks for M&Ms, Eva said, “I want the ones with peanuts.”

Over cards Jude learned Eva despised the nurses, who were mean and bossy. “There’s no one here to talk to,” Eva confided one day as she reached for her winnings. “Look at these waterheads,” she said, nodding at the other women dozing in their wheelchairs. “I’m completely alone. Except for you,” she added.

Jude said she felt alone too. Lynn was always complaining about Jude’s silences, her laziness and messy room. Her mother refused to make vegetarian meals because they took so long to prepare. “She says she’s too tired when she gets home from work. She won’t cook for me and there’s no food in the house, so I’m living on peanut butter and jelly,” Jude said.

Eva clicked her tongue in disapproval.

“What kind of mother won’t make dinner for her daughter? And you’re such a nice girl,” Eva said.

Jude laughed. “You’re the only one who thinks so.”

Eva talked about her only child, a grown man named Peter who lived alone in Chicago and never came to visit. “He turned out to be a selfish good-for-nothing,” Eva said as she threw her hands in the air and muttered some words in a language Jude did not understand.

“I know what you mean,” Jude responded. “That’s how I feel about my father.”

One day in late October, as Eva collected the large mound of poker chips in the center of the table, she asked Jude, “Do you believe in God?”

Jude was taken aback. No one had ever asked her that.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Do you?”

“No,” Eva said. “Not after what I’ve been through.”

She must be talking about her leg, Jude thought.

“What religion are you?” Eva then asked.

“My mother is Jewish and my dad is a lapsed Catholic who says he’s an atheist. I’m interested in Wicca.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a modern pagan religion. Some Wiccans say a goddess created the universe and is the only divine being who should be worshipped. Some believe in a male god and a three-headed goddess. But basically there’s a lot of freedom to develop your own beliefs. Women have a lot of power, and I like that. Most Wiccans believe in rituals and magic.”

“So it’s witchcraft,” Eva said. “You’re a witch after all.”

“I guess so,” Jude laughed.

“Well, if you can cast a spell, I would like you to get me the hell out of here.”

“You and me both,” Jude said.

Today Eva takes the worn cards and shuffles them but does not deal. She looks at the wrinkles in her bony hands and clenches the cards as if to tear them to shreds. Then she looks at Jude and says, “I was in Auschwitz.”

***

Auschwitz. Jude’s skin becomes clammy. She knows what happened at Auschwitz. She learned about the Holocaust in school.

“I was born in Kartel, a farming village outside Budapest,” Eva says. “My father was a farm manager and my mother taught piano to the children in the village. My younger brother Peter went to yeshiva. We were a family and we were happy, until one day in March 1944 when the Nazis came. They screamed at us to leave our houses and our belongings and rounded us up as if we were animals. Do you know about the cattle cars?”

Eva’s dark eyes look like flaming coals. Jude has never seen her like this. “I’ve seen photographs,” Jude says.

“The old people from my village died in those trains, they were so terrified. For two days we had no food or water. Everyone was crying; the babies were howling. At Auschwitz they separated the men from the women, and that was the last time I ever saw my father and my brother.

“My mother and I went to the women’s camp. There were huge chimneys and a terrible stench everywhere. I said to my mother, ‘What is that horrible smell?’ And my mother said, ‘It’s human flesh. They’re burning people’s bodies.’ I didn’t believe her at first. Who does such things?”

Eva takes a breath and covers her eyes. Her voice is a croaking whisper and Jude has to lean in close to hear her.

“I knew some of the girls in my barracks were stealing bread. I wanted to try. My mother was starving because she gave me her bread. So one day I snuck into the kitchen and hid some in my shirt. I didn’t think anyone saw me. But maybe one of the guards found out, because later that day my mother was shot. I killed my mother.”

Eva is shaking and gasping and before Jude knows it, she put her arms around her and pulls her close. It feels strange to hold another woman, especially one so tiny. Jude hasn’t hugged her mother in years. Eva’s ribs press against her shirt.

“Your mother died because she was in Auschwitz,” Jude says. “Millions of people died there and it wasn’t your fault,” Jude says.

Eva pulls away from Jude and gazes at the white walls of the community room. “After the war I came to the United States and went to high school. I’d always dreamed of being a teacher like my mother, but there was no money. So I married and had a child. They call me a survivor. But I’m not a survivor, because that means something positive, like I’ve done a good job. I’m alive because I was lucky, that’s all. I hate that word, ‘survivor.’”

“I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry,” Jude says.

“Dogol meg,” Eva mutters.

“What does that mean?”

“It means they should rot for eternity,” Eva says.

“I thought you didn’t believe in the afterlife.”

“I don’t believe in heaven. I believe in hell.”

“I’m sorry,” Jude says again.

Eva pushes up the sleeve of her sweatshirt and points to a string of numbers inked in blue across her lower arm. Jude reaches her index finger out to touch the tattoo and looks up at Eva, who nods.

Jude runs her finger lightly over the wavy ink. The numbers feel hot and Jude shuts her eyes so she doesn’t have to look at them. Dark, shadowy figures dance in the black space before her; they bend and sway and Jude hears them moaning. When she opens her eyes she groans and lays her head in Eva’s lap as tears drop onto Eva’s navy skirt.

Two days after listening to Eva’s story, Jude is back at Valley View. She stops in the office to sign in and finds Allison sitting in Mrs. Goldberg’s chair.

“I wanted to be the one to tell you, where we can have some privacy, so you don’t have to hear the news in front of everyone,” Allison says, rising from the chair. “Eva is gone. She had a massive stroke last night and died before we could get her to the hospital.”

Jude feels faint and sits down in the chair opposite Mrs. Goldberg’s desk.

“I don’t believe it,” she says. “I was with her just the other day. She seemed fine, not sick at all. She didn’t say anything about not feeling well.”

“Stroke is like that,” Allison says. “It happens when you least expect it. Eva had all kinds of health problems. Cholesterol, high blood pressure. Her diabetes was out of control. I’m so sorry. I know how fond you were of her.”

“I don’t believe it,” Jude says again. She feels the tears soaking her mascara, dragging long black streaks down her cheeks.

“She left something for you,” Allison says. “She gave me this and said if anything happened to her she wanted you to have it.”

Allison hands Jude a tiny white box. Inside there is a thin, gold band set with a small, round garnet.

“It was her birthstone, a present from her parents for her fourteenth birthday,” Allison says. “She told me she kept it with her in Auschwitz and hid it in the toe of her clog.”

Jude puts the ring on the fourth finger of her left hand, where it rests like a crown. “It’s beautiful,” she says as she turns the ring back and forth. “It’s magical that it made it out of Auschwitz with Eva.”

The sobs start coming and Jude hides her face in her hands.

“Do you want to go home?” Allison asks. “Mrs. Goldberg said she understood if you didn’t feel like working today. I also called your mom, and she said she would come pick you up if you wanted.”

Jude shakes her head.

“No, that’s okay. I’d like to stay. I just need to go to the bathroom and wash my face.”

Allison rests a hand on Jude’s shoulder.

“You’re a brave girl,” she says. “No wonder Eva liked you.”

Jude writes her paper for the court the day after she hears of Eva’s death. She gives a copy to Allison and mails one to the family court judge. The paper begins: Eva Bauer survived Auschwitz, though she did not care for the word ‘survivor.’ She thought it diminished the horrors she experienced and the suffering that followed. She taught me that even in the darkest moments it is not too late to love or be loved. Though I only knew her for ten weeks, I loved her. She was my friend. She paid attention to me and gave me something that was missing in my life. She was also the bravest person I’ve ever known.

Allison asks her to read from the paper at Eva’s memorial service in the Valley View chapel. Allison points out a thin, sallow-faced man sitting in the last pew.

“That’s Peter, Eva’s son,” she says to Jude. “I met him just once in all the years Eva was with us.”

Jude studies Peter’s face, trying to find the connection between him and his mother. He catches her staring at him and looks away. When the service is over he rushes out the door.

Two weeks later the judge telephones Jude. She says she gave Jude’s essay to a friend of hers, an editor at a local Jewish newspaper who wants to print it. “Would that be okay?” the judge asks.

“I don’t know. Let me think a minute,” Jude says. “I’d like to change Eva’s name to protect her privacy. Maybe I could call her Clara? That was her mother.”

“I’m sure that would be fine,” the judge says.

“And something else. I’m only half Jewish. I’m Wiccan.”

“I don’t see a problem with that,” the judge says.

Several weeks go by and Jude telephones Allison at Valley View. “Do you know where Eva is buried?” she asks. Jude cannot imagine Eva would choose to be cremated after Auschwitz, but she realizes she has no idea.

“Peter took her body back to Chicago. What makes you ask?”

“I miss her,” Jude says. “I was thinking I’d visit her grave.”

“I miss her too,” Allison says. “I’m glad you called. I’d been thinking about asking if you’d come back. We have a new resident named Rose who’s always complaining she has no one to play cards with. She’s very lonely. I’m sure she’d love to meet you.”

Jude says she can come by tomorrow. She’s interested in meeting Rose, but more than that, she wants to sit in the room where Eva taught her to play gin rummy.

 

Eva’s Gift first appeared in a slightly different form in DoveTales:  An International Journal of the Arts (2017).  This is an annual journal that was published in Spring 2017.

——————–

Nancy Gerber has published fiction, poetry, and essays in various journals, including The New York Times, Mom Egg Review, Adanna Literary Journal, The Penmen Review, DoveTales,  and elsewhere.  She received a Ph.D. in English from Rutgers University and is currently an advanced clinical candidate at the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis in Livingston, New Jersey.

J.P.M.

By Kate McCorkle

hadows detach, peel from the corporeal like masking tape. Easy once you pry an upturned corner. The skin goes on dancing or noshing or pacing the floor, mussing its hair, conferring with so-and-so. Distracted.

So it’s easy to worry a frayed edge, use the hint of a nail to scrape—breathlessly fret and gently strip—ease the outline away. Once the border lifts a shadow’s removable contact paper.

I have it, and you lost it.

You don’t know yet. You are preoccupied.

I snap the shadow out, a bedsheet freshly dried, and the crack pleases me.

A shadow is real and sturdy despite its ephemera. That part, the fragility, is actually a ruse. It’s evolutionary, like the lizard who can drop its tail when threatened or the possum mimicking death. This adapted, artful frailty lets them thrive.

The shadows vibrate and hum: an abyss, a hole that can never be filed. Because they are a chasm, and because no one looks, and because people think they are fickle and delicate—subject to the whims of the sun—no one notices how tricky and cunning, how fully powerful and awful these sinister shadows are.

They eat and eat. Their hunger is bottomless.

I look at it, holding it like a new suit. It squirms and recoils with the pained sound of metal twisting. It doesn’t want me. It wants to return to its meal. It slowly leans, becomes one dimensional, hopes to become invisible. Hopes to hide it vast maw. As the shadow does this, I question who is parasite and who is host.

I don’t want this one. I have my own shadow that fits just fine. It feeds off my fears, my anger. I don’t need someone else’s. I just want to inspect it—the one I skinned from the floor while you were talking on your phone and lying about who was on the other end. You made me feel guilty I interrupted. I didn’t know I needn’t have felt that way.

Would your shadow tell me this? I shake it, try to unroll the wrinkles. Snap it into a shape that makes sense.

I wouldn’t keep it—can’t keep it—but I’m studying. Trying to hear what it has to say. If it can say. So thirsty for clues, for some truth, some thimbleful of truth, that I sever your shadow; place one hand into the abyss where your heart is supposed to be as I cease my own breath, fearful of what may be retrieved.

You continue over there, phone to ear: blissful, unaware.

I am left with a shroud I do not know how to restore.

 

——————–

Kate McCorkle’s stories and essays have appeared in several publications, including Barely South Review, r.kv.r.y Quarterly, Marathon Literary Review, and Penmen Review. A Pushcart nominee, she writes with the Greater Philadelphia Workshop Studio. Kate is currently working on a book-length thing about her time as a 9/11 infantry wife.

My Month Alone: When the Cat Won’t Help and the Inner Critic Won’t Shut Up

By Hali Morell

arbon Monoxide. Carbon Monoxide.”

This is what I hear, accompanied by a horrendous beeping sound that cuts through my entire body like a razor at 8:04 a.m. on a Saturday. First of all, who the hell is saying this? Second of all, what does it mean? The cat and I look at each other, groggy and confused. I fly out of my bed, crashing into a standing fan and getting my worn Bad Religion T-shirt caught on the bedroom doorknob. Neither of these objects are out of place, but my brain is.

“Carbon Monoxide. Carbon Monoxide.”

Shut the fuck up! For the love of god!

It’s the smoke detector in the hallway.

I run into the kitchen to grab the step stool and crash it into everything along the way. My left thigh goes careening into the corner of the glass coffee table, I smack the right side of my face into the wooden coffee/tea station, my left foot goes into some cold, wet cat saliva mixed with four blades of green grass, and I finally reach the metal step stool leaning against the kitchen wall next to the fridge. Dust bunnies flying off the stool, I carry it back to the hallway, attempting a calmer disposition and repeating to myself over and over, “It’s okay. It’s okay.” I climb up to the detector and push any button I can find.

“Fire. Fire.”

What?! I grab the whole thing and rip it out of the ceiling. And it’s still beeping and speaking. Am I in the Twilight Zone? I unplug the battery and it stops. What the hell is happening?

“Do you believe this?” I yell to the cat, now sitting on the edge of the bed, his head fur a bit out of place and his eyes half closed. I don’t even want to look at my head fur. He yawns and circles, his body dropping into sleep mode. “Thanks for the moral support! And thanks for the grass barf, by the way! Yeah, we’re having a talk later, mister!”

Come on, man! This was going to be my sleep-in morning.

In the three days since my husband has been gone, I’ve been woken up by the cat at 3:45, 4:49, and 5:01 a.m. And he has absolutely no shame. He’ll walk up and down my body, across my face, pulling my hair, putting his clawed paw on my nose and screaming. Falling under the category of “things my husband does,” I usually hear the screams and gently fall back to sleep as he gets up and feeds the cat. So we’re not exactly getting along at this point. And I don’t want to lock him out because he’s 19½, and what if the one morning I lock him out he decides to die? So I’m suffering from sleep deprivation. My eyes are red, my lazy eyelid is drooping, and I look like shit. I just need a day. A day where nothing goes wrong.

When my husband told me that he’d be spending a month in New Hampshire taking care of his parents, I immediately began to think of all the “things my husband does,” and I panicked. The list kept expanding and swirling around my brain. Layers and layers of things! Yes, obviously I felt for his parents, but…well…what about me?

#1. The Plants. My husband, aka The Plant Whisperer, has a lot of plants, and he takes amazing care of them. They are his babies. I, on the other hand, do not have a green thumb. I have a thumb that is equivalent to death. So the thought of being responsible for the survival of hundreds of plant babies may kill me before I kill them.

“What if I kill all the plants?”

“You won’t, sweetie. Just take pictures of the ones I point out that need Wednesday Water.”

Wednesday Water. I used to love hearing him say that. I’d watch him fill his maroon watering can and go in and out of the house. It was a meditation. A joyous experience. But now that I’ll be in charge, the phrase is taking on a whole new meaning.

#2. The Arrowhead water jugs. How the hell am I going to change those fucking bottles? Am I now that helpless woman who can’t replace the bottles because I’m too weak?

#3. Daylight Savings! He always changes the clocks. Now I have to learn how to change the clocks. I mean, some of them I can do, but some are just weird and hard and high up. I hate this.

#4. The Vacuum. Where the hell is the vacuum? I know I’ve seen it.

#5. Astro Girl. The name for my husband’s Chevy Astro van. I have to drive it and not crash into anything. Yes, it’s just from one side of the street to the other for street cleaning but it’s still scary.

#6. Laughter. My husband provides a certain level of laughter each day that almost always causes me to pee my pants or spit out my food. My eyes fill with tears, my nose begins to run, I struggle to breathe, and I pray that I’ll make it to the bathroom in time.

#7. Moral Support. My husband is my touchstone. A reality check. The best friend who listens to me rant and vent each day. Now I’ll just have the cat. And we’ve seen his reactions. Not helpful.

Now, I understand that, in the grand scheme of things, the plants and the clocks and the water and the van are not even in the realm of the major tragedies occurring around the world, but, for me, it’s always been the little things that send me into a massive spiral where the world may in fact come to an end. I tend to go to the worst possible place. “Catastrophizing” is what my therapist calls it. So it’s not, “I get to water all of the plants!” it’s “I’m going to kill all of the plants!” Rather than, “I’m driving my husband to the airport,” it’s “I have to drive my husband to the airport and the traffic is going to suck and I’m going to get lost and he’s going to miss his flight and I’m going to have a panic attack while simultaneously throwing up and crying.” It’s always worst-case-scenario. In reality, the outcomes are rarely worst-case-scenario. Although I did get lost on the way home from the airport, and I did almost start crying. But the frustration then turned into comedy and I found myself saying out loud, “This is a joke! I mean, you’re really a joke, Hali! I guess you’ll get home eventually! Ha ha ha.”

“It can be empowering, you know? A month alone? You’ll get to do all those things you’ve been wanting to do!”

This is a comment I heard from multiple people, all women. So I start to think about this word “empowerment” and what it means. I look it up in my thesaurus. Yes, I still have one of those pocket-sized paperback thesauruses…or is it thesauri? Empower: authorize, entitle, permit, allow, enable. Usually when I hear the word “empower,” it revolves around women’s rights. Not in all cases, of course, but certainly more often in my experience. But when I think of my sense of empowerment, or lack thereof—disempowerment, I suppose—I don’t think I feel that way. At least not in the clichéd my-husband-sits-around-the-house-watching-sports-and-drinking-beer-with-his-friends-and-I-have-to-clean-up-after-them-and-put-my-life-on-hold-because-it’s-all-about-him kind of way. This could totally be the skewed version of what my friends mean. Quite honestly, I feel nothing but support and freedom in my marriage. There’s nothing he does that’s holding me back. In fact, the only obstacle that seems to delete my sense of empowerment is myself.

Whoa. Did I just have a breakthrough? Is this new information? Okay, everyone just hold the phone. Let’s examine. Self-empowerment. Do I permit or allow myself to do the things I really want to do? No. No, I do not. Okay…so what’s up with that? Hold on, guys, we’re going in…into the psyche.

I look around my bedroom. At all of the unfinished or untouched textile projects I’ve stuffed into yet another basket. I have too many baskets. The new loom I bought still in its wrapping. And here’s the inner dialogue.

“God, I really want to make that giant wall tapestry that I’ve been dreaming of. Let’s take out the loom!”

“Don’t bother. It’s going to suck. You’re going to fuck it up. Just stick to the scarf knitting. That’s all you’ve mastered and you know it. Stop trying to pretend like you have any talent.”

“But I really want to try it. Can’t I just try it and see what happens?”

“You’re going to try it? Like those clay beads you used to make into necklaces that are now collecting dust in that basket over there? Or the mosaics that you epically failed at? The hundreds of tiles living in that basket on top of the dresser? You never finish anything because you suck.”

The critic is loud and overbearing. It’s disempowerment at its core. And it’s all I hear.

But I keep hearing the words from my friends. “You can do all of those things you’ve always wanted to do!” And I realize it has nothing to do with my husband being there or not being there. It’s about me being there. Ugh, I hear that and it just so sounds so new-agey gross. Okay, shut up, critic. Let me say it without you butting your big ass in there! Because I like it, you a-hole! I like this discovery. Just shut the fuck up and take a time-out. The question now is, how do I start empowering myself?

The Arrowhead bottle is empty, and the pink unicorn needs a new yoga position. No, this is not an acid trip. I bought a pink stuffed unicorn for my husband. Yes, I know it’s weird, but it’s just a thing. We have a stuffed animal thing. And stop thinking it’s perverted, because it’s not. So, my husband keeps the pink unicorn on top of the water cooler and puts it in yoga poses. Rather impressive poses, I might add. And now, I get to do it. That’s right. I GET to do it. Critic, go fuck yourself.

“Guess what? I changed the Arrowhead water all by myself!” I tell my husband during our daily chat.

“Good job, sweetie! I guess it helps when they’re half empty.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Oh, you didn’t notice that I left the bottles half empty so it would be easier for you to pour them in?”

I look down at the remaining three Arrowhead bottles and notice that they are, indeed, half empty. That the joy and pride I felt a mere two seconds ago was all in my head.

“Oh, yeah. I do see that now. Well, I guess I’m not as strong as I thought.”

“That’s okay, sweetie! You still did it! I’m glad it helped.”

I hang up the phone and I’m craving more. Now that I’m semi-empowered, what else? What else can I do? I walk into my bedroom and unwrap the large loom that I’ve been staring at since August. Without thinking, I sit in the red beanbag chair that had been living in my car for months, and I begin to weave. No second guessing, no negative noise. It’s peaceful and calm. The cat is spread long on the bed across from me. And I weave for three hours. And I’m happy. I’m so happy.

 

——————–

Hali Morell is an actress, writer, and teacher who lives in Santa Monica with her husband and cat. Born with an anxiety disorder, Hali discovered Zoloft at 21 and has found humor in the little things. In 2013, Hali wrote and performed her solo show entitled “My Pretty Panic” and is currently working on another performance piece. Alongside her writing partner, Hali co-created The Missing Peace, offering memoir writing workshops, talking circles, and salons.

10 Poems—Summer 2017

By Simon Perchik

*

Even the colors are anxious, carried

as if its new home above ground

would skimp the way all rows use dirt

 

cut in two with nothing in between

–you suddenly bring it a darkness

use one hand to comfort the other

 

though you’ve done all this before

have no faith in mornings :clumps

that want only to forget, just lie still

 

holding one end close, for a long time

sorted out and unfamiliar fields

taken place to place in flowers

 

in ribbons, string, thread, something

feeble, tied to the dissolving Earth

by this shadow and your arms.

 

 

*

This rotted log yes and no

longs for the stillness

that is not wood though you

 

are already inside, seated

at a table, a lamp, clinging

the way all light arrives alone

 

except for the enormous jaws

once shoreline closing in

without water or suddenness

 

–you lay down a small thing

and the Earth is surrounded, fed

slowly forehead to forehead again.

 

 

*

Though it gets dark earlier and earlier

you were already weakened at birth

–without a shrug let go things

 

the way each grave is graced

used to being slowly moved along

blossom and in your mouth

 

a somewhat pebble half fruit

half sweetened, not yet

broken apart in your throat

 

–you can’t make out where in the turn

you are clinging to its path

that led you here, not yet strong enough

 

or longing for some riverside or rain

or the night by night, warm

still falling off your hands.

 

 

*

You fold your arms the way this pasture

gnaws on the wooden fence

left standing in water –make a raft

 

though it’s these rotting staves

side by side that set the Earth on fire

with smoke rising from the ponds

 

as emptiness and ice –you dead

are winter now, need more wood

to breathe and from a single finger

 

point, warmed with ashes and lips

no longer brittle –under you

a gate is opened for the cold

 

and though there’s no sea you drink

from your hands where all tears blacken

–you can see yourself in the flames.

 

 

*

You drink from this hole

as if it once was water

became a sky then wider

 

–without a scratch make room

for driftwood breaking loose

from an old love song in ashes

 

carried everywhere on foot

as that ocean in your chest

overflowing close to the mouth

 

that’s tired from saying goodbye

–you dig the way the Earth

is lifted for hillsides and lips

 

grasping at the heart buried here

still flickering in throats and beacons

that no longer recede –from so far

 

every word you say owes something

to a song that has nothing left , drips

from your mouth as salt and more salt.

 

 

*

Before this field blossomed

it was already scented

from fingers side by side

 

darkening the lines in your palm

the way glowing coals

once filled it with breasts

 

and everything nearby

was turned loose to warm the miles

the pebbles and stones brought back

 

pressed against her grave

–you heat the Earth with a blouse

that’s never leaving here.

 

 

*

These crumbs are from so many places

yet after every meal they ripen

sweeten in time for your fingertip

 

that shudders the way your mouth

was bloodied by kisses wrestling you down

with saliva and rumbling boulders –you sit

 

at a table and all over again see it

backing away as oceans, mountains

and on this darkness you wet your finger

 

to silence it though nothing comes to an end

–piece by piece, tiny and naked, they tremble

under your tongue and still sudden lightning.

 

 

*

It had an echo –this rock

lost its hold, waits on the ground

as the need for pieces

 

knows all about what’s left

when the Earth is hollowed out

for the sound a gravestone makes

 

struck by the days, months

returning as winter :the same chorus

these dead are gathered to hear

 

be roused from that ancient lament

it sings as far as it can

word for word to find them.

 

 

*

Before its first grave this hillside

was already showing signs

let its slope escape as darkness

 

mistake every embrace for dirt

though one arm more than the other

is always heavier, still circles down

 

bringing you closer the way rain

knows winter will come with snow

that was here before, bring you weights

 

till nothing moves, not the shadows

not the sun coming here to learn

about the cold, hear the evenings.

 

 

*

Though you can’t tell them apart

your tears came back, marked the ground

the way leaves go unnamed to their death

 

as the need to follow one another

one breath at a time, face up

and after that the rain and warmer

 

̶ you weep with your collar open

make room for another grave

near a sea each night wider, further

 

no longer heard the way now and then

comes by to close the Earth

with buttons and sleeves and tighter.

 

 

——————–

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Forge, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The B Poems published by Poets Wear Prada, 2016. For more information, including free e-books, his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.

Singularities

By Gwendolyn Jensen

 

Lint that lines my winter pockets settles

soft the pennies there; my far-off womb

remembers its confinement; violet fish—

suspended, drowsy, netted hearts—drift

their walls of glass; stars unfurl a long-

dead fire, better than no fire at all;

the lacquered billiard ball’s unconscious of

its color as it rolls; earth may be

some other planet’s hell.

 

I have made of these a rosary,

and sit and hum and push the beads along

for commonness and gaiety, for matter

of another sort.

 

 

——————–

Gwendolyn Jensen began writing poems when she retired in 2001 from the presidency of Wilson College (Chambersburg, Pennsylvania). The places where her work has appeared include the Beloit Poetry Journal, the Harvard Review, Salamander, Sanskrit, and Measure. Her first book (Birthright, Birch Brook Press, 2011) is a letterpress edition, now in its second printing. Her second book (As if toward Beauty also Birch Brook Press) was published in 2015. Her third book (also published by Birch Brook Press) is Graceful Ghost, a letterpress edition that will appear late in 2017 or early in 2018. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.