Issue 5.4

Falling Leaves

By Carol Smallwood

whirlpool and when you think

you know the prevailing wind

turn scurrying mice–

or thoughts when trying

to sleep

 

A barn is almost swallowed

by new development,

the farm house recently gone—

the barn still red

 

Nearby stands a tree

with all leaves gone

from sea change without

having seen the sea

 

Each fall day

I feel more the visitor

in a strange land

___

Carol Smallwood co-edited (Molly Peacock, foreword) Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women Poets (McFarland, 2012); Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity and Other Realms (Anaphora Literary Press, 2011) was nominated for the Pushcart. Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing, (Key Publishing House, 2012) is her most recent book. Her sixth anthology for the American Library Association, Bringing Arts into the Library, is forthcoming. Some magazine credits include: The Writer’s Chronicle, English Journal.

Crave

By Eugene Schacht

 was hungry for a baby, but after eight years of dating, an engagement ring would’ve sufficed. Sean wasn’t ready, though.

“I need to figure out my own life before starting one with another person,” he’d say.

He was the struggling artist type, speaking fondly of songwriting and performing for crowds, but his drinking and video games were always a distraction. Even though it was too late, Sean wasn’t giving up on his dream, and as a result, my aspirations for a family, a house, and nights around the dinner table were going by the wayside. I had to leave before my clock timed out.

I started crying before I spoke.

“Do you hate me, Lindsey?” he asked.

“No,” I replied, “but I need what comes next, and you only want to stay where we are.”

“I want to go places; I just need more time.”

“Well, I’m done waiting for you.”

He leaned his face into his palms as he sat cross-legged on the couch cushion. The tears on his ruddy cheeks invalidated all the aesthetic choices he made to look cool. The consciously messy hair, the gothic tattoos up his forearms, and the thrift store flannel – all things I loved about his “look” – were nullified by the sobbing pussy’s watering eyes.

“I’ve already talked with Kelli, and she told me I can stay at her place,” I said. “I’ll come back in a few days for my stuff.”

“Don’t go,” he said, begged.

“I can’t stay.”

I took the metro out of the city into the Virginia suburbs. When the train emerged from the tunnel, we passed where I was supposed to be: standalone houses, rusting trees, and rushing cars. Christ, I missed the cars. Seriously, did he expect me to send the kids to school on a bus? In a car, I could ask them about their homework and that day’s test without being interrupted by the stop signal’s chime or the music crackling from someone’s phone. We could be to ourselves; we could be alone.

Kelli was lucky in that she fell in love with someone who embraced the natural evolution of relationships. She met her husband, Dara, during our last year of undergrad, and he proposed to her less than two years later. Dara not only worked as a financial consultant, but he enjoyed it and already planned out a lifelong career path. He was steadily building a resume and a retirement fund so he and Kelli could comfortably grow old together while their three children could go to college debt-free. The first baby was on the way, and it already had its own room in the townhouse Dara recently purchased.

I knocked at the door and stared up at the towering homestead with red shutters. Kelli answered the door. Her belly appeared before her face did, and although she exaggerated a frown, the taut shirt over her bump eluded nothing but happiness and expectancy.

“I’m so sorry,” she outstretched her arms for a hug.

“I should’ve seen it sooner,” I said.

“Come in,” she replied before turning inside. “Dara, come help Lindsey with her things.”

Dara approached the hallway looking the part of a suitable father-to-be. He had yet to change out of the suit he wore for his day of work, and he greeted me with a congenial smile and a loose hug. There was a vague hint of cologne on his shirt, a nice change from Sean’s booze-induced musk.

“Please, make yourself at home,” Dara said. “Anything you need at all, really.”

Sean would’ve bitched about company staying.

“Mind if I take a shower?” I wanted the last of Sean’s stench off of me.

“Sure,” Dara took my bag, “I’ll show you right up.”

Dara and I ascended the staircase of normality together, one foot in front of the other, minding the ninety-degree turn before reaching the overhang that looked down on their picturesque home. The hardwood floors shone on both the bottom and top levels, illuminated by the crystal chandelier Kelli’s parents gave them as a housewarming gift. Although they hadn’t finished decorating yet, I could pick out the wall Kelli had saved for presumed baby pictures. It stood bare, next to an unpainted room with an eager crib in the center.

“I’ll start painting once we hear from the doctor tomorrow,” Dara caught me peering in. “I think having the oldest being a boy, you know, so he could watch out for the younger ones, would be a good way to start, but I’ll be excited no matter what.”

Dara lugged my bags into the guest room, and I was envious of his enthusiasm. I never figured out how Kelli hit the mark so easily. She was always the one the wingmen went after when we were freshmen and sophomores in college, yet, lo and behold, she snagged a man with dimpled cheeks and the ambition and wherewithal to spend his life raising a family.  Of course I was happy for her; she was my best friend, but out of all the ways I pictured it panning out, I always thought I’d cross the finish line before her.

“There are towels on the bed,” Dara said, “and there’s a robe behind the door if you want it.”

“Thanks,” I started unzipping my suitcase, “and thanks for letting me stay.”

“Hey, you’re family to us.”

Dara shut the door behind him.

The bathroom, like everything else, was impeccably clean. So much so that I sat on the edge of the tub and cleaned the bottoms of my feet before stepping in for my shower. I worried I’d leave dirt prints on the porcelain. Also, I made sure to adequately close the shower curtain as to not get any spatter on the recently retiled floors. I kept the rinse short and dried most of myself within the tub. I had no intention of marring the bathroom, but when I finally got out, my phone started beeping.

Sean sent me a long, mistyped text message about how he missed me. Between the spelling errors, I made out pleas about how there will never be someone else like me, and that I was the only thing he had going in his life. It was cheesy to the extent of Dara proclaiming I was family, but getting a reaction like that out of Sean always drew me back to him. Those lines were always his last resort.

My thumb wavered over the keypad, considering replies about loving him and needing him, but I was smarter now, stronger. It was always going to be the same with him, and responding back would’ve been the same from me. I had to break the cycle. I closed the phone and put it back on the sink.

It was then that I saw the two strawberry-molded soaps in the dish by the faucet.  I had been in Kelli’s guest bathroom a few times before, but never noticed the luxuries. I picked one up in between my index finger and my thumb, and although it looked identical to the real thing, it felt completely different. The scent, however, was close. I held the strawberry soap underneath my nose for the better part of a minute, occasionally letting it graze my upper lip. It wouldn’t hurt to have a small taste. I bit off a piece, and it was nothing I expected. Instead of being soft and juicy, the faux berry was crumbly and bitter. It wasn’t a sweet fruit, no matter how well it dressed. It tasted exactly like what it actually was: soap.

I spit out whatever hadn’t slipped down my throat and cupped some water into my mouth. After a few rinses, the bubbles stopped forming, and I returned the now-chipped soap to the dish. The “small” sample was much more noticeable when placed next to the untarnished strawberry. Apparently, I consumed half of the bar. I couldn’t think of a good excuse to tell Kelli and Dara regarding why their soap was awkwardly missing a chunk, so I tossed the bit. I’d tell them later that it slipped out of my hands and accidentally fell into the trash. That was believable enough.

Kelli already had dinner in the oven, and Dara set the silverware and plates around the bowl of salad in the center of the table. The TV was turned off and in a completely other room. Sean and I never ate without it, and we typically only had one course so as to minimize the time we spent eating. I took my place at their table and strew a napkin across my lap. Another nice change: It wasn’t a paper towel.

Against Dara’s protest, Kelli filled everyone’s plate with some salad before sitting down herself. The tingle from the soap returned to my tongue when I looked down at my plate – strawberries and walnuts mixed with spring greens. I didn’t know if that was considered irony or coincidence, but I wasn’t a fan of either.

I was about to dig in, but Kelli cut me off.

“Will you say a few words?” she asked Dara, both of them reaching for my hands.

“Sure,” he closed his eyes and tilted his head. “Dear Lord, thank you for this meal in front of us. Thank you for my lovely wife and our beautiful baby that is on the way. And thank you for Lindsey’s  company tonight, and please watch over her during this time of transition in her life. In your name we pray, amen.”

I pulled my hands back before either Kelli or Dara could fully release their grips. They didn’t have to bring God into this.

The blessing gave us the go-ahead to dine, and I pushed my fork into the salad. The lettuce spring drooped over the side of the tine, and I could already see the brown creeping in from the edge of the leaf, but I ate it anyway. The raspberry vinaigrette was a moot point; the entire forkful was tasteless. I took two more bites and felt my phone vibrate in my jean pocket. I dropped the fork onto the plate and pushed the whole mess away from me.

“Is everything all right?” Kelli asked.

“Yeah,” I replied. “I think I just need to lie down.”

“Sure thing. Don’t worry about the dish; we’ll take care of it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Go rest,” she insisted.

I thanked them both, dragged myself upstairs and stopped off in the bathroom before heading to bed. I could feel the bland lettuce stuck in between my teeth. The mirror seemed to disagree, but I brushed until my gums bled. The pinkish foam dripped down into the drain and was washed away when I splashed some water on my face. I toweled off, and my eyes fixated on the remaining strawberry soap.

There were perfectly edible, real strawberries downstairs, yet there I was, hulled up in a bathroom eating another piece of soap. This time I was able to chew and swallow the entire thing. My mouth burned a bit, but I didn’t want to rinse out the flavor like I had done before. No, I simply went to bed with the lye blanketing the insides of my cheeks. I dozed off when the pains started in my stomach.

My cell phone was the first alarm that went off the next morning. I flipped it open and found twelve missed calls, twelve voicemails and a countless amount of text messages. I didn’t listen to what he left or read what he wrote; it was typical Sean. Clearly, he was in the midst of another of his pathetic, depressed benders. I wasn’t going to give him anymore of my pity. Instead, I called into the office and told them I didn’t feel well. I drifted out of consciousness again until I heard a faint rapping on the door a few hours later. The door creaked before Kelli peeked in.

“Lindsey, are you awake?”

“Sort of.”

“How are you today? You didn’t go to work.”

“I’m fine,” I sat up and stretched. “I just wanted a day off. Might as well have a three-day weekend, right?”

“You definitely deserve it.” Kelli said. “So, I have some good news…”

She looked down and rubbed her belly as her voice trailed off.

“Boy or girl?” I asked.

“Girl,” she said and shuffled over so she could sit on the bed with me.

She squinted since her smile overtook half her face. Kelli’s mother passed away when Kelli was only three, so having a girl was a big deal to her. She saw it as a way to make up for the time she never had with her mom. I failed to fully understand the redemption, but I held her hand anyway and told her I was happy for her.

She spent the next couple hours alerting her family and friends of the news. During each call she made the same avid, high-pitched shrill, and each time it seemed to get a little higher. I locked myself in the bathroom in hopes of drowning out her squeals, but Kelli’s voice penetrated the door. I also made sure to leave my phone in the bedroom. It rang on an hourly basis.

I didn’t eat any strawberries while I was in the bathroom, but only because I couldn’t find any in the cabinets. I opened up when I heard Dara come home and walk upstairs. He had two paint cans in hand – cliché pink.

“Looks like I’ve got my Saturday planned,” he set the cans in the empty room.

He popped open one of the lids, and a droplet of paint drooled over the side of the can. The pink streak dribbled down to the plastic tarp underneath and formed the basis of a small puddle. I licked my lips.

“I can paint,” I said. “Let me take care of it, and you and Kelli can enjoy your weekend.”

“No, I don’t think I can just let you…”

“I insist,” I interjected. “Really, it’s the least I can do in exchange for you letting me stay here. Please.”

I reached for the stirrer and dipped it into the paint. I began mixing before Dara could stop me.

“If you feel that strongly about it, then I guess I have no choice,” he said. “I’ll bring in the roller and a stepstool.”

“Everyone ready for dinner?” Kelli called from downstairs.

It donned on me that I slept through most of the day. Furthermore, I hadn’t eaten anything. My head felt light, and I clinched the railing with both hands as I walked downstairs. I stumbled into the kitchen and plopped down into my chair.

“You must be starving,” Kelli roused the sauce on the stove with her wooden spoon. “We’re having spaghetti and meatballs tonight. I hope that’s okay with you.”

“I don’t have much of an appetite.”

“You poor thing,” she put some plates on the counter. “Well, I’ll give you a little bit, and if you decide you can handle more, feel free.”

“Thanks.”

I failed to see the direness of my situation. “Poor thing” was a phrase reserved for kittens without homes or for sick infants. I simply didn’t want any damn spaghetti. The plate was in front of me in a few minutes anyway, one meatball on top, and I left my fork alone until God received his reverence.  Luckily, I wasn’t mentioned directly this time around.

In the brief silence between saying “amen” and opening their eyes, I heard a distant chime from upstairs – ding-ding – like a bell. I forgot about my birth control alarm, sounding at six o’clock every day to remind me I was without child. Ding-ding, it went again; Kelli and Dara didn’t notice.

“I think I need to go back to bed,” ding-ding.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Kelli placed her prayer hand over mine, ding-ding. “You really should eat something.”

“I don’t need to be mothered,” I took my hand back and paused for a moment.

I waited for the noise again, but it was finished. I picked my plate up and placed it in the sink.

“I’m sorry; I just think I need some more rest.”

“It’s okay,” Kelli said. “Head on upstairs and let me know if you need anything.”

I thanked her and did as she said. I passed the future baby’s room and stopped by the door to look in. The paint cans sat on the floor, and Dara was true to his word and had brought up a paint roller, a brush, and a stepstool.

I walked in and spread out some plastic by the wall closest to the crib. I immersed the brush into the pink viscous and drew a streak across the wall. The sharp, thick scent emanated from the feathered edges of the mark and from the tips of the bristles. It was intoxicating, and the urge to move the brush toward my nose overcame me. I let the aroma linger before I lowered the brush slightly and dabbed some paint on my tongue. I thought it’d be sweeter, but it was good enough. It wasn’t long before I dropped the brush and plunged my hand directly into the paint can, scooping up globs.  My lips were coated, and I couldn’t grit my teeth without feeling the paint on my gums. After a few minutes, I had swallowed half the can, while the walls remained plain beyond the lone mark.

I wanted to keep feasting, but I heard someone coming up the stairs. I jetted into the bathroom since there wasn’t a logical way to explain to Kelli why her paint was all over my lips. I washed my hands, but there still wasn’t any soap. I scrubbed as hard as I could and sloshed water into my mouth, but the stains lingered. I was going to have to hide. I grabbed my purse when I thought the coast was clear, and I quickly called out that I was leaving as I shut the front door behind me. Unfortunately, there was only one place I could go.

The bus took me back to the train, and the train took me back to the city. The horizon didn’t make the sun disappear; instead, it was the tunnel. Lights flickered in the train car, scaring an infant and causing it to cry. The child’s mother tried to soothe the sobbing by rocking the bundle in her arms and whispering to her child , but the tears continued until I reached my stop. I stared at them as I stepped out of the train, but the mother only focused on her baby. The doors closed, and once again, I was two blocks away from my old apartment.

The door was unlocked, and a pair of empty whiskey bottles stood on the coffee table. I took a seat on the couch, but got up immediately; the cushions were too soft. My stomach turned. I scanned the living room as I walked to the bedroom, and everything was just as I left it. As expected, Sean hadn’t bothered to pack any of my things. Not that it was his job to do so, but I would’ve appreciated the gesture. Dara would have been more accommodating.

Smoke seeped through the doorframe, and I found Sean planted against the wall, cigarette in one hand, the third bottle of whiskey in the other. He was such a fucking cliché. He looked up at me, and a lazy smile came over him. His eyes were half open, and ash covered his jeans. I leaned over him to see if there was anything left.

“Your mouth is pink,” he laughed and took another sip from his bottle. “I love you.”

He ran his finger down a strand of hair hanging in front of my face, but his breath reeked of alcohol. I pulled my face away.

“I don’t know why I came back,” I said.

“I’m glad you did,” he smiled again.

I tried to go for the door, but felt a sharp jab in my stomach. There was another stab, and I fell onto my side, holding my waist. A lump surged through my throat, and paint spewed out of my mouth and onto the carpet beneath my cheek. I looked toward my lap, and there was blood on my pants. Sean crawled over and put his hand on my shoulder.

“What happened?” Sean rubbed my arm. “Are you okay?”

My head thumped, and my vision faded. The last memory I had was Sean reaching into his pocket for his phone.

When I awoke, Sean sat on one side of my bed, a curtain and some sort of computer monitor on the other. An IV was hooked up to my arm, and a clip was attached to my finger. Sean’s hand was underneath it. I glanced up at his eyes; they were sullen and bloodshot. He was sober now.

“How are you?” he asked.

“What happened?”

He hesitated before he spoke, “The nurses pumped about a pint of paint out of your system. I talked to Kelli, and I…”

“What about the blood?” I interrupted.

His sighed and shook his head.

“You should rest more.”

“Don’t bullshit me,” I replied. “Tell me what’s going on.”

He gripped my palm and moved closer to the bed.

“The doctor said you were pregnant.”

“Were?” the bedside monitor pulsed.

“Were.”

He lowered his head toward my stomach, and just as we had done a day earlier, we cried.

___

Eugene Schacht loves his mom, sisters, grandma, aunt andRachel. He is a writer out of Washington, D.C., and you can follow him at www.storyboss.com.

Elise Ivey

By Mike Sauve

“Man has only a single spring in his life, and the memory of a past joy is not the herald of coming happiness.” —Andre Gide

 

 message from Elise Ivey assaulted my inbox, and then the peace in my life: “I know you’ve always had a crush on me. I’m moving to Toronto. We should hang out.

Cute enough in those high school football game nights, Elise had now evolved into something altogether tragic in magnitude: long legs and eyelashes, brown skin everywhere, prominent features in perfect proportion, the whole deal. We were from a town in northern Ontario where the girls are mostly French or Italian and always beautiful. Elise had that darkness of Italy, that Sault Ste. Marie angel-face.

We had never spoken in the real world. She must have remembered me as an acquaintance of her close friend Rejeanne Aubert, whose desirable photos I had examined with zeal during the early days of social networking. Elise Ivey could be seen in the background, looking prettier with each passing semester. I would have forgotten her otherwise, but somehow the media of her took root in the depths of my subconscious. Some call it Facebook, I name it—the work of Belial: the ugly spirit.

The fantasy’s most unlikely permutations were considered for about the length of a sitcom, but even Elise Ivey thrills recede, so I dragged myself off the couch, opened a beer, and messaged about twenty-five girls on Plenty of Fish, a popular dating site. Most were dark, in their early twenties, and from the suburbs, because girls are very bored there. I had this terrible stock joke that went, “I declined an invitation to attend a rodeo this weekend, perhaps a mistake…”

It was necessary to offer some zany “randomness.” Most of these girls desperately covet something they call “random”—a word encompassing all that they potentially find amusing. In reality, I didn’t feel the least bit zany. I felt what the killer Gary Gilmore had once called “the oldness.” It was sad, not yet 10 am, and already feeling like the cold-blooded murderer Gary Gilmore.

Fortunately, outside the halfway house visible from my bedroom window, the day’s first screaming fight promised a violent distraction. I sat on the bed to watch. My neighbourhood was labeled “at risk”, but the personal risks were minimal if you kept your head down or watched from your window.

“I’m trying to make money to pay money,” a toothless old man begged a thick Latino guy. The old man carefully placed his ball cap and glasses on a garbage can, got down on one knee, and pounded the garbage can lid in agony. His glasses bounced high into the air, yet by some grace landed safely on top of the can each time.

“Everybody’s pushing me do you get that?” He transitioned from rage to sorrow, calmed down and explained his whole operation in a quiet voice until I could no longer hear.

The old man’s trouble might have stemmed from a flood of new heroin pushers who’d appeared in the last few months. Outside the methadone clinic (visible from my living room window) I often saw him darting between the skeletons, making small, desperate deals. Sometimes he’d be counting out nickels and quarters in his shaky hand. He seemed approachable. My curiosity extended back to when I had first read Junkie as an eleven year old, so I tried to think healthier thoughts involving Elise Ivey. An impulsive message was composed:

“Hey Elise, so nice to hear from you! I always notice your status updates, they’re very amusing. I saw you went to a Bob Dylan concert once. I was going to comment but I didn’t want to seem like a weirdo. How did you know I have a crush on you? Are you inside my head or something? I think you probably have a crush on me and are just projecting. 😉 When are you moving down?”

My wife came home after 7pm and we deep-fried chicken, creating a terrible, wall-coating stink. She lamented the complex intricacies of her job and the various psychological offenses that had been committed against her. As her career quickly advanced she was increasingly overwhelmed by stress. I had it relatively easy, enjoying a summer of unemployment benefits, and felt obligated to listen, but her venting sounded bitter and malevolent, too much like the real world.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, but it sounds like you’re full of hate,” I said cautiously.

“I’m not full of hate, you just don’t know how to listen!” she nearly screamed.

“Nah, I know hate when I hear it.”

Vibrating beneath the television current that night was the thought of Elise Ivey and the magic she might bring. Amy flipped through a catalogue like it was entertainment, and then said, “I want to go to this bike and wine tour.”

“That sounds terrible.”

“You are so uncultured.”

“No I have taste, thus, my well-considered position! What are you anyway some wine expert, you used to drink carbonated wine that came in a 2-litre plastic bottle—that’s what’s so offensive, this yuppie posturing…because it’s presented to you on TV, or in these ‘advotainments’ you so willingly consume!”

“You don’t have to be a wine expert to enjoy a nice experience like that.”

“No, you can also be a poseur.”

The moment she went to the bathroom I rushed over to Facebook like a desperate man. One scrambles from the dank pit of the oldness, acts lustful, hedonistic, savage, all in vain. Prescience often takes over in these moments, and my certainty was warranted, a message from Elise Ivey waited. Oh my God that Bob Dylan concert was amazing. I’m so glad I got to see him before he died. I’m moving in on the weekend why don’t we go for lunch on Monday?”

Was Bob Dylan dead?

My lethargy disappeared and I felt like dancing. Instead I put on Bringing It All Back Home and did a comical duck walk, bobbing my knees the way Bob Dylan does when he’s enjoying himself in concert. I had forgotten how to dance and now favoured the duck walk. I wondered how acceptable this might be with Elise and friends in the sweaty nightclub of my hopes.

Amy came out of the bathroom, frowned at the loud music, and said, “The guy upstairs is going to be upset.”

“What guy, there is no guy…this fictional upstairs enemy of mine who you identify with? You don’t even know the guy upstairs, the old guy moved out.”

“Because you played the music too loud. He had cancer.”

“So, he’s out of our hair now. You just want me to be more like you. Maybe someone out there would like to listen to music loud, with some enthusiasm, without having it all burnt to shit by your insipid hand wringing?”

The next morning began with a dry mouth and an undirected hatred. A persistent tickle at the back of my throat raised fears of esophageal cancer. Elise Ivey came to mind and the guilt set in. I noticed a baby picture of my wife—all wide-eyed innocence, a galling fountain of indisputable goodness on this seedy hangover morn. In our finest times together, that same innocence and purity shone beneath her pouty exterior like a radiant jewel. I used to marvel at the distinctive beauty of her downturned lips and big sad eyes. But sadly, I got used to being frowned at, and now there is Elise Ivey or some kind of trouble every day.

My penitence was a microwaved Hungryman dinner, heavily salted. I forced myself to walk it off in the park. Two ex-cons sat on a bench twisting up some saran wrap. What form did heroin come in these days? Powder would be easier for the new initiate or the man-on-the-go to snort. Black tar heroin wasn’t likely still in fashion or available, but this confusion prevented me from inquiring with the ex-cons. You can’t reveal any ignorance with these people or they’ll skin you alive.

On the Facebook newsfeed, Elise Ivey: “Moving to Toronto, so excited, can’t wait to see you xoxoxox. Lol Lol.” The gummy, broken-down bum wept that morning. The money he’d promised must not have materialized. The Latino, understanding the day before, now shouted the old man down and ripped at his shirt. The sad old guy fell to his knees, helpless, and the confrontation fizzled out.

I had a desperate retching cough. It was the internal organs’ lament. I considered switching to vodka and watering down the bottle. I’d heard on Charlie Rose that the act of pouring the drink released the dopamine, not the actual consumption. Similarly, it was the messaging of Elise Ivey, the waiting on her messages, that I was truly addicted to—the hope of her brown flesh, not the flesh itself.

Her very photogenic Facebook content was difficult to resist. Over 700 photos spoke mostly of heart-searing beauty. A few were saved in a folder called “Muddy Waters” in case she deleted me later. I looked at the photos of her gorgeous friends for the first time in a while. I used to look at them quite regularly.

Something caught my attention. Rejeanne had a collage of profile pictures, titled “Top Ten Profile Creepers.” I was ranked second. Most of the fellow creepers were among her closest friends. Had Elise noticed this serious indictment upon me? How I loathed that algorithm! I had not been aware of these functions when I hungrily viewed and sometimes saved Rejeanne’s photos. Lo, this digital age was killing me.

Some muscle relaxants called my name from the kitchen cupboard, so I took a couple. I drank a beer and then opened another one. I poured myself a whiskey. I started writing a poem:

 

Where are you tonight Rejeanne Aubert—?

We danced once:

High school dance you pressed against me

pushup bra, and dimples

you were very short.

Now I stand convicted among your top profile creeps

— Explain these years of longing?

These angry mornings

These nights waiting

These ten million estimated Facebook logins

Hoping for a message, not from you,

But from yesterday,

Saying ‘come home’

like the old Negro spiritual.

 

It was pretty bad stuff, particularly the laughable yesterday business, but I wouldn’t face it in the cold light of sobriety for weeks yet, so I remained convinced of its essential truth. A distinct schema of Elise/Rejeanne kept unraveling through the booze-dulled circuitry of my mind. I tried to shake free of these girls with adult, practical concerns. It was no use. A memory is far more insidious than the worst profile creep.

I’d had real girlfriends from that period whose profiles would have been more appropriate to creep, yet it was Rejeanne I wanted, not her current incarnation, but some old version of her that only existed in those pictures. Things were fucked. “People are crazy and times are strange,” the poet laureate of rock and roll said that. Elise came on Facebook messenger.

 

Elise: Hey what’s up?

Nick: Elise! How’s it going?

Elise: Good, just getting my shit together for the big move.

Nick: You are so pretty.

Elise: LOL that’s weird.

Nick: I like to catch people off guard with compliments.

Elise: LOL well thanks.

Nick: Why did you message me? We haven’t spoken in years.

Elise: I don’t know! Something about your Facebook profile. And your picture would always show up in that little box on my page, something about it kept you in my mind I guess you’d say. I read some of your articles you posted.

Nick: That’s the only reason I write anymore. The ego boost when I have a link for the Facebook newsfeed.

Elise: Haha you don’t get paid?

Nick: If I had to live off what I make writing I’d be lining up in the bread lines.

Elise: What’s a bread line?

Nick: A food bank.

Elise: LOL LOL I’m sure it’s not that bad.

Nick: How is Rejeanne?

Elise: That’s weird you ask.

Nick: No it isn’t, I just remembered you were friends.

[Long delay]

Nick: I don’t know any of your other friends.

Elise: Oh no? She’s allright. She’s here right now. She says Hi.

Nick: Hi Rejeanne.

Elise: We’re sad because I’m leaving her tomorrow.

Nick: That is sad, though not as sad as a one-eyed dog. There’s this one-eyed dog I always see. I call him old one eye.

Elise: Lol, what are you talking about?

Nick: Nothing.

Elise: OK well we’re going out. I’ll message you once I’m settled in Toronto.

Nick: If tomorrow wasn’t such a long time, then lonesome wouldn’t mean nothing to me at all.

Elise: What?

Nick: Bob Dylan lyric.

 

She was offline. My mind tried to fill in the blanks of the unknown Elise Ivey corporeality—potential arms, the probability of her soft-hair…

This madness was hard to replace with the TV, so I went to the strip club and told the strippers all about these visions of Elise. Strippers (1) listen better than any kind of therapist; they’re just running a different type of con, and (2) sometimes look, smell, or feel like the girl that would drive you to a therapist in the first place. Modern mind medicine boasts no easy answers when it comes to acute carnal-memory disorder—the only effective therapy remains tactile.

The next morning I did some pushups and jogged around the park. An asthmatic, I ran out of breath in under forty seconds. I looked around at all the losers in the park and considered how much better off I was with the fantasy of Elise Ivey in my life. These bums, these morbidly obese, these infirmed and scooter-bound: what would they give for the dream of her?

I felt like boasting. My friend Lyndon was house-bound due to extreme social anxiety, and in this condition, an excellent MSN buddy. Thoughtful, well-read, and passionate about culture, he was a nice counterpoint to the LOL’ing and vapid dating site girls who populated my MSN list in place of actual friends.

After discussing Benoit Duteurtre (his favourite) for about ten minutes, then sending a series of William S. Burroughs YouTube clips back and forth, I said to Lyndon:

 

Nick: Elise Ivey! (I sent her Facebook profile. Not being her “friend”, he could see only 80-odd profile pictures, not all 700. This was enough to convey her beauty.)

Lyndon: Oh wow. I thought all this was behind you.

Nick: She came to me in a dream.

Lyndon: You seem to have the same dreams all the time.

Nick: It’s true. Always about people I used to know, but only the ones I have on Facebook.

Lyndon: I dream about people I don’t know, but they seem real.

Nick: Me it’s always the same bunch of jerks. Then Elise Ivey messaged me in real life and now everything is much better. Just look at her!

Lyndon: There is a certain sense of innocent romance. How old is she?

Nick: 23 or some perfect age, I don’t know, just finishing University, filled with enthusiasm for nights at the familiar bar. There are plenty of strapping young men in her photos. I’m not that strapping these days. Maybe I will wear a baggy shirt. Give me a kind of urban edge. [A long pause] Oh to… (you know the rest)

Lyndon: Yes, I do. So why do it? It will just be another idealized fiction to remember. To paraphrase your poet laureate of rock and roll, “it’s not you she’s looking for.”

Nick: I want to have things to remember.

Lyndon: Hasn’t your cache of carefully cultivated memories completely crippled you?

Nick: Yes it has. That’s quite an alliterative sentence by the way…in an amateurish way… Anyhow, my hope is to lure her into being my friend. Then convince her to love me, or somehow seduce her, then who knows.

Lyndon: This shoddy plan of yours would lead to a great deal of suffering. Probably a year’s worth on your part alone. This was how long you mourned Daniela, and only half the time you spent eulogizing Christine, the anti-depressed beauty queen, who was just 18.

Nick: So it’s a rhyme-off you want? Fine:  Christine gave me something to think about, something to drink about. That could be a hit country song in today’s climate of poor songwriting.

Lyndon: What had you been thinking about before Elise Ivey?

Nick: I’d been writing that hard sci-fi novel at a torrid pace. I just paraphrase Quantum Physics for Beginners and that editor goes nuts for it.

Lyndon: Isn’t that better than writing me 3,000 word emails about some new Daniela, which frankly, I don’t enjoy reading.

Nick: You’ve been a good friend. The basic idea is that I’m going to do it, throw caution to the wind and hope for the absolute best.

Lyndon: That’s admirable. But always with the throwing caution to the wind? Can’t caution be left in place for once, not hurled into this wind?

Nick: I have to hurl something into the wind.

Lyndon: Why caution?

Nick: Caution is like a giant blockade—no wind gets in.

Lyndon: Are you drinking port wine again?

Nick: Thank God, no. Beer only. I find I don’t get drunk. Just tired and stupid. I am about 30,000 times smarter in the morning. Just a driveling idiot by evening. But more poignant. How’s that for irony? Oh well, these Quantum page-turners don’t require poignancy, just paraphrasing.

Lyndon: What would you be sober?

Nick: Bored. Unless in the brown arms of Elise Ivey, then—content.

Lyndon: You should write her an ode.

Nick: I have several odes in the works. Do you have any stomach-tightening workout advice? I feel like a fool doing crunches.

Lyndon: Squats.

Nick: I don’t think that’s right. I’m going back to the classic situp. Lates.

 

The weekend passed without incident. Watching Sunday Night Baseball, bored, a message from Elise came:

 

Elise: Hey, finally finished unpacking! Can’t wait to see you. Why don’t we meet at The Drake Hotel around Noon? It’s right near my new place. xoxoxo

 

I looked rough that morning, and The Drake was a classy joint, so I wore a sport coat. None of the muscle men in her pictures seemed like the tweed type, and here I sensed a small but necessary advantage. It was warm and I began to sweat. I arrived first, went to the bathroom and rinsed the sweat off my face with cold water, then dried it with one-ply toilet paper that shredded up all over my face. I had a terrible time scraping all the shreds off.

It was 12:18 pm when she sashayed up the sidewalk with the put-on theatricality of a major film and television star. I just managed to open the door for her. She gave me a sisterly hug and sat down in her summer dress and large white sunglasses. She took her sunglasses off and looked out the window, distracted. She asked the waiter for water. I also wanted water, but someone had to order something, so I ordered Perrier to look classy. She fidgeted and started texting someone—texting, the scourge of modern society. She wasn’t looking at me. Then she seemed to pick up on something; she turned into something else, elfin, a practical joker, a lively child, everything I wanted.

“So you want to know why I messaged you in the first place? Okay…we noticed your profile was always popping up on our pages. First, none of us could remember who you were. Then you showed up on Rejeanne’s Stalker List and it seemed hilarious. Then Celia had saved this weird message you sent her. Like, ‘Who is this guy?’

“So we have this friend in computer science who designed a program that could monitor everything a person did while he was on your profile. You were on ours for so long Nick. It became a running joke. The program also told us what functions you were using. The “Save-As” function came up all the time while you were looking at our pictures. Some of the girls were kind of freaked out. They thought maybe they could call the police on you or something. But it wasn’t breaking any laws. We took down a lot of our beach photos after that.”

I interrupted, stammering: “First I’d like to say, the amount of time could be attributed to instances I left my computer on then went to work. The ‘Save-As’ was part of an art project I was working on. You can take comfort knowing it wasn’t just pictures of your friends, like some obsession. It was a broad tapestry. Not a tapestry of broads, a full tapestry…”

“Art project huh?”

“Well it informed my art.”

“What kind of art do you make?”

“Quantum thrillers.”

“Interesting. But look, after we took down the bikini and cleavage photos we talked about it. We knew when we started our jobs we couldn’t have those photos up. So we said, ‘Who cares, now’s the time to have fun, right?’ So we came up with a competition, whoever could get the most pics saved by you would be called ‘Slut of the Year.’ It was this huge joke. So we’d take all these pictures with our boobs pushed up when we were drunk. Then they’d show up in the newsfeed and we’d all laugh. It was funny because none of the boys our age bothered to download them. You were our biggest fan. So when we weren’t getting any attention we’d joke about calling you up.”

“It’s so disturbing you were viewing me this way. Something is wrong with you people,” I said.

“It was more disturbing you were viewing us that way, that often, that intensely. You’re lucky we could laugh about it.”

“But you’re laughing at me.”

“That’s right we are. Because it’s so creepy. Sometimes as a joke we’d look at your profile and play that song I’ll Be Watching You by The Police.”

“It’s called Every Breath You Take.”

“Anyways…so one of our last nights we were going to take all the slutty photos down and we started thinking we were going to miss you. We wanted to give you a good send off.”

Rejeanne’s pretty face in the foyer made it all clear. Celia (who I’d once sent an ill-advised message to, filled with admiration and reverie at 4am) and several recognizable friends followed her into the bar wearing bikinis and familiar Halloween costumes. Some of those pictures I’d downloaded two or three times. They were already quite drunk and laughing hysterically. I stood up. “You’ll excuse me.” I made no effort to pay for my Perrier.

I walked home shaking my head the whole way. I saw the old man from next door on the bench in the park, his weary head in his hands. “Hey man, if I offer you a $20 fee will you help me to get $40 worth of heroin?”

“Get the fuck out of here,” he said.

At home I deleted my Facebook account. I didn’t part with the Muddy Waters folder. I wanted to remember them with a vengeance.

I tried to compose an email to Lyndon that would defend my position—“Secondary experience has value. A bootleg from Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue holds real power for me. Other people may need to be present, but my imagination gets by with a facsimile. Pictures that held Elise’s potential magic were waiting at a web address, nourishing as whatever fiction I could impose on them”—but it didn’t convince even me. It was only adolescent desire I wanted to feel again.

This illusion of social media, Elise Ivey, existed only as a Facebook ghost once, so none of it would have mattered without my continued focus. Moral and spiritual weakness made me the ideal victim for these dark, absentee forces. She became real only as some karmic manifestation of horror I had coming. I didn’t even care to recover. A fantasy is like an apple, take a bite out of one and soon it will rot.

___

Mike Sauve has written non-fiction for The National Post, The Toronto International Film Festival Group, Exclaim Magazine and other publications. His online fiction has appeared everywhere from Feathertale, Frost Writing, and McSweeneys to university journals of moderate renown. Stories have also appeared in print in M-Brane, Black and White Journal, The University of Colorado at Boulder’s Palimpsest, and elsewhere.

Conowingo

By Jeff Richards

Dinner 

ictor meets Nancy at one of Walt and Harriet’s couples-only parties at their bungalow in Chevy Chase. She’s the only other single. Harriet and Walt don’t believe in odd numbers. “We want our guests to feel comfortable.” Until Nancy, Vic felt the opposite.

“I grew up in Conowingo near the power plant,” she says. “I wear sculptured nails, pluck my eyebrows, and tease my hair. There’s not an honest thing about me.” She’s dressed in a pink waitress uniform and black flats.

“I moved to this area two years ago and found a job answering phones. Now I’m a researcher. Next they’ll make me vice president because the boss adores blondes.”

“I’m sure he thinks you’re smart, too,” says Victor.

“Perhaps. But he passed over other women who are as smart and more experienced, but none of them are blonde.”

They spend most of the party on the back deck in the chill fall air while the other guests play charades before a warm fire in the living room.

“I’m college educated,” she says. “Sweetbriar, a finishing school for Southern belles. I didn’t fit in there. I majored in business.”

“I’m a CPA,” Victor informs her.

“You look like one.” Vic assumes she refers to his wire-rim glasses and bowtie.

“Harriet and I met at Camp Chesapeake years ago. She thought I was daring, the exact opposite of her. I tipped the sailboat over in the middle of the Bay and got everybody wet. I ran in front of the targets at the archery range. Moments after my mom left on Family Day that summer, I set a pile of dirty socks on fire in my cabin. I breathed the smoke in deeply, slipped into unconsciousness and was rudely awakened when they dragged me out.” She puts her hand on his knee. She wears about eight silver bracelets.

“I almost died.”

A sickly pale moon peers out from behind a cloud where it’s hidden most of the night. In this light Nancy seems like a ghost out of the fifties. Doris Day as a truck-stop waitress. He takes her hand.

He tells her that he and Walt were roommates in college in the early nineties. In the summer, they rafted down the Snake River and repelled El Capitan.  When they graduated, they moved to Bourbon Street. All their possessions were stolen—his CD collection, Walt’s desktop. They got into a bar fight.

“We decided to reform. Entered graduate school at the University of Maryland,” says Vic, pleased at his openness.  “Walt ended up marrying the principal’s daughter at the first firm he worked for. I work for one of the Big Fours, own a condo in Adams Morgan, a Subaru, and membership in a sports club where I play racquetball. I travel on business. I guess I’m an average guy.”

“Oh, come on, you don’t expect me to believe that,” says Nancy. “There must be something unusual about you.”

“Well,” says Vic, deciding to take a dive into the unknown, “my dad didn’t like it that I went to Maryland. He wanted me to get a law degree at Stanford, like him.”

Nancy kisses Victor, her touch feathery. He can barely feel the pressure on his lips. “I live on Carroll Avenue in Takoma Park, a few miles from here,” she says.

Victor drives Nancy home. She invites him in, fixes tea. They sit close together on a couch. “Do you hear anything?” she asks.

“No, I don’t.”

“Total silence is nice,” she says. “In Conowingo, where we live on the side of a hill that overlooks the dam, day and night you always hear either the water roar over the spillway or the low hum of the machinery. Got to the point where I heard it five miles off when I was at school.”

Victor spends the night in a room with a half-open door and, after they make love, he studies Nancy’s face, half in shadow, like an eclipsed moon. He wonders what kind of person she really is.

“What are you thinking?” asks Nancy.

“Oh, nothing,” he says.

“You can tell me,” says Nancy. “I want to hear about you.”

So he tells her that he grew up in a ranch house in the foothills that overlooked Boulder, Colorado and the plains.

“I could see all the way to Kansas.”

He says that sometimes when he was in bed at night after all the lights were out and he could hear his father snoring, he’d want to slip into his clothes, creep down the hallway and out the back door. “I’d hike up the mountain over the Continental Divide, down the western slope across the valley to the Wasatch Mountains and down the other side to Bonneville Flats or whatever the desert’s called there until I came to California.”

Nancy laughs. “You sound as crazy as me.”

“That’s my escape dream,” says Vic. “I have another one where I hide in the mountains in a cave because the Soviets have invaded and fenced in all the residents of Boulder. I vaguely remember a movie about this. Red Sunset, I think it’s called. In my dream, I sneak down to rescue a girl and take her up to my cave.”

“What do you do with her there?”

“You know,” says Vic.

“Yes,” says Nancy, leaning up on her elbow facing him in the bed so he can only see one of her tiny round breasts, the other’s in shadow. “You could rescue me.”

 

Lunch

Over lunch at the City Café, Vic insists that, “Nancy may appear strange on the surface, but deep down she’s a warmhearted person.”

Walt cuts into his mushroom crepe, more concerned about how busy he and Harriet were the day after the party searching for oak veneer end tables to match the couch they found at Ikea.

“I like Nancy an awful lot,” says Victor.

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” says Walt.  “By the way, did she tell you how she likes the silence?”

“Well, yes.”

“You can’t tell me that isn’t weird.”

“It’s weird if you didn’t understand where she grew up.”

“Okay, Victor, you can make excuses for her.”

“I’m not making excuses, Walt. I like her.”

“You shouldn’t,” says Walt, stabbing a piece of mushroom crepe and pointing it at his friend. The white sauce drips on the plate. “Her father ran away when she was a kid and, I think, it did something to her mind. Wait until she tells you. You’ll see.”

 

Dinner

Vic takes Nancy to dinner at Vidalia followed by a concert at the Kennedy Center. She wears a low-cut black cocktail dress with a satin belt and satin pumps, a veiled pillbox hat tilted smartly on her head. He takes her dancing at a fifties club. She’s in pink pedal pushers, saddle shoes, an oversized men’s dress shirt, and chews gum the whole time.

“I’m not what I appear to be,” she tells him. “Insanity runs in my family. My brother’s in and out of an institution in California because he won’t take his pills. My sister’s been released from a place in New Jersey. She suffers from postpartum depression.”

“I know about your father,” says Victor gently.

“You do. He is an engineer. He helped design the power plant.”

Vic invites her to his condo. She peers out his eighth floor window at the Washington Monument, and beyond that, the lights from Rosslyn that wink across the Potomac like a thousand pairs of sleepy eyes.

“This is wonderful,” she says. “When I was 12 my father took me to Washington to one of his conventions. He took me to dinner at the Mayflower, to a show at the National Theater, and the Ice Capades. It was just Dad and I. One night he ordered room service and we sat in front of a window that was high up like this one overlooking the whole town. I liked that.”

Victor wants to ask further questions about her father but decides not to. She seems so vulnerable standing there by the window, hugging herself.

The next day he calls up Harriet. “Don’t let Walt influence you. There’s nothing wrong with Nancy that a relationship with a nice person like you can’t cure.”

Victor falls in love with Nancy when he takes her to a ski resort in West Virginia though he’s not sure why. They spend the whole weekend in an A-frame with a huge thermo-glass window in the front that overlooks the lodge and ski slopes. They watch videos, build huge fires in the stone fireplace, which they stare at for hours on end. On Saturday afternoon it snows, and Nancy goes out on the porch in a cashmere sweater, her arms wrapped around her. “What do you hear?” she asks.

Though Victor’s in his down vest, he still feels cold. He sees the skiers winding down the slopes, waiting in line for the ski chairs, cars driving down the road, parking, people wandering in and out of the lodge and ski shop. But they’re too far away.

“Nothing,” he says, “I hear nothing.”

“Nor do I. Isn’t it nice?” The snow gets thicker, obscures the view of the lodge.

That night as they curl up on the sleep sofa in front of the fire, Victor tells Nancy about his family. “My parents got divorced when I was ten years old. Mom moved to Seattle with my older sister. I stayed in Boulder and visited Mom for a month in the summer. Sandy would visit us for Christmas every other year and during the summer.”

“Did you miss your mother?”

“Yeah, she’s not a bad person. She and Dad couldn’t get along.”

“My parents couldn’t get along either,” says Nancy, crossing her legs and staring fixedly at the fire. An ember pops. “Because Mom was always right. Always. So Dad found an engineering job in Nevada. We haven’t heard from him since. He might be dead for all we know.”

“I guess we share a lot in common,” says Vic hesitantly.

“Except that you got to stay with your father,” says Nancy. She stirs the fire with a stick, turns her head towards him. They kiss, then settle down to make love with a wild abandon that Victor has never experienced before.

In the morning he looks at her body, which is as white as the sheets on their bed. Her fingernails and toenails are painted purple; two of her silver bracelets have slid up her arm. She opens her eyes, which are like black coral so he can’t distinguish the pupils and she says, simply, “I love you.”

 

Lunch

“I’m busy all the time,” says Walt as he picks at his pasta seafood primavera at the Devon Grille. On a paper napkin, he draws the layout of the bathroom they’re remodeling in their home.

“We’re going to have a Jacuzzi, skylights, a walk-in shower. Kohler fixtures. The best that money can buy.”

“Walt, I’m crazy about Nancy. What do you think I ought to do?”

“Forget her. You need a sensible girl. I wouldn’t have let Harriet introduce you if I knew you planned to get serious.”

Victor picks at his seafood nachos with cheese. Walt says that it’s bad for him. All that cheese will raise his cholesterol level.

 

Dinner

In the spring, before one of Walt and Harriet’s couples-only soirees, Vic and Nancy have their first fight. He confronts Nancy about the mental state of her family.

“I want to know how you fit in the picture,” he demands.

They are in his condo, and she is standing at the window, looking out at the Washington Monument with its one blinking red eye. Victor is worried. They have been going out for almost a year and things are turning serious. He realizes the next step is to ask Nancy to marry him, and he needs to make the right decision.

“Do you want to know if I’m crazy like my sister and brother?” asks Nancy. He can tell that she is agitated. Maybe he’s pushing his luck.

“Well, I’m not sure if I suffer from postpartum depression since I have never had a baby. Nor do I think I’m like my brother. He has an eating disorder. And I don’t mean anorexia or bulimia. He weighs over four hundred pounds. I weigh in at 110. Maybe I’m bipolar. Maybe one moment I fly off to the moon like a rocket and the next I sink to the bottom of the ocean like the Titantic. What do you think?” She laughs, flops in a chair, and swivels around so she’s facing Vic.

“Or maybe you think I have a personality disorder,” she says, her fathomless, black, coral eyes flashing at him. “Why else would I dress up like a waitress one night, and a bobby-soxer the next?

“Please, Nancy. Don’t get overwrought.”

“Well, you want to know if I’m as crazy as everyone else in my family. You want to know if I’m worthy of you. That’s what I think.”

“Nancy, Nancy,” he says in a calm voice. “You’re worthy of me. It’s not that. I want you to talk. I want you to unburden yourself.”

“You’re not my psychiatrist.”

“I don’t want to be your psychiatrist.  I want to be your…” He can’t get the word out so he finds a convenient substitute.  “…friend.”

“Wow, friend. Like Walt and Harriet. Just what I need.”

Victor feels an ache in his chest bought on by the sarcasm of her remarks. How real she has become. This frightens him. He can’t think of how to respond so he says they’re late for the party.

They trudge out to the Subaru. Drive to her apartment where she changes into a black leotard. Black mini-skirt. Black tights. Black make-up. He wonders what kind of statement she is trying to make and realizes how little he really knows about this woman. But this doesn’t stop him from loving her. He senses that if he said something the heavy silence that has settled on them like an angry cloud would lift.

When they arrive at Walt and Harriet’s bungalow in Chevy Chase, the party is in full swing on the back deck of their house where Walt’s cooking baby-back ribs over a mesquite fire. He wears a Kiss the Chef apron, asks them whether they care for martinis or gin ‘n’ tonics, hands them a party plate of smoked cheese and Vienna sausages. In the background, Glenn Miller plays “That Old Black Magic,” two couples waltz, the rest gather in a semi-circle around the grill, Tricia and Zeb, Ed and Laura, Mary and Fred, Ted and Tina.

“It’s hard to believe but you’re the only unmarried couple here,” says Harriet. “As a matter of fact, with the exception of us and Ed and Laura, you’re the only ones without children. But guess what, Walt and I decided this morning to think about having children. Isn’t it wonderful.” They congratulate her.

Walt takes them up to see the bathroom that is finished except for a hole in a corner of the room.

“They’re bringing the Jacuzzi in on Monday.” He talks about the weight of the tub, with and without water, bearing walls, copper tubing, waste pipes, valves and fittings.

“I’m fascinated by the inner workings of things.”

When they go downstairs, the couples crowd around the dinning room table. Vic and Nancy sit next to Tricia who asks them if dating practices are still the same as when she was single.

“I hear a lot of singles screen their dates through private clubs.”

“Yeah,” says Fred, who’s on the other side of Tricia, “that’s how I met my wife. We saw each other on the internet before we even went out together. It cost us a bundle, but it was worth it in the end. Besides, I sold my membership to the guy who moved in after me at my group house.”

“You lived in a group house,” says Walt who sits across from them.  “Gawd, I’d hate that. Labeling yogurt containers, negotiating for bedrooms.”

Victor notices that Nancy downs one martini after another. She stares fixedly at her hands folded in her lap. “How are you feeling?” This is the first thing he has said to her all night and he’s feeling guilty.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” she says and pushes away from the table.

He wants to follow her but instead waits until dinner is over and follows the guests into the living room. They play charades. Nancy has been gone for half an hour and finally he can no longer stand it. He climbs the stairs and knocks on the bathroom door but doesn’t get a response. He hears water running, sniffling. He jiggles the door handle.

“Nancy, are you okay?” He waits a few more minutes. The sniffling has stopped as though she’s holding her breath. The water still runs. He breaks down the door.

Nancy sits on the toilet with the lid down. Her wrists are turned up under the water spigot. A tiny cut on the left wrist is seeping blood that mixes with the water in the bowl. A large kitchen knife rests on a soap dish. “I can’t do it,” she says, a pleading look in her eyes as though she wants Vic to tell her why she can’t.

“Jesus H. Christ,” says Walt who barges in behind Vic. He turns to Harriet.

“Would you get everyone the hell out of here,” he tells her. “The party’s ruined.”

 

Hospital

Vic visits Nancy at the psychiatric ward at Shady Grove Hospital where she seems preoccupied by perspective.

“There are people here far worse off then I am. That have been here five or six times. Who are serious about suicide.” She wears a cashmere sweater and a skirt embroidered with flowers. She insists that she must go home to her mother. Vic agrees to take her after she’s released to his custody.

They spend the night at her place packing.

“I’ll miss my job,” she says. She makes him promise to tell the boss that she’s physically ill and won’t return to work ever. She wraps her arms around herself tightly as though she’s either cold or giving herself a hug. She’s no longer the ghost of Doris Day as a truck-stop waitress. She has let her hair grow long, stringy — she is now a dirty blonde, a sixties character, perhaps Lisa in David and Lisa.

“You know it’s my turn now,” she says. “It was my brother’s and sister’s before. Now it’s my turn.”

 

Dinner

They drive north through Baltimore where they pick up Route 1, the main road forty years ago that now passes through desolate country with broken down motels and seedy wayside stands until they come out at the dam on the Susquehanna River. In Conowingo they take a two lane black top road that cuts through a forest and opens out at the top of a cliff that overlooks the river. They pull in the driveway of a white clapboard house with green shutters and window boxes full of flowers. A woman in a white uniform greets them at the door. “Mom’s a nurse, remember.”

Vic helps carry the luggage inside. He stays for a spaghetti dinner that the mother serves on paper plates. “I’m so busy that it’s difficult to do dishes all the time,” she says. “And with Nancy here it’ll be twice as busy.”

“I’m sorry, Mom,” says Nancy who picks at her food.

“Don’t you worry, darling,” says the mom in a soothing nurse like voice, “I don’t care. We’ll have a nice time together, won’t we Victor?”

“I’m sure of it,” says Vic who stares at his spaghetti and meatballs with green pepper specks. He dips the Italian bread in olive oil and listens to the silence.

“Conowingo is the perfect place for you to be,” says the mom. “It is so quiet and peaceful here in the woods…”

“Except for the dam,” says Nancy.

The mother laughs. “Oh, don’t worry about that. Don’t worry about anything. Everything will be fine if you do exactly as I tell you.” She smoothes her daughter’s hair. “I’m the nurse.”

Nancy looks pleadingly at Vic. She seems to be shrinking like Alice in Wonderland trying to make herself small enough to fit through the door that is too small for her.

“I truly appreciate your taking care of my daughter, Victor,” says the mother at last. She has the same pale skin as her daughter, but her eyes are gray. Blank like a dawn without sunlight. She takes him by the elbow and leads him to the front door. Her fingers feel like ice on his skin.

“But now,” she says, “my daughter has to be alone. She needs to heal.”

“I understand,” says Vic. “I have to get back to the office. It’s tax season.”

He shakes the mother’s hand and thanks her for the meal. He leans down and pecks the daughter on the cheek.

On his way to the bridge over the Susquehanna, he comes to an overlook and parks. He wants to hear the water roar over the spillway or the hum of the machinery. He hears nothing, a still twilight with the sun setting upriver casting long, twisted shadows from the bushes that hang over the cliffs. He thinks about that perfect morning in the mountains when Nancy opened her black coral, fathomless eyes and whispered, “I love you.” He thinks of what Harriet said, that there was nothing wrong with Nancy that a relationship with Vic can’t cure. For a moment what he wants to do is to forget the past, throw away his bowtie, drive his Subaru into the river, and like in his Red Sunset dream, sneak up to the house with the flowers in the window box, rescue Nancy, and take her to his cave far off in the mountains where no one can find them. Then he remembers what Walter said about how he needs a sensible girl. Without a glance back, Victor climbs in his car and drives across the bridge.

___

Jeff Richards’ fiction and essays have appeared in more than two dozen publications including North Dakota Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Compass Rose, River City, Gargoyle, The GSU Review, Phantasmagoria, Aethlon, Karamu, Radio Void, Weber Studies, The Houston Chronicle, and Zone 3. His work has also been included in two books of essays, Tales Out of School (Beacon Press) and Letters to Salinger (University of Wisconsin Press). He was fiction editor of the Washington Review and is currently a contributing writer to Blueswax, the online blues magazine.

Sense of Place

By Henry Rappaport

Searching there

you may wonder

which way

the dead face.

 

There is no telling

them to turn.

 

Is the sun over

the right or left

shoulder as it tries

to warm those so

cold so long?

 

And youth and

memory

from which side

of morning

will they rise?

___

Henry Rappaport has four books of poetry published, including Dream Surgeon and A Book of Days, from Intermedia Press, and more than twenty recent poems in literary journals such as Poet Lore, and The Cincinnati Review. This summer he was at Bread Loaf Writers Conference working with James Longenbach, and previously has attended the Sewanee Writers Conference and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Originally from the Catskill Mountains of New York, he has an M.A. from the University of Washington, and lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Ingashaw

By A.F. Popper

This was the mine

Gray mud and bent tracks.

Here at Ingashaw,

Anthracite launched sideways

While my brother lay in smoke.

 

That concussive morning

With volleys and terror barking,

China shaken to shard, then dust,

As the great bells summoned.

 

To the mine!

The soul priest, the sole priest,

Downed his wine,

Velvet flapping, sweating, wheezing:

To the mine!

Bearer of the Word.

 

I could immerse, sublime in the Testament.

I, called with a calling,

I, heaven’s minion,

Heroic valet to the Lord.

I, absolution, guiding

The Spirit’s scared lantern,

Conduit of holy justice.

 

Blunt dilution of adolescence,

Prompt demise of priestly aspirations,

Involved my one-armed brother,

Beloved former miner,

Worshiped, sinned, and walked alone,

Walked the hill

On Ingashaw’s anniversary.

 

Leapt to join those departed,

His final descent

Our faith forsworn,

His act, my liberation.

___

Andrew Frederic Popper has taught at American University, Washington College of Law for the last three decades. He is the recipient of numerous awards including the 2010 University Scholar/Teacher of the Year.  He is the author of more than 100 published novels, casebooks, articles, papers, poems, and public documents.

The End of Time

By Mark J. Mitchell

Homage to Olivier Messiaen

 

Notes mistake barbed wire

For a treble staff

And so perch there until

A clarinet wails their cue.

 

They start their escape,

Jumping to the bass clef

And sliding down,

Hiding behind flat black keys

On a broken piano.

 

Until the violin’s high note,

Long and clear,

Transfixes the guards,

Holding them until the end of time

When music vanishes.

 

___

Mark J. Mitchell studied writing at UC Santa Cruz under Raymond Carver, George Hitchcock, and Barbara Hull. His work has appeared in various periodicals over the last thirty-five years, as well as the anthologies Good Poems, American Places, Hunger Enough, and Line Drives. His chapbook, Three Visitors, will be published by Negative Capability Press later this year and his novels, The Magic War and Knight Prisoner will be published in the coming months. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, the documentarian and film maker Joan Juster. Currently he’s seeking gainful employment since poets are born and not paid.

Dreaming of Fourth Grade or Something Like It

By Mark J. Mitchell

You sit straight up, watch the redundant nun

Stab at the blackboard. Your hands are folded,

Thumbs crossed. You’ve been blisteringly scolded

For something you meant to do, should have done—

Was it memorizing martyrs? Maybe

Sorting out some saints? Obscure categories

Of sin distract you and suggest more fun

 

Than Bible History class, even in a dream.

Still asleep, you can smell the chalk, the book.

You feel small, restless and dumb as you look

At iron plate engravings. They seem

To change to color pictures of a girl

You never talked to, or wanted to. Her curls

Become snakes, slide towards you. You wake. Scream.

___

Mark J. Mitchell studied writing at UC Santa Cruz under Raymond Carver, George Hitchcock, and Barbara Hull. His work has appeared in various periodicals over the last thirty-five years, as well as the anthologies Good Poems, American Places, Hunger Enough, and Line Drives. His chapbook, Three Visitors, will be published by Negative Capability Press later this year and his novels, The Magic War and Knight Prisoner will be published in the coming months. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, the documentarian and film maker Joan Juster. Currently he’s seeking gainful employment since poets are born and not paid.

Lares

By Mark J. Mitchell

Ancestral skulls

line the ledge.

 

Excuses are kept

under the bed,

 

behind a shoebox

of untranslated letters.

 

The dust

is appalling.

___

Mark J. Mitchell studied writing at UC Santa Cruz under Raymond Carver, George Hitchcock, and Barbara Hull. His work has appeared in various periodicals over the last thirty-five years, as well as the anthologies Good Poems, American Places, Hunger Enough, and Line Drives. His chapbook, Three Visitors, will be published by Negative Capability Press later this year and his novels, The Magic War and Knight Prisoner will be published in the coming months. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, the documentarian and film maker Joan Juster. Currently he’s seeking gainful employment since poets are born and not paid.

 

 

For Herself, Again

By Mark J. Mitchell

Is there time enough

for endless love?

I wonder in the dark.

 

And I wonder that the dark

was once mother of my fears

held at bay by too bright nightlights.

 

Because tonight, without light,

she breathes warm in the darkness

and my breath answers, endless

 

as the dark. Endless as my love

which wants nothing but more time

next to her in the dark.

___

Mark J. Mitchell studied writing at UC Santa Cruz under Raymond Carver, George Hitchcock, and Barbara Hull. His work has appeared in various periodicals over the last thirty-five years, as well as the anthologies Good Poems, American Places, Hunger Enough, and Line Drives. His chapbook, Three Visitors, will be published by Negative Capability Press later this year and his novels, The Magic War and Knight Prisoner will be published in the coming months. He lives in San Francisco with his wife, the documentarian and film maker Joan Juster. Currently he’s seeking gainful employment since poets are born and not paid.