Issue 8.3

Forge Interview with Mark Belair

By Tim McLafferty

Welcome to the fourth Forge Interview: our series of interviews with makers on making. Conceptually cast as craft interviews, we offer time and space to invited writers, the goal of which is manifold: to get to know the artist better by trying to understand how they make a thing, to better understand the thing itself, and hopefully, to provide a lasting utility.

Our guest is Mark Belair, a talented and creative poet based in New York City. Our sincere thanks to Mark for his time and contributions to Forge.

 

TM: Describe your poetry, is it a sort of memoir poetry?

 

MB: It’s poetry based on my own experience, but that experience can sometimes be biographical, or sometimes just strolling down the street and seeing what I see. Almost all the poems render some kind of experience rather than just making a statement, although I have some of those too, but most of them just try to relate either a photographic moment or what amounts to a small short story that has to do with my own experience. Most of them begin because something actually happens that I have no idea what just happened, and I sense somehow it’s meaningful, and so I begin the poem to find out, in a sense, why I needed to start it. In other words: something happened here, what was that? and it’s like—try to relate the experience, and in the process of relating the experience, if I can get it right, sometimes that meaning will be there, some latent thing will come out.

 

TM: In defense of this kind of poetry, let’s find out why it is poetry…

 

MB: I think that if I am bewildered and can address that, then it’s not really only about me, but about the nature of the bewilderment.

 

TM: Right, but how does it stand apart from prose?

 

MB: It’s just way more compressed. Prose can tell a story, poetry can tell a story. Obviously, narrative history of poetry goes back to the beginning. You can tell a story in poetry.

 

TM: Sure, Homer is narrative, but it also has form and meter. I understand that part of contemporary American poetry is the rejection of all that, but still, what is it that you think makes it poetry?

 

MB: Again, I think just the relating of an experience of some kind: a personal experience that validates some kind of larger meaning that one intuits when you begin a poem—you know something’s there, and then as you render this experience, it can be revealed, or the impossibility of it being revealed is what you come to.  I think Seamus Heaney said, it’s a personal experience that validates a larger meaning. I think that you can do this in as compressed a way as possible, using not necessarily the poetic forms, but poetic devices.

 

TM: Like what? This is a craft interview, let’s talk about that: what poetic devices do you often use?

 

MB: Rhythm is the basic thing. When I start to render an experience, there’s a kind of unfolding where the information is revealed in the right order, with the right emphasis, and that all has to do with line-breaks, with length of lines, with the rhythms within the lines, between the lines, between the stanzas—you can create linkages, associations, stresses, delays, all this stuff is available to poetry that is not available to prose—you can smelt it down to something essential that prose doesn’t do (it does other things beautifully), but poetry’s ability is to really get it down to the absolute essential: you can get a poem to where there’s not a word too much. The fewest possible words to get to where you want to go is what makes it poetry.

 

TM: So you feel that you’re using rhythm—the rhythms of American English, right?

 

MB: Absolutely: the vernacular. Form is something that pre-exists a particular poem, structure is what arises out of a particular poem. Say you’re dealing with a sonnet, you’re given a certain form, there are certain fulfillments that you have to have; however, if you start just writing in a very compressed vernacular, certain patterns unfold and you start to listen to them and allow the poem to structure itself. Whether it’s long and languorous, or very tightly controlled, it starts to tell you what it wants to do. It structures itself, meaning that, from where the poem begins through to the end, it’s taut and every word is meaningful—it’s not just going on and on. It has a structure unique to itself, it’s not a particular form that will be used again, it’s only for that poem.

 

TM: I still think that what you think is the poem telling you what to do is you telling the poem what to do.

 

MB: It doesn’t feel that way. The part of me that writes will just shut down if I give it an order.

 

TM: I think you do it without thinking about it, yeah.

 

MB: It’s true, I do it without thinking about it because when there’s a prompt for a poem, I best serve that by being attentive and listening to the charisma of the experience, and pulling out of that what I think is essential.

 

TM: Do you go around with a notebook in your pocket?

 

MB: I do. Most of the prompts for a poem come randomly, seldom sitting at a desk: you’re walking around, you’re doing whatever, and something strikes me as, again, a moment that’s what was that? Basically, all poems begin with what was that? And, I’ll sketch something out and I’ll bring it to the computer and start to work on it, and that’s where the hard work happens. So there’s a kind of sketch that starts, and then I start working it and revising until I think I make it its best self.

 

The opening lines are the key: if I get the first couple of lines right, it seems that it leads me through. Usually on the first draft or two, I’ll get a big chunk of the poem, like eighty percent of the poem will actually be there, but that last twenty percent is where you start sweating the poem.

 

TM: Okay, what makes you sweat the poem?

 

MB: Because this word isn’t quite right, this rhythm isn’t quite right—it’s not its best self yet. It’s close.

 

TM: How do you find the right word?

 

MB: It’s attentiveness to the language itself, I think.

 

TM: Do you use a thesaurus?

 

MB: I do use a synonym finder, it’s easier than a thesaurus. Mostly I use that to find a simpler word. Sometimes the word that will occur to me is slightly off, or slightly complicated, and it’s a place-holder word—then I’ll go back and use a synonym finder—I know there’s a simpler, more direct word here, and I’ll use it for that.

 

TM: Do you use dictionaries too?

 

MB: Absolutely: I’ll use dictionaries just to be sure that I’ve got it straight. Sometimes it’s nice to use a word that can be read in two ways, and both ways are good, and so I want to be double sure that I’ve got it straight. It’s fact checking.

 

TM: What about the rhythm, what do you do? Do you start to read the lines out loud, or what?

 

MB: Not usually, although I find that there’s a natural cadence that each poem will set up, and that’s why the first couple of lines are so important: within those first couple of lines will be a cadence. In fact, I’ve even had the experience of hearing the cadence that’s next before the actual word that fits it: I just know that a stress should be here or there, or should be a little delayed, or whatever, and then the word will pop up that fits it.

 

TM: Do you start to read your poem out loud at any point?

 

MB: No, I read it in my mind. I don’t need to use my lips, the rhythm is there. When I do readings, I don’t find that there’s any problem. The rhythm that I had in my mind is certainly the same rhythm as when I speak it out loud.

 

TM: You told me once that you put your poems away for a year?

 

MB: Two years. What I do when I write a poem is that I try to make it its best self until I think, well, this is it—it can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks before I feel a poem is about right.

 

TM: Do you just only work on that poem?

 

MB: No, I always have a bunch of poems, because what I find best is that you work for a certain amount on one poem and that’s all I can do for that day, and then I’m refreshed by moving to the next one. The next day I’ll run through that same set of poems again. Some resolve themselves very quickly, some take much longer, but, in any case, once I feel I have it, I put it away on file, and every two years I will review all the poems I’ve written, and of course by then I’m pretty cold to them, I have no idea what I meant when I started, I don’t necessarily even know what the next line coming is, if I read the titles through I don’t even know what they refer to, until I start reading the poem and I say, oh yeah, of course, this one. At that point, even though when I put it away I thought is was as good as I could write it, now I have the advantage of reading it cold, and I always, literally always, make revisions, small or large.

 

TM: Well, hopefully you’re a two year better poet by then.

 

MB: That’s a good point, that’s true too—just by working for two years hopefully I become a better poet, but also I find that the poems are either a little over-written or a little under-written. I’ll read the whole poem and go, what was that, what was I getting at? And then I’ll read it again and go, oh, I remember, but I didn’t bring it out enough, so, it gives me balance and perspective to revisit a poem a couple of years later. Staying true to the poem, I never do a mammoth rewrite, but I can tinker with it to find that balance between over-writing and under-writing and it just comes out right.

 

I find that I wouldn’t be comfortable sending stuff out unless it had been through this process. I would feel that it hadn’t gone through its stress-test. Everybody works in their own way, and I’m a very routine writer, others are binge writers, but I find what works for me is routine, steadiness, and revisiting, revising—all that allows me to saturate with a poem until I feel, when I read it back, oh yeah. It could be a very light-hearted short poem about a little moment, just as long as it’s its own best self, that’s all that matters to me. Each poem is completely different from the other, and I write about a fairly wide variety of different things—I just try to bring the best of my abilities to each of those and make it so that when a reader reads these poems, they too have the same experience that the poet had. They can come to their own conclusions about what that experience means, but I want the experience to be there for them.

 

TM: You say: write to the best of your abilities. What do you do to keep improving your abilities?

 

MB: Just being attentive to the moment in the poem itself. I don’t think it’s separate from the act of writing. If you continue to write, you will continue to improve. You get a keener ear for the right word. You get keener to what is working, what is strong, what is a little too removed or remote, what can be brought out—it’s almost like intonation in music: you get a sense of pitch.

 

TM: What about reading? Do you read other poets?

 

MB: I read all the time.

 

TM: What do you read?

MB: I’m reading contemporary poets right now, because that’s what I’m doing.

 

TM: Who are you reading now?

 

MB: I just finished reading Tracy K. Smith “Life on Mars.” Marie Howe is really good: “What the Living Do.” Lynn Emanuel. I read all kinds of poets, whether they write like me or not, but you tend to love the poets that you’re just in-tune with. Writing and reading is like a friendship, it’s a personal relationship, you hit it off with certain writers, certain poets—other poets I respect, but I don’t hit it off with them—and again, that’s just a relationship. These poets, lately, I’ve just hit it off with them.

 

TM: Basically, you’re just improving by writing steadily.

 

MB: For me, that’s what works. You get skilled at identifying your own faults. I get more skilled at catching something sooner than I would have several years ago. Some people need to jump from style to style to feel refreshed; I may need that someday, but right now, I feel like I’m still growing in the way I’ve been writing for a number of years, and so I’m going to continue because it’s still stimulating to me, and I feel like I keep growing and thriving in the way I’m going at it. The day that stops, I’ll change, but right now I feel it’s a fertile field for me, so I’m sticking with it.

 

I think other people may feel the same way as I do, but the part of me that writes has its own rules and if I try to boss it around, I just go brain dead. Going back to the whole idea of the poetic prompt: what gets you going—something will happen that will create certain options, if you told me I must write about x and x, I can’t just manufacture. When something happens, it activates a part of me that wants to find out what the hell?, and I can’t control what’s going to activate that. I can’t manufacture what’s going to activate that. Once it’s activated, then I can bring technique to it. But, the activation moment itself is something that’s unpredictable and I am alert for.

 

TM: It must happen a lot if you’re able to go write every day.

 

MB: Yeah, and I think that it’s something that any poet or creative artist will cultivate, which is, instead of blowing by moments like that, you stop. That’s one of the key things, just to be alert to the moment—when something weird happens, instead of just continuing on and blowing by it, you stop and go, wait a minute, what was that?, and the next thing you know, your mind is going. For me, the ideal state for writing is similar to when you’ve had brandy and coffee: you’re relaxed enough to where all these options are occurring to you, but sharp enough where you can make choices. You’re very, very relaxed to where things are coming up, and that is your intuitive part, however, your technique part knows the better options from the worst options. That’s what the moment is like for me.

 

TM: Do you write seven days a week, or five days?

 

MB: Five days, and frankly, the weekend off is a good idea: the refresher element of it. I work Monday through Friday, Saturday and Sunday I won’t write. I’m always open to an idea, if something occurs to me I’ll do one of those sketches. I go down to my work space Monday through Friday morning from 9:00 to 12:00—three hours each day, and then I go for a little walk. If I get a new prompt that I can get a few lines from, then at lunch I’ll often sketch out the prompt a little more. The morning session is the hard work and finessing and revising, bringing my full attention; other times I’m just kinda open to ideas, or sketching out things, but not in any kind of hard way, just like: here’s a thought, here’s a thought, and once I feel I have some semblance of what the final poem might be like, then I bring it to my work space.

 

TM: Do you keep a laptop there? Are you writing with a pencil or a pen?

 

MB: I keep a laptop there. I do the hard work on a computer, but every Friday, I hand copy whatever poems remain. It makes me downshift and slow down, especially for lines. Interestingly you can work on a poem and there are certain lines that bug you, other lines are okay, but by recopying everything, I always find something—maybe I find a better word, or a punctuation change—it’s an important part of revising, it makes me go slower, and revisit all parts of the poem. For me, it’s very useful.

 

TM: Are these two-year-old poems, or new poems?

 

MB: This is with new poems.

 

TM: How many poems are you working on at the same time.

 

MB: It’s variable, it could be ten or fifteen.
TM: How many of those poems actually end up getting finished.

 

MB: All of them. I very seldom abandon a poem. I’m stubborn, but when I do one of my two year surveys, there are a few that drop out. I have to wait two years before I can confess that I didn’t get it.

 

TM: You’re never going for any sort of meter or form, right?

 

MB: No. I find that it’s a matter of what stimulates you, and I flat-line on having to fit to a preexisting form. If my mind is allowed to just follow the vernacular, in as compressed a way as possible, I’ll find a structure for it, I’ll find a way for that particular poem to be ordered. So, it’s just a different way to the same thing. There are certain restrictions or demands or conformities that can be stimulating to some writers, not me. I will say this: to render an experience is its own discipline. It’s a very demanding thing. You’re not all over the place, you’re rendering one experience—you hope in rendering this experience it becomes a theory of experience, saying something larger than itself. That’s up for the reader to decide, not the poet. I render an experience—that is my discipline, the demanding thing that stimulates me: to share this one moment in whatever complexity I can manage to see in it. That, in itself, is a tremendous demand.

 

TM: What is a poem?

 

MB: I’ll go back to what I said before: it’s a particular experience that validates some kind of more abstract truth. It’s grounded in some kind of experienced reality. If you just have some kind of personal experience that does not, in some way, tap a larger truth, that’s a diary. If what you’re doing is speaking your abstract truth, that belongs more in an essay. I think what’s unique about poetry or fiction, is that the experience embodies an abstraction while being completely particular, so that we can identify with it, we can feel it, we can think it, it has ramifications. If it’s not a personal experience, it’s just an abstract statement. If it’s an abstract statement, it’s not a personal experience.

 

TM: Yeah, but can’t an abstract statement be a poem?

 

MB: It can, at times. It would be a very good one. I do that myself. I’ve had some where I’m just making that statement in such compressed language that I feel that qualifies as a poem, but ninety percent of my poems are something that happened.

 

TM: Do you feel that you are writing for a reader?

 

MB: Yes, but no reader in particular—in fact, maybe I’m writing to myself. I’m writing for myself, certainly, but also to myself, meaning: I’m my own first reader. When I read it back, I read it like a reader. I consider myself a demanding reader of myself. I would never read another poet with as much criticism and scrutiny as I read myself.

 

TM: Do you have some readers that you try your unpublished poems on?

 

MB: Yes. After two years of saving poems, I make a private collection, and give it to a few readers. Interestingly, a few years ago, I gave seventy poems to three readers and asked them each to pick a dozen that I should submit for publication. I wanted to get a sense of which ones were being received well. So, they each picked about a dozen poems that they definitely thought I should submit—no poem was picked by all three.

 

TM: Was that useful feedback?

 

MB: It was. It told me how subjective things are. It doesn’t help me in terms of which poems are better than others.

 

TM: When you get one of your prompts, how long does it kick around before you start to write it?

 

MB: I immediately take notes, and I’ll probably sketch it out during my next lunch break. Within a day or so, I’m at the computer with it. Once I get a sense of how it’s going to go—it’s a little bit like a sketch for an oil painting—I sketch it out, nothing is hard, but I know I have something there. Some hang on because there’s one little part that bugs me, others go surprisingly smoothly. The sketch is key, because what I try to do, right away, is capture the charisma of the moment: what was going on. Later, I will always know what it was that caught my attention, and I can pull something out of that. If I let too much time go before working, I’ll forget what it was that interested me about it.

 

TM: Do you have any personal rules for writing?

 

MB: The only rule I have is to make it as clear as possible. I believe I have general tendencies: to try to be as compressed as possible, to try to be as simple and direct as possible. I don’t want to show sweat on the line, I’m not showy, I’m not interested in anything other than getting at the heart of what it was that was bewildering me. If I can do that, then I’ve done something, at least, for myself, and it’s up to the reader to decide whether or not I’ve done anything for them.

___

Mark Belair’s poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Alabama Literary Review, Atlanta Review, Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Poetry East and The South Carolina Review. His books include the collection While We’re Waiting (Aldrich Press, 2013) and two chapbook collections: Night Watch (Finishing Line Press, 2013), and Walk With Me (Parallel Press of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, 2012). He has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. For more information, please visit www.markbelair.com

Breaking In

By Anne Colwell

Twebravis sat in the porch rocker and watched a brown rabbit appear and disappear in the long grass of the front lawn. He and Tina had bought the two white rockers when they’d first moved into the house. Home Depot had rows of them arranged in front of the store right after Easter with a big sign that said “Summer’s Coming!” Tina sat in one and rocked back and forth, looking out over the parking lot. She said that it would be nice on summer nights, that they could watch the lightning bugs and rock on the porch like grandma and grandpa.

Never got next or near to being grandma and grandpa, Travis thought, but she wasn’t wrong. It had been nice back then – the porch and the rockers, the lightning bugs, the lawn trimmed and edged and cared for. The lawn. Travis lifted his cap and put his hand through his hair. He’d never have let it look like this. A disgrace like everything else. It had all been nice, and then, in one blink, in no time at all, it was a mess.

A baby tulip poplar was taking root in the middle of the yard where it was sunniest. Long tufts of winter wheat stuck up out of the grass. Travis reached out with the toe of his boot and rocked the empty chair beside him. He remembered doing that with Emma, rocking her while she blew bubbles from the plastic jar Tina had bought her at the grocery store. It was just two years ago, Travis thought. Emma was four. June. Already a fool. He shook his head. Just didn’t know it yet.

Travis put both hands on his thighs where the heat of the sun was baking through his jeans. He knew he should go; he had planned to spray Beacon Middle School before the day was out, but he wasn’t ready to leave.

Looking out at the overgrown lawn, Travis missed his father with a sudden and ferocious pain that tightened like a muscle cramp when he tried to move. Maybe it was the heat, the afternoon. Maybe it was that he had just turned thirty-seven the week before, the same age his father was when Travis had become aware that his father had an age and that it meant something. Maybe it was the thought of going to spray the school.

His father had won the contract for the four district public schools years ago and on afternoons like this in July and August, in the muggy heat, they’d go into the empty buildings together with the big tanks of Haunt. They always started in the cafeteria. Closed up for months, it smelled like feet, like cheese. Spraying along the tops of the walls, behind the cabinets and shelves for storing the food, the plates, he watched roaches cascade down onto the tile floors, a brown downpour, their legs still wiggling. The whole building was strange, desks pulled into the halls, piled on top of one another, legs up, and the classrooms emptied to the cinderblock and quiet.

Travis remembered standing in the door of the classroom where he’d sat all year long, in the fourth row, two seats back, listening to Mrs. Miller, his seventh grade teacher. He was thirteen. Even then, the change from the lively room he knew, with posters and books and furniture, to the empty cold shell in front of him had seemed surprising and sad. Two months later, that September, he would picture what the school had looked like in July. He would walk down the halls and remember the desks piled along the walls, the cork boards bare, and he would think that, even though it all looked real, it was more pretend than other people knew.

 

Travis got up to go. He readjusted his cap and watched as the rabbit spooked at his movement and darted away. Then he walked down the cement path toward his truck but instead found himself walking around to the garage and punching in the code. The mower was still where he left it when he’d put it away last fall, empty and cleaned in the far corner. It won’t take any time at all, he thought, and before he could talk himself out of it, he found the gas can and filled the tank and started. By the time he’d finished the front and gone around to the back, he’d convinced himself that he was doing it for Emma, doing it so she could enjoy the lawn, play outside. It was why they’d bought the house in the first place, wasn’t it? It was what they’d said. “So the kids would have a place to play.” He wondered, not for the first time, if any of this mess would have happened if Tina had been able to get pregnant again right after Emma, like she’d wanted to.

Travis pushed the mower in around the trees at the far edge of the yard, the sweat pouring down his back and legs, soaking through his jeans. He felt good, watching the tall grass give way to the ordered lines he made, feeling the vibration of the mower up through his hands, lifting his cap and wiping the sweat off his forehead with his bandana. When he finished the front and back, he edged out the walk and the concrete block around the back porch. Then he wrote Tina a note and stuck it in the screen door:

“I stopped to get my mail and noticed you hadn’t had a chance to do the lawn. I hope you don’t mind. I just had some time between jobs. T”

Emma called at 8:00 to say goodnight to him, the way she did every night they were apart. His phone lit up with her picture blowing him a kiss and they went through their ritual greeting: “Hello, my little can of sweet corn!”

“Hello, Daddy, I miss you!” After they said good night, Emma said, “Wait just a second. Mommy wants to talk to you.”

 

He’d spent almost his whole thirteenth summer helping his father. His father would strap the metal canister to his back and send him wriggling down, all hips and shoulders, into crawl spaces, reminding Travis to hit the cracks and the duct work, the places the bugs sneak in. They spent their days driving around in the truck, drinking Dr. Pepper and listening to Froggy99 Country Radio.

It was that same summer his father caught him upstairs at the Kramer’s house with the Playboys. He’d been spraying in the bedroom closets when he’d found the magazines spilling out of a cardboard box. Travis edged himself into the closet and crouched down, opening the first across his thighs, looking over his shoulder.

She held out one of her breasts to him in her hand. Her white blonde hair and pale skin made her look to him like the angels in his Sunday school catechism, but her lips and fingernails were red. He stared at the patch of blonde hair at her crotch and felt himself harden, felt his cock pushing up through his jeans, into the magazine. He had been so caught up that he hadn’t even heard his father walking up the stairs or into the room.

Later in the truck, he sat silent as his father talked about respect, about private property, about what it meant for people to trust them to come into their houses. “Don’t you understand?” he said over and over. “How would you feel, huh? How would you like someone you didn’t know with their hands on your things?”

“I never meant . . .” but his father cut him off and he felt choked with the need to explain and the particular hopelessness of thirteen.

“You did it. Don’t you see? Who cares what you meant. It’s what you did that matters.”

His father was a soft-spoken man, and before that day, Travis knew his father was angry mostly by the way he pressed his lips tight together or dropped his shoulders and hung his head. Before that day, he had never heard his father raise his voice, never seen him hit the steering wheel with the heel of his hand. His father kept looking over at him and then back to the road, kept saying, “Do you hear me, Travis?” And Travis answered, “Yes, sir,” astounded that it wasn’t the naked woman his father was angry about, but the fact that he’d looked at or touched anything that wasn’t his own.

 

Tina thanked him for the lawn; she said that she’d kept meaning to get it done or to pay someone to come do it. Travis winced at the thought of someone else cutting the grass, wrecking the mower blades, doing the whole job half-assed.

“Look,” he said, “I’ve always liked doing it and I don’t mind, and if . . .”

“Oh Lord, Travis,” she said, “I can’t ask you to do that.” He heard plates clattering in the background and pictured her washing up after supper.

“You’re not asking me. I’m offering. Just let me do it until . . . well, for the time being.”

She was quiet for a long space and he could hear the silverware clinking and the water running and he could picture everything she was doing, the phone scrunched between her shoulder and her head, the messy bun falling out of her hair, the last of the sun just sliding out of the window above the sink. She was looking out that window at the trees. She was thinking. Travis felt his breath get shallow. What the hell, he thought, what the hell is there to think—

“If you’re sure you don’t mind . . .”

Travis was surprised at the flood of relief and he loosened his grip on the phone, almost elated when she said it. He felt like something crucial had been hanging in the balance.

“I’d like to,” he said. “Thank you.”

 

When he walked in the door the first time, the smell surprised him. Wood smoke and coffee.  He always noticed the smells of the houses he sprayed: cleaning chemicals and soaps or grease or onions, but it was the first time he’d walked into a smell that was his own and not his own anymore. He’d put in a wood stove three years ago and he used to love making fires on winter mornings, getting the logs just right so the fire would burn all day.  The smell never left, summer or winter; Tina complained it got into the curtains, the cushions, but Travis liked it. He loved the heft of the logs as he picked them out of the pile, loved figuring out how to stack them over the twigs and trash so that they’d burn, so that he could keep the house warm.

He hadn’t meant to break in, though that’s what Tina called it later. It was August, a brutally hot afternoon, one of those days when the sun seemed to sizzle in the sky. He’d finished mowing the lawn and had drunk all the water in the gallon jug and he was drenched through with sweat. When he walked up near the house to fill the jug with the hose, he looked in the window. Seeing that shaded room, the familiar furniture, Emma’s jacket hanging on the banister, it was like seeing a friend who you’d heard had died walk down the street toward you. Something you thought was gone suddenly right there. He looked in through the window for a long time, remembered sitting on the green couch with his feet up on that coffee table watching football on autumn Sundays, remembered the day they’d found the lamp at the yard sale on Bay Street.

Then he remembered that he had his key.

That first time he just walked around once. He didn’t touch anything. He walked into the cool air and he shivered. He filled the jug at the kitchen sink and Snowy came and threaded through his legs, purring, and he picked her up and scratched her head. When she squirmed, he reluctantly let her jump down, then walked through the rooms downstairs and looked at what was the same and what had changed. Tina put a vase of silk flowers in the empty spot on the bookshelf where his books had been. Not that there were so many. A couple of hardbacks from the college courses he took before he dropped out and the paperbacks his dad had loved, World War II spy stuff and Hemingway. He thought of them packed in the boxes in the closet at the apartment. He tried to think of the last time he’d been alone in the house before the day he moved out, the last time he’d been alone in the house happy. He couldn’t recall. He remembered only the two months he slept on the couch, waking up angry, jaw clenched, acid climbing from his stomach to burn his throat.

 

The next time he went in, he went upstairs. It was right after Labor Day and the leaves were already starting to turn. The nights were getting cooler. Travis mowed, then checked the leaf blower and put the gas can in the truck to fill it up for next time. Then he walked up to the porch and looked around at the blank faces of the neighboring houses before he slipped the key in the lock and slid the door open. He stood for a long time in the quiet entrance, looking up the stairs to where the light spilled down from the window in the bathroom. He watched motes of dust float through the afternoon light. It made him remember sitting in church on Sunday mornings as a boy. The house was quiet like that and cool and still.

He noticed the hardwood stairs scratched in places from the cat or from Emma dragging around her toys, the mechanical monsters he used to hate that had no off switch or volume control.  He wondered if she still had the pink plastic puppy, the one that used to scare the shit out of him in the middle of the night, it’s eyes randomly lighting up in the dark, it’s mechanical voice, “Take me for a walk, arf!” Now, he didn’t see all her toys. Now he didn’t help her pick them up or trip over them at night. Now when he came to get Emma from the house he’d once bought, once owned, he knocked; he stood in the doorway like an unwelcome guest.

When he got to the top of the stairs, Snowy came out of the bedroom and rolled on her back in front of him, purring when he scratched her belly.

“I missed you, too,” he said. “Are you happy to see me again?” He scooped her up and carried her, cradled like a baby, into Emma’s room.

On the floor, there in the tangle of Barbies and stuffed animals, were the pajamas she’d worn the night before, the cotton shorts and T-shirt with the princesses on them that just a few weeks ago he’d gotten out of her suitcase and tried to dress her in to go to the playground. “Those are my jammies,” she told him, hands on her hips, shaking her head. “You’re a silly billy!” He’d felt like a fool again, a bad father. He looked at the toy chest he’d built her; Tina had painted it pink and Emma had covered it with flower stickers. He imagined organizing the room, straightening up the dolls and the toys, throwing the pjs in the laundry basket in the closet, but instead he walked down the hallway and looked at the bathroom. He and Tina had put in the blue tile floor themselves before Emma was born, on a winter weekend, listening to Lyle Lovett and talking about what to name the baby.

 

Before he went downstairs, he pushed the door of their bedroom open a little wider and looked in. Tina had bought a new light green bedspread with yellow flowers and new pillows. On the little shelf that used to hold their names in wooden letters, only Tina’s name remained. She’d taken down the framed picture of the two of them holding Emma right after the christening and replaced it with a more recent picture he’d never seen — her whole family standing on the beach, all wearing blue jeans and white shirts, squinting into the wind, smiling. Tina stood beside her sister holding Emma in her arms. Travis shut his eyes and turned his head.

Just for a moment, he looked at the bed and remembered Tina’s body, the curve of her ass in his hands, the warm feel of her curled into him when he woke in the night.  Then he thought of all that had happened, of other hands touching her, the cancer doctor she’d slept with. He wondered if she still had the necklace the guy had given her. She’d worn it right in front of him, lied, told him she’d bought it herself. His throat tightened. He pulled the door back to where it had been.

 

When he got back in the truck, he slammed the door and put the keys in the ignition, then he turned and said to his father, “I know. But I bought the house, took care of it. It was mine. I just need to . . . ” But Travis knew his father could not understand. “I haven’t touched anything,” Travis said. “I haven’t done anything but walk around and look. Just look. I need to figure out how it, it went wrong, and . . .” Travis saw his father’s mouth thin to one hard line as he tried to explain it all again, tried to make it make some sense.

Travis had been talking to his father more than ever in the last few months — standing in a basement trying to come up with an estimate he’d ask him what he thought, driving between jobs he’d say out loud, “How about we get lunch?” Not that he’d ever really stopped talking to his dad or seeing him there in the passenger seat. It wasn’t that he believed in ghosts or was religious enough to think anything one way or another about his father’s soul — he just hadn’t ever felt the need to stop talking to him, to imagine his replies.

 

By the fall, Travis had a routine. Every other week when Tina was at work in the afternoon, he’d stop by and mow the lawn, maybe rake the leaves. As the weather got colder, he pulled up the flower beds and got them ready for winter. Every time he came, he went in the house. The only thing he ever took was water from the tap. The only thing he ever touched was the cat.

Tina told him how much she appreciated his help; sometimes she would pack a Tupperware of his favorite cookies or a loaf of baked bread into Emma’s backpack. “Mommy said to say ‘Thank you,’” Emma said, hauling out the little container, handing it over. When Emma went to bed, Travis would throw the cookies away. He couldn’t say just why they made him furious, but they did.

Travis began to dread the cold. He thought that maybe he could offer to shovel when it snowed, but other than that, there wouldn’t be much to do. He wished he could ask her to let him come over mornings and make a fire, but he knew how strange that sounded.

 

The last Wednesday in October was Halloween. Jack-o-lanterns grinned at him from either side of the front door. The grass didn’t need cutting really, but Travis raked the leaves and set the mower high and went over the whole lawn one last time to get rid of the thatch. Before he went into the house, he sat on the porch in the white rocker just for a minute. The wind had kicked up and it poked cold fingers through the spaces between buttons in his barn coat. The coat was the only piece of his father’s clothes that he’d kept, though his mother had offered him anything he wanted from the closet. Travis wrapped his arms around himself and looked out at the leaves sifting down onto his clean lawn, blowing everywhere he’d just raked.

His mother had called that morning to ask about Thanksgiving: would he have Emma? No. Did he want to cook at his apartment or come to the house? The house, of course. He couldn’t imagine how depressing it would be to try to have a turkey dinner in his little apartment, his two saucepots and the microwave. He wished then that he’d had brothers and sisters the way Tina did, a house full of noise and laughter to look forward to. Tina’s family had invited Travis and his mother to join them for Thanksgiving ever since the first year he and Tina started dating. He knew his mother loved cooking with the other women in the kitchen, laughing and drinking wine, the children running in and out wanting glasses of milk or another piece of chocolate. Last Thanksgiving, he’d been dating Megan and he’d had Emma. The four of them had gone to a restaurant.

On the phone that morning, his mother said, “It’ll be nice, just us again, like it used to be. You’ll be home.” But it wasn’t home. It hadn’t been home for years. He was supposed to be the one to have the home now, to have someplace to bring her, to have the family and the dinner and the kids.

“Do you want to go out again?” he said. “We could go back to . . .”

“No,” she said. “No.” She wouldn’t even let him finish.

“Don’t worry, Travis,” she said. “It’ll all be fine. You’ll see.” But he believed he could hear her disappointment, so loud she had to talk over it in that high cheery voice. Thinking of how her voice sounded again as he sat on the porch, he looked down at his stained brown work boots and shuffled through the moments he’d lined up as suspects, trying to find the exact one in which he’d failed at life.

 

On Friday evening, he drove over to the house to pick up Emma for the weekend. Tina opened the door. She still wore her purple scrubs and purple rubber clogs and she looked tired, the word that came to Travis’s mind was “bruised,” she looked bruised. She asked him to come in for the first time since the divorce, and he followed her to the kitchen, listening for the sound of Emma somewhere in the house.

Tina sat down at the kitchen table without a word and motioned to the chair across from her. He moved a stack of folded laundry and perched on the edge, his elbows on his knees. Snowy threaded through his feet. On the table in front of him were papers and books, a picture that Emma had drawn of a lopsided blue and pink heart under a sky full of crayon green stars. Travis looked down at the picture and up into Tina’s face.

“She’s at my mom’s. I need to talk to you. I need to . . . I don’t know how to begin even.”

“Are you okay?” Travis said. “Are you sick?”

She shook her head and looked so sad that Travis’s mind skipped and his stomach hollowed out. “Emma?”

“No, no. Nothing like that. It’s you, Travis. It’s you. What have you been . . .” Travis spread his knees and dropped his head into his hands. “You’ve been breaking in. You’ve been breaking into the house. My house.”

He didn’t move. He didn’t breathe because there was no air. My house. As if he’d never lived there.

“I want to know why, Travis. I want to know what’s going on.”

When he looked up at her, she opened the laptop computer on the table in front of her and turned it around. The shock of seeing himself on the screen brought him to his feet where he stood frozen, not able to turn away. The footage was black and white; he watched himself step through the front door. There was a clock running in the corner, a date. He saw himself take off his cap and he saw his own eyes, strained and sad, looking up the stairs. He remembered that day, the clouds gathering in the windows in the background, and he remembered that it had rained later. He remembered each movement as he watched himself make it, and yet everything about the video looked foreign, as though someone else had been able to imitate him exactly.

“I didn’t know you’d put in cameras,” he said. “You didn’t need to . . . you should have . . . .” He got up and walked to the sink and turned his back to her and to the ghost of himself climbing the stairs, getting closer.

“Explain this to me, Travis. Talk to me. What are you doing? Why are you doing this?”

Travis shook his head and stared out at the trees disappearing into dark beyond the kitchen window, their lines being erased. At the far edge of the woods he could see the lights of his neighbors’ houses. A mist gathered in the swales, and for just a moment it looked to Travis like snow. Soon. That would come soon.

His gaze shifted and he saw his own face reflected in the dark window like another image on a screen. On the computer, he heard the other Travis walk down the stairs, his boots loud on the hardwood, leaving. He felt thinned to nothing,  unreal as the pictures of himself on the screen, in the window, poisoned by shame. Tina shut the computer and said his name.

Travis hung his head. His ears roared and every muscle tightened and shook and it took him two breaths to realize that it was fury, that fury was coursing through him. Tina was talking to him, saying something about “Promise me never to.”

“Promise!” The word came growling out at her. “Promise you?” Suddenly, without meaning to, he was screaming. “What promise could mean anything to someone who . . . someone like you . . . what promise . . .” In the sink in front of him he saw his black-and-white mug with her lipstick print on the edge. A Father’s Day gift from some year before all of this. This. He picked it up and held it by the handle and slammed it into his own reflection.

The mug hit the face in the window and both exploded.

Tina knocked over the chair as she rose. She made a sound that might have been his name. The cat bolted from under the table. Then came a moment of amazed quiet. Travis could hear his own breath coming hard, like he’d been running hard and had just stopped. He looked at his hand. The cut was long, but not deep.

“I never meant . . .” They said it at once. Tina started to cry. He rubbed one eye and looked again at the broken window. He turned toward her and, then, slid his back down the cabinet, closed his eyes, sat on the floor.

He felt Tina crouch in front of him, felt her pick up his hand, felt her fingers on his pulse. He opened his eyes. “I’m alright,” he said. “I’m not . . . I don’t need a nurse.”

She wrapped a dishtowel tight around his palm. “What do you need?” She let go of the hand, sat down on the floor beside him, her knees pulled to her chest.

Travis could smell the lemony soap she used. The question threaded itself through her smell, through the odd quiet, through the cold pouring through the window above them. What did he need? The words moved away from him, hanging like shadows in the corners of his mind. He stared at a red spot of blood on the sleeve of his father’s coat. He listened to Tina breathe. He thought, I need to sit here. I need not to move until I know, until I understand.

The glass of the window cracked again above their heads.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said, and on the word “that” a section of the window fell to the counter. They both ducked their heads, startled. Then Tina started laughing, a sad laugh with the tears still behind it. He looked over at her, at the lock of brown hair hanging across her face, her eyes half-moons above her sad smile. He trapped her hand awkwardly between the floor and the bloody towel. He said, “Let me come over tomorrow. I can fix it.”

* “T” quotation: John Adams, 1817.

___

Anne Colwell, a poet and fiction writer, is an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Delaware. She published two books of poems, Believing Their Shadows (Word Poetry 2010) and Mother’s Maiden Name (Word Poetry 2013) as well as a book about Elizabeth Bishop (Inscrutable Houses, University of Alabama). She received the Established Artist in Fiction Fellowship and the Established Artist in Poetry Fellowship from the Delaware State Arts Council, as well as the Mid-Atlantic Arts Fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and three Work-Study Fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Her chapbook, Father’s Occupation, Mother’s Maiden Name won the National Association of Press Women’s Award for Best Book of Verse. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in several journals, including: Valparaiso Review, Mudlark, r.kv.r.y, Southern Poetry Review, Gargoyle, Prime Number, and Octavo.

Balloon Head

By Lyndon Back

Aweb small figure walked along the deserted street. It was raining and his narrow shoulders sagged under a corduroy jacket sodden with water. At Vlajkoviciva #17 he rang the bell. The door opened a crack and then was flung wide.

“Leka? Come in, quick! Thank God!” His mother grabbed his arm and pulled him inside. She slammed the door and locked it. “How wet you are.” She leaned to kiss him. “Have you heard what’s happened? I don’t know what will become of us.”

She led him down the hall to the stifling living room, where the drapes were drawn and his two sisters sat upright in frightened stillness. All regular broadcasting on radio and TV had been interrupted, replaced by dirges. Every fifteen minutes the news of Tito’s death was repeated until Leka knew the words by heart. “Our comrade, our leader, our dear father who warmed us like the sun…”

Everyone had known that Tito was dying. Reports came regularly from Ljubljana, where he had been hospitalized since January. But now it had happened, and Željko—or Leka, as his family called him—was caught off guard. As a child he had idolized Tito, worn the red neckerchief of the Youth Brigade proudly, believed in brotherhood and unity. But when his friends started calling him “tadpole” and “sissy,” he saw that he would never be included, and he blamed Tito, the liar. His family had rejected him too, sending him away to the country. Now he was twenty and back home looking for answers. Leka watched his mother pacing the carpet and his sisters’ anxious glances. He dreaded his father’s return.

That night his father, an officer in the Yugoslavian People’s Army, refused to address Leka directly.

“What did I tell you?” he said to Leka’s mother, Katarina, after dinner. “You insisted he live in the country. No education. No skills. Now look at him. Would you look at him? A halfling, no better than a bent stick. What good is he?”

Following the outburst, his father shut himself in his study, drinking heavily and refusing all acts of intercession. His mother, like all good mothers, wanted to protect her son, to reassure him. But in the weeks following Tito’s death, the future was uncertain, and she could provide little comfort.

Leka spent his days wandering the streets of Belgrade, sitting in cafés, drinking endless coffees. Cartoon images, sly caricatures of passersby and grotesque animals, bloomed on the pages of his notebook.

Thin and delicate, his large, well-shaped head was too big for the rest of his body. There was an intensity about him that drew attention. People glanced twice. Gypsy children passed his table, begging for money or selling stolen cigarettes, and stopped to watch. He seemed oblivious until he looked up, and the wild, dreamy look in his eyes quickened the heart of many a young girl. But Leka wasn’t interested in girls.

Finally the breaking point.

His father confronted him one night when both of them had been drinking. “Out again playing the fool? You’re nothing but a bum. How can I hold up my head? Get out!”

By then Leka was ready to go. “I won’t be back,” he said and left the next day. His mother sent him on his way with tearful laments and a wallet full of dinars.

Leka went back to the village in western Croatia where he had spent much of his youth. Katarina, his mother, had grown up there, and she knew Tetka Suzana, a healer, a krsnik, the widowed sister of her mother. Leka was still quite young when Katarina first brought him to Tetka Suzana, begging her to heal her firstborn child. He was sickly and subject to nervous headaches. When he stopped growing around the age of twelve, people said it was a curse put on him by mora, evil spirits. Tetka Suzana tried all her remedies. She eased his headaches and regulated his bowels, but nothing she did affected Leka’s stunted growth.

Small though he was, Leka’s talents were obvious to Tetka Suzana. Besides, the youngest of her three daughters had recently married and moved to Zagreb, and she needed someone to tend the garden, milk the cow, gather the eggs, and repair whatever needed repairing. So when Leka was about fifteen, Tetka Suzana persuaded Katarina to let Leka live with her. He would be under her protection in the village, where she was both respected and feared. Children didn’t bother “balon glava,” balloon head, as they called Leka behind his back. Parents said prayers to the Virgin Mary, begging her to spare their children. Amulets were made to ward off the evil eye.

So Leka had lived with Tetka Suzana, gone to school irregularly, and tended to the chores. He wandered through the woods, over the hills, and by the river, communing with fairies and forest spirits, or so the people thought. His hands were always dirty, either from work in the garden or the cowshed, or from the charcoal he always carried in his pocket. He drew what he saw and what he imagined, a boundless spirit cramped in a puny body. The garden flourished and he could build almost anything. It was said he had magical powers in his hands.

One day Leka found a half-starved kitten mewling by the side of the road and brought it home wrapped in his jacket.

“What a dear kitten.” Tetka Suzana took up the bundle, laughing at the tiny imp spitting at her in feeble protest.

After a few weeks she wasn’t so sure. The kitten constantly attacked her feet as she worked around the house or leaped on her from the top of the armchairs.

“Put him outside,” she told Leka at the end of the summer, rubbing her arm where fresh scratches had traced several angry, red furrows. “He is an imp, a maljik. But maybe he will be a good mouser.”

That winter a neighbor who knew about Leka’s talents asked him to help build sets and paint scenery designed by a local artist for a theater in Zagreb. Leka learned about the use of color and how to frame a canvas. He bought paint supplies and came home, his brain on fire. By the next morning Maljička, the mouser, had sprung onto the canvas, haunches crouched, head lowered, ears flattened, his head turned to the viewer with eyes blazing like two bright candles. From the corner of his wickedly grinning mouth poked the tip of a pink tongue. A single paw with thorny claws teased a rat cowering in the corner, whose eyes bulged in terror.

Tetka Suzana began teaching Leka about the plants she used in her healing. She was getting old and it was hard for her to get around, so Leka gathered valerian, sage, wild garlic, and butcher’s bloom on his walks, searching for angelika root that grew wild in the swamps along the river. He identified each plant, drew each one, and copied her recipes for teas and poultices into a notebook. Although she kept the collection hidden, word went around the village that Leka was learning the arts. Seeds of jealousy began to grow.

Ten years passed. Leka was now in his thirties. Hard work had broadened his shoulders and strengthened his legs, but he was still no taller than he had been at twelve. His hair hung in a braid down his back, and his eyes blazed with the look of an untamed spirit. After work he often sat at the old wooden table in the yard, a cigarette in his mouth and a glass of rajika close at hand, drawing or painting. When neighbors came by, they kept their distance.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia that his mother had feared was underway. Croatian cries for independence grew louder. Secret meetings took place; a local militia was recruited. The red-and-white checkerboard flag reappeared, the symbol of the Ustashe that had been banned during Tito’s reign. The Catholic Church experienced resurgence as opposition to communism grew. Changes were in the air.

Young bulls whose blood was stirred by the talk of independence, and whose manhood was bolstered at the secret meetings, snorted and stamped around the village. They questioned Leka’s loyalty, first in whispers and then aloud. Was he a Serb or a Croat? Was he a communist or a good Catholic? They questioned his manhood too, which was something else altogether.

Leka had known since he was a teenager that his secret urges were disgusting and shameful. Once or twice in Zagreb, when he was working in the theater, he had gotten drunk and had furtive, frantic couplings in back alleys that left him guilty and ashamed. Each time he would renew his pledge of abstinence.

Tetka Suzana never acknowledged his proclivities, but she saw the rude gestures made by the young men and heard the comments.

“What a piece of luck,” she boasted one day to a group that had gathered in the yard. She hobbled out with coffee and fresh rolls. She was nearing eighty. “He is like a son, a real talent. I tell you he has the gift.” She patted her thin hair in self-conscious pride.

The young men backed off, sniggering, and the neighbor women sat down on the benches in the shade of the grape arbor to have a coffee and sample the fresh rolls. These were the women who visited regularly. Sometimes they came with a complaint—a sick child, poor digestion—or to ask for advice about marriage disputes. Often they brought homemade wine or special dishes; in the fall, maybe a ham. While Leka didn’t like to admit it, Tetka Suzana was his protection against the evil-wishers and gossip. But changes were coming.

Tetka Suzana’s married daughter Katija, who lived in Zagreb and visited her mother frequently, encouraged Leka to bring his painting to the city to sell at the market. He carried a few stacked in a basket on his back. He set them out on the sidewalk, leaning against the base of a building, and opened a low table, where he put out some drawings. Then, seating himself on the sidewalk, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, he soon lost himself in his drawing.

A hand touched his shoulder. “What’s that you’re drawing? I see. It’s the old woman across the way selling spring onions. Oh, I like this one. Lively figures, and the fields set out like patterns woven in a tapestry. Harvest time, eh? You a farmer?”

Leka started to get up. “That one I did last year,” he said and stared at the young man who had crouched down on the sidewalk to get a better look.

“It’s good. I like it. And these colors are brilliantly done. This one too. A fairy riding a dragon? Not bad, not bad at all. What dreams you must have.” The young man laughed.

Two others had come up to listen, and before the day was over, Leka had sold three paintings and a couple of drawings.

He was delighted with his success, of course. But his real excitement came from the moments spent with the young man, the touch on his shoulder. Thoughts and feelings in the hidden places of his mind came flooding back, too exciting to push down, too disturbing to ignore.

In the weeks that followed, Leka painted like someone possessed. When Tetka Suzana reminded him to milk the cow or weed the garden, he growled at her for interrupting him. On Saturdays he took the bus to Zagreb, hoping to see what had become the focus of his intense interest: the young man with brooding eyes and a sophisticated way of talking. The young man, whose name was Aleksandar, would come by, comment, argue, smoke a cigarette or two, and frequently buy a painting.

“Would you be interested in showing in a gallery?” Aleksandar asked after he had been coming for a month or two. “I think your work deserves more attention, and there’s a market for what we call naïve art. If you’re interested, maybe I could come and pick out a few pieces, and we could work out an arrangement. I take a commission, of course. I do this for a living.”

Leka thought of the years he had spent on the farm, of the days and nights alone. He was desperate with longing, but he was not a fool.

“Yes, okay. Today? Or next week? I can show you lots more. I have quite a few. I work very fast.”

Aleksandar smiled. “I can see that. Yes, I’ll come today.”

Tetka Suzana couldn’t have been more surprised when Leka arrived home in a car, accompanied by a young man from town. Betraying nothing, she welcomed him, her smiles crinkling her face like the skin of a dried-up apple, her eyes bright with interest. While she busied herself in the kitchen, Leka showed off his stacks of paintings, piled all through the small house.

“I’ll have to borrow a truck,” Aleksandar laughed. “We could set up our own gallery. God, you have a gold mine here.”

After supper the two men sat drinking and smoking until quite late. Aleksandar chose ten paintings and, with Leka’s help, he wrote down a title and a number for each, as well as an asking price. Tetka Suzana and Leka were astonished at the amounts. Then Aleksandar put down a partial payment and wrote out an agreement, listing the amount he had paid and his percentage of the profits. All of this was copied on two pieces of paper and signed by both Aleksandar and Leka.

“Don’t think this will happen overnight,” Aleksandar said as he was leaving. “Times are difficult right now. I may have to go to Slovenia or even Austria. But I will be back.” He shook Leka’s hand. “Oh, here is my phone number if you want to call.”

Tetka Suzana watched out the window, deep in thought, long after Leka had gone to bed.

Before the next day had passed, word spread through the village that Leka had made a conquest that would make him rich. The next Saturday, when Leka got off the bus on his way home from the market, two men jumped him, stole his money, and slashed his paintings with a knife.

“This is what you get. Won’t take the loyalty oath? We’ll make you pay. Next time it will be your throat.”

Two nights later a group of young men who had been drinking at the local bar followed him home.

Balon glava, lover boy! Look here, fairy prince! You watch yourself. We’re watching you.”

When Tetka Suzana saw his bruises, she told him quietly that things would only get worse. She had lived through two wars, and she saw all the signs starting again.

“You can go to Zagreb,” she said. “Or maybe back to Belgrade.”

Tension that had sparked and tingled in the air like summer lightning erupted in a deluge. First the elections that Tudjman won in a landslide. Then a new constitution. Serbs in Krajina, along the southern border with Bosnia, declared their independence from Croatia. Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia.

Leka paid little attention to what was going on outside his own private hell. He thought of Aleksandar constantly, and when weeks went by without a word, he began to despair. Where was he? Why hadn’t he kept in touch?

The world was falling apart, and his safe haven crumbled with it. Tetka Suzana fell sick. She refused to see a doctor. Katija made plans to move her mother to Zagreb. Leka could stay on the farm, she said, but fear-mongering and hatred had spread like a virus through the countryside. Leka began packing up his paintings, carrying them in small bundles to Zagreb and leaving them with Katija. He sold the cow and the chickens, but no one wanted Malijčka, the mouser, whose fierce disposition still intimidated.

Katija was visiting one day, trying to convince her mother, who had taken a turn for the worse, to come back with her to Zagreb. That night a group of men appeared and banged on the door.

“Bring out balloon head. Bring out the Serb. We want him.”

Katija got up. A middle-aged woman, formidable in spirit and imposing in stature, she opened the door and blocked the way. “Please lower your voices, my mother is very ill,” she said. “Do you want to be held responsible if something happens to her? Well? Tell me, is this the way you respect an old woman who spent her life caring for you? Is this the thanks she gets?” Katija’s voice, sounding so much like her mother’s, held calm authority.

“We want the Serb. That’s all we want.” The voices were not so strident now, blind frenzy dissipating in the face of reason.

“My mother sends you this message. Keep your heads and look out for yourselves.” Katija shut the door. She motioned Leka to close the curtains. They worked through the night.

The next morning a group of onlookers watched as Leka carried Tetka Suzana, wrapped in a large blanket, to the waiting car. Her eyes were closed and her breathing was loud and labored. The onlookers stepped back. After Leka had loaded belongings into the car, Katija motioned him to get in and they drove off. The little house was abandoned except for Malijčka, who stalked the premises, repelling intruders, and then suddenly he was gone too.

In Zagreb Leka found a room off one of the main streets. He took odd jobs and, in his free time, painted with a new urgency. Nightmare images clashed with visions of the unspoiled landscapes he remembered from his youth.

Violence erupted. The Yugoslavian People’s Army entered Croatia, destroyed and killed, looted and burned; even the fields were blackened. Farms were abandoned, scarred and lifeless. People had little interest in, or money for, paintings.

In all this time Leka heard not one word from Aleksandar. He had pushed down his pride and called several times, but eventually the line was disconnected. In his head Leka started on the painful, difficult journey of broken dreams. There seemed to be no future, no end to the misery.

One day in the market, a group of young men in the military uniforms of the newly organized National Guard sauntered over to where Leka was sitting with his paintings.

“What do you see?” one tall young man asked in a belligerent voice.

“I see a coward,” another voice boomed.

Leka scrambled up from where he had been sitting.

When the men saw how short he was, their insults peppered down.

“A midget,” one shouted. “A midget with a head like a balloon. And look, the midget can draw. Let’s have him paint us.”

“Yes, yes,” the other two agreed. They loomed over him.

A small crowd gathered to watch.

Leka was caught. He felt he had been squiggling and slithering like a fish on a line for most of his life. Now the time had come.

Without a word he opened his sketchbook and began to draw. Three figures emerged. Their features were exaggerated; they swaggered in comical vanity. One had the horns of a bull poking through his peaked cap. In one hand he twirled his tail. Two dainty hooves stuck out from under his trousers, pawing small puffs of dirt. Another sported a coxcomb on his small head, lips that protruded like a beak, and the wattle of a turkey gobbler hanging from his chin. The third had sad eyes and the long, drooping ears of a mournful donkey, though he pranced with arms akimbo. The crowd laughed in amazement. The three recruits muttered empty curses and slunk off.

“Well done, Leka.” A familiar voice caught Leka by surprise. “You captured them perfectly.” Aleksandar had seen everything.

Leka laid down his sketchbook with a trembling hand. He looked away, anger burning his face.

Aleksandar saw the lowered gaze. “Don’t be angry,” he said. “I told you it would take some time, didn’t I?” He started to gather up the paintings. “Come on. We need to get a drink. I’ve got good news. Great news. We’re going to have a future, you and I.”

Leka stood up. “I don’t believe you.” His voice was hoarse with grief, his body rigid. “We?”

“Yes. Believe me, Leka.” Aleksandar put an affectionate hand on his shoulder. “We’re going to be fine. I’ll tell you all about it. I have plans. For sure I owe you money.”

* “A” quotation: Eugene Debs, 1918.

___

Lyndon Back currently serves as clerk of membership for the Nobel Peace Prize Committee of the American Friends Service Committee, where she was the Director of Planned Giving. Her poems and articles have appeared in Friends Journal, Pendle Hill Publications, Quaker History Journal, First Day, and Poetry Ink 2013. She holds a master’s degree in public administration from the State University of New York, Albany.

Trading Down

By Z.Z. Boone

My father became something of a celebrity shortly after he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. It started when he gave up most of his clothes, then his furnishings, and then his 2007 Honda Civic. A few things (like the Honda, which he signed over to a young married couple across the street) were passed out among friends, but most of the stuff went to Goodwill or The Salvation Army. The Staten Island Advance covered the story with a headline that read “Dying Man Sheds Trappings, ” and several people, not understanding my father’s intent, sent him even more stuff which he also gave away.

I lived a little over two hours away in West Hartford and knew nothing of my father’s disease, nothing about his planned giveaway. We communicated from time to time—hello, how are you, we’ll have to get together soon—but basically that was it. So I was surprised when he called me at my liquor store—in the middle of the day no less—and told me he’d been to his doctor. The prognosis? Eight months at best, probably less. I noticed he sounded disturbingly cheerful, and when I asked him why, he said that once you accept death, the rest is easy.

“You’re not even sixty-four years old,” I said. “Maybe there’s a mistake.”

I could picture him shaking his head and pursing his lips the way he always did.

“No mistake on this one, Ronnie-boy,” he said.

“Look,” I started to tell him. “Even if it’s true, there are medical advances—”

“I’m not going through any of that happy horsecrap,” he said, and anybody who knows Deano Abbadelli  knows when a conversation is over.

 

My father had lived by himself for over twenty-one years in the house I grew up in, the house I couldn’t wait to leave. I joined the Air Force fresh out of high school, then took a job driving a tractor trailer, then got a woman pregnant and did the honorable thing. My mother left less than year behind me, taking off with some guy she met at the tax assessor’s office. She wound up—from the last I heard—in Fayetteville, Arkansas working in some garden supply store. Nobody much thinks about her anymore, nobody really gives a royal you-know-what. She sends my daughter cards on her birthday, and signs them “Grandmother Ilene.” Emmy slips out the cash, pockets it, and quickly sticks the card in the trash. It’s probably what any kid would do.

Anyway, I made some money driving long-haul, found a guy with a struggling liquor store who was looking for a partner, borrowed a few bucks and turned the business around. Six years after I started, I bought my partner out. Turned a rundown packie into a wine and liquor boutique.

I didn’t like the hours involved, I hated dealing with the public, but I was a success by most definitions.

 

Before we hung up, Deano asked if I could possibly drive down the next day for a “father/son powwow.”  This was in mid-November—Thanksgiving ten days off—and my store slammed with customers. Even if I’m not physically on the floor, I need to be close enough to bat down any fires. I asked if he was well enough to drive up to Connecticut, and he told me he felt fine. “Light as a feather, clear as a bell.”

He wanted to know if I thought my wife would mind, and I said no. A lie. Janine found my father annoying, nosy, too “old world.” He chain smoked and one time, when his cigarette rolled unnoticed from the ashtray, it burned a scar into our Brazilian Seguro  coffee table. Smoking in the house, under Janine’s watch, has been banned ever since. Emmy, my sixteen-year old, felt the same. “Grandpa Deano thinks he’s funny but he isn’t,” she told me. “And he smells like the inside of the cabinet under the sink.”

 

Saturday mornings I take Vinnie to the dog park. Vinnie is ten, a pug. My daughter insisted on him for her sixth birthday, but now—when she isn’t teasing the animal with a biscuit on a string or the toe of her shoe—she ignores him. Janine insists the dog be kept in its crate in the kitchen when I’m not home, which is most of the time. But I’ve learned to like the little guy, stuck among us not by choice, happy for one day a week outside his cage, even among dogs five times his size.

That afternoon, Deano—yet to give away the Honda—popped by while I was still out with the dog. I’d already told Janine and Emmy about his condition, and though they weren’t exactly brokenhearted, they agreed to act civil. My manager, Miguel, was running the store with a couple of part-time jerkoffs, and I was waiting for that phone call that tells me that something has gone terribly wrong—an elderly woman crushed under a tumbling wine display, a teenager served while a cop looked on—and could  I get over there ASAP.

But the afternoon, in that regard, was uneventful. What did happen, though, was this. My father sat on the porch and smoked until I got home and then—as soon as I unharnessed Vinnie and put him his crate with a Busy Bone—Deano gathered us in the living room and laid out his plan to divest himself of everything he owned. Not only material things; he also wanted to liquidate all his cash except for a small amount he’d need for living expenses. The retirement check he got every two weeks after working for Con Ed forty-two years? Gone. Transferred over to Catholic Charities.

Eyes shot around the room and I thought what everybody else was thinking: What about me? Even if none of us were wild about the man, he did represent a fairly nice lump of inheritance.

Janine was the first to put thoughts into words.

“What about that old saying?” she asked. “’Charity begins at home.’”

It was direct and, okay, a bit brutal, but the old man just grinned that yellow smile of his.

“Your husband owns a successful liquor store in a city known for alcoholism. Look at yourselves. What else do you want? You’re a hell of a lot better off than I was at your age.”

Janine rolled her eyes back in that here-comes-the-sermon gesture and Emmy quickly stepped in.

“I’m going to be off to college in two years,” she said. “Ivy league, maybe. Not cheap.”

“An incentive to keep your grades up,” he told her. “Earn yourself a scholarship.”

“What about the house?” I asked.

Deano nodded; he’d been waiting for this. Not that the house was anything you’d find Bill Gates shopping for, but even in its state of neglect and neighborhood decline, it had to be worth close to half-a-million.

“The house I plan to trade down,” he said.

Deano looked from face to face and apparently picked up on the fact that nobody knew what he was talking about.

“I read about this guy who traded up,” he said. “From a paperclip to a house. Took him about a year, but he traded up for something slightly better each time: the paperclip for a doorknob, the doorknob for a lawn chair, the lawn chair for a bicycle. Up and up. Well I plan to do the opposite.”

“You’re going to trade the house for a paperclip?” I asked.

“Not directly,” he said. “Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the challenge? I’m going to take the time I have left and trade down.”

My daughter was on her feet, her face as red as a road flare.

“You’re not dying,” she said. “You’re just some old man who came here to bust our balls!” She turned on her heel and cut through the kitchen on the way to her room. I heard Vinnie yelp as if his crate had been kicked, which it no doubt had.

When I tried to lighten the mood by asking my wife what was for dinner, she said, “Whatever you and your father feel like making.”

And then she was up and gone too.

My dad smiled, coughed a couple of times, slapped his knees, and stood.

“My work here,” he said, “is through.”

*   *   *   *   *

We generally didn’t get together on Thanksgiving—a phone call at most—but that year a Winnebago pulled into the driveway while I was watching the televised Macy’s parade. Emmy saw the vehicle first and said, “Whoa. Who the fuck is this now?” Janine, with twin oven mitts, joined her at the window. “Please don’t tell me he invited his father,” I heard her say, and seconds later there he was, at our front door, with store-bought apple crumble.

“Don’t worry,” Deano said before he even got inside. “I’m not going to stay and I won’t light up.”

“I got a turkey going,” Janine mumbled, then vanished back into the kitchen. Emmy, wanting to check out the Winnebago, walked outside still wearing her pajamas. I took his coat, and put the apple crumble on the dining room table. He apologized for not calling and told me he no longer had a phone. I held off on the obvious question and led him into the living room.

“Ah,” he said as he flopped on the couch and pointed to the TV. “Remember when you were a kid and we used to watch this together?”

“No.”

“Well, we should have.”

“What’s with the  RV?”

“I traded the house for it.”

“Which is why you have no phone.”

“Correct.”

“And now you’re going to live in that thing?”

“Only until the next trade.”

I sat in the matching chair across from him. “And then what?”

“The reason for my visit,” he said. “I was hoping you could spot me.”

“What does that mean?”

“I thought maybe I could move in here.”

From the kitchen, I heard what sounded like a serving spoon hit the floor.

“This is insane,” I told him.

“Won’t be for long,” he said. “Summer, tops.”

“I don’t know. Let me talk to Janine and get back on that.”

“He nodded, and in an instant he was back on his feet asking what I did with his coat. The second I stood, I heard Emmy inside our entranceway. “He’s got some woman out there!” she called to her mother in the kitchen.

“Her name is Chloe,” Deano called back, “and we’re on our way to Springfield, Mass for brunch.”

“Chloe?”

“She’s an escort,” he told me. “I only have her for the day.” He gave me a wink, told me he’d call tomorrow if he could track down a pay phone, yelled “Happy Thanksgiving!” to no one in particular. I walked him to the hall closet where his coat was hung, and in less time than it takes to tell, he was out the door, backing that monster out of my driveway, heading off.

 

We never got along when I was a kid, ever. Deano was strict—cruel some would say—a bully and a womanizer. Physically he was short and wiry, and his favorite story goes like this. In his late teens, my father saw a crew of Con Ed riggers stringing cable not far from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He walked over and asked for a job, but the foreman told him he didn’t look strong enough. “Go home and eat some spinach,” the guy supposedly said.

This pissed Deano off, and he said to the foreman, “Show me the toughest guy you’ve got and I’ll kick his ass right now.”

A bear of a man called Swede Lovgren was pointed out, and Deano flew at him, his arms spinning like a pinwheel. Within seconds, my dad was flat on his stomach, a huge knee holding him motionless. Once he was on his feet, he stared directly into the big man’s eyes and said, “Okay. That’s one for you.” The crew, who had surrounded the two men during the fight, laughed and clapped one another on the back. Deano was brushed clean of gravel by both the foreman and the Swede, and then informed he could start work on Monday.

That was the man I grew up with. Tough. Unyielding. But somewhere in his future, maybe right after his son and his wife took their final steps down the flagstone walkway leading away from the house, he became softer.

Loneliness will do that, I’m told.

 

“He’s not moving in here,” my wife told me as she passed the mashed potatoes.

“We can talk about it later.”

Emmy wasn’t eating, she was texting. She talked while she was doing this, but I wasn’t sure if her words and what she thumb-typed were the same.

Janine told me there was nothing to talk about. Now or later. “What kind of a person barges into your home uninvited?” she wanted to know.

“Another so-called holiday with my misfunctional family,” Emmy said.

“It’s ‘dysfunctional,’” I told her. I turned my attention back to Janine. “He’s my father. He’s dying.”

“He looked perfectly healthy to me,” she said as she spooned jellied cranberry sauce onto a side plate.

“Healthy enough to get his rocks off with some ho,” Emmy said without looking up.

“If he’s sick, he should be in a hospital.”

“He hates hospitals,” I reminded her.

“Because he knows they’ll take the cigarettes away.” Janine poured herself a second glass of Beaujolais Nouveau and swallowed a gulp. “If he wants to move in with somebody, let him move in with somebody he gave his stuff to.”

My appetite was gone, my store was closed, I had no place to escape. I stared at my plate and this warm, white flesh—or whatever it was—seemed to stare back. Days ago it had belonged to a living animal. A bird walking around, pecking at the ground, thinking—I don’t know—“life isn’t so bad.” Now it was leftovers.

“My grandfather exchanged a perfectly good raised ranch for a cathouse on wheels,” Emmy said/texted.

“It is his stuff,” I reminded her.

“Another country heard from,” Emmy said.

“Put away the goddamn phone,” Janine told her. “It’s Thanksgiving.”

I pushed away from the table. “I’m going to walk Vinnie,” I announced.

*  *  *  *  *

Deano called the store next morning straight from who-knows-where. “So what’s the verdict?” he asked.

I told him we’d love to have him come stay at the house, but now wasn’t such a good time. He wanted to know when a good time would be, and I said that’s hard to judge under the present circumstances, but if he wanted he could park the Winnebego in my parking lot. I’d inform the police exactly what the score was, so no hassles. He could even come inside and use a real toilet if he needed  to.

“That’s not going to work,” he said.

“Why not?”

“Because I’m trading the Winnebago down,” he said. “Met a guy willing to swap a two-week timeshare in Guadalajara, Mexico.”

The phrase Oh, boy ran through my head.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Deano said. “You’re thinking why would a man who hates hot weather want two weeks in Mexico. Not to worry. It scheduled for the first couple of weeks in May, and by that time I’ll have traded it down.”

“One question. Where the hell are you going to live?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Someplace.”

 

And this was how it went. Fortunately, the young couple he’d given the Honda to allowed him to stay in their partially finished basement where he slept on a pullout loveseat. He called me with this information in early December, at which time he also informed me that he’d traded the Mexican timeshare for a 65-inch Panasonic Plasma television.

By mid-December the TV was swapped for a 2000 Watt generator, and later that same week the generator was traded down for a collection of Enrico Caruso records. My father, using the young husband’s cell phone, was sounding less and less chipper at this point, but he was still getting off on this ridiculous trading scheme.

He called me at the store once a week. By March he was down to a $25 dollar gift card, then a non-working iPod, then a paperback copy of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

“Do you have time for one more father/son meeting?” he asked in a voice I could barely hear.

“Stay where you are,” I told him. “I’ll come to you.”

And it was at that point when I realized he wouldn’t make it the entire eight months, that he probably wouldn’t make it the next couple of weeks.

 

The old man had neglected to inform me that he wasn’t calling from the young couple’s house, he was calling from Staten Island University Hospital. I only found this out when I turned my Lexus into their driveway, and they pulled up right behind me. I stepped out of the car and could see my old house across the street, some vague figure standing in the picture window and staring out.

It was breezy and damp, and I wished I’d worn a heavier coat. Ralph and I-forget-the-wife’s-name told me Deano’d been at the hospital about two weeks, that they’d just come back from visiting. They seemed relieved to see me, but surprised that I hadn’t been notified by the SIUH admissions staff.

The hospital was nearby—it’s a small island—but when I finally got there and tracked him down, he appeared as close to death as anyone I’d ever seen. He looked— what’s the word?—gaunt. Skeletal. Oxygen tubes up his nose, IV sunk in his arm, dopey-looking hospital gown, propped up in bed.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. He said he didn’t want to make a big deal. I told him I’d talk to his doctor, get him released, take him home with me. He told me he wasn’t up to travel. Then he signaled for me to bend closer.

“But I can still kick the ass of anyone in this building,” he managed to say. I smiled and started to pull back, but he held on to my wrist. “Live for the dog,” he said.

“What?”

“Simplify.”

Then he pointed to that side table next to the bed. The one they swing over at mealtime. There was a pencil on it.

“Pick it up,” he said.

It was red, the point was dull and appeared to have been carved down with a knife, and the pink eraser was worn to a nub. Chicago Bulls was imprinted across the barrel, along with a tiny characterture of the team’s mascot.

“I traded with a nurse,” he said. “No paperclip.”

“So you’ll trade with somebody else,” I told him. But when I went to put the pencil back he said, “No. That’s yours.” He smiled then—I think it was a smile—and he said, “I should have traded for a cigarette.”

I put the pencil inside the pocket of my leather jacket.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.

Finding cigarettes is not all that easy these days. I don’t even carry them in my store anymore. But I finally found a gas station that still stacked them on the wall behind the counter, and I bought a pack of Camel Lights and a butane lighter. I couldn’t have been gone more than twenty minutes, but when I got back to his room, the old man’s bed was empty, striped of its sheets. I stood there like a mook, a pack of smokes in my hand, hoping maybe he’d gone to the bathroom but knowing that he hadn’t.

A nurse finally came in, a burly-looking guy in green scrubs, and told me. He said there was paperwork—transport of the body, that sort of thing—but it could wait. I said something dumb—No time like the present, maybe—and he sent me down to this tiny office attached to the main reception area where I took a seat in front of an L-shaped desk.

The woman who spread the forms in front of me was around sixty. She was little and squat, her hair dyed red, her skin the color of Guinness Stout. But she was sympathetic and patient and she brought a bottled water without me having to ask.

“So,” she said. “What say we get this over with and send you on your way?”

She uncapped a stick pen and slid it across the desk. I reached for it, stopped, reached inside my jacket pocket.

“Would it be okay if I used this?” I asked. She looked at me questioningly as I held the pencil up for her to see. “It was my father’s.”

She hesitated, then smiled and nodded, and I knew if she had to, she’d go over it later in ink.

* “M” quotation: First Amendment to the United States Constitution, 1791.

___

Z.Z. Boone’s short story, “The Buddy System,” was chosen as a Notable Story in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014. His fiction has appeared in The Adroit Journal, New Ohio Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, and other terrific places.

Any Other Way

By Brandi Megan Granett

Relief filled him when she sequestered herself in the back bedroom of the rental house, which smelled like moldy old books and stale pot smoke.  Sal didn’t want to have to see Lynn’s eyes glistening perfectly with tears or hear her questions about the waitress from the place on Wilshire Boulevard.  He wanted to be done with it all.  But the rent was paid on the house, and if they could just get one fucking thing together, the suit, the music guy with the business cards printed on thin sheets of metal, said he would take a look.

With that in mind, they tried to practice, testing out new ideas, new paths, old standbys. They kept their instruments set up in the front room with the picture window so that if the breeze shifted the palms right, you could sometimes see the water, and if they played loud enough, they couldn’t hear her crying into the phone with some girlfriend back in Encino or the strumming of her out of tune acoustic guitar.

After a few weeks of pretty much nothing more than that, just their regular eating, playing, sleeping, and her crying, she emerged from the back room with a sheaf of songs.  Anthems really, anthems for lovesick record-buying girls and top forty executives, as the suit called them.  Sal looked over the lyrics and saw his shame and all her tears. But he also saw dollar signs in the ways the cords and melodies could float up and away from them, taking them from a band that plays in bars to a band that sells out stadiums.

Sal stayed with the band.  And Lynn stayed with the band only more so.  Her voice, her face, her body—she was the band.  Her.  They played with her, stood around her on press junkets like flunkies while she giggled away questions about the songs.  They always asked, so are these songs about anyone in particular?  Her doe eyes, neatly rimmed in black eye liner and fake eyelashes would flutter in his direction.  He’d look down, cover his lips with a fist, and she would giggle.  With him in the room, the interviewer invariable lost verve, the words catching in his or her throat with a cough or a guffaw, before stuttering on to the next question.

This album led to the next and the next and now, they could put out just about anything they wanted to and expect to be paid handsomely.  But the suits wanted a little bit more.  Edgier songs.  Stage shows.  Dancing.  The pressures from the brave new world of the Internet pushed hard at the dollar signs.  And the pressures of life in the big city often got in the way.  Try getting photographed in your gym shorts coming out of your apartment every other damn day.  Try buying groceries.  Or heaven forbid getting laid.  You could barely think your own thoughts let alone try to write a song.

So the suits gave them an ultimatum.  Get something new together or find another label.   Get out the limelight, they said, meaning get your shit together. They recommended the affordable and remote Mitchell, South Dakota. The Corn Palace to be exact.   “The better to get away from it all and work out some new material.”  End quote.   Sal considered getting a new tattoo of the word exile on his left wrist.

But he went.  Why wouldn’t he go?  You would go, too, wouldn’t you? If it meant keeping your job you would. You might like what you do.  You might not.  Mostly, though, you just get up and go out of habit.

The fame hit Lynn more than them.  She got photographed more.  Downright stalked.  But she seemed to like it.  You could tell by the way she smiled in the pictures he saw on the Internet.  They way she tilted her head and let the sun catch on the red gloss of her favorite lipstick.  She kept her hair just so.  Even when going to the dry cleaners.  But they didn’t hold it against her.  She was their girl.  The one that started it all.  Sal tried not to mention that he actually started it all, what with the waitress from Wilshire Boulevard and all, but no one wanted to be reminded of the time before the crappy, stinking house.

 

“Holy shit,” Abe said.  “It is actually made out of corn.”

“Not the whole building?” Jax asked.

“No,” Sal and Lynn said at the same time. “It’s just for decoration; they change it every year.” he finished.

“Sal, how do you know shit like that?  Lynn, man, she reads, but you?” Abe asked.

“I read,” Sal said.

She looked at him and smiled.  “True,” she said.  “I’ve seen him.”

And she had.  Before all this band nonsense, before, when it was just him and her, he would read aloud to her from books of poetry while she banged out melodies to match them on her parents’ old upright piano.  It took a lot of concentration to read in those days, back when all he wanted to do was extinguish his lips against hers like a cigarette in an ashtray.  He looked at her lips now, all done up in their trademark way, and missed the thin pink they used to be.

Despite the corn façade and corn paintings everywhere inside, the building was just a regular concert hall the record company booked, so they could get the feel of that “elusive something new, something catchy, something to drive the next million in sales.”  End quote.  “Play like its alive again,” the newest suit said.  “Pretend there’s a crowd.”  But they didn’t want or need a crowd.  Much like their time in the house, they settled into a schedule of eating, playing and sleeping, that only broke for an occasional tour guide interrupting their session to show the tourists the corn painting around the stage.

It was a shit tour from beginning to end, bringing people in to see pictures made out of corn. In the auditorium, the pictures flanking the stage compared the white pioneer to the Native Americans and then merged in the middle with them shaking hands.  “As if that ever fucking lasted,” Sal said to Lynn one night as they ate pizza from a box in the seats opposite the stage.

“Well sometimes,” she said.  “Some people call a truce.”

“And some people just try to ignore things and pretend they are better than they were.”

“Like you?” she asked.  The lid to the pizza box snapped loudly shut; it echoed a bit around the hall, which had quality acoustics.  The suits really did research this stuff.

“Like you,” he spat back.

“Really?  You’re going to say that.”

“Yeah.  I am.  Just think about those songs.” His bravado faltered.  Some conversations were better never started.  “Never mind.”

“What songs?” she asked.

Her voice seemed softer to him. So he inhaled.  “You know, the first album, those songs.  About us.”

“Us?” she asked.

“Yeah, us,” he said.  “Not that you’d ever admit it in an interview. But you know, you wrote those right after all that shit.  And then you just pretended like it didn’t fucking matter and all this happened.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“It is a bad thing.”

“What? All this?”
“No the shit before all of this.  The stuff between us.”

“That,” she said, “was inevitable. Waitress from One Twenty or no.”

“Wilshire Boulevard,” he said.

“Oh, Wilshire Boulevard.  So now you confess?”

“No, it wasn’t like that.”

“Why?”

He tried to be still.  Tried not to fucking say it, but she could do that to him, make him say anything.  “She said no. Said she knew your fucking sister and that there was a code of honor among girls.”

Lynn laughed so hard she almost slipped forward out of the plastic chair.  Despite the acoustics, they clearly didn’t believe in upholstery in this palace.  “Nice.  You were shot down.  Good. But still inevitable.”

“What the fuck?” he said.

“We were kids,” she said.  “It was time.”

“You didn’t make it sound that way; you made it sound like I ripped your heart out and used it to wipe up the mats in my truck, Lynn.”

“Those songs weren’t about you,” she said.  “Not all the way anyway.  They were, I dunno know, bigger than that.  I liked you and all, but please.”

“What about the crying and the locking yourself away?  What were those theatrics about?”

“Sal, I was eighteen, what the fuck do you expect?”  With that she stood up and flounced away from him down the aisle and toward the door.  When she got to the door, she turned and blew him a kiss.  The red of her lipstick left a mark on her hand. As she passed through the doorframe, she pressed her palm on the wide white woodwork of the door frame, leaving a perfect lip print there.

Something like anger rose up in him.  He left the mother fucking pizza box there.  Let the suits charge them more for the rental.  It was only numbers on a print out anyway.  He left the palace through the front door.  He stalked up the main street lined with businesses that didn’t seem to do much in the way of business any more until he found the bar.  The door swung open to the dark shell of the place, the smell of beer and cardboard hitting him along with the sounds of Tim McGraw on the stereo.  Country frigging music, he thought, ironic.

He ordered a beer and sat there awhile staring at it.  He didn’t really like beer.  He didn’t really like bars.  He didn’t really like her.  And he knew that last part wasn’t true.  “Not true,” he said aloud.

The bartender wiped his rag across the counter, moving up slowly towards him. “What’s that?” he said, cocking his head to one side.  “I’m hard of hearing.”

Great, Sal thought.  But words filled his mouth anyway.  He hadn’t even drunk the beer, and he still couldn’t stop himself.

“Do you know the band Free Fall?” he asked. Then he asked again, only louder.  The bartender didn’t know, so he told him the whole story from the beginning, starting at the piano and working his way to today, finally putting an end to twelve years of fucked-up guilt because of an eighteen year old girl’s theatrics that oh, by the way, didn’t mean anything at all.

The bartender nodded and then drew back from the bar.  “Well,” he said, “would you really have wanted it any other way?”

He thought back to that crappy, pot smelling house.  It had a nice garden outside, and before the shit with the waitress and the crying and the pop-rock anthems, she and he sat there, guitars in hand, playing some games, racing each other through different chord progressions.  She smiled and tilted her head concentrating on the song she plucked out, one he wrote.  The sun caught the shimmer of her delicate pink mouth that matched the roses that grew along the fence beside her.  He could see her there so clearly in his mind.  So much clearer than the person he just argued with at the hall.

Sal looked down at his Rolex to check the time; it was one of two he owned, both the same only one was real and the other a copy.  One night after a little too much, he set the two watches next to each other on the nightstand.  In the morning, he couldn’t remember which was which, the real or the fake.  Both worked just as well.  Only one of them cost him a whole lot more.

* “R” quotation: Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.

___

William Morrow published Brandy Megan Granett’s first novel, My Intended, in Spring 2000; her short fiction appeared in Pebble Creek Review, Folio, Pleiades, The Literary Review and several other literary magazines under her maiden name, Scollins-Mantha. She writes a blog for the Huffington Post.

She earned a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University and holds an mfa in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and a Masters in Adult Education with an emphasis on Distance Education from Penn State University. She is an online English professor for a variety of colleges. When she is not writing or teaching or mothering, she is honing her archery skills.

The Painter

By Paul Hobday

Catherine sits at her easel, her face contorts in concentration. Paints blob her pallet; on her brush is large glob of rosy red. Her smock displays a hard life of many colors. Paint seems to find its way onto everything in her little studio—except the canvas. Her easel is a blank, cream-colored slate. Every so often Catherine extends the brush toward it, but she cannot bring herself to touch color to canvas.

It has been this way for months now. She makes time, sits in her little make-shift studio, and stares at the easel. Nothing comes of it. Almost a year has passed since she sold a piece, and even then it hadn’t been for as much as she thought it was worth. She can feel her dream slipping through her fingers, dissolving like dust caught by the breeze.

Times are tough—Catherine has taken on a job. Since she isn’t painting, she needs another means to pay rent. Now she works three times a week at a local art supply store, advising amateurs on paint mixing and brush types. She resents it, but the owner is an old friend, and he pays her a decent wage. He even offers to hang some of her paintings. They hang limply on the walls, gathering dust, unsold.

Despondently, she sits with a straight back before her blank easel. She dabs paint onto the brush, mixes it around, makes new colors, and mixes them with other colors. Creating colors is soothing: making something new, perhaps something never seen before. While working on blending the darkest shade of orange she could imagine, Catherine’s phone jingles. She reaches out with a finger and slides the button on the screen, tapping the speaker.

“Hi Hon,” she says in her coyest tone.

“Hey Kate,” Harrison—Harry—has been Catherine’s on again, off again boyfriend for nearly three years. They have a strange relationship built on mutual respect. Harry and she are on one of their up swings; things are good, they talk almost every day.

“I’m not going to be able to make it for dinner tonight,” he says, his voice crackling through tinny speakers.

Catherine puts the pallet down and turns to address the phone, a habit she loves because it reminds her that technology is not reality. “Why?” she asks.

There is a pause, a moment that probably means nothing, but could mean everything, before Harry responds, “It’s work, there’s an emergency. I’m heading in to the office now. I don’t know how long I’m going to be there.” Another pause; heavier, longer. Catherine can hear blowing wind and traffic drifting across the phone line. “Maybe I can come by later? They can’t expect me to stay all night.”

With a sigh, Catherine picks up the phone and holds it closer, as if that might increase the intimacy. “I was really hoping to see you for dinner. Is it such a big deal that you can’t blow them off?”

“Babe, you know I want to impress these guys” —Harry has recently passed the bar and is working for a prestigious law firm— “and I can’t do that unless I’m willing to be there when they call.”

The conversation is over. “Alright,” she says, “I guess it’s ok anyway. I’m painting today.”

“Really?” he perks up; in the background a horn blares. “That’s great Kate! Maybe when I’m out, you’ll have something new for me to see?”

“Maybe,” she says, glancing over at her deep shade of orange, “maybe. Anyway, call or text me before you head over, in case I fall asleep, ok?”

“Of course, see you later.”

“Yup” and she pushes the little red button on the phone’s face that says end, thinking how accurate that statement is. End, like their relationship when Harry realizes Kate doesn’t paint anymore; end, like when Harry realizes he’d be happier with a nine-to-five soccer mom type; end, like the sudden, overwhelming urge Catherine can taste on the back of her tongue to go run screaming through the streets.

Instead, she goes to the medicine cabinet and pours out a dose of blue pills (the ones that calm her down), swallowing them with a mouthful of warm water. Then, still wearing her paint-stained smock, Catherine puts on water for tea. Her apartment has only a tiny kitchen and she hates it. In her last place, she had a full sized kitchen, decked out with a brand-new stove, a dishwasher, and enough counter space for her to experiment with various culinary concoctions. Now, Catherine only uses her kitchen when she has too—making tea and pouring milk over Cheerios, or making toast before work.

The water boils; Catherine pours a steaming measure into her chipped mug and stirs honey into her tea. Taking her drink into her equally-small living room, she opens the big windows that look out over the street. The second floor has its perks—she can open the full length windows wide and let the outside in without being completely exposed to the bustling street below. She sits there whenever the weather permits, watching traffic and pigeons, wishing herself to be someone else.

She clicks on the TV, channel surfing past boring dramas, meaningless sporting events, and news programs highlighting the dismal, self-destructive state of humanity. It disgusts her, makes her stomach sink into a tight ball of anger. Her hands begin to shake, spilling warm tea over the lip of her mug. Catherine can barely contain the desire to hurl the mug at the screen, to go out in the street and shake passersby until they see how frightfully meaningless their lives are, to scream her lungs out so the entire world might hear her dismay.

Thankfully, the pills are melting in her belly, numbing her senses. Her sudden rage ebbs, and with it the grey clouds that have begun to gather drift apart, revealing a glowing sun. She wonders to herself why she wasn’t a cloud, or a pigeon, or anything else in the vast universe, why she is trapped in her mediocre body, with her imperfect skill-set and her unfulfilling life. Catherine likes the easing effect of the meds. The abrupt anger of a few moments ago upsets her, so she rises and goes to the medicine cabinet for a stronger dose. The little white ones (that are meant to ease anxiety, but really get her quite high) are what she’s after.

Returning to her open windows, Catherine retrieves the teacup and swallows the rest in one long gulp. She loves tea, almost as much as she loves the soothing pills. The anger at the world of only a minute ago has completely passed. Her face cracking into a smile, Catherine leans out over the windowsill, breathing in the warm air.

A rugged smell slams into her nose. Like sour milk poured over road kill, the smell of a city, even a small one, is unavoidably unpleasant. The odor makes Catherine’s face pucker, she leans out further, searching for the fresh smell of flowers and warm air, reaching for it like it has to be only a couple of inches farther from the building. She imagines pedestrians looking up, seeing a short, slightly overweight young woman with unruly black hair and a stained smock leaning over the edge of her window. She imagines just pushing off with her toes, letting go with her fingertips, slipping her knees gently over the edge, caressing the air with her body, tumbling, sliding, and wafting down. All the while in search of that clean smell, the smell of summer and happiness that she knows is out there.

Pulling herself from the window, Catherine decides that the blue pills and the white pills interact nicely, and that she feels rather well. The wave of despondence passes; her self-pity is but a soft whisper, barely audible. She picks up the empty tea mug and takes it back into the kitchen to brew another cup. Absently, she clicks on the little radio on the bookshelf and tunes it to the local public radio station.

The steaming water poured over another tea ball, Catherine takes her cup back into her studio. With all her paintings sold or in storage, the room looks deathly white and sad. Catherine draws back a heavy cloth and pulls open the window, letting some light gush in. A gentle breeze makes the drop cloths sway, giving the entire room an eerie appearance of life.

Something is happening; Catherine sips her tea and then sets it on the little end table next to her favorite lamp and a paperback she’s been reading for months. Something is happening; Catherine can feel something in her guts that reminds her of inspiration. Her dissatisfaction—with herself and all of humanity and everything—is twisting together with the gentle chemical ease saturating her senses. Something is happening; she’s sure of it, can taste it like the gentle lemon flavor of her tea.

She takes up the pallet and grimaces at the now dry blob of dark orange; it is not what she hoped at all. Nevertheless, Catherine isn’t dissuaded, her body is electric, her mind a razor. Something is happening. The cool breeze lifts her and she spins, uncontrollably, wonderfully, toward her easel. She can see the shade of orange she was aiming for earlier; see it as plain as the sky out the window. A vision, a new world, a shade of orange like none imagined before, fills her mind.

The day drifts by. Catherine sips her cooling tea and dabs paint onto the canvas without noticing the intruding darkness, the ringing of her phone, the soft tapping at her door. The radio plays from the living room, dismayed voices, crackling and full of fear. None of these sounds, these clues from the outside world, intrude upon her. Catherine is absolute Zen, she is the center, she is everything and nothing; and it is perfect. Catherine paints, patiently, unblinking, for hours.

When she does finally stop, setting her brush and palette down, screwing the tops back on the tubes of paint, the sun is eking up over the rooftops, running bright shafts in through the still-open window. A strange smell creeps in with it, something like burnt leather.

Catherine blinks and stretches—her mind races back to her. Like a runner colliding with an unseen wall, reality grips her, squeezes her, until she cannot deny it any longer. She realizes with a start that it is morning, that her phone has been making noise on and off all night, that she definitely heard someone—probably Harry—at her door many hours ago, and most important of all, that she has to pee quite badly.

Stumbling on cramped legs into the bathroom, Catherine relieves herself. On her way out of the bathroom, she clicks off the radio as a newscaster prattles on about a battle, a war raging in some foreign land. Catherine is too happy about her painting to worry about any of that.

She goes into the kitchen and puts on coffee, and then she goes back into her studio to find her phone. The battery is nearly dead, so she plugs it in and stands near the wall outlet while scrolling through the unacknowledged messages from the night before: 10:43 pm – done work, heading over; 11:04 pm – at your door, want to let me in?; 11:06 pm – called you, where are you?; 11:07 pm – What the hell Kate, I can see lights on…and so on. Harry left her ten messages, three missed calls and two voicemails.

Oddly, she also has a couple of calls from her mother, her aunt, and her sister. She doesn’t bother listening to any of them, she just deletes them and sends Harry a simple reply: Sorry. Painting. She hopes he’ll understand, but really, she doesn’t care if he does.

Because Catherine has discovered something, found herself within herself, found her paint again. It’s not the same, not the giddy high of creation she once felt when her hand poured out the vision of the world she couldn’t contain. Her past work was often simplistic, often appreciated for its refinement more than its statement. She was capable, proficient, but uninspired. Now, inspiration courses through her. She feels great.

Cradling a steaming mug of coffee, Catherine draws a bath, taking another little white pill to help her keep feeling good. She’s tired now, the long night and exertion catching up with her. The bath is perfect—temperate, soft, the bubbles forming a glaze over the surface of the water, cocooning her, making her safe and clean. She runs a wet hand through her hair and pulls the mess back into a ponytail.

It’s then that it occurs to Catherine: she doesn’t know what she painted! She made it, swirled the colors, stroked the canvas, churned the fire within herself, and poured it out as a work of art. But she cannot recall anything specific about it. The exact content, the sum of the parts, the “thing” that she has made, it is a mystery to her. This thought startles her. Catherine has always worked with such control, such grace, knowing precisely what she hoped to accomplish with each piece she painted. But this work, whatever form it has taken, is an enigma to her.

She leaps out of the tub, splashing soapy water all over the linoleum, and runs naked through her apartment. Sudsy footprints mark her passage across the living room carpet, she grabs at the sliding door that separates the studio. Inside, the studio is more of a wreck than she’d expected. Fresh paint stains the drop clothes. All the paint tubes are jumbled on the floor around her stool. The palette is a disaster. It’s utterly ruined; she’ll never be able to use it again. So much paint is on it, in varying states of dryness, that it’d be a waste to even try scraping it clean.

And then there’s the canvas. It’s…Catherine can’t even imagine the words. “Woo,” she mutters, dripping on the carpet.

The painting, really, is nothing special. Good technique, smart strokes, well-proportioned lines—it’s the color use that has Catherine standing frozen before her work. The shades are bright and vibrant, like the glow of morning sun on dew-wet grass, or the perfect full moon on a clear summer night. She has achieved that deep, dark shade of orange—the darkest she’s ever seen—just like she had been trying for. And the whole thing has a certain spinning quality to it, like a person looking into the sky and twirling around and around until they are dizzy.

Catherine likes this thought: dizzy, dark orange.

Her phone begins ringing from the other room, but Catherine feels the beginnings of further inspiration. It starts at the base of her spine and tingles its way up to her neck, sweat dampening her forehead. The phone continues to ring, a distant lullaby.

The trance breaks as suddenly as it began. Catherine is unsure how much time has passed. The light seeping in through the windows is dimmer, closer to the center of the sky. The carpet around her is wet, she is nearly dry. Insistent banging and shouting knifes into her mind. She snaps around, walking purposefully out of the studio and retrieving a robe.

Harry is at the door, banging, calling for her. She sighs and carries her cold coffee mug to the door with her.

“Jesus Kate, were you ever going to answer you phone?” Harry is disheveled, tense. He looks like he hasn’t slept.

Catherine shrugs and shakes her head, standing aside to let him in. Harry brushes past her and stands, towering before her, his face blanched and angry. “Why haven’t you been answering?”

“I,” she starts and stops, sipping her coffee. Cautious movements always calm Harry down. She sits, huddling the robe over her legs. “I was painting. I sent you a message.”

Harry drops his shoulders and plunks down into the easy chair. “You were painting? Fuck Kate, do you have any idea what’s been happening? You picked the most incredible time to decide to drop off the face of the earth. I can’t even…”

Catherine stops listening, jumping up and spilling her remaining coffee. It runs down her robe and onto the carpet, but she doesn’t care.

“You have to see it!”

Harry screws his eyes up, furrowing his brows deeply. “See it? Kate you aren’t listening!”

She grabs his sleeves, pulling him up. “No you’re not listening! I painted Harry! And not only that, but it’s beautiful, it’s incredible! You have to see the colors!”

Dragging him, pulling him by his sleeves, Catherine guides Harry toward the studio.

“Kate, really, I’m glad you’re painting, but you aren’t listening to me. The world, some crazy stuff happened last night. I can’t believe you didn’t hear.”

“Hear what,” she mumbles absently, opening the studio door and gesturing toward her masterpiece. “Look!”

Harry, shaking his head, steps into the studio, but rather than look at her work of genius, he turns to Catherine and puts his hands on her arms, making her look at him.

“Kate, listen to me,” he shakes her gently, “listen, we shouldn’t even be here. Dear, the world…the world is burning, love. No one knows what happened, but governments, military; something happened over in the Middle East and Asia. Bombs going off, hell Kate, the western half of America.” Tears well in his eyes, Harry’s jaw is trembling. Catherine doesn’t understand why he’s so upset.

“Harry,” she coos, “look.”

Suddenly, he’s angry. “Goddam it Kate! I don’t give a shit about your stupid painting! You aren’t listening! Millions of people are dead! Millions! The world is going to war! Who cares about the fucking painting? The world is on fire!”

Catherine, a bright smile on her face, turns Harry toward her painting.

“I know,” she says, gesturing toward the easel.

* “C” quotation: Article II of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, 1789.

___

Paul Hobday is a native Vermonter, immersed in the writing community in scenic Burlington. He was recently featured in the Burlington Writer’s Workshop’s 2014 Anthology. When not writing his own stories, Paul volunteers as an assistant editor for Vermont’s newest literary journal, the Mud Season Review.

The End Is Near

By Dan Leach

Hold on,” Amy said, extending her upturned palm into the space between them. “Did you say the twelfth?”

“The twelfth,” Julian said with a decisive if not exaggerated nod.

“Of April?” she said.

“Yep.”

“As in,” and for the first time a sad smile began to form at the corners of her mouth, “April twelfth, two weeks from today?”

“That’s when it happens,” he said, eyes, as always, stuffed full with child-like sincerity.

It was not so much that the news surprised her. Like most members of the congregation, she was privy to a weekly reminder that autism can amplify a passion to a pitch so coarse and blaring that anything resembling logic gets drowned out like a whisper. Like the time Julian was convinced that angels were hiding in the rafters above the worship band. Or the time he discovered a secret code embedded in the Psalms that spelled out the downfall of America. Julian went through phases and when he did he expected everyone else to follow.

Like all fanatics, autistic or not, he was not content to be alone in his obsessions.

Without hesitation, she hooked her arm in his and guided him to the far side of the lobby, away from the clusters of people. The northeast corner of the lobby had been converted into a bookstore, equipped with portable plastic racks that brandished a collection of books read and recommended by various church leaders. There was one book written by an eleven-year old boy who, after dying and spending over an hour in heaven, felt compelled to tell the world what he saw on the other side. There was another written by a grown man who, after visiting a shack and having a hallucinatory conversation with a portly black woman, felt compelled to tell the world that God is, in fact, a portly black woman. The store, typically supervised by a volunteer, was empty for the moment and she ducked behind one of the racks to continue their conversation.

“Have you talked to Pastor Nate about this?” she asked.

“Pastor Nate is good man,” he started, breaking eye contact and beginning to pick at a dime-sized scab on his wrist. “But…um…” he continued, too fascinated with the scab to finish.

“But what, Julian?”

“But Mr. Hawkins said that even good men will be deceived,” he mumbled, peeling back the edges of the scab to reveal the moist and reddened flesh below.

“Mr. Hawkins said that?” she said. “You’ve been watching him on the TV again, haven’t you, Julian?”

“Uh-huh,” he said, freeing the scab entirely and lightly poking the crimson circle rising on his wrist.

“Well what does Mr. Hawkins say,” she said, swatting his bloodied fingers away from the wound, “about the verses where Jesus tells his disciples that nobody will be able to predict his return? Did Mr. Hawkins tell you about those verses, Julian?”

He showed no signs of having heard her. Pinching it between his thumb and index finger, he held the scab up to the light and studied it like a gem. His mouth went slack with awe and he brought the scab increasingly closer to his face until his eyes were almost crossed in admiration.

“Julian,” she whispered, noticing for the first time that he had not, judging by his smell, showered in several days. His faded red sweatshirt, the one he had worn every Sunday since that Sunday she had met him over a year ago, carried more than the usual collection of stains and his nose and ears had gone shiny with grease. He tilted his head slightly to the left, apparently having noticed some new aspect of the scab, and a subtle smile played on his lips.

“Julian,” she nearly shouted, punctuating the final syllable by slamming her shoe against the floor.

Startled, he quickly slipped it into the pocket of his shirt, brought his hand up to his mouth, and sucked his fingers clean. As if she had woken him from a deep sleep, he blinked hard several times and seemed confused as to where exactly he was.

“I have to go now,” he said, wiping his fingers against his pants and leaving a red smear on the wrinkled khakis. “Bye-bye, Amy.”

She grabbed him by the shoulders and refused to let him leave. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” she said, using all of her strength to pull him in for an embrace. He fought it, his arms remaining stiffly pressed against his sides, a subtle moan escaping his throat when she squeezed. His body even emitted a restless wiggle, the way small children sometimes do when they ache to be released.

“Promise me you’ll talk to Pastor Nate,” she said just before releasing her grip. “Just promise me that you won’t…” she started in. But when her hands slid down and attempted to clasp his forearms, he pivoted abruptly and sprinted towards the exit.  “Do anything stupid!” she shouted as much to herself as anyone else, and rolled her tired eyes at what she had come to know as a typical Julian exit.

For no other reason than proximity, she picked up a book, the one about the boy who went to heaven. While leafing through its contents, the volunteer, who had a red-flecked faux hawk and a ring in his lip, approached her and asked if she would like to purchase it. He looked to be in college and mentioned that he had read it and found it “definitely very inspirational.”

“No thank you,” she replied, returning the book to its place on the shelf, her three years of sanctification and thirty-four of Southern hospitality just barely strong enough to steady her hand and leave it right side up.

*   *   *

Next Sunday, Julian showed up thirty minutes early and, being scheduled as a greeter, took his place in the front of the building. As the congregation trickled in, Julian met them with his customary “Good-morning-welcome-to-Wellspring-Community-Church-glad-you’re-here” greeting, a two-handed handshake, and a toothy grin that was iconically his. He distributed the bulletins, the beige and folded slips of paper, which seemed, to all appearances, to be the same as any other Sunday’s. It was not until the time of worship had ended and Pastor Nate began his sermon that the members settled in and opened their bulletins to discover Julian’s contribution: a single white flyer on which six sentences were typed in a bold purple text. It read:

 

April 12th is JUDGEMENT DAY. 

Christ will return.

The righteous will be saved.

The sinful will be destroyed. 

The Bible guarantees it.

Will you be ready?

 

A color graphic of a globe wreathed in flames was printed on the four corners of the flyer and a chain of tiny crosses served as a border around the edges. Pastor Nate, who preferred to start his sermons with illustrative and humorous stories, was too immersed in an anecdote about three men, a genie, and a deserted island, to notice the stirring in his congregation. He was pacing back and forth on stage, respectively imitating the accent of the genie, who, for some reason, was Middle-Eastern, and the three men, all of whom spoke like diploma-carrying Southerners, when Karen Palmer stormed out of the sanctuary. Mr. Palmer followed several seconds later, carrying his wife’s purse and the crumpled Styrofoam she had used to drink her coffee. Sam Wood, after whispering “This is bullshit” to no one in particular, made a point of shuffling across his row and stomping out of the sanctuary via the center aisle. Sam then accosted Jeff Henderson, the associate pastor, who was attending the information center. After studying the flyer, Jeff broke into a sprint, ducked down the hall leading backstage, and appeared on stage and out of breath beside Pastor Nate, who was describing the implications of the Southerner’s second wish. Jeff seized Pastor Nate by the shoulder and thrust a flyer in his hand. Pastor Nate apologized for the interruption and then listened to Jeff explain the situation, his normally poised face becoming visibly perturbed. After several seconds, Jeff darted off stage and Pastor Nate turned to address the congregation.

“It has come to my attention that these,” he said, holding up the flyer, “have been inserted into this morning’s bulletins.”

A general hum of affirmation ran throughout the crowd, several hands even shooting up and waving the flyer around like an overdue assignment.

“Let me be crystal clear about this. We did not print those flyers. We do not believe in the information on those flyers. And, rest assured, we will find out who is responsible for sneaking them into our bulletins. I apologize for any inconvenience.”

Because she sat in the back, Amy easily scanned the sanctuary for Julian. Rising slightly out of her seat, she studied the rows of heads, a study made easier by the fact that most people were no longer facing Pastor Nate, who had resumed his Middle-Eastern genie voice, but rather turned sideways in order to convey their whispered theories on the flyer and its creator. When she didn’t see Julian, she quietly shuffled out of her row and headed for the door. Pastor Nate’s punch-line came just before she left the sanctuary—something about ex-wives, if she heard correctly—but she didn’t hear much laughter as she slipped into the lobby.

After checking every place with the exception of the men’s room, Amy broke into a jog towards her car. Julian lived in an apartment complex less than a mile from the church and, not able to attain a driver’s license, he would probably still be walking home.

She spotted the red sweatshirt in the distance and, for the first time since seeing the flyer, began to think of what she would say.

Proof-texting, which seemed cold, if not uptight, to the average member at Wellspring, worked well enough on Julian given his compulsive need to obey the Scriptures. She had learned through numerous conversations that, though autism had rendered him useless in most social contexts, it had driven him to memorize the entire New Testament by the age of thirteen, and, more importantly, to yield to any suggestion he believed to be biblical. As he often reminded those willing to listen: “In the Gospel of John, chapter fourteen, verse fifteen, Jesus says that those who love him will obey him.” Julian often followed this thought with a heartfelt offer to list his ten favorite verses or, on occasion, to provide a word-for-word recitation of the Sermon on the Mount. Most people dreaded such moments and limited their interaction with him to a cordial wave in the lobby or a quick handshake during the greeting time. Amy though, not without the occasional pang of regret, had learned to navigate his idiosyncrasies and build something like a friendship. Someone had to do it, she reasoned.

When she approached Julian in her car, he had just reached the entrance to the apartment complex and turned right towards his unit. She sped past him, whipped into a space, and was leaning against his door, arms crossed and eyebrows raised, at the moment he arrived. He came around the corner, key already extended, and jumped back when he saw her.

“Shouldn’t you be at church, Julian?”

“Y-y-you,” he mumbled, running his fingers along the tarnished teeth of the key. “You scared me, Amy.” He brought the key to his mouth and began sucking on the blade.

“Well we’re even then,” she said with a smile meant to ease. “Your little flyer caused quite a stir.”

“Mr. Hawkins says that—”

“You know what, Julian,” she cut in, pushing herself off the door and taking two large steps in his direction. “I’m done hearing what Mr. Hawkins has to say. I’ve seen the billboards. I’ve watched the commercials. And if that wasn’t enough, you’ve been non-stop with it for over a month now.”

“But in Daniel, chapter eight, verse fourteen, it says—”

“Stop it,” she shouted, immediately regretting it when he cowered, covering his face with his hands as if a blow would follow.

“Julian,” she began with a new calmness in her voice. “You’ve heard my arguments and, God knows, I’ve heard yours. And we’re not getting anywhere going back and forth like that. I guess we’ll just have to wait until the twelfth. We’ll see the truth of it then, won’t we?”

“I guess so,” he said.

“And as for that stunt with the flyer,” she said, taking the key from his hand and inserting it into the lock. “I don’t need to preach to you on the biblical precedent for respecting your pastor. What you did back there was wrong and, a little later on this evening, I expect you to call Pastor Nate and apologize, understood?”

She pushed in on the door and reached for the light-switch. He followed several steps behind.

“I just want them to be ready,” he said. “What if they have friends or family members that do not know the Lord. I just want them to—”

She raised a stiffened hand for silence and turned to face him with bewilderment in her features. “Julian,” she said, slowly. “Where is all of your furniture?”

Except for a tussled cot in the corner, composed of a pillow and two towels, all the furniture was gone. In the place where the bookshelf used to be, two books were neatly arranged against the baseboard—the collected works of Spurgeon and a tattered paperback of Boenhoffer. The presence of the cot combined with the empty white walls and the spotless beige carpeting made the room seem larger and lonelier than any room she had ever seen.

He started to answer her question and would have, no doubt, given an impressive slew of verses for support, but she stopped him in mid-sentence and chose instead to just stand there in silence. Julian understood and did not say a word. Together, they stood in the empty room, the branches of a tree rustling against the window, the hum of some car’s stereo receding down the street, the unchecked cadence of their breaths loud as crashing waves.

“Mr. Hawkins says that our possessions…” he calmly explained as he slipped into the kitchen to get a glass of water.

*   *   *

On the morning of April thirteenth, Amy woke up early. After a long, hot shower, she brewed a cheap and barely drinkable brand of coffee, drank down a cup with a slice of toast, and poured the rest in a thermos with a scoop of sugar and a generous pour of cream. She grabbed her Bible and car keys off the counter, snatched an orange from a bowl in the kitchen, left without locking the door, and found the world was still intact.

God had withheld his wrath for another day.

Driving, she stuck her hand out of the window and let the wind fill the spaces between her fingers. The cold breeze sent goose bumps up to her elbow and her palm tingled as the air ran over it. Her radio was turned down low but she could hear an old song playing beneath the rushing air. A woman with a voice like shattered glass sang about peace like a river and beneath her voice there was only a frail-sounding banjo. Sorrows. Like. Sea. Billows. Roll. It was, somehow, broken and beautiful at the same time.

When she pulled up to Wellspring, everyone was in motion. Pastor Nate and Gary Walpole were lifting a couch into the bed of Gary’s truck where a matching love seat already rested. Bobby Enders and the better half of the men’s ministry were assembling bookshelves and what looked to be a desk. Karen Hotchkiss was directing a dozen or so women in packing large plastic containers with items ranging from toiletries to food.

She climbed out of her truck and was greeted by Pastor Nate.

“This should cover most of his living room and kitchen,” he said, using his sleeve to wipe sweat from his forehead. “Tammy Watkins got a deal on a bed and is going to have it delivered this evening and I’m going to swing by Tony’s to get a TV. Is there anything else you can think of? Is there anything else the church could provide for Julian?”

As she thought about this, she couldn’t help but watch her own breath as it rose in plumes of dime-grey smoke. Since childhood, it had never ceased to amaze her. That an ordinary breath could turn to vapor. That a vapor that came from you could ascend so quickly into winter and then vanish forevermore.

“I think that it’s a start,” she said and watched each smoky syllable rise before her face.

* “H” quotation: Samuel Adams, 1768.

___

Dan Leach was born in Greer, SC, graduated from Clemson University in 2008, and taught in Charleston until 2014 when he relocated to Nebraska. He writes short fiction that explores connections between the South, masculinity, faith, and failure. His work has appeared in The New Madrid Review, The Greensboro Review, Deep South Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently at work on his first novel.

Coming Home

By Sara Toruño-Conley

A moment between

the counting of taps on the door knob

to the afterthought of what might happen to a loved one:

 

to live with this is daily conviction,

wishing for an elephant’s soul,

 

to be beautiful as the townhomes stacked

like a matchbox of little cubes, salt water

on the tips of our land.

 

Does it matter you’ve died in a fire miles away,

yet I can’t stop turning the knob?

 

As much as we starve ourselves,

we carve so carefully the meat into unequal parts.

___

Sara Toruño-Conley teaches English at Los Medanos College and lives in San Francisco.  She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Riverside, and grew up in the high desert of southern California.  Her poetry has appeared in some of the following publications: Contraposition, The Café ReviewFound: Fiction and Poetry Anthology (Wordrunner eChapbooks anthology), Modoc Independent News (April 2009’s Surprise Valley Poetry winner), The Common Line Project (honorable mention), Eclectica, Ginosko, Temenos, and Monday Night.

The Briquette I Carry is Heavy

By Eva-Maria Sher

My mother wraps it in newspaper. When I unwrap it at school to help feed the potbellied stove, black comes off on my hands. My teacher wears black. My grandmother wears black.

My grandfather, my uncle, my aunt, my godmother wear black. I don’t wear black, I wear a scratchy blue dress that belonged to cousin Ulla. My shoes used to be David’s. They are too big. My mother puts cotton in the toes. I trip a lot. It is spring. Under the bushes between the brown leaves little blue flowers poke up. The pile of broken stones by the church grows green and yellow. The birds in the trees by our apartment sing. I sing too—in the children’s choir. We stand in the loft, near the big organ. Down below most everyone wears black. Or gray. When we sing and when the organ sounds, it feels golden. In school we sit in straight rows. Our chairs and desks are nailed to the floor. We aren’t supposed to wiggle. At recess we run and scream. At lunch we line up and wash our hands in tubs of strong-smelling water. We hold out our bowls for soup. Our teacher tells us to be thankful. Then we add, and we add, and we add in our heads. We shout out loud: “Zwei und zwei ist vier! Drei und drei ist sechs!” My father has one leg that does not work right. He uses a cane. I can tell when he comes up the stairs. Sometimes I hear him fall. I run, but cannot get him back up. My mother’s friend lost both her legs. I wish I could find them for her. Her new legs are stiff. They don’t work well. She wears a soft brown coat and sometimes lets me use her crutches. She smiles and at the same time sighs a little. A bluish line goes up her forehead. It throbs and makes me feel sad.

Göttingen, Germany, 1950

___

Born in Germany during World War II, Eva-Maria Sher published her first poem at age eight, emigrated to the United States at seventeen, studied literature and expressive arts, taught, married and raised a family, then picked up where she had left off fifty years earlier—but in a different language.

12 Poems—January 2015

By Simon Perchik

*

This rainbow is all that’s left

which means the bombardier

is still facing you

 

and though the rain has stopped

you take back the color that is yours –black

from when you became the first night on Earth

 

with nothing in your hand to press

except the small stones kicked up for stars

are still fed the darkness they need

 

to break open the ground for more air

–a glance could save them now, spread

the way flames are wet from crossing borders

 

in the same formation you dead arrived

to mark the day, build this fortress

put an end to who knows why each well

 

goes off somewhere after you’re finished

are digging for rain as nothing more to empty

is there on the map that’s now silent

 

no longer wanting the ground

as something that will lead you out

side by side knowing what night after night is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

Where others have a throat

you have the need for tides :shorebirds

helping their young find the sea

 

and though your mouth is closed it wants

a nest that will begin as a whisper

become the long arm reaching out

 

to keep from returning with an empty shell

as the cry that could no longer hold on

–twice a day someone is calling for you

 

will light a fire on this beach, asking it

to be patient, the sea will come, lifted

as smoke side by side and forward.

 

 

 

 

 

*

The long black coat passing by

covers these headstones the way all riverbeds

are hidden from the ice, give up land

 

for its warmth –some darkness

would be enough, would reach the ground

before turning back as the shadow

 

helping you collect –a few small stones

no longer together would fit into one sleeve

more than the other –with such a weapon

 

these dead slowly disappear into moonlight

where the heat from far off becomes brighter

though it knows how cold you are

 

that you go to bed wearing a fleece-lined jacket

are following alone, counting backwards

as if you were returning something.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

Every day now when the water boils

you pour it across these leaves

no longer breathing on their own

 

–they absorbed all its oxygen

and though there are no flames

you make from the clouds a tea

 

that empties without any answers

only treatments, slowly at first

then darkening, stripping your skin

 

for turbulence, stirred the way each night

rises from the ground –how much longer

before the fire, before it’s too late

 

and heat mean nothing –your mouth

still taken along as the splash

between your lips and another’s.

 

 

 

 

 

*

Always, between the strings

you hear the axes and hammers

breaking loose each word

 

the way all ballads are sung

to someone you know

who will never return –what you hear

 

is the leveling that has no secrets

lingers in the hum all night

among the lips that know only loss

 

and you listen to something

that’s always ending, a song about love

that fits into some banjo held tight

 

till it’s hurled against the wall

and with both fists the words

no longer go together, begin to fall

 

from what memory was left

when the radio stopped, said goodbye

without moving or you.

 

 

 

*

Winter is not the time –don’t talk

though it snows a lot and the light

fits all at once into your mouth

 

as names –old friends arrive

as if so little breath is needed

when a far off night becomes another jaw

 

lets you swallow the Earth

thaw the ground for all these stars

side by side still falling off this hillside

 

in rows and where there is a gate

no one comes –you wait for rain

that’s suddenly snow, is playing dead

 

though once in your hand it takes root

grows into a sea where these small stones

one by one are falling to the bottom

 

building a shore lower than usual

till the light loses its balance and you

reach out like yesterday, like a year ago

 

except for the thud that’s now a firewall

between these dead and the splash

heavy enough to be late in the evening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

You sharpen one hand with the other

though you’ve heard it all before

how every embrace traps the light

 

these dead feed on, need each grave

closing in on the others, a fireball, the sun

to find its moon in the sound

 

stone makes invisible when singing

in rows –you hear this chorus as a song

about coming home which means a shoreline

 

arm over arm emptied into the sea

starting again from the beginning

–in such a darkness you smell from salt

 

and longing –are torn apart on the spot

by pebbles and mountains within reach

waiting just below the surface.

 

 

 

 

 

*

As always it’s this towel, half paper

half folded over to hide from the window

the water it needs for privacy

 

–invisible ink! the kind that let the dust

float on by till the room slowly drains

and each word appears as a galaxy

 

is moving closer to the others

the way lovers use their hands

–you open the note and what drips

 

explodes into what can’t be said out loud

smashes the glass with minutes, seconds

sings now that it doesn’t matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

You were just a kid, the newspaper

would fold over and over, easily

from one coast to another

 

though there was no salt

and you could track the map

by covering it with hillsides

 

still on the page as moonlight

that never leaves the ground

the way your death is mourned

 

face down, sifting the Lost & Found

for pebbles, for footsteps to make

another turn that is not the one.

 

 

 

 

 

*

And though it’s the roof that leaks

you will be buried inside a stone

kept wet day after day for the echo

 

sea ice prepares from the drip

it needs to drain –this ladder

will end with nails and a hammer

 

where one wall will slip, already

is leaning into another then another

till all Earth becomes the Nile

 

and you are in the attic, rising from a shore

though it’s the sky that’s hidden, collapsing

empty under the cold rain now ready for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*

They’re still missing though this tree

waits here for its leaves

returning home as moonlight

 

where you count the waves

from a shore while some breeze

is learning to fly the way these dead

 

are now the stones side by side

in close formation still circling down

for the lost, the needed –you become

 

water, let these dead drink

from your arm, leaving it empty

abandoned, sifting the grass

 

for a field that’s not from a plane

not from the sun or falling behind

–that’s not wet, that’s the one.

 

 

 

 

*

It’s your usual County 481 though your eyes

can’t smell the straight line beginning to open

make possible the slow climbing turn ahead

 

–they still believe such a scent is the song

brought by a ship run aground for its sail

used, torn, can still be seen in the stretch

 

that has become your heart –on every side

licking the tar while your eyes

sniff for the lost the best they can.

___ 

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan ReviewThe Nation, Poetry, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Almost Rain, published by River Otter Press (2013). For more information, free e-books and his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.