Self-portrait Overpainted by Joan Houlihan
Tall as a hare standing upright,
undamaged by hands that unwrapped me,
cautious I come, with newborn fur
scarce as the day they found me.
Alive in this field of mice and shine,
light in my ears and summer all over,
I drowse, drowned in speech
in the bush thereafter,
pieces of me in the lightly leafed.
I am radiant, infant.
There is no hand for my hold.
More than word, I am bond,
warm to the touch and strangely blond.
Fledged and flickering, nearly kin,
my skin the writ to be written on,
I am the tissue forever torn.
It was early when I got here.
Citrus by Kimberly Casey
His fingertips smell like grapefruit.
The hollow bowl of skin,
set on the countertop, the scent of citrus
defusing into the kitchen.
I sweep these remains into the trash.
I used to eat half of one every morning
next to avocado toast topped with a fried egg
after a bitter cup of black coffee.
On honeymoon in Kauai,
we toured the botanical gardens
and our guide explained the origins
of the orange fruits found around us.
The polmelo is the base citrus
for most others. It is a non-hybrid,
resilient. Later, I research
interactions with my antidepressants:
May cause drowsiness, dizziness,
changes in the rhythm of the heart.
May increase the effects of the medication.
These effects may last up to 3 days.
It stands to reason the increase
could help – can I feel sad when I’m asleep –
Maybe he wants me to taste this fruit,
tempt my heart into changing its beat.
I have a panic attack
that jolts me from dreaming.
The sun has barely risen, just enough
to offer the sky a small orange rind.
Rwanda by Robbie Gamble
A jagged bone-end juts
from a rain-scoured hillside,
drips its essence onto rich red earth,
a rivulet winding
to a stream, then a larger stream
into the Kagera river,
which once ran red
and choked with bodies,
surging, dumping into Lake Victoria,
northward up the White Nile
across great salt plains
where evaporation ascends
into jetstream clouds
over skeletal waves of refugees
rippling the landscape.
I wake under a dark flow
before the alarm, wander
down into the hard contours
of the kitchen, brew coffee.
Two hours later, kids
tumble in, warm and gangly
over cereal and permission slips.
On the drive to school
their chatter covers
the radio cadence,
another sordid news cycle.
We arrive, they bounce
from the car, ricochet
off clusters of friends
and are gone.
What if next, all of us:
are arbitrarily herded
until all that remains
are carpet stains
under twisted tents
of ribcage, pelvis,
A greasy raindrop
spatters the windshield
as I shudder the clutch,
another uneventful day.
Gods with Wings by Zac Furlough
It has rained for days on end
rained and rained
though life goes on as usual,
the flowers with their shoulders hunched,
knees buckled, their home uprooted –
the cracking asphalt
a landslide for the ants
marching toward shelter,
potholes turned into swamps
for the moths to patrol
and the hawks to watch over
as if they were gods, worn down
under the crushing rain,
but still invisible to the creatures below,
who see shadows only
between the storms.
Post Parting Insomnia by Andreea Ceplinschi
The wings you tore off our bedroom, polaroid pieces, plaster and sheetrock:
I’ve built them into a small shrine and sealed the room behind me.
Three days later my ears are still ringing
with the coyote bark of the door slamming shut
the floor still howls when the heater kicks on
picture nail holes hiss across walls like cottonmouths
tight with promised exhale
to reset the good bones
but I’m no nurse.
Fading in and out on the couch,
paralyzed with living room unfamiliars.
Your aftershave crinkles through
old candy wrapper between the cushions
you last laid on,
heavier than sage on the doorstop.
I stub my toe awake between geographies I’ve yet to learn at night
and I’m glad it hurts,
I’m glad I’m alone, that my body’s broken, that the hormones didn’t work
my insides, heat-dry cauldron
keeping me awake.
DEPARTURE LANGUAGE by Sarah Snyder
They say great athletes visualize success
to will themselves into win. I visualize
the worst so that I know how to survive,
see myself in the tumult of an avalanche
feel the stillness of a white world
and then drool to feel where gravity
takes the little rivulet on my frightened skin
and dig in the opposite direction.
My mother gave me a tool I keep
in my glove compartment to smash
the car window in case I plummet
into water. I need to know
I can get out of anything,
except maybe life.
The Burning Rock by DS Maolalai
church music, incense
in smoke like an opening
it was a great distraction
searching the vapour for shapes –
I never told you,
did I, that I
was an altar boy?
that was untoward
and I believed in god
then too, but shit,
I think even the most devout of them
zone out sometimes
and the burning rock
was a nice
for my eyes to look at
while my brain
went somewhere else.
I don't believe anymore.
I don't think
and so there goes the association
of the smell
I was going for.
no words will capture it.
Assateague by Walter Weinschenk
I want to go to Assateague
And watch wild horses ride;
Speckled grey, mottled black,
Skin worn thin like linen flesh
Hanging on the line,
Stained and bruised;
They wear their wounds like epaulettes,
Their scars like battle ribbons
And in their rage, they run,
They fight, they kick and bite;
They rip each other’s hide apart
And bleed upon the ground;
They trip and fall and scream,
And slide across the mud;
They flail about and when they fall
They break their bones
Beneath the weight of who they are;
They levy war but don’t know why
And when the peace of death prevails
The scores they had in mind
Remain unsettled as before.
The fallen are forgotten,
Left to lie in sand and weed;
Their squeals are frightening to the dying
And as they die, they mourn;
They sing of death’s ignominy;
They close their eyes, their skins grow dry:
They lie beneath the carcasses
Of other horses, dead or dying;
Their lungs collapse, their breathing stops:
So ends the trauma of their dying.
The horses that survive
Run headlong upon the beach;
They race along the waterline
And cool their hooves in shallow pools,
Exultant and alive;
Flaring nostrils, insane eyes,
They scream ecstatic, arrogant and satisfied;
They taunt the dead and strut as if exempt
From laws that govern living things;
They crush the shells that line the beach
Beneath their bloody feet;
They mark the sand in red
And claim it as their own;
They breathe long draughts
Of fetid air as blood and myth and mania
Resound within their consciousness;
Tidal waters recede as quickly as they came,
Chastened by the butchery,
Sickened by the slaughter
As darkness drops like stone
And horses sing in praise of Death
And worship at its alter.
The horses that run at Assateague
Don’t speak or think or speculate,
Never do they hide from death
But live or die upon the beach
And if they live, they run once more;
Those horses have no rider:
Death decides the race;
Their truth is raw and unadorned
And I must watch them ride.
She Lives Within by Alison Jennings
(inspired by the painting “The Crooked Paths” by Remedios Varo)
She lives within,
disturbed by everyday
emergencies, and drinks stiff,
preventive cocktails made of lovers’ blood.
she carries paring knives under the armpits,
harvesting the sweat to repel trouble.
and dried wisteria blossoms
onto the tiled floor as a crude talisman,
she bears witness
to everything she sees, secretly reporting
to the King’s Star Chamber,
enforcer of his cruel policies.
With the blessing of the King,
she still fears drowning in her dreams,
so sleeps in a coffin.
But an older gentleman
lurks in the alley, his moustache
stealthily lassoing her arms.
She tries to flee, using
and a parasol for propulsion.
The tiled floor
and a large prosthetic wheel
quicken her mobility,
but the Star Chamber releases
a barking beast—part ocelot, part hound—
offering a handsome reward if caught.
cross-country suite by Frances Donovan
little princess won’t remember very much from california
a row of sunflowers towers above her / she drags a plastic bus
across her gramma’s kitchen floor / sienna-pattern tiles
she remembers the dew / on the old white ford at 5am
her brother wet the bed / remembers how her father threw
her mother across the front seat / her short, sharp cry
* * *
in connecticut three towers loom / eighteen stories over asphalt
broken chair and teddy bear / curtains hung with twine
mattress on the floor / and then / a bed / two dressers made of pine
on the balcony they have a picnic / iceberg lettuce / tuna salad
bean sprouts on whole-wheat bread / they sit on wire milk crates
little princess is so small / her feet won’t touch the floor
draw a picture of how you feel / says mom / her brother draws godzilla
his flaming mouth / and a tiny house / what does little princess draw?
in her memory / a blank spot / what does she draw? / a blank spot
* * *
three cardboard boxes come / inside the wedding china / jagged-edged
your gramma packed it wrong so it would break! / yells mom
it sits in its pigeon-nest on the balcony / traffic-dust settles
her dad follows them 3,000 miles / begging
take me back / and so they do
little princess and her brother / build a city under the bed
walls of the dollhouse that fell apart / shingles and a window
cardboard boxes to fill the gaps / ladders up / ladders down
an orphan wall with a door / two stuffed rabbits in pink and blue
off-brand barbie with her rigid arms /gi joe with a window in his head /
a plastic cow / they race them up and down the ladders
in the morning her father asks for water / little princess brings him a tall glass [new stanza]
he drinks it in one long swallow / his throat working and working
crossing the street / little princess reaches up to take his hand
and his cigarette burns her / bright pain! / the ashy circle pink at the center
she keeps mum / doesn’t know what drunk is
but knows stop whining / is the bottle on the counter
by noon he’s slurring / slides open the terrace door / chases the pigeons
yells look at this junk! / throws the broken china overboard / it sails
six stories to the parking lot / little princess shrieks with glee / or terror / or a blank spot
mom comes home at six o’clock / armed with groceries
find the empty spot on the balcony / exploded shards and cardboard below
you could have killed someone!
Nurse Clarence Plays the Game by Aaron Wallace
Nurse Clarence plays the game where beauty
is all you hold still and I’ve got eyes
that need no metaphor. Or is that a metaphor?
People are dying and there is mercy in that, so I’m the face of God
and it doesn’t matter what gets me down because I heard that I’m alive. How long has it been
since I put the gun to my head and pulled the trigger? How long since the cleaners scraped
globs of brain and scalp off the ceiling fan blades? They tell me that I never died,
even though the doctors got their hands inside, I persisted. Son of a bitch, you wild hog
I’d be a stray dog if you’d put me down like one. What was my favorite song, or my coffee order?
Did I even like coffee? Tell me nobody touched me. Tell me nobody touched me. I don’t want
nobody touching me, and that’s ok. That’s ok. That’s ok. And that’s sweet, right? So hurl me
among the mycelium, let them grow into me. Let them grow from me.
I like mushrooms on toast, with a poached egg. I remember that.
Didn’t I have that in London?
With my wife? I had a wife.
We were happy, weren’t we?
The Morning After by James Colgan
He was still asleep, breathing quietly, their bodies close, his hand on her thigh. She studied the craggy face in the pale morning light–the laugh lines softened by sleep, the salt-and-pepper hair, the stubble of whiskers. So different, she thought.
She disengaged herself carefully, slipped out of bed, and padded to the tidy bathroom, wearing the enormous T-shirt he’d given her to sleep in. She was surprised at how good she felt, especially given how the previous day had started. Her body was practically humming, and as she retraced the events of last night in her mind, her body flooded with heat that left her tingling. She flushed the toilet carefully, not wanting to wake him, and, as she washed her hands, studied herself in the mirror. That nasty welt over her left eye didn’t look any better, but he sure hadn’t minded last night. She thought about waking him, and her heart raced at the prospect. Her long brown hair was a bit tousled, but she decided it looked sexy and left it.
She tiptoed across the room and slipped back under the covers next to him. He had turned over onto his left side. She moved up against him, gently laid a hand on his hip. He stirred just a bit, and the air around them almost sizzled. Breathing faster now, heart racing, she slowly moved her hand down his stomach.
His phone buzzed on the nightstand. He awoke quickly and reached for it.
“Yeah…?” He sat up on the edge of the bed. “Where? … Jesus. Can we take him? … Okay. Wake up Caparzo. I’ll be there in twenty.” He stood up quietly; she pretended to be asleep. He showered, came out of the bathroom, then into the kitchen, busied himself there, then came back and started dressing. She watched him quietly. He was a big man–not fat, but tall and solid, like a linebacker maybe, clean-shaven with close-cropped hair. She knew how strong he was, remembered how easily he’d picked her up off the sidewalk, bleeding and barely conscious, how in bed she’d been like a rag doll in his hands, remembered his weight on her tiny frame, and wanted more.
He felt her eyes on him, turned to her, and smiled. “Hey,” he said.
He took a badge from the top of the dresser, hooked it on his belt, took a pistol from a small lockbox, put it in a holster, hooked that on his belt. “Gotta go. Stay here, if you’d like. Probably safer, but if you have someplace else to go …”
“Will you be coming back?” she asked.
“Sure hope so. Might be a few hours.”
“Then, I’d like to stay.”
He walked over to the bed, kissed her. “Good. There’s coffee in the kitchen, bagels and cream cheese in the fridge. Make yourself at home. See you.” He left.
She lay back in the big bed and wondered where her husband was.
Thou Shalt Not Lie by Alyssa Katz
He drove down the street with a souped-up mid-sized Pontiac. It was lifted in the back. A mural of Tarkus, the image on the cover of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s second album, was painted over the entire car.
I hid with shame when he proudly pulled up in front of my house on E. 100 St. in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, NY. He turned and removed the key in order to stop the overly excited engine. He was shy but deliberate. He liked me. He wanted to go out. Be my boyfriend. His name was Richie. Although I myself was not particularly from the right side of the tracks, Richie was from the wrong side of the tracks for sure. Half Italian half Greek, he was from Old Canarsie. His father worked as a mechanic or something I didn’t hear about in my Jewish section where the typical father’s job was cloth cutter, salesman, teacher, dentist. Richie was olive complected and extremely pimpled. Yet he had a gorgeous thatch of greasy black hair combed back. As was typical in the disco days, he usually wore a tight 70s John Travolta shirt and stuffed his petit body into jeans which clung so tight you could detect what he would look like naked.
Richie was very bright and quite lovely in nature thinking back, but I wasn’t having it. I couldn’t see beyond the grease. I couldn’t get over the car.
It never began but here’s how it ended: “Richie, my sister married out of the faith. I can’t go out with you. I can’t marry out of the faith.” I suppose there was a little pressure on me to not do that.
We kept in touch somehow. In 1983, I moved to California. Around that time, Richie joined the Navy to get an education. He was stationed in California and I may have seen him once. He was accepted to medical school, married and had a son. But the story was: his wife pressured him a lot, so he dropped out of med school and later divorced.
Enter Facebook. I’m in Montreal for years by now. Two young children. Husband somewhere. I see Richie announced to the Facebook world he’s coming to Montreal for a bicycle trip with his girlfriend. Although we were connected as Facebook friends and had conversed a bit in the private chat box, this news was without direct outreach to me.
“Richard (he was Richard now), why don’t we meet?” I messaged him.
He was staying on the Plateau which said he wasn’t a “Centre-Ville” (downtown) type. I found an ordinary bar though it was only late afternoon. Unlike the skin-tight jeans I remember from high school days, Richie was wearing neither in nor out of fashion beige chino style pants with a knit collared golf shirt. He was no longer as petite as I remembered him. He still had hair, but less. We sat down at our own table, ordered two glasses of white wine and commenced a catch-up heart-to-heart talk. I was leaving Alan sometime soon and probably exuded disingenuous charm owing to my vanity and loneliness. His girlfriend stayed behind in their hotel room. He mentioned that he asked her not to come along and I guess because he wanted to complain about her emotional defects and to hammer the last nail into his young infatuation with me.
It got a little juicy as he indulged me the details of his post-divorce meanderings. He told me after his divorce he wandered around Italy aimlessly and thought about me a lot.
Then, a few minutes later, “I was sad you told me you couldn’t marry me because I wasn’t Jewish.”
“Did I say that?” vaguely recalling. “I don’t know if that would matter to me now,” I replied. “I’m sorry I told you that.”
I was sorry I told him that. Maybe it was a half-truth, though I knew it was the car.
Crocuta by Rachel Rose Smith
The day Giuseppe carried her home from the sea shrine, the townsfolk refused to leave their huts. A menagerie of dogs and birds trapped in darkness, for fear of the unfamiliar animal in the cobbler’s arms.
Giuseppe smiled, tightening a driftwood splint around the wolf’s broken paw. Her white eyes rolled sightlessly like boiled eggs behind her handsome snout. He had never seen a wolf before, in the chalky fishing village, but sensed her wolfishness as he sensed bunions or arrhythmia. As with men, a dog’s nature is in its gate.
Her fur was warm and bristling, spotted around her rippling flanks like a dirty tablecloth. Someone inked her, Guiseppe thought. It was not unheard of for travelling buskers to pluck birds or feather fishes, if it meant an extra coin or two. Scrubbing at them only revealed a flash of her lovely white teeth, when she tried to nip at him.
That night, they shared his dinner of semolina crusts and soaked baccala. Giuseppe fell asleep to her happy chitters in the darkness.
Before sunrise, he awoke to the scrabble of paws on the roof. The wolf was curled up beside him in the rags, her rough pelt like a barber’s brush on his chest. When he returned home from chiseling wooden soles, he found his hovel fragrant with rosemary and game. A fat, dressed rabbit was cooking in his clay pot, the open hearth alite with spiced droughtwood. The wolf rolled happily about in Giuseppe’s rag bed, leering up at him with her bright white teeth.
Giuseppe fell to his knees and kissed her dark nose. It was wet and cold against his lips. The varnished crucifix on the wall winked in the firelight.
Giuseppe awoke early to pray before the Virgin while the Priest sipped his chicory. Their village church had been carved into the sea caves - a smooth, wobbly room that roared with waves and Messina wind. Briny ocean water dripped down the walls, which the wolf licked at eagerly as the
priest chanted. After Mass, the choir women gathered to coo at the wolf's laughing face and graceful neck. Her raspy pink tongue lolled out bashfully, as she panted into the wind.
That evening, Giuseppe lifted the lid from his salt cod basket, and found a bass struggling against the woven grass. Silver as a coin and dripping with the sea, it was as cold in his hands as the wolf’s cold nose. They shared the pile of rags, once again, and Giuseppe dreamed of wide, smiling jaws like the mouth of a cave.
Giuseppe let the wolf scamper among the slaked lime huts as he banged on the Priest’s door.
It’s certainly mysterious. The Priest smelled like bitter orange oil, his brown fingers tented over his drooping nose. You pray gladly and with wet eyes. Where did she appear to you?
I found her at the sea shrine, drinking from the basin of holy water. I splinted her paw. Her eyes were white like seashells and her muzzle dripped the whole way home.
Loud barking and a woman’s cheer jolted them from the home, nearly smashing their brains open on the stone steps curving down to the harbor. The she-wolf crouched atop the riprap, her pink gums gleaming as she snarled into the sea.
The lady wolf! The village seamstress’ eyes would dampen with tears, as she retold the story years later. She stopped that wave from sweeping me away, sang it right back down.
They blessed her with holy water from the church altar that very evening, all fifty villagers crowded onto the echoing sea cliffs like icons. A coral crucifix was offered up for her long neck, fragrant oil anointed her laughing face. The village knew no more storms or starving, meatless days.
And every night, the wolf curled into Giuseppe’s chest. She whispered to him about the smell of fear. It’s particular sweetness - like wine heated in the sun, on tooth-white rocks.
Hummingbird Flight by Michelle Rogge Gannon
Once the pacemaker attached, Eve’s heart sped up to match his resting heartbeat, one thousand beats per minute.
The judge, having seen marriages fail, raised one eyebrow skeptically when Eve vowed, “I will love you with all my heart.”
Even so, when Eve raised her arm and clenched her fist in wedded victory—a family tradition—her heart thumped painfully. No raising that arm for four to six weeks.
An evening at the ER was not her idea of a honeymoon, but her husband, wings beating eighty times a second, nectar on his breath, whispered tales of hummingbird flight.
The Other Best Friend by Julie Benesh
“Getting a B- on a poem makes one feel like a B- as a person,” is the first thing I can remember “Em” saying to me, in eighth grade homeroom. She had me at “one,” the moment we became an accident of alphabetization, a pairing of propinquity, soulmates of synchronicity.
We were readers, and, reading my thoughts, Em was first of us to say that, like me, like an Erica Jong heroine, she saw her future self lunching with her editor in Manhattan, eating salad with her fingers. Bohemian. Unlike me, for practice, she dated a drug dealer/quarterback and had pregnancy scares. Em said she was adopted and medically diagnosed as hyperactive. She also claimed she had a heart condition that would doom her to an early death. “I embellish,” she also once said to me, which I took to mean, except for with me.
That was one of our last conversations.
For four years we’d call each other up at the same moment, no need for a phone to ring, just there, the same Beach Boys song in the background of our respective bedrooms. We’d meet at the bridge over the creek a half mile walk between our houses, hers in the nice neighborhood, mine in the bad one, Em joking about the lesbian lovers’ rendezvous. In that time and place, no one else would dare say any such thing, certainly not about themselves, and it struck me as both hilarious and truer than fact. We were boy-crazy, but boys were just delivery vehicles for narrative drama and female bonding.
Decades later, a friend, in consolation after my being mean-girled by a mutual acquaintance, pronounces me “outrageous” in the context of several more straightforward compliments. I am flattered to my depths and outrageousness it is a gift I got from Em, through osmosis and reflection and missing her back to me.
We each had another best friend, which is how it went in our school and town. One was always wilder, the other tamer than oneself, to maintain equilibrium. (Theories like these would literally drive me to a PhD in social science.) I was Em’s tamer friend. My own tamer- than- me bestie, “Bea,” exuded emotional intelligence before that was a known-about thing, (which worked out because I had an appetite for self-help, the only kind my family could afford). When Bea overheard some girls talking about a murdered girl in our town, saying her portrait hair on the news “looked flat” asked me, rhetorically, “why are they jealous of a dead girl?” Envious, I silently corrected her at the time, thinking that only word mavens Em and I would parse the difference.
Em’s own wilder friend was “Kay”, a wild beauty, a daddy’s girl, a lithe and snub-nosed Nordic princess, a night with whom, said a certain trope of brooding bad boy, was “good for the soul.”
We weren’t friends with the other best friends; we didn’t hang out in a big sloppy group. Like sophisticated spouses with open marriages, we did our best to keep a respectful distance from the other best friends, to give each other space. “You understand the most,” is what Em said, not that such a thing needed saying, but it was nice to hear.
“So many parties,” said Em’s mother, smiling sadly in the aisle of Hy-Vee Supermarket; my mother and I nodding awkwardly. That summer after our senior year, Em had drifted, then vanished, from view, disappearing to an incongruously anti-Bohemian college, during a period in which her inconveniently commonly named parents also relocated. Pre-internet, we lost touch. I thought of her and her weak heart when I first went all the way with a boy, when I eloped, when I divorced more than a decade later, and when my first story appeared in a literary magazine.
For years I wondered if she had succumbed to her heart condition.
Post-internet, I know a thing or two about where she ended up, if not how or why: still alive, in a rural area of a western state, far from Manhattan, a bookkeeper with a non-functional AOL email, and a cell phone number I jauntily texted, but with no response .
Nearing, let’s face it, the statistical last part of our lives, I think about her more and more and wonder if she sends manuscripts out or writes erotica under a pen name. I wonder how can she live without writing for publication, if not for money, or blogging, at least posting like all my more recent quasi-soulmates as if of whom, Dorothy Parker wrote: “Every love’s the love before in a duller dress.”
How can she live without reaching out? I am easy to find.
How can she live without, apparently, thinking about me at all?
For a clue I look for her other best friend.
This is what I find: Kay is dead, and, even more surprisingly, she died in prison of “cancer and medical neglect” according to the women’s prisoner advocates in her state.
Her photo on their website is another trope, a blonde in an orange jumpsuit.
A literal femme fatale, when she was in her early 30s she and her 19 year old co-worker and “boyfriend” were convicted of killing her husband and father of her two children. Her family and her attorney say she acted in self-defense, her only way out.
I hope her orphaned kids, grown by now, are all right.
But damn, there are a couple of guys for whom a night with her was maybe not so “good for the soul.”
“How’d I miss this?” I asked Bea. She’d missed it, too. Another state, before the internet, etc. Remembering the question Bea’d asked about reactions to the other dead girl I think: Schadenfreude.
Maybe Em had stayed friends with Kay and, traumatized by these events, needed to make a break and put the past behind her, hence the low profile, maybe even a whole low-key life. More likely she and Kay, like she and I, had simply long-before drifted apart, the way that adolescent friends sometimes naturally do.
Maybe Em has better best friends, now, perhaps one wilder than her, bettering the souls of men of all ages, and not tragic; the other tamer, and whole, savoring rendezvous by the bridge, with nothing to pine about.
Orbit by Mave Jensen
Summer. The week after her abortion she goes out riding past the roads, through alfalfa fields. She started early; thought she’d have the horse back by noon. The old farmhouse by the creek surfaces amid grass gone to seed, the gate rusted open, off half its hinges, a welcoming sign. Somehow a cow was brought to death in the kitchen, her head pointed out the back door, shadows now where eyes had been looking at a clump of prairie wheat in the yard. Her udders torn, her insides out, hollow. The coyote will come.
Autumn. The room reads like a crime scene, and she takes him home in bagged and tagged memories. Exhibit A: The tattoo riding his shoulder blade, two gentle sweeps of ink she put her lips to. Exhibit B: His hand firm under her neck, pulling her up, pulling her to him. That sound in his throat, primal, hungry. Exhibit C: The seed of want planted firmly in the pit of her gut that begins again to grow, days later, as the leaves shake loose from the trees the hour before sleep takes her.
Winter. As a child, she waited with her brother inside the laundromat for the school bus to come every morning, too early yet for the sun. The lake, a sheet of solid white ice hovered blocks away, was dangerous, they knew. It creaked in the night and under heavy wind. They stood with their noses pressed to the windows, puffed up in layers of heavy coats and thermal underwear, smelling Tide against the glass, a smell that clung to everything. Insulated, clean, becoming, they played hangman in the fog from their breath.
Spring. Today it rains. The ditches along the freeway are whetted, and in barbarous swells every scrub of sagebrush and bitterbrush rises from the floor of the tarnished red desert to release the pent-up ache of winter’s long abstinence. That desert musk comes through the windows like sweat lingering on unwashed hair and sex trapped in the folds of skin and sheets: signs that she has, indeed, been living all this while.
My First Through-Hike during a Pandemic by Traci Musick-Shaffer
“I’m so appreciative of home.”
That was my first thought as I climbed ever so gently out of bed after returning from a trek to remember.
Have never claimed to be hard or tough.
With no apologies, I admit that I love the niceties of life like air conditioning, a comfy bed, and warm showers. So, how did David convince me to take a four-day, three-night hike through Shawnee State Park (Scioto County, OH) where we would be without life’s comforts?
He didn’t give me much advance warning.
“Let’s do it,” he said.
It was the middle of summer 2020. And during a pandemic. Our home state of Ohio was mostly in “shut-down” mode.
“Ok,” I said with trepidation about the unknown.
Then, I scrambled to the store to purchase food for this last-minute, possibly disastrous, venture. What does one eat on a long hike? I hadn’t a clue.
Normally, a near 40-mile adventure over rough terrain would not be my top vacation selection. Hell, it probably wouldn’t be in my top ten choices. But, in light of a pandemic, what other kind of “socially distanced” trip can a newly married couple take? Why not test the “toughness” of the relationship?
A quick Google search informed me the hills in Shawnee forest are some of Ohio’s highest. Average ridgetop elevations peak at 1100-1200 feet above sea level. Some points breaking a 1300-foot contour. So, why not also do all of this during a heat wave? Sounds fun—right?
To be honest, we both quickly learned why this state park is nicknamed “The Little Smokies.” Yes, the forested scenery emitting its humid blue haze rolling along the horizon resembles that of the Smoky Mountains. But it’s also because the terrain creates a sort of roller coaster effect as it moves up-down-up-down.
Trust me…It’s a brutal killer on your knees and feet—especially for two fifty-year-olds who had never thru-hiked.
Through writing, you know I’m happy to say that we survived our perilous honeymoon-hike. We awkwardly navigated the 40-miles of poorly marked northern and southern loops. Thank God, my husband possesses a GREAT sense of direction. I would have been lost if I were a lone hiker!
And as newly minted “thru-hikers,” we got “schooled” in various ways. On a trail, there’s much to learn about life, living, teamwork, reliance on others, what a healthy body can do, the importance of food and water for the body, vanity, and what a person really can get by with for survival.
At times I wanted to cry when I saw, yet again, another freaking ascent, but I couldn’t because my body sweated out all my tears. (I kid you not!) Besides, once you get so far out from civilization, you have no choice but to keep moving. To move until you get to the end. No pulled muscle, no amount of foot blisters, nor back-pack bruises can stop once you start the journey.
But isn’t that how life, in general, goes?
So, what did I enjoy about this four-day adventure?
I enjoyed settling into a campsite each night, slipping into a set of dry clothes, watching David build a fire and cook our meals (He loved using that Jetboil cooking system! In nine years I’ve never seen him cook!), helping him set up the tent, luxuriating in creek waters after sweating all day, and listening for the whip-poor-wills who announced when it was time to climb into our sleeping bags and who lulled us to sleep each night. Then, they trumpeted their morning alarm to inform us when it was time to rise.
Granted, this wouldn’t be the “vacation” I’d normally choose. But we did get a vacation from thinking about COVID-19, news, political turmoil, social media, etc. Plus, I proved to myself that as a soft girl, I could complete a challenge such as hiking 40-miles over ill-marked, rugged terrain carrying a 25-lb pack upon my back. In addition, I learned to let go of superficial aspects like hair, make-up, over-indulging in food, worrying about sweat and how I smell.
Once we arrived back home, nursed our numerous blisters, bruises, bug bites, and pulled muscles, I could chuckle about my husband’s manipulation to get me on this trip. On the third night after we settled into creek waters to soothe our overheated bodies, David looked over at me and said, “Do you want to know why I didn’t give you advance notice about doing this?”
“Yeah, why didn’t you give me more time to prepare?”
“Because I was afraid you’d back out,” he stated with a sly grin.
Indeed. If I had more time to research this thru-hike and read reviews, I would have said, “No way.”
Because I’m soft.
But now I know better.
Group by Alice Lowe
“I’ve had a great week,” I say, recounting my small triumphs with a mix of pride and reticence, “like maybe I’m finally getting my head straight?” Ending on a jokey up speak as I see the frozen faces, pinched lips. Was I expecting a round of applause, even a murmur of support or whiff of good will?
The facilitator, MaryJo, nods approval, seeks to draw me out with a follow-up question. “What do you feel has changed internally this past week?” she asks. Before I can reply, a dour-looking woman shoots her hand up.
“I’m having feelings,” she says, code for “I want to talk—pay attention to me!”
A group rule is that an urgent need or strong reaction trumps routine check-ins. This woman insinuates that I’m flaunting my progress, insensitive to those who are mired in the muck. Shouldn’t my headway be encouraging? Aren’t we supposed to improve?
She continues her litany of grievances; others pick it up from there. I’ve been silenced, my optimism squelched.
This is my third week of women’s therapy group, a bridge toward closure after graduating from private counseling with MaryJo. I had my time of weeping, whining, and wallowing. Now I’ve extricated myself from the toxic relationship that brought me to her in desperation six months earlier; I’m making plans to quit my mind-blunting job and go back to school. The fog is lifting, and I see flickers of blue sky.
I assume the others also are in transition and on the upswing—that we’re in this together—but all I hear are soliloquies of setback and struggle. We don’t know one another apart from these Tuesday nights in MaryJo’s office—outside contact is prohibited, another ground rule.
But my antennae pick up something else, unspoken, a tacit vibe that good news is unwelcome, recovery is betrayal. These women feed on each other’s misery. My well-being is too new, too fragile; I fear sliding back into despondency.
A small, quiet woman in the circle makes brief eye contact, flashes a covert smile as we silently filed out of the room. A short way up the street, I hear a hushed “Psst!” from between two parked cars. “I’m Nancy,” she says, looking both ways. “Thanks for sharing some good news for a change—that was brave of you!” Like a spy on a clandestine mission, she glances around again before slipping me a folded piece of paper. “Here’s my phone number. Would you like to meet for coffee sometime?” I would; we do.
Maybe acting in your own best interest is the overarching rule, the one that sets you free.
Before the Microbes Come by Angelo D'Amato Jr
Robert M. Pack notes the temperature of the display case and sighs. He pulls a red pen out of his pocket and stares at a chart filled with red numbers--the temperature has been creeping up for the past week. The cuts will be spoiled by lunch time. He'll have to close, call in a repair-man, maybe invest in new equipment. And new meat and produce. Belinda will be upset. Another screw-up. Another plunge into their savings. Any wonder he's been able to keep this place open for so long.
The red pen has run out of ink. He will have to go back to the storeroom, and hope that he can find one on his desk. If not, he will have to ransack the drawers, the cabinets, will have to wander back out here and double-check the space beneath the cash register. He hopes that he won't have to ask Oscar or Hughie for one, when they come in. Oscar would gladly oblige. Hughie, too. They're good kids. Good kids. And he's a boss who doesn't have a pen.
The breads have been arranged, the meat slicers polished. The coffee machines have been prepped, the beans newly poured, the espresso machine flushed out. Blinds rolled up, windows wiped, chairs put down, placemats set. The wooden counter awaits its regulars--Joe, with the chewed-up pipe; Maisy, with the heavy eyeliner and wobbling chins; Ralph, the college-kid with a little too much to share. The curious noses of the sniffing labradoodles and rottweilers. The angry Russian man with gold rings on three fingers and a diamond piercing on his nose. They will talk to him of the unseasonably warm February, of the rain that fell last Wednesday and flooded the city pond, maybe of the Apparition's latest escapade (didn't It save a family from a house-fire the other week? Or recently foil a Ponzi scheme? Was that this year, or last year?). They will mention their jobs, their frustrations, their problems with their spouses (or, for Ralph, with finding Young Love). And he will nod along and laugh with all of them, knowing that the clock is winding down, knowing that beneath their palms, below their noses, bacteria is growing on the meat, and he will have to tell them "sorry, we're closing early today," and wave goodbye as the last of them, perhaps Old Lady Stewart, toddles down the sidewalk, holding the paper bag, heavy with baguettes and spanish onions. And he will grab the plastic sign, with its embellished script, with its polite "sorry, we're closed" and turn it around so that the whole street knows that he is sorry, he is closed. And the broom handle, his closing companion, will lean by the coat-stand, and the broom fibers will not bend, and the jazz tunes from the radio will not sound as he lifts the meats and the cheeses from the ruinous air and carries them, one by one, out back and tosses them into the dumpster and listens to them settle atop the mound of black bags.
Belinda would have been better off with a different man. His children would be better off with a different father. His own siblings, his own parents, would love him more if he wasn't such a bumbling fool. Respect lies in strength. Confidence comes from competence. Keep calm and carry on. One day more. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.
He stands above the display case and tries to pray. He has done this every morning since opening the deli, a quick moment with God, and he has continued to do it, in spite of the Apparition. He is one of the few people he knows who continues to pray. Judith and Charles and Matthew and the other members of the Corner Bible Club all drifted away. He is often alone in the pews on Sunday mornings. The priest's homilies have become long, aimless, and despairing.
But this morning is not like other mornings. He cannot gather himself enough to speak. His hands are clasped together, the pressure is mounting between his knuckles, sweat is gathering in the crevices of his palms. But no prayer comes. Just the red numbers, climbing up, and Belinda's tired disdain.
He lumbers over to the glass door, sees a distorted mass lurching forward in the silver frame. Fingers swollen by fat grasp the plastic sign and turn it around. The chain-beads rattle against the glass, the sign swings side-to-side before going still. Sorry, we're open. No. Yes, we're open.
Outside, a man wearing a brown trenchcoat and brown fedora walks against the breeze. The trees shake. Dead leaves roll and get caught in the storm-drains. A woman jogs with her golden retriever. The sky is robin's egg-blue, and his belly is straining against his apron. Somewhere, the Apparition is comforting a grandmother dying in hospice. Or dancing with a girl who was abandoned by her prom date. Or rescuing a squirrel that couldn't avoid a car. The Apparition will visit anyone in need. The Apparition is a hero. The Apparition is making life better for everyone in this city and the world. They say It comes in the hour of your most desperate need. A flash of light, a mellifluous voice, a body materializing from the roaming dust specks. They say It is a tall, muscular man, with a strong chin. Others say It is a well-proportioned woman with a strong frame and indomitable will. Still Others say It is a sweet child, whose kindness knows no bounds, whose face belongs in a painting of Christmas morn'.
For Robert M. Pack, dignified owner of Robert's Deli, proud father of four adult children, doting husband to Belinda S. Pack, It is a thing that will never come.
The leaves roll about the pavement, bounce along the yellow strips. Orange, red, brown, speckled, tattered, dead things that should have rotted away long ago. And yet. The decaying fibers cling to the skeletons of the leaves. The wind works its wonders. The pavement tears at them, bit by bit. Workboots and dress shoes and sneakers grind them up. And yet.
They will crumble, finally, and microbes will feast on the remains.
The man wearing the fedora pauses at the crosswalk. Robert watches him look left, and right, then back to the left. Spindly glasses rest upon a prominent nose. The man steps into the street, watches the dead leaves dance. Robert sees him smile, sees him turn around and walk backward across the street, marveling at the leaves. He does not turn around. He is going to walk into the curb. He is going to fall backward. The fedora is going to fly up. His skull is going to---
The silver bell above the door jingles and he hears himself shout hey, sir, turn around, and the leaves keep dancing down the street, the last jingle of the bell fades into memory, silver clanging against silver, echoing, echoing; the man stops, almost spins on his toes, the waistband of his coat lolls through the air, the leaves drag their tired selves across the pavement, sunlight flares on a faraway window and the man--his eyes are violently blue--regards Robert with a curious look and raises a gnarled hand to his ear.
"Come again?" he says.
"You were going to trip on the curb." Robert points at the sidewalk and the man’s blue, blue eyes linger on Robert before they obey his finger’s plea to look, look.
"Oh, it seems I was!" The man says, and Robert thinks of his grandfather, how he would enunciate each word, like it was a precious liquid he was pouring from a precious goblet. That slightest of whistles on the "s" sounds.
"Got distracted by the leaves, here,” the man says
Robert nods. Yes, yes, they are ballerinas on a stage, Robert finds himself wanting to say.
"Just be careful, all right?" he says at last.
"Graceful pirouettes," the man says. He sniffs and wipes a finger beneath his nose. "I'm glad I got to see them, you know. It's the little things."
Robert is drowning in the blue of his eyes, no, he is flying in the blue, he is suffocating, he is thriving, he is curled up beside his grandfather underneath a handknit quilt, listening to him read from the Bible or a book of fairy-tales, it doesn't matter, he is home, he is safe, he is loved.
"Can I get you a sandwich or something? Coffee?"
"Oh, no, that's okay." The man laughs, blinks, tears away the blue. A gnarled hand on his stomach, a piece of grass dangling from the brim of his fedora. "Just passing through. Granddaughter's performing downtown this afternoon. Wanted to give these old legs a stretch. Pretend I'm young, for a change."
"Well, all right," Robert says, His grandfather's voice coming and going and fading like the silver bell: For when I am weak, then I am strong for when I am weak then I am..."Goodbye, then."
"Goodbye." The man smiles and tips his hat at Robert and proceeds to walk down the rest of the sidewalk, a slight spring in his step, whistling a merry tune.
More leaves spin along the pavement. Robert watches them a moment longer, then steps back inside.
Little Shoes by Mary Lee
The Myth of Amherst by Daniel Klawitter