The Dead Brother Coat by Eric Howd
She comes to parties uninvited, wearing her dead brother over her dress, a withering grin over her shoulder. He took his own life years ago choking on exhaust. She held onto the body. Skinned and made a cape of him. Every stitch she pulled taught with the pain of the touch in places he wasn’t welcome. Guests avoid her as she sits in the corner sipping wine and nibbling cheese and crackers. She mumbles over her shoulder to the skull. Decades ago, she ate cucumber sandwiches in a country graveyard with her love. He asked her to marry him. “Whatever for?”
she said, brushing mosquitos away from her. They never spoke again. No one has ever come close again to The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and that picnic of lemon squares and summer. Back then, she was happy. Back then, she kept her dead brother coat under her bed in an old box full of mothballs. She is always the last one to leave and before she does she’ll thank you, for the both of them, turn, and shuffle away into the darkness.
Moon Song by Graziella Awabdy
softly rising above us
the blackened earth
heaving beneath her
a ripening sky
an orbed head tilted,
her grin leaning, sliding
slightly to the left,
a mother’s face,
cautious but loving
sink into the
and tastes wounds
and salt air
you became sorrow
spilling out before me,
a trembling hand
trying to guide
your eyes upward
wiping a worthless salve
on blind eyes
praying for the moon’s
song to stop
Walnut Canyon by Charlie Steak
In the ruins on the face of the cliff
stepping carefully so as not to disturb
what is left and what once was
I do my best to imagine the reality
of having lived this life.
Not the ceremonies, or the corn harvest
but the million moments in between
caught in the net of clouds and wind,
cold and stars, soft dust and sharp rock,
hearing the ravens day after day after day,
hunkered in the scrubby Jojoba shade
watching the same lizard
do his thousand pushups in the sun.
Citrus Bugs by Rohan Buettel
The flesh of the fruit astringent,
while the cumquat peel is sweet,
the perfect blend to enhance the bland
flavour of morning breakfast.
Alas, there is not much yield
with the bush infested with citrus bugs,
the evil eye on bronze shields
multiplied, but camouflaged,
hidden among the deep green leaves.
Even when just one or two,
they suck the sap of each new shoot,
the subject of their foray withers,
the produce desiccates and dies.
I approach with tongs, hand in glove,
protected from their poison spray,
ready to make a surgical strike
to grip and drown them in a bucket.
But the smart ones learn to fly away
at the approach of glinting metal,
returning to their guerrilla ways,
pillaging after my departure.
I harvest what little crop remains
and hope next fighting season
to mount a better campaign.
Suspicion by Steve Fay
I'm suspicious of people who claim to remember
being born, who claim to recall each syllable
of the obscenities with which their mothers cursed
their fathers, who describe in detail their mothers'
prune-like stomachs on the first day they could
stand before a mirror and examine their newly
un-pregnant bodies. I am suspicious of the supposed
sage-like understanding these reporters impart
to their babyselves regarding their mothers' sighs,
and sometimes tears, over how their hollowed
forms do not glow as they'd expected, and regarding
the "knowing" expressions on their mothers' faces
when at next moment they glanced cribward toward
these speakers. Haven't you heard these claims
yourself in loud voices carrying across the laundromat,
or emanating from tables behind you in the greasy
spoon, or in static penetrating electric hum when
you answer the telephone during a February thunder-
storm? And there you sit, too uninvolved with other
things not to listen and hear these stories, knowing
nothing of your own birth beyond what you were
told at five—how your mother was sick and roads
were rutted ice, how the Pontiac almost slid into
ditches more than once. Would you be born with
fever, or could the hospital bill be paid? So much
in the balance, yet you witnessed not a thing.
And how to know what parts you heard were lies?
Taste by Diane Funston
It is the taste
Of newly born lettuce,
Flowers of broccoli,
Tender shoots of shallots,
Thick flesh of honeydew.
It is transportation by tongue
To the redwood groves,
To the rainforests down under,
Everglades teeming with life,
An unfurling frond of fern,
A canopy of beech in an old cemetery.
It is primordial
The soup of origins,
Or the memory of grandma’s split pea,
The serene color of Crayola Sea,
Early scent of fresh mown grass,
Ancient head dress of Bristlecone pine.
But mostly, the taste
Of mint in a tall Mojito,
Chives on a baked potato,
Cabbage leaves and celery,
Collard greens in the old neighborhood,
My craving for the taste of home.
An Irreplaceable Pinecone by Nathan Hassall
thunders through the yawning summer air,
cracks its precious skull on the harsh gift
of the dirt. Perhaps this is where we begin
our modest blessing to the hungering earth.
Listen. A billion thrumming hearts
murmur blood through bodies clambering to feast
on those delicious green leaves, berries blushed red,
and—as we lay our spines against the parched ground—
on our skins thinly dusted in salt crystals.
Stone Jokes by Will Falk
Wherever the dynamite detonates,
the saws scream, or the engines keen,
there will be stones, those
who remain unshattered,
contemplating the future of those
who shattered their kin.
Stones know better than most
that matter is neither created
nor destroyed. Sometimes
it’s simply stored
for a few million years in
marble or quartz. Sometimes,
the Earth can even turn
old shit, when it seeps
deep enough, into diamonds.
Yes, the stones know better
than most, even as they watch
their homes be blown up,
flattened, and paved over
with concrete, that cheap
imitation of true granite,
that Earth is persistently blending,
constantly recycling the basic
materials of life and we all live
more or less forever as stones,
then soil, then worms,
then birds, then bigger birds,
then snakes, then possibly
birds and definitely soil, again.
If humans took the time
to learn the language of rocks,
pebbles, and stones, even
the shattered ones, especially
the shattered ones, we just
might hear them joking
about whether it really
would be so bad if
the Earth kept
some of those humans
locked in tighter cycles –
like those cycles in
the bellies of sharks,
wolves, mountain lions,
regular lions, black, brown
or grizzly bears, and Bengal
or vanishing South China tigers –
more or less forever.
Deep space by Jo-Anne Rosen
On Sundays after services at the New Age Resurrection Church, just around the corner from the Naughty & Nice Smoke Shoppe where I work, Tom and Adele stop by to look over the latest DVDs in the sale rack. They are pretty hip for old people, except Tom doesn’t approve of my tats and piercings. He’s wiry with a square jaw and heavy-lidded eyes; Adele is large-breasted and wears brightly-colored shirts and dangly earrings. They have matching poufs of white butch-cut hair, his thinning a little. Sometimes he pats her on the butt. How cute is that?
I can’t imagine my grandparents touching like that, especially in public, not to mention mom and dad, who don’t even talk to each other anymore. I’m crashing on Gramps’ and Nana’s sofa till I save up enough for first and last month’s rent or maybe just a room somewhere. They think I’m working at the In-and-Out Burger in Corte Madera. Sometimes I stop there on the way home and buy them a couple of cheeseburgers and double fries.
Tom and Adele have been dating three years. Me, I never dated anyone more than three months. They met at a senior social in the church. Tom told me he went there “to pick up chicks.”
“Seems to have worked,” I said.
“You betcha,” he grinned.
The first time they came in they were looking for a special kind of cock ring.
“We need all the help we can get at our age,” Adele confided.
The sex toys embarrassed me at first, especially the plastic vaginas hanging opposite the front door. So I memorized answers to questions customers ask about dildos, pumps, ticklers, sexbots, erotic VR, harnesses, you name it, I know it. Personally, I’m only into the smoke side of the shop. I get discounts on everything.
Tom and Adele are potheads as well as sexaholics. Today she saunters into the shop and buys a beautiful pipe for his birthday. She’s wearing a low-cut halter and skinny jeans, and I think, look at her flaunting her stuff, wrinkles and all. Anything can still happen in my life, except I’ll never have boobs like hers. Tom told me they’re natural.
“When’s the birthday?” I ask. “How old’s the dude?”
“Seventy-seven on seven seven. His lucky number.”
“May he live long and prosper,” I say, reaching over the demo dildos on the counter to hand her the receipt.
She laughs. “You’re a Trekkie?”
I’d like nothing better right now than to be lost in deep space with Commander Chakatoy. Even an android would be an improvement over my last BF, Jason Hanratty. I should’ve known from his name he’d be a rat. The photo he sexted was creepy. He’s weird, like a Martian in disguise, and he’s on the wrong planet.
Wait, he did that because I work here.
I feel a little weak and lean on the counter.
“You okay, Amber?” Adele peers at me, concerned.
“I’m cool,” I say. “I must’ve spaced out on lunch.”
“That’s not cool.” Her eyes narrow. “Can you take a break?”
My manager is fine with that. Adele and I go to the café around the corner, where she treats me to a burger and coke, and orders a salad for herself.
“You still in school?” she asks.
“Nope, can’t afford it, and why bother? I got cousins with degrees, they can’t find jobs.”
She nods. “These are tough times.”
She tells me she dropped out of school and went to work when she was 15. “It was like getting out of jail,” she says.
I ask her what kind of work. She’d been a hair stylist, sales clerk, waitress, bartender and short- order cook. When she was my age she picked tobacco for a summer in the Carolinas and got pregnant the first time. But none of the men she’d married or lived with can compare to Tom. When she talks about him, her skin seems to glow and her breasts swell a little.
Wow. That is so awesome.
I ask her how I can connect like that with a man, and why is it so hard to do considering we are all humans on this planet and not really Martians or Venusians.
“I sure could use some tips,” I tell her.
“You need to live longer, sweetie.”
She smiles. Those perfect teeth must have cost a fortune. “Money won’t buy you love.”
“Please tell me something I don’t know.”
So she does.
“You’ll never know what a man is really like unless you try him out,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a drag, and sometimes you hit the jackpot. Imagine meeting the love of your life and finding out he was in a porn movie. A long time ago, he was like this sexy movie star. And he still is, in my book.”
She nods. Somehow I can picture Tom doing this, even though he’s really old.
“It’s a classic. It’s golden-age porn.” Adele says, proudly. “I wonder why you’re not carrying it in the shop.”
“Golden age, as in porn for seniors?”
“No, no. I mean as in golden age of porn films, like New Age church or Age of Aquarius, you know? It was in the seventies. Movies made after that are schlock.” She looks at me sadly. “We live in the Age of Schlock.”
“Right,” I say. “Should I ask the manager to order it? What’s it called?”
“I can’t remember its name. And I’ve seen it half a dozen times.” She laughs at herself. “Don’t order it for me. I’m just thinking your customers might want a better product.”
She lowers her voice and leans a little closer.
“I’ll tell you the truth. The most erotic movies are the ones we make ourselves, I mean, in the privacy of our bedroom with a cell phone on a tripod. They’re good because they’re real.”
I don’t know what to say or where to look.
Why did she have to tell me that?
How to Fix a Broken Bird by Jeremy Stelzner
The sun blazed down on the parish blacktop. Xander Fairchild and some boys from his Sunday School class were playing a game of basketball. They’d already sweat through their good button-downs. Xander ran in circles, awkwardly attempting to free himself from his defender. He was all arms and legs and so skinny it looked like the wind would tip him over if he stopped moving.
The other boys weren’t keeping score. They didn’t care who won because they were playing a different game, a secret game, one in which Xander was the target. They’d throw the ball at his head or trip him as he dribbled clumsily toward the hoop.
“Hey, Xander- go play dolls with the girls!” they’d tease.
“Hey, Xander- go eat a fucking donut, string bean!” they’d shout.
Each week Xander fantasized about sinking the winning basket. He fantasized about becoming lifelong friends with these boys. But each week, they’d spew new, more painful epithets from their cruel mouths. And each week, little Xander left the game crying, retreating underneath the bleachers, taking cover from their barrage of hateful projectiles.
It was on that hot spring day when Father Attaway walked out on the blacktop to sneak a cigarette before another pre-wedding consultation. The next couple up was the Cunninghams of Westport. Father Attaway needed a smoke before the Cunninghams of Westport. As he lit his cigarette, he heard a faint whimper creep through the cacophony of chirping birds and traffic off route one. He crouched down and shielded his eyes from the sun.
It was Xander, hiding beneath the steel bleachers, cradling a motionless bird on his lap. He was sobbing.
“Come out of there,” commanded the father. He stomped out the newly lit Marlboro with his black orthopedic sneaker.
The child wiped his eyes with his fingers and wiped his snot with the back of his hand. He emerged from the darkness cautiously, like a frightened animal poking his head out of the ground to see if the coast was clear. Predators abound. Xander ambled into the sun toward
Father Attaway with his knee-high, tube-socked, long, buckling strides.
“Put the bird down, son.”
The child obeyed.
Father Attaway learned long ago that the fragility of children shouldn’t be taken for granted. Each word, he was taught, plants a seed, and one never knows which seeds will flower and which will weed, infesting the whole of the garden.
The boy looked down at the lifeless bird on the pavement before directing his distracted gaze at the cloudless blue sky.
“Do birds go to heaven, Father?”
Father Attaway took a step closer and dropped to a knee. He nodded.
The father knew Xander’s mother, though not personally. She was co-chair of the parish social committee. The word was that her husband had left shortly after Xander was born. The word was that he’d run off with an Israeli stewardess. Xander’s mother had earned a reputation
amongst the parishioners for being a little too eager with a corkscrew.
“I think they do, yes,” the father said.
He smiled at the child. It was an authentic smile, not one of those phony ones that he’d offer the Cunninghams later that afternoon. The boy smiled back.
“And heaven is a perfect place? Where the angels take care of you?”
“I think I want to go to Heaven, Father.”
It excited Father Attaway to work with children. They listened. It was the grownups who just nodded and waited for their turn to speak.
“I want to go to Heaven too, Xander. If we follow the Lord’s teachings, perhaps we’ll both get to go there someday.”
“But I want to go there now, Father.”
Xander lifted the leg of his fire engine red shorts to scratch a mosquito bite behind his knee.
"Oh, son, you can’t do that.”
“Why not?” Xander asked.
The church bells chimed, and like a sign from God himself, Father Attaway knew how best to serve his maker.
“You like music, Xander?”
“I guess,” the boy said, shrugging his shoulders.
“Me too. You like Led Zeppelin? Zeppelin, that’s what the kids are listening to, right?”
“No. Not really,” the boy whispered.
The boy shook his head again, looking down at the tops of his tattered Converse sneakers.
“I kinda like Elton John,” Xander said.
He looked up at the father to see if the father was looking down at him.
“Great choice Xander. I love music too. I like classical music, though. I love how the instruments all play different notes, but all those different sounds somehow mesh together. I’m not sure how they do that. But, it’s quite something.”
More silence from the child.
“You know God loves music too?”
“Really?” Xander’s eyes widened. He wasn’t sure about this God character, but he was sure Father Attaway was sure about him.
“Of course. I had an archbishop who was my teacher in seminary. He said every breath of every living thing is like a tiny piece of a melody orchestrated by God. So, you see? He loves music too. And you, my boy, are part of his orchestra. The music wouldn’t sound the same down here without you.”
Father Attaway placed his hand on the hot blacktop. He rose and wrapped his strong arm around the child’s slender shoulder.
“So, no heaven then?”
“Not yet, Xander. But how about we get out of this heat and grab an ice cream cone?”
The boy grinned. Father Attaway placed his hands on the small of Xander’s sweaty back.
He applied a gentle pressure, voicelessly encouraging the child to join him inside the empty church mess hall. For an ice cream cone.
The Grove by Chelsea Emerick
She peels the skin of her mandarine carefully, watching the pith gently burst as the segments appear with each bit that she pulls away. The familiar creaks of the house settle under a brooding sky. She decides to open the ancient kitchen window. Setting the mandarine down on her bread plate, she leans over the sink and fiddles with the rusted latch. Tiny particles break off the hinge and scrape the peeling finish from the window’s wooden frame, but with a bit of force, she manages to thrust it open.
A cool, unsettling, breeze drifts into the kitchen. The thick summer air disappears as the sky fills with dark, heavy, clouds. Cassidy Reynolds can smell a heavy storm coming, just like the ones she’d see every summer when she grew up in this house.
It’s so weird to be back, she thinks as she leans against the counter, continuing to eat her mandarine, as the sky shifts to black, quickly blocking out the sun entirely. The orange grove buzzes under the storm that’s rolling in. Cassidy can see the dark green leaves jostling in the soft wind as though they’re quivering in fear. It’s as if they know their fate is in her hands.
The piles of papers on the kitchen table flicker as the stale air shifts from the open window. She places a faded mug that reads To fish, or not to fish, that is the question, atop the papers. She’s been avoiding looking at them. The attorney dropped them off two days ago, politely setting them in the very same spot when he stopped in to explain what would happen next over a cup of coffee.
Cassidy didn’t care about what would happen next, not yet anyway. She’d barely settled into being back in town when the attorney had shown up. Her bags were still wedged in the back of her little yellow GeoTracker and the house was still coated in a soft settling of dust. She spent the next two days bringing it back to life, trying hard not to think about exactly where it was that her father’s elderly neighbour, Eugenia Gibb, had found him lying when she came by for their weekly game of cards. Based on the fragments of glass and bits of candied orange Cassidy had found under the couch, she suspected Ms Gibb had spotted him as soon as she walked into the entryway. Strangely, the evidence brought relief. It meant there was a chance he’d gone peacefully in his sleep, on the couch, or suddenly dropped dead while setting the table. She’d blocked out the
details about how her father was found, all she knew was the old woman from up the road got a hell of a fright and was short one cake dish.
Must pop in and thank her for the casseroles she put in the fridge, Cassidy notes as she sets herself down at the dining table with the last bits of her mandarine. She picks at the larger pieces of pith that remain clinging to the segments, reading snippets of the documents piled on the table.
DEED TO REYNOLDS FAMILY CITRUS FARM peeks out from the middle of the bundle. She’s glanced at that line, in particular, multiple times over the last few days. Nothing about it makes her curious to delve into the documents. As the only child of a twice-divorced farmer, she’s seen this coming.
Clyde Reynolds was rumoured to be a difficult man. If he hadn’t been her father, Cassidy is certain she would have agreed with the mob of locals. Clyde was just a middle-aged grump, weathered by the harsh lifestyle of running a farm and cursed with bad luck. But Cassidy knew better. Beneath that exhausted, filthy, exterior was a man who had big thoughts and even bigger feelings.
Her mother walked out when she was nine. Immediately, Clyde called up the local hairdresser, Iona Clarke, to come round to the house that very afternoon and teach him how to braid Cassidy’s hair in preparation for school the next morning. There were no tears about her mother’s departure at first. Instead, her father dove into survival mode. The routinely packed lunches continued without a fuss, with the new addition of sticky notes that told her things like, “I love you!” and, “Have a great day!”
Even at nine years old, she could see how hard he was working to ensure that life would go on as normal. He was showing her that he could be enough for both of them.
Undoubtedly, there were teething problems. Namely juggling the responsibility of running a farm and raising a kid at the same time, alone. Clyde had secured a couple of full-time farmhands before the first divorce, so the day-to-day operations stayed normal, but the administration work quickly piled up. Joellen, Cassidy’s mother, had covered the books for twelve years before she up and left. After a rocky first year of trying his own hand at managing everything, Clyde had to bring in someone to handle the administrative affairs.
Ted Crocker was a slight young man, eager to make a good impression and keep his newest client happy. He handled all manner of payroll, taxes, and business for the farm. He was also the one who gently suggested the farm be left to Cassidy. Ted was all for keeping things in the family. As a son to old Reginald Crocker, the third of the local Crocker Associates line, it was a matter of upselling tradition.
Cassidy eats the last of the mandarine segments and pushes the bread plate away. The rustic dining table is clear of everything except the dreaded pile of paperwork. The surrounding surfaces, the counters, floors, shelves, and even cabinet tops are all gleaming from her efforts over the last two days. The beaten-up farmhouse has been scrubbed anew inside. With a few updated pieces of furniture and a lick of paint, Cassidy would even go so far as to call the place cute.
She thumbs at the stack of papers, wondering how much longer she can put it off. The house was paid off years ago, the taxes aren’t due for at least four more months, and the day-to-day operations continue to run smoothly. The farmhands keep showing up for work, the suppliers still get their deliveries, and the house, miraculously, remains standing. But the soul of the operation is gone. The man who had cut her sandwiches into stars and mastered Dutch braids by the second day of single fatherhood had kept the grove alive.
Cassidy swore she’d never return to Arcadia, at least not to live, but now the farm had fallen into her lap. Was she still so sure? She wonders if, like him, she could be enough on her own.
The thought of another generation living in the same creaky house, riddled with sugar ants and lashed by summer storms, surprises her with appeal. A soft tug at the pit of her stomach tells her that maybe this is where she’s meant to be. After all, she is a Reynolds.
A flash of light strikes outside, followed quickly by a booming thunderclap. Cassidy jolts with alarm. After a moment, she smirks at her initial fright. The storms here really haven’t changed. As she watches the lightning tear through the bleak sky, comfort creeps in. The whistle of the wind sneaking in through the gap under the back door hums sprightly. The patter of the rain hitting the thin window panes transports her back to her childhood. She closes her eyes and remembers the feeling; muddy and breathless from running barefoot through the loam in an afternoon downpour. The drum of the rain hitting the metal roof as she’d make it inside with her father, who would wrap her up in the biggest towel he could find, and carry her to the bathroom so she wouldn’t continue her footprints from the porch through the hall.
Sitting in the aging house as a violent sky clamps down on the last real piece of her childhood, she takes a deep breath and picks up the first of the papers. Cassidy is the only Reynolds left. Who else could ever love this place the way she does?
Black Dancer by James Reeder