Poetry

Straws by Clarissa Adkins
 

They created us
           thin     cheap    tubes
and you let them.
Through us
               they suck
               the brown sodas and gelatins.
God,
will it always be this way—
grip with lips
slurp into throat
discard us cavities of propylene?
We’re stuffed between their seats
poked through the forgotten sour blankets
left on the mats of trashed crossovers.
Really it means nothing to us
to bubble and melt onto the rubber
            of each vehicle’s floor.
In the last five seconds some of them died
with us and your memory
              hanging from their mouths.
Others remembered you as nature
you recycling them like your waterfalls
how it seems not so solemn for you to drown them
             in the hot Pangea gels.

 

each jaw is just a lever used to crush by Michael Mercurio

In flesh

                          we believe, but don’t trust;


and every named place            is an outpost

                                      of now along the            supply-chain future,

           

               grinding scrub-pine
                            stumps into particleboard,
                                          hot-gluing beads to    mirrorframes,

                                                                                    scuttling desertward
                                                                                    as dawn thistles itself
                                                                                    astride the horizon.

You remember,               long ago,
           that space brothers came

                                                                   to Palomar Mountain,
                                                                   to White Sands,
                                                                   to Turbenthal

                                                                              with dire warnings about atomic war:

 

           benevolent ones,              blonde as a Hitchcock mistress,

                                     
                                     to save us           from the

                                                                                            shame of self-irradiation.

Where did they go?
            Who do they counsel now?
                  Hell, what if


                  our Anthropocene isn’t an existential threat

                                          to their well-being & they won’t be back

so only our exquisite plaque-stained teeth

                                      will serve to note our existence.

 
 

A Dream by Karen Jones

She didn’t remember her severed hands

until she saw them at the bottom of the lake,

almost buried in muck and slime,

the fingers bloodless, water-swollen.

Her poor feet were there too.

Her toes peered up at her through the murk

like a row of tiny toadstools.

She had forgotten the pain of the axe

when it sliced across her wrists and ankles,

how she had travelled in a trance

across the starving mountains,

her stumps bloodying the snow.

Fog-bound constellations offered no guidance.

She heard the mangy she-wolf’s howl,

saw the eagle disappear across the horizon.

Numbed, somnambulant, she breathed

a foreign atmosphere. Strange new edicts

colonized her mind.

In the spring, she finally limped back

to the lakeshore, entered the water.

The hem of her white robe swirled

around her legs as the water deepened,

as the lakebottom softened into mud.

 

The Acorn and the Oak by Rose Heflin

In a blink of eggshells,

I found a dusty acorn

buried amid a rustle of broken dreams

not long standing,

as through gelatinous fog

I moved,

ever so slowly,

to pick it up from the rubble,

but when I touched it tenderly,

it turned to oily steel,

cold and inky black,

beneath my thunderous fingertips

and quickly sprouted forth

a small, forlorn oak tree

to offer me respite

and a little shade,

its leaves papery,

its bark a silken rustic,

with a single gnarled root

bravely breaching the frozen ground

and beckoning a come hither.

To Be Sung Under a Pear Tree Sky by Diane Hueter

Rain barrels stand empty,

puffy white clouds, milk in a pail,

skim over the western foothills.

Blackbirds flock in the wheat field,

red-wing patches resplendent in the dusk.

Their evening songs diminish, whisper, close—

the last watery notes of a lullaby.

And yet, the ancient cat crouches on a limb,

his ears chipped like china teacups.

He sheathes his claws, those trusty and mighty weapons,

sharp as shards of crystal. Iron scars run

in rivers from his eyes. His breath reeks

of rotten teeth. Broken whiskers spoke

out from his chin like needles.

Hatchlings flutter in a grassy bowl,

ebony beaks agape for worm gruel.

Charcoal feathers float, flimsy as ashes,

throats glow orange as marigolds.

The sweet pulp of overripe pears stuns

wasps gathering nectar. A black and green

necklace glides through the grass, flicking a red tongue.

 
 

ACUPUNCTURE : REHEARSAL by Cynthia Bargar

Today I practice dying. Familiar,

but nothing like killing myself. This death

play is whimsy, not sludge, not glue

— no. Here is my body in a field,

warm hands under me. She & I dressed

in light — fireflies & aponia.

Brown-headed cowbirds.

Province of my own wilderness.

Unbridled mare.

Genisis Wind by Brian Yapko

you close your eyes to better hear the desert

wind howl, beat against the window as it tantrums

through the pinon trees. then abrupt disquieting

quiet – an uncertain

nothing. an unrattling, an 
unmoaning. mute but pregnant. it wants to

whisper, it wants to sing of its mottled soul but

has lost its voice. it is a vast emptiness which

strains your eyes and lifts your vision to the

clouds beyond the glass. this emptiness is no

void. you try not to swallow or breathe so you

can concentrate on the silence, to deny it, to

know it need never rule you again if you don’t

want it to. but what if you want it to?

you remember what it was like to be a child in

the fields running barefoot, counting squirrels,

making pies out of mud, collecting leaves in a

rising wind. you had no intention of ever, ever

leaving but they called you into the house with

panic in their voices. the unquiet you hear now

is just what you heard before they warned of

tornadoes through the thunder, before they

made you huddle in a cellar till the wind

stopped. can you still smell the fear, see the

yellowness of the sky? there was a silence that

developed into a roar and took roofs and cattle

and uprooted trees.

you open your eyes and the juniper tree beyond

the window sways in silence, as if caught in

a dancing dream of deafness. all the world stands

silent. then the stillness breaks as your cell phone

shrilly announces a tornado warning. the wind

noise grows. a distant moan becomes a machine

roar and finally the raging thunder of creation.

but the glass holds and the roof. you do not know

what galaxies sound like but you can imagine them

spinning wildly in yin-yang whirls and you know

that, at least for now, you can survive another

wind again, that you will live. you pray to God in

the whirlwind that it is for a good reason.

 

The Killing Curse by Rex Arrasmith


I am the uncle who dresses the best
             and drinks all the wine.


The one who ruined Christmas in 03', the one
             who reads Queer Stories about Queer Animals.


Afraid of me when you were two,
            you clung to me when you were four.


When you were eight, we tried to train your cat
           to respond to Harry Potter spells.


I'd shout "AVADA KEDAVRA"; you, holding her,
            would fall to the ground playing dead.


When you entered a room and saw me,
           you would point and shout "stupefy,"

                         and I’d have to freeze.


Now, forever nine, your frozen face
          screams "stupefy” still.


The music is always loud in my car.
I should have heard you.
I would have stopped.

I would have frozen.
Drunk I heard a thump and drove away.
Now I shout "AVADA KEDAVRA,"
             the killing curse,
                         in my mirror
                                      every day.

 

Prose

Divorce and Hormones by Soidenet Gue

 

              I didn’t stop pricking my sister with toothpicks until I was fifteen. She brought this malediction upon herself with the way she broadened her cheeks, practicing her piano or lying by the pool in her red bikini with strawberry ice cream, like the stupid-looking split-level house we called home was heaven on earth.

              To hell with Johnny Depp’s new movie, anyway—Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Chantal planned to see it, but she’d not bring me along. The happy-grown woman she thought she was already made me sick. She had just turned sixteen. Yet, there she was, acting like a real glamour girl in her makeup, walking in fine heels like she was Tyra Banks.

              One afternoon that same summer, Chantal threw a pool chair at me. It missed my shoulder by inches. I supposed the dead, rotten lizard I had placed on her thigh was the final straw for her that day. I wasn’t done with her yet, though I must admit that her strength had petrified me.

Mom, the ophthalmologist, couldn’t do anything past the verbal assaults. To strike a blow at me, even if she could, was out of the question. She didn’t believe in violence or any iron-fisted disciplines. Besides, she thought this would have only aggravated matters. Good for her!

Little did she know that I didn’t mind a punch deep in my gut. But she would have had to muster enough power, so this could have put me to sleep until the next morning. Then another blow to the back of my head right after lunch, knocking me out cold until The Simpsons, Fear Factor, or Lost came up. Still, I would have been a fool to let her uncover my cigarette stash or catch me smoking in the narrow, evergreen-filled backyard, where I enjoyed my smoke while negotiating with God for a perfect girlfriend and straight A’s in all my classes.

              With that said, I kept irking Chantal. Why? Because Chantal and her cool friends chose not to understand my plight. All my mother could do was purse her lips like her mouth was deformed. Her eyes would be overwhelmed with glumness, saying, leave your sister alone, Claude! And get this damn toothpick out of your mouth! She often said that nothing would make any difference when it came to me because I had never been happy since I came out of her tummy. According to her, this was why she made no effort to get us out of Florida. This was why she had nixed her plan to buy me that scooter I needed for my fifteenth birthday. Lies! Lies! Lies! Nothing but lies!

              Did she forget about that month when Pop showed me how to play chess? We had kept at it for weeks until I became the best chess player in town. No one who had observed the two of us could say I wasn’t happy. Then, what about when Pop came home from work, and we surprised him with that birthday party? The mascot costumes we all wore to greet him at the door was my idea. I was already a genius at seven, and I was happier than some ticks sucking on a camel.

              Of course, my mother didn’t bother to hear any of this. Otherwise, she would have had to admit that she cried in the dark at night all alone in her bed. This would have forced her to call her marriage counselor and lawyer to tell them she needed to reconsider. The deal wasn’t working, not for her, not for me; for Chantal, yes, but it was two against one now. Some days, I woke up and thought I could still fix this with just one phone call to Pop, who now lived in Gainesville with his new wife. Except I knew it wasn’t that simple since I wasn’t ten anymore.

Soon came the morning after my miserable birthday party. In the master bedroom, I found myself looking for the divorce papers my mother, the smart woman, had talked herself into signing. She must have vaulted them inside SunTrust Bank because I couldn’t find them anywhere. I just needed to see what these awful papers entailed.

              Flustered enough, I brushed my three-week-old mustache and rode my bike to Starbucks. As I awaited my hot espresso and almond croissant—itching to dash to the next place to get my first new cell phone with the cash Pop had sent me—God answered my prayers: Marcella came up behind me. At first, she covered my eyes with her hands, daring me to guess who it was. Her hands felt warm and soft, unwinding my features like my face hadn’t produced a single smile in ages. Her touch struck a familiar feeling, but I still couldn’t guess who it was until she said, “Try again.” Her voice sent a chill down my spine in a flash. This was the feeling one got when their favorite team won a major tournament.

She let go of her hands when I spoke her name and turned around. We had not seen each other since the fourth grade. “I missed you,” Marcella said. She was in a short-sleeved lace blouse, matching the brown color of her sultry eyes.

              “What you’re doing here?” I asked.

              “We just moved back.” She laughed. “Hey, do you have a girlfriend?”

              Her contagious smile seized my tongue for the moment, unable to shift my eyes from the perfect shape and texture of her lips. “No,” I said, at last. “I don’t have a girlfriend. I was waiting for you.”

             Marcella giggled, swinging her arms. She was just the way I pictured her in my dreams, except she was even prettier. I waited long enough to kiss a girl like her.

Unreachable Destination Amid Undeniable Love by Ashley Connors

              Even though Gladys was younger in age, she acted like a little mommy to her brother Augustus. As odd as it sounds, she loved the way he smelled and how much bigger he was than her, and she often snuggled up to him on the sofa even though she knew it annoyed him. But, he made her feel safe and protected. She was named after a great aunt, but she demanded to be called “Gladdie” as the name suited her happy (albeit mischievous, and sometimes downright devious!) personality. It was quite true, she usually had a smile on her face, just like a little ray of sunshine.

              Gladys and Gus -as he was called by his little sister- looked forward that particular spring day to their daily morning walk that Mama- Gus’ real mommy- had promised them. The sun shone warm on their backs and the sky radiated a shimmering cornflower blue. The breeze tickled the trees along the trail of the local cranberry bog as it gently blew Gus’ slightly overgrown blond mane into Gladdie’s face. The two buddies sprang out of the backseat of the old dented but beloved SUV, and lifted their heads to the sky. And as soon as the siblings reached the path, Gus and Gladdie took off running -or should I say flying, soaring- toward the distant figure on the other side of the oval shaped cranberry bog as if they were pulled by an invisible string.

              They cherished their walks with their mother at the bog. They also loved leaving her behind in their carefully orchestrated dust cloud to chase, revel and rebel in their precious moments of independence and freedom. They were in sync with one another, their legs stretching and contracting, their heads cocking forward with great determination glinting from their eyes and their bodies moving almost as one being, one blur.

              And just as suddenly as they had started running, they both paused and bolted to the right off the path at a 90 degree angle, skirting through the legs of the tall, skinny, sour-faced man as if he were a bridge waiting for cars to pass under. “Ah!” yelped the man. “Your mother needs to keep you both under control!” They kicked up their legs in answer and took off again like rockets, Gladdie’s noisy collection of jewelry clinking and clanking, her hair ribbon askew even though it had just been carefully pinned in her curls before they left home.

Next on their adventure was a sharp left turn toward the trench of the bog where they yelled tauntingly at the strange long-necked elegant female, who hissed and postured that they had better stay away from her or she would hurt them something fierce. Gus and Gladdie backed away, surprised at her volatile, outward expression of fury. They tripped over one another but picked up their sprint again still aiming for their primary destination.

              As they motored along, they lifted their noses to the heavens and although it seemed impossible that they could race any faster, they lurched forward with impressive grace and speed. They could hear their mother calling to them in the distance but their acute sense of smell overwhelmed their somewhat dimmed sense of hearing at this point. They had lost control of any conscious ability to make good decisions and the opportunity of pleasing their mother had now completely vanished. But in the throes of their youth, they did not care. Onward they ran.

They turned their heads in unison as suddenly a lanky youngster bolted out of the woods on the edge of the trail and catapulted toward their faces, distracting them momentarily from their mission. Like the elegant menacing female they had just confronted, they now turned on the little one, a low angry harumph from the bottom of both their throats driving him away in a frenzy.

             Obstacles finally cleared, they neared their finish line: the lone but now not-so-distant figure with the bulging pockets. Saliva pooled around the edges of Gus’s mouth just as it did when their mama fried sizzling bacon on the stove, and Gladdie’s winter jacket strewn with tiny pink appliqué flowers fell away from her body as she tried in vain to keep up with Gus, but her legs were so much shorter. Their end goal, their finish line, their prized destination was now growing closer and closer! Gus squealed in excitement and Gladdie panted, almost gasping, for air. Their bodies shook with the realization that they were just about to finally screech to a lovely well-earned rest, and possibly devour some intoxicatingly succulent snacks.

              Suddenly, the now very near figure spun around abruptly to face the siblings and raised his walking stick in a threatening manic gesture, bellowing a monstrous, sickening roar. Gus skidded to a dead stop as Gladdie crashed into him, and just as the intricate emergency choreography demanded, they flipped their bodies around in perfect synchronized arcs and raced with all their might back, back, back around the enormous bog- seemingly so much bigger now- and back to the safety of their mama’s open arms, the mama they knew would protect them from all the evil spirits lurking in the cranberry bog. They looked at one another and in silence agreed that Mama’s loving arms were much, much better than any mouth-watering treat they could ever conjure up.

              And as the sun shone warm upon their backs, and the sky shimmered cornflower blue and the gentle breeze cooled their overheated bodies, big brother Augustus and little sister Gladys melted to the ground like deflated balloons. They rolled over to expose their bellies to the sun and sky, their tongues lolling out of the sides of their mouths. Mama bent down with an amused smile on her face and methodically began to rub their tummies. And in response, the affectionate words of thanks for their mama exploded from the wild, wagging tails beating with joy in every direction: east, west, north and south.

Parade by Paul Bowman

              They came out at night.  They always had before.  Now they explored places new.  They walked in the center of city streets.  They defecated on lawns and scratched their paws against the glass of locked, long-closed stores. 

              In the suburbs crows perched on mailboxes.  Raccoons waddled single file on sidewalks. Does and bucks crossed empty streets without care.  A bear, unsmiling and hungry, grunted its dissatisfaction as it sniffed overturned garbage cans. 

              Snakes sliced through weedy lawns, the grass free of the stench of sprayed chemicals. The silent and dark houses took no notice of the parade of feral dogs, the occasional fox, coyote, cougar. 

              The silent streets.  The silent streets. 

              During the dead days buzzards soared overhead, inspecting the rows of roofs, the green squares of lawn.  Their flights continuous arcs of grace. 

              At dawn the few remaining humans sneaked out of their hiding places and disposed of the dead.  Usually a pair carrying the limp body of a relative into a yard and walking away, their fearful eyes watching for predators. 

            The world had never been so silent.  The breath of wind sometimes the only sound. 

            Trees and vegetation grew fast and wild.  Birds swarmed and filled the sky, their voices shrieks.  What was once a unified chorus of anger, now joy. 

            Turtles sat under driverless cars.  Squirrels nervously waited on porch swings.

 

           Owls watched the street parade at night and made no comment.

 

           The distant cries of the zoo animal miserable from starvation had ceased long ago. The foul water in ponds still poisonous. 

              Because their numbers had grown the rats were bolder.  They were everywhere. Once a horse had trotted down a street, a saddle still on its back.  Was it looking for its master?  Or food?  One of its own?  Companionship? 

              The fields that bordered the silent subdivisions were overgrown and filled with birds. Hidden insects moved under the crowded brush and grass. 

              The exteriors of distant factories faded.  Their flat roofs held pools of water.   

              Weeds sprouted from cracks in empty parking lots. 

             Only a few humans had survived the sickness that had travelled the world.  They did not know what lay beyond their houses.  They hid and waited in silence while hunger gnawed at their stomachs. 

             Animals of the wild roamed the streets and alleys.  Their common enemy and predator disappearing into extinction and oblivion.   

             So many empty houses.  

             A dog barked in the warm, moonlit night.

             Nature is a bitch.

The Man Who Couldn't Stop Listening to Pink Floyd by Hillary Chapman

“Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day 
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way”

              Thijs Van Dijk picked up his packet of Nat Shermans that sat next to the book he had been reading, Heidegger’s Being and Time, and pulled out one of the dark expensive cigarettes. People understood nothing, least of all him, he thought.
 

              He put in his earbuds, selected the Pink Floyd playlist, and escaped the table in Saxby’s coffeeshop where he presently sat alone.
 

             He emerged into reveries in which he was the central character.
 

“We don't need no education 
We don’t need no thought control”

             The philosophy classes he was taking at the University were a waste of time. The American students were morons. They didn’t get the importance of the hermeneutical circle and only bothered to comprehend the surface meaning of words in their text. They had no insights into what they read, and therefore, there was nothing worth discussing with them.

              He saw himself at that moment in a class, expounding on a point, the professor leaning forward on his lectern at a loss for words at the brilliance he was hearing, the other students duly cowering, a few of the younger females trying to catch his eye, excited by this mysterious genius.

              Thijs was a loner. The other students didn’t talk much with him. He had stopped bothering with most of them. They had nothing in common. They wore clothes about sports teams and bearing slogans while he owned no sports paraphernalia and always crazy for the latest cause or craze.

“Don't give me that do goody good bullshit.
I'm in the high-fidelity first class traveling set”

              He was European. In fact, he was about as European as you can get: he was Dutch. He knew that when other students asked him where he was from, and he said he was Dutch, they weren’t quite sure what that was—as though he were ‘Belgian’ or something—so now he said, “I was studying in Holland before coming here for graduate school.” Still, he knew that when the students heard his accent, they thought he was some kind of German.

“Remember when you were young, 
You shone like the sun.”

              Through the Nat Sherman smoke he was expelling from his mouth and nostrils, she came into view. Her brown hair fell freely around her shoulders and framed her beautiful face. Her lips curled up in a smile as she slowly rested into a seat near his while talking on her phone. Her eyes looked up and around, sparkling from the conversation. She gave an open-throated laugh throwing her head back and then leaning forward. She clicked off her phone and looked out, contentment on her face, basking in the conversation’s afterglow.

              Two men walked by her and the one on the right looked long back over his shoulder at her. The server clearing the table next to hers gave her a very friendly nod. He hung around longer than usual. She was looking inside her bag and pulled out earbuds and tilted her head to each side to put them in, her hair brushing each shoulder as she did. She straightened up, then pulled her shoulders back. The sunlight illuminated the space between her skin and the loose shirt she wore, outlining the contours of her breasts.

              For a moment her eyes looked directly at Thijs’s before her gaze went down to her phone. A powerful heat burst inside him and spread up into his head and through every one of the follicles of his long hair. His heart filled with an undefined hope.

              He saw himself in that moment walking up to the register. She came up right after and heard him order, “Americano.” “That’s what I like too…” “They’re delicious.” “Yeah.” “Plus it’s strong. I need caffeine. I’m reading philosophy.” “Wow, sounds interesting, you must be smart”.

Reveling in his reverie, Thijs basked in the music but did not actually get up.

              But she did. She walked towards him and acknowledged him with a smile. But he looked to his left, smoke drifting slowly out of his nostrils.

“Welcome my son, welcome to the machine. 
Where have you been? 
It's alright we know where you've been.”

              He was dark and hard, a philosopher of the first order, whose true understanding of reality left him alone, unable to be loved though this beautiful creature wanted to love him, obviously. She came close. He felt her hip lightly brush his right arm as she passed in the tight space between his chair and the next table. He couldn’t hear the door to the women’s restroom clicked open behind him as he kept his earbuds in.

What she would come to know is that he was capable of love, even wanted to be loved, and that in his innermost heart there was a rose that pushed up through the broken cement terrain that was his condition. This realization would make him the only one for her.

              She sat back down at the table and sipped on the coffee while staring out the window. He kept glancing over towards her, more and more. He couldn’t help it.

“Come on you raver, you seer of visions, 
Come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!”

              Their romance would be an explosion of beauty—sunny fields, sensual love-making in country homes on summer days with the windows open, shared meals in the corner of a cafe, no more talk of philosophy, only feelings…His heart filled with love as the chorus of “Shine on you Crazy Diamond” swelled. Lost in its beauty he did not get up to go introduce himself to her.

              The first half of the piece ended and there was silence. The sounds of the coffee shop rushed in to his ears. She put her coffee mug down, checked her phone and in one quick motion put everything of hers that was on the table back into her bag. Her head swung around and in a second movement her bag was around her shoulder and she was standing up, all business, and five seconds later the front door of the coffee shop closed behind her. Her table was empty.

“Year after year, 
Running over the same old ground. 
What have we found? 
The same old fears. 
Wish you were here.”

              He wasn’t a great philosopher, just some foreign guy drinking coffee by himself that was cold by now, surrounded by others chatting with their friends. His book bored him. Nobody cared whether he understood its ideas or not. He got up and walked out onto the corner where he waited with a group of students who were laughing and talking animatedly about their plans for that afternoon. He had nowhere to go so waiting for the light to turn from red to green was as good as doing anything else.

“who knows which is which and who is who. 
Up and down. 
But in the end it's only round and round.”

Says the Rat by Julia Juster

I clawed at the subway air resting hot around my neck my first morning in Manhattan. A rat crossed the tracks, rode the underground breeze, and promised me there were plenty more where he came from. Not even 8 AM and the city floor was teeming. Rippling with rodents desperate to coil their cracked tails around my wrists and drag me to the sewer before my summer job even started.

The camp hired me to teach kids to talk to strangers. No swimming or Capture the Flag. We played Touch the Floor at Grand Central Station. Each camper brought a backpack and an anxious diagnosis. They carried their lunchboxes and selective mutism to midtown every morning. Instead of arts and crafts, we practiced ordering ice cream. On Fridays we went to the zoo, but not for fun. Each field trip was an exposure. The seals showed us how to eat in public without gagging. We all swallowed one Saltine in front of Gus the Polar Bear. Gus died that summer. The New York Times reported he was neurotic.

 

Meanwhile, the rats perforated the city. Each grate an invitation they never needed at all. While rats filled every aperture, the kids were sealed by fear. They were six years old and immobilized by conversation. An easy fear to name, but terrifying to touch. All summer we tried. We circled city blocks, stomping on sidewalk cracks and rehearsing what we wanted.

 

Do you want chocolate, vanilla, or something else?

 

Chocolate. 

 

Streaks stained the sidewalks, grease marks left behind from the rats’ dragging bellies. Even above ground, I could not escape their hunger.  

 

Sprinkles, chocolate sauce, or something else?

 

Sprinkles.

 

Selective mutism turns anxiety to silence. Questions catalyze the cycle, so that summer I learned to talk to children without asking their favorite anything. No yes or no questions, which are too easy to avoid. No open-ended questions, which are the scariest of all. If I needed to know what someone wanted, I spoke in forced choices.

 

Do you want Legos, crayons, or something else? 

 

Always two options and a possibility: something else. Always ten seconds before I asked again. The kids always answered after I lost count.

 

I was twenty-one and scared, too. My fear was more possibility than pathology. What do you want? I could not answer. What was my favorite anything? I would not say. If I spoke the life I wanted to make, if I named the person I wanted to be, I calcified parts of me and closed off others.

 

I feared desire more than decisions. I swore I would not be caught wanting, all my hope exposed to the world only to be chased and trapped and poisoned by anyone more sure than me. Everyone was more sure than me. I rode the subway in silence. The rats feasted below.

 

They built soggy temples to their instinct. At every stop I plugged my nose to the stench of their certainty. Better to not want at all. As their fur grew more matted with desire, I stayed clean.

 

By July, the kids licked chocolate ice cream with sprinkles. Meanwhile, I was mute to myself. The questions I did not answer would not disappear, and neither would the rats. I saw my future dying in my throat, suffocated before it met the sun. So I created a reward: one wish for every rat. I exposed myself to wanting. I ran over and over the train tracks of my neural pathways until the route was different.

 

Rats are good luck. Everyone knows.

 

With every subway sighting, the rats ushered my wanting. They dragged it behind them like wet and precious garbage. By August, ratless mornings were a waste. I was disappointed on days without their dirty paws. I had so much more to wish for in a life that did not fear an answer. The rats dared me to clutch my curiosity and evolve in the darkness. They rustled and wrestled and made a world without permission.

 

Is this your work? I asked myself. Is that your love? What do you want to do and be and make?

 

Something else, said the rats. Grab it with your teeth. Let everyone see.

 

I still look under dumpsters when I need a reminder. I still wish on every rat. That summer, my fear was not the animal but its wanting. How it sniffed out its path, audacious and contagious. A group of rats is called a mischief.

 

I still ask, Won’t all that wanting stink with life itself?

 

Yes, says the rat. There’s really nothing else.

The World's Largest Lake by James Callan

              There is always a measure of discrepancy that accompanies the discussion of the world’s largest lake. The Caspian Sea, for example, is the largest inland body of water, but its basin is oceanic, its water salty. Is it a lake? Is it a sea? Its name would suggest the latter.

Lake Baikal, in Russia, is the world’s largest freshwater lake by volume. Its outrageous depth of over 5,000 feet accounts for this. By surface area, Baikal remains formidable, but is dwarfed by a handful of other lakes, largest among them, Lake Superior.

             So which lake is the largest in the world? I glance at my bookshelf and see the children’s fantasy novel, Prince Caspian. Prince, not king. I would agree, although that distinction may leave Iranians or Azerbaijanis a little salty.

Baikal? It contains more water than any other lake, after all. How about Superior? On the surface, it would seem it claims the crown. Its name certainly alludes to its supremacy.

              I guess when it comes down to it, it’s a question of surface area or volume; which do you value more deeply? Pun unintended. When it comes to character, an individual’s substance, I should like to think I am the type of person to value depth over what’s presented on the surface. It’s what’s on the inside that counts. Right? Maybe. Depends on what you’re after, the long haul or the one-time, wild shag? I might rather marry Baikal. But if it’s one night stands, it’s Superior every time. In fact, if we linger on this metaphor of fucking, I’d like to add that I’d happily indulge in an array of kinky enterprises with the Caspian Sea, though if this were to occur I’d like to revoke my earlier statement referring to it as ‘prince.’ I’m an open-minded guy. But I am also hopelessly heterosexual.

             I’m going to go with Superior.

             Because of the metaphor thing? The fucking, the kinks, and all that jazz? No. Not because of that. And for the record, I am a man who values the depth of a person’s character more than the depth of their pockets, more than the surface area of their skin, their style, or what they look like. And no, not because of the name thing either. What’s in a name? Not because the Caspian Sea declares in its title it is not a lake. Not because Superior boldly, arrogantly even, announces its own magnificence. Baikal is a name, and surely it means something, but it’s in Russian or some such and I am not inclined to look it up.

              I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen Superior in person, and not the others. Maybe that’s enough. How it humbles me more than any ocean I’ve ever seen during whatever vacation to whichever warm clime. Maybe it’s because I’m from Minnesota. Because I am desperate to feel pride and I’ll cling on to that claim like it belongs to me; world’s largest lake. Maybe it’s because you can swim the surface of a lake, at whatever depth, but you can’t dive deeper than fifteen or twenty feet even if there is 5000 more beneath you. Or maybe that oceanic basin thing legitimately disqualifies the Caspian Sea from contention.

              Whatever the case, I’m sticking with Superior. I believe it is the largest lake in the world. I believe the opinion that it is the largest lake in the world is a superior one. A biased one? Yeah, probably. But my conviction is staunch and Minnesotan.

Sometimes I close my eyes and think about Lake Baikal, about the Caspian Sea, while I am lapping among the cool waters of Lake Superior. When I am wading, doggy style, that is to say, doggy paddle, in the largest lake in the world, sometimes I pretend to taste salt on my lips, or envision 5000 feet of darkness beneath my thrashing ankles.

              I may fantasize these things, think about other lakes while I am swimming in my own. But wherever my mind wanders, whatever lake I pretend to be within while I splash along the Minnesota shoreline, whichever daydream transports me to the scorched sands of the middle-east, the vast boreal wilderness of the taiga, I know, in reality, I am true to the Mother Superior.

              I might be a shallow guy -- this time, I admit, the pun is intended -- but for me it’s surface area over volume. It’s what’s on the outside that counts. I walk out of the water and onto the rocky shore. The stones are smooth but they still hurt the arches of my feet. I reach for my towel and I dry my hair, my arms and my chest. I breathe a deep, contented breath, as I look out over the vast beauty of the world’s largest lake.

Grace by Jeffrey Feingold

              I wanted you to know that if I died that day, you shouldn’t grieve too long. I’d lived a bountiful life. Eight years of grace. My years with you.

              Driving to your mom’s. Summer morning. Windows open, top down, warm jet stream rustling your yellow hair like a field of dancing mustard.

I wasn’t ill. Not pondering death. Although, I thought, dying is the most human thing.

              Nor were you ill.

              Still, I wanted you to know.

              I spoke softly. “Hannah Grace, if your doctor called my cell this moment, to say she was with you in hospital, and that you’d perish unless I got there within five minutes to donate two kidneys, I’d spin this car around and speed to your side faster than a bullet train. No remorse. No regret. The Kidney Express would be hurtling down the track to bring two kidneys to you.”

              You flashed a pearl smile, blushed cherry blossom cheeks, wind-tussled hair weaving lithe dancers in the Swan Lake pas de deux. Moist pool-blue eyes revealed. You brushed my arm with your white swan-wing hand. I slipped the black convertible to the roadside for us to watch the newborn sun arise from a distant field of green.

              “Oh, Dad, that’s so wonderful.” Then, “can I ask you something?”

              “Anything,” I replied, bracing for a painful question. Divorce. Disease. Death. Those pool-blue eyes had reflected so much.

              I inhaled. Breathless. Iron rod fingers gripping wheel.

              “How many kidneys do we have?”

              I exhaled. Breathed. Iron fingers melting back into flesh.

              “Eight” I whispered, “but my best two are on the way to you the instant that call comes.”

              I drank black coffee at your mom’s kitchen table. She signed divorce papers. On the porch swing, you read the book of Greek myths I’d given for your eighth birthday. Your beloved Icarus. Book down, you whirled white wax-feather wings as you flew across the green grass field. White wingtips touching blue sky. I sipped black coffee, signed papers, fearing, how, now, can I shield you from the merciless sun?

Swallowed by Virginia Watts

              Out for a walk in my neighborhood, a sound I never heard before. When you think about it, most everything we hear in everyday life we have already heard. Though unfamiliar otherwise, this sound did have an even, staccato beat I recognized immediately. Plunge. Plunge. Plunge. Plunge. The same rhythm as the famous shower sequence in the movie Psycho. A few seconds of movie history that are impossible to forget, blood swirling down bathtub drain or not.

              How Hitchcock created the convincing auditory of a person’s torso being stabbed repeatedly has been written about many times. He started with butcher knives intent upon killing dozens of casaba melons. When this resulted in too hollow a sound for his liking, he added a recording of a giant slab of sirloin being stabbed over and over again. Leave it to me to wonder why it was sirloin. Did inferior grades of steak sound less juicy, too resistant, because ribbons of fat can be tough. For the blood, he used a watered-down can of Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup which makes sense when you think about how chocolate syrup slides down the sides of an ice cream sundae.

              As it happened, I didn’t have time to puzzle over the mystery sound in my neighborhood for long because an Amazon Prime truck appeared out of nowhere and began veering recklessly down a driveway straight toward me. You know, the blue trucks we all see every five minutes now, trademark white arrow smile on the side panel looking like something is being shoved up your ass, which would be too much control over too much of our world, but we all feel powerless about most things these pandemic days, don’t we?

              Apparently, Amazon has installed a new generation of backup horns in their delivery trucks. Just so you are ready for what is heading toward a street and driveway near you, these new horns sound like the croak of a frog chorus thousands strong performing at the bottom of a stone well. A jarring racket. On the upside, Amazon will avoid murdering people. Maybe they care about dogs, wild deer, and fox too, who knows. Let’s hope so. In any event, the new technology did its job. I hurried to the other side of the street, avoided serious injury, death.

              And so did Michael Packard. He didn’t die or suffer injury either. Have you heard his story? Talk about something you won’t be able to forget. Packard is a commercial lobster diver who plucks lobsters off the sandy bottom of the sea. He ended up in the mouth of a whale off the coast of Cape Code in June of 2021. No kidding. Lucky for him, it was a baleen whale filtering water for plankton and small fish for dinner, not a human being. A humpback whale as big as a school bus with a throat much too narrow to swallow a man. Packard wasn’t destined to become the second Noah.

              But let’s think about this. A man suddenly finds himself inside the pitch-dark mouth of a giant sea creature. Packard claims he figured out he was in the mouth of a whale right away. What else could it be? Okay, I guess I can buy that, but then he had the presence of mind to crawl around on his hands and knees on a four-ton tongue searching for teeth to determine what kind of whale had captured him. Relieved to find no teeth, knowing he was in the mouth of a baleen whale and not a sperm whale, he began flinging himself here and there until the whale got so annoyed it spit him out. Next thing he knew, he was just fine. Floating on top of the big blue sea.

              Here’s what I would have done in the mouth of that whale. My back would have slid down the inside of its cheek like a stabbed woman in a shower. I would have given up. Accepted defeat before it was true. Dismissed as ludicrous the idea of finding a way to survive such a catastrophic event. That’s what I was admitting to myself at the exact moment when an Amazon Prime truck backup horn saved me. Unlike Packard, I was born lacking an essential faith in long shots. That is as sad as it is true. I guess I should worry more about the dangers that are right in front of my nose from now on but still, the lesson stands. If ever you find yourself in the mouth of the whale, you are not dead yet. Maybe miracles can’t happen unless we try harder to believe that sometimes, they do.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Music

Sense of Place by Joe D'Angelo

00:00 / 01:50

Smoke and Mirrors by Alicen Grey

00:00 / 04:15

All of us alone by Gene Mills

00:00 / 03:09

Limbo by Marysa Eve

00:00 / 04:41