by Miriam Kotzin
followed by Q&A
I was too bad to clap the chalk free from the gray felt erasers. Instead, I watched the good ones go out onto the fire escape and return smiling. I envied their whitened hands and looked down at my own hateful palms. I made tight fists to make half-moon marks with my nails. I sat on my wooden chair at the too-small table with the groove at the edge where I was supposed to put my pencil. The ghosts of other names haunted the surface, but I did not dare add mine.
Sometimes I still dream of standing in a white cloud, embracing a heaven of chalk dust in afternoon sun.
One day a few of us had to stay in at recess while the teacher, Miss Franklin, went outside with the class. She told us to sit quietly and stay at our desks until they all came back.
I traced the ghost names with my pencil. I imagined constellations of invisible stars swirling in the blue sky.
One of the boys, the adenoidal boy, his eyelids pink and crusty, went up to the front of the room to Miss Franklin's desk. Hey, hey, hey, you'll get us in trouble. We were never allowed to go to that desk, to touch her things, a row of books, a red glass apple, a green blotter with brown leather at the corners. Hey, hey, hey. His back was to us. Hey, hey.
I never told who peed under the teacher’s desk. The puddle stayed on the floor all afternoon until we left to go home. Miss Franklin pretended she didn't see it, but I know she did. I could tell by the way she sat stiff at her desk while we did the times tables.
If I could talk to him now, I’d whisper his name, say, “Don’t worry, friend. Your secret’s safe with me.”
Miriam N. Kotzin teaches Drexel University where she co-directs the Certificate Program in Writing and Publishing. She is a contributing editor of Boulevard and a co-founding editor of Per Contra. Her work has been published in or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Shenandoah, Eclectica, Frigg, The Flea, The Tower, and Boulevard. She has published three collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Taking Stock (Star Cloud 2011). A fourth collection of poems, The Body's Bride, will be published by David Robert Books early in 1213. Her collection of flash, Just Desserts, was published by Star Cloud Press in 2010.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: When I picked up a pristine chalkboard eraser, I remembered how being given the task of clapping the erasers clean used to be a reward in grade school.
by Alex McElroy
followed by Q&A
Driving home from an electrical job in Mid-Jersey, my father and I passed a chalky hardware supply store. The building was worn and forgettable, the lot out front nearly deserted, but as we sped beneath an overpass Dad asked if I noticed the place. I did then.
He silenced the radio and spoke: he and his brother lived nearby in a trailer with their father until the man died of liver failure soon after my father’s tenth birthday. He nodded behind him, at the store. “Brian and me used to play hooky and sneak onto the roof, sit at the edge throwing junk on the train tracks.”
Then the Jets game crackled from the speakers, flooding the cab. Behind me, the store was swallowed whole by the highway. Seconds later it was miles away. Years away. “Was that it?” I wanted to ask, but I knew, by now, that it was.
My father’s childhood sits hidden behind a cedar fence too tall to see over, a fence I circle, searching for knots worn into holes. As we drove on I saw my father crouching on the edge of the hot-mopped roof. The metal snout of an Amtrak slicing the fog. His palms scraped and stained auburn from climbing the rusted fire escape, gravel rattles in his pocket, and, aware that something is wrong with his father, the same something that took his mother, Dad accepts busted bottles’ necks from his brother and chucks them at the tracks, at the train that simply, abstractly, leads elsewhere.
Alex McElroy is from a small farm town in New Jersey and he currently waits tables in Oregon. “Remembering Elsewhere” is his first published piece.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: This piece was inspired by countless winter afternoons spent replacing ceiling fans and rewiring basements with my father.
On Mott Street II
by Pete Simonelli
followed by Q&A
She calls her mother quite a bit lately. Her mother’s been suffering from various little ailments—dizziness, a bad knee, insomnia—and she’s determined to sit down a few nights a week, when it’s not too late, and call. She’s such a minder. I wonder if her mother might tire of it soon, if she might consider the calls to be too doting and concerned. The mother’s an active, vibrant person who knows how to take care of herself. It’s just that a body, by natural design, breaks down. Its parts begin to fail. I believe that her mother knows this. The rub is finding a way to live with it as comfortably and as patiently as one can. Of course this takes a strong will and an ability to roll with punches, which I think her mother has in spades. But if you—in this case her mother—find you have to take a phone call every few days it might have contradictory effects. The mother could retaliate out of pride, and the minder’s feelings get hurt because she doesn’t want to believe that one’s actions, no matter how much they’re based in good will or even love, could be considered acts of pity or, worse, fear.
The light goes green. Horns blare behind me. I’ve been sitting at the light for more than a couple seconds and traffic’s starting to pile up. No one can wait. This is the tiny vacuum period right now, when you still have a chance to get to where you need to be within a reasonable amount of time. But once the traffic jams up, you better find a good station with good music and turn it up. The cross section of impatience and boredom of sitting in heavy, New York City traffic is almost too much to bear. In the summer, you watch Delancey Street go by from an air-conditioned nightmare. In the winter you laugh at or pity the sorry mothers who negotiate the cold winds, the stupid drivers and the ice on the streets. It’s almost too easy to read their minds.
Pete Simonelli lives and works as a bartender, driver, and writer in Brooklyn, New York. He is the co-founder and vocalist for the band, Enablers (enablers.bandcamp.com). No pets.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: “On Mott St. II” is part of an ongoing series of vignettes whose primary aim is to capture points of personal and associative interest. Driving has always been a kind of expansive practice for me, and this particular piece illustrates how movement—even a lack of movement—allows the mind to wander.
by Cindy Hunter Morgan
followed by Q&A
It snowed all day,
the air so thick with flakes
it was difficult to breathe,
impossible to see the candle
in the kitchen window, even
when he stood underneath the clothesline,
only 20 paces from the house.
His wife used the line all year,
adding salt to the rinse water
so the towels would not freeze.
On Saturdays, when he dipped
his washcloth in the bath water
and scrubbed his cheeks,
he could taste salt on his lips.
He liked to pretend he was soaking
in the ocean, liked to listen to the
thrip, thrip of water dripping
from the cloth and imagine
those were the last sounds
of a summer rain –
water dripping from the eaves
into the rain barrel.
Now he looked straight up
into the evening snow and
let the flakes melt on his cheeks,
savoring moisture, remembering
what sweat felt like.
Tonight they would have suet dumplings
boiled in water that would be saved
for the horses,
beans canned from last summer’s garden
and cooked with the neighbor’s salt pork
for which they had traded soap
made from kitchen grease and potash.
Later, because it was his birthday,
they would make winter ice cream,
mixing sweet cream and eggs
with sugar and vanilla,
stirring in scoopfuls of fluffy, dry snow,
wasting nothing, not even
the downy flakes of this day.
Cindy Hunter Morgan lives in East Lansing, Michigan. Her poems have appeared in West Branch, Tar River Poetry, Bateau, Sugar House Review, Weave, The Christian Science Monitor, A cappella Zoo, and elsewhere.
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: This poem is about a world my grandparents knew and loved and shared with me. It’s really about a world that existed before my time, but I feel I know it because of my grandparents’ stories, and because of their farm, where I grew up working and playing. The idea of saving dumpling water for horses is entirely imagined, but certainly connected to memories of my grandfather’s horses, and connected to memories of the green liquid my grandmother saved after steaming asparagus. She doled this out in juice glasses, and we drank it dutifully. I don’t recall that she added salt to her laundry water, but I found a suggestion about that in one of her old notebooks. As for the homemade soap, that’s imagined too, though I do have, in my grandmother’s handwriting, instructions for how to make it. Of course, this poem is about more than frugality. It’s about gratitude, and about welcoming the offerings of our natural world.
by Tim Peeler
followed by Q&A
They left the drive-in after watching Bullitt,
Cruised north across the southwestern end
Of the county, black tongue highway
Descending to one lane river bridges
Where drivers approached, estimating
Each other; they smoked reefer rolled
In strawberry papers, sneaking through town,
Taking the quick left by Rose’s out near the lake.
He steered the car slowly, then suddenly
Veered right and floored his father’s
Ugly Plymouth Valiant, lifting it into the night air
As the road dropped from under them,
And they all cried, “Shit, shit” although
They’d done this countless times
On other Friday nights, and they felt
The car touch down on rattled shocks
Like a plane landing in God’s black maw
And he broke hard before the lake below
Could come up to swallow them.
He saw people in rings of fire,
Every time he looked at one,
Giggly teenage girls with pert breasts
He saw in bluish-green glows,
The jackleg preacher that stood
On the courthouse corner, warning
The hell-bound world was circled
By scarlet lightning forks of flame,
His momma with whom he rarely
Argued, moved in a soft white
Blaze of constant love for her family,
And he knew that a fire circled him
As well, for he could feel it singeing
The hairs on his hand when it trembled
Over his girl’s blouse buttons in
The back seat of Daddy’s Fairlane
And he watched how her lightly
Freckled face was lifted back into
Its very own flaxen inferno.
Tim Peeler is an educator and writer from Hickory, NC. He has published six books of poetry and three books that document regional or local baseball history. His most recent books are Checking Out from Hub City Press and Waiting for Charlie Brown, a collaboration with poet and film maker Ted Pope from Rank Stranger Press.
Q: What can you tell us about these poems?
A: These poems are part of a manuscript that combines real and fictional events and people at a small town Western North Carolina drive-in theater from the ’50s to the late ’70s.
by Jason Lee Brown
followed by Q&A
I was nude on a small stool in a public bath, my heart pounding with a great fear that I was one cultural mistake away from being disowned by my father-in-law, one faux pas from shaming my wife and her family in their home country. I was washing my hands when my father-in-law stood up, and, without warning, started scrubbing my back with his soapy towel. The sixty-two-year-old dug his cloth into my reddened skin without missing a spot, as if working hard for a job well done. My first thought was, What the fuck! I had no idea what had brought this on and wondered if somehow, unknowingly, I had asked for it. Was this how he showed dominance? Or kindness? Maybe my wife had told him to do it. I couldn’t figure it out so the safest response was to act as if I had expected it. I bowed my head. “Arigato.”
Before Haruka and I left for Japan, this was how she described it: “It’s a public bath. You will have to get completely naked. With my father.” I wanted her father to accept me as something more than the man who’d married his youngest daughter. I was a Midwesterner who’d rarely traveled beyond a one-state radius of Illinois, who’d never even thought about a passport before I dated a girl from Kawasaki. We’d dated for five years and been married for nearly one, and I was ashamed for not learning more about her home country, for not trying to meet her halfway through our cultural gap. I gave her no choice but to assimilate. In Sullivan, the small town we lived in, there was no sushi, no Asian store, nothing that made her feel at home.
“I think you’re more worried about it than I am,” I said. We stood next to the bed packing for the flight. “I played three sports in high school. I’ve showered with plenty of men.”
“Impressive,” she said. She refolded a long-sleeved shirt I had just folded.
“If I have to strip down naked for your father to like me, I’m doing it.”
I looked forward to the hot springs. I often made myself ill by sitting in hot tubs until my skin turned red and my muscles were too relaxed to move. To keep in good graces with her father, I planned on sticking with what worked when I met him in the States: be polite and respectful in everything I did. The first time we met, he didn’t know I was her boyfriend or why she’d driven him three hours from St. Louis to this small town in central Illinois. I met her family in the parking lot at my workplace, a county newspaper and printing press, and I hugged her in front of her father, mother, and sister. When I pulled away, I saw the utter surprise on her father’s face. I couldn’t understand what he said to her but I knew it was about me. I thought her family knew, but, apparently, she decided to tell them right then that we’d been dating for a few years. I wasn’t sure I could turn around that bad first impression.
The following year, her family again visited the States, this time for the wedding. After the ceremony, the toasting, the cake cutting, and the eating, her father warmed up to me when the drinking started. We stood at the reception bar and drank beer and congratulatory shots, and late in the night, during a small lull, he knew exactly when to break out an expensive bottle of sake and pour shots for friends and family. When he’d asked earlier, via Haruka’s translation, which Japanese beer I liked the best, I’d told him the answer he wanted to hear. We liked the same two, Sapporo and Kirin, a huge coincidence considering the large selection. Though I didn’t venture into Japanese cuisine that often, I had no problem sampling different brands of beer in the Japanese restaurant up in Champaign, where Haruka would eat worse-than-average sushi while she talked about visiting Mitsuwa, the Asian grocery store three hours away in Arlington Heights.
We did not travel to Japan until a year later. Her parents picked us up at Narita Airport and drove us to the Dai-Ichi Hotel in Kawasaki. The next day, Haruka and I took the trains to Shibuya, the fashion center of Japan, so she could go shopping. At the Shibuya Station, three JumboTrons and even larger building advertisements overlooked the intersection inundated with pedestrians scrambling curb to curb from all directions, the most chaotic crossing I’d ever seen. That night, we met her friends at the Hachiko Exit, named for the bronzed statue of Hachiko, a legendary Akita celebrated for his loyalty. When the dog’s master died and never showed up at the train station where they’d met every day after work, Hachiko held a vigil at the exit for nearly ten years, until he died in that very spot. Haruka’s friends and I posed for photographs in front of the statue, and I wondered if a bond like that was even possible between humans.
Sunday afternoon, her father drove us to the hotel in Hakone. The room was larger than most American hotels, and four times as big as the Dai-Ichi. It had a bed, a couch, a long coffee table, and a large-screened television. The corner of the room was a tatami room with a two-foot-tall table and two chairs with no legs. A gray pillow rested on top of each chair.
Haruka and I weren’t even unpacked when her father knocked on the door. He wanted to visit the hot springs before dinner. I wasn’t sure what to wear or what the hot springs even looked like. I’d imagined everything from a luxurious Roman-style pool to a hole in the ground filled with warm water. Her father was wearing his yukata, a white robe supplied by the hotel. It was what I’d seen everyone in the lobby wearing. While he waited in the hall, Haruka properly closed my starchy robe, left over right, before she tied the blue belt around my waist. “You’ll need this, too,” she said. She handed me a folded yellow towel, and then wrapped a large white hand towel around my neck like a scarf. It was like wearing a uniform.
I could barely walk down the hall in the small slippers I’d jammed my feet into, but Haruka had told me not to take them off until her father did. We took the elevator down to the public baths, and all I wanted to do was soak in the water and relax. I followed him through a curtain and entered a room as humid as a sauna. His silver-rimmed glasses fogged up, but I could still feel him looking at me. Two tall fans at the entrance oscillated as if scanning the room for potential problems. In the middle, a wooden rack held wicker baskets in each of its slots.
Her father couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak Japanese. We both knew about fifty words in each other’s language, but we couldn’t string them together for a sentence. We relied on exaggerated hand gestures and simple one-word directions, like, “Towel,” which her father said over the humming fans. He motioned for me to lose the robe and place everything in the wicker basket next to his. I took off my robe and underwear and stood there naked, vulnerable, hoping I was properly following orders. He held up his hand towel, which told me to pick up mine, and before he could cover himself with it, I couldn’t help but sneaked a peek. I’m sure he did the same.
He waved me toward the frosted doors he slid open to reveal the hot springs. It was definitely on the upper end of what I’d imagined. The room was large with an auburn-tiled floor. In the middle, steam rose from the clear pool that separated into two sections, a smaller oval pool bumped into the larger squared pool. On the right side of the room, spring water fell from the concrete ledge near the ceiling. I wanted to cannonball right in, but he pointed at the white plastic stools lined along the wall. In front of the stools were faucets with hoses and showerheads, along with huge bottles of shampoo, conditioner, liquid soap, and large bowls.
We sat next to each other on the plastic stools. I had no idea what to do but follow his every move. He turned on the shoulder-high faucet and adjusted the temperature. He filled the bowl, then dropped his hand towel into the water and soaked it. He squirted a light pink liquid, what I assumed to be soap, out of one of the bottles. The other two bottles held white liquid, and I couldn’t tell which was conditioner and which was shampoo. Every move I made had a ritual I didn’t understand.
He washed his body with the towel balled up in his hand. I mirrored each ceremonial motion, wondering about the one spot we eventually would have to clean. I wasn’t sure if I should use the hand towel or my hand, so I watched him out of the corner of my eye, trying not to ogle him. He scrubbed the towel everywhere, so I did the same. He moved fast, as if he wanted to get into the water as badly as I did. We rinsed our towels under the faucets, and the water ran into bowls. We picked up and dumped the bowls over our heads. We hit a lever and water spit out of the movable showerheads. We rinsed.
He squirted shampoo into his hand then scrubbed it into his thin black hair. I couldn’t tell which of my bottles was which. The Japanese characters might as well have been chicken scratches. I looked closer at the bottles for the English word or two that many product labels had. The wet air was hard to breathe. He smiled at my hesitation, gave a slight laugh, though not a disrespectful one, and he pointed at one of the bottles. “Shampoo,” he said, adding a heavy rolling R after the P. I bowed and we were back in rhythm.
After we’d rinsed the conditioner from our hair, he stood up and waved me toward the pool. We set our hand towels on the pool’s edge, eased our bodies into the water without a splash or many ripples, and, in unison, released a universal sigh. I wanted to massage the back of my neck under the five-foot-wide waterfall that fell from the marble ledge in the ceiling, but I wasn’t sure if it was proper. I wasn’t even sure if I could duck my head under until I saw him do it. I held my breath and sank into the humming reverberation of water. Of all the places I had been in Japan—restaurants, shopping malls, Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Dome, Chinatown, shrines—this was my favorite. It soothed my muscles that ached from all the walking, all those hours on the plane, all the worries of making a fool of myself in front of her father.
We soaked for about ten minutes with the waterline just below our smiles. He could tell I was enjoying it, and I could tell he was enjoying me enjoying it. When he got out of the pool, I didn’t move. He sat on a stool and again washed himself off. I wasn’t sure what I’d do if he left, so I reluctantly got out and sat on the stool next to him. I washed my hands and that was when he stood up and, without warning, started scrubbing my back with his soapy towel. After thanking him, I nodded. I must’ve had a suspicious look on my face because his expression changed from pleased to confused. I vowed then to learn more about the Japanese culture, the language. I’d been memorizing five words a week leading up to the trip, but without application and practice, I wasn’t able to retain much.
A few nights later, Haruka and I met her family in Kawasaki, not far from the Mizonokuchi Train Station, at a tiny restaurant called Forest of Mimosa, or at least that was how Haruka translated it. The restaurant seated twelve people, but we were the only customers there. She’d told me that her father liked to impress clients and friends with expensive dinners and rounds of alcohol, so I thought maybe he’d reserved the entire restaurant for the family. The tables were actually cylindrical tree trunks that had been split in half. The inside was folded out and glazed for a smooth tabletop. The forest motif continued with netting and fake vines clinging to the ceiling.
“Master!” her father said before he gave his order to the owner, who wore a white chef’s outfit with a blue bandana on his head. Haruka said the restaurant had been popular a long time ago, but now the owner’s only customers were old friends like her father. The owner had been in a car accident years ago and couldn’t remember as well as he used to, and a new development next to the train station had rerouted the pedestrian pathway around his building. Both events had a negative impact on the business. He couldn’t take many orders at once or he would forget one. Her father would have to go back to the counter and politely remind him. “Master!” he would say before anything else. I admired the respect and loyalty he showed for the owner.
The owner brought out two pizzas that tasted like the homemade crust my mother used to make. Her father and I shared a large bottle of Sapporo. I filled his glass full whenever possible, a courtesy Haruka had taught me years ago, along with the first Japanese word I learned.
“Kampai,” I said. I held up my drink.
After we toasted, he talked at length to Haruka. She seemed confused at first but eventually smiled. She had lived in the States for so long she now dreamed in English, and I couldn’t even bother to learn more than fifty words of her language.
“Yudedako,” her father said.
Haruka giggled. “He said you looked like a boiled octopus.”
“Red as a lobster,” she said. “From the hot springs.”
Her father talked again, his hands patting different parts on his body. He made the same scrubbing motion as he did on my back, and I wondered which cultural blunder I’d committed. I’d probably done something he and his friends would joke about for years. He finished speaking and I waited for her to translate, frustrated that she even had to.
“He said he washed your back,” she said.
One of the few sliver linings in our language barrier was that I could talk freely in front of her parents. “Yeah,” I said. “What the hell was that all about?”
“You only do that for family members or really close friends,” she said. “He even said you’re like the son he never had.”
I nodded at him and smiled. I had no way to repay his compliment or tell him the same in his language, and it was too late to scrub his back. I held up my drink and stuck with what I knew.
Jason Lee Brown is Series Editor of New Stories from The Midwest (Indiana University Press) and a contributing editor for River Styx. He teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University, and earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: Every time I told friends about my father-in-law scrubbing my back, they would say the same thing: You should write that into a story. This is the final piece. Also, as a lifetime dog lover, it was only a matter of time before Hachiko found his way into my writing.