August 2017:  " Quality of Light " by  David Armstrong , judged by Clifford Garstang, author of  What the Zhang Boys Know

August 2017: "Quality of Light" by David Armstrong, judged by Clifford Garstang, author of What the Zhang Boys Know

September 2017:  " Boxwood Fox Hunt " by  Sarah Ann Winn , judged by Kathleen McGookey, author of  Stay

September 2017: "Boxwood Fox Hunt" by Sarah Ann Winn, judged by Kathleen McGookey, author of Stay

October 2017:  " Brotherhood " by  David E. Yee , judged by Jeffrey Condran, author of  A Fingerprint Repeated

October 2017: "Brotherhood" by David E. Yee, judged by Jeffrey Condran, author of A Fingerprint Repeated

Winners of our FREE 53-Word Story Contest

Winner receives a free book by that month's judge

September 2017:  " The Shed Is Best " by  Donna Kennedy , judged by Kelly Kathleen Ferguson, author of  My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself

September 2017: "The Shed Is Best" by Donna Kennedy, judged by Kelly Kathleen Ferguson, author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself

October 2017:  " Homecoming " by  Noël Rozny , judged by Stephanie Carpenter, author of  Missing Persons , winner of the 2017 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction

October 2017: "Homecoming" by Noël Rozny, judged by Stephanie Carpenter, author of Missing Persons, winner of the 2017 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction

November 2017:  " The Little Transient " by  Lorri McDole  judged by Sarah York, our most-awesome intern from Wake Forest University

November 2017: "The Little Transient" by Lorri McDole judged by Sarah York, our most-awesome intern from Wake Forest University

Editors' Selections

Guest Poetry Editor for Issue 127

Seth Michelson

Seth Michelson  is an award-winning poet, professor, and translator whose collections of poetry include  Swimming Through Fire ,  Eyes Like Broken Windows ,  House in a Hurricane ,  Kaddish for My Unborn Son , and  Maestro of Brutal Splendor . His translations of poetry include the books  The Ghetto  (Tamara Kamenszain, Argentina),  roly poly  (Victoria Estol, Uruguay),  Poems from the Disaster  (Zulema Moret, Argentina/Spain),  Red Song  (Melisa Machado, Uruguay), and  Dreaming in Another Land  (Rati Saxena, India). He currently teaches the poetry of the Americas at Washington and Lee University, as well as in a high-security prison for undocumented, unaccompanied youth.

Seth Michelson is an award-winning poet, professor, and translator whose collections of poetry include Swimming Through Fire, Eyes Like Broken Windows, House in a Hurricane, Kaddish for My Unborn Son, and Maestro of Brutal Splendor. His translations of poetry include the books The Ghetto (Tamara Kamenszain, Argentina), roly poly (Victoria Estol, Uruguay), Poems from the Disaster (Zulema Moret, Argentina/Spain), Red Song (Melisa Machado, Uruguay), and Dreaming in Another Land (Rati Saxena, India). He currently teaches the poetry of the Americas at Washington and Lee University, as well as in a high-security prison for undocumented, unaccompanied youth.

" Tree of Life " by  Cynthia Atkins

"Tree of Life" by Cynthia Atkins

" The Mountain (Dance of Shadows) " by  Daniel H. Dugas

"The Mountain (Dance of Shadows)" by Daniel H. Dugas

" after drinking " by  Lukas Hall

"after drinking" by Lukas Hall

" Historians of the Defeat " by  Gail Wronsky

"Historians of the Defeat" by Gail Wronsky

Guest Short Fiction Editor for Issue 127

John Matthew Fox

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John Matthew Fox is the author of I Will Shout Your Name, published by Press 53 in November 2017. He has published in Crazyhorse, Third Coast, Shenandoah, and the Chicago Tribune. He provides editing services and resources for writers at the literary blog Bookfox, which has received mentions from The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and The Huffington Post. He earned an MFA from the University of Southern California and an MA from New York University, but after teaching at the collegiate level for a decade, he decided to focus on Bookfox full time. After traveling to more than forty countries and living in three, he has settled down in Orange County, California, with his wife, twin boys, and six chickens.

" Tempting the Serpent " by  Sharon Goldberg

"Tempting the Serpent" by Sharon Goldberg

" D.C. Al Coda " by  Richard Morrissette

"D.C. Al Coda" by Richard Morrissette

" Jackie, but Famous " by  Matthue Roth

"Jackie, but Famous" by Matthue Roth

Publisher's Pick

For Issue 127, publisher Kevin Morgan Watson would like to share a story with our readers from Roads without Houses, the debut story collection by Joseph Rein, which will be published by Press 53 on March 1, 2018 (available for signed pre-order now). Joseph was a runner-up in the 2017 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and it was a close race. So close that Kevin couldn't let this collection slip away. Note: the 2018 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction deadline has been extended until January 31 due to a technical oversight (we forgot to advertise the contest at NewPages.com). Yikes!

" Encyclopedia Helenica " by Joseph Rein

"Encyclopedia Helenica" by Joseph Rein

Meet Our Guest Editors for Issue 137, July-Sept 2018

(Submissions are open now through March 31 at Submittable)

Poetry: Terri Kirby Erickson  Read " Three Turtles " by Terri Kirby Erickson

Poetry: Terri Kirby Erickson

Read "Three Turtles" by Terri Kirby Erickson

Short Fiction: Jeffrey Condran  Read " Ides of March " from  A Fingerprint Repeated

Short Fiction: Jeffrey Condran

Read "Ides of March" from A Fingerprint Repeated

Let us know what you think of this issue! Drop us an email.


Flash Fiction

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David Armstrong

Winner of the August 2017 Prime Number Magazine Flash Fiction Contest

Judged by Clifford Garstang, author of In an Uncharted Country and What the Zhang Boys Know

$251 prize

Followed by a Q&A

Quality of Light

He arrived at dusk on a Saturday in late summer, the only sound a distant baseball game. I watched him from my porch. He was sweating in an oversized suit and battered wingtips, bearing a big, leather briefcase the style of which I hadn’t seen in decades.

“I have a few things to sell,” he said, a little ashamed.

I saw right away he was a terrible salesman. But Candace had gone last winter and I was retired. I could’ve told you the length of my lawn within a centimeter. Out of boredom, I waved him up.

He sat in a wicker chair and opened the case. Small jars painted black were lashed to the interior with leather straps.

He woodenly recited an opening pitch. “Are you familiar with light?”

“Light?”

“Sun, moon, bulbs, fire. Have you ever thought of the quality of your light?”

I allowed I had not.

“Mass-produced light has a fluorescence of 2.8 with color variance no more than six or seven. By Dark Ages standards, that’s pretty good, but not by today’s.”

He removed a jar and unscrewed its lid. A swirl of pinkish, pale light turned the cylinder into a bottomless, vaporous soup. He churned it with his finger.

“That,” he said, “is Dawn.”

I allowed I’d like to see more.

He presented Domestics first. The Sputtering Candle of blackouts, a timid orange within a halo of encroaching darkness. Then Mid-morning Slice of Sunlight lying warm as a dog across a linoleum floor. I thought of Candace, insisting to the end she take her morning coffee at the nook while I puttered about the kitchen. Those days we talked of anything but her looming, shadowy disease.

He showed Urbans and Industrials: Osaka Back-alley NeonBangladeshi Sunset, like a tangerine made of copper; Pale Beam of the Luxor Casino in Las Vegas. The Distant Auroraof Amber Bulbs atop a refinery as seen across a cornfield in Nebraska.

How Candace would have doted, would have made the salesman stay for dinner as we picked our favorites. I thought of trips we’d planned but never taken.

Of the Naturals, there was the sodden gray-green iridescence of Amazonian RainfallMidwestern Winter, with its flat, everlasting ambience. And sparkling sea-foam ricochets of Sunlight on Pacific Waves (Atlantic and Mediterranean varieties available). But that Pacific. Well, I guess I don’t have to say what coast Candace and I never made it to.

I admitted this to the salesman.

He surveyed the quiet street, tarnished a brittle indigo the background color of dreams. The baseball game had evaporated. He wanted to move on but didn’t.

“Here’s the good stuff,” he said.

His Special Editions were antiques in hand-blown vessels capped by crumbling cork. Pre-pollution Pillars of Siberian arctic sunbeam. Earth-rich luminescence of Neanderthal Campfire, flame and smoke hugging the limestone walls of charcoal-painted caves. They say light doesn’t have a smell, but I caught a millennia-old whiff of artists at work. I thought of Candace in her studio, her thick-layered oil painting of streetcars trundling through twilight on a San Francisco hill she’d never seen. I hung it in the kitchen.

 The finale was Buttery Candelabrum from a lavish dinner at Henry VIII’s court, circa 1523. The salesman, however, admitted to a lack of provenance. “More likely,” he confessed, “it’s Edward VI’s. Henry’s unpopular son.”

That confirmed it. Absolutely terrible as a salesman. No stomach for embellishments or self-delusion—two attributes needed for a good lie. I thought of lies I’d told myself and those I couldn’t anymore.

“What about the light? At the end of the tunnel.”

“Hefty price tag.”

“Suppose I was willing.”

“You sign a disclaimer, I make my commission for the year. Except, pardon my presumption, would your wife have condoned such a purchase?”

I’d have told him to go to hell, but my eyes were blurring, refracting streetlights and turning fireflies into constellations of distant, green fire that swam in streaks and whorls. Maybe loneliness was a part of love, the shadowy twin to the good flame turning in your heart.

I finally said, “I don’t want this light from someone else’s life.” I apologized for wasting his time.

He said it was okay. He arose, wearing a worn smile like it happened all the time.

“Still,” I said, “Thank you. For stopping. I enjoyed it, even for a little while.”

He slipped away quietly. I watched him go, becoming a warm smudge that lingered in my vision even after he was gone.

David Armstrong is the author of the story collections Going Anywhere and Reiterations. His stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science FictionNarrative MagazineMississippi ReviewIron Horse Literary ReviewDesert Companion MagazineBest of Ohio Short Stories, and elsewhere. His short fiction has won the Mississippi Review Prize, Yemassee’s William Richey Short Fiction Contest, the New South Writing Contest, and Jabberwock Review’s Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize for Fiction, among other awards. He is a professor of creative writing at the University of the Incarnate Word, and lives with his wife and his talkative two-year-old son in San Antonio, Texas.

Note

I used to be a film student and a gaffer working lighting on student and independent feature film sets, so I became highly aware of the way light “works,” its colors and intensity, and the way it can paint a moment. I’ve never stopped thinking about light that way. A few years ago, I also stopped at a swap meet where a man was selling old, unopened jars he’d found in a barn—and I wondered at all the things that might be found within. Those two ideas eventually found one another and became this story.

Q&A

With what fictional character would you most love to spend the day?

Eliot Rosewater, no question. If anyone has all the works of Kilgore Trout, it’s him. And I’ve been looking for any Kilgore Trout book—even just one—for the longest time.

What is your favorite day of the week?

Thursday. I write every day of the week, and teach four. But Thursday, I have three unbroken days of writing ahead. Thursday feels like a big, blank page with endless possibilities.

Which movie have you seen over and over again? What keeps you coming back?

Groundhog Day. I love Bill Murray. Also, I used to work in a video store, and I’d play it while I worked. I’ve probably seen that movie fifty times. For some reason it feels like five hundred, but it never gets old.


Flash Fiction

Sarah Ann Winn

Winner of the September 2017 Prime Number Magazine Flash Fiction Contest

Judged by Kathleen McGookey, author of Stay

$251 prize

Followed by a Q&A

Boxwood Fox Hunt

First there were horses, then ghosts of horses.

Things were easy when they grazed in the field at the far edge of the property, near the road.

When we fenced the long field near the boxwood maze, the little blue flowers bloomed. Even when no crocuses appeared, these came onto the green like geese no dog could scatter, through the heat of summer and into the fall, insistent even under the snow. We’d see them in the clearings made by hungry deer, left uneaten.

My car battery died over and over. I’d disconnect the wires, and next time I’d connect everything back up, the battery would be dead. It got so the mechanics would snicker to each other and shoot their eyes sideways when I’d arrive for maintenance. I got a new car, which I couldn’t really afford. Same thing.

The boxwoods thrashed and moaned in all weather, without needing the slightest breeze.

One starry night, lightning struck the one-hundred-year oak and one entire side of it crashed to the ground, just missing the house. The other burnt all night long. Not a single cloud in the sky; still, the smell of disaster was everywhere for days.

Twice, someone smashed every window on the side of the house facing the maze, but nobody heard a thing, even in the bedrooms with broken glass. No earthquakes reported, and the dogs were silent all night. A fist-sized object had gone through each window, and apparently back out again, since nobody could find anything that would have made such a hole. We swept the floors and reported it as vandalism. Nobody wanted to sleep in the house after the second time.

Then there’s the flower garden. Soon as anything got to blooming perfectly, the next day, I’d go out, and every petal would be on the ground, already cut. It was the peonies I minded the most. They’re so big and bright. Some things just like the dark. The possibility of keeping anything from starting.

The locked garden gate always looked undisturbed. Even that morning. Everything was the same except for the trampled jacket. The feel of the heavy flowers, their half crushed heads underfoot. Their fragrant trail bled into the woods.

Sarah Ann Winn’s first full-length book, Alma Almanac, won the 2016 Barrow Street Book Prize, and was published this year by Barrow Street. She is the author of five chapbooks, most recently, Exhibition Catalog from the Grimm Forest Open Air Museum (Yellow Flag, forthcoming). Her writing has appeared in such journals as CodexFive PointsHayden’s Ferry Review,  Massachusetts Review, and Tupelo Quarterly. She currently serves as Reviews Editor for Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and is a poetry editor at Cider Press Review. She lives in Manassas, Virginia, with her husband, two lovely dogs, and one bad cat.

Note

I wrote this piece after a residency at VCCA, where a real boxwood maze, and a stormy night full of ghost stories told by others made me wonder if I could write one, too. This is my first attempt at writing an actual ghost story (though I'd classify many of my poems as ghost story adjacent).

Q&A

With what fictional character would you most love to spend the day?

Lady Sybil Vimes. Terry Pratchett’s loss left me longing for more stories with her as the central figure. She’s such a powerhouse of a character, although offstage for most of the books which really feature her husband. I’m not ready to accept that her "real" storyline was finished by marrying Sam Vimes. Aside from that, any day with her would include laughter, a good cup of tea, and the strong possibility of dragons.

What is your favorite day of the week?

Sunday. It’s the best of both worlds—the work week’s all exciting potential, and I’m well-rested enough to enjoy time with my family.

Which movie have you seen over and over again? What keeps you coming back?

Amelie. Everything that happens in that movie feels right, if not strictly realistic. From the bullying grocer who gets what’s coming to him, to the reclusive glass man’s demonstrations of friendship, to Amelie's quirky kindred spirit quest. Every detail is an interesting puzzle piece, and once it’s assembled, I am always as satisfied as I was the first time I saw the movie.


Flash Fiction

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David E. Yee

Winner of the October 2017 Prime Number Magazine Flash Fiction Contest

Judged by Jeffrey Condran, author of A Fingerprint Repeated and Prague Summer

$251 prize

Followed by a Q&A

Brotherhood

Was told it meant support like sustenance—twin bed soldiers of one body. My older brother had a voice like knuckles, always spoke to me in bruises. I lived to argue. His front teeth crossed like hands holding, and I used to imagine loosing them down his throat. Too-fat kid that festered in his skin; I knew it was hard to be him based on how ashamed I was of his company. That’s not to say he didn’t teach me to throw a punch.  

That snow day, the neighborhood jumped from playground to blizzard drift. My brother leapt and our neighbor, Stephen, cried Avalanche! I stood above, waiting for my turn to fall while they threw fists like generalizations—glancing, yet on the whole, inaccurate. My older brother, doe-legged with exhaustion, tripped, rolling on his back while Stephen booted the earth by his uncapped head.

Against the snow, his curls were my grandma’s curls, his asymmetrical dimple, my mother’s, and my blood tipped with the very violence he’d warmed in me. I’d grown up watching pain mark his face with pocks, yet to intervene meant denying the chance for a kick, not too wounding but hard enough to possibly drain the fury from him. While I lingered, they went home the way boys often do—full of hurt and unscathed.

The cold soaked my boots still frozen to the ledge. From the swing, my younger brother watched me hover, the noise in the chain singing—Cow-ard. Weak-ling. Cow-ard. Weak-ling.

David E. Yee is an Asian American writer currently residing in Columbus, Ohio. Sometimes he misses Baltimore. He has an MFA in Fiction from the Ohio State University where he was an Associate Editor for The Journal. In 2017, he won the New Ohio Review Contest in fiction, judged by Colm Toibin. His work has been published or is forthcoming in American Short FictionSeneca ReviewGulf Coast Online, AGNI Online, and elsewhere.

Q&A

With what fictional character would you most love to spend the day?

Margaret Handle from The Bird Artist. She drinks whisky then shoots at the birds outside her window with a pistol. Regularly.

What is your favorite day of the week?

Whichever day of the week I’m not working.

Which movie have you seen over and over again? What keeps you coming back?

City of God. It’s just visually striking and relentlessly mean.


53-Word Story

Donna Kennedy

Winner of the September 2017 Prime Number Magazine 53-Word Story Contest

Judged by Kelly Kathleen Ferguson, author of My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself

Our Prompt for September 2017

September means school, students with pencils and paper still untouched from last-minute shopping the day before. Students will be schooled by teachers, coaches, and sometimes bullies. Young students may take care of schools of fish in their class’ aquariums. School typically has four semesters, but we all know that school really happens year-round.

Write a 53-word story about school

Prompt.jpg

WINNER

The Shed Is Best by Donna Kennedy

The shed is best. It's forbidden. I step into the space between. Nobody kicks my butt here. Nobody says "Sammy stinks. Run away from Sammy." I stay 'til the playground is empty. I grab a little box from the trash and run home. In my closet, I eat the raisins one by one.

 

Author's 53-word biography

As a journalist and poet, Donna Kennedy learned to write short and to the point. Now flash is her favorite genre. Her feature stories, poetry and flash memoir have appeared in newspapers, anthologies and magazines, in print and online. "The Shed Is Best" was inspired by playground tales told by her fourth-grade grandchildren.


53-Word Story

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Noël Rozny

Winner of the October 2017 Prime Number Magazine 53-Word Story Contest

Judged by Stephanie Carpenter, winner of the 2017 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction for her debut short story collection, Missing Persons

Prompt for October 2017

October is a month of harvest. A month of strange possibilities, magic hitchhiking on the breezes. One last hustle before the ragged rains of November. These are the final sessions on the porch. October is the last stroke of optimism before inevitable rest. A time to raise the dead before interring them again.

Write a 53-word story about bringing something in

WINNER

Homecoming by Noël Rozny

I call one ghost to bring her home. I open windows to the night, light candles, set out her favorites: Hostess cupcakes, sparkly nail polish. A blanket worn down with washings, soft and sheer as a burial veil. Come home, little one. Come home from your wandering, let me put you to bed.

 

Author's 53-word biography

By day, Noël Rozny writes about sand dunes, species restoration, and science. By night, she dips her toes into fictional waters, eats copious amounts of chocolate cake, and howls at the moon. She is grateful for the simultaneous challenges and opportunities presented by flash fiction exercises. This is her first published short story.


53-Word Story

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Lorri McDole

Winner of the November 2017 Prime Number Magazine 53-Word Story Contest

Judged by our most-excellent fall intern, Sarah York, a Wake Forest University senior, who awarded Lorri a copy of Baby's on Fire by Liz Prato.

Prompt for November 2017

Nothing lasts forever, except for energy. Science says that energy cannot be created or destroyed, and it also says that everything is energy, so everything lasts forever. But there is one thing I can think of that doesn’t last forever: an internship at Press 53 and Prime Number Magazine. That is only temporary.

Write a 53-word story about something temporary

Prompt November.jpg

WINNER

The Little Transient by Lorri McDole

At Evan’s first birthday party, Sarah and her ex-boyfriend opened his presents like grownups. They smiled at the guests and each other but were careful not to touch elbows or fingers or knees. Still children themselves, they didn’t notice their cherub toddling away, a knife in one hand and scissors in the other.

 

Author’s 53-word biography

Lorri McDole’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The WriterCleaverSweetThe OffingFlash Nonfiction FunnyNew MadridEclectica, and Brain, Child. Her essay “Storms of the Circus World,” which was a finalist for the Talking Writing Prize for Personal Essay, was nominated for a 2017 Best of the Net Award.


Poetry

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Cynthia Atkins

(Photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher)

Selected by Guest Poetry Editor Seth Michelson

Followed by Bio and Q&A

Tree of Life                

               A silence already filled with noises

                                                                         —John Ashbery

You came without instructions.

No cardboard box or Marshall Plan

to speak of— Only the birds balancing

like robed nuns on a hymnal of branches.

These limbs are the windows, a contour

of unplanned townships, each municipal

self you have lost along the way.  

No flow charts provided, not a scintilla

of evidence to explain why you are not

welcome at each threshold, where a hateful

Sheriff stands at an electric fence.

No testimonials as to how to derail

this anguish of breathing, of losing.  

No dress rehearsal for the birth canal—

Down the laundry chute into

a dentist’s chair.  No bark or breastmilk

to fend off the savages, or how to fasten a kerchief

to your warrior heart on the brink? 

No columns or asterisks— Only these stars

in a jar, and the fireflies you captured

in the dark, when your boy cousin

led you into the crawlspace where

your ancestors hid their crowns

of madness— No small print to explain

the army of combatants.  Who could know

the pathos of an heirloom, the bully

genes that allow you to sing, or gush

or cry.  They millined you a hat of mood swings.  

Where are the commandments

stitched in.  Where is the compass between

sky and the earth?— Seeded to the roots

of this huge machine, pelt and pen, threaded

needle through the multi-tiered forest floor. 

Cynthia Atkins is the author of Psyche’s Weathers and In The Event of Full Disclosure. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including, Alaska Quarterly Review, BOMB, Cleaver Magazine, Cultural Weekly, Del Sol Review, Florida Review, Green Mountains Review, Hermeneutic Chaos, Le Zaporogue, North American Review, Prime Number Magazine, Seneca Review, Tampa Review, Tinderbox, Thrush, Valparaiso Review and Verse Daily. She was formerly the assistant director for the Poetry Society of America, and has taught English and Creative Writing, most recently at Blue Ridge Community College, where she curates a quarterly Reading Series, Lit-Salon. Atkins earned her MFA from Columbia University and fellowships and prizes from Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, The Writer’s Voice, and Writers@Work. Atkins lives on the Maury River of Rockbridge County, Virginia. More work and info on her website or Facebook.

Note

A few days after John Ashbery died, I began an homage poem to his "Some Trees," which has always been a kind of prayer poem for me.

Q&A

With what fictional character would you most love to spend the day?

I would love to spend the day with Molly Bloom—I love her sass and vinegar and would love to clink 'n bitch with her—

What is your favorite day of the week?

I like Thursdays—not quite the weekend, but the beginning of the anticipation—I like the preamble! 

Which movie have you seen over and over again? What keeps you coming back?

Cinema Paradiso and Big Fish—great balance of sappy, brilliant, beautiful and profane—both these films make me cry and weep and laugh and cry some more—cinematography, music score, actors, story, plot, love.


Poetry

Daniel H. Dugas

Selected by Guest Poetry Editor Seth Michelson

Followed by Bio and Q&A

The Mountain (Dance of Shadows)

 

At first, the sight of the mountain is enigmatic, like the monolith in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. It surprises us in its immensity, its completeness. Slowly, the landform becomes a marker on the horizon, a signal in the plain, helping us find our way. The mountain helps us situate ourselves in relation to the universe; we understand the mountain and ourselves spatially. Little by little, we get closer to it and one day we are walking in its foothills. Everything beautiful. Life shoots out from all directions passing through us like a warm wind. We are carried toward the slopes and the cliffs, quickly climbing to the top. After seeing what the world looks like from that perspective we understand where we are, what we are. And then, it’s time to rearrange the world, to move the mountain. We get our shovels. We scoop the whole thing further down the road, so to speak, transforming each shadow along the way. Our territory and our condition are reshaped at once. In the dust storm of visions, the mountain becomes wild again. We learn to tame it one more time, we learn its place and ours in the shifting universe. The renewed immensity of the rock makes the climb daunting. For the first time, it seems an impossible task to accomplish. Even the sight of the mountain is too difficult to bear. We are exhausted, dwarfed, lying down in the grass, looking up, breathless. We remove ourselves from its edge, one foot at a time. A stroll in the foothills suffices until even that becomes too consuming. To look at it from a house, from inside a room is all we can do. We have no more energy to give the mountain and the mountain is reluctant to invite us, probably detecting our weakness. We realize that the center of the world has transformed itself into the threshold of all worlds. The mountain disappears before our eyes. There is no trace of nervousness or willingness.

Daniel H. Dugas (b. Montreal, Quebec) is a poet, videographer and musician who has participated in solo and group exhibitions as well as festivals and literary events internationally. His ninth book of poetry: L’esprit du temps / The Spirit of the Time was published in December 2015 through Éditions Prise de parole, Ontario, Canada.

Note

“The Mountain (dance of shadows)” was not written for any particular mountain, but a walk around Uluṟu in Australia was the key inspiration.

Q&A

With what fictional character would you most love to spend the day?

Bouvard et Pécuchet by Flaubert – the two characters. There would be no dull moments.

What is your favorite day of the week?

Wednesday. It can be swayed either way, to the beginning or the end of the week. It is a day of ambiguity and possibilities.

Which movie have you seen over and over again? What keeps you coming back?

Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. What keeps me coming back? The zone.


Poetry

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Lukas Ray Hall

Selected by Guest Editor Seth Michelson

Followed by Bio and Q&A

after drinking

 

 

The lawn littered with aluminum & my brother

swinging on his forefinger, a pistol,

 

like a child’s toy. My brother

slurs the pistol towards me, asks again

 

why are you scared of me now?

 

I imagine a gap on my nose

where it would enter, where it would

 

unspool my face, where even if

he wanted to, he couldn’t help.

 

I’m only joking, he turns towards

the moon-lit-silver bark of the trees

 

& clicks the trigger.

The woods gleam with the bullet’s rush.

 

The howl cleaves the birds from the sap,

the hardwood. I, he laughs, honestly,

 

didn’t know if it was loaded, sits back down,

next to me & rubs my shoulder, with it still

 

in his hand. The barrel’s warm O,

against the back of my cheek.

Lukas Ray Hall, born & raised near the Twin Cities, holds an MFA from Pacific University. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Midway JournalMoon City ReviewAtlanta Review and Florida Review, among others. He won the Patsy Lea Core Memorial Award in Creative Writing for his poetry. He currently lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

Note

You are more likely to use a firearm against a family member than a criminal or intruder.

Q&A

With what fictional character would you most love to spend the day?

Major Major Major Major because I would get great joy out of saying his name all day.

What is your favorite day of the week?

You know, Tuesday doesn't get enough love. It’s not as glamorous as Friday, sure, but it’s definitely not a Monday either. 

Which movie have you seen over and over again? What keeps you coming back?

Jurassic Park because I like that scene where the dinosaur does that one thing.


Poetry

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Gail Wronsky

Selected by Guest Editor Seth Michelson

Followed by Bio and Q&A

Historians of the Defeat

               after the election

 

There is a malady here.  It sparkles in a kind of haziness, has a homespun fragrance, arranges its facets in a pleasant enough manner.  But come the victory celebrations, how unconsoling for those of us in the opposition.  What a hurry-up to a pointless end.

The defeat was a death in disguise.  For others it was stolen life.

There is no bottom to this defeat, no ceiling.  At the end of all of our detours it is there, stewing in its domination, in the shiny spittle it left in the mouths of its cannons.

Our poets utter laments, remember the times they envisioned the silhouettes of elephants, or of children, the times that waterfalls offered epiphanies.  They wish to remain unknown, cut off from their resources, to wait for the coming warming.

Cruel people, the ones who made these invisible barricades.

Cruel beauties, lying in their beds alone, having brought to the table nothing but subterfuge and compromises.

The planet we are born on is sad.

I bind myself to a dying palm tree.  In this position at least I am ungovernable.  I am the fetched burnt grass in your disarticulated hand.

Gail Wronsky is the author, coauthor, or translator of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including Imperfect Pastorals, published by What Books Press in 2017.  She lives in Topanga, California.

Note

I tried to imagine what Walt Whitman would think of Donald Trump, and came up with the image of “burnt grass” in a “disarticulated hand.” The ruined earth, the disenfranchised people . . .

Q&A

With what fictional character would you most love to spend the day?

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.  I love the gender-bending quality of this character, and also his/her ability to live through centuries.

What is your favorite day of the week?

Tuesday.  I like the sound of it:  tooooz-day, and I was born on a Tuesday.

Which movie have you seen over and over again? What keeps you coming back?

Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet, because of its over-the-top baroque imagery, and of course, Shakespeare’s language. It’s a real feast for the eyes and ears and brain.


Short Fiction

Sharon Goldberg.jpg

Sharon Goldberg

Selected by Guest Editor John Matthew Fox, author of I Will Shout Your Name

Followed by Q&A

Tempting the Serpent

 

The summer after I turned sixteen, Mama forced me to live with Granny and the God-fearing Pentecostal snake handlers in Sparrowville, Tennessee. She said I was headed to hell in a handbag. Had no sense. Was likely to end up in jail or pregnant and she didn’t know which was worse. Most of all, she believed I was a bad influence on my thirteen-year-old sister Heather who was sassing back, sneaking cigarettes, and looking to me as a role model. It was 1990, before texts and tweets, before the Amish and polygamists starred on reality shows, before the Bible Belters preached and blogged on the Internet like everyone else. Mama was desperate. And to tell the truth, she was right.

“You don’t care about anyone but yourself,” she said.

I was mad as a hornet to be wrested from my friends in Charlotte and exiled to that tiny town in Appalachia where Mama grew up.”

“You’d be wise to use the time for soul searching,” she said.

“There’s nothing wrong with my soul,” I said. “I’ll run away.”

“Where to?”

I didn’t have an answer.

I packed some clothes, my Walkman, cassettes, and guitar. I figured I’d serve my sentence writing songs about misery that I’d record when I was a famous country singer and get revenge on Mama. We dropped my sister at a friend’s house and drove north through Gastonia and Henderson and Asheville. Through Smoky Mountain forests and Podunk mountain towns. Through miles of kudzu and roller coaster hills. For three and-a-half hours, I didn’t speak a word.

~ ~ ~

We’d visited Granny—and Grandpa before he died—every few years. Mama wasn’t keen on spending time in Sparrowville. She’d grown up in the Holiness Church with Signs Following and told us what they believed, including the Bible passage Mark 16:18. “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” But Mama was a backslider. She’d turned away from their strict way of life when she met Papa and ran off and got married. “He could charm the feathers off a chicken,” she said. Papa’s version of marriage didn’t include fidelity, so Mama kicked him out when I was eight. I didn’t see him again until I had children of my own. Even though she’d liberalized, Mama was still a religious woman. She dragged my sister and me to a Baptist Church until I flat-out refused to go. She believed in the power of the Holy Ghost. She believed in salvation. She believed in miracles. She said it would take one to turn me around. Music was my religion, I told her, and not church music.

~ ~ ~

Granny lived in the first of four houses on a dead-end street. Hers was yellow with black shutters, a neatly mowed lawn, petunias in front, and a garden in back where she grew tomatoes, squash, corn, and black-eyed peas. Next door, the house was shabby, the grass parched and straggly and junked with a rusty truck, old refrigerator, and broken toilet. Granny was nice to the neighbors anyway. She welcomed us with a big smile that revealed she’d lost three teeth.

“Well, look at you, Angela!” Granny hugged me, then my mother.

“How you doing, Mama?”

“The Lord’s been good to me, Ellie. I got no complaints.”

Granny was a simple woman, a kind woman, a generous woman. She was in her early fifties, but to me she looked old. Like all Holiness women, she wore no make-up, no jewelry, and a long skirt. Her gray hair was gathered in a ponytail that hung to her waist; she hadn’t cut it since she declared herself for the Lord. My hair then was Meg Ryan-short with platinum streaks; my wardrobe sexy-grunge. Trashy, Mama said.

“Go wash up,” Granny said. “Dinner is almost ready. I made us some pot roast and corn bread. Peach pie for dessert.”

The house was kitschy, cutesy, spit-and-polish clean. White lace curtains framed the living room windows. A coffee table Grandpa had carved from a maple slab sat in front of an overstuffed plaid sofa and matching chair. A six-point buck head hung in the center of one wall flanked by childhood photos of Mama and Uncle Jimmy, who’d moved to Kentucky, and of Grandpa and Jimmy handling serpents. I’d stared at those pictures every time we visited, fascinated and frightened. I knew Mama had never handled, although Granny had a few times. I’d touched snakes at petting zoos and in the woods, but never poisonous snakes.

During dinner I was polite and gave up on the silent treatment. I knew Mama wouldn’t relent; I could only make things worse. She stayed just one night, anxious to get back to work and Heather.

“Good-bye, honey,” Mama said, her eyes moist. “If you change your ways, you can come home early. If you take responsibility for your actions and show you understand consequences.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“It’s for you to figure out.”

I settled my belongings in the bedroom that had been Mama’s: small, pink, furnished with a single bed, double dresser, and a hooked rug. Her graduation photo smiled on the dresser as if the eighteen-year-old who’d left might return. I wondered if Mama was, in part, using me to make up for her backsliding.

~ ~ ~

The next day when I woke, Granny was reading the Bible. She read it every day and she believed every word. After breakfast, we drove into town to buy groceries, bumping along in her Ford pick-up. We passed a video store, a tanning salon, a beauty shop, three bars, Billy’s BBQ—“Best in Baxter County”—and a bunch of thrift stores, one holding a sidewalk sale. Granny parked in the lot next to Food Mart. Two boys around my age leaned against a truck and drank beer. They looked me up and down. I smiled and waved.

“You can get into trouble if you want,” Granny said, “but it won’t help your cause none.” 

I turned away from the boys.

When we got back to the house, I helped Granny with chores. We weeded the garden and we washed the kitchen floor. I did not complain. I was a child earning gold stars for good behavior. How many would it take to win my way home? After we finished, Granny said she was fixin’ to go to church.

“You’re welcome to come along.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Sure you got a choice. You’re sixteen. I can’t make you go. You’ve got to come to God on your own.”

I didn’t have anything else to do and I was curious about the snakes.

We rode down a gravel road to a one-story, white clapboard building with a plain, wooden cross on top: The Full Gospel Church in Jesus Christ’s Name. Marigolds lined the walkway. Old Rock River ran behind the church and poplar trees loomed on the opposite shore. A sign posted next to the door listed church rules and the numbers of the Bible verses supporting them: No gossiping. No tale bearing. No lying. No backbiting. No bad language. No tobacco users. Men not allowed to have long hair, moustache, or beard. Men not allowed to wear short sleeves. Women not allowed to wear short sleeves, jewelry, or makeup. Women not allowed to cut hair or wear dresses above the knee. Applies to members, visitors excluded.

I didn’t like rules.

Inside, a dozen rows of pews led to a raised platform, a wooden pulpit in the center. A sign on the back wall read “Jesus Made The World.” Twenty or so people had already gathered. They embraced and chatted. Granny introduced me around. The people called her MaMaw.

“This is Angela, Ellie’s daughter.”

“Welcome,” Sister Lydia said. She was blond and pretty and held a sleeping baby on her shoulder. She didn’t look any older than me.

“So glad you’ve come to worship with us,” Sister Sarah said. She wore a long, denim jumper and her chestnut hair was gathered in a bun. “I grew up with your Mama.”

“Sarah is the pastor’s wife,” Granny said.

I nodded. More folks drifted in. No one looked askance at my hair or mini skirt or lipstick or dangly earrings.

On the platform, two men tuned guitars and another fiddled with a microphone. To their right, a girl about ten, wearing a lavender cotton dress, sat at a piano.

“Brother Porter is the pastor.” Granny pointed to the big man with the microphone. He wore a long-sleeved, royal blue shirt that strained over his belly.

“That’s his daughter Melody at the piano. The man with red hair is Brother Ray. And the young man up there, that’s Travis, Porter’s son. Just turned nineteen. He’ll be pastor one day.”

Travis was slim, broad shouldered, and handsome, his sandy hair shorter than I liked.

“Where are the snakes?”

Granny pointed at two boxes next to the pulpit—flat, wooden, with clear lids.

We settled in a pew in the middle of the church. More folks migrated in and filled seats, children in back.

Brother Porter stood behind the pulpit.

“How many’s ready for a good time in the Lord tonight?” he shouted. “How many’s ready to have church tonight?”

“We’s ready!” a man in front of me said.

“Amen!”

Porter nodded at Melody and the musicians struck the first chord of a hymn. The current pulsing through the guitars seemed to ignite the worshippers.

Travis sang, his voice clear and joyful.

                    Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power?
                    Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
                    Are you fully trusting in his grace this hour?
                    Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Brother Porter paced and snapped his fingers to the music. The congregation sang along, some people raising their hands toward heaven as if they could feel the presence of God like the direction of the wind. Lydia and Sarah scurried to the front of the platform, shoeless, and danced a country clog step. A woman behind me banged a tambourine. Soon I was in the center of a swell of worshippers who rocked, swooned, swayed, wailed, twirled, clapped, hopped, and stamped their feet. Even the kids jumped around. Next to me, a woman spoke in tongues, babbling weird words, her eyes glazed, transported somewhere only she could see. The music boomed louder, frenzied, vibrating, the church suffused with sound, as if any non-believer’s thoughts could be suffocated; as if Satan, should he exist, would not find a single molecule of oxygen to fan his fire.

In unison, the musicians segued into “I’ll Fly Away.” I sang along and clapped. I could see how a person might get caught up in the fervor.

Brother Porter bent down and opened one of the serpent boxes. He reached in and grabbed a tangle of skinny, yellow snakes, each one about three feet long. He raised them above his head and they writhed. A man wearing overalls, his hair wispy and white, stepped onto the platform, Porter’s father Dewey, I later learned. Porter handed the serpents to Dewey and he cradled them to his chest as if they were kittens. I cringed. Dewey handed the snakes back to Porter and he returned them to the box. Travis laid down his guitar. He reached into the second box and pulled out a thick striped snake. It rose straight up, forked tongue darting in and out. Travis was brave, I thought. Or stupid. What if one got loose? No wonder the kids stayed back. Travis put the thing back in the box.

Porter preached, microphone in hand.

“Ohhhh I am feeling the Lord here today!”

“Hallelujah!”

“You know He is a powerful God, a mighty God, a merciful God. There is no higher power. Do you feel Him?”

“We feel Him!” 

“He’s a God who can do all things.”

“Yes He can!”

“King Darius threw Daniel in the lion’s den. But God sent an angel to shut the mouths of the lions and Daniel WAS NOT HURT!”

“No!”

“The Lord works miracles. I call to Him and He is always there. Just like He was for Daniel.”

“Tell it like it is!”

“One day I’m gonna fight my final battle. Ain’t no escapin’ that.”

“No there ain’t!”

“But when it comes, I pray I’m ready. Ready for Judgement Day.”

“Amen.”

Sweat glistened on Porter’s forehead. I watched Travis. He nodded. He amened. He hallelujahed. Porter preached on. The singing, the telling of Bible stories, the quoting of Bible passages went on for two more hours. Sister Linda swooned to the floor. Sister Grace testified God had cleared the fog of her depression. Brother Conrad suffered from emphysema and a healing circle formed around him. I did not believe the circle would cure a man who could barely breathe. Finally, the service ended. Granny introduced me to Porter and Travis.

“You take after your Mama,” the pastor said. “Just as pretty.” The index finger of his right hand was black and shriveled.

“Thank you.” I lowered my eyes, feigning shyness.

“Welcome,” Travis said. “We’re right fond of your MaMaw.

“Oh, now. . . ,” she said.

“When Mama got pneumonia last winter, MaMaw never left her side.”

I smiled. I wondered if he and every other church member knew I was living with Granny because I was headed to hell in a handbag.

On our way home, Granny looked content.

“Maybe one day you’ll be saved and give your life to Jesus.” She patted my hand.

“Maybe.”

If Mama believed I was saved, would she let me come home? The next morning I told Granny I wanted to read the Bible. A few days later I stopped wearing lipstick and earrings. I decided to let my hair grow out. I was an accomplished liar, but how soon was too soon to “see the light”?

~ ~ ~

June lumbered on hotter than blue blazes and Granny didn’t have an air conditioner. I missed my friends, I missed my sister. I even missed Mama. I missed movies, the mall, and the beach. Church three times a week and Sunday potlucks weren’t my picture of a good time—Jesus freaks and no beer. But the setting soothed me. I took to walking there, sitting in a shaded spot on the river bank, and working on my music. I’d spill out my anger, my loneliness, my rebellion. One Wednesday, before services, I was singing about a boy I thought I’d loved, a boy I’d had sex with, when Travis strolled over. He wore faded jeans, a blue work shirt, and a red baseball cap. He carried a can of paint. I stopped mid-verse.

“Don’t quit on my account.” He stood there.

I finished the song.

“That’s pretty. Never heard it before.”

“Thanks. I wrote it.”

“I write some, too.” He sat next to me and put down the paint can. He smelled like wet grass and turpentine.

I handed him my guitar. “Play something.”

He sang about God and glory, his rich baritone warming the words.

“Your voice is beautiful.” I rested my hand on his arm.

He blushed and moved his arm away. “It’s a gift from the Lord.”

“Play the song again.”

He did and I harmonized.

“Do you only sing gospel?”

“Now, yeah.” He chuckled. “I used to hang out on a corner with some guys and play Hank Williams Jr. and Johnny Cash. Put out a hat. Spent what we got on whiskey.”

“Really?”

“Yup. Before I committed to The Lord, I was a wild one.”

“Too bad you aren’t anymore.” I nudged his shoulder with mine.

Travis inched away.

“Maybe we could write together sometime.”

He squinted his right eye, moss green.

“Something gospel.”

“Uh. . .sure.”

“I’m usually here before church.”

“Sounds good.” He looked at his watch. “I’d best get to painting those steps.”

~ ~ ~

July sweltered in and slogged on. More weeding and scrubbing. More preaching and praying. More call and response. More healing circles and testifying and laying on of hands. How much longer must I pretend I was opening my heart to the Lord? Serpents were handled at some services but not all. I still thought the ritual was bizarre, but no longer shocking. I learned the snakes were copperheads, cottonmouths, and rattlers, whatever people caught in the hollows and hills and woods. Brother Porter liked to swing them over his head like a lasso. Brother Ray draped them over his shoulder like a shawl. Dewey was partial to grabbing a handful—three, four, ten at a time, their bodies a wriggling mass like Medusa’s head. No one got bit.

If I handled a serpent would I get bit?

Travis and I met up and wrote music. I figured I could reuse the melodies with different lyrics. I played some of our songs for Granny.

“I can hear your joy in the Lord,” she said, happy as a dead pig in the sunshine. More gold stars.

I was attracted to Travis and I could tell he was attracted to me. But he never made a move. Maybe he was waiting to see if I’d commit to his way of life. Maybe he sensed I had no intention of sticking around one day longer than I had to. I liked being with him. We talked about his job driving a coal truck like his daddy and grandpa. We talked about Charlotte. He’d never been there. Or Atlanta. Or Nashville. He’d traveled mostly to other Appalachian churches where his father, a kind of Holiness celebrity, was invited to preach.

“Don’t you want to see other places?” I said

“I got what I need. My family. My church. These folks would do anything for me. I’d do anything for them. When I get married, I’ll raise my kids here.”

I picked a puffy white dandelion. “How come you handle serpents at church sometimes and sometimes you don’t?”

“I don’t handle unless I’m anointed, a vessel of the Lord. I may want to bad. But that ain’t enough.”

I blew fuzz in his direction. “What’s it feel like, being anointed?”

Travis inhaled as if he were smelling fresh-baked corn bread.

“My heart starts a-pounding and I can’t keep still. I feel tingly head to toe. So much joy. I feel plumb out of this world. Nothin’ feels better.”

“Nothing?” I leaned toward him, my lips a whisper from his.

He turned away. “Nothin’.” He gazed at the poplars. “I remember the first time. I knew I was ready. I closed my eyes and when I opened them, my Grandpaw was standing in front of me with a big, fat copperhead. ‘This is for you, if you want it,’ he said. I took it and I raised it over my head. It felt smooth, like velvet.”

“Velvet. . . .”

“Now when I feel the spirit I go to the box and get ’em out. When the Lord calls, you’ve got to obey.”

“Aren’t you scared?”

“If you wait for the Lord, there’s no fear in it.”

“You could get bit. You could die.”

“I could. Daddy’s been bit seven times. Six of ’em he only got numb or swollen for a little bit. But once was different.” Travis grimaced. “He was handling a little yellow timber rattler and the serpent raised his head, opened his mouth, and grabbed Daddy’s index finger. Hard.”

I shivered.

“It was the worst pain Daddy ever felt. We took him home and watched over him. We prayed for seven days. His finger swoll up like an onion. The venom ate into his skin and muscle, down to the bone. That’s why his finger is shriveled to this day.”

“Didn’t he go to the hospital?”

“Daddy would never go to no hospital. Neither would I if I got bit in church. It’s up to God.”

“That’s crazy.”

“Not to us. Daddy said he knowed he was gonna suffer but he weren’t gonna die. He said he’d been bit ’cause he done something he shouldn’t have done. The Lord was punishing him but he knowed the Lord would heal him.”

“What if he doesn’t heal you?”

“If it’s my appointed time to go, that’s how it is. God’s will. He decides the day, the hour, the minute. If it’s not my time, the Lord will protect me.”

I was not convinced. But I wondered how it felt to be plumb out of this world.

~ ~ ~

August first came and went. Granny was waylaid with a bad cough, the first signs of the cancer that would eventually kill her. I needed to make a move if I was going to salvage any of my vacation. The next Saturday, I decided, would be the day I’d get saved. Then I could be baptized on Sunday before services. I had to be convincing. I pumped Travis for information.

“When people say they hear the voice of the Lord and speak in tongues, how do you know they aren’t faking?”

“Why would they do that?”

“To fit in, maybe. How would anyone know?”

“God would know.” He looked me in the eyes. “That’s all that matters.”

“Right.”

That night when Granny was asleep, I practiced speaking in tongues.

~ ~ ~

The Saturday service began, as usual, with Melody at the piano and Travis, Ray, and Porter on the platform. Travis spoke into the microphone.

“This here’s a song Angela and me wrote together.”

Granny squeezed my hand and Travis sang.

                    He always answers when I call.

                    He knows I need him most of all.

                    He hears my heartbeat, he feels my sorrow

                    The Lord he listens to us all.

Travis sang two more verses then launched into “Tell It to Jesus.” The worshippers joined in. Porter snapped his fingers and paced, but he looked troubled, as if disturbing thoughts churned inside him. He settled behind the pulpit.

“Ohhhh, I am feeling a dark presence here tonight. I feel the devil scratching at the door. I knowwww there are sinners among us.”

That was my cue. I closed my eyes and I rocked.

“There are those that feel the grip of Satan. THEY ARE HURTING! But the Lord is more powerful than any demon.” Porter paused and scanned his flock. “Who among you is ready to break free? Who among you is ready to take the hand of Jesus? To feel the Lord’s sweet embrace?”

I sprang from my seat. I made myself cry. I pretended I felt God’s love guiding me to the altar. I sank to my knees in front of the pulpit.

“Dear Lord Jesus, I’m a sinner!”

Granny appeared at my side. I intoned the words I’d practiced in my bedroom. “I believe you died for my sins on the cross.”

“Amen!” Granny said.

“I believe you rose from the dead to give me eternal life. I reject Satan.” I wailed. “I ask you to come into my heart and forgive my sins. I accept you as my Lord and savior.”

“Hallelujah!” Granny said.

I babbled nonsense syllables mixed with real words, what I hoped sounded like speaking in tongues. Porter crouched next to me and placed his hands on my shoulders.

“Get thee gone, Satan!” he said. “Praise the Lord!”

I felt a tingling come over me, but it passed.

The next day, I donned one of Granny’s denim jumpers and waded into Old Rock River. As the congregation watched, Brother Porter baptized me in the name of Jesus Christ. I emerged from the water soggy and grinning like a possum eating a sweet potato. Granny, Sister Sarah, and Sister Lydia embraced me. Travis looked suspicious—that squinted right eye—but no one else did. For sure, I thought, Granny would tell Mama I’d reformed and could go home. Monday afternoon while we shucked peas, our fingers stained blue, I broached the subject.

“I’m homesick, Granny. Do you think I could go back to Charlotte? I’ve changed.”

“That you have, Angela.” Granny considered. “But I think a few more weeks here would do you good.”

I smiled and nodded, but I was pissed. What more could I do to prove I was a good girl, a righteous girl, a responsible girl? I was sick of pretending and I was running out of summer. If I handled a serpent, would that convince Granny? At services the next day, I watched closely when Porter or Travis or anyone else picked up a snake.

~ ~ ~

I chose Sunday, August twelfth, Granny’s birthday, as the day I would handle a serpent. A nice present for Granny. A ticket out of Sparrowville for me. I sat by her side in the pew, a good little Holiness girl dressed in a long, floral print dress she’d bought for me.

Porter, Travis, Melody, and Ray took their places on the platform. Dewey sat in his spot in the front row. On Porter’s signal, Travis and Ray strummed their guitars. I kicked off my shoes and scuttled to the platform with Lydia and Sarah. We danced and raised our arms to the heavens. Dewey stood and stomped his feet. Porter opened the serpent box and uncoiled a long, black cottonmouth and draped it over his shoulders. Dewey stepped toward him. Porter lifted the serpent and passed it to Dewey who raised it high in one hand. The cottonmouth’s pink tongue flicked in and out. I danced closer to Dewey and I saw Travis watching me. I looked into Dewey’s eyes. He lowered his hand and offered the serpent.

“This is for you, if you want it.”

My heart pounded but not because I was anointed. Was I tempting fate? Was I wrong to trifle with something sacred? I stared at the serpent’s triangular head, the cat-like pupils of his eyes. Did I hear it hiss? I held out my hands. In a flash, Travis was between Dewey and me. He grabbed the serpent.

The cottonmouth lifted its head and sunk its fangs into Travis’s forearm. It dug in and wouldn’t let go. I screamed. Porter swooped in. He undid the snake’s fangs and put it back in the box. Travis collapsed on the floor. Four holes in his arm squirted blood. Porter and Ray lifted him and carried him out of the church, Sarah at their side, their friends crying and covering the eyes of their children.

I wept. Travis could die. It was my fault.

Granny and I and the others gathered at Porter’s house.

“The first forty-eight hours are the most critical,” Porter said. “If my boy survives that, we can breathe easier.”

Travis moaned. He vomited slimy, black liquid. His arm swelled clear into his chest. Would it shrivel like his Daddy’s finger?

We prayed by his side, taking turns, for seven days. I prayed to the God Travis believed in. I prayed for mercy, for grace, for salvation. I prayed for a miracle. I prayed this was not Travis’s appointed time to die. I promised if he lived, I would never pretend to be saved or anointed again. I promised I would try my hardest not to cause anyone pain.

Finally, the swelling subsided and Travis began to heal.

~ ~ ~

I called Mama and told her about Travis getting bit. I told her it could have been me. I begged her to let me come home. I told her I’d changed and Granny vouched for me. I still had two weeks before school started, but I’d lost my taste for parties and mischief. I just wanted to get away from Sparrowville. Away from the church. Away from the serpents.

I went to see Travis to say good-bye. To apologize. To admit my sin. He had regained his strength and was ready to return to work.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “So sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” he said. “I chose to handle the serpent even though I wasn’t anointed.”

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t believe you were. I knew if you got bit, you could die. I believed the Lord would protect me.

My heart wept. I didn’t deserve his kindness.

~ ~ ~

I didn’t go back to Sparrowville until Granny died three years later. I was a college sophomore then, majoring in music, still hoping to be a famous country singer. After the funeral, at the church’s hilltop cemetery, Travis introduced Mama and me to his wife Janelle. She was petite and sweet. He introduced us to their two-year-old son, Cody. The boy had Travis’s green eyes and Janelle’s black hair. Later, at Granny’s house, Travis approached me.

“I’ll miss MaMaw. She was a good woman.”

“She was good to me.”

“She’s with the Lord now, for eternity.”

I nodded to be polite.

“How’s your music?”

“Coming along. I wrote a song about you.”

“Oh. . . that’s nice.” He shifted his weight. “Well, you take care, Angela.”

“You, too.”

He joined his family and they said their good-byes. I watched as he walked out the door, little Cody in his arms, Janelle at his side. His God was still protecting him.

Sharon Goldberg is a Seattle writer who was an advertising copywriter in a former life. Her work has appeared/is forthcoming in The Gettysburg ReviewNew LettersThe Louisville ReviewCold Mountain ReviewUnder the SunChicago Quarterly ReviewThe Antigonish ReviewThe Dalhousie ReviewGold Man Review, three fiction anthologies, and elsewhere. Sharon won second place in On the Premises’s 2012 Humor Contest and Fiction Attic Press's 2013 Flash in the Attic Contest. She is an avid but cautious skier and enthusiastic world traveler.

Note

I first learned about the practice of handling poisonous snakes as religious ritual when I read an article about Jamie Coots, a Pentecostal pastor in Kentucky who died after he was bitten by a rattlesnake during a service. I’m intrigued by behavior that falls outside the norm and wanted to know more. Once I got past my judgements about the practice and people who believed in it, I realized that the environment offered a rich context in which to explore the boundaries of faith and responsibility.

Q&A

With what fictional character would you most love to spend the day?

Marie-Laure LeBlanc from Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. She navigates Paris and survives World War II although blind and in grave danger. I’d like to see the city, before the war, through her eyes.

What is your favorite day of the week?

Saturday. It’s when my partner Arnie and I are most likely to spend time with friends or family at dinner, at a film, on the slopes, or on a beach.

Which movie have you seen over and over again? What keeps you coming back?

I don’t tend to see movies over and over, but one that I don’t tire of is Dirty Dancing. A coming-of-age story that’s romantic, steamy, funny, with a serious undercurrent and killer music and dancing. “No one puts baby in the corner.” Yeah!


Short Fiction

Richard Morrissette.jpg

Richard Morrissette

Selected by Guest Editor John Matthew Fox, author of I Will Shout Your Name

Followed by Q&A

D.C. al Coda

 

They liked to call me spic instead of Alejandro. It wasn’t a term of endearment; they did it when I walked out of the club, when they refused to pay me after I played jazz for three hours, when they passed me on the street in the wrong neighborhood. In the ‘fuck you Latin boy, don’t come back’ kind of way. I always just spat back at them, “Think of better insults! You just mad because I can spic two languages, assholes!”

That’s where spic came from you know. It ain’t even that creative.

~ ~ ~

 I tell this thing to my jazz class when they first come in. That loses me some of them, those sheepish types that come in with their first trumpet getting rusty. They haven’t played since they got out of those cramped little Tribeca schools and Midtown townhouses. The ones that stay are the ones I care about: the cats growing up in the Bushwick apartments before the rent hike, the East Harlemites, Spanish Harlem.

They’re my kind of cats.

Doesn’t mean they don’t have their issues too. They give me a lotta shit and hellfire when I tell them: ‘That machista attitude?’ It stays outside. You Latin lover boy types can saunter down Madison Avenue in your unbuttoned shirts and your shined shoes, but not here. I know you’re movin’ from your first woman’s place—let’s call her su mujer numero uno, perhaps numero dos if you aren’t feeling it that day—and you’ll be movin’ right along until you get to the second house, or the third, and all your little mujeres would be lining up and shouting down at you to ‘come on up a while, why don’t you?’ You can do that all you want on the street, but not through my door. You better believe I’ll put you on your ass.

~ ~ ~

 I had to do that once. This punk came in just like I said, slicked hair, shirt breaking itself into two halves over his fuckin’ chest, it was so tight. He came in holding the most dinged up trumpet I’d seen in my life. He held it by the bell as far away from his perfect shirt as possible. This dude didn’t want to get the spit of the thing on him, cuz’ it wasn’t even his horn, I could tell. He comes in and he sights up his target immediately, little Elise messing with her clarinet in the corner of our dance floor. I call it the dance floor because that is exactly what it fuckin’ is, an old ballet studio that I fill with el ritmo y la música every Tuesday night.

He saunters over to her—they always have to saunter, man, and he starts chatting her up and she can’t play straight with him there. I don’t jump to any conclusions, I can’t have it said that Alejandro (just Ali, actually) doesn’t give nobody the benefit of the doubt. They coulda been talking about that Miles Davis piece she’d been jamming on. Maybe they’d get to talkin’ about the Tijuana Brass, what I played on record, the class piled into my studio.

He didn’t do it though. He put down the trumpet that was his and not his and he puts an arm around her waist and leans in to whisper right in her blonde curls. She knew who he was too, oh, man, did she know him, but she didn’t want to see him so I put down my horn too and walk over to them and I speak in his ear a little too. Elise don’t know Spanish so it makes it easier for the two of us to get to the heart of the matter, de hombre a hombre. I says to him to leave off and he looks back around at me and I can tell he wants nothing more than to mess my ass up right then and there.

 He gets tall in that way that men do when they got something to prove, he grows a whole two inches. He says to me that he’s here for a reason; she’s his woman and blah blah blah. I tell him that I had a rule; a real specific one: you leave all that dramatic shit afuera de mi clase. I left the ‘—or I put you on your ass’ unspoken, but it was there.

All the other students had caught on, my cats were smart ones. They learned to watch out for trouble and scamper when it reared its head. They stopped playing and I got real annoyed because no sound in the class was a problem.

He gets up a half-inch higher and he says to me that he ain’t gonna let some fresa faced fag—and then I hit him in the throat. I remember one thing about this type of guy: they strut. They circle each other in big shirts and crocodile shoes but they’re all just peacocks. They don’t ever go in for the kill; they just circle and nip. This ‘pavo real’ (that’s a peacock, chicos) just found out that I don’t nip. He doubles over, and my friend Emmanuel and I shuffle him right out the door.

“I’d dump him,” I say to Elise when I come back up. “He doesn’t appreciate you for your playing, I can tell you that.” She turns cherry red and becomes real fixated on examining the wood of her clarinet.

The class is real quiet so I need to resolve that. I pick up his dropped instrument and hold it up to the class.

“I got a free trumpet here for whoever wants it. Lovingly used,” I say, “Not by him but that’s not important,” I add, before telling the students to get back to that coda in the music.

~ ~ ~

That horn’s got a better home that it had before, that’s for sure. I look out for the instruments as much as I look out for the people. I take the people into the studio because they’d be running up and down Hell’s Kitchen with all this emotion and nowhere to put it. I take the instruments because they speak to me. There’s a universal language to them, they wanna be somewhere loved. That’s true for the people too but I don’t ever come right out and say it. I take in those instruments I find in pawnshops and broken homes, and I put them in the studio so they can be played, and I take the people from the same places so that they can play. It’s a sort of group therapy.

~ ~ ~

I used to talk a lot to Emmanuel about what I was doing, about what it meant. In a cosmic sense, ya’ know? Shitfire, he deserved to be the big man in Manhattan. If all the Bohemians and immigrants ever sat down and picked a leader then it would’ve been him, man. I know it would’ve. I never called him Emmanuel cuz’ that wasn’t the right word to describe the guy. I called him Chivo—that’s goat, on account of his beard, long and curly, dusting off his chin like a smoke trail. He played sax, and you know how they say the trumpets and the saxophones can’t be friends because they never play in tune? Chivo, he always played in tune with me.

Chivo had the magic in him in a way that made the whole class swoon. I’m not one for letting greased-up sharks out on the street swipe up my class, but I see Chivo work the moves it’s different. You win over a girl with your style then you’re a peacock: you win her with your song then you’re a poet, one who doesn’t speak in Spanish, not in English, just Jazz. Relationships, they’re where the blues come from. We talk, we kiss, we fuck, we break up and then we play the blues and it’s why we all have something to say. I’ve had the experience. She catches me on the street somewhere y hablamos, besamos, jodimos, separamos...

But I was talking about Chivo. Chivo believed what I believed, man. We were in tune. We had apartments that faced each other so we’d jam while crouching on the fire escapes when it was too damn hot inside. When it was all jodido, he was there.

Until I wasn’t there.

This was the spring of around ’96 or ’97. People finally started cruising around without parkas and high boots. I was snowed into my studio for so long that winter I forgot what it was like to be outside. That was a fuckin’ blizzard, man. They shut down the busses to the barrio so we couldn’t even get out and catch a Broadway show. Jokes on the rest of them though because Broadway got shut down for a week too.

This was the springtime that all of Spanish Harlem ran away. I say ran away but it was really like they got summoned home. The New York winter sank into their bones and all of a sudden the only thing they could do was fly back to the DR or Puerto Rico or wherever they came from before they hopped over to the good old U S of A.

Hogar. Home, it called to us. The planes got jammed full of reverse tourists. Nobody was visiting. Not one dude livin’ in the boroughs didn’t have a full welcome home party back in the land of sun and palm trees.

I fuckin’ hated it, man.

Chivo wasn’t immune either. He wanted to go back to San Juan, more than anything. He sat me down and he says to me that I should come too, and didn’t I feel that tug towards home? I says to him that the only tug I was feeling was the one to club Saliente cuz’ I was playing a trio there on Saturday. I had things going on here, not there. There I had a father who died with sweat on his brow, a mother and all her extended family who despised me, brothers who stopped writing when they joined the clergy. I didn’t mind all that, but it didn’t bode well for Chivo, hunched over some plane tickets he’d scalped on my coffee table.

Chivo was talking to me about his viejo San Juan, thinking it was mine too. Memories of the soul, some mine, some his, childhood nights, facing the sea. I may have grown up with Chivo in San Juan, didn’t mean I wanted back in now. One afternoon I left, and I didn’t look back. San Juan was the foreign nation to me and the grand nation of New York is what I’d miss when my hair was white and I was gone. For every single time I got called spic on the street, there was a time that I played in the right club and with the right people and the right music and everything was all right.

So after awhile Chivo really starts getting to me, I mean he’s going for the absolute world fucking record for gran dolor en mi culo. Talking at me saying that I don’t got no obligation to family that I cared about, he knew that, but he’d be maldito, condenado and generally fucked if I ditched out on him with the excuse of playing a trio at some back alley gin joint.

“What can I say?” I say to him, “Jazz is jazz,”

Man he didn’t even have to say anything to that; he just gave me the look he gives. It’s the same one he gives when you’re playing in an ensemble and someone doesn’t know jack shit about the music. I mean they’re trying, but, man, are they struggling, out of key, out of tune, out of sync. The director knows who it is but he can’t do anything about it, so he just looks at the sweaty bastard. That’s the kind of look Chivo gave me.

“Ali. Ali, Ali, man. Do this,” he says, “don’t do it for San Juan.”—He stops there for a second, he’s not sure what reaction he’ll get when he says—“Do it for me.”

I had to suck it up, had to say that goddammit I’ll go to San Juan. I’ll go.

~ ~ ~

We had another day I could teach on the dance floor and you know damn well I did. I may have been getting on a plane at five that evening but I sure as sin needed to see those dudes before I left. I needed to hear my very own American Dream played on a pawnshop Gramophone.

So I went and welcomed the crowd in and we picked up our horns and we soloed, round robin style. I’d point and we’d pass the tune on over to the person I was pointing and they’d wail on it, man. I’d fiddle on the horn with my right hand and point with my left. I’d suddenly change the key, blast the tempo up into a blazing swing and then back down into a St. Louis dirge. We had an upright bass man in there with us that day, dude cruised all the way over from Long Island just to play with us. I shoulda felt so lucky.

I passed and passed the melody to each of them in turn, to the big, the small, the black and the white and the not quite either. I passed it over to Elise on her clarinet and tried not to stare at her black eye. I failed.

 She never said next to nothing to us but when she played on the dance floor… Joder. Fuck, could she talk. She was talking then, and what she was saying was, ‘I’m not where I wanna be right now.’

I kept looking at my old silver wristwatch I’d replaced half a hundred times and watching the hours crawl by. It was 12, then it was 1:30, then 2, then it wormed its way over to 3:45. I could still make the flight, but I was seeing Elise pack up her things to leave and I knew I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing. Chingado, no fuckin’ way.

I caught her almost tripping down the stairs and held her steady. I knew she should’ve dumped the hijo de la gran puta, but I couldn’t let that get to me. I just had to go over to her and tell her I’d make it all better. So that’s just what I did, not in quite so many words. What really happened was I went up to her and I just kept asking her where he, that guy, the dude I’d kicked outta my class before, lived until she decided to tell me. I hopped back up to the studio and grabbed a jacket. It was 4:00.

 ~ ~ ~

I was turning the corner to 114th street when I decided to start running. Nobody in NYC gives a flying fuck what you look like when you walk down the street anyways. It wasn’t that I was getting real hyper-aware of a certain flight leaving from John F. Kennedy in less than an hour. I was becoming less and less aware of that fact as I went on. All I wanted was to get to the gray set of flats at the end of the block, just as fast as I could go.

~ ~ ~

I didn’t really enter his place so much as I exploded in there. Dude had a three-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor all to himself. Where he kicked out the rest of his family, I have no idea, but I didn’t much care. I broke the door going inside and this guy was shaving his chest in front of a mirror across the room from the doorway. He looks up at me like god himself had just waltzed in to piss on his carpet.

I didn’t piss on his carpet. I did break his jaw though, and with my left hand, not my playing hand. He looked up at me with glassy eyes from his sink. He didn’t fight me back; dude didn’t even know what to do with himself, what with his jaw and all. He looked like he was constantly surprised at something. I guess he was. He looked up and tried to gurgle out a why, so I says to him that I’m here because he didn’t have any right to hurt someone like Elise.

He looked at me and said the smartest thing he ever said. Well, he didn’t say it, but his eyes… his eyes sure said it right there. They said to me by what right did I have to defend her. I thought about it for a second, with this sack of shit gurgling into his hardwood floor.

 I turned his head towards me and I asked him if he knew who I was. He just moaned at me but I looked him even deeper in the eyes just to make sure. I don’t think the chulo even knew what day of the week it was. I let his head back down and then I let myself back out the busted door. Not before picking up his little red phone, dialing 9-1-1 and letting the thing hang by the cord as I walked down the hall.

~ ~ ~

I was halfway through my first set at Saliente when I realized what I was doing. I checked my dinky watch and then I hit it against the brick wall after reading the time on it. 5:35. Chivo, man. He was gone. Gone gone gone. Volado, adios, bye-bye. The bass player was looking at me like I was about to dash him against a brick wall too, and shit I might just have done it. I was broken in two, half of me was on that plane with Chivo, and half of me knew I’d never see Chivo again. I let myself out the back door of the club while the manager cursed me out. ‘Spic this, spic that.’

“Doesn’t this mean anything to you?” He was calling out to me. “It means everything to me,” I said when I turned the corner. I could hear him telling me not to come back as I got farther off.

~ ~ ~

I was halfway home when Elise caught me. I had such a thousand-yard stare that I never saw the tiny blonde push me to the ground. She said more to me on that street than she ever had during my class. I was still split in half, though. Half of me was listening to Elise scream at me about what right I had to beat her man. The other half of me was thirteen years old, sitting with Chivo on a beach in San Juan. The stars were out, it was blissfully quiet, right up until my brothers caught us, and told. They all told. We moved to New York and we never talked about what happened again. My brothers never wrote me again. I never saw the stars again.

Elise told me she was never coming back. She told me I just proved that I was just as bad as the worst of the machistas I’d kicked out of that goddamned studio. I couldn’t tell her why she was wrong.

~ ~ ~

I didn’t really even feel anything after the phone call the next day. It was all nada nada nada. It was the most expensive use of silence I’d ever had. Long distance call from him, from mi viejo San Juan. I picked it up and I just heard the ocean. He was there on that beach where we’d been, but he didn’t say nothing to me over that phone. Nada, nada, nada. And I just had to listen to the ocean and know that he wasn’t gonna come back, and it was because of me. I felt the most terrible nostalgia at that moment. The sound of the sea didn’t ever leave.

The students came to the dance floor like normal. The days passed, the weeks, meses y años. I passed the melody of a blues piece around to them all in turn. It could’ve been by Blind Willie Johnson, or Bill Withers, or Aretha Franklin, or anything under the sun. It was by me though, all me. The melody passed and they all played hard, so hard the cars outside paused to listen. They played for their lives; I played for Chivo.

I’d bring the melody up and up and pass it around and around over and over again until we all got dizzy before winding it down and down until it was just me playing. Holding a note as high and true and real as the waves of the ocean. Then I’d take them all right back to the beginning of the song and make them play it again. Straight from the Capo to the Coda. Full repeat. Over and over, D.C. al Coda until I felt all right again.

Richard Morrissette is a native of Columbus Ohio. He spends his time working on film and commercial sets and writes in order to stave off existential dread. Richard’s goal is to never have to work a job that requires a nametag. Second to that would be to become an author fulltime. He enjoys writing flash fiction and short stories of all genres.

Note

 I’ve always been a student of Spanish (apparently I liked it enough to want to have it as one of my majors in college so that must mean something). At the same time I absolutely adore the prose and themes of Junot Diaz. This story came a little bit out as a love letter to his work, his particular style, though I don’t know how much it stacks up. New York’s Latin side is something flavored and varied in its presentation and I wanted to do it justice.

Q&A

With what fictional character would you most love to spend the day?

It might have to be Faramir, from The Lord of the Rings. He was one of those characters that I always admired, and I quite think he was Tolkien’s favorite as well. The bookish ones are always the best aren’t they?

What is your favorite day of the week?

It’s most assuredly Wednesday. People always say they like to work for the weekend but I say that it’s stupid to organize your life like that. Take your weekends where you want them. Wednesday just feels right.

Which movie have you seen over and over again? What keeps you coming back?

The Empire Strikes Back, hands down. As a kid it was just the same as all Star Wars movies so I loved it for that. Then as I got older I started to look at it for its other merits and I’ve since realized that it might be my perfect story. I have no part of it that doesn’t make me feel something, the looks, the sounds, how it all comes together. To me, it’s flawless.


Short Fiction

Matthue Roth

Selected by Guest Editor John Matthew Fox, author of I Will Shout Your Name

Followed by Q&A

Jackie, but Famous

 

Jackie had been running for the train, the 6:02 out of the city, convinced she was going to miss it, but also convinced that, with the correct combination of actions—magical gestures, glances at good luck omens like doves and not evil ones like pigeons, not stepping on any cracks in the pavement—she might still be able to make it. She wasn’t going to make it. The elevator took forever to come. The stoplights were against her. Traffic was still too heavy to safely run across. She walked fast, arms stiff, cutting through the air to her sides. She passed the length of one parked car, then another. The street was still too busy.

Jackie thought of all the streets she’d jaywalked, every near-miss of a collision she’d ever had, all the alternate lives of herself she’d massacred. These days she played it so safe. What is it about getting closer to death, she thought, that makes us more wary of cheating it? At nineteen she would have thrown herself in front of a car, trusting nothing other than her own immortality. Now she was forty-nine and fearful of every red light. She had spent years living in the city, frolicking through traffic. Now it was almost 6:02 and she was one train ride away from her home, her bed. Maybe dinner first, if the kids were home. More likely they wouldn’t be.

The light changed. Traffic cleared. Jackie checked her watch—5:57. If she’d bought her ticket ahead of time (she did; she always did) then she still had a chance to make it.

She did it. She broke through the space between a taxi and a late-model Honda parked tight, just gave a little hop over where the bumpers almost touched. (She wondered if anyone on the street had seen that, a middle-aged skirt-suited woman clearing a ninja jump—but no time to stop and look, no time!) She hurtled the highway, three lanes, four, five, nearly six—and then she froze in place as an overtall delivery truck roared its rusty engine and reversed out of its spot on the train-station side of the street, perpendicularing out of the space and narrowly missing Jackie.

The truck didn’t take her by surprise.

She took her by surprise.

Behind the truck—behind the now-vacant space that the truck had surrendered to rush-hour traffic—there was a billboard. The billboard was a large one, puffy and bright, with silhouetted letters like an old Broadway show. The letters spelled out the title of an album, or what Jackie took to be the title of an album, along with the name of the performer and an in-motion, several-stories-tall photograph of a woman, Godzilla-sized, eyes half-lidded, body contorting, almost doubled over, caught mid-swing, her pursed lips blowing into a saxophone as big as a fire station.

The woman was Jackie. The photograph was of her. And the letters in the billboard, they were spelling out her name.

A horn behind her. She jumped, first out of her skin, then out of the way.

She looked again. It was still there.

She grabbed her camera, snapped a quick photograph for confirmation, checked the time before stowing it away. 6:03. Oh, well. The trains wait for no one, even if you’re famous.

~ ~ ~

She got home late. Her daughter was out but her son was over. He wanted dinner. Lately she had begun to hate dinner, both the idea of it and the process necessary: making, eating, the small talk that it begged for. Her son had been home from college, on break for what felt like years. When did her dinner responsibility stop? Shouldn’t you be able to graduate from dinner?

“Hey, Mom, how was work?” Bobby hopped off the barstool in the kitchen where it didn’t look like he’d been doing anything but lying in ambush for her. “So, you making dinner or what?

The kitchen was shaped like an old diner, with a bar in the middle and a door at each end. Jackie had entered through one door and she kept right on walking to the other. “Cook your own dinner tonight, Bobby,” she said. “I’m famous.”

He wasn’t in the habit of listening to her—mostly he still hung around the house because it was free rent and easy food (most of the time, anyway) and, above all, he was already in the habit of being there.

Not many things registered on his seismograph. But this new, unexpected mother of his, a mother who had no dinner but told jokes and was the slightest bit sassy, intrigued him. He intercepted her before she could make it through the second door. “Famous how?”

“I have my ways.” A smile teased its away across her face: she did not often have secrets, and even if she did, she suspected it would be difficult for other people to appreciate their value. The last time Bobby looked interested in seeing her was last Christmas.

But perhaps she’d misread him. Impatience, petulance grew from his excitement. He clucked at her. “You’re home so late,” he said. “I’ve just been waiting around. It’s too late to go into town. What should I do?”

“Look at this,” she said, withdrawing her phone from its belt clip. Sliding into her billboard.

He grabbed it. “This looks just like you,” he said. “How’d you do that?”

She gave a proud shrug.

“Is it a cousin?”

“It’s not a cousin. I don’t have any cousins, you know that.”

“But it looks so…” Bobby fumbled. “So tight and smooth and real! So good.

“I look good!”

He was right, though. This other-her wore clothes smartly, calculatedly, with a sense of purpose. Tight in certain places, room to move in others. Her body was the same as Jackie’s, she would swear it—even the spread of freckles across the bridge of her nose and cheekbones was identical—but this other Jackie, the dynamics of her motion, the stance she stood in, the things about this other Jackie’s life that might have led her to act this way, to be this way, to play the saxophone and allow billboards of herself to be manufactured and printed, this Jackie could only guess. She couldn’t even imagine.

Bobby was playing on her phone. Pulling up something, paging through something.

“Hey, Mom,” he said. “How long has it been since you Googled yourself?”

“Since I what?”

“You know, when you look for yourself on the Internet? Hey, this other you, she’s pretty popular,” he said. “It’s weird I never heard of her. Look, she’s even played on the Late Show.”

“I have?” She stared deep into the screen of her phone like she was staring down a hole to the other side of the world, or into the hole of her own grave. She felt something strange growing inside her, something that came from her, something altogether alien. She seized her son’s hand. “Bobby,” she said.

“Mom?”

“Let’s go out for dinner. To a restaurant.”

He looked at her like she was crazy. “But we never go to restaurants.”

“Maybe that’s why we should.”

“With Dad?”

She nodded. She was throbbing with excitement. “We’ll wait till he gets home and then we’ll go. Call your sister, too. Maybe she’ll want to meet us.”

~ ~ ~

Erica didn’t want to meet them, of course, but she came anyway—conceivably more out of a rubbernecking curiosity about this sudden and unorthodox decision, this peregrination, to a restaurant, on a weekday. She sat near a corner of their square table, pretending to fiddle with her bracelets but in reality studying the menu with a careful, practiced, sidelong intensity.

They used to come here every week. Sunday evenings before a week of school. Each of them had their regular order. Somewhere along the line, however, other things became priorities. Tee-ball. Youth group. Jazzercize. Not being with the kids for a two-hour meal, sustaining conversation and the forced suspension of embarrassment. Restaurants were expensive. Well, not now. She was a superstar.

Bobby was talking about her. He was telling the story to Erica, to Jake, and they were laughing. Not laughing at her, of course, but at the idea of it, at this secret identity she’d hidden from them, that she could be a jazz virutoso in the first place, Bobby was saying. She barely knew what jazz was.

“I do,” she protested, “a little bit.”

Jack reached across the table, moved aside the ketchup bottle and squeezed her hand.

“Even if you get famous,” he said, “we’ll still love you.”

She saw them sitting, husband, daughter, son, like three walls marking the borders of her. This was her legacy, her completion, the goal of anything she had ever done, the reason she worked those long days as receptionist at the law firm, plus an hour and a half travel time each way—not so that she had money, but so her family had it, to keep them afloat and alive. And here they sat, Jake eating with his hairy wolfman fingers, a world map of BBQ sauce splatters across his shirt. And Erica on her phone, because when was she ever not, because even when she had to talk to her family, she had to talk to her friends. She lived ten minutes away, above the nail salon where she worked, but she may as well have lived in another country. And Bobby, dear Bobby, slow Bobby, self-absorbed Bobby, space cadet Bobby. She loved them all. She would have died for them, any of them, without a second thought. Only living with them was the hard part.

Late into the night, after they dropped off Erica and stowed away the leftovers, Jackie sat alone at a booth in the kitchen. She put on the radio, which was what she did when she cleaned up, only there was nothing to clean up. She stared at nothing in particular. At some point Jake drifted over to kiss the top of her head where her hair split. “I’m going to bed,” he said. “Come up when you’re ready.” He was already in pajamas.

But tonight sleep felt foreign, like catching sight of a toy she had long ago given to charity. She knew she was meant to be awake. Even so, the dozen things that needed doing—emptying the dishwasher, opening the mail, putting away the things around the house that over the rhythm of the day somehow just became unmoored, as if by themselves, as if each object was one of her million tiny children—she always did them methodically, without thinking, but she found she could not do them now.

Instead she was drawn to her son, sprawled across the futon in the family room, fiddling on the family computer. She was touched to see he hadn’t left, moved that he still liked inhabiting her house. She entered the room and, before seating herself in the loveseat perpindicular, walked over to him and touched his head.

She watched him as intensely as he watched the screen. She held her breath inside her swelling lungs, not daring to believe this unshaved boy, this functional adult human, in his catalog-fresh v-neck t-shirt, a virgin tuft of chest hair puffing out (When had he started growing chest hair? From where had he acquired it?), that he’d come from her body, that this was the same creature she’d held in her hands who kept her up all hours of the night, that somehow she was capable of creating such a thing from the gossamer nothingness of the universe.

“Oh, Mom.” He looked up, surprised to find her inside her own home. With that smile he could have been five years old, so innocent and unconnected to her.

She was suddenly embarrassed. “You’re busy,” she said. “I won’t disturb you—stay down here as long as you like—”

“No, wait.” He clicked at the computer, jumping from window to window, as agile as a digital frog. “I found something for you.”

It was her website. Of course. Across the top, a movie of her played, movements she knew she’d never moved in before. He moused around the different crannies of the site: samples, photo gallery (a photo gallery!), her tour.

“You don’t really have to look at this,” she said. “It doesn’t even look like me. It’s just silly. It’s not me—”

He crocked his index finger and tapped the screen.

“It might not be you,” he said. “But a whole bunch of people are still expecting to see you on Broadway next Monday.”

She blushed, then groaned. then blushed again.

“I couldn’t,” she said. “I couldn’t.” She stared harder at the site. “And it’s so expensive!”

Mom. It’s your show. You could just walk in for free.”

Her mouth tightened. “I could never! That would be stealing. We’ll pay for the concert fair and square.”

Bobby looked at her in surprise, but it was nothing compared to the surprise that Jackie felt at herself.

“So…” he ventured. “We’re going?”

“We’re going.”

~ ~ ~

The tickets were expensive, but she put it on the emergency credit card. These were the things you saved up for.

It was just her and Bobby, a date. She’d dressed up to work, in a sweater so resplendently sequined that people asked was it her anniversary, was Jake up to something special?

“Oh,” she agreed, “it’s special.”

She met Bobby at the train station after work. He was overdressed and early, astonished by and afraid of the crowds. He had both the directions and their tickets on his phone but he had printed out copies of both. On the way to the theater, once they had shed the crowds, he held onto her hand like he did when he was a boy. They both stared at the flamboyant lit-up signs that advertised bright, sparkle and flower-enhanced versions of the world, a different delusion inside each frame. At last they came to the marquee bearing Jackie’s name. They looked at each other. Are we doing this? They looked at each other: We’re doing it.

The lobby was scarce and the doors to the inner theater were locked, which was strange, for the tickets specifically noted the time Doors 8:00. They lingered, eyes on the other on-timers, periodically glancing toward the merchandise table where albums of music Jackie never made were stacked beside shirts that bore her face.

The other people in the lobby were not what she expected. They were young, they were dressed at once respectably and lasciviously, in lace and shiny fabrics, looking half famous themselves, showing skin but never speaking loudly, a type of distinguished that she recognized at once and did not understand at all.

“Jackie!” shrilled a voice, and she spun around before she could realize, whoever it was probably didn’t mean her. But she did. A skinny young blonde thing, hair piled high, was coming at her.

The woman changed directions but didn’t lose a single breath on her speech. “This is another one of your jokes, right? Something else for the papers? Come on. Everyone’s backstage.”

“No, really, it’s not me—” Jackie protested.

But there Bobby was at her elbow, “Sure, why not,” he was saying, giggling, nudging her, going along for the ride, “you caught her, the jig’s up, let’s go backstage.”

The woman glanced skeptically at Bobby, but with no resistance from Jackie, she allowed him to follow. Backstage was a good twenty people, maybe more, in a velvety but sparse office-type space with bottles of wine and plates piled high in castles of fruit. Bobby moved to take some, but she gave a sharp glance and mouthed the word, Stealing.

He sank into the background. She became surrounded. People asking her questions. People trying to tell her facts, stories, opinions. These people all had a certain look, a sleekness and shinyness to their skin, more alien than human.

But: they talked to her. They flocked to her! They took no notice of her ums and hms and fidgeting, just kept on talking and kept on trying to impress her. They floated opinions, glowingly, of her, questionably of other musicians, as if waiting for her to sanctify them or knock them to the floor. She squirmed out of the vortex of their gazes, afraid they would pay too much attention to her, until she realized, all they wanted was to pay attention to her.

And as she stood, surrounded by the voices that churned together until she could understand none of them at all, she began to realize: it didn’t matter. Nothing she did mattered. She wasn’t here because she’d done anything or because she had the power to do anything, but only because of circumstance, fate, what was expected of her because a complete stranger happened to share her face. She was Jackie. She was not Jackie. She was all the potential of Jackie, all the pasts and all the possibilities, everything that ever was and everything that could ever be. What wrong turn had she taken, what decision had she made that resulted in her being this and not that, a secretary not a sax player, or all the other things she was, mother, fanfiction writer, lay deacon, emphatic bacon fan—how many of them was this Jackie, too? And where was she now?

The young blonde chaperone had vanished, but there were plenty of others at her side. She turned to the nearest.

“Do I have any kids?” she asked.

The girl gave a laugh, not a real laugh but a nervous ha-ha laugh. “Not that you know of, I think,” she said. “There was that guy you were seeing for a while in Kyoto, and there were rumors, but that didn’t last of course. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she said airily, and repatriated her attention to the person on her other side, a young man with his shirt half unbuttoned, and was surprised how easily she could. She felt a flutter of nervousness in her stomach, when would the real Jackie appear? She thought about what the real Jackie would do. Probably ignore it. She tried to.

The people were talking faster and more excitedly now. Someone passed her another glass of red wine—her third? She scanned the backstage crowd. Bobby had gone missing, too.

She hoped he was okay.

She hoped he was enjoying this as much as she was.

She hoped he wasn’t drinking too much.

She downed the glass. A hand touched her elbow. “I know you’ve got to go on, but I’ve been dying to ask this.” A smartly dressed man, shirt unbuttoned one button too far, a light dusting of stubble. “What inspired ‘Chrysler Building 23rd Floor’? It’s so sad and beautiful and... full. I must know.”

The Chrysler Building! The 23rd floor! But... that was where she worked. How could the other Jackie know?

When was she going to show up?

Through the crowd she saw her son, the blond woman, giggling into each other’s ears, ducking inside a doorway. She was about to push away and ask if they needed anything, but another young man, even more lost-looking and eager than the last, was saying, “Excuse me, Jackie? Your band’s ready, it’s time to hit the stage.”

Then she was being led off, away from the crowd and the red wine and safety, into a narrow, crowded, lonely hall. Something hard and metal and clicky was pressed between her hands. The man who was leading her ducked beneath a velvet curtain, and so did she, and the lights were blinding and somewhere behind them she could see a thousand smiling faces. In the center of the stage there was an empty microphone. She approached it, raised the heavy thing to her lips, wondered how it worked. She closed her eyes and blew.

Matthue Roth's most recent book is the novel Rules of My Best Friend's Body (Hevria Press). His picture book My First Kafka was called "eerie and imaginative" by the New Yorker. He's written for Sesame Street and helped create the personality of the Google Assistant, Google's artificial intelligence. He lives in Brooklyn and keeps a secret diary at matthue.com.

Note

I used to work across from Penn Station in midtown New York City. Rush hour there is beautiful: it's all the tightly-polished expensive and powerful fashionistas and trendy people crashing into an army of suburban commuters, people with thick glasses and stained ties and perms who only exist on the Manhattan streets for these few minutes, in between offices and suburbs. And they're so much more interesting to watch than the professionals. If there's justice in this world, they should be the people on the billboards. Maybe sometimes they can be.

Q&A

With what fictional character would you most love to spend the day?

Rubeus Hagrid from Harry Potter. Find someone who hugs you like Hagrid hugs Harry, and you won't need anything else in your life. Plus, baby dragons.

What is your favorite day of the week?

Monday. It's like the moment just before you unwrap a present, where it can be anything.

Which movie have you seen over and over again? What keeps you coming back?

The Goonies. For a while I was writing a novel based on it (old Jewish men in Brooklyn find a treasure map, then pirates ensue), and I had all of it memorized—the words, the visuals, the sound effects. Then I had to take some time off. But then I came back, and now it's the only movie I can watch in the background while I do other stuff. It's like an old friend, constant and reassuring.


Publisher’s Pick

Joseph Rein.jpg

Joseph Rein

Author of Roads without Houses, from Press 53, March 1, 2018

Followed by author biography

Encyclopedia Helenica

 

148.6 lbs.: Weight of Helen Trudeau on 1 November 2016, taken on locker room scale in Crivitz High School, an official, sliding-metal physician scale that bobs and ticks and leaves Helen in unnecessary suspense waiting for the thing to sink down, to become heavier than her, sliding past 130, her presumed weight, it has been that long since she’s stepped on a scale or even thought about it, 135, 140, no, 145, no no no, for the love of Christ don’t make her slide it all the way back and lug the big weight to 150, until finally it stops.

Helen: (Greek, “Shining Light”) 16 July 1999–Present. Of Crivitz, Wisconsin, born and raised. Teenage female of slightly-below-average stature (5’1” at last doctor’s visit) and above-average weight (see 148.6 lbs.). Vice-president of Crivitz High School drama club. Fun-loving only child of Trent and Elise Trudeau who finds adventure in everyday situations (see Helen’s Dominant Behaviors and Traits, pre-1 November 2016).

Golden Burger: Restaurant chain with seven locations in northeast Wisconsin; Crivitz location frequented often during open lunch period by Helen and best friend/confidante Gina.

Geez Hel, hungry are we?: Words spoken from Gina in a brash but ultimately enlightening tone (see Gina’s Dominant Behaviors and Traits), the first reason for Helen’s instantaneous and repulsive realization that she has demolished her entire meal before Gina has put even a dent in hers.

Haphazard remains of a Third-Pound Golden Cheesy Burger with fries, lettuce and tomato discarded in a slovenly mix of ketchup and mayonnaise: Second reason.

Crivitz, Wisconsin: 1883–Present. Founded by German immigrant Frederick John Bartels; subsequently named for former German hometown. Located at 45°14’2”N 88°0’25”W, Wisconsin, United States of America. Small village of approximately 990 people (2010 Census). Current graduating high school class of 28. Largest of the small townships and municipalities surrounding Lake Noquebay.

Gina: (English, diminutive form of Georgina, feminine version of George, “Land worker”) 19 September 1999–Present. Of Crivitz, Wisconsin, born and raised. Teenage girl average in both height and weight, not exactly thin but not heavy either, certainly not in comparison to present company.

Drizella, the tawdrier of the two Wicked Stepsisters: Helen’s casted role in Crivitz High School Players’ production of Cinderella (see Helen’s Acting Resume), cast beside Gina as Anastasia, their on-stage chemistry and off-stage shenanigans a contributing factor in casting decision by Mrs. Bing, music teacher and play director.

Fifteenth rehearsal, delving into “Lovely Night” scene, a showcase for the stepsisters and a chance for Helen to really shine: Helen’s extracurricular activity on 1 November 2016.

Helen’s Heart (1): Just not in it, a fact noted verbally by both Gina and Mrs. Bing.

Hey, forget what I said earlier. See you tomorrow, okay?: Gina’s conciliatory words before she drops Helen off at home.

One helping of turkey, minimal gravy; small scoop of mashed potatoes; slice of white bread, buttered; glass of milk, subsequently rinsed out and refilled with water: Helen’s dinner on 1 November 2016, the first time she scrutinizes the amounts of what she eats in lieu of how her body feels.

You feeling okay, dear?: Question posed from Elise to Helen at dinner table.

Elise: (Greek, “Pledged to God”) 23 December 1970–Present. Of Crivitz, Wisconsin, neither born nor raised. Wife of Trent Trudeau for 19+ years. Woman of medium height and above-average build, plump but not fat, not really, a typical mom body, though Helen notices unhealthy extra folds on her upper arms, off-putting way her stomach rests limply over jeans.

I’m fine. Just don’t have much of an appetite tonight: Helen’s timid response, followed by a haste placing of her plate in dishwasher and retreating to her bedroom, her stomach smarting with a lack of fullness, but then maybe that’s not it, maybe she is full, maybe fullness is a relative term that she has accustomed herself to, maybe thin people experience it differently.

149.2 lbs.: Weight of Helen Trudeau on night of 1 November 2016, taken on scale in quaint adjacent bathroom, painted pink and a bit girlish for a seventeen-year-old, she’s now noticing.

The Mirror: 53.5 in. x 17.5 in. over-the-door body-length mirror with silver double-beaded frame, made by Reflections Mirror and Glass Company, in front of which Helen stands in her bedroom.

Lucky Brand Bootleg Princess Jeans, size 6 (1): Helen’s old favorites, ones that hugged her hips and flared flatteringly at the leg, that now won’t even pull up over her thighs, how big those thighs are, holy hell, what has she done to herself.

You’re a growing girl: Previous justification, accepted as fact by Helen—as she has done with most parental truisms, hers being the good parents they generally are—given intermittently by Trent and Elise as to why her favorite clothes no longer fit.

That bullshit: What, standing in front of The Mirror, pants desperately around thighs, Helen sees right through.

Skipping breakfast: An idea with nothing but negative connotations (see Most Important Meal of the Day!), counter-weighted by Helen’s following justifications:

1. Simple math, read by Helen in some health magazine once, stating that to lose one pound of fat in a week, she need excise 200 calories from her daily diet and burn 200 more in exercise (see Common Weight Loss Misconceptions),

2. Lunch is only +/- four hours away, and

3. She’s not really hungry anyway.

One pound a week: Lofty but, Helen expects, reasonable goal, considering all the excess weight she has to lose (see multiple entries for Overweight).

Renee’s ass (1): First thing Helen notices in the hall morning of 2 November 2017; the ass Helen used to have not so long ago, freshman year even, the ass that caught glances, particularly in Lucky Brand Bootleg Princess Jeans, size 6, ass that filled but didn’t stretch pants, didn’t tuck into itself, didn’t fold over underwear, just didn’t didn’t didn’t.

Xander: (diminuitive form of Alexander, Greek, “Defender of Men”) (See also Helen’s Perpetual Love Object) 17 November 1999–Present. Teenage male of uncanny good looks, like a Greek god himself, body sculpted from three-sport varsity activity, biceps and pectorals in particular, chiseled as if from stone; hair dark brown and curled just so over ears, enticingly disheveled; eyes a deep, lose-yourself-in-them brown as well; and smile, God his smile, you should see him smile.

Prince Charming: Role of Xander York in Cinderella, naturally.

Body Blast of Crivitz: Gym that Helen frequents immediately after play practice on 2 November 2016, it being the only workout option outside of high school exercise facility, but there’s no chance (see Never, Nuh-Uh, Fat Chance, When Pigs Fly, and Not in a Million Years) of her working out there, wearing her mom’s tight-fitting yoga pants and tank top that are incapable of containing her body, fat folding over the arm holes and in strange creases behind her legs, nope, not until she fixes this.

Body Blast, contents: Eight newer, shining silver treadmills; five exercise bikes; three elliptical machines; two Stairmasters; one outdated rowing machine, rope tattered, placed in far corner to further discourage use; weight benches with bars, plates; long rows of free weights; medicine balls of all sizes; resistance cords; front desk with young attendant in hot-orange shirt; patrons of all body types, from the thin and beautiful to the robust and ugly; three walls of floor-to-ceiling mirrors mirrors mirrors.

1.62 miles: Distance Helen manages to run-walk-run in unsystematic sequence before her throat burns with bile and her gelatin legs threaten entire shutdown (see Exercise Side Effects, Negative).

To discuss a new exercise plan: Helen’s presumptive reason for visit to Dr. Samson on 5 November 2016.

To gauge how bad she’s really gotten: Helen’s actual reason.

Overweight (1): (see also Fatty, Pear-Shaped, Obeast, Lard Ass, Buffet Slayer, Piggy, and Wisconsin Skinny) Classification, based on body mass index (BMI), calculated with a basic equation of height and weight, of large percentage of American adult men and women.

28.5: Helen’s BMI, not just Overweight but hovering nauseatingly close to the next highest classification, Obeseand which Doctor Samson assures her can be a natural part of growing, really this measure is for adults and not a terrific one at that, not something Helen should be too concerned about as long as she’s active, but if she likes she could drink more water, exercise a bit more, for Doctor Samson it’s really about life choices, you see, about starting healthy habits that will lead to good decisions when older, those are the types of successes she sees, not those who live in the extremes.

I understand: Helen’s only verbal response during visit.

147.7 lbs.: Weight of Helen on 8 November 2016, after intense, fatigue-inducing first week of exercise and diet, not nearly enough weight loss to justify pain and ascetic self-flagellation, causing seething self-doubt and a desire to quit in Helen (see Helen’s Dominant Behaviors and Traits, post-1 November 2016).

Back on the horse: Where Helen gets the next day at Body Blast.

DO YOU REALLY WANT THIS?: Mantra Helen develops while stretching 2 miles into 2.5, pushing beyond burn and bile and yearning to just give up.

Killed two and a half miles today at Body Blast! And that’s just the start!: Helen’s Facebook status 9 November 2016, her first post in eighty-three days, liked or otherwise emojied by ten friends within minutes, then sixteen, some responses adorned with encouraging remarks from random classmates, from great-aunt Clarissa she has never met in person, from Gina.

Julia’s Calorie Bible: Book bought by Helen at Marinette Barnes & Noble to prove devotion to mantra, containing calorie counts for every food Helen has ever eaten, the cover flaunting Julia’s flawless body, her endorsement reading This book contains the information you need to live a healthy, natural lifestyle. I guarantee it will work!, her smile so gargantuan it can only be real.

1,025: Calories in a Third-Pound Golden Cheesy Burger with fries, a number Helen reluctantly looks up with equal proportions shame and disgust.

Eight glasses a day: Generic recommendation for intake of water (see Common Weight Loss Misconceptions) which is the least Helen can do, as water occupies the stomach and is the healthiest thing, really, for her.

Daily Schedule, 10 November 2016: (see similar entries for 11, 12, and 13 November 2016; week of 16 November; most weekdays thereafter leading up to Cinderella performance, minus Thanksgiving, 30 November and 6 December [see also Pathetic Days Helen WILL Put Behind Her])

1. Wake up

2. Skip breakfast

3. Coast through morning classes, paying attention only in Pre-Calc to impress Xander York (see Helen’s Perpetual Love Object)

4. Lunch: turkey sandwich plain, apple and/or banana, granola bar, water

5. Dream about Xander during afternoon classes

6. Play practice

7. Body Blast baby!

8. Post workout update to Facebook

9. Dinner: half plate of whatever Elise makes, less if thick on carbs or sauces

10. Immediately catalogue from Julia’s Calorie Bible, down to the crumb, day’s food intake, drawing a hard double-line underneath to keep from eating more.

Eating < three hours before bed: Kiss of death, as Helen has read that such calories store immediately as excess fat (see Common Weight Loss Misconceptions).

132.0 lbs.: Weight of Helen Trudeau on 1 January 2017, day nationally known for resolutions of the weight variety (see Make a new you! and You’re only fooling yourself).

No need for resolutions when the resolve is already there!: Helen’s Facebook post on 1 January 2017, recipient of the highest number of likes she’s ever received, 212, accompanied by selfie on treadmill at Body Blast, most machines behind her empty, considering.

Overweight (2): Helen still, at 25.7, according to the BMI image Helen has Googled and downloaded as her laptop wallpaper, replacing old movie image of Hugh Jackman’s aching, above-average turn as Jean Valjean in Hollywood adaptation of Les Misérables.

Lucky Brand Bootleg Princess Jeans, size 6 (2): Still-unfitting jeans that simultaneously affirm BMI’s correctness and Helen’s resolve.

Granola bar; one glass orange juice; four slices whole grain wheat bread, two on sandwich and two toasted, unbuttered; three slices shaved turkey; one slice reduced-fat cheddar cheese; Cortland apple; medium-sized banana; bagel with cream cheese; can store-bought chicken noodle soup; two squares Hershey’s milk chocolate bar: Full caloric intake for 5 January 2017, just under 1,200. Minimum amount of food Helen figures she can consume, an assumption she discovers in weeks subsequent to be untrue.

Third-pound Golden Cheesy Burger with fries: All Helen can think about during Cinderella dress rehearsal.

How her Drizella costume still hugs her torso and hips, this repugnant dress that should droop wickedly, she should look comedic in it, a thin girl in abnor-mally baggy clothes but all she looks is fat, why would a Prince Charming ever want this: All Helen can think about during Cinderella performances (seven) the week of 8-14 January 2017, causing lackluster performance and abundance of stink-eyes from Gina.

Drizella’s Fat Foot: Reason why Prince Charming cannot, with much exaggerated force, cram glass slipper onto Cinderella’s stepsister, even after much finagling by Wicked Stepmother, confirming Drizella’s falsity as love object in question on previous night’s escapades.

Helen’s own disgusting, disturbingly obtuse Fat Foot: Why Helen cannot enjoy her only scene with Xander, her chance to really turn it on but there he is, on his knee in front of her, hand grasping the Fat Foot, face so convincingly horrified his disgust can only be real.

Helen’s Heart (2): Beaten, bruised, battered, trampled and stomped on, broken but hopefully not beyond repair (see DO YOU REALLY WANT THIS?).

Going to the gym again?: Elise’s question posed to Helen after final Sunday matinee performance.

Yep: Helen’s terse reply.

Okay, but come right home after. Dad’s making pot roast. Now that the play’s over, I was thinking we should get back to family dinners: Elise’s earnest and softly spoken plea to Helen, her common matronly speech pattern (see Elise’s Dominant Behaviors and Traits) that makes her both more endearing and easier to ignore.

Hey, Helen. You look great today: Helen’s first verbal compliment on her newly formed body, delivered in school by Vince Belfast, underclassman from Cinderella chorus to whom she has never spoken, to whom she has never before given a second thought.

Yeah, thanks: Helen’s abject reply, the compliment itselnot carrying the inspirational heft it should, not validating treadmill hours upon hours, knee aches and near-constant fatigue (see Exercise Side Effects, Negative), because shouldn’t the bigger fish be noticing by now, shouldn’t someone from cast, shouldn’t Xander.

Death (1): Inevitable end of life, reached by many due to unfortunate and unforeseen early circumstances (see Before His/Her Time), by others under more expected and lengthy but no less unfortunate circumstances (see Lived a Full Life), that this realization feels like.

Exercise Side Effects, Negative: Abdominal cramping; wheezing; dizziness bordering on fainting; sweating, amounts ranging from minute to excessive, so much that body excretes salt on shoulders; significant pain in the ass; shin splints; near-constant fatigue; bile burning up throat; acid dripping into stomach; papery, wafer-like feeling of arms and legs; knee aches; going on and on so much that body, with little else to do, convulses and threatens entire shutdown.

Exercise Side Effects, Positive: Relatively less self-loathing; pleasant disappearance of monthly period; loss of appetite; relatively less blubber under fingers while pinching; reduced bowel movements.

120.0 lbs.: Weight of Helen Trudeau on 9 February 2017.

Overweight (3): No longer Helen’s classification on BMI scale, now sliding into Optimalrange, though still just below the line at 24, not far enough for comfort, considering Optimalranges from 18-25, leaving much room for improvement.

Roll call for Grease, released 17 February 2017:

Danny Zuko: Xander York

Sandy Olsson: Renee Henrich

Kenickie: Vince Becker

Frenchie: Gina Forseth

Vince Fontaine: Johnny Larson

Betty Rizzo: Helen Trudeau

At her name: Where Helen stops reading.

Excess weight she was in process of losing, was going to lose, was sure to lose goddamnit, by Grease opening night 31 March 2017: Only plausible reason for Helen losing starring role to Renee Henrich, Renee again, that pampered little bitch gets everything, even another lead beside Xander, a decision Mrs. Bing will ultimately regret, because one way or another Helen will reveal who she is now, it doesn’t have to be in pink jackets or tight black leather, she’ll show Mrs. Bing.

Come on, Hel, this is great! Sidekicks are way more fun to play anyway: Gina’s encouraging but ultimately uninspiring words to Helen.

Gina’s Dominant Behaviors and Traits: Trilling like a bird with delight over small life moments; wearing 1990s boy band concert shirts purchased on eBay; chewing spearmint gum; stating harsh but true words in a brash but ultimately enlightening tone; jumping rope; receiving passable grades in every subject with minimal effort; playing the heel; watching pornography to poke fun at storylines; smiling.

Quit, instead of wasting another minute being underappreciated: What Helen would rather do.

I don’t like this new you: Gina’s more forceful words upon Helen’s declaration.

You know what? Fuck off. You’re just jealous: Helen’s spiteful words straight to Gina, the friend who has always been by her side, who slept over endless nights and taught Helen samba and hilariously tested the limits of Helen’s best toys, Barbie dolls and science kits and numerous Easy-Bake Ovens, before Helen tramps off in opposite direction.

Who has time for silly plays when you’re crushing out mileage!: Helen’s Facebook post 17 February 2017, recipient of the fewest likes of all her exercise-related posts, causing Helen to cease posting altogether.

Third-pound Golden Cheesy Burger with fries; pounds of fettuccine draped in buttery Alfredo sauce; fried cheese curds dipped in ranch dressing; potato chips of any variety; bucket of fried chicken, breasts and wings and thighs and drummies, the whole damn chicken; movie theater popcorn; cola, any brand, a gigantic, massive cola; whopping dollops of whipped cream atop New York vanilla ice cream, scoops upon scoops, too many to count, chocolate sauce and strawberry jam drizzling down the sides like a sweet fountain, all atop entire sheet worth of thick fudge-swirled brownies cut into squares salaciously, seductively moist: All Helen can think about that night in bed.

Lake Noquebay: 2,398 acre freshwater Wisconsin lake located between Crivitz and smaller townships of Middle Inlet, Wausaukee, and Loomis. Lake of surprisingly shallow depth excepting a few areas (51’ maximum). Fish include panfish, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, northern pike, trout, and walleye. One of many Wisconsin lakes containing yearly “itch” phenomenon loosely related to bacteria in goose feces. Residence of significant boating and sporting activity in summer (fishing, skiing and tubing, jet-skiing, pontooning, alcohol consuming) and winter (ice fishing, alcohol consuming).

About 25 miles: Perimeter of Lake Noquebay taken on meandering paved and unpaved roads, distance achievable on Helen’s Northwoods Springdale 21-speed hybrid bicycle, though not without significant pain in the ass (see Exercise Side Effects, Negative).

Immense fatigue coupled with a jittery fever: Helen’s state post-bike ride, indeed her state after most workouts, the only solution for which is eating something, but Helen knows that’s not really a solution at all, that’s what fat people do, they solve their problems with food.

Slight pain in stomach: Reaction of Helen’s body when she eats right away anyway, which is just trading one problem for another.

Most Important Meal of the Day!: Socially accepted misnomer (see Common Weight Loss Misconceptions) applied to breakfast, but also occasionally misapplied to lunch or dinner, the most healthy meal plan involving small caloric intake six or more times daily, making the Most Important Meal of the Day! actually a succession of reduced, responsible meals akin to practiced snacking, the irony lost on most, in that snacking itself is often pegged as the culprit of, not the solution to, weight issues.

Skipping breakfast and lunch: Not preferable but possible, given enough devotion to mantra (see DO YOU REALLY WANT THIS?).

Numbers numbers numbers: What comprises much of Helen’s life, weight and calories taken in and calories burned and mileage and percentages and meters, now that she has decided to be healthy.

Helen’s Dominant Behaviors and Traits, pre-1 November 2016: Acting in school plays; clicking tongue; Netflix binge-watching; playing devil’s advocate; thumbs-upping friends’ posts on Facebook; reciting lines from previous roles at hilariously snarky times; finding adventure in everyday situations; attempting to impress Xander York; listening; tossing salt over shoulder for luck; baking sugar cookies from scratch; enjoying her parents’ company; snacking when hungry.

Helen’s Dominant Behaviors and Traits, post-1 November 2016: drinking > eight glasses of water a day; never eating < three hours before bed; seething with self-doubt; running, biking (around Noquebay if clement weather, on Body Blast recumbent if not), Stairmastering, rowing, or other activity that burns quantifiable calories; attempting to gain Xander York’s attention with new body; eating less and less each day as a way forward; desiring to quit; dreaming of food.

Daily Schedule, 26 February 2017: (see similar entries for 27 and 28 February, most days March, even weekends extracting class portion of nos 3 and 5):

1. Wake up

2. Skip breakfast

3. Dream about Xander, food during morning classes

4. Skip lunch

5. Dream about food during afternoon classes

6. Body Blast for workout

7. Dream about food while stomaching portions of Elise’s dinner in bedroom, alone

8. Immediately catalogue from Julia’s Calorie Bible, down to the crumb, day’s food intake, drawing a hard double-line underneath to keep from eating more

9. Writhe through restless, dream-filled fits of sleep where fantasies of food and Xander York disturbingly coalesce, where Xander compliments Helen’s body while forcing endless supplies of increasingly grotesque food combinations down her throat, barbecued meats deep-fried in donut batter, ice cream topped with grease-slathered bacon, chocolates coated in dripping ketchup-mayo combination.

Lucky Brand Bootleg Princess Jeans, size 6 (3): What Helen considers trying on again in front of The Mirror, but then that’s not really the point anymore, getting back to what she used to be, the point is being better, improving, becoming the thin, beautiful, healthy woman she’s never before been.

112.1 lbs.: Weight of Helen Trudeau on 2 March 2017. Final measurement on at-home scale, the next test being the sliding-metal physician scale in high school exercise facility, out in front of everyone, for all to see.

Helen’s eating excuses to Elise, to get her the hell off Helen’s back, various dates February and March 2017:

1. I’ve been snacking a lot at school,

2. I just ate a huge lunch,

3. I think I caught that stomach bug again, and

4. I took down a sub sandwich just before you got home.

Helen’s Acting Resume: Betty Rizzo (Grease); Drizella (Cinderella); Madame Thénardier (Les Misérables); Chorus Girl (Little Shop of Horrors); Ensemble (Wicked); Townswoman #4 (Beauty and the Beast); Caterpillar (Hungry Little Caterpillar); Pig #2 (Three Little Pigs).

Opening Night, front and center: Helen’s chosen seat for Grease on 31 March 2017, in support of Gina but also, as a bonus, a way to showcase new body each time she rises and struts out of theater (seven before intermission, four after), feeling all eyes on her, even Mrs. Bing’s; and tell her, Mrs. Bing, who would look better clad in leather and a punk hairdo, serenading and chastising Xander York that he’d better shape up, because she needs a man, and her heart (see various entries for Helen’s Heart), of course, is set on him.

Renee’s ass (2): Pretty good in the leather, sure, as she turns from her ovation, a standing one, the crowd’s jubilance exaggerated, over-the-top, she wasn’t that good, Xander mostly carried the duets.

Kyle, Theo, two Vinces: males, both under- and upperclassmen, who compliment Helen after the play.

A bit forced, each tinged with comparison to the past, their subtext saying not you look great but you look different, comparing Helen to that hideous former version who still exists if they look close enough, still pads her thighs where they refuse to separate, still folds over her bra straps: The compliments.

Helen’s Perpetual Love Object: Xander York, the heart-throb, the incomparable, who has yet to compliment Helen.

Common Weight Loss Misconceptions: Eight glasses of water a day; “straight to my hips and/or thighs”; – 200 calorie intake + – 200 calories burned in exercise = – one pound per week; BMI as indicator of general health; skipping meals; specific areas of body targeted for weight loss; carbohydrates and/or fats and/or proteins excised entirely from diet; calories eaten < three hours before bed stored as excess fat; 80/20 rule; weight loss pills; Most Important Meal of the Day!; the Food Pyramid; vibrating abdominal belts; diets.

I think you need help: Words earnestly and softly spoken from Elise to Helen, morning of 3 April 2017.

Are you kidding? I’ve never felt better. You’re just pissed because your time has passed: Helen’s defensive response.

Just come home right away from school, okay? I made an appointment with Dr. Samson. Just to talk: Elise’s second attempt, even softer and more earnest, if at all possible.

Fuck that! You’re just a jealous bitch!: Words too harsh even for Helen but there they are, she’s said them, and now she’s out the door, on her way to school and finally, finally, to high school exercise facility afterward.

During varsity baseball team’s workout: When Helen will go.

Hel, I wanted to—: Words spoken by Gina to Helen as they cross in the hallway after final period, words that Helen ignores entirely, just before entering locker room.

ASICS Gel Kayana shoes, blue and green, size 5.5; FILA Sport Vibrant Workout Pants, black, size XS; Nike Dri-Fit Mesh Racerbank Tank Top, electric pink, size XS; no socks, no underwear, no bra: Helen’s never-worn and punctiliously chosen workout attire, modeled countlessly in front of The Mirror, tight-fitting and accentuating in the right places provided she keep peerless posture, breathe sparingly, and refrain from vigorous exercise of any sort, not today, today is only for show, a mild walk and then straight to the scale.

High school exercise facility: Dingier than she’d expected, dark and smelling of piss and old leather, much less appealing than Body Blast but then the atmosphere matters far less than present company.

The stares: What Helen receives from the baseball team, even Coach Gannon, though they fail to meet Helen’s expectations, less flattering and more something on which she cannot put her finger.

Xander’s compliment: Words that, after wading through the team and other lone underclassmen, Helen finally awaits to adorn her, to hug her body like the form-fitting workout clothes, to simultaneously validate her every mile run, her every calorie counted and discarded, her very being these past months, and also provide motivation to continue on, to never go back to that hideous thing she was (see multiple entries for Overweight).

Are you okay?: Words spoken from Xander to Helen.

Thanks Xander, I. . . : Helen’s non sequitur response, Xander’s voice crashing against clanging plates and rhythmic treadmill stomps, and even his face, his beautiful face blending with the swaying crowd, arms and legs stretching out like stalks on some vast, never-ending field of flesh and fat and bone and

Remainder of day 3 April 2017, morning and afternoon of 4 April 2017: This entry has not been verified.

Blip blip. Blip blip. Blip blip: Distant noise, replacing exercise facility’s harmonious blur, of Helen’s heartbeat monitor as she wakes in hospital bed, 4 April 2017.

Helen’s Heart (3): Thundering in her chest, every palpitation palpable, every pump strenuous.

Multiple tubes punctured into arms; oxygen mask across face; straps securing arms and torso: Various medical devices imprisoning Helen to bed, impeding speech, movement, or much else than blinking.

88.8 lbs.: Weight of Helen Trudeau on 4 April 2017, recited by Doctor Samson in forbearing voice to Elise and Trent, the eights echoing around the bleached room with ghastly yet not entirely unpleasant symmetry.

Intravenous Feeding: (see also Parenteral Nutrition) Reason for the tubes, the only way that Dr. Samson believes Helen can absorb sustenance and begin to gain back what she’s lost.

Severe anorexia nervosa, symptoms: Fatigue; hair loss; dry skin; constipation; elevated liver enzymes; brittle nails; low blood pressure; consecutive absences of menstrual cycle (female only); loss of sexual drive (both sexes) leading to impotency (male only); abnormal blood counts; dehydration; seizures; death.

Severe? I think we’d know if our own daughter was that bad: Words offered by Trent, a heartfelt and unsurprising defense, though more of himself than Helen.

Death (2) ?: Only word spoken by Elise to Doctor Samson, her voice also resonating through the room, ghastly but with no hint of pleasantness.

112.1 and Renee’s ass and Body Blast treadmills and water and 28.5 and Mrs. Bing’s disappointed face and Third-pound Golden Cheesy Burger with fries and sliding scales and Gina’s stink-eye and 147.7 and water and Elise’s concerned face and leather pants and feeding tubes and 25 miles and water and Xander’s smile and the extra extra extra folds of her body: Images and words flashing in Helen’s fever dreams as she drifts from Dr. Samson and her parents, as she closes her eyes to the world.

Joseph Rein’s short stories have been appeared in Ruminate MagazineThe Pinch Literary MagazineLaurel Review, and Iron Horse Literary Review. His most recent publication was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Joseph has had two screenplays produced into award-winning festival films, and he was a finalist for the PAGE International Screenwriting Competition. He is also co-editor of Creative Writing in the Digital Age, Creative Writing Innovations, and Dispatches from the Classroom. Joseph is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.


Guest Editor for Poetry, Issue 137

Terri Kirby Erickson.jpg

Terri Kirby Erickson

Guest Editor for Poetry, Issue 137, July – September 2018

Terri Kirby Erickson is the author of five full-length collections of award-winning poetry, including her latest, Becoming the Blue Heron. Her work has appeared in the 2013 Poet’s Market, Ted Kooser’s American Life in PoetryAsheville Poetry ReviewAtlanta ReviewBoston Literary MagazineChristian Science MonitorCutthroat: A Journal of the ArtsJournal of the America Medical AssociationLiterary Mama, NASA News & NotesNorth Carolina Literary ReviewstorySouthThe Southern Poetry Anthology (Texas Review Press), The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison KeillorVerse Daily, and many others. Awards include the Joy Harjo Poetry Prize, Nazim Hikmet Poetry Award, Atlanta Review International Publication Prize, Gold Medal in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and a Nautilus Silver Book Award. She lives in North Carolina.

Three Turtles

by Terri Kirby Erickson

 

Basking on a narrow log jutting over a lake,

three river turtles balance their warm, sun-dried shells

over brackish water as well as any acrobat, one

in front of the other, as if they're a trio of ducklings

 

waiting to cross the street behind their mother.

Not long hatched from their leathery eggs by the look

of them, these turtles will live for thirty years

if they're lucky, which is longer than James Dean

 

but less than loggerheads, which live for fifty.

They have nowhere to be, no appointments, jobs,

or worries over money. There is only the dappled light

of the midday sun, the sound of dragonflies

 

hovering over the lake, the plop of a frog's belly

as it leaps into the murky water. Nearby, the bright coral

petals of a late-blooming azalea dot the ground like

embers, and the sky above them is the color of eastern

 

tailed-blue butterflies, without a cloud in sight.

And unlike people, turtles are never far from home—

no need for nostalgia or disappointment that the house

where they grew up looks nothing like they remember.

 

Instead, they carry their homes on their backs, moving

from place to place around the lake or in it—

wherever they wish to be—which for now is napping

on a log, and for river turtles, now is all there is.


Guest Editor for Short Fiction, Issue 137

Jeffery Condran.jpg

Jeffrey Condran

Guest Editor for Short Fiction, Issue 137, July – September 2018

Jeffrey Condran is the author of the story collection, A Fingerprint Repeated (Press 53).  His debut novel, Prague Summer (Counterpoint), received a 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award Silver Medal.  His fiction has appeared in journals such as The Kenyon ReviewThe Missouri Review, and Epoch, and has been awarded the The Missouri Review’s 2010 William Peden Prize and Pushcart Prize nominations.  He is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and co-founder/publisher of the independent literary press, Braddock Avenue Books.

Ides of March

by Jeffrey Condran

from A Fingerprint Repeated

 

On the Ides of March, my friend Harouk took me to Boca Raton to play tennis. He’d had to exercise all of his persuasion and charisma, because Crystal was still pissed about the last time we’d taken a trip together, where we had admittedly gone a bit far, flying all the way to Indian Wells for what amounted to three sets. But that was Harouk.

He was relentless. Sweet talking her, calling her love names in Arabic—not that she understood them—and swearing absolutely, “ya allah, woman,” that he’d have me home for dinner. Crystal did not like him. He was too foreign, too rich, and she simply couldn’t understand why we were friends. So it was not until Harouk explained that he, too, had to be back, that he was compelled to “register his existence” with the INS office downtown or face God knew what penalty, that she relented and gave her consent. As we were driving away he looked at me and smiled. “You, my friend, have got to do something about that woman.” But we were free, the road was before us, and nothing mattered.

Harouk hadn’t played on a clay court in years and the novelty of it had gotten the better of him. I’m not sure what it was, but I felt it too. Perhaps it was sliding across the loose clay or the way our game changed to fit the surface. Everything is slower on clay, with much more play from the baseline, and this favored me. Harouk was a little frustrated, if pleasantly so. “You,” he said, waggling his racket at me and laughing after a point where I’d pulled him around the court and finished things off with a particularly crisp passing shot, “you are really some kind of person.” The truth was that we could play ten sets together and Harouk would consistently win eight of them. I had just enough game to keep him mildly challenged. Taking the first two sets in Boca was significant. “We can’t stop now,” he said. The sun beat down on us hot and wonderful. Harouk smiled, showing his white, white teeth and dimples. I looked at my watch. “Time for one more,” I said.

Our third set was epic. Every amateur enthusiast has at least one set like this, where the level of play is so high, the competition so intense, that time seems to graciously pause, the rhythmic, “pock, pock, pock” of the ball flying from the racket strings replaces all other sound save the scraping of shoes across the clay, and your body feels so perfect you forget that it exists, a nearly meditative state. When the set ended, Harouk winning 7-6 (10-8) in a tie-breaker, we shook hands—as you do—and I felt like I was clasping hands with a brother, a man I’d taken an important journey with, and whom I would know now and for all time. By the look on Harouk’s face as we packed our rackets and the spent balls into our bags, I thought that he felt the same. Then I looked at my watch.

“Harouk?”

His gaze had traveled away from the court and toward the club bar. “You want a drink?” he asked. “I’ve become addicted to gin and tonics.” When I tapped my wrist, he saw the time and, for just a moment, his eyes went wide. Then he smiled again. “No problem,” he said. “We are the owners of a fast car, right?”

“We are,” I said, but my heart had started to pound at the thought of Crystal’s wrath and then nearly exploded when I remembered Harouk’s appointment. I imagined the climate controlled INS office, all concrete and steel and glass, governed by enigmatic secretaries and populated by neat rows of case officers in their furry cubicles.

The car was a silver Porsche 911 Turbo, a faster, bolder grandchild of the car that James Dean had gloriously martyred himself in. Harouk had let me drive it twice, and each time I’d felt like a child being pulled behind the leash of an angry German Sheppard. If making it home in time was a roll of the dice, this modern-day Silver Ghost was worth risking some money on.

What neither of us had considered were the exigencies of I-95 or the siren song of self-destructive behavior whose soundtrack had been playing in the background all day—though I’d been too stupid to hear it. An hour away from Boca we saw flashing lights ahead of us in the distance and lines of traffic. “Shit,” Harouk said.

In a little while, people got out of their cars and stood with the doors open, chatting over hoods and rooftops. Finally, the state police rolled by along the berm and Harouk walked over to speak with him. There’d been an accident. He was waiting to escort the ambulances to the scene. Harouk should get back in his car and be patient.

“Can’t they clear even one lane?” Harouk said. “Or maybe you could guide traffic along this lane.” He pointed at the berm where the squad car sat with its lights flashing. Apparently “berm” was a term that had not made it into Harouk’s nearly flawless English.

The officer gave him a more pointed look. “This,” he said, “is not a lane and is only for the use of emergency vehicles.” Their conversation was at an end.

Harouk closed the car door and blasted the air conditioning. He sat for a long time with his arms crossed over his chest and stared at the black and gold Porsche shield device fixed in the center of the steering wheel. Then he muttered something in Arabic that I didn’t understand and made a gesture in the direction of the police officer. “I am dead.” He turned to me. “You might as well get a shovel and start digging.”

“We shouldn’t have played that third set,” I said. “Why did we play it?”

Harouk didn’t answer me, didn’t do anything for a long while, until he seemed suddenly struck by inspiration. Then he leaned across and pulled a silver flask out of the glove box. “Our good friend, Johnnie Walker.”

“What’s going to happen if you don’t make it to your appointment,” I said. “Tell me.”

He waved his hand, pretending it didn’t matter.

Tell me,” I said. I pulled the flask from his hands and took a long drink.

“I don’t know. Maybe nothing,” he said. “Or maybe they will make me leave the country. They might arrest me.”

“They won’t do that,” I said, but I knew it wasn’t true. Arresting him might just be the beginning. “Can you call them?”

“The letter was very clear—I have to appear in person.” He put his hand on my shoulder. “Look, I’ve got to do something. I don’t want to leave this country. My life is here. I am happy.”

“What are you going to do?”

I passed him the flask and he drank. Then he smiled and drummed his knuckles on the dashboard. “Let’s find out.”

Harouk replaced the cap on the flask and handed it to me to put away, then he found his cell phone and called someone. For two or three minutes he spoke to a woman in Arabic. I heard her voice rising in panic as Harouk explained things. Or at least that’s what I assumed he was doing. He soon hung up, but offered no explanation. He shifted the car into first and looked around. The ambulances had rolled by a few minutes ago and, from where we sat, the coast was clear. “I heard an expression once that I liked very much,” he said. I knew I had only to wait and Harouk would deliver his line. “’Be bold’ the saying goes, ‘and mighty forces will come to your aid.’”

“Mighty forces, huh?”

“Yes,” he said. “Be bold.”

It was now firmly mid-afternoon. The sun was still hot and bright, but mercifully less blinding and direct. Harouk began to nose the Porsche into the narrow berm, but the line of traffic was so tightly packed that he couldn’t quite clear the bumper of the Dodge SUV in front of us. “Go ask him to move up,” Harouk said to me. When I hesitated he said, “Don’t worry, you’ll think of something.”

I got out and knocked gently on the passenger window of the Dodge. The driver was in her thirties wearing one of those black power suits favored by a certain type of corporate woman. I had interrupted some important operation on her Blackberry. I wished, suddenly, that Harouk were a woman; I could have pretended he was in labor or something. Instead I said, “My friend is going to be late for a life-altering meeting with an unforgiving government agency. We’re trying to get through. Could you roll up just a couple of feet?” When she smiled, I bowed to her and blew a kiss.

Harouk grinned at me like a crazy man as I buckled my seatbelt. “You see?” he said. And then solemnly, “Mighty forces.”

For the first quarter mile or so, my attention alternated between searching the distance for flashing lights and holding my breath as the guard rail glided by just inches from my door. But soon I was diverted by the sheer cosmic weight of the humanity looking, staring, gawking. There were gawkers in convertibles, in family sedans, in Beemers; old gawkers, child gawkers, fat gawkers, thin. It was as if hundreds, perhaps a thousand people had, without a word between them, decided to stare and to disapprove. If I had not previously been a believer in the unseen power of the Force, I now felt myself only moments away from conversion. Harouk pretended to be oblivious. He’d put in a CD of Mozart’s Requiem and began to sing along in tuneless faux contralto, making up his own Latin and throwing in a kyrie eleison when the moment seemed to call for it. When we passed over half a dozen rumble strips, I felt suddenly as if I’d swallowed the wrong pill.

Harouk half snorted and said, “I do not recommend this as the optimal way to drive a Porsche 911.”

“No kidding.”

“Ah, you say this too easily. It is a question of ownership. Of course, I own the car. No one would deny it. Here I am, after all, behind the wheel. It is my name on the registration in the glove box. But to drive this beautiful machine at 20mph for more than a breath or two, well, this is a sin. Ask anyone, any of these motorists”—here Harouk gestured wildly toward the traffic and nearly scraped a coat of paint off my door—”they would be well within their rights to say that I did not truly own this car at all.”

“No one would say that.”

“Not true. You do not understand, but I am very familiar with this kind of argument—it’s one of a handful of arguments the Israelis use to justify taking Palestine. Do you see? A question of utility. Apparently we weren’t using the land properly, while they have made the desert bloom. It is an idea of ownership I wish I didn’t know anything about. In any case, it is a wonderful car. Listen to that engine!”

Harouk put the car in neutral and revved the engine so that I might be awed by the constrained power that we possessed if only we could find some open road. It really was a wonderful car. The stuff of teenage dreams. I knew I’d never be able to afford one.

I said, “I still don’t see any flashing lights.”

“Do you think it’s getting too cold in here?” He adjusted the air so that it blew at our feet. Then he gripped the wheel again and we glided forward. For a decent stretch, the guardrail ended and Harouk was able to shift into third. Even this slight increase in speed seemed like a revelation. I allowed myself a glance at the pine trees and wildflowers that lined the highway on my side. In a perfect world they’d have been nothing but an Impressionist’s snapshot—a fantasy of movement and color. In a perfect world we’d be weaving through the traffic at 110mph. I felt my patience break a little and slip. I might have sighed. Harouk just kept on keeping on, all stillness and concentration.

“All right. What else don’t I understand?”

“Oh, no,” he said. “I don’t want to play this game.”

“You have something better to do?”

”Fine. You don’t understand why, if I love your country so much, am happy and want to stay, that I did not appear at the offices of your Immigration and Naturalization Service this morning at 9 a.m. dressed in my very best suit and tie, all my documents in order, a grateful smile upon my face.”

I nodded. Following the rules came naturally to me and I had a healthy fear of authority. I always paid my taxes before Valentine’s Day and parked my car in its designated spot outside my apartment building. If I had run into this traffic by myself, I’d still be waiting patiently, just as the police had told Harouk to do. I followed the rules because I liked my life enough to be terrified of the consequences. And for this reason I knew, absolutely knew, that we would be caught, that Harouk would be detained, his beautiful car towed away and all his chances in America crushed. What I did not know was that being crushed might have been the point all along. It was this thought that kept me from despair.

There might even be, for Harouk, a silver lining. Here would be a story to tell his children, to build a life upon. A great tale. A legend. We rolled along in the Porsche, the chastising stares of my fellow citizens looking down on this rich foreigner, this Arab, against the backdrop of the Florida spring. Yes, here was Harouk, twenty-nine years old, handsome, rich, artfully self-destructive, suffused with the blossom of personal protest and martyrdom. He was bold. Full of grace and charisma. I was proud to be his friend, proud to be a witness to this slow-motion suicide. It’s possible, I’d later tell Crystal—uselessly, of course—that if you’re not prepared to destroy your life, you’re not prepared to live.