Archives For Issue 10 (June 2016)

Forty-five in the shade, so hot the whitewashed warehouses vapored. Heat pressed down like a boot kicked hard. Josh felt it mostly in the crown, thinning there – and still so young too – but the heat made everything older and slower. He’d burn and peel; that fair skin had once seared during an Irish summer, the crown peeling off like a kipa. He wanted to be inside, get something to eat, but the restaurants in Stone Town were closed during Ramadan. Josh and his new bride had just exited an uncomfortably cold air-conditioned theatre, watching an enjoyable yet farcical Greek comedy shown as part of the international film festival, and were now aimlessly wandering the tight cobbled streets toward the beach, the stone buildings giving to bleached adobe shacks, and the sea. Could smell it like tears. Would float in it for days until discoloured by the waves, returning to land as a boneless thing, renewed.

Josh clutched Debs’ hand, unwilling even in this heat to separate his connection to her, like they’d cease to exist if the join were somehow severed. Two days in Zanzibar and this the first time they’d ventured out of their hotel room, this hermetically-sealed, chiselled and colonnaded resort – the new tucked and stretched face of an old dame.

Debs glanced at the sea but something rustled and jaunted the fronds of a palm tree above them now. A boy shimmied down the trunk and stared into her face, those sapphire blue eyes of hers. He drilled a hole through a coconut’s eye and slid a straw into it and placed it in Debs’ hand, his twiggy fingers holding hers a lingering moment.

“This is best coconut I find all day,” he said. “It is lucky coconut because I do not fall picking it.”

His knees and shins scabbed and pale-scarred. Debs lifted out of her shoulder bag a five-dollar bill. The boy pincered it and sprinted off, feet embroidering little stitches on the wet sand.

Josh should have chased after the boy and retrieved the note. It was dangerous to give so much, be so frivolous with their money – they’d been warned. Instead, he held her hand tighter, joined in some magnetic way, unable to break free. Never wanted to let go. She was his. He was hers. Youthful, fresh out of college. Could almost pass for teenagers. And madly in love. Madly, unequivocally entwined from the first moment they met, drawn to each other at a recital a semester ago.

She was watching him, his brown eyes like tough leather, then the softest velvet. He had to just had to kiss her and danced her a ways so their feet chimed in the wash of waves discoloured by sand.

Debs lifted an opalescent shell, rinsed it off, put it in her Louis Vuitton shoulder bag. They walked hand in hand for a stretch of coast, coral fringing out there, then came to the harbour with its grimy touts, stevedores and puttering cargo ships. Gasps of pungent sumac odour. They strolled on towards the jumble of Stone Town, the musk of warm bricks, and the spires of St Joseph’s Cathedral which heralded the location of their resort hotel where staff served western food anytime during Ramadan.

This narrow street of tall anorexic buildings, donkey droppings, cracked cement, clove-y breeze, sidewalk-less, women-less, pillared by couplets of tobacco-smoked men. Stone Town’s a warren; not like Zanzibar at all. More real. Diminished – yes, bygone and trodden … but real, realer than the modern facelift stretchmarks of the city.

Paradise, and he knew it too.

“I shouldn’t have been worried,” Debs said. “Everything you said about here was right.”

He recognized this street and in fifteen minutes they’d be back in their room. These ancient buildings heaved and wheezed, leaning, crouching over, like old men.

She said, “It’s all so quick.”

Joshua slowed his pace, but she chuckled.

“Marriage, you goof,” she said. “Leaving Ireland. Travelling, just us two alone, together.”

He met her eyes. Pulled her to him. Kissed. Hard and fast and full of fire. People were staring over, glaring. They’d been warned about that too – public displays of affection.

Josh led on, not knowing if this was the correct direction, these streets all the same. But he didn’t like the way the locals were pointing in their direction, and now he just wanted to get back to his room, have a beer. Debs’ grip tightened; she didn’t recognize this street either. He glanced at his watch, could see they’d been walking longer than they should have; and this street was deserted, just them walking on it, holding hands (warned against that too).

“That kid got five times what the coconut was worth,” he said. “I couldn’t afford that markup back in Dublin, but out here … we’re all rich. Like you.”

Debs came from old money, the type of fortune protected by the pre-nups he’d been forced to sign by her father.

She reached into her shoulder bag and lifted a makeup compact out, powdered her pale somewhat luminous face. Her sarong worn all the way to her ankles fluttered in the gasp-y breeze; she also wore a veiled blouse to ensure she was completely covered (as per the tour operator’s instructions). She scratched at the collar, revealing her Star of David necklace. Josh reached to tuck it out of view, but something came at them from behind. A buzzing drone like a vuvuzela. A dried pea rattling inside a can. It was a moped barrelling towards them –

at them.

Josh looped his arm around Debs, dragging her back against the wall. The moped slowed, driver and passenger glaring over, studying them. The passenger held a small gas canister. Both young men, shoeless, tattered rags for clothes. The moped sped up, rounded a corner and disappeared.

Light glinted off Debs’ necklace and Josh tucked it inside her blouse. Then they met each other’s eyes, and her lips turned up at the corners, revealing a beautiful grand piano smile, and then they were laughing, hanging off each other, barely able to catch breath.

Then silence.

A moped buzzed towards them. The same moped. The passenger upended the contents of the gas canister, a clear liquid dousing the couple, then sped off.

Josh stared after it, wondering about this bizarreness. Hoped to catch Debs’ eye and laugh about it.

But she screamed. Grabbed at her face. Blue smoke coiled off her cheeks. Melting. Too unreal to be anything other than a movie effect. Like that scene in The Wizard of Oz.

Josh yelled, collapsing to his knees. Chest, back, hands burning but no fire there – no flames. The liquid seared like acid.

She clawed at her face and her hands melted too. Her clothes disintegrated. People all around, now. Lifting them. Hoisted by many hands. Traversing the shaded streets, then careering into the light. Josh cannonballed into the water, twisting farther out into the sea, the waves slapping him, taking the burning away.

Debs was sitting cross-legged on the edge of where the ocean met the beach, arms out like a child reaching to be lifted. Water had been splashed over her and the burning now was gone. She couldn’t understand why those around her were wailing and crying, and she shushed them, saying Please calm down, everything’s fine. Skin hung from her face in ribbons.

*

Fire woke him. Hurt pulsed through his torso, ending at his neck. The acid had missed his face. His arms, hands and chest were bandaged. Needed to rip it off, let the fire escape.

A nurse entered his room and took his hands and placed them by his side, speaking in a language he didn’t understand. She put her hand on his head, ran it through his soft brown curls. Then she went to the IV drips and changed the bags.

“Where’s my wife Debora? Is she…?” His voice was croaky. “Deborah Malloy, my wife, take me to her.”

He struggled to sit up and collapsed back onto the bed, panting, and he shuddered as if he were crying except there was a hollowness within, and no wetness in his eyes. The nurse called out and went to the door. A tall black man wearing glasses entered, his lips pressed tightly into slits. He went alongside the bed and filled a glass with water, placed a straw into it and helped Josh upright enough to drink, and he drank greedily but the doctor took the glass away before he consumed more than a few mouthfuls. Josh wept, chest shuddering, eyes hot as tar pits.

“You are too dehydrated to cry,” the doctor said. “But drinking too much too soon will make you sick.”

He explained about the attack that used sulphuric acid from a car battery. He said there was almost no morphine used and the reason Josh did not feel much pain was that his nerve receptors were so entirely damaged they no longer functioned. They would never regain. A serious trauma, yes, but he would survive. And lucky, too, that none of it had gotten on his face.

And then the doctor looked far off, at some point in the distance, unable to make eye contact while he spoke about Debs.

*

A porter pushed Josh’s wheelchair into Debs’ room and then went back out. She wouldn’t look at him, eyes downturned off to the side fixed on a spot on the white plastic-y wall, focused as if reading words. Her entire head was bandaged, hands and upper body. Even the exposed skin around her eyes was blistered and raw, an oozing wound.

The television was tuned to the BBC world news service:

A young Irish couple on honeymoon have been attacked by acid in Zanzibar, Tanzania. It follows an identical assault on a Catholic priest a month previous. Two men on a moped hurled battery acid at them. Locals came to the couples’ aid, immersing them in the sea.

Josh recalled a short man splashing water in Debs’ face and rubbing it on her face, growling each time he splashed her face with the sea water. Unfortunately, the sandy water wasn’t as effective as the water farther out from the shoreline. The acid had burned her for longer than it had burned him.

“When I close my eyes, it’s like I’m watching a news report,” she said. “Like it’s someone else’s story on TV. Nothing’s real anymore.”

“That’s morphine,” he replied. “Makes it seem like a dream.”

She said, “I want more morphine.”

It all felt like a waking dream to Josh too. He couldn’t understand why they were targeted, why them in particular? They had dressed appropriately. Hadn’t openly shown they were Jewish. What could have provoked this attack?

“I don’t know,” he muttered. “I don’t know. I don’t. I really don’t. Don’t know.”

“They targeted us,” she said. “The way they stopped, to look. They were looking for us.”

She glared at him, a distillation of hurt and fear in her smoky eyes. Then she picked a spot on the wall and stared absently.

“They carried me up on their shoulders and brought me into the water and washed me, and all I kept thinking was why are we doing a mikve, why now?”

Josh’s hearing hummed. A lead weight creaking pendulously through his skull.

“Just before the moped, why did you check your watch?” she asked.

“I knew we’d been walking too long,” he replied. “Should have been at the hotel already—”

“You checked your watch,” she said with realization, “and then led me onto that deserted street. I knew it was the wrong way but didn’t say. But you took me onto that street, and checked your watch … like you were late for something.”

He glared at her. “I had nothing to do with that attack,” he hissed. “I can’t believe you’d ever think I could have… Are you serious?”

Her shoulders bunched up and she whimpered, tears disappearing like steam.

*

The nurse dialled the number and passed Josh the phone, which he held awkwardly to his ear, hands wrapped like mittens. He was in his wheelchair at the nurses’ station. The hallway was various shades of white, hard to tell the walls from the floor, and an elderly man with a walking stick wavered near the doorway, wet gushing from his gown, pooling around his feet, lapping along the hallway. A porter went to him.

The call connected and a man spoke curtly. It was Josh’s father-in-law Michael. He had wanted to speak to Sarah, had always gotten on better with her. He took a short breath, scar tissue banding his chest.

“Did you get the flight booked, Mr Resnik?”

Michael sighed. Cleared his throat. “Oh, it’s you.”

“Is Sarah…?”

He’d never before heard a woman wail so ferociously; this guttural, animal-like scream, and then the phone had fallen away, cracking on the ground. She’d been yelling for Michael then, and the two of them sobbing, and the line had disconnected. Josh had tried several times since then, always getting a busy signal. Until now.

“I’ve spoken to Police Commissioner Faki,” Mr Resnik said. “Got the real details from him. All the details.”

“Debs, she’s saying some crazy things, Mr Resnik. Saying I’ve planned all this, Michael. I need your help.”

The line clicked dead.

*

Josh’s wheelchair banged into the doorjamb and he slung it to the side, crashing through the double doors and exiting into the hospital car park. He fumbled at a pack of cigarettes he’d purchased from the gift shop with money he’d borrowed from his nurse, tearing the plastic off with his teeth and chewing the paper and foil off in a chunk, rattling the packet until a cigarette fell onto his lap. Double-handed, he lifted the cigarette to his mouth, glanced at the box of matches, and wept uncontrollably. A short fat man came alongside and laid his bandaged hand on Josh’s back; he’d been the one who had rubbed dirty water in Debs’ face. The woman with him put Josh’s cigarette in her mouth, lit it, drew smoke deep, then placed the cigarette in Josh’s mouth. He puffed and puffed like a locomotive, the coal a red eye. He hadn’t smoked in three months, since meeting Debs, and now spluttered, the cigarette coughed to the dirty cement. The woman lifted it and put it back in his mouth.

This wedge-shaped man, this fat man with a moustache that looked like a fat fly squatting above his lip, had he taken Debs out a few feet more into the clear ocean waters, her face wouldn’t have been ruined… Josh made fists, those fist already in boxing gloves. He’d been a Golden Gloves champion. Knew how to clatter some fat little man like that.

“You helped us,” Josh said. “Thanks.”

The man licked his lips and wiped them on the back of his bandaged hand. “You’re Irish and a Jew,” he said.

With the news, strangers knew everything like they were friends.

Joshua Malloy. Irish.

“I’m what you might call a Catholic Jew.”

“Something like that, shouldn’t have happened anybody,” the man said. “Nobody deserves to be burned.”

The woman said, “Did you really pay to have your own wife killed?”

*

Josh was hunched over in his wheelchair, the pain in his chest like magma, stealing the wind from his lungs, and a thick-shouldered man with oily black skin dragged a hardback chair closer and sat. They were in the hallway near the toilet, where he’d been sicking up for the past few minutes. This commanding man wore a black beret and a brown short-sleeve shirt with an official insignia stitched across the lapels.

“I am Police Commissioner Samuel Momose Faki.”

“Did you catch them?” Josh’s words tumbled out. Had to repeat himself after Commissioner Faki raised a thick eyebrow and lilted his head to the side like a puzzled Doberman.

Josh had described his attackers to a police artist and the image had been transmitted on the news stations. They looked more ominous that he remembered, more vile.

Commissioner Faki sucked his teeth. “We will capture these men. Then we will have the truth from them. The whole truth.”

“Debs was wearing a Star of David. They saw it and attacked us.”

Commissioner Faki sweated profusely, his shirt wet from the armpits out, almost connecting to the dampness at his chest. He fanned air in his face with a newspaper but did not remove his beret. The headline on the newspaper: Husband Implicated In Newlywed Wife’s Acid Attack.

A police line had been erected at the hospital entrance to keep reporters out. A dozen of them camped outside. They had climbed up to his window and shouted questions inside. Now, he had to keep it shut. The heat, it made everything soft and out of focus. Just like he felt.

He heard the paint-can-marble rattle of the moped. Those bastards, they smirked at each other, smirked, he saw it now – glared at me and Debs, then dumped battery acid on us. It was no accident. Those animals were looking for victims, searching.

He needed them found. Needed their confession. Needed Debs not to hate him for this. Without her he was nothing, and he’d already considered the sturdy metal railing above the toilet to attach a belt loop and end it all.

“If you think I did it, arrest me then. Get it over with.”

“I do not believe this to be a religious crime,” he said. “And I will find the truth. And it will take the time it takes…”

Commissioner Faki stood up and peered into the toilet, glancing up at the metal railing near the ceiling. Then he moved in front of the wheelchair and placed his meaty hands on the armrests, leaning into Josh’s face, reeking of spicy, bitter onions.

“I read a story in a newspaper about a newlywed couple on honeymoon in Turkey,” Commissioner Faki said. “During this honeymoon the wife she dies, she is murdered. It is a senseless crime. Seemingly unprovoked. But it is later discovered that the husband kills his wife for her money. For her money.”

*

Debs’ parents were clinging to each other outside Debs’ hospital room. Sarah was borrowed into the crook of Michael’s neck, and when she stood back his shirt was sooted with mascara. Michael straightened and moved in front of his wife, like he was expecting to protect her from attack. Josh was nearby, and backed off a step, considered running away. But there was a commotion in Debs room, with several nurses and porters inside.

Josh stared pleadingly at Sarah, whose mouth was turned down at the corners as if she wanted to speak, to intervene, but instead made a choking noise like a cat about to hairball.

“You’re moving Debs,” he said.

“For reconstructive surgery in London,” Michael snapped. “She’ll get the best help there is.”

“I’ll pay whatever I have,” Josh said. “Whatever I have, all of it, I’ll give it.”

Michael brushed past and Sarah trotted after, then she stopped and returned, leaned close to Josh and kissed his cheek.

*

Josh entered Debs’ room. She was sitting upright in bed, staring off to the side, looking at some spot on the wall. The nurses and porters left, wheeling out a medicine cart. A nurse lingered at the door, and Debs’ glanced at her, pointing her eyes off. The nurse left.

“In London, they’ve scheduled five surgeries,” she said. “For starters.”

He went to her and fell onto her side of the bed, leaning across, and he was muttering about everything being okay and how they’d pull though all this if only they stuck together, trusted each other. They had each other and that’s all that mattered. Whatever else, they’d get through it.

“Look at my face,” she said. “I couldn’t be with someone like me,” she said. “Leave me and I won’t hold it against you.”

“I won’t ever leave you. I promise.”

“You don’t really even know me,” she said. “We’ve only known each other a year. Only really known each other three months. You don’t know me at all.”

“I know your favourite colour’s green. Your grandma taught you how to knit. You want to learn how to spin yarn. You watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding when you’re sad. And you’ve never had a TB shot—”

The television was muted but the news report was about them. The suspects were still at large.

She said, “Tell me you didn’t do this to. Not for money.”

*

In a couple of hours, Debs would be airlifted to a specialist trauma unit in London. Her father entered Josh’s hospital room, carrying a briefcase.

Josh said, “I didn’t hurt Deborah. I’d never let anything bad happen…”

But it was too late for that. The badness had already occurred and now it was time for resolution, such was the stern countenance to Michael’s grey face. He placed a contract, three-pages long, printed in a dense paragraph-less stream, on the sliding table Josh had yet to use, having refused to eat since the attack.

Michael Resnik was lead partner in a lawyers firm in Dublin. He said that Josh could have the contract looked over, but the gist of it was that by signing it he’d receive fifty thousand pounds. Sign it, and Deborah would be out of his life forever.

He placed a pen in Josh’s mitted hand.

He said the settlement was at Deborah’s request. If Michael had his way, this vile little bastard would never see a penny. Even if he wasn’t involved in the attack, he’d failed Deborah, couldn’t protect her. What kind of man was that?

Josh pushed the page off the table and dropped the pen, then picked a spot on the wall and stared at it.

*

Police Commissioner Faki issued an arrest warrant for Muslim extremist Sheikh Sulaiman al-Suhaymee, who had incited the violence that led to the horrific acid attack. Five men had been arrested, linked to Al Shabeeb militants, who had also been implicated in an acid attack on a Catholic priest a month previous.

“An hour before the acid attack,” Commissioner Faki said, “a woman fitting your wife’s description got into an altercation with a local woman. She had been singing, which is not permitted during Ramadan.”

Debs would never sing in public. It wasn’t her. And they’d also been in the movie theatre.

“However, the two men on the moped were incited by Sheikh Sulaiman al-Suhaymee and went looking for anybody who looked like this woman. Your wife looked like her.”

Josh fell to his knees, only now realising he had gotten out of the wheelchair, and fatigued he stood up, stumbling against the wall, then lurched into the hallway and his chest thrummed, banded by scar tissue hard as steel, but he ran anyway and was next to Debs’ bed and all he wanted to do was take her in his arms, hold her. I won’t leave you. Won’t ever let you go. No matter what.

 

Michael McGlade’s been published in Shimmer, Saturday Evening Post, Downstate Story, Spinetingler, and Grain. I hold a master’s degree in English and Creative Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University, Ireland.  He is represented by Isobel Dixon of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency.

They’d been warned about the priest.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to…” He stopped and looked down at the little beaten book in his hand.

Swaying slightly, he flipped pages, cleared his throat, and began again, the faint smell of bourbon drifting over to Margo, who stood next to him. She took a small step back. Her hat lifted in the hot, humid breeze, and she reached up to hold it, feeling the hat pin that held it to the reddish-blond braid that wound around her head. The charms on her bracelet rustled as it slipped down on her thin arm.

Their mother had insisted on the private service, the hat, and the pin, a little black pearl dangling on the end.

“Your head should be covered,” she’d said. “And you shouldn’t be wearing jewelry, particularly not that bracelet. It’s too…” She’d never finished her thought.

Margo wasn’t sure why it mattered, didn’t argue, and kept it on. Momster, Andra had named her when they were young. They both called her that. They, Margo thought. No more they.

August had not been kind. The family cemetery plot rested in deep shade beneath a canopy of ash, oaks, and maples. At least here it was cooler. The Momster stood at Margo’s side, cringing within her black Chanel suit, her blue eyes invisible behind her oval dark glasses, her blond hair swept up beneath her black hat. Aside from the two of them and the priest, six black-suited pallbearers from the funeral parlor were the only attendants.

The priest glanced up when he found the right page. “We have come to lay to rest Andrea Olivia Martinard, our sister in Christ.”

“It’s Andra,” Margo corrected. The priest vacantly stared at her. “An-dra, our sister in Christ,” he said. He didn’t know her sister. He didn’t know any of them; the best they could get on short notice. Margo couldn’t remember the last time they’d been in a church.

“We should be bloody well done by now,” her mother whispered, glancing at her watch. Margo had wondered how long her mother would last. She’d never had much patience for Andra, and that wouldn’t change now that she was dead.

“We could have lunch afterward,” Margo had suggested that morning. She wanted to talk. They could tell stories and laugh like other people who say good-bye. Maybe even cry. But her mother wasn’t like other people. Why had she even bothered coming? Perhaps this was one ritual even her mother couldn’t avoid. Now she lived with husband number three, who had more interesting children, and had better places to be. No, Margo and her mother had gotten off separate planes that morning, and they’d be back on separate ones this afternoon. Smooch, smooch, bye, bye.

“Enough of this charade. I’m leaving. Call me later.”
“But it’s not…” Margo started, but her mother had already turned and walked back to her limo. Sighing, Margo returned her attention to the priest. He coughed in the middle of his sentence and lost his place. He fumbled once again with pages and stared at the page.
“Ashes to ashes.”
Andra to ashes.
“Dust to dust. We comment her body to the ground to sleep until the rise of all God’s creatures.”
She let it go. The priest’s voice became a hum, his words sloshing back and forth as he dribbled them from the prayer book. A fine spray of spit launched itself into the air and fell in front of her.
“Amen,” he said, looking rather confused at the empty spot next to Margo where her mother had been standing.
“Amen,” Margo repeated.
“I am so…sorry for your loss,” the priest said, pressing his hand into her own as if that would be of comfort. His bald head glistened with sweat. He had very blue, bloodshot eyes. “Sweet lady,” he said and toddled off back to his own car, thankfully with a nun behind the wheel.
“We’ll be returning now, Miss Martinard. May I escort you to your limo?” the head black suit asked.
“No, thank you.” Margo looked down at her sister’s coffin blanketed in a carpet of red roses and listened to the fading sounds of the car engines as they rolled away. When she looked back, she was alone except for the limo waiting silently up the hill. Time to go. But Margo couldn’t get her feet to move. Andra’s life was over. Margo’s relationship with her was over. What had happened to that?

A long time ago, when it was just the two of them, a string of houses to explore and nannies to torture, it had been wonderful. She looked down at the pale pair of Jimmy Choo sandals she’d bought for the occasion. Modest in terms of heel height. Horrible choice, her mother had said. So inappropriate to wear sandals to a funeral. Andra would have laughed. The amber color went so well with the bracelet.

From the corner of her eye, something moved. Turning, she saw a young man sitting on a marble bench off to the side beneath a huge tree, just outside the square border of their family plot. He sat with his elbows on his knees, looking at her, his eyes partly hidden by a mass of brown, curly hair that covered his forehead. A shovel leaned against the bench next to him, and a cigarette burned between two fingers. The gravedigger. Had to be. He sat not more than fifteen feet away and she hadn’t seen him.

“You can start whenever you like. I don’t mind,” she called.
He held his position and just kept looking.
“I said…”
“I heard you, Miss,” he said, flicking an ash. “I can wait while you pay your respects.” He took a drag on the smoke.
“I didn’t respect my sister,” she said. That sounded wrong. Andra hadn’t respected her. Had she respected anything? Reliably unreliable. She fingered the bracelet.
“Must have been sudden,” the gravedigger said.
“What? Oh, yes,” Margo said. “We thought she’d end up doing something stupid.”
“Heard she was young.” The digger didn’t look old himself. Mid to late twenties. Fair yet a bit leathery.
“Twenty-seven,” Margo said.
“Young.”
Margo nodded. “Our nanny used to say we were Irish twins,” she said. “Fourteen months apart.”
“Must have been pretty.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because you are,” he said. He took another draw on his smoke and then crushed it beneath his boot.
“You’re flirting with me at my sister’s funeral?”
“Just stating a fact,” he said, looking at her.
Margo looked back at the blanket of roses. “We didn’t look much alike.”
“Sisters always say that, don’t they?”
“You an expert on sisters?”
He chuckled. “Got five of them. All say the same thing. Put them next to each other and they look like a set.” He pulled a red thermos from beneath the bench and filled the top cup with coffee. “Want some? I haven’t touched it yet.”

She walked the distance between them, sat down, and took the cup from him. “Does it have sugar in it?”
“No. Just milk.”
She took a sip. “Thank you. It’s good.”
“Got something a little stronger if you’d like,” he said, pulling a pint bottle of Jameson from his back pocket and setting it down on the bench between them. She shook her head but he left the bottle there.
“She had very dark hair, almost black, with very hazel eyes. The kind that changed with what she wore.”
“You close?”
“When we were kids,” Margo said. The stone felt cool beneath her thighs. She tried to hand the cup back to him but he shook his head.
“Was she sick for a long time?”
“An overdose. So I guess you could say she was.”
He shook his head. “Shame.”
“Andra didn’t believe in limits.”
“Was it intentional?”
“Oh no, just carelessness.”
He nodded.
“Truth is, we don’t really know. My mother said no, anyway.” But the Momster would be the last to know anything about either of them.
“Your mother must be broken up.”
“I don’t know. She’s never broken up over anything.” Margo wished she could be like that. She touched the bracelet again, the damned bracelet.

The coffee smelled of cinnamon. She looked at him closely. He had a nose that seemed to flow directly out of his forehead. His eyes were a very pale gray, his brows dark, straight lines above them, his chin crusted with sparse reddish stubble. He had a birthmark in front of his right ear in the shape of a tear. A nice face for a gravedigger. If she’d been Andra, he’d be laughing by now, doing something her sister wanted him to do. Dancing, drinking, fucking. All of Andra’s usual possibilities. But she wasn’t Andra.
“So have you been doing this kind of work long?”
“It’s my second job. They call me when the other guy can’t make it.”
“The other guy?”
“Pete. They’re having a birthday party for him at the Grange. He’s eighty-one.”
“That’s old to be digging, isn’t it?”
He laughed. “He drives a backhoe. Still, it’s old.” Margo didn’t see a tractor, just a faded green pickup back behind a thicket of juniper bushes. “Only Pete gets to drive it.” He tapped the shovel that leaned up against the bench between them. “I get to dig.”
“You weren’t invited to the party?” Margo said, taking another sip of coffee and eyeing the Jameson.
“I’ll head down when I’m finished here.”
“I’m holding you up?”
“Not really. Let’s just say I like Pete, but his friends are as old as he is, and his grandkids and great-grandkids aren’t that good-looking.”

She glanced at the bottle. They’d started with Jameson that night in New York, a big-girl drink, Andra had said. Come on, Sissy, let’s get hammered.
“So why is your sister buried here?” he asked.
“My whole family is here. This whole square,” she said, pointing to the area in front of them. All the graves rested near a tall needle of pink granite on the far side. Gathered around it were more than a dozen rectangles of granite trying to look as if they somehow went together, “Martinard” on most of them. “My father is over there. That’s my great-great-grandfather under the big one; he was married three times, so all his wives are here, most of their kids, though a few of them got away.” Andra almost did, she thought. “How did you know she was young?”
“Pete told me.”
“So he knew about my sister?”
“Probably not. He just said: ‘Hey, Jed, we’ve got a young one today. Can you do her?’” He looked down. “Sorry. That didn’t sound right.”
“It’s okay. My sister would laugh at that. In fact, if my sister were sitting here right now, you’d probably want to.”
“Ah.” He held up the thermos. “More?”
She nodded. “Perhaps something a little stronger,” she said.
He unscrewed the bottle of Jameson.

Margo felt the edge. Not on the edge but the edge itself. Sitting on this bench, the dense green of the trees above her, the hot, solid air pressing in. She’d stepped up to this particular edge three, four times in her life, always with Andra. One more step and you can’t go back and be the same person afterward. The morgue had taught her that. One more lesson from her sister. Time to move on, she thought. But where?

Andra had danced on this edge so lightly. A prima ballerina of edges. Where had Margo gone? Her music. A budding collection of art books. The occasional lunch with Momster when she was in town. Was that all bad or, even worse, dull? If you didn’t bungee-jump your way through life, did that make you lifeless? She liked New York, her clean, white apartment, her half-mangled rescue cat, her job at the gallery, Saturday nights at the poetry club, the occasional fumble with the odd poet, the more frequent tussle with words. Wasn’t writing bad poetry enough? It should be, shouldn’t it?

She held out the cup, and he tipped the Jameson in. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” He smiled, a solid smile full of slightly overlapping, nicotine-stained teeth. She looked at the shovel. “Do you have another one of these?” she asked.
“I couldn’t let you do that.”
“It’s Margo,” she said, extending her hand.
“Nice to meet you.” His hands bore hard, dry calluses. “Jed.”

She took off the hat and laid it down on the bench, sticking the pin through it. “I want to do this.”

He fetched another shovel from his truck and handed it to her. Together they lifted the rose blanket off the coffin and set it aside. Using a small crank that squawked as he turned it, he loosened the straps that cradled the coffin, lowering it into the hole. They pulled the Astroturf off the mound of dirt and began to dig.

Margo could feel the back of the shovel beneath the center of her sandal as she pushed it into the dirt, an awkward motion at first, the handle feeling like a long elbow that wouldn’t tuck in. The sound of the dirt hitting the coffin sounded like a snare drum, but it didn’t take long for the sound and surface to disappear. She worked at one end and Jed at the other. The dirt was dark, like the tree bark around them, and felt loose and easy to move. Push, tilt, lift, dump. After a while she found a rhythm. She thought of Andra laughing, saying, I always knew you could get dirty, Sissy. When half the mound was moved, she stopped, stepped over to the bench, and took a long swig of the Jameson straight from the bottle. He joined her.
“Why do you have this?” she asked.
“Medicinal purposes.”
Margo nodded. “One of my sister’s favorite medicines.”

When they went back to work, the smell of dirt seemed stronger. The sweat ran now down her back, in between her breasts, in tiny rivers. The bracelet stuck to her arm, the dirt clinging to the sodden charms.

* * *

She’d lost it, or thought she had, the last time she and Andra were together in New York. It had been a humid night in September, unseasonably warm. They’d gotten caught in the rain in the park between bar stops, a flash downpour, her sister opening up her arms, Burberry raincoat flapping, head tilted back, mouth open, the lightning flashing behind them, their hair plastering their faces, Andra pulling Margo out from under a tree to dance in wide circles on the footpath by the pond, as if the two of them could drink up all the power of the storm.

They laughed and laughed and laughed, squishing together into the cab, dripping all the way back to Margo’s place, and then stripping off their clothes, leaving them in puddles on the floor, pushing each other into and out of the shower. That moment when Andra pulled her in, held her, the warm water running down their backs. Kissed her for too long. The taste of wine on her tongue. And Margo held on. Time had disappeared, drunk on the whole night. She remembered drying her hair, her fingers shaking. They’d passed out and when she’d woken up, Andra was gone.

She looked for it first around the apartment and then downstairs and back through the bars she remembered from the night before, saying the same thing again and again: It’s a Pandora bracelet, you know the kind? It’s a thick silver cord, and on it are these round charms. There are a couple of onyx ones and some with amber-colored stones, a couple of tiny snakes too, only they look more like tightly coiled springs. Her mother had given her two of the charms, and she’d collected the rest herself with her own money. Her favorites were the amber beads locked in a tiny silver circle that looked like a crown. She had two of everything.

The stupid bracelet. Andra denied it and Margo believed her. She always believed her. No limits, Andra said, but there should have been some, as least where Margo was concerned. Who decided the other was too far gone? Margo had done that but it was Andra who hadn’t returned her calls. Andra bailed on the trip to Boston. They’d always been terrible on the phone.    

What’s the point, Margo? I’m letting you off the hook.
What if I don’t want that?
You know, all Pandora had left was hope. That’s really a curse.
You took it, didn’t you.
Did you just figure that out?
You are not hopeless. You can give it back.
Too late, Sissy. I love you. I hope you know that.
Why? Don’t go. I love you too.

Music played in the background and a man laughed. The call ended, a click that explained nothing. Months later she’d gotten the call from the doorman. The morgue, her sister on a gurney, a white sheet pulled back, and a gaunt, blue-lipped face. The envelope, her effects they’d called it, contained a red wallet, keys, a hard pack of Kools, and the bracelet. An odd feeling of relief and the guilt that trailed it. Now the bracelet’s charms, crusted with earth, stuck to her skin. Why had she worn it? How could she not?

* * *

“Hey—take it easy there,” Jed said. Margo’s shovel hit the tarp at the bottom of the dirt pile. She stopped, breathless, that horrible moment clinging to her like her sweat-soaked dress. Jed took the shovel and Margo went back to the bench, sat down, and took a drink.

“Are you all right?” Jed asked. She nodded but didn’t want to answer. She felt hot and dizzy. He left her, produced a rake from the back of his truck, and pulled the remaining soil off the tarp on the ground and onto Andra’s grave. Margo watched the smaller mound form over her sister. As Jed folded up the ground tarp, flattened grass reappeared.

There would be a headstone with Andra’s name, the dates, and perhaps something else, but right now Margo couldn’t think of anything that would capture the essence of her sister.

She and Jed placed the flower blanket back over the center of the grave mound and stood side by side, looking at it.
“Looks pretty with the flowers, doesn’t it?”
“It does,” he said, handing her the bottle of Jameson. “I could get you a job digging if you’re interested.”

She laughed and took another swig, handing the bottle back to him. She looked down at the blisters rising beneath the dirt on her hands.
“I have a place we can clean you up if you’d like,” he said, handing her the bottle again. “Just down there.” He pointed to a path. “See that little chapel? Well, it’s really our tool shed. We’ve got water in there.”

The bottle rubbed against her sores. The little stone building looked like a miniature church. Far enough to drive. Taking another swig, she looked at him and saw it all play out.

Andra would have taken his hand, climbed into his truck, and driven with him down the hill. She would take off her clothes slowly so that his eyes could follow the white curve of her hips, and feel the cold water on her skin, and use his callused hands to wash her breasts and her back, to scrub her clean. Her hands through his hair; she would feel him harden against her when she kissed him on the mouth. Her blistered fingers would run over that well-muscled back, those thighs, up those calves, while the light flared into color around them, the stained-glass windows catching the afternoon sun, and the smell would be of lawn mowers, leftover grave dirt clinging to shovels, and rakes still holding pieces of dried grass. Margo could see Andra, her face wet with rain, her thick, black hair plastered to her skin. Yes, Andra would have done all that.

Margo held the bottle of Jameson up to the light. “Here’s to you, Andra,” she said, upending the bottle of Jameson on the grave. Only a drop emerged.
“So, you want to come and meet Pete? He’ll like you, Margo Martinard.”

The birthday party. She’d forgotten about that. It didn’t need to be all the way Andra would have had it. It could be different.

Before she had time to think about it, she walked up to him and kissed him. She tasted the liquor on his tongue, felt his arms move around her, solid against her back. She let it last, the feeling of holding someone, being held. And he didn’t pull away until she let him go.

“Sure,” she said, already thinking about the suitcase with a clean dress and a plane ticket she could use some other time. She nestled the empty bottle on the grave among the flowers. Then she had another thought. She unclasped the bracelet from her wrist, wiped it off at the hem of her dress, and fastened it around the bottle’s neck.

They collected her things from the waiting limo, the driver starting the engine and moving along. She climbed into the cab of the beaten green truck and looked back. She could see the blanket of red roses and, just beyond, the hat on the bench, the little black pearl dangling from its crown, brim lifting in the breeze.

 

B.P. Greenbaum holds a B.A. in English from the University of Hartford, an M.A. in secondary education from St. Joseph College, and an M.F.A. from the University of Southern Maine Stonecoast. Presently, she is the creative writing teacher at a public magnet arts high school in Willimantic, Connecticut. In addition to teaching fiction writing, flash fiction, poetry, and advanced script writing, she is also involved in local land conservation efforts. In 2011, she was awarded a Teaching Arts Fellowship from Surdna, now known as the National Arts Teachers Fellowship (NATF), to develop a memoir. Her poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction have been published in The Louisville Review, Massachusetts Review, Eclectica, Hawaii Pacific Review, The Alembic, Forge, Hog River Review, Inscape, Verdad, Pearl, Willow Review, Underwood Review, The Dos Passos Review, Prick of the Spindle, MacGuffin, Fiction Fix, Noctua Review and Penmen Review.

“If you’re going hunting, you’ll need something to eat.” Deb gestured to a brown-paper lunch sack sitting on the counter as Robert entered the kitchen. She was in her worn robe and her face looked brutally naked without make-up.

Robert walked past her to the coffee maker.

Jackie was at the small table, papers spread out in front of her. He paused and tousled her hair–stiff from the hairspray she used to coax it into a cloud around her face.

“Daddy!” Her hands flew up.

“Oh! Sorry, material girl.” He ruffled her hair again.

“I don’t know why you’re all done up, if you’re just going to sit there,” Deb said. “Are you going over to the game?”

“It’s not starting for another hour, and yes, I’ll go. I’m just finishing this paper for Mr. B.” Jackie did not look up.

“Mr. B, Mr. B. He’s all I hear about lately. That paper’s not even due until Friday, right?”

“Lay off her Deb.” Robert lowered his voice and poured a cup of coffee. “She’s doing her homework on a Saturday morning. That’s not a bad thing.”

“I don’t know,” Deb replied. “When I was her age, I was out having fun.”

“When I was her age, I was doing just what she’s doing.” Robert took a sip of the lukewarm coffee.

“Yeah, and look where it got you,” Deb said quietly as she turned back to the pan in the sink.

Robert clenched the cup. He looked at Deb’s back and imagined what it would feel like to hurl the cup at her, how the coffee would splatter across the terry cloth. Carefully he put it down on the counter.

“What?” Jackie’s voice was shrill. “Do you want me under the bleachers like Jennie probably is right now? She’ll be pregnant any day–like you were. That’s why Daddy didn’t go to State!”

Jackie’s words pin-balled through the cluttered room until Deb crashed the pan hard in the sink and took a step toward her daughter.

“And do you think I got myself pregnant? Get out of this room if you’re going to talk that way around me.”

“You don’t have to ask me–I’m going!”

Robert heard the scramble of his daughter collecting her papers, but didn’t stay to watch her leave. He went to the fridge, grabbed a six-pack, and strode out to his truck. He drove fast, straight out of town and onto the highway that snaked into the surrounding forest.

After several miles he skidded to a stop on a gravel turn-out, swung from his seat, shouldered the gun, and walked into the trees.

His first strides carried him over a clumpy batter of mud, gravel, scraps of paper, and mangled beer cans. He was so used to this garbage that it was only its lack he noticed as he walked further–ferns filling in the patches between tall evergreens.

Robert had spent his childhood in the woods that grew right up to his small house. The powdered stipple backing the ferns, the slant of pine needles, this was the wallpaper of his mind. If he ever thought about it he would realize it was the sweep and whorls of the forest he saw when he closed his eyes, or in the moments before he fell asleep.

As a boy he hadn’t needed a reason to plunge into the woods. There was nothing else to do. Soil etched the creases of his skin into a permanent map. The singular call of a bird, the sun piercing the constant dusk to illuminate one delicate branch, the loamy smell when he pressed his face into the earth, none of these things were miraculous to him, they simply were.

Adolescence had turned the forest into a parallel land–unseen by adults. Here he had learned to smoke, drink stolen alcohol, and unfold girls into the yielding earth, searching with urgent hands for the warm, deep places that they held, hidden.

Once he had gotten old enough to drink at the Stopping Place, take the girls to a bed, the only real reason left to go into the forest was to hunt. His friends had grown up hunting with their fathers. Robert had not. He grew up with his mother, who had left Pine Village in ‘54, gone to Portland and found a job as a secretary but come back in less than a year­–visibly pregnant. Robert was born a few months later.

“When I told that son of a bitch I was pregnant, he fired me,” she said of her boss.

Robert grew up knowing his father’s name and had gone as far as hitching to Portland to stand in front of the grand white house before he walked down to the Greyhound station, caught a bus to The Dalles, then found a ride back home in a logging rig.

His mother had cared for his Granddad–whose leg had been amputated after being crushed by a log–as well as Robert. Granddad had worked on a logging crew since he was fifteen. Without his leg he sat in his chair and started drinking at noon and all Robert remembered was the scratch of his unshaven cheek and his bitter voice calling out for another beer.

When he and Deb got married he took his grandfather’s old .22 with him. He had shoved it into the back corner of their bedroom closet where it had stayed until yesterday.

“It’s going to be hard to kill yourself with that old thing,” Deb had said when she walked into the kitchen to find him sitting at the table with it laid out in front of him.

“Thought I might go hunting.” He rubbed the cold barrel with a disintegrating chamois cloth.

“Hunting? With that?”

The few times he had been hunting were with Deb’s father­–Red–and her brothers; they always lent him a well-kept 30-06, which felt cumbersome in his grasp, something he tried not to reveal.

“It was good enough for my granddad,” Robert said, looking up to where Deb stood, grocery bag balanced on her hip.

“What did he ever hunt?”

“Dammit Deb, I need something to do!” Robert had banged the can of polish down on the table.

“If you need something to do, you could split the wood laying around out there. The electricity’s going to get shut off if we don’t pay the bill.”

Deb’s voice had been just as hard as his.

Now, as Robert walked away from the gash the road cut through the forest, the sun it allowed gradually fading, he became aware of an absence. Aside from the tread of his boots and the occasional call of a bird, it was very quiet. Even as a boy deep in the trees he had been used to the sounds of the mill: the high-pitched scream of the saws, the groaning protest of ancient timber as it was cleaved down the middle. Now the mill had been shut down, he had lost his job, and it was quieter than he ever remembered–the sudden drum of a woodpecker sounding thunderous.

He spotted the bird’s head feathers: a smudge of rusty red against the rich brown of the trunk. As it flew off he raised the rifle and imagined he traced its path.

He had pictured coming home with something they could eat–something rich and fatty. Now the truth of what the forest held, what his gun could bring down, made him lower it.

This was why Deb had given him that look. She grew up in Pine Village also, raised by her father, with three older brothers; she probably knew more about hunting than he did. She certainly knew that this old gun­–and the puny bullets he had found in a collapsing box in the closet–had been used by his granddad to shoot at beer cans and squirrels. Deb and his sixteen-year-old daughter Jackie weren’t going to eat squirrel, even if he could shoot one.

The last time he had gone hunting with Deb’s dad and brothers­–a couple years earlier–he hadn’t even realized what he smelled was a buck until he saw it; then the heady musk made sense. It was standing in a clearing, the sun gilding its antlers. Robert had stopped between the trees that hemmed the clearing. The animal’s eyes were enormous–liquid brown. The neck that bowed to hold the heavy head seemed to Robert to hold something else as well. Robert shifted, making a small noise, the buck turned its head and looked at him, and then he remembered the gun. He raised it, at the same time knowing there was no way he could shoot this animal, not even for the pride it would give Deb to hang its rack above the couch.

At another noise Robert had looked sideways. Red had been standing ten feet away. His gun was at his shoulder, but he was looking at Robert, and Robert heard the buck spring out of the clearing as the two men met eyes. Red didn’t say anything, but he lowered the gleaming rifle, shook his head, spat, and patted the pocket of his flannel shirt for cigarettes. He didn’t offer Robert one, and he hadn’t been asked to go hunting since then.

“Fuck him,” Robert said–not sure it was at the memory of the buck or the brutal sweep of Red’s forehead–before he continued. He walked steadily for an hour, but there seemed to be no living things beside darting, teasing birds in the whole immense woods.

Hunger and fatigue finally stopped him; he tossed the gun down on a mossy patch and lowered himself beside it with a groan. His legs felt unsuited to what he was asking of them. Until three months ago he had driven through the blank white mornings to the mill–smokestacks stark against the milky sky–and worked all day. He considered his hands. They were strong–swollen and marred with scars. He thought of his grandfather downing trees with a handsaw. Robert’s job had required a kind of strength and endurance, but not the kind his granddad had needed.

He opened his bag. The six-pack sat banded together at the bottom. He remembered the lunch bag that Deb had made: still sitting on the counter.

Easing himself back against a fallen log­–cushy with unimaginably green moss–he cracked a beer and let it stream down his throat. The deep, yeasty ache was so good that he drank the whole can in a few long pulls. He sighed and lobbed the can into the trees, then opened up another.

“Come out you little fuckers!” he yelled at the empty woods and laughed.

Sunlight cracked the canopy high above his head and he shut his eyes and let it touch on his face. His breath deepened. He saw the mill’s high chimneys, smoke indistinguishable from clouds, felt his hands vibrating as he guided a plank towards the eternally rotating blade; he saw Deb’s tired face from the morning, felt the sour tension held silently in his house.

At a muffled noise his eyes snapped open; a rabbit hopped nervously into the clearing. It was all twitch and fluff, and was followed, a few hops behind, by a second. They were silvery grey, with big quick eyes.

Very slowly Robert edged his hand out, grabbed the gun, and in one motion yanked it up, found the first rabbit and pulled the trigger. The tiny muffled whump told him he had hit it. Instinctively he aimed for the second creature–he needed to shoot before it fled­–and only then did he remember that this old gun took just one round at a time. His guts twisted in private mortification.

“Goddamn it!” With clumsy fingers he fumbled in his pocket for another bullet, sure the other rabbit would be gone when he looked up.

But it wasn’t. It was paralyzed, only its eyes darting from side to side.

Robert wondered if it was looking for its partner, then he depressed the trigger. His heart was pounding; the shot cracked the forest wide open.

He had hit both creatures and they lay in the warm seconds before stillness, before their eyes lost their gleam. He reached down and buried his hands in the soft fur. It was so silken, with hot flesh just below, that he groaned.

The tableau waiting for him when he entered the kitchen, the rabbits held firmly by their ears, was almost the same one he had walked out of earlier. Jackie was at the kitchen table, her schoolwork around her, and it was only the change in her appearance–her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she was wearing one of his old flannels–that revealed she had gone to the game, returned, and changed.

Deb was planted before the sink again, a clothed and colored-in version of the pallid woman he had left.

Both wife and daughter turned their gaze to him.

He swung the stiffening rabbits up by their ears and let them drop with a meaty thud onto the counter.

“Just like some fancy French restaurant,” he got out before Jackie began shrieking.

“Bunnies, Daddy? You shot bunnies? There’s no way I’m going to eat a bunny!”

“You’ll eat what’s put on your plate until you’re paying for your own food,” said Deb, her voice low and even. “Now clean up that mess and get the table set.”

Jackie looked fiercely at her mother and Robert could see signs of earlier tears marring his daughter’s eyes. She gathered her papers and books loudly, but said nothing as she stomped from the room, and Robert knew that Deb had won the bout that morning.

As soon as Jackie’s bedroom door slammed loud enough to send a tremble through the house, Deb turned to Robert.

“Have you ever eaten rabbit?” She took a few steps toward him. “Have you ever cleaned a rabbit? Skinned one?”

She looked to the animals on the counter and he followed her gaze. Atop the worn linoleum, their fur seemed to lave lost its luster, and the angle of their legs made him look away and back up to Deb.

She was glowing now–her skin, her eyes. “Well, have you?”

“Jesus Deb, you know I haven’t.” Robert was aware of the beer he had drunk; it seemed hard to form words, they backed up, unwilling to spill out into the kitchen. He felt too big, swollen, smelling of dirt and beer and his own rank scent.

“Well I have,” she said. “Cleaned them, cooked them. Rabbits. Squirrels. We didn’t have anyone sending us checks from the big city. I’m not going back to that.”

“Every fucking guy in this town is out of work.” Robert reached out and ran his dirty finger over the very ends of the rabbits’ fur. “What do you want from me?”

“I don’t know!” Deb said and he looked up quickly at the tremble in her voice, was surprised to see tears making her eyes bright. “But it’s not dead rabbits.”

He stood for a minute and the air in the room seemed to quaver around him like Deb’s voice and the rabbits’ fur. When he finally spoke he knew his words were as disappointing as the dead animals. “I don’t have to stick around for this.” Again, he turned and left her in the kitchen; climbed into the cab of his truck where the air was calm.

The wavering sunshine had been erased by a low white mist, bringing evening early. Robert switched on his wipers; they spread a film of grime across the windshield. Automatically he drove towards the Stopping Place. The route took him past the mill. It rose up dark against the mist–crenellated and quiet. There had always been activity there, even at night. Lights had shone–illuminating odd angles, steam had swiveled out of the chimneys. Now there was nothing. A chain-link fence had been erected around the whole site, but nothing more had been done.

He drove through the dark until he reached the bar’s feeble neon sign. Red’s truck, pulled up tight against the front, made him hesitate. He looked around the lot, up and down the empty highway then continued to the door.

The air was smoky, stale and reassuring. The was noise: voices, music, the crack of pool balls.

Red turned at the jingle of the bell and watched Robert approach over his thick shoulder.

“You look like shit. What’ve you been doing all day?”

“Hunting.” Robert climbed onto the stool beside Red, then looked to the bartender, Mike.

“No shit!” Red said. “For what?”

Robert met his eyes and smiled slightly. “Rabbit.”

“The fuck you have!” Red’s voice was loud. “Rabbit. You get any?”

“Two,” Robert said. Mike approached and looked at him questioningly.

“Jack.” Robert said, “beer back.” He turned to Red. “Your daughter’s too good to cook them.”

Red and Robert looked at one another for a moment.

“No shit?” Red said. “She always was a picky little bitch.”

It was midnight when Robert stepped out of the bar and the cold, moist air slapped his flushed face. On the dark highway he shut one eye to keep the road in focus, and still the centerline danced in front of him. He flew past the dead mill and the dark houses.

His house was dark as well. He switched on the light and saw the rabbits. They lay just where he had left them; he could tell without touching them they were stiff.

The room smelled like food though; there were two crumpled bags from Dairy Queen on the table. The nearest Dairy Queen was a half hour away.

The brazen scent of fast food hung in the kitchen and Robert was abruptly starving. Saliva flooded his mouth and he realized he had not eaten all day. He plunged his hand into the greasy sack, his fingers reaching for detritus from the meal: a few french-fries, maybe an uneaten crescent of Jackie’s burger, but there was nothing left.

“Goddamn it!”

He snatched up the bag and shook it, but only a spattering of salt fell out.

His anger leapt; she ought to guess he would be hungry! Then he saw the lunch sack hunkered reproachfully on the counter. In an instant it was flying through the air, but he did not look to the mess it left after exploding on the floor.

He did not want to look at the rabbits either, but he would have to. He would have to eat them; he saw that now.

Robert wheeled around and confronted the small bodies. 

Have you ever cleaned a rabbit? Skinned it?

He reached down to his belt and fumbled for his pocketknife. The exposed blade gave him the hot-cold thrill it always did.

He cupped the creature in his palm. He would open it this way: down the belly. He nested the tip of the blade in the downy fur between the front legs. His hands were not quite steady. He gripped the handle tightly and pushed, felt skin stretch then finally puncture.

He tugged the knife downwards. Instead of sliding smoothly it snagged and caught like the overused zipper on a child’s parka.

He gritted his teeth and yanked until the rabbit’s entire front had been undone.

The incision was barely visible, hidden in the fine fur. He pulled at the edge of the cut but the pelt did not give way. He pulled harder, but it stayed firmly affixed to the body.

Robert hooked the very tip of the blade under the ragged edge of fur and tried to prise it away.

Between fur and flesh greyish membranes glistened. He jimmied the blade and tried to cut through the layers, but the angle was awkward and the knife slipped uselessly.

“Fuck!”

He tossed the knife aside, inhaled fast, then slid his fingers into the small cave he had carved. All warmth had left the little body. His fingers encountered a viscous substance–something not meant to be touched–and he swallowed bile.

He yanked quick and hard.

The otherworldly hue of the organs and inner workings, packed tight within a dull translucent wrapping, reminded Robert of something: his infant daughter handed to him in the minutes after she was born. He had shrugged the hospital blanket down and been shocked by the indigo tinge of her skin, how thin it seemed­–something from the inside turned out.

He shuddered and unhanded the rabbit.

And then his body moved in a way he did not understand. It threw him forward and something issued from his mouth.

Crying, he realized; he was crying.

He did not know the last time he had cried. Not when Jackie was born, and not since then. He had not cried since that bus ride back home, his forehead hard against the dirty glass.

He put his hands to his mouth to stifle himself; his fingers were slimy. He choked at the sensation, blubbered, his own spit and tears and snot mixing in. He couldn’t seem to stop the guttural noises escaping him.

“Daddy?”

He looked up to Jackie standing in the doorway.

She was in her pajamas; tousled by sleep, but her face a perfectly rendered sketch of horror and pity.

She hesitated. He watched her take in the flayed rabbit, his befouled face and hands.

And still the crying. Even as his daughter watched him his body heaved. He rammed his hands over his mouth, forced the sobs back down his gullet. His frame rebelled–quaked once and then again, but finally stilled.

“The bunny…” His daughter began, her eyes again racing from the rabbit to her father. “Are you ok? Your face.”

In her brown eyes was fear. Like he had not seen since she was a child and was truly scared of monsters she had dreamed up.

Cautiously he pulled his hands from his mouth. They came away stickily, still joined by snotty strands.

The words were there: a history of words crammed into one man. But there was no way to get them out cleanly or accurately. It was impossible he saw with a hot upsurge of anger.

She waited, watching.

“What the hell are you doing up? Get out of here. Get back to bed!”

He might as well have reached out his hand and rearranged her features, collapsed them.

“What are you looking at?” He couldn’t stop himself. “You heard me! Get out of my sight!”

She lingered for only a second. And then she could not turn fast enough to get away from him.

She ran straight into her mother–the fleshy collision forcing a despairing exhalation from each of them.

From over Jackie’s shoulder Robert watched Deb’s sleep-soft eyes take in the carnage he had wrought in the kitchen and he turned his gaze from hers, but he could not keep himself from hearing his daughter begin to cry–scared sobs muffled only by Deb’s bathrobe.

I don’t have to stick around for this. His earlier words echoed through his mind; all he wanted was to leave the bruised air of the room for a third time, to escape the barrage he was certain was about to come.

But when Deb spoke her voice was mild, almost flat. “Rabbits are a bitch to skin.”

Robert looked back at her in surprise and saw his daughter’s head come up as well.

“They are.” Deb said this in the same conversational tone, while she gave Jackie a forceful squeeze, then peeled her off and spun her briskly around. “But they’re good,” she said. “Go wash your hands.” She nodded at Robert who sensed some mute gap of gratitude open within him and walked to the sink.

He heard Deb moving efficiently behind him while he cleaned his hands in water as hot as he could stand, and when he turned back it was to her swiftly sharpening a slim curved knife he did not know they had.

Jackie hovered in the doorway­–her face still stricken–and Robert could almost see the fragile threads that bound her–to her mother, to him, to this house­–shimmer both with attraction and repulsion.

He glanced out the window to his truck, perched and waiting on the drive, but then slid cautiously sideways to stand beside his daughter. He was almost shocked that the air between them allowed him through.

The ease–the unsolicited forgiveness–with which she dissolved against his side when he reached his arm around her shoulders either broke or melted something within his chest.

He pulled her to him and they stood together in the doorway and watched while Deb took the thin blade to the small body and with assurance separated the flesh from the fur.

 

A writer emerging from motherhood, Kathryn Lipari’s short pieces have recently been published in journals including Smokelong Quarterly and elephant. She is a member of Full Frontal Writers’ Collective and smallSalon.com.

Kudzu-covered trees and hills sloped down beside the interstate as the car zipped along toward Atlanta.  Chelsi watched as they dipped into Georgia, then back into Tennessee, and back into Georgia, and she tried to be interested as her mother cooed from the front seat while they crossed Monteagle:  ”Look, honey!  A real mountain!”  It was the same thing Mom had said on numerous family vacations down this road en route to Florida when Chelsi and her sister Marci had been young, and they had smashed their noses against the windows as they rolled down the other side, past trucks grinding their brakes into powder.

But none of it seemed fascinating to Chelsi anymore.  The seven year old girl full of excitement had grown into the thirty-two year old woman with an apartment of her own, and somehow she was still sitting in the backseat of her parents’ car as they zoomed down the interstate toward another hotel room in a relatively unknown city.

She crossed her arms and let the greenery outside blur into a jumble before her eyes.  The real difference this time was that there was no Marci in the back seat with her, kicking her legs back onto the appropriate half of the seat.  No Marci to play the alphabet game with, no Marci to share books with, no Marci to lean on for an afternoon nap.  The emptiness in the back seat was like another person, like the sister she sometimes felt she had now.

Silence descended over the car as they drove through northern Georgia.  Chelsi put her forehead against the glass and stayed there, mile after mile, the car’s movement rocking her shoulders back and forth.  She didn’t know what to say to her mother’s incessant chatter.  Maybe there was nothing to say.

“Look!” Dad shouted, pointing to a billboard.  ”Boiled peanuts!  Next exit!”  He swerved over two lanes to the right, angling the car toward the green highway sign.

Chelsi closed her eyes.  Thanks, Marci, she thought.  Here we go back into the past.

*

Boiled peanuts had been the way Chelsi and Marci had marked vacations throughout their childhood.  Dad had an addiction to the slimy little goobers, and a complete hatred for the kinds they found near their home in Kentucky.  “Boiled in a crock pot,” he would say, and Chelsi had always thought that part of the reason for their yearly trip to Florida was so that they got to traverse three states in the deep South, searching for peanuts that Dad thought were authentic.

Marci thought he was crazy, and said that none of the peanuts anymore were “authentic”; they were all just boiled in somebody’s slow cooker, and what was really wrong with that anyway.  Chelsi never stated her allegiance one way or the other, but secretly she sided with Dad.  A good boiled peanut was a beautiful thing, soft and salty, the wet nut swelled into the strongest essence of itself, and it tasted like a southern summer—like wet earth from the freshest garden—especially when washed down with a cold Coke.

Dad parked the car outside an old-fashioned gas station with two pumps and a large fruit and vegetable stand off to the side.  “Promising,” he said, and he left the car running while he headed for the stand.

Mom rolled down her window.  “See if they’ve got peaches!” she called, and Chelsi slumped down in her seat to hide behind her phone, a teenage version of herself.

This is not real life, she reminded herself.  This is—But she didn’t have any good way to finish that sentence.

*

A damp bag of boiled peanuts knocked her phone out of her hand.  She looked up to see her father waving a second bag before he heaved it over the seat at her.  ”They look good!” he said.  ”One for me, one for you.  Put them in the floorboard over there by the cooler.”

She did as she was told, studying the bags as she tucked them into place, words suddenly easy. This part was an old script.  ”I hope you didn’t pay too much for them,” she said.

His eyes gleamed in the rearview mirror.  ”Are you kidding?  What would be too much?”

“What’s this?”  Mom pulled a little bag of gummy candy from the bag with her peaches.

All the joy went out of Dad’s face, like she had pulled a plug under his chin.  ”I bought them for Hannah,” he said.

Mom put them back on top of the peaches carefully and smoothed the edges of the plastic bag over them.  She turned to the window, her chin trembling in silhouette.

“You know, they’ve got candy back in Kentucky, Dad,” Chelsi said.  ”She’s probably eating some right now.”

“Yes.  Well.”  Dad put both of his hands on the wheel and leaned his head back against the seat and sat there for a long moment, staring out the front windshield while Mom cried off to the side, and Chelsi bit the insides of her cheeks and tried not to throw her head back and scream.  Finally, Dad put the car in reverse and headed for the interstate, and Chelsi put her head back against the window.

She understood why Dad bought that stupid candy, and she really couldn’t hold it against him.  They were never out of his heart, even at a gas station in the middle of nowhere in Georgia.

*

Chelsi slept most of the rest of the way to Atlanta.  She woke as Dad turned into the hotel parking lot and turned off the car.  ”I’ll just go get the keys,” he said.

Heavy Georgia heat immediately seeped through the frame of the car.  ”Lord, it’s hot,” Mom said, fanning her face with her hand.  She ran her hand over her face and sniffed.  ”Sorry.  I just can’t shake these allergies.”  Her voice was thick and nasal, and Chelsi threw open the car door.  ”I’m going to get a luggage cart,” she said, and she bolted for the hotel.

She burst through the lobby doors and waved to her father, who was chatting with the clerk behind the counter.  ”I’ll just get the luggage,” she said.

He nodded.  ”Hang on.  I’m coming,” he said.  He pocketed the thin key cards.  ”Thanks for the tip,” he said to the clerk.

They walked out to the car together, Chelsi lugging the lumbering cart behind them.  It swung back and forth on wobbly wheels, and she had to use two hands to keep it from bumping into parked cars.  ”We’re on the third floor,” he said.  ”I told the clerk how we decided to come to this family reunion late, so we couldn’t get in the same hotel as everyone else.  He gave me directions to a good place for dinner.  We can meet up with all of them tomorrow.”

Chelsi could not imagine another foray in public tonight, pretending to be a normal family.  It would be difficult enough tomorrow.  ”I’m fine with just staying in the hotel room tonight.  We’ve got snacks in the cooler.  I mean, if you and Mom want to go, it’s okay too.  But I’m really fine with staying.”

“You are?”  They stopped by the car, and Dad opened the trunk with a click of his key ring.  ”We’ll ask your mother, of course, but I wouldn’t mind being able to just go to bed early myself.  It was a long day.”

Chelsi glanced in the car, where her mother was still wiping her eyes.  ”I don’t think she’s gonna care, Dad.”

He sighed, his gaze dropping to his shoes as if he was too tired to lift it.  ”No, I don’t guess she will.”

Chelsi piled their luggage onto the cart.  One suitcase on wheels, her duffel bag, and a cooler.  She placed the bags of peanuts on top of the suitcase.  They could have carried all this, but getting a luggage cart helped her feel more like the trip was actually a vacation instead of an ill-conceived venture to take care of her parents when they foolishly decided they wanted to reunite with fifth cousins from Delaware.  The cart’s metal bars made her hands sweat, and she really just wanted to go back to sleep and wake up when this weekend was over.

The room was unusually large and smelled clean.  She threw her bag on the bed closest to the air conditioner and then returned the luggage cart.  When she came back, her mother had already put on a nightgown and was standing in the open door of the bathroom washing her face.  Chelsi pulled a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt from her bag and waited for her turn in the bathroom.

“Come eat,” her dad said.

He had opened two Diet Cokes on the desk, and spread paper towels in front of the bags of boiled peanuts.  He tugged the paisley ottoman over to the desk and gestured for her to take the desk chair.

“I’m not hungry,” she said.

“For heaven’s sake, have a peanut,” he said, his face creasing the way it used to when she and Marci fought loudly from the back of the car.  She sank into the chair and tucked her feet up under her.  He nudged the bag toward her.  ”Come on, Chels.  Peanut time.”

She pinched a soft, rough shell until it cracked at the edges, then she dug her nails in and split it apart.  Inside, the nut was as soft as skin, and she rolled it to the back of her teeth, savoring the tender meat.  It tasted like it had been boiled in the ocean, and she closed her eyes as she swallowed.  How long had it been since she’d had one?  She hadn’t known how much she missed them.

Mom turned on the TV and found the Braves game.  ”What is wrong with them?”  Mom complained.  ”How are they already losing?”  She took a banana from the cooler and peeled it as she sat on the bed.

“How’s work, Chelsi?” Dad asked.

“It’s work,” Chelsi said.  ”Busy.  I think we’re going to hire a new associate.  I’ve been working twelve hour days for two weeks.  It just can’t go on this way.”

“Well, hiring someone else shouldn’t be hard,” Dad said.  ”There are always a million lawyers.  You have to take care of your health.”

Chelsi smiled and ate another peanut.  Her parents had been surprised when she’d chosen law as a career, but it fit her like her favorite shoes.  She savored the orderliness of it and the analytical thinking.  She actually liked dictating letters and prepping for depositions, and nothing at the office relaxed her more than a long afternoon of reviewing medical records.  She even liked other lawyers, which was how Marci and her husband Joshua had met; she’d gone to law school with Joshua, and she’d introduced them.

She looked carefully at her father.  He was digging into his peanuts with a look of sheer delight, the lines that sadness had dug around his eyes lightened.  She drank Diet Coke and ate another peanut.  ”I probably should call Joshua,” she said.

Her mother squeezed the remote.  Her father’s eyes grew heavy again, and he struggled to swallow.  Finally he said, “Go ahead.”

She pulled her phone out and thought about going in the hall, but then she’d just have to repeat the conversation for her parents.  ”Anything you want me to tell him?” she asked.

Mom’s eyes were dark and hollow.  ”Let him know we love him.  Tell Hannah we love her.”

Joshua answered on the second ring.  ”I’m finishing Hannah’s dinner,” he said instead of hello.

“What are you having?”

“She’s having mac and cheese.  Um, and chicken.  Somebody from work brought by chicken.”

“Sounds good.  What are you having?”

“I’ll get something after she goes to bed.”

Chelsi bit her lip.  Joshua had been living mostly on beer, whiskey, and salads from the Kroger near work lately, and most of that came after Hannah went to bed.  ”Why don’t you just eat with her?”

“I can’t feed her and eat at the same time.”

“She’s two.  She can probably mostly feed herself.”

“Then I’ll have to just dunk her straight in the tub.”

Chelsi laughed.  ”Everything else okay?”

“Yeah.”  He took a deep breath.  ”You’re in Atlanta, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.  I’ll try not to call you at midnight.”

“Just…try to get some food now so you don’t have to later.”  Chelsi glanced at her parents, who were pretending not to listen.  She didn’t want them to know how often Joshua called her, drunk and in tears, in the middle of the night.  He wasn’t eating or sleeping, and he was concentrating all his energy on making sure life was normal for Hannah, although every time she asked for Mommy, he cried in front of her.  ”But call me if you need anything, okay?”

“We probably should have come with you guys like your parents wanted.”  He sighed again.  ”I just didn’t know if I could handle that, you know?”

“It’s mostly old ladies from Louisiana,” Chelsi said, and he laughed.  ”But I understand.”

She hung up the phone and sat back down with Dad.  Slowly, Mom turned the volume on the game back up.  Chelsi hadn’t even noticed that she’d lowered it.  ”Get a peanut, Dad,” she said, and he twisted his lips in a weak smile.

“Do you call him every day?”

“I call him every night.  At dinner.”  She had always called Marci then, on her way home from work.  After the wreck she had found herself dialing Marci’s number without even thinking, and then she had heard the voicemail Joshua hadn’t taken down, and she cried at Marci’s voice.  She called Joshua to fill the void in her day, to keep a connection with her sister.  And then she called him because he was lost without Marci; he was desperately in love with their daughter but had no clue how to be a single parent with his heart buried in the ground.

Dad nodded and slowly ate a peanut.  ”I call him every morning at breakfast before I go and pick up Hannah.”

“I didn’t know you were picking her up in the mornings.”

“It just made things easier for him.”  After Marci’s wreck, Mom and Dad had started keeping Hannah while Joshua worked.  She had beautiful soft brown curls like her mother’s, and looking at her was both painful and healing.  Chelsi ate another peanut.

“Do you think things will ever get better?” Mom asked.

Her face was wet with tears she wasn’t bothering to wipe away.  ”It’s been six months.  Is it ever going to get better?”  She started to sob, her chest heaving, and she bent over until her head almost touched her knees.  Dad sat down beside her, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her body to his, crying along with her.  Chelsi sat at the desk with a boiled peanut in her hand.  She put it into her mouth and swallowed without chewing, feeling the weight of her family across her shoulders and across the miles sink down over her body.  The peanut felt harsh down her throat.

Because the answer was no.  She didn’t think it was ever going to get better.

*

She woke to an early morning news show.  Dad was sitting on the edge of his bed with his back to her and the remote in his hand.  His thick hair was damp, and he was already dressed.  Mom stepped out of the bathroom with one towel around her body and another around her hair.  ”Go ahead and get in, sweetheart,” she said.  ”We’ll wait for you.”

“You guys can go ahead and get breakfast.  Really,” she said.  She yawned and stretched.

“No, we’ll wait.  Hurry up.”

Chelsi closed her eyes so they couldn’t see her roll them around.  She preferred to wake up gradually, not be rushed.  But she climbed obediently out of bed and took a fast shower.  She put on a pair of her favorite jeans and a sleeveless top and braided her wet hair, then stepped out of the bathroom.  “Ready.”

“Oh no, you’re not.”  Mom held out a t-shirt identical to the ones she and Dad were wearing.

“Mom.  You’ve got to be kidding.”  The shirt was bright yellow and emblazoned with the words “Jones Family Reunion—Atlanta, Georgia.”  “I came.  I am not wearing the t-shirt too.”

Mom lay the shirt on the bed and crossed her arms.  “You want to look different from everyone else today?”

“Yes, please.”

Mom shrugged.  “Suit yourself.  But if you don’t get let in to the private rooms reserved for us, Dad and I are not going to vouch for you.”

Chelsi groaned.  Dad stood up and stretched, the yellow of the shirt especially pronounced against his dark hair.  Chelsi imagined it would look the same against hers.  “I’ll call the elevator,” he said, and though he didn’t look at her, she could hear the laughter in his voice.

Chelsi put the shirt on and flipped her braid out the back.  She smoothed her hair in the mirror, seeing Marci’s brown eyes looking back at her, and suddenly she smiled.  Marci would have put on the shirt.  Marci would have rocked the shirt.  Marci would have put a happy Hannah in a tiny version and a grudging Joshua in his matching one, and she would have led the reunion through Atlanta today.

Well, Chelsi knew she wasn’t Marci.  But she linked her arm through her mother’s and kissed her cheek.  “If the hotel coffee is bad, we’re googling the nearest Starbucks,” she said.

“Deal,” her mother replied, and kissed her back.

*

They started their day at the World of Coke, with the collected Jones family from six different states.  Chelsi tried to hang out in the back, but her parents called to her from their spots in the front of the line, where they’d already bought her ticket.  They introduced her again and again to old people whose names she’d never remember, but there were a few third cousins who were vaguely familiar, and to her surprise, her cousin Alaya, with whom she’d spent many fun vacations as a child, was there.  The whole group carried an easy hilarity and a fun vibe which she hadn’t expected.

She stuck by her parents through the whole tour, but she lost them as the group shifted outside to head for the aquarium.  Chelsi stuffed the little white bear she bought for Hannah in her bag and then looked around, spotting her parents once again in the front.  Dad was holding a small bag; he’d probably bought the same bear.

Before she could make her way through the crowd, Alaya appeared and linked their arms.  ”I miss Marci at things like this,” Alaya said.

Chelsi blinked at her.  Alaya lived in Georgia and had probably not seen Marci in ten years.  ”You do?”

“Of course!”  Alaya sighed and sniffed and wiped at the corner of her eye.  ”Don’t you remember all those times on Aunt Odessa’s farm?  When we’d chase the cats and ride horses?”

Chelsi nodded cautiously.  They had possibly been to Aunt Odessa’s farm twice, but Marci was older, so maybe she’d been there more.  ”Why does that make you think of Marci?”

Alaya waved her hand in the air.  ”Oh, you know, all the family all around.”  She leaned over until her forehead pressed against Chelsi’s hair.  ”How are you all holding up?”

“We’re okay.”  Chelsi pulled away and tried to remember the last time she had seen Alaya.  They were friends on Facebook, so Chelsi knew way too much about Alaya’s love for her boyfriend and how cute her daughter was, but she really didn’t know much about Alaya herself.  ”How’s Mara?  I saw the pictures you posted.  She’s getting so big.”

Alaya waved her hand again.  ”She’s fine.  I left her with her dad today.  Too much trouble to try to drag her through the aquarium, you know?”

If Hannah had been here today, Chelsi might not have been able to let go of her hand.  She would have loved to have given Hannah this day, to let the little girl see something besides her mother in every picture all over the house.  ”Hm,” she said.

“Can I ask you a question?” Alaya said.  ”No one here really seems to know what exactly happened to Marci.”

Chelsi’s lips felt stiff.  ”It was a car accident.”

“Well, I know that.  But was she driving?”

“Yes.”

“So, like, what happened?  I heard it was a rainy day and she lost control of the car?”

“Yes.”

“But…what happened?”

Chelsi’s throat felt so dry she could have swallowed all the Coke in Atlanta, but it wouldn’t have made any difference.  ”She died is what happened,” she said, and she pulled her arm free and walked away.

Mom and Dad were waiting at the edge of the ticket line.  ”I don’t want to go in,” she said. ”You go without me.”

Mom studied her face.  ”Are you okay?”

“I just don’t feel like looking at fish right now.  I feel kind of sick.”

Mom touched her face, and the coolness of her hands quieted the fire in Chelsi’s heart.  ”Your face feels okay,” Mom said.

“Why don’t we all just skip the aquarium?” Dad said.  ”Tell the truth, I was getting sick of those people anyway.  Family reunion my butt.  No way am I related to even half of them.”

“They all have your nose,” Mom said.

“Ain’t none of them got my brain.”

“Thank God.”

“Guys, seriously, you don’t need to stay with me.  I’d like to be alone for a little while.”

Dad ignored her.  ”Why don’t we three get back in the car and go have an early lunch?  I liked what they were telling me at the hotel about the Varsity.  That sounded like a fine place.”

“I really don’t mind if you go on without me.”

Mom put her arms around Chelsi and her forehead against her daughter’s.  ”We would never, ever do that.”

*

The Varsity was a crowded, intimidating place that seemed to activate Mom’s inner aggressiveness.  She swept through a line and called out all of their orders quickly and loudly, then led the way to a table with her head held high, while Chelsi wanted to cower in a corner.  The place was packed and overwhelming, and she clutched at her purse while Mom tossed her hair and claimed a chair.  “I love this!” Mom said, taking a huge bite of her burger.

Chelsi dipped an onion ring in ketchup.  “Marci would have too,” she said before she thought.

But for once, a cloud didn’t sweep over her mother’s face.  She took a long drink of her soda and smiled.  “But she’d be eating hot dogs and rench fries,” Mom said, “and she would be covering everything in only mustard.”

“She’d be bossing me around,” Dad said, “telling me I ought to be drinking diet soda, and at my age when am I going to start taking care of my weight?”

“She never would have let that woman cut in front of you in line,” Chelsi said.

Mom’s nostrils flared.  “I wouldn’t have let her either, if you two had kept up with me or at least told me what you wanted.”

“She would have let Hannah eat off her plate,” Chelsi said.  “She would have stolen my onion rings to give to Hannah.  She would have held hands with Joshua under the table, and he would have looked relaxed, and he would have laughed.  Hannah would have fallen asleep in her arms.”

Dad rubbed his eyes.  “We all would have been laughing,” he said.  “If Marci was here.”

Chelsi pushed her food away and looked out over the sea of concrete outside, one lonely building after another after another.  She was supposed to be taking care of her parents.  That was the whole reason for coming on this trip, and instead she was falling apart.

Mom handed her a napkin, and she looked at it in confusion.  “For your eyes, sweetheart,” Mom said, and Chelsi put her fingers to her wet cheeks.  She hadn’t even known she was crying.

Mom pulled her chair beside Chelsi’s on the left, and Dad scooted around on the right.  They put their arms around her, and she clung to their looped arms like a lifeline.

*

That afternoon Dad put in a quick call to his cousin Charlie, and they officially abandoned the rest of the family reunion.  Instead, in honor of Marci, who had loved Gone With the Wind, they visited the Margaret Mitchell House in midtown.  The museum was hushed as they walked through the door, as if they were in a funeral parlor.  The tour didn’t start for fifteen minutes, so they surveyed the tiny gift shop, instinctively speaking to each other in whispers.

The docent was a thin man with a hooked nose and a nasal voice.  His wispy hair wouldn’t stay down, and he waved his hands wildly at the end of each sentence, but Chelsi was captivated at his first words.  ”Let me tell you the story of the fascinating woman who once walked these floors.”

Chelsi looked at the pictures of Mitchell over the course of her short life, tracing the cheekbones and following the gaze of the lovely eyes, and it was easy to match the beautiful young woman on the walls with the docent’s description of a woman who wouldn’t think inside any conventional boxes.  It was easier still to picture a tall young woman with a toddler on her hip hovering near the docent, hanging on his every word, raising her finger to ask a question.  Chelsi turned to the place her sister could have been standing, and Marci winked at her, the snappy dark eyes in her angular face sparkling with excitement.  She shoved her free elbow into Chelsi’s ribs.  ”We are in Margaret Mitchell’s house!” she whispered.  She wrapped both arms around Hannah and did an impromptu whirling little dance in the middle of the crowded room.  ”Whee!  Get excited, y’all!”

They moved through Mitchell’s apartment with the rest of the group.  Chelsi sat on the window seat and imagined Mitchell at the typewriter, fingers clicking across the keys, eyes wandering as she rolled her shoulders and thought about her next sentence, and then Chelsi imagined Marci with her high spirits running her hands over the same keys, telling Chelsi to close her eyes and feel the presence that was here.  ”Some people,” the docent said, “are larger than life, and the richness of their lives leave the most fulfilling legacies.”

*

That night, back at the hotel, Mom and Dad went down to the pool to sit in the hot tub, and Chelsi flopped back on her bed and called Joshua.  “Hannah won’t eat,” he said in a strangled whisper.  “She did great last night and now she won’t eat.  What do I do?”

“What are you feeding her?”

“Carrots and pasta.”

Chelsi wrinkled her nose.  “Well, that explains it then,” she said.  “I’m not in the mood for carrots tonight either.”

“That’s not helpful to me.”

“Joshua, she’s a little person.  She has moods and whims like everyone else.  Ease up a little maybe.”  She hesitated, then said it.  “What did Marci do when she didn’t eat?”

He sucked in his breath sharply, then let it out in a rush.  “I don’t know,” he said.  She could hear the swoosh of cushions as he sat down.  “She played a game with her,” he said finally.  “She would make the spoon an airplane.”

“Okay,” Chelsi said.  “So you need to make the spoon an airplane.”

Joshua didn’t answer, and Chelsi bit her lips.  “Oh!  I know,” she said.  “I remember Marci used to see who could eat a food the fastest.”

“I remember,” he said, his voice quiet.

“But you have to make sure she wins,” Chelsi said.  “That’s pretty important.”

Joshua laughed, a short bark.  “I can handle that.”

“When I get home, Hannah can come and spend the night with me and let you get some real sleep.”

“I’d like that.”

“And Joshua—“ Chelsi chewed the inside of her cheek again.  How close was she to overstepping her bounds?  “I have vacation coming up in a month.  Would you like to take Hannah and go to the beach with Mom and Dad and me?  I’m sure I can get them to go.  Don’t you think it would be good for you to get away?”

“I don’t think I can do it, Chels,” he said, and she could hear his voice cracking.  She hoped he wasn’t in the same room as Hannah.  “I don’t think I can ever get away.”

“I don’t think you can either, Joshua,” she said.  “But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I think we’re supposed to take her with us.”

His sobs quieted and his breathing evened.  “I’ll think about it.”

*

When Mom and Dad came back in, towels wrapped around their shoulders, Chelsi had the Braves game on and was opening the leftover boiled peanuts at the desk.  ”Oh, good,” Dad said.  ”I thought we threw those away.”

“I put them in the fridge last night,” Mom said.  She changed in the bathroom and sat down on the edge of her bed to watch the game.  ”We’re winning!” she shouted.

Chelsi bit into a peanut.  It was soft and cold and repulsive, all the taste congealed inside the chilly flesh.  She spit it out into the trash can.  ”That is the grossest thing I’ve ever eaten,” she said.

“Really?”  Dad picked up the bag and examined them, as if he could discover what had gone wrong by staring, his eyes disappointed and his mouth turned down.  ”We can pick up some more tomorrow on the way home, I guess.”

“Marci would have eaten those,” Mom said.

They both turned to look at her.  She had kicked off her shoes and was curled up on the bed, sipping a soda she’d pulled from the fridge.  ”Don’t you remember?  She always just waited until you guys had picked over the hot ones, and I had put the leftover ones into the fridge.  She would steal cool ones as they got colder.  She’s the reason I always put them in the fridge.  Lord knows you guys never ate them.”

“I never knew,” said Dad. He ran his hand over his chin.  ”I never even knew we had leftovers.”

“She ate them fast.  She could put them away.”

“She was crazy then,” Chelsi said.  ”No one in her right mind would eat that crap.”

Her parents swiveled their gazes to her, their jaws dropping.  For a moment Chelsi was horrified with herself.  Then Mom started laughing, and she laughed until she cried.  ”She was crazy.  She was,” Mom said again and again.

Chelsi and Dad sank onto the bed with her.  Dad held Mom’s hand, and Chelsi put her head on Mom’s shoulder.   They settled into a contemplative quiet then, Mom murmuring at the various plays, and they fell asleep like that, all leaning against each other, before the game was over.

Chelsi woke up around 3 a.m., stiff and creaky.  Mom and Dad were leaning their heads against each other, and Dad was snoring softly.  Chelsi tiptoed around the room turning off lights, but when she snapped off the TV, Dad jerked awake with a snort.  ”Wha–?”  He looked at Chelsi and blinked.  ”Sorry, sweetheart.  I must have fallen asleep.”

“It’s time, Dad.”  Chelsi smiled.  ”You could take off your shoes though.”

Dad kicked off his shoes and pulled the covers up over him and Mom.  ”Good night, Chelsi,” he said.

“‘Night, Dad,” she said, slipping beneath her own sheets.

She had thought, at the beginning of the weekend, that this wound would never heal.  But now she could start to see how it might, someday, and somehow that was more painful still.  She closed her eyes and stretched her body in all the extra space the double bed held.  Then she pulled her limbs back to one side of the bed and looked up at the ceiling in the dark.

‘Night, Marci, she thought, and she tried to keep the sound of her own tears from echoing in the quiet room as she cried.

 

 

Bio:

Julie Cox writes from Kentucky, where she lives with her husband and children and teaches high school.

Like an old movie,
sepia tone soaking through light
falling frame by frame,
slow death rattling across
the pavers,

Or even flashing birth—forecasting shadow
as well as brightness,

Old garden,
clicking and anxious,
cicada-filled, scratchy
with dusk
and gangly June,
spreading beyond your marks,

I get it,
still spellbound by bold
displays and clapping
hands of cottonwoods,

Yet sense a difference—the bloating at seams
and pause, tinted
by Russian olive,

And the movie—much bluer and beautiful,
resonates with irony,
now that I must leave it.
Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, performance poet Jean Howard resided in Chicago from 1979 to 1999. She has since returned to Salt Lake City. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Off The Coast, Clackamas Literary Review, Harper’s Magazine, Eclectica Magazine, Eclipse, Atlanta Review, Clare, Folio, Forge, Fugue, Fulcrum, Crucible, Gargoyle and others.

A participant in the original development of the nationally acclaimed “Poetry Slam” at the Green Mill, she has been awarded two grants for the publication of her book, Dancing In Your Mother’s Skin (Tia Chucha Press), a collaborative work with photographer, Alice Hargrave. She has been organizing the annual National Poetry Video Festival since 1992, with her own award-winning video poems, airing on PBS, cable TV, and festivals around the nation.

Garden Before the Move previously appeared in Vending Machine Press.

The rain came, not hard, but consistent, more than a drizzle yet less than a downpour. The rain forced me to pay attention. I hadn’t driven these roads in over twenty years. And back then I was a passenger—oblivious to routes and road signs, attuned only to rows of corn melding into pinelands. My brother entered the old house address into his phone’s GPS, but I told him to mute it. I wanted to navigate myself—to test my memory.

I usually drive a minivan where all passengers have their own fiefdom; the driver and third row shout to communicate. Now, however, we were practically sitting in each other’s laps—my brother, Mom, Dad, and I—in my husband’s four-door sedan. Yet we were cozy in the car in the rain, weaving our way through South Jersey, pulled toward the ocean.

Ben, my brother, almost didn’t make the drive with us. I got the call around eleven-thirty the night before: my mom, whispering on her cell phone in her bathroom, afraid of being overheard. My brother and his family were staying at her house. Ben’s wife needed him at the same time as our errand. Her mom was arriving on an earlier flight, so Ben had to get her from the airport. Rachel couldn’t do it because she didn’t want to drive my mom’s car. So that was that. My mom’s voice choked.

After thirty minutes of texting, fugitive phone calls, and speaking with my brother—deliberately using “I” statements, as in, “I feel like Mom really needs our support right now,” instead of asking, “Why are you being a dick?”—and my husband rearranging his work schedule so he could handle our kids’ school logistics, Ben was back in the car with us. I would drive, and I would have him home in time to get his mother-in-law from the airport.

I pulled into Mom’s driveway the next morning to see Ben fiddling with Dad’s smoker—checking the flame, adding water. Smoke ascended though the rain, and the sweet aroma of wood and meat reached inside the car. My stomach rolled. We both walked to the house, shoulders hunched against the rain. “This some kind of morbid joke?” I asked him, nodding at the smoker. He laughed.

Inside, Ben’s younger son watched cartoons from the kitchen table, a half-eaten bagel before him, cream cheese on his upper lip. He wore pajamas and smelled of cocooning sleep. We played tic-tac-toe while Mom finished getting ready and Ben scuttled about. Then we left, leaving young Benjamin with cartoons until his mother and older brother came down.

We got Dad at nine and were on the road by nine-thirty. I brought rainbow Twizzlers since, technically, this was a road trip. Ben said they tasted like chemicals. For much of the drive we talked about when my parents had the place in Harbor Isle. We’d make the trip every weekend in the summer to clean the beach house between rentals. We all had our jobs and had to execute quickly; turnaround was only two hours.

Ben and I would spring from the car and attack bedrooms first before advancing through the house. Check drawers and under furniture for forgotten items, Windex all glass (especially the slider), vacuum, sweep, scrub, and then outside: sweep the porch of sand, sweep rocks back into yard, and weed the gravel parking bay. Mom had both bathrooms and the kitchen, which I now know is the short straw. Dad had their bedroom, some kitchen, checking for damages, and making any repairs. One year the renters blew up the microwave, so he had that task in a forty-five-minute window. We would stink so bad afterwards. And we’d be famished. That was Saturday for years. We would get the house two weeks around the Fourth of July and then the whole off-season. I grew to love winter beaches, the winter ocean.

After my folks moved from Pennsylvania to Vermont, we came to spend entire summers at the place. We certainly couldn’t make the drive to Jersey to clean every Saturday, and it was inconceivable to my parents to pay someone for what you could do yourself. And to have the house sit empty was an incontrovertible waste of money. So, starting after high-school graduation, I worked at the beach for the summer.

We created a new routine then. When Dad was in Harbor Isle, he was on the beach by 8:00 a.m. with a book. He’d return to the house to make lunch—usually deli sandwiches on fresh rolls with peaches or nectarines—then bring it down to the beach for us and whoever was visiting. Depending on what shift I was waitressing—and whether I was working at a breakfast or dinner place—I’d be down there with him. We’d park ourselves and read. We had bottomless supplies of Atomic Fireballs. They weren’t breakfast, but we’d just pop them all day.

Mom’s favorite time on the beach was late afternoon. The blazing midday heat had passed, leaving behind a warmth without punishment. There was more space as families had packed up. She would read or play paddleball with Ben or, more often, talk with our company. The rainbow arc of folding chairs rang with laughter. She probably would have stayed until sunset if she wasn’t compelled to feed everyone dinner.

The house was by 55th Street—the south end of the beach. There was a falling-apart fishing pier on the beach around 59th Street, the last numbered road in Harbor Isle. There were neither lifeguards nor houses past this point, and the beach was sparsely populated. The pier was a good distance for a walk. “Going to the pier,” you’d say when you needed to stretch your legs. We’d walk farther, past the pier—a line of decrepit catamarans lay tucked into the dunes; men sat beside each other on a single blanket; on lucky days, tide pools revealed their secrets—all the way to Gull’s Inlet and threaten swimming to Baytown, but the pier was our landscape, our orientation. Even walking north, the other way along the beach, you’d turn and see the pier in the distance and know about how far until home. After my oldest was born we took a big family photo there before sunset, all khakis and white shirts in front of the blue ocean.

There was a jetty beside the pier, too—rocks Ben and I would dare each other to scramble. Once I slipped and cut my foot and it became infected. I was surprised, since I believed salt water had magical healing properties, but the pools around the jetty were stagnant. We’d find mollusks around the rocks, would search for crabs and interesting seaweed.

My last year waitressing—college graduation and the real world loomed—I used my tip money to buy a painting of the pier at sunset. I thought Dad would object to using my hard-earned money on something frivolous (something that was not college textbooks), but he didn’t. He suggested I get a good frame. My parents have a different painting of the fishing pier. The colors in theirs resemble sunrise. I wonder about this—sunrise and sunset over the same pier—and realize mine is the one with artistic license.

The pier is gone now. My mom reminds us of this as we cross the bridge into Harbor Isle.

“Put the windows down,” I yell mid-span. “Can you smell it?” I leave the windows up, though, because of the rain.

“Smell what?” Ben asks.

“The ocean,” Mom answers. “Don’t you remember? Dad always put the windows down crossing the bridge.”

We tell her we know the pier is gone. We wonder if it came down during Sandy or if it was before that. My parents sold their place years ago. They had rented houses since then, bigger places removed from our old spot, but we couldn’t remember when the pier disappeared.

We’re on the island now. Farther north, Harbor Isle feels more like a small town—an old department store, bigger churches, town hall, and the boardwalk are up that way. The barrier island narrows moving southward. There’s a grocery store and a few shops where we cross the bridge at 34th, but that quickly disappears into neat rows of cottages, two-story rentals, and the occasional McMansion. There are no tall trees. You could bike this whole city in a few hours. Ben and I often did.

I drive past the old place and eventually park around 58th Street near a first aid station and public bathrooms. Nearby, there’s also a meager playground and a wooden pavilion people use for meetings and to wait for stragglers coming off the beach. A light on the first aid building shines through the rain. Because of the light, we’ll take that path through the dunes and down to the beach.

We brace ourselves.

Now we’re outside the car in the rain, huddled around the passenger door.

“We’re too obvious,” Mom chokes. Her wool coat smells from being wet. Her eyes do not match the coat’s snazzy elegance. Her head is damp, but she’s oblivious to the rain. Ben’s not wearing a hat or raincoat either. He’s in jeans, an argyle sweater, and dress shoes. My raincoat hood is up and pulled tight, making my face a small bread plate. I grab an umbrella from the trunk and silently thank my husband for his practicality.

“Here,” I say. “I’m blocking you. Come on. We’re just going for a walk.”

Dad’s ashes are in Mom’s purse. She’s clutching it like an old lady, like her own mother held her purse in public. “God, your father’s heavy,” she almost laughs. “Okay. So my son is in from Oregon. And we used to have a place here. And he was home, so we wanted to visit because it’s been years and—”

“Mom!” I cut her off. “No story. We don’t need a story. We can be on the beach.”

“In the rain? In December?” she whimpers.

We wind our way to the shoreline, walk south, down beach, guessing where the pier used to be. There’s no sign of it or the old jetty. I look for seashells as we weave toward the water.

We discussed with the funeral director how this should be done. The respectful way to distribute ashes. How to account for wind. How to rinse the bag so you’re not carrying a film of your loved one inside what is essentially trash. It made sense in his office. Here, on the shore, it’s another story. Mom’s the only one who thought to wear boots. Ben says he will do it; he will empty the bag, and Mom is okay with this.

We’re beside the water now. This is it. It seems there should be a ceremony, a something. I say a few words, read a quote from Saint Francis de Sales. Mom talks a little, but words come hard. We’re all crying when I notice two circles of light up the north end of the beach.

“Headlights,” I warn. “Headlights.”

Mom closes her purse to Ben’s outstretched hands. We walk up the beach toward the headlights, hoping to cross paths quickly so we can finish our job.

“What if they stop?” Mom asks. “What if they stay here? They know what we’re doing,” she declares.

“Nope,” I say. “Nope. We’re good. This will pass.”

Ben turns to say something, but the wind catches his voice.

I get beside my mother. “We’re doing our best,” I say, leaning in close. “Dad has to know we are doing the best we can.”

“We need to spread out. Look busy,” she says as she peels away from me.

The headlights are closer. Two shapes have formed. It’s a bulldozer and a public works car. We look preoccupied with the stormy winter surf. I still wonder what that beige sea-foam stuff is. Between the tide and the rain, I don’t know why it doesn’t dissolve. It just stays on the shoreline like some gross ring around a global bathtub. We sidestep the billowing foam. I look for shells. The rain comes down harder.

“Can you help us here?” I ask the sky. “We’re trying. We’re trying to do our best.”

Ben has stopped walking. We can see the truck and car down beach, but don’t think they can see us through the rain. Ben’s found a channel running to the ocean, a narrow inlet following an unseen curve in the sand. He declares that the channel will work. Mom is glad he won’t have to wade into the ocean wearing his jeans and nice shoes. “These aren’t really my good shoes,” he replies.

There is no time to repeat the words from before. Ben bends low beside the channel and I hear my mom’s voice, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” My mouth responds, “Hail Mary, full of grace.” Only neither of us is very clear. I know she said those words, but we aren’t speaking. We clutch each other near Ben beside the water with Dad. Keening. Ululating. We are not doing that, but I think of those words. We latch onto set prayers, but the noises from our mouths are not that either.

Dad is in the water and the moment passes.

As we stand and begin moving to the car, Ben nods toward the dune line and the first aid station slightly down beach.

“We were at the pier,” he says. “That station was just past it.”

“You’re right,” I say. “Yes—there’s the old pavilion. Yeah. That would have been near the end, too. We didn’t think of that.”

“So we got Dad pretty close, then,” Mom half asks, half states. “We weren’t there originally. We were going to do it farther down—we walked that way first.”

We pause to scan the landscape for any sign of the pier, the jetty, any memory to help our orientation.

“What are the chances that channel was there?” Mom asks. “That wasn’t where we were going to do this initially, you know?”

Small pumpkins and gourds dot the sand beside the path along the pavilion, the path we didn’t take down to the beach. It seems random, but Thanksgiving was days ago—Halloween less than a month before that.

We drip water inside the car. It smells of wet wool. I use clean tissues to mop Ben’s face as he talks to his wife on his cell phone. He bats me away with his hand, but he’s laughing. “Stop wiping my face,” he says.

“Stop dripping in my car,” I respond.

We have to get back to Mom’s so he can turn around and go to the airport for Rachel. I’m starving. I want a hamburger, onion rings, and a black and white. I would settle for a mega omelet and a pot of coffee. Mom eats the chemical Twizzlers. “I feel so much better,” she declares. She sounds it, too. Her eyes are tired, but not pained. Winding though backroad southern Jersey in the rain, Ben talks about his older son. I navigate home by sight.

 

Kate McCorkle received her master’s degree in Humanities from the University of Chicago and a bachelor’s degree in English from the College of the Holy Cross. She has regularly attended the Greater Philadelphia Wordshop Studio since spring 2012.  In 2015, her essay “Laundry” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She won second place in tNY Press’s (formerly theNewerYork Press) 2015 bureaucratic writing contest. Her work has been published in The Anthology of Cozy Noir; Apiary Online; Crab Fat Literary Magazine; Diverse Voices Quarterly; free state review; Juked; Midway Journal; New York Press; The Penmen Review; The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society; RKVRY Quarterly; Sand Hill Review; and Westview.

It’s my fault
due a ticket for once

fey sigh or protest,
dumb birds align the wire

streets slick, improper
lane change, no mean avenue

here, past midnight the bejeezus waiting
like a leg breaking, giving—

pinball spins into
its hole

standing in shame in rainfall
sitting on the curb done in

weep
alligator tears, a good sign

people after midnight sleeping
through this storm.

Beau Boudreaux teaches English in Continuing Studies at Tulane University in New Orleans. His first book collection of poetry, RUNNING RED, RUNNING REDDER, was published in the spring of 2012 by Cherry Grove Collections. He has published poetry in journals including Antioch Review and Cream City Review, also in anthologies along with The Southern Poetry Anthology.

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Gladys Carr is a former Nicholson Trustee Fellow at Smith College, University Fellow at Cornell, and publishing executive with McGraw-Hill and HarperCollins book publishers.

Her work is widely published in literary magazines and journals throughout the United States and Canada. Publications include: The New York Times, Manhattan Magazine, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Ninth Letter, North Atlantic Review, Denver Quarterly, International Poetry Review, Potomac Review, Bayou, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, California Quarterly (CQ), Connecticut Review, Fourteen Hills Review, Fulcrum: An Annual Of Poetry And Aesthetics, Existere Journal of Arts and Literature, Gargoyle, George Washington Review, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, Inscape, Fictionist (Beach Magazine), Whetstone, KNOCK Magazine (Antioch Seattle), Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Nimrod International, Pebble Lake Review, Queen’s Quarterly, Westview, Qwerty, Red Rock Review, Rhino, Rosebud, The Saint Ann’s Review, Salamander, Sanskrit, The South Carolina Review, Southern Humanities Review, Spillway, Tampa Review, Word Riot, Bartlett’s Unfamiliar Quotations, and Quiddity International Journal and Public Radio, among many others.

Oh, they are all laid out!
The tools and housewares,

Trinkets from the cruise ship honeymoon,
Along with flotsam from the nuptial wreck.

A timing light for engines out of time,
The tune-up manual for dad’s Rocket 88,

And grandma’s Bible with the question marks.
The globe with all the countries wrong,

The baby pictures from 100 years ago
Of antique children who grew to nothing

More than frames to gather dust;
The serving spoon that scooped

Young peas from chipped tureens,
Furniture still creaking,

With cushions unraveled at the seams,
And the almost working typewriter.

All the evidence of life now marked “As is”,
As redoubtable as the retainer case

Belonging to the teenage son
Who hanged himself one Christmas Eve

And swallowed his retainer whole.
Marked down on this last day,

Empty, memory-free,
Yours for the taking.

A real bargain.
And now only 25 cents.

D.G. Geis lives in Houston, Texas. He has an undergraduate degree in English Literature from the University of Houston and a graduate degree in philosophy from California State University. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in 491 Magazine, Lost Coast, Blue Bonnet Review, The Broadkill Review, A Quiet Courage, SoftBlow International Poetry Journal, Blinders, Burningword Literary Journal, Poetry Scotland (Open Mouse), Crosswinds, Scarlet Leaf, Sweet Tree, Atrocity Exhibition, Driftwood Press, Tamsen, Rat’s Ass, Bad Acid, Crack the Spine, Collapsar, Grub Street, Slippery Elm, Ricochet, The Write Place at the Write Time, and Steam Ticket.. He will be featured in a forthcoming Tupelo Press chapbook anthologizing 9 New Poets and is winner of Blue Bonnet Review’s Fall 2015 Poetry Contest. He is editor-at-large of Tamsen.

Long Time Coming

nothing to do this day
bury our father

in the dense shade
of the linden tree

its heart-shaped leaves
drip honeydew

here’s the sticky under-story
we, the children left behind

too loud, too bold, too much
like him, refuse to wilt

this hothouse afternoon
speak of small consolations

for his garden
an increase in worm castings

lady beetles
certain we smell rain


Out There

Window open to electromagnetic forces,
my uncle sends telepathic messages out there,
while I sit at his card table and wait for him

to receive a sign. A fly settles on a jam lid,
another buzzes inside the jar. I’m here to help
fill in the case questionnaire, commend him

for remembering his dentures. His answers
detour, come slowly, or not at all. He places
his hand on his t-shirt logo, a faded celestial map,

pressing the tight shirt even closer to his skin.
“Looks good on you.” He smiles, offers tea
in a blue enamel mug, takes nothing for himself.

“Soon everything will be all right,” he says.
I suspect he knows what I don’t.


Louisa Howerow’s
latest poems appeared in The Fiddlehead, Carousel and Red Earth Review. Her poetry has also been included in anthologies, most recently, Imaginarium 4: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing (ChiZine Publications),Cider Press Review, Best of, volume 16 and River of Earth and Sky: Poems for the Twenty-First Century (Blue Light Press).