Contributors This Issue:
Jacqueline Berkman, Simon Perchik, Kevin McDaniel, Chuck Crabbe,Carl Scharwath, Nels Hanson, Janet Buck, John Richmond, Carol Hamilton, Jennifer Lothrigel, Craig Kurtz, Gerard Sarnat
Jacqueline Berkman, Simon Perchik, Kevin McDaniel, Chuck Crabbe,Carl Scharwath, Nels Hanson, Janet Buck, John Richmond, Carol Hamilton, Jennifer Lothrigel, Craig Kurtz, Gerard Sarnat
Jacqueline Berkman on "Forever Baby": My sister made a comment a while ago that people love small dogs because they act like "forever babies." The comment stuck with me, and I wanted to to write a story where a dog filled a childlike role in a family. I also wanted to explore the concept of aging in all of its forms, from a teenage girl growing up and going to college to a recently divorced mother transitioning into a new life phase. Ultimately, I wanted to write a story where the characters come to terms with the fact that they can't remain in stasis indefinitely.
Milano normally loved car rides. He’d sit in the passenger seat and perch his head out the window, eyes closed and mouth open, willingly surrendering himself to whatever the world had to offer. But when Veronica sidled up to the packed United Airlines Terminal at LAX the night before Thanksgiving, the eight-pound Maltese stayed fixed in her lap, his overgrown nails digging into her wrist and his fishy breath heaving in her face. “Relax, sweetie,” Veronica said, and the dog buried himself in the crook of her arm, leaving her to absorb the cars, taxis, and masses of people all in a different but similar sort of hurry.
It was foggy, the kind of night that most Angelenos would describe as miserable, and when Bianca finally emerged from the terminal Veronica almost didn’t recognize her. Her dyed dark brown hair and trim black overcoat made her camouflage into the soupy evening, and when Veronica finally spotted her and yelled her name it took several tries before her daughter, seemingly jet lagged, recognized Veronica’s voice. Swaying towards the car in no sort of hurry, Bianca plopped her duffel bag and what appeared to be a guitar case in the back before climbing into the passenger seat, deliberately turning away from the furry creature barreling towards her. “Great,” she said. “You brought the dog.”
“Milano, you can’t just mosey up to whomever you feel like,” Veronica said, growing flustered as she grabbed the Maltese and planted him back on her lap. Bianca hadn’t been the biggest fan of Milano when Veronica brought him home from the animal shelter last July, and it seemed a few months back east hadn’t changed her mind much in that department. Milano, as if responding to the rejection, clung onto Veronica even more tightly as she merged onto Sepulveda, his rapid heartbeat a caricature of hers.
“Milano’s under the weather so I brought him along to keep an eye on him,” Veronica said, by way of explanation. She squeezed Bianca’s hand. “So good to see you. How was the flight?”
“And your Midterms?”
Veronica laughed, mistaking her daughters’ monosyllabic responses for fatigue. “I remember my friends and I used to go the library to cram the night before exams, but then we’d get bored and usually wind up goofing off at whatever coffee shop was open. There was this one that served hot fudge sundaes and we’d always stay there for hours just laughing and pigging out.” Veronica smiled as she recalled the joint: Cornwall’s was its name, and it was perfect in its reliability, cafeteria style seating and sundaes that were ideal both in the cold Midwestern winters and the unfolding humidity of spring. The chairs were uncomfortable and the hour was always late but in Cornwall’s she felt a prevailing sense of lightness, the beckoning call of possibility. The future was a question mark seduced by the promise of Los Angeles. She had visited the city for one of her collegiate journalism conferences and had been awestruck by everything: the beachfront hotel, sunrises the color of orange sherbet, and all of the thin, glamorous people with important places to go. She knew instantly upon returning that as much as she loved her Midwestern life, Los Angeles would be the place she’d head to post college to report on celebrities and pop culture. Veronica chuckled to herself as she merged onto the freeway, marveling at her capacity to once feel so sure about something, and she was so absorbed in her recollection that it took her a moment before she felt Milano’s nails digging deeper into her skin. “Stop it, “ she hissed. Her cell phone rang its peppy marimba beat, and when Richard’s name flashed across the screen she looked over her daughter, curled up against the window, before answering.
“I just scooped her up,” Veronica said, her voice level and markedly upbeat. “We’re heading home.”
“Great,” Richard said, his voice also pleasantly tempered. “No delays?”
“No, none to write home about,” Veronica said, and there were a few moments of silence between them, the dim sound of traffic faintly audible above the hum of the car’s heater, before Richard said “Well, that’s good. God knows LAX has been a nightmare with all of the construction lately.” She could hear, in his modulated responses, a trace of weariness, and she wondered if he had been traveling lately, where he had been and where he was off to next.
“So you’ll drop her off on Friday at 10,” Richard said, resuming a businesslike tone.
“Yes. Friday at 10,” Veronica said, in an equally efficient manner.
“Good. We’d just like to get in most of the day with her. I know Jasmine’s eager to take her to the mall for some of the Good Friday sales.” She could hear him exhale. Then, in a voice that was a higher, more agitated register than she was used to, he said, “Can I say hi to her?”
Bianca was still slouched against the window. “She’s sleeping,” Veronica said. “The flight took a lot out of her.”
At that, Bianca turned around and gave her mother a thumbs-up, the corners of her mouth curling up into the faintest semblance of a smile.
“Fair enough,” Richard said. “Well, I’ll see you both on Friday then.”
“Yup, see you,” Veronica said, clicking off the phone.
“Thanks for rescuing me from that,” Bianca said. “Was it actually as awkward as it sounded?”
“It was fine,” Veronica said. “We were just taking care of business.” Bianca cringed, and Veronica, focused on the road, said “I’ve been meaning to ask you, are you playing guitar now?”
“It’s a ukulele.”
“A ukulele!” Veronica said. “How interesting. When did you get into that?”
“My friend gave it to me. I practice everyday.” Bianca turned back toward the window, her tone once again clipped, and Veronica, irritated by the wildly fluctuating degrees of her daughter’s friendliness, persisted in the uphill battle for conversation.
“That’s great,” she said, tapping her fingers against the wheel. “And how are you liking school? It seems like just yesterday that we were unpacking your stuff.” Freshman move-in at Columbia had certainly been memorable, a sweaty August day bypassing a broken elevator and lugging boxes up eight flights of stairs to a tiny room. After they unloaded everything they rewarded themselves by eating salty egg rolls on the stoop of Bianca’s dorm before exchanging stiff goodbyes under the blazing sun. Since then, with the exception of a sporadic text, they hadn’t interacted much, and in the three months apart Veronica could see that her daughter’s face had taken a more angular form, as if New York City had chiseled away the last of her baby fat.
“School’s fine,” Bianca said.
“Fine?” Veronica exited off the freeway and navigated through the familiar tangle of side streets. Whenever she had returned home for Thanksgiving break all she could do was talk to her family about college, everything from the plush campus lawns to her sorority sisters to the journalism courses she took to Max, the sweet boyfriend who would precede the string of questionable men that followed. As she pulled into the driveway, her frustration grew palpable. “You’re a freshman at an Ivy League University learning the most cutting edge things and meeting the most interesting people and all you can say is that school’s fine?”
“Yes. It’s fine,” Bianca said, grabbing her suitcase and ukulele case from the backseat. “It’s definitely not the brochure copy you memorized.”
Bianca took her belongings upstairs and shut the door, blasting some moody indie band that Veronica didn’t recognize. “I’m getting pizza!” Veronica yelled into the void, and as she measured Milano’s kibble, she pondered her daughter’s sullenness, trying to pinpoint when exactly the chasm between them started to widen. But that conjured up the fresh memories of the divorce, all of those nights sitting in fetal position on the floor of the master bedroom, a half empty bottle of wine beside her. She preferred not to go there. Especially now, with Milano completely refusing his food, sprawled across the ground as if he were participating in some sort of hunger strike. The doorbell rang and relieved, she jumped up to answer it.
It wasn’t long after Veronica announced the arrival of the food that Bianca drifted downstairs, picking up a slice of cheese and setting it on a napkin.
“I have plates, you know,” Veronica said. “This isn’t the dorms.”
“I’m good,” Bianca said, taking a bite, seemingly oblivious to Milano incessantly pawing at her legs.
“Milano, down!” Veronica said, scooping him up and plopping him onto his little dog bed. She looked over at her daughter, intent and ravenous, and for a moment considered just leaving things be before deciding against it and taking the plunge. “So I forwarded you an email last week but just in case you missed it, Aunt Jody and Uncle Christopher and the kids are in Houston, so Thanksgiving will just be the two of us, nice and low-key. And you probably overheard in the car, but on Friday your dad wants you over at his house by 10 am.”
Bianca sighed, dropping her half-eaten slice on her plate. “I can’t believe I have to see that prick.”
Veronica smirked. “Why don’t you tell him that after you thank him for paying your tuition.”
“You’re paying it, too,” Bianca said, though they both knew that with Veronica’s salary as an executive assistant that was certainly not the full truth.
“Look, I know there’s hard feelings, —I get that. But you’re just going to have to brush that aside and be an adult about this.”
Bianca snorted. “So that means be like you? Smile even if I’m clearly unhappy?”
Veronica stared into Bianca’s smoky, made-up eyes, momentarily taken aback. It was as if her daughter wasn’t her daughter at all, just some sullen young woman who happened to be staying at her house, serving as the physical embodiment of moodiness itself. “What are you talking about?” Veronica said, her tone neutral. “I’m not unhappy. I’m taking a Ceramics class.”
“I just don’t get it,” Bianca said. “You’re so polite towards him, so accommodating, even though he cheated on you, and lied to you over and over again, and is doing that gross midlife crisis thing where he dates a woman practically my age. It’s such a cliché. Dad thinks he’s such an innovator when he designs his blueprints for high rises, but as a man, as a person, he is so painfully trite. Why aren’t you more pissed off?”
Bianca was wild-eyed and incredulous, and Veronica imagined she was freshly enraged from some gender and women’s studies class, bursting with thoughts about the problematic relations between men and women in the 21st century. “Look,” Veronica said, “can’t we just have a relaxing holiday weekend? Would it not be edgy enough for me to tell you that perhaps I have accepted the situation for what it is, that I moved on?”
“Mom! Please! Last summer you were going on a different Match.com date every night and now you’ve got this anxious dog. It’s obvious that you’re hurting.”
“What’s so bad about getting a damn dog?” Her voice rose, shaky in its indignation, and when she looked out the French doors she saw that Milano, once again, had left the mark of his gastrointestinal distress all over the porch.
“Christ,” she said. “Not again.”
Thanksgiving morning. Coffee in hand, Veronica opened the fridge and marveled at the pre-made turkey and assortment of side dishes, silently commending herself for not going through the ordeal of cooking. She slept poorly the night before and had a throbbing headache, and given Bianca’s surly attitude it seemed unlikely they would acknowledge each other, let alone the holiday.
She sighed, and alongside her, Milano sighed too as he lay sprawled on the ground. Summoned by a maternal urge, she picked him up, bringing him over to a chair that faced the sun. He leaned against her chest, and underneath his mass of curly white fur she could feel the fragility of his little animal bones. He lay like this for a while until a hummingbird arrested his attention. Tilting his head, he watched the frenetic creature dip its beak into a petunia, and Veronica, finding herself profoundly moved by her dog’s heightened attention to the world, scratched his ears and found herself remembering one of her first major roadblocks with Richard.
She was in her mid-twenties and living in a run down apartment in Hollywood. Out of her increasing frustration with her lack of success in the freelance journalism world, she had accepted a position as a coordinator at a public relations firm. It was something she told herself she would never do, as she had always snubbed PR to her friends, labeling it the field for failed journalists. But she reassured herself that this was only a gig to make rent, mind numbing enough that she’d have the energy to keep churning out the real articles she wanted to write at night.
But the work mostly swallowed her up and left her exhausted, wiping out her creative energy and social life along the way, and so she and a friend, in a burst of proactivity, had decided to sign up for a speed-dating event. It was at some nondescript bar with dim lighting and sticky floors and all of the men had been bores except Richard. He was well put together in a plaid shirt and khaki pants, had recently completed his Masters in Architecture, and spoke passionately about the buildings he wanted to design. He conducted himself well, his speech appropriately direct, his eye contact strong. He wasn’t flighty and awkward, the way so many of the men at the event were as they cradled their beers. He listened to her journalistic ambitions with what appeared to be the right level of interest, his speech patterns imbued with the proper amount of nodding and eye contact. They clicked.
He asked her out on a date the very next day, and they had been seeing each other for several months when they had gone out on the date that had locked into Veronica’s memory. It had been a warm summer night and they were walking through a park with ice cream cones when they passed a woman walking a border collie. The woman was petite, and clearly struggling to keep up with her prancing pet, who, at the sight of another dog, began to move with brisk, excited steps.
Veronica had been struck by the collie’s beauty, as well as its complete enchantment with the evening that surrounded him. It wasn’t until they were a few steps away that she said that she loved dogs, and, after a noticeable pause, Richard had responded by saying that they annoyed him.
The comment, seemingly innocuous enough, thoroughly rattled her. It made her question, for the first time, if they were actually right for each other. But she shrugged off the disquieting notion because it was a warm night and the relationship was mostly going well, and she thought that if she cooed enough at the cute dogs they saw on their sporadic evening walks, she’d get him to come around. But he never did. Not even long after Bianca was born, when she was having difficulties getting pregnant again, and she desperately wanted a dog running around the house to complete the family. Nothing she seemed to say or insinuate could ever change his mind.
At the sound of the ukulele, Veronica lifted out of her reverie and listened to Bianca’s rendition of “Clementine.” Despite the whimsical plucking of the chords, she sang the song in a low, mournful voice, and Veronica wondered if she listened hard enough she’d be able to identify the source of her daughter’s pain.
The rest of the day was sedentary, but different, Veronica imagined, from the way that most peoples’ Thanksgivings were sedentary, where large groups of family and friends assembled in front of a football game and joked to find common ground. Instead, Veronica and Bianca had spent the majority of the day wandering through separate rooms. When Veronica set the food out on the dining room table around 4pm, Bianca was upstairs binging on Netflix, glassy eyed and definitively uninterested in eating. So Veronica made herself a plate from various Whole Foods containers and had a few glasses of white wine before going upstairs, halfheartedly watching a rerun of It’s a Wonderful Life on TBS. It wasn’t the ideal holiday, she knew, but it was hers, and it wasn’t until nearly midnight, in a bout of insomnia, that she came downstairs to find Bianca take a heaping plate of food out of the microwave. Something about the sight of her daughter in her Charlie Brown pajamas, her hair in a messy bun, a pile of turkey and mashed potatoes poised at her hip, gave Veronica a great sense of comfort. It was as if, in that moment, some remnant of the old days had been restored.
“Funny seeing you here,” Veronica said.
“I’m starving,” Bianca said. “Just watched the entire second season of Orange is the New Black and completely lost track of time.”
“That good, huh?” Veronica said. She had heard positive things but hadn’t been able to commit to a television show recently, finding herself drifting, halfheartedly, between novels and Lifetime dramas instead.
“The dialogue’s good. No small talk.” Bianca took a big bite of turkey and mashed potatoes, chewing voraciously. “Who needs small talk. It’s just a bunch of bullshit. Isn’t it Milano,” she said, and the dog pranced up to Bianca, silent and adoring as she tousled his fur. Veronica smiled. Watching the two of them together uncoiled the tenseness in her shoulders, and for the first time that day she experienced something akin to relief. “Sleep well,” she said, heading up the stairs.
The next morning they pulled into the driveway of the Spanish style home at 10am, exactly as promised. Jasmine’s teal colored toes were curled up on Richard’s lap as they sipped coffee on the front porch, although as soon as Richard saw the car pull in he stood up and made his way over, hugging Bianca and asking Veronica if she wanted to come in.
Not surprisingly, he looked put together, his shirt iron pressed and his beard neatly groomed. But Veronica could see by the lines under his eyes just how tired he was, how this act of courteousness, this whole gathering, weighed on him. He didn’t know what to say, and in his moment of weakness she felt magnificently indifferent towards him, as if he had suddenly transformed from some overgrown monster to a grainy, muted stick figure. “Oh no, I can’t come in today,” Veronica said, a sense of lightness washing over her even as she stared at the bronzed legs of his new wife and the enclave of avocado trees overhead. “I’ve got a million things to do.” Bianca headed toward the house, offering her mother a meek wave, and Veronica waved back before heading up the driveway, triumphant endorphins flooding through her the whole drive home, right until the point when she opened the front door and stepped in a fresh pile of Milano’s vomit.
“That’s it,” she said, picking up the dog. “I’m taking you to the hospital.”
The dog and cat emergency hospital was largely quiet, save for a few pets drooping by their owners, and after Veronica submitted Milano’s name and his key symptoms to the receptionist, she sat down next to an elderly woman who kept stealing glances as she flipped through a copy of House and Garden.
“What’s wrong with the little one?” the woman finally said. Making eye contact with Veronica, she added: “I’m Maureen.”
“Stomach problems,” Veronica said. “Hasn’t been able to keep anything down for days. I should have come in sooner.”
The two sat side by side in silence for a few moments, though Veronica was distracted by the woman’s wrinkled hands. She couldn’t help comparing them to her own, which had already begun to sprout their own weathered lines.
“Milano?” a woman in blue scrubs and a clipboard said. Veronica stood up and tried to prod Milano with his leash but he didn’t move, resisting as he always did in places he didn’t recognize. Finally, she scooped him up, and he shook in her arms as she handed him over to the doctor, who plopped him back on the ground and commanded the leash as she pulled him towards a private examination room.
“This is Isabel. My little one,” Maureen said when Veronica returned to her seat, showing a picture on her phone of a tiny apricot colored poodle sitting on grass, chewing a tennis ball.
“Aw, what a sweetheart,” Veronica said. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s in congestive heart failure,” Maureen said. “Been having health problems for years now. She’s on more medications than I am.”
“She doesn’t look sick at all,” Veronica said, as if that would somehow make Maureen feel better. “From that picture, it looks like she’s still a little puppy.”
“She’s twelve years old. Not a puppy at all.” The woman looked down, as if fighting back tears. “You know,” she finally said, “My good friend once told me that the reason why people love small dogs is that they seem like they never get older. It’s like they’re forever babies.” She dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. “It’s not until you’re at the animal hospital on Black Friday that you remember that actually isn’t the case.”
Veronica sighed. She thought again about her Milano, who was already three when she got him in July. That would make him nearly three and a half now. Or, more accurately, given dogs’ accelerated aging, approximately 28 in human years. My God, she thought, Milano’s older than Bianca, and the realization unnerved her so much that it took three tries before she even heard the nurse call her name.
Milano was diagnosed with a bacterial stomach infection, and as the nurse on staff walked Veronica and the dog to the car she advised wrapping his daily antibiotics into peanut butter filled rice cakes. “It makes the pill easier to swallow,” she said.
As soon as they got in, Milano climbed into her lap, clinging on tightly as they navigated the city streets, a soft drizzle sprinkling across the windshield. “I know you feel lousy, but we’re going to get you all better,” Veronica said, humming along to the radio as she pulled into her driveway. “It’s just going to take some time.” She held the dog in one hand and slammed the car door with another when she saw Bianca, arms folded, sitting in the rocking chair on the patio, the sky trembling into the beginnings of a rainstorm.
“Bee,” Veronica said. "What are you doing here?”
“I just couldn’t do it,” Bianca said. “I took an Uber home.”
No matter how much peanut butter Veronica slathered on the rice cake it seemed she couldn’t outsmart Milano. He knew there was something else wrapped in there and he remained resistant, his jaw going slack, until Veronica had to force the antibiotic down his pink, slobbery throat. She and the dog exchanged sheepish glances with one another while Bianca, pacing back and forth, complained about her day.
“They’re just so gross,” Bianca said. “It’s like, ‘Oh babe, can you hand me the salt shaker?’ ‘Babe, where’s my shirt that you picked up from the drycleaners?’ ‘Sweets, what’s that documentary you told me to download?’ And I saw him grab her ass, in the kitchen, while she was making more coffee. It made me want to puke. And then Jasmine said ‘let’s have a girls day and go shopping’ in front of dad, like she’s so cool, some super chill stepmother or some bullshit, and I just said I felt sick and I wanted to come back here.”
“And they were okay with that?” Veronica said.
Bianca, leaned against the counter and smirked. “Ugh, not exactly. Dad got super pissed. But I said I was an adult and it was my right. I tried calling you a bunch of times. Where were you?”
“At the pet hospital,” Veronica said. “Milano’s sick.”
“Is he okay?” Bianca said, eyeing the dog warily.
“He’ll be fine,” Veronica said, and they were both quiet for a moment until Bianca burst into tears, her palms clenched into little fists.
“Bianca, what’s the matter?”
“It’s just dad. He’s so fake. Like he’s so in love with Jasmine and so at peace with his life. But he’s just full of shit. He was like that with us, remember? He was living his life with us, absolutely carefree, and then poof! He was gone. But that’s just the way men are, right? They don’t stay.”
“What makes you say that?” Veronica said.
Bianca took a deep breath, as if preparing to tell a long story. “Remember my mysterious ukulele? I got it as a gift. From a guy.”
“A guy?” Veronica said. “Does this guy have a name?”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s this guy on my floor. We met during orientation week and spent practically every minute together for a couple months, and then all of a sudden he just decided he didn’t want to hang out anymore. He said he had too much going on. Which, of course, is bullshit. It’s basically the same version of what dad said to you. It’s the fucking circle of life.”
Veronica shook her head. She didn’t want her daughter, at the tender age of eighteen, already growing bitter. “Look,” she said, “it’s tempting to try to come up with an overarching theory to explain every unpleasant thing that happens, but honey, it’s a waste of energy. Sometimes you’ll just never know why things don’t work out.”
Bianca looked down, hugging her goose pimpled arms as she rocked back and forth. “I just really wanted it to,” she said.
“Come here,” Veronica said, and her daughter, smudging her eyeliner with the back of her hand, unabashedly came and sat on her mother’s lap, her tears dampening Veronica’s blouse. “You’re going to be okay,” Veronica said. Smoothing Bianca’s hair, she was surprised by the weight of her daughter’s distress, had briefly forgotten such feelings were even possible in the height of youth. But then the apartment in Hollywood came back to her, the rejection slips from magazines, the nights alone in her oversized bed. And she smiled nostalgically, at the longing and the frustration, at the grungy apartment, at being 23. “This is just a little blip in the road for you.”
“I guess,” Bianca said, her jagged tears finally leveling off after a few deep breaths before she looked up and said, “You know what mom? Things are going to get better for you too.”
Veronica, resisting the urge to laugh, broke out into a smile instead. Milano chewed a stuffed animal at her feet; Bianca’s hair felt impossibly soft, the kitchen was growing dark at barely 5pm. The days were a lot shorter now.
Jacqueline Berkman is a writer based in San Francisco. Her short fiction has been published in The East Bay Review, The Writing Disorder, Waccamaw, and Ginosko Literary Journal.
Simon on poetry: MAGIC, ILLUSION and OTHER REALITIES
Where do writers get their ideas? Well, if they are writing prose, their ideas evolve one way. If, on the other hand, they are writing poetry, their ideas evolve another way. Perhaps some distinctions are in order. Distinguishing the difference between prose and poetry may not be all that simple. There are many definitions, all of which may be correct. For the purpose of this essay allow me to set forth one of the many:
It seems to me that there is available to writers a spectrum along which to proceed. At one end is prose, appropriate for essays, news, weather reports and the like. At the other end is poetry. Writers move back and forth along this spectrum when writing fiction.
Thus, prose is defined by its precise meaning that excludes ambiguity, surmise and misunderstanding. It never troubles the reader. To define it another way, prose is faulty if it lacks a coherent thrust guided by rules of logic, grammar and syntax. It will not tolerate contradiction. Poetry, on the other hand, is defined by its resistance to such rules. Poetry is ignited, brought to life by haunting, evasive, ambiguous, contradictory propositions.
This is not to say poetry is more or less useful than prose. Rather, they are two separate and distinct tools, much the same as a hammer and a saw. They are different tools designed for different jobs. If an essay is called for, the reader wants certainty; exactly what the words you are now reading are intended to give. If, on the other hand, consolation for some great loss is called for, the reader needs more: a text that lights up fields of reference nowhere alluded to on the page. This calls for magic, for illusion, not lecture. Thus, one of the many definitions of poetry might be: Poetry: words that inform the reader of that which cannot be articulated. To be made whole, to heal, the reader needs to undergo an improved change in mood, a change made more effective if the reader doesn't know why he or she feels better. Exactly like music. That's where poetry gets its power to repair; an invisible touch, ghost-like but as real as anything on earth. A reading of the masters, Neruda, Aleixandre, Celan...confirms that a text need not always have a meaning the reader can explicate. To that extent, it informs, as does music, without what we call meaning. It's just that it takes prose to tell you this.
This is because prose is a telling of what the writers already know. They have a preconceived idea of what to write about. With poetry it's the opposite. The writers have no preconceived idea with which to begin a poem. They need to first force the idea out of the brain, to bring the idea to the surface, to consciousness. With poetry the writer needs a method to find that hidden idea. If the originating idea wasn't hidden and unknown it isn't likely to be an important one. Let's face it: any idea that is easily accessible has already been picked over. It's all but certain to be a cliché.
To uncover this hidden idea for a poem the writers each have their own unique method. As for me, the idea for the poem evolves when an idea from a photograph is confronted with an obviously unrelated, disparate idea from a text (mythology or science) till the two conflicting ideas are reconciled as a totally new, surprising and workable one. This method was easy for me to come by. As an attorney I was trained to reconcile disparate views, to do exactly what a metaphor does for a living. It’s not a mystery that so many practicing lawyers write poetry. Lawyer Poets And That World We Call Law, James R. Elkins, Editor (Pleasure Boat Studio Press. Also, Off the Record, An Anthology of Poetry by Lawyers, edited by James R. Elkins, Professor of Law, University of West Virginia.
The efficacy of this method for getting ideas is documented at length by Wayne Barker, MD. who, in his Brain Storms, A Study of Human Spontaneity, on page 15 writes:
If we can endure confrontation with the unthinkable, we may be able to fit together new patterns of awareness and action. We might, that is, have a fit of insight, inspiration, invention, or creation. The propensity for finding the answer, the lure of creating or discovering the new, no doubt has much to do with some people's ability to endure tension until something new emerges from the contradictory and ambiguous situation.
Likewise, Douglas R. Hofstadter, in his Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid writes on page 26:
One of the major purposes of this book is to urge each reader to confront the apparent contradiction head on, to savor it, to turn it over, to take it apart, to wallow in it, so that in the end the reader might emerge with new insights into the seemingly unbreachable gulf between the formal and the informal, the animate and the inanimate, the flexible and the inflexible.
Moreover, the self-induced fit is standard operating procedure in the laboratory. Allow me to quote Lewis Thomas, who, in his The Lives of a Cell, on page 138. describes the difference between applied science and basic research. After pointing out how applied science deals only with the precise application of known facts, he writes:
In basic research, everything is just the opposite. What you need at the outset is a high degree of uncertainty; otherwise it isn't likely to be an important problem. You start with an incomplete roster of facts, characterized by their ambiguity; often the problem consists of discovering the connections between unrelated pieces of information. You must plan experiments on the basis of probability, even bare possibility, rather than certainty. If an experiment turns out precisely as predicted, this can be very nice, but it is only a great event if at the same time it is a surprise. You can measure the quality of the work by the intensity of astonishment. The surprise can be because it did turn out as predicted (in some lines of research, 1 per cent is accepted as a high yield), or it can be a confoundment because the prediction was wrong and something totally unexpected turned up, changing the look of the problem and requiring a new kind of protocol. Either way, you win...
Isn't it reasonable to conclude that the defining distinction between applied science and basic research is the same as that between prose and poetry? Isn't it likewise reasonable to conclude that the making of basic science is very much the same as the making of poetry?
In a real way I, too, work in a laboratory. Every day at 9:00 a.m. I arrive at a table in the local coffee shop, open a dog-eared book of photographs, open a text, and begin mixing all my materials together to find something new.
For the famous Walker Evans photograph depicting a migrant’s wife, I began:
Walker Evans Farmer's wife
Tough life, mouth closed, no teeth? Sorrow?
Not too bad looking. Plain dress
This description went on and on till I felt I had drained the photograph of all its ideas. I then read the chapter entitled On Various Words from The Lives of a Cell. Photograph still in view, I then wrote down ideas from Dr. Thomas’s text. I began:
Words --bricks and mortar
Writing is an art, compulsively adding to,
building the ant hill,
not sure if each ant knows what it will look like when finished
it’s too big. Like can't tell what Earth looks like if you're on it.
This too goes on and on with whatever comes to mind while I'm reading. But all the time, inside my brain, I'm trying to reconcile what a migrant's wife has to do with the obviously unrelated ideas on biology suggested by Dr. Thomas. I try to solve the very problem I created. Of course my brain is stymied and jams, creating a self-induced fit similar to the epilepsy studied by the above mentioned Dr. Barker, M.D. But that was my intention from the beginning.
Sooner or later an idea from the photograph and an idea from the text will be resolved into a new idea and the poem takes hold.
No one is more surprised than I. Or exhausted. The conditions under which I write are brutal. My brain is deliberately jammed by conflicting impulses. Its neurons are overloaded, on the verge of shutting down. I can barely think. My eyes blur. The only thing that keeps me working is that sooner or later will come the rapture of discovery; that the differences once thought impossible to reconcile, become resolved; so and so, once thought impossible of having anything to do with so and so, suddenly and surprisingly, has everything in the world to do with it. Or has nothing to do with it but can be reconciled with something else it triggered: one flash fire after another in the lightening storm taking place in my brain.
Getting the idea is one thing but the finished poem is a long way off. And to get there I abstract. Abstraction and music are soul mates and poetry is nothing if not music. For each poem its opening phrase is stolen shamelessly from Beethoven. He's the master at breaking open bones and I might as well use him early on in the poem. Then I steal from Mahler whose music does its work where I want my poetry to do its work: the marrow.
Perhaps marrow is what it's all about. Abstraction, since it contradicts the real world, is a striking form of confrontation which jams the brain till it shuts down confused. It befits the marrow to then do the work the reader's brain cells would ordinarily do. And though what the marrow cells put together is nothing more than a "gut feeling", with no rational footing, it is enough to refresh the human condition, to make marriages, restore great loses, rally careers.
Of course abstraction is just one of the ways writers arrive at the poem with their idea. But however they come they all leave for the reader poetry's trademark: illusion. It is that illusion that builds for the over-burdened reader a way out.
Perhaps, as you may have already suspected, a poem, unlike a newspaper, is not a tool for everyday use by everyone; it's just for those who need it, when they need it.
To survive you disguise each log
as the aromatic sun the mornings
can’t resist –even when naked
you hide some kindling close by
let it give birth in the smoke
that leaves with nothing, becomes
the emptiness though your eyes
never look up or warm –a fire
is feeling its way to your mouth
with lullabies and the small stone
falling asleep on the stove
–you feed it wood as if your lips
still smell from milk and salt
–an ancient, gentle art now lost
somewhere in those nightmares
set off by an empty dress
and along your forehead the light
begins to melt, wants to stay, keep going.
Just died and its rain
is already snow, comforts
the obituary page
with moonlight pieces
slowly circling down
as that star-shaped lullaby
small stones still look for
–it’s this morning’s
though over your head the deaths
are hidden in silence
begging for water
that doesn’t break apart
the way each sky
is hollowed out for another
–you make a sea
for these dead, each name
a boat, sails, the spray
midair and out loud.
Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, The Nation, Osiris, The Nation, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Almost Rain, published by River Otter Press (2013). For more information, free e-books and his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.
A Eulogy for Cecil
Kevin On A Eulogy for Cecil:
For days, I soaked up media images and narratives of the beloved Cecil the Lion and his untimely death. The first emotion that welled up inside came in the form of a question: How could anybody kill something so majestic for an adrenaline high in order to be able to point to the trophy on a mantle later on while retelling the story of the hunt? Then, my question morphed into ambivalence when I started mulling over the trend of how humanity ends up maiming the very same things that it endeavors to protect--namely, wildlife, the environment, ideas, freedom, and each other. That is precisely the moment when I wanted to use poetry as a vehicle with Cecil as the passenger, the metaphor for the aforementioned. The line, “language whittles out a hallowed safe place,” is an attempt to convey the role that language plays in such circumstances. In other words, humankind builds boundaries—literal and figurative—in the name of protecting our sacred cows, but only then to turn around and manipulate that same language as a way to justify our actions. At least, that’s how I meant the line to read, but oftentimes the words will tell a better story over the poet’s puppeteering, and so it is best leaving things up to the reader to decipher what the words are trying to say.
Why does the human species—endowed with supposed
keen mental acuity—starve to kill with relative impunity?
Headlines: Cecil the Lion put down by arrow in Zimbabwe.
A yellow-taped outline still there, his cage--
redefined as sanctuary: language whittles out a hallowed
safe place. Years, thousands flocked, ogling the king’s mane,
like gazing at a charred sackcloth Christmas wreath,
remnant laid on a bonfire heap. Our species—endowed
with supposed keen mental acuity—erects sanctuaries, with
added trite canned preservatives, for our sacred cows, only
to be put down by arrows. Headlines: Man seeks refuge from
all the threats, escaping culpability from all the mess. Where’s
humankind’s common sense?
Kevin J. McDaniel lives in Pulaski, Virginia, with his wife, 2-year-old daughter, and two mischievous Chocolate Labs, Pinkie and Greenie. When he is not thinking about or writing poetry, he teaches The Walking Dead: Zombie Narrative as Hope Panacea and Breaking Bad: Ethical Dilemmas and U.S. Male Insecurity at Radford University. He has poetry that will also appear in The Sacred Cow and Z-Composition in January.
It’s this looking in on myself from the outside, this seeing myself in the grip of my soul’s own howling night, as if from a perch somewhere in my bedroom, that, suddenly, brings Mr. Orvendil back to me. I’m looking at him from the doorway to his basement, just like I used to when I was sixteen. He’s sitting there in the half-light and his housecoat with a kind of after school sadness all around him, sinking further and further into his Lay Z Boy, with the television set casting a dull glare on him. The show he’s watching is called 25 Minutes to Go and the narrator’s voice runs so much that its become part of the room, the way the beat of an overhead fan or the hum of a furnace does. The television says: “That is the crime Walter Morgan has been convicted of. That is the crime he has been sentenced to death for. Walter Morgan has 25 Minutes to Go.” The words come out with a shot of Walter Morgan sitting on his bunk behind bars, then raising his head and making sudden and meaningful eye contact with the camera. But Mr. Orvendil doesn’t really seem to be watching or listening. There’s a look on his face like he’s seeing through to the death inherent in everything, like he’s waiting for the crows to come and start picking at him. His son and I don’t understand what’s going on inside him or why he can’t get out of his chair anymore, but we go and sit down on the couch and watch too. Mr. O’s beard is growing in uneven patches and there’s the sour smell of something sick coming off of him.
Mr. Orvendil was my friend Will’s father. Will and I started drinking together when we were thirteen. A few of us would steal liquor from somebody’s parents, or maybe pay someone’s older brother a little extra to buy it for us, and drink in the baseball dugouts by the high school. If I’m remembering right we were experimenting with weed a year or so after we started with the alcohol. I stayed friends with Will through grade eight up until near the end of high school. We didn’t have much more in common than our interest in getting fucked up, but that seemed to be enough.
One night after we’d been out at a bush party in the county Will got pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence. I was sitting in the back seat and the whole car was full of kids, all of us drunk or high. The police cuffed Will and called everyone’s parents to come and get them. I remember him sitting in the station in the cuffs, separated from the rest of us by thick glass, while we waited for our mothers and fathers to pick us up. One of the cops was doing paperwork at the desk beside him. There was a cold wind coming through the crack between the front doors. The other kids looked like they were stunned that bad things really could happen, that reality could directly fuck up your own personal existence.
The DUI charge was the thing that brought the problems Will’s parents were having to the breaking point. Mr. Orvendil was a great guy, but he liked to drink, and Mrs. Orvendil blamed Will’s arrest on the influence his old man had had on him. I say he was a great guy because over the years I had gotten to know him pretty well. Mr. Orvendil was tall, probably 6’6, and had pale almost albinoish skin. I think he was born in Denmark, because he still had a little hint of an accent. He used to play basketball with us in his driveway all the time.
The Orvendils had done well financially. Windsor is a car building city and Will’s dad had created six or seven patents for car stereo parts and other electrical components, things Will believed all had something to do with whatever was going on inside a car’s dashboard. You could tell just by talking to Mr. O that he was a different kind of guy, someone who had access to a world of knowing that you would never be able to get at. He had three or four different degrees from European universities hanging on the walls of the room he used for his office and workshop.
I never liked Will’s mom. She was always trying to micromanage Will and his little brother and sister and she’d talk down to Mr. Orvendil who, for some reason, would just take it. You got the impression that he thought he was lucky to have her. It’s true that, on a physical level at least, she was probably out of his league. What pissed me off about her was that she acted like she knew it. There was this look in her eye when she said something nasty to him. The other thing I didn’t like about her was how concerned she was with appearances, with looking good to her extended family and neighbors and yoga group or whatever. That was a big part of why she was upset about Mr. Orvendil’s drinking, she didn’t like the way it looked. She tried to keep the problem under wraps, but when Will got the DUI charge she really lost her shit.
Mr. O did everything he could to try and make it up to his wife. Like I said, he was a great guy, but Mrs. Orvendil had had enough and she told him she wanted a divorce. He pleaded with her and tried to make things work. He entered AA, got a sponsor, started his first few steps. But nothing he did changed her mind. She got a lawyer and filed the first bit of paperwork. Finally, even though Mr. Orvendil was nothing but demolished and sad on the inside, he got angry. He told her she would never get the house or the kids. He would fight her on every point of the divorce and tie things up in court in ways that would turn the whole thing into the full-time job she had always been too lazy to get. Will told me she threw a picture frame at him.
Meanwhile, to try and gain favour with the judge in Will’s DUI case Mrs. Orvendil brought Will out to do volunteer work with Mother’s Against Drunk Driving, or MADD. This had the dual benefit of helping out with Will’s court case and making her look like a good citizen and mother and like she was trying to fight the good fight against her husband’s drinking and the insidious ways it had infected her son’s behavior.
Among the women at MADD Mrs. Orvendil found the group of friends, the circle of fellow victims, she had unconsciously been reaching out for her whole life. They understood what it was like to be taken hostage by alcohol, to get it under your skin in a way you would never be able to get rid of. I guess her father had been a drinker too. The result being that after Will had finished his volunteer work and obtained a reference letter from the director of the Windsor chapter of MADD Mrs. Orvendil hung around. She got more involved and was appointed to some official sounding, clerical volunteer position. With all the kids in school her days were free, so she had plenty of time and energy to throw into her new cause. After almost twenty years of raising children and taking a backseat to her husband’s career Mrs. Orvendil felt like she had found her mission.
Mr. Orvendil, on the other hand, was not doing so well. First of all, because both him and Mrs. Orvendil had refused to give up the house they were both still living in it, him downstairs in the basement and her and the kids on the top two floors. This kind of arrangement seemed odd to me at sixteen, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that, as crazy and disaster bound as it is, separated couples stay in the same house together all the time. On top of the domestic situation Mr. Orvendil had stopped going to work. Something had gone wrong with him that we couldn’t figure out. It was like Mr. O had lost his will to live, his pride, his entire sense of self. Some kind of dark cloud had gathered all around him, something you could feel, a black hole with its own gravity. When he did bother to speak it was like his voice had become the voice of an old man, slowed and raspy and barely audible. He wasn’t eating or leaving the house. What Mr. Orvendil had started doing instead of going to work, paying attention to his children, washing, or taking care of himself in any way at all, was sitting in his Lay Z Boy and watching episodes of 25 Minutes to Go.
25 Minutes to Go was the most popular reality show in television history. It ran from death row wards all over the United States and each episode featured the last 25 minutes in the life of a different inmate right up until his execution. The network got the name from a Johnny Cash song. Every show featured the condemned man’s final meal, complete with close-ups of his facial muscles and mouth as he ate, and his final confession, or refusal of it, to a member of the clergy. Back in those days the series became so popular that one of the satellite companies dedicated an entire channel to it and ran episodes twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That’s what Mr. Orvendil watched from his armchair.
At the same time as Mr. O was frozen in his Lay Z Boy Mrs. Orvendil’s involvement in MADD was becoming more intense. She started bringing home men who were involved in MADD, even the husbands of some of the other mothers, and fucking them in her old marital bed, the bedroom of which was right above the television set downstairs. Will’s dad just sat right through it, his facial expression never even changed. We would just sort of sit there with him sometimes, because we felt bad for him, and watch a few episodes. Upstairs we could hear slaps and moans and squeeks. Later we would see the guy’s shoes and the bottom of his khakis as he walked back to his car through one of those small, high up windows they have in basements. By this time Will had begun to choose sides, which I guess happens a lot with divorces, and was more or less living downstairs with his dad. His younger brother and sister were too little to know any better, and his mom had begun telling them lies about their father. Anyways, that’s how it was for four or five months and things never seemed to get any better.
Except one day Will and I got to his place after school and there was a new car in the driveway. At first we thought it was one of his mom’s male visitors from MADD, but when we came through the door in the basement we found Mr. O sitting at the kitchen table with another man. He seemed like he was too big for the kitchen chair and was bald. They had a bunch of documents with formulas on them spread all over the table and had their laptops out. The television was off. We figured Mr. O was finally getting back to work again. There was a bunch of talk that Will and I couldn’t understand and there was a lot of laughing. I could tell Will was relieved to see a little bit of life in his old man. Mr. O’s friend was around the house off and on for the next couple of weeks.
What Mrs. Orvendil hadn’t counted on was what her husband’s addled brain was capable of when it had a purpose, what he’d be able to bring forth once his humiliation found a direction. Turns out that with a little internet research Mr. Orvendil had come across Lawrence Taylor’s talk on MADD being the greatest single threat to individual freedoms in the modern age and, well, he knew he’d found his guy. He bought the book online and was off to the races. The next thing he did was cross-reference Taylor’s major arguments and rewrite them as they applied to the Canadian Criminal Code and Charter of Rights. He wrote it all up in an easily digestible, frighteningly coherent six-page paper that he started emailing to DUI lawyers around the country. He went to the holding cells downtown and gave it out to people who had been charged with DUI the night before as they were released the next morning. He gave them coffee and a donut and a copy of his paper in nice manila folders and told them to pass it along to their lawyers once they had found one. They’d be walking out in day before wrinkled clothes and loosened ties and there he was like their guardian angel right outside on the steps of the police station. The paper pointed out legal inconsistencies within the system and common oversights police make when they’ve made an arrest. Why was it that the evidence in each case, your breath, was always destroyed? Didn’t taking and suspending your license before trial amount to you being assumed guilty until proven innocent? If you were convicted didn’t the suspension amount to you being punished twice for the same crime? Had the police given the option of a blood test in place of the Breathalyzer? Had they monitored you for fifteen minutes before you took the test to make sure you hadn’t burped, to eliminate the possibility that mouth alcohol had thrown off the results? Were we really comfortable with a special interest group like MADD, sure in the absolute righteousness of their cause, dictating policies and manipulating laws? If the police were able to stop us without just cause, without any indication that we’d committed a crime of any sort, to question us and check our vehicles to see if we’d been drinking, what would they be stopping and searching us for next? And so on.
Of course Mrs. Orvendil knew exactly what he was doing and who the whole thing was aimed at. Given her obsession with public appearances and her newfound status in MADD the situation was unacceptably embarrassing. She took the biggest stab at him she could. Will was seventeen by this time and I think his brother was around nine and his sister was maybe seven. What Mrs. Orvendil did was sit down the kids and explain that it hadn’t just been Daddy’s drinking that had ended their marriage. She’d just told them that to spare them the terrible truth. Their father had taken up with another woman and had a new baby with her. She even had a picture photo-shopped with him and the new baby and the whore. Had the kids noticed that their daddy wasn’t paying any attention to them lately?
By this time Will had seen enough of his mother and her nasty side to know she was full of shit. He tried to explain to his brother and sister but there had been the picture and mom had said which for little kids might as well mean God had said. They wouldn’t even go downstairs to see their dad anymore.
Mr. Orvendil was too focused on other things to defend himself. What had really fired him about Taylor’s book were the nearly 400 pages on the science behind breathalyzers. Ideas spawn ideas and the ins and outs of the little machines that were being used to measure blood alcohol levels all over the world lit a kind of reversal of purpose and design spark in Mr. O.
I told you that Mr. Orvendil had made his money with patents in the automobile industry and that he had a bunch of degrees hanging on his workshop walls. It turns out two of them were in electrical and computer engineering. Will’s dad went to work on something that for a long time we didn’t understand. It looked hydraulic, because of the tubing and rubber press inside the upright cylinder, and had a small computer system with chipboards and a digital number display out front. He still wasn’t eating or sleeping really, but now all he was doing was working on the thing that Will and I started calling his Frankenputer. We thought that whatever he was doing was just an extension of him losing his mind. But the vengeful scope of what Mr. Orvendil came out of the basement with after only two months of work was something nobody could have guessed at.
We found out later that the big bald guy Mr. O had been talking to that day in the basement was an old university buddy of his named Miles Brenner. They had been part of the same foursome at the previous year’s reunion golf tournament. Brenner was a research doctor doing work in Pharmocodynamics, the study of what a drug does to the body. I didn’t understand much of what Mr. O and Brenner were doing at the time, but a couple of years back I got into some trouble of my own that I won’t get into -except to say that I thought the stuff the two of them were working on might be of some help- and I looked them up online. It turns out that Brenner had spent the five years before he got together with Mr. Orvendil working on a pharmaceutical product that stimulated enzyme activity, a drug that increases the body’s capacity to metabolize other drugs. The specific application he’d been exploring was a drug that could be used to help you process pesticides more efficiently and reduce their negative long-term side effects. Something to help us with the chemicals corporations fill our food with. But what Mr. O and Brenner had gotten together on was a drug that worked to stimulate the Cytohchrome P450, catabase, and alcohol dehydrogenese enzymes, the enzymes responsible for metabolizing alcohol. In other words it was a kind of super-substance for breaking down booze in the body. Once the basic idea was in place and the lab guys had gotten to work it had almost been as if the hand of God had reached down and engineered the drug for them. It was a piece of technology that time had in mind, a word from fate.
There was a small sample-sized production run of what we had been calling the Frankenputer about six months later. The Sober Stimulator was a high-speed delivery system for the drug Dilucidusamax, which by that time was in its second phase of human testing. The digital display and computer fit right into your car’s dashboard, probably just under the stereo or air conditioning. The Sober Stimulator used a breathalyzer testing system and a hydraulic pressure pump with an IV tube that pumped Dilucidusamax into your blood stream. After the drug was running through you for a couple of minutes you blew back into the remarkably crystalline (with diamond cut-like angles) whistle that would then carry your breath into the Stimulator which would then digitize your blood alcohol level. Every couple of minutes you could blow in again and the updated levels showed up on the display. This way you, and the Stimulator’s computer, knew exactly when you were at legal levels to drive. The idea was that every vehicle coming off the assembly line would have one and drivers would have to have the Sober Stimulator’s okay every time they started their car. So, let’s say old Norm MacAllister, who is in his early sixties and a chronic DUI offender, gets back to his car after a night of drinking at the legion. Of course Norm tries to start the minivan and go home to his wife but he blows into his crystal whistle and the car won’t let him. He hasn’t got the okay from the Sober Stimulator’s control board yet. So then amid curses of the world these days and drunken goodbye to his friend Ronnie out the window he sticks the Sober Stimulator’s IV needle into his vein. From there on out all Norm has to do is take maybe a ten minute nap in the driver’s seat of his van and he’ll wake up stone cold sober and ready to operate whatever motor vehicle his heart desires and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Better living through chemistry.
What Mr. Orvendil had done, after all those months in his Lay Z Boy, was completely eradicate the problem of drunk driving. With one genius stroke and a couple of months of hard work he had done what MADD had been struggling to do with their moral high hand for almost forty years.
It was just a matter of time before MADD collapsed and Ms. Orvendil’s smug new identity fell apart. The Sober Stimulator would make Mr. Orvendil an obscenely rich man and he’d be able to hire the meanest female lawyer in the country to go after his wife for custody. Since Ms. Orvendil had filed the initial divorce paperwork before the Stimulator had been patented she wouldn’t have rights to any of the money her husband made from it. As his coup d’etat Mr. Orvendil broke into his wife’s car to install a unit. The future looked livable again and his wife was finally on the sharp end of justice.
The only thing was that the revenge ended up feeling empty. After the initial satisfaction of getting back at his wife and the prospect of making MADD obsolete Mr. Orvendil went back to the dark place he had been in when his wife told him she didn’t want him anymore. The truth was that nothing could replace her for him. Or maybe whatever was wrong with him was chemical and bound to come back, something circumstance could never heal. I guess it doesn’t really matter when it comes down to it. Anyways, Will’s dad sat back down in his Lay Z Boy and started watching 25 Minutes to Go again. The housecoat and the patchy beard came back.
One day that Spring Mr. Orvendil got in his car and drove downtown. He parked on Ouellette ave. and made sure there were no cars in front of him. There was some sort of big sidewalk sale going on so there were lots of people walking around. It was warm outside and the middle of the day. Mr. Orvendil opened a bottle of Jameson Whisky. I always imagine it lying there on the passenger seat and him looking at it for a long time before he opened it. He must have sat there for an hour or two, just drinking and thinking. Once he found the bottom of the bottle he got out of the car and lifted a thick, long coiled rope out of his trunk. There were already slipknots tied at both ends. He put one end of the rope around the parking meter just behind his car and threw the rest of it across the back of his trunk at an angle. Then he stumbled around the side of the car, completely inebriated as the witnesses told it, and threw the other slipknot into the driver’s side window. There was a lot of slack so most of the rope was lying on the street beside him. Mr. Orvendil got in the car and started it. Then he dropped the slipknot around his neck, put the car into gear, and used his foot to knock over the brick he had in front of his gas pedal.
It took a couple of minutes for the people at the sidewalk sale to understand what had happened. Blood was all over the inside of the windshield and the side of the car. Mr. Orvendil’s head was in the back seat. The police said they had never seen anything like it. There was a Sober Stimulator installed in the dashboard. The coroner confirmed that Mr. Orvendil’s blood alcohol level was likely astronomical at the time of his death. Refusing to use the invention he had created was one last big fuck you to his wife, as in I went to the great beyond drunk driving and you can put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Will and I lost touch after high school. I always got the feeling that he felt responsible for what had happened, you know, because of the DUI charge.
The Health Products and Food branch of Health Canada, under pressure from MADD and the Canadian Government, shut down production of Dilucidusamax and the Sober Stimulator. From time to time I still hear about them though. Brenner’s drug and Mr. Orvendil’s machine come up in conversations about, say, the electric car or suppressed cures for widespread diseases.
Charles Crabbe has written short fiction and has appeared in Independent Ink Magazine, The Moronic Ox Literary and Cultural Journal, and Grey Borders Magazine. Open Books published his first novel, As a Thief in the Night, in February 2014. You can find out more on his website at www.chuckcrabbe.com.
The Sinful Runner
Carl Scharwath On Sinful Runner: I am a dedicated runner who thinks about poetry and story ideas while running. One early evening run I ran behind an office building to have some shade from the hot Florida sun. Suddenly a police car came up and slowly drove past me with a casual look. The idea was born, I thought in a devious way if you were going to break into a building or house, the disguise of a runner is perfect. For the rest of my run, my thoughts centered on this idea. I pictured a middle age man in dire financial straits running through his gated community, noting when neighbors came and went and breaking into houses during their absence. The perfect excuse is when a neighbor would have seen him in the back yard and the runner stated he would just like a refreshing drink from their garden hose.
“I love you, Ellen please let me explain why I did this,” her husband pleaded. Was this
the catastrophe he had felt announcing itself inside of him. His obscure, abiding sense
of himself as a newly flawed and fallen human being was forever clarified: he was now
guilty and being punished.
Peter’s world had ended, one deliberate day at a time. Each moment was wasted
and middle age slowly evaporated in denial and failure. Two years ago this fifty six
year old senior manager had his career ended in an abrupt layoff.
The mortgage company, creditors, bill collectors and process servers (Peter was
deeper in debt and hounded from almost every post office in the state), were a creepy
array of debt police who harassed the newly poor. Money had become the fabric of his
daily thoughts, his being and produced a new silent sadness in which there was no
Peter loved his wife of twenty years and his twin daughters who were both just months
away from college. He had always provided for them and now he saw reflected in their
eyes an unconditional love tainted in the simmering reflection and accusation of a failed
father. His wife Ellen was always supportive and loyal until the safety net burned away.
She was a great mom who was there for her children, a mom almost from the glory
days when the television was black and white and the spouse never worked. Ellen with
her college degree never had the desire for a career and Peter was apprehensive to ask her
to start one now. This old-fashioned wife believed that the male of the household would
forever be the breadwinner and the heroic protector of the family.
When Peter lost his job, his career search was relentless. He networked, spent hours
on the computer and even went old school, wearing out his dress shoes on the pavement
visiting offices and employment agencies. Two years later, he found himself with no job
prospects and the newest careers offered paid less than half his previous salary.
The thought never left him that a great grand period of his life had drawn to a quick
conclusion, years which despite the wealth and luck were, he was sure the most soul-
satisfying, if costly and harrowing, he would ever win for himself again.
The weight gain had affected his confidence and now the days were filled with
prosperous amusements; television, surfing the internet and late morning breakfasts
and even latter night snacks. Peter in this lazy state had gained over 60 pounds and Ellen
noticed the changes of her once handsome husband.
A former high school athlete, the mirror seemed to tell a cruel lie about him. The
reflected profile held another man, one who effortlessly lost control of his life. Vanity
made his rough bags luxuriant pillows, dreams softer than goose down. Poverty is
poverty and when he awoke the next morning, sunshine rested on the warmth and dirt and
they asked how it he was expected to secure money.
Unemployed, broke, bored, and overweight it was now time for his metamorphosis.
Some distant corner of his psyche almost understood the problem. He was searching not
for the things to love but a place to release his anger.
The job search was forsaken and the phantasm he once held of the future self evaporated
in the humid Florida sun. With all this free time, Peter would begin to run. Perhaps in
running his troubles would fade magically into the mundane landscape. A silent
meditation would calm the soul; heartbeats and movement confirmed he was still alive?
The street secured his first virgin footprint, lumbered, heavy and with no aspiration.
Each timid stride swallowed in seemingly slow dried cement that encased him against
his will to break out. Two blocks seemed an eternity and his steady pounding set the
rhythm for the negative thoughts jarred in his mind. He had failed his family and now the
simple act of a first run would not defeat him. For the first time in months, Peter felt alive
One evening run while in the depths of his despair an epiphany presented itself to him
shrouded in evil and sin. A police car slowly passed, without even a glance at the
lonely suburbia runner. Did they just assume this was an after-dinner exercise outing
while in the mind of the runner, a new paradigm was unfolding. The gated community of
upper-middle class families not only presented a three-mile round trip journey of
exercise and innocence but also offered the chance to break into a neighbor’s house and
not be detected.
Peter continued on another two-mile loop all the time thinking about this. How easy
was the scheme, hundreds of houses in his community, a jogger who would note the
schedule of cars in the driveway, the homes with alarms and of course neighborly talks to
obtain even more information. His wasted previous internet time would now provide
valuable knowledge on how to pick a lock and sell him the tools to complete his devious
tasks. The tools purchased were small enough to fit into the pockets of his new jet black
running shorts. Greed befalls most criminals and Peter with his new wisdom would only
take one piece of small piece jewelry per residence. The materialistic neighbors
would not notice a ring or bracelet missing for months until they dressed for some boring,
ostentatious cocktail party and a favorite piece from last year seemed misplaced.
The first brazen run was apprehensive and hesitant: however, his mission had been
defined. Ten brazen houses away, in the mid-morning a BMW was gone from the
driveway and he crossed over the manicured lawn to the back of the house. If anyone
were to question his actions, he’d merely make up an excuse—perhaps he’d wanted a
refreshing drink from their welcoming backyard hose.
Patio glass doors were the easiest to open and the euphoria of having never committed a
crime inside. The jewelry box was easy to detect and the contents held a treasure of
consumerism and greed. One gold necklace lined his pockets and in less than two
minutes he would be free. A daughter’s graduation picture stared at him in judgment, her
eyes following his subtle footsteps to the exit. Knowingly he smiled at the irony that this
girl was his daughter’s friend and he always suspected her of drug use. A pawnshop
twenty-two miles from his house offered $1500.00 for the cache and Peter remembered
this equaled the last paycheck from fifty stress-filled hours of unappreciated labor.
Months quickly passed and the plan to only steal once a week had produced an
excess of $12,000.00. The auspicious attitudes of the neighborhood held no rumors or
concerns and merely validated his philosophy that excessive wealth would mask one
small item misplaced from a person’s possession.
Today was Sunday and Peter and his family would make the pilgrimage to
church. Being a devout Catholic the family did not attend Mass as regularly as in the past.
Tonight would be his last run of sin, tonight it would end, and salvation would be his.
The drive home was quiet, the girls busy with their tablets, his wife lost in thought
viewing the endless neighborhood houses identical in their facades.
Home could not come soon enough and once inside his nerves became close to
consuming him as he looked at his wife and said “Ellen, we need to talk, I have to tell
“Oh my God you are having an affair? I was suspicious when you left in darkness
and were gone for two hours. How easy it would be for you to spend time with a
Peter would not even answer such a surprising statement and simply answered
“Please come with me to the kitchen and listen to what has been bothering me.”
Coffee spilled from his cup and created tiny prisms of brown paint. The
family history of the old table, including every scratch now became hidden softly with
the liquid filler. His wife reached for his hands and her sensual eyes marred in tiny
wrinkles still showed eternal love. He remembered her hypnotic youthful eyes that
drew him into her and transformed his feelings to love and passion.
Ellen almost inside of herself in thought began the heart-felt conversation first,
“sweetheart I have been thinking, I know you are going through so much with your job
loss. I want to be a better wife for you and look for a job myself. The girls are leaving
soon and it’s my turn to help with our finances as well.”
“Thank you Ellen, I would be very happy if you can help me and the family. I
have been under so much stress lately; I really do not know what to do anymore. No
employer wants an old person like me. The longer it takes me to find a job, the harder it
“Sweetheart, you are not old, I and some of my lady friends were just
talking about how good, you look and how running have made you handsomer, younger
Peter lost in thought about what to say next, first looked at his watch, then Ellen
in addition and nervously said, “thank you and I love you.”
Before his wife could answer, Peter continued as he slowly left the table and
without looking at her in a soft dramatic voice stated, “I am ashamed of what I have done
and the people I have hurt. I will tell you everything tomorrow.”
Peter already at the door, the night sky welcoming him to another run as Ellen
alone contemplated what her husband had just pronounced.
This would be the last robbery as Peter silently prayed to God for forgiveness and
redemption. Whatever was necessary to make everything right would be his atonement?
His addiction to the excitement and adrenalin rush that breaking and entering brought to
him would end cold turkey tonight. Just like when he quit cigarettes 10 years ago this
night would bring that final long inhale of pleasure.
He would embrace his final opportunity in the dark warm evening. A house on
the next block would be empty for a few hours. A PTA meeting casually mentioned from
yesterday’s neighborly talk had produced an exposure and convenience.
The sliding patio door opened itself to his deft fingers with a simple screwdriver.
A warm inviting smell of just baked cookies greeted his senses and calmed his rapid
heartbeat. An evil smiled blossomed on his face, as he knew those cookies were for the
PTA meeting and he would have lots of time to abuse his neighbor’s belongings.
Tonight seemed different: every little sound, creak and the song of the wind
against the windows startled him. His slow walk to the bedroom was an eternity as his
mind raced and seemed not to be coordinated with his labored out of rhythm footsteps.
The nightstand as always would hold a treasure and his fingers clasped the handle. For
the first time a drawer did not open. Tonight it seemed the hand of his conscious held
tightly from inside. Small beads of perspiration formed and a single droplet on an
expensive rug would reveal an intruder. No time to clean that now and a strong pull
released the pressure, which a stuffed envelope caused. Inside were two extravagant
necklaces and even though he knew they would be discovered missing, Peter quickly
secured them in his pocket.
Suddenly without warning, the living room grew lighter as an automobile
heralded itself in the driveway. Peter panicked and ran for the back door crossing the
backyards of two houses. Emerging near a front yard sidewalk he looked right and smiled
as a car was backing out with a seductive u-turn. He looked down at his new imaginary
starting line and began to cross the street in a breathless run home.
The sinful runner made a transformative mistake that night. He never looked left
before crossing the street. Headlights again silently shouted for attention and their cry
from the darkness came too late. The force from the impact of the auto emptied his
pocket of the necklaces. Tiny stars painted the fabric of the blacktop and Peters’ lifeless
body was the portrait frozen in time. Blood like a hourglass slowly emptied itself into the
road and trickled into unconsciousness.
His mind embarked on a dream of being awaken with the incessant beeping of a
faceless clock. Through the haze a uniformed man sat by his bed and Peter struggled to
move his left arm. A lone handcuff secured to the bed frame restrained him. Cries of love
and support emanated from his wife now holding his captured hand. Levitating upwards
in this new enchanted view were his daughters, the pride of his life praying and holding
each other. Peter smiled and although his lips were frozen, the warmth of love and the
realization of his family’s acceptance would now guide him to recovery and redemption.
The slowing beep beckoned the comfortless reality and he was ready to awaken.
Carl Scharwath's work has appeared internationally with over eighty publications selecting his poetry, short stories, essays or art photography. He won the National Poetry Contest award on behalf of Writers One Flight Up. His first poetry book “Journey To Become Forgotten” was published by Kind of a Hurricane Press.
Nels Hanson On Toy: The characters in "The Toy" are exaggerations of different personalities I've known in real life -- in the story they're allowed to express themselves more freely than in everyday reality, to wear their insides on the outside. A chasm opened up during Vietnam, separating not only many young people from their elders, but also from each other, and often from themselves, from their previous identities they could not return to. I suppose "The Toy" is my effort to bridge the old divide, to let justice be done, and perhaps, in my own mind, heal old wounds, if only in fantasy. As always, in the tragedy of those years that changed so many people, there was always an element of the ridiculous, of the unnecessary, the sense that reality had grown thin and brittle and was a kind of outrageous, if deadly, fiction. Along with the pain and confusion, there was also great hope, that good and important things were coming to the surface and a better world might be possible, that something truly human might finally win out.
On the Saturday afternoon he received the disturbing package from Dimitri, Hayden phoned Ralph as he drove straight for the old neighborhood in his electric luxury sedan, although he hadn’t spoken to Ralph in more than 30 years, only spying him now and then at sunset when Ralph wandered like a childless man who drank or had lost his mind.
For several years, Ralph Conway had been one of two strange ghosts in Hayden’s recurring nightmare and Ralph’s looming silhouette in the tree-lined evening distance always caused Hayden Tyler to turn quickly down an alternate street.
He had glimpsed a phantom self in Ralph’s chance appearances at dusk, a double starkly etched by failure as a final darkness was about to fall. The specter’s aimless stride didn’t belong to Ralph but to an alternate, derelict Hayden whose fate Hayden might have shared if he’d spent time in prison or a mental hospital after great success had escaped his grasp.
They had been friends, until the 1960s cut life in half, like the outbreak of a second Civil War, and Hayden and Ralph had taken separate avenues, one by jet and expensive car and the other in worn-out hiking boots while Dimitri pursued an acting career to the south.
In record time, Hayden became so vastly rich that he owned nearly half the wide valley’s farms. He had never been a farmer but instead a shrewd fruit broker who sold failing small growers’ produce and later for a song bought their bankrupted land and hired them to work the orchards and vineyards that had once been theirs.
Ralph had gone underground, employed intermittently at temporary odd jobs, absorbing books few people read or knew or cared existed, taking exhaustive notes and composing complex records of arcane formulas and each spring planting a large garden.
The faces and remembered voices of Hayden and Dimitri Baronskaya – and of a tender, auburn-haired girl named Claire – had faded gradually from memory, replaced by equations, charts and schematics, the latest published research on neutral numbers, and vocabularies and icons from obscure Alexandrian and medieval and renaissance Neo-Platonist scholars, as increasingly Ralph concentrated his efforts on his difficult and fascinating studies.
After his mother’s death, he had moved into his childhood home and then further disappeared into his late father’s extensive library, above the spider-webbed lab with its abandoned equipment, the legacy of Ralph Senior’s inconclusive experiments that had spanned the remainder of a lifetime after an early retirement from Cal Tech.
Like father like son, the neighbors whispered when the once so promising young scholar at Stanford walked late afternoons after the day’s tiring work, along the city’s buckled sidewalks shaded by Modesto ash and cottonwood, forever trying to sense the slender weave of a single silken thread that had seemed to reach straight to the heavens and connect all the stars.
A strand fluttered in Ralph’s thoughts like a ribbon in the wind, the fragile luminescent cable he’d discovered a sunny December day decades ago after ingesting a new, still-rare variant of mescaline. He’d held the woof and warp of the amazing filament for solid hours in his hands and a week later in detail described the fiber’s transcendent qualities to his father in the same cluttered study that was now Ralph’s own. The frail white-haired man had nodded eagerly as his son spoke, translating the information into numerals encased by geometric figures that resembled a cabalist’s magic sphere, square and pyramid.
Ralph had never deciphered the general meaning or implications of his father’s last complicated designs, but their vivid shapes and patterns had remained constant symbols of Ralph’s arduous and uncertain task long before Hayden’s odd news from Dimitri.
In grammar and high school, they had made an odd triangle of companions: ardent Hayden at one toe and reticent and introspective Ralph at another, and, at the apex, Dimitri.
Son of Russian emigrants, handsome and charismatic, as a hopeful and talented actor Dimitri had gone to Hollywood and landed immediate plum roles in several impressive films, playing flamboyant characters from Dickens and Dostoevsky and then assuming leading romantic parts in films with contemporary settings and more explicit situations that soon sealed his reputation as a “heartthrob.”
He had enjoyed several passionate, well-publicized but sincere love affairs with young actresses, and after a “whirlwind” six-week courtship married his beautiful émigré co-star during the shooting of his then-current, last and most ambitious movie.
The marriage was stormy and in a year Dionne had left him with an infant son whose strange ailment absorbed Dimitri’s life and caused his early withdrawal from an ascending and financially rewarding career, while his ex-wife returned to Europe for film work and soon married a French shipping magnate.
Dimitri had expended his modest fortune as the worried father hurried from one university hospital to the next to find a cure for his only offspring, who from birth had spoken in an invented language only the child understood and that the doting Russian grandparents insisted must conceal a mysterious prophecy that one day would shake the world and make the misunderstood boy as famous and admired as Dimitri might have been.
Like Dimitri, Hayden possessed more than a modicum of dramatic talent, and in addition a greater ability to amass and conserve precious wealth. He became adept at attracting money, by impressing successful businessmen with his warm attention and eagerness to help and learn. Swiftly he perfected his portrayal of the admiring and unspoiled son that men with fortunes seldom have and often yearn for as they grow older.
Carefully he gained crucial introductions and parlayed wealthy strangers into honored and prized acquaintances, close friends, then loving surrogate parents, then concerned financial consultants, and finally generous and trusting investors. Hayden was energetic and single-minded and his motive and goal in any setting or relationship always simple and clear, resembling the battle strategy of General Ulysses S. Grant, whose first two initials the Northern press had insisted stood for Unconditional Surrender.
First he had competed with Ralph, who attended Palo Alto on full scholarship for undergraduate work and then a fellowship for doctoral studies, before he lost interest in the theoretical subatomic physics his father had pursued until Ralph Senior’s growing interest in quasi-occult scientific investigation led him to his independent research.
Like many of his classmates, Ralph found himself confused and outraged by the war in Vietnam, assassinations, racism, the plight of those less fortunate whose pain he felt. He sensed his country’s flawed society and foreign policies would continue to deteriorate and that there was nothing he could do to halt the culture’s impending destruction of itself and perhaps of the Earth and all of its human and other inhabitants, flora and fauna.
His sorrow about America and the world’s dim present and future and his powerlessness to alter the ominous accelerating changes – and the absence of his brilliant and affectionate girlfriend Claire, who had accepted a teaching position at Yale – had become almost unbearable before his sudden breakthrough.
Desperate to discover a humane sustenance for a life that each day was harder to sustain, one December night Ralph climbed onto a red Spanish-tiled roof and slipped through an unlatched window, into a sophisticated chemistry lab off limits to all but tenured faculty.
Ralph worked steadily through the silent hours, like a lone alchemist at his wood-fired retort warming the fired-porcelain alembic, distilling and redistilling the raw substance, to further separate the changing product and capture the alkahest, a universal solvent, the prized essence of the magic elixir.
Bunsen burners boiled the contents of beakers and flasks bubbling with different-colored steam and fed a maze of curling glass pipes that finally emerged in one narrow transparent tube conveying a brownish smoke that now condensed to a clear liquid and by slow drops emptied into an oval Plexiglas chamber and then a single small test tube held by a clamp.
By the rising of the winter sun, Ralph had broken down the cactus fruit given to him by a worried colleague from the University of Mexico, isolated the potent and previously unknown derivative of the rare species of peyote, and embarked on the lengthy mystical adventure that would parallel his father’s.
As Ralph appeared to lose his way, dropped out of post-graduate work and retreated into impoverished obscurity, Hayden had perceived Dimitri as his remaining rival when the young actor’s growing presence began to dominate the magazines and syndicated Sunday supplements, until Dimitri’s glamorous marriage failed and the gifted actor sought treatment for both himself and the boy who spoke pure nonsense or the secret words of angels.
Spurred on by his friend’s initial stardom, Hayden had rapidly made one deft connection after another and then many more that he arranged in radiating, crosshatched lines exquisitely sensitive and responsive to his touch.
To at least one informed observer, Hayden had emerged in daylight as a deadly fat shiny spider at the center of a fabulous monetary web that spanned the whole valley and entwined all its major figures in finance, business and politics, tiptoeing to Hayden’s bidding.
His spun cables rippled back with triple force, enriched and magnified, when his foot tugged gently at any of a thousand silver cords and the black dots of his eyes watched eagerly as the latest helpless and succulent victim arrived tumbling at his command.
Hayden’s resemblance to a merciless predator wasn’t the work of a brave political cartoonist or a newspaper’s editorial or the sarcastic joke of an angry or envious adversary in a real estate transaction. The creature was Hayden’s own invention, the offspring of his drunken imaginings and a watchful unconscious that together conceived the monster that destroyed Hayden’s sleep.
Regularly the fierce ruler of its secreted web haunted Hayden’s hours of would-be rest and interfered with the recharging of his energies that full workdays had consumed like power from a massive but not infinite battery.
The appearance of the poisonous spider smoothly running its perfect murderous net was horrifying to Hayden and began to undermine his usually unshakable confidence and endlessly ambitious zeal. He woke trembling from his repeating night terror that passed a stern and secret judgment on his character and his financial and personal dealings and their histories.
When the nightmares didn’t stop, Hayden began to wonder if the human mind was the most awful thing on earth, more terrifying than any threatening spider, and he remembered with a new sympathy the lapsed judgment and mental health of Ralph and Dimitri.
Hayden’s young wife had moved to the second master bedroom as Hayden continued to pay handsomely in insomnia and other psychological distress for his momentary flight of self-admiring fancy, the misstep that had triggered the harrowing reversal of personality in the dim reaches of his being.
One evening after too much to drink, Hayden had looked up from his spacious poolside patio at the trillion stars and imagined that all the lights in the sky were strung on a trillion shear cables that came together in one gathered bundle in his open palm.
Blink and pull a string and a star twinkled. Pull another and that bright star shifted from red to green, that one from an icy blue to a flaring yellow. There, that’s just right!
Then two shooting stars, one and then immediately another, streaked down in long contrails of white fire just beyond his walled estate, and then a third, which joined all three in a patterned shower of stars, and Hayden knew the meteors from the farthest night were Nature’s recognition of his own vast talents.
He was excited and impressed by his poetic picture of the Master of the Universe that the heavens themselves had just confirmed, and finishing a final cocktail and tossing the ice cubes into the oval pool he stumbled happily to bed, ready to rest, sleep, perhaps dream of the new morning already awaiting him with its lucrative profit.
Unknown to Hayden, an objective, deeper layer of his mind had agreed, in a more literal fashion, with the rightness of Hayden’s description of his cosmic gifts. A hidden mechanism of the psychic law that maintains inner equilibrium had lit up with alarm, become active, quickly transforming for its own survival Hayden’s vision of celestial dominance.
Hayden experienced the drastic change as material and purely factual each time he entered the strange world where Hayden was and wasn’t Hayden anymore.
Looking down to scratch an itchy hand, Hayden realized that he had no hand but a long slender leg like a cat’s dark bending whisker and he began to inspect himself closely with rising anxiety.
It was true. Certain. Beyond a doubt.
He was a black widow spider, yet somehow still male, despite the sable finish and the scarlet dollar sign tattooed on his swollen female belly.
At first he was shocked, to no longer be human, and yet all was well. Almost.
His eight legs were intact and the Spider Hayden reigned as the acknowledged king of his kingdom and with satisfaction he began to survey the endless expanse of his web.
Except there was a secret hitch – a staple rule for perilous encounters undertaken in sleep – and a wave of nausea sent painful ripples and then answering constrictions across the hard enamel of his curving stomach.
The intense pain now made him remember that his magnificent achievement had depended on the deaths of two competitors who had been his former friends.
Dimitri and Ralph had provided the living juices, the vital nourishment Hayden had needed to conquer the world of insects and other spiders and establish his empire.
Their dried carapaces still remained, like awful staring trophies, murdered vacant ghosts at one edge of Hayden’s elaborate network crowded with a thousand desiccated husks.
He could touch them, stare closely at their lifelike remains.
Then Ralph and Dimitri’s spirits would begin to speak, from hollow shells with empty eyes.
Always they accused Hayden of a new list of ugly deeds as the agony spread outward and increased, reaching upward now for its hidden prey, the spider’s heart, and like Scrooge the dreamer would wake up screaming.
And then today the manila envelope from Dimitri was delivered by Federal Express.
The Saturday this true three-part story begins but doesn’t end, a phone rang that never rang, except with callers selling products or services or making fervent pleas for charitable donations, the bell sounding and echoing through all the uninhabited rooms of the cavernous house until Ralph turned from his calculations and picked up the black receiver.
Ralph had always listened patiently to telemarketers, mentally nodding with understanding, until a pause in their presentations allowed him to admit that he didn’t have a penny. His frank response often triggered the angry shock that usually attends a murderer’s confession, and over time Ralph’s phone manner had become more concise.
“I have no money.”
“Hayden, your friend, the rich one. It’s Hay.”
“Oh. How are you, Hayden?”
Ralph glanced at his father’s open volume on gnostic thought, considering the diagram of the worlds as numerous as each year’s days and that led in a slow progression of increasing light from Earth’s darkness to the last heaven’s splendor.
Momentarily Ralph imagined the page turned upside down with Hayden in paradise and himself trapped in his house on Oliver Street, before he remembered all the difficult stairs that remained to climb and that like Hayden he hadn’t ascended a single step.
“Do you still have the toy?”
That wealthy driven men might be prone to a premature senility was not a surprising possibility to Ralph, and he sensed from Hayden’s tone his ardent need.
“There are toys in the attic, if I remember right,” Ralph answered. “That’s where they’d be. I’m afraid I haven’t climbed up there in years. If we can find them, you’re welcome to play with them here, or if you want you can take them home.”
“Not toys!” Hayden answered. “The toy! The toy! The toy you’re father made, that you told me about!”
“Which one was that? He made all my—”
“I’ll be there in a second. Don’t move.”
“I seldom do,” Ralph answered. “Except in the evenings, when I take a walk.”
Hayden didn’t respond and Ralph realized the line had gone dead.
A rich man calling for a plaything.
The idea was unusual, but not unheard of, Ralph considered. The tycoon Howard Hughes had perhaps done and thought much stranger things. Ralph remembered “Rosebud,” Charles Foster Kane’s burning sled in the haunting Orson Welles’ movie.
Maybe for the rich all people and other things were really toys.
Still, Hayden’s sudden reemergence and request amounted almost to a synchronistic clue.
Wasn’t Ralph’s own career a form of play, of speculation and the arrangement of novel, contra-intuitive relationships, among singularities that most adults would label as discordant and chaotic when placed together in unlikely combinations suggested by an underlying but outwardly vague resemblance that few eyes detected but that nevertheless existed, as proven by blindfolded mediums who by touch identified squares of colored paper by temperature and texture, blue cool and smooth, orange warm and sticky, red hot and hard like metal, if he remembered correctly the qualities of those three opposing shades?
Now Ralph recalled the titles of old comic books he and Hay and Dimitri had shared and enjoyed, which were rich in mock-heroic but meaningful fantasy.
A Blind Man Shall Lead Them. In the Desert a Fortress Stands. The Underwater Castle. Behold the Frail King!
With renewed interest Ralph’s educated and creative eye fell again on the yellowed page’s chart of the different heavens and hells, just as the doorbell rang, “Ralph! Ralph where are you!” a voice called like an echo from a well deep as time, and Ralph heard and then felt the clatter of frantic leather shoes on the wooden stairs.
“Where is it?” Hayden stood at the open library door. “Tell me!”
Hayden in the flesh after so many years was like a statue, a famous person frozen in stone, and Ralph mislaid the purpose of Hayden’s urgent visit as the artist’s work now came to vibrant life and Hayden dropped to the floor a black patent leather briefcase with gold latches and his initials: HAT.
Hayden Aaron Tyler, Ralph remembered now, like Aaron in the Bible who had turned his staff to a living snake in a contest with the Egyptian sorcerers.
“I don’t have much time!”
All in all, Hayden looked about the same, as he had as a child and adolescent, even though the white drawn face twitching to the edge of spasm and the small dark eyes that were empty but expectant as gun muzzles mirrored the agitation in Hayden’s high-pitched voice.
His jaw worked up and down, madly chewing gum, and his trembling hands with bitten nails rose and fell in the same compulsive jerky rhythm.
“You’ve got to show me, Ralph! I’ve got to know!”
The rumpled suit recalled a pair of sweaty pajamas and the boldly striped silk tie was poorly knotted and its end thrown over his left shoulder, as if blown by a howling arctic wind that had imperiled the arrival of a lost and terrified polar explorer.
“This is serious!”
On second thought, Hayden didn’t look well. His harried presence after 30 years had cast a magician’s spell and three or four seconds elapsed before Ralph emerged from his surprise, registering the depth of his friend’s obvious upset and then his odd request during the truncated phone call.
“There up above.”
“How do we get there?”
“By the ladder.”
“At the end of the stairs.”
Hayden whirled in the doorway and Ralph rose from his father’s leather chair, looking down at the case Hayden had dropped on his arrival, at the shiny initials in gold.
“There’s not a second to lose!”
Again Ralph thought “HAT,” whose three letters stood for eight, one, and twenty, which made twenty-nine, which when added together made eleven, which added together made two, which was also B, as in Bank.
He smiled as he wondered if the briefcase bulged with money, perhaps Hayden’s entire fortune, and Hayden had come to offer a down payment on the toy. With a stirring of curiosity he followed the running feet toward the attic as he thought that a crown was a kind of hat a frail king might wear.
Already Hayden had reached the last rung and from his perch shouldered open the hinged wood hatch. His scuffed designer loafers disappeared and overhead his footsteps hurried back and forth and he was shouting, “Where are you?”
Ralph mounted the ladder and pulled himself through the door, on his hands and knees gazing across the neglected room in surprise before he felt Hayden grip his shoulder and jerk him to his feet.
The abandoned attic was close and hot but the sealed double windows and the tight construction of walls and ceiling had prevented the seepage of dust or the entry of spiders or birds or larger animal intruders like opossums or raccoon's.
Ralph breathed in the stale air as if testing its contents for oxygen, like an archaeologist discovering a pharaoh’s tomb or a man wakened from a coma revisiting a lost portion of his memory.
Five years he’d lived in the house and never imagined these things waiting above his buzzing head. He saw everything was intact, all his father’s silent inventions carefully assembled to accompany a fallen king on his journey to another world.
“Is this it?”
Hayden lifted a shiny disk with numbers from one to a hundred etched on its outer edge, still attached to its axle of stainless steel.
Ralph didn’t answer as he took in the preserved artifacts of his father’s interesting life and Hayden spun the wheel and watched its blurred circles with nervous expectation.
There was the old Christmas present, the cuckoo clock whose carved purple bird spoke the hours and minutes in a Scottish brogue through its polished beak cut from a buckle.
And the little spiral causeway that allowed water to circulate up and down as in an impossible construction, an optical illusion in an Escher print.
Ralph touched the thin fabric of the closed green cloth box and instantly its lid and four sides collapsed outwardly to expose a smaller orange box that unfolded, then another and another, blue, red, green, then a rich amber, like Chinese boxes that were alive and self-revealing of their solution.
At the center of the stack of spread tops and walls forming a motif of descending colored crosses a gold foil box remained and now undid itself to show its treasure like a hummingbird’s nest that held a secret egg.
“Quit wasting time!”
Ralph had found the black pearl in his spoon as he tested a bowl of oyster soup his mother had cooked from a can.
“Now that’s good fortune!” his mother had cried as she turned to his father. “Don’t you think so, dear?”
His father had smiled and silently nodded yes.
A small dog barked and Ralph saw the four-inch beagle Hayden had set moving scamper forward on the metal table, stop and run in circles after its outstretched tail, its bark now almost a muffled howl until again it was motionless, sitting on its haunches and holding out its two spotted paws.
Hayden’s quick hand knocked it to the floor and again it came to life and ran under the table with a different bark.
“Where’s it hidden?” Hayden asked. “You’ve got to tell me.”
“Everything is here. All of it.”
“It can’t be.”
Ralph surveyed the room like a museum, now his eye falling on the miniature silver airplane propeller that his father had asked him to spin as his parents clicked raised glasses of champagne.
The bright prop had raced on its own for over a month without external power, until after school one day his mother told him that the blade had stopped. Ralph had offered to restart it but she had touched his shoulder and suggested he go outside to play with his friends at the park.
“Is Dad all right?” he asked.
“He’s a little disappointed,” his mother answered. “By dinner he’ll be fine. Now go play! Go find Hayden and Dimitri!”
“No, you remember. Think! Who could forget a thing like that?”
“Can you describe it?”
With a finger Ralph pushed the thin-bladed propeller, watching it revolve. It would keep spinning for at least a month after he and Hayden had left the attic, no matter what happened, if they lived or died. He’d forgotten that his father had worked for a while on the problem of friction, in terms of the old philosophers’ dream of perpetual motion.
“When we were kids,” Hayden insisted, striding up to Ralph and nearly touching his unshaven cheek, his breath giving off the reek of whiskey.
“You said it could tell the future.”
“If I did,” Ralph said, “it was a childish exaggeration, a misunderstanding of something I’d seen. Perhaps I was bragging. On my father.”
“Your old man worked on stuff like that,” Hayden insisted. “You told me he did.”
Hayden swiveled sharply, staring up and down the tables of small devices arranged in careful rows.
“His experiments and their models were far-ranging in purpose but I don’t remember any time machine.”
“You said he’d borrowed your jack-in-the-box.”
Hayden continued his appraisal of the different notions that had received a preliminary, provisional shape as they’d assumed a material existence at Ralph Senior’s direction.
Ralph realized he was smiling as the old toy with the little crank came to mind.
“The yellow caterpillar would leap out and turn into a butterfly,” Ralph said. “To the tune of some aria from Italian opera.”
He glanced quickly around the room, this time with a certain goal to his search, but his childhood favorite didn’t appear on any of the three long camp tables or the well-ordered shelves along the walls.
“You said it showed pictures, little cartoons, like ghosts, only they were real. You said they lived in another time, in the future, and knew all about it. You said that.”
“They were early holograms,” Ralph said now. Only once had he seen his father operate the machine and at the time he’d had little sense of the underlying principle.
He’d watched the actions of the small figures who resembled poorly animated characters from a failed Merry Melody or Warner Brothers production as they moved about inside his former toy that had held the surprise saffron worm and the emerging marvelous black-striped orange Monarch.
“Hologram?” Hayden asked. “What’s that mean?”
“Figures made of converging beams of light. They interfere with, interrupt one another. Colliding single dimensions combine to form a three-dimensional whole. Figures appear solid, life-like, and can be reconstructed from any of their individual portions. All parts contain the amalgam in its entirety.”
“I don’t get it. What’s that got to do with what’s going to happen?”
“It’s been years,” Ralph said. “I was just a kid. My dad left little documentation.”
“He’s got papers all over. I saw them downstairs.”
“Those are mine.”
“Did you go through his stuff? Can’t you answer a simple question!”
“Every page,” Ralph nodded. “And every page of every book where he left marginalia.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Pencil marks in the margin.”
He looked from Hayden’s jutting eager face to the silver blade still spinning in a whirr on its windmill tower on the near table.
“As far as I could gather he was studying subtle vibrations. At one time. Among other things. He had many interests and like all of us limited time.”
“What kind of vibrations?”
The proud propeller kept revolving, the parting air its only sound.
“My father believed that people gave off vibrations of energy that were more or less undetectable by instrumentation, at least in those days. The waves must have been like the ones that were later picked up by Kirlian photography.”
“Get to the point,” Hayden broke in. “We don’t have all day.”
“I do,” Ralph answered his agitated ex-friend. “Evidently you haven’t.”
The prop kept its steady pace, like a rotary heart.
“Go on,” Hayden said. “Spill it.”
“Well,” Ralph said, his words catching the rhythm of the turning blade, “as far as I could tell my father believed that these energies emitted by the body, like auras, like the halos in old religious paintings, were a kind of laser-like energy that could carry information, and could be received and interpreted, reconstructed. The vibrating energy would exist indefinitely, once the light beam had been sent. A little like a book in an eternal library. You could open it anytime you wanted.”
“Yeah? What kind of information?”
“These beams contained the present data accumulated and stored in not only the conscious but more importantly the unconscious mind, which may exist on the periphery of the brain as an immaterial construct and be free of space and time, part of both an individual and collective unconscious.”
“You mean I already know the future, only I don’t know I do?”
“You could say that,” Ralph answered, staring closely at Hayden, surprised again at his avid interest in a subject that he doubted Hayden’s busy mind had considered in any detail for more than a millisecond.
“Come on. Is the future real or not?”
The tender image of Ralph’s parents came suddenly to life and he felt himself rising to their defense.
“My father believed it was. That time was embedded in strings of vibrating light. And that the effect and its range were multiplied, geometrically, when the vibrations of people with shared histories and experiences were gathered together, in one place. The combined energy that was partly the product of care and empathy increased the charge and the spectrum of vibrations, allowing access from deeper levels of consciousness, which in turn opened access to the minds of other people, both living and physically deceased, and from that gathered data with the potential to make projections of possible actions and events in future time—”
“But this future isn’t set, even if you see it?”
“It might or not be set. Is the future solid or malleable, constantly changing shape as we act in the present, as we move through time toward what is now the future but will become the present, for an instant, before it falls into the past?”
“You saw it work?”
“Once, for a few minutes, a long time ago,” Ralph admitted, turning back to the prop’s supporting structure like an Eiffel Tower packed with pulleys and gears.
“I hardly remember. I thought it was a toy. It started as a toy, before it became something else.”
“So where is it now? You say it’s like a metal box?” Hayden’s roving eyes swept again like dark searchlights. “I don’t see any metal box.”
“No,” Ralph said. He studied each mute item as if touching one ancient gift from his father’s skilled hand, then another, for a final time. “It’s not here.”
“Your dad must have hid it somewhere.”
“I’ve never run across it.”
“Well, have you looked? This is like pulling teeth!”
“I never looked,” Ralph confessed as he watched the propeller’s platinum blur. “Until today. Until now.”
“Maybe your mother knew.”
“She never mentioned it.”
“What did she tell you, when she was dying? In the hospital?”
“Private things,” Ralph said. “Affectionate things. After that she wasn’t very clear.”
“She must have said something,” Hayden went on. “Think hard. This is important.”
“Why is it important?” Ralph asked, looking up to meet Hayden’s dark eyes. “Why all the sudden interest in something from a long time ago, that I can’t remember and probably no longer exists? Why the curiosity about time? Why are you here, after all these years?”
“I’ll tell you later, after we find it. You and me. Remember? Like when we were kids?”
“I do. And Dimitri.”
“What about him?” Hayden shot back.
“I read an article about him.”
“About him and his son. I began to remember a lot of things. I remembered that last movie he made, with his wife, the time I saw it on TV. It reminded me of a girl I knew once. Her name was Claire. Except the movie had a happy ending.”
“When?” Hayden waited, watching Ralph.
“Some time ago.”
“Twenty, thirty years. She and I were students together, at Stanford.”
“No, I mean Dimitri!”
“Ten years I suppose. It was about his boy who spoke the private language. He was a teenager now and Dimitri had stopped looking for a medical cure. He’d taken up linguistics, in the hopes of decoding his son’s speech.”
“What about it?”
“Nothing much,” Ralph acknowledged. “Just that that language study was an interesting and complex field. Very difficult. That trying to learn the complicated underpinning of a sentence, its deep structure, was a symbolic journey, like entering a dark labyrinth, a maze, in the darkness hoping to find your way with only what you’d learned and the string of your intuition to follow, to find the minotaur.”
“What kind of monster?”
“The mystery,” Ralph said. “The secret.”
“Don’t worry about Dimitri.” Hayden shook his head. “Not now. Let’s get back to the toy and finding it.”
“I don’t think it’s very likely,” Ralph repeated. “Anyway, it was only a prototype, a preliminary experiment of my father’s.”
“You said these different times fit together, that they’re the same. You said that.”
“Theoretically. There’s been no laboratory proof, as of yet. You have to look to mystical lore for any firsthand human experience of co-existent time frames and planes of existence. For the transcendence. Union. Immortality.”
“Don’t give me that. What were your mother’s last words?”
“Just tell me!”
“Study Persian Trap.”
Ralph had never told anyone and immediately he regretted his intimate disclosure as Hayden frowned.
“What’s the message?”
“I have no idea. I don’t think it means anything literally.”
“Think! You can figure it out. You’re the smart one!”
“She was very weak and hardly lucid. But my parents were very close, probably closer than I realized. She shared many of his interests. Science and religion. Especially religion, not churchgoing but spiritual things. Perhaps on the symbolic level it’s a reference to something Mid-Eastern, perhaps Sufi–”
“Forget that,” Hayden snapped. “Stay with the program. Study. Persian. Trap. What goes through your mind when I say those three words. I’ll say them again. Now you listen. Study—”
“I don’t have to,” Ralph broke in as he realized that Hayden was perhaps correct, if only by sheer accident, if there were such things as accidents.
It was as if he’d pointed to a code, an abbreviation, an acronym, like the HAT on his own briefcase. They weren’t gold but spoken letters that had escaped Ralph’s attention and understanding until now.
SPT. The letters added up to fifty-five, which added up to ten, which added up to one, A, the Alpha as in Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, to the Hawaiian Aloha, which he remembered meant both hello and goodbye.
Or the Aleph, the point in space that contains all other points, everything in the universe, simultaneously.
It was possible Ralph’s mother had tried to impart a message, about a hidden important ultimate thing.
“There’s a trapdoor under the Persian rug in my father’s study.”
“You’ve seen the toy there?”
“No,” Ralph said. “It might be a place to look.”
Hayden stepped by him and was disappearing through the attic’s open hatch and with a jump flying down the ladder like a fireman, hands sliding down the rails as his feet like a landing bird’s dropped past the remaining rungs.
His shoes echoed down the stairs and went silent and Ralph crouched and stepped onto the ladder’s first rung and then another, now only his head remaining above the attic’s floor.
“It’s heavy! I need your help!”
Ralph looked once more at the room he hadn’t seen or thought of for 40 years and where the propeller now spun alone until one day unseen it would finally stop for a final time.
He reached for the edge of the hatch and from the next rung began to lower it, knowing that he would never revisit the secret place that held what were left of his father’s efforts, futile efforts like his own that had failed to grasp the shiny strand running through all things forever.
“Get in here!”
Ralph reached the bottom of the ladder and went down the stairs a slow step at a time as he heard a crash, like a table overturning, the explosion of something perhaps made of porcelain.
At the library’s door Ralph saw Hayden struggling beyond the overturned end table, with the black ironwood divan Ralph’s parents had brought back from New Guinea on their honeymoon cruise.
The sofa sat on the undisturbed half of the upturned Persian rug that when unrolled displayed the blue water-filled system of canals crossing and re-crossing in interlacing polygons but always leading the eye to the carpet’s center and its single lush red rose with its many wide petals that repeated the pattern of the entangled azure waterways.
The exposed parquet floor looked new and pristine, not at all like the gray-powdered dirt that you encountered in the crawlspace under an old house when trying to fix a broken pipe.
“Take that end,” Hayden commanded. He gripped the far arm of the old piece of furniture, leaning backward with all his weight but not budging it an inch.
Ralph stepped over the black ceramic shards from the fallen lamp and learned forward, with his legs pushing hard as his arms lifted at the other arm rest and the weighty sofa slid forward abruptly so Hayden fell backward, rolling to evade the approaching heirloom built of densely grained jungle trees that Ralph knew were far fewer if not now extinct.
“Out of the way,” Hayden cried as he jumped to his feet, throwing back the vacant expanse of rug.
“There it is!”
Hayden reached for the brass handle that lay even with the door’s surface, folded into its carved circular bed like a shadow.
He pulled back the heavy ring, lifting the hinged trapdoor and dropping to his knees, reaching down into the dark compartment with both hands and withdrawing a closed red, blue-topped tin cube that was two feet in its dimensions, top, bottom and side, as something like a fragile wing fluttered past Hayden’s arm.
“There,” Hayden said, setting the sealed box down on the bare floor.
His agile curled fingers worked to dislodge the sliding navy lid decorated with six-pointed stars, a crescent moon and two passing long-tailed meteors that called to mind the recently discovered painted ceiling of the workroom of Paracelsus.
On the clean parquet Ralph noticed the yellowed paper that must have fallen from the box’s smooth top and bent to pick it up.
If it should be you who come upon your remembered toy I tried to change to something more marvelous than the butterfly you loved so well please know that you’ve found what I now understand was my nearest attempt to discover and advance along that difficult pathway that is your luminous thread and that I have followed to its incomplete but for me necessary end.
You too have shared that purpose and that goal, the solution that you perhaps still seek, as you hold this little box like a last breadcrumb your father dropped along a forest trail toward that garden and its splendors we have glimpsed but have not yet reached, and whose unveiling I must now trust to another hand.
Into your palm I pass the baton grown too weighty for my remaining strength. Have courage, even if you should fail as I have done. I believe you and I may be but two runners in a long race through time and that even if you tire, as I have done before the finish, a stronger, wiser runner, perhaps even the embodied entity whom unknowingly we’ve been stumbling toward, will appear to redeem our efforts and carry them forward into a bright world that is only victory and lit by all the stars.
Your loving father,
“How do you work this thing?”
Ralph folded the letter and slipped it into his shirt pocket and stood above Hayden’s bent shoulders, looking down into the contents of the toy’s old container.
The interior was lined top to bottom with overlapping one-inch rectangular glass bricks, partially opaque like the large glass cubes once popular as decoration and a source of veiled sunlight, set in the wall beside the front door of 1950’s residences.
“It’s empty. How can it be empty?”
Hayden lifted the box and began to shake it and Ralph leaned forward, pressing down Hayden’s arms and again the box rested on the oak parquet.
On the box’s checkered floor lay colored glass squares, three squares along each side, the center square white and the adjacent shared squares a red and a blue. At the center of the eight-squared periphery shown a ninth square like a sliced sheet of milky quartz.
“It’s as it should be,” Ralph answered. “Just as I remembered it.”
“How come it’s not working?”
“You have to attach it to a power source.”
“There’s no cord.” Again Hayden gripped the box to shake it.
“Careful,” Ralph said. “It’s delicate. It has an elevated base.”
Hayden tipped the box and discovered the black wire wrapped tightly in its recessed cradle.
“Where’s a plug?”
“Above my desk,” Ralph answered and Hayden had risen holding the red box tightly in his arms, hurrying to the old desk and with a free hand pushing yellow legal pads and stacks of opened books and all the pens and pencils and pocket calculators to the floor.
On the cleared desktop he gently positioned the box, tipping it again to unravel its cord and then setting the large box softly level again. He plugged the three prongs into the socket bar Ralph had attached to the wall above his computer screen.
Hayden leaned forward, hands on the desk’s edge, his head nearly thrust into the open metal cube that had started a low hum.
Ralph stood beside him, watching as the glass bricks began lighting up in varied colors and flashing changing coordinating patterns clockwise, then counterclockwise around the box’s walled perimeter, then a still pattern, the illuminated bricks emitting a dimly gold shine like ice cubes held up to a flame.
Then all four walls shot a hundred colored beams that crisscrossed with a thousand angles and in the four vacant white squares nearly solid figures appeared within a hazy life-like glow.
“There we are! You and me!” Hayden cried out.
In the square to left, a small Ralph in a plaid shirt and blue jeans sat in the leather chair at his desk, holding the black covered book on Gnosticism. The light around him grew amber and above him branches with sun-shot moving leaves made his shoulders flicker with light and shadow as he walked along the sidewalk that undulated with the ancient roots of trees. An apricot poodle that he recognized as a friend ran up to him and leaped into his arms.
“When is this?” Hayden asked. “Yesterday? Today? Tomorrow?”
“I’m not sure,” Ralph said. “I do the same things every day.”
“Look at me,” Hayden said. “Everything’s all right. I’m swimming.”
Ralph watched the tiny beige Hayden stroke to the pool’s edge and lift thirstily a tall glass.
Perpendicular to Hayden standing in the blue water, and to Ralph holding the orange dog, in a third white square a black car drove along a freeway as cars passed it and others fell behind but only the black car remained in the focus of the four wall’s converging beams.
“Who’s that?” Hayden asked.
“No idea,” Ralph said.
“Is it happening right now?”
Ralph and Hayden watched the overpasses and billboards approach the car whose two occupants were only dark outlines at the tinted windows. An electrified bank sign came up on the right and Ralph could read the time and date lit up in digital numbers.
“It’s today.” Ralph looked down at his wristwatch. “A few minutes from now.”
“Yeah,” said Hayden. “He just passed Mountain View Avenue. He’s not more than twenty minutes away.”
“Ten minutes,” Ralph said. “He’s ahead of us in time.”
Ralph set down the happy dog as its master Edie Blanchard approached in a pink jumpsuit and Ralph knew the scene had occurred two days ago.
Edie had been divorced for a year after an unhappy six-year marriage and seemed lonely and yearning for male companionship. She was kind and very attractive with a pretty face and full shapely figure but Ralph was aware that he and Edie had little in common, except that Ralph was lonely too. He’d been tempted but up to now he’d avoided the prospect of a more intimate relationship that most likely would end in disappointment for both parties, whose introverted sensibilities steered away from casual liaisons.
The black car, a sleek Mercedes, was still making steady progress, passing vineyards and orchards and the white blur of a farmhouse and now was six or seven minutes distant.
Hayden had left the pool and in a gray suit took part in a heated muted exchange with five men in black suits who sat on the other side of a long walnut desk.
In the fourth remaining white square stood Ralph’s mother and father dressed in white, spotless radiant panama suit and all-white cotton dress.
They were laughing, young again, younger than Ralph ever remembered them, then suddenly old, gray-haired and thinner, then sturdier, his mother holding a baby in her arms, her hair brown again and his trim blonde father beside her, changed but still dressed in the same white clothes.
The box shone more brightly, humming at a faster rhythm and higher pitch, and Hayden groaned, trembling as he bumped and then fell against Ralph’s right shoulder.
“I knew it,” Hayden said. “God, I knew it, when I got the package.”
Hayden’s figure had switched clothes and locales in a continuing quick series of scenes. In a blue suit now he sat grimly in a courtroom before a black-robed judge as the twelve jurors returned and Hayden rose to hear the verdict.
Hayden was in a prison, in a yellow jumpsuit, standing as he clutched the bars of a cell.
Then the steel columns were melting from their rigid verticals, in Hayden’s hands turning flexible as he bent them and wove them together into a heavy rubbery web that shifted to the horizontal as the jail’s walls disappeared.
At the round grid’s exact center, Hayden crouched as a terrible black spider with two black pinheads for observant eyes that were all that resembled his previous form.
And then he was human again and limped along the shadowed sidewalk where Ralph had strolled when he met Edie’s dog Sugar, only now the passing houses were altered.
Some had another color and others had been replaced with newer houses of a different style and Ralph saw several of his beloved old trees, a maple, several ashes, and the stately cottonwood were missing.
Hayden was white-haired, bent and aged, in stained khakis and a “Star Wars” sweatshirt, pushing a grocery cart filled with green plastic garbage bags, full of cans or clothes, perhaps his sole possessions.
Ralph felt a pang for his friend who had crossed the room to the sofa’s new location, on the way picking up his briefcase and then letting himself fall almost limp onto the ironwood’s thick cushions that showed tropical scenes from Gauguin’s Tahiti.
His head was thrown back, looking at the ceiling. Now he lowered his eyes and opened the black case that rested across his knees.
“Here,” Hayden said. “You should look at this.”
He held out a single sheaf of white paper and a CD disk in its cover and Ralph moved to the sofa, took them from Hayden’s hand and sat down beside him.
“I got these from Dimitri today. That’s why I came over.”
Hayden sounded listless, as if he’d swum miles from a shipwreck to reach land but was too exhausted to care and wondered if a quiet drowning might have been a better end than his present situation.
It’s Dimitri, whom you will see today, along with his boy. All with us is now finally well, my son has been understood and his speech proved to be meaningful, in more ways than I can express. About this I must talk to you quickly, before my son’s transcribed words have been released to the publishers who are bringing out the first volume the team of linguists at UCLA has helped me decipher.
Short of funds and desperate for my son’s well-being, I’ve signed a contract which grants full rights to print all of Andrei’s messages, which have been decoded from the transcriptions, from the years of tape recordings I made of Andrei’s nearly every spoken word that only in the last month have proven to be of value beyond estimate but also containing a potential horrible impact for many people, I’m afraid even including you.
If you doubt me, go to Ralph, whom I believe will understand and help you, as I read of his exploits my son has related. Tell him I will see him soon. You must act quickly, Hay, my old friend. I will leave you with these names below, as a hint of what trouble may be awaiting you if you don’t make immediate adjustments (atonements?).
Crawford. Bellows. Samuels. Rossi. Blair. Etc., etc.
“Those names, the names–”
Hayden let his head fall back, again staring at the ceiling that was all of a piece and concealed no secret door.
“He knows the names.”
“Who are they?”
“People I’ve cheated. People who could put me in prison, if certain information ever leaked out.”
“Call your lawyer. Tell him you want to make repayments, immediately.”
Hayden sat forward and looked at Ralph.
“You think it might work?”
“Let’s go see,” Ralph said.
They stepped to the desk and now a crowd of many adults and children were laughing and splashing each other in the large egg-shaped pool where Hayden no longer swam alone and in the air high above the churning water smoke was drifting from a waiting barbecue.
“It’s all right now,” Hayden said.
“It’s a possible future,” Ralph said. “It may or not be.”
“That’s right,” Hayden said. “I’ve got to move.”
He snapped his phone from his pocket and already spoke as he returned to the South Seas divan, quickly listing many names and the amounts of the checks to be drawn this minute, as well as donations to numerous charities.
“No, I’m fine I tell you. Perfectly fine. Couldn’t be better. I know what it costs. Don’t worry, Doug. All is well again.”
Ralph had slipped Dimitri’s CD into the computer and the monitor was scrolling down at tremendous speed as each line of exotic phonetic characters gave way to its immediate translation.
Dates, names, occurrences, private and public, flashed and fell in rushing succession and then Hayden was beside him, registering for a second time what now captured Ralph’s focused attention.
“It’s all there,” Hayden said, “everything that happened. Everywhere.”
“It’s an Aleph.”
“It is,” Hayden agreed.
The screen went blank and white silent words appeared in the darkness:
The viewer is reminded that these dated recordings were in numerous cases made years prior to the events they describe, and that many more documents in their editors’ possession carry the various timelines further, indeed into a distant future that is already forming and perhaps assuming what may be a final shape, depending . . .
That was all and once more Ralph and Hayden peered into the old jack-in-the-box that once held the yellow caterpillar and its orange butterfly.
Hayden watched himself running along the beach at Cayucos toward mysterious Morro Rock, the Gibraltar of the Pacific, hand in hand with his wife, Carol, and Ralph’s parents were dancing in flowered tropical shirt and dress under a string of round Japanese lanterns lighting a terrace above a moonlit sea.
Ralph was walking past ivy-covered brick buildings with a handsome middle-aged woman whose long attractive stride didn’t resemble Edie’s but Claire Hathaway’s.
The doorbell rang.
The black car took the Franklin Boulevard off-ramp from Highway 99 and was crossing familiar side streets and then turning onto maple-lined Oliver Street, pulling up into the tulip tree’s shade at the curb in front of Ralph’s green house.
“Come on,” Ralph said, “that’ll be Dimitri and his son.”
“Andrei,” Hayden said.
They left the library and Ralph’s old toy humming on the desk and descended the stairs, stepping briskly along the shadowed hall to greet their old friend and the wise person Ralph Senior had suggested might some day come to meet them.
Ralph opened the door wide, and silhouetted in the brilliant evening sunlight stood Dimitri and his tall son Andrei Baronskaya.
Nels Hanson’s fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and Pushcart nominations in 2010, 12, and 2014. Poems appeared in Word Riot, Oklahoma Review, Pacific Review and other magazines and received a 2014 Pushcart nomination, Sharkpack Review’s 2014 Prospero Prize and a 2015 Best of the Net nomination.
"The View from Here"
I wrote this poem in fearful anticipation of a baby shower I held for my niece in August of 2015. The latest MRI of my back displayed a corkscrew spine and arthritis chewing up most of the bone surrounding it. It looks like the residual material of a New York steak after a German Shepherd has copped it from a tabletop. Three disks are bad; one is flatter than a cotton ball soaked in a bowl of acetone. Because of congenital deformities, 7 joint replacements, and an amputation above the knee, walking near the age of 60 has become utterly intolerable, but I am terrified of wheelchairs—to me they are symbols of utter defeat. With twenty people at my house, I knew my crises would be treated like leprosy, but was also very worried about being on center stage, when all of it belonged to Stephanie, 7 months along. The shower itself went perfectly. I wanted to crawl under a bed. I stood—well—hunched, tried to walk.
There is an even more torturous missive behind this all. I could never bear children because I was born without a uterus. Everyone enjoyed the shower, everyone but me. I white-knuckled every countertop, arranging food and beverages, balloons, and plastic forks. It was my goal to rise above my own pain, shower my niece with piles of gifts, and thus transcend my agony. In retrospect, I should have had vodka in lieu of tea. Three more poems would follow this—one called "The Room of Chairs." The emotional fallout was worse than those three long hours of gazing at the color of pink. There is no camphor for itches like this, except the world of art.
The subject of this poem is severe glaucoma. I write 14-16 hours a day with 33% of my sight remaining. I close one eye, wear glasses that hardly help, and push ahead. "Cracking Reeds" is all about the fate of aging setting in so early on; it's about the wish to save whatever remains of my connection with this earth. The poem is a prelude to other swan songs I have written in the past. I'm not blind. Hopefully, two surgeries have salvaged what's left of my waning vision, though writing without sleep is not the recommended course; I've never taken the recommended course or been the china doll just sitting there. Like everyone, I have a terrible fear of blindness, for with it comes, or seems to come, the ending of a granted world.
A word about the process behind the writing process—I started with the thought of myself in 6th grade, trying to master a clarinet. Deformed fingers rarely filled the holes properly, and I just blew noise as hard as I could. Not to worry, the violin lessons were worse. I woke one morning and the splitting reeds were on my tongue, as an image, a start for combing more present failures in my life. Thus, a poem of sour milk that tries to unsour itself with reminders of gifts this world bestows. This is crude, very crude, but I pop bubbles of cloying ghosts like kids pop pimples on a chin.
"Pages of Our White Aren't White"
This poem is a minefield. Straight non-fiction all the way. 99% of my work is that. It took me eight years to get over the humps of lies. Eight years before I wrote this down. I wrote it in a day, published it in three, and I still worry about seeing it in print. Any explication at all requires the application of humor, posed in a feeble attempt to save face in terms of intellectual capacity. The poem itself speaks of things I never thought I would air. Let's just say—I was, I am, will probably always be—stupid and myopic when it comes to men. Big diplomas framed and nailed to plaster don't come with salient judgment calls. Whatever he said, I fell for it. Eventually, all lies come home to roost and the chicken yard is not a very pretty sight.
In terms of style, I tried to escape the presence of variable iambic, which is my hallmark as a writer, because I felt a tirade/rant type of poem like this deserved straight prose. As usual, iambic crawled in from under its rock. I kept the stanzas short and dense, dividing the nightmare into more palatable pieces. Writing this poem was like taking a baseball bat to a wall of bricks—what I aimed at hit me back, rattled both my shoulder joints.
The View from Here
I'm in the room, yet not at all.
I sit, a scarecrow in a chair,
black arms, black wheels,
nightmares of my life in view.
Idle conversation flows,
the promise of a heavy rain so obvious,
but let's talk sun; it's easier.
This amaranthine wilderness
is mine alone, visitors
are apparitions in a dream--
a wish I've stomped like cigarettes
to save myself from burning up.
Everyone contorts their eyes
with airbrush strokes,
erasing how I've changed
from bubbly, strong, and fit
to cheese that hits a microwave.
They sneak in stares that cut my throat.
My fortune cookie met the bottom
of a boot, so what next?
What next is not discussable.
Balloons keep popping everywhere.
I'm the vole traipsing through
the beauty of a garden's feast.
My recipe for risibility is lost.
Whoosh, a rush of agony--
I shut my eyes, close it out.
I won't wear that tiny patch of Fentanyl--
it gives me chia seeds for eyes,
glazes over everything. I'd still feel
the rippling pain, but nothing else.
I'm the one who tracks in dirt
by being there.
What made me think I could
ever survive the day-lit hours
of everyone's grace but mine.
Anthems sold to us in youth,
and middle-age lose
their music throughout time.
I used to tell my sister this:
"If we had no bathroom mirrors,
wrinkles would be secret furrows.
If we had no looking glass,
we'd never bother rubbing lipstick
off our teeth, be pickin' at a pepper flake."
Now, with blindness taking hold,
snatching orbs like hostages,
stuffing them in trunks of cars--
no air, no light—I change the split
and cracking reeds on clarinets,
admit how much I missed the mark,
puffed the song into a dream.
I grow antsy raking all the wet remains
of just another autumn morning, staring up
at thatches of clouds bedeviled with
the promise of another storm.
I know the trees will lose their wings,
know they'll drop on grass—again, again,
until the seasons end for good--
like boxes of old china plates
tumble off a moving truck.
I put a heap of oak leaf hands
inside a shoebox, close the lid.
Next year I may descry their palms
by only how they feel on skin.
Pages of Our Life Aren't White
On paper first, such tenderness—you could have been the inside
of a puppy's ear. This saffron dream smelled so good.
I should have guessed the lyrics did not fit the song,
but flew on trust the same way birds have faith in wings.
700 pages later, hours on the telephone (you called from work)
you had me like a lucky charm around your neck.
Start one lie, another follows in its wake until there
are mountains of paper to sort, loose ends to track.
"From now on, I'll get the mail" is what you said,
"to save you steps." I thanked you for your thoughtfulness.
You strung one pearl, then another, made the necklace full enough
to slip right over my head without so much as a lipstick mark.
Had I known you had a wife, a wedding ring, I would have
burned your letters then, called her with some asinine apology.
But I didn't so, I did— I kept them in a rosy file, the color
of a postcard sunset from some cruise, labeled "US."
You expected Sanka in your coffee cup, not morning whiffs
of beans I ground—my biggest worry—get the sugar right this time.
Gourmet meals sat every night upon your plate; it didn't matter
how I hurt—my love for you could cook for hours, grocery shop--
Buy a house, mop a floor even if I could not kneel. You were still
the underside of puppy ears, terra firma, all that's precious in the end.
Eight years later, you became the stray, stray cat that wanders off--
"playing" on the internet. It wasn't games with jesting titles:
Shoot the Villain, Maim the Grizzly, Guard a city from invaders,
witches, or a storm of creatures from the wilds.
This was grocery shoppin' for another woman: Match.com.
That's why I got that startled seizure, leaning just to kiss your cheek.
Too many deciduous nightmares to count: blackmail for your salary,
disappeared in string-less kites, since wife #1 discovered where you lived.
Rattled threats like snakes beneath the stones of your balls she owned back then.
I questioned where your money went. Your answers weak, but so was I.
You danced that floor of broken eggs in sliders meant for Fred Astaire--
I paid our bills, bit my tongue, pushed off fear in yellow jackets on my arm.
I tried to save the "US" from us. Had no code to read the runes, just codas
of mistakes I'd made. Blamed myself for donning such myopic glasses all these years.
I've ridden dizzy carousels—two decades now—have so many
synonyms for secrets and ellipsis marks that antonyms don't fork the meat.
Tried so hard to find the sun, make it bigger than it is—ditch aphotic stripes
of shade, which run the chills back down my spine, repeatedly.
I have that cherry folder in a drawer, its label curled, but hanging on.
You left; I left. We both came back to tap the wind chimes of a dream.
This is just the prologue for descrying truth. There's so much more--
I'm still in kindergarten, wearing some old woman's clothes.
Odd enough—I'm the one who does not sleep.
Janet Buck is a seven-time Pushcart Nominee and the author of three full-length collections of poetry. Janet’s most recent work has appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, River Babble, The Camel Saloon, Zombie Logic, and Vine Leaves; new poetry will appear in forthcoming issues of Offcourse, Mistfit Magazine, PoetryRepairs, Poetry Magazine, The Milo Review, Antiphon, PoetryBay, and other journals worldwide.
The In-Between Time
Richmond on The In-Between Time: The starting point from which “The In-Between Time” evolved was probably from an assignment in an high school biology class. It was in a Catholic school that was run by an order of French-Canadian priests. I bring them up because, thinking back, they were remarkably open-minded.
So, the question for the assignment was along the lines of- “Are the Bible and Darwin’s theory of evolution incompatible?”
My argument was that they were not and the argument took on the following sort of form- “Darwin’s physical evolution was the physical manifestation- over time- of the human race. Being created in the “…image and likeness of God…” related to our spirits- perhaps our souls- mainly because, well, God is a spirit. A spirit- a soul- without a physical body has no conflict with evolution. Therefore, not necessarily incompatible at all”
Once that sort of “spiritual and physical” duality took root, it sort of sat there and germinated until a number of people around me- both family and non- began to age which led them to share. In addition, the concepts of where people were going- and what for- heaven or hell, seemed also to find a predominant place in what they had to say.
There were the things that they were happy about in their lives; things that they were unhappy about, and, then, there were the things that they wished that they should have done, would have done, could have done- but didn’t. It’s this last set of things that seemed to dominate some of their conversations in an inordinately disproportionate way.
Though most of them did not specifically use the “R” word- regret- it was those who did that galvanized the concept in my mind, especially the fact that there was no possibility of going back on a regret. No way to change it, no way to correct it- there was nothing that they could do except live with it and eventually die with it. And, if for some reason one was alive at the threshold- “the in-between time”- of those final mortal minutes, the weight of those regrets jut might have the very real possibility of creating an hell on earth for the person involved.
He had developed this postulate about what happens during the period- that might last anywhere as little as a few moments, to maybe even minutes- between mortal life and the eternal hereafter. It was a time in life that he called- “the in-between time.”
You see, he had come to believe that during this time, if we are- by some chance- lucid and aware, conscious and reflective, we have the opportunity to review a very critical aspect of our lives.
In this review what comes to bear most poignantly- and surprisingly- is that we can experience our own- and very specific- “hell” right here on earth.
This “individual hell” during the “in-between time” is the end-product of dying with regrets.
These regrets are about- and over- things which were important in our lives and, thus, have remained in our memories without fading and without change. They are the things that we should have done or could have done- or said- but didn’t.
He understood, sadly- if not condemning- it is an hell in which we will experience an agony of our own design because not only do we realize the irreversibility of the regrets, but we are also faced with the painful finality that the regrets have to be accepted without a chance of reconciliation.
And, so, once he realized what could happen during the “in-between time,” he was vigilant- for the rest of his life- to make sure he minimized- if not eliminated- any and all opportunities for regret.
Santo de Madera
Carol Hamilton On Santa de Madera:
Santa de Madera was written after I stayed alone in a Seventeenth Century monastery in Patzcuaro, Michocán in Mexico for ten days. I was there by several flukes in circumstance. Robert Hass, one of my poetic heroes, was to teach as part of a workshop on translating poetry sponsored by a university in New Hampshire. The monastery was meant to house the faculty. Prices for flights were very high that summer, and I had gone through all kinds of contortions to find a way to get there without too much expense.
In the end, the conference was cancelled due to lack of sufficient enrollment. The lovely ladies at the university, however, said, since I had gone to so much trouble to make arrangements, I could go ahead and go and stay in the monastery. There were writing groups in nearby villages I could travel to visit with by bus, and a local shop there in Patzcuaro was a place I could meet and visit with local writer. The only catch to the whole thing was the situation in staying at the monastery. They told me I would have a cook, a housekeeper, and a gardener every day, but I would be alone nights.
I reveled in the monastery, with its four courtyards, each with its own fountain or well, lush plantings and walls covered with sacred and ancient art. There was a lime tree outside my window, the kitchen was tile with copper kettles hanging down, a huge library with book-lined walls was across from my room. I had a fireplace, a sheepskin rug, piles of logs for my fires at night. The windows were huge and of the kind a horseman might come leaping through in the night, and to lock them, I had to latch black wrought iron hooks.
I really loved it, though the first night was a little nerve-wracking, but with a big fire in my fireplace and all the gates hooked, it mostly seemed romantic and full of atmosphere. The stars shown down in my courtyard, the city church bells began their clatter at sunrise every day, and the saints and totems on the walls told me their stories day by day. This particular work, Santo de Madera, wooden saint, fascinated me, and somehow their strange faces kept me company, suggested stories, and inspired many poems.
blocky, almost featureless
in your box on the wall,
all feted with fossils
of blackest and whitest,
shells, corals, an offering.
Your face has pyramid shape,
the hands, the nose a gash
from the same faultline.
Silent, your lips too crudely-cut
to speak. Nearby the clay pots
are silent, too, radiate silence.
Their lack of voice has learned
to glow of the clay itself,
or from the hand that fashioned
them. The patio itself cries
silence, and those workers
in wood and clay
stand mute before me.
Their voices have flown,
passed through the broken darkness
where Castor and Pollux
and the Seven Sister sail,
look down, awakened
by the harsh metallic chortle
of the nearby church bells.
Carol Hamilton has recent publications upcoming publications in POET LORE, OUTRIDER REVIEW, HAIGHT ASHBURY LITERARY JOURNAL, BOSTON LITERARY REVIEW, HUBBUB, IODINE, RATHALLA, MAIN STREET RAG, I-70 REVIEW, U.S.1 WORKSHEET, GINGERBREAD HOUSE, REED, POEM, COLD MOUNTAIN REVIEW, TWO CITIES REVIEW, ALBATROSS, HASH, NEBO, and others. She has published 17 books: children's novels, legends and poetry, most recently, SUCH DEATHS. She is a former Poet Laureate of Oklahoma and has been nominated five times for a Pushcart Prize.
Jennifer Lothrigel on Dopamine Trip & Doll:
Dopamine Trip was written as I was driving down the California Coast through Big Sur as the sun was coming up. It was raining and I was reflecting on the state of craziness that I had allowed myself to go to in the past for love. The poem is about honoring that time in my life and then letting it go. I scribbled it down as I was driving the curvy road.
Doll was written in a memoir writing class. The teacher asked us to start with a tangible item as an entry point into the writing. I chose a doll talisman I had once made. That is how the concept of the Doll came to be. But the experience of the Doll in the poem had nothing to do with the actual doll. The poem really just wrote itself in many regards, I couldn't stop it. It was rather dark and I loved it. When it came time to share what we had written in class, others talked about the time Uncle Jim told his war stories, or their memories of dinner table conversations. When I read my piece I felt like I had revealed a very deep dark secret. My teacher said 'Well, I'm guessing there is a lot more where that came from.' That was her critique. I later made a doll like the one in the poem and took it on a road trip, making polaroids of it along the way. I accidentally left one of the polaroids in a hotel in Mt. Shasta. I like to imagine various scenarios about who found the polaroid and their thought process.
The rain beat down.
Relentless fits of unreasonable persuasions
kept me pining
for one more moment with you,
like an angel on the side
of the road begging for a ride.
Possessed by a demonic temptress,
I persuaded the fates to cross
our incongruent paths.
My fairytales waited quietly in the other room
while the dark Mother bathed her body
in your bed like a homeless woman at The Ritz Carlton.
I lay there all night rejected by my own silence
and empty again.
Outside, the dark night crept towards the dawning blue light of morning,
infringing upon my madness.
Father Sky was singing one of his songs about illusions
and I packed my things and drove to the ocean.
I tried so hard to get her head to stay up straight but it just kept drooping over.
There was something very beautiful about her
and there was something very tragic about her.
If I held her head up she seemed to come alive,
maybe even hopeful of the life we might share together,
of all the places we might go and the things we might see.
If I stuck the pins in just right it seemed to prop her up,
but this made her look scared and I couldn’t stand
the look on her face.
As it was, she had no neck.
I had stitched her poor unstable head straight onto a round formless body.
It was lumpy and uneven.
But I loved her all the same.
And I hated myself for not being able to get the right amount of stuffing in her
body before I closed her up.
I wanted to get done as fast as I could so we could play.
I wanted to twirl her by her arms and tell her all of my stories.
She would think they were all true and I could make them as fabulous as I wanted.
I carried on like a marathon runner who was only competing with her own record.
My overachieving right hand quickly threading the needle in and out of her pillowy flesh,
while my left hand acting like an innocent bystander,
held the back of her body still.
I think my left hand knew that somehow this would all go wrong
and she would take the blame for it like the owner of a stolen gun used in a bank robbery.
I knew that she was not turning out the way that I wanted her
and yet I kept carrying on,
foolishly believing that she might still turn into the most perfect pretty doll ever,
the kind that always looked happy,
with twinkling eyes that made pretend conversations seem real
and soft beige skin that made you want to be careful not to get her dirty.
But as I circled in for the close, the disappointment of my vision not being met
with a happy play doll friend caused my blood to boil.
I began to stitch her now as if I were stabbing her over and over again, so quickly that I poked my left hand that never wanted any involvement in this murderous doll creation anyway. And I yelled and cried, letting her go.
Her head quickly plummeted over into the red paint that was emerging from my
I decided that it was war paint and I smeared it on her face.
It was then that I saw her eyes for the first time.
They were uneven.
They didn’t look like they wanted to talk.
I swear she looked right into my soul.
I swear that when she did this she started to cry
and all of her war paint started to smear down her face and onto her neckless body.
We were both exhausted.
I nestled my head against her body and we fell asleep
like wilted flowers who were flooded by amateur gardeners.
Jennifer Lothrigel is an artist and poet residing in Southern, CA. Her work is an exploration of the feminine psyche, both personal and archetypal. She creates intuitively, drawing from the mystery of her body and soul, then weaves her findings together.
My Best Friends Are Books
By Craig Kurtz
A LOVE LETTER TO LITERATURE
I’ve known a lot of people
but I like them best as books;
and honest, scorning rooks.
’Tis curious how ‘real people’
can shift and disconcert;
they’re indecisive, oft faithless --
No sooner than I place my trust
in human nature, vows or oaths,
consistency and fealty
will ‘evolve’ and don new clothes.
The people that I thought I knew
so often prove irregular;
when surety gets puts to trust
the denouement will fain demur.
Then is it not astonishing
how characters called ‘fictional’
can be relied upon to vaunt
relations more reliable.
Whenever people say one thing
then mean another (howe’er remote),
books will never counterfeit --
their word is bonded by a quote.
And, best of all, books do forbear
tergiversations and miscues;
when all confusions palliate,
they dote on you, and disabuse.
Friends are necessary
to make life more meaningful;
but people are perfidious
while books are sane and stable.
You can have your dramas,
inconsistencies and friends;
I’m content with mine --
the ones who live between bookends.
Craig Kurtz has vexed aesthetic circles since the 1981 release of The Philosophic Collage. Recent work appears in Clare Literary Journal, Floor Plan Journal, Penumbra, The Road Not Taken: A Journal of Formal Poetry, The Transnational and Xanadu; many others would just as soon string him up. He resides at Twin Oaks Intentional Community.
Gimp last year
despite an array
so far just short
bowed elbow plus
at both grandsons’
behest, Bubbe takes
cello risks, races.
next to polished
who can still limp
my wife’s waist
hits the tape third.
I have lumbago,
it doesn't have me!,
when the kids
music to a fiddler’s
ears, like a bona fide
will not reveal
trade secret --
joint relief from
dosing the non-
Quality time’s overrated.
Sure, expert brat psychologists
plus piggybacking entrepreneurs
urge creating special verbal instants
with our fetuses now so each will learn
how to speak Mandarin then be self-assured --
though shooting for the moon it happened perhaps once.
But as an introvert apostate from one of those big square states,
I got taught saying Yes, Sir to my great-grandpa about pumping gas
then squeegeeing his pickup truck windows in the end is what counts.
The Chinese mafia hooked him on opium because their quota required
a guanxi front man to get contracts to lay Wyoming track. It’s clear why waiting
for hormones to set in, Pappy’s Pappy’s Pappy blew his wad committing petty crime.
For Huffington Post reviews, reading dates including Stanford, publications and more, visit GerardSarnat.com. Gerard Sarnat's books are available at select bookstores and on Amazon, and his work appears in literary magazines stocked by Barnes and Noble among other distributors.Gerard has been featured this year as Songs of Eretz Poetry Review’s Poet of the Week with one of his poems appearing daily. Dr. Sarnat is the second poet ever to be so honored. As well, he is a featured poet in Avocet, A Journal of Nature Poems, which is leading its weekly publication with Sarnat's poems for the month of July.