Potluck

 

T H I S    W E E K

The Theorist by Bo Fisher

 

The Boy and Battle of the Pork Rinds

My name is M--- and have I got a story to tell you. Only I’ll get to it later. First let me settle the whys and wherefores of why I am sharing in the first place. Consider them my narrative raison d’etre. Plus, if I started any place else, none of this makes any sense. Just bear with me.

On September 24 of an undisclosed year, I joined the human race, butt naked, slimy as a slug, and for all intents and purposes, ignorant of my preferred status in the Animal Kingdom as a homo sapien. Opposable thumbs? Check. Oversized brain with hyper-developed cerebellum? Check. Upright walking bi-ped? Coming soon, so check! Ability to think symbolically? At that point, more of a capacity than an ability, but check! anyways. What I was not born with was my humanity. In other words, I entered the world a homo sapien but had yet to learn the ins-and-outs being human entailed.

    On the surface, it may appear that any number of things we do on a normal day qualifies as something exclusive to us. Marmosets don’t pay taxes. (Though maybe they should?) A prickly-faced sea raven doesn’t watch Sharknado. (Though if it did it might be mildly amused, if not bemused.) And duck-billed platypuses, long maligned as a natural huckster, simply doesn’t carry a concealed firearm. (Though even if they could, they probably would still take a pass on it since they are one of the few venomous mammals found in nature – alongside ex-wives. (Kidding of course. (And yes, low hanging fruit, but hasn’t easy-to-reach-apples – some say pomegranats – always been a problem? Et in Arcadia ego.))) The list goes on and there is an absolute truth to the fact that animals don’t do those things. Yet there is a distinction to be made between things that we do as humans and things that make us human. In terms of the latter, three candidates – usual suspects, at this point – crop up: burying the dead, art, and cooking. Of the lot, only one qualifies as a non-negotiable to our existence. (I’ll allow you to hazard a guess which one.) That does not detract from the other two though.

    But here’s the thing. While without a doubt, cooking makes us human, so do our stories. Oddly enough, the two have always gone hand-in-hand. (If you throw in the ancient tradition of funerary feasts - which we still do today but have rebranded - you have the human experience par excellence.) They share a natural affinity for each other as I am sure many couples have experienced early in their marriages. Nuptial bitterness aside, sharing a meal with other people harkens back to an originary event forever lost but always present.

    There are numerous theories about the way cooking and eating around a fire led to the socialization of humans. I’d be willing to bet that many an intricate yarn was spun while sitting around a circular hearth many millenia ago. I know this the way I know people must have chewed their food. It’s something that just happens. Same way, whenever people gather together, there’s always one storyteller in the bunch, for better or for worse. Those stories – forged through social bonds – opened a window to our humanity. They provided us with the myths and folklore we’d turn to when tasked with defining ourselves and our surroundings. You can’t underestimate the significance of atall tale - or a tall drink for that matter.

    So in honor of those raconteurs of the distant and forgotten past, I am making a 1,482-word offering. It is a story about how I inched toward humanity by toiling in a sweltering room. There’s conflict and violence and not an ounce of redemption. As far as arcs go, it’s more of ramp. It’s far from perfect. But that’s fine. Think of it as my contribution to food folklore. And if you need that common hearth, lighting a match while you read will have to do for now.

    Growing up in Queens, New York, it felt like my time was rigidly split between two places: St. Bartholomew’s elementary school and family parties. Afternoons Sunday through Friday afternoons belonged exclusively to my studies. But come Friday evening or all of Saturday –look out! – it was party time. If nothing else, Filipinos understand the need for a good party and how to best achieve those ends. It’s ingrained in the cultural psyche like after-work pints in England or pit-stop-quick-shot espressos for Italians. In the Filipino mind, it’s not so much a question of “Do you want to have a party?” but of “Where? When? And what should I cook?”

    My mother never had to ask what she should cook because it was understood that she would make the dish her town was famous for: Pancit Malabon. A rich and elaborate noodle dish, it boasts layers of flavors from land and ocean, influences from Spain, China, and the Philippines, and enough ingredients to break the bank. It also has the dubious honor of being one of the most labor intensive dishes known to mankind. Whereas most, if not all, noodle and pasta dishes belong to the “boil the noodle, make the sauce, mix” or the “let the sauce simmer for hours, low maintenance, boil the noodle, mix” type, Pancit Malabon entails hours of prep time followed by hours of cooking time that requires the unfortunate cook to stand over the stove for the entire travail so that the right ingredients are added, taken off the flame, or drained at the right moment. It is an all day affair. The number of hoops you need to jump through in order to plate this dish would leave even the most resilient French chef winded. Little wonder friends and relatives always asked for it. They lacked the skill, tenacity, and desire. Plus, the recipe was a secret.

    On Saturday mornings, I would wake up and watch my cartoons. In the kitchen, the snap of knives banging on chopping boards, shrieking blenders, and pots being stirred filtered through the apartment along with a fragrant aroma. The sounds grew all the more pronounced when I had to mute the television in order to scream for more juice. Eventually, however, I would manage to roll off the sofa, and wander into the kitchen. Without fail, I would find the room in a state of warm, controlled disarray with my mother standing by the stove. Looking back, I don’t think that at that moment when she noticed me, she saw me as her son. No, I believe she saw me the way all capitalists see other human beings: as a source of labor. I say that because the first thing she did was put me to work. No smile, no queries into my needs. Just “Here, do this.” In all fairness, it was nothing too involved – after all, there’s only so much an eight year old can do. But what I did sure was fun.

    One of the secrets of Pancit Malabon lies in the mixing of ingredients, one of which is cicarron – pork rinds – pounded and ground to such a fine texture that they coat and cling to individual noodles like bread crumbs. My sole responsibility was to beat the bejeezus out of bags of cicarron. Needless to say, I assumed the role of pork rind abuser enthusiastically – what child wouldn’t enjoy banging things around – and with rolling pin in hand, stepped to the kitchen table and let’er rip. Whack! Take that. Smack! Who’s your daddy? Blap! Beware of boy. Crush! You can’t hold out much longer. Eventually, my mother would intervene in the Battle of the Pork Rinds and snatch the smoking rolling pin from my tiny hands. By that point, the bag had usually broken and miniscule bits of crushed – and defeated, I might add – pork rinds were starting to scatter about the table and kitchen floor and in my straight-Asian-bowl-hair-cut. Winded and light headed, I would step away from the kitchen, satisfied that I had done my part in creating something I loved – a giant mess. (The realization that I was actually helping to cook a dish as wonderful as Pancit Malabon came much later in life.) As I grew older, my responsibilities changed and I was called on to chop up eggs to a dry pulp. But that was nowhere as fun as pounding ciccaron, so I’ll keep that to myself. Plus, the Battle of the Hard Boiled Eggs just doesn’t have the ring or the drama.

    So that is my story. One day, it may join the canon of folktales, legends, and myths. “The Boy and the Battle of the Pork Rinds.” If it does, I won’t be surprised. It’s a story about food and in case you forgot, the combination makes us human.

 

 

Marc Landas is the author of The Fallen: A True Story of American POWs and Japanese Wartime Atrocities (John Wiley & Sons, 2004) and is a contributor to an anthology about Queens, The Forgotten Borough (SUNY Press, 2011). His short stories have been published in literary journals such as Crack the Spine, In Stereo, the Commonline Journal, Conclave, Thrice, and the Grey Sparrow Journal.

Language Oppression

— -

And how did it first come out, show itself (upon his seeing two men kissing on the street)?

With a glare; with the gaze aimed, fixed, and a face of hate — that you can read, which malefactors, when called out, deny, which purveyors of normativity try to take from you… they would confuse you of the literacy you have accrued for your survival, your “facultad” (term from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera).

Those shows of hate are evident; if you are not afraid to name them, if you allow that the mundane couches the real, if you don’t deny the communication to you like an electric current.

— /*/ —

“… our left brains and science have not yet successfully caught up with what we understand to be true about how our right hemisphere functions. However, I believe our right minds are perfectly clear about how they intuitively perceive and interpret energy dynamics.” -Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, My Stroke of Insight

— -

I came across a June 7 article on the magazine website Everyday Feminism: “3 Ways Language Oppression Harms Us (and How We Can Heal)” by Alex-Quan Pham. I have a personal story that I place in the category of “language oppression,” that I have experienced as just that, though some, or many, may not agree that my story belongs under that heading.

 

I speak good English; I have that privilege. My parents immigrated to this country; they are native Spanish speakers, and they never developed full ease with English. So I know about what Pham’s article is telling. I know the ramifications, the loss, the difficulty, that comes with having to navigate in a society in which the dominant language is not your own. I know how profound language is- it makes you; it does structure how you think, limits or liberates what you are able to think. I have a Ph.D. in poetry writing from the University of Missouri. I finished there last year. Yet, I have had trouble reading a full poem in the past year. I start to read one- the kind of activity that used to basically be my life, give me life- and I trail off… I cannot continue. This is because my language, the poetic register in which I think and speak, was militated against at the University of Missouri, by the university administration.

I complained of harassment on the part of some university employees. The harassment persisted for about three years. Part of being a poet, part of being a kind of poet/artist, part of being who I was, and wanted to be, is being awake. I was awake to certain things. I challenged them whenever and wherever I found them; I was ‘always on’ as an artist. I was engaging in something called “commitment,” what Kobe Bryant talked about in an interview.  (Yes, I’m citing Bryant, an accused sex offender--who retained his endorsements, rep, the right to define his experience: ‘I thought one thing, but she thought another’… sorry not sorry; that is enough to say, Kobe, agree to disagree on what constitutes brutality; the message, for him- OK to stay you, without invalidation or punishment.  The way men can always find allies…one time on the subway, I heard on the other side of the press of crowd, a teenage girl told a man spilling obscenities to be quiet; and what do you know; he went at her.  “What’s that smell?” he directed his speech toward the teenage girl, “I think you need to get some Clorox to wash your pussy out.”  An old man on the train started cackling. They always find allies, on the spot, at drop of dime. Sorry not sorry for throwing out that word, thrown out to girls at any random moment, by men you don’t know (and do); I mentioned at MU, because it connected, a college boy in the gym wearing a T-shirt with the lyric "All I need is pussy money weed (let it rain! paper blunts cunts one and the same)"; a university pantsuit called me ill (not uncouth- but sick) for saying that word, on the man’s T-shirt, in the college facility, on a campus, like any other, where girls get raped, often.  In other words, they not only get their pack (or their kind, that stud the sidewalk, turvied vault, like blinking flecks of Mica; gauntlet, as Mary Karr called it.) to stick up for them when a lone girl talks back.  They get the system, too.)  Kobe Bryant said that when he was a young athlete starting out, he knew he was going to make it, there was no way he would not, because he lived basketball. I lived my goal of bringing to the surface what I wished to tell. I protected my story and voice, for many years, while I worked to be a better writer, one more equipped to tell my story well. For me, writing is like method acting; and I accomplished an unheard of feat of staying in role, not for months, but day in and day out for years. Maybe I did not need to practice this stringency; but it was simply the way I knew to work. I know my voice is tied to seeing and feeling what other people manically try not to see and feel, and I know it is tied to the type of memory that most would repress. I felt that if I allowed myself a respite, if I allowed myself to be lulled, to forget for a while my why, I might not be able to return to the genesis-place of my story- because I am only human — when you are bobbing blithely under ether (blinkered normativity), you want to stay there.

 

A basketball player is allowed to give his all, and he is allowed to proclaim his commitment without fearing negation. (He won’t be told, for example, like I was told by my department head: “Nothing should matter so much.”) He is met with eager affirmation. A Latina first-generation college graduate, Harvard graduate, victim of sexual violence, poet, who reaffirmed her own life by coming to voice, is militated against to forget her goal, and is called insane for demonstrating the drive and aptitudes to reach it.

 

Based on my willful, if also onerous, receptivity, the harassment I experienced at the University of Missouri was not something I was going to turn a blind eye to. And I used my language to fight it for three years. My time, my energy (asking for the behavior to stop, limning myself in counter to effigization- which began after the ‘ground zero’ man, the initiator of the mobbing [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mobbing], was irked by my telling him to leave me alone)… three years… The American university does not care too much about the marginalized/about women; that is not what it is for- despite the rhetoric (as the film The Hunting Ground shows).  It is for profit, it is a business.  

 

They invite an artist & critical interrogator to be a student on their campus; they invite someone who only has (any) chops because the work matters to her, because she lives her ethic, because she does not renounce her sensibility. But they think her work is a game; they are filling some slot, some quota: (Latina) creative worker. They would kill you before truly honoring what you have to say. I felt they tried to kill me (shut me up, empty me). When I protested, a final time, the abuse I was experiencing in the main campus library, including on the part of the head of the library and the head security guard of the library (a woman), the administration got together, closed ranks, and let my abusers do what they wished to me: let them ban me from the library.  (And the library director I had named as permissive and collusive in the behavior I was facing got in a vindictive thrust, got to bar me from every library on campus, not just the one where I was being regularly baited and disrespected by him and his friends.)  The school let them ban a doctoral candidate in literature and a female asking for help from books. Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz, 17th-century nun, poet, scholar in New Spain, comes to mind- the treatment she got from monks, who closed ranks and put their foot down to keep her from reading, writing, circulating her word. They thought her activities, and her literacy, inappropriate. She was one given to living for her work; and when her work was prohibited, she willfully exposed herself to an infectious disease and perished.

 

At least I could go somewhere else; they forced me out of my home; in order to not have to admit impropriety (or that they ignored pleas for Meaningful intervention for three years), to not have to put a stop to harassment, and, as for the aggressors- to avoid, simply, apologizing- and ceasing.

 

One dean who finally deigned to tell me why, how I could be disenfranchised for demanding a halt to harassment, said that my language showed that I am out of touch with reality- because (allow me to translate her words that I cannot bear to repeat- her elision, distortion, her violence, with which I have lived this past year) it is abundant, and it interconnects/constellates elements.

 

This culture (like others, vulgarity, philistinism, envy, straited thinking with bloodtaste for hegemony are universal) eschews personal history, cause, impetus, story.  They deny your story, that they know nothing of.  They reduce you to unagentic body, haphazard chemical storm, and blot out the experience that accounts for you- an experience in which they, and their kind (their type of personality; their egoism, and limitation), are implicated.  You have had the godspark to tease out and organize your experience.  You have pointed your finger to the reality of interrelation, which is a moral reality, a reality that demands mutual accountability, empathy.  You have connected the dots; and you see what they do not, or what they do and disavow.  They don’t permit this.    

 

That dean’s mind does Not work as mine does, no; she does Not do what I do. She is a veterinary scientist, she is not a poet. Language is not something visceral, fluid, alive, for her. It is something bare and instrumental.

 

I’m reminded of the trailer for the film Genius, recently out, starring Jude Law; Law plays Thomas Wolfe, and you see Wolfe adding and adding onto his manuscript, and his editor telling him: stop already! I’m also reminded of the volumes of letters or diary entries left behind by many poets. Contemporary American (scientistic) culture calls this outpouring, this way of being, this volubility always on: hypergraphia. Ok. I call it jouissance; I call it having broken through to voice; I call it the wellspring of the kind of work I do. As Maxine Hong Kingston wrote, “This well-deep outpouring is not for/ anything. Yet we have to put into exact words/ what we are given to see, hear, know.” (I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, 2011) When you silence, empty, degrade, threaten a (marginal, needed) voice, miracle, of self-remembrance and dissent, because you do not wish to bear accountability and do not wish to assist in the curtailment of injustice, you risk interfering with the source that lets the speaker write, anything. And you mean to. You mean to take a world within to cleave to your insufficient world without.

 

Of course, the dean said I was lying; of course she said she did not believe me, about the harassment- of course; I am a female, and this is how American universities treat females. — Furthermore (and here I go writing long, get ready-), I know well now (not having known before, having grown up in Queens, NYC) that small towns, as well as college campuses — that is, enclaves, where you cannot escape being in contact with the same people daily, weekly, for many years on end, be they friends you want to see or a troupe of malevolent harassers; where you cannot tell an aggressor to leave you alone without bringing the wrath of a community on top of you- the aggressor’s longtime and entrenched buddies- who cannot escape him or her either, who may be his underlings, who are trained to not cross their neighbors, no matter the authenticity and integrity they must lose to achieve safety- *Shirley Jackson is a good reference for this community pack phenomenon; and she has endured for her talent, but I am sure, current culture would also empty her language; her work might be called “fantasy”… which is like calling Kafka’s work “fantasy”; the culture today is not more receptive to self-interrogation, exploration of its own id than it was in Jackson’s time (as if it’s all been for nothing- on the larger scale: the culture would erase many lifetimes of work. But there are individuals who do not, who read, and decipher, and remember worlds that have been opened.); she received sacks of hate mail for her story “The Lottery,” as she did that annoying thing of challenging the fabric of her culture, conveying as terrifying what’s normal as air, or daily violence taken for granted. There is a tradition of writers who have worked in this vein; MU’s main library houses their books, may even showcase their faces on big posters on the walls- while banning living humans who assimilate and redouble the legacies of these artists and thinkers. — such enclaves are dangerous to a female aware, not mute, and on her own, as such an environment is threatening to any independently minded person. The visual artist (sculptor) Louise Bourgeois described the artist as one who has the gift of being in touch with his or her unconscious, which is the “definition of sanity and self-realization.” To live plugged in, relatively, to what others repress will ‘invite’ hostility. This is a form of bigotry too subtle, pitted against something too subversive and multiform, hemming common circuits of symbolizability, for the Law to ever be able to approach/address, or protect. Someone like me does live surrounded by lawlessness (and- naturally- is described as the one unlawful, for aiming the gaze back.)- someone like me does live in the Wild West, as Emily May, the founder of the anti- street harassment organization Hollaback! described the world around her. — But the fact that this dean attacked me, a poet, one who breathes through language, that she attacked me At my language, at my way to freedom (the way I had fought to find- hard-won)… that is the biggest problem. When you attack someone’s essence/core, you mean to break their back. When you use their motor, their way to personhood, as precisely the way to profoundly invalidate them, strip them of personhood… that was very sad to me, devastating. I almost broke from it. I thought for months that I could no longer write poetry- what I loved, what would pour out of me, what I needed, had discovered, for me, to be myself; and what I needed to keep to for my commitment (to the ethical, to witnessing); I still had so much that, as a marginalized person, with a particular experience, and perception (*this is a word that does not have to invalidate claims to reality, but that is bound up with any articulation of truth, with any testament, as the embodied self cannot not be perspectival- whether the human subject is a sanctioned authority or a female who is not a phallic daughter.), I had consecrated my life to telling, so much in me waiting to out. I figured out I could still write, after several months; but it doesn’t pour out of me in quite the same way; and I can still have trouble reading a poem in its entirety…

 

I don’t fully know why this should be. I do not respect that woman and her pack; I know she is ignorant, as to what I do and who I am. I know she is not entitled to her inferiorization of me, and I know that she is defensive and agendized. But the fact that someone who spits on my register of thought and speech, on the freedom I have had (in language) that she doesn’t know herself, the fact that someone smaller could get away with banning me from books, and with barring my further communications from reaching faculty of the university ( — they don’t want you to tell your own story, to out their wrong, to spread your “lies”…), that someone like that could actually use my weapon to fight dehumanization, to dehumanize me, and get away with it- pragmatically, officially- has been, hard, and makes my life and way of being feel rigged- from the outside.

 

Carol Adams writes about the “dismemberment” of nonstandard speech.  An “Oedipal” critic practices textual violation when he reduces a text to a repetition of himself (84)- does not let in the new, reads by his standards/ken/formation, rules out other hermeneutics by which to approach the text- and when he does not respect the integrity of a text (85).  I experienced the decontextualization of passages/moments of my discourse by the veterinarian/scientist dean (and by all that bureaucratic clan, behind closed doors; but I can cite her).  Willful misunderstanding of my statements; or incapable, biased reading- totally divorced from the “positive climate” for interpretation, that I had provided, that I was providing- scaffolding needed to ground an intentional utterance, in submission to a culture of disquisition, protocolar argument--needed to grant a revelation its sense and stamp of shared avowal.  Revelations are silenced when we have no framework into which we can assimilate them (106).  (And note the problem here, hard to get around, that the individual, no matter the truth she has to share, needs backing/community/standardization to share it.)  Adams takes as an example Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Creature in Frankenstein:

… the Creature’s style of speaking differs greatly from the characteristic forms of speech attributed to women.  It is not hesitant, self-effacing, tentative, weak, polite, restrained… The Creature does not avoid confrontation.  It is excited, impassioned speech… It demands, it entreats, it implores, it commands, it prophesies.  The Creature is a powerful speaker, it transgresses conversations mightily and fearlessly… its speech was muted by the dominant social order… 106     

 

The traditional mode of feminine speech is more my way in person, lifelong (by nature first, and then by cultural reinforcement.)  My voice is on the page.  My voice on the page, or in my anger, intimacy, freedom, is more the Creature’s style.  It is what they would steal, mute- to leave me no out.  Old hat.  Hurts more when it’s all been said and fought a million times; and it still doesn’t take.     

 

Delineating a positive climate, or the “tradition of providing additional authority through historical references,” is what “any embattled group does” (128); and it is work; these allusions may tumble out of one, because they comprise one’s educated imagination, but even so they are summoned (if in a white heat) and put to the page as a kind of work: to be heard.  Argument, bringing into visibility, takes life energy; it takes diversion from other pursuits, and from simple being.  When I summoned writers that have said a version of (the essence of) what I was saying, in my communications to MU authorities, this move was not read as a “legitimating mechanism” (128) on my part, on the part of one vulnerable in an antagonistic atmosphere.  I don’t know what it was taken as; gibberish, arrogance; I was simply snarled at, by the cop set on me, “I would never read what you read.”  I have a doctorate in literature, so that rules out a lot; and the American university teaches its college writing instructors to teach in their classes that it matters to be open to new ways of thinking and to new texts.  The American university purports to care about this.  

 

Simone Weil wrote “… all that is highest in human life, every effort of thought, every effort of love, has a corrosive effect on the established order… insofar as it is ceaselessly creating a scale of values ‘that is not of this world,’ it is the enemy of the forces which control society.”  Normativity/institutional power have a time-old tactic for ‘managing’ challenge.  Nancy Nyquist Potter is one philosopher who has written about their fallback strategy- the pathologization of defiance.  They attempt to “eviscerate the critique of the dominant culture by attributing psychological motives rather than political [or ethical] motives to those who protest the activities of the dominant culture,” writes Carol J. Adams in The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory (p. 139).  I go further in recalcitrant affirmation of what the agendized and morally lazy spurn and distort, and I respect the individual; individual boundaries and sensitivities are entitled, certainly on campuses that trumpet diversity and the well-being of all. 

 

The privileged world I know, is not a Clinique ad, wherein an actress who made it, Gina Rodriguez, cries telling that education trumped every obstacle in her life (brown skin, bad hood, wrong body type).  I agree that knowledge, yoked to voice, is the only solution there is.  It is the best there is: (self-)awareness and a practiced slammed conduit (lauded and confirmed up until the point of displeasing).  It is a hermetic solution (when you are not speaking the strictly rote, when you are trained on disseminating what “ain’t no everyday thought”; when you are pushing, for more; like a greedy bitch, like a reformer with vision not settled on what is).  Education is inner freedom; and, MU taught, outside nothing.  Education is no protection for a woman, who speaks as a woman, who speaks outside of cooptation, or stresses timeless urgencies (good and wrong; openness and feeling, against bigotry/absence of imagination (of the Other)/repressive arrogance).  My world, best of all possible, is not a Dove soap ad in which girls and women are urged to assert themselves, to be confident, not diffident.  In my reality, in 2016, women are muted and invalidated, when they say who they are, when they press their humanity and causefulness, when they tell what they know, when they say no.  For me, Clinique and Dove ads belong with the sham myth of the American university: bastion of intellectual freedom, civil freedoms, civility; they all belong in a “Matrix” waste bin.   

 

Amelia Shroyer wrote in her piece for The Establishment, “How About We Stop Policing Women’s Language?”: “We weren’t meant to win. We can’t be too smart or too dumb or too nice or too aggressive or too sexy or too prudish. We exist in a world in which we are set up to fail.” Audre Lorde also expressed this: not meant to survive. A quiet girl is eaten up, is overwritten, is not let to define herself. I learned this at Harvard University. A woman who has found more than competency, who has found ecstasy, in the word/ a daughter of immigrant, working-class parents who got to Harvard and got a Ph.D. in writing and literature/ a woman who promised herself she would speak the abuse society sanctions/ a woman who waited deferentially (while full to bursting), who studied, and did her schooling (i.e., financial support to write), before “putting (her) proud American boast right here with the others” (Sharon Olds to Walt Whitman): is eaten up, is overwritten, is not let to define herself — is pathologized and criminalized when she has barely gotten started, no matter the victory and vibrancy of what she is punished for, her will to speak, her daring to say stop and to insist on telling who she is rather than letting strangers define her. I learned this at the University of Missouri.

 

 

 

 

Lianuska Gutierrez holds a BA from Harvard University, an MA from Fordham University, and a PhD in English(specializing in poetry writing, twentieth-century American poetry, Lacanian studies, and phenomenology) from the University of Missouri-Columbia.  She has had poetry published in various journals including The Prague Revue, Yemassee, Wicked Alice, Eratio Poetry Journal, Deluge, Animal Studies Journal, and Counterexample Poetics.

The Right Decision

     It’s easy to get paranoid in a small town.  Everybody’s always up in your business particularly if you happened to do something wrong.  That’s how Scott Ellis felt that Thursday evening as he sat in Gillie’s Wayside Bar and Grill with his older brother.

    “Damn it, Scott,” said Sonny Ellis shaking his head.  “You ought to have had better sense.  You know that Alma Turner ain’t nothing but trouble.  That’s all she’s ever been.”

    “Well, Diane was down in Sanford with the boys and I was in here drinking alone and one thing just led to another.  Alma comes in looking like a million buck and for some unknown reason started hitting on me.  What the hell would you have done?”

    “I’d of gotten out of here as fast as I could get.  That’s what I would have done.  Lord, you know daddy’s turning over in his grave.”

    “Listen Sonny: she’s wanting me to run off down to Georgia with her.”

    “What’s she think you’re just going to up and leave Diane and the boys?”

    “That’s what she’s saying.  She says she just can’t live without me; says we were meant to be together.”

    “Good heavens, Scott!  What does she expect y’all to live on?  Alma Turner is a woman that’s used to having money.”

    “She says she has got over a hundred thousand dollars in the bank.  That ought to last until I can find me a job down there.”

    “You ain’t seriously considering this are you?”

    “Sonny, Alma is the sexiest damn woman I’ve ever seen in my life.  I’ve been crazy about her for years.”

    “You’re married to Dianne!  You’ve got her and Kevin and Kyle.  You can’t throw that away over some slutty piece of trash like Alma Turner for God’s sake.  Use your head for a minute.  It wouldn’t be two months before she’d be running after some new man down there.  That’s just how she is.  You ain’t going to change that.”

    “She says she loves me.”

    “Bullshit!  She ain’t never loved nobody but herself.  Hell, she only married Shorty for his money and she ain’t never been faithful a day in her life.  What makes you think she’ll be faithful to you?  Not only that, but what in the world do you expect Diane to do?”

    “Sonny, there comes a time when you just have to think about yourself and not worry about other people.”

    “You think so do you?  You know you’re making me sick to my stomach.  Diane and those two boys love you to death.  Lord knows you sure don’t deserve it.  How many times you been with her anyway?”

    “Three,” said Scott Ellis.

    “Three times and you’re ready to run off to Georgia?  You must be plum crazy.”

    “You don’t understand.  I love her too.”

    “I think I’m going to throw up right here.  I swear I honestly do.  I can’t believe that you’re no brother of mine.  If you run off with Alma Turner you’ll regret it the rest of your life.  That’s all I got to say.”

    “Sonny, I’m looking for advice not criticism.”

    “You’re looking for damn approval is what you’re looking for.  Well, you ain’t getting that from me.  I think you’re a fool and my advice to you is to stay away from that woman.  Don’t see her; don’t talk to her on the phone.  Stay as far away from her as you can get.  Hell, if you have to me and you can go over to Hatteras fishing for a few days so you can get her off your mind.  We can take the boys if you want.  The important thing is that you cut this off right now, this minute before Diane finds out about it.”

    “Sonny, I just can’t.  That’s all there is to it.  Besides I’m supposed to meet her down at Riverside Park at seven this evening.”

    Scott Ellis was there at the park at a quarter to seven.  He sat in his car anxiously awaiting Alma Turner’s arrival.  At seven on the dot a new white Lincoln Continental pulled into the back parking lot and eased up beside him.  It was her.

    “Come on Scotty, get in,” she said through the open window.  She was dressed in white shorts and a yellow halter top.  Her dark brown hair fell over tanned shoulder and bright green eyes sparkled like the silver necklace and earrings that she wore.  She smelled like coconut and spoke in a seductive whisper.

    “Oh Alma, I can’t get my mind off you for a minute,” he said as he took her easily in his arms and kissed her.  God, you look fantastic.”

    “Have you made up you mind, baby?” she asked.  “I need you so badly.”

    “Yes,” he said.  “Just give me a few more days to line everything up and I’ll be ready to go.  We can leave on Sunday night.”

    She kissed him again.  “I don’t know if I can wait that long,” she said.

    Her skin was as soft and smooth as butter.  Her lips were warm and inviting.  She pressed tight against him and ran her manicured fingernails through his hair.

    “Lord Alma, you drive me crazy,” he said.

    As they embraced one another a big black F150 pulled up along side the Lincoln and a short gray haired man stepped out.  He walked over and tapped on the driver’s side window.

    “Alma, y’all come on out of there,” he said.

    “Oh my God, it’s Shorty!  He must have followed me.”

    “Come on now,” said Shorty Turner.

    Slowly, Scott Ellis and Alma Turner got out of the car.  “Shorty, what in the world are you doing here?” she asked innocently.

    “Don’t try and pull that stuff on me,” he said.  “I want you to get in that car and drive straight home.  I’ll be there directly.  I need to have a few words with Scott here.”

     There was nothing that she could say.  She got back in the Lincoln and drove off.

    “Now boy, what do you aim on doing with my wife?”

    “We was talking about running off together,” answered Scott Ellis frankly.

    “You need to get that notion out of your head,” said the little man.  “Alma ain’t going nowhere.  You don’t figure that you’re the first man she’s wanted to run off with do you?  I expect that you probably think that you’re in love with her and that she loves you?  Well, take my word for it, you don’t and neither does she.  My advice to you is to climb in your car and get back home to your family.  If you two ran away I’d just come after you.  You don’t want that.  You see, I understand Alma.  I accept how she is.  I do it because I love her too.  I love her more then you.  So, get in your car and get on home.”

    Scott Ellis didn’t say a word.  He climbed into his Chevrolet and backed out of the parking lot while Shorty Turner stood watching with his hands on his hips.

    On the way home he thought about what the little man had said.  He felt a sense of relief, happy over the fact that he had made the right decision.

***

A native of Southwest Virginia, James William Gardner writes extensively about the contemporary American south.  The writer explores aspects of southern culture often overlooked: the downtrodden, the impoverished and those marginalized by society.  His work has been nominated for the 2016 Pushcart Prize.

Morning Sickness // With Bases Loaded, I Pitch My Wedding Ring Into an Empty Cap

Morning Sickness

 

I must be getting my period, because everything is louder and more shrill than it should be. The carrots blare against the thin metal shredder, and I can’t hear NPR. Just this: YOU’RE LISTENING TO MORNING EDITION. My uterus groans, strangling me. Like yesterday, but worse. And now, it’s still morning and the bland tile floor is still cold, and I still think, over and over again, I must be getting my period. She is wrong: the carrots don’t help. Halwa is a traditional Indian dessert with sugar and raisins and saffron and cardamom and milk and pistachio and, yes, lots of grated carrots, all cooked together. My mother taught me. I eat halwa when I’m empty. But never like this. And fuck, if I hear ‘LOVE, WHAT MAKES A SUBARU A SUBARU’ one more time... The ghee crackles in the cast-iron frying pan, deep and black. As they interview a man from Baghdad, I cough, how fucking American. Then, more carrots on metal. More muted news voices. I wince, pull finger back. Too close to shredder. I hold up the finger. Just nicked it. I wrap myself in a Band-Aid anyway. I empty the bowl of carrot and spice into the pan. It cries out. I lower the flame, and the simmer becomes silent steam. I drop to the floor, sit cross-legged. My feet are bare and I feel feverish. The heat is so low I don’t stir. I add some two-percent milk. Blowing the embers of orange heat, I eat the calm slowly and read a glossy brochure about IUDs. I can’t keep doing this. One spoon at a time, until it’s gone. I can’t. And then I go for more. The sacred dish is supposed to purify the body, rid it of evil spirits. My mother is an ocean away. I wish she were here. He texts. Desperate, and bursting with holy carrot and cardamom, I look away. The screen is cracked. My fingers are pink. Stray scabs of orange cling to me. Everything goes unanswered. And then, the radio: LOVE, WHAT MAKES A SUBARU A SUBARU.


***

With Bases Loaded, I Pitch My Wedding Ring Into An Empty Cap


After a fifth inning piss, I think, I left my flask on the top of the urinal. The fucking wife was supposed to meet me. Talk about the kids. We had season tickets. She never showed. Me and an empty seat 141D. The flask was silver. Some one must have took it. Another thing gone. I waited in line at the concessions and paid credit. The dogs spun in slow motion under the lamps. I relished the ketchup, first one with diced onions, the second an ugly marriage of barbecue and hot sauce, each was 4.99 plus tax, and slid down in the loud air, noisy people in jerseys with numbers on them, some blue and some white, I swallowed, greasy lips on a plastic cup of Bud Light Lime, and went back for a second round, then third, and in the bathroom, found a fourth, full on the counter by the sink, I didn’t look back, the flask had our initials on the side, and I’d never lost it before, maybe because I’ve never been to a professional baseball game before, never thrown up in the alley after, until now, now I have, I left after the seventh, that’s when I remember the sunflower seeds on the stairs, ensconced in shadows, and then, I splattered my painting on the biff outside Gate B, and kept going, staggering, and then regaining myself, until after a block or two, I tripped on the extended leg man of the man against the granite wall of, looking up, Starbucks, with twin batteries in one hand, rolling one over the other, clink, clink, and a cardboard sign in the other hand that says, If they win, pls help. God bless, I ask him, Did, did they win? and then heavy-eyed, stupid-faced, the madness of his advertisement spat on me, and my lips crawled into a dumb smile, you fucking idiot, of course someone will win, and the frazzled beard and torchlight eyes push me back, everything spinning a little for me, and so hands to my knees, I plopped next to him, both of us hunched over, wild-eyed, and the churning continues, lines of the sidewalk blurred, and it got messier as I begin to cry, to sob, from inside the ribs, and up the throat, and burning the eyes in a cool way, I don’t fight it, the numb repression, empty 141D, lost along the street somewhere, flashing orange DO NOT CROSS sign, heaved up, but the tears were few, surface bloating, and I heard the clink clink and it brings me back, and I see what’s next to us, a garbage can, flatulent with fare from dome concessions, and sides of my fucking head like bass drum’s in street-marching band on the home opener, my temples were crashing together, and the cardboard beard man was still rolling it all in the palm of his hand, clink clink, and instinctively I reached for the abandoned popcorn, not from hunger, I had no bodily needs other than to sleep or disappear or undo or wake up from it, but I offered some popped and salted kernels to my partner, and together we watched the legs pass, with one eye on the upturned hat filling slowly with clinking pity.

***

Ryan Loveeachother is an MFA candidate at Georgia College & State University. He writes with one foot on the bass drum, keeping time, BOOM, BOOM, on one and three, til the lights go down and the party ends. 

The Weather, Underground

    “’Course, I’m teasing you: there is no weather, underground. There are no hurricanes, cyclones, or typhoons, underground. There are no blizzards, no snowstorms, no freezing-rain. There’s no hail, no sudden cloud-banks piling upward, with lightning that stretches like skeletons into the dark sky, and cracks of thunder, like a whip, or like the entire earth was a stomach, gurgling. No sudden winds, no tornadoes. Underground, in a cave, the temperature is constant. It feels cool in the summer, warm in the winter. Here, it’s 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Day and night.

    “Well, almost no weather: There is a faint breeze, it comes over the shoulder, like a whisper, and seems to flow past, no matter which way you turn. If the water dries out, above, the ceiling will stop dripping, the walls won’t sweat, and if the vents get stopped up, or new ones open, that can change things, too. Or if this had been a walk-in cave, where they’ve widened the entrance so people can come straight in, without stooping, and even push baby strollers in, that changes things. The heat will rise out of the cave, make the upper layers cold. Then, the outside weather will pour relentlessly in.

    “Guess it might be why I took to the cave. I mean, liked it so much. Like ancient people did. A cave may be dark, and the rocks may stab downward like giant teeth, and raise up, claws, and cast scary shadows that slip past you, get at you a little. But that’s all. And then you get to feel secure, the cave is solid. It bears up to the weight of the ground piled above it, without a thought. And it bears up your tiny human body strolling in its tunnels, and comforts even in the greatest open hall. Imagine, trying to stand up to the weather in a little house, made of wood.

    “Up above, it might seem reasonable, a house sturdy, at least until the winds come. Down in the strength of the cave, the idea is revealed foolish. Two-by-fours might as well be toothpicks, and the great sky a little child stomping them or smashing with a fat, tiny fist. It’s weather that brought me here, to this cave, you know.

    “Not in the literal sense, but the tornado may as well have picked me up and put me here. What it did is take Momma and Daddy, whoosh out of the house, and took the house too. They found the bodies, and parts of the house hundreds of yards away.

    “Before I learned science, I thought that I had just prayed too hard. Or that for God, maybe His actions weren’t so precise, you know. I’d wished Daddy gone, prayed so hard, so long. Of course, there is no God.

    “I had an aunt, she was a half-sister to my mom, and in another state. So that’s where I was shuttled off. She lived in a squat white house with a pale tin roof, in a lot of thicket and crab-apple trees, in a light-green clearing, in some young woods that clung to the soil thirty to a hundred-feet above this here cave. Except she had gone and left. I guess I was to live there with her mom. Maybe nobody cared.

    “She was no relation to me, but she wouldn’t have known if she was. She sat in the corner, and rocked a bit, and every morning asked who I was, and I would remind her, that I was her daughter’s half-sister’s son, and my name was Lamar.

    “‘Hello,’ she would say. ‘Nice to have some company.’ She was okay, I suppose. You know she’d get up and shuffle to the door, lean a bit, and then make it out, to her big Cadillac. Disappear for a while. Maybe an hour? Hard to tell. Come back with groceries, get them to the table, then that blank look, and back to the chair.

    “So I’d unpack the groceries. There was usually enough for both of us, mostly stuff you could heat on the stove.

    “I slept on the couch, under three or four layers of blanket I found. Brushed my teeth in the kitchen sink. One day a school bus stopped out front, so I got in. I liked school. Did pretty well. A few times teachers asked why I didn’t have a notebook, or pencils, or anything. Said I forgot. One gave me a whole pack of things. People are pretty nice, you know.

    “We went here to the cave, for a school trip that year. You know the entrance was just at the top of the hill from the house, and I never knew!

    “Well, anyways, I took to the cave. And used to walk up the hill on my own, so they got to know me. ‘Hey, Lamar!’ they’d say. And I’d say ‘Hey’ back. Wander through the gift shop looking at the rocks in the bins, geodes, you know, that rough dark surface with the glittering cities of crystal hidden within.

    “‘Why don’t you take a tour?’ they asked. Of course the fee was pretty steep. A few of the guides used to take me down with groups, pretending I had a ticket, so not to make people mad, who’d paid. A few times, though, Mr. Kinder, you know he’s really very nice, but he shooed me off, and got into something of a fight with Carol, I didn’t stay past the first sharp words. I knew I couldn’t be hanging around there…

    “Try to stop me though. ‘You’re drawn to the cave,’ he said. It was the summer I turned 14. ‘I understand. When my dad bought this place,’ he shook his head. ‘But.’ That was all he said. Then he put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Come in to my office.’ I was pretty nervous. But it turned out he was offering me a job!

    “I had to get my working papers. But I could be a guide. First I’d help Riley take groups through the short tour. But maybe I could lead a few tours on my own. Mr. Kinder smiled, but it was kind of like a grimace. Maybe it’s just how big he was, and his side teeth which were sharp like a dog’s. He almost filled the desk, and crouched in this chair in front of it.

    “Too happy to speak, I guess, ’cause I sat there dumb.

    “‘You’re going to love it,’ he said. ‘But hey, don’t you close your eyes down there, now, or people might not see you.’ He laughed from his belly, ‘Heh, heh, heh.’

    “I don’t know what he meant by that. Do you?

    “Then, ‘Here,’ he said, and reaching into a drawer, tossed something at me. It was a tube of Speed Stick deodorant. ‘You should probably use this.’ I clutched the thing, and ran out of there. But I knew I needed deodorant, now that I am turning into a man. Was just trying to figure out how to get it.”

    Lamar closed his mouth for a bit from the talking, and peering down through the impenetrable darkness, thought he saw Erin sleeping, but he knew he only imagined her face, and intuited that she was sleeping from the sound of her breath, and how she had settled in to his lap. He had never spoken to anyone so long, and so personally, and so fluently. He had only meant to fill the silence, after Chad had stopped groaning, somewhere, below. Perhaps she had been asleep the whole time. When Chad slipped off the ledge, Erin had shrieked piercingly. She screamed, and then fell as though insensible into Lamar. He braced against the rock wall, and then slid into a sitting position, with Erin tense, and hyperventilating in his lap. Chad had screamed too, then groaned, then stopped.

    The light from the flashlight Chad had held had ripped across the cavern, and went out the second it hit the ground. And now there was only absolute darkness.

    Lamar was glad that Erin probably hadn’t heard the bit about the deodorant.

    He put his hand on her hair, which was surprisingly coarse. He had imagined her feeling soft, like a cat.

    “Everything is going to be alright,” he said. And then he closed his eyes, and was lulled to sleep by her breathing.

#

    A Monday, in June, there is a scattering of tourists milling in the foyer. Recently Mr. Kinder added a Zoltar machine, which lit up and spit out your fortune on a ticket, and one of those machines that take a penny and flatten it with a design, to get people to come closer to the gift shop entrance, and to see the banquet hall sign. It was these kinds of changes, and he had more planned, he said would fix the balance sheet on this place. Mr. Kinder was in his office, watching the various cameras and taking notes. You have to say “Hi” to the customers as soon as they step into the gift shop. Stand upright and point your body towards things you know they might like. Subconscious cues. Don’t try to sell something to people right away, get a feel for what they want, then only swoop in if they seem to need help to decide. Put the rock candy out in front, right by the checkout.

    He put a fake fire in the fireplace, with the log and the gas jets. The fireplace was a big stone affair, but the chimney was completely clogged, and anyway, it was not practical to keep a fire burning. We were approaching the 21st century, you see. He had some aged pine beams put in overhead, though they were not structurally needed. And a big Afghan rug, genuine. As if it were a lodge. At 10 am, the first tour opened, which he had Susan announce on the loudspeaker, though all the ticket-holders were already milling in front of the sign. (There is the air of professionalism to consider.) At his desk, Mr. Kinder had folders with various plans. Cottages for up from the main building, and a zip-line. A big pool, and a water-slide.

    In the antechamber, which led to the elevators that sank a hundred feet down, to the cave, there were some black and white photos, and a diorama of the landscape, which was pretty out of date, having been a project of the local historical society maybe forty years ago. Still, it held a strange attraction for people so that even Mr. Kinder was reluctant to discard it. On the sloping, terraced green some plastic cows circled around a small opening by some sponges painted to look like bushes, where cool air vented from the cave. (Incidentally, this was how the cave had, originally, been discovered.)

    Somewhat obliviously, off to one side, a small die-cast farmer on a tractor puffed away on a cigarette, which had been painted bright white, with no filter.

    “We should do something about the cigarette,” said Mr. Kinder, “you know, for the kids.”

    Here would be some animatronics, two robots, the salesman had been last week, showed some videos and talked over the script. Some of the guides were against it, but Mr. Kinder told them it would make their jobs easier. No longer having to tell the whole story, now you’d just press a button, and the story of the cave would come to life in the voices of its discoverer and the man who popularized it. In truth, the guides weren’t reliable in terms of the quality, and if there’s one important thing for a growing business, it’s consistency.

    Mr. Kinder felt his forehead, and his hand came away slick. It was too hot in his office. He made a note to get the air conditioning looked at. Elsewhere was still fine. He looked at the guests on the screen.

    There was the couple from Pennsylvania, with two sons, one of them was exceptionally tall, tourists. They all had on sweatshirts with funny slogans. The tallest boy had one with the letters “FBI” and an asterisk, below it said “Female Body Inspector.” There was an older man, who looked off one way and then the next, as if lost, and finally struck up a conversation with the father. He had been through Pennsylvania and stopped at “most” of the caves. Now he was curious about the caves here. Another tourist. Right as the last call came, two teens came laughing through the door. Chad and Emily, locals. She was 15, but he could drive. It was sweltering outside, and he had through to go down in the cave, and kiss in the shadows. And stand on the backlit lucite heart, which had been installed in the cave in a little chamber called the chapel.

    The tall boy suddenly shrieked. It was a cry of bottomless horror. His mouth, half-open, a little black tunnel, his eyes, which had peered intelligently left and right, now were vacant like the eyes of the taxidermied buck in the hall. The shriek died in his mouth as his mother put her hand on his shoulder. His living eyes came back. Everyone turned their faces one way and the next, as if you could hold someone’s hand just by looking at them. No one said anything, and Riley beckoned everyone in to the antechamber, and began to tell the story of the cave, in his rehearsed, showy voice. 

    Lamar stood in the back, shifting on his feet, nervous about his first day, even only as an assistant guide. His job was to lead the group to the elevators when Riley had finished. “This way,” he said. He split them evenly into both elevators, and then he and Riley stepped into their respective ones. The elevator took a few minutes to get to the bottom, and in Lamar’s elevator, the walls seemed too close. As the rock face tumbled by the frosted glass of the elevator window, Lamar thought about Erin. She had been wrapped up with Chad, tall, handsome, about to be a Junior. Lamar didn’t think she recognized him. He put her in the other elevator, just in case.

    Erin had thick blond hair, and something about the shape of her mouth and her smell which filled the air around her, had aroused Lamar for what felt like the first time last year, and in class after class he felt like he was unable to escape her. But it all felt foolish. He didn’t even want to look down for fear that something was stirring. He nonchalantly untucked his shirt. At least the light would be dim, soon. A blinding shriek shook everyone in the car. The tall boy had yelled again. This time the shriek trembled out longer, trailing off to a whimper. Some whispering noises from the family, some unheard soothing words. Then the doors opened, with a cool blast, and then the enveloping air underground, a pleasant reprieve from the closeness of the elevator. Everyone gathered in the atrium, a tall room dynamite had carved into a hall the shape of a chamber of the heart.

    Riley began, again to talk.

#

    As they moved through the cave, over a walkway with railing that had been put in, water trickled by in a low stream, and bare bulbs half-silvered, cast illumination up onto the walls, or down into the water, over the solid, sheening ripples of stone the drippings from above made. Chad touched the rock, where he shouldn’t have, though a thousand thousand other fingers had, in a notch of some flat stone that had fallen to make a low bridge the tallest had to stoop under. From time to time Lamar traced the cone of his flashlight to highlight a particular feature (“here is the leaning tower, not less magnificent than the one in Italy, eh, and we call this one the bat, why? Watch the shadow fly across the wall.”) 

    Lamar mouthed the words to himself, convinced he could repeat them after just a few times, though despairing of Riley’s easy manner. Halfway along the low route, which was really a quarter of the tour, they stopped in a large natural room down one entire side of which the ribs of the earth seemed to intertwine. It was called the cathedral, and a floodlight from the ceiling cast three separate colors down the grill of limestone, a blood red, fading into yellow, which at its corner was washed into sickening depths of blue. Riley stepped in front, “You see why we call this the cathedral!” His hair flared in the direct light, fire, while his shadow crept behind him, with the life of an independent being.

    After a few minutes of talk, Carol came down from the staircase that came from high-road, where she had been sitting with her flashlight and a book on a camp chair. She rubbed her behind with one hand and slapped Lamar on his ass with the other, gently. No one was watching. She whispered, “You should ditch these sheep and uh, hang with me.” Before Lamar, whose cheeks felt like fire, could reply, she had taken up position behind a camera.

    Riley told the groups to get together for photos they could, but were not required, to buy upstairs. It took a while to get everyone organized, and Carol took a few shots of each, ending with Erin and Chad, who waited until the last second then Frenched for the camera, before jogging off after the rest of the group around the bend. Lamar looked back at Carol as he followed, and she winked, and then looking to Chad, she made a cupping motion with her hand towards his rear, and looking to Erin, made a gesture with her hand and her tongue, which Lamar did not understand. “Jeez,” he said, leaving.

    The cave curved around tightly for a bit, then opened. In the distance, the sound of a waterfall grew louder, it wasn’t a high falls, but the small stream had grown into something navigable by flat bottomed boats thanks to a dam, and the middle part of the tour was done in the boats, which an earlier owner had felt, truly, made the experience more dramatic (and upped the ticket charge). At the “dock,” Riley started to board people, then said “Shit,” and got Lamar over.

    “Weren’t you watching in the back?” he said.

    “W-what?”

    “Those two kids are gone.” Lamar looked around. Riley was right.

    “Chad and Erin,” Lamar said.

    “Whatever,” said Riley, “they can’t be wandering around alone. Head back, there’s only a few places they could have gone to, and when you’ve found them, take those idiots back to Carol, and I’ll meet you on the way back.”

    The water made blooping noises as people stepped into the boat, which echoed back through the low cavern. Lamar wandered back, his first time completely alone in the cave. He walked slowly, feeling a deep sense of exaltation. Everything about the cave, without other people, was lovely to him. The silence except for himself, which above ground oppressed, here was liberating. He stopped to look down at the water, clear, fresh, flowing. He wondered what lived in it, whether deeper there were those blind, albino crustaceans, pale indifferent fish free of predation,— he remembered his purpose. He suddenly thought he caught Erin’s scent. He started to jog along.

    There was a passageway near, which led up by a back route to the “chapel” where the glowing heart was. Lamar reckoned this was their most likely deviation, and followed it. He began to go faster, until he emerged, and found them. Chad was kissing her neck, and had one of his hands over her shirt, on her breast. Lamar turned away, but by they saw him, and for a second they stayed together, before separating.

    Lamar said, “Hey—” and then everything seemed to loosen in him, in the earth, all at once.

#

    When the rolling of the ceiling and the ground stopped, and the noise had gone and everything, there they were, all three still in one piece. Except two passages had collapsed completely, and a third, which had been small, now opened tall enough to crouch through to a passage on the other side, although there were stones fallen everywhere. Lamar had a cut on his cheek, which showed bright red. The heart had a huge crack in it. Then the light in the heart, which was the only one left, flickered, and was gone.

    Erin screamed.

    Lamar pulled out his flashlight. Chad was crouched and something, perspiration, tears, on his face was wet, and the rest was coated with dust.

    “We have to get out of here,” Chad said. He came at Lamar, growing brighter, while his shadow splashed over the way out. He snatched the flashlight, and grabbed Erin. “Come on,” he said. Lamar followed the two of them, it was the only thing to do. It looked like the worst of the damage was behind them, and that, going forward, things were more calm. Lamar wondered how long the flashlight would last them.

#

    They went for an hour, along the only path they could take. Chad pushed on, natural that he should lead. Then on a ledge in a large cavern, two dozen feet above a sloping ground that bristled with thousands of stalagmites, he slipped, almost soundlessly. Until the landing from which Lamar had looked away.

#

    Asleep, he had dreamed of the way out.

    On the map he’d long studied, which showed the entire cave network, not just the part for tourists that Mr. Kinder owned, but a rootlike weaving, one long arm branched out, bulging and then fingering off into a few passages, the last of which curved almost up to the side of a rough quarry which had carved away the hill for limestone blocks, where in one spot the cave was so close to the ground that some entranceways had been marked out and blocked. They could crouch around the side of this chamber, then crawl along the last of the way without any danger at all. When they got to the exit, the blue sky would poke through some boards, and Lamar would see the light on Erin’s face. Then they would push the boards out, together, and fall into a green patch. Was it morning? It would be impossibly bright.

    Lamar opened his eyes, or wondered if he had.

    “I know how to get us out!” he said.

 

 

 

Benjamin Harnett, born 1981 in Cooperstown, NY, is a fiction writer, poet, historian, and digital engineer. His essays, poems, translations, and short stories have appeared in Brooklyn Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, Wag’s Revue, the Columbia Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Dead King Magazine, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. He holds an MA in Classics from Columbia University and lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Toni, and their pets. In 2005, he co-founded the fashion brand Hayden-Harnett. He currently works at The New York Times.

The Great Machine

We pushed on. The train had started up again and drove through the pitch darkness for an interminable period and then stopped. Again, as we had done countless times before, we disembarked at a station whose name and location were unknown to us. Again we looked as one body back down the tracks from whence we'd come. The brightness of the station lamps made peering into the dark quite difficult. As our eyes had time to adjust, we could see perhaps fifty yards, no more, by the backwash of the lamps. Then, as we had many times before, as a body we stared into a gloomy void ahead, as if the pressure of our multitude of eyes, and the insistence of our hopes, might penetrate the unknown future.

We turned our attention to the well-lighted area in front of the small Victorian-style station with its eaves, clay roof tiles, and windows as dark and sightless as a blind man's eyes. No sign hung from the roof edge, or rather, one oblong sign had been hung, but without a name: a mere blank. Some suggested that there might be a true sign behind it. They stared at it a long time and proclaimed the existence of a sign behind the blank one, and that we must endeavor to discover what it said. It would be an unforgivable omission not to prosecute a search. It would be, some suggested, an abandonment of faith not to try. We discussed it. We did nothing.

Some had remained inside the cars with faces pushed against the windows. Some subset of these now bestirred themselves to the platforms at the ends of the cars, as if they might too disembark. They peered intently. Then, as if aroused by some inaudible signal, everyone began to crowd back into the train and jostle and push each other to get back inside and into a seat. One sensed a sudden urgency, even the slightest hint of ill-concealed panic, as passengers tried to sustain a facade of civilized behavior.

Some few always got off the train and stayed. Most came back. Others, left at the station by other trains, tried to get on ours if there was room. No one stopped them. Most often there was not enough room. These had to await another opportunity, another train. They stood on the platform open mouthed, stunned, quiet. Some of these would die of hunger and exposure while waiting for something to turn up. Something will turn up they said to themselves.

Babies were born on the train. People aged, became ill, or died. At a stop, some of us would bear the remains to an unlit area beyond the station for discreet burial. The chronically ill stayed on the train and kept going. Put your faith in the train and its steady going. We all muttered it under our breaths until it became a chant of sorts: put your faith in the train and its going. Put your faith, put your faith, put your faith.

The train began to chuff slowly away. We peered through the windows into the dark to see the few stragglers who had the strength to get back on but didn't. Why?

It had happened before. One of us would become engrossed by the presence of the station building and the light. For another, perhaps, it was the frequent spells of rain that poured misty drops through the cones of light cast by the platform lamps. The spray of tiny droplets streaked through the light and into the dark again like a shower of tiny meteors. I, myself, narrowly escaped their spell on more than one occasion. Others of these stragglers were transfixed by the black steam locomotive which glistened with moisture, and made its long and labored exhalations of black smoke. We accounted these people mad. Why did they stay? Did they think they would learn something we had not?

Inside, we froze, as bars of cold shadow and stark light passed over us until all was once again dark. The train flew through the darkened country once more. There were periods of dim, gray twilight as we traveled the days and nights through. During the lighter intervals, we saw the silhouettes of ruins, of distant cities from which smoke billowed. We were safe. Prayers of thanks were voiced.

All tried vainly to make out some feature in the faces of fellow passengers masked by the darkness. In the cold season we sometimes saw the clouds of their breath propelled into the occasional light that flared into the cars. We chanted the mindless prayer together: have faith, have faith in the train. But we did not see each other. The darkness within hid all.

The longer the train traveled without catastrophic accident, or incident, the more desperate became our faith, the more intense and hushed came the chant. Somehow the train would evade the devastated stations, somehow the engine would remain functional without mechanical failures to abruptly stop it cold. We put our faith in a finite train, built somehow for an infinite journey. It would go on forever, this train. Just put your faith in the train.

Sometimes rumors would make the rounds. One rumor showed a persistency, and though rarely uttered, it was often thought: there was no engineer. Had anyone seen him? No. When we were stopped, the great locomotive could be seen with the sheen of moisture glistening upon the steel skin, but the cab always remained buried in shadow. The question would never be settled, for to approach the cab had become taboo. Everyone looked away from the vast engine when the rumor was voiced, and prayed silently: have faith, put your faith in the train.

No one knows how long the train has been going. Some say we make a great circle and come back again and again to the same places. It is difficult to tell. Most agree that they are familiar places, but not the same places. No. Not the same places. Not the same stations.

Over time, many of us noted the curious circumstance that the entire population had changed. There were always babies and children, men and women, elderly people and they seem in some way, unchanging. Yet not the same. Yes, bit by bit, all has changed. I believe, I too have changed. I am now among the old. I cannot see it. I have no mirror, but it must be.

We leave the dead at the stations and pile them in the shadows. There is no time to bury them anymore nor even memorialize. New ones will grow. Out of sight. That's best. No time for all that, nor for stories or talking.  Forget the past. History no longer matters. We didn't know about events that might be taking place beyond the stations. And it was unseemly to investigate the stories of others. We didn't know the stories of those who had passed on any more. The present was all. The train and its going; rest your mind in that.

Some whispered amongst themselves about a possible catastrophe that loomed, but never seemed to arrive, as far as anyone remembered. Such conversations, though held in hushed tones, traveled through the train in a gradual way, like a slow moving chill that leaves one ill-disposed to stand or move around. At such times we repeat over and over: put your faith in the great train and its going. It will not fail us. It will always continue on and on. Forget everything else. Don't ask how or why. Forget the looming catastrophe. Pray to the great machine, to the unseen engineers, to the great mechanisms. Pray they never stop, never fail. Don't worry about the others, those that have died, that are ill, that cannot find a place, that are left behind. Don't worry. Bow your head. Open your electronic rush-light. Those of us with a spot on the train matter. The train matters. The great locomotive machine matters. Even more than we, the passengers. Forget the passengers. Faith in the train. In the great mechanism. Pray only for its salvation. Pray for the great machine.


Michael Landsman is a retired NYC high school English teacher, avid reader, and a writer of fiction and poetry. He has long been a fan and collector of trains. Hence, the imagery in his story.

In the Upside-Down World, Pt. 2

Read Pt. 1 here!

***

“Trust me, nobody has been kicked out,” assured her Nikolay. “You see, even during military operations, the rule of law is enforced here. We got these regulations and they provide that each government-controlled dormitory must keep one room vacant for emergency situations. If, however, the manager still lets unauthorized persons live in that room, he’s the one responsible for the problem, not you. Old leach, these people would make money on everything. Can’t trust them. I have an eye for his kind. I know how to straighten them out. Even his son – he looks fishy to me. I have a feeling I’ve already seen this guy somewhere.  But where?.. Anyway, most likely, the girl got things confused or may have even made them up.”  

He was very convincing.

“In any case,” Amy said to herself, “the day after tomorrow we’ll be gone and the room will be available again. Until that moment I’ve got tons of work to do.”

The humanitarian aid turned out to be a middle-sized carton with several cans of beef, condensed milk and something else.

A gloomy-looking woman passing by sighed, “The feds in Moscow think that this will sustain us for three months.” “Thank God, during the clean-up the soldiers didn’t find the money I’d hid. So once in a while I can buy some food for my family.”

Amy did not quite understand. “Excuse, but clean-ups are to catch rebels, aren’t they?”

“Whatever you say. But instead of the rebels the soldiers caught me with my two children, my sister and parents.  They kept us all in a barn for three days and then released us, no explanation given. When we came back home, our house had already been shelled away, bombed into pieces.”    

    Oumar was showing her around the dorm. Seeing their beggarly, nearly inhuman living conditions, with rooms looking more like prison cells, she felt sorry for these people. Yet what they were telling her sounded weird to say the least. She met this old man who claimed Russian soldiers had kept him in a pit in the freezing cold for a week. She met this woman whom during each clean-up operation the soldiers confronted with a choice: her jewelry or her teenage daughter. When the woman ran out of jewelry, she took her daughter and ran away from their village. She met this married couple – Special Forces men captured their son, stuck him into a stack of hay and burned him alive.  All these gruesome stories were beyond comprehension. Welcomed in a tabloid, they would raise a lot of eyebrows in The Rain City Herald. Yes, these people went through hell, and hell changes things, creating new realities. It puts everything upside down. Overwhelmed by stress and fear, it’s only human to become a victim of distortions. And distortions are a powerful force. They bring up from the bottom of your soul something you couldn’t possibly think about.

    “And don’t forget their drive to cover up their beloved relatives who flopped over to the bearded ones, I mean the Wahhabists,” commented Nikolay.  “You know, my favorite movie is Can’t Change the Meeting Place. It was released at around the same time as the West boycotted the Moscow Olympics, a sanction for the Soviet Army entering Afghanistan – like the US never sent troops to Vietnam or never bombed Serbia. Anyway, the point is, the main character in that movie, a detective officer, he was saying, ‘There’s no punishment without a crime.’ And that’s how it is here. You’ll get to hear a lot of outcry from the locals, a lot of complaints how they were mistreated and all. But they’ll tell you only one side of the story, skipping the other one.  I admit, some people may have been wronged, but there was always a good reason for it. You’ve seen our boys: They’re no cannibals. They’ve taken the military oath and are just serving their country. But the locals make some kind of monsters of us. Do you know what they call us? Gaskee khak, meaning ‘Russian pigs’ in Chechen. A nice was to say thank you for all the blood that we have shed here. Who else would protect them and the world from the goatface Wahhabists? And let me tell you, these bearded crazies can’t wait to blow up America.”  

***

It was not until late evening that she was done with the interviews. Wiped out, she was dying to crash down on something soft and stretch her body out. But the dirty bunk bed mattress in the dorm was certainly not her first choice.

Nikolay came up with an idea. ”Why don’t you go to the barracks with me and meet my friends? It’s close by.” She gladly accepted the offer.

Sitting around these blonde, ordinary guys and drinking brandy, she was quite comfortable. One of her hosts was telling jokes, another – showing his photographs. At some point, mysteriously smiling, Nikolay excused himself and half an hour later came back.  “Surprise!” he shouted, holding in front of him at arm’s length a real, bellied, copper samovar. “It’s a tea party time, gentlemen and our fair lady!” Where did he got this obscure piece of equipment was puzzling. But she knew he’d done it for her.  

Then a tall freckled guy took out an acoustic guitar from a guitar case, and they began to sing. Their songs sounded too lingering and mournful as all Russian songs do, but she didn’t mind. Then the player switched to the pieces she was more familiar with and did Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water and other classic hits. Pink Floyd sounded particularly inspiring when several voices sang along, “How I wish // How I wish you were here // We’re just two lost souls // Swimming in a fish bowl // Year after year.”

Except for the brandy it felt like she was back in a scout camp in the Canadian Rockies. Yes, Nikolay was right: These people are just ordinary people.  True, nobody invited them to Chechnya, but being here wasn’t exactly their idea either. They’ve come to serve their country, after all. And this means, this means that … Whatever it meant, Amy didn’t finish thinking it out. Tiredness and the buzz did their job, and she fell into a sleep.

… She woke up because somebody was stroking her hair. She understood right away who it was. All of these days she really wanted his hands to touch her, but didn’t know she wanted it. And now he was caressing and kissing her, and this was a wonderful, irresistible feeling – something she hadn’t had and longed for a long time. She got carried away, but at the very last moment pushed him away.

“Are you scared?”

“No, I mean yes. Everything too quickly. And you are looking so similar like my brother. It’s crazy.”

Although it was dark, she felt that he was smiling.

“OK. Time is no challenge. We’ll wait!”

He gently kissed her on her lips and got up.

Only now did she realize that they were lying on an improvised structure made of pillows and blankets laid all over the floor.

“How cozy! It’s actually better than the scout camp,” she thought and fell into a sleep again.

***

When Amy opened her eyes, the room was empty, and so was their section of the barrack. She went out to the yard and washed her face with fresh snow.  Nobody was there either.

She was walking down the river bank back to the dorm. The dawn sky was brightening, and soon the outline of the swing tree she had seen yesterday became discernible ahead. Was it an oak? Suddenly she heard someone yelling and cursing in Russian. A man. And then a scream burst in the air. A child’s scream. Amy rushed forwards. She reached the tree – and stood still from what she saw.

Thе swing was missing while the rope was still there. Her arms straight up, suspended to it was someone very small and little. The pink pom pom hat made it clear to Amy who it was.  

His back leaning against the tree trunk, a man was half-sitting. A soldier was wobbling right near him, sawing the air with his arms. Despite the cold, he was only wearing a T-shirt for top.    

He was shouting, “Where’s your son? Where the fuck are ya hiding your bastard?”

    Amy came closer. The soldier turned around, and to her dismay she recognized Nikolay; to be precise – what was left of him. His face was different, drink-reddened and angry. His eyes were no longer green but, with the pupils enormously dilated, turned dark. He looked through her for a few seconds and then staggered towards the tree. She looked closer: The man under the tree was Oumar, the dorm manager. His lips, nose, cheeks had become one huge bleeding wound.

    Nikolay stuck a combat knife to Oumar’s throat.

    “So where the hell is your fucking son?”

    “Don’t know. Yesterday he left for the city. He didn’t do nothing bad.”

    Nikolay punched him on his chin.

    “Didn’t do nothing? How about he and his thugs slaughtered half of our recsquad? They all were wearing beards then. But I have figured him out. I have an eye for his kind. So don’t you fool me, asshole.”

”Vakha has never been at war. And he must be in the city now. You can do what you want to me now. Just let my granddaughter go, please.”

Amy felt as if she was having a nightmare. And maybe she was. Yet she had no time to think it through and rushed to the girl, trying to untie her.

Nikolay pushed her away into the snow.

“Fucking American whore. Get the hell outtahere.”

Each of his word was filled with hatred.

“Nick, why are you doing this? This isn’t like you, Nick,” she was repeating. Standing around her were the ordinary blonde guys who had generously welcomed her with tea and brandy and sung so heartily last night. None of them paid any attention to her now.

Starshina,” said the freckled guitar player to Nikolay. He wasn’t playing the guitar now, just smoking and spitting into the ground. “What if you got him wrong? These assholes all look kinda the same. And we were boozing it up heavily the whole night yesterday.

“I got him wrong? Well, why don’t we check?”

He picked up a stick from the ground, looped the rope around it and twisted it, lifting the girl’s body higher off.

She burst into crying, “It hurts. It really hurts.”

“Cool swing, baby” he smirked.

With one stroke of the knife Nikolay sliced off all the buttons from the girl’s parka. Holding the knife blade to her belly, he said to Oumar, “OK, old man. Let’s see what she’s got inside.”   

And here some unseen force picked Amy up from the ground and pushed her forward towards Nikolay. Taken by surprise, he fell down. Frantically slapping him on his sodden face, she was screaming, “You’re a Nazi, you’re a goddamn freaking Nazi.”

At first he didn’t even try to defend himself, but when the others were pulling her away, bolted his fist forward. She got nauseous. Something warm was flowing down her cheek. Driven by a whim, she threw two words at these soldiers, “gaskee khak.” She didn’t really mean it and wasn’t even sure what exactly these words meant or where she had heard them. They just popped out, driven by frustration and distress.    

    Suddenly something shone in his hand. The blade?

    Oddly enough, Amy didn’t even feel any pain, just some disgusting saline taste in her mouth. But there was no way she could spit or swallow: Instead of her throat she now had something cold, big and scary inside of her.    

    Lying with her back on the snow, Amy thought, “The little girl is right. If you look above from upside down, everything is so different indeed. The sky looks different upside down. And this tree looks different upside down. And these strange people surrounding me – mouths instead of foreheads – they look so funny, too. All is different and funny in the upside down world.”

    Then she saw several cloudy sheep in the sky. White and curly, they were gazing at her quite curiously. They probably would be doing this for long, but for some reason the sun began to go back down, falling behind the horizon. When it finally vanished, the sheep ran away.  And shortly everything else was gone into nothingness.  

***

Leonid Storch immigrated to the US from the Soviet Union in 1990 and presently lives in Thailand. A former resident of Florida, he has a Juris Doctors Degree. His publication list includes 3 books and numerous essays, poems and fiction stories that appeared in Russian-American and European magazines. He writes both in Russian and English. 

In the Upside-Down World, Pt. 1

 

Chechnya. Twilight. An icy road. Amy could no longer see the snow through the windows of their 4WD jeep. Yet even during the day the landscape here wasn’t totally white. Much of the snow was hidden by tons of inky, greasy mazut generously spilled around: black smelly ponds scattered all over the used-to-be-white valley. A black and white world film noire. As depressing as these small-time oil refineries or whatever they were. Amy turned to Nikolay and asked:

“I am forgotfulled. What you call these refineries here? Some of var?”

Samovars. Samovar means a ‘self-cooker.’ In Russia it’s like a big kettle. In the old days Russian people used them to make tea. Did you ever have samovar-boiled tea? No? I promise you will, quite soon. Anyway the Chechens use their ‘samovars’ for a different purpose, to cook petroleum and money, so to speak. And if there’s any unused oil, they just burn it. Can you believe it? They complain of starvation and put the blame on us, of course. But this oil is real money, and they just dump it. Go figure … Do you mind if I smoke?”  

First she was afraid that the officer assigned to accompany her around Chechnya would be a jerk and try to make passes at her or at least show what a macho man he was. But Starshina Nikolay Ryabov turned out to be a real gentleman, gallant, humorous and straightforward. Having been in the service since high school, he never went to college, but was quite sharp and capable of holding a meaningful conversation. This wasn’t the main reason why she liked him though. The truth was, he – his footballer’s image, athletic posture, blonde buzz cut, blue eyes and even his voice – all of that reminded her so much of Kevin, her older brother.  A rescue helicopter pilot, a dead one.      

“Аnd how old are you?” she asked.

“36.  Too old?”

“No, perfectly. You hurt the jackpot.” They both laughed.

A giant torch, its fire reaching all the way to the sky, was getting closer and closer. It must have been the main oil well in the area. “Oil Gone with the Wind – this could make a good article title”, she thought. “Wait, how about Petroleum Ashes of Chechnya?” The greens were quite popular in Vancouver, after all.            

They passed through the town of Tsotsi-Yurt, drove onto the main highway and then turned south. Right at the exit, a military patrol stopped them. For a while, a guy wearing a camouflage uniform was scrutinizing a bunch of papers she handed to him. For some reason he got nervous with what he saw there. Awkwardly tossing the papers back and forth, he stuck the barrel of his AK dangling on his shoulder into her hip a couple of times. That flashlight was blinding. Then the usual trivia game started.  

“Why a Canadian passport?”

“Because I am from Canada.”

“Then why Chechen clothes?”

“I do not want invite attention.”

“And how come you speak Russian?”

“My grandma is from Russia.” (This of course was a lie: Her grandmother, responsible for Amy’s Mediterranean look and Orthodox Christian denomination, quite symbolic indeed, was born in Greece and didn’t know a word in Russian. Amy learned the language at university).

The Rain City Her … Ald ? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s leftist newspaper. We support politicized reform of Russian government.”

“Isn’t it weird?” Amy thought. “All of these patrol people, however different they may look, ask you exactly the same questions. Collective thinking or strictly enforced check lists? Either way, they’re entitled – as long as they don’t stick me with these stupid barrels.”

Apparently Amy’s answers didn’t satisfy the patrol officer, and Nikolai jumped into the process. He took the guy aside from the jeep, beaming with a smile and patting him on his back as if he was the guy’s best, long unseen friend. Then they were both on the cell phone with someone. Finally Nikolay gave him five and shouted to Amy, “We’re good to go!”  

Turning the ignition on, he said, “What an airhead! Still a rookie but thinks he knows everything. A big boss.  I have an eye for his kind. I know how to straighten out these people. Anyway soon we’ll reach the destination. Boys I used to serve with are stationed there, so things will go more smoothly – not to worry  … By the way I’ve been meaning to ask you something. Hope you wouldn’t mind … I don’t suppose you’re married or something.”

“Why thinking so?”

“Well, to be honest, if I had a wife or even a girlfriend, especially one such as yourself, I’d never let her go to a place like this.”  

Amy smiled – this pick up line was hardly creative, and ordinarily she’d make sure she won’t hear it again. But this time, for some reason, she didn’t mind it at all and even felt pleased.

***

The refugee camp was an old dormitory building. Before the Russian army invaded Chechnya, the building had been occupied by workers from the local cement factory. Today, those whose homes had been destroyed in bombings were stationed here.

Muddy dirt on the floor, missing pieces of plaster on the cracked ceiling, and a stinky smell all over. She was lucky to get a separate room, though. Furniture was represented by two rusty bunk beds while interior design was provided by a magazine page featuring some Russian soccer team (Spartak, is it?) and a postcard image of Alla Pugacheva, a Russian pop diva, albeit rather boring by Western standards. Funny, sports and music transcend wars, after all.

“The bathroom is at the end of the hallway,” explained the dorm manager, a not so young, yet not so old man with a look of exhaustion on his face. “But it’s not working anyway. You’ll have to go one story up or down. My son will show the way. He’s name is Vakha. If you need anything else, just call him or Oumar. That’s me.”

After Nikolay had her settled, he went to the military quarters where his friends were living. Once again Amy appreciated his tactfulness. Unlike her guide in Moscow, he didn’t fish for an invitation to have a cup of tea, and unlike those army slobs in the neighboring Ingushetia, didn’t push for a drink toasting to the victory or friendship between Russia and the United States (the fact that she was Canadian had little impact on their persistence).

“He seems to be a nice man and certainly has integrity. And he looks so much like my Kevin. Mom would like him.”

She curbed her enthusiasm immediately. “Not so fast, girlfriend. Your job here is to put reports together, not to put romance back into your life.”

She turned on her voice recorder and started a detailed narration of what had happened in the evening.  

***

It snowed the whole night. The snow in the backyard was so virgin white and untrodden that Amy didn’t want to step on it and went out to the street through the main door. In front of the building there was a crowd of people, excitedly discussing something in the local language. Carried away with their conversation, no one paid any attention to her. She walked down the street, then turned into some alley and soon reached a river. There were no dwellings here – just piles of garbage and construction waste. The rather dull landscape was enlivened by a huge spreading tree towering over the river bank. A piece of plywood suspended to one of the branches made a perfect rope swing where a little girl was half-sitting still. Holding the ropes, the girl threw back her head so far that her black hair was touching the snow. A pink knitted pom pom hat was lying nearby.

“What are you doing?” asked Amy.    

The girl was gazing up at her from below for a while.

“D’you ever try this?”

“Try what?”

“To look at the world from upside down.  When you do that, everything is different – the sky, the tree, and the people. You’re different too: Your mouth is where your forehead should be. Eyebrows are under the mouth, and instead of the mouth you have the forehead. Funny, huh? So d’you ever try it?”  

“Hmm. I cannot memory. I guess not.”

“Too bad.  If you look long enough, you can even see the animals.”

“What animals?”     

The girl finally sat up and got off the swing.

”I know who you are,” she said. “They’ve kicked out the Abukhanovs because of you.”

“What are you telling about?”

“They said to the Abukhanovs, ‘A foreigner’s coming. Clear the room.’ Just like that.  Now you got a separate room. But we got six people in our room: me, my mom, my dad, grandpa Oumar, grandma Aina, and brother Vakha. We all live together, yes. And today they’re bringing us hewman … hewmoney … hew-money-terry-ann, whatever, aid.

She put her bobble hat on and flinging up the snow ran towards the dormitory.  

“Wait, kicked them out to where?”

But no answer followed.

To be continued... tomorrow!

***

 

Leonid Storch immigrated to the US from the Soviet Union in 1990 and presently lives in Thailand. A former resident of Florida, he has a Juris Doctors Degree.  His publication list includes 3 books and numerous essays, poems and fiction stories that appeared in Russian-American and European magazines. He writes both in Russian and English. 

Saturday Night Sucks

“So, tell me, how was the date?” It’s Jett. He must have radar. He calls the second I walk in the door. 

I hold the phone in the crook of my neck as I pop a Lean Cuisine into the microwave. “How do you think? It’s 10 pm on Saturday night and I am home about to Netflix 'Dark Victory.'”

“That bad?”

“No, it wasn’t awful, but pretty typical.”

“Where’d you meet this one?”

“OK cupid.”

“Ugh.”

“No shit.” 

 

OK Cupid, as you probably are aware, is another online dating service for the busy singles looking for connections. If you have never taken one of these mate matching quizzes, they are a perplexing series of questions, seemingly unrelated, and all equally weighted.  “Do you believe in God?” “Do you like cats?” “Is fidelity in a relationship important to you?” “Do you enjoy soup?” I don’t know of the validity of these inquiries. Personally, I’d take an atheist over a cheating cat lover. You answer these, and about a 100 more, and of course you are careful to use your “best” answers. Why yes, I am conscientious. No, I don’t like people who lie, etc. They take your responses and put them through the hopper, and out comes a list of your matches. Like magic. 

 

Frankly, I think they should have more essays. I loved essays in school, you could basically bullshit your way through anything. For instance, which 'Golden Girl' are you, and why? If I had known my ex was such a Blanche, it may have saved me a bit of heartache down the road, who knows? Tonight’s date was a Rose, no doubt about it. 

 

“Tell me all bout it, details, spare nothing.” I can hear Jett settling into his couch, sipping something with ice. Jett is fatally married to Bernard, so my forays into the world of dating provide theater for him. In earlier days, we all went out on double dates, triple dates, when all of us in the circle were coupled up, but now my canary in the coal mine adventures into the single life are both titillating, and cautionary tale.

The microwave beeps. I burn my hand on the little plastic tray. Peeling back the thin film, the steam rises up with a pungent tang. They have a lot of nerve calling this "Linguine Alfredo." I lean against the counter and twirl a forkful.

“So?” Jett is getting impatient. “Dish.”

“Where do I begin?”

“Where’d you meet him?”

“Border Café.”

“Jesus. Why?”

“He said it was his favorite place in Harvard Square.”

“That should have been a red flag right there. no taste. But at least you were close to home.”

“And the margaritas are decent.”

“What did he look like?”

“Not bad, really. Kind of slight, slim, sandy blond. Non threatening.”

“Bland?”

“Pretty much.” I blow on the molten lava of pasta. 

Paul, my date, was already there, sitting at the bar, even though I was ten minutes early. I like to be the early one, it gives me a chance to settle, check in, check out the place, maybe get a drink. “There you are!” he waved. “I was about to send out the bloodhounds!” 

“Am I late?”

“Oh just kidding, can’t you take a joke? Where’s your sense of humor? Come and give me a great big hug!”

I was groped and enveloped in a cloying scent I eventually recognized as Shalimar, a fragrance more associated with my grandmother, now deceased some years, than an evening of conquest.

“Wow! You are so much cuter than your profile picture! I love the beard! Can I touch it? Please?”

He was stroking my facial scruff when the bartender came over. “Cocktails?” she asked.

“Yes, please,” I said.

 

“So what did you talk about?” Jett swallows a hefty swig of his drink.

“He did most of the talking.”

“Oh, one of those.”

“He talked in exclamation points. He was very emphatic, enthusiastic.”

“Annoying.”

“Pretty much. Oh, he kept calling the waitstaff "girlfriend." like “OOH girlfriend I love those shoes! You’re so gorgeous, girlfriend!”

“Embarrassing. We don’t say that anymore, no one says that anymore.”

“And twice he told me to ‘Talk to the Hand’.”

“No!”

“I swear.”

About midway through our Cuervo Gold margaritas, while waiting for a chicken quesadilla to arrive (he insisted we split something, “It’s more romantic!”) Paul gave my upper thigh a squeeze. “This is going well, don’t you think? I feel an instant chemistry with you.”

“Maybe it’s the tequila,” I said, deciding to ignore his hand.

“You are so funny! OMG. Laugh riot! I’m being serious, Honey. I really think we could have fun!”

“What do you enjoy doing?”

“Oh, you’ll find out!” he licks the salted rim of his glass and gives me a wink.

 

“Was there anything good about it?” Jett sighs. I think in his heart he wants a happy ending for me. So do I.

“The drinks were strong.”

“Well that’s something. Sounds like you needed a good buzz to get through it.”

“I had three. The first two I sucked down like lemonade.”


“You must be drunk.”

“Little bit.”

“Me too.” 

 

Paul matched me drink for drink. He got loose, and giddy. His face flushed red. He laughed a lot, and loudly. Then suddenly he got quiet, his hand, now on my shoulder, tightened its grip. “I have a serious question for you.” He looked at me, with mouse like gaze, his eyes bright and timid.

I nodded for him to go ahead.

“What are you looking for? I mean really. Are you looking for just a hook up? I couldn’t deal with that, no way, Jose. That’s two snaps and a bag of chips. No way! I am too special. I want someone to love me, really love me! You know?”

“Well, sure,” I said, not sure what else to say.

“I’m so tired of the game! Aren’t you? Isn’t this lame?”

“You made a rhyme,” I observed.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

 

Jett is in motion. “I gotta scoot soon babe, the husband just came home with Chinese.’

“Ok, I’ll talk to you tomorrow? Tell Bernard I said hello.”

“Ok. So, you going to see him again, Mr. Shalimar?” 

“What do you think?”

“Guess not,” Jett sighs again, deeply, still hoping for that happy ending.

So am I.

 

I left Paul on the corner, after a quick hug. It was snowing. “Nice to meet you, handsome,” he said. “Call me?” he held up his hand to his face like he was holding a little phone, or an empty seashell, with the whispering sound of the ocean inside it. 

 

 

 

 

Norman Belanger is an HIV care nurse by profession. He’s also a writer, by some character flaw to be explored through intensive therapy. A lot of his writing comes from experiences in the LGBT community, but he hopes these pieces will be entertaining to a wider audience as well. Now more than ever, we need to hear each other’s stories. Some of his other works can be found in Aids&Understanding magazine, Sibling Rivalry Press, Red Fez, and Blunderbuss. Follow him @norman_belanger.

An Almost Miracle

 

          I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of the Shoppers Food Warehouse thoroughly pissed off at my day. Shopper’s was my second supermarket and I still hadn’t gotten everything on my list. I still  had to get that stupid cheese, the kind I always have trouble finding. Oh they had cheese at Giant alright, and at Shopper’s as well, except, they didn’t have that one particular, certain special cheese, the one that we always used and desperately needed.  

            So, I put the key in the ignition and started the engine. The distant sky was grumbling and turning from white to dark gray. I suspected that by the time I got to the Safeway, it would be raining like hell. I shook my head in helpless appreciation of the sad, bitter irony of it all. I knew (or fully expected) that in not too many minutes I would find myself  walking dejectedly out of the Safeway without the right cheese and madder still (if that was even possible).  Plus, I’d also be wet. Life was killing me.

             CRASH!!!

            Somebody threw a rock at my windshield! That is how it felt. Fortunately, the glass didn’t break and the brown rock skittered across the glass and came to rest on top of my wiper blades. Although the windshield didn’t break, it was scraped somehow and seemingly, bits of dirt were splattered on the glass. The rock appeared to be a piece of brown stucco covered with mud. Then upon closer examination it looked like the windshield wasn’t really scraped after all. It was just sort of scuffed.  There was something truly odd about that rock and when I looked at more carefully, I could see that it wasn’t a rock at all.

            It was a chicken wing, fried extra crispy and golden brown, the entire complete wing. And the mud of course, wasn’t mud at all. It was just bits of brown crust and grease.

            I was astonished! A chicken wing had just fallen from the sky!  Now that is something you don’t see every day. I glanced quickly around outside, craning my neck to see if any more were coming. It was a freakin miracle! I knew it was about to rain, but just thought it was going to be regular rain. This was unbelievable. I looked about expectantly for several seconds until it was clear that the miraculous chicken wing storm had passed.

            Then I noticed something outside in the little grassy island next to my parking space. It was a bunch of birds busily pecking around in the grass. They were big birds, crows. When I saw them, I knew exactly what had happened. One of those birds had somehow acquired a really great looking chicken wing. He or she latched onto it and took off.  During the flight, perhaps 20 or 30 feet up, that beautiful chicken wing had become just too heavy to carry. And the bird   dropped it right onto my windshield.

            Well, that seems to be such an ordinary, mundane explanation. However, when you think about it, what are the odds against being hit by a chicken wing falling from the sky?  Would they be greater than the odds against of winning a multimillion dollar lottery?  I don’t know. But I’m guessing such an occurrence would be very rare.  A storm of chicken wings falling from the sky, and people running happily around grabbing them out of the air, now that be amazing. That would be a miracle. But getting hit by one chicken wing falling from the sky would be such a rare event that it could possibly be considered to be an almost miracle.

            It was starting to rain as I backed out of the space to begin my journey to the Safeway, maybe half a mile away. I turned on the wipers, smearing translucent haze of chicken wing scuff all over the windshield. I couldn’t help but smile. Even though I still didn’t have the right cheese (and it was raining) I wasn’t mad. Even though I believed that soon I’d probably be walking back to my car soaking wet, splashing through puddles of the Safeway parking lot, still without the right cheese, I wasn’t mad. In fact I felt pretty good, because after all, any day that you can witness an actual almost miracle has got to be a good day.

 

Leonard Henry Scott was born and raised in the Bronx, New York, and is a graduate of American University (BS) and The University of Maryland (MLS). Scott was on the staff of the Library of Congress for many years. He and his wife Hattie presently live in National Harbor, Maryland. Scott's poetry, essays and fiction have most recently appeared in Storyteller Anthology Magazine, Garbanzo Literary Journal, Still Crazy, Wild Violet Literary JournalThe MacGuffin, and The Evansville Review.

Confessio Amantis

They had sex in the morning and in evening. In the morning they had sex like they needed it and in the evening, it was a slow, near-lazy kind of sex, a sex of secrets and moist eyes and kisses afterwards.  Admittedly, this is what people wanted to see, what they came for. It was a show in the morning and a show in the evening. 


Dr. Mette Thench was a part-time tutor at the local university and had been coming to the show for over a year now. At first, she came with her excuses; that such a spectacle might give her some abstract view on modern sexuality, that witnessing the coldness and coolness of the heated, taut bodies grinding on, to, with and at each other would confirm the vague suspicion that sex without affection was a hollow thing indeed. She thought too that her presence as a woman would discomfit the predominantly male audience; this though was unfounded. For one, she was by no means the only female to be a regular spectator and secondly, the audience were always, as far as she could tell, fully occupied in their little cordons that swaddled the viewing arena.  

This club was a three-arena establishment and though the acts and their configurations changed frequently, the management made sure to hold on to one regular show, a freckle of stability in their wrinkling world. It was to this regular couple that Mette always came, irregularly at first, with curiosity and shame and then with a kind of quotidian savour, like morning coffee and evening wine. 


After excuses came open desire and with that, eventually, she admitted to herself that she was taken, quite taken, with the man behind the glass: Eduardo. She was taken with his stamina, his alacrity, the body-blend of his musculature and of his penis, its girth and tone. She particularly liked it when he fucked on his knees, drawing his partner into his lap with moist plops in culminating motion. What made her like this even more was that this position was used both morning and evening, but in each possessed a different meaning. In the morning it was an expression of growling will, the utter involvement of the masturbator, and here, his partner- she called herself Cheree- became a tool, and Mette liked to watch the young woman’s body stretch out and retract like a rubber band as Eduardo performed.


In the evening though, Mette perceived in the act a rough tenderness; there was stroking and knowing looks between them and while this always caused a spasm of envy, she was relieved, always relieved, at the return of amity in the couple. This was, she realised, why she saw both shows. There was a narrative, repeated daily, apparently endless, over their groans and breaths and grimaces. This possibly intellectual take on her habits was a comfort to her.


~


It was true, the idea had occurred early in her watching of Eduardo and Cheree, but she thought such a thing impossible. She wanted Eduardo, you see, morning and then evening, on his knees, drawing her into his lap. She would be willing to pay and in her mind, had set her upper price. She thought it a generous amount. This idea and the accompanying images itched her for some time and even crept into her working life, where, amid a lecture on something or other, she would pause and gaze beyond her students to the back of the theatre. Suddenly embarrassed by her lapse, she would recover and move quickly on.


It was around Christmas that the university announced a restructure. Mette had been told early she would be up for redundancy, so when it came there was no surprise, though the package was smaller than first promised. When leaving day came, she fled her valedictory gathering, deciding instead on another activity. She headed into town. Due to last-day commitments she had not made the morning show, but, she reflected, this was appropriate.  Directly after the evening show was over (it was always timed to the minute), she would wait in the alley by the rear doors. She thought that this was where the performers must emerge.


She rested against the club’s wall, next to the backdoor. This is fucking madness, she thought, to be waiting out the back of the club, her pocket bulging with notes. 


Mette had only to wait a few minutes before Eduardo stepped out of the door and on to the street. He wore a green leather jacket and looked somehow smaller in the meagre alley light. Mette stepped away from the wall and called to him. Eduardo, she said, Eduardo. 

Eduardo had already begun to walk away but on hearing that name, he stopped and turned to her. Mette smiled at him by way of greeting. Eduardo looked her over and then quickly around them, as if to make sure they were alone. Her heart skipped a beat. She was rooted to the spot.
‘Yes. I am Eduardo,’ he said, without inflection. 


Mette was not sure what to say, what to say to get what she wanted.


‘You want me?’ he said again with the same implacable neutrality. 


‘Yes,’ Mette said finally, ‘Yes, I’d like that’. 


‘How old are you?’ His indifference penetrated her. He had done this before, she knew.
‘I’m old enough,’ she said, and here, Mette tried to make it sound sexy, as if she might possibly be more experienced than he. 


‘How old is old enough?’ Eduardo was turned partly away from her now, the light above the doors only illuminating his back of green leather. 


Mette tightened before she spoke: ‘Forty-nine’. 


Slowly, Eduardo turned to her. His lips were larger than she remembered and they broadened into a smile, that circled slowly into a rictus. He moved his lips, saying something Mette could not make out. She tried to copy his smile, to agree with his expression, though he was already walking through the patchwork light toward mouth of the alley. 

 

Craig Jordan-Baker is a writer and academic from Brighton, and lectures in Creative Writing at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham. Craig has previously published journalism, criticism and fiction, as well as having a number of dramatic works produced.

 

 

Ballad

I’ll tell you a story.

About John Grant.

A man who walked into a bar.

He was reeling. Eyes bloodshot. Shirt stained with yellow mush. A trail of snaily slime on the collar and a crumbled mass of orange gunk on a rolled-up sleeve. Probably pumpkin pie. He always ate pumpkin pie. Couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Crammed it down, slice after slice, until he felt sick and never wanted to eat it again. But then he’d have another slice. Then the pie was gone. Then he’d start drinking.

First it’d be beer. Then Beefeater’s, or whatever else was on hand—anything flammable enough to burn them away. The memories. Ones that made him want to scream in a dark hallway, or put his fist through a mirror, or lie flat against the floor and not move until his breaths stopped coming. Memories of her.

When the bottles were dry it’d be to the bar. His second home. Or maybe his first.

Good, old John Grant. They called him Barroom Jack. Created the nickname myself after I poured him a drink on a fiftieth consecutive night.

I said, “Don’t you have some place to be?”

And he said, “No.”

I said, “What about the wife? She wait up?” And he said, “She left. A year ago. Took the kid.” I said, “On account of the drink?”

And he didn’t say anything at first. Just took a deep swallow of his whiskey and looked at his wrist where a watch used to be. Could still see the imprint where the sun had not touched skin for the last eleven years. He loved the watch and he loved her. But he needed the cash.

He said, “You got any pumpkin pie? She made good pumpkin pie.”

I said, “This is a bar, not a bakery.” His eyes flashed silver like frightened minnows when they break the surface of a choppy sea, and suddenly he wasn’t sure if he’d outrun the Kraken rising up from the deep. But the panic showed for that instant alone, and only in the tension of his jaw and the slight pitch of his eyebrows.

He collected himself. Stared down at the wrinkled menu. Ran a finger along the center crease. Traced bubbles in the lamination. Pretended to read about frozen chicken fingers and low-fat quesadillas.

Then he ordered another whiskey with the glass still half full in front of him. As I pour, my reflection stares at me in the spit-shined brass of the beer tap—John Grant—a damp rag in my hand and wet shoes on my feet. Each night I fill the carousel of glasses with rocks. Adorn them with maraschino cherries or flimsy umbrellas. Pour a few fingers of scotch. Think about the good old days. Back before I opened this goddamn place. Before my life was measured in dimes and nickels. Before she made me choose.

What ever made me think they sold pumpkin pie at a place like this? How ridiculous of me.