Sunday, July 3, 2011

Something Like Forgiveness

What I will miss most of all, she said, setting down the tea, is his voice.  He used to read while I cooked. Every day. She looked off into a corner of the room where she remembered his voice to be. 

I turned, too, imagined him reading in his affected way: one hand holding the book out before him, pages rising with his voice; the other hand with fingers upturned, to urge the language higher.

Wait here, she said, slipped down off her stool, and disappeared down the hall into the guest room.  

The kitchen clock ticked away the hour, the silence. Steam rose  to the same height above both our cups.  I used my thumb to pat up the crumbs that had slipped from the plate of cookies. 

She reemerged holding a medium sized box.  The top was folded closed, the corners of each section bent upward.

She set the box on the counter and pulled it open. Dust rose with the steam. 

I want you to have this. It isn't a part of my life with him. I looked down into the box.  It was filled with photos. 

I peered down at the yellowed images.  Unfamiliar faces looked back. I reached in and shuffled the top photos aside to reveal more unfamiliar faces. I started to tell Carol that she had brought the wrong box, that these must be hers when I uncovered a photo I recognized.  It was a memory I had mistaken for my own, a moment from my dad's childhood not mine that I had remembered vaguely, sparingly. It was my dad sitting sidesaddle on a man's shoulder, feet dangling down across his man's chest.  The man's hand held my father around the ribs on his right side.  They both were smiling.

I pulled the photo from the box then looked at the box itself. I had no memory of the box. It was none of the many boxes filled with photos in my parents' closet that I had browsed through over and over to fill rainy afternoons when I was young. I flipped the photo over and only the year was written faintly across the top of the back. My father was not yet two.

That's your great uncle, she said, guessing at my voiceless response. The one you're named after. I peered closer at the photo, at the face of the man holding my father.  It  could have been my father when my father was young and newly married. Same build.  Same dark hair. Same smile. I gave a quick snort, realizing then why I had accidentally made the photo a memory of mine.

She leaned down to see my face.  I forced a smile. We stood this way a while: her leaning over, me smiling awkwardly. She nodded and rightened. Rested a hand on my arm. 

She looked at the box and reached in to pull a photo out, too.  She turned it to me for me to see.  This is your grandmother, she said, hopefully.  I took the photo from her, squinting into the image. She looked at me looking back and forth from photo to photo. She placed her hands on her hips.

Here, let me give you this, too, she said, snapping her fingers, and walked back down the hall, back to the guest room, her slippers shuffling over the hardwood. My gaze never left the photos.   

I doubt this will fit you she said, startling me as she entered the room.  She held my father's gown and hood draped over her arms. She looked at the photo in my hand, then at me.  She lowered the robe.

You know, she said, brushing a hand over the hood, this is new, actually. She draped both gown and hood over the back of the chair beside me.  She waited a second or two before she continued. The school asked your father if he would speak at commencement and introduce the English masters candidates the year he retired. He turned them down.  She looked at the photos in my hands. When I asked him why he tried to brush it off like he didn't care, but I could tell he was upset. She straightened one of the sleeves, though it already lay perfectly flat.  He later told me that he didn't have a hood, that he had been unable to afford one when he finished his PhD. It was very difficult for him to share this with me, to be vulnerable this way. She nodded her headI turned my gaze to the hood.

I called the the school, U of I, and ordered your father the hood.  I didn't tell him and let him be surprised when it arrived.  I raised my head in a knowing nod. She smiled at me, my gaze once again on the photos. We stood this way a while, she staring at me, me gazing down at the photos in my hands. 

Of course, I've no need for it now, she said, with the wave of her hand. In fact, I'm busy getting rid of all his things.  Goodwill's coming by tomorrow to pick his suits. You can have some of those too if you like . . .

I could tell this wasn't true. About the hood. Her voice gave her away. But I also knew not to turn down the gesture. Not for her sake.  Nor mine. 

This is the only recording I have of him, she said, breaking the silence.  She slipped the CD in to the portable stereo by the tea service. My father's voice filled the air.

Duncan Phyfe Table.  One extra leaf …

It's the valuation we did for the insurance when we first moved in.  I haven't listened to it since then. 

Silver service.  Set of eight …

Carol took her seat, and raised her tea to her lips. We listened to my father's voice rising from the kitchen, echoing from room to room, our gazes focused forward.

Monday, May 2, 2011

New Amsterdam, by Beth Harrison

This would have been the year I was born.

There’s a photo, a different photo, of a man on a riding mower in a wide field, a bassinet nearby. That’s him, and that’s me.

Beyond him, beyond us, is a pond. He placed the pond intentionally, starting from the catfish rock, what would become the catfish rock. He surveyed the site and dug it out and stocked it with bluegills and largemouth bass and catfish. This was before he built the rope swing he was the first to take a turn on and before he planned the gardens where he planted the elderberries we would all come to wait for.

And this was before even that.

I’m not sure how many acres the whole property was besides a lot, and it’s since been sold so there’s no longer any way to count. The closest neighbor was a dairy farm and we would watch the cows do their nothing-much all day, and even with binoculars they were not exactly what you would call close.

Behind you, if you were looking at the man and the bassinet and the cows as if they were in a photo, not this photo, but another one that you happened to be holding in your hand right now, one I have given to you because I really want you to see all this now, because I really want to see all this again myself -- behind you was the house.

But before we get to the house we have to get you there. From our house it was an hour and a half drive straight south. If you looked on the map you’d see nearby towns called, improbably,  Cadiz and Lisbon and Minerva and Mingo Junction and Amsterdam. The turn-off to the house you found by feel. If it was early in the spring, the house had to be opened, a rite that involved the sliding back of bolts and latches that secured the heavy winter doors, the unhooking and peeling back of shutters that had kept most of the snow from forming perfect curves of snow on the screens inside, and then a surveying of whatever benign mess the local kids had left the last time they broke in.

He had helped design the house, if design meant looking for and gouging out and carting home river rocks for the floors and fireplace, if it meant making rough sketches of the tiny stained-glass windows that would go here and there. The house was built into the side of a hill under a stand of pines so that you could open the sliding-glass doors in the big bedroom on the second floor and, before anyone else was awake or after everyone else had gone to bed, you could walk right out into the woods and keep walking.

He’d take me out to look for mushrooms; he’d say which ones not to. He showed me how pine needles made a bed, and they really did. We took the empty green beer bottles from our pockets, the ones we’d brought from home in big cardboard cases, and filled them with water from one of the several springs that ran through.

If you were a friend, and there would be no not-knowing this, you would be welcome to use the house any time you liked and your friends would be welcome too. There was a brown leather book with heavy empty pages next to the fireplace. Someone would be designated, maybe you, to write down the names of everyone who is there in the house with you right now, and the names of everyone who is down at the pond or off on a walk right now. You can also write something else in the book, whatever you want, if you want to. Such as, what the weather is doing right now and what it was supposed to have done, what is in what state of blooming in the garden right now, who caught what fish and how big was it and did they hook their own finger trying to untangle a casting-back that went too far into the trees and did they have to get stitches because of it and if so how many and did they cry.

But before we fish, we need grasshoppers. He showed me where to find the best ones, the not-too-small ones, big-enough ones so that I didn’t hook my own small fingers. He showed me how to bait the hook and where I might stand on shore and what I might be looking for in the water and how long I might have to wait there for anything to happen and when to jerk the line and when to pull. He showed me how to wet my hand in the bucket that was at my side because I could hurt them if I didn’t do this, how to slide my hand over the fins front-toward-back and how I could hurt myself if I didn’t do this, how to watch its breathing and go slowly enough so that the fish could actually help me pull the hook from its mouth. He showed me how to carry everything -- the catch-heavy bucket without spilling it, the no-action bamboo stick for a rod, the now-empty lunch sack and bait jar -- back up the hill toward the house, which is in front of us now; we are looking at it. But before we get to the house, we stop halfway up at the water pump and he shows me how to prime it until the water runs hard and clear and how to stun the fish sharply on the large flat rock he has put in place for just this purpose and how to clean and scale and gut all the fish after watching him do just the very first one.

And the light is growing dark now and everyone is waiting inside for us and so we should start again toward the house again.

Beth Harrison is the editor at Spinning Jenny

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Finding Balance

The wind crept into us off the ocean.  We pulled our bodies around us tightly. We all shivered anyway. Despite our hats and scarves and sweaters. Despite the sun, the walking.

We had been waiting patiently for spring. It's why we came. On the promise of warm weather. Even the dogs were unsure, stopping to kick the sand from their paws, a step here, a step there, looking heartbroken each time.

It was then the waves rose higher.  Fell harder. The sand held our steps longingly. 


It all felt like a dream she had, she said.

"It was this," she said, one hand holding down her hat, the other spanning across the horizon. "All of this. The people, too." We all nodded, because it seemed reasonable. Like we, too, had dreamt it, or that we were dreaming it only then, or that we had meant to dream it once before.

We followed the water’s edge around the bend.  There, the stones sat heavy against everything: the tide, our spirits, both breaking slowly in the cold. There was no other way across. Our shoes barely gripped their slick backs.

R and A drifted away over the rocks to the smooth sands on the other side, never looking back. The dogs ran even further ahead than that.

She looked up but once to calculate the distance trailing behind them that was growing before her. Otherwise, we looked down, troubling the stones with our brand new ambition. 

The first rocks we lifted were inarticulate. Small, oddly shaped.  Each marked the end of an idea.   I dug deep, lifted with my legs. My arms burned. This one fit perfectly on its end.  The next one did too. Together, they rose like an arm reaching out its hand to be held. Together, both rooted and free.


Castle hill rose high above, beside us. A path on the other side of the stones would take us to the top. Loop through the marshlands.  Bend back to the bay.  Shroud us with tree cover.  Some snow still rested in darkened corners behind rocks and under newly felled trees. Some trees still held leaves. Above it all, the sky, blue.

“We would take a boat through here,” she would say then, pointing to water snaking through the marshes.  A recent history.  Not ours. I would imagine it.  I would try not to.  But it would be in trying not to that does it. In a moment, it would pass.  But, in a moment would be too late. My silence would plow at the trail before us. Our steps would slow.  The trail would muddy.


The last rock was not as balanced.  Three tries later, I still held it in my hands, cradled it, brushed my fingers over its uneven terrain, sought the point where the weight shifted, pulled the rock down.  On the fourth pass, I found it, let the stone rest in my cupped fingers.  The edges were abrupt.  Not round and smooth like the other two. I was surprised by my choice, by the contrast, that it felt wrong to set it down or to find another.

She looked at me and nodded, a smile courting her lips, working through the cold. Her hat lay low over her ears. The wide brim waved in the wind. Her jacket stood stiffly. She waited with me. Hands folded before her. I placed the rock atop the others, sliding it back and forth slowly, seeking balance, seeking the perfect juncture, where stone against stone would hold.


The rest of the trail to the top would be quiet. We would stop at the top.  Rest on a low wall at the back of the Crane mansion. Gaze across the grounds out over the treetops. It would be much later that she would take my hand.  It would be after we circumferenced the house.  It would be after we made the long rolling walk to the edge of the greens at the very end of the property to look out over the water, to Plum Island across the bay. It would be after the walk back through the puddled lawns to the path that promised to take us back to the road, to the lot where we had started. It would be at the fork in the road where the path either led back to the house or back to the beach.  And her hand would be warm despite the cold, her fingers sliding through and into mine.

When we would drift from the path to the road, our arms would be swinging, our hands locked until passing cars forced us on to the shoulder.  Single file. No longer silent. I would follow her back to the lot, back to the car, back to the place where we began. R and A would be behind us. The dogs would be behind them. The gravel would be loose beneath our feet.  The cattails would bow as we passed.  


When I lifted my hands, the stone stayed.  I lowered my arms, tentatively, my hands still contoured to weight of everything the earth could yield to me without me having to let go, and looked out across the water.  The wind was strong, but the stones would stay. They would stay with each step across to the sands on the other side of the rocky terrain. They would stay with each step closer to the path along the marshland.  They would stay once we crossed the barrier between beach and grasslands along the river way.  They would stay until her hand found its way to mine through the silence. They would stay until we climbed back in the car, dogs and all, where the seats were warmed by afternoon sun, where we loosened scarves and hunched shoulders from around our necks, where the vast improbabilities between where we were and where we were headed were all at once abundant and manageable. And, without a word, we headed that way.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Long After the Laughter, by Josh Gilb

The music swells, the lights come up. The floor rises from the dark, becomes solid.
The emptiness around you fills with faces.


At the back of an old lot, through a hole in the fence, down a hill to the broken pavement of the parking lot. Past a low, loose board, into dark and the smell of rot. Puddles, mildew, dust, dirt. Past rows of empty shelves, broken equipment, empty boxes. Up some stairs to the lobby, down the hall and into the main room, carpet worn flat and creaky under our weight.

We found the electricity. We coaxed it on. We drew it through the wires, over gaps, like water. Long after the laughter, the flickering lights, the terror, the fear, the music, the panic, we crept in one by one and filled the seats to stare at the big blank screen. Some drank, were drunk, others slept or confessed, yelled or whispered, each from their own favorite seats and sections, out from the darkness and into the light.


They didn’t even show movies downtown any more, but we showed movies downtown. It was the Paramount. The Majestic. The Orpheum. Some derelict from before streaming and data and bytes and noise. From a time when the sights and the sounds were physical, of one thing rubbing against another. Elemental. We romanticized a metaphor, became those elements ourselves- touching, scraping, creating. It was our outlet, and our escape.

For some of us it was a shelter- a place to hide, a place to withdraw, but there was more to the magic than just having a secret place to be. There was a vulnerable level of trust like we’d never experience anywhere else, all the rest of our lives. We never talked about it, never referred to it. We kept it in its dark place, we got giddy with anticipation. And even then, we tried not to make a big deal out of it.

We sat in those seats, calling scenes out to silence. Pausing as we imagined with our shared mind, and then- reaction. Cheers, groans, some commentary. Then darkness, and quiet again. Attentions drifted. There were conversations, gossip. But we were never restless, we never wandered far. We chose to sit still, within that perpetual twilight, and watch pictures in our minds cross the dark.

We did it while water dripped in some far away corner, plaster fell from some high-up place. We talked until the credits rolled. Our projectionist for the night called out the last of the lines, and we craned our heads back in our seats as that big chandelier light rose to luminescence out of the dark. We followed it like a buoy to the surface. We rose with it from the ether, fully formed.


We would meet up, crawl down through those loose boards in the back, go up the stairs blindly, our hands at the splintery rail, into the light of the lobby. The worn, musty carpet pulled loose where the walls met the floors, and the boards sang songs under the weight of each step as we crept inside. The projectionist chose the films, acted as conductor to set the tone, called out scenes, spoke the most memorable bits of dialog, and we chanted along in low voices. Our celluloid shaman, painting the pictures we all saw, leading the vision, the mass hallucination.

Tonight, Apocalypse Now. Another night, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Something like Star Wars had the greatest cross-crowd appeal, but it didn’t screen much, though Raiders would occasionally show. There were a few potential projectionists each night. They presented their films and we deliberated. For something to show, it had to have spaces, something we didn’t need to follow too closely. In action movies things were always happening, and you had to pay attention. But something like Apocalypse Now- you just needed to know where the big scenes were. Thirty-four minutes: Charlie don’t surf. Fifty-five minutes: the tiger in the jungle. Two hours, nine minutes- the horror… the horror. There was a lot of time between those scenes, well paced and dramatic. And in those in between times we would talk, or sleep, or explore… argue, excavate, break-up, and make out. We watched classics. Iconic stuff. We needed to know them backwards and forwards. Modern movies were driven narratives. There was too much to keep track of, too much to remember. Foreign films worked well. Eastwood’s old westerns.

It was cooperation unlike in any other aspect of our lives. When you’re young, the paranoia’s real. Someone is always watching you. But not there, not in the dirty, velvet grip of those old seats, leaky pipes, crumbling walls. We might spend every second outside watching our backs, but inside that space, we didn’t even think. The projectionist called out the cues, and we all concentrated, pulling from our collective memories. We filled the screen with ourselves. We projected.


We never broke anything, stole anything. We cleaned the place up, made it comfortable. We may have each had our separate reasons, but we all needed the place. And more than that, we didn’t want some other thing to take it from us, or to tell us it wasn’t ours. There are some things you only understand out of focus. You revisit them during the silent, solitudinal moments, between each flicker of the light of your future life. They will never leave you, but haunt you endlessly.

Rain on the roof. Wind at the walls.


We drift down like smoke through the aisles. We sit in groups, we sit alone. The scenes glide across the screens in our minds until we all see some version of the same thing. We remember the details a little differently, but we all watch the screen, and we all see.
We sit in silence. We sit in the fog of each others’ low murmurs, voices that drag and crawl, laughter that drips and falls, holding on.

To each other, across the dark.

josh gilb has a stack of notebooks full of half-finished stories and other such fluffery. he's also woefully behind on his photblog- he apologizes profusely, but insincerely.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Gabriel, by Deborah Poe

Gabriel looked down at his hands. They were gnarled and scarred. He began to mentally compare his hands to Nora’s but stopped himself. Not a living thing moved in this mammoth building, except for him. What these 10-foot mirrors must have witnessed throughout the years. He imagined certain ghosts lived behind the glass. Even when he watched Nora from across the street over the last year, the enormous mirrors—of which he could only make out the edges depending on his location at the park—spooked him.

Younger, he lumbered by here with his parents. His mother and father had always looked woefully at this building, his father near seething. His mother had never set foot in there. In fact, her only connection to the place was upkeep of people’s houses, those esteemed citizens who were welcome to frequent the Society’s establishment.

Gabriel turned up his collar and adjusted his slacks. It was still dark as he pressed his lean body against the heavy front door. He was exhausted from all night’s work. It wasn’t how he had imagined him and Nora finally meeting. Not at all. He clutched the heavy bag tighter and breathed in deeply as he stepped into the empty street and quickly transported his figure through Central Park. It was only a couple of miles to the river.

Gabriel, with teeth clenched, wove his way to the Hudson as the city woke up. A woman that reminded him both of his mother and Nora rang a buzzer on the porch of an apartment building. He shuddered when she scrutinized him head to toe and paused at his laces, which he now noticed were near untied. He shifted the bag to the other shoulder and laughed out loud at her until, embarrassed, she turned to the building’s face. He had used this tactic before. He was never going to be bullied by people, least of all by the ones who thought themselves better than him.

Gabriel arrived suddenly at river’s edge. He sat at the bench to gather himself, wanting to ensure no one would ask questions or pay attention to him tossing the bag in the water. Just as he suspected—he had found his father many times at this very spot—there was no one. He pitched Nora’s superiority and alarm into the Hudson and studied the bag as it sunk like a rearing, brass, warhorse sculpture.

Gabriel tripped over a small patch of grass into which he had accidentally wandered and returned his soles to the sidewalk. When Gabriel reached Penn Station, he veered drastically into the light. The sun is violently hidden, he thought, the dark sky tears it apart. Gabriel looked back down and scanned the station.  Dizzy, the rise of the windows gave him the same kind of feeling his father’s facial expression had exhibited many years ago when perched at great heights. Gabriel carried himself back to the street.

The shoe shiner was a welcome apparition, tucked next to the building. The boy moved quickly around an elderly gentleman’s expensive shoes. His hands, Gabriel examined more closely, were smudged black and brown. The shoe shiner peered up at Gabriel and then inspected the lower quality, splattered lace-ups Gabriel wore. He stared at Gabriel intently, his eyes obviously well versed in a spectrum of questionable activity on the city’s streets. Gabriel stuck his hands deeper in his pockets and glared back unrelenting at the shoe shiner. The shoe shiner looked away.

Penn Station, the towering edifice, made the boy’s face appear like the visage of a menacing leprechaun. Gabriel remained rooted. There was some connection to this boy, some moment of recognition they shared. It made Gabriel feel less lonely, though Gabriel didn’t articulate it to himself that way. Rather he meditated on what he’d do with the remainder of his day. When the wealthy old man sauntered off, Gabriel thought he saw Nora’s reflection in the man’s eyes. The man’s shoes were bright and practically brand new. Gabriel brought his coat in closer and arched one leg, setting it down on the cube-like box before him. Gabriel stood absolutely still. He felt his muscles untangle like clothes drying on a long line stretched above the city. The boy mumbled a “How are you sir,” and Gabriel, already relieved, ignored him.

Gabriel summoned memories, like playing Swing the Statue with the neighboring children. They always picked the boy upstairs to swing, and Gabriel was always chosen to be swung first. The older boy would take the children, hold them by a wrist or hand, swing them in a circle and then let them go. Gabriel, spinning or tumbling, would freeze. He was smallest but also able to hold strange positions for the longest period of time. Gabriel was a patient boy. He could wait and wait.

Gabriel watched the abhorrent city cacophony begin. Cars blasted their horns incessantly; it gave him a headache. The passers-by, with Madison Avenue wardrobe, fixed their haunted gazes ahead as their heels clicked by. Those less fortunate walked with heads hung low. As the shoe-shine boy wore away the blood stains on the shoes, Gabriel measured tomorrow’s transportation options.

The shoe-shiner hovered above Gabriel’s toes. Just as Gabriel solidified plans to take a Cleveland-bound bus the next day, he noticed another man taking a photograph. These tourists. The city—he ached to seize that camera. Gabriel focused on movement to his right. Backs of cars rode away seemingly in slow motion. Left, the photographer, like someone frozen, remained nearby staring up at the station.

Gabriel regarded the entire view and contemplated the seagull party hovering near the building’s edge above him. His mother used to say the seagull flies between earth and heaven with messages to mortals. Acknowledging her prescience, Gabriel nodded the birds’ direction. Gabriel handed the shoe-shiner money, surprised when the bills rested in the recipient’s hand. Looking down, the boy’s palm looked translucent, unworldly or invisible—as if anything solid could slip through. 

DEBORAH POE is the author of the poetry collections Elements (Stockport Flats Press 2010) and Our Parenthetical Ontology (CustomWords 2008). Deborah’s writing is forthcoming or has recently appeared in Fact-Simile Magazine, Peaches & Bats, Jacket, Sidebrow and Colorado Review. Deborah Poe is fiction editor of Drunken Boat and guest curator of Trickhouse’s “Experiment" door 2010/2011. For more information, visit

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Doe, by David Ryan

Somewhere along the drive home it occurred to Wayne that science had rendered sixty the new middle age — or would, by the time he reached a-hundred-and-ten. He knew, too, that this improvised errand his wife had sent him on was the setup to a benign trap, that a surprise sixtieth birthday party waited for his return. Of this he was confident. Wayne was known for his confidence, and for his far more appealing wife. A year into early retirement, he had taken up watercolors and already claimed himself a superrealist. Several lessons into his piano playing he began to liken himself to a young Bud Powell. This lack of self-reality provoked in friends an odd endearment, a kind of compassionate pity. And so at the garden party at home the crowd screamed Happy Birthday! And Wayne shrieked a bit too enthusiastically: I can’t believe this!

The party had been going well for an hour or so, when a doe entered the middle of the yard from behind a magnolia tree. As if just another guest. Wayne assumed this was a prank by his brother-in-law. That someone might jump out of the deer. But her flank was badly scarred, perhaps from a car. Her impossibly authentic looking eyes had locked on Wayne’s. He felt something tug and flush in his chest, a small seizure, the air around him rupturing. And then Wayne lifted.

Lifted over the crowd, where now he saw his father standing over the kitchen counter of their cabin in Michigan where there lay the body of another doe, hit by the car that day so many years ago. Butchered and put into the freezer, she would last two seasons. Participating in her death made her taste sacramental, even if Wayne did not understand the complexity of her taste each time. And Wayne, seven or eight, was now in the rowboat on their small lake, skimming shallows for turtles; holding the medium snapper he had snatched from beneath a clutch of pond grass close to his face, little Wayne asking his newfound friend’s retreated red and yellow head to show itself, pleeeeeese; the head darting out to bite Wayne clean through his cheek, blood running down his face, a lifelong v-shaped scar (later attributed to a college fencing incident). Ice fishing with an uncle who would die in a car accident someday. A badger that looked like stole strewn with teeth, rasping back at that barking dog. Wayne falling down the stairs, failing a hearing test, hitting ice during winter football. And then Wayne looked much as he looked today. He saw the canvas on his easel, unfamiliar, brushstrokes smeared, limited to pinks, blacks, grays. As if he had used his fingers. His wife in the doorway watched Wayne enter the room like a damaged child. His wife seemed frail. Now Wayne was banging the piano with his fists. His wife weeping into the phone, he could see her soul hovering grayish, parting from her body slightly, rubbing against the warmer air of her flesh. She was leaving him. And suspended in the air, all Wayne could hear himself thinking was My fingers, eating keys. She had taken his paint away. Wayne was walking crabwise, backwards, sometimes forward, confused. His wife on the phone again, her soul lifting of her warmth altogether, her shadow shaking Wayne free of her. Wayne was surrounded by extraordinarily old people. Light from a window bleached the room. The thermostat set high, compensating for the gathered lassitude. Muttering to himself. No one asked his opinion.

Wayne descended from this vantage, possibly created by a prank-deer. Planted possibly by his wife’s brother -- who always sang harmony when it came time to sing the Happy Birthday song, and insisted on trick candles for the cake. Now the lawn again supported Wayne’s sixty-year-old feet at the party thrown on their behalf. The deer was gone, his wife was leading him through thickly-peopled applause. The soft grass, the terra firma. Clustered friends parting for Wayne and his wife, allowing passage to the cake ahead. The sixty lit candles. Were these people just another trick? Were the candles supplied by his brother in law?

His wife, tugging his hand, pulling him through the crowd. These people appeared to wish him well. There ahead sixty candles flickering. His brother-in-law, smiling off to the side. The son of a bitch has drugged me, he thought. All the clappers and smilers and laughers and pitiers, with their well-wishering Happy Birthday to you.... His beautiful wife’s smile — she will leave me to only myself when I become too difficult to love. And like the child he had just revisited for a time Wayne thought, this is the worst birthday ever! He could hear roofers and their percussing nail-guns far off, as if keeping time like a maniacal idiot against the ongoing birthday song. Happy Birthday Dear Wayne, Happy Birthday To You.... Wayne’s brother-in-law now supplying the dread single contrapunt of harmony of the song’s cadence, the major third, the look-at-me augmented fourth -- when Wayne expected to see all the neighborhood’s dogs leaping into trees -- and then the final major third and his brother-in-law’s outstanding “. . . and many more.”

To which Wayne expelled, scanning the cake with his breath, his wind leveling miniaturized devastation, the sparking smoke, the collapse of this dioramic empire of sixty lights. The crowd’s Whoas and clapping splattered as Wayne, center of attention, blew out every candle.

Then inhaled and blew again. The crowd half-chuckling because there really was not anything left, Wayne. His breath now battering these smoldering wicks, and he felt very dizzy, breath begging Please of the withering sticks. Please, to the timepiece in front of him. He recalled the venison had tasted, each time, like it had been hit by a car. You could taste the adrenaline of its last moment on earth. Sixty lights down, how many remaining? He inhaled, blew again, nail-guns spitting off a roof not far away.

David Ryan’s fiction has appeared in BOMB, The Mississippi Review, 5_Trope, Denver Quarterly, Cimarron Review, Tin House, Alaska Quarterly Review, Hobart, New Orleans Review, and the Norton anthology, Flash Fiction Forward, among others.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Disruption of Memory, by Stephanie Cornell

“I told him four times already.”

“He doesn’t remember anything,” said my mother. “It’s from his accident.” Of course. The accident. I had missed so much in two years.

“Oh, did he hit his head when he fell off the roof?” I replied, suddenly trying to put together how a broken heel might result in memory loss.

“No, the bicycle accident.” She said it so casually, as if this was common knowledge. Not once in twenty-eight years had this been mentioned, but now she was recklessly tossing around the possibility as if it were fact. As if we all made this association, as if it were regularly inserted into conversations at family functions or pulled out among friends as the punch line to a joke.

I remember the warm spring afternoon we gathered to celebrate Colin’s first birthday. I remember the Fritos and vegetable dip, the bottles of birch beer soda, and how quickly the laughing stopped when the slideshow abruptly shifted from California landscapes and group photos at dinner to my father smiling weakly from his hospital bed, half of his face as black as obsidian, swollen and taut. His shoulder the color of eggplant. That photo, in an instant, sucked all the air from the room, holding our breath hostage until a collective exhale resumed the balance of oxygen. My father chuckled uncomfortably, allowing a breathless “Wow” to escape his mouth. He hadn’t seen himself like that.

I had not seen him like that either. When he arrived at Logan Airport the previous November, the thing I was most concerned with, more than anything in the whole entire world, was not the condition of my father’s face, but that my mother not cry in public. “Please. Do not cry,” I’d insisted more than once on the way to the airport, and again while we waited at the TWA gate. It was vitally important to me that these tanned, radiant strangers from California not see my mother cry. Before the first passenger exited the jetway, my mother was breaking every rule and allowing tears to fill her anxious eyes.

It was my grandfather I saw first, his tall frame popping up from the crowd of the passengers. When my father finally emerged, his face was the color of mustard, a pale mossy green lining the edge of what now revealed itself to be the remains of a bruise covering the right side of his face. The white of his eye a deep crimson; the skin around it a dark mauve. His right arm was suspended in a sling to support the broken clavicle. And if this were not enough to bear, my father – upon first seeing us – began to cry in public. My mother fell into his chest and also cried in public.

At home, he would show us his purple hip and the platter-shaped bruise that ran down the side of his thigh. He would give us presents from California, like he always did when he traveled on installations. For me, a copy of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, not because he liked them – I’m not sure he even knew who they were -- but because I had started playing flute the previous year. In many ways, it was no different than the other times he came home after a long work trip. This time simply included a sling and adults crying in public.

I was eleven years old that October in 1983. As a child already prone to worry, it was my misfortune that I be the recipient of the first phone calls from Palo Alto. I didn’t sense anything at first. Steve, my father’s coworker, was a close family friend. I’ll try again in an hour. Just tell your mom that I called, ok? To me, it was still a novelty to take a message and carry it around like a secret until I could report it to my mother when she would return home. It made me feel responsible, like a grown-up. I carried three or maybe four of the same message around that afternoon, ready to burst when she finally came through the door. But it was immediately clear from my mother’s reaction that three or four phone calls from Steve was not something that should feel like a privilege but something that should make you worry.

My mother would soon learn about the bicycle tire that turned at ninety degrees, how my father had flown through the air and landed on the pavement. I would soon learn that the initials I.C.U. meant Very Badly Injured and that teachers and guidance counselors will treat you a bit differently when your father is admitted to one. I would not learn any details other than “blood clot near the brain” and subdural hematoma, but those words don’t mean anything to an eleven-year-old. It was through the behavior of the adults around me that I understood it was Serious. When one’s family never takes phone calls behind closed doors, the sudden onset of whispered conversations from the bedroom is terrifying.

It would be ten years before I learned how close to death my father had been; five years more before I learned that he had slipped into a coma. And still another twelve years to learn that my father’s memory had suffered as a result of the accident; that he suffered toxicity from the Dilantin he’d been prescribed to prevent further seizures; that there had been seizures at all; and that it was perhaps my mother, and not my father, who suffered the most. My father’s memory of the entire day and those that followed has been erased forever. It was never written to his hard drive. My memory and that of my sister’s is written based not only on limited information but limited understanding.

My mother remembers everything. The date comes without hesitation: October 25, 1983. It was a Tuesday. He returned on a Saturday. She almost lost her husband. We almost lost our father. She remembers everything.

Stephanie Cornell is a gypsy with too many hobbies living in Asia, where she has worked as a copywriter, marketing consultant and television producer in Seoul, Tokyo and Singapore since 2007. A Boston native, Stephanie's photoblog documents her life overseas, travels around the continent and a love of bicycles.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dhonai Tells a Story, by Nitoo Das

It is best not to look at the crow now. With its five-fingered blast of wing, it can summon you into the geometric trickery of trident, cross and circle. And then, there is no escape. It is best not to look at the crow because this story is not about it. This story is about a man and it took place some time ago. Do not ask me when because I will be unable to answer truthfully. Let me clarify further. This story is about me and in those days, I was a man. Not too tall, dark-limbed, wiry. A man who was called Dhonai by everyone who knew him. Some people say my name was Dhonokanto, but I do not remember anybody ever calling me by that name. So, Dhonai I was, all through my life.

From the time I was a child, I was taught the craft of my parents. They painted gods, birds, suns, trees heavy with fruit, colourful brides and much more on mud-wet walls. When I was around eleven, my father started drawing on cloth, but we were poor and did not have much cloth to spare. My mother drew only on walls and always thought father’s desire to draw on cloth was a strange modern corruption. My uncles and neighbours laughed at him. But father was stubborn in a way only artists can be and he sat sullen and sorrowful whenever he was confronted with a wall that needed painting. He stared at the blank, brown space for hours together and finally, after much contemplation, he would scratch the lampblack with his neem-stalk brush and draw a crow. Always one solitary crow. Sometimes flying, sometimes on an austere branch, sometimes just staring out at nothing.

Father grew increasingly aloof. Whenever he found a piece of cloth, his imagination pounced on it. But still, he drew only crows. More crows. Crows that were fluttering scratches on the rags he found. All his colours--pollen, turmeric, sap of leaves, indigo, palash flowers-- crowded around them. Colours for the trees, margins, skies, in-between spaces. Everything else was soot, cowdung, charcoal and lampblack for his crows. Thousands and thousands of them. Sometimes, he drew them with great care. Perfect lines, round eyes, clear claws. At other times, he drew them like they were sounds--cawcawcaw of black. People grew wary of him. He did not get too many jobs. The burden of drawing for the whole family fell on mother and we grew poorer.

One day, some months before he died, father called me to him and told me a story:

Dhonai, when I was your age, I heard a voice crying out to me. It was a full moon night and I could see the fields around me. I walked towards the voice shouting, “Who are you? What do you want?” There was no response, just a wild moaning and wailing. After a while, I started shivering in fear, but I kept walking. My clothes were wet with my sweat and my feet felt each pebble on the road. I saw a cow approach from the left. After a while, I realised it was not a cow, but a big, white bird and it carried a crow in its beak. The crow was dying and it had tears in its eyes. I reached out to touch it, but at that very moment, the white bird flapped its wings and disappeared into the night.

After telling me this story, father went back to his habitual silence and I went to the forest to brood. It was not easy having a father like him. I was almost relieved when he was found dead by the water hyacinth pond. But this story is about me and I should get back to it. I wanted to draw on cloth like my father. It was easier for me. The new cotton mill in our village threw away a lot of cloth and I went there every week to pick up the ones I wanted. My mother sometimes looked at me with worried eyes. Perhaps she feared I would turn out like my father. I did not talk to her much; did not explain things to her. I was certain this was the way to be…the new way to draw. I did not have to rush against time; paintpaintpaint without thought while the walls dried fast and furious.

When I turned twenty-five, crows began to interest me. I remember the day well. Sharma Master had asked me to come and paint his son’s nuptial room. I was given tea in the cup kept aside for people like us. The whole day I painted the usual: mating snakes, cooing doves, butterflies on scarlet hibiscus, young couples garlanding each other. And just before I ended, just as the day drew to a close, a few crows. Sharma Master flew into a rage when he saw them and shouted at me, “You’re as mad as your father. Erase the crows, you lowborn bastard!” 

I walked home. Inside me, I felt the need to draw more crows. I knew I could not do it in my mother’s presence and went off to the forest whenever I heard the crowbite in my fingers. It was a longing I could not control. In fact, I did not want to. Approximately a year later, I saw the first changes in me and soon, Dhonai, the man turned into Dhonai, the crow. I embraced the change with blue-black wings. My mother never found out. She had always been rather shortsighted; all those years of poring over colours, fussing over brushes had done that to her. I sometimes cawed when she was near me to see if she noticed. She never did.

I went wherever I wanted to. I looked at people’s eyes and knew their secrets. I sang songs with the fishermen. I bathed in the sacred river and flew away from their temples before they could throw stones at me. 

Nitoo Das teaches English at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. Das is one of the featured poets on Poetry International Web's page on India. Her poetry has been published in online sites like Pratilipi, Eclectica, Muse India, and Poetry with Prakriti, as well as in several anthologies. Her first collection, "Boki", was published by Virtual Artists Collective, Chicago, in September 2008.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I walk gingerly along the catwalk.  The boards bend and sway beneath my feet with each step.  I move along the edge of the boat, the smell of varnish heavy in the air.

"Careful not to raise any dust," she calls out from the other side of the boat where she is laying on the final brush strokes.  "That varnish is still fresh.  Don't want to have to start over."  

I nod in agreement. I hold each rafter I pass under, still unable to gauge my weight against the give of the boards. I hold firmly. But carefully.

She smiles at my caution, wiping her hands on a clean corner of a towel she has pulled from the waste of her pants.

"So, you built this," I state, the magnitude of what I am seeing still settling in.

"Yes,” she nods.

"From scratch?"

She nods again.

The sides are newly painted, too.  White, with royal blue trim.  It reminds me of the boats I had seen docked along the coastline of the small fishing towns I had visited in Greece twenty years ago, my friends and I invited by men who spoke no English to sit at their tables and share bowls of olives and bottles of Greek wine, the invitations made obvious by toothy smiles and broad sweeping gestures over the empty chairs beside them. We responded each time with one of the very few Greek words we knew, "Epharisto," and sat most afternoons, eating and drinking, listening to these men talk, their voices arching and falling from somewhere we had no access to.  The cafes faced the shores where octopi fisherman unloaded their catch.  One man outside one cafe tenderized his octopi on a large stone.  He smiled when he noticed us watching.  He winked then slapped a new octopus down against the stone. He continued this way until he had made his way through his entire catch, emptying one basket and filling the other.

She walks around the bow, catching up to me quickly, her feet sure of themselves over the graying boards. The board we stand on together bows under our weight, then settles.  

"See?" she asks leaning toward me, pointing, her shoulder grazing mine.  I lean forward, too, trying to see what she is showing me. She glides her finger slowly from one end to the other.  I look at her in amazement.

"One board?" I ask, unable to find a crease or a hem from hull to stern.  She simply smiles.  I look at her hands.  Her fingers are long, like a musician's. Slender.  Smooth.  Not the hands I expected. Not the hands I imagined for this kind of work, for sanding and planing.

A man pokes his head around the wall, eyes us attentively, suspiciously, as we slowly make our way around the entire boat. She shows me where the sail mast will rise, the setting for the wheel and rudder.  We stop only once we have come full circle and are standing at the bow again. She leans her head to one side and smiles.


I glance at her once then turn my gaze back to the boat.  "It's beyond my means."  We stand in silence for a moment.  "Any others?" I ask, still eyeing the boat in front of me.

She pulls me along with the sideways nod of her head. We descend the buoyant ladder, each rung giving a little with each downward climb. She reaches a hand up to my back to assist me through the final rungs, her fingers spread and pressing through my shirt as I back down into them.  Her hand is strong.  Direct.

She opens the door directly behind us.  The room is filled with machinery and long tables filled with tools.  Sawdust and shavings cloud the floor. Sunlight drifts through the big windows tucked tightly beneath the roof high above us. The air is heavy here. The boat here is half the size of the other.  She motions me with the pull of a finger to the far side, the side closest to the wall with the windows.  Without saying a word, she points out the work, the sanding, the breaking down of old paint and water damage. She leans in again, this time I can feel the heat of her body, the cradle of her shoulder resting against mine.

“When did you know this is what you wanted to do?” I ask turning to face her. She reaches and wipes away some loosened paint from the boat’s side with a slow downward brush of her hand.  She lets out a short, abrupt laugh. Then breathes in.

“I’m not sure.  But I knew when I knew.” She rests her hands on her hips, tossing her elbows back just a bit. “I usually do. About everything.”

She places a hand in the small of my back and urges me forward with the other hand.  We stop when we are on the complete other side.

“This is a remodel,” the man who had poked his head around the corner while we looked at the first boat says. “We don’t nearly do as much of this kind of work, but work has been a little slower this year.”

He stands just behind us and between us. We each look straight ahead.  “I prefer to build than repair,” he says finally, breaking the silence. “Wouldn’t you?”

I nod slowly. I ask him how long he’s been building.  As we talk, she turns and walks away, out the door we came in, without a word. I stare straight ahead, listening to her footfall over the dusty floor grow fainter until she is out of range. We talk until he is done and there is nothing left to tell me about how the contours of his life led him here.

“Stop by again when you’re back on the island,” she calls down from the catwalk as I duck out. She says it without looking, staring deep into the hull.