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  • Robert L. Giron

Issue 189

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

This issue features


poetry by Ian Haight,

poetry by Thomas D. Jones,

photo by Omelchukvasya,

photo by Keantian,

poetry by Cliff Saunders, and

fiction by P.J. Warren


Ian Haight

In Shenzhen City


On a sidewalk bridge

your sight, alive


a whiff of hair

still fair from birth


no clothes, alone

your slender slight muscles


hushed, no fat.

Your back’s clean skin


touching the asphalt sidewalk’s

dirt-fatigue


an outline of urine

as large as your head


inches from the white chipped cup.


Copyright © 2023 by Ian Haight.


About the Author

Ian Haight’s collection of poetry, Celadon, won Unicorn Press’ First Book

Prize. With T’ae-yong Hŏ, he is the co-translator of Red Rain on a Spring

Mountain: Complete Poems of Nansŏrhŏn and Homage to Green Tea by

the Korean monk, Ch’oŭi, both forthcoming from White Pine Press. Other

awards include Ninth Letter’s Literary Award in Translation, and grants

from the Daesan Foundation, the Korea Literary Translation Institute, and

the Baroboin Buddhist Foundation. Poems, essays, interviews, reviews,

microfiction and translations appear in Barrow Street, Writer’s Chronicle,

Hyundai Buddhist News, Full Stop, MoonPark Review and The Poetry

Review (UK). Visit: ianhaight.com.



Thomas D. Jones


Pareidolia


The human body difficult to see from atop far away in metal— starts at a crawl small at first bends and curves bigger and bigger seizes the moment breasts and buttocks twisting and turning shaking with rhythm then winding down flights of stairs thinner thinner windy echoes clunk clunk footsteps dissipate through shaft of air— Wave particle to come again in different form.


Copyright © 2023 by Thomas D. Jones.

Short Takes


Riding my bike

home from the market in bright yellow on a clean day solid blue sky I see the whiteness wedding dress pink blossoms carnations Feel breath pant in and out air without taint Remember the taste of radiant coronas dandelions mixed with red onion garlic, egg, spinach, tomato Imbibe the sky trees, grass, rainbow sunshine.


Copyright © 2023 by Thomas D. Jones.


About the Author

Thomas D. Jones, a transplant from New Jersey now living in Rhode Island, is formerly the publisher of Wings Literary Magazine. His work has appeared in Hudson County Multicultural Anthology, Appleseeds: An Anthology of Americana Poetry, Beyond the Rift: Poets of the Palisades, New Jersey Bards Poetry Review, and Home Planet News Online. His books include Genealogy X and Voices from the Void. Visit: tdjonespoet.weebly.com, especially his Discover page.



Kevin John O’Neill


apartments are islands


my dance is an ambush in the half light

my censor sleeps right on the shooting line

it is my own vortex of momentum

crashing through the psychic frontier

flung from the margins - wealth derived from trash

auditory oblivion of the ground

by my actions my limbs are ornaments

she is the content of the radio

in evasion of the absolute past

long gone - mosaic of the corporate

echo - my eternal faithless press

conference - testimony of the absent

model - speaks spontaneously - nothing

makes sense - this might be the end of the tractable


Copyright © 2023 by Kevin John O’Neill.


About the Author

Kevin O’Neill’s work is committed to nonlinearity and indirection. He manufactures inversions to explore the unbridled power of imprecision. He creates empty spaces for the poem's reader to fill in. The techniques of collage, cut-up, and automatic writing infuse this work with a heightened presence of reality. One can find a piece of bone in some of these lines. He is a poet and sommelier based in Dallas, Texas. He is a diploma candidate with the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. He was a judge in the New Orleans International Wine Awards in 2019. His work has appeared in Ethel, Tilted House, and where is the river. Find him @drynwetice.



Omelchukvasya


I Can’t Breathe — Black Lives Matter — In Heart Shape



© by Omelchukvasya.



Quraishiyah Durbarry


Black As…

Dad is black

Black as tar

And then some more

He’s not a slave

But who can tell for sure

Cause he’s black

Sometimes blacker

Than a moonless night

My father, he works for money

And some says he’s free

He wears a linen suit

But they still look at him

Like he has an osnaburg shirt

Hanging from his back

He lives now where

People are whiter

And say Black Lives Matter

To think this needed saying

He lives in a land foreign

To his manners and foreign to his ways

Where there are more people fair

Than people of color

But it is the coloured ones

That somehow fill the streets

And the shops

And the roads

My father has no shackles

He is more free than

He was on his land

Where his brothers tied to each other

Lacerated laid

Cried and cursed

And bit their tongues for measure

Dad, darker than the pit

His maroon ancestors were shoved into

Maroon in colour

Maroon because they chose freedom

To an ear

To a hand

And sometimes to life

My father gets a wage

And still he weeps

And counts his cents

In his scorched fingers

While his ancestors

Manacled, and creatively collared

Bestowed wealth for generations

On their headsman

And gave mum all the gold-plated

Jewelleries he could buy

While the white wife of his boss

Adorned in gold

From his father’s country

Admires mum’s modest taste

For cheap ornaments

My dad, as black as a street without lighting

Wears a hat when he goes out

A hat with no distinction

Just a hat because of the sun

Or to show a pretence

Of success

Where in the lands of the white

He survives

And he does not wear the beret I bought him

Because this still does not fit his black head

My dad, black still,

Blacker than a dead end

He wears shoes

Not fetters

Nor does he go about barefoot

His feet are still branded

But now with names like Adidas and Skechers

Because of his bad black back

And he proudly walks the

Brick road built under

Whips by his grandfather

And carrying the name

Of the white whipper

Who sweated his ass

Beating a pulp out of the lazy

Brown bastards

My dad lives in a country

Where there is equality

They say

And something similar to fraternity

Because it comes with an asterisk

*only among same race, or status

Can be read with a glass that magnifies

A thinly erased ostracism

My dad puts his feet on an ottoman

And watches Netflix

The people v. O. J. Simpson

He roots for O. J

Because as the jury

He is a biased black

Because the black jury did not

Could not

Make a logical decision

The blacks they think with their hearts

The blacks, they wanted to settle the score

And though the gloves did not fit

And they were not convinced

Beyond reasonable doubt

They had to condemn the black to be fair

Because he murdered the white woman

And he is guilty

Because as the other only white woman

Whitesplained in the black bar

To all the other blacks

In their black language

Can’t you see he is guilty

Because I am usually right

Because blacks don’t watch Seinfeld

And don’t go to the same shops as us

They are mentally segregated the blacks

My dad is black too

And he watches Seinfeld

My father he buys his brown bread

In the same shop for 60 years

And “money first” they say to him

For 60 years

And for 60 years, they look at him snidely

When his brown hand drops a note

In the tip jar

Cause he is playing above his status

Cause my dad is black

As the skin of the river

In a starless night

And he is acting white

My father is black,

As black as a craven raven

With clipped wings

Scavenging on scraps

Thrown to him with pompous magnanimity

A handful of millet from the left palm

And few eggs taken with the right hand

My dark father

As dark as a day with an eclipse

Cannot end his days

In the sun of his birth country

Because the white needs a home everywhere

One in the metropolis

And one near the seaside

And the black and natives

Can continue tradition

By cleaning their houses

And tending their gardens

On the land

Where black forefathers stumbled and dripped blood

The white children now build their palaces

And pay for years of servitude

With their white smiles

Doesn’t History repeat itself?

My father’s skin is covered

In black mold

Because he does not have a place

Under the sun he was born

His beaches now covered with deckchairs

And white people

Who sees no sarcasm

In wanting a bronzéed skin

While my father

Dies a vassal in the cold

Winter land of thieves and usurpers

Dad is black

As black as cocoa

Not dark coffee

Or roasted coffee

Or coffee with cream

How much cream?

He is not latte or cappuccino

He does not froth

Or foam

He is just black

As black as the mosquito

Seething in white milk

My father is negro black

There I have said it

Previously published in Scarlet Literary Journal, July 2023.

Copyright © 2023 by Quraishiyah Durbarry.



About the Author

Quraishiyah Durbarry is a doctoral student in comparative literature at the University of Clermont Auvergne and has so far ventured into several genres, including poetry, novel, and drama. A bilingual author, she writes in both English and French. She was Co-Laureate and Laureate of the Writing Prize for the Passe Portes Festival of the European Union in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Her poetry collection, When the Trumpet Is Blown (Wipf and Stock, 2023), was a finalist for the 20th Annual Best Book Awards.


Lisa Rhodes-Ryabchich


Wednesdays at Salvatore’s Pizzeria


It was a blistery winter day when the chattering wind blew frost and splattered it over the withered window panes of Sheila’s parents’ bedroom, and rattled brave birds hovered above a black-tarp roof, singing a cacophony of melodic songs. Such harmonic pleasantry was a gift to the human ear and comforting. These distractions urged Sheila to go outside after high school let-out in the late afternoon and divulged up memories of her early childhood years of having fun in Sparkill, N.Y. It was there where she went ice-skating along Ferdon Avenue or walked along the waterfront in Piermont, listening to boat sails slapping against high winds or the sucking sounds of her feet while walking in the moist mud-pocked earth of the Hudson River during low tide.


Luckily for Sheila she never had to worry about having food in her skinny belly or a toasty bed to sleep in because her parents owned a large eight-bedroom modern house. A house one could only dream about modeled in House Beautiful magazine. And remarkably Sheila’s mother knew how to keep it immaculately clean and fully decorated with artistic updates like the recently purchased Zulu African masks hanging modestly on the wall in the living room. To add to the ingeniousness of the house, Sheila’s father was a robotics specialist who brought the family their first robot named Julia which spent the day chatting-away, talking to everyone about the most innocuous things, like how plants bloomed so fervently when spoken to, and how everything had a soul vibration. This colorful banter kept everyone joyful and enlivened while sunlight cast warm shadows through the kitchen skylight appearing like twinkling stardust. And for these reasons, Sheila never felt culturally deprived or psychologically needy. All her ambitions, she felt were easily attainable. If Sheila acquired a good education in the future, she knew she could afford to be anything.


But the grueling poverty that loomed outside the rigid social circle of the private school Sheila attended was reminiscent near the local West Indian owned convenience store. And in the lives of immigrants, many of whom were illegal, that gathered outside there early in the morning hours, to watch the roaring sun wake up. All of them stood waiting for construction crews or other greedy companies looking for cheap labor to hire them, so they could refill their pockets with a little more than small change for a day or two.


The mid-size mom and pop grocery store was a meeting hub for all types of strange characters, the young and old, desperate, and bereaved, hopeful and desolate all made their way there like the dying and infirmed attending a pilgrimage at a holy sight. Many lived across the street in moderately descent condos that they rented. There was an army of indiscreet Spanish speaking men dressed in blue jeans, sneakers, or work boots, who came eager every morning from the surrounding suburban areas, in anticipation of being chosen for the weekday job opportunities.


Some of the immigrants crammed themselves inside a crummy living space of five men to an apartment causing an uproar amongst their neighbors. And occasionally Sheila saw her boyfriend’s drunken stepfather dressed in a yellowing undershirt sipping a can of Tyskie beer outside on his apartment balcony, posturing with a big sloppy grin. And inside one of those rented condo-apartments was the place where Sheila heard her friend Thandie tell her pot-bellied father off that he raped her, while she half-cried with her upper lip trembling, and needing a shave, after she grew a small macho mustache. Thandie’s angry mother with bleached reddish-blonde, frizzy hair marched around their apartment annoyed, refuting everything Thandie said like a rogue politician, but in the background, she was trying to be an accomplished screenwriter.


And mashed in-between these dwellings of pain was a small pizzeria that sold delicious meatball heroes. The sandwiches were so hot and exotically spicy, encouraging Sheila’s Afghanistan friend Rapa and her to meet there for dinner every Wednesday night, an hour before 5 p.m., a mere hour after school, and before their tired, ambitious parents returned home from work. And by the way neither Sheila or Rapa saw themselves as anybody’s child. They were the up-and-coming corporate CEO’s of imaginary companies orchestrated in their minds with the help of Ralph, a school robot that opened doors, bowed and curtsied, hugged and kissed them like they were angels, doing work to save the world from catastrophic wars, famine and disease. And in their minds, Sheila and Rapa knew they were beautiful creations, organized from stardust and alien nations investing in them the power to save the bedraggled world, by questioning every idea or thought, and evil act’s that passed before their eyes or ears. They were omnipotent witnesses and had a divine purpose to perform good in their lives.


Sheila made it her prime business to try to emulate her mother who was a snazzy dresser and who worked as a legal consultant in the city. And Sheila loved to wear hand-embroidered vests, and soft-corduroy pants to keep warm in, and of course fuzzy pink socks or argyle socks, and sometimes she hobbled around in multicolored toe socks. It was kind of like a unique preppy uniform or really her attempt to imitate the cover outfit of Teen Vogue. Nobody had sewing skills except for Rapa who could make luxurious silk tops and denim skirts with a red trim around the waist that she modeled by wearing her creations to school. And all the girls in school were jealous of Rapa, even the rich snooty Anglo-Saxon girls who spat words in Rapa’s face when speaking to her, as if she didn’t understand English because she had a thick accent. But being that Rapa was Sheila’s best friend, it didn’t matter what those ignorant girls thought anyway. Sheila just ignored them like they were invisible or some type of ghostly creature, doomed to the horrible depths of a monstrous hell.


Rapa’s gorgeous mother with prematurely silver-frost colored hair leaking light from her bangs was a pastry chef at a fancy French restaurant in New York City. She also reeked after coming home from work of sweet pink frosting and confectionary sugar and wore white cotton pants like the kind you see in hospitals, but slightly thicker with a variety of colorful smock tops that had a chef’s insignia emblazoned on the collars. Sheila adored Rapa’s mother and danced at Rapa’s private coming of age party, where they invited a local Muslim band to play music in their modest backyard while they all ate pizza and sampled Rapa’s mother’s pastries. Then Sheila gathered with ten of Rapa’s friends for a swim party at the local swimming hole around the corner from Rapa’s condo, not far from the pizzeria.


The girls all wore colorful one-piece swimsuits and Rapa wore a pink Barbie-doll suit with an darker decal of Barbie emblazoned on her chest. And her long dark-brown hair with temporarily dyed pink streaks was neatly hidden underneath a pink swim cap and her mom’s birthday gift, a pair of costume clip-on earrings bobbed out from her cap like starbursts. She looked truly radiant and grown-up. Sheila was aghast at how sophisticated Rapa appeared especially with all the attention from two professional camera men who danced around the half olympic-size pool, taking joyous photos of Rapa and the partygoers. Afghan Rubab music played in the background, and it vibrated off the blue walls from the large rectangular speakers. All the party- goers swam in sync with the music and some of Rapa’s friends performed a water dance, imitating a flower opening in sunrise. It was so wondrous and mind boggling that Sheila couldn’t believe her eyes. Never before had she witnessed such an elaborate celebration, and she felt a whim of jealousy. She only hoped her own birthday party would conjure the same joy as Rapa’s, but in her heart, she knew it would never be. Her parents had no time for such a celebration, and it was fruitless to wish for things that you couldn’t attain. But maybe her wedding day with luck could be such an event to remember if she planned and asked for it, knowing she was entitled to such lavishness.


Later in Sheila’s late teens, she won a free haircut with Teen Magazine and hoped it would launch her to fame, but it didn’t. Only the memories of eating hot Italian meatball heroes drenched in red sauce and mixed with wonderful Italian seasonings on Wednesday afternoons still remained on Sheila’s tongue. And so did the memory of watching Rafael, Salvatore’s 18- year-old chef’s assistant, famous for wearing a heavily tomato-sauce-stained apron wrapped around his waist and for dipping his giant wooden spoon into a pot of meatballs that he sprinkled with bits of parsley, small garlic chunks, and a creamy pink vodka sauce. Then afterwards, making delicious four cheese pizza pies after throwing a wad of soft dough up in the air on his index finger right in front of you and twirling it around like a circus juggler.


Rafael could even do break-dancing with the dough to the music of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. He looked like the guy from Spike Lee’s movie, “Do the Right Thing.” But Rafael never acted prejudiced towards them. He watched race car driving from a big color Magnavox television set hanging from the kitchen wall. Sheila guessed he always wanted to bet and win big and then go back to live in Italy with a hot car and show off to his old friends. And Rafael always moaned about how poor he was back in Italy and how he never felt he had a chance to be anybody there. He hadn’t excelled in high school and colleges there were shut to him because of their cruddy educational system. But Rafael knew in America anything was possible and he often spoke about how lucky he was to have made it to New York, and he didn’t regret it, even though it meant he had to overstay his visa as a tourist until he was able to find love. A love that would last forever.


Sheila’s first love was drinking soda and she enjoyed how the juices from the pizza matched the color of Orange Crush soda, but the tastes were crazy when mixed together. The oil would spill out from her pizza onto her paper-plate like rich blood and she hated that. Only the gooey mozzarella cheese soaked in a little bit of tomato sauce would remain, making it a bare pizza-slice tasting like a strange brain from a Halloween gag. Sheila didn’t know how she continued to survive on such a meager diet, even psychologically, but emotionally she surfed the seas of the world dipping her head in the salty water. Even if she couldn’t get there physically, Sheila would doze off and imagine herself swimming in a blue lagoon, on the Isle of Greece, and dip her slender feet inside the hot-white sand, to languish in the crystal-green sun just before sunset by letting it dance on her eyelids, covered by thin Blue Ray sunglasses that she had swiped from a cache of sunglasses her father kept on his bureau.


Sadly, as time went on, Sheila dumped her boyfriend Dan who was a short five-foot-two- inches tall and who she loomed over by two and a half inches. It wasn’t much to her, but it seemed to make a big difference to Dan. And in some strange ways Dan saw Sheila as this uptight person always worried about fitting in and concerned with what people thought about her, but in reality, Sheila didn’t want to fit in. She wanted to be exceptional in her mannerisms and speak clear, concise English so she sounded refined and educated. Sheila deleted any slang from her vocabulary and learned new interesting words like eclectic, unhinged, dichotomy, which kept her forever wondering where she might end up besides the ordinary places established for minority students, ushered to non-upwardly jobs, with others who they were compared to with less education or potential. And those people were pushed to the forefront of the companies because of the color of their skins. Yet those who were more accepting of the dominant race’s plans to discriminate against those who were obviously darker in their non-acceptance of corruption and those whose beliefs about the need to rise in power with the compatriots in their races, were systematically weeded-out from the company’s payroll after a series of harassments that left the employee belittled or blue.


Meeting back at the pizzeria was Rapa’s and Sheila’s plan when things became convoluted either at school or at home. And by using the word convoluted, it meant things got hairy with guys breaking into their lockers and leaving their dirty jockstraps or bumping into some jealous gangster girls yelling a litany of colorful expletives when they got off their school bus.


And sometimes Rapa waited at the pizzeria for her mother to return from work, before returning home after school and developed a rapport with Salvatore, the owner of the pizzeria, a 40-year-old, immigrant from Italy, with dark-brown hair sprinkled with salt and pepper strands, and large biceps, making him an attractive middle-aged man.


Salvatore happened to be divorced, with newborn triplets that looked like Salvatore’s best friend and who he worried would hate him someday for not sticking around with the triplets’ mother who had gotten out of hand by pursuing a degree in medicine. Yet, Salvatore made it his business to look after the triplets on the weekends and begged Rapa to help him babysit, and promised Rapa he would keep her well-stocked with free food and drink for her assistance.


So, whenever Rapa and Sheila went to the pizzeria, they were treated like celebrities and offered anything on the menu. Sheila’s favorite was the pineapple pizza which was tangy and delicious tasting like upside down pineapple cake with Swiss cheese galore, which Salvatore kindly made special for Sheila. And Sheila never gained a pound because after eating pizza she was so full that she didn’t have much of an appetite for anything else. Immediately, she could bike ride for a half an hour and easily burn off calories by putting her bike in low gear to ride up hills then switching back to high gear on even terrain. Sometimes she rode with no hands by balancing the ten-speed boy-bike and then flew down the hill with her light-brow hair blowing wildly in the wind. Sheila’s arms stayed planted on the top of her thighs, so she could feel the speed of the pedals moving rapidly under her feet and the adrenaline pumping inside her heart, but most of all, she felt freedom, and ease gliding like a sprinter without a care in the world. Life was great. Sheila and her orange bicycle were best buddies— they could go anywhere, and do anything, even win bicycle marathons.


Intuitively, Sheila worried about her karma when she reached the top of a blind hill, that a vehicle coming up from behind her wouldn’t see her going around the bend and possibly run her over. And she was often stunned after completing the dangerous feat that she had been clever and lucky to not have gotten mowed down by a speeding motorist. But that was how she did things with great agility and fearlessness. As long as she could replace the chain on her bike when it jumped out of kilter when she changed gears too fast, she was satisfied. And a little bit of monkey grease often layered onto her fingernails, but she easily wiped it off with her arm. Sheila didn’t have long fingernails to worry about breaking off—she wasn’t into make up yet, just a little bit of cherry lip gloss—and Sunkist would have been better. Or maybe even Hawaiian kissed or root beer kissed or just plain old brownie dark-chocolate kissed— any kind that was juicy sweet. That one she would surely savor on her lips forever.


Copyright © 2023 by Lisa Rhodes-Ryabchich.


About the Author

Lisa Rhodes-Ryabchich teaches creative writing at Westchester Community College. She is the author of six poetry manuscripts, including Breaking Out of the Cocoon, Peripeteia, and How You Get to There. Her short stories and poems appear in Folio Lit, Reedy Branch Review, Phantom Drift Literary, Support Ukraine Anthology, Sunflowers Ukrainian Poetry on War, Resistance, Hope and Peace, Artemis and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and was a 2016 fellow at Marthas Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. She reads for Empire Jones Press. Visit: https://www.lisarhodesryabchichpoetryblog.Wordpress.com.




Cliff Saunders


The new energy


I pledge allegiance to the escaped zoo owl,

to the moon that transcends the many shades


of grief. While waiting for eleven new gates

to open, I try to be positive about all things


salty and blazing. My hope is as strong

as a whiff of jasmine wafting down a hillside.


I put my little ball of hate in the crown

of a bear trap and depart for the sea and all


its risks. I think my weary heart is losing

the frozen sea. Forging ahead, I can hear


this spring tide, mean as a provocation.

I am the delicious top of a miracle. I am


the compass that summons visions of children,

for I would bring good news in gloomy spring.


I’d run through spring with golden helmet

and fiddle of crisis! What a blessing to see


an extravaganza of ladybugs tapping into

a new energy oddly similar to the old one.

All I want is to guide more orioles to a tree

hounded by years of insecurity. All I want


is to stand on every corner and give back

my life to a changing world of great promise,


of floating balloons that surprise us all

with their transition from pink to purple.


Copyright © 2023 by Cliff Saunders.




Keantian


Water Erosion, Landslides



© Keantian.



Steady Erosion


Here’s a prayer for the desert’s

bloom that unites us in a land

of banished words, of explosive risk.


Look how we’ve misled each other,

turned solid ground liquid.

Our allegiance must be to the desert


and those faint stars dimmed by

its buried history. On shaky ground

we stand, reaping what we’ve sown


yet brazenly fueled by innovation.

The illusion of saving the world

drapes foothills in cliff shadow.


Even as we grieve for the soul

of the world, the hot desert wind

owns our mortality. Even as we


follow our spiritual path to the site

of Mexican altars, fever is breaking.

Every time it rains, we become


an oasis readable for the blind.

The moment we realize that

mysteries unfold in the desert


like gifts, a bird rarely seen

in the desert—a crow of cloth—

walks about scuffing the world.


Copyright © 2023 by Cliff Saunders.




Revelations (iv)


A billion people will mourn

the loss of red-shouldered

hawks by shaving their legs.

In sumo temples, fishermen

will tie drumsticks to their


children to prepare them

for life wherever they go.

Dreams of teeth falling

from deep inside a space

station will not be resumed


because of the weather,

and the next crisis marinating

in a bath of sludge will get

worse—but more slowly.

It’ll be interesting when there’s


more sun in the memory bank.

Every single penny will be hot,

and cemeteries will be sizzling,

their faith nearly bankrupt.

What will it mean? Will anyone


care if there are no sacred spaces

by the bay? Like kisses of fire,

pain will linger between schools,

will bloom in winter. The world

will betray its fallen bridge,


its largest ship. A green mast will

soon be gone from a dragon boat

suffering from war fatigue.

A crystal ball will listen closely

to its fickle friend the panic button.


Copyright © 2023 by Cliff Saunders.



The bending of sound


I am casting a vision

of collapsed concrete

into the fire of reflection

as life goes by cloaked

in secrecy, silence stinging

my face in the rain.


When a rising unicorn

becomes a shooting star,

I will have to climb

cloud layer and ride

a good hot air balloon over

the top of a dance party.


And the echo chamber

will fill with grief instead

of the sound of God.

And the bough of singing

will bend under the pressure,

breaking into darkness


Copyright © 2023 by Cliff Saunders.


About the Author

Cliff Saunders is the author of several poetry chapbooks, including Mapping the Asphalt Meadows (Slipstream Publications) and The Persistence of Desire (Kindred Spirit Press). His poems have appeared recently in I-70 Review, Orchards Poetry Journal, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, The Heartland Review, and Thuya Poetry Review.



P.J. Warren



Sky bridge


Only a few months ago, throughout our city’s streetscapes all manner of buyers were bidding on a limited supply of homes; but now? Au contraire. Oh sure, given our job market, relocators still arrive daily like pharaoh ants in sugar cubes, but home prices haven’t dropped much, while interest rates have doubled. Understandably, buyers are hesitant. In some places, only the duds remain. Or so I worry, peering through my window, admiring two splendid houses across the street, one Georgian and one Cape Cod, plus eight oak trees, a riot of green leaves tinged with yellow. What a glorious neighborhood! Only there’s nothing for sale, or at least nothing pretty, meaning no commissions for moi. Ergo, perhaps it’s just as well my clients haven’t arrived. Of course, I check for a cancellation message. Then I check my nails. Then I check my weight.


“Peter!!?”


I own a successful in-town boutique real estate company, and as you’re balking, let me just say it’s an ethical business, much more so than Trudy McGrudy’s illustrious firm. Usually I don’t breathe a word; my grandmother called that “being ugly.” My company philosophy, along with a description of our neighborhood, Braxton Oaks, can be found on my website, NancyHomes.com, although our Garden Club isn’t mentioned: it’s by invitation only. Carolyn Norwood, a single mom on Middleton, for example, wasn’t invited, not for any particular reason—one member, a Coke heiress, is a singleton mom—plus I’m a single member, though not a mom. (And FYI, I prefer “eligible.”)


Either way, if our president, Margaret, heard Garden Club mentioned publicly, she’d balk. She lives in that Tudor house, where the yard man just arrived. Larry works for me too, on Tuesdays. Around Braxton Oaks, everyone, including Larry, is gracious.


“PETER??? When are Jill and Jason coming?”


“Any minute—the appointment is at two.”


Peter is calm. That’s why I hired him last month. I am not calm. My last assistant was not calm. Calm is overrated in my view, except as a trait in one’s assistant. When out of her house bursts Margaret, for instance, her faceless shadow trailing like a mocking companion, I know, should she appear in my foyer, that Peter will behave with aplomb.


First, she’ll barge in, demand a thing or two, then Peter will escort her toward the door before Jill and Jason arrive. My driveway looks good, my window treatments resplendent; I’m ready for them. Trying to be insouciant, however, I glide down the balustrade to my dressing room as Peter arranges files. Did I mention he majored in classics, with a Latin American studies minor? The top of his head thick with dark hair, good brains, he’s placid when Margaret knocks and enters. She’s just back from her Naples condo.


“I need to see her,” she booms.


“And you are—” Peter’s from Tennessee but sounds like an English butler.


“Hello, Margaret,” I say from above, like a warbler in a tree wearing my bright yellow blouse.


“You need to get in touch with Carolyn. We’re already enduring that check-cashing business on the corner!”


“Uh, that happened before Carolyn’s tenure.” Carolyn is our neighborhood rep on the Local Planning Unit (LPU), a forum granting liquor licenses, easements, variances, and so on, usually of little interest to the likes of Margaret. In fact, given the city’s veto power, Carolyn’s votes constitute advisory, not binding directives; it’s a volunteer job. While the check-cashing business vexes Margaret, it’s been two years now; plus, it’s unobtrusive as such things go: a discreet blue neon corner tucked inside a nondescript Cart & Mart. Time to get a grip, in my view.


“Well. It isn’t a fit with the other establishments, all consistently upscale,” says Margaret. “Once she’s heard from us, she’ll understand our priorities.”


“What’s our priority?” Gingerly, in bare feet, I descend my winding staircase halfway down.


“Well. I’ve already impressed upon her the importance of voting in favor of the parking deck and sky bridge, both proposed for City Park; but I thought you might as well.”


Here we go. Just as I supposed, Margaret’s heard the news, has an agenda. Adorned in tailored slacks and a lime green top that highlights her knobby shoulders, she looks geometrical, as if poised to manage life’s disarray, or at least monitor its opportunities through her cool grey eyes while ensuring deference to her superior vision.


“Call her?”


“I had her over last week. Tucker Frazier is calling today.” Our neighbor Tucker sits on the board of the Botanical Garden, which is adjacent to the site for the proposed deck. I’ve never had the nerve to ask him why in exchange for its park site the Garden pays the city no rent. Nor why the Garden charges admission to a section of the very park all were meant to enjoy, per Frederick Olmstead’s creed. Nonetheless, a Garden board post is prestigious; a flurry of calls, especially one from Tucker, might persuade. “We just need to relay facts: reportedly the other LPU votes are tied; her vote’ll be pivotal,” Margaret is saying as I ruminate.


Why she’s so enthralled with City Park mystifies me, unless—speaking of high admission prices—it’s the Hibernia Club’s proximity, not the Botanical Garden at all. “You’re talking about that midtown committee petitioning to ‘update’ City Park?” I ask, trying to clarify.


“Yes, the Beautification Committee.”


Full disclosure: At our neighborhood playground, checking the pool for a client one day, I ran into Carolyn. According to her, the committee proposes to chop down old-growth trees before constructing the aforementioned parking deck and sky bridge, which will overlook the remaining trees. “An ecologist called the project ‘dreaded,’” I say, not disclosing that Carolyn relayed that via air quotes. Nor do I name the trees: “tulip poplars, oaks, and hickories,” also according to Carolyn, sounding like William Wordsworth himself.


“It’s not ‘dreaded’; it’s a green parking deck, and should the plan be approved, I’ll be Park Ball executive chair,” Margaret says, clear as a bell. If all the boards, clubs, and committees are making my head spin, I’m gaining ground. Quite easily, I can envision Margaret in her silver gown, dark shoulder-length hair, eyes sharp for local magnificoes, presiding at the Hibernia Club’s annual Park Ball.


Rather than wonder aloud if a green parking deck is an oxymoron, I ask, “Have you forgotten? Carolyn wasn’t invited into our Garden Club.” History, as my second Cousin Grover might say, is apropos here. Almost two years ago, Carolyn toured one of my homes with her daughter Vivian in tow, before Trudy showed her 212 Middleton. The latter’s ivy-colored edifice, august interior, and moonlit terrace no doubt captivated her, as Trudy undoubtedly told fantastic tales. The neighbors were “darling,” she’d say, waving toward our oak-lined streets. What a great place for child-rearing; and of course, she’d refer to her own son studying physics, in grad school now, making us all sound more cultivated than we are.


So, Carolyn paid Rob and Rose Thatcher, an architect and interior designer, the highest price per square foot heretofore expended around here. Like a clever move in a chess game, the Thatchers jumped over to their third Braxton Oaks house, scoring a wondrous profit, while Trudy scored a double commission. (We’re affluent, if not necessarily cultivated.) Maybe I should’ve answered Carolyn’s question about the neighborhood’s “openness” more thoroughly than I did, because she may not have understood her function in the game. Or maybe I didn’t admit how I relish the game. Nor how the game requires a loser, who I hoped wouldn’t be me.


“Pardon?” Margaret asks, taken aback. After all, not even her husband risks being straightforward with her.


“I mean, maybe she hasn’t considered our priorities carefully. I’m not sure she knows us well.” What a coward I am, shifting from candor to tact.


“She knows you.”


“Barely.”


Ever certain she’ll get her way; Margaret is gone before Jill and Jason arrive. (Hallelujah!) I’m told Jason, who grew up here, possesses a handsome down payment, courtesy of his dad. As they both chat with Peter, I stroll into my closet, where on one side my shoe colors dissolve rainbow-style from one hue to another, then alternate between ivory and black like a piano. (Merci beaucoup, Sloane at Closet Cosmology!)


“She’ll be with you in a moment,” Peter intones. And voilà, after slipping into navy Ferragamos I stroll downstairs with panache. “Hello, it’s nice to see you,” etcetera, we all say at once.


But still piqued from Margaret’s inveigling, I’m queasy. Outside, Jill assesses the oaks, then promenades down the sidewalk as if she’s walking down the aisle still. Her long blonde hair flips gracefully at the ends, almost like my mother’s Belgian lace wedding veil.


“Did you also grow up in midtown?” I ask, half-wishing I was equally hopeful still, or that my hair flipped upward like it once did.


“She’s from Delaware; now working at PriamCo,” says Jason, as if she needs encapsulating. PriamCo, the newest, hottest internet search engine, has received all manner of sumptuous inducements to settle its hip conglomerated self into our chaotic, conflicted city.


“I love this area; all the trees, City Park, yoga studios,” Jill says with fluidity. “Has your home always been your office? Or just since COVID.”


“It’s always been my office.” I smile. “It’s convenient, immaculate, near the art museum. We have twenty-four-hour security. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be!”


Especially at present, this last assertion is somewhat inaccurate. And yet the chasm between appearances and reality troubles me not. Without hypocrisy, where would humans be? Granted, if I were more truthful, I’d explain how I’m starting to wonder why for the past twenty-five years I’ve sunk my soul into Braxton Oaks, treating my office home like the Taj Mahal. But I gotta pay my mortgage. If Jill and Jason don’t succumb, I’ll be dipping into my savings.


By now we’ve reached a house that might rescue us all, only its dour façade and droopy azalea bushes don’t exactly recommend it. “As the Burnhams are in Palm Beach at present, their house isn’t at its best,” I begin, tentatively, like a tightrope walker. “However, there’s potential, yes? You could try a lowball bid,” I suggest with my trademark lilt.


Jill’s eyes flicker behind her sunglasses. All over the sidewalk, shadows frolic and form lacy patterns, and I wonder if she sees right through me. I also wonder if I’m having a stroke.


“I like the neighborhood; it feels historical,” Jill begins. Knotty branches part above our heads, meander, and finally vanish where sunlight gushes through the leaves. Not officially on the market, the house is in limbo, but that detail I omit. Another omission: the Burnhams might petition the city for a tear-down permit, a custom I abhor, because whenever a home is razed, we lose a segue into history. On go my sunglasses featuring gold filigree, and diverting Jill from a spot where oak roots upend the sidewalk, I elaborate as we wander down the block.


“It is historical. With high hopes for the new economy a talented firm of architects began building this neighborhood in 1919, pausing only for the Spanish flu. Fifty-five years prior, a Civil War battle raged nearby, and before that, the Cherokees wore a trading path through our beautiful woods.”


Is that too quaint? If Grover were here, he’d characterize the architects as speculators, the early residents as Carpetbaggers, those who preceded them as shysters who forced Cherokees off the land, the entire USA as slavery profiteers or enablers, our current aspirations as soulless and bourgeois, and PriamCo itself as a rapacious exemplar, poised to gentrify the newly chic warehouse district and “displace the working class.” Grover’s a history professor; he talks that way. But it occurs to me that no matter how I shape the narrative, neither Jill nor Jason will listen. To them I’m a wizened irrelevance. Middle-aged people trapped inside papery skin, prone to involuntary grimaces, once looked that way to me too. We linger in front of a redbrick Regency they adore.


“Mrs. Cavett will never put this on the market.”


“Isn’t she eighty-three?” Jason asks, a little too eagerly.


I peer into his busy eyes. “Why yes; her son has urged her to move to assisted living, but she’s tough.”


While Mrs. Cavett putters blissfully in her antiquated kitchen, Jill and Jason announce they wish to stroll unattended.


“That kitchen must be completely renovated,” hisses Jill as they walk away. A remark about marble countertops ensues, but once a neighbor summons me, I hear no more.


“Well, hey, Miss Nancy!”


“Hi!”


“What’s up with you? So I’m having a party; Sunday, around seven-ish—can you come?” Kay asks, while ducking into her Range Rover to gather streamers, which turn out to be purple and pink balloons that spring up and bob en plein air, delighting two children gamboling nearby with their nanny, and me too.


“The way you entertain—”


“I quit my job—”


“You quit your mother’s company?”


“She wouldn’t give me a raise, AND she’s a screamer.”


Of course, I’ll go; everyone covets an invitation from Kay, presently adorable in a snug blue paisley top that accentuates her lovely physique and glowy blonde hair. Her husband’s family actually belongs to the Hibernia, the only club in town that doesn’t admit just any random rich person. For her part, Kay aspires to move to Charlottesville, where Douglas attended university, but sadly, Douglas’s mother suffers from esophageal cancer here in Atlanta. Or so Kay confided, when they debated selling their house last year.


Either way, though I’m (yikes) almost fifty-eight years old, there’s always the possibility that Kay’s soirée will reenchant Braxton Oaks or at least inspire me once again.


“What a beautiful day!” I exclaim, displaying my newly positive attitude as I burst inside my home until, hearing NPR blast about the EU, I worry Peter might relocate to DC or even London to dialogue about foreign policy instead of midtown versus Buckhead neighborhoods. Yet before I can offer more challenging work my phone buzzes.


“See you tomorrow? At the museum?” says Henrietta, Grover’s wife.


“Looking forward to it,” I say, wincing. Maybe my loving family will provide solace during this tricky time?


The next day, I drive in circles to find parking, and after a struggle am indoors at last, albeit coiled into a lollygagging line, separated from humanity’s specimens only by a wine-colored rope. A policewoman hurtles us toward a large elevator, which sags with my fellow passengers’ weight, not to mention their unruly manners. But soon enough the doors snap open, the throng unclenches like a fist, and fingers its way toward China’s Terra Cotta Warriors, raptly staring ahead, focused on defending Emperor Qin Shi Huang (221–207 BC) in the afterlife. As the emperor’s terror of dying tumbles from the marquee, swirls around the room, and lands at my nervous feet, I spot Henrietta and Grover already weaving around the stone men, and rearrange my own features so as not to resemble what they call, with their dissertation-speak, a bourgeois rent-seeker.


Henrietta waves: for a moment, we play peek-a-boo. Which is odd, because no one plays peek-a-boo with Hen, not even her three precious children. Together we read a plaque that says the thirty stone soldiers once dwelled with another 8,000 back in China, in a sort-of neighborhood, with mercury flowing like rivers, and inlaid pearls representing stars.


“What’s changed?” scoffs Grover, as he snorts his way past an array of milling patrons. Given his height and wild blonde hair, it’s easy to track him. Plus, his beard has returned, a hint of a potbelly, visible souvenirs of late nights spent eating and chatting. Sometimes Grover’s fun, until he starts bemoaning “corporate profiteers” and “income disparity.”


“When the emperor died, the workers and childless concubines were killed, just to silence them about his grisly endeavors,” he notes, spinning restlessly through the exhibit, back and forth to make his points. A few people are riveted, then looking dazed as the soldiers, focus on the next spectacle.


“Grover—I just want to go downstairs and eat a nice shrimp salad,” say I.


“Vive l’autocratie!” Grover adds, in case anyone missed his point.


Henrietta nods. “We’re invited to a picnic tonight at the Hedges’ organic garden; always gratifying to reconnect with our own community.”


Garden! The word alone sounds cozy; reminds me of my grandfather, eating his own tomatoes, peeled, and sliced in olive oil and vinegar, speckled with salt and pepper. Maybe Hen with her knack for growing tomatoes and sunflowers will show me a way through my malaise after all?


“So what’s new in the world of shameless materialism?” Grover asks once we’re seated at the café.


“Isn’t that kinda judgy?” I ask, as Henrietta orders halibut, which I’ll be buying; meanwhile, Grover chats with a custodian he’s befriended.


“Do employees get decent wages here?” Grover asks, borrowing what he imagines to be the man’s patois.


“Sure, it’s okay. Y’all stay out of town?” asks the custodian. Because I come regularly, mostly for the shrimp, I know his name: Sam, a very pleasant fellow.


“We’re in Macon, not far down the road,” says Hen.


“Man, this place is elitist,” Grover adds, shaking his head.


“You a teacher?” Sam asks, filling a basin with soiled plates and clattering utensils.


“College professor, history.”


“My aunt’s a teacher. You like that?” He wipes the table beyond spotlessness.


“It’s tolerable. But there are caveats.” “Do what?”


“Well, look around; life is chaotic, yes? Because we humans are often myopic, significant events might go unnoticed in the chaos, while others are overemphasized; but later on, someone will reinterpret the heretofore unnoticed events and our era, thereby forging new narratives, which are seemingly well-ordered, although they might in turn be distorted by some other form of myopia; and that’s the process we disingenuously call “history. Which I teach.” He nods profoundly and gapes through the window.


“Huh,” Sam says peering outside too. “Is land cheaper down your way?” Hands shifted, moving faster, he resumes his task.


“Everything’s cheaper there,” Grover and Hen chime in together.


After Sam leaves, Hen leans forward, clasping her arms. “Did your Arizona spa remodel during COVID? That always sounded so luxurious to me.”


“Going in March,” I say, and take a bite, dreamily anticipating a pair of warm, taciturn hands rubbing coconut and hibiscus-scented oils into my calves.


“Must be nice. Whereas we could use a bit of help with our house payments.”


Nervously chewing, I accidentally spit out a fleck of shrimp. “Um, I contributed your down payment.


Never asked you to pay me back.” Avoiding her eyes, I peruse instead her gorgeous old-fashioned chignon, which makes my salon cut feel meretricious.


“Oh great; we’re married, struggling, and you’re worried about gratitude?”


“I forgot—my worries don’t matter. Only yours do.”


“Nancy!” Hen scolds me because I don’t usually speak to her that way.


Back and forth above an unwieldy line of trapped cars, an enormous claw-sculpture tosses primary colors—red, yellow, blue—above the museum’s sloping lawn outside. Almost in the shape of a question mark, the colors flip repetitively, elegantly. Beyond that a poster advertises a forthcoming exhibit, a collection of mementoes from two former presidents, no longer, if the smiling photo is indicative, political foes. Not so long ago, I voted for the liberal one; now I can’t tell them apart. But enough about them; these days I wouldn’t mind telling them about me for a change; how my difficulties stem not from politics but people, institutions, requiring funds—and faith—I don’t necessarily generate anymore. As far as I can tell, no underground palace awaits me in the afterlife, and Braxton Oaks no longer substitutes. Not to mention, ongoing court litigation might slash commissions for all estate agents, including me. Because I’m thus preoccupied, none of us says much, and our lunch unwinds like the sculpture, which mesmerizes but inspires me not. Eventually, the leather folder appears courtesy of the waiter, who tucks it near my wrist and grins.


Relieved to head out finally in my auto, admiring the museum’s white post-modernist façade and Rodin sculpture The Shade, I stop eventually to feed a bevy of cats near City Park’s dumpsters. But a tattooed young woman draped with a snake around her shoulders strolls by, and the foraging kitties slip my mind.


“What’s THAT?” I ask, forgetting my manners too.


“A snake!” she says, while the park’s rolling expanse, remnants of the Olmstead Brothers’ original design, looms behind her like a tsunami, as do the oaks and hickories set to be felled for the parking deck. Here, in 1917, masses of people camped willy-nilly after a fire that rendered about 10,000 homeless. Some accounts imply there was segregation; that Blacks stayed mostly in churches. One janitor ran home from work to fetch his life savings—$600— only to find the cash and his entire house charred. Meanwhile city leaders promised the fire would inspire growth, more corporate headquarters, more affluence; I know, because I read Grover’s article on the saga. But rarely do I share such info with clients, especially out-of-towners, who expect our history to flatter themselves above all, preferably with cartoonish monotony.


Maybe that’s why, even more than the snake, or a park filled with homeless campers, our neighborhood beau monde perplexes me now. Although my website extols our “eclectic group of residents hailing from Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin, plus Europe and beyond,” really except for Carolyn and a family doctor named Watts, sometimes we all seem alike, or at least somewhat lacquered, sort of like my haircut. And yet if my life in Braxton Oaks imploded, what else would I do?


***


“Greetings!” says Tucker Frazier, smelling of scotch, but at least he opens the door as I approach Kay’s lovely porch on Sunday. After their children grew up, the Fraziers moved to a neighboring county, then scuttled back six months later. Now in their business casual sportswear they stand beneath an illuminated, paint-splattered portrait of Kay’s three delightful children clustered around a fireplace.


“Glad to have you back,” I say, although they chose Trudy as their realtor while peregrinating hither and yon.


“Whew! None of the people in that county cared one thing about their neighbors,” says Tucker’s wife, Adrienne. (Which is heartening; perhaps Braxton Oaks is gracious as I imagined!) “We’re off to check on the sitter, but we’ll be back. Grandkids with us all week.” To convey fatigue, she dips her left shoulder downward and laughs.


“Those beautiful girls? Lucy and—”


“Brett.”


Into the kitchen I wander after they leave, toward a fruit basket on the counter, the kind Adrienne’s business sells to hospitals and recall the one she inflicted on me post-appendectomy.


“Would anyone like fruit?” Kay inquires, tearing the cellophane wrapper, moving into the dining room, as a whiff of Stilton and desiccated pear roil my digestive memory.


“Guess what, Kay?” her neighbor Rose Thatcher asks as I approach the lavish table and smile at kids scurrying underfoot. Half the hopscotching duo who sold their house to Carolyn, Rose, with her chic auburn hairstyle and perennially dark outfits, gives the impression of wishing to vanish below the neck. "Emma asked tonight, ‘Do you think Jake will like me in this princess outfit?’” She giggles, then glances at her daughter, who’s nine. “I think she has a cru-u-ush.”


“Emma, you want a petit four?” murmurs Kay as her son Jake disappears and I scoop hummus and pita.


Outside I aim to find repartee, repose, or maybe both. For beyond the patio door leans Kay’s gray-haired father on a cane, so handsome in soft khakis and a button-down shirt, talking to several others, one a managing partner of the best law firm in town.


The partner, however, is outdone by a windy junior associate. “No, look, this guy’s a loser. On paper looks great—Columbia, Law Review, so, yeah, generally a bright guy, but he’s clueless.”


“You were with him in Shanghai?” asks Kay’s dad.


“Yeah, we were in meetings with bankers all week; they spoke only Chinese. They were like, fuck you, if you don’t know Mandarin, and by the way, we own your national debt.”


Embarrassed I’ve never been to Shanghai, wishing I could disappear like a child nearby performing magic tricks with younger siblings, I eavesdrop on others, hoping to fit in elsewhere.


“Uh huh, Kelly had a fantastic corporate responsibility job at Coke, then blew it all up for the World Bank,” a former client whose name I can’t recall brags to Carolyn, who in turn is beseeched to tie a ribbon around a stuffed bear’s neck.


“That sounds wonderful—” says Carolyn, tying the green bow for Vivian and her friends.


“Actually, some think the World Bank doesn’t help developing countries as much as it funnels bucks to kleptocrats.” Obviously proud to share an insider’s critique, the man continues. “And sheesh DC is expensive. So how about you? Don’t you get bored working from home? Constant kid duty?” As if to stretch, he lifts his muscular arm. And instantly I recall: Name is Matt. Possibly he expects Carolyn to emulate his accomplished wife Kelly, who treats so-called underlings like supplicants while wooing those above. Five years ago, I sold them their house, then last year they moved without selling. Always garrulous, he says they’ve settled in northwest DC and might list their house “down here” very soon. (Eureka!)


“No; rarely bored,” Carolyn practically sings as the children yank her toward the playhouse. At her own house across the street, an abstract painting almost leaps through the nighttime window; from here it’s a bright lavender speck. But the speck is blocked when Kelly arrives with wine, exchanges chilled greetings with Carolyn, and I wonder why are you and Matt so full of yourselves? “It’s nice to see you both,” Carolyn chirps graciously, mostly huddling now with kids.


“Well, God Almighty, if it isn’t the future CEO of Home Furn!”


We all pivot as Rob Thatcher hollers at a couple arriving with their toddler, whose blonde hair shimmers in the gloaming like her mom’s. Rob, standing like an acolyte beneath the streetlight, which accentuates his curly hair and slender physique, gazes longingly at the mother’s evocative physique, which contrasts sharply with Rose’s lumpiness. “Did you sell some lawn chairs in Chile?” he serenades again, lifting his jaw reverently.


“Long story short, I was with a know-it-all colleague. Not a team player.”


As if we’re foes from her college volleyball days, she tosses a glance at the rest of us, finds us wanting, and inviting a triangle of light onto the stoop opens Kay’s door. Like everyone, she’ll pay her respects to Douglas and Kay. Everyone adores the Hibernia Club. And that’s what’s missing for me. A crush on a man or a club or a house, without which I’m flummoxed.


A bit later, however, I find myself chatting happily with Watts, who grew up here and says a parking deck “cain’t be” in the park where he learned to play baseball and drink beer; then a balding dad in spandex undershorts says to his son, “When I tell you to do something, I want you to do it, now!”


And I know it’s time to leave. But first, of course, I slip my card to Matt and flash a demure smile before traversing my lovely block lit with spotlights and chandeliers. Reminds me of the Iraq war when my cousin, a young soldier was killed as home prices soared, and everyone illuminated their houses panoramically, mindless of excess. At the time, I imagined the lights were in Fuller’s honor, a testament to his lanky, winsome self, his baseball pitch, and his petite fiancée. But of course, that was fanciful; instead the lights blinded us to any phenomena beyond property values, and my neighbors feted me because I helped to prolong the dazzle. (Or I at least knew the best appraisers.) Meanwhile, some of our neighbors piled up catastrophic debts, and after 2008 accepted whatever price was offered.


Now with the almighty home price a lodestar once more, only the shrewder types avoid gloating. But everyone strategizes. If some learned post-2008 to limit debt, others (like the Thatchers) perform a sleight of hand, selling periodically, shifting debts cleverly; while still others possess the wherewithal to maintain the dazzle no matter what. In a category all her own there’s Trudy, who, not unlike the Federal Reserve pretends sales never plummet and debts never come due. Perhaps we’re all clinging to a merry-go-round spinning on fluff money, cliques, and networks of boards and clubs, but why quit when that’s all we know?


In a daze, I wave at our security guard cruising by in his pickup. Truly, just one unsightly plot in our illustrious neighborhood festers, even resembles a haunted house, I decide, shivering as I pass the Burnhams.’ No wonder Jason and Jill haven’t made a bid. “Don’t they know that half will end up divorced?” my next-door neighbor says as she rises from her garden, almost ghostly in her white blouse, waving her digger toward two couples struggling at home.


“Hey, Charlotte,” I say, before scooting inside my own colonial beauty, where I discover that Andrew, a courtly architect living in midtown, has left a message.


“Just called to check in with my favorite powerful woman. Call me; let’s get together? At the Urban Turban?” Click.


How striking Andrew would look relaxed with a gin and tonic on my turquoise sofa! Perhaps with him escorting me around, Braxton Oaks would delight once again; or so I imagine until Margaret texts: “Just checking in, wonder if you’ve spoken with Carolyn?!&”


Instead of texting back I excitedly, cautiously thrash beneath my yellow floral comforter, eventually making a late-night resolution: If Andrew asks me to marry him, I’ll sequester my assets from his heirs, just in case things don’t work out.


***


Next evening, a neighborhood meeting, which will be attended by most residents, including Carolyn, whose graceful silhouette startles me as I approach Rose’s house at twilight, dreamily romanticizing Andrew and maybe my stock portfolio too.


“How are you?” I enthuse. “Still enjoying your LPU position?” Beneath a carefully cultivated vine, next to a restored kerosene lamp, we locate the doorbell and press its glimmering surface like two ladies in a 1970s commercial. The upcoming LPU vote goes unmentioned.


Throughout the yard the bell resounds, until Rose flings open the door and says in her movie star voice, “Nancy!” while Carolyn, duly ignored, is greeted by Watts. “How are things?” Rose asks, her perfumed insincerity wafting as she floats toward her exquisite sofa-throne, featuring a vast window and gorgeous woods as backdrop. Not that the setting is bucolic; rather, furniture, draperies, and bric-a-brac swathe the atmosphere, which thrums with transactional murmuring. “This is a little inside baseball, but I can get in touch with the CFO,” a man says as if he and Rose were mid-conversation when the doorbell rang.


“Honestly?” Rose says, “Life can be so cruel, and I don’t have the heart to tell her.” But I’m too busy avoiding Margaret, who’s chatting nearby to eavesdrop for long. So far, I’ve done nothing to execute her plan. And presently I need to mingle, because if we start dating, Andrew will expect me to have friends.


Take Jen, a neighbor and perfect friend candidate looking chic in slacks and a black top saying, “Nancy! Did you receive my email? About book clubs? We’re reading Park Avenue. It was total ennui listening to Crandall last time, droning from her undergraduate notes about Brontë, quoting that professor ad nauseum. Next time we’ll drink Burgundy; live it up.”


Now there’s a friend Andrew would endorse, plus her husband is so impeccable, I forget to comment on Brontë, on Jane Eyre, and why I haven’t read Wide Sargasso Sea. “Burgundy? I’ll drink Burgundy. But what professor?” I ask, nicely maintaining my end of the repartee.


“Probably somebody she had at Princeton two decades ago.”


“All right, everybody, let’s begin!” Rose’s husband Rob bellows.


Advertisement-handsome in a gray V-neck sweater, he surveys the room with a beatific stare, which possibly duped Carolyn when she bought his house. As I learned years ago, beneath his exterior a deftly concealed, diamond-hard self-interest prevails. But he’s done so much for Braxton Oaks, placing cute benches and ceramic vases beside the stone entranceway, for instance, it seems churlish to complain.


After ladling punch from a silver bowl, I sit beside draperies finished in earth tones as Beth Spade arises. Her wet, dark eyes narrow; her creamy face beguiles.


“A gentleman from Brannen Apartments five miles northeast of here, just off Peachtree, has proposed opening a check-cashing service there, in exchange for closing our unsightly Mini-Mart branch.”


Somewhat languidly, she sways toward the China cabinet, eyes widening with the horror of check-cashing services.


“Good news for our property values,” nods one woman, possibly to impress Margaret, who’s nodding emphatically and under our bylaws can eject anyone from Garden Club.


“Mmm, keep the low-income folk in their own neighborhood,” says a bank executive with a strong jaw.


Beth’s mouth curls upward.


“But why shouldn’t life be more convenient for those who work here each day?” Carolyn interjects, her voice quavering.


“Uhh, because,” someone quips, “we like how our neighborhood is?”


“Keep the riffraff in their apartment-hovels,” another clarifies. A few people snicker.


A man guffaws, and I glance around, seeking confirmation that this is hideous, but a woman laughs, rearranging her skirt covered in alligators, and ignites others. Random chuckles everywhere; then a frisson lingers. It’s as if everyone’s mesmerized by the same charm, by the art museum’s repetitive, giant claw, or the presidents’ photo mural. I look around to find Carolyn, who’s gone. My head feels hot, and I pass the silver punch bowl, which reflects, distorts the faces behind me, unless it’s no distortion. Knocking into the tablecloth and pausing to straighten it, I glimpse family photos taken on a flawless beach, subdued turquoise background water shimmering, then a book on modern glass architecture.


Outside, in the cool night air, Jupiter bobs high above me. A faint sobbing can be heard up ahead: it’s Carolyn heading the other way. Yet I continue in my own direction without hailing or acknowledging her.


“I wouldn’t be caught dead out here at night,” Larry happens to say the next morning.


The sky is clear as a movie sky. First Larry yanks weeds, then slices mud into a sharp curb hedge, hurling debris into a pile, dispatching earthworms that wiggle aloft when evicted from their niches. From my mahogany secretary perch, I pity the worms, while admiring the arc Larry forms from shoulder to hip, maybe because he possesses a genuine skill; I mean, even if I were starving, would I know how to wrest an honest potato from desiccated soil?


“I can’t talk,” Peter whispers into his cell. “Things are so complicated,” he adds in a world-weary tone.


But I hear no more as a leaf blower roars, and I contemplate switching my window treatments from turquoise to earth tones. Too nervous to return Andrew’s call, I dither, until Larry taps on the door. Fresh from the ATM, so stiff my fingers can barely separate them, the bills transfer quickly from my fist to his, and I wonder if (as the rumor goes) he’s taken “nervous” medication ever since his return from Afghanistan. We’re in my front hallway; he’s a half-foot taller than I. “Do you want a ride home?”


Home is a motel with orange doors and a purple roof four miles or so south of here. “No.” Muttering thanks, he accepts a lemonade; he’s often terse like that.


Given his long gait, his sublime muscles shifting to and fro, he strides easily up the hill, hair sticking up like a radish plant, and disappears. While I’m admiring my yard, blather erupts on talk radio as an electrician’s truck rumbles down the road. Dreamily admiring my hedge, I dial Andrew’s number, hoping to leave a message.


“Nancyyyy,” he says, answering on the second ring, his voice deep as a choir singer’s, filling my soul with heaven.


“How are you?” I inquire, trying to sound calm.


“Hey; I was about to say that.” My shyness gone, I laugh and savor his easy cadences.


“Living the dream.” It’s good to be positive, yes? Once I dated a man who said he mostly loved being at work when married to his ex-wife because she just wanted to tell him her problems all day.


“How are sales? Things picking up? Lotta sweet gigs?”


“Mediocre at best, not yet, and not yet,” say I.


“You still gorgeous?”


No answer: I just swoon.


“Should we catch up in person? You free Saturday for lunch?”


“Sure,” I say, already planning my outfit, how to make my face creamy as Beth Spade’s, add pizzazz to my look, etcetera. Then hardly have we clicked off before another knock, harsher this time, blindsides me.


“You’re the agent for 312 Claiborne?” the man blurts as I open the door.


“Well, possibly; right now, all I have is the key.”


“Well, possibly not for long. I’m here to take a peek; I gotta say, it’s kind of a blister here in snobby Braxton Oaks.”


It’s the Burnhams’ home, the one I showed Jill and Jason. Parked at my curb is an unattractive white van that says WE BUY HOMES. “Um, we don’t have quick sales here—”


“Sure, lady, I’ll grant you that; most Braxton residents arrange their cards shrewdly; keep things from crashing down—”


“I beg your pardon.”


“Here’s my card; website is CallTheVulture.com.” His smile is like an alligator’s.


“This is a neighborhood of family homes; a UPS board member lives there, and an ER doctor who saved COVID patients lives down the street. That means something, sir.” How nice to feel all this again!


“Sure, lady, it always means something until it means something else.”


“Homes aren’t for quick selling—”


Assessing my doorway, my wainscoting, he pirouettes like an athlete. “Surely those glorious sentiments didn’t finance this lovely abode?”


“So, you partner with a real estate fund? I’ll need to confirm with the owners.”


“RealHome Funds, madame; no doubt you’re familiar.”


“Chicago company. Devours homes in Murfreesboro, Birmingham—”


“Atlanta, etcetera. Hello; soaring property values? Just give me a shout when you’ve confirmed. For now I’ll look-see outside.”


“With your percentage in mind.” I glare as he skips down my steps.


“You should know.” He mocks-bows. Furious, I return to my new listing, a French Provincial, too huge for Jill and Jason, flanked by red oaks, one neighborhood away. But alas, as I scrutinize the picture, I count one too many oaks. Last year the seventh crashed to the ground, barely missing my clients alighting from their car.


“Peter!?”


“Yes.”


“Can you run over to Oxford Street and snap a picture of 303?”


“Sure. But—I’ve been meaning to tell you. I might be giving notice soon, to study Latin American history; I’ll decide within two weeks.”


“I thought in our interview you said you were interested in the real world, in business,” I sputter, admiring his soft, gentlemanly haircut, cut straight around his chin, an eighteenth-century style. “The Incas can’t wait?”


“I—I’m not sure. My girlfriend thinks my job is too ultra-capitalist.”


***


Two hours later, after I’ve confirmed that I’m not the Burnhams’ agent after all, Margaret’s gold Mercedes SUV creeps out of her driveway, then swerves onto the road with a bump. Her sunglasses perched on her head, she lurches into the drive, heading toward the library. It’s almost time for the Local Planning Unit Meeting, where Carolyn will vote on the parking deck and sky bridge; and with three against and three still in favor, her vote will be dispositive. Sliding into my Jaguar, I turn on the news and attend to the reporters’ intonations, ordering, polishing, dramatizing, and admonishing, until the fruit is blended, and I sip its tangy nectar. While the deck is a passing news item, that is, no one knows about the pressures our Braxton grandees exerted on Carolyn. Ergo, I wonder what kind of shenanigans occur behind the scenes of bigger events.


But unfortunately, as I ponder, my heart jolts. Squeezing into the Starbucks drive thru, I spot Andrew leaning over a table, and as I inch forward in line, also see opposite him a beautiful young woman, whose strawberry blonde hair, shiny face, illuminate the room. Because the line and server take forever, I have a good long while to behold.


“Anything else?” The server asks when she returns. In a fog, I consider my intermittent conversations with Andrew over the last few months, about our hometowns, craftsmanship; he’d always seemed level-headed, charming; neither caddish, nor callow.


“You think I have time?” I growl, then circle around to apologize, because in college I toiled at jobs like that, and, while circling, almost hit Andrew touching the girl’s elbow like I’d envisioned he’d touch mine. As they stroll to his car, my hot macchiato sloshes my pale blue slacks.


“My apologies,” I say, creeping up to the server, wiping my slacks with a chilly, damp napkin. “I shouldn’t have been rude.”


“Not a problem,” she drones kindly, bewildered by my abject sincerity.


Frequently, I might’ve explained, my neighbor Charlotte refers to her junior year abroad. Well, when she was in Aix-en-Provence, I was a chicken biscuit employee and English major, accepting innumerable dates, imagining I’d find a man who didn’t patronize, gape generically while kissing me, or expect me to be rich. That was decades ago now. Zooming past Wendy’s, Chick-Fil-A, then a pink neon My Thai as if speed can replenish lost time, lost misunderstandings, I nearly crash into a line of SUVs crawling up a pick-up lane towards an SAT prep storefront. Not fifteen minutes later, as the LPU meeting is convening, I file punctually into the library auditorium alongside several Garden Clubbers, with Margaret at the helm.


“Did you just leave your six-year-old home alone?” one member, an eerie look on her face, asks Carolyn, who’s arriving just behind them.


“Oh sure. Just plunked a hot dog on her plate and skedaddled,” Carolyn retorts before taking her seat at the front of the room.


“Don’t they look as if they’re made not of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, but whatever mannequins are made of?” I text, after locating Carolyn’s number way down on my list. Not exactly the message Margaret asked me to send, but I know Carolyn’s sitter and therefore the inaccuracy of the mean-spirited charge.


While reviewing liquor license and variance applications with her fellow representatives, Carolyn checks her phone. A haircut accentuates her bony jaw and delicate ears, plus her amusement, hopefully at my text. But soon enough, it’s time for the “green parking deck” public comments session, and several of my fellow citizens are lining up behind the microphone. Instantly all LPU members are riveted.


“Um, let me get this straight;” says one woman whose frizzy hair grazes her eyes like her skirt grazes her ankles, so the reps, mostly sleek, savvy real estate types except for Carolyn, peer skeptically, “you plan to tear down a hundred trees, all to emit vehicle fumes into our City Park, my beloved oasis in our frenetic, racetrack city?”


All at once, several others edge toward the microphone, vying to peel the rhetorical onion too.


“It’s not like a parking deck cliché,” Margaret opines, coolly elbowing the frizzy woman, implying she lacks sophistication. “Not like that ‘put up a parking lot’ song; there’ll be high-tech certified eco-fans to clear out any and all exhaust fumes.”


Another woman, full-figured and handsomely suited, concurs: “This anti-deck campaign is basically a small band of elitist in-towners hoping to keep the park’s amenities for themselves. Maybe they’re trying to exclude suburbanites, the beyond-the-Perimeter crowd,” she sniffs, and my jaw drops. This bit of sophistry from a garden club member herself prone to snobbish remarks, like the one she made to Carolyn not an hour ago about babysitting.


“Well, suburbanites can take the train, or park in the adjacent neighborhood. I mean, jeez, the park already has one car lot,” says a man with a droopy mustache. “How many do we need?”


“But the deck will be more convenient,” the snobbish woman croons.


“Mmm hmm, convenient for Botanical Garden corporate events,” snaps the man, bending toward the mike as if in a duet. “Co-sponsored by PriamCo types and the others. That’s whose convenience it’s for, not suburbanites, and certainly not those who pick up your garbage, Madame.”


Eventually, the voting begins. Leaning back in her chair, Carolyn looks poised in her silk blouse and giant faux pearls, yet inscrutable. Yes, yes, no, no, yes, no, the votes proceed as expected, although each voter, especially a flamboyant developer named Demi, preens rhetorically. Like a rider with a whip, Margaret leans forward, her sparkly pink frown twitching. And I lean forward too, wondering if Carolyn will sacrifice her beliefs to please Margaret, or to seem “powerful,” if I may borrow Andrew’s term. Like I have, for oh so many years, when Lord knows what I truly believed or how I might’ve gone about discerning any lucid set of beliefs given “emerging technologies” and mass media vicissitudes and a recurring sore ankle and so on.


Leaning into the microphone once she’s up, necklace dangling, Carolyn speaks concisely. “I vote no. No deck. If those trees are indeed dead or dying, several bird species, plus decomposers, fungi and bacteria can use them. If any pose safety hazards, they can come down and stay on the ground, replenishing the forest.” Thus, breaking the tie. Boos, clapping, and jacket gathering all follow. Most people shuffle out, whether satisfied or not.


While I linger for no particular reason, a shy reporter approaches Carolyn but Margaret interrupts, mashing her palms on Carolyn’s desk. “You’ll be hearing from me.” Or some such. Just as imperiously she departs, but pivots briefly to display her pink sparkle, presently a knotted pout, to those of us who remain.


Not twenty minutes later, she circulates a neighborhood email about the nameless “LPU representative.” While I’m mulling her invective, I receive another, more perfunctory email, saying Jill and Jason wish to buy Mrs. Cavett’s house, now that she’s decided to move to Azalea Towers. Which means I can pay my mortgage now and reside in a neighborhood that no longer suits me.


Three days later, all the verdant yards around Carolyn’s house, not ordinarily venues for political discourse, sprout pro-deck signs. All except for Kay’s, whose yard remains graciously empty. And empty it remains a day later, when we all receive emails that Carolyn has resigned from the LPU. Not exactly a shocker! Luckily, too young to understand, Vivian can be seen gamboling in her front yard with her toy pony, brown hair flying, eyes shiny with bliss. Although when Carolyn buzzes me to discuss selling her house, I regret not being friendlier all along, she only yearns to escape us now. A bit of music has slipped from her voice.


The next morning, a bright Saturday, my doorbell rings early enough to puncture my dreams. Still groggy, I peek through the blinds to see Larry, his expression blank.


“I was trying to cash a check at the Mini-Mart and it was closed—they closed it. So I rang the Rolands’ bell, but they’re in Aruba and they paid me with this check before they left. Can you help? —”


It’s the most he’s ever talked, aside from the time he told me his father made him toil in his garden growing up, “so he wouldn’t be dependent on nobody.” I pad around sleepily, hand him cash, also a fresh muffin, and return upstairs to my plush comforter. My favorite catalogue, from DC’s Phillips Museum, awaits.


Drowsily, but affectionately, I flip to Luncheon of the Boating Party, chat with the lady leaning on her elbows, the stiff fabric of her dress softening as morning wears on, laugh with the fellow in the undershirt, and sail down the rivery, dreamy day with the top-hatted gentleman. Back at the table, I nibble crusty bread, a few crumbs dropping onto my linen napkin as someone pours merlot and swishes it around. Encircling the bottle repetitively, then hurtling through each person and object is an effulgence, a homely, transcendent light, which shifts with the day’s passing. Even if Renoir camouflaged life’s blemishes, like Trudy and me on our websites, I still believe in that depicted sensibility, and conviviality, which I once hoped to find in Braxton Oaks.


A few days later, the mayor, notwithstanding the LPU vote, calls for a city-wide, month-long review of the park proposal, and eventually approves both deck and sky bridge. So those not content to wander beneath old growth trees can traverse the air beside high branches until that no longer entices and they’re off chasing another thrill. Not three months later, moreover, as I’m driving home from French class one night the local news reporter says two workers from El Salvador constructing the bridge have plunged that afternoon to their deaths. In their honor, we’re assured, the bridge will be completed and families back home compensated.


As I enter Braxton Oaks, a murky New Moon darkness veiling the streets, the houses look like phantasms, as if people have been shuffled there according to a vast, arbitrary mechanism, only the mechanism isn’t discernable. Of course, Grover believes economics shuffle everyone around, thereby corrupting us all: for him the panacea is socialism. Or so I gleaned from skimming his book, in which he omits mentioning the cash I “loaned” him. (Also, maybe he hasn’t checked out the housing situation in socialist countries lately.) Yet I adore the sparkly, yet imperfect tomatoes Hen sends over via my nephew each spring, and the sandwiches he and I make together, using nine-grain bread, mayo, plus salt, pepper, and basil.


Ultimately, Grover and Hen aspire to live off the grid, composting their own toilets, etcetera. According to Grover, Jean-Jacques Rousseau implicitly proposed composting toilets when he said civilization per se was flawed, mostly because of amour-propre. (We have a bit of that here in Braxton Oaks.) According to Peter, however, Aristotle believed the sinister lurked outside civilization’s boundaries, and characterized civilization as an unsullied good. Still others are more arbitrary; our congressman warns of faraway dictators, for example, while the adjacent district’s congresswoman blames guns. In contrast, our Senator impugns those who didn’t vote for him, while my neighbor thought barbarism was nigh when our local Nail Fever closed during COVID, and she couldn’t get a mani-pedi.


Passing the woods where coyotes have been spotted, I recall Grover saying that at one time even the Creeks and Cherokees fought when they lived here. A bit too entranced by my thoughts, I startle at a giant paw (pâté in French). But the wind subsides, and I realize it was leaving undulating. Or maybe I can’t stop conjuring those men working atop the sky bridge, alive one instant, full of breath, rhythm, ability, suddenly tumbling through the ether, lives gone, and relatives devastated.


As if there’s no turning back or finding one’s way through a thicket, the road looks foggy and impenetrable, and I decide to loop back around to Publix, for ice cream, and the nice employees. Only rarely do I eat ice cream; do you think staying this slender is easy? Of course not. It involves neither genes, nor a gimmick; rather, as with most of life’s endeavors, it requires self-discipline, which I’ve ditched for tonight.


Inside, the grocery is bright, clean, almost uninhabited, with endless options on the gleaming shelves.


“Uh, Mrs. Patterson?” It’s Trudy’s son, home for midwinter break. Like many young people he employs “Mrs.” thoughtlessly but kindly, as if the title simply denotes the old and outmoded.


“Well, hi, Nelson. How are you? Still studying in North Carolina?”


His dark curly hair shivers: he laughs. He tucks a strand behind his ear, and I ache for the ebullience conveyed from that tiniest of gestures. “Yes, still chasing gravity in ‘gradual’ school. I surf too, but only for research.” He laughs and pushes himself up on the balls of his feet. “The waves are, like awesome, but my paper suc— I mean, it’s hard to fasten reality onto a document, yes?”


He has Trudy’s sense of hyperbole, and her eyes, yet they’re shot with light, as if many moons are juggled there. He talks of creativity; of meshing metaphysics with empiricism; to me, it’s a jumble. Juxtaposed with passion, however, his measured tone soothes. He couldn’t care less who goes in what house, nor is he careless.


“Well; about to go set up my telescope, insert a solar filter; wait for the eclipse.”


“I saw headlines about that,” I say vaguely, still absorbing his demeanor.


Maybe when I get home I’ll search the residential offerings back in my hometown, where my aunt still lives. Or one town over, the affluent one with upscale amenities and a spa. Not that it’s an answer, but surely there I’ll find suppleness and starry nights, I vow, as I wander out to my car and Nelson traipses across the parking lot in his untied sneakers, across yellow lines he transforms from empty spaces into a path, toward the majestic darkness beyond. As he bypasses the woods, I also vow to study Renoir, the life cycles of trees, or maybe Carolyn’s fungi. Whatever teems out there, I savor its mystery, first recoiling and then embracing from where I stand all that the streetlight anoints and beyond. My fingers clutching the wet, half-frozen container, I look up at the shifting sky with a new sort of wonder, but no certainty whatsoever.


Copyright © 2023 by Tricia Warren.


About the Author

Formerly a lawyer in Washington, DC, P.J. (Tricia) Warren eventually moved back to Atlanta, where she tries to stay out of her car. In the meantime, her work has appeared in The Furious Gazelle, ArLiJo, Umbrella Factory Magazine, Eunoia Review, Litbreak Magazine, and other publications.



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