This issue features
art by Nina Tichava,
poetry by Craig Cotter,
poetry by Matthew Feeney,
fiction by Andrea Hansell,
poetry by Donna Isaac,
poetry by Kevin King, and
fiction by Steve S. Saroff
This Issue is dedicated to the People of Ukraine who courageously are fighting for Freedom and to keep the Sovereignty of their country while being invaded by Russia.
And Yet the Dawn Is Ours, Botanical Series
Copyright © 2021 by Nina Tichava.
Upon a Sky of Daisies, Botanical Series
Copyright © 2021 by Nina Tichava.
My Heart Is a Sky Full of Clouds, Capsule Series
Copyright © 2021 by Nina Tichava.
About the Artist Painter Nina Tichava, raised in both rural northern New Mexico and the Bay Area in California, was influenced by her father, a construction worker and mathematician, and by her mother, an artist and designer. Tichava received her BFA from California College of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco and Oakland. She lives and works in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Tichava is the recipient of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Award Grant in 2007 and has exhibited professionally since 2009. Museum exhibitions include the New Mexico Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Marin Museum of Contemporary Art, Novato, California; University of Science and Arts Museum, Chickasha, Oklahoma; Museum of the Red River, Idabel, Oklahoma; and Charles B. Goddard Center, Ardmore, Oklahoma. Her work is in numerous collections. Tichava is represented by K Contemporary, Denver, Colorado; Gallery Mar, Park City, Utah; Laura Rathe Fine Art, Dallas/Houston, Texas; Gallery Wild, Jackson Hole, Wyoming; and George Billis Gallery, Los Angeles, California. Tichava is interested in the overlap of nature and culture and the patterns present in both, as well as the color and spatial relationships that develop through process. Using painting and printmaking techniques, she creates densely layered, mixed-media paintings. A prominent element of her work is the application of thousands of beads of paint, painstakingly applied with a brush and used to create screens and patterns. Tichava defines her paintings as visual collections of moments from daily life, depicting not only what things look like through the filter of her personal perspective, but also how they feel. Tichva designates her works as imperfect and this is what continues to keep her engaged with her painting.
A man walks up metal steps painted aqua.
The steps are on the roof.
legs crossed in jeans under the table at New Delhi Palace.
Black hair, skin perfect like only the young have.
Two young women in front of him
discuss skin care products. The current products they use damage their skin.
The man is unconcerned about his perfect skin and is bored with their chatter.
Mostly not eating
he eats orange slices for dessert.
He listens to their skin conversation,
but mostly thinks about his boyfriend.
Copyright © 2022 by Craig Cotter.
Even when cut short
thick and oily.
That smells good.
When you spread it
with your fingers
hard to see scalp.
The ears smooth
without the hair that develops.
Yes and eyelashes
long and thick
without eyelash makeup.
Zit where nose hits cheek.
Why are people afraid
they’ll lose it?
You lose it in your body
but I’m sitting in a theatre
at a poetry reading
surrounded by undergrads.
With that hair, those eyelashes & zits.
As long as you’re alive
they’re always here.
Buck-up, stop whining.
Get enamels, a face-lift—
what you must,
look like you desire
with your dry skin.
I’ll look at him 19
sitting in front of me
we both have everything.
Copyright © 2022 by Craig Cotter.
About the Author
Craig Cotter was born in 1960 in New York and has lived in California since 1986. His poems have appeared in California Quarterly, Chiron Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Court Green, The Gay & Lesbian Review, Great Lakes Review, Hawai’i Review, and Tampa Review. His fourth book of poems, After Lunch with Frank O’Hara, is currently available on Amazon. Visit www.craigcotter.com
Tree of Hope
I see them in pieces
partitioned and divided
by chain-link and razor-wire
I pretend to ignore them
as I quietly sit and read while
they silently stand and watch
We've discreetly observed each other
through many, many seasons
Verdant leaves shimmering softly in the wind
a Technicolor Coat-of-Many-Autumnal Colors
nakedness covered by crystalline frost
budding with vibrant new life
on and on and on and ...
the cycles gently spin
someday I'll be able
to once again
walk amongst them
I just than them
for their ever faithful patience
and their deeply rooted belief in me.
Copyright © 2022 by Matthew Feeney.
I woke suddenly
gasping for breath
by the deafening silence
squatting awkwardly out of place
like a pork chop in a synagogue
missing the eternally steady thrum of my fan
gone the reassuring red glow of my digital clock
absent the tell-tale signs of chaos
the never-ending noise of suffering souls
power outage in prison
magical, beautiful, peaceful
Copyright © 2022 by Matthew Feeney.
About the Author
Matthew Feeney is a former actor, currently incarcerated in Minnesota. He won 2nd place in the 2017 PEN America prison writing contest for fiction and has more recently been published in The Analog Sea Review and Spotlight on Recovery. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Visit: www.matthewfeeney.com
Día de los Muertos A Finalist for the 2021 Gival Press Short Story Award It was Gloria herself who suggested Día de los Muertos as the theme for one of the monthly “Special Nights” on the dementia unit at Gulf Breezes Retirement Village. She had been employed there for three months, and had already worked a Fourth of July barbecue, a Hawaiian Luau night, and a Fall Harvest dinner. Día de los Muertos was on her mind as autumn approached, because it would be the first one since her aunt had died last spring. While she spooned pureed chicken into soft, gaping mouths, she imagined what she would bring to Tía Josefina’s grave—the customary marigolds, a scented candle, a piece of her aunt’s favorite chocolate cake. The other kitchen and waitstaff snickered at Gloria’s suggestion. “It’s Day of the Dead around here every day,” her cousin Milagros said, pointing through the dining room doorway at the patients slumped muttering in their wheelchairs around the dayroom TV. “Or at least the half-dead.” “None of them are Latino,” said Milagros’ friend Angela. "Not that I know of, anyway.” “Well, none of them are Hawaiian either,” Gloria said. “And we had a Luau.” “It could work,” said Teresa, who was in charge of the kitchen and dining room. “No sugar skulls or anything that might upset them. And we’ll just call it Fiesta Night. But we can decorate the tables with paper marigolds and serve Pan de Muerto instead of dinner rolls.” Before the Día de los Muertos dinner, Gloria decorated her table with bright orange tissue paper flowers blossoming on green pipe cleaner stems. Mr. Willard, wheeled in by his visiting wife rather than the usual aide, was the first to arrive. He promptly grabbed one of the paper marigolds and shredded it into his water glass, turning the water a cough medicine orange. “Stop that, Otis,” said his wife. Dr. McCabe also had his wife with him tonight, and Dr. Delaney’s daughter, the one with the poofy hair and fancy earrings, had come, too. This made nine of them at a table that usually held six. The two old lady patients never had visitors on Special Nights. Mrs. Quinn’s husband was dead, and, according to Milagros, Mrs. Atwood’s husband had left her ten years ago for a second runner-up to Miss Texas. If she blurred her eyes when she looked at Mrs. Atwood, Gloria could see past the spiderweb wrinkles to the brilliant blue eyes, the fine cheekbones, the elegant angle of the head on the neck. In her day, Gloria thought, Mrs. Atwood might have given that Miss Texas wanna-be a run for her money. But now Mrs. Atwood was standing on the multi-colored floral carpet—carefully designed to hide stains made by spilled food—holding a platter of refried beans aloft like she was a hostess at a fancy party. “Would you like an hors d’oeuvre, ma’am?” she asked Mr. Willard’s wife. “Some shrimp, perhaps, or a bit of caviar?” “That’s not shrimp, you goddamn whore,” Mr. Willard said. He grabbed a handful of beans from the platter Mrs. Atwood was holding and plunked them into the orange liquid in his water glass. "Otis!” said his wife, “Your mama would have washed your mouth out with soap for that.” No one at the table was shocked. They were all used to Mr. Willard’s eruptions. Mrs. Atwood set the bean platter back on the table and sat down. “Have I told you,” Dr. Delaney the veterinarian said into the silent space after Mrs. Willard’s pronouncement, “about the time I had to stitch up a circus elephant’s foot?” “Daddy,” his daughter said, her earrings jangling. “You’ve told them that story before. You told it the last time I was here.” He told it every night, in fact, but Gloria didn’t mind. Otherwise, it could get too quiet at the table. Mrs. Quinn and Dr. McCabe couldn’t speak at all, and Mr. Willard was capable of spewing only a few foul words per meal. All the tables were balanced that way, Milagros had told her—the talkers with the silenced, the people who could still feed themselves with the baby bird types who needed to be fed. Usually, Gloria had to feed both Mrs. Quinn and Dr. McCabe. She didn’t mind the feeding. It had a soothing rhythm if she did it right – a spoonful for one, then a spoonful for the other – and it made them so happy, especially the ice cream at the end. She had fed Tía Josefina like this every night when her aunt was sick. Tía Josefina was in Gloria’s bedroom then, and Gloria had to sleep on a cot in her older sister Mariana’s room, but she didn’t mind. This was what you did for family. You cared for them; you didn’t pay lots of money to stick them in fancy-looking ruffled-curtain places where strangers fed them. Gloria would sit for hours with Tía Josefina, stroking the loose skin of her bony arm, singing to her, making her smile. After Tía Josefina died, Gloria had felt like a balloon with the air let out of it, just bumping along the ground with its string dragging. Her mother saw how Gloria sat home every weekend watching TV while Mariana went in and out, riding in cars with boys to the movie theater and girls to the mall. After graduation in June her mother suggested that Gloria get a job at that old people’s place where her cousin worked, make some money, do something useful for the summer. Gloria had loved her job right away. She felt important to the five frail, white-haired beings at her assigned table. Without her, she thought, they might wander out of the dining room into the vast Texas night. Mrs. Quinn and Dr. McCabe might even starve. When fall approached she had told her mother she had no wish to join Mariana at the Community College. She would keep her job, maybe even get promoted since her boss Teresa thought she was a good worker. Gloria tucked a bib around Dr. McCabe’s neck and dipped a spoon into the dish of pureed rice, beans, and avocado. Though the sour-faced Mrs. McCabe wrinkled her nose in disgust at the greenish mess, she surprised Gloria by taking the spoon from her and saying, “I’ll feed him tonight.” Gloria felt a small sting of disappointment. Dr. McCabe was her favorite patient, polite and dignified, a real gentleman. He always took Gloria’s hand when he saw her, sometimes pressing it to his lips like some guy in an old-time movie. Often, he pointed out the window to things that made him smile—a squirrel sitting on a rock, or a blossoming bunch of pink oleander—and looked to see if she was smiling, too. Gloria wondered whether his wife had been nicer, had loved him more, back when he could talk. Mrs. McCabe always made a big fuss about him being called “Doctor,” even though, Milagros said, he was even less a real doctor than the veterinarian, just some old science professor. There were rumors now about the wife, that she was fooling around behind her silent husband’s back with the retired heart surgeon husband of Mrs. Norton from Angela’s table. If Gloria was Dr. McCabe’s wife, she thought, she would have been faithful to him forever, no matter how sick he was. She realized her table had gone quiet again. Mrs. Atwood spoke briefly, saying, “I like the activities on this cruise, don’t you?” but then stared into space when no one answered. Dr. Delaney began, “Have I told you about the time I had to stitch up a circus elephant’s foot?” His daughter put her hand on his arm and he stopped. Mr. Willard grabbed the handle of the iced tea pitcher and poured a stream of tea over the round, egg-shiny loaf of Pan de Muerto. “Stop that, Otis!” said his wife. She wiped the soaked bread vigorously with her napkin in a vain attempt to make it look appetizing again. “You know,” Gloria said into the silence that followed, “this fiesta is about honoring your ancestors that have passed on. I’m thinking tonight about my mother’s sister, my Aunt Josefina. She died last spring. Is there anyone that has passed that you all want to honor?” Dr. Delaney spoke first. “I’m thinking about that circus elephant,” he said. “I sewed his leg up good, but he must have died a long time ago.” Mr. Willard made a groaning noise. “Died,” he said. A tear slid down Mrs. Quinn’s nose. “Why, yes, I’ll have a gin and tonic, please,” said Mrs. Atwood. “Died!” wailed Mr. Willard, growing steadily louder. “Died, died, died!” Heads turned in the small dining room to see what the fuss was about. Gloria saw her boss Teresa peering at her from the kitchen doorway. “Dead!” cried Mr. Willard. “Dead, dead, dead!” “Now you stop carrying on, Otis,” said Mrs. Willard. “People will think you’re demented.” “You dumb-ass bitch,” Mr. Willard said. “I am demented.” Before Gloria had time to react, Mr. Willard leaned forward in his wheelchair and delivered a solid right cross punch to his wife’s face. Mrs. Willard’s chair tipped over and she sprawled on the ground, moaning and holding her face as she bled into the rose pattern of the carpet. Dr. Delaney dropped down next to her and pressed a napkin against the red fountain streaming from one nostril. “I’m a veterinarian,” he announced, to no one in particular. An alarm went off, startling the patients at the other tables. Two nurses and a security guard entered the dining room at a run. One nurse pushed Dr. Delaney aside to tend to Mrs. Willard, and the other nurse, with the burly security guard hovering at her elbow, wheeled Mr. Willard out of the room. Gloria realized that she was still holding a spoonful of pureed food. Mrs. Quinn sat with her chin tilted up and her mouth frozen open like a statue of a fledgling waiting for its mother to drop a worm into its beak. Gloria’s boss Teresa came over and gently took the spoon from Gloria’s hand, laying it back on Mrs. Quinn’s plate. “Gloria,” she said. “I’m going to need your help filling out an incident report. You’ll need to tell me everything that happened.” Gloria blinked back tears and willed herself not to dissolve. On her left, Dr. McCabe rose unsteadily to his feet. He plucked one of the tissue paper marigolds from the vase and slid it gently behind Gloria’s ear, then beamed at her. Mrs. Quinn clapped her hands in delight. Dr. McCabe’s wife scowled at her husband. “Who do you think she is?” she hissed. “Carmen?” Gloria felt the soft petals of the paper marigold brushing her cheek as she filled out the incident report in the kitchen. She wore the flower in her hair for the rest of the night. When Gloria arrived on the unit before lunch the next day, she saw that Teresa wasn’t there. The breakfast shift staff were checking out with a new person, a stern-looking older lady who sat at the little table where Teresa usually monitored shift change. Gloria went to the locker room to put on her blue scrubs, then joined the other newly arrived aides standing in a semi-circle around the unfamiliar woman. She noticed that her co-workers were unusually quiet. Even her cousin was not her typical chatty self. The new woman rose unsmiling from the table to address them. She was much taller than Teresa, with the erect posture of a military officer, and her steel-grey hair was lacquered into a neat helmet shape. “I’m Mrs. Ross,” she said. “I will be filling in as kitchen and dining room supervisor for the time being. Lunch today is beef barley soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and creamed spinach. If any issues arise in the dining room during the meal, please report them to me immediately.” As everyone turned to go to their assigned tables, Mrs. Ross added, “Will Gloria Ramirez please come with me? Mr. Merriweather would like to speak with you. Angela, you take Gloria’s table today, please. Rosa from the kitchen will cover your table.” Gloria kept her eyes on the carpet as she followed the unsmiling Mrs. Ross down the long hallway. She felt like a small child trailing behind a towering teacher on the way to the principal’s office. She had not seen the dementia unit manager, Mr. Merriweather, since the day she was first hired. She remembered him as a friendly, round-faced man, as cheerful as his name sounded, but today he was scowling. After Gloria sat down and Mrs. Ross left the office, Mr. Merriweather said, “Miss Ramirez, it appears you made an error in judgment yesterday. This unfortunately resulted in an incident of violence involving one of our patients and his wife.” Gloria waited for him to go on, but he was quiet. Was he waiting for her to say something? She looked toward the window, hoping to rest her eyes on a bird or a fluffy cloud, but the view to the outside was blocked by a large metal pipe running to the roof opposite. She focused instead on the objects on Mr. Merriweather’s desk—a sturdy metal stapler, a cracked green plastic box that held paper clips, a photo of a younger, slimmer Mr. Merriweather with his wife. Finally, he spoke again. “The injured woman, Mrs. Willard, told us that you upset the patients at your table by talking about morbid subjects. Is this true?” “It was a Día de los…Day of the Dead dinner,” Gloria said. Her voice came out so thin and quiet that Mr. Merriweather had to lean across his desk to hear her. “I asked them to think about people who had passed on,” she said. “To honor them, not to be…morbid.” “It was entirely inappropriate to celebrate Day of the Dead on this unit,” said Mr. Merriweather. “One does not discuss death with elderly dementia patients. Now I understand it was Teresa Sanchez who approved the Day of the Dead Special Night. She will no longer be working here as a result.” Again, he waited a long time before he resumed speaking. Gloria squirmed in the hard plastic chair, acutely aware of her own heartbeats. She looked again at the cold steel stapler on the desk, wondering how Teresa and her husband would ever pay back the money they owed for their daughter’s wedding. Mr. Merriweather sighed. “You should know, Miss Ramirez, that I considered firing you as well as Mrs. Sanchez. But you’re young and relatively new here and I’ve decided to give you a second chance. Mrs. Willard has asked that you no longer be assigned to her husband’s table. Since she has been gracious enough not to file charges despite her injury, I have moved you to the kitchen. Do you understand?” “I understand,” Gloria said, though she didn’t, not really. The kitchen work Gloria was assigned was tedious. Carrots, cucumbers, butternut squash, potatoes—all had to be chopped into tiny, non-choking pieces. For those with severely impaired swallowing, even these small chunks went into the blender, and the resulting mush was then poured into shallow dishes. Gloria tried not to complain, even to herself, about her new position. It was penance, she felt, for Teresa being fired when she herself had kept her job. She was grateful that the other dining room workers seemed to have forgotten that she, Gloria, had first suggested the Día de los Muertos theme for Special Night. Mrs. Ross was now the official dining room supervisor. She had never told them her first name, so she remained Mrs. Ross. At first Gloria tried to please her with her hard work and good attitude, but Mrs. Ross barely seemed to notice her. Gradually, Gloria worked up the courage to position her cutting board so she could look through the swinging door into the dining room and observe the patients at her old table. She thought that Angela was being too rough and quick in her movements when she fed Mrs. Quinn and Dr. McCabe, but she knew there was nothing she could do about it. Sometimes when she was on her way in or out of the unit at shift change, Gloria passed one of her five former charges in the hallway. None of them seemed to recognize her except Dr. McCabe, who would always flash her one of his crooked smiles. The best days were the days when she saw him. That winter the flu hit hard in the dementia unit and across all of Texas. One day Angela came in coughing. “Hey, girl,” Milagros whispered to her as they gathered around Mrs. Ross to hear what was for lunch. “You should’ve stayed in bed today.” “I couldn’t,” Angela said. “I used up all my sick days when the baby had croup.” By the end of lunch Angela was flushed and complaining of a headache. During the break between lunch clean-up and dinner set-up she went to talk to Mrs. Ross. She came back angry. “Old bitch says I have to stay,” she told Gloria and Milagros. “They’re short-staffed. Anyone got some Motrin?” The next day Angela didn’t come in, and the day after that Mr. Willard wasn’t brought in for meals. The rest of the group from Gloria’s old table went down in quick succession with flu—Mrs. Atwood first, then Dr. Delaney and Gloria’s sweet Dr. McCabe. So many of the staff fell ill that Gloria was moved back out of the kitchen and assigned to table duty. There was no one to object to this, as Mr. Willard had died of the flu within days and his wife no longer came over from independent living to visit him. Her first day back in the dining room Gloria sat at her old table with Mrs. Quinn, who had somehow escaped the scourge. Looking at the empty places around them gave Gloria an earworm of a song from “Les Mis,” a sad movie she’d seen where everyone dies. Empty chairs at empty tables, her brain hummed. Empty chairs at empty tables. She didn’t try to talk to Mrs. Quinn while she fed her, and the spoon, swallow, spoon, swallow became the rhythm to the repeating song. The next day Gloria, and Mrs. Quinn along with her, was assigned to a different table. The old table remained empty. Gloria sometimes thought she saw hazy shapes sitting there in the fizzy glow of the fluorescent lights, but when she looked up there was no one there. Mrs. Ross informed her the next week that several dining room aides had quit after using up their sick time. The new table would permanently be Gloria’s. “Can’t I have my old table group back?” Gloria asked. “I’m afraid your old table group doesn’t exist anymore,” Mrs. Ross said. She showed Gloria the new memorial notices tacked on the bulletin board. Mrs. Atwood had died of pneumonia, and Dr. Delaney of heart failure. ‘What about Dr. McCabe?” Gloria asked. Mrs. Ross told her that Dr. McCabe had recovered from the flu, but he was weak and bed-ridden, his food trays carried in to him by one of the nurses’ aides. On her way out that evening Gloria stopped by his room to see him. He was asleep in the big hospital bed, his face so thin the bones showed through, like he was wearing a Día de los Muertos skeleton mask. Dr. McCabe’s wife sat by his bedside fiddling with her phone. Gloria guessed she was texting her heart surgeon boyfriend who was down the hall visiting his own sick wife. “I’m glad Dr. McCabe is getting better,” Gloria said. “Will you tell him I came by to say hi?” “I’ll tell him,” Mrs. McCabe said. “Not that he understands anything I say.” She looked up from her phone. “It’s Gloria, right?” she said. “They should have kept you at the table. It was that girl who came in sick that gave them all the flu. Though I suppose for most of them it was a mercy.” Gloria didn’t understand why it would be a mercy. She looked at the sleeping Dr. McCabe and wondered something that so far she hadn’t allowed herself to think. If she hadn’t suggested the Día de los Muertos dinner, if she hadn’t been punished by being moved from her table, would they all still be alive? She promised herself she would visit Dr. McCabe as often as she could. The days lengthened and baby green leaves appeared on the trees. Gloria found that she took less interest in the people at her new table than she had in her first group. She could see that over time the patients at Gulf Breezes would become a blur of names and faces moving quickly through her life on their journey to the grave. On her way in to work she stopped to find things to show Dr. McCabe—a magnolia flower, a tiny bird’s egg, a rock worn smooth by the gentle waves of the Gulf. She began to look forward to her sunlit morning moments with him, peaceful times when his wife hadn’t arrived yet and the staff were busy with the other patients in the day room. “Look what I found for you,” she’d say, and Dr. McCabe would smile, kiss her hand, turn the rock or the egg or the flower in his shaking fingers, examine it, sniff it. She felt as though she was seeing the objects through his eyes, the uniqueness of them, how the polished rock sparkled in the summer morning light, how the flower petals formed a pattern, petals within petals within petals. She had the thought that she was his last student, in a classroom without words. In early September she came to show Dr. McCabe a fuzzy caterpillar and saw a screen drawn around his bed. His visiting grown-up children huddled with the hospice nurse while his wife grimly arranged flowers in a vase. She set the caterpillar down in the courtyard, imagining how it would have made him smile, how he would have stroked it with the index finger of his good hand. The next time she stopped by Dr. McCabe’s room, Gloria saw a new patient in the bed and another memorial notice on the bulletin board. She cried quietly in the hallway and wished Mrs. McCabe had thought to ask her to the funeral. Día de los Muertos came around again, and Gloria carried marigolds and chocolate cake to the cemetery for Tía Josefina. At home she helped Mariana decorate their family’s altar, and she lit a scented candle for her aunt. Then she lit extra candles, for Dr. McCabe, for Mrs. Atwood, for all the flickering souls she had met and would yet meet as they burned down toward their inevitable ends. She hoped that someday, somewhere, someone would light a candle for her, too. Copyright © 2021 by Andrea Hansell. About the Author Andrea Hansell studied creative writing at Princeton University and earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Michigan. She was a practicing psychotherapist for many years and is now a consultant and scriptwriter for Glowmedia mental health education films. She was a winter 2017 writing resident at Pacific University. Her essays and short stories have appeared in publications and anthologies including Lilith, Intima, Minerva Rising, and Lascaux Review. She has also been named a finalist in short fiction for the Lascaux Prize and the Soul-making Keats Literary Competition.
Till Death Do Us Part
After the long walks,
after the installment of dishwashers,
shower heads, ballcocks, finials,
after eggs and potatoes, kebabs,
beet salads with goat cheese,
after nostalgia replaces reality,
after coolness on the couch,
after tiptoeing in the rain
to fetch the paper,
after all of this,
here we are,
a loop of television news,
coffee rings in the sink,
counterpoint to quiet,
nose to nose
in a goodish way,
snow silently building a wall.
Copyright © 2022 by Donna Isaac.
inspired by Inger Christensen's Alphabet
on a Sèvres plate
near a tumble of grapes,
still life painted,
or on a tree laden,
dropping soft fruit
collected in baskets
by bakers to layer
for tarts or stewed
for great aunts
who slip children
who sip creme de menthe,
who sit in corners at reunions,
smiling and nodding,
deaf as codfish,
to read birthday cards,
hugging with crackling
bones, limping out
to the car, smiling
behind the back window
behind a child's handprint
wet with apricot juice.
Copyright © 2022 by Donna Isaac.
About the Author
Donna Isaac is a teaching artist and organizer of community readings and workshops through Cracked Walnut, League of MN Poets' chapter. She co-hosts Literary Bridges, a reading series in St. Paul, MN. She has a B.A. from James Madison University; an M.A. from the University of Minnesota; and an M.F.A. from Hamline University. Published poetry work includes Footfalls (Pocahontas Press); Tommy (Red Dragonfly Press); Holy Comforter (Red Bird Chapbooks); and Persistence of Vision (Finishing Line Press). Her work also appears in journals. She lives on a pond in Inver Grove Heights, MN. Visit: donnaisaacpoet.com.
Before ma-ma, before da-da,
Was boyo’s aw-oh!
In the beginning
Was a warning,
was ontological mischief.
Before original sin
Were original vowels.
Fear got hers.
And so on.
Till the emotions were sated.
The child takes his ah,
Directly into a language organ
Which soon shrivels, dries up
And blows away, so that
We, older, hardly notice
That sound of our own satisfaction
Till the child
Holds up the language mirror
With his sippy cup, 6 A.M.—
We have both guzzled our OJ
And he says, Ah!
And only then I realize
I’d just said “Ah!”
As if the vowel, or morpheme,
Were encoded in the juice enzymes,
A seed of some emotion that needed
And we were merely a vehicle
For the primordial Ah!
Of the diaper-spinnakered boy,
Hiking out now, from the crook of my arm.
Into that long, shared vowel.
Copyright © 2022 by Kevin King.
About the Author
Kevin King is the author of the novel All The Stars Came Out That Night, Dutton. His first poetry book, Ursprache, will be published in the spring of 2022. He is the recipient of a poetry fellowship from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and has published in numerous journals, including Ploughshares, Stand, Threepenny Review, etc. His CNF pieces, Back from Abroad and Alquezar were published in the Potomac Review and Word Riot, respectively. A CNF piece, Ireland, was a finalist in Nowhere Magazine’s travel writing contest and will be published in February.
Steve S. Saroff
We met in the eleventh grade of high school, after I had come back from more than half a year on the road. I was wild then, not wanted at home or at school, and I had surprised and disappointed everyone by coming home. Spending seven months hitchhiking alone— crisscrossing the continent eight times—had given me, as a seventeen-year-old, too much experience. Nothing as terrible as the tales of Vietnam which the friends of my older brother had brought back a few years before, but my wanderings almost ruined me, and left me emptier than anyone should be. The nights in the cities; never having money; being offered food and money for sex; sleeping under bridges; being searched again and again by police; being beaten up; shoplifting food; working in fields in Idaho; sleeping on beaches in Oregon; watching thunderheads over the Canadian plains; standing in storms; standing in deserts; spending a week in a drunk-tank in El Paso; and, listening to the stories of freaks, drunks, the soldiers, the Christians, and all the strangers who gave me rides.
I came home because I needed something gentle after all of that.
Before running away, all my friends had been the rough ones in our school. Dope smoking football players and guys with slouched shoulders, afternoon jobs and their own cars. They bragged about fights and about screwing, and they shared girls. In John Settons "Cabin," a shack built of stolen plywood in the woods near the interstate, they would meet with a girl named Hera every few days, and I was invited but never showed up. Even before leaving home, I was looking—really just hoping—for something more.
But I did come back for a while. I came back in November. School had already started, and I was only part there. Every few days I would hitch hike to the Blue Ridge Mountains and spend some nights in the woods. I would build fires and sit by them, next to their warmth and light. There was snow then in those hardwood forests, and when I would crawl into my sleeping bag, I dreamed of how someday I might not be alone. I dreamed that someday I could share these snowy forest places, these secret, beautiful places of the Shenandoah and the Monongahela.
My father had given up on me then, and out of that respect I left him alone too. The school, though, was still trying. But the classes were more boring, and the guidance counselors and school shrink—both of which I had to see to be able to attend any classes at all—were more idiotic. As a habitual truant they wanted to kick me out of school. Most problem kids, though, fit their stereotypes, either as violent, or as completely withdrawn. But I was neither. There was one meeting after I had been gone for five days, having left on a Friday, and coming back on a Thursday, mid-morning, when the guidance counselor simply exploded.
"You want us to believe that you just spent five nights camping out by yourself?" she yelled.
I nodded 'Yes.'
"Were you taking drugs?" the shrink asked.
I shook my head, 'No.'
"Why should we let you keep going to school?" The counselor asked.
"What do you do by yourself?"
I answered then, quietly, "Read. Think a bit."
Then one of them began to yell, saying that I could "Damn well," read and think in school, or at a job, but not in the woods.
But, still, they let me keep attending English, math and Physics, the only classes that I would go to at all.
I could have told the truth: that I sat in those oak and hickory forests and thought about the stories that I had listened to, and about all the strange and frightening people I had met, and, mostly, I thought about what I would do next, where I could go.
It was one of those winter fires which helped me find her. In Mr. Bundy’s afternoon physics class, she came in and sat next to me. I had always looked at her. I had always had her in my impossible dreams. She was frail, and I only understood her delicate look as beauty. I knew nothing about her, except that she seemed to belong to a group of people who didn't cross into the sort of people I spent time with.
As Mr. Bundy scrawled equations on the black board, she said, in a whisper, "You smell like smoke."
I looked at her, but she wasn't looking at me, so I didn't answer. Then she whispered, "You smell good."
This time when I looked at her, she glanced up at me and she smiled. I had absolutely no idea what to say, but we kept looking at each other, and I stammered, "I spent last night outside. Built a fire."
"Where outside?" She asked, still in a quiet whisper—looking down again into her notebook.
I glanced at Mr. Bundy who was still busy at the blackboard. "I go into Shenandoah Park," I said, "They don't allow fires there, but I just go into the woods, away from the trails. I hitchhiked back here in the morning."
Then she asked, "Who did you go with?"
"By myself," I answered.
"That must be lonely," she said.
I didn't answer for a few minutes. We both pretend to be paying close attention to Mr. Bundy. Eight months before I would have answered her with some shrug. Some tough guy "No," or "Not really." But I somehow knew that I had been a given a chance to tell the truth. I had been in jail because I wouldn't give a judge my real name or age. I had blistered my hands in fields while other migrant workers laughed at my not having a pair of gloves. I had gone to sleep hungry and woken up hungry many, many times. So, I told the truth.
"It is lonelier here," I said.
She looked at me and said, this time loud enough so that I could hear the music in her voice, "It is lonely here, isn't it?"
I didn't answer her.
The next day I am in physics class, and she is there, and she sits next to me again. We don't say anything or even look at each other. Mr. Bundy starts lecturing, but I am listening to her sounds more closely—her breathing, the sound of her pencil, the rustling of her notebook. I am feeling outcast again, and more so because I have told her that I slept outside by a fire, and I am thinking that she was teasing me about my smelling good. I am thinking that she will have told her friends about how I am a freak. I am thinking that she will be like the counselors and the shrinks—them not understanding how I could choose to be alone. I am failing every class and will not even come close to graduating, and there is no reason to come keep coming to school at all, but I try right then to pay attention to Mr. Bundy. He is explaining circular momentum, but I have missed so many classes that his explanations are losing me. I give up there and then. I am deciding that I will leave. I am thinking that I will just stand up, walk out of the class, go and fill a pack, and this time not come back.
I am six foot two and I weigh 170 pounds. I can run a mile in five minutes. I have read more books than most college graduates ever will. I have long, curling hair tied back with a bandana. I know about stars and rocks. By listening to people, I am able to recognize the good ones from the others. I can sleep well on hard ground. I have eaten grouse that I have killed with stones, and I have feasted on Brown trout caught by the banks of Western rivers. But I do not recognize anything good in myself. I think that I am a failure because I am not a track athlete. I think that I am illiterate because I am failing my classes. I think I am ugly because I am so tall, an outcast because I have been on the street, and I feel that I am unlovable because I am only calm when I am alone. I'm seventeen.
But somehow, I made it through that class, and then the bell is ringing and then she is standing up.
She hands me a note.
It's a sheet of notebook paper folded and refolded into a two-inch square. She says, "I wrote to you last night," and she turns and walks fast into the crowd which is pushing its way out of the room.
I am still sitting. I've covered her note with my hand, and I am excited but lost. Finally I get up and go into the hallway and outside. There are a few acres of trees next to the school—a place where kids go to smoke cigarettes or weed—and I go into these woods. I sit down out of sight from anyone. Then I unfold the note and read it.
She says that she wants to know me. She says everyone talks about me and wonders about me. She says I am beautiful. She says that she hopes that I will not laugh at her for writing to me. She apologizes for her spelling. She says I can just tear this note up and she will never bother me again. She says she is writing while in bed and hopes that I don't mind that she is thinking of me.
I hear the bell ringing for the next class, but I stay in the woods. I hug myself, sitting there with the cigarette butts and empty beer cans everywhere. I re-read the note again and again. One page of handwriting from a frail girl, and there is more salvation there than in the combined pages of every book I had ever read.
I stay in those littered woods, sitting against a White Oak, for most of the afternoon, far past the end of the school day, slowly writing her a one-page letter in return. Putting my words down slow. Listening to the sound of every sentence. But my words, in the end, were as simple and truthful as hers. I wrote to her saying I wanted to know her too. I wrote to her saying that I had always noticed her, and that I would not tear her letter up. I wrote to her saying that she was beautiful and that her eyes were gray like clouds.
That evening, I found her house. I looked up her address in the phone book. I ran there. Panting in the shadows and mostly hiding, I finally saw her at a 2nd story window, by herself, in a room which I had guessed correctly was hers. I threw a pebble up there and she opened the window. She was smiling and I could see that she was happy.
"I wrote you a letter," I said.
"Do you want to come in?" She asked.
I said, "Can you come out?"
She said, "Let me check." Then she was gone and a minute later she was outside, and I had given her my letter, folded like hers, into a small square.
She said, "Can I read this now?"
"Yes," I said, "But I have to go," and just like that I turned, and started running. Running my five-minute miles, the two miles back to my father's house. I had been told stories about how to avoid Claymore mines. I had listened to graphic descriptions of sexual positions and perversions. I had listened to advice about God, advice about how to take drugs, advice about how to make money, and I had paid close attention to everything, but no one had ever told me how to deliver a love letter.
It didn't matter though. What she had started with her folded note was such a good thing that neither of our inexperience was going to ruin it. Rather, it helped. Instead of talking, or even phone calls, or a "date," for the next two weeks, every day we traded folded letters in physics class.
Her letters to me were sometimes just a single paragraph. Once, just a word.
A Friday afternoon in April. At the start of the class, I had given her what I had written the night before. I had left my father's house and had run to her house. It was so late that no lights were on; the house was dark. I then walked two blocks away. I sat down on the curb, under a streetlight.
"2:00 a.m.," my letter started, "I am sitting under a streetlight on your street, writing to you. I ran to your house. The window of your room is dark. I like knowing that I am sitting here close to you as you sleep. Tomorrow, when you read this, will you laugh at me because I am lonely for you? Will you laugh because I want to hear your voice now? I am here on this street, and you are up there, in your room, in your dark room."
I gave her this folded note, and I saw her read it during class, but she does not look at me. Mr. Bundy lectures, and I hear her pencil taking notes. Then the bell is ringing, and she hands me a folded note, stands up, and walks fast away from me. I unfold her note. A plain sheet of notebook paper. Green ink. One word, with no capitalization, no adornments. Just the small word, "love."
Now I am reading her one word letter. Now I am pushing through the crowded hallway. Now I am catching up to her, touching her for the first time, touching her shoulder. She turns to me, and she is crying. All around us are clumsy teenagers. Lockers are opening and then being slammed shut.
"What is wrong?" I ask.
"Wrong?" she says, brushing over her eyes with the back of her hand, "Oh Enzi, nothing is wrong. I'm just happy." Then she kisses me quickly, turns again, and nearly runs into her next class just as the bell is ringing.
I go outside. I go to those woods. Two hours sitting there until the final bell. Then I find her as she leaves the building. We walk back to her house together. She touches my hand. I touch hers. Our shoulders brush. Our hands touch again. She takes my hand. She holds it. I hold her hand. She holds my hand. She drops her books, and I don't understand. Then her arms are around me. My arms are at my sides. Then my arms are around her. We are laughing together.
I remember her bones. The bones under her skin. I remember her blood. The blood moving in her veins. I hear her breathing as she sleeps, me next to her. I am hiding with her in her room, waiting until her parents also go to asleep so I can leave her house quietly. I am running in the East Coast springtime along the concrete streets, with more happiness and more sorrow than any child should ever carry. We only had two months together. I have finally been kicked out of school, and she has told me what is wrong with her. By then I understand her frailty. By then I have told her everything about myself, and I have realized that without her I will be like dust.
I wanted to show her the forest places. I wanted to take her with me to the deepest forests, to the West. She is sitting cross-legged on the grass in front of her house. It is early summer now, night. I have been working on a construction site. I come to her house every evening. I eat with her family. I am no longer so shy. But this day I did not come by until very late. She has told me things I could not understand, that have frightened me so much that the only thing I know how to do is to try to run away again.
You see, we were both so alone. That last night, that summer night, I ran to her house at three in the morning and threw small stones at the window. When she woke and looked down at me, she smiled, opened the window, and asked, “What are you doing?” I told her that I had to talk, that I could not sleep. She dressed and came outside. We sat on the grass, there next to the house, and I said that I was going to Montana and asked her again to come with me. Dark, with fireflies, and that Virginia humidity that made my shirt stick to my back, we sat together, quiet, and I waited for an answer, but it never came. Instead, she said she had to go back inside, and I walked her to the front door. She kissed me suddenly, her hand holding tightly to mine, then slipping away as she turned and opened the door. Inside her father was in the near dark, sitting by a dim lamp. I remember how he looked at me and how he waved, but the door was closed before any of us could say anything.
Where I went was again a hard place. I sent her letters I wrote during lunchbreaks in the string of labor jobs I ended up with. I sent her letters until one came back, a little less than a year after I had left, but it wasn’t from her. It was a short note from her father, folded only once, telling me that I should not keep writing her since she was gone.
These silent years, these moods… I am in the clouds now, writing while on route to another passionless business meeting. Out this small window there is a halo of light, the Glory rainbow that scientists tell us is caused by ice crystals, but which my heart tells me is her bright memory. If I could, I would go back to where we first met - that physics classroom - and I would hand her a carefully folded, carefully written note, with just these words, "I will stay."
I left home without finishing school and she tried to finish but also did not make it. “Come with me,” I said that night, “We will find clear rivers and forests and always be with each other.” I said to her, “Come with me and you will be fine again. Doctors know nothing, come with me because we have so little time.” Fool I was, coward too, because I left her alone when she should not have been alone.
I imagine her father holding her. I imagine him crying for all of us; her trapped in this place of rock and air, breathing out one last time, while I swung and sweated on some highway crew, pretending that at eighteen my body could work a magic that would reach two thousand miles back to hers and pull the illness from the bones.
I still look for her everywhere. In the city crowds I sometimes see a face like hers, or, walking in a certain way, a girl with long, thin arms.... But I find her most in solitary places: along the Blackfoot river in Autumn, a place she never saw, where red river rocks sparkle in the low water and dark trout pretend to be shadows.
I write these words with the same hand that wrote for her, the same hand that she held and touched that last moment as I was leaving, a door closing forever. Up here, in these clouds, five miles from anything solid, I beg a forgiveness and wonder who I would have become if I had different strength and had stayed with her to say goodbye. Some mistakes last forever, and we try forever to make up for them. The "success" that becomes our surface is only the thinnest of covers over deep, deep failure.
Copyright © 2022 by Steve S. Saroff.
About the Author
Steve S. Saroff is a writer and computer coder and has started several tech companies. He is also the author of The Long Line of Elk, as well as many short stories, some of which were published in Redbook and other national magazines. He lives in Montana.
Success is the back story for his forthcoming novel, Paper Targets.