This issue features
photograph by Tupungato,
poetry by Serena Agusto-Cox.
fiction by Susan Agar,
poetry by Sara Bawany,
fiction by Philip Brunetti,
photograph by Jim Cottingham,
poetry by DuEwa Frazier,
fiction by Soramimi Hanarejima,
fiction by Kenneth M. Kapp,
poetry by James McKee,
fiction by Theron Montgomery, and
poetry by Ramzi Albert Rihani
At the foot of the stairs, I listen.
Place my hand behind my ear, amplify
plucked strings in the bedroom behind the door.
Chords slowly waft
at a time,
building the bridge.
in a world where little is private,
that door closed when I want it wide.
beside those strings, silent
as I am now, at the bottom of the stairs.
Copyright © 2022 by Serena Agusto-Cox.
-for Reuben Jackson
I mute the basketball game —
streak of squeak on the court
rasp of jersey by elbow
oomph of bodies shoved —
and listen to poems
read in smooth, somber
timbre that slows the pace
of layups, jam of the dunk?
Copyright © 2022 by Serena Agusto-Cox.
About the Author
Serena Agusto-Cox was one of the first featured poets of the DiVerse Gaithersburg reading series in Maryland and coordinates poetry programming for the Gaithersburg Book Festival. Poems are in Live Encounters, Halfway Down the Stairs, The Magnolia Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Dissonance Magazine, Bourgeon, and more. Work appears in The Great World of Days, This Is What America Looks Like, Mom Egg Review’s Pandemic Parenting, The Plague Papers, H.L. Hix’s Made Priceless, Love Is Love: An Anthology for LGBTQIA+ Teens, and Midge Raymond’s Everyday Book Marketing. She also runs the book review blog, Savvy Verse & Wit, and founded Poetic Book Tours to help poets market their books.
When Ida arrives home from college for the first time since the start of freshman year, her mother Berta is still at work. When she goes upstairs to pee, she finds a stash of insecticide under the sink in the guest bathroom and wonders what kind of infestation so much insecticide could be for.
She goes back downstairs to sprawl out on the couch, under the front windows and across from a large, brightly colored acrylic painting that hangs on the opposite wall. Berta is a psychoanalyst, and Ida has always found this painting, done by one of her mother’s patients, disturbing, so she tries not to look at it. Instead, she scrolls through social media, texts a few friends and watches clips of pandas rolling around on YouTube, while waiting for Berta to get home from the clinic.
Berta sees patients at a community health center in a dodgy neighborhood of Philadelphia, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Tonight, when she comes in, she hangs her coat in the closet under the staircase and stretches her arms above her head with a yawn.
Long day, Mom?
You have no idea, Ida.
Ida pours two glasses of wine from the open bottle she’d found in the refrigerator. Berta sinks into an armchair and crosses her legs. Ida tucks up her bare feet under her butt.
You drink wine now, Ida?
Does it bother you?
I will reserve judgment.
Why do you always do that, Mom?
Do what, Ida?
Make me feel like I’m doing something wrong without coming out and saying it. You’ve let me drink wine with you before this.
This is my first glass. But whatever. What’s with all the bug spray?
Now it is my turn to wonder why you are interrogating me.
There are like ten cans of insecticide under the sink in the guest bathroom, Mom.
Bed bugs are a problem in college dorms.
I haven’t brought bedbugs home from college.
You know I believe in preventative measures, Ida.
Letting this insect-invasion discussion drop, Ida asks Berta if she can take her shopping at King of Prussia Mall on Saturday. She’s gained weight at college, and she needs new jeans.
Berta is non-committal about King of Prussia and says she has to make a call. Ida clears away the wine glasses, furtively pouring herself another glass in the kitchen. When she opens the cupboard above the stove, she finds a pile of plastic takeout-food containers on the shelves where there used to be an assorted stash of junk food.
Where’d you move the snacks, Mom?
I don’t know what you’re talking about. I never eat between meals.
Come on, Berta. You know you love those salt and vinegar chips.
You are remembering incorrectly.
If you say so, Berta.
Please don’t call me, Berta. It’s so disrespectful.
Okay. Have you made your phone call? I’m starving.
What phone call?
The one you said you needed to make, like five minutes ago?
I don’t know what you are talking about. I need to change my clothes before we have dinner.
Berta lets Ida drive to the mall on Saturday, and Ida notices a new dent on the driver’s side of the SUV but doesn’t mention it. She loves to drive, a trait Berta always says Ida inherited from her American father, who died while Berta was still pregnant.
On Sunday, Ida takes the train back to Baltimore, lugging a suitcase full of new clothes. She takes a taxi from the train station to campus, and in her rush to get to the dining hall before it closes, she forgets to call Berta. This brings on a barrage of voicemails from Berta, who is revved into a panic. Berta has never mastered texting, even though Ida has spent hours trying to teach her how to. Ida is still on the phone with Berta when she walks into her dorm room, where her roommate Liz is studying on her bed.
I’m safe, Mom.
How can you do this to me, Ida? You never put yourself in my position. You’ve always been a selfish girl.
This is harsh, even for Berta.
I said I was sorry.
Berta says she has to go and hangs up. Ida lies down on her bed, stretching her legs up the wall with her head dangling off the side.
Is everything okay? Liz asks. She’s taking notes in a spiral notebook on her lap with a heavy textbook on the bed in front of her.
I forgot to call her.
No one the urban campus likes to dwell on how close the dangerous neighborhoods encroach on the university, though everyone knows it’s a security concern.
Ida has a psych test to study for, though before reading a word of psych, she asks Liz if she can tell her a dream, she had last night.
If you must, but make it quick.
I dreamt that the sea was flooding my house all the way up to the third floor where my bedroom is. I think I drowned.
Liz sits up, stirs honey into a cup of tea and shifts her laptop onto her lap.
What do you think it means, Lizzie?
You know I think dreams are just brain farts, Ida.
Ida asks if that’s what Liz really believes—that dreams aren’t any more meaningful than a brain-chemistry reaction? Liz says she doesn’t really care one way or the other what dreams mean, but she does need an A in Organic Chemistry so she can get into med school.
Maybe you should ask Berta what it means.
Hell to the no. I’m not asking her.
Ida has learned the hard way never to discuss her dreams with Berta, who’s a strict Freudian.
Are you seeing Tom tonight? she asks.
Too much work.
Ida isn’t sure she likes Tom, whom Liz met in her public health class and has been dating all semester. Ida suspects that Tom’s clean-cut looks signal extremist politics. Liz claims that politics aside, Tom is sweet and smart.
Ida surveys the dorm room, which is a disaster, even by her and Liz’s standards. A clothes hamper, stashed unstably in a corner, is overflowing with dirty clothes along with several used Starbucks cups. Ida will have to start recycling thongs if she doesn’t do laundry soon.
After she studies for the psych test, she has to study for a Middle Ages history test, before writing an outline for a paper on Beloved that is due Friday. She also has to memorize about a thousand id’s for Art History.
She hears someone scream.
Did you hear that?
I really have to study, Ida.
I thought I heard someone scream.
Ida gathers up books and notebooks from the pile on her desk and shoves them into her backpack. There are six new voicemails from Berta, which Ida decides to ignore.
I’m going to the library. Do you need anything?
I’m good, but are you okay?
Do I not seem okay?
You’re kind of muttering to yourself.
Berta just called six times.
Uh-oh. Promise you won’t do anything you’ll regret without letting me know, Liz says, blowing a kiss.
Fat chance of that.
On her way back from the library later that night, Ida sees a tall, hooded figure walking toward her along the path that cuts diagonally across the central quad. It’s near midnight, and no one else is around. She lowers her gaze to avoid making eye contact with the stranger and picks up her pace, but as their paths cross, she looks into the face of an odd-looking man. He’s older than an undergraduate, wearing some kind of tunic and gladiator sandals. He pushes off the hood as he passes under a streetlamp, and Ida sees that he has long curly hair. He stares at her, as if expecting to be recognized, like a famous person would, though he isn’t familiar-looking. Ida thinks that he may belong to some secret alumni society or maybe he’s a local junkie. Or maybe her eyes are playing tricks after all the studying. She walks to her dorm as fast as she can.
A few nights later, she’s lying in bed wide-awake, while Liz is snoring across the room. Ida raises the shade to look out the window above her bed. There’s a man below in a circle of moonlight, and it looks like the stranger she crossed paths with. He’s tall and thin. Ida thinks a strong wind would topple him over. She opens the window to try to get a better look, but by the time she lifts the screen to stick her head out, he’s gone. Afterward, she falls deep asleep and sleeps through French.
She doesn’t see the stranger again during the weeks before Thanksgiving and decides that the sightings must have been random encounters with different men her overactive imagination merged into one phantom.
When she arrives home on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Ida opens the front door and sees that the house is noticeably more cluttered. There are piles of unfolded clothes and linens throughout the downstairs rooms, and stacks of new baby clothes, with the store tags still on them, are spread out on her bed upstairs. Ida wonders how Marta, the cleaner they’ve had for years, can clean around all the stuff that is now everywhere.
When she looks for something to eat, there’s next to nothing in the refrigerator—just vodka, an overripe, smelly cheese and a bag of wilted spinach. She texts Berta to let her know she’s home and ask whether she should make a reservation somewhere or if Berta wants to pick up pizza on her way home. Berta says she’ll pick up pizza and will be home soon. Two hours later, Ida’s fighting to keep her eyes open while trying to read a chapter on object relations for psych class, when Berta arrives without food and looking disheveled.
Where’s the pizza, Mom?
What pizza? I thought we would go to Cafette.
You said you’d pick it up on your way home.
I don’t remember saying that.
I’ve told you not to call me Berta, Ida, how many times?
Okay, okay, Mom. Let’s go out.
Ida watches Berta climb the stairs, assuming she’s going to change out of her work clothes, but Berta reappears downstairs ten minutes later, still dressed in her skirt and high heels. Ida tries to reassure herself that Berta not changing her clothes after work is not so weird in the scope of possible weirdness.
They settle at a corner table in the neighborhood restaurant, and for a while, everything seems mostly normal for the night before Thanksgiving. Ida recognizes a guy from her high school, waiting for a table with his parents across the room. A waitress they’ve known for years takes their order. Berta doesn’t take off her coat, but Ida thinks maybe she’s just tired.
What’s up with the baby clothes, Mom?
The cleaner is pregnant.
Isn’t Marta too old to get pregnant?
She was stealing.
Marta was stealing?
I had to let her go.
Ida says she has trouble believing that hardworking Marta is a thief.
You don’t know what people are capable of, Ida.
When they get home after dinner, Ida offers to pick up the downstairs and put in a load of laundry, but Berta insists Ida not pick up anything.
The girl will do it when she comes.
The girl who cleans and is pregnant. Why don’t you listen to me?
I am listening, Mom, but you didn’t say you hired a new cleaner. What’s her name?
I don’t remember. I can’t remember everything about the cleaner, Ida.
Ida doesn’t know what to say to this, but before she goes to bed, she folds and puts all the baby clothes into a trash bag and leaves it in the corner of her room.
The milk curdles in her coffee the next morning. The carton is a week out-of-date. Ida dumps it and the coffee down the sink.
The milk’s sour, Mom.
I just bought it. Why must you always exaggerate?
I’m not exaggerating.
You’re not having cereal, Ida? I bought the kind you like.
Ida opens the cupboard, and there are three boxes of Sugar-Frosted Flakes, which she hasn’t eaten since middle school. She shuts the cupboard door.
You don’t want breakfast, Ida?
I’ll have toast. Do you want some?
I can’t eat. I have to get dressed. We can’t be late for dinner. Celina gets cross.
Thankfully, Berta and Ida are going to her Aunt Celina’s house in New Jersey this year. They are bringing pies, which Ida picked up yesterday from the bakery up the hill.
She’s dressed and ready to leave before her mother, and to her great relief, Berta emerges dressed in her usual neat-as-a-pin way. But when Ida offers to drive, Berta says no, she doesn’t like the way Ida drives.
You’re too slow.
You usually say I drive too fast. Is everything okay, Mom?
What should be wrong, Ida?
I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.
Everything is the same. You are getting fat, Ida, but I am the same.
That’s so mean.
You should eat cereal, not toast, for breakfast, Ida.
Although she had planned to stay at home until Sunday, Ida goes back to Baltimore a day early, telling Berta that she has to study, which isn’t actually a lie.
When she gets back to the dorm, she takes one look around at her and Liz’s entrenched mess and decides to spend the day getting the room into some kind of order before she does any studying. She starts by walking to the university market to buy rubber gloves and cleaning supplies. The market is a block beyond the northern reach of the campus, abutting abandoned railroad tracks. The surroundings are desolate, and Ida hurries to buy what she needs at the store and return to the dorm.
First, she separates the clothes and linens from the trash on the floor. Next, she separates her dirty clothes from Liz’s, stuffing each pile into a separate trash bag. She leaves the door to the room ajar and opens the windows above her and Liz’s beds. After dusting all the surfaces that are accessible, she finds a vacuum in a closet in the common room and spends another half-hour vacuuming up a semester’s worth of dirt from the worn carpet. When she finishes cleaning, she hauls away all the trash and recyclables before starting on the laundry.
The dorms are mostly empty, as most people won’t return to campus until sometime on Sunday, and Ida’s alone in the laundry room, which is in the basement. The room is bright, but the hallway between it and the elevator is dimly lit. She texts a friend to make plans to meet up later, because she’s getting creeped-out being on her own in the basement, but the text fails to send, because there’s such bad reception down there.
What are you doing back? someone asks.
Ida jumps, but then sees that it’s just Tom, Liz’s Republican boyfriend.
I have a lot of work. What are you doing here?
I didn’t go home. I live too far away.
Ida recalls Liz saying Tom is on financial aid and has considerable student loans. He’s a sophomore and lives in a house off-campus.
Why are you doing laundry in our dorms?
Our washing machine is broken, so Liz gave me her fob.
Tom’s clean-cut looks suddenly make Ida want to start an argument with him, to denounce his politics as abhorrent and unconscionable, even though Tom has never said a politically abhorrent or confrontational word to her. But then, as if to compensate for her ill-natured feelings toward him, she asks if he wanted to wait upstairs while his clothes are drying.
Thanks, but I’m good, he says, holding up a book with the word ‘pathogen’ in the title.
A miasma of late-term pressure settles over the industrious, mid-Atlantic campus. During the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Ida is inundated by calls from Berta, which she does her best to manage, while staying focused on coursework.
One night, in early December, she’s bracing herself against the wind and rainstorm as she walks to the library, when out of nowhere, she hears a loud, deep voice.
You ignore me at your peril!
She’s sure the voice came from behind her, but when she looks, there’s no one there.
At your peril!
She stands outside the glass doors of the library. She doesn’t go inside or turn around. The warm lights and mull of students inside the library beckon, but she can’t get herself to pull open the door.
Are you going in or what?
You’re on my floor. Is something wrong?
It’s her resident advisor, whom Liz and Ida nicknamed Philosophy Boy during freshman orientation. He holds open the door of the library, looking at her like she has three heads.
Did you just hear some dude say something weird?
Well, I just heard someone from behind me say something really weird.
Philosophy Boy looks intrigued by this. They both turn around to look, but there’s no one there.
I won’t report you or anything, even though I am your R.A., but if it’s drugs gone wrong, you should probably check in with someone at the Wellness Clinic.
I’m not doing any drugs.
Oh, okay. Then I would recommend coffee. Caffeine always rebalances me.
Ida follows Philosophy Boy into the library café, staying close behind him in the line. He doesn’t exude warmth or caring, but he does wait for her to pay for her latte before saying he has a lot of work and disappearing at a trot down the spiral staircase into the depths of the building.
During their next encounter, the stranger hovers over Ida in a mask. His hair, around the mask, is tangled with dirt and grass, and his face is way too close. She’s lying on the ground staring up at him, in a large clearing in the middle of a circle of trees. She hears flutes and drums playing in the distance.
Ignore me at your peril!
Ida shudders awake outside the dorm bathrooms, surprised that Philosophy Boy is kneeling at her side holding her hand, in the middle of the night.
Oh god—did I black out or something?
She remembers drinking several shots of tequila in a bar across from campus with some friends earlier that evening.
Apparently. You don’t seem that inebriated now, but we should probably have the talk.
The one where I assess whether or not I should call 911. How much did you have?
I’m not drunk. Not anymore anyway.
I still need to ask you some questions.
He buys two Snickers bars and a can of Coke from the vending machine. Even though she doesn’t know him enough to fully trust him, Ida sits with him on the saggy couch in the common room and tries to tell him whatever she can remember from the terrifying vision of the strange man. It’s actually a relief to tell somebody.
She says she went out to meet a friend for dinner at a tapas place downtown near the harbor. They took a taxi back to the bar across the street from another friend’s building. The music in the bar got kind of wild, and after a few drinks, they danced with a lot of people in the bar—mostly older women they didn’t know. Then it got really hot in the bar, and the dancing got kind of too close and sweaty, and Ida remembers that someone groped her ass.
Then it all went blank until I woke up in the woods, on my back staring at this crazy guy wearing a mask and dancing and chanting over me. It was terrifying, but it must have been a dream, because I woke up here—with you holding my hand.
I was taking your pulse.
I think I’m losing my mind.
Philosophy Boy nods and says, Maybe it’s a visitation of some kind.
That sounds even worse.
Did he look like Jesus by any chance?
It definitely wasn’t Jesus.
A pagan then.
He names a list of Greek gods Ida remembers reading about in large mythology books when she was young. She really appreciates Philosophy Boy’s erudition and his taking the time to talk to her. He doesn’t seem compelled to fill in the gaps in a conversation, which she finds a bit weird but also kind of reassuring. She wonders if he’ll try to hit on her, but then she thinks, probably not. He has a definite asexual vibe.
The archaic can sometimes just erupt, even though the vehicle may be random, he says.
So, I’m some random, archaic vehicle? That’s not reassuring.
Reassurance is probably the wrong criteria. You might consider having a psych evaluation done, just to rule out some kind of neurological pathology or psychiatric disorder.
Ida says she’ll think about it. She also says she feels like her head is going to explode and she really needs to get some sleep. She and Philosophy Boy part a little awkwardly but platonically.
Liz is spending the night with Tom, so Ida has the room to herself. She climbs into bed under the duvet, exhausted, but unable to fall asleep. She tosses restlessly and tries to get her head around the possibility that the hallucinatory episodes might not be over. She tries to imagine ways to cope that do not involve invasive tests or having to tell Berta anything about it.
The next time she and the not-Jesus person cross paths is on a frigid, late afternoon. Ida is on her way to meet a friend in the library café. A few students and teachers walk past, but Ida once again has to confront the stranger alone. This time he seems shrunken and guarded, and his blond curls are a mess. He looks more like a homeless person who has wandered onto the campus from wherever vagrant people wander in from. Ida avoids his gaze and walks quickly by him. But then, he’s there, right in front of her again, waving his arms and babbling, daring her to ignore him. She walks past him again, but then he somehow blocks her way again. This time she stops short in front of him, because she doesn’t know what else to do.
They never name me in prayers.
Ignorant girl! Be wary. I have sent a whole female population raving from their homes.
The man grabs and shakes her arm, imploring her to listen to him. She recoils and pushes him away as hard as she can. He falls on his ass in a patch of dirt, cursing Ida and the world at large, warning of disasters to come.
I am sane, and you are mad!
She takes off running as fast as she can, to report him and get help, but by the time she finds a campus security guard, the madman is gone. The security guard speaks to his superior on a walkie talkie and walks Ida to her dorm.
You can’t be too careful. This place has no borders, he says.
The next day, there are several rumors buzzing around the campus about a flash mob in a remote neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.
Did you hear about that gang of women in that park where the drug dealers hang out?
I heard they were dancing naked in the middle of night.
They were drunk out of their minds.
I heard they killed someone.
No body or weapons are found, and since nothing is proven, everyone just keeps talking about how terrible and terrifying the city is getting—until time passes, and they stop talking about it, and the phantom killing becomes a serious crime that may or may not have happened, soon to be forgotten amidst more immediate incidents and concerns.
Then, when Ida goes home for Christmas, there are gnarled vines growing up the sides of the house. The vines are clinging onto the Pennsylvania stone and crawling over the casement windows, as on some ancient ruin.
When she opens the front door, there’s just a narrow path through the living room, with piles of odd stuff encroaching on the door, which no longer opens in its full arc. It looks like Berta hasn’t left the house for days, maybe weeks, and that she’s been ordering in takeout food and random goods of all kinds online. There are bags of costume jewelry, sparkling-water makers, a palette of a hundred shades of eye shadow—all delivered to the front door by UPS and FedEx. The house smells closed-up and rank.
Ida finds her mother in the kitchen, barefoot and wearing what was once a fitted work dress but is now too baggy for Berta’s thin frame.
I’m sorry I didn’t return all your calls, Mom. I just had so much work.
It’s over now, Ida.
Berta has stopped seeing patients and has cut off all contact with friends and family, even with her sister Celina.
It’s better this way. We have more time to prepare.
To prepare for what, Mom?
For our escape. We must cross the border at night, Ida. It will be very dangerous, and we must be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice. But he will be there, waiting for us on the other side.
Who will be there? And what border? What are you talking about, Mom?
There is always the danger of getting caught—getting sent back. But he told me it is less dangerous at night.
Please tell me what’s going on. I’m here now. I can help.
Do what you want, Ida. I’ll be upstairs.
It’s Christmas in three days, Mom. Don’t you want to celebrate Christmas this year?
As if that ever solved anything, Berta says, before running up the stairs and slamming her bedroom door.
Not knowing where else to start, Ida roams through the house, searching for she doesn’t know what. She finds chicken bones in plastic containers in the corners of all the downstairs rooms, like offerings to some archaic god. She dumps the containers one by one into a trash bag, which she throws into a wheeled garbage bin she hauls to the curb in front of the house. As she turns to go back inside, she looks up to see Berta smiling down at her from an upstairs window. The smile is both deranged and beguiling, in between the creeping vines.
So, this is it. He’s real, Ida says to no one.
The stranger is not a phantom. His words are not ravings. He is something else entirely. Ida wants to pray now, to beg him for forgiveness and entreat his help—the prayers he’s been demanding in tribute—if only she can remember the words.
Copyright © 2022 by Susan Agar.
About the Author
Susan Agar has had short fiction published in Narrative Magazine, Santa Fe Writers Project, Haunted Waters Press, Solstice, and Origins, and was a finalist in a Glimmer Train Fiction Open. She has an MA in English Literature from the University of London, Queen Mary College, and an AB from Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in New York.
for dark-skinned girls
when we were children, brown or black
used to be another way to say burnt
and burnt was another way to say ugly
our mamas would slather Fair & Lovely
across our little faces in hopes that it
would sting just enough to peel strips of
melanin right off. they didn’t know better i suppose,
cursing their DNA, trying to save us from the fate
that generations before them suffered. but now,
now we know better. this skin we’ve tried
so hard to shed serves as a testament
to how much the sun found home in us, how
it is the darkest soil that grows the most vibrant
flowers, how it is the night sky that holds the
universe’s greatest secrets. and if God
lovingly grabbed handfuls of the fertile
soil and pieces of the night sky to
fashion our skin, how dare you call us
Copyright © 2022 by Sara Bawany.
end of days
smiling in the face of the atrocities
rising up around me
if i can’t save the world
or if God has some other plan
for my endless prayers
then perhaps squashing
whatever joy i have left
should do the trick
this is the beginning
of end of times they spoke about
these are the stories i grew up hearing
from parents and Sunday school teachers
the widespread corruption
the Earth swallowing itself whole
and a deep desire from the most privileged
to hold on so desperately
to the cruel world they’ve built
the only heaven they will likely ever know
i waver between resigning to hopelessness
and refusing to accept defeat
the world is burning itself to ashes
mothers are being forced
to give up their womanhood
unable to feed their children
burying their sons
watching fires hungrily
gorge on their homes
what luxury did i deserve
to not be the one in their place
or they be in mine
but here i am
unable to move or leave my bed
to feel so weighed down by grief
that to know what must be done
and being unable to do it
is a slap in the face to those who are still fighting
i’ve always thought of myself as a warrior
but how on earth do i fight injustice
when i can’t even fight my own demons?
imam Hussain taught us
with his last breath
that it is prophetic to fight
until our own
it is our courage
in the face of something impossible
that matters at the end
and if this is truly the end
i shall brace myself for
the war and conclude
in the face of multiple apocalyses
that it’s time to take our pick
of which way we want to go out
so that when God asks us on the final day
what we did in this time of suffering
what we did to make this world better
before we left it
we will finally
Copyright © 2022 by Sara Bawany.
About the Author
Sara Bawany is an award-winning published poet, a freelance editor, and a licensed clinical social worker based in Austin, Texas. In September 2018, Sara compiled and published her work into her first poetry book: “(w)holehearted: a collection of poetry and prose” which won Daybreak Press Publishing’s “Best Poetry Book” award in November 2019. Her work has been featured twice on TEDx, the Muslim Youth Musings literary magazine, Voyage Dallas Magazine, and Brown Girl Magazine. She was also selected as a finalist in Button Poetry’s annual chapbook contest. Sara serves as the process manager and junior mentor for House of Amaland is a poetry instructor for BEAM Academy, both of which cultivate her passion for teaching poetry to Muslim youth. She is working on her second poetry book and has a small freelance editing business where she consults with aspiring writers on writing and publishing. Sara is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing with a concentration in poetry at Texas State University and works at the on-campus literary journal, Porter House Review, as a copyeditor. You can access her work at www.sarabawany.com.
1. She turned my nuts into limes. What does that mean? I was only daydreaming—but she turned my nuts into limes. I was looking at my phone. I was looking at a few half-incoherent sentences I’d crafted a while back and one of them was this: ‘She turned my nuts into limes.’ I think, maybe, I stole it—stole that sentence from somewhere. But I can’t remember for sure.
2. She turned my nuts into limes. There’s no going back from there, once that happens there’s no going back. Except that she was not a she—that I knew. She’d come from some other page, some other place, a reading or a fantasy or a woman with a clothespin through her nose, hanging laundry. She’s hanging laundry like Remedios the Beauty or whoever that one was from so long ago and far away. A hundred years ago or more. South of the border, maybe south of the equator even.
3. She turned my nuts—she turned my nuts into limes and I called truce. I said, ‘My nuts, my balls, my testicles, OUCH, you twisted them till they turned green, as green as limes. Now release them, please!’
What did she say—what could she say? Nothing, because she wasn’t really there. It was more of a haunting, a kind of succubus of the ball-twisting, lime-making sort. I’d hoped it was only from a book—let it be from a book, just something I’d read. The succubus has gray skin and blue hair, a darkness like a constant shadow. One was always in the constant shadow of lust, of love, of violence. This is a game—except this isn’t a game and so to swallow.
‘Can I swallow? Can I exist?’ I ask.
She doesn’t respond. Why should she respond, she’s probably thinking, if she thinks, if she does anything more than turn my nuts into limes.
4. ‘She turned my nuts into limes’ is somehow James Caan in some ‘70’s movie, grumbling about the ex-wife that did him in, fucked him over. ‘She turned my nuts into limes’ also has some monetary connotation for him, some suggestion that she left him financially strapped, fucked over, as said. This might’ve been from The Gambler or Thief but it’s probably neither and it might not even be James Caan. Or anyone, besides me three or four days ago, waking up with this line in my head. Or really, having a need to re-examine my phone and all the little notes I wrote myself for some other day. And then that day, just the other morning, I come upon this brief sentence, and it made awkward sense, disarmed me, and set me reeling…But that’s pointblank exaggeration. There was none of this, very little of it, just a fraction. But it started a falling—it did start a falling, some kind of repetitive falling into this: Limes becoming nuts becoming limes.
5. One must be careful that it isn’t just language, that it isn’t an arrangement of language that settles it. So, it’s true that nuts are not nuts and limes are not limes and balls are not balls when referring to testicles. But are testicles testicles—or does one really have to look at them as such, feel them being twisted, the blood cut off, the testes pressurized close to rupturing and the sudden green shading of skin? This is probably not true—the green-coloring part. The balls would likely go black-and-blue rather than green. Then again, the man said, ‘She turned my nuts into limes.’ He never used the word green; I’m inferring green because limes are green. And yet I’ve seen blue limes, spoiled limes that’ve been cut open and left in the fridge too long. They get a blue coloring, almost an ashy, clayish blue residue. The kind of blue residue that might mark up a face—a type of face paint. Deep in the jungles of the Amazon one might wear this type of face paint, using spoiled limes. I might wear this kind of face paint to ward off the succubus, the one with blue hair and gray skin. The one I’m a little bit in love with because men like me, we can love—we can only really love—those who can destroy us.
6. She turned my nuts into limes was a moment of great unhappiness. It was a moment when all was lost, when the thing one had wondered about and hoped for had been decided and not in the way you’d planned or expected. No, just the contrary in fact and so life moved forward with nuts as limes and the sourness that this entailed. Even if you were James Caan wearing a sports jacket and a pair of brown loafers, taking off the jacket and rolling up your sleeves to shoot some schoolyard hoops—$5 a game, all that. But still, under your dress pants, tucked inside your boxers, the nuts that’d once been nuts had been turned into limes and you shoot the ball, you bank the ball, you swish the ball even—you win, but it’s nothing with sour limes hanging from your frame, it’s nothing, nothing regardless.
7. There was no dread of the limes. Or it’s not exactly dread that was felt or embodied—but obedience. Obedience to the new reality that’d been set when she turned my nuts into limes. From that point forward, life’s landscape was forever altered and shaded. Every going forward was also a going backward to the time of nuts becoming limes. There was a pinpoint on the physique, the map of self. One stood there naked with a couple of limes hanging. Not necessarily drooping—and definitely tightening if and when the succubus reappeared. She was there, she was generally there…Later in the night you rolled over sweaty, and she arose from the tangled sheets. She arose and she rode you, her hands reaching back, slapping one lime ball, then the other. A right-left, right-left smack down of balls that’d become limes. And then limes bluing.
‘AH!... She turned my nuts into limes,’ you say it aloud in a mechanical fashion after cumming, cumming inside the succubus. ‘She turned my nuts into limes.’ You repeat this refrain—repeat it and repeat it until the succubus scornfully slinks away.
8. The succubus is secondary. There are other life aspects that’ve turned my nuts into limes…Like the whole time down inside other lives. There was this woman and that woman and then the other. But not simultaneously—no, as a succession instead. There was a dozen or so in the succession. I can’t really say what it is, but a fascination exists—with women. Still, I spoiled almost every relationship after the hit job on me. That was numero uno—that breakup. Then the tearing out of the heart in parts . . . It takes a while to turn nuts into limes. It takes a succession of debilitating blows. And then late one night you’re flipping channels and there’s 1970’s James Caan, flustered, pissed and disgusted. He’s looking for the right words, the right expression. But no—it just comes out. One small and simple truth: She turned my nuts into limes. And so of course I’m watching, I’m watching, and I’m stunned. And so, I write it down, I save it. It’s streetwise biblical, anti-biblical, a different kind of Caanian truth.
9. Never give up, even if you’re nuts have become limes. And give up as well, walk that plank, walk that fine bleeding-edge—or something. Something…I call up an ex-girlfriend late one night. She’s awakened by the call, cuts me off, tells me she’ll be happy to speak with me the next evening at a more reasonable hour. She doesn’t use the word ‘happy’ but she’s agreeable to another call in about 20 hours, 9PM the next night. This call though is really for something else—it’s for something else, on her part, like you did me dirty one time too many and so here it is: ‘I’m getting married.’ She announces it like it’s startling, grandiose news. Maybe it is. But I’m already divorced from it—divorced from the moment of her news and divorced from the news itself. Obviously, it’s meant to wound me, it’s meant to give me my comeuppance.
But I barely understand it. It’s a fact, it’s a reality, she’s getting married, but she’s not marrying me. That’s the lethal part, the part that’s supposed to be wounding. Maybe it is wounding, except I don’t feel it. Or if I feel it, it’s minor, not the devastating blow she’d hoped for. I disappoint her… maybe I disappoint her.
Anyhow when the phone call’s over I light a cigarette. I even thumb through a stack of photos and find an old photograph of us. We’re sitting on a bed in some cheap room in Rome. She’s ecstatic in pink panties, has her fist thrust out in celebration. I can’t remember what she was celebrating but it’s not important. When we hung up, when I look at the photo, the whole thing strikes me as essentially unimportant.
10. These were tests: I suppose these were tests of a sort. Life lessons passed or failed. And past . . . So, take off the pre-wedding band and leave it on an old stone wall in the south of Italy. Ride away from it on a purple bicycle, try to ride away. Ride a few feet, then wheel around and ride back. Pick up the ring, pocket it. Don’t decide what to do with it—but have it on your person. Write a letter about it even, the moment, the choice. An impostered agony . . . A taught-and-thought way of being—not being itself.
Ride the purple bicycle along a country road with the horizon beside you somehow, high sunshine and vast blueness. The ring is in your pocket. Your balls are your balls, and your nuts are your nuts. They’re a long way from limes still. The sunlight glints off the metal edge of your sunglasses. Someone far away can probably see it.
Copyright © 2022 by Philip Brunetti.
About the Author
Philip Brunetti writes innovative fiction and poetry and much of his work has been published in various online or paper literary magazines including The Boiler, The Wax Paper, and Identity Theory. His debut novel Newer Testaments, published in 2020 by Atmosphere Press, has been described in The Independent Book Review as 'an innovative existential novel told through hallucinatory poetics' and is available for purchase: (https://www.philipbrunetti.com/)
Light from sunrise
Streams into the bedroom
Rush of ocean waves over your
Body when you lay on the soft sand
Sounds of Coltrane on a lazy
Greens cooking in a pot that’s
Been in the family so long it makes
Its own seasoning
Sweet and crunchy peach cobbler
Cooking in the stove
Copyright © 2022 by DuEwa Frazier.
Like pain exploding
And then nothingness
Like voices in a riot
Never ending chants
We shall overcome someday
Selma to Ferguson
Like justice for injustice
Something that don’t come
Around too often like…
A yellow cat with blue stripes
A grown baby
A pimp for president
Indictment for a legal murder
It’s like an all-night vigil
Somebody hanging in
When you feel that
Something ain’t right feeling
In the pit of your stomach
After this moment
Things will never
Be the same
Maybe things will never
Copyright © 2022 by DuEwa Frazier.
About the Author
DuEwa Frazier is a poet and educator. Her work has been published in Tidal Basin Review, Reverie, Black Renaissance Noire, Poetry Ink Anthology, Drumvoices Revue, and others. She earned the MFA in Creative Writing degree at The New School. Visit her website: www.duewaworld.com
The Mother of Reinvention
Tonight, I resort once again to tidying up the kitchen to ease the latest bout of restless energy that has come over me during these uninspiring months—the dullest time of the year, when our imaginations have atrophied to the point of envisioning little more than mundane plausibilities, an old adaptation to conserve calories in these cold days by shrinking down our mental worlds around practicalities and tightly adjacent possibilities. Drawer by drawer, I do what I’ve already done with the cabinets and pantry over the past week: clear out unneeded miscellanea.
I make steady progress, removing worn utensils and ancient candy, but the cleanup comes to a halt the moment I find a bottle of extra-strength synthecyn. My sister’s old prescription for an artificial darkness meant to temper her faith in fate, humanity and the world—a treatment that she immediately had allergic reactions to, her mind springing into defensive action with such vigor that she took to carrying tiny stories with her at all times, tucked in pants pockets and zipped within the compartments of her purse, little tales to soothe the psyche and ease the symptoms’ toll by taking her attention off the war the rest of her mind was waging against misanthropy.
Oh, how I hated seeing her go through this, made listless and melancholy while her mind resorted to the deployment of nightmares and earworms, stories her sole succor—me, powerless to help, aside from the occasional hug, left to search her distracted eyes for the bright acuity that had been ever abundant. Of everyone I knew back then, she had by far the nimblest mind—so lithe and agile, hummingbird to our snowy owl mother and golden eagle teachers, moving with a celerity that created its own time zone, five of its seconds to every one of ours, its own special relativity. But now her mind had to use its dexterity to contend with the bitterness she was required to swallow, spending itself on championing what had previously never been challenged, her consciousness strewn with the debris of this struggle to control her disposition: fragments of arguments and counterarguments, bits of song lyrics, scraps of inspiring and tragic news. Regardless, I kept waiting for her to do something spectacular with her mind. Then, in the middle of that year with the longest seasons, she did.
It began on an afternoon full of blazing sunlight—one of countless in a summer stretching on and on. Once again, she was taking refuge from conflicting emotions in a pleasant distraction—this time, a small story with a mirror that showed children possible future selves, a preview of who they might become in the years ahead as a means to prepare them for impending adulthood. So taken by the idea of this mirror, she thought why not make such a mirror—turn her attention away from her mind’s fight against manufactured cynicism and turn it toward invention instead, applying it to solve problems of optics and perception.
Several weeks later, she had a prototype—but this was a different kind of mirror, one that presented us with our inner selves moving at their most suitable pace. When she asked me to test the mirror, I eagerly obliged and was first unnerved then charmed by the tired yet lovely person staring back at me with bright eyes amply framed by wrinkles, all her movements unhurried, slowly catching up to mine.
Like me, everyone who looked into this mirror was enchanted and disquieted, all of us made irrevocably aware of our desynchrony as we came to call it—that discrepancy between the speeds of our activities and the speeds natural for our psyches. And now we could make long-overdue adjustments to our lives, aligning who we are with what we do.
My memories of that time recede and leave me with two possibilities: how dyssynchronous our lives would still be if my sister hadn’t been prescribed extra-strength synthecyn and how much more insight we might be privy to have her mind remained unfettered. Two counterfactuals, one corresponding to appreciation and the other to resentment. A fork in my feelings about the way that period in her life turned out—each branch a path that goes deeper into reactions I’m not ready to explore.
I hold the bottle before me as though it’s a compass, like the black cap atop the heavy body of brown glass can point a way forward. But of course, the only directions the bottle can provide are the ones on the pharmacy label—dosage and safety instructions, fossilized information that won’t lead me anywhere.
Then there seems nothing else to do but put the old bottle back in the depths of the open drawer in front of me, to be rediscovered when my imagination can do more with it.
About the Author Soramimi Hanarejima is the author of the neuropunk story collection Literary Devices for Coping (Rebel Satori Press, 2021). Hanarejima’s recent work appears in South Florida Poetry Journal, Lunch Ticket, 300 Days of Sun and Heavy Feather Review.
Kenneth M. Kapp
It Takes Guts
Mornings were still woozy. There were moments when Charles worried that he had done permanent damage. “But,” he groused, “you got through it, took your knocks and are on your way again.” He was out of the halfway house at 8 AM and slowly let his feet lead him downtown. He had discussed this with his counselor, returning to the scene of the crime was how they put it.
“Charles, no doubt you got hit hard on the jaw. You sure you want to put yourself through this again?”
He grunted, “Got no other place to go. It’s a good reminder of how the mighty have fallen. Don’t think it’ll hurt that much. More of a cautionary look-see, how things were once. Not going to go back that way again. A day at a time and this time, less ambition, stress. Just a one day-at-a-time kind of job.”
“OK, Charles. You’re the boss and it’s a good sign you’re taking responsibility and making decisions. How’s the job search going?”
“OK, I guess. Some part time work at the Italian Community Center a couple of times a week. I can handle that.”
Charles stood at the corner of Walnut and 16th. Looking down at his scuffed shoes, he leaned over and released saliva, hitting the tips of a pair of worn Allen Edmonds shoes he found in the downtown Salvation Army store. He got lucky on the third and fifth drop. He held on to the lamp post and did his best to polish the tips of the shoes with his jacket sleeve.
“Charlie, you walk down Wisconsin Avenue, you want to look your best.” A couple of Marquette University students gave him wide breadth as they passed, too busy discussing weekend plans to pay attention. “What do they know. I could have taught in the Business School in my day. Don’t they teach them what goes up goes down? Cyclical cycles. Wheel of Fortune, that’s probably what they know.”
The light changed for the second time; he crossed and continued south to Wisconsin Avenue. I’m feeling fine. Good night’s sleep. I’m going to the tinker-toy overlooking the lake. Stop along the way too. Say hi to Fonzie.
Charles walked east; block by block he grew taller. He went up the steps to the church by the Freeway, tempted to find the spiral he walked a couple of times years ago on a lunch break. He had his own office on Jefferson, a secretary and two assistants. Used to know what they call them things. Supposed to help you meditate. Don’t think they work though.
He passed the old Boston Store across from the Reuss Federal Plaza with its blue enameled steel and glass cladding. Can’t remember. I think I renewed my passport there – three weeks in Europe with Rosie. Married then. Thank heaven there were no kids.
After crossing the Milwaukee River, he went to shake hands with The Fonz on the riverwalk. He laughed. “You and me buddy have seen better days. I got it good. At least there’re no pigeons shitting on my head.”
He decided to go south on the riverwalk, exiting on Michigan Avenue. At the corner of Broadway, he paused, did a quick two-step tap, tilted an invisible hat, and, in case anyone was watching, said in a stage whisper, “Just giving my regards to Broadway; it keeps one’s spirits up.”
Dance steps petered out as he went north one block to Wisconsin Avenue. He put his hands on his hips, pivoted east, and marched to the Museum Center Park and the orange statue by Mark di Suvero, “The Calling.”
Charles found his favorite bench, threw his hands over the back, and looked over at the clock on the Betty Brinn Children’s Museum. He turned and stared down Wisconsin Avenue. “Just past 9. Didn’t waste time shooting the breeze with The Fonz, him going on about shooting the guts in the old days, cruising up and down Wisconsin Avenue trying to pick up girls.”
He sighed and took an apple out of his coat pocket. “Apple a day. Good for the guts I’m told. Got almost an hour before I need to get over to the Community Center. Told me I be putting out chairs for some event. Guess I can handle that OK.”
Copyright © 2022 by Kenneth M. Kapp.
About the Author
Kenneth M. Kapp was a professor of mathematics, a ceramicist, a welder, an IBMer, and yoga teacher. He lives with his wife and beagle in Wisconsin, writing late at night in his man-cave. He enjoys chamber music and mysteries. He's a homebrewer and runs whitewater rivers. Visit: www.kmkbooks.com
Storms a Brewing
© by Jim Cottingham.
On Being Deciduous
Nothing like a storm
to blazon the wisdom
of wintering trees
that jettison their leaves.
Scrapping the glory
of an emerald canopy
lets them resist
not much can snag
on a skeletal twig.
gets its branches snapped.
They collude with loss
to claim, as their choice
from the catalog of griefs,
one spring relieves.
Copyright © 2022 by James McKee.
About the Author
James McKee enjoys failing in his dogged attempts to keep pace with the unrelenting cultural onslaught of late-imperial Gotham. His debut poetry collection, The Stargazers, was published in the otherwise uneventful spring of 2020, while his poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Burningword Literary Journal, Spoon River Poetry Review, Another Chicago Magazine, New Ohio Review, Grist, New World Writing, Illuminations, CutBank, Flyway, THINK, The MacGuffin, and elsewhere. He spends his free time, when not writing or reading, traveling less than he would like and brooding more than he can help.
April,1990: Springs, Alabama
Lydia is flying down from New York to paint Julian’s eyes. Big Hal got the call from his cousin on his office ham radio. He strides into the kitchen with a broad smile to tell us again—hatless, in his sock feet and maintenance overalls from liming the fields all day.
“Cousin Joe’s flying her in from Atlanta,” he declares. “Ah, Lydia,” Big Hal pauses with a smile. “Lydia loved Julian,” he says.
“That so?” Cat says. She looks up with her dark eyes from the Formica kitchen table where she’s seated with Cammie and me and our canned Cokes.
“Paint his eyes?” Cat wonders with a frown. She’s Big Hal’s wife and Lydia’s aunt. Lydia’s parents retired and moved to Florida and Julian’s been dead almost a year now. Since the funeral, Cat’s hands have turned red and scaled. She wears old clothes and dinghy tennis shoes in her grief and keeps her dun hair in a Bob Cut while she cooks and cleans the house, over and over.
“I loved Julian,” Cat says.
“Oh, but of course you did,” Big Hal says with a thin grin. “We all loved him.” He runs a hand through his dried Auburn hair that’s flat from sweating under a safari hat in his truck all day.
“We all loved him,” Big Hal states. His weathered face flickers sad. “God, I miss him.”
Big Hal shakes his head, tells us to go saddle up our horses—one for Lydia too—and to clear any cows away from the East Fence line for Cousin Joe’s plane.
“Yes sir, Big Hal,” Cammie and I say. We jump up to go.
Cat remains seated at the table with a sour look. “I’m too old for this,” she says. “I’ll wait.”
Big Hal shakes his head, looks at her with a thin grin. He sighs and turns back into his office.
Cammie and I run out of the kitchen and down the outside steps, into the dirt drive and the dry, spring Saturday. We wear tee shirts, jeans and short riding boots. No soft shoes are allowed and anyone who keeps a horse on Big Hal’s farm rides English, because, well, Julian rode English. His self-portrait hangs imposing above the buffet table of the farm house’s dining room, in a stormy gray background, among the dark furniture and mirrors; alone and solitary, in something like a stilled reverence: wavy dark hair and a strong face, a closed, cocky smile and large, limpid, brown eyes that follow one anywhere in the dining room—as though he will speak.
The quiet of the house and his portrait are enough to make you believe his spirit is there. Big Hal and Cat each chose how to express their grief. Every few days, Big Hal will drive his dually truck with chain saw into the woods and cut and pile fallen wood into his truck bed towards bonfires to Julian that burn for hours in the South pasture, and so, he says, if Julian’s spirit looks down from the Appalachian foothills, he’ll see his father’s flame and know he is loved. Big Hal toasts Julian’s face every night before dinner and every morning, Cat drives to the Presence of Jesus Church and prays for Julian’s soul. She takes care of Julian’s white cross on the side of the Gadsden Road and commits herself to maintaining the house the way it was the day Julian died, cleaning and resetting the rooms and lighting candles before Julian's face. “My sanctuary of him,” she says with slow tears in her eyes. “It’s all I know.”
Upstairs, Julian’s room is locked and “Forbidden.” Only Cat can enter. The smell of his Swisher Sweets still lingers in the curtains. And his horse, Mon Ami, is no longer ridden, but groomed and lounged every day by Big Hal, fed and let out to pasture—all of this, because Julian, racing his buddies home from the Big B Bar one night, ran his Jeep straight into a freight train at the town’s railroad crossing.
Cammie hums a bright tune as we walk and keeps her back to me. At the barn, we saddle Snort, Joab and Princess, lead the horses out of the breezeway, mount and ride for the main gate, Cammie leading the way on Joab, leading Princess beside her with a halter line to the bridle; and me on Snort, happy to ride behind and watch her small, firm back and her blonde pigtails.
I am madly in love with her: the prim girl’s face, the way she wears mauve lipstick, chews gum and turns her head. And she is forever humming a tune I can’t make out. Now and then, Cammie will give me a bemused look, a quick smile. I pick jonquils and daisies for her and sometimes she will sell me a kiss for a dollar, but I have few dollars. I stay up nights consumed by the mystery of her body, her pert breasts, the brief taste of her mouth. I dream of us alone— “Jud,” she calls my name—but such dreams always end before the kiss.
“What tune you humming?” I call at Cammie’s back.
“Nirvana,” she replies. Her voice is magic to me.
I recite what school jokes I have heard, to make her turn her head to me and smile. We stop at the main gate. I dismount, open it, lead my horse through, let Cammie ride through. I close the gate back, remount and we ride through grass and ragweeds of the Main Pasture for the long East Fence lined with mimosas, Cammie staring ahead, humming another tune while she chews her gum. I watch her rear as we post at trots, then we sit our saddles at canters and ride for the grassy knoll. In my head, I sing bars of McCartney’s “My Love” at Cammie’s back, then Diana Lewis’ “I Love You Always Forever”—loud and clear to me. I look ahead at the grassy knoll, too, remember Friday night sleepover with my buddies, Steve and Mack, wonder if my parents might let me have a MicroTAC cell phone.
We herd four or five cows away from the East Fence line and ride back up the knoll to wait. Cammie and I sit our horses, share gossip at school: who loves whom, who’s going steady, who got in trouble and who had a party. I ask if her favorite color is still orange, to watch her smile. “Yes!” she says. I ask if she saw the latest Twin Peaks. “Yes!” she smiles. We go over the details of the last episode. We like Dances With Wolves and we both want to see Joe Versus the Volcano.
I take a breath and am going to ask her to wear my black Slap Bracelet, but Cammie looks away and up. A plane comes, droning over the rim of foothills beyond us, a shiny pin in the sun. We watch it glide over the mountains, make a wide turn towards us. I follow it and think of Supercarrier! on TV, or a Fighter plane!
But it’s not. It is simply what it is, a fine thing to see: small airplane descending in the clear blue, dropping like a spell of light, slow and low, over Big Hal’s hay field and the Gadsden Road to our right, coming over the South Pasture. We watch it grow, descend and touch down on the level stretch of pasture, rolling towards us, large and louder, slowing, propeller whirling. The horses shy a bit, but we turn them down the other side of the knoll and ride back up after the plane stops, turns, the engine cuts.
The whirl of the propeller slows, stops. The plane’s a white and red single engine Beechcraft with red markings. The passenger door opens, and Lydia climbs out, with a Latte lipstick smile and a wave, in a yellow floral dress, leather booties and wearing a cotton sun hat with loose chin strap; a cigarette in one hand. She wry grins at me way she did a year ago after the funeral where Julian’s buddies were pall bearers, the minister roared words and Big Hal and Cat wept as they beat their chests. Lydia and her parents stood and wept.
“Hey, Jud boy,” she calls. She doesn’t seem to remember Cammie, but she nods to her, slowly steps down off the wing and onto the grass.
“Whoa,” Lydia exclaims, pausing, taking everything in. “I’m here.” She pushes her hat back and off to hang on its strap on her back, revealing wavy, honey locks and gray eyes.
“Welcome home,” I say.
“Thanks,” Lydia says. She grins. “I’m here on a self-commission." She takes a draw on the cigarette, flicks it away. “Is that Princess?” she asks.
The pilot opens the door on the other side of the plane, drops down to the grass and comes around, blonde and grinning for us. He’s older, in Ray Bans, a blue flight jacket and fatigue pants. Lydia hugs him. “Thanks, Joe. Will you forgive me going on to the house?”
“No, go on ahead,” he says. “I’ve got to check the plane before I can fly back. Tell Big Hal to come for me and the luggage.”
Lydia walks up the knoll and holds her palm out for Princess. “Hey, old girl,” she says. The horse smells her hand. “Thank you,” she says when Cammie hands down the lead line. Lydia gathers up her dress and mounts the horse, her dress bunching up over the saddle, her pale calves and booties showing. She gathers up the reins with the lead rope, turns the horse on her heel. We follow at a distance while Lydia rides ahead to the house, heels down in the stirrups, sitting her seat well, and she posts better than we can.
When Cammie and I ride into the backyard of the farmhouse, Lydia has dismounted, dropped the reins to halt Princess behind her and is hugging and crying with Big Hal and Cat in the driveway.
“God, I miss him,” Big Hal says. “I miss him.” He lifts a hand as though to grasp something and lets it fall. “Everything…everything, he says. “Everything I did was for him.”
Cat squeezes her eyes shut and bows her head. Lydia looks to one, then the other, her face like stone. But there are tears in her eyes too.
Out of respect, Cammie and I rein our horses and watch from a distance.
“Gosh,” Cammie whispers. “To be loved like that.”
Cammie and I feed and turn out the horses, Big Hal calls us to his dually truck at house, standing hatless in his maintenance clothes and work boots in the driveway while Cat comes out the back door and climbs into the passenger’s side of the cab. Cammie and I leave the barn, jog up the driveway, climb up into the truck’s cargo bed and sit cross-legged on the bed floor with the chain saw, a coil of rope and the five-gallon gasoline can. Lydia comes slowly out the back door, still in her floral dress, no hat, and smoking a cigarette. She stops and looks on us, uncertain
What is this now?” she asks in mild wonder, a weak grin.
“You’ll see,” Big Hal declares, standing on the other side of the truck from her. “Required,” he adds with a nod. “Get in with Cat,” he says.
“Oh…well.” Lydia flicks her cigarette away. “I’ll ride like a kid then,” she smiles. She steps forward and climbs over and into the cargo bed with Cammie and me, seats herself on the truck bed floor, crossing her legs and leather booties, spreading out her dress.
“Hey, kids, “she grins.
Big Hal gets into the cab, behind the wheel, shuts the door and starts his truck. In the late, dusky light, he drives us down the driveway and through the opened gate into the South Pasture towards his latest bonfire. Lydia looks on from her side of the truck, squinting her eyes against the wind, her mouth a small line as we approach the pile of rough and jagged logs, limbs and cut wood over the large, scorched and charred patch in the grass before the lone cedar tree with brown branches.
The new pile is Big Hal’s biggest yet. It looks about ten or twelve yards high. Two of Julian’s old buddies are already there, in dirty work clothes and baseball caps, standing yards away, facing the pile with folded arms, in front of their parked pickup trucks. A year ago, there would be more than a dozen onlookers, and even the mayor and a minister and his wife came once. But since then, the attendance has dropped. Big Hal doesn’t care. “I got me a mission,” he says now and then, a resolved frown. “I got me a mission.”
Big Hal parks the truck at the edge of the burnt patch of ground. He steps out wearing his safari hat now and work gloves, his face set, all business. Without looking at us, he shuts the truck door, turns to the truck bed, lifts the gasoline can out by its handle and carries it to the high pile of wood.
“Hey there, boys,” Big Hal calls out to the young men.
They nod. One salutes. Big Hal stops at the pile, sighs, and looks away from the men and their pickups to the distant hills and the forever sky. He uncaps the can, steps up to the base logs and begins pouring gas into the wood as he walks around the base. He circles the pile, caps the can and sets it down some yards away. He steps back to the pile, takes a matchbox from his chest pocket, strikes a match and tosses it in.
Lydia, Cammie and I rise in the bed of the truck, watch over the cab roof as the flames catch, rise and roar into a rush of heat, the flames licking up through the wood towards the sky. Black and white ash falls like soft snow, smoke whirl around us. The buddies look on with their folded arms and nod with approval. Big Hal steps back and looks away to the hills, nodding, also, as though he sees something.
“You see me, boy?” he calls, against the roaring, rising heat and flames. “You see me?” Big Hal yells with all he’s got.
Cat gets out of the truck cab then, leaves the door open, and walks some feet away. She stops and turns to watch the fire with her mournful eyes.
“You see me?” Big Hal calls. He raises his hands high over his head, as though to beseech the distant hills. He and Cat close their eyes.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” they chant together. “We love him,” they pause. “We love him. We love him.”
The buddies look on. After the chant, Big Hal opens his eyes, drops his arms, stares at the darkening hills, his closed mouth curved down, tears in his eyes while the fire rages. Cat keeps her eyes closed and begins to sing “Amazing Love,” in a thin, wavering voice, her hands clasped at her waist. Her body sways and thin tears run down her cheeks. Big Hal doesn’t move. From the truck bed, we watch Cat sing until she stops, opens her eyes and stares up to the sky.
“My God,” Lydia whispers. She looks at Cammie, then me. “How often is this?”
“Oh,” I shrug. “Every week or so.”
Lydia’s eyes widen. “Every week or so?” she echoes. “Seriously?”
“He’ll come back and feed the fire tonight,” Cammie says.
Lydia looks at us, tries a laugh. But it’s a weak grin.
Monday, after school, I pedal my bike to the East Fence gate and down the dirt road to the farm, the song, “Patience,” in my head, from listening to my CD player at home; and then, “What About Love,” too.
At the house, Lydia is in the middle of the side yard, dangling a crowbar from one hand and talking on a MicroTAC cell phone with the other, before an opened shipping crate marked from New York. About her in the grass are two standing easels, scattered canvas panels, palettes, cartons, sketch pads and packs of brushes and paint tubes. I park my bike against a tree and wave. Lydia grins, waves back. She’s in jeans and tee shirt now, too, with no lipstick; wearing gray-tinted lenses on clear frames; her honey locks loose on her shoulders.
“I know, Doug. I know,” she answers into the phone. “There’s something I’ve got to do here, okay? I’ll be back in time, don’t worry. I’ve got to do this.”
She snaps the phone shut, slides it into her back pocket, finds me. She drops the crowbar.
“Hey there, Jud boy. Just who I’m looking for,” she declares.
“Yeah. You.” She waves me over, waits until I come to her.
“I need an assistant,” Lydia says, matter of fact, her gray-tinted lenses on me “You help me with this?”
“Sure,” I nod.
She points to an easel. I fold and lift it as she gathers a sketch pad and a pack of pencils off the ground. Lydia leads the way. I follow her to the back door, and she opens it, I carry the easel into the kitchen, to the sharp smell of pine oil and soap. The table and chairs are moved to one side and Cat is standing beside a bucket in green muck boots, dark slacks and blouse, scrubbing the linoleum floor with a long-handled deck brush. Her hair is tied up in a paisley purple bandana.
“Excuse us, Aunt Cat,” Lydia says.
Cat pauses, looks up at us and goes back to work.
Lydia leads the way around the wet floor and Cat and into the dining room, to the dark furniture, chandelier and the still face, eyes and cocky smile of a staring Julian on the wall above the buffet table.
“Just set it up anywhere,” she tells me.
Lydia goes to the portrait, stops, studies it, pushes her glasses up on her hair. She moves the two dead candles in pewter stands to one side of the buffet table, drops the pack of pencils onto the dining table, fishes one out, flips open the sketch pad, pauses, and begins to sketch fast, all business, her eyes darting from portrait to pad. I almost forget the easel, watching her deft, quick strokes, the emergence of a gray-penciled eye on the paper.
“Shit,” she utters. “That’s not it.”
Lydia rips out the page, lets it fall to the floor and begins another sketch.
“I’ll go get the other stuff,” I suggest.
She doesn’t answer, intent on sketching. In a moment, she shakes her head in frustration. “Damn,” she utters. She rips out the page, lets it fall, begins again.
“I’ll get the things in the yard,” I suggest.
“No, no,” Lydia says, dropping the pad and pencil on the floor in disgust. “I’ll follow you,” she says.
We enter the kitchen. Cat straightens up, leans with both hands on the deck brush handle and looks at us. “You promised not to touch anything,” she says.
“I would not dare,” Lydia says.
“No one loved him like I did,” Cat says.
“Oh, no, Aunt Cat,” Lydia agrees. “No one loved him like you did.”
“What are you doing here, dear?” Cat says. “We could have sent you a photo.”
“Because” Lydia says. “He painted his eyes … to recreate him wherever I go.”
A pause. Cat shakes her head, doesn’t respond. Lydia leads the way around the edge of the wet floor to the door.
“Hey,” Lydia says when we step outside. “Thanks for this. What are you doing tomorrow? What are you doing this weekend?”
“I don’t know.”
Lydia lowers the tinted glasses over her eyes. “I’ll pay you. I need an assistant.”
“Yeah. Pay you,” she grins. “Start tomorrow.”
After Cammie’s mother drops her off, we saddle our horses in the barn and I tell her I have a job.
“A job? Really?” Cammie shakes her head. “What is she doing here, anyway?”
I shrug. “She’s family.”
“Yeah,” Cammie says. “But she’s weird though.”
“I don’t know,” Cammie says, tightening the girth of her horse’s saddle. “She’s here for something.”
Big Hal ’s truck pulls up in the barn yard before the opened doors. There is fresh sawed wood piled in the truck’s cargo bed. He gets out in dirty work shirt, jeans and boots, tosses his safari hat into the cab, shuts the door and walks into the breezeway. His hair is compressed from the hat, his face flushed, the collar and armpits of his shirt are wet with sweat.
“Hey, kids,” he says. “Didn’t spook ‘em, did I?” he grins.
We shake our heads no. He goes to Mon Ami’s stall, Julian’s big, black horse. He strokes the horse’s nose over the stall door.
“Hey, big boy,” Big Hal says softly. “Hey. Here to do my duty.”
“Big Hal,” Cammie says. “How long is Lydia staying?”
Big Hal shrugs. “Who knows?” he says. “Said she had to come.”
He takes the lead line off the hook beside the stall, unbolts the stall door, snaps the lead line onto Mon Ami’s halter and leads him out and out the breezeway before the parked truck. Through the opened barn windows, I can see Big Hal lead Mon Ami towards the lounge pen and stop. He talks to the horse, strokes and pats its neck.
“You’re my boy,” he says. “You’re a good boy."
Cammie and I unsnap our hook lines, bridle our horses and pull down the stirrups. Cammie turns, ducks under my horse’s neck and gives me a peck on the mouth.
“Wow,” I blink.
“You owe me a dollar,” she smirks.
The next day, after school, no one is in the yard. I knock on the back door. No answer. I enter to the kitchen, call out, “Anyone home?”
Cat’s on a step ladder with a bottle of Windex, dressed in dark blue slacks and blouse, wiping the double kitchen windows over the sink with a cloth.
“Oh, hi,” I say. “I’m sorry, Is Lydia around?”
Cat stops wiping, turns to me with a tired stare, motions to the dining room behind her with her head.
“She promised not to touch it,” she says. “She promised.” Her lips purse into a tight line. “She’s been there since the crack of dawn,” Cat adds.
I nod, make my way around her and enter the dining room to no easel but dozens of pencil sketches of eyes spread over the dining table, scattered about the floor and the chairs; and to Lydia, seated in a pulled out dining chair before the portrait, with a morning face, mussed hair, and bare feet, in sky and cloud patterned pajama bottoms and a white tee shirt with no bra. She doesn’t hear me or look up but is hard at work with pencil and sketch pad. Beside her, on the floor, is an empty coffee cup, an ashtray jammed full of butts, a pack of cigarettes and a lighter.
“Almost,” Lydia sighs. “Almost.”
I watch her rise from the chair and drop the pencil and pad. She bends down, snakes out a cigarette from the pack and lights it, drops the lighter, turns and studies the portrait, going up to it with a deep drag on the cigarette.
“Look at me, Julian,” she mutters, blowing smoke above him. “Look at me,” she says. “What are you doing in the corners?”
She turns, sees me. “Jud” she says, “what are you doing out of school?”