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Issue 168

Updated: Jan 12

This issue features

Big Dipper

© DMC Design



KB Ballentine


Axis of the Unknown


River birch limbs lean

against the window, night drowning

the view. When I step onto the porch

into a breath of stars,

the push and pull of the moon,

the bright and dark

of water call me.

Big Dipper above, I wish

I could name the other

planets, the other bodies that loop

this blue and green orb.

Does someone see the luminescence

from this world or must they wait

until we too have passed,

until this globe is hollowed

into a bowl then into a slice?

If the black hole in the middle

of the Milky Way draws our lives

into another reality, a different

knowledge, will we survive?

Rocks and mountains still form a barrier

around the seas inside this stellar death?

Will we continue from here

or begin again?

The constellations, the seasons –

even gravity in question.

Stones or stars: which path to choose?

A cloud of bats sweeps from some unknown corner,

separate, and feed. Echoes I can’t understand

vibrate the air. Wind shifts the branches,

the only sound I know.


Copyright © 2023 by KB Ballentine.




Three Rules for Being a Poet


Come as you are,

 full of compassion and curiosity.

Maybe not full but with some interest

 in minutiae and abstractions, a bit of knowing

that others need your voice. Even if you don’t

 care where they’re from, you find out

where they are going and – even better –

 help them find out why.


This world is thick with love and loss.

 You have your own and so does everyone

else. They may still be in that sweet

 place, roses and sunshine surging

their veins. Maybe their wounds fester

 or bleed, every unthinkable creeping

around their hearts. You must meet them

 where they are.


Decaying leaves and fractured bluebirds.

 The six-year-old skipping in her yard,

the teenager skidding out of the drive.

 Moon sliding above mountain ridges,

rain lashing your eyes. Cobwebs

 and brick walls. Her grandfather’s labored

breathing, your mother’s hand on your cheek.

Write it all.



Copyright © 2023 by KB Ballentine.




About the Author

KB Ballentine’s seventh collection, Edge of the Echo, was released May 2021 with Iris Press. Her earlier books can be found with Blue Light Press, Middle Creek Publishing, and Celtic Cat Publishing. Published in Atlanta Review and Haight-Ashbury Literary Journal, among others, her work also appears in anthologies including I Heard a Cardinal Sing (2022), The Strategic Poet (2021), and Pandemic Evolution (2021). KB loves to travel and practice sword fighting and Irish step dancing: those Scottish and Irish roots run deep! When not tucked in a corner reading or writing, she makes daily classroom appearances to her students. Visit: www.kbballentine.com


Janelle Finamore



Blue Cotton Candy


The day dissolves in my mouth like cotton candy finding it’s peaceful end


Hesitant to believe that this never-ending day would actually conclude


Trapped in a permanent wet tongue


Down slimy throat, intestinal shame

A life of toilet and drains and shit water!?


When it had once been so light, so airy, so sugary sweet.

And so pretty.


Once so cheap and disease-less

Warless and free.



Copyright © 2023 by Janelle Finamore.


Flood

© Yuriy Brykaylo.


The flood


The unhinged deck floating, it’s head

Barely above water

Already rotten


The tapestry of my swinging emotions washed onto marshy shore

Waterlogged


I can’t even salvage your love


Your tears twist into a figure eight

Snip snip


Unknot me

Unfettered, liberated as


Your face skates gently towards me,

power, purpose

of a hungry sea-lion


A moat grows around my heart.

Please sift through this mess and find

Heavy oars


Row to me



Copyright © 2023 by Janelle Finamore.



About the Author Janelle Finamore is a musician, poet, and teacher located in Orange County, CA. Most recently, her work appeared in Sad Girls Lit, Poet Magazine, Humans of the World, Academy of the Heart and Mind, Ariel Chart, Literary Yard, Spillwords, and in poetry venues including The Ugly Mug. She was Poet of the Month for Moon Tide Press and her fairy tale “The Girl Who Stuck Out Like a Sore Thumb” was published in Bohemia magazine. She is also an active member of various poetry workshops. Her chapbook The Power of Silly Putty and Lipstick Kisses is available on the internet.



Louis Gallo


Gumbo and Sazeracs


Back then when the world was grand and suave

Dorothy Parker and I sipped Sazeracs

in the Rose Room of the Algonquin as we awaited

Harpo Marx and F. Scott . . .

“Perhaps the sugar cube,” she said, “alters

the bitterness of the angostura.”

“No doubt,” I smiled, “but the absinthe kills.”

Dot (who calls her Dot?) shuddered a bit for show.


Of course none of this ever happened—

a mere Platonic form for our pale replica

at the Napoleon House decades later

as I awaited with my crock of gumbo

for Genevieve to arrive, stealthily,

in case her forlorn husband followed her

and would kill me before her very eyes

as he had sworn to do. But she was done

with him; he had women all over town.

Life then was on the brink, dangerous,

and if I had to die for love, I would.

Never thought I would admit as much.


She loved gumbo so I brewed a crock

for her and slurped a bowlful of it myself.

Use tiny shrimp and don’t forget the okra.

Mix the roue thick and sassy so it bites.

The crock felt warm in my hands on the lacquered table.

She would feel warmer in my arms.

She rushed in breathlessly, “He followed me!”

I clutched her hand and dragged her to the patio

out back where we hid behind a bamboo stand.

We heard him howl, “Gen, come back, I love you,”

a regular Stanley Kowalski, though he failed

to spot us behind the thick poles of bamboo.

I actually felt a twinge of sorrow for the man.

As we embraced, she kissed me and said

she had to get home before he found her car.

“I love you so much. I’ll call you later tonight.”


Back at the Algonquin I looked Dot in her eyes.

She sipped her seventh Sazerac and sneered:

“Love is like quicksand in the hand.”

“Perilous,” I said, “but the peril makes it sweet.”

Harpo arrived and pounded honky-tonk on the Grand.

Scott staggered in, disheveled and gaunt.

Surely someone would die tonight.

I had forgotten Gen’s crock of gumbo on the table.

It would be cold and rancid by midnight.


Copyright © 2023 by Louis Gallo.


Marshmallows


Our dog Cinnamon spotted them first,

two babies huddled beneath the lavender.

She made a mad dash for them.

My wife and daughter scrambled

after her, screaming, deflecting her away

with a broom.


So I called our trapper and he arrived

with cages and marshmallows.

Imagine, beautiful but stinky creatures

ensnared because they could not resist

the lure of sugar.


Toward dusk we found the siblings

cornered in a single trap, squirming.

Trapper arrived early the next morning

to relocate the terrified critters to,

I hope, some bountiful wilderness.


They had made our back yard their home.

They liked marshmallows.

My daughter said, at least they were together.

At least.



Copyright © 2023 by Louis Gallo.



About the Author

Louis Gallo has four volumes of poetry: Archaeology, Scherzo Furiant, Crash and Clearing the Attic; Why is there Something Rather than Nothing? and Leeway & Advent will be published soon. The Art Deco Lung will soon be published in Storylandia. He was featured on the National Public Radio’s program “With Good Reason” in 2021. His work has appeared in Best Short Fiction 2020. A novella, His work has appeared or will shortly appear in Wide Awake in the Pelican State (LSU anthology), Southern Literary Review, Fiction Fix, Glimmer Train, Hollins Critic, Rattle, Southern Quarterly, Litro, New Orleans Review, Xavier Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Missouri Review, Mississippi Review, Texas Review, Baltimore Review, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, The Ledge, storySouth, Houston Literary Review, Tampa Review, Raving Dove, The Journal (Ohio), Greensboro Review, and many others. Chapbooks include The Truth Changes, The Abomination of Fascination, Status Updates and The Ten Most Important Questions. He is the founding editor of the now defunct journals, The Barataria Review and Books: A New Orleans Review. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize several times. He is the recipient of an NEA grant for fiction. He teaches at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.




Michael Gessner


Birds


The birds have something to say,

mostly now at the end of day,


chattering about some urgency,

imagined predators,


some necessity, complaints

about the weather, that it wasn’t


all it could have been, or

disappointed as well


over some expectation

that went unfulfilled,


maybe there is the anticipation

of tomorrow when others


will come, a flock of strangers

that have needs as well,


and the wrens chatter from ditches,

owls and woodpeckers rant


from cavities in saguaros,

until night brings silence


and they have all bundled

off into their little nests.


The birds have something to say

all right, something we can’t know


for sure, other than they will put

out again in the morning,


and fill the air with chatter

that grows by the end of day.


With the birds we keep a common life,

and return to places to sleep at night.



Copyright © 2023 by Michael Gessner.


The Plane Tree


In Aesop’s fable the plane tree

is a good-for-nothing, its fruit

useless, its leaves clutter the ground


or so the complaining travelers say

who’ve sought its shade

under its bushy back, which in turns


is tortured and soothed

by its abusive protector,

sister sun.


In Händel’s Xerxes, the king

sings a paean* to such a tree

and has been called a fool


for only fools can love a tree,

and always a countertenor arrives,

an elegant parafem, to recall its lyric place;


model lover that human neglect

has not changed, without you

and your family there would not be


air to breathe, not science or art

no speech for travelers

to complain or praise.



*“Ombra ma fui,” the opening aria

Copyright © 2023 by Michael Gessner.


About the Author

Michael Gessner has authored 14 books of poetry and prose. The latest is Nightshades (2022). He has been a finalist in “Discovery”/The Nation, The Pablo Neruda Award, and the James Hearst Prize, (North American Review). He is a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle. His prose and poetry have been included in The American Journal of Poetry, American Letters & Commentary, American Literary Review, The French Literary Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Journal of the American Medical Association, Kenyon Review, Nimrod, North American Review, Oxford Review (UK), Pacific Review, Patterson Literary Review, Poem, Poetry Quarterly, Rue des Beaux-Arts (Paris,) Sycamore Review, Verse Daily, Verse-Virtual, Wallace Stevens Journal, Web del Sol, Wisconsin Review, The Yale Journal of Humanities and others. Visit: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/michael-gessner or https://www.michaelgessner.com/



T.L. Hughes


Parts Unknown: Murder in the Merrimack Valley (from the novel)


Prologue It was Monday, December 28, 1959. Twenty-five-year-old Mildred Walker Torpey had mysteriously disappeared sometime between midnight and the first light of dawn. The day’s newspaper headlines boasted nothing out of the ordinary. A surprise storm with blizzard-like conditions had pummeled the working-class mill town the night before, followed by freezing rain in the early morning. No one saw or heard anything. Most didn’t even realize she was gone.

A week later, in early January, while Lieutenant Norbert “Norby” O’Connor sat at the counter of the Paradise Rail Car Diner on Bridge Street for his usual sunny-side-up two eggs and plain toast breakfast, his head buried in the Sunday morning read, something on page thirty-nine caught his eye—“Police Fear Chelmsford Woman Victim of Foul Play.”

“Joey” Norby laid down his paper and yelled to the burly shirt-sleeved cook behind the counter, “Pat Torpey been in here lately?”

“It’s been a few weeks, Norbs; why?” the cook answered. “Though his wife was in here before Christmas.”

“She’s gone missing, and there’s an APB out on her,” Norby grimly replied. Although Norby had grown up in Lowell, his police career had taken him away from his old downtown beat to the Massachusetts State Police headquarters in Cambridge. He still lived here, though. At thirty-five years old, shunning the big city hustle of Cambridge and Boston, he lived on the hill that raised him, Christian Hill, a predominately Catholic neighborhood that rose on the north side of the river. Lowell was still God’s Country in Norby’s eyes. He loved his mill city and the friendships he had formed here, both on and off the beat. Over the years, Norby had developed a special closeness to them all—the mad men and women within the city’s depths, cat ladies and depot Annie’s, Hell’s Angels, and sad, washed-out ex-boxers like the great Ding-Ding. He always took the side of the downtrodden, the abused, the defenseless, the innocent—all those who never seemed to have a voice in this town.

“That Pat Torpey’s a cool customer, to say the least.” The cook laid Norby’s breakfast down in front of him, topping off the lieutenant’s coffee with a fresh pour at the same time. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s got something to do with it.”

“That’s what I like about you, Joey; we think the same,” Norby exclaimed as he began dipping the neatly cut pieces of toast into the runny part of his eggs. “Just how I like it.” He crunched into a smile as he spoke. “How did she appear when she came in here? I always felt guilty about having to put her away.”

Norby knew Millie and her husband Pat well and the troubles that surrounded them, for they had bounced around in Lowell’s underground for years. In 1953, Norby had been integral to convicting Millie in a theft and burglary trial.

“But no love for Pat now?” Joey laughed, questioning the lieutenant.

Pat, with all his burglary and racketeering scheme bravado, was the talk of the town. Back in the day, Norby had pinched him a few times, always minor thefts—but never able to pin the big ones on him. This ate at Norby.

“It was right before Christmas,” Joey said. “I think it was the day before, as a matter of fact. She came in here all beat up and saying how he was looking to kill her. She was a nervous wreck!” Joey huddled close to Norby, his hairy forearm on the counter as he spoke, trying to keep his voice down while he looked furtively past the counter and around his diner car for any open ears.

“Did she report it?” Norby asked, instantly throwing his silverware down and putting up his arms at his friend. “Did you report it?”

“Said she was too scared of what he’d do and made me promise to keep my mouth shut.” Joey backed away in trepidation. “I’m sorry, Norbs. I should have said something to you last week, it was a busy morning, and I simply forgot about it.”

“I’m really disappointed in you, Joey.” Norby folded his arms, sitting back on his stool. “You know as well as I do that he’s a chronic abuser. I know you got a business to run and everything, but you should have said something to me last Sunday.”

“I’m sorry I let you down, Norbs.” Joey stepped away from the counter, wide-eyed and pale. “I promise you I’ll go down to the station and report it when I close later today.” Norby sensed a guilty sadness in the cook’s apology. “I just hope they find her soon, and I sure hope she’s safe.”


Chapter 1: Heartaches by the Number December 27, 1959 It was a typical winter Sunday afternoon for the Torpeys. A sparse Christmas had come and gone. The main floor of the three-bedroom home smelled of dry pine. A six-foot barren tree stood in the corner of the bare family room, dressed in nothing more than cheap tinsel and a few toys underneath it. Patrick and Millie’s kids, little Claire, three, and Ollie, two, were spending the weekend at Pat’s parents’ house in Dracut. It was normal for the Torpeys to dump the kids at Pat’s parents' or Millie’s mother’s house. Whenever Millie needed to disappear for more than a few days at a time, she would call a cab to send the kids away. Pat’s parents lived close to the automobile garage where Pat worked, so Millie often sent them that way.

Millie stood in the couple’s pantry, leaning against a cupboard as she sucked intently on a freshly lit cigarette. “I guess we won’t be making church today.” She chuckled jokingly to the boys and Annie. Millie and Pat, along with Millie’s younger brother Johnny and his teenage wife Annie, had been out the night before drinking themselves into forgetfulness. They had all slept in past noon.

Even though it was Sunday, church services were never an option for Millie’s crew. Although all of them were from Christian families and may have believed in God at some point in their lives. Millie, for one, now relied more heavily on purgatory and forgiveness. “Besides”—she grinned—“church always gets in the way of a good hangover.”

The boys were busy playing cards and seemed to pay no attention to her as she pressed the group to go out later that afternoon. “What about the Allenhurst for supper? We can stop along Route 114 at the Three Pines for a quick drink first.”

Being a petite and vulnerable brunette, wearing her hair short and curled, Millie often pretended to be a tough girl. She smoked like the actress Bette Davis did, often hanging the cigarette out the side of her lip, trying to personify that hard look.

“You’re a lot like her, you know,” an elderly clerk who worked the soda counter at Woolworths on Merrimack Street in downtown Lowell once said to a teenage Millie several years earlier. “Bette Davis used to come in here before she got famous, and I thought she was with us again when I saw you rounding that corner, little lady. You’re a pretty thing like she was.”

Millie had latched onto this image. Now, at twenty-five-years old and an emotional wreck due to the current situation with Patrick, she still dreamed of becoming a movie star someday. Her new boyfriend sure believed in her.

“Ahem, I asked a question.” Slamming the cupboard door, Millie turned quickly and looked toward the boys, talking with closed lips as she let the lit butt droop from her mouth.

“Why go all the way out there?” Pat, looking up, scowled at Millie’s dinner proposal. “Danvers is a bit of a drive. Let’s just go to Heffernan’s again. That way, afterward, we can shoot right down Mammoth Road and pick up the kids.” From the kitchen table, he grimaced and shook his head while looking her way. “Only the flavor touches your lips.” Millie removed her cigarette and pretended to flirt in a dreamy voice, casting her wondrous blue eyes on him. Avoiding a direct answer to his question, she had touted the Parliament cigarette brand’s advertising slogan instead. Smitten with herself, she then took a big swig from her beer.

“Cut the crap!” Pat bellowed.

Being a big, handsome, broad-chested man, Millie thought he had the uncanny appearance of Babe Ruth in his prime. Her husband loved Boston sports and the Red Sox; he’d often listen to the games at the garage or barroom gatherings. But his resemblance to the Great Bambino Ruth ended there. Pat never had the time, patience, or talent to be an athlete himself. At six feet two inches tall, a blue-collar, thirty-two-year-old guy, he carried himself confidently enough, but his Achilles was his extreme jealousy of anyone that got close to her.

Last night, when they ran into Pat’s conniving buddy Al Kruger at Heffernan’s, a campy Irish bar in the Acre section of Lowell, that SOB ratted her out. Kruger, a pudgy, little bald man, told Pat that he saw Millie the night before, on a Christmas night rendezvous, making out with Frankie Smythe at the back of the bar.

Only having a rough description of the guy from Kruger, Pat’s wicked temper had reared ugly at her. Millie wanted to run right out the backdoor of Heffernan’s and disappear into the steamy, forgiving fog that rolled out of the Pawtucket Canal and spilled across School Street. If it hadn’t been for Pat passing out on the couple’s couch when they all got home, Millie felt he would have killed her. Tonight, Millie planned to run away after their supper at the Allenhurst. She had everything laid out in her head. They’d waste the night away far out of town. After, she’d pressure Pat to head to Andy Roache’s Café on Bridge Street in downtown Lowell for a nightcap, just as they always did. She’d enlist her brother Johnny to engage Pat and his gang at Roache’s while she pretended to go to the ladies’ room. There she’d slip away, out into the night.

Still seated at the kitchen table, Pat’s brows raised in a caustic scowl. Millie immediately felt him sizing her up, realizing she’d erred in being too upbeat.

“What’s with this one? Everything’s all of a sudden coming up roses?” Pat, motioning toward Millie with his head, snickered at Johnny, who sat across from him with five drawn playing cards in his hand.

“Don’t know, Torp.” Johnny, an unemployed steeplejack, small framed but tough, a one-time welterweight Golden Gloves champion, replied as if he was trying to conceal a royal flush in his hand. Millie watched as her brother avoided eye contact with his friend and nemesis, Pat. Johnny had recently been released from doing time in prison on attempted armed robbery charges. “I’ll hold.” He motioned by waving his hand out into the middle of the small kitchen table while at the same time extinguishing his cigarette in a glass tray half-filled with ashes.

“I was just thinking that maybe we could smooth things over by having a nice supper at the Allenhurst, that’s all,” Millie said apprehensively.

“Quite honestly, Mill, the fact that you and this chump friend of yours, Frankie Smythe, had the nerve to meet up again on Christmas night is still really steaming me. I’m going to find him and take care of him before I finish with you.” Pat turned toward her, almost as if he were ready to jump up. “Can you blame me?” His face was beet red. “I told you I was sorry, Patrick.” Millie feigned remorse and tried as best she could to squeeze out a tear. “How many times do I have to tell you that I’m sorry?”

Just a few weeks before, Smythe had tried using Patrick’s suspended driver’s license to cash a check at the bank, but the young female teller knew that Smythe, a tall but smaller framed greaser wearing a gabardine jacket, wasn’t Pat and turned Millie and Frankie away. When the bank informed Pat about the incident before Christmas, Pat had roughed Millie up a bit. She still bore the black and blue marks at the base of her neck, right above the collarbone. Patrick shook his head at the table and threw down all his cards. “I should just get up and crack you again. You’re lucky your brother and sister-in-law are here, that’s all, or you’d be dead right now.”



Copyright © 2023 by TL. Hughes.



About the Author

T.L. Hughes was born in Salem, Massachusetts and was educated in Lowell public schools. Influenced by the writings of Jack Kerouac and others, and after graduating from the University of Massachusetts, he took to traveling the U.S. and Europe, eventually settling in Southern California where he lives today. Other than writing, some of his passions include listening to Jazz, Blues, and Rock and Roll music and learning how to play the Saxophone. Parts Unknown (and in search of a publisher) is his third novel and his first crime novel.

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