Updated: Aug 21
This issue features
poetry by Joseph Buehler,
poetry by Matthew Feeney,
photograph by James Kirkikis,
fiction by Jo-Anne Rosen,
fiction by Lara Tupper,
poetry by Doug Van Hooser, and
poetry by Amelia L. Williams
What a Poet Can Do
Create (in general).
Tell a story.
Be bittersweet w/out trying
to be bittersweet.
Assume that the reader is just
as intelligent as he (she) is.
Drive editors crazy.
Delight editors (rare).
Bore the reader to death.
Show off and/or try to be “cute”.
Go on and on and on for page after
page after page after page, saying the
same things over and over again, only
using different words.
Use words that only a few people on the
face of the earth are familiar with.
Know that he (she) is not necessarily going to
change the world, but who cares?
Bring joy to the reader.
End the poem on a positive note.
Copyright © 2023 by Joseph Buehler.
Two for the Price of One
You get two for the price of one. Yesterday you got three for the price of four.
The day before that you got one for the price of three except in the afternoon;
then you got five for the price of two. Three months ago, you could get seventeen
for the price of fifteen on, I believe it was, a Tuesday after two o’clock and ending
at three twenty-six in the p.m. while supplies lasted. A year and a half ago you
could get sixty if you bought at least forty and then you could resell them if you had
buyers, of course, for an enormous profit. A lot of people did that and became rich.
Then they lost it all in the market. Three years ago on a Friday, I believe it was, you
could borrow a hundred and forty and resell them for a loss, but the experience of
the buying and selling, people told me, was exhilarating. Even so, it left many people
homeless. Marriages broke up. Friends who were once very close became bitter
enemies. Riots broke out and the police had to shoot three or four hundred people
(in different localities, of course). I stayed far away from it all, wouldn’t leave the
house for days at a time and didn’t trade again for three or four weeks when it
finally became safe. Then I bought three hundred, I think it was, for the price of
seventy-five and made out like a bandit.
Copyright © 2023 by Joseph Buehler.
About the Author
Joseph Buehler has published in ArLiJo, in The Tower Journal, and in Otoliths in Australia, North Dakota Quarterly, The Broadkill Review, H.C.E. Review and Roi Faineant in Ireland, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, The Poet Magazine and Cerasus in the UK, many other places in the US and soon in Expanded Field in the Netherlands. He lives in Georgia with his wife Patricia.
I’m petrified of getting shot
when I get
or go to
even the mail.
For once, weirdly enough,
I’m glad I live where I do:
NO GUNS ALLOWED!
Even cops can’t carry here
I’m lucky I live in prison
Where it’s so much safer.
Copyright © 2023 by Matthew Feeney.
About the Author
Matthew Feeney (he/him) has had over 200 works published, all accomplished without internet access due to his serving an indeterminate sentence in Minnesota. Notable publication credits include Rattle, The Analog Sea Review, The Pinyon Review, The Evening Street Review, and the anthology Upon Waking: 58 Voices Speak Out from the Shadows. He has received several awards, including PEN America award, and has been nominated for Pushcart Prize. One of his poems was composed into choral music and is awaiting a post-Covid performance and an OBJECT America project featuring one of his poems which was exhibited in Paris, Berlin, and Switzerland.
Translations by Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka
ran along the spines of grass
whirled around the trees
shook the limbs
climbed the trunks
on top of a giant oak
with outstretched hand
fearful silence fell
Previously published in SŁODKA WODA, SŁONA WODA, SWEET WATER, SALT WATER (Astra, Poland, 2009).
Copyright © 2023 by Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka.
From the Cradle of Earth
pupils follow the light of stars
on the open umbrella of outer space
the clouds mature
glow crimson with pain
from the birth of beauty and dread
the imminence of passing away
sand sifting from the hourglass
rocks the cradle of earth
Previously published in SŁODKA WODA, SŁONA WODA, SWEET WATER, SALT WATER (Astra, Poland, 2009).
Copyright © 2023 by Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka.
About the Author
Lidia Kosk is the author of fifteen books. Her poems have been translated into thirty-three languages. Her poems and prose have been published in literary journals and anthologies in the US, Poland, Hungary, Spain, Russia, and Japan as well as featured on public radio in the US and Poland, in Multiple Versions and in multimedia video presentations. Philip A. Olsen arranged a series of her poems into choral compositions as the Polish Triptych, performed in the US, Peru, Portugal, and Spain. Sal Ferrantelli composed a score for Szklana góra, with a soprano, which had its world premiere in Washington, DC, in 2019. She resides in Warsaw, Poland. Visit: http://lidia.kosk.xyz/about-lidia-kosk/
About the Translator
Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka is the author of two books: Face Half-Illuminated (Apprentice House) and Oblige the Light (CityLit Press), winner of the Clarinda Harriss Poetry Prize. She is also the translator for four books by Lidia Kosk. She has translated into English works by six Polish poets and from English to Polish poems by Maryland Poets Laureate Josephine Jacobsen, Lucille Clifton, Linda Pastan, and Grace Cavalieri. Featured in the Library of Congress “The Poet and the Poem 2020-21 Series," she serves as the Poetry Translations Editor for Loch Raven Review. Visit: danutakk.wordpress.com
Three Nymphs in Spring
The Nymphs at the Vagabond Motel
(from the unpublished novel-in-stories Libidoland)
Despite poor night vision, Arnold can make out the neon sign for the Vagabond. It towers over the motel, atop a tall, brick pylon. The shooting stars going up and down are fuzzier than they used to be.
The cabbie glances at his passenger in the rear-view mirror.
“You stayed here before, mister?”
“We came every winter,” Arnold informs the driver. “Back in the sixties.”
“The neighborhood’s rougher than it used to be. You shouldn’t be out alone at night.”
“I’m too old to go out at night.”
The cabbie brings his bags into the lobby and takes the tip. “Y’all take care,” he says.
The floor feels sticky under Arnold’s rubber soled shoes. He remembers a plush carpet from their last visit ten or twelve years ago. The first time they checked in, the place was brand new. How Helen had admired its sleek, modern look, boxy and geometric with splashes of coral and aquamarine.
To his disappointment, the clerk says room 111 isn’t available.
“But I made the reservation three weeks ago.”
“Room 113 is identical.” The young man seems irritated. “Kitchenette’s on the same side.”
“My wife and I always stay in 111.”
“Look, mister, 111 is already occupied. 113 is next to the vending machines, so it’s noisy there. How about I put you in a quieter room on the other wing?”
Arnold hesitates and the clerk says gruffly, “So what’ll it be?”
“Put me in 113. I’ll take out my hearing aid and it’ll be fine.” He straightens his shoulders. It’s been a long day and he still has a phone call to make.
The clerk locks the cash register, puts the bags on a luggage trolley and they set off in silence for his room. The courtyard is landscaped with palms and other tropical foliage whose names Arnold can’t recall. The water in the pool is dark, not gleaming turquoise as it used to at night.
The room smells musty. He cranks the jalousie windows open, preferring a fresh breeze to air conditioning. It’s April and not yet sultry at night, a good time to visit Miami. It is also school break so his granddaughter, Claire, is able to fly out from California with her son, the first great-grandchild. How strange that his youngest child, the baby of the family, is a grandmother. He hasn’t seen Dora since Helen’s funeral. Now they are both widowed.
He phones his daughter. Their conversation is, as always, perfunctory. He is more at ease with his other children, perhaps because they live close by and are therefore familiar. The way a family should be, he thinks.
Dora says she’s relieved he’s arrived safely, and Claire has just called from the airport. “She has to get a rental car, Dad. She’ll call you when she gets here.”
“I’m going straight to bed,” he says. “Have her call me in the morning.”
People walk by his window, laughing and talking. He hears a door slam. He takes out his hearing aid and dentures, puts on his pajamas and climbs into bed, exhausted. Sleep overtakes him at once.
The next morning Arnold steps out with his black oak walking stick and cautiously crosses the busy intersection to the restaurant he and Helen once frequented. It’s open 24 hours now, he notes, but few customers are in evidence. Their favorite booth is available. Splendid, he thinks, and examines the menu through his magnifying glass.
“What happened to your senior specials?” he asks the waitress. She is a plump woman in a tight, powder blue nylon uniform.
“Honey, we don’t get the seniors here like we used to.”
He orders his usual, one softly poached egg and rye toast, hot tea with milk. The egg is overcooked. He’s not in any hurry, so he sends it back.
The second egg is scarcely cooked at all. He hails the waitress and sends it back again.
“Third time’s a charm, I hope,” she says, setting the third rendition of the egg before him. “How’s this one?”
“It’s perfect,” he says and tucks in.
Not until he re-crosses the intersection does Arnold notice the sculptures at the corner of the building. He’s forgotten about the Vagabond’s signature grotto. Helen got a big kick out of it. She’d take new visitors around to show it off. The three bas-relief, white plaster nymphs, out of focus and shadowy now, are still cavorting in their giant coral half-shell like the three graces or Venus times three, without a stitch on. Two pale blue dolphins leap from the basin toward the nymphs. But the basin is dry. He runs a hand along the rim and plaster flakes off. A fountain of water used to bubble up from the basin and cascade over the half-shell, bathing the nymphs and dolphins, night, and day.
Arnold settles in poolside under an umbrella with a glass of ice water and a small cassette player. No one else is in the courtyard, except a maid pushing a cart down one of the breezeways. He dons earphones and puts an audio book in the player.
Now he has the leisure to read, but neither the vision nor the stamina. It’s retirement that wears a man down. He worked until he was 87 and, if Helen hadn’t taken sick five years ago, would be working still.
He dozes and wakes with a start when a gunshot goes off, thankfully only on the tape.
A woman is seated at a table under an umbrella halfway around the pool. She’s thumbing through a magazine and eating a sandwich.
His wife would have befriended this woman. Helen was a one-woman welcome wagon, even if she had never been in a place before in her life. Once he took her with him on a business trip to Tokyo and before he could say “Ohio,” she had charmed a room full of Japanese businessmen and carried off some lovely silk and ribbon samples. Oh, she was game for anything. She even got into the public bath with him, in the buff like everyone else in the on-sen. He laughs aloud at the memory. “How do you do, Mr. Ishikawa,” she’d said gravely, when they encountered a colleague there who had once been a guest in their home. “How do you do, Mrs. Brown,” Ishikawa had replied, bowing his head.
A phone rings nearby. He looks around, puzzled.
It’s a pay phone next to the vending machines and not far from where the woman is seated. She hurries over to pick up the receiver. He hears a muffled one-sided conversation, and then laughter. She hangs up and walks toward his side of the pool. At an opening in the hedge, she hesitates and looks at him from behind dark sunglasses. Her hair is carrot red.
Arnold smiles and nods, uncertain of what to say.
“How you doing?” she asks. Her voice is husky.
He sits up straighter. “Couldn’t be better,” he tells her. “It’s a pleasure to stay at the Vagabond. We’ve been coming here for many years.”
“You’re not alone then?”
“Unfortunately, I am. My wife passed on three years ago. She’s with me in spirit though.”
He gets to his feet and walks over to her. “I’m Arnold Brown,” he says, offering his hand.
She takes his hand gingerly as if afraid it might break. “I’m Delia,” she murmurs. He can’t see her eyes even up close.
“Delia, pleased to meet you. You know, this place used to be a lot livelier. I wonder why there aren’t more folks out by the pool. It’s a beautiful day.”
“I bet they’re working,” she says. “Like me. I’m on my break now.”
“I assumed you were a guest, too.”
“I am, but I also work. It’s more of a residential motel now,” she explains.
“We live in a residential hotel, too. Or I do, now. It’s not a hotel in the traditional sense, though.”
“This one ain’t either.”
“I mean, there’s no check-in, no lobby. And it’s not modern like the Vagabond. My wife prefers the kitchenette here.”
Delia says gently, “You must have loved her very much.”
“Yes, I did, by gash.” His voice trembles a little, he notices, and he takes in air. He doesn’t usually talk this much at one time. “Sixty-two years we were married, and I tell you, it wasn’t long enough.”
“Gramps, that’s definitely not a non-smoking room you’re in. Can’t you smell it?” His granddaughter looms over him, tall and lithe in a scant bathing suit. “And there’s burn marks on the carpet.”
“I don’t mind,” he says mildly. “You know, I used to smoke a pipe, myself.”
“I loved the smell of your pipe,” she says.
While Claire talks, she keeps a close watch over her boy, who has the run of the pool. He swims like a fish, Arnold notes approvingly. But it’s a shame he hasn’t got a father on board. It’s a shame young people these days don’t give marriage a chance.
His daughter and granddaughter are two fine-looking women, he thinks. Dora is full bodied and olive skinned like Helen with the same thick hair, silver now, but glossy black when she was a girl. Claire is fair and slender like her father. He remembers his three girls — Helen, Dora, and Claire —emerging dripping and laughing together from this very pool. Three beauties, they were. Three water nymphs.
Claire’s boy has a reddish-blonde crew cut. He’s skinny and caramel-colored and already tall for his age. Who is the father, Arnold wonders. He’s been told but can’t remember.
Freddie clambers out of the pool and pads over to the adults.
“You said there’d be other kids,” he grouses.
“Take him around the side and show him the grotto,” Arnold advises. “There’s no water in it now but otherwise it’s still intact.”
“The nymphs!” Claire exclaims. “I’d forgotten all about them.”
When they are alone, he clears his throat and asks his daughter if she is comfortable enough now that she’s on her own. Did Jacques provide for her adequately?
“I’m alright, Dad.”
“If you need any help, don’t hesitate to ask me for it,” he says a little awkwardly. He’s not accustomed to talking with Dora one on one. Helen was always the buffer. And his son-in-law was so loud and boisterous, no one could get a word in. He doesn’t miss Jacques in the slightest.
“Thank you,” she murmurs. Then she asks him suddenly, “Are you okay without Mother?”
“I miss her terribly,” he says, then hesitates. “I suppose it must be difficult for you, as well? Being alone now.”
“I’m alright,” she says again, looking away.
“Have you considered coming home?”
“Home? What do you mean?”
“Dad, that’s not been my home in thirty-five years. I’m not alone here. I have lots of friends.”
“That’s not the same as family.”
“They’re like family.”
“You’d still be there, if it weren’t for Jacques,” he says wistfully. “You and Claire.”
“If it weren’t for Jacques, there’d be no Claire.”
“Of course not.”
He can’t fault her marrying for love; he’d done as much himself, only made a far better choice. He has nothing against the French. He’d grown up among them, done business with them and, heaven help him, brought Jacques Beauchemin home and introduced him to his daughter.
“It was a pity, all the same. It hurt your mother to see you go.”
“To see Claire go, you mean.”
“Not just Claire. Of course, she missed you, too.”
Dora looks startled and Arnold, a little flustered, clears his throat.
“You are our baby, after all,” he says.
Claire and Freddie return, chatting excitedly.
“Why can’t a boy be a nymph, too?” he wants to know. “How come the nymphs are always girls?”
“Freddie is reading the Greek myths,” Claire explains. “Dryads and naiads are tree and water nymphs and they’re always female. They’re the hand maidens to the gods. I don’t know what the male equivalent would be.”
“I don’t know a thing about it,” Arnold admits.
“I’ve never heard of dryads and naiads,” Dora confesses.
“There’s Cupid, of course,” Claire says. “Cupid is a boy.”
“Did you like the grotto, Freddie?” his grandmother asks.
“The dolphins are cool.”
“The nymphs look a little down at the heel,” Claire laughs. “One of them has a nick in her nose.”
“What a pity,” Dora murmurs.
“You may not remember this, Mum. I was embarrassed by those nymphs.”
“How come?” Freddie asks.
“Somebody called me a water nymph and the other kids teased me.”
“Because the nymphs in the grotto are naked.”
“Your grandmother was something of a water nymph herself,” Arnold offers.
“Did Nana swim in this pool?” Claire asks. “I don’t remember.”
“Maybe not too often during the day. It was mobbed with kids.”
“What kids?” Freddie demands, incredulous.
“There used to be lots of grandparents staying here and lots of grandkids visiting them,” his mother explains.
“I have photos to prove it,” Dora puts in. “I’ll show you when we get home.”
Arnold lowers himself tentatively into the pool. “It’s not as warm as it used to be,” he says to Freddie. “Or I’m colder than I used to be.”
The boy grins. Then he flips over and does a handstand, his scrawny calves waving wildly above the surface.
The old man swims the length of the pool and back while the boy watches.
“Not bad for an old codger, eh?”
“That was awesome,” Freddie says politely.
Arnold peers, then waves at the woman coming out of one of the rooms.
“Delia!” he calls. “Come over and meet my family.”
“Glad to meet you folks,” she says warmly. “Four generations, that’s a fine thing to see.”
“Delia lives here,” Arnold explains. “It’s a residential motel now.”
“I’ll see y’all later,” she says and heads out to the parking lot.
Dora has been watching Room 111.
“I’ve seen three women and four or five men going in and out, and they’re all so different looking. They can’t be related. Isn’t that peculiar?”
“Oh my,” Claire murmurs. She sits quietly for a few minutes, then excuses herself and goes into the motel office.
When she returns, her face reveals nothing of what she is about to say in a lowered voice so that Freddie, who is in the pool, will not hear. She has to get close to the ears of parent and grandparent, as both are hard of hearing. They listen intently.
“The Vagabond Motel and the entire neighborhood up and down Biscayne Boulevard for miles is a hangout for prostitutes. They rent rooms here by the hour. I must say, that’s a really sleazy guy in the office.”
Silence greets this announcement. The two women look at Arnold, whose face is impassive.
“You could stay in a motel that’s down the street from me,” Dora suggests, not for the first time ever, and he shakes his head no.
“But Dad, it takes an hour to drive up here and an hour to drive back.”
“You did it for years and never complained.”
“I didn’t, but Jacques sure did.”
“I’m not going to be chased away,” he says firmly. “I like it here well enough. In fact, it’s very peaceful. I have the entire pool as a swimming lane.”
Dora is exasperated. “And Freddie has no one to play with.”
He frowns. “I am sorry about that. But I wouldn’t be comfortable anywhere else.”
“Je comprend,” Claire says, and he looks at her sharply. “Nana’s here with you, isn’t she?”
“That’s right. She is.”
“She wouldn’t want you to stay here alone. It isn’t safe. I saw some tough looking guys lurking about the office. I think they’re the pimps.”
“Oh my God,” Dora breathes. “Dad, you’ve got to check out of here.”
“It’s not the same, anymore,” Claire presses on. “You can’t bring back the past. Aren’t you visiting so you can be with us?”
“Why are you women making such a fuss?” he counters. “We’re having a good time here and we’re all together. I haven’t felt in the least threatened. Have you?”
Mother and daughter look at each other, roll their eyes.
“Please bear with me one last time. I may not visit again.”
They are all quiet for a while. His daughter bows her head. Will she miss me, he wonders. We scarcely know each other.
“What would Nana think about these ladies of the night and the belles de jour?” Claire wonders aloud.
“Belles de jour?” Arnold smiles. “Are they pretty? I can’t tell.”
“Don’t they have to be?” Dora asks.
“No, Mum, not necessarily.”
“She’d get their life stories out of them,” Arnold says. “She could get a stone to talk.”
“I just want you to be careful, gramps.”
“I won’t go out at night, he assures them. “I’ll walk softly and carry a big stick.” And he brandishes the black oak cane.
He takes the girls and Freddie out for dinner across the street and then they pile into the rental car to drive back to southwest Miami.
“Think about it some more, Dad,” Dora urges before leaving. “It would be easier if we could all be closer.”
She’s right, he knows. But he can’t pack up and leave the Vagabond, any more than he could abandon the apartment where he and Helen had lived so many years. He will have to be carted out on a gurney. He walks slowly around the courtyard in the early evening, thinking about his wife and their life together.
Weary, he sinks into a lounge chair. The heat of day lingers like a light blanket, comfortable and no longer oppressive. He dozes.
When he opens his eyes again, Helen is seated on a nearby chair. She leans over him smiling.
He can smell the lilac scent she always wears.
He reaches for her. “How I’ve missed you, darling girl.”
“I’ll stay a while.” She strokes his hand.
In the twilight and with his eyes clouded and tearing up again, her lovely face is indistinct.
“Stay forever,” he tells her.
“Are you alright, Arnold?”
She never calls him Arnold. Confused, he struggles to sit up.
“We are lodged in a house of ill repute,” he manages to say. “What do you think about that, dear?
Helen’s laughter peels out like bells tinkling. What had he said that was funny? Her face flickers near his, strangely doubled. He blinks several times.
“If you’re happy here, it’s fine to be here,” she says softly.
“Couldn’t be happier,” he assures her.
He remembers then what Helen had said about Mr. Ishikawa’s girlfriend, who had been introduced to her in the on-sen. She was a geisha.
“I’ve never seen him so happy.”
“But he has to pay her,” he’d huffed.
“He’s happy,” she’d repeated. “Nothing else matters.”
“Are you alright?” she asks again.
“Got a headache, is all.”
“Maybe you’re dehydrated. Drink this.” She puts a water bottle in his hand, opens the top for him. He drinks thirstily and looks at her again. Her face is in focus now, more or less. Her eyes are dark pools.
“Delia,” he says. “I thought...”
“I know. You must’ve woke up from a dream.”
“It was a beautiful dream.”
She nods, smiling. “So, are you moving out of our house of ill repute?”
“No, I’m staying on.”
“You’re staying?” She seems surprised.
“I’m safe here, aren’t I?”
“Oh, sure, you’ll be just fine.”
“What about you? Will you be fine?” he asks her.
She shrugs. “It’s a good enough living. I got three kids. No one’s helping me.”
“Three. Who takes care of them,” he hesitates. “While you work?”
“The oldest girl is old enough now, twelve. I don’t need a sitter no more.”
“And the young ones?”
“They’re boys, eight and nine.”
He ponders this. “Any chance your boys could play in the pool with my great-grandson. My granddaughter would keep an eye on them.”
She smiles thinly. “The management won’t go for that.”
“I can handle the management,” he says. “I still know how to get things done.”
She shrugs. “I know what they’re going to say. Everyone’ll want to do it, the hookers, the maids. We’re not running no nursery school is what they’ll say. Our insurance won’t cover it.”
“Can your boys swim?
“Oh, sure. They’d have a ball in that pool.”
“I’ll get to work on it in the morning. I’ll make it worth your while.”
“You do that,” she says, but doesn’t sound convinced.
“If only we were in Japan,” he sighs. “You’d be a geisha. It’s an honorable profession. Neither you nor your children would be excluded from the public baths.”
She laughs again, a deep comfortable rumble. “Maybe I should relocate.”
Before she leaves, he pulls the wallet out of his back pocket and peels off a fifty-dollar bill.”
“Take the night off,” he tells her. “Do something special with your kids.”
“Alright, I will.” Her smile is brilliant now.
“I don’t want to see you back here tonight.”
“Thank you,” she says. “You’re a prince.”
He watches her go out to the parking lot and drive away.
Alone, Arnold sits in a deck chair by the pool while the sky darkens. How he’d love to pull this off, not only for the boy’s sake. Helen would be so pleased. It may not be possible, though. The clerks must all be surly and perhaps Delia is humoring him. She might come back to the motel after he’s asleep to turn a few more tricks. She might not want her children anywhere near the Vagabond. Claire and Dora might not bring Freddie back here.
A spasm of doubt grips him momentarily. It’s like grief and heartburn combined, and then it passes. He sits up straighter.
“I won’t take no for an answer,” he promises Helen. “Why shouldn’t children use an unused swimming pool?”
He stays outside a little longer, waiting for the neon sign to light up so he can watch the stars shoot up and down again.
Previously published in Poydras Review, April 2018.
About the Author Jo-Anne Rosen's fiction has appeared in over thirty literary journals, among them Valparaiso Fiction Review, Florida Review, Pithead Chapel, Amsterdam Quarterly and BigCityLit, which nominated one of her stories for a 2021 Pushcart Prize. In 2015, she published the story collection What They Don't Know. She also publishes and edits a hybrid literary journal and chapbook series (visit http://echapbook.com). For more details, visit http://joannerosen.us.
At the Center
(excerpt from an unpublished novel)
For years I’d fantasized about a place where I could be uncertain and quiet, like a rehab center, but cheaper. I pictured manicured walking trails and whitewashed rooms, far from the city. Some place with a lake where I’d remember how to do the backstroke and meet someone with pained eyes, like a young James Taylor.
I thought of this in bed, as Paul’s bottles clinked in the recycling bin in the kitchen. I watched the black behind my eyes and wanted more of it. Deep water, I thought. But it might be tricky, my limbs deciding to flap and surface. I’d been a good swimmer, once.
Five days a week I followed my route from subway to train to students in New Jersey. I caught my reflection. Who was that? Under my desk I picked at my thumb until it bled.
I reversed the process, students to train to the fluorescent aisles of Key Food, where a shopper had been shot in the head last year. There was a bot in that store, a creepy grey thing that slid along the aisles, looking for spills and thieves. Mechanical eyes that were red, vacant. I assumed the shooting was a protest against the bot, about automation in general. I could understand it. I wanted to destroy the bot too. It blocked the aisles and seemed to linger by the dairy products, watching me.
Then happy hour, where Paul had already ordered two beers, two waters. I wanted wine but didn’t correct it. The stool was too tall, and my feet dangled. No hook for my purse. I kept it balanced on my lap like a pet.
Eight years. He drank and I drank, and the bartender was still more beautiful than me. He talked, again, about hating the President. He mocked the famous people on the muted TV. I listened and wanted to like him again and felt, instead, the itchy need to disappear.
There were holes in the walls of our one-bedroom apartment. Wooden trim, dented. Soft places damaged by pummeling. It was exciting at times, a relief to break surfaces, to kick and slam.
In the bar as he talked and drank, I switched it sometimes. I imagined him gone. Not murdered, just an accidental crush from a wayward air conditioner ten floors above. Maybe as he walked home from work with headphones tucked into his own sounds. Maybe it wouldn’t be a terrible way to go. At his funeral I’d sit next to his mother, who’d called me once to ask if I thought Paul was bipolar.
“I don’t know,” I’d said to her, but a jolt zipped through me. I’d looked it up and yes, that could be it. On WebMD—a reason.
How superior I’d felt, reading it. I wasn’t the crazy one.
But this faded. And back in our bedroom, alone, after happy hour, I thought again of the made-up place with mountains, where I could keep myself from causing harm.
At the Center, there’s landscaping, relative silence. There’s the shimmering lake, framed by slabs of mountain, and a vast brick building, steeple-topped, with carpeted corridors. There are beige program rooms with purple yoga blankets, stacked and folded in cupboards, and crystal singing bowls to balance the chakras. There’s tai chi, qigong, and meditation. There’s the famous concert venue down the road, the muffled echoes of folk artists in summer. James Taylor performs every 4th of July.
It’s as if someone recorded my fantasy. Someone monitored my likes and loves before I’d arrived. Swimming, quiet, wild geese, folk-Americana.
The Monitor did this, obvious in retrospect. She scrolled through my feeds and took notes.
At the Center, I can rework my plastic brain, says the Monitor. Neuroplasticity, a Yoga Journal term. I can bend my own brain, and no one will bend it back to disprove me. She means that I can tell the truth. I can write it down, just the way I want to, on paper.
I was living alone when I asked the Monitor to meet with me, having finally extricated myself from Paul and our shitty apartment. She sat close on a faded bench by the old duck pond in Central Park. The air was damp and smelled like a forgotten fish tank. Neither of us had bread for the birds.
She spoke quickly. At the Center, I wouldn’t need to worry. Meals provided, no rent. No eye liner or ironing or MetroCards. I’d have a bunk bed, a few shelves, a new name, a pretty place to unravel. Over time, a gentle restoration. Analysis of my memories in a “safe, supportive space.”
“I want them gone, not restored,” I said.
She smiled. She was about to touch my arm but stopped herself. “It’s not like the movies—strap on a headlamp and zap, the thoughts disappear. It’s the opposite.”
I’d have to actively remember the events that led me to Nassau. The more I described, the less I’d have to carry.
“Talking? Like therapy?” I’d tried this.
“No, describe in writing,” said the Monitor. “On paper.”
The accent she’d used in Nassau was gone. Her tone was pitched to sincerity, her hair now tucked under a stylish fedora. I scanned the unlined skin of her face, her nails filed low enough to play guitar. She appeared to be entirely smooth and even, steeped in essential oils (lavender, plus a citrusy scent I couldn’t place), yet the mosquitoes weren’t interested. I smacked one dead on my arm and began to dig in.
“Journaling,” I said. “You want me to journal?”
“Yes. Your thoughts.”
“We believe in responsible use,” she said. “Not waste, but mindful use. Paper isn’t the problem. Our disregard for resources is the problem. Our mindset, which of course can be adapted.”
Mindset? “Everyone there can use it?”
“Not everyone. A few. Within reason. We monitor this, of course. But we want to be transparent. We have access still.”
“How?” Black market? A cache from before the Ban?
She shifted beside me. “What happened to the lovely sandals you wore in the Bahamas?” She looked down at the dirt around my sneakers. I felt the cut throb for a second, a long scab on the back of my heel. I’d have a scar. But I was lucky. The rock, that night, underwater—sharp.
“What sandals?” I said.
“Yes, that’s what you say. But what you write can be the truth. You write by hand. That’s how you begin to heal.”
Was she mocking me? Was this an elaborate prank, orchestrated by Paul somehow?
I looked away from my shoes, back to the pond scum.
“This will be confidential, for your file,” she said. “You’ll use real handwriting.”
She nodded. “We’d like samples to preserve. We’ll provide the notebooks.”
Not loose leaf, but notebooks, plural. What kind? The kind mattered.
“You can be honest, even about the Center. You’re free to tell us anything, everything.”
She reached into her shoulder bag, looked around. It was the Standard Composition style, marbled black and white. Lockers, gym class, the squeak of sneakers, my diary snatched from my backpack and never returned.
I touched the cardboard cover. “You have more?”
She laughed. “We have plenty. Open it.”
WHAT BROUGHT YOU HERE? Glued in, from an actual printer. Maybe she didn’t know how to write by hand.
“Your first prompt.”
I looked at her bug eyes, my distorted self in the lenses. I tried to keep my voice even. “Nassau brought me here,” I said. “You know that.”
I remembered the cars flying by, too close. Dogs barking. Paul barking back at them. How I’d locked eyes with him, deciding.
“Not Nassau. Not yet,” she said. “Start with you, making your way to the Center. Or start from the beginning, in Maine. You want to warm up to the climax. And don’t mention this to the other Volunteers.”
“Of course. The women’s dorm. That’s where you’ll sleep. I’ll be back at the Center this evening. You’ll need to apply online tomorrow.” She stood, smoothed her skirt. I saw the old campaign pin fastened to her purse: Resist the Burn, the red and black emblem. I had one myself, pinned to a leather jacket I didn’t wear anymore.
I tucked the notebook inside my backpack. No one had seen us. I was to wait 20 minutes, then return to my Murray Hill apartment.
She paused by the old-fashioned dispenser for birds, empty. It once had corn kernels or seeds. I remembered this. She touched the metal slot, feeling for a forgotten coin.
“You could try present tense,” she said. Was she smirking? “That’s what they used to do in memoirs. Remember? It’s supposed to make us feel like we we’re right there.”
That night, in bed, I traced the stains on the walls of my studio apartment. I felt for familiar textures, remnants of blue tack, the pin-pocks where posters had been. There are ten glow-in-the-dark stars, meant to form Cassiopeia, a wide W along the width of the low ceiling. Someone must have rubbed out the rest with fingernails, gummy blotches left behind.
Then, the farts and squeaks of sex in the apartment next door. The labored breathing of almost done.
I close the curtain, flick my headlamp, turn on the bedside fan to muffle the sound of pages turning. $5000 fine for paper use and possible imprisonment for possession. How possible? (I remembered the piracy threats on DVDs.) But it was in my e-lease. If I could hear my neighbors, surely, they could hear me.
What brought me here?
The Ban, in part. That I can trace.
It started with us, the tuned-in urbanites, one could argue, one like Paul. It wasn’t a crazy idea in the beginning. First the Plastics Bans—bottles and bags. The David Attenborough series was streaming at the time, sea lions flinging themselves from cliffs. Or slipping? Bloodied and dying below. Too many to perch safely on the edge. I can’t remember why this was so, but it was our fault. Humans. We’d ruined it for everyone, including the sea lions. I couldn’t get the image out of my head.
So, the Paper Bag Ban made sense. It would help the planet. I brought my cloth bags to the supermarket, as I’d been doing for years, good environmental soldier. One of my cloth bags said, “I’m saving the planet. What are you doing?” I felt like an asshole, using it. But it was a good bag. Sturdy handles, a design with blue and yellow flowers, like a pillowcase I’d had as a girl.
No paper coffee cups. Good. No paper plates. Even better. No to-go containers of any kind allowed.
Restaurants balked. Takeout orders meant BYO containers for pick up. Was this sanitary? Adjustments from the Board of Health, complaints, readjustments, followed by apathy or rejection or acceptance on the part of customers. If you wanted the burrito or kebab or smoothie bad enough, you had to remember to bring your clean Tupperware, your refillable mug. Some restaurants opted for glass containers, surcharges, refunds upon return. New sanitation stations, infrared light at take out windows.
Extremists called for reduced use of toilet paper. Prices went up on already pricey eco-rolls. Tissue made from bamboo pulp was an option, but it was not as soft as one would hope. Plumbers installed bidets in hipster apartments across the boroughs.
Then the boycotts against Staples and Office Depot. Reams of paper tripled in price. I finally stopped printing anything out. This too seemed like a reasonable adjustment. I stopped getting junk mail.
But then—no greeting cards or wrapping paper. No museum pamphlets. All printed newspapers and magazines officially folded, a long time coming. But they could be read online. Perhaps not my preference, but I wanted to do my part.
The Senator from Kentucky was the first to point the finger at booksellers. Surely, we could do without this excess too. If the front-liners had to give up their disposable coffee cups, then why couldn’t the elites give up their $30 hardcovers?
The insidious campaign ads. Gloomy camera work and minor chords as the camera panned the shelves of independent bookstores. Obscure titles no one bought, gathering dust. Banned books. Waste. Excess. Objects of luxury, of privilege. Democratic fluffiness at its worst, like wearing masks during the last days of the pandemic.
The Senator’s supporters began Bonfire Protests, burning their personal libraries in solidarity with the proposed All-Ban Bill, which would essentially prevent book publishers from printing new titles.
Ridiculous. It would never pass.
But it did pass, and quickly, just as the President began his second term.
And then the raids by the President’s supporters. They broke into libraries and graffitied the stacks. They shot at the windows of Barnes and Noble. They mugged a woman browsing the outdoor stacks of used books at Strand on Broadway, where I’d often browsed myself. Her arm broken, her cheek slashed, right there in the online Times.
To carry books became risky, no matter when they’d been printed. E-books were still online. They couldn’t erase these. But to be seen holding a book in your hands had become a political gesture. To own books at all was to counter the Ban. Books were emblems of the tone-deaf bourgeois.
It was insane. But so much had become that way. No one seemed to be able to fight it.
I’d kept my favorite books, but not in plain sight. (Ferrante, Ishiguro, Morrison, Munro, Strout.) When I moved in with Paul, I shoved my titles into his one bookcase, ready to topple. It was between the two windows--not visible from the outside. But anyone in the building could have reported us. The landlord, the exterminator, the neighbors’ kids, wanting Halloween candy. Paul’s colleague had been caught with the collected works of James Baldwin in his office. $10,000 in fines and 200 hours of community service. He didn’t make tenure that year.
On the park bench, the Monitor had asked, “You wrote a book once, right?”
I could have lied but she knew the answer already. It was published just before the Ban when reviewers were caught in the Chick Lit trend. I’d asked to have the pink cover removed but still it was shelved in Romance. It was about a woman leaving her boyfriend to live alone.
“Yes,” I told her. It seemed shameful to admit.
Paul had asked me the same question at happy hour, long ago. He wouldn’t read it. I’d repurposed autobiographical material rather than come up with a plot of my own. I was a fraud, he meant. He didn’t say it outright. Instead, he praised the convoluted plots of the male writers he most admired. DeLillo and Roth. He did make one thing clear. If you ever write about me, I’ll sue you. Then he cracked into his charming smile to diffuse it.
Now the Monitor wants my thoughts on paper.
(I’m refusing to save the planet. What are you doing?)
Irresistible. Who doesn’t want to talk about themselves?
But the thoughts. I don’t know if I can actually trace them. If it’s wise for me to do so.
I remember a row of trees, years ago. I’m walking along a country road somewhere with Paul. Summertime, distant music. We’re drinking beer from cans, our bare arms touching. Metal fence posts poke against a line of maples. Over time, the spikes have pushed into bark. Or the bark has accommodated the spikes. I guess that’s it. The tree has grown over the metal, taking it in.
I know how that can happen over time. Rusty barbs in the brain, overgrown. I could leave them alone. Or I could nudge them and do some damage. I could identify what belongs to me versus what has been implanted by Paul. What I’ve allowed him to implant. The Monitor understands I need practice, extricating.
But what if this isn’t really the cure? And isn’t confidential? Just a trap, to pull out evidence from my head.
But the paper, for the taking.
Does it have to be chronological? I text.
Not at all, she replies, seconds later.
I examine the pen, a Uniball Glide, once so easy to lose. Can I borrow your pen? When did I last say that?
I make my wrist move left to right, pressing down hard. I write it again, one word per line, wasting space: Can. I. Borrow. Your. Pen? It feels like an incantation. I feel warm with the thrill of it.
Copyright © 2023 by Lara Tupper.
About the Author
Lara Tupper is the author of three books: Amphibians (winner, Leapfrog Global Fiction Prize), Off Island (finalist, Housatonic Book Award), and A Thousand and One Nights. She received a 2022 Martha Boschen Porter Award and was a finalist for the Orison Fiction Prize, the Nicholas Schaffner Award and the UNO Publishing Prize. A graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, she taught creative writing for many years at Rutgers University and is founder of Swift Ink Stories, a private teaching platform. She is also a jazz performer; her latest album is This Dance.
Doug Van Hooser
I want an ending
that is a string to a kite.
The long creak
of a warped board
loose from its nails.
Even in December
be a leaf the wind
cannot twist free.
Previously published in The Parliament Literary Journal Summer 2023.
About the Author
Doug Van Hooser splits his time between suburban Chicago where he uses pseudonyms with baristas, and southern Wisconsin where he enjoys sculling and cycling. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Orison Anthology. He has also published short fiction and had readings of his plays in Chicago. Visit: dougvanhooser.com
Amelia L. Williams
Not a Prayer
after Surah by Tarfia Faizullah
the lost blighted chestnut
the empty remedy of railcars
the belly-up dream of fish
the river prostrate at pH 4.0
the ilmenite with apatite
the alloy of allegiances
the empty pit of yearning
the sputum of waste lagoons
the knee-joint of trailblazers
the pacemaker of the planets
the agent disguised as a sheik
the senators garbed in graft
I brush my teeth with white paste
& rub sunscreen over my blush
Copyright © 2023 by Amelia L. Williams.
I’ve learned this new way to crumple
a whole section of the newspaper
to light our woodstove. Lay it open
to the middle, pull and scrunch one sheet
toward the center margin, crinkle-fold
as you pull, repeat with each sheet, twist
in half and voila—a coil efficient
as a spider’s book lung, oxygen
hugs each page in amplitude—ready.
Days later I cut and paste pictures
in memory books—gifts for my two
now-20-somethings. I’ll apologize
for badly-composed photos, busy
documentary shots of birthdays,
Halloween costumes, first school bus rides,
commune kids posed in rows before our
annual Easter egg hunt, tender
cohort of near-siblings, grown so fast.
Then my chest clenches as up for air
comes a thought-mole I can’t whack down
like an arcade game—fear for the one
who’s queer, gender-fluid, non-binary—
as daily news unfurls of hatreds
stoked, twisted tight, ready to feed fires,
do my child harm. Breath ready, jaw set—
not strong, not venomous, my fierce
script wants most to be unsummoned.
Copyright © 2023 by Amelia L. Williams.
About the Author
Amelia L. Williams, PhD, medical writer, lives in an intentional community in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She coordinated “The Ties That Bind: A #NoPipelines Collaborative Art and Story Project” of over 250 fabric braids made by citizens in affected communities to protest proposed fracked-gas pipelines in Virginia. Her full-length poetry collection was a finalist for the 2022 Wandering Aengus Press Book Award. She is a fellow of the Hambidge Center, twice a Pushcart nominee, and semi-finalist for the 2022 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry. Proceeds from her 2016 chapbook Walking Wildwood Trail: Poems and Photographs benefit local environmental organizations. Her poems and hybrids have appeared in TAB, Streetlight Magazine, The Hollins Critic, ANMLY, Rabbit: a journal for nonfiction poetry, Nimrod International Journal, K’in, The Hopper, Shot Glass Journal, Poetry South, and elsewhere.