All posts by BLR Staff

Arnie Weingart

Arnie WeingartArnie Weingart attended Dartmouth College, where he received a B.A. in German and Comparative Literature and studied poetry with Richard Eberhart. He also attended Columbia University, where he received an M.F.A. in writing, studying with David Ignatow and James Tate. More recently he was awarded a writing residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, working with Rosellen Brown. He and his family live in Chicago, where he is the owner and principal of a graphic design consultancy specializing in identity and wayfinding. Recent poems have been published in Arts & Letters, Nimrod International Journal, Coal Hill Review, Oberon, Enizagam, and …and Love (an anthology).

 

The Rothko Chapel

Eyn Sof:  the Kabbalistic term denoting the state of non-being prior to creation of the universe

This is the record of what God did
before the first day before the thought
of the thought of days before he had even
decided whether there should be a
God each canvas is too large for
human scale there being no humans
no couches or walls or museums no
points of view each canvass looks
like a slate not quite wiped clean from
previous efforts no telling how many
this being before the invention of
numbers there is a gray color which is
no longer black but which looks as though

it longs for green or perhaps just the idea
of green there is another canvass in which
barely discernible purple and ochre and
verdigris seem to suggest what might
become blue given enough time given
the beginning of the beginning of time
and on at least one painting there is
out toward the edges when you stand
far enough back what looks like a
border a willful shift from one color
to another a line which once having
been drawn by God or not by God
there is no other choice but to cross

 

Elizabeth Edelglass

Elizabeth EdelglassElizabeth Edelglass’s stories have appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review (winner of the Lawrence Foundation Prize), Lilith (short story contest winner), In The Grove (winner of the William Saroyan Centennial Prize), American Literary Review, Passages North, New Haven Review and more. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for Best New American Voices and has won a fiction fellowship from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. She is currently at work on a collection of linked stories and two novels.

 

Family Circle

“Over there,” Ma instructed, handing Ruth a tin pan heavy with her homemade apple cake oozing caramelized brown sugar and cinnamon, a few burnt bits just begging to be plucked and devoured. “Put in front,” she said. And Ruth knew she meant in front of the store-bought babka Uncle Harry’s wife Hannah had brought in a string-tied box, then set out on her own fancy cut-glass platter from home. Ruth had already noticed Ma nudging Hannah’s cake to the back of the counter.

“Thinks she’s such a big shot, can afford store-bought,” Ma grumbled, “then pretends like homemade with the fancy plate. Never mind if she baked herself, dry like straw.”

“Ma,” Ruth whispered, trying to be casual, pretending not to be shushing her mother. The other wives stopped blowing across their hot tea to listen, but Hannah-Harry’s took a big slurp as if they weren’t talking about her.

Ruth and her mother were in the kitchen with the women, laying out food for the men—Pop and his brothers, number-two Harry and the rest, plus a couple of their cousins, a tribe of shiny Brylcreemed heads tilted towards their joint reflection on the polished wood of the table where they were about to carry on their family circle meeting as seriously as a gathering of the Supreme Court. Ma always said they rented this otherwise bare Brooklyn basement for their monthly meetings just for that table, never mind the narrow alley kitchen where the women couldn’t help but brush bosoms past shoulder blades, someone’s soft tush against someone else’s girdled hips.

“It ain’t her turn, anyway,” Ma said, whispering now, but a loud whisper, loud enough for Hannah to hear, maybe wanting Hannah to hear. Hannah’s babka was as good as in the trash. It was Ma’s month to bring the food, and she didn’t like the other wives trying to show her up, although she would grouse later if they didn’t offer to lend a hand in the kitchen.

As soon as Pop smacked down his gavel on the table to call the meeting to order, he and the men offered a better target for the women, better than carping among themselves.

“Who do they think they are?” Uncle Abe’s wife Channah snorted.

“The Tsar’s generals plotting war?” Uncle Phil’s wife Ann added.

“Or the Knights of the Round Table?” Ruth chimed in, but the wives turned to stare. “What I’m studying in school,” she mumbled.

“Here, cut,” Ma said, handing Ruth a bakery bag full of rolls and a knife long and sharp enough to butcher a cow.  Ma might not mind what the other wives heard her say, but she was cautious about what Pop might hear.

Ma’s cousin Fanny, always stylishly corseted with breasts at attention, started to unwrap the whitefish and herring—Ma trusted her only blood relative in the room with the most expensive part of the meal.  Channah-Abe’s and Ann-Phil’s got busy arranging slices of tomato and onion and sweet Muenster cheese in decorative shapes like Chinatown paper fans. Now that Ruth commuted to college in the city, Fanny sometimes invited her downtown for eggrolls and fortune cookies and even the occasional fruity cocktail with a paper umbrella. Don’t let the umbrella fool you, Fanny always said if Ruth downed hers too fast. 

Fanny had a job in the city. It was a factory job, stitching shirtwaists amidst a gaggle of girls, who were really women, all bent over their machines with their fingers flying, like the men bent over the table with their mouths flapping today. Not much, some might say, not much Pop did say, on a regular basis. But it was a job, and it was hers, instead of a husband.

Pop’s cousins’ wives dawdled quietly in a corner, as if trying to fade into the chipped paint, like the second-class citizens they knew they were in the family circle. They were not helping, but also not interfering. Hannah-Harry’s, on the other hand, was already making herself a sandwich, grabbing the first roll out of Ruth’s hand, plucking cheese and drippy slices of red tomato from the pretty fans as fast as Channah and Ann could fashion them, even trying for a forkful of whitefish if Fanny hadn’t slapped her hand away.

Ma handed Ruth a dishcloth, from a pile she’d brought from home, to mop up Hannah’s mess. Ma’s dishcloths were rectangles of the softest bleached linen that she had hemstitched herself, finer than any fabric she used to make her own shirtwaists.  These were precious remnants from Ruth’s old Rosh Hashanah blouses, a new one brought by Fanny each year when she arrived for brisket and tzimmes. Probably smuggled out of the factory in Fanny’s big black purse, Ruth’s fine once-a-year blouse, and at what risk? The cloth in Ruth’s hand now bled the red of ripe tomato juice.  Ma pushed Channah and Ann aside to doctor the plate herself, hastily rearranging new, only slightly crooked fans.

The men wouldn’t care about fans, would attack the spread as soon as Pop banged down the gavel to end the meeting, as if they hadn’t been fed since they’d left Russia. The men were always hungry, scarfing down Kaiser rolls and pot cheese, never mind poppy seeds and curds catching on the scruff of their chins that had been clean-shaven just that morning, as if fighting with their only relatives in America made their beards grow faster, five o-clock shadows appearing before lunch.

It would end up a late lunch, two- or three-o’clock, European lunchtime as Ruth had learned, not from Ma, but from her well-traveled teacher in Eur. Hist. 101. The first one to start college from the first generation of her family born in America, and what was she required to study first thing freshman year? European history. But Ruth didn’t think of Ma and Pop as belonging to that Europe. What did Przasnysz have to do with Paris, shtetl rebbes with the Reformation? 

Today’s meeting had gotten off to a late start, Ma’s apple cake requiring a slow oven back home. “Quit dawdling,” Pop had hollered, standing in the street with the car door open. But Ma wasn’t about to turn up the heat and risk burning her cake, so they didn’t get on the road until she and the cake were good and ready. Secretly, Ruth knew, Pop didn’t mind being late. The meeting couldn’t start without him, family circle president by dint of being the oldest. Let the others wait.  But his foot had jerked from gas to brake and back again all the way from Newark, and Ruth’s stomach had sloshed in the back seat, her long legs tucked up to her chin and her tush wedged tight between her brothers Joey and Izzy. Never mind she was the oldest—stuck in the middle because she was a girl.

The biggest reason lunch would be late was that the brothers were embroiled in their monthly argument about the cemetery, a hundred grassy plots purchased with family circle dues, their parents, Ruth’s Bubbie and Zaydie, buried smack in the middle. The brothers and cousins might live scattered throughout the five boroughs and adjacent suburbs, but in death they would be reunited with their parents, wives, children, uncles, cousins, and the whole mishpocheh in the Jewish-cemetery-heaven of South Jersey.

The question was: how would they be reunited, who’d be more reunited than whom? Who would get buried next to Papa, who next to Mama? Whose wife’s sister was deserving of a plot, whose wife’s cousin was not. This argument had preoccupied every family circle meeting since the unveiling of Bubbie’s and Zaydie’s headstones last year. Not that any of the brothers were dying, nor even sick, but they were planning ahead, staking their claims while they were still young enough and strong enough to fight it out, even with fisticuffs if it should come to that.

“Forget about it,” Pop scoffed in answer to a suggestion from one of the cousins, Hymie or Heshie, that they toss a coin to see who would sleep where for all eternity. When Zaydie was alive, Hymie and Heshie had been stuck in second-class silence on account of their father, Zaydie’s brother, never made it to America. Now, one or the other brought up the coin toss every month, and Pop shot it down every time. As the oldest, and the family circle president, Pop had first dibs on the plot next to Zaydie, and he wasn’t about to entertain any doubt or any question.

“As if any one of them would let go of a nickel long enough to toss,” Hannah-Harry’s muttered in an undertone meant only for the kitchen. Then she sidled her babka in front of Ma’s apple cake, ostensibly to cut herself a piece, which she proceeded to eat with dramatic lip smacking and finger licking, as if it were tastier than any cake any of the women could remember their own mothers ever baking back home, those cakes growing in memory with the passing of miles and years. 

When Hannah went off to the bathroom, a mustache of white sugar failing to mask the ugly black mole on her upper lip, Ma pushed her babka behind Ruth’s pile of rolls and sent Channah and Ann to check on the kugel. Ruth knew Ma wouldn’t take the kugel out of the oven until Pop had sounded the gavel to end the meeting, time to eat, but the oven was near the bathroom door, the better for the other wives to get an earful of Hannah tinkling and passing gas. 

Zaydie had never needed a gavel when he ran the family circle. He’d never even needed to raise his voice, not with four strapping sons who bent to hear every gruff whisper. It was Ruth’s brother Joey who’d suggested a gavel when Pop took over, not a real gavel, just a hammer from Pop’s toolbox. But when Joey had shown Pop to hit the table with a loud smack that made everyone jump, then who cared that Pop had never heard the word gavel before.

So now here was Joey, seven years younger than Ruth, already sitting at that table with the men, butting his nose in like practicing for his own turn to take over. Joey, who had lately started helping out on Pop’s plumbing calls. His hand on Pop’s hammer showed new calluses and a nasty red arc where he’d been burned by the welding torch—either he’d been too slow to get out of Pop’s way, or Pop couldn’t be bothered to wait. But the scars were not a sign that he was still just a careless boy. To Pop, they proved him more of a man even than when he’d loomed a head over the rabbi at his Bar Mitzvah last month. 

Joey might’ve been tall, which on him, unlike on Ruth, was considered an asset, but he was still a kid, sitting at Pop’s elbow, brandishing the gavel through the air whenever Pop wasn’t looking. And Pop wasn’t looking, too busy yelling at the brothers and the cousins, all of them flailing smoldering cigarettes, ashes threatening to fly off and burn, everyone yelling, half Yiddish, half English.

When the tea kettle whistled its interruption, Pop shot Ma such a look that she yanked it off the stovetop without first shutting off the burner, gas flames licking into the air, lapping at the apron hanging low over her ample bosom. 

“I’ll pour,” Ruth said, pushing Ma back from the flame.

But Fanny shouldered them both aside. “You got homework, go do it.” She pointed Ruth towards the book bag she always brought in hope of sneaking in some schoolwork between serving and dishwashing. “And you,” she turned to Ma, but then they leaned in close, so Ruth couldn’t hear the rest.

While Ruth settled into the only spot available for studying, a corner of hard linoleum, and waited for her heavy history text to transport her to the Crusades, Fanny poured two steaming glasses of tea and strode to the table, where she slopped them down in front of Pop and second-oldest Harry. “Watch out, it’s hot,” she warned, daring to interrupt Pop, whose mouth startled shut for an instant before he remembered whatever he’d been hollering about and carried on as if Fanny didn’t exist.

Fanny, who wore red lipstick and the nicest lace-trimmed shirtwaist in the room, actually paid dues to the family circle, had somehow been finagled in by Pop before the other brothers had had time to think better of it. Ordinarily, wives’ relatives didn’t count as family. It wasn’t that Pop cared boo about Fanny, but he’d liked putting one over on the other brothers.

Even as a dues-payer with no husband to represent her, Fanny wasn’t invited to sit at the table, never mind to speak. But she had the nerve to approach the men for a listen under the pretext of hot tea, while the wives waited in the kitchen for her to report back. They knew Fanny wouldn’t say much except to Ma, but still they plied her with the first slice of apple cake upon her return, two cubes of sugar in her tea set out on the kitchen counter, with a chair pulled up, she should take a load off, let the others eat standing up, balancing plates and forks and glasses.

“Papa… Mama… Papa… Mama,” Fanny whispered to Ma, but loud enough for all the women to hear. Her contented sigh at the first bite of Ma’s apple cake said more than all of Hannah’s licking and smacking over her store-bought babka. “Enough already with the Papa and the Mama.” Fanny set down her fork to free a hand for flapping in disgust.

With that one gesture, Fanny dismissed all the jockeying for cemetery position next to Papa and Mama, but not because it was laughable in the way Ruth and Joey used to laugh about it before he took up his seat at the table. The women had no patience for this argument that seemed like it would never die. Not these women whose own papas and mamas had been left behind long ago. Women whose parents might be dead already, with the letter to inform them still months in transit, parents maybe buried who knew where across the ocean, if they were lucky in a familiar shul graveyard that would only ever be seen again in memory. No, these women didn’t care who would end up buried next to Papa, who next to Mama. Even the cousin who might get ostracized to the farthest corner would still be here in America, his children able to walk across the plush green grass to set a stone on his grave. 

“Why not first come, first served?” Hannah murmured for women’s ears only. “You want to get buried next to Papa,” she explained, brandishing the knife she’d used to cut her babka now in the direction of her own husband Harry, “you gotta be the first one to drop dead.  Problem solved.” And the other wives chuckled in agreement.  Even Ma, who covered her mouth to hide the fact that Hannah had made her smile.

All of a sudden Pop was summoning Ruth to the table, probably to ask her opinion, to show off what she was learning at that expensive college he was paying for, never mind her scholarship, let them think he was paying.  She tucked in her blouse, licked her lips to mimic the sheen of Fanny’s lipstick, pulled herself up from the linoleum to her full height, shoulders back. 

But no, he just wanted a sheet of paper from her notebook, paper for Joey, of all people, he should draw a picture of the cemetery, a map of where everyone should end up, settle this in writing once and for all. “And a pencil,” Pop called after Ruth when she went to fetch her book bag. “You got a ruler?”

“I brought history, not math,” Ruth said, returning with paper and pencil but no ruler, holding out the history text for explanation.

“History?” Pop said. “Like we don’t already know what already happened?” And he looked around for nods of agreement from the men. “Arithmetic you could use in the real world, measure a pipe, figure the water pressure. Ain’t that right, Joe?” with a big smile at his son. Now all of a sudden it was Joe, no more Joey.  “But history, who needs it? Just a bunch of girls.” 

Goyls was how he pronounced it. And the room grew quiet. 

The grown men, who’d begun to lean forward to watch number-one son Joe perform a miracle with Ruth’s paper and pencil, now backed up straighter in their chairs.

Even the women in the kitchen ceased their chatter.

What nasty words would bubble up Ruth’s throat? What smart retort would burst forth from her mouth?

And then, what new and different fight would break out?

Thump…thump…thump—the only sound in Ruth’s ears for a moment—not her dangerous heartbeat, just innocent Izzy and the younger cousins out front tossing their rubber ball against the stoop. She felt the weight of the history book in her hand, heavy as a baseball bat, a sharpened sword, a medieval pollaxe.

“Kugel’s ready,” Ma announced. And she appeared, as if from the trenches instead of just the kitchen, with her huge steaming pan just yanked from the oven. Only a couple of dishcloths protected her hands from the scalding tin as she hefted the trough onto the table directly in front of the men. They barely had time to pull their own hands out of the way. 

Pop had no choice but to bang down his hammer, calling for lunch. “Leave Joe in peace,” he said with a satisfied grin. “Let him concentrate.”

There was nothing left for Ruth but her corner and her books—battles and blood and battering rams and burnings at the stake. The pages in front of her eyes faded into a blur of penciled-in notes and crisscrossed underlining, the remnants of previous owners that had made the book cheap for her to buy, but would make it harder for her to resell.

“Come, Ruthie, eat.” It was Fanny offering a plate of kugel and a generous helping of whitefish, tender flakes she’d scooped from the belly of the fish, which Ma usually saved for Pop, not the bony dregs near the tail. If Ruth felt slighted by her father, there’d be little sympathy from the wives. Boys grew to be men and girls grew to be women and that was life. But Fanny, who worked all day for boss men without one to call her own, maybe Fanny had an inkling. “You helped fix this food,” she said, “you might as well eat it.”

It was out of the ordinary for the meeting to carry on through lunch. The men brought their plates back to the table, scattering fish bones and hard-boiled-egg shells, so Pop himself had to push aside the mess, clearing a space for Joe to work.

After cake had been served, and more tea, and also watery coffee for the few who wanted, Joe presented his plan, a neat grid of squares and rows, showing how all four brothers could lie near their parents by putting one next to Papa, one next to Mama, one at the parents’ head, and one at their feet. “It’s easy,” he said, “like geometry. Four brothers, four sides.” And he pointed out designated quadrants for the wives and the children and the future generations. The four outer corners of the sizable property, he’d assigned to cousins Hymie and Heshie and Fanny and old man Teitelbaum, a friend from the old country whom Ruth had been taught to call Uncle even though Ma could never entirely explain if or how he was related. 

In a way, it was absent Teitelbaum, maybe purposely-absent, cowardly Teitelbaum, who’d started this whole megillah when his wife died last winter and everyone arrived at the cemetery for the funeral to find the plot next to Mama opened up to receive her. There was nothing they could do at the time, what with the casket already out of the hearse and the frozen ground around the hole covered with snow.  But don’t think the brothers didn’t have a plan to dig up old lady Teitelbaum and move her just as soon as they’d figured out where to move her to. They would get her into the corner by next week, if they could vote today to approve Joe’s proposal.

But Uncle Harry, who was penciled in next to Mama, didn’t like that Joe had assigned Pop, his own father, the prime spot next to Papa. And Uncle Phil, the youngest, wasn’t at all keen on lying for all eternity next to Mama and Papa’s feet. “Their feet?” he said.  “Their feet?”

Then Pop must have realized that if Uncle Abe was placed at the top, next to Mama’s and Papa’s heads, why then he’d be next to both of them, both of them. All of a sudden the burial plot next to his father that Pop had been claiming for months didn’t seem like the place of honor after all. “So, okay,” he said.  “Abe wants next to Papa, I give in, I’ll switch.”

“Never mind, I keep what I got,” Abe said.

Meanwhile cousin Hymie pushed back his chair with such force that it clattered over as he stood. “The corners?” he said. “You giving us the corners?” meaning him and Heshie. “We ain’t good enough to lay next to you? Our money was good enough when you wanted to buy the place!” And he stormed out of the apartment in his shirtsleeves, Heshie running after, both of them side-stepping the ball that flew through the unexpectedly open door and landed with a threatening thwack at Pop’s feet.

So the argument took up where it had left off before Joe had been assigned to save the day. It was just the four uncles now, which in some families might have been less fractious than with the cousins thrown in. But here the opposite was true, the brothers free to curse at each other, to denigrate each other’s physiques and intelligence, without having to pretend a united front against the cousins. 

At some point, somebody must have felt the need to tear Joe’s master plan into angry shreds, which Ruth didn’t mind sweeping up with the cigarette butts and eggshells after one of the aunts handed her a broom. Joey, once again Joey, had long since abandoned the gavel, snatched up the ball and fled outside to join the game.

The gavel lay silent on the table next to Pop, just a rusty hammer again, the only thing silent at that table. Not that anyone had any further hope for the argument to end today, but the meeting couldn’t be called to its conclusion until Hymie and Heshie returned, or else how would their wives get home? None of the women knew how to drive, and none of the uncles would be in the mood to offer a ride—the aunts knew better than to ask.

So Ma put up another pot of tea and started pulling wax paper wrappings off the leftovers. She would regret this tomorrow, when she’d normally have served the leftovers at home for lunch. She didn’t stomp around or complain the way Ruth might have, but she balled up the wax paper into the trash instead of folding it neatly to re-use.

Ruth retreated to the tiny bathroom, the one Hannah-Harry’s would have been wise to avoid earlier, practically in the middle of the kitchen as it was. That practically public bathroom was the reason Ruth rarely ate much at family meetings, definitely not onions nor glass after glass of sweet tea. But now she squeezed in with her history book and her notebook, sat on the toilet with the door ajar for light. She’d have to copy out notes, the textbook too obscured by its previous owners for another round of underlining. But instead, she found herself doodling on the note paper, her own plan for the cemetery, like Ma’s apple cake cut into eight wedge-shaped slices, one wedge for each brother, and one each for the cousins and old man Teitelbaum. They could all lie in a circle, with their heads next to Papa and Mama, or their feet. 

Maybe they would alternate heads and feet, like the younger cousins did when they were all put to sleep across one bed after a late-night Passover seder. Ruth leaned her back against the toilet tank, her oxford shoes up against the far wall, which of course wasn’t really far at all, her knees skewed at an awkward angle. But she could almost forget where she was, having fun now sketching the brothers lying prone in their graves, Pop with his glasses, Phil’s daring goatee, Harry’s prominent paunch that Ma always attributed to Hannah’s cooking, fatty and filling. 

She drew in trees and some pretty flowers, even though Jews don’t do flowers on graves. She was just adding the mole to Hannah’s lip on the body next to Harry and his paunch, a smear of black that she’d always wondered how it might feel to the touch—like an angry raw pimple or a swath of fine velvet?—when she heard the apartment door slam, followed by the immediate bang-bang-bang of Pop’s hammer, time to pack up. Pop would be in a rush to beat the Sunday night traffic, once again late, probably cursing every red light all the way home.

Ruth came out of the bathroom to find the brothers standing and stretching, putting out their cigarettes and putting on their hats. Hymie and Heshie were back, their mouths shut, at least until next month.

“Where you been?” Hymie’s wife asked.

“Around the block,” Hymie said, barking the words in a tone that every woman in the room knew meant none of your business.

“A long time for around the block,” the wife said. “You must be getting old, pretty soon you’ll need that corner plot.” It was the most Ruth had heard from either of the cousins’ wives all day, and her instinct was to back away in case Hymie’s fists should fly.  But Ma and all the aunts were inching closer to Hymie’s wife, practically surrounding her, as if at any moment they might whip out shields from under their skirts to form one of those protective tortoises like Ruth had been reading about in her history book, medieval siegecraft.

The room simmered for a moment, until Hymie turned away to fetch his hat from its peg on the wall, and Pop himself swung open the door that Hymie had slammed and hollered out to the younger cousins, enough with the ballgame, time to go home.  Then the women set to packing up the leftovers for a second time, in new wax paper torn fresh from Ma’s roll—a few remaining slices of cheese, a bit of whitefish with the head still attached—Ma always brought extra, she shouldn’t look poor, nor cheap.  Then they, too, scattered to find their hats, powder their noses. Most of the wives took turns in the bathroom, before riding off in different directions towards home, except for Ma who never used the toilet outside her own house. Ruth always wondered how had she once made it across the ocean?

It was Hannah-Harry’s who came out of the bathroom holding what looked like Ruth’s cemetery pie chart. How could that be? Wasn’t it here in her book bag? Ruth zipped and unzipped frantically, shuffling through papers, Hannah’s eyes meanwhile scanning the room in her direction. Ruth saw Fanny pause with her hatpin in midair, as if ready to wield it in Ruth’s defense. But Hannah didn’t look angry.  She was smiling, then chuckling, then laughing out loud, gesturing for the other wives to come take a look. 

“Women’s business,” Hannah said, pushing Harry back out of the kitchen when he wanted to know what was what. Then, “I pay you a dollar for this, Ruthie,” she said, unsnapping her pocketbook.  Hannah, who never unsnapped her pocketbook. “Gonna buy a frame at the five and dime, hang this up in my bathroom.  Harry can have a look every time he takes a you-know-what.”

“You can keep your dollar,” Ma said. “Ruthie don’t need.” 

But then it was Ma who put the last forkful of Hannah’s babka into her own mouth, chewed and swallowed, licked the powdered sugar off her fingers with the careful pink tip of her tongue. “Come Ruth, it shouldn’t go to waste,” she said. 

So Ruth licked her own forefinger to dab up a dusting of white sugar left on the rim of Hannah’s plate, leaned forward to pinch up the last crumbs of babka from plate to mouth without scattering any across the bosom of her blouse, not an ample bosom like Ma’s and the other wives’, but perhaps someday enough. Hannah’s babka turned out to be moist and sweet after all.

Then Ma washed and dried Hannah’s plate and wrapped it in several of her own handmade dishcloths. “It shouldn’t break in the car,” she said to Hannah. 

“But your cloths,” Hannah said.

“So you’ll give back next time I see you.” Ma held out the padded and protected plate, which Hannah grasped from the other side. Their hands, both Ma’s and Hannah’s, were red and raw from dishwashing, but all the women had proper gloves to put on for the trip home. 

 

Annaliese Wagner

Annaliese Wagner is a student at Stephen F. Austin State University. She has published her poetry in HUMID and The Blue Route, and has published fiction in Far Enough East.

 

How to Jump Rope

1) Start with the rhyme she liked to sing Miss Mary Mac, Mac, Mac. Bring the rope around and start jumping all dressed in black, black, black. Feel your sneakers smack the concrete. Close your eyes with silver buttons, buttons, buttons.

2) Remember to keep saying the rhyme. Squeeze your eyes shut. The pavement is hard.

3) Remember the pavement. Remember to close your eyes. Keep rhyming. Remember that today you went to the hospital and there were tubes in the veins of her hand, in the insides of her elbows, in her nose, down her throat all down her back, back, back. The pavement is hard. You want to hit your sister. Your sister is a bad word you can’t say. Say the bad word. Say her rhyme she asked her mother, mother, mother.

4) Your sister is beautiful. She took lots of pills. She is in a coma. She is not your sister. She is the bad word you said. She does not love you. Feel your knees ache. Feel your breath catch in your lungs as you chant her rhyme for fifty cents, cents, cents.

5) Remember you wanted to hide behind your father. She took a lot of pills and they were blue and white and orange and they mixed in her belly and they got into her brain and now there are so many tubes to see the elephant, elephant, elephant. Your knees ache and you can’t keep your eyes closed anymore because keeping your eyes closed doesn’t make any difference because you still see the tubes anyway and you are breathless but you keep chanting jump over the fence, fence, fence.

Abbigail N. Rosewood

Abbigail N. Rosewood writes in order to make sense of the world and in hope to connect with others just as lost as she is on the human journey. Her works have previously been published at BlazeVox, The Missing Slate, Greenhills Literary Lantern, The Bad Version, Pens On Fire, The Rusty Nail and forthcoming at Thoughtsmith. She studies Creative Writing at Southern Oregon University and works as an editorial assistant at The Missing Slate. She can be reached at www.abbigailnrosewood.com.

 

The Ones We Keep

Right after the constructors finished adding a second floor to the brick house, Tai confessed his affair to Ngoc. It was more of a declaration, touched with a little pride and some courage from a man who was prepared to leave his family. His destruction was implacable and he anticipated tears. Surely Ngoc would not have expected it. She was the more attractive one of them, and much younger. On their honeymoon bed, Tai had asked her for a secret, one she never told anybody before. And Ngoc, hands patting her flat and defined stomach, spoke in speedy, slurred words like water spilling from the mouth of a baby when it first learned to swallow. ‘Since I was young, I always made sure that I was better—prettier, younger—than the man I date so he would always feel lucky to have me. That way I won’t be the one afraid to lose him.’

The house was filled with commotion. Downstairs, the TV was on, Tai’s mother chatted with her sister in a hushed and self-important voice that old ladies sometimes do, somebody was in the kitchen, too. Ngoc could hear the sound of a blade hacking at the cutting board rhythmically. For nine years, she shared this space with Tai’s mother, his brother, his sister-in-law, his brother’s children. Now that her own child was at that age of unfathomable mood swings which were at once serious and shallow, they have decided to build an upstairs so the family could have its first glimpse of privacy, even though the ceiling was thin and everything that was said on the second floor can still be heard downstairs.

‘After all these years they finally let us have this extra space. You think they will let you leave?’ Ngoc smirked. She wasn’t afraid, in fact, she felt the strength of the time they had already spent together pushing at the tip of her finger. She stabbed the needle forward then backward on Tai’s pants with the impatience of one who was all too familiar with the tear.

Tai wasn’t much for words. In these verbal games, his wife always gained grounds no matter how twisted her reasoning. Already he felt the irrelevance of his admission to adultery. Kim, his mistress, was twenty-six, not that much younger than Ngoc. She wasn’t exciting, or had an unquenchable sex drive like he had heard of some his coworkers’ mistresses. But she was willing. Willing to wear the new dress he bought her even though it wasn’t her color. Willing to sit on his Moped as he drove aimlessly through the city, the fish market or the tourist shopping center. Her willingness to get lost, perhaps, was why he liked her. Ngoc always knew where she wanted to go and the route to get there. Her efficiency impressed Tai and reduced him little by little from her world.

On a Tuesday four months ago, he had skipped tennis to be in Kim’s bed. He’d reasoned that it was the right thing to do after having exhausted the amount of coffee, fruit juices, and cocktails they had ordered together. She had sat with legs slightly parted, encouraged him to talk about everything and nothing. She seemed to want so little from him, which inspired in him a magnificent generosity, to give her everything he possibly could. Still, he wasn’t leaving his family for love; he knew that much.

‘Why the threats? If you mean to keep Phuong from me, you can’t, she is my child, too.’ Tai suddenly felt the need to be either frank or cruel. He wanted to jolt Ngoc out of her constant self-composed calm.

‘I’m not keeping anyone from you. You are the one. Remember that.’ Ngoc tried to keep from trembling. In her head, she had already started to plan. The kind of job she would need to support herself. Serving homemade coffee to construction workers brought in some extra vacation money, but it wasn’t enough to live by. What would she do? There was no way she would continue staying here in Tai’s mother house, where he might show up with his—. She felt her head spin and could not focus on her husband’s words. His throaty voice sounded like scolding, as if this culmination of their marriage was somehow her fault. The heat in the room was becoming unbearable and the odor of burnt meat rising from the kitchen made her nauseous. She needed something to lighten the situation, to regain her apparent loss of voice in the matter.

‘I’ll help you pack,’ she said.

She didn’t mean it, of course, but sometimes she had released words just for their effect. Calculated syllables that made her own heart throb, and somehow when she felt its spasm, she knew she had done something right. Mostly she knew he had felt it, too.

She left the room, leaving the pair of pants without pulling the last thread, letting the needle hang from the rip. The sun was cooking them both. Beads of sweat glowed from his forehead. Perhaps he would understand the message she was trying to leave. She was proud of the steadiness of her own voice. In these moments, she knew what they needed weren’t the explicit and honest communication that happy couples claimed to have. Symbols alone could bolster her strength and give her the vague assurance of direction. No matter which path they found in this marriage, she would get there first and wait for him. She wouldn’t be caught surprised. Not again.

The first thing Ngoc did was weigh herself on their rusty scale in the bathroom. She hadn’t stepped on it in a long time, hadn’t cared to know. Somehow, she was absolutely certain that Kim, the one Tai hoped to run away with, was thinner than her. Ngoc felt no hostility toward the girl. After all weren’t these kind of things as common as soup and salads? She and Tai had discussed the adultery of their friends, relatives. Laying with their damp backs and staring at the mosquitoes swirling above them, they had gossiped about everyone’s affairs but their own. Tai had aggressively defended the wives whose husband strayed, while she found more faults with the women for not knowing how to keep their family together. She wouldn’t cry and act so pathetic as those women did. If tears indicated that somebody had lost, as long as she didn’t cry, there was no victory for anyone.

On the sink, behind the faucet was a tube of lipstick. The cap was as tarnished as the scale. She twisted it open and sniffed the stale, concentrated scent of vanilla. Somebody had told her once that the shape of the lipstick revealed something about the woman. The tip could either be round or pointy. She had always thought that the pointy tip meant a promiscuous woman. Hers was round. Suddenly, she felt an urge to shave it off, to give it the edge it never had. She could have been that kind of woman.

Han, Tai’s mother called her for help from the front yard. The old lady was always sweeping even when there were no leaves on the ground. Ngoc was used to seeing her with the broom in her hand, as if it were an extension of her arm and she would be incomplete without it. ‘Ngoc! Are you ever going to wash the dogs? They stink like tunnel rats,’ the old lady shouted. ‘Which dog?’ Ngoc silently resented, ‘There are at least ten of them.’ In this heat, the fleas multiplied layer by layer on the already malnourished canines. For hours, they sat chewing at themselves until their fur was sticky, their raw skin red and exposed. Ngoc felt sorry for them and the showers that cooled down the dogs temporarily, didn’t help. Yet the old lady kept letting them breed. Litter after litter, the little ones barely opened their eyes before they were already lunged into the misery of the world.

‘Where are you going?’ The old lady asked as Ngoc appeared from the staircase. Her tone was accusatory but Ngoc knew it stemmed from her fear of being forgotten, of aging into invisibility. Despite her constant irascible demands, Ngoc felt an irrational love for the old lady. Perhaps it was because Ngoc knew that only she alone could concoct the perfect beef stew for Tai’s mother, or slaughter the hen in the meticulous manner that the old lady wanted—with a sharp cut at the neck that allowed bright red drops of blood to drip into a clean, white bowl.

They needed each other in this way, in a busy and discriminating manner that let them receive and reciprocate blame—Han disparaging Ngoc for not being worthy of her son (Because she was from a provincial town and because her father worked in a factory that produced fish sauce. “Even his money doesn’t smell good,” Han would say), and Ngoc incriminating the old lady as the reason for Tai’s refusal to buy a house for his wife and kid, lest Han should be too weak and lonely to manage on her own.

‘Your mother is not weak. She’s stronger than me.’ Ngoc would say to him.

‘Still she can’t be alone,’ Tai would reply.

‘She’s not alone. Your brother—his wife, kids. There are four other people here to keep her company!’

‘You think I’m that selfish? Forcing my younger brother to take care of her by himself?’

That was how the conversation went. When Ngoc had the energy, she would add ‘He doesn’t take care of her. I do,’ but for the past few years, she’d only sighed and gone to join Han in front of the TV.

Now as she looked in the old lady’s questioning eyes, she recognized that imminent sense of departure, of knowing Han would soon be gone and the frame of her standing there now still, was somehow irrelevant. For the first time, Ngoc understood for she felt it in herself, too.

In the temple’s courtyard, men in long sleeved shirts and women in high collared dresses gathered around the bird cages. While the city’s population proliferated with colorful tourists and their overweight backpacks, the temple remained for the most part unchanged. There were but a few foreigners with their canon T3is strapped to their necks, kneeling at the marble staircase in an attempt to capture the seventeen animal statues on each step of the stairs, before a monk pointed the sign prohibiting photography out to them. A short, thin man of around five foot and a dark chestnut complexion was buying fifteen birds, possibly because that was how long somebody he knew had been gone. It was a common practice, the people bought birds to release them because one must do something good in the sanctum of God.

Ngoc watched the birds fly away with glee. Their dull, brown wings were little specks of dirt amidst the white clouds. The onlookers were disappointed, as if they expected something not quite so understated, as if they thought the brown creatures would suddenly explode with colors once they were free.

‘It wouldn’t be long until those birds were captured again, to be sold here.’ Ngoc said to the man.

‘I know,’ he nodded.

‘So why do you buy them?’

‘Because freedom isn’t free, even just for a little while,’ he smirked and then started to laugh. His light and complacent laughter startled Ngoc. ‘I’m just joking,’ he said. ‘I don’t know why I do it. I come here to place incense for my daughter and buy some birds. At first I thought I did it for her, that she would have liked seeing some dozen birds flying off at once, but then I realized I didn’t know anything about her. I didn’t find out about her existence until—‘ He stopped to check if Ngoc was still listening then resumed. ‘Well let’s just say I only got to know my daughter here, at this temple. And releasing the birds just makes me feel a little less heavy on my feet. After all, isn’t that where the spirits go? Up? Being light would help don’t you think?’

Ngoc didn’t come here to pray to the dead, but to see the living. There was a boy from her childhood who had loved her, perhaps the only one beside Tai. Long was an orphan and grew up in the monastery. His fate was sealed even before they met. Not that he didn’t have a choice, but that he wouldn’t survive anywhere else being raised by the elder monks who had taught him how to pray well and read scriptures, but not to barter, lie, or pretend his heart wasn’t broken.

In her early twenties, Ngoc didn’t feel too bad tantalizing Long. Everyone needed a source of unconditional love without having to return it. Perhaps that was what she was for Tai, and then her daughter Phuong when she was born. Ngoc paid fifty thousand dong for some dragon fruits, mangos, and oranges from a trembling old lady. ‘I could do that, sell fruit. Mourners are generous people,’ she thought, ‘I will leave Phuong with Tai’s mother until I save up enough to bring her with me.’ She continued to walk past the pond leading to the columbarium.

At the bottom the stairs, Ngoc could see Long on the balcony. He was talking to an elder monk with exaggerated hand gestures. They were both laughing as if they had just heard a dirty joke. From here, neither of them looked like they belonged in a monastery. She waved to Long before walking up the steps but his eyes were squeezed together, still laughing mildly, and didn’t see her.

‘Hey there,’ Ngoc smiled with some difficulty. She suddenly felt fraudulent, like she didn’t have the right to be there.

‘Hey!’ Long turned and hurried toward her. His overt enthusiasm startled Ngoc, who expected a shy youth and not a man so unruffled by her presence.

‘So good to see you,’ he said, ‘Are you here to visit your father-in-law? Funny, I just cleaned his urn and was thinking about you.’ He lifted the bangs from his eyes and looked at Ngoc for the first time.

‘I brought some fruits—’ Ngoc managed softly.

‘Great! I will put them in the altar right now.’ He walked over the large golden plate in front of the Siddhartha statue, took away the desiccated oranges and replaced them with the new fruits, still green so they would last a while. ‘So how have you been? How is Tai?’

‘I came to see you, Long. Can we talk somewhere?’

He shrugged as if disappointed that this wasn’t just a friendly visit, but one with motivation. With eyes still tearing from the smoke of the incense, he nodded. ‘Sure, let’s go sit by the pond.’

An orange tabby peered up at them from the space between the walls. Ngoc folded her legs on the bench and sighed lengthily. ‘I wish we could have done this more often, you know, before I married.’

‘We did. We went to Turtle Lake and talked nearly every weekend.’

‘So you don’t regret anything?’ She asked.

‘Things turn out as they should. You’re happy, aren’t you?’

‘What if I had married you instead?’

Long laughed, incredulous. ‘You wouldn’t be very happy.’

‘I think we might have been. I think so.’ She was emphatic. The words floated above her. For a moment, she felt like a young girl again, with important choices to make.

‘I’m gay,’ he said somewhat reservedly, his voice tinged with a little self-doubt, but mostly deliverance.

The two words stunned her and Ngoc didn’t look at him, nor reply. She merely swallowed over and over again. The back of her neck burned. Though a minute earlier she was admiring the soft hue of pink on the lotus and its bright yellow filaments, now she no longer saw them.

‘I know what I said to you Ngoc—the promises I made.’ He looked up at the clear sky as if searching for answers, ‘There’s the person you love before you know who you are and then there’s—. Well that’s it.’

‘You asked me not to marry Tai.’ Ngoc said. She felt as if she had just opened a wrapped present to find nothing inside. The box would have held hope, if not, given her wonders and a passing smile when she had little left. No more.

‘I know’ he said like a mantra under his breath, ‘I know’.

The upstairs room looked unusually spacious even though much of Tai’s belongings still leaned neatly against the wall. Two folded stacks of clothes, one for jeans, one for t-shirts. Both Tai and Ngoc had quietly lapsed into a routine of coming home on separate days. All confessions induced change, yet neither could admit that they were removing bricks from the foundation of their marriage. Ngoc took a job as a cook for an elementary school in the city. She had rented a bed in a small apartment behind the market. The smell of livestock, rotten vegetables, and rain permeated the walls. At night, she curled up inside the mosquito’s net, slapping her hands together at the mosquitoes that landed outside of the net. Their blood left a dot of brown stain on the blue mesh. Ngoc was astonished at how naturally one life slipped from her and another began without pause. No intermission. No great epiphany. Her wrists were sore from the repeated motion of untying, washing, cutting bundles of vegetables, but she felt the same as always. Without the familiar salty smell of Tai next to her and his erratic gasps for breath during the middle of the night, she found it hard to sleep at first, but eventually thought the extra space comfortable. Her childhood recurred to her more frequently and vividly than her life with Tai. When she was not back at the two-storied house, she rarely thought of her daughter. The girl, like her father, was slipping into a dark room in Ngoc’s memory. She felt as if she were looking at them through a smudged window and the more she cleaned the glass, the more distorted the image became.

Ngoc stood at the door watching her daughter sleep. Phuong’s cheeks were round and full but the fat had begun to disappear and a square jaw line was barely visible. Hearing the floorboard creak, she opened her eyes and looked at Ngoc.

‘Sorry I woke you,’ Ngoc said.

‘I wasn’t sleeping.’ Like her father, Phuong hated to be caught sleeping during the middle of the day. ‘Will you be staying the night, mom?’ Her voice was sulky like a young child still, but there were dark half moons under her eyes and she looked much older.

‘No, I have to go back to the apartment. It takes too long to drive to my work from here.’

‘Can I come with you?’

‘There’s nowhere for you to sleep there. I share it with two other women.’ Ngoc spoke impatiently. She was angry at her daughter for her suffering. When you were unhappy, it was better to be callous than sentimental. Phuong’s question had made Ngoc want to weep.

‘I can sleep anywhere mom. All I need is a fan, and I can live anywhere—’

One evening Ngoc dropped Tai’s mother off at her singing class. Since Ngoc and Tai’s separation, the old lady had filled her day with classes, group meetings, community services. It was Saturday, Phuong would get out of school at three instead of five. Instead of rushing back to the city, Ngoc sat on a low stool on the front porch picking fleas off the emaciated canines. The mother had brown fur with mean streaks of yellow on her forehead. She truly looks like a rabid dog, Ngoc thought. Her breasts hung from her stomach, raw and bald from the suckling of her babies. Ngoc felt sorry for her. The little ones didn’t look like their mother—with fluffy, white coat. Only the runt had the recognizable spots of brown fur on his tail.

Tai pulled up to the front gate. His powder blue t-shirt matched the dress of his passenger, a girl with hair as straight as if each strand had been measured with a ruler. Ngoc could tell he was more agitated than surprised to see her; they were supposed to stay with the schedule until they figured out what to do next. It seemed to Ngoc her husband already had made up his mind. His pretense of indecision was supposed to spare her time, to give her a chance to become used to or perhaps even comforted by his absence.

‘We’re just here to check out the dogs. Kim might adopt one.’ Tai said.

‘I love dogs,’ the young girl smiled, eager to please the soon to be ex-wife. She reminded Ngoc of when Tai first brought her meet his mother. The girl was desperate for Ngoc’s permission. No doubt she had suffered the guilt of a home wrecker. Her friends had thought her profoundly stupid for throwing away her youth on a middle-aged man who was neither wealthy or handsome. The fact that he was married was not one of their concerns.

Even though their age wasn’t too far apart. The young girl’s face possessed that vacant beauty unlined by experience. Ngoc frowned a little and said more warmly than she intended.

‘Sure, take as many as you want.’

Around the pond the air smelled of moss and wet stones. The grey sky thundered but there was no rain. Inside the cage the puppies were hushed. The slight joggle of Ngoc’s walking swayed them to sleep. With both arms, Ngoc carried the cage pressed to her chest. Their distinct puppy scent was a mixture of mud, milk, and wild grass. Ngoc wanted to press her face onto their soft bodies. Tomorrow Kim would come back for the runt. Immediately she had picked him among his noisier, livelier siblings. Apparently a simple girl with a soft heart, she was attracted to his frailty. Ngoc almost laughed. She could picture the scene unfolding—Kim taking the puppy home, coddling him with boiled chicken and raw cod, letting him snuggle up in between her and Tai. Ngoc’s husband would indulge his girlfriend at first until he lost patience and tossed the dog off the bed. If the runt happened to whine, he might kick its rear to quiet it.

Once Ngoc put down the cage on a dry, flat rock, the puppies stirred. She lifted the top open and they directed their noses upward, their senses awakened to a clearer, thinner air. Ngoc took the runt out first. He would get his first swim before joining his new family tomorrow. Holding him in her left hand, Ngoc walked out toward the middle of the pond. Without hesitation, she put him down into the cool water. Ngoc had done this before. She liked to think of herself as a swimming coach, showing them one by one how to float and turn the water around them into a light substance that lifted their small skeletons rather than weigh them down. Her daughter, Phuong, too had learned to swim this way. Ngoc would hover her hands under Phuong’s stomach and thigh, pretending to give support while Phuong was buoyant on her own. In the same way with one hand under the puppy’s belly, Ngoc let the runt kick his legs, creating tiny whirlpools around his body.

With a deep breath, Ngoc pulled herself under the water. She pressed the runt against her breasts and felt his newborn claws dig into her skin. Ngoc held her breath without creating bubbles with her mouth. She blinked several times, trying to keep her vision steady but the water, a dark olive green began to turn black. Still with arms locked tightly around the runt, she remained submerged in water until he no longer struggled but laid limply, contentedly in the cradle of her arms. Ngoc felt her nose grow warm. Whether or not she had cried, she could not tell.

It seemed the sky had stopped threatening to rain. The clouds moved aside, making way for the forceful flares of the sun. The pond was undisturbed, a rigid reflection of the sky. It held in its wet belly the same floating clouds, piercing rays of the sun. Another version of the heavens.

The other puppies too, left behind, wandered without purpose on the safe edge of the pond. One sat upright, peering at the far side of the water. His brothers and sisters heard him whimper and one by one they joined in his mourning.

The old lady was already home when Ngoc got there. Han sat alone on the ground in front of a bowl of steaming pumpkin soup.

‘You never came to get me so I had to take a cab. I don’t have that kind of money—’ Han was about to go on but Ngoc interrupted her.

‘I’m sorry. I meant to come get you.’

‘My son would always be on time. He wouldn’t let me wait.’ The old lady paused, as if suddenly she remembered something, ‘I don’t see the puppies. You didn’t sell them to the restaurants, did you? Those bastards, always stealing people’s dogs—’

‘No I left them at the pond. They won’t make it.’ Ngoc said.

A quick flash of sorrow showed on the old lady’s forehead. Her lips formed a tight line that seemed be frowning. But perhaps it was only age with its damage to facial expressions. ‘Oh—’ Han breathed. There was an almost imperceptible surprise in her voice.

‘I’m sorry,’ Ngoc repeated while standing there transfixed as if waiting for the call of a jury. She imagined being in the courtroom and signing the few last pieces of paper that were supposed to severe two people’s ties to each other forever and all she could mutter was those syllables. Not as an apology but more of an empty catchphrase one might be repeating in meditations, as an anchor to hold fast onto any remaining peace and numb out other thoughts.

‘It doesn’t matter that much. The bitch will be pregnant again soon.’ The old lady said matter-of-factly and slurped noisily on the soup bowl. She paused, looked inside the swirling surface of the bowl as the elders once did with the pattern of Pouchong leafs inside tea cups to predict the future. ‘The ones we keep end up dying anyway—,’ she nodded to herself, as if confirming with her memory of all the dogs they’d had.

Ngoc waited for Phuong to fall asleep before heading back to the city. Next door, the neighbor was burning a pile of garbage. The smoke colored the sky an ash grey. She could hear the motor on Tai’s Moped approaching and counted the seconds until the front door opened and a few seconds more when his footsteps hit the wooden stairs. The climb was slow and arduous. He had probably had a few drinks with his colleagues. Over the years, she’d accepted his alcohol intake as she’d accepted anything else—the dog getting pregnant while her last litter slowly died off, Phuong being bullied in class for wearing the same maroon uniform for three consecutive years. Ngoc had tried hard not to ask for more than she could have, to accept life’s little indifferences. She had been so willing to bend down and take the weight that she forgot to fall in love with what was around her. Here she was again supporting her husband’s flaccid body mass on her whole back and carried him to bed without questions or curiosity.

‘Hey wifey.’ Tai spoke childishly as Ngoc unbuttoned his shirt. He rolled over to let her pull the shirt off his back. ‘Do you still love me wifey?’ He said loudly in that jesting way of his, unconcerned with the silence of the household . Phuong stirred on the mattress against the opposite wall.

Ngoc felt a dull throb inside her chest. ‘If you can’t understand it without being told, then you can’t understand it being told,’ she recalled what Long had once said to her, except he was referring to an old religious pamphlet he’d found.

In the corner were the pants Ngoc had never finished mending. She picked them up and started to insert the needle back and forth. In between the steady and boisterous rhythm of Tai’s snores were Phuong’s softer, shorter breaths. Even as Ngoc focused on the stitches, she never took her eyes off them. The night rolled on like a music disc set on repeat.

Ngoc sat with her head against the wall. Unconsciously she measured her breathing to match with Tai’s so that it could not be heard.  With her legs folded beneath her, the muscles ached but she did not budge, afraid the floor board would squeak and wake them up. Like a statue, she looked as if she had fallen asleep herself except with eyes wide open, dazed in a secret kind of love, the kind that only unraveled itself when nobody else was there to see.

Issue 1.2 Fall 2012

Click on the author’s name to read their work(s) and bio. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page and on Twitter using #BlueLyra.

“Cherry Blossom”
Art by Kaori Hanashima

“Coquina Rock Algae”
Art by Robin Grotke

 

“Orpheus Detail Invert”
Art by Stephen Mead

Thelma Zirkelbach

Thelma Zirkelbach began her writing career as a romance novelist writing under the pseudonym Lorna Michaels. Recently her focus has shifted to non-fiction. She has published articles in numerous anthologies and has just released an anthology titled On Our Own: Widowhood for Smarties, which she co-edited with Silver Boomer publishers. She lives in Houston and enjoys traveling, reading, cooking and spending time with her granddaughter, who also likes to write.

 

An Apple for Life

Judaism and food are inextricably linked; some say, synonymous. From the Sabbath with its challah and wine to the unleavened bread and bitter herbs of Passover and the hamentashen of Purim, each holy day has its traditional food, rich with meaning. Partaking of these foods reminds us deep in our guts of the significance of the holiday. An essayist in Food and Judaism remarks that all Jewish holidays can be reduced to three sentences, “They tried to get us. God rescued us. Let’s eat.”

Blintzes, kugel, chicken soup—for me, all evoke memories of home and family. The smell of roasting chicken reminds me of my mother at the kitchen stove, incongruously dressed in an apron-covered housedress and elegant high heeled shoes.

My grandmother, who lived with us for a while, made kasha, and on Passover she baked sponge cakes, which we topped with jam.

But the food closest to my heart is the apple. On Rosh Hashanah it represents the unending cycle of the year. Sprinkled with honey, it gives us hope of a sweet year to come.

My apple was different. No honey, not even any peel, just a simple, everyday fruit cut into pieces and served to me on a paper plate in a hospital room.

I was nineteen the year I ate the apple, a junior at the University of Texas, living in the sorority house on campus even though I was a local. On March 29, 1965 my life changed.

The morning was warm, and my roommate opened the window to let in the sweet, spring-scented breeze. This was the kind of day when walking the few blocks to campus was a joy. I wore one of my favorite dresses, a black pin-striped cotton with long sleeves and a wide patent leather belt.  Under it I wore a crinoline petticoat–the rage that year–which made the skirt stand out like the dresses of pre-Civil War southern belles.

Round-up Weekend, one of the major celebrations at the University of Texas, was coming up in a few days, and the campus was abuzz with anticipation. The excitement carried over to evening. A short time before dinner another girl and I stood in my room, discussing what we would wear that weekend. The window was still open, but a cold front had blown in, and someone had lit the space heater. I stood with my back to it.

Suddenly my friend cried out, “Thelma, your dress is on fire!”

Flames shot up from my skirt, gobbled the flammable crinoline beneath it.

I knew not to run. That’s the first thing you learn during Fire Prevention week in elementary school.  I ran.            

Screaming, I lunged across the room. My legs were on fire, and I thought in surprise that it didn’t hurt as much as I would have expected.

I was only nineteen, too young to die. I ran into the next room, yelling for my friend . I felt my bladder empty. I heard shouts. Someone threw me down. The housemother rushed in and rolled me in a towel.

As two firemen carried me downstairs to an ambulance, I thought the worst was over. It was just beginning.

Although I was from Austin, the ambulance took me to the Student Health Center, where my parents met us. My mother was pale with shock; my father trembled. Within a few minutes our family doctor arrived.  He decided I should remain at the Health Center rather than risk another ambulance ride. So there I stayed for the next ten days until I was transferred to the burn ward at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston. 

In those early days, whenever my bed sheets were changed, the slightest touch of the material on my body, or any movement I was forced to make, were excruciating. More than the pain, I remember the smell of my own charred flesh. A tiny spot under my left arm was burned and turning my head to that side nauseated me. 

My father stayed with me at night, sleeping on a cot. Oh, how he snored. And how it embarrassed me. Periodically I woke him and begged him to quiet down. As if anyone in the health center cared. 

At synagogues in Austin, in El Paso where my aunt and uncle lived, and in Nashville where a sorority sister who was a close friend lived, congregations read verses from the book of Tihillim (Psalms) to pray for my recovery.

On the third day I noticed my hands swelling. My neck seemed to balloon out. “What’s happening to me?” I asked my mother.

“The drip from the IV spilled over. It will go away,” she lied. In truth, my kidneys had failed and fluid had begun building up in my body.  My condition was critical.

The next day, when I woke from a narcotic-induced sleep, Mother asked, “Do you want anything?” I’d already asked for my face cream and with nineteen-year-old vanity had insisted on applying it every night. “How about something to eat?”

 “I want an apple.” What brought an apple to mind, I don’t know. It wasn’t among my favorite fruits except in apple pie. Minutes before, I wasn’t the least bit hungry, but suddenly I craved an apple, and I wanted it as soon as possible.

Mother sent one of my many friends who had camped outside my room to a nearby grocery store. She filched a knife from the kitchen, peeled the apple, and cut it into chunks. I devoured part of it greedily, then murmured, “That’s enough,” and fell back to sleep.

I dreamed of a mountain, devoid of vegetation, its steep slopes covered with yellowish slush, like rancid snow. Inch by inch, I struggled up the sides, pulling myself higher and higher until I reached the summit. There I got to my feet and gazed into the distance with a sudden feeling of well-being. When I woke, I told my mother, “I’m all right now.”

Within a few hours my kidney function returned and the swelling disappeared. I had passed the crisis. I knew, somehow, the apple had brought me to the mountain peak and given me life.

Months later, after twelve weeks in the burn ward, fifteen surgical debridements, three skin grafts, weeks of torture on a striker frame, sessions in a water-filled tank to loosen dead skin, hours of physical therapy to learn to walk and bend my knees again, and nights of sleeplessness from itching as the burns healed, my mother told me the story of the refuah, or healing, sent by God to her brother Sam.

While the family still lived in a tiny Ukranian shtetl, during a particularly brutal winter, her older brother took sick. From what they expected to be his death bed, he told his father, “A peasant in the marketplace is selling grapes. Go and buy me some.”

Grapes? In the middle of winter? But my grandfather wanted to please his son, so he put on his heavy jacket and boots and trudged to the marketplace. Perhaps he would buy Sam some trinket to cheer him.

To his amazement, a peasant sat in a booth, selling grapes. My grandfather bought a bunch and hurried home. Sam ate a few and put the rest under his pillow. By the time the grapes shriveled, the boy had recovered. My grandfather, a pious and learned Jew, insisted the grapes were a gift from God, a refuah. Mother said my apple was, too. 

For years I have wondered if such a belief exists among Jews of the Diaspora or if the refuah was a unique family legend. I have found no evidence, no tales of healing foods, although I have read folklore books, searched the Internet, even written to a rabbi in London. To my knowledge, there is no record of a food that saves one from the brink of death. 

I am not a strong believer; I think of myself as a secular Jew. How can I credit an apple with giving me back my life? Logically, the story makes no sense. It was a mere coincidence that I ate a few bites of fruit shortly before my kidney function was restored.

Or perhaps the ways of God are mysterious, His reasons unknown to us. Does my life have a purpose that I unconsciously fulfill?  As a speech-language pathologist, I have taught many children to talk. Did God save me for this reason? I remind myself that there are many speech pathologists. Does God need me for some special child who will one day grow up to accomplish great things? Or is it that my story will take its place among the folktales of my family and live long after I’m gone?

But I want, like my mother, to believe. I do believe.

 

Marge Piercy

Marge Piercy is the author of seventeen novels including Gone to Soldiers, The Longings of Women and the classic Woman on the Edge of Time, as well as her critically acclaimed memoir Sleeping with Cats. She is the author of eighteen volumes of poetry, including The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems 1980-2010 and The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme. Also, PM press republished Dance the Eagle to Sleep in December and Vida this year with new introductions.

A popular speaker on college campuses, she has been a featured writer on Bill Moyers’ PBS Specials, Prairie Home Companion, Fresh Air, the Today Show, and many radio programs nationwide including Air America and Oprah & Friends. Her poems are read frequently on The Writer’s Almanac.

Praised as one of the few American writers who are accomplished poets as well as novelists — Piercy is one of our country’s best selling poets — she is also the master of many genres: historical novels, science fiction (He, She, and It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction in the United Kingdom), novels of social comment and contemporary entertainments. She has taught, lectured and/or performed her work at well over 400 universities around the world. http://margepiercy.com/

 

What and When I Promised

I was ten years old and visiting my grandma Hannah in the mixed poor Jewish and African American ghetto where she lived upstairs in a wooden tenement. Part of every year, bobelah stayed with us in our little asbestos bungalow in Detroit and we shared a bed. But several times a year, we went to Cleveland, where most of my mama’s family lived. I loved Cleveland. It was an escape. Loving embraces and good food and houses with books and music, even when the apartments were small and crowded. I was absolutely sure my grandma loved me; I was only as sure about my cat Buttons. I was doubtful about my father, who did not think much of me, and my mother and I were often at each other in kitchen skirmishes.

The big war of my childhood had finished the summer before. A great crowd filled the Campus Martius in downtown Detroit and everybody was yelling, shooting off firecrackers, kissing, dancing. I thought it was great. In our neighborhood, we kids had a parade with our bikes round and round the block waving a couple of flags and some balloons, banging on drums and shaking noisemakers left over from some New Year’s Eve. 

Grandma was my only grandparent. Both my father’s parents were dead and my maternal grandfather’s head had been bashed in by the Pinkertons when he was organizing the bakery workers in Cleveland. I had nearly a dozen and a half aunts and uncles and gaggles of cousins, but only Hannah to tell me stories from the stetl where she had grown up till her marriage, stories of wonder-working rabbis, of the golem and Lilith and dybyks and Cossacks. She had been hungry often, she had often been afraid, but she had belonged, the daughter of a rabbi, and she had many girlfriends with whom she bathed and washed clothes at the river and gossiped and shared her dreams. I knew that since the war ended, she had been trying to get in touch with relatives and old friends back there in Lithuania.

Grandma’s apartment was tiny and mostly we sat in the kitchen with her cat Blackie and sometimes one of her neighbors who went to the same shul, where she would take me and we would sit behind the mehitzah. At that age, I did not mind the segregation because I was petted and made much of by the old ladies who had the same thick accent as my bobuleh. They told me how smart I was and what pretty black hair I had, worn in two braids down my back.

Hannah was short and stout with dark brown hair streaked with white. She wore it in a bun, but at night when we shared a bed she would let it down like Rapunzel. I wished I had long hair like hers, but my mother cut it every two months. My mother’s hair was as black as mine but kept very short. She curled it from time to time.  Mine was straight and there was a lot of it. My mother would complain when she washed it with tar soap [she didn’t trust me to wash my own hair] and then rinsed it in cider vinegar that I had enough hair for a whole family of girls. 

Hannah wore thick glasses. She had made money doing embroidery but now she had cataracts and she said, “My eyesight, it’s going too fast. Soon I’ll be blind like a stone.”

In Hannah’s kitchen, neighbors came and went while her cat supervised from a high shelf. Most were Jewish and some were Black. That did not surprise me, as we lived in a Detroit neighborhood Black or white by blocks.  My parents were openly prejudiced, but I had never lived in an all-white world.  My first boyfriend was Black. That lasted until my parents found out and I was beaten hard by the wooden yardstick they used on me.

My parents had driven off to see one of my father’s younger brothers in Youngstown, Ohio, leaving me overnight with Hannah. That made me happy, as I was the oldest and she insisted the smartest of her grandchildren instead of a disappointment to my father from being born a girl. Also the woman married to my father’s brother was just anti-semetic enough to make sly hints and drop little phrases like, “That woman at my yard sale, she was trying to Jew me down on the price of the crib.” Her sons would pick on me when we were out of sight of the grown-ups. No, I was delighted to stay in Cleveland.

We had bagels and lox for breakfast with thick slices of onion and cream cheese that didn’t come in a Philadelphia package as it did at home. I had brought my best doll.  Hannah was making a dress for her out of an old tablecloth that had almost disintegrated. She could no longer do fine embroidery, but she could still sew by hand or on her old treadle machine.  Late in the morning she sent me down to get the mail from her box. Proudly I brandished the key. Our mail at home was generally left on the front steps. Unlocking a metal box felt special. At home, I had just gotten my own house key that I was expected to wear on a string around my neck when my mother needed to be out when I was due home from school. Keys were very adult, I felt. I was old enough to be left alone.  Kids were more independent in those days. At twelve I would be babysitting until two in the morning.

An electric bill, a postcard with palm trees from my uncle Danny in the merchant marine, a circular for a new dry cleaners and a thick official-looking letter from a Jewish organization. I carried them all carefully upstairs, proud of my errand and myself for doing it so well.  I hadn’t dropped anything and my hands were clean. I even brought up the circulars.

Hannah was laying out plates for lunch, the plates with roses around the edges that I loved. To this day, when I am a so-called adult and in fact a senior citizen, as they say – Bobah would just say, old lady – I am fussy about my dishes, my mug for coffee, which sheets I put on the bed.  My husband thinks this is crazy. I say it’s because I’m female.  Or maybe I’m just fussy. 

She had soup boiling on the old gas stove that always stunk a bit. “It leaks a little – like me,” she would say if I mentioned the smell. (I won’t give you her accent; that would turn her into a caricature and I had no trouble understanding her, including the Yiddish.)

She had a little radio sitting on the shelf that Blackie preferred, and often it would be turned to classical music or else the news. But whenever I came into the kitchen, she would turn it off. “Who wouldn’t rather listen to you than some stranger?” she’d say. “What a nice voice you got.”

“At school the music teacher won’t let me sing. She taps me on the head to shut up.”

“What does she know? A nice low speaking voice is nice for a woman.”

Everything about me could use improvement according to my mother, and was just perfect by Hannah. 

I put the mail on the table. She riffled through it and pounced on the official looking letter, tearing it open and squinting at it. “Ketselah, read it to me.” 

“Dear Mrs. Adler,” I read. That was her name from her second marriage. “In regard to your query about the following persons,” and there was a list of perhaps twelve names I sounded out slowly.

“Yes, yes,” she said, “Mach snell, ketselah.  Who lives?”

“We regret to inform you that all the inhabitants of…” I could not pronounce the name as there were too many consonants and almost no vowels.

She spoke the name and stared at me.

“All the inhabitants were killed. There are no survivors we have been able to trace.”

She made a noise like I had never before heard, a shriek that went on and on as she beat her chest and shook back and forth. “Alles….alles…”

I read on. They had been shot, the entire village, and left in a mass grave. Relatives were trying to raise money for a stone monument.  I did not know what to do except to rise and hold her by the shoulders, standing behind her chair. I was afraid. I felt too young to deal with her grief. I felt helpless and shaken myself. I tried to imagine what it would be like if everybody I knew died, how I would feel.

When she stopped shaking she said, “Because they were Jews. That’s all. Little babies, my niece Rivka, my neighbors who had only one cow and two hens, the rebbi my father taught, what did they ever do to anybody? Just because they were Jews, made to dig a big grave and then shot and piled in.”

When she was cried out, she just sat in her chair, shoulders stooped and grey in the face. Her grief scared me. I had cried when my previous cat Whiskers had died. I cried over a baby robin I tried to save. I cried when I got beaten up at school. But never had I seen anybody weep like Hannah. The soup had boiled over on the stove and I shut off the burner. The scorched smell filled the kitchen but she did not seem to notice.

Finally she said, “Soon they will be no more Yids. They will wipe us from the face of the earth. We will be done. Four thousand years, and no more.”

I tried to think what I might say. “Bobah, I will always be a Jew. No matter what, I will remain a Jew so long as I live.”

She looked up into my eyes. “Promise. Your mother has forgotten everything. She doesn’t know who she is any longer. Your father has no religion.”

“But I do. I promise.”

“As long as you breathe.”

“So long as I have breath in my body.”

She nodded. “I need yarhzeit candles. I go to find out the day of their death so I can light candles for them and say Kaddish.”

“I can write a letter for you.”

“Do it. There’s paper in the drawer of the little table.” She pointed. I fetched paper and pen and wrote the letter she wanted and addressed an envelope. She sealed it and kissed the envelope. “This is all I can do.”

“Should I go mail it?”

“Go ask my nextdoorsikah if she got a stamp.”

I knocked, got a stamp and came back. “Okay.” She nodded wearily. “Go mail…. Do you mean what you promise me?”

I did. And I have kept the promise ever since.

John A. McDermott

John A McdermottJohn A. McDermott, a native of Madison, Wisconsin, now lives in Nacogdoches, Texas where he teaches at Stephen F. Austin State University and coordinates the BFA program in creative writing. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Cream City Review, Florida Review, Juked, Seneca Review, Treehouse, and elsewhere.

 

 

 

The Hole in Orion’s Belt

When I returned from the week spent consoling my mother, burying my father, and organizing his belongings, the only mementos of him I brought back were a trio of oversized wool suits, a pair of brown shoes that needed polish, and a brown leather belt, much too big for me. My father’s waist was wide. These were things I didn’t need and would never use, but my mother insisted I have. I wasn’t really ready to start taking Dad out of her house, but I guess she was.

She thrust them at me, the suits in a 1970s Samsonite and the shoes stuffed into a brown paper grocery bag, the scuffed tips jutting beyond the serrated lip the way stalks of celery and bottles of wine may have weeks earlier. She made me promise I’d use them. They were my father’s best clothes, but it would be decades, if ever, before I could fit into them and even then, I would have to eat more, much more, if his forty-six inch waist was my goal.

They sat in the back seat of my sedan, slouched and lumpy like a sullen child, while I drove from Milwaukee back to Madison. I tilted the rear-view mirror so I didn’t see the bulging bag or the suitcase beneath the back window.

The night was clear, traffic light, the February deep freeze keeping most people at home. Rounding the curves of Lincoln Memorial Drive,  I watched black water slap the shore, Lake Michigan’s waves white-tipped in the moonlight. Hot air blew from the dashboard vents. Downtown lights burned the sky and it was only traveling beyond the suburbs I could see stars, stuck, gleaming shards above me. I rested my left hand against the window, the cold glass smooth beneath my skin.  I-94 was nearly deserted and I could safely look at the sky, the only other car two red dots in the distance.  I recognized some of the constellations, though not many.  Cassiopeia.  Ursa Major. The brightest star in Orion, Rigel. I turned off the radio and drove, glancing up occasionally as if I were tracking my position against the sky and not the green mileage signs on the right side of the road. I felt like an old-time sailor.

And then the center star of Orion’s Belt went out. While I was hurtling somewhere between Johnson Creek and Sun Prairie, home still more than thirty miles away, the sky went black in one familiar spot.

“Like somebody hit a switch?” my wife Janelle asked later. She wanted me to describe it. We talked in our kitchen, over the clean table. I didn’t have much to say about the days with Mom, about packing up Dad’s things for St. Vincent’s, about hearing his voice in the house and knowing it was just in my head, about smelling him everywhere, in every corner of every crowded room, even the rooms he didn’t like much, like my old room. They never did figure out what to do with it after I left. It lacked…something. I didn’t have much to say about that. But Janelle asked about the star and I could tell her.

“Yeah,” I said. “It vanished just like that. Click. Somebody hit a switch.” And it was gone.

***

The world learned more about Orion’s Belt in the next seventy-two hours than I’d imagined there was to know. The star’s name—the missing star—was Alnilam, Arabic for “the string of pearls.”  Alnilam had been a blue supergiant, ten thousand times more luminous than the Sun. I heard that from a middle-aged MIT professor interviewed by a CNN reporter. I paused in the doorway to the living room, a basket of clean laundry in my arms. Janelle was on the couch eating toast, absorbed in it all, every “Star Crisis” update. She thought I was bizarre for not gluing myself to the TV, for doing the dishes and making the bed. The entire country was more enthralled than a national election, than a Super Bowl, she told me. I shrugged and leaned against the doorjamb and watched the man talk. He was Asian, gaunt but healthy, smiling. I could feel warm t-shirts, stacked in a folded pile, against my chest.

“And though the three stars of Orion’s Belt seem to stretch in a line,” another professor began, this time a young woman with glasses,  “they don’t.”

“Didn’t,” the stern, concerned reporter corrected.

“Yes, of course,” the woman said, pushing her glasses to the bridge of her nose, nodding her head. “Didn’t.” The camera lingered on the first professor, his lips tightening. In theory, disappearing stars seemed neat. In actuality, they were unnerving. I wondered what was in the coffee mugs that both professors were sipping. Maybe they hid bourbon. Janelle ate cheese puffs from the bag.

Of the trio, Alnilam was actually the furthest away from earth, thirteen hundred light years from Moscow and Milwaukee alike, while its bookends—Mintaka to the west and Alnitak to the east—were only 900 hundred and 800 hundred light years away. I noticed the only in that scientist’s sentence. Only. Of course, whether you’re 900 or 1300 light years away seemed the same to me. Impossible to reach is impossible to reach. Gone is gone; every kid learns that with floating goldfish and stiff gerbils.

“Alnilam’s gone,” I said to Janelle, “and all these talking heads aren’t going to get it back.”

 “But maybe they’ll figure out where it went. Or why, at least.” She shrugged.

“Maybe,” I said.

She ate more puffs and the bright orange dye stained her lips.

Two days later I was putting away another load of laundry. It seemed I was going through more clothes, Janelle less. I was working out a lot, some days for several hours, and dirtying every pair of underwear and white socks I had. Janelle wore the same jeans from day to day. Tucking away a sweater in our bedroom closet,  I saw my father’s suit squeezed in on the far end of the metal rack. I’d stuck it there, next to my only other suit, a gray one I’d worn to his funeral but otherwise ignored. The brown shoes sat on the dusty floor, between a battered pair of high-top tennies and Janelle’s least-favorite slippers. The enormous belt hung beneath my bathrobe, a snaky leather divider that ran the length of the hollow-core door. I could hear the television in the living room, astronomers strident as fashion critics. Janelle was blowing her nose.  Her eyes were red now; she cried more than before.

The scientist said: yes, Alnilam was an old star, well into the late stages of its evolution, even near the end of its lifespan, but this, this sudden poof, gone, we didn’t expect. Stars went through phases, recognizable states. We should have seen this coming, he said. We should have been able to clock its departure with some accuracy. It wasn’t supposed to leave us like this.

But it did, I thought. Deal with it.

Janelle honked into her tissue.

Within a week of the star’s disappearance a religious cult in southern Indiana declared it a sign from heaven. They claimed Mintaka and Alnitak were “the Eyes of God” and began a pilgrimage to the Pacific Ocean. On the other side of the world, a group in Pakistan blamed NASA for the fresh black gap and announced that Allah was angry with Western vice.  Both groups made the network news. But, oddly, they didn’t seem to frighten anyone. Janelle found them comforting, like a rerun. She said they were so predictably nuts, a staple of every world crisis, they were a sign that things were really very normal. Even the anchors grinned when they reported on the Hoosiers’ progress—walking, only at night—all the way to California.

My father had lived in San Diego before the Second World War. The city had changed, he often told me, grown up a lot after he left. It used to be perfect, he’d said. He told me stories.  I’d never been to California, but that wasn’t why it was hard to picture my father, young, slim, on an empty beach. Sometimes I tried to start the stories again for Janelle, but they never seemed real. They seemed preposterous, so long ago, stories from another man who couldn’t have been the father I knew.

***

The scientific community, befuddled, stuttered and struggled to accept what everyone in the world saw nightly. “Stars don’t just vanish,” said a widely-quoted Palo Alto researcher. (The headline echoed in several national papers: STARS DON’T JUST VANISH EXPERT SAYS.) “We see them go through stages. There was no sign that Alnilam was transforming or going through a shift of some sort. It’s as if someone just reached out and snatched it from the sky.”

Janelle said she wished she’d seen it go. I’d seen it, but didn’t dwell. I didn’t need to think about the cosmos if everybody else was stuck on it. And Janelle had always been more aware of the sky. She was the one who’d taught me that those three stars were Orion’s Belt in the first place, right after we were married. There’d been a football field by our first apartment and on summer nights we would walk to the fifty-yard line and stop, our chins up. My attention followed Janelle’s raised arm as she pointed out the constellations, brilliant dabs from some calligrapher’s pen. We both stood, sweating and slapping mosquitoes, connecting the dots and smiling.

Three weeks passed and then everyone tired of thinking about the sky. The world suffered from Alnilam-fatigue. As great as it had been, for centuries, the star’s absence didn’t make that much difference. Life went on. There didn’t seem to be less of either good or evil in the world. Muggers mugged, nurses nursed. Even the scientists seemed a little tired of the topic. MIT had to move on. There were bound to be other things happening, even in the sky. Maybe especially in the sky.

I came home one night and found Janelle had unmoored from the living room. The television was on, but she wasn’t watching. She was working in the kitchen, defrosting the freezer. Pans of hot water sat in a snowy ring on the upper shelf. Short, raggedy towels were spread out on the checked linoleum floor. Janelle stood in front of the open door, stabbing at thick slabs of ice.

“You shouldn’t do that,” I said, still in my winter coat and watchman’s cap.

“What?”  She kept digging, thin white shavings fluttering into the water pans and onto her sweatshirt sleeves.

“Dig with the pick. You could mess up the whole thing. Puncture the coils or something.”

“You’re an expert on refrigerators?”

“It’s what I’ve been told.” I held a can of orange juice concentrate in one hand and jiggled my car keys in the other. I’d only ducked out to fill up the tank and buy the juice for breakfast.

“It’ll take forever if I don’t help it along,” she said with a short jab.

“What’s the rush?”

She turned and pointed the metal tip at the mound of frozen food on the counter and spilling over the sides of our plastic cooler, bags of peas and corn, cellophane-wrapped ground beef, frost-covered cod fillets. “You want to waste all that?”

“Why can’t we put it in the car? It’ll keep.”

Janelle set the pick down on the counter and picked up the fish. She faced me, kissed me, handed me the cod, and patted my hands. “That’s why I married you,” she said.

It took me three trips. Janelle was going to help, but I told her she didn’t have to. She went to take a bath, soak in the tub. It was a good sign. She hadn’t done that in a while. Our bathroom was yellow and blue, very sunny. Held on to heat well. And no newscasts. No radio at all.

I shut the trunk on the last load and looked to our apartment building. Ours was smack in the middle of the second floor. It looked like everyone in every apartment was home; so many lit windows. The Kellys. The Mitchells. Our living room, bedroom, bathroom. Above the building, the sky was overcast, the moon nearly full but hidden by gauzy clouds. I sat on the trunk and sucked in the cold air. It seared for a moment, then softened, like cold water after a hard July run. It sort of hurt, but I wanted more. 

The parking lot was quiet, far enough from the street for traffic to be muffled. Another breath and I fingered the keys in my jacket, about to go in, and our bedroom light went out, click, just like that. I supposed Janelle was going from the bedroom to the bath, probably wrapped up in her bathrobe and carrying a magazine. She liked to read in the tub. And it shouldn’t have thrown me, but it did. Three windows in a row. Light, black, light.

I sat on the hard edge of our car and wept. The tears hurt. It was too cold to cry outside, my cheeks chapped, but I didn’t want to move. I looked at that dark window and then up at the sky and just sat there, breathing and holding my keys. I sat there until I heard somebody walking across the lot toward the dumpster, probably with a big bag of trash, but I didn’t look. I went inside.

Janelle was still in the bathroom, the fan whirring behind the closed door the only noise. The television was off. I hung my winter jacket in the hall closet, then checked on the fridge. Water was spilling over the drip pans and the towels were damp, but that always happened. I put on the kettle for a cup of instant coffee and set the mug down on the counter, next to the ice pick. It was an old ice pick, with a faded wooden handle and a tarnished blade. I couldn’t remember where we got it. A hand-me-down from Janelle’s parents or mine.

I picked it up and walked into the bedroom, flipping on the switch with more thought than usual. In our room, I could hear the upstairs neighbors, heels clicking, the television mumbling. I opened the closet door and tossed my bathrobe on the bed, plucked the belt off the hook and sat down next to my robe. I could hear Janelle splashing and humming over the fan.

I gripped the ice pick in one hand, the handle smooth from a hundred earlier hands, and held the belt taut with the other, the far end tucked between my legs. I started out poking gingerly at the thick leather, but that didn’t get me anywhere. I had to jab the hide, prod, wheedle the sharp end of the pick against the grain. I wrestled that belt, made small thrusts, then more, a little fiercer, until it finally went through all the way.

The new hole was tiny, too narrow to buckle. I jostled the edges, cleaned it out, expanded it, then tossed the pick on the coverlet. I held the belt to the overhead light, both arms up, the ceiling beige above me, and looked through the jagged tear. It wasn’t big, but it was light, light right through the hole I made. I stood up  and wrapped the belt around my waist. I cinched it and left the end to dangle.

I heard the neighbors shout, running, click-click on the floor above me. Their TV grew louder. Quick words and applause. There was a sudden buzz about the building. A shout and a laugh came up from the parking lot, where chatter from a car’s radio bubbled beneath two cheers, a man and a woman’s. “It’s back,” someone shouted. “It’s back.”

And then there was Janelle standing in the doorway, a small smile, all wet hair and white towel and scrubbed limbs. Tell me, she said, or perhaps she didn’t.  Maybe it was simply in her eyes, her eyes clear and kind, as she sat with me on the edge of the bed. Tell me about your father’s California.

 

Kristen Blanton

Kristen Blanton is currently an MFA fiction candidate at the University of Idaho. She received her B.A. from the University of Arizona in 2009 and lives in Moscow, Idaho.

 

Fast Water

I made Natalie breakfast once, the first time she stayed over at my house. When we finished, I took the plates and she followed me into the kitchen. I started hand-washing them and she offered to dry.

Above my sink is a photograph a friend took for a photography class last year, the summer my ex-boyfriend, Mark, and I lived together. I want to shock my class, she said, they’re all Mormons. In the picture my fingernails are digging into his flesh hard, scratching his reddened back. When the summer was over, Mark told me to move out. He sat there solemnly while I packed. He didn’t cry until I asked him to help put our cat into her carrier.

If Natalie had asked about the photo, I’d have said, he was just an ex, with promises to tell her more stories another time, but I’m not sure she even noticed it. I handed her plates while I washed the dishes from yesterday, and she asked me where each item belonged in my kitchen.

At the thrift store we look for paintings and frames to decorate the bare walls of Natalie’s new apartment. We’re sorting through them when I find a picture I know she’ll hate, a little boy dressed in a suit like a pretend adult, handing a flower to a little girl wearing a hat and dress. The little girl’s holding the flower in her right hand up to her nose, and she’s smiling like she knows something. The little boy is kissing her cheek.

“Jesus, Molly,” she says. “No.”

 “What if it were two girls?”

 “They don’t make sentimental photos with baby lesbians.”

 She buys the frame because I said I liked it.

“We can change the picture,” I say, like decorating her house is our project, like someday soon I’d be saying things like “We enjoy chow mein.” The signs are there, though: we leave panties that aren’t ours on each other’s bedroom floors. We adopted her dog – Toby – together. We have toothbrushes from cheap Walgreens’ 2-pack deals in each other’s medicine cabinets.

“This won’t ever be anything,” I told her.

In the car, she laces her fingers in mine and touches my thigh, and it’s like I’m somewhere I don’t belong.

We drive out to the country and park in a field where she drinks Yellowtail Pinot and I drink Tisdale shiraz from red plastic Dixie cups while we sit on her dog’s blanket and I lay my head on her stomach and she touches my arm.

She keeps touching my arm and tells me about how her mother criticized the way she folded socks. I like being a voyeur into Natalie’s life.

“I wanted to hold your hand at the bar last night,” she says.

“Then why didn’t you?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “Do you want me to?”

Her dog chases a squirrel.

“I’ve never had anyone’s hand to hold for any length of time,” she says, almost to herself.

“I know,” I say.

 “You couldn’t care less,” she says.

“That isn’t true,” I say, taking her fingertips and kissing them. “Don’t be mean.”

She kisses me. “I want to take you camping,” she says. “Let’s have a weekend.”

 “Where?” I ask.

“There’s this place I’ve been wanting to go camping. The Wallowas.” she says.

“I don’t know,” I say. “We should probably invite other people.”

She bites her lip for a minute, then nods. “Because nothing’s real, right?”

I laugh.

“Nothing means anything, right?” she says.

“Stop,” I say.

“Fine,” she says, smiling. “We’ll find someone else to invite.”

***

Natalie and I arrive at the mountain at five in the afternoon. We hike three or so miles with Toby, this little black lab that she’s strapped a backpack to, so it can carry its own food.

“She’s earning her keep,” Natalie jokes.

She makes mac and cheese for dinner and teaches me how to use a camp stove, boiling the water above the small flame and pouring the noodles in. She says since it’s just the two of us, we can eat out of the pot, so we do.

“What do we do all night?” I ask.

“We can play cards, I don’t know,” she says.

“It’s getting cold,” I say.

“Let’s go in the tent,” she says.

We open a bottle of cheap champagne, passing it back and forth while she shuffles the cards.

“Do you remember how to play rummy?” she asks.

“Sure,” I try to recount the rules to her. “What are you, stupid?” I say. I smile, but I hear Mark’s tone in my voice.

We get silly from the champagne. The dog stomps around the tent and tries to find a place to lie down.

“Let’s zip our bags together,” she says.

In the single sleeping bag she takes me in her arms.

“Can you think of anything better than this?” she asks me.

She kisses me shyly, waiting for me to kiss her back, waiting for me to say, “It’s okay.” She touches my stomach, and is more familiar with the terrain of my body than I am.

Natalie and I don’t say I love you, and I know we never will. I touch the scar on her breast, where they put a broviac catheter when she was a kid. She’d pointed it out to me once, said, “Look how ugly.” I wouldn’t have noticed if she hadn’t pointed it out.

***

In the morning, the dog pukes on the bottom of the sleeping bag.

“God, Toby!” she cries, scrambling all over herself. “Get out of the bag,” she says.

“It’s fine,” I say.

“Jesus,” she says, pushing the dog out of the tent. “That’s what she gets, eating all that grass. Look at this fucking mess,” she says, while I try to shift out of the bag so she can take it outside and wash it off. I pull on the jacket I was using as a pillow.

“Hey,” I say, “it’s really okay.”

When Toby was a puppy Natalie would take her for rides in her mother’s car. Toby got carsick, and she threw up on the new leather seats, her mom shouting, “Natalie!” I wished that I had been in that car so I could have said, “It’s not her fault,” or maybe, “It wouldn’t kill you to be nice about it.”

I get up out of the tent and watch Natalie pour water from her Nalgene onto the bag and hoist it over a branch so it can dry.

Natalie makes coffee in her French press, and after it dries we stuff the bag into a stuff-sack. We put our packs on, and I carry the coffee while she leashes Toby. We hike three more miles in. There are the tallest trees I’ve ever seen and mountains so beautiful I didn’t know they existed in real life. I keep stopping and gasping, saying, “Natalie, look!” like maybe she wasn’t leading and looking at the same mountains. She had been here before, and I can tell it makes her happy that she knows a place to take me that would shock me like that, so I play it up more than I should.

We’re supposed to cross a river to get to trails that will lead us to a lake she wants to show me. Natalie says she’ll go first. She takes her pack off to see if it’s safe to cross. She sits on the ground and unlaces her boots, peels down her socks, stuffs them into her boots. She folds her shorts to the middle of her thigh and begins across the river.

The dog gets in after her. The dog is paddling hard, but she’s not going anywhere. Natalie’s being pulled hard by the current too.

“Natalie,” I call out. She can’t hear me above the sound of the water rushing downstream.

“It’s too fast!” she yells to me, halfway across the river. The water’s not high, maybe up to the middle of her thighs. She turns around and starts back.

The dog sees Natalie turn and turns back, too.

“Natalie,” I call again. Then, “Toby.” But they don’t hear me.

Natalie’s thighs are red from the cold, the water pushing against her. Toby’s struck against a fallen tree, trying to paddle, to get out.

I think of what would happen if we don’t get that dog back. I think of what Natalie’s scream would sound like if we lost the dog. I think of Natalie blaming herself. I think of holding Natalie while she cries, wishing I was anywhere else but there, wishing that I were anyone other than the person who had to be there to care.

Then I get this image of Natalie’s and Toby’s bodies floating down the river. What I would do. We’re six miles in and I’m not sure if I know how to get us back. Would I follow the river and fish her body out of the water when she hit a log? How long could she swim? If I managed to find my way out of this wilderness, would I call her mother? Her mom barely knows who I am, because we’re not really dating. “We” are not something Natalie will talk about with her mother.

Toby’s head goes under the downed tree and I can’t see her for a minute. Then she bobs back up on the other side, and the current is partially blocked by that fallen tree, and she swims to the shore and pulls herself up.

Natalie approaches the shore.

I run toward the dog, not twenty feet away, and grab her collar.

“Good girl, Toby,” I say to her. “Good girl.”

Natalie sits on the bank and looks across the river. She sits and the dog comes up and licks her face.

“I’m sorry,” she says, petting the dog. “I don’t think we can cross.”

“That’s fine,” I say, laughing. “It doesn’t matter.”

“The trails on the other side are better,” she says, taking her socks out of the boots she set on the shore. “I’m fucking cold,” she says.

“Do you want my jacket?” I ask her.

She shakes her head, shivering. The dog keeps panting.

“We can just hike around here today,” I tell her. “Did you see Toby?”

She shakes her head.

“She was fighting pretty hard,” I say, thinking maybe that will make it less scary for her.

“I’m a terrible dog owner,” she says. “I didn’t know it’d be so strong.”

“You’re not,” I say. “How would you have known?”

She has this look on her face, and I can tell it doesn’t matter that the dog didn’t drown, all that matters is that she could have, and Natalie won’t be able to forget it. I hate seeing her like this.

“Natalie,” I say, sitting beside her and running my knuckles against her cheek. “It’s okay. Nothing happened.”

She keeps looking at the river.

“If we leave now, we’d be back to the car before dark,” she says.

***

When we get to town we stop in at a bar near my apartment with a patio so we can bring Toby. It’s dollar-fifty wells, and we start on gin. Natalie’s good for two G & Ts.

On our third round, Natalie tells the waitress that knows us, “Toby had a rough day.”

She tells her what happened as if she’s confessing, reluctant but forced, like the waitress needed to know that something almost happened to Toby today. After five gin and tonics, Natalie says, “Let’s go to your apartment.”

We pass my neighbor, Andy, sitting on our joint patio, drinking a beer.

“You want to have a drink with us?” I ask him. Natalie looks at me, annoyed, like she wanted this to be a couple’s thing, the end of our night.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’ll be over in a minute.”

After we walk into my apartment, Natalie starts kissing me. “Come here,” she says, pulling me into the bedroom. Toby follows and jumps up. We fall down on my bed and she continues kissing me. She’s pushing her tongue into my mouth in a way she doesn’t when she’s sober. “Why did you invite him over?” she whispers, kissing behind my ear.

“It’s just a beer,” I say.

“I’m so tired,” she says. “Tell him to go away. I just want to be in bed with you.”

I get out of bed and pour her a glass of water from the faucet, take two Advil from the cupboard. When I return, she’s already asleep. She’s fully clothed so I pull the covers over her and set the water and the Advil on a table beside her head. There’s a particular pleasure I have in taking care of her, making sure she’s okay, seeing what she’s like when she’s drunk.

I answer the door. Andy’s holding his beer.

“Natalie already passed out,” I tell him.

“That was quick,” he says. “Do you still want a beer?”

“Let’s sit outside.” I say.

We sit on patio chairs and smoke cigarettes. Andy moved in a few weeks ago and he says his ex-girlfriend is moving in with him the next weekend. He says he needs help with the rent.

“That doesn’t sound like a good situation,” I say.

He shrugs.

“You have plans to reconcile?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “I don’t think so,” he says.

We’re both silent for a minute, then I say, “I have records.”

We sit on the floor and I open a banker’s box filled with all my records and begin to finger through them. He doesn’t say anything about Natalie being in my bed, so neither do I.

“Have you ever used a record player before?”

He shakes his head.

We sit on the floor and I put on a Beatles album.

“Everyone likes the Beatles, right?” I say and suddenly I’m nervous, don’t know what to do about being alone with Andy.

“I don’t really like them,” he says. “But it’s fine.”

“I can change it,” I say.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says.

Andy keeps talking about his ex. He says she didn’t understand that he had friends. He says she got jealous. He says he doesn’t need to fuck his friends, that he knows guys like that, that it’s not his thing, like he’s offering an explanation for why he’s not fucking me.

I think, What if he wanted to? Then I think of Andy on top of me on the carpet, of him breathing and his beard rubbing against my neck and the noises that he would make, and what it would feel like.

But Andy doesn’t matter. He’s just a guy.

“You should leave after we finish this beer,” I say, “I’m getting tired.”

After I close the door, I take my clothes off and walk to the bed and I see Natalie sleeping. I get into bed, naked beside her body. I run a knuckle across her hips. I look at the curve of her ass, down her legs. I put a hand on her flat stomach and smell her hair, that long white-blond hair. I think of my friends who, when I showed them pictures of her, said lesbians aren’t supposed to have long hair, and I think she probably keeps it long because once she didn’t have any.

I want to live inside this body, I want to be this body. Then I would know what it was like to spend a year in waiting rooms wearing hats, fingering the glass on the tanks where they keep the fish. I want to feel a man’s hands run across this skin marred by a surgery and I want to feel a man’s lips and his mustache across these nipples and this neck and I want to arch this back and moan with this voice.

I touch Natalie’s hips again and look at the bedside table. The Advil’s gone. I see her waking and finding me getting fucked on the carpet and I’m glad it didn’t happen. I move to be closer to her. I lie flat on my back with my arms by my side and I don’t want to touch her.

**

In the morning she rolls over and puts her arms around me. “Baby,” she murmurs. “When did I go to sleep?” she asks, sleepy-eyed.

She kisses my neck and I think this is the last place I want to be, in my bed with this woman.

“How late did you stay up?” she asks.

“I don’t know why it matters,” I say, closing my eyes. “Late.”

I feel her sit up on her elbow. I open my eyes, look at her, and I can see she’s waiting for an explanation, for me to say something else, but I don’t.

“Why are you being like this?” she says. She waits for a minute. Then she sits up. “Did something happen with Andy?”

“Why do you have to ask me that,” I say.

“Something did, didn’t it?”

“We’re not dating, Natalie,” I say.

“I know,” she starts crying. “You did, didn’t you?”

I play with my earring stud.

“That’s just like you, isn’t it?” She gets out of bed. She walks into my living room and throws herself onto my couch, crying.

“I’m being dramatic,” she says, like a child scolding herself.

I get up and follow her to the living room and sit at the end of the couch, the way I imagine her mother did, sitting on the foot of Natalie’s tiny bed while Natalie cried about something. I try to remember her mother’s name. Janice. Jean. Janine?

“You don’t even care,” she says.

 “That’s not fair, or true,” I say.

I look at Natalie, watch her shoulders rising and falling. Each time she cries harder I tell myself, I did that. I move to the floor and sit.

Maybe I should rub her back and tell her it’s okay. I know she wants me to touch her.

“What about our weekend?” she says, like it was something that happened years ago, like we’re looking back on this weekend as if this is when it all began to fall apart.

 “I’m sorry,” I say, “Maybe you should go.”

She doesn’t rise, just shivers and sobs, and I wonder how long I can watch someone cry.

Linda Voss

Linda Voss has been published in nonfiction with Discovery Channel Publishing and the Macmillan Library. A graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism with a science minor, she writes about science and technology for NASA, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation. Online articles include this on her sister’s work. She also blogs about comparative religion for the Institute for Spiritual Development. This is her first published personal essay.

 


The Heavenly Messengers

In Memorium Janice Voss (1956 – 2012)

One of only six women to have flown in space five times, Astronaut Janice E. Voss’ missions contributed to the body of knowledge in combustion science and provided the highest resolution map of the Earth ever made. She was also Science Director for the Kepler space telescope launched in 2009 to search for Earth-like planets.

 

Janice Voss. Photo Credit to Phil McAuliffe

There are moments that seem to hold an answer. A friend helping you walk the aisle of cyprus trees, an ungainly version of who you are, belly distended by the cancer, pregnant with that malignancy. The quick, grateful smile you gave me, your sister, when you smelled the white rose I picked for you. That moment of sun and scent and smile. Radiant.

Talking about it, you could be describing the descent trajectory of a ballistic missile. Those lung drains that, after a while, didn’t ease your breathing and would have panicked you more, were it not for the inadvertent discovery from the three weeks when it became difficult to breathe, but you couldn’t get a drain because the chemo lowered your blood count too much. You discovered that your lungs didn’t keep filling with fluid. They reached a stasis under the greater pressure that made breathing even more difficult. You couldn’t take a deep breath for the pain, so you breathed shallowly. Maybe you hadn’t needed those drains every week for the last eight months, after all.

“That’s scary,” I say.

“You can’t be afraid for that long,” you say. “At least not the way I live my life. You just work it through.”

My dharma teacher said the question that transformed the Buddha, that set the young king on his spiritual path and left us the gift of Buddhism, was, “What is it of our humanity that transcends the three Heavenly messengers—illness, aging, and death?”

When you are sitting at the deathbed of the person you love, advises my friend who is a NASA Health and Medical Officer, an Antarctic explorer, and a cancer survivor himself, don’t talk to them about the spiritual stuff. “Just hold their hand and tell them you love them.”

Doctor Sherwin Nuland, in How We Die, looks at what constitutes a good death. “Of the many kinds of hope a doctor can help his patient find at the very end of life, the one that encompasses all the rest is the belief that one final success may yet …[vanquish] the immediacy of suffering and sorrow.”

My minister, speaking at the church service where the congregation performed the prayer for your transition from life, used a Pac-Man video game analogy for why we play this game of life. Even though we know we’re going to die, or get gobbled into ghost people, we strive to prevail against the overwhelming forces arrayed against us.

Dr. Nuland postulated that the final, triumphant success was that of dying as you lived. He used the example of a patient who, days before his death from cancer, opened his doors to friends and loved ones for his annual Christmas party and reading of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. On his epitaph was written his favorite line, “He knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

This is what Steve Jobs’ sister, Mona Simpson, says she learned from Jobs’ death. “Character is essential: what he was, was how he died.” In the hospital at the last, intubated so he couldn’t talk, Jobs “…designed new fluid motor monitors and x-ray equipment. He redrew that not-quite-special-enough [intensive care] unit. And every time his wife walked into the room, I watched his smile remake itself on his face.”

“What amazed me,” Simpson says, “was how much was left after so much had been taken away.”

We should sing love songs to our beloveds every day.

When you stay with me getting treatment for three days at my home in Arlington,Virginia, my work day begins when you go to bed at 9:30 at night. I crawl into my big bed at 3 in the morning, next to you propped up on pillows so you can breath, and gently take your hand. I can feel the warm pulse flowing through the delicate veins, the skin so soft and thin. The bones are small but prominent and hard against flesh that is dropping away.

Two days after you have left, I walk to the Iwo Jima statue. Standing in its shadow, I am keenly aware that I am not nearly (orders of magnitude) grateful enough. My eyes follow the march of orderly embossed letters spelling a litany of places Marines died around the world. The day is pure gift, the brilliant sun of a perfect luminescent summer day. I feel the rays of sunshine like a shower of love from Heaven.

The mulberries are flourishing at the Iwo Jima this year. Walking the edges of the park, I find branches laden with fruit drooping across my path. I know these berries—not poison, but wholesome fodder of folklore and pioneer tradition. They are growing all around this year in parks and along city streets, and I love eating them. I have a relationship with these berries. I pop a shiny purple berry into my mouth and crush the juice on my tongue.

I am so grateful. For having a sister who was a pioneer through life. For what I know, my relationship with myself, with my body, with the Earth, with my God or Goddess, which is my sense—my own personal sense—of higher being, the larger forces that form a matrix within which I live. The gifts that I have are so simple. The simplest and the most precious. My sense of life, present to its gifts.

That simple joy and gratitude, the overwhelming love, I believe, is what we go to when we die. We can experience it here in life, if we are open. It’s all around us. You gave me the gift of knowing that.

Don’t talk about the spiritual stuff; just love them.

You died as you lived. You marched with self-determined grit, wide-eyed, scientific and uncompromising into the disease that ravaged your body. You chose that path with the “normal” courage poet Jack Gilbert describes that over time conquers and transcends: “The beauty that is of many days. Steady and clear. It is the normal excellence, of long accomplishment.” You died that way, determined you were going to beat it. You joined a health club that week and square danced the weekend before. You emailed colleagues about work just before the ambulance came.

You didn’t know that moment in the hospital coughing up blood would be the moment that took you. It could have been any of so many moments. Your moments of joy. Your wave good-bye, face beaming, boarding the bus to the Space Shuttle. The moment that took you wasn’t important. It was important that America be a space faring nation. It was important to you to explore the fundamental science of how things burn when you take away the variable of gravity. It was the unknown, the challenge, that drew you. The cancer gave you the chance to explore the mystery of the healing potential and boundaries of your body. And then surpass them.

My dharma teacher, upon hearing of your cancer, replies, “Who’s to say that death isn’t a healing process?”

You marched right through that wall to the other side where the vistas to explore are infinite. Was there even a tug before you slipped the bonds of earth? That was just me, holding on for a moment more.

Suzanne Cope

Suzanne Cope is a writer and writing instructor who splits her time between Somerville, MA and Brooklyn, NY. Her current projects include the memoir Locavore in the City (Michigan State University Press) and Small-Batch: The Fall and Rise of Artisanal Cheese, Pickles, Chocolate and Alcoholic Spirits in America (Alta Mira Press), as well as personal essays and articles on food culture for various creative and academic publications. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction and her Ph.D. in creative nonfiction pedagogy and teaches writing at Berkley College of Music and Grub Street. 

 

Gardening Language

Phlox, portulaca, daffodil, chickweed, heliotrope. These are vocabulary words for the new language I am learning for my summer job as a gardener. During my first week of work it is still a novelty to don my oldest jeans and stuff a backpack with snacks and water and sunscreen, band-aids and ointment for cuts, and an extra long-sleeve shirt. To come home dirty and sun-kissed as the spring and summer days of the northeast become warmer and longer and are filled with promise. On those days, too, I am a beginner again. After a school year of teaching college freshmen to strive to become better writers through practice and study of grammar and vocabulary, I enjoy learning new words and new rules, too. For the first time in a long time I can be a beginner. This also seems perfect for the season during which I am getting married – just an honest day’s work of digging and pruning and planting while I prepare to embark on a new phase of my life.

***

Do you have any siblings? What does your fiancé do? Where are you from? These are the new questions I am asking my colleagues and they are asking me. We are a particular crew in that all of us have a college education and have turned to working with the earth because of a love or need for something different, difficult, and beautiful. It has been a long time since I worked side by side with a stranger, our instincts taking over yet not bored, having the time and mental energy to chat. I want to know more about the soft-spoken, tattooed man from the western part of the state and the outgoing brunette who will be studying to be a counselor in the fall. She asks me questions about my betrothed and he makes quiet jokes as if he wants to get to know me as well. Like the hosta leaves just starting to pierce the ground, our stories slowly unfurl – a lost love in another country, a past vocation that was not what she had thought, my admission that I wanted to learn about the flowers and plants I so admired to help make my new home my own. We lose ourselves in digging old roots from a new patch of dirt, in carefully separating dying flower buds from those that have not yet bloomed.

Our tentativeness is the very opposite of our boss – a professor of romance languages during the winter who grew up with horticulturist parents and wears her heart on her sleeve. She loves us, her crew, immediately. She laughs often and is inquisitive, frequently sharing intimate details of her life. She asks about my wedding planning; we hear about her family.

I learn on my second day that a tragedy befell her halfway through her recent pregnancy: an unexpected death of a parent and the loss of her childhood home. I think of how much strength she must have to be so positive in the face of such a senseless and random occurrence. I am amazed that she can still make jokes while she constantly talks to her sweet son, who quietly entertains himself as he accompanies us on jobs, at least for now, until he starts to crawl. Once or twice that afternoon, however, I notice her gaze travel past the lush garden we are tending and back to her past. Only her son’s happy cry return her to us.

***

On my third day she admits that the tragedy has sapped her spirituality. She feels that she can’t accept negative feedback; she knows that she takes actions of others too personally, even if it is a decision that is purely business. She muses on this as we drive past a gardening job she thought she was to be hired for, but appeared to have gone to someone else.

“How would you deal with that?” she asks me, barely more than a stranger. I am uncertain if she is asking about the events of the previous year or the lost job of replacing annuals and pruning small shrubs. I say that I would talk myself out of being upset. I would convince myself – even in the face of faulty logic – not to take it to heart. I feel that this is appropriate advice for someone who coaxes flowers to bloom in the rocky soil of city yards and who painstakingly plants bulbs that will flower for just a few weeks before needing to be trimmed back once again. I wonder, then, if this is why I was drawn to gardening: because I understand why certain things can defy what is expected.

***

“I would like to think I am doing something good in this world; that I am just trying to make it a little bit more beautiful.” We’re driving to another job site as she says this. Her gaze is towards the traffic-filled road, but also beyond it. In the backseat I pretend to eat her son’s toes and he giggles.

“It’s just, and I know how horrible this will sound, but I feel that what happened to me was unfair. I lost so many things that were very important to me – my journals, yearbooks, short stories – it just seems like too much for one person to bear.”

***

I don’t know what to say, so I quietly sympathize. I wish I could be more open like her, to tell strangers my fears in search of hope for a ray of light that might sustain me a few more days or weeks. I wish I could think of the perfect, beautiful prose to say to make it easier, better, if only for that moment. Yet at this juncture I can’t completely relate, as mementos from my past are not as important to me and I have yet to lose anything quite as dear as she has. Something dawns on me, however. Perhaps this is that why she is a gardener, even with her Ivy League degree, and maybe this is also how she will deal with her loss. Because of her desire – her need – to create beauty in the world, even if for a short while, only to have to repeat the process again in a few weeks or months or years.

It is late May, and I have been given the task of planting annuals in the dirt where tulips and daffodils once reigned. This is just one part of the cycle of death and rebirth that I am starting to comprehend, in regards to the earth but also to my fellow gardeners. I have been working for a few weeks and can now be sent off by myself to trim the earliest spring-blooming flowers that are dropping petals, leaving a bed that was once brilliant a uniform shade of wet green and readied for a new crop of later-blooming plants. My favorites are the deep red and bright orange Icelandic Poppies whose large and delicate flowered heads tilt towards the sun as if they know how brief their life will be in this northern climate and insist upon a few months of pure bliss. They perk up when I return after lunch to water their roots and start to look as if they had always been there, as if they belong. It took such little time for them to blend in with the colorful bed of roses and azaleas, stargazer lilies and sweet woodruff and lavender. I am still quite new, but I have learned enough to know that in a few months when I must deadhead these flowers, their petals will be tinged with brown and flutter to the ground at my touch; when I must cut them down to their soft, green stems, I will remember this day that feels more like summer than spring, still in the month of May. I will recall how I was neither warm nor cool, how the summer stretched out before me. How little Jack was not yet crawling, and I did not yet wear a wedding ring. Back when I still referred to the lycantheum as columbine, and questioned whether the fall blooming aster was a weed.

Neil Mathison

Neil Mathison is an essayist and short-story writer who has been a naval officer, a nuclear engineer, an expatriate businessman living in Hong Kong, a corporate vice-president, and a stay-at-home-dad. His essays and short stories have appeared in The Ontario Review, Georgia Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Agni, Under the Sun, – divide-, Bellowing Ark, Pangolin Papers, Blue Mesa Review, and elsewhere. Forthcoming are essays in Northwind and Under the Sun. Neil lives and writes in Seattle. Neil’s essay, “Volcano: an A to Z” was recognized as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2010.

 **Recipient of Best Notable Essay in Best American Essays by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt**

Wooden Boat

This May morning the harbor below our Friday Harbor house blushes pink. Scoter ducks scribe inky Vs through strands of kelp shaped like question marks. Across the channel, on Brown Island, the sun gilds the Douglas firs. In town – we can see it from our front deck – at the foot of Front Street, a green and white Washington State ferry loads its cars. Were it March, we might be among its passengers, but today, and for the rest of the spring and summer, my wife Susan, our fourteen-year-old son John, and I will commute by boat, our own wooden boat, which lies at our dock, suspended from its mooring whips, ready to skim the meanders and whirls and eddies of the morning tide. The boat is twenty feet long, hull black, topsides white and tan, her teak trim varnished – “bright” as we wooden-boat people call it.

We had the boat built expressly for this purpose: to deliver us safely, at high speed, and with some style from the mainland to our island retreat and back.

***

“A wooden boat,” the builders of our boat say on their Nexus Marine website, “has an indefinable beauty of line that is difficult or impossible to produce by molding or bending thin sheets of metal.”

After all, the line of trunk and branch is among the most harmonious in nature.

And there’s depth in wood, especially varnished wood – you can see inside it.

Wood perfumes the air with its resins – who hasn’t, on a summer’s day, lingered in the fragrance of a lumber yard?

Wood is naturally buoyant – you feel it in the way a wooden boat lifts on a wave, as if it were alive – and it has been alive, and remains alive in a way that fiberglass or aluminum never can be.

But wood is not for everybody, not for the capricious or the impatient or the hard-riding or the owner with a thin wallet. Varnish wears under the sun; teak abrades; paint fades; dings mar the perfection of brightwork. Wood’s longevity depends on the care you choose to lavish on it. A wooden boat, like a human being, is a brief, ephemeral flare of energy amid the cosmic slide to disorder and darkness, its very perishability part of its attraction (at least for some of us), a declaration of independence against the travails of time.

***

I began my love affair with wooden boats on a jet-lagged summer leave in 1988. Susan and I were living in Hong Kong – I was managing a computer sales subsidiary – but we had retained a Seattle houseboat as a home-leave retreat. I remember a July-bright afternoon, half-drunk from jet-lag, jogging over to the Wooden Boat Shop (now gone) on the other side of Lake Union’s Portage Bay where I spotted a cold-molded, wood-epoxy pram, its hull white, its interior a herringbone of cedar strips, its lines as neat as a cockle shell. I bought her on the spot and rowed her home. When we relocated back to Seattle, I moved her up to Friday Harbor where I would launch her from our dock and row her around Brown Island, and where, when her plywood bow began to delaminate, I cut out the rotted and splayed wood and, with epoxy and filler, laid in a replacement bow, a project well beyond my woodworking skills, but in which I found relief from the agonies of the “down-sizing” underway at the electronics company where I then worked. I liked the feel of the wood under my hands. I liked it that with epoxy and resin I could “heal” my little boat. I liked bringing the grain of the cedar back to life under coats of varnish followed by sanding followed by more varnish, so that in the end I could look deep into the wood, and so that when I rowed the boat, I felt as if I was floating inside a bowl of maple syrup. My work wasn’t perfect. There were sags in the varnish. Too much filler masked the grain. I could sail it on Lake Union, but it would never take us farther than that. But by my labor, I became invested in my boat.

 ***

When it was time for the boat that could take us from Seattle to the San Juans, or points farther, I went to the Nexus Marine boathouse, located on the slough-laced delta of the Snohomish River among pilings that were once log booming grounds and moorings for fishing boats. The building is two-story, yellow-planked, and barn-shaped with a high, exposed-rafter interior and open on one side to the river. There’s a “buzz-and-walk-in” bell. When you slide the door open, you enter a mote-softened, high-raftered space populated with big table-saws and drill presses, and beyond the saws you’ll see another door that is the entrance to the owners – David and Nancy’s – apartment. In the boathouse you may feel as I do: that you’ve stepped into Ratty or Mole’s house in The Wind in the Willows.

David is usually wearing jeans and boots and a carpenter’s smock and is out in one of the several rooms of the boathouse, which David and Nancy call “the shed,” amid plastic curtains and drying lights and boat jigs and racks of lumber that make you feel as if you’re wandering in a maze. David is medium-height and has just reached the age of sixty. A gray beard frames high cheekbones and bright eyes. He’s attentive to everything, answering only after considering what he is about to say, and then speaking in perfectly formed sentences. He laughs in sudden tenor bursts. David reminds me of a department-store Santa Claus despite the fact that he is trim and a long-distance cyclist and a vegetarian and a congregant in good standing at his Everett temple. In the sixties, David dropped out of Cornell Engineering. He joined the Army. On his discharge, he toured Europe on a motorcycle.

Nancy, who likes to call herself a reformed hippie, still has long, straight hair, a certain joy-in-life innocence, and a deep-contralto laugh that disarms you and draws you in. She is short and sturdy and as ready as David is to pick up a tool belt or a varnish brush. Like David she is unusually attentive to what you say – Nancy never fails to respond with a ready quip. She calls all the boats Nexus has built her “babies.” Before meeting David, Nancy was a theatrical director and set builder and a builder of other theatrical props. Later she and David went to Alaska where they fished for salmon in Bristol Bay.

“We fished,” Nancy says, “so we could afford to build boats.”

And, after Alaska, they did build boats – rowboats and dories and outboards and sailboats. Wooden boats. Beautiful boats.

 ***

As in any definition of beauty, the essence is illusive. David maintains that nautical beauty is “hind mind,” originating in our reptilian brains, and that people are genetically programmed to recognize it, but he also says that the lines of the most beautiful boats mirror their movement through the water. Sheer, for example, is the line from the bow to the stern at the top edge of the hull: it’s often shaped like the wave left behind by the hull’s passage. On a Nexus boat, the high bow is designed to rise in steep-pitched Puget Sound seas while at the same time keeping the boat dry. The low stern insures tracking in following seas and at slow trolling speeds. Each shape is derived from what the boat is supposed to do. In David’s view, function drives design.

“All boats,” David says, “are workboats.”

But David also says that the nature of wood predicates design. Wood must be bent and when it bends, it bends in fair curves. Marine-grade lumber is fine-grained and straight, like a Douglas fir tree trunk is straight, and the most elegant boat designs draw upon this trait of the lumber.

The best designers design like David, unveiling what is already in their materials. You hear this in the vocabulary of boat building. Dead rise is how flat or V-shaped the bottom of the hull is. Waterlines are imaginary horizontal slices cut bow to stern. Tumblehome is the inclination of a boat’s sides where the sides meet the deck. Dead rise, tumblehome, waterline: in the sound of the words, you almost hear the shapes of the boats.

 ***

During the winter of 1995 to 1996, frame by frame, stringer by stringer, our boat took shape. Finally one day Nancy called. “Have you picked a name?” A date was set for our boat’s launching.

The name we chose was Ceilidh, pronounced KAY-lee, a Celtic word for a party where whiskey flows and pipers play, where friends gather and drink and laugh and sing, where everybody tells each other lies, which was not unlike the party we convened the night we launched Ceilidh, at eleven in the evening, when the August tide was sufficiently high to float her off her ways, a night which, as it turned out, was also Susan’s fortieth birthday. The birthday limo, loud with its celebrants, arrived at the Nexus boathouse. Our guests spilled out, bearing their bottles of wine and their plastic cups of margaritas. Susan broke a magnum of champagne over the bow. John and I manned the cockpit. The Nexus crew winched us down until we settled into the Snohomish River light and dry and free floating at last, as if Ceilidh was coming to life, or perhaps returning to life, the wood within her, once afloat, resurrected.

 ***

The first few years after Ceilidh’s launching defined an era when our family was young and our friends’ families were young. Back then, summer was theatre and Ceilidh was our stage and we were impresarios organizing kids, tubes, knee boards, fishing rods, skis, tents, stoves, folding chairs, and portable barbecues.

But even back then Ceilidh was more than a vehicle for play.

Ceilidh was where my dad and I shared our last boat ride before he died.

Ceilidh was where my brother Charlie and I sought solace after Dad’s death by fishing on the west side of San Juan Island amid a pod of orcas, Charlie landing a salmon, the orcas diving around us, their flanks mirroring Ceilidh’s black and white hull, the orcas and us and all the world alive in the shadow of Dad’s death.

Ceilidh’s beauty can still catch your breath. Strangers often approach us. Your boat, they say, we’ve admired for years. The staff at the marina where we keep Ceilidh call it “our Nexus,” investing it with extra care as they launch and retrieve her. Once post 9-11, we were chased by the US Coast Guard, for no other reason, as it turned out, than to get a better look at our boat.

This is the boat we asked David and Nancy to build.

By having it built, were we nautically preening?

Or simply proclaiming ourselves to be alive, an announcement of our presence in the world?

***

On this May morning in Friday Harbor, however, I’m not fretting about preening.

The outboard engine is idling. Susan has wiped the dew from the windscreen. John is casting off the spring lines and the mooring whip lines. I throw the throttle in reverse. John pushes off and steps aboard. I back to the end of our dock. I spin the wheel. I shift the engine into forward gear. We motor out into the channel between Brown Island and San Juan Island.

The conical-hat of Mt. Baker rears up this morning looking like a volcanic strawberry sundae. The windscreen is fogging up. I zip open the canvas window, roll it up, tuck it above my head. I check my jacket zipped, slip on sunglasses, pull on a pair of polypro gloves, and palm the throttle forward. The boat rises on a plane, its bow pointed directly at Mt. Baker, and we are off and swerving over the curlicues and meanders and boils, our speed over thirty knots, the boat skewing back and forth, a feeling so familiar I can almost guess where we are by each rip and whirlpool, just as the Salish Indians paddling their cedar canoes knew where they were by rip and whirlpool, but now we are slaloming around driftwood, flying across a world gilded and silvered and crimsoned by the sun, a world in such perfect balance I am, as always, nearly tearful at its beauty – or is it the wind that causes my eyes to tear?

We have made this passage a hundred times, each time different. This morning, the speed and light and the crisp air are transformative, imbuing us and our boat with the splendor of this day, writing another day into our lives, into the very bones of our boat. And if anything was missing – the sunrise, Mt. Baker, John or Susan or Ceilidh – then this morning would be less than it is. But it’s all here. This morning everything is here.

David Breeden

Rev. Dr. David Breeden has a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from The Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Ph.D. from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, with additional study in writing and Buddhism at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He also has a Master of Divinity degree from Meadville Lombard Theological School.

His latest book, Raging for the Exit: A Commonplace Book, is a correspondence in poetry with philosopher and theologian Steven Schroeder. Breeden has published four novels and thirteen books of poetry, the newest titled They Played for Timelessness (With Chips of When).

He is on the editorial board of the Virtual Artist’s Collective. Breeden blogs at http://wayofoneness.wordpress.com/ and http://revdocdavid.tumblr.com/.

 

Falling into the Sky
(Based on a Poem by Zen Monk Muso Soseki)

Years end ways
I dug and dug
Deeper into the earth
Looking for blue heaven
Choking always
On piles of dust rising
Then once
At midnight
I slipped
And fell into the sky

 

Toki-no-Ge (Satori Poem)
by Muso Soseki (English version by W. S. Merwin )

Year after year
      I dug in the earth
            looking for the blue of heaven
only to feel
      the pile of dirt
            choking me
until once in the dead of night
      I tripped on a broken brick
            and kicked it into the air
and saw that without a thought
      I had smashed the bones
            of the empty sky

 

William Reichard

William Reichard is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Sin Eater (Mid-List Press, 2010) and the editor of the anthology American Tensions: Literature of Identity and the Search for Social Justice (New Village Press, 2011). He lives in Saint Paul, MN.

 

A Trip Down Market Street
April 1906 / March 1987

The Miles Brothers mount a camera
to the front of a cable car. The water
on the street tells us this is spring.
Everyone wears a proper hat.
The newsboys are astounded by
the contraption. They run in circles
around the car as it turns at the end
of the line. The tarp flap that covers
the back of a horse-drawn wagon
lifts and a small boy looks directly
at the lens, then returns to his canvas
covered dark. In a few days, these buildings
will fall and burn. These people will be ghosts.

The first time I saw San Francisco, it was
already a city of spirits. 1987. The age of AIDS.
Men on the streets were thin, aged decades
in a month, had fierce eyes that burned.
I had never felt so frightened or free.
The streets pulsed with possibility.
None of my friends had yet died, and
all of us were dizzy after the long
Midwestern winters, the stifled lives,
the grim, Germanic façades. What could
any of us do but go wild? This was a city
that seemed to say yes to everything.

There was a wonderment of bodies
with flesh that had never known the cold.
Our hearts thawed. Everywhere, plants
bloomed in the sidewalk cracks.
Rich and Ruth had a lemon tree
in their garden and some days, it was enough
to sit under it, drink in the exquisite scent
of the blossoms. I wore the gentle fog
like a cape. I pulled it around me.
I turned like a dancer and watched it swirl
and grew drunk and dizzy on it.
I walked down Market Street, down Castro,
went to movies and bars and restaurants.
I had a sense this might never end
and that was beautiful enough for me.

The silent film shows a city in love
with itself. Women with wide brimmed hats,
plumes of feathers arising like smoke
into the cool morning air. Autos and wagons
and streetcars passing in a barely ordered
chaos. In between, people walking randomly
across or down the street. In the distance,
the terminal’s tower rising like a steeple
in front of the bay.

 

Yehoshua November

Yehoshua November is the author of God’s Optimism, which was named a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize in Poetry.  His work has appeared in The Sun Magazine, Prairie Schooner, Virginia Quarterly Review, and on The Writer’s Almanac. He teaches writing at Rutgers University and Touro College.

 

Young Men Become Chassidic

Young men become Chassidic and forget their pasts
but the G-d in Chassidic philosophy they study does not
advise this. Only, they do not understand
because they see the beards and black coats
and try to jump out of their old bodies.
I could not do this. I married my girlfriend from college
and then became a Chassid.
There was no fading bridge, then, at dusk,
separating one half of life from the other.  There was a man
holding an old leather suitcase with a letter
in one of his vest pockets—
a letter that connected the past life to this one.
It was a letter from a Rebbe predicting the future
from under a dark hat in a room
professors and Russian officials were trying to find
but could not
because G-d was hiding it.

 

A Few Feet Beneath the Surface

I am not a master of words.
I have divided my attention
between too many disciplines
to become expert at any one of them.
I would like to study one book
for many years,
like a man studying his wife’s face
from many angles
over the decades—
seeing something new, something the same, each time.
But tomorrow will call on me to dive
into many subjects,
descending just so—
a few feet beneath the surface
and back up again
toward the sunlight
of the superficial life.

 

Peter J. Grieco

Peter J. Grieco is a Ph.D graduate of SUNY Buffalo where he wrote his dissertation on working-class poetry. A former school bus driver, he has taught at universities in Ankara, Turkey; Seoul, South Korea; and Buffalo, NY, his native city where he studies French and is finishing his degree in Mathematics Education.  Publications include At the Musarium, a chapbook of semi-procedural verse based on word frequency lists, and the essay “The Clabber Dreg in the Glom,” (Published  in New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing) which reflects on the composition of that series.

 

Pear Boughs 

hang green & high
from aged sun
down to vast unseen
shadow
coinciding, briefly
with a peculiar opacity
balanced between
blinding source
& blinded depth.

Vast green pears
slow burning
quarrelsome
baiting our response
heavy bottomed
draped like Eve
in green, repeating slow
Danann poses
angled out of dangling
fires.

Yvette Neisser Moreno

Yvette Neisser Moreno’s first book of poetry, Grip, won the 2011 Gival Press Poetry Award and was released in Fall 2012. She is co-translator of South Pole/Polo Sur by María Teresa Ogliastri (Settlement House, 2011) and editor of Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems by Luis Alberto Ambroggio (Cross-Cultural Communications, 2009). She has taught at various institutions, most recently The George Washington University, Catholic University, and The Writer’s Center. Yvette is the founder of the DC-Area Literary Translators Network (DC-ALT) and serves on the programming committee of Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Her website is www.yneissermoreno.com

 

Among the Tulips

When my body fails me,
I go among the tulips—
white tinged with purple
and purple tinged with white—
their petals are transparent,
the sunlight goes through them,
and they hold each other’s shadows.

Today, some have opened so wide
they might never pull together again.
Others stay upright, with just one petal
bent over, like the spout of a pitcher,
pouring out its essence
to whomever would receive it.

B.Z. Niditch

B.Z. Niditch is a poet, playwright, fiction writer and teacher. His work is widely published in journals and magazines throughout the world, including: Columbia: A Magazine of Poetry and Art; The Literary Review; Denver Quarterly; Hawaii Review; Le Guepard (France); Kadmos (France); Prism International; Jejune (Czech Republic); Leopold Bloom (Budapest);  Antioch Review; and Prairie Schooner, among others.  He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. 

 

 

Unaccounted For

A remoteness on the earth
overshadows each marble of innocence
after the war weary winter
effacing limbs
and withered death on snowy fields
by childhood backyard fences
here bent and pinned bones
long to endure sunlight
from the burnt brown hair
surviving near a pale nostril
on a patch of landscape
Picasso shaped bodies
on crutches,
roads of skinny cripples
reeling from an off-balanced winds
by an overcast flash of sky
as a procession of mourners
pass over the river’s edge.

Miriam Levine

Miriam’s Levine’s most recent book is The Dark Opens, winner of the Autumn House Poetry Prize.  Other books include Devotion, a memoir, which will be reissued in paperback this year; In Paterson, a novel; and three other collections of poetry.  Levine lives near Boston and winters in South Beach.

 

 

 

Memorial at the Pond

Condensation gathered
under the glass that covers the girl’s
photo blurs the background and turns
her throat to mist but not her face

in profile with mouth open
and tongue curled upward
to taste that rain: she is gleaming,
with ecstasy—it seems.  Sixteen!
            
No one knew her.  She meant to die.
She wrapped weights around her
wrists—ankles too—and waded
into the deepest water.  Friends

write to her now in a damp book.
Dear, they begin, believing
she hears, believing she sees
the lilacs heaped for her.

 

Slow Goodbye

In Ozu’s films the camera
keeps running when actors
leave so we see light ruffle
the sea and long sea grass bend.

You can almost hear the flap
of a distant flag and smell
the sea’s salty breath.
Clouds expectant with rain,

each hopeful bud in the pure
reverie of the camera’s gaze.
Everything as it should be.
We’re Ozu’s people now,

looking back with him
in tenderness as the lens
lingers and the loveliest
things go on without us.

 

Jay Rubin

Jay Rubin teaches writing at The College of Alameda in the San Fran­cisco Bay Area and publishes Alehouse, an all-poetry literary journal, at www.alehousepress.com.  He holds an MFA in Poetry from New England College and lives in San Francisco with his son and Norwich terrier.

 

 

Tucson
after Stephen Dunn, 2011

A young man approached the congresswoman
Supermarket parking lot, his home town
He had chosen her—she, the place
Others had chosen what to wear
What to ask, not to be killed
The congresswoman who voted no
Had angered him some time ago
College classmates called him trouble
The kind you just can’t bury on your own
I watched the fallout on TV, myself
Among the righteous, sinning against friends
But I am not important
They were standing close
The desert sun a stone when he decided
When he chose not to be forgotten
He sentenced her and the judge, too
And a little girl with broken bones
Someone grabbed him, reined him in
A dozen gave their blood
For days, we watched the dance
The sheriff tugging up his saggy jeans
The air pulsed—our hands
Were fisted, damp
We were yelled at, lied to, whites, racists, tea
It seemed the shooting never stopped
Then these final soothing words:  She’s fine
She’s opened up her eyes.
  And yet we hurt
And yet we choose to hold that hurt

Wendi White

Wendi White comes to Norfolk by way of Austin, Vermont, Boston, Mexico, Guatemala, The Philippines, and originally, the Adirondack Mountains of New York. She is an MFA. candidate in the Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University and the recipient of the 2011 ODU Graduate Poetry Award from the Academy of American Poets.  At home she keeps one husband, two sons, countless books and a dog named Charley. 

 

Cut Through the Woods

She always took the cut through home,
lover of brooks and log crossings
before sidewalks or curbs,
preferring the wash of wind
through pines to the grinding
of gravel beneath car wheels.

And even when she was forbidden
to slip beneath the hemlocks’
skirts of feathered boughs,
she could not resist
though a murderer hid
in the mountains and she
was turning twelve.

It is quicker through the woods,
it is darker through the woods,
it is wilder through the woods.
and the trees have eyes.

Robert Leary

Robert Leary started writing poetry while at the University of Connecticut where he studied with James Scully and won the Wallace Stevens Award several times. He went on to study with Richard Tillinghast at Harvard summer school. Richard introduced him to Robert Lowell. He submitted a manuscript to Lowell and was formally accepted to Harvard to study with Lowell. He has published poems in the Wormwood Review and the Harvard Advocate. This is his first submission in many years.

 

These Barns

It’s been over thirty years I’ve known these barns.
They’ve become a part of me like veins on the backs of my hands.
The sawdust and manure fragranced with spices of fresh hay
Wafted in my memories of being carried on to a field
Naked after a night of too much drink
Only to be salvaged by friends sober enough to realize
The mosquitoes would have their way with me.
Friends grown too old to play the game
Exiled to Argentina as all persecuted by time.
How I recall the barbecues
Perpetrated by heroic knights
Now gone but for their Memorials.
The girls, oh the girls from California, London, Australia
How we danced away our youth like Bacchus’ hooves
We bled the blood from every grape
And loved and sang as if it would last forever
Around the fires like Druids ignoring the Christians
We danced and now but for the barns it is remembered
And across the polo fields our amazing goals forgotten.

 

I Loved You All

I sit alone in the garden on the patio
Overlooking a heart shaped pool
Who would I wish to walk up these stairs
Hand on the white cement balusters
Who would I wish to join the flowers
The green Matisse furniture
Whose feet would I choose to climb the slate
And join me here amid the roses
That speak so freely to my heart
Amidst the bamboo furniture
Painted over a thousand times
Whose “hello… hola” would I cherish most
Through the smoke of my cigar?

Perhaps as in the dark all hearts
Like ghosts are close to mine
Your loves have touched me most
But who among you sits and stares
At a moon over an ocean but all
For hand and hand you dance together
To a distant drum and I, but one
Loved you all.

Nomi Stone

Nomi Stone is a Ph.D. Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Columbia University with a Masters in Middle East Studies from Oxford. She is currently researching and writing poems about combat simulations/training exercises in mock Middle Eastern villages erected by the US military across America, focusing on both the military imaginations of these spaces and the lifeworlds of the Iraqi role-players who work within them. Her first book of poetry, Stranger’s Notebook (Northwestern University Press, TriQuarterly Books) about the lamentation rituals of one of the last cohesive Jewish communities in North Africa, was published in 2008. A Chicago Public Radio interview on the book can be accessed at http://www.wbez.org/episode-segments/jewishmuslim-life-tunisian-island-djerba

 

Barzakh: the place of the soul before Judgment Day
Rabat, Morocco

Fridays, we carry
basil and a cup of water
to the body, sad
and bored without the soul,
numbering everything
ever changed under the
hand: the ship sent
to the ocean; the cedar
carved; the child turned
into a person, intermittently kind
and cruel.   That child dreams
every night of a place once
described to her: a house between
a lake and river, where souls fidget
like hungry birds.  The birds,
circling from the sky into your mind,
try to remember who down here, just
who particularly in
here, they landed.

 

Myra Sklarew

Myra Sklarew, former president, Yaddo Artists’ Community, professor emerita, American University. Recent publications: Harmless, Mayapple Press; The Journey of Child Development (co-editor), Routledge: Taylor & Francis; poems in the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, Yale University Press; a forthcoming work, A Survivor Called Trauma: Holocaust and the Construction of Memory; “Leiser’s Song” in The Power of Witnessing, Routledge: Taylor & Francis. Recent readings: Science Cafe, Busboys and Poets; Barnes & Noble Books; Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore.

 

Pursuit

Like the deer stag in my garden
who batters his head with his hind leg

to free himself from a huge poplar branch
caught in the great crown of his antlers—

Like one of the furies torn from ancient myth—
I drag the forest along behind me,

my dead crowded together in their massacre pit.
Like Isaac’s ram, I am caught

in the thicket, singing their names.

 

Stolpersteine

Stolpersteine: a small cobblestone-sized memorial for a single victim of Nazism made by the artist Gunter Demnig.

Have you returned, in the goblet of time,
to bring the forest of the dead, their names
mounted in air in steel, the wind
forcing its way through the letters?

If they were covered by a thin layer of silt,
if they were face down in their deaths,
could their names allow light
to pass through them.

Have you come back? Your hand
on their heaving earth could not
quiet them, your stone of remembrance
on their chamber brings no comfort.

They toss in their earthen bed, they do not
sleep. The living grow impatient. The living
wish to speak. Rilke, you tell us
those who departed early no longer need us;

they are weaned from earth’s sorrows. But can it
end there? A ditch, a pit filled to the brim
with lives barely begun? A hundred years from now,
perhaps one who has lost his way

will come upon a dirt road and follow it
and come upon a clearing, a metal cup,
part of a menorah, like a stumble stone
marking a life.

Meredith Kunsa

Meredith Kunsa is a native Californian, and received two advanced degrees (MPA in Publication Administration and MFA in Creative Writing) from California State University, San Diego. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Crab Orchard Review, Connecticut Review, Inkwell, Kalliope, Los Angeles Review, The Raven Chronicles, Tiferet, Silk Road, Passenger, and Persimmon Tree, among others.

 

This heart of mine weeps
for itself and pleads for mercy

    – From the Egyptian Book of the Dead

 

About the time masons set the massive
cornerstones of Cheops and sealed
the pharaoh’s chamber, a small grove
of Bristlecone pines sprouted
in the Colorado Rockies and have since
stood on the eastern slope.

Through countless fires, long seasons
of drought and wind-driven ice,
they have grown slowly, adding only
a hundredth of an inch a year. Stunted,
stooped and misshapen, some hang on
by a measly strip of outer bark.

Unlike us, whose cores are beaten down
to the dry bone depth of doubt, by grief
and regret, by loss of heroes and illusions,
stripped to heartwood unconsolable,
we grow a lifetime in seconds.

Lying down on a sea of sand, we heap
upon ourselves block after stone block.