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Luke Wortley. Sarah.

4 Jan

SARAH

Even as she lay dying, Sarah knew that, when it was over, she must remain dead forever. Sarah also knows that, when she uttered her last syllables, her family gathered round could only hear her as one hears through the crackle of radio while driving through the mountains on the way back from Richmond. She’s since heard the same fizzy murmurs from other people in the house as they died, but for some reason they don’t come to join her. Sarah also remembers the coughing and the tightening of muscles in her face, remembers her mama’s palms, calluses catching in her snowy hair, her daddy’s first tear. She remembers iridescence angling through her window and leaking onto her forearm in a pool of dusty air the way it does down at the mouth of the holler well after the rest of the world has already woke up. She remembers the feeling of light scraping her skin without warmth, and she remembers the cooling band of her grandma’s turquoise-studded ring against her earlobe.

Sarah remembers a building pressure beneath her skin that bubbled up and collapsed inward again, drawing all the tightness to her chest. She was the fish her older brother hauled out of the Kentucky River, jaws opening and closing with such violence, throats bloating and gills flaring as they sucked in the terrible, terrible oxygen. They thrashed on the end of the line. She, too, thrashed beneath her coffin quilt til she bit her tongue, just before her eyes closed and her head folded into the pillows like an egg being cradled by a feathered breast.

She awoke almost immediately and felt unreal. She could see her body crumpled into the sheets, her mama’s hands trembling like tuning forks.

After several years of being dead, Sarah now has an acute awareness of the existence of her own hands, their uselessness. She still imagines they itch, even though she knows she can’t actually scratch them. She can’t feel anything, actually; it’s as though her skin is covered in healed burns. Sarah can walk, can’t glide as she thought ghosts could. She’s gotten used to it, the idea of being a ghost, though complete darkness still scares her. And she’s remained in this form since, unable to see herself as she used to, the clear and colorful way she looked in the vanity while mama touched up her blouse on Sundays.

She has, however, seen her parents die, seen her brothers and sisters leave. And she’s seen two other families move in before this one. Her older brother, Scotty, toasted the first ones with a glass of bourbon. No ice. No chink of the glass. Just the silent slap of caramel liquor against the lips and a sudden swallow. During his final days at the house Sarah watched him smoke on the back porch and rock in a bleached wicker chair. She remembers she could almost hear the bluegrass growing, could almost see the pollen roiling about in the air. She remembers a few cowbirds, dark as the topside of a catfish, nesting in the sycamore trees out back, the smell of honeysuckle.

When Scotty left for the last time, Sarah ran down the gravel drive after him. Something, though, held her back—a pressing force that prevented her from leaving. She went back to cower in the entryway on the tile and cried. In the days following, she prowled around her empty bedroom. Every once in a blue moon she thinks about when her furniture got taken outside. Her mattress folded and thrown in the trash, the wooden headboard tossed on the burn pile in the washout basin lined with stones. Sarah waded through the smoky remains the next morning, unaware of the heat, and watched white smoke rise from the ashes. She wanted to feel the stones poke the bottoms of her bare feet, hoping the fire might rekindle. Though, of course, she felt nothing, and before long, she climbed the bank and walked through the bluegrass and into the thistle which, as most things did, made her miss her mama a lot. She remembers when, before she died, she wandered through a thistle thicket and emerged about a mile from the house at the old Holloway crop line, legs swollen and covered in tiny red gashes. Her whole body itched and stung at the same time, and mama gave her a wet washcloth and slathered something on her shins that eased the burning.

She remembers that, shortly after her own death, she started to lose her mama. Her mama would light candles in the bathroom and soak in the tub without washing herself until her hands turned wrinkly. Sarah thought the water made her older. Her spine started to curl, and her shuffling footsteps became barely perceptible unless you listened real hard. What was most surprising of all, though, was not her mother’s aging. She had always known that old people existed. Her grandma had been old. What was truly strange was that she found herself watching her daddy more and more, and although Sarah knew he mourned her death, she had no specific memory of his weeping other than the dangling thought of a tear. So, the first time she really saw her daddy weep still came as a shock. He drank a lot that night, and each time he brought the bottle to his mouth he unbuttoned another button of his shirt. She saw the big bulge in his throat bob up and down several times before he finally let the bottle back down to the couch cushion. He screamed something incoherent over the top of the television that crackled with black static. And then he started to cry. Sarah remembers his gut jiggling as his shoulders heaved up and down. A shiny wetness slid out from his eyes and clung to his cheeks like dew.

Sometimes, especially when the Kochs are out, she goes upstairs to the guest room, her old room, and cries. The bedspread is crisp, and the paisley pillows match the comforter. The carpet is the color of an ancient map. A school desk sits in the corner; above that is a shelf that houses three bumpy, conical figurines of Santa Claus and a wicker basket with a broken handle. The twigs curl and splay like horsehair.

The first family, the Cunninghams, had a dog that whined when she came near. It cried like an old, rusty swing. They didn’t stay long. Sarah remembers the dining room table that Scotty had left behind, covered in papers with all sorts of numbers on them. Jagged envelopes with more papers stuffed in. Stacks and stacks of papers.

“What did we do wrong?” Sheryl Cunningham had asked.

The Smiths, the family that moved in after, made good food. The smell wafted from the stove and snaked through the air like a living thing. Choir tones lifted up and out of the mouth of a large cleaning woman as she washed dishes with yellow rubber gloves that came up to her elbows. Her flat shoes shuffled silently across the checkered-flag tile. And Sarah would run along the fence line with the children, Mary Ellen and Paul. She always wanted to show them how she could blow all the seeds off dandelions in one breath.

“Watch,” she’d shout at them, her fingers slipping through the stems. Once, she thought they heard, but after a brief pause they just stooped and ripped up clover by the handful.

The Smiths stayed for a while and cleaned up the property. By the time Scotty had left, the land was a complete mess. Out back, the two hulking sycamores had been through two bouts of disease, and though they had survived, most of the bonelike limbs had stopped growing, morphing into spindly fibers that curled like insect legs. Scotty had sold some of her family’s land a few years before he finally left, a few acre parcel that backed up to the highway, unable to take care of it any longer, where kudzu had strangled the cottonwoods, wrapping around the barbed-wire fence and growing up and up, adhering to everything, draping itself like a circus tent over the site where, decades ago, before even Sarah and her folks had moved in, they found rusty shackles attached to a plough, caked in loam.

But eventually they also left.

This is the third family—the Kochs—to live in the house since her family. Don is bald and reads the paper. His wife Kathy bustles around the kitchen in the mornings, clinking together breakfast. And Juniper was about Sarah’s age when they moved in, which is to say that Juniper was about Sarah’s age when she died—about seven. Now ten, Juniper likes bubble baths and calls her parents mama and daddy. They’ve been there a while, and even so, Sarah also has yet to find a way to interact with anyone since her death, though not for lack of trying. She’s been trying for a very long time.

She’s repeatedly tried to talk to the Koch family, even gone so far as to reach her hand through the back of Don’s newspaper; she’s tried to blow out candles, open and shut doors—all with little to no effect. All the things she thought ghosts might do. Yet so far Sarah has failed to make any noticeable impression whatsoever on the world of the living. And after years of complete silence, she wonders if anyone will hear her voice again, a feeling compounded by the sight of cardboard boxes beginning to pile up against the back door yet again.

***

As the day wanes, Sarah seethes and watches Kathy fuss over potholders and hand towels. Upstairs she hears the slamming sound of water hitting the tub. Sarah drags herself up the stairs with the faintest hope that she might, after all this time, be able to communicate with someone before they, too, leave her. The bathroom door is open, and there’s Juniper all wrapped in a towel and sitting on the edge of the tub and feeling the water. Sarah remembers squatting in the hot water and the feeling of just squatting there, uncomfortably aware of the heat on her privates until mama made her sit down and tilt her head back.

Juniper undresses. Sarah looks away, covers her eyes. Eventually Sarah hears the sound of feet squeaking along the bottom of the tub for a moment and the sharp intake of breath as June’s body sinks beneath the steamy surface. She uncovers her eyes and stares at Juniper for several minutes, taking in the sight of her. Juniper’s arms are sudsy sleeves, and Sarah can’t help the rolling sensation in her chest that bursts forth—something like a giggle or a hiccup. A combination of the two. A gigglup, she thinks. And this makes her laugh even harder. Juniper doesn’t respond; Sarah just stands there watching Juniper soak, still laughing and unheard. She hasn’t been this close to anyone in a long time.

“Is the water warm?” she asks as she reaches forward to test it herself. Her hand disappears into the water. She looks at Juniper’s face and detects the smallest hint of disturbance.

She says over and over, “Can you hear me? Juniper? June? Please!”

Eventually Sarah closes her eyes and screams and screams, trying to pummel the water with both her ghostly, childish fists.

“Mama!” yells Juniper. Her voice, though shrill, is good.

No answer. She could be in the garage poking around boxes. Juniper sighs and flips the switch to let the water drain.

Sarah is grasping for a connection. The water must’ve gotten cold. Dead people were cold. She was dead. She must be cold. This thought excites her young mind. She’s never come this close to garnering a direct response from anyone. A shout catches in her throat and sort of tumbles out of her mouth awkwardly, like a cough. Sarah feels what she imagines warmth would feel like, what she remembers warmth felt like.

“Juniper? June?” she says again.

Juniper pauses and looks in the mirror and wipes off a section with a towel. Sarah stands behind her so that she can have a look as well. Not too close. As expected, she can’t see her own reflection clearly, but Juniper, on the other hand, is clear. The valleys of her collarbones delicately stretched and indented like the tops of a drum; the mole above her lip clear as a beetle on the screen door; water beads on her shoulders, refracting her freckles, enlarging them. She smiles. Sarah smiles back, only able to imagine what it looks like. Before long Juniper shivers and turns around. She sidles right through her ghostly friend, and Sarah turns around just in time to see Juniper look back. For the first time in a long while, she questions whether or not she is alive. She spends the night in the guest room and imagines drawing shapes in the carpet as she used to.

The next morning Sarah waits for the family to come downstairs, waits for the sunlight to slide through the bay window of the living room. It feels like Christmas morning. Even the cardboard boxes appear glossy. Don traipses down the stairs first, still in his pajamas. It must be a weekend, because he doesn’t come down in slacks. He mumbles something, slides the back door open, and slithers his belly through. Sarah knows he’s peeing off the deck.

“Don, really?” Kathy asks as she thumps into the kitchen. For a skinny woman, her feet make a lot of noise. She also scrubs the calluses on her feet with a stone hairbrush.

“Hell we’re only in here for another couple days,” Don says over his shoulder, “Might as well.”

Kathy throws her arms up, begins to set out some of the remaining glassware for breakfast. Sarah waits for Juniper.

“Come on,” Sarah says, rocking on the balls of her feet.

Juniper finally comes downstairs, working her knuckles into her eyelids as she tries to get rid the sleep. Sarah remembers that her own dreams were always gone by morning.

“Morning, beautiful,” says Don, edging his way back into the kitchen.

Juniper doesn’t respond. Instead she sits down at the table and buries her face in her arms; a hoarse moan escapes.

“You’re up early,” says Kathy, “You feeling okay, sweetheart?”

Kathy walks over and places the back of her hand on Juniper’s forehead. Sarah remembers her own mama doing this, remembers the first visit with the doctor and the taste of treated wood on her tongue. She remembers a swollen, red feeling and heat crawling along the roof of her mouth.

“Don, she’s burning up.”

‘What’s wrong?’ asks Sarah.

Don walks over and puts his hand on Juniper’s forehead as well. “Come on, sweetie. Back to bed.”

He scoops her up. Juniper’s hands look infantile, as though they have never grasped anything. She sniffles and lets out another gravelly moan as Don hoists her up to get a better grip. Sarah watches them walk away toward the stairs.

“I’ll get her some medicine and some water,” Kathy calls after them.

She busies herself pouring tawny liquid into a spoon and gets a glass of water from the tap. Sarah follows Kathy’s measured footsteps upstairs, watches as she hands the glass of water to Don, lifts Juniper’s head up from the pillow, and angles the spoon between Juniper’s lips. Juniper’s face contorts, and she coughs at the bitterness. Even though it looks like honey, Sarah remembers that cough medicine tastes like metal.

“You should get some sleep now, sweetheart,” says Kathy.

“Is she okay? What is it?” asks Sarah.

Sarah looks to the opposite wall, looks at the shelves. A small collection of trinket boxes winks back at her: a baby carriage with candy pink wheels; a pilgrim with white frilly collar and red, red lips; a gold-studded seahorse; a rotary phone on a chain, also pink. Everything looks rusty; the whole world loses its shine.

“Let her sleep,” says Don.

Don and Kathy leave the room. Sarah creeps up to Juniper’s bedside. “I know how you feel,” she says.

Juniper stirs, reaches over for the glass of water on her bedside, and takes a sip. Sarah reaches out to stroke Juniper’s brown hair. Juniper clears her throat, and Sarah thinks she can feel Juniper’s breath as she fusses under the covers before finally getting up and plodding her way down the hall to the bathroom.

Sarah remembers back to her own sickness, remembers that in the final moments she felt far away from everyone. She knew others were there, but she herself was unreachable. She has replayed her final memories of dying so many times: grandma’s turquoise ring, daddy’s spectral tear, mama’s shaking hands. Sarah remembers these things, and she remembers the tightness, the pressure.

Sarah finds herself in the corner hugging her knees and crying.

She opens her eyes and looks at the glass of water. She shuts them again, screws up her face, and bites on the insides of her mouth, the fleshiness of which she is aware for the first time in years. She remembers how it feels to have her inner cheeks crushed between molars, the jagged feeling of flesh rubbing against teeth. Sarah imagines herself small. Small as a dust bunny. Lithe and thin like a dandelion seed being carried up in the wind. She imagines herself submerged in the glass of water on the table and being tilted back, peering down over the rim of into the back of Juniper’s throat. Sarah careens over the sandy tongue, past the uvula and down the throat where she breaks apart and is forced through ribbed tubules, pumped into an outer extremity, washed over insides.

As Sarah thinks this beautiful thought, she hears the unmistakable thunk of the glass wetly adhering itself back to the end table. She opens her eyes to see Juniper crawling back under the sheets. The comforter rises and falls slightly with each breath. Sarah wonders if, when she breathed her final breath, the quilt floated for a moment before it fluttered down and came to rest on her lifeless body. This, of course, the one moment she can’t remember.

 

 

LUKE WORTLEY hails from the Bluegrass and says yall a lot and can whip up some fried chicken that’ll make a tomcat smack a bulldog. He’s also currently the fiction editor at Booth: A Journal and the co-founder of Axolotl. You can follow him at @LukeWortley.

Grant Clauser. Visiting the Old House.

28 Dec

VISITING THE OLD HOUSE

No one knows you here
now, not the cracks in the sidewalk
or the oak tree growing over the roof.
In the first room, you think you see
a face you knew, a ghost on the
glass or shadows coming down the stairs.
It’s just a wish you planted, a dream
you left in the back room or sitting
at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee.
In the yard there’s a new garden
where you buried the dog
and you don’t want to ask the new people
about the bones, how they ran or
if the tail wagged in greeting even once.
If you looked, of course there’s still
a beam in the attic with your name on it
and a hundred nails or so you hammered
in the walls, each one a dedication, a promise
to make things right as you pound the steel.
So when you walk away again,
this time not daring to look back,
the door left open in the winter wind
be sure, be a hammer every step
to the road and then tear it down
as you go home.

 

 

GRANT CLAUSER is the author of the books Necessary Myths and The Trouble with Rivers. By day he writes about home technology and dreams about fly fishing. Poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Cortland Review, Moon City Review, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review and others. In 2010, he was Montgomery County Poet Laureate. He started the Montco Wordshop in Lansdale, teaches poetry writing at Philadelphia’s Musehouse, and runs the blog unIambic.

Matt Paul. Naked as He Came.

21 Dec

NAKED AS HE CAME

Ben pounded the Dodge Charger’s brake in front of his old house, the passenger-side wheel mounting the rise in the curb. He sat admiring the fender-shaped impression in the garage door, and remembered his wife trying hard that night to shrug it off, the reverend’s intervention a few days later, how at the time he just couldn’t stop laughing.

As the engine idled, he swabbed the flop sweat salting his lips and took in everything that had changed: a black iron lamppost in the front yard caught the shine from a brand new Ford pick-up truck in the drive—a brute of a machine that covered the paving stones he’d painstakingly laid down three summers ago.

In the rear-view mirror he tightened his tie knot to cover the missing button on his Goodwill shirt. He drank cheap turpentine whiskey from a faux-silver hip flask, spilled some, cursed himself. He figured he’d get away with the stains if he kept his suit jacket fastened.

The car door took a few hard swings to shut properly. He counted three times out loud. He heard a soft purr and scratch that he reckoned was him reaching the level of drunk where sounds become a living, ungrabbable thing.
The scratching continued, low and muted, like the treble turned all the way down. It pushed its way through into the here, now, happening. A fox standing in the middle of the cul-de-sac’s turning circle was staring him down.

“Welcome to the neighbourhood,” he thought it would say if it could. “Don’t even think about getting comfortable.”

In Ben’s mind, the fox spoke like a grizzled detective from some fifties noir. He flipped it a middle finger, the fox cocking its head with curiosity.

Walking heel to toe along an invisible line in the road to test his poise, Ben reached an L-shaped row of neck-high redwood trees lining the yard. He pushed through the branches instead of shuffling by and they sprang right back up into his face. Graves’ Property Solutions was emblazoned along the side of the truck in italic script font. Ben cupped his eyes and peered inside the driver-side window; an open map and crusted burger wrappers littered the foot wells. All he knew about cars was that people kicked the tyres, but it looked like a nice ride. He took aim and booted the front tyre, his foot bouncing onto the wheel arch and setting off the alarm. A bedroom light came on, and more from neighbouring houses. He still had time to run, he thought, but these days he was trying to be a man who stuck around, learning through a self-help book that no problem is solvable unless you own it. He rubbed out the pain in his shin and wondered if it was bleeding. Movement at the door activated the porch light and he only had a moment to adopt a casual pose.

The silhouette of a stocky male appeared in the doorway.

“Can I help you, pal?” said in an accent Ben couldn’t place. The silhouette was holding something in his sweatpants pocket.

“Travis, it’s OK. It’s my husband.”

Mindy stepped out beside Travis, folding a thin robe across her chest. Her hair had been pulled into tight braids. She looked like she’d put on a few pounds. Travis stretched a tree branch arm across her and leant on the porch support, handgun brandished.

“This guy?” he asked.

“Hey, beautiful.” Ben said. He stood tall and made his chest swell as if he were confronting a bear in the forest. The effort made him sputter and cough, and he knew that Mindy could already tell he’d been drinking.

“I just came for my personal effects,” he said, doubling-over.

“Buddy, it’s after two, whatever junk you got can wait.’”

Mindy stepped down into the yard. There was a succession of soft pops and fizzes as a swarm of horse-flies kamikaze’d the bug zapper. The late-summer breeze carried a waft of sulphur from the flooded storm drain.

“Kim told you about Travis?”

“Your sis gets real truthful after a few.”

“Take her home with you?”

“Came right here. Remember when you said you wanted to be the priority?’”

Mindy made a knot in her robe. “Let’s just get this done,” she said. “Leave your dirt on the porch.”

Ben wriggled out of his shoes at the top of the steps and followed Mindy inside. He tried to breathe in the familiar smell of her coconut body butter, now replaced by citrus perfume. He purposely passed the Travis sentry within inches of his face, thinking he could take him if the situation called for it. He made a mental note to aim for the band-aid stretched above his eyelid.

“First of all I resent the accusation that I’m drunk,” Ben said in the front room.

“No one said a damn thing about anything,” Travis said, shutting the door and pulling the chain across. Ben thought Travis looked around the same age, but his skin was worn out like a cattle-hide that’d been smacked down by the sun after years of working outside. He wore an oversized grey-white tee shirt saying I beat the meat feast challenge. Ben bet he’d beaten a few.

Mindy said Travis’ name from the kitchen like a mother chastising her child.

He showed Ben his palms in surrender. “Gotta do what the lady says, right?”

Ben said nothing, jangling the small change in his pockets instead. He felt something different swell in his chest—it was his house, bought and part-paid, but he was a visitor now. His life, but he’d been uninvited. Wallpaper strips pasted across the once berry-red feature-wall formed a New York cityscape, recognisable from the Empire State building’s needle piercing the leaden skyline. The gas fire had been ripped out and replaced with a cast iron wood- burner framed by a marble-look surround. Above the mantelpiece hung a silver filigree-framed mirror instead of his plasma TV. It really did give the box room the illusion of space like Mindy always said it would. A seat made from railway sleepers had been built into the bay window where his liquor bar had once stood. He scrunched his toes into the soft carpeting, tried to imagine assuming this role again, what he’d change if given the opportunity, what he’d admit to keeping the same.

“You sittin’ or what?” Travis said from Ben’s recliner—the tan leather executive edition with built-in shiatsu setting and an ice chest underneath the armrest. Ben had bought it on layaway and hadn’t finished paying it off when he and Mindy split.

Travis picked at his teeth, wiping his fingers down the side of the seat cushion.

Mindy carried a mug of black coffee and a brown bottle of something that looked like beer but was probably organic elderflower. “It’s late, Travis, we don’t want to keep him,” she said, handing out the drinks then sitting in the window. She eyed Ben as she folded her loose ankle-length skirt underneath her, as if to make the point that she’d rediscovered her dignity and was sure as hellfire not misplacing it again.

As Travis carefully peeled the bottle label, and Mindy posed lotus style with her eyes closed, Ben thought she looked like she was about to teach a class on how a diet of green tea and lima beans leads to existential enlightenment. She’d flirted with new-age stuff when he was still around, sporadically taking Yoga classes, touring each major religion. The dyed-in-the-soy-cotton-wool life suited her. All he had to do was figure out where he fit.

While Mindy fussed with the window seat cushions, Travis lifted the lounger’s armrest and shoved the bottle deep into the ice. He pulled out a brown bottle of something different, the label pre-peeled, and faux-smiled wide at Ben as he slouched further into the chair and released the footrest.

“It looks so different in here, darl’n,” Ben said, circling the room. He glanced down the short hallway that led to the kitchen, taking smug comfort in it looking much the same: the foundation crack still ran from the baseboard to the yellow-haloed damp pooled behind the cornicing. “What else is new?”

“I boxed your things. Why don’t you go grab them from the utility room and I’ll call you a cab,” Mindy said from behind a veil of calm.

“Utility room? You have been busy, Trav.”

Travis drummed his pocket to some internal beat as he watched Ben pass
by him towards the fireplace.

“Chop your own wood?” Ben asked.

“Naw, we just throw in your old clothes.”

“What was wrong with the other fire?”

“Gas is so inefficient, Ben,” Mindy said, scraping her hair back into a ponytail then stretching her arms above her head into a pyramid. “We’re going off the grid. Travis is getting us a deal on solar panels for the roof.”

Ben ran his flat palm across the recently plastered chimney wall as if he were inspecting the finish. He didn’t know much about anything but to his mind it looked like Travis was a pro. “Seems like you got with the right guy for the job,” he said, careful not to sound wistful.

“Everything else is easy once you find the stud, eh, babe?”

Mindy shook her head but let a smile slip through. “Go on, Ben, out
through the kitchen.”

“Rustle me up a sirloin while you’re out there, boy.” Travis added.

Ben let that one go. He was a better man now, and Mindy would soon see it.
The kitchen still smelled like turned milk from when Ben had a smoothie explosion and couldn’t mop the bulk of it without tearing out the cabinets.
He’d seen plenty of Travis’ type when he’d spent a few summers working the forklift on a strip-mall construction site: all nail gun, no nails. He’d crashed at enough of these guy’s trailers to know exactly what he’d find if he searched hard enough. Opening the wall-mounted cupboard, it turned out Travis was a rookie when it came to hiding his stash. Tucked lengthways behind stacked rows of canned corned beef was a bottle of Jameson’s, half full. Ben took the hip flask from his inside pocket, filling it until the liquid bubbled at the rim. He kept taking sips to bring the level down.

“Did you find it?” Mindy shouted from the front room.

“Just refilling my mug. It’s great coffee.” Mindy hadn’t dropped the habit of stirring hot drinks with a cinnamon stick. It still tasted like compost but this time it made him balk at the filter in the motel coffee-maker that dripped all damn night and had already claimed his security deposit by water logging the carpet.

Searching for cream to mask the earthy sediment, he noticed a photo fixed to the fridge door inside a heart-shaped magnet. He internally poked fun at
how feeble it looked, the way a group of emotionally anorexic teens would point and laugh at an old man sitting alone at a bus stop.

From their orange lifejackets, red-brown faces, and the sea foam filling the background, Ben guessed they were on a speedboat somewhere warm. Mindy used to hate the heat.

“Let’s go on a road trip,” Mindy had said from the porch swing when Ben got back from his last shift at the site. “Wanna be bums or bohemians? Hallucinate bats along Route 66, or wear berets and black turtlenecks while we sit in the back of a jazz club in Nawwlins? We can be whoever we want. I would’ve been bored on a beach, anyway.”

Life, Ben surmised with the newfound wisdom from a fresh whiskey buzz, was a succession of what-if, if only I’d, and why didn’t I.

What if he’d rented an open-top before he got all scared and dismissive? If only he’d taken her somewhere instead of buying a 60” TV and a used
Dodge while she was away for the weekend at a guided meditation retreat. Why didn’t he get out of the car when she begged, instead of drunkenly
gunning it into the garage door while she was standing vaguely in its path?

“Women and photos, huh?” said Travis, who’d sneaked into the room while Ben was daydreaming. “Click, click all the damn time, and the doghouse if you refuse to get in the shot.”

He turned a full circle, rubbing patchy weeks-old stubble, and eyed up the hip flask Ben was still holding. “Sharing’s caring, pal. I’m fucked if I can remember where I put anything.”

Ben offered it without complaint. Travis rubbed the rim on his tee shirt and threw back a long one, dribbling on the tile. He met Ben’s stare as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and pushed the flask hard into Ben’s chest. Travis whooped and shouted hot damn, and Ben placed his accent at somewhere down in bayou-country with miles of nothing between Wal-Marts, KKK rallies, and gun stores hawking assault rifles to rednecks sober enough to find their credit card.

“That was in Florida,” Travis said, gesturing towards the fridge. “Got a cousin down there fixes up hovercrafts. Fifty em-pee-aytch, gators snapping at us, and she’s yellin’ at me to keep the camera steady.”

“What a drag,” Ben said. Mindy never used to like pictures. She always said it was good enough to experience something without needing proof that it
happened. They once drove all day to see Pearl Jam play Wrigley Field. From their nosebleed seats they could see a dotted seascape of camera phones like pinholes in a black sheet. The crowd were watching the entire concert through a screen, a split-second delayed rendition of the here-now event. Mindy couldn’t see the sense in it. “Why delay the present when you could be living it now?” she said while driving us along the vacant highway that night.

“Speaking of,” she added, on a roll. “I’ve decided we should do California on this road trip—got it all mapped out. First we visit my mom in Tijuana. Now don’t start with me, she got remarried last year and I haven’t even met the guy. After TJ we take the I-5 to LA, where we gorge on tacos and decide who we want to be, then along the pacific coast highway to San Fran. After that I want to keep going north to Eureka cos I want to shout eureka when we pass the welcome sign, then maybe Crescent City for the redwood trees because you know how I love those. Who do you think you’ll be? I’m thinking of becoming a tree surgeon.”

Ben pretended to be asleep, letting her words fade into the blacktop. Through to their first wedding anniversary she kept raising the subject, and he stopped answering long enough for her to quit it by the second.

“I got this, you know,” Travis said, eclipsing Ben’s personal space by leaning against the fridge with that tree branch arm. “I mean, Jesus H, man, did you steal this suit from a homeless guy? You look like you fall asleep on buses.”

He unfastened one of Ben’s shirt buttons and flicked his tie. One of Travis’ molars was yellow-black. His breath smelled like a wet mop in a dive bar. Ben knew there was no way he could take him, even with the butter knife he’d tucked into his shirt sleeve. Travis brought his hand up quick like he was throwing a punch, but at the last second ran his fingers through his flimsy widow’s peak.

“Yeah, we’re good here,” Travis said, then up-nodded across the kitchen to an open door. Satisfied that he’d thrown a scare into Ben, he cowboy-walked through the arch. His hand hovered over his pocket, ready to draw.

The whiskey had given Ben enough nerve to square himself up and follow.

“What’s his deal, showing up so late?” he heard Travis say from the corridor.

“After this we’re free and clear. Promise.” The recliner shifted and groaned under added weight.

“Just want you to myself is all,” Travis said.

“You’ll soon have to learn to share.”

“Still can’t believe it’s happening.”

“This is what happens when a mummy and a daddy love each other very much and we get too drunk to tear the condom wrapper.”

“Quit it, space girl. You know I can’t wait to meet this kid.”

“I love that you smile when you say that.”

Ben heard smacking lips and tried to taste it. He pictured himself as Travis and tried to imagine what he was feeling. This version of Mindy was a bad facsimile. She’d never wanted kids, never settled for settling. What Ben loved about her had gone, or been buried deep enough to be forgotten. She’d chosen who to be and it wasn’t a person he knew, or cared to. This house, this street, this life was someone else’s pop-up picture book.

Ben slipped back down the corridor to the wood-panelled annexe. On a shelf above the washing machine and dryer he found a cardboard box labelled Ben’s crap. Inside was a roll of green felt, packs of playing cards, and multicoloured poker chips. He found a rusted can of Zippo lighter fluid under the kitchen sink, and a box of matches in the cutlery drawer. Ben wanted the Jameson’s, too, but Mindy’s mawkish giggle in the other room sent him through the screen door into the back yard.

The sulphur stench had thickened in the dying breeze. Ben’s shoes sank into the overgrown lawn, damp with dew. He lay down a couple of loose two- by-fours from half-built decking, and dropped everything on top. He got one good spray out the can and set the pile alight, allowing himself a whoop as it went. The flames were slow to build, so he tossed the hip flask in, too. The fire swelled appreciatively.

Ben watched the poker chips warp and bubble. He wondered what else he could toss in. First to go was the tie, then the jacket, soaked in sweat. Ben stripped down, all the way down. The fire grew something fierce as it took everything he had.

Movement came from inside the house. The flames nudged Ben backwards, and as the bubbles popped he remembered the gun. He ran to the side-gate, twice losing his footing on the wet grass, and gave the wood a hard shove. The rusted hinges had little give, so Ben tucked his head into his chest and squeezed through. He spilled back out to the front yard where the fox bolted from the trees to bare its teeth at the sight of this pale laughing phantom coming at it like death, naked as he came.

 

mattfire

Amy Blythe. In Exile.

10 Dec

IN EXILE

after In der Fremde by Heinrich Heine

I once had a place to call my own,
I went there for the peace,
to see the crawl of the trees
and watch flowers grow for me.
It was a dream.

But it touched me as if it were mine,
spoke to me as if I owned it,
loved as if it were real
and brought breath for me.

It was a dream.

 

 

 

flowerstem

An interview with artist Ashley Macias.

5 Dec

Ashley Macias’ artwork is often a reflection of nature and ourselves. Her work explores the complex nature of organic fluidity, the deeper consciousness, and appreciation for beauty that is existence. She uses acrylic and spray-paint to create an organic, surreal element associating with natural elements of color whether earth tone or vibrant, passionate arrays. The eyes are a common association with the Pineal gland, and her work is an expressive portrayal of a deeper insight to our living selves.

We caught up with Ashley after she returned from Burning Man 2014.

PEA RIVER

Do you find your style evolving as you continue to create art, or do you find yourself continuing to explore and perfect certain forms, with all their depths and complexity?

ASHLEY

My overall style is definitely progressing the more serious I become about the quality of my work. It’s not as apparent until many months have passed and I rummage through prior works. I tend to find internal conflicts in my work when I feel as if I am not advancing. Ultimately, it’s that very realization later on that teaches me where my process of creation is headed, and that I have in fact been making progress through these challenges. I’m always looking for a new direction without losing the very essence of my technique. When I am faced with conflicts of growth in my work, I become more radical and chaotic in my attempts. Deviating often helps me understand this. My style is becoming more defined and clear with more effort and time.

PEA RIVER

Do you have a process for approaching a new piece? Do you tend to plan in a formal way, or do you just start sketching?

ASHLEY

I try to be as organic as possible, but it often begins with a eye. There’s a deep essence that consumes me in the awareness and internal consciousness that mystifies my mind when I draw eyes. I try to be as fluid as possible when
creating a world around the eye and most often will paint a piece inspired by it. Organic lines, people, and dimensions consume me further. From a simpler perspective, I tend to plan through my drawings. They are all the things I wish to paint with time and planning. Sketching is like someone’s daily cup of coffee for me. It’s how I begin my day. I try to be as free as possible with my ideas on paper or canvas. I will sometimes intend something on canvas and find myself painting something completely new. It’s all about how I feel that determines the movement in my lines.

PEA RIVER

What is your current project?

ASHLEY

Organizing my projects seems to be my current project. I often take on more than I can handle. I have a deep willingness to try everything and be better than myself. Besides applying for upcoming grants and planning group shows with other local artists, I’m trying to become more involved in public art with youths and public mural work. So naturally I converged the two and will be working with non-profits to beautify walls with young minds in hopes of inspiring them through art. I’m also currently in the process of starting a more detailed and imaginative series as well. It’s something I am more privately evolving with time. I can’t quite grasp this new direction in my personal work, but I genuinely feel this will be very different from my previous conquests. It’s going to be special for me and hopefully for those with whom I share it.

PEA RIVER

When did you first know that you wanted to create art?

ASHLEY

Always. I was not always conscious that I could actually be a working artist, but I knew it was what I believed was my true happiness and that art was the only way. Being little and creating was my internal home. Nobody really told me I could do these things. As I got into my teens, I had more guidance with the help of teachers, which ultimately led me into an artist internship that changed my life for the better. Through artistic advances, my feelings about creating my work became more concise; therefore, I would challenge myself and become greater with effort, patience, and resilience. It’s who I am, and I’m proud it is the path I will walk my whole life.

 

ashleypaint

PEA RIVER

Who are you reading right now?

ASHLEY

Currently The Mission of Art by Alex Grey. It is always a great guideline and art inspiration book to pick up and read every so often. He has a lot to say about the creative process, and I tend to connect with his vision even if our work is not necessarily the same. I have other current interests in books such as The Resurrectionist & anatomy related texts.

 

ashleypainting2

PEA RIVER

Which artists and periods/ styles inspire you?

ASHLEY

I enjoy Romanticism & Surrealism overall. Both have a dramatic complexity I can’t quite explain but I feel through. I feel more attached to the subject matter. I don’t feel hugely inspired by particular artists. I enjoy some of the common greats like Dali, Basquiat, & M.C Escher, but they don’t necessarily define my work. I really try hard not to obsess about a lot of artists and their work in hopes of creating more of what’s internal in myself.

bwmypainting

PEA RIVER

You have also done collaborative and performance work. Where do you find the intersections between that work and your solo art, if you draw connections or lines? Is there significant bleed-through? Does one feed the other?

ASHLEY

I find plenty of inspiration in performance art. There’s something about the physical action through motion that allows me to grasp a better concept of what I am trying to convey in some of my work. Everything flows and has a process of natural fluidity in my eyes. Performance and my art are best friends. They compliment one another in my style of work. I find a lot of my technique comes from people such as dancers being physically creative. The form, the delicate gestures and the swiftness all compel me.They are so free and fluid in their craft. I recently brought my work to life through wood cutout figures and a group of dancers in the Scottsdale Public Art Water+Art +Light event. I painted them as surreal organic figures emerging from the water, and they performed as water with such dynamic presence and desire for our precious resource. It was a push into another direction for my art, and that has created more possibilities in the future with performers. I can take my solo work and incorporate it into actual living beings in various ways and interpretations, and that is exciting. I really want to become more involved in public and performance art. Collaborations allow me to break out of my comfort zone and gain useful tools while working with other artistic minds.

PEA RIVER

So I have to ask this question of everyone. If you could become a different animal, which animal would you be? And why?

ASHLEY

The first thing that came to mind was a Tiger like coated monkey with a Lion head feature and the eyes of a hawk and the heart of a child. It just sounded right, and then I laughed. I think I just prefer my own imagination.

 

ashleyheadshot

 

ASHLEY MACIAS is a downtown Phoenix based artist born in Laguna Niguel whose artwork is strongly influenced by everyday interactions and complexities of life through nature and consciousness. Self taught at a young age, Macias’s mind always runs wild with imaginative ways to translate the things we see, think & feel. Her techniques in bold line work are often inspired by the natural raw organic flow in plants, the aging of people, and a deeper awareness of complex human emotions.

Chris DiCicco. Why Wolves Take the Calves First.

2 Dec

WHY WOLVES TAKE THE CALVES FIRST

She should’ve been the one.

From atop my horse I scanned the mountainside, sweeping my eyes over the herd of cattle navigating down its bend.

If Mother Earth had a son, he’d be named Montana. She’d watch over him, never let anything happen.

But it would anyway.

Watching the last head of cattle, a small steer, become part of the moving train, I’m reminded of the missing calf from last night. His mother weighed eight times as much as him, moved slower.

It never seems right.

The wolves come down the mountain. They separate the herd—and they take the calf every time.

You never see it, only imagine how they do it.

Except when I play it out in my mind, it’s not always the calf they take. It’s her.

Even if it never really is.

***

The torn ground where the herd spent the night, the trampled grass, the blood, it tells me what happened.

The small hoof prints stop. From the looks, the wolves dragged the calf the rest of the way, pulled him off his feet. The imprint of the poor thing’s body across the mud looks like it goes on for some five more yards. The mess of blood, it’s an easy enough trail to follow. No point in arriving at its end.

The wolves are somewhere on the mountain, somewhere between the very bottom and the very top—I’m somewhere between that, between a herd of free roaming beef and them—so I reload my rifle because it makes me feel better.

Somewhere else, between all of this, is my wife Sue.

I wipe my leather saddle glove across the mud-caked denim of my work jeans, smearing the calf’s blood on myself.

No point in staying clean. Sue’ll know.

Should have sold the mother. Now she won’t eat because her calf’s gone.

Should have sent her off with the last order. Would have, if Sue hadn’t been convinced that time spent with the mother would guarantee the calf’s success on the mountain.

She was wrong.

Shouldn’t have bothered trying to keep a calf anyway. Not our business.

***

We make a living raising free-range cattle. Beef rich from the green Montana grasses they feed on. Our card says so.

It isn’t Chicago.

It isn’t a life either of us expected. Not at this point. The costumes fit though and the work keeps us busy. I put on the boots, ride the mountain. I wear what I’m supposed to. I keep doing it, all that I can, what I can, keep my mind away from cities, whatever memories lurk there. No more Chicago.

This. I hope it can be enough. It needs to be. Enough to make us smile once and awhile when the weather seems nice or the sun dips down behind the mountains.

A redefining of tranquility, if never peace.

***

The calf’s dried blood on my leg reminds me of the crushed red stone in the Montana quarry we passed when we first drove from Chicago to the ranch, when we rode in silence because Sue didn’t say a word to me the whole drive.

The red in those open mountain veins looked so natural and deep. It’s easy to mistake it.

I need to get off my horse, back in a car before I forget how to tell the difference between quarry dust and blood.

How natural it all seems here in Montana.

The herd has moved on. Maybe to put space between them and what happened last night. Maybe to eat.

***

A deep winkle forms on Sue’s brow at the news.

I don’t want to tell her it was one of the two calves, and I don’t have to. She knows.

The loss makes her face twist and show something. What it is depends on how well you know her. Whatever it was on her face disappears as quickly as it surfaces.

Where does she bury it?

Does it matter?

“Well, that makes three,” Sue says, sitting down at the kitchen table, pulling out her yellow legal pad.

“It does.”

“We’ll have to replace our loss and make up the difference by selling higher. Fatten them up.”

“Hard to fatten up free-range beef, Sue.”

“Well, they’ll have to range longer. Maybe go up along the northern side more.”

“Can’t. The wolves.”

“The Jonsons do it.”

“Yeah, the Jonsons sent the wolves our way.”

“They’re managing because they stay out there, camping, keeping an eye on their property—protecting it.”

“Sue, do you think any other Montana rancher who loses a calf to a wolf would begin protecting his livestock by sleeping with them up in the hills?”

My wife stands up, stares at me. She thinks it’s my fault, that I can’t protect them.

“It’s not possible, Sue. You know that. If wolves want one, they’re gonna get it.”

“The Jonsons stop ’em.” Her eyes refuse to meet mine.

“Yeah, and they do a much different business than we do. They raise calves. Their whole world is calves and making them into something the rest of us can decide what to do with.”

I sit down at the table, wrap my hands around Sue’s.

“We decided to sell free-range beef, that’s steers and heifers. The occasional calf is something we can handle. It happens. But we’re better off selling that last one to the Jonsons.”

“No. We’re not selling it to the Jonsons and losing a good investment. It’s a natural gain. And you want to throw that money away on the basis that it won’t survive here on our ranch.” She flings her words. Her eyes are wet.

I understand.

“Alright. There’s no reason we should throw away good money. It’s our good fortune to have a calf. Free money, right?”

“Why don’t you take the rifle up there, Mark? Just see if you can find them.”

“I’ll try.” Something flashes across her face with my last word.

“They’ve got a den somewhere on the north side,” Sue says, “where the pines get thick. I know it.”

***

Trotting off in the distance, disappearing further up the mountain, the wolves melt one after the other into the tree line, leaving her behind.

I check my rifle, pick up my binoculars.

***

We packed up our small Chicago apartment. We tried downsizing to a smaller, one room, but it wasn’t enough. We left. It was better than a divorce.

We didn’t save any of his things. No boxes full of toys. Possible hand-me- downs.

A friend came, took everything while we checked out the ranch.

We moved.

***

I lined her up. Put my finger on the trigger. She pushed her muzzle back and forth over her meal, not finished eating.

I almost shot. Refocused to be sure of the kill.

The wolf rested her muzzle on her dead pup. I was wrong. Then on another. She licked and nudged their small paws. Her entire litter. Three little pups. One moved, vomited, was still again.

I put down the rifle.

With my binoculars, I watched the wolf brush her nose over the last dead pup, holding it there until there was nothing left to do.

She melted into the forest away from the den. I would have left it at that, but she came back to stand over them, nuzzling and waiting.

I picked up my rifle, aimed and shot.

***

There was no way I could’ve known it’d be the last time I’d see him. In Chicago, they told me, reassured us. It wasn’t our fault he was taken. It wasn’t Sue’s.

***

“Don’t look so upset Mark.”

“It’s illegal.”

“Well, what if it is, there are plenty of other ways you’re allowed to kill them.”

“Poison, Sue?”

“Yeah, and we’re safer for it. We can keep the calf. I took care of it.” “Just the cubs.”

“What?”

“The cubs got to it first, I suppose.”

“What? How?”

“Did you put it by the den? That would do it, Sue.”

“The others?”

“Out hunting or too smart.”

“The mother?

“Can’t be around all the time.”

“Oh my god, she’s still alive?”

“No.”

Jason Mosser. Time Beforetime.

26 Nov

TIME BEFORETIME

What is the word, or is there one, I wonder,
as my wife rouges her cheeks, sips white wine,
and I mix whiskey and water,
the word for this indeterminate period we spend
getting ready to go out for the evening?
What is this lacuna? This present that,
nothing in itself, exists solely as prologue
to an imminent future.

It’s pretentious to say “pre-prandial”
because nobody knows what it means,
which is why nobody uses the phrase,
and shouldn’t it be as common as “cocktails”?

And it’s not happy hour, too intimate;
here, it’s just me & my soul mate.
And it’s not quite cocktails either.
Cocktails are drinks at the bar,
in a restaurant, waiting for a table,
or cocktails are what we’ll have later
with our friends after dinner.
No one says, “As I told my wife over
cocktails in the bedroom….” Sure,
you can say we’re having cocktails,
but it’s not about what we’re drinking
that I’m thinking, it’s about where and when.

It’s like before a play, with the actors
putting on make-up and costumes,
preening & psyching themselves.
Then it’s curtain call. One final
“How do I look?” “Fabulous, doll.”
Then we exit the dressing room
and enter, stage left, our scene, our city.

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