Issue #6 ~ Winter 2022
The Couple | Jiahui Wu
The Eternal Dead | Jiahui Wu
Other Good Stuff…
The Couple | Jiahui Wu
The Eternal Dead | Jiahui Wu
Other Good Stuff…
On Art, Authority, and Crows: A Modern Fable | Adam Graham
Not long after painting his last portrait at Longview Castle, Harold Heckling moved to London, installing himself in a wee-swank neighborhood named for a stale aristocratic game of leisure where he began frequenting Canaletto’s Lashing Stick Booksellers. Pondering away his afternoons in the backrooms of the old man’s dusty shop, Heckling eventually hit upon the inspiration for his Metapsychological Thrones, a revolutionary break from his previous painterly works into a variety of performance art, namely the construction of intricate tableau vivants utilizing the bodies of criminals who had been hanged for treason.
Thousands of naked, rotting corpses were established about the streets of London, induced to stand in various poses by an elaborate system of hidden metal frames and clamps inserted into the decomposing forms themselves, acting as their very bones and sinews. The exposed cadavers were presented in the quotidian humdrum of everyday life: a decomposing woman chastising her rotting husband, a decaying man reading the evening edition in the shadows of an English Oak. The resulting public exhibit was both grotesque and wonderful and, while a fascination with the exotic and bizarre was certainly widespread amongst the wealthy of the kingdom, Heckling’s work flustered the feathers and gall of the educated critics who branded it disgusting, unnecessary, and an unjustified and tangible attack upon the King and the People themselves.
The King was in concurrence with this opinion, and a swift justice was invoked. Heckling was arrested on a dismal, though poetically rendered, rainy morning. Tried that same wet afternoon, he was hung in the palace court at sunset.
Upon awakening the following morning, the King took breakfast in bed and read the morning edition, wherein a marvelous and intriguing opinion piece regarding Metapsychological Thrones cast the whole work in a completely different light than the educated critics had established. Canaletto’s writing thoroughly convinced the King. He jettisoned his breakfasting accoutrements across his room, bounded out of bed, dressed in a finely tailored modern suit and, without a jot of hyperbole, sprinted to the Royal Decree Room in the West Library breathlessly dictating Proclamation Number 24,758 to his royal scribes. The proclamation was subsequently read aloud at City Square and declared that Heckling was a National Hero and Friend of the Crown and, in honor of the great artist, the body of Heckling would join his last and pinnacle masterwork, Metapsychological Thrones. And thus the corpse of Heckling stands, naked, celebrated, privileged outside the Hall of Derby, his left hand shielding his dead eyes, his right hand extended out pointing to the Great Imperial West as the King’s best marksman stand about with raised and aimed rifles picking off the rapacious crows, ravenous for the decaying flesh of the thousands and thousands of dead.
About the Author:
Adam Graham is a writer and artist based in Asheville, North Carolina. His work is rooted in the complexities and dynamics of relationships, exploring issues of social class, identity, and the role language plays as both a force of connectivity and a force of disintegration.
The Boundary of Fairyland | Heather Ballmer
Her name was Helen.
Isn’t it always?
Best friends since second grade. Disney movies, sleepovers, imaginary worlds filled with magic and fairies, heroes and curses. Six years of friendship, a lifetime when you’re twelve.
It happened that awkward summer after seventh grade. We ran wild through the wide world as defined by how far our bikes were allowed to carry us. Still playing pretend while knowing the time for such childish games had passed. It was our last hurrah before we would be forced to assimilate into the 8th grade world of makeup, pretty bras, and french kissing.
We gossiped about a friend of a friend named Sarah who had french kissed a boy at the 8th grade dance. We were scandalized and intrigued while also being totally grossed out by the thought of another person’s tongue in our mouth. “Why? Why would anyone want to do that? Ewww.”
Sarah said it was gross, but also kind of nice. Mostly it just sounded gross.
Helen was better with people than me, better at belonging. She moved through the world with the confidence of a girl who never thought the universe would deny her anything. It made our ridiculous make-believe games seem almost real. She was, of course, always the Princess and I was whatever support character we needed for the game: the strict queen, the evil sorcerer, the valiant prince, the poor blind girl who gives the Princess a gift to aid her on her journey.
That summer had a feeling of urgency and finality. Already Helen was making more popular friends. She’d join the ranks of girls who are great at makeup, have boyfriends, and somehow effortlessly transition into high school and beyond. I couldn’t fit in with those friends. I might as well have been from a completely different country for how foreign their world seemed. Were they born understanding what color of lipstick to wear and how to paint their nails without getting it all over the cuticle?
No, I would remain in the lower echelon with the smart, but not popular kids. Band geeks, theater geeks, choir geeks, math nerds, science nerds, basically any stripe of geek or nerd, those would be my people.
Helen and I were determined to make the best of our last summer as BFFs. We would play like we were still kids: run around, dig a giant hole under her back fence for no reason, swim in her pool, and make up all sorts of ridiculous things about local landmarks.
“Oh! That’s the tree where they hanged a Seminole medicine woman! Now her spirit haunts these trees demanding a sacrifice from all who walk too close.”
“See these flowers? They bloom here because a prince cried over his lost princess on this very spot!”
“Oh! Look at these mushrooms. It’s a fairy ring. If we step through the middle the fairies will kidnap us underhill and won’t release us for 100 years!”
I can still picture the exact moment it happened.
In my mind I’m right there.
We are running through the woods and around the pond; spinning a wild tale of witches, a curse, a hidden princess, a desperate prince.
The Florida summer is oppressive and suffocating. Sweat and dirt plaster my shirt to my chest. Sticky and hot, but having too much fun to head back to one of our houses for a/c, we slow down next to the lake.
I throw myself onto the grass, briefly squinting up at an impossibly blue sky, before watching Helen look for the next storytelling prop near the water.
Our summer adventures had turned me bright red and peeling in places, my mom constantly yelling after me to bring sunscreen. But on Helen it had created a dusting of cinnamon colored freckles across her nose, the tops of her shoulders, sweeping across her collarbone, and even over the tops of her knees. We had played together many previous summers, but I’d never noticed the freckles before. Now I find myself staring at them. Trying to memorize their constellations in hopes of finding a familiar path back home. A way to both stay right here forever and be grown up already.
Suddenly Helen lunges at the water, soaking one tennis shoe as she sends up a triumphant shriek. Quick as anything she scoops up something.
The sunlight, blinding on the water of the lake, Helen’s hair flashes like copper as it tries to break free of its sloppy braid, her muddy hand grips a fat toad its legs dangling, lake water makes muddy tracks like tiny streams down her arms, her laughter shows a bottom tooth that slightly overlaps its neighbor. She is beautiful.
My heart squeezes and I can’t breathe. I realize.
My entire life, destroyed and reordered by one red haired girl.
She runs towards me yelling “The prince! Quick, kiss him! Kiss the froggy!”
Happily ever after is for fairy tales and sometimes love is a crueler curse than any witch could conceive.
Helen drops to her knees in front of me. “Come on. Don’t be shy. Kiss the froggy!” She makes kissy noises and holds the toad out towards me.
I close my eyes and make a wish. Summoning what is left of my childhood as an offering. A last chance to believe in magic and hope and possibility.
I lean down.
I part my lips.
And I swallow the toad.
About the Author:
Heather Ballmer is a queer writer living on Florida’s Gulf Coast with her very spoiled dog. When she’s not writing you’ll find her on the beach.
What the Cherub Saw | Derek Harmening
We spent five days in July repaving the Arrowhead Baptist Church parking lot. That summer found us approaching saintliness, all bronze and sinew, terracotta forms baked into the husks of our lime-green safety shirts.
The pavement on which our town’s lavender-scented Buick Lucernes and Lincoln Town Cars settled each week was older than my parents. Decades of fickle weather, of ruthless freeze-thaw cycles, had left the once-sturdy ground riddled with alligator cracks. Potholes emerged like lanced boils. We were sent to tear it up, stabilize it, resurrect it. Each morning, the air cool on our necks, the clipped lawns still glinting with dew, we arrived, young and able-bodied, to desecrate that holy ground.
Bored mothers eyed us wantonly from the safety of the sidewalk. Filing into the church vestibule, they sighed as we pulverized asphalt, murmured as we spread tack oil. They brushed dry palms over poplin skirts, racking up a few blissful seconds of covetousness for which they’d soon be absolved.
There were three of us: Hilliard, McTeague, and me. Fischer, the project manager, didn’t count. He was twenty years our senior, partially deaf, and spun dark theories about ancient symbols he claimed were hidden in the creases of sweat-damp dollar bills.
“Population control,” he’d shout from the throne of his asphalt roller, jabbing a calloused index finger at webs of contrails floating in the sky. “A toxic cocktail meant to snuff us out. Better believe it.”
Hilliard was bookish. The ungodly hours he spent poring over Dostoevsky and Woolf, his wiry frame slouched against a heap of featherdown pillows, vision deteriorating in the oily half-light of a bedroom lamp, manifested by day in the bags beneath his eyes.
“Poetry’s for women,” McTeague spat, whenever Hilliard began to ruminate on some passage he’d been chewing over.
“You what?” yelled Fischer, cupping hand to ear.
“Speaking of which,” McTeague said. “Ought to get yourself a girl, Hill. Then you can read to her every night. Stop yapping at us for a change.”
McTeague’s rap sheet, a scarlet letter of assault and petty theft, clung to him like an unsightly mole. His own employment resulted from a lost bet. His father played euchre with Fischer and, at one such gathering, called in a favor.
“Forget it,” Fischer said, fanning his cards. “I work with heavy machinery.”
“Let’s play for it,” said McTeague’s father.
A case of Schlitz and three tricks later, the old men shook hands, and McTeague had a job.
We never spoke of McTeague’s troubles. The gist was clear: he’d drift for a few months, burning through odd jobs, before invariably landing himself, bleary-eyed and shivering, in the Lynn County jail. Other stories we pieced together ourselves, a wet pulp of rumor and hearsay. Supposedly, McTeague’s cleft lip was a souvenir from a knife fight with a man whose wife he’d bedded. Once, when he thought he’d been hustled in a game of one-pocket, he broke a pool stick over his rival’s head.
We thrived on these details, consumed them like air.
“Hilliard, for Christ’s sake,” said Fischer, kneeling to survey the fresh parking stripes. “Did you sleep last night? Looks like someone with delirium tremens painted these.”
The sun glared down on Arrowhead Baptist Church. Hymns emanated from within. A small fiberglass cherub ornamented the front lawn. Around its polished neck hung a plasterboard sign reading: HOPE WILL ARISE.
Hilliard leaned over the Rust-Oleum line striper, shaking his head. “Tom Sawyer,” he said, “would have tricked you into doing this yourself.”
Lunch was our sacred time. We devoured bacon-topped pizzas, hard-boiled eggs, Italian beef sandwiches, loaded submarines. We broke cookies that tasted of vanilla cardboard, read each other’s fortunes over the greasy remains of our General Tso’s chicken.
“The usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness.”
“To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”
Hilliard was snoring beneath an elm tree. When we prodded him awake, he said he’d been up ’til 3 a.m. with Jane Eyre.
McTeague ran a tongue over chapped lips. “She cute?”
The air boiled with the rank odor of bitumen. We’d begun resurfacing the final quadrant, a narrow, rutted plain shaded by leaves.
“A kid I knew died here,” said McTeague. “This exact spot.” His arms, covered wrist to shoulder in inked tapestries of rose blossoms and half-clad women, rippled as he worked a steel tamper over the hot-asphalt mix.
“Sure he did,” I said.
“Right hand to God. Freak accident. Same year that beauty pageant girl was strangled.”
“Speak up,” barked Fischer.
It happened, said McTeague, to a first grader named Andrew. A blizzard dumped twenty inches on Lynn County. Buried sedans, collapsed roofs, nowhere left to pile it all. Snowplows filled whole parking lots, including Arrowhead’s, with icy mounds ten feet high. Andrew, bedecked in navy pants, red mittens, and a striped Peruvian hat, had arrived at the church and begun digging tunnels. He was burrowing away, hidden from view, when a snowplow rolled into the lot, delivered a fresh heap of snow, and trapped Andrew inside. He suffocated.
“How’d they find him?” Hilliard asked, wiping the rheum from his eyes.
“Warm spell,” McTeague said. “The choir ladies saw him first. His arm was poking out like a branch. His mittens were still on.”
The cherub watched from its spot on the lawn. A sprinkler coughed to life, draping it in mist. I imagined a child’s mitten reflected in its resin eye.
We finished the next day. Loaded up, cleared out. From within the jungle-tropic sanctuaries of our home bathrooms, we convalesced. Applied frothy handfuls of Dove soap to burned, tar-blackened flesh. We winced with relief, pressed our faces into the hot spray as whorls of filth swirled down and away.
The three of us stayed on through fall, until the elms shed their robes and the gutters choked.
In October, McTeague was arrested for stealing hood ornaments.
That parking lot will outlive us all.
About the Author:
Derek Harmening’s work has appeared in Five on the Fifth, Newfound Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Flash Fiction Magazine, 101 Words, and Vita Brevis among others. His flash fiction story “Stitches” was the recipient of the 101 Words Editors’ Choice Award in February 2017. A Nebraska native, Derek now lives and writes in Chicago.
Where Did You Go, Ruby? | By Karen Gettert Shoemaker
We told ourselves that her bad habits explained how Ruby could disappear one day and not one of us noticed. She rushed in at least a half hour late for every meeting, if she came at all. She wasn’t exactly thoughtless and could hardly be accused of being disorganized; she simply operated on her own clock, lived in her own world.
Weeks of her absence went by with only an occasional shrug of irritation from one or another of us when she missed an appointment or a longstanding date. That’s so Ruby, we’d say, some with fondness and some with a tinge of anger in our voices. We’re not going to lie, the angry ones among us would think, good. She didn’t show up, again. We can quit this charade of friendship. We never knew what she was talking about half the time anyway. Ruby’s tendency to leap from metaphoric peak to metaphoric peak could leave a listener’s head a spin, there’s no denying that. Those of us who taught literature felt at home in her flights, but those of us who work with our hands or on our feet all day or night often grew impatient; we just wanted her to touch ground now and then.
Okay, we’ll admit it, there’s also no denying her lateness, her personality even, could get tiresome. It’s not as if only her time mattered, after all. Friendships have rules, or they should.
The fond ones among us though, those of us charmed by her flights into the uncharted stratosphere of the mind, we continued to wait for her even after she’d stood us up completely more than once. We grew accustomed to sitting alone in the corner booth of the coffee shop waiting longer even than Ruby’s clock required of us. We learned to make use of our waiting time; we took up new hobbies, learned new languages, had babies, or climbed mountains. We would continue to glance up with hope each time the door to the coffee shop opened or a car slowed down as if to pull into the parking lot. When we’d finally give up and head back to our own lives of errant teens and unpaid bills, we would often stand on the street a moment, waiting just a little longer. We felt her absence as a tear in the fabric of ourselves and we longed for the mending thread of her laughter, even when we had to wait and wait for her. We would recall her capacity to listen, like a compass. Without her to tell our deepest thoughts to we sometimes found ourselves uncertain about which way to turn.
How long before we started to wonder where she had gone? When did one and then another of us ask around to see if anyone had seen her lately? Who among us was the last to see her? Did she tell any one of us she was leaving? How long before the niggles of our curiosity become bubblings of concern?
Looking back, it’s hard to say what the time frame was for when we started asking until we started forgetting. Long enough, we now know, for the city to have built a park on the land where her home once stood. Time enough for trees to grow to full height, for perennial beds to bloom and thrive – always a bit behind the season, some noticed.
Some of us, the angry ones I mean, sometimes go there, to the park where she used to live, to wait for her, though we tell ourselves we’re just looking for fresh air. But we know, the honest ones among us, that something magic slipped out of our lives a long time ago and we don’t know how to get it back. Some of us claim to have seen her, not clearly, only in that sacred space in the corner of our eyes. We always turn to greet her, but of course we’re always too late to catch her.
About the Author:
Karen Gettert Shoemaker writes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, book reviews, journal entries, and endless lists. Her most recent work, a reflection on the role of ordinary people during a pandemic, was published in the New York Times in 2020. Her novel, The Meaning of Names, was selected for the One Book One Nebraska statewide reading program in 2016 and the Omaha Reads community reading program in 2014. It was republished in China in 2020. Her award-winning short story collection, Night Sounds and Other Stories, was published in the US in 2002, and republished in the United Kingdom in 2006. Her work has been published in the London Times, Prairie Schooner, South Dakota Review, and included in a variety of anthologies of poetry and fiction.
She is the founder and director of Larksong Writers’ Place, a nonprofit organization offering independent writing workshops, manuscript consulting, and community-building for aspiring writers. She is also a writing mentor with the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s MFA in Writing Program.
What I Lost in September | By Autumn Bettinger
The night was cold and wet. The streetlights blurred, like oil in water, hazy and indistinct against the Seattle rain. The coat I wore was dark purple, the color of queens you said. Underneath was a soft, summer dress, white and pink and fully out of place.
I wore it because it was my birthday dress from so many years ago. The one you said made me look like a bouquet of unattainable delight. The one that matched the drink you bought me. The one that caught the sunlight just so and caused half the bar to turn and watch us, thick as thieves, fingers close but not touching, eyes connected but not with the film of lovers, with the sparkle of something deeper, untouched by lust but rooted in the dust of souls.
As I stepped into the bar, shed my coat and hung it, I looked around. I didn’t recognize anyone. Funny, isn’t it? When we came here, we knew everyone. We knew which seats creaked and which bar stools always held tourists. We ate late night bruschetta and had one too many martinis in the rosy glow of old lamps.
I sat myself at the table in a corner, our old table. The one that was just a little deeper in. The one slightly apart from all the others. The one where I laughed so hard, I knocked over my glass of wine and turned your white shirt red. I told you it looked like you had been murdered.
I order a Gibson, old raj. I order one for you too. I tell the bartender that my friend will be coming, and I’d like to have it ready for him when he arrives. I sit in that pink light, in a dress that doesn’t belong, sipping and staring at the big windows where rain drops bursts apart.
I think about the time I told you I was heartbroken. I think about the time you told me I was worth more than anyone I had ever touched. I watch the rain and order bruschetta and think about the pasta we made and the stories we wrote, the long hikes and the late-night gas station chicken with ketchup.
I wonder about how it ended. I wonder if things would have been different if we had met up that night. This night, so many years ago. If I hadn’t moved to Portland. If a night cap would have kept you off that street. That street where you were walking with your girlfriend, laughing about something. I like to think you were laughing.
I wonder if it looked like wine; when it soaked through that linen in little beads like rubies and I was horrified but you just grinned and grabbed your napkin and ordered me another glass. I ran through the details so many times, like a spin cycle in my mind, washing the same old clothes, the blood never quite coming out.
I sipped the cold gin, looking at your untouched drink, wondering about the conversation we would be having now. How I’d talk about my kids instead of new books and new dresses on late summer nights. How despite all the change, we’d fall into old conversations, the best kinds of conversations, the ones that hang like hammocks between people who’ve known each other through lifetimes.
I leave money on the table, and I leave your drink untouched, your chair untouched, your hand untouched. I don’t try to beat you to the check or check my makeup in the back of the silverware while you pretend not to notice. You don’t offer to get my coat or walk with me to the light rail. I stand outside, looking at the rain, watching it blow sideways and coat the street.
I miss you more in this moment than in the seven years you’ve been gone. This moment where we say we’ll see each other tomorrow. This moment where we hug and laugh and share a slender cigar. This moment where we say I love you and know it to be true, like tomatoes and basil, like gin and onions, like spilled wine.
About the Author:
Autumn is a stay at home mom who lives in Portland Oregon with her husband and two young children. She graduated from Portland State after moving to Oregon from Seattle. Her parents are both from the midwest, and growing up she spent many summers at Lake Otsego in Michigan. When not parenting, Autumn is squeaking out a little writing here and there amid the laundry and the diaper changes.
Precipitate | By Silver Webb
Leonard had forgotten Christmas. Or he’d forgotten her on Christmas. And it was easier to think that it was one rather than the other.
Laney turned on her heater, a red enamel stove. Nietzsche sometimes singed his fur on it when he sauntered by, flicking his tail like the baton of a band leader.
She opened the window in the door that led to the moon-dark patio.
“Rain at 9. Phone says so,” she remarked to Nietzsche, who lurked under the unfortunate Christmas tree. Unfortunate because it was not green, not even silver. It was blood red. The red of dahlias or a femme fatale’s lipstick. A Type-O tree. The kind Dracula might order, were he in the habit of celebrating the birth of Christ.
It was not that she was in love with Leonard. There was not enough illusion left to weave a romance with. She knew that he failed at most endeavors, that many women had loved him and lost by it, that he cared truly about a few things, and she had been one of those things, for a few minutes. And although she excelled at killing herself in the figurative sense, was actually quite bad at killing herself literally, she had come to Leonard so bruised to begin with, that it was a disappointment akin to summoning one last sigh, after having the air punched out of you by a ruthless fist. No, she was not in love with Leonard. It was that he knew how to have conversations that mattered.
Laney plugged in the tree. Red as the flaming torch of Hades. Nietzsche blinked at her from his perch under it, dissatisfied and murderous. Laney checked the weather app. 100% chance of precipitation at 9 p.m. Yet it was perfectly still through the window screen, no hint of violent clouds massing.
She opened her email and wrote:
I ordered the silver tinsel tree. I received a blood red tinsel tree instead. There is not enough time to return it. So I put it up with ornaments. It has been called “Rosemary’s Tenenbaum,” and “Tree of Terror” by friends. When my black cat sits under it, his eyes glow, like the tree is a vortex into hell. If this doesn’t summarize 2020, what does?
She sent the email, then checked for texts. Nothing.
It must be terrible for Leonard, to slowly forget everything. But how much worse to be the one who is slowly forgotten.
It was raining now, the weather app said. She heard only the lone drip of the garden hose among the darkened camellias and bougainvillea, the lemon and orange trees in terracotta pots, even the rosemary plant that Leonard had gifted her.
“What’s its name?” she’d asked.
“It needs a name?”
“I think that would be nice.”
She wondered if she was like Aida, like the rosemary. When he forgot her completely, when it came to that, would it kill her? Would she die for lack of sun? That is what Leonard was, something warm and illuminating. Oxygen when she couldn’t find a breath.
The downside of being quiet and stoic is that everyone assumes that if you ask for nothing, you need nothing. Except Leonard. He never assumed. She told him once, “I don’t trust anyone who hasn’t considered suicide.” And he nodded, said, “Suffering is the way we write, the way we paint, maybe the only reason to do either.” He’d given her one of his hugs then. Warm and deep, not in a hurry, not afraid.
Laney’s pulse sparked at a blip in her email. But it was from customer service, not Leonard.
“Well, let’s see what they say, Nietzsche.”
Dear customer, we’ve refunded the $25.59 for your purchase. We’re sorry it didn’t meet your expectations.
Laney felt cheated that it only took two minutes for their bots to initiate a refund.
She wanted to call Leonard, tell him about the blood-red tree, the irony in grasping for a sense of connection from an automated reply, the modern alienation of looking to her phone rather than the sky to tell the weather. And they would proceed to have a conversation that mattered.
But if she called him now, it would go to voicemail, she could predict this better than any fortune teller. She put on her socks with the peppermint stripes, slipped under the covers, placed her phone on the pillow opposite hers, the one a lover might’ve occupied. If she had a lover.
The sound was like the prickle of skin, if the prickle of skin could make a sound. Rain. A few drops of it. Finally. Off kilter, snickering and snapping, the kind of jazz people say they understand, although they do not. Miles Davis rain. A blood red nail tapping against glass. How futile, to describe something as simple as water falling from the sky.
She texted, The rain sounds like eggs frying and popping in a pan. Merry Christmas, sweetheart. XOXO.
Leonard would check his texts in a few days. In a week, he’d call, say, “Was I supposed to call you?” And she would ask him what he’d been doing on Christmas Eve. Drinking brandy, she thought, and watching Fellini films, and forgetting, forgetting, forgetting.
As if it was in a hurry, as if it knew the weather app had been stalling, lying on its behalf, the rain suddenly bloomed and ballooned into something musical, hitting the roof, a humming, luminous sound like distant applause, a symphony swelling, then a furor, something ruthless, like the fist that had stolen her breath. In the dark, it must be washing away dirt, flooding the patio, floating the fallen camellia’s away. When the sun rose tomorrow, brilliant and warm, it would light on cherry-red bricks, new-born palms, a Rosemary named Aida. All the verdant world wiped clean of memory’s dust, gleaming and new.
About the Author:
Silver Webb is the editor and founder of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. Her nonfiction has been featured in Food & Home, Still Arts Quarterly, The Pacifica Post, and other websites. Her fiction and poems have been accepted by Peregrine, Burgeon, Danse Macabre, Underwood, and Pink Panther, as well as the anthologies The Tertiary Lodger, Delirium Corridor, and Running Wild. She has participated as a panelist at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference and the Santa Barbara Library Local Authors Day.You can find more details at silverwebb.com and santabarbaraliteraryjournal.com.
Famous Checkmates in Grabowski Family History | By KP Vogell
Famous Checkmates in Grabowski Family History
Kevin Grabowski vs. Food
Kevin Grabowski, age three, is toddling around his parents’ kitchen. A half-open cabinet reveals a large, crinkly paper bag filled with two pounds of white granulated heaven. He shoves it by the fistful into his small mouth only to taste not sugar, but salt, and vomits immediately. The vomit is, for some reason, bright orange.
Winner: Food, checkmate in two moves.
May Grabowski’s dreams vs. Herb Grabowski
After being born in poverty in rural Cambodia; after miraculously surviving five common deadly childhood diseases; after being selected of the children in her impoverished village to study high school; after winning a scholarship to nursing school; after successfully graduating nursing school although neither of her parents could read; after miraculously surviving the American carpet-bombing of her country; and after miraculously winning a visa to the US, May Oak meets Polish-Italian Herb Grabowski, newly-minted dentist, and marries him. They soon have a child: Kevin Grabowski.
Herb promises May that as soon as Kevin can go to kindergarten, she’ll be allowed to return to her first passion, nursing. When Kevin turns five, however, Herb Grabowski decides to open his own practice and suggests that, to save money, May work as his secretary, just for a little while. After a few years May tries to quit and go back to nursing, but her husband insists that the business needs her and he cannot possibly entrust the work to a mere secretary.
Fifteen years later, May is still working as her husband’s secretary. Patients call her “May”; they call Herb “Dr. Grabowski.” None of them think that this small Asian woman with a thick accent is married to the dentist.
Winner: Herb Grabowski, checkmate in 34 moves.
Herb Grabowski vs. Himself
In 1969 a young Herb Grabowski, recent dropout of SUNY Plattsburgh, is living in Key West in a bungalow belonging to the friend of a friend of a friend of an acquaintance. He has been high on marijuana for an indeterminate amount of time, anything from a few hours to six to eight months. Sunburned and full of shrimp and Keystone Light, he is unfazed when a friend of a friend of a friend arrives at the house one Sunday morning with, like, BAGS of amanita muscaria, fly agaric mushrooms. Herb, who by now has ceased to think in symbolic language, accepts a dose with the same openness with which he has accepted everything in the last several hours or maybe months, including a shipwreck; the invasion of the house by a motorcycle gang from South Dakota; the biting of a policeman by one of his housemates’ pet monkeys; and the appearance and disappearance of several women whom he swore, within hours of meeting them, he was destined to marry. Excited to be finally opening the doors of perception, Herb scarfs down the mushrooms. He proceeds to have a 24-hour trip during which he barricades himself in the bathroom and, while vomiting and having continuous diarrhea, personally experiences in the cells of his body the Big Bang, the Ice Age, the death of Christ, the building of the Great Wall of China, the French Revolution, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and, most importantly, unification with all matter and superhuman eternal and ever-abiding love for mankind. When he emerges from the bathroom, spattered with his own vomit and feces, he realizes that his mission in life is to write a book conveying the profundity of this past life/death/resurrection experience. Instead, he finds that his friends have stolen all his money from where it was stashed in his hammock and have used it to buy more cocaine.
He hitchhikes into town to call his parents from a payphone and begs them to wire him money. They agree to give him enough money for the Greyhound back to Plattsburgh, but only if he makes good on his potential and gets a decent job. He palms the mouthpiece and asks a homeless man sitting on a wall next to the payphone. The man suggests dentistry.
Forty years later, having tasted the ambrosia of enlightenment and glimpsed eternal truth and then forgotten all about it, Herb, now morbidly obese and undergoing emergency open-heart surgery for four blocked arteries, realizes that he never shared the glory of his experience with the world, and that the message may very well die with him the next day on the operating table, a prediction that turns out to be true. And so, last minute cramming to beat all last-minute cramming, procrastinatory Hail Mary to beat all procrastinatory Hail Marys, he calls in his son Kevin, now twenty years old, to sit by his bedside the night before the surgery and receive a core dump of this treasured message from beyond.
Kevin, however, having continued in basically the same vein since the checkmating by food at the age of three, and now weighing well over 340 pounds, although appearing to take in every word of Herb’s, although nodding and looking very attentively at his father’s rapidly moving mouth, is actually thinking about something else entirely—the contents of the vending machine outside the hospital room door. As his father blabs on about stardust and guillotines and ever-abiding love, Kevin is running through his mind the junk food he can buy from the vending machine the moment the nurse comes in to kick him out: Twix, Chex Mix, Almond Joy, Hershey’s, Pringles, Gummi Bears. No unification, no eternal anything, no enlightenment: you have bested yourself, Dr. Grabowski.
Winner: Herb Grabowski, checkmate in 1,459 moves.
About the Author:
KP Vogell is an artist, musician, writer, and Californian who has also been published in PANK and who occasionally posts on instagram as @komischevogell.
Near Drowning in a Desert | By Travis Stephens
Roman nearly drowned and nobody saw it. He was wading out to cool off, the wide froth of the public beach littered with the Labor Day weekend. Record heat had been forecast for Los Angeles and it came. He left his studio apartment and walked past the coffeehouse and through a sleepy, torpid Santa Monica. In his eyes it was a place of lovely women and gimlet-eyed men who patrolled it in sports cars. He was a retired Army Corps of Engineer flood control officer who appreciated that the streets of Santa Monica had deep troughs cut in them to shed rain. He followed the flow of non-existent water toward the ocean.
In his years in the Corps he had been stationed along rivers. They ran like worry beads through his memory—Tombigbee, Tennessee, Missouri, Mississippi. He wasn’t concerned with the sinuous run of rivers, rather the way they flattened and spread. Flood plain. Control plain. Diversion and Spill. When he drove up from a river bottom, climbing onto a levee he looked past the bars and shacks, he saw the cool pool that resided between floods and thought acre-feet and acre-feet as far as he could see. So much possibility. These people could drive to higher ground, probably.
By some strange fluke he missed most major flood events. When the Red River of the North shrugged off its ice and swallowed Fargo he had been in Hawaii. When the Ohio could not handle two days of torrential rain, he had been in New Orleans at a training seminar on protecting endangered species. Two years ago, he had left the Southwest District having weathered seven years of drought. Three months into his retirement Texas tried to float away.
When Peg was still living with him, she said he was a lucky charm. His career was made in preparation for disasters that never occurred when he was around. Never a car wreck. Not a single broken bone. Then Marcy needed help with the grandchildren. Peg had moved into their converted garage and stayed.
“Mother-in-law unit,” Roman teased.
“Come with me,” she said. “You always liked Cincinnati. One of your favorite rivers.”
Somehow he hadn’t. The lease was paid for the rest of the year. His doctors were here. Winter is no time to leave California for the Midwest. She had stopped asking.
The wave caught him not ready. He had left his towel, shirt and shoes up on the dry sand. These were a pair of trunks that dropped to mid-thigh like a cross between board shorts and hiking gear. Roman had never been too big. Built more like a quarter miler.
One of the young women working at the coffee house had told him that he had a nice smile. She was the afternoon shift and wore eyeliner that rose in the corners like something Egyptian. When she smiled the eyeliner tried to touch the line of her brow. She took his order for coffee and entered it into a computer.
“You want a pastry with that?” she asked.
He was thinking about her when he waded in. On the path he had passed an umbrella that shaded a woman lying on a towel. A wide straw hat covered her face but he thought her hips were that of the afternoon shift. Add an apron. It was possible. This woman under the umbrella wore a bikini the color of an iced latte.
The water had been cool and waves raced in, pushing small storms of pebbles with them. These waves stung his feet and so Roman hurried into deeper water. In a few steps it felt sandy and then the bottom dropped into a trough, cold water and deep. He had opened his arms to enter the water and a wave met him. It lifted him from his crouch to upright then tossed him. Roman was roiled, sanded and tumbled into the gravel.
He tasted salt and the grit of sand. Because his eyes were open the wave was caramel with sand and foam. A cappuccino. He flailed but the wave decided to hold him down among the stones. Roman dug like a dog, kicked like one too. His eyes were open and all he saw was shadow.
He rolled to the surface with sand in his ears. He climbed to his feet and felt the sting where the gravel tore at his feet and knees. He staggered toward shore. Adrenaline lifted his feet.
Nobody noticed. He felt another wave chase him. It sent water and sand up the back of his legs. A few more steps and he was ashore. Before him, acres of wet sand studded with birds. Beyond that, acres of dry heat, volleyball courts and the parking lots. Hundreds of people writhed and waited, splashed and swam. Lifeguard towers watched with young girls in their shade trying to be noticed. Roman walked toward his towel and shoes. Too wet to put on his shirt, he sat in the hot sand and wore the towel like a boxer. The sand stung the bottoms of his feet and he saw blood run from a dozen small cuts.
One of the websites he still subscribed to was the water quality report. After a rain, he knew, the coli form levels went dangerously high. Midsummer it was the air went bad. Roman looked out to sea and saw a cotton haze that looked stained. Like the sky needed bleach. Or blue, he recalled. Peg put blue in the wash to make the sheets brighter.
Roman looked around him and, seeing no one watching, simply walked away. Made another decision without effort. There were jet planes lined up past the water treatment plant, waiting their turn. One or two were bound to go east. Los Angeles was due for an earthquake, plus was in the fire season. A place can be lucky only so long.
About the Author:
Travis Stephens is a tugboat captain who resides with his family in California. A University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire alumni, recent credits include: Gyroscope Review, 2River, Sheila-Na-Gig, GRIFFEL, Offcourse, Crosswinds Poetry Journal, Gravitas and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.
Extra Large for the Lord | By Tomas Baiza
We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.
Joey, tragically White and clueless. Joey who’s in my English and P.E. classes, but thank God not Trigonometry or Health, well, homeboy yanks the half-burnt order ticket from under the sizzling pizza. He squints at it and twists up his face, pale fingers wrapped round the intercom mic. Beyond him, a packed dining room of Friday-night customers.
“Hurry up, dude,” I say, super-heated pizzas rotating past my face, each time around smokier than the last.
Joey’s frown sinks in deeper. “This name…”
Crowding the hulking gas oven are fifteen pizzas on dual rotating decks. I have zero doubt that Dante Alighieri’s editor made him remove the chapter where he declared the cramped kitchen of a strip mall pizza restaurant as one of the lowest levels of Hell. I sigh and slide the wood-handled peel under one particularly abused victim, its face deformed by angry welts of bubbled dough and curling anchovies. “Call it out, pendejo!” I heft the pizza on the peel and can’t decide whether to catapult it at Joey’s face or lay it on the cutting table next to the perfect pepperoni he has sliced and placed under the angry orange heat lamps.
Joey’s frown morphs into resistance. “But, I can’t—”
“The fuck can’t you do?” I say. “Call the name or I swear to God, man.” Dripping in the oven’s heat, I choke on the smoking essence of incinerated bell peppers and crumbled linguiça so close to combustion that it glows like charcoal. I think about how I could be washing dishes at Bangkok Garden across the street. It’s not as hot—and I’d get a bowl of tom kha kai and Thai iced tea on my break.
Joey shrugs. “If you say so, Luís.” From him, it always sounds like “Louise.”
“Keep it up, dickweed.”
He leans to the mic, flicks the button, and side-eyes me, like See what I’m ‘bout to do?
“JEEZ-us, your pizza’s ready! Extra-large pepperoni for JEEZ-us. JEEZ-us, come on up and get your pizza!”
Joey says JEEZ-us like one of those flabby-jowled t.v. preachers, the ones who convulse, white-knuckled, over the pulpit, armpits soaked from the faith and eyes wild with grace, amphetamines, and all the tax-deductible donations.
The crowded dining room falls silent, families frozen in wonder at the outside chance they’ll get to see the one and only Son of God collect his 3,000-calorie dinner on a busy Friday night.
“You ignorant-ass bolillo,” I say. My head spins from the smoke billowing from the oven, but I can’t bring myself to get back to work, to avert my stinging eyes, to miss the closest thing to an honest-to-God Advent I’ll ever witness. “Jesús,” I mumble, stepping up to the cutting counter with the burnt medium anchovy.
“Je-SÚS, bro. That’s how you pronounce it.”
Joey scratches his head. “Isn’t that just Mexican for JEEZ-us?”
At the back of the dining room, next to the massive flatscreen broadcasting the Angels tied-up with the Devil Rays in the ninth, a man stands. Two hundred eyes lock onto JEEZ-us—Jesús—as he edges past the woman he’s come with. I’d bet my entire week’s minimum-wage salary that her name is María. Except this Mary is no virgin because there’s an infant on her breast and a toddler on each side grinding cheap restaurant crayons into waxy crumbs that I’ll have to sweep up after closing.
Jesús scans the room, a hundred expectant faces turned towards him. He musses the hair of one of the toddlers and steps around the end of the long table into the aisle that leads to me and Joey. He is tall, barrel chested, with a clean white button-up stretched tight over his round belly and pushed into midnight blue jeans. The sloping brim of his camel suede cowboy hat obscures his eyes, and his mouth is hidden beneath a big broom bigote that would make my mother blush. Polished brown boots whisper over the dense commercial carpeting, tough enough to withstand beer, grease, cigarette ash, blood, vomit, and the mortal sin of boxed wine. His thumbs are locked into a leather belt embossed with eagles clutching serpents in talon and beak. And perched over his crotch, a curved pewter buckle that shouts ¡100% Sinaloense! under each fluorescent light that he passes.
Joey blinks wide-eyed at his approach. “What’s happening?” he whispers.
“Shut up,” I say. Behind us, a ruddy flicker that might be the blinking Orange Crush sign at the bar or the first tongues of flame from the oven. I catch a whiff of brimstone—or maybe it’s just ignited dough. I don’t care anymore.
“But—” Joey starts to say and is cowed into silence when the steel caps of Jesús’s boot heels click on the tiles in front of the pick-up counter. He flicks the brim of his hat and smiles at the extra-large pepperoni set out before him. His broad white teeth remind me of my own, teeth my welfare insurance orthodontist once called “Indian teeth” before complaining to his assistant that he should charge my mother more for the extra hardware it would take to wrestle them half-way straight.
“Esto es para usted,” I croak and nudge the platter towards him.
“Muchas gracias, jovenazo,” he says. Strong, calloused hands lift the aluminum platter. Laborer’s hands. The hands of a carpintero.
“¿S-Señor?” I stutter. It occurs to me, with the suddenness of the ring of a bell, that Señor also means Lord.
Jesús pauses, the steam rising from the pizza hazes his face like incense smoke. “¿Mande?” he says. His smile is peace, his voice love. Dark pools of millennia-old eyes pull me in. “¿En qué puedo servirle, mi hijo?”
About the Author:
Tomas Baiza was born and raised in San José, California, and now lives in Boise, Idaho, where he is currently studying creative writing at Boise State University. Tomas’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Parhelion, Writers In The Attic, Obelus, In Parentheses, Meniscus, [PANK], The Meadow, Peatsmoke, and elsewhere.