On Guard

by Nam Hoang Tran

With my social life dwindling during senior year, my mother enrolled me in a fencing class hoping it would offer a break from academia. Unlike football or basketball, fencing was something I always regarded as more of a hobby than an actual sport. Here were individuals who dressed like off-brand Mortal Kombat characters and spent their days jabbing one another with sabers resembling giant barbecue skewers. Call me naive, but an activity in which “poking” your opponent constituted winning was one I couldn’t take too seriously.

“You gotta look beyond that,” my mother said. “Just imagine what good it’ll do in terms of mental health!”

For the price of two Subway foot longs, students had a place to release pent-up frustration. A sanctuary where lunging at strangers with pointy objects was not only condoned, but encouraged. And this, my mother insisted, was exactly why I needed to go. We agreed there were better ways to de-stress than leaving knuckle-shaped divots in the drywall. More than anything, mingling with others was a step towards overcoming the anxiety which consumed me for the better part of four years.

On the morning of our first meeting, weathermen forecasted torrential downpour with a fifty percent chance of hail. When others do good, they are rewarded with cookies and praise. Me? The price of bettering myself was being pelted by clementine sized spheres of ice falling at upwards of twenty miles per hour. I would have hydroplaned my Prius multiple times had I not implemented driving tactics acquired from Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Despite such adversities, I arrived with nothing more than a dented vehicle and slight spike in blood pressure.

The introductory PowerPoint was led by a man named Mathéo who looked like Ronald McDonald without the makeup and tacky outfit. Mathéo claimed many hours went into the presentation, pointing towards a slide titled “Fencing 101.” His efforts backfired considering he used what appeared to be size nine font. Throw single spacing into the mix and centuries of rich history became a massive black square rendered incomprehensible to even those with the keenest of eyesight. As my classmates deciphered the block of jargon, I was busy being distracted by a fly slamming itself against the window. Moved by its determination, I placed a hand atop my heart in prayer.

“Don’t lose hope,” I whispered. “One day we shall both be free.”

Between the humidity and twitch of the dying fluorescents above, it was all becoming too much. To make sense of current circumstances, I began toying with a chaos theory known as the butterfly effect, which stated that a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere. In short, a butterfly’s wing flap in Omaha possessed enough potential energy to materialize a tornado thousands of miles away in Bowlegs, Oklahoma. I ultimately failed to pinpoint the mishap made years ago which led to this very moment. Don’t get me wrong, while I’ve been in questionable situations, learning to sword fight from a man synonymous with the McDouble was definitely pushing it.

Beginner lessons were guided by Jethro, a portly man who felt the need to remind us every so often that his name meant “excellence” in Hebrew. He paired me with Frederick, a redhead who, like me, only went to appease his mother. First order of business was familiarizing ourselves with en garde, a default stance resembling squatting thwarted by crippling arthritis. While Frederick and I had respective backstories, all awkwardness dissipated the moment game faces were on. Shrouded by the anonymity of our costumes, it was then I realized we weren’t much different from one another. For once in what felt like ages, I was no longer an observer, but an active participant, within a collective of folks all striving towards something much greater than ourselves.

First day of class ended with a Q&A session accompanied by chips and a fruit platter. Mathéo and Jethro enjoyed papaya on elevated cushions like shamans while the rest of us gathered around with Doritos stained lips. We were encouraged to voice any questions/concerns so long as they were remotely related to the art of fencing. Because this segment operated on a volunteer basis, I sat back while my peers did the heavy lifting. Mathéo pointed at me once the commotion subsided as though he expected my contribution. It was both strange and comforting to suddenly become the center of attention. A position which would have otherwise turned my stomach had my voice lacked a genuine listener. 

“Any questions?” Mathéo asked. “I’m sure your input would be of great benefit to us.”

I nodded, wiping leftover chip residue from my mouth.

“Go on.”

“I was wondering whether people recognized you on the street, that’s all.”

Not long after the inquiry leave my lips did a cheeky smile overcome Mathéo’s face. He set his papaya down and winked at Jethro, who furrowed his eyebrows as though he’d just seen a tap dancing seal. After returning to a forward facing position, Mathéo inflated his chest and spoke in a serious, almost interrogative voice.

“Of course. Isn’t that expected when you run a prestigious fencing sch—?

I raised my hand to shoulder level and the entire class fell silent at my audacity to interrupt our master.

“No, no. Recognition because you looked like this guy,” I said, lifting a Google image of Ronald McDonald into the air as everyone marveled at Mathéo’s long lost twin. 

Jethro was the first to fold, nearly blinding poor Frederick with a chunk of papaya which launched from his mouth. The entire class followed suit and within minutes everyone was spitting out scraps of Doritos while I reclined with my own cheeky smile. So what if fencing wasn’t my forte? I managed to garner the sweet laughter of half a dozen folks who were total strangers just moments before. And that alone would sustain me till I advanced high enough to free myself from the walls of this god forsaken place.

                                                     *   *   *

 Nam Hoang Tran is a writer living in Orlando, FL. His work appears or is forthcoming in The Daily Drunk, Star 82 Review, Bending Genres, (mac)ro(mic), Rejection Letters, and elsewhere. Find him online at www.namhtran.com. 

Another Man’s Shoes

by James Patrick Focarile

I looked at the old shoes in the corner of the closet. They seemed to look back at me. They were brown leather and had seen life. I dared myself to try them on. I’m not sure what I expected. After all, they were just someone else’s shoes. 

Well, not just anyone’s. They were my father’s. Yes, they were big to fill, but there was something else. What if putting them on changed me in some way? Enlightened me. Gave me insight into how he felt, what he did, who he really was. 

But nothing magical ever happens to me.

I looked at the old shoes again. They seemed to look back at me. It was foolish to think I could fill them. Foolish to feel and do so many things. 

I couldn’t move, like so many times before.

But I wanted closure. No, I needed it. I missed him. I had this vision of him, of what he was to me. But so much time had passed. What if I learned something I didn’t want to know? What if my memory was just a shadow, a phantom of what was? 

My memories were a kind of truth. Maybe that was good enough. What would I gain or lose by putting them on? Would I empathize with him, love him more, or would my memories of him crumble under the pressure of reality?

Why do we search for truth? Maybe because we all want to believe in magic. 

I looked at the old shoes in the corner of the closet. They seemed to look back at me.  I dared myself—

I walked closer to them. They sat near a full-length, antique mirror. I saw my reflection and the shoes, but focused only on my eyes. They were his blue eyes, everyone said so. I took a step closer. The shoes reached out to me and I slid them on.

I felt something, an intense energy. It wasn’t magic, but it was immediate. They were comfortable, but not mine. His eyes looked back at me, but I saw them as my own for the first time.

 Looking back could provide perspective, but from now on any real magic was up to me.

                                                                *   *   *

James Patrick Focarile resides in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a M.F.A. from Brooklyn College (CUNY) and a B.S. from Rutgers (NJ).  When not writing, he teaches at Boise State University and consults with performing arts organizations.

The Calf

by Paul Luikart

In the morning, the creek water, clear, slid over stones fuzzed with moss and weeds that trailed in the water and the wide, cloven prints of the cows that’d passed by on the bank the previous evening were deep in the mud of the bank. A calf lay half-buried in the silt with its nostrils and muzzle sunk in the mud and the water piling against the calf’s head in a rolling, silver crescent just below the clouded eye. Shining bottle flies had already found the carcass and swirled over the skin in manic figure eights and high above, the vultures in the updrafts steered themselves in braided flights and beyond them, the endless summer blue.

In the night, coyotes found the calf and scissored open the belly with their sprung jaws and shoved their snouts into the waterlogged fat and muscle and snapped at one another and wound themselves in the guts. Then, at some deep, moonlit hour, as though their departure came at an agreed-upon signal—a frog croak, a dead limb crash—they scattered, slathered in viscera from their snouts to their bellies, fur matted by mud and blood and water. The creek held the stars and glints of the moon and the mud the coyotes kicked up settled unseen along the bottom of the creek and sometime much later the grip of darkness began to loosen and the light seeped through the silhouettes of the trees. 

Midmorning, two boys, one older and one younger, rumbled along the creek in an ATV, bouncing over the bone-white stones by the bank. When they came to the calf, they stopped. The carcass had sunk further into the mud and paw prints of dried mud crisscrossed the hide and a single, glistening rope of intestine the color of fog streamed lazily from the belly. The boys looked at the calf for a long time. The older spit, then the younger. 

“We tell the old man?” the younger boy said. 

“What’d be the point?” 

“You reckon a cotton mouth?”

“Maybe.”

“A bite on the snout might could’ve swelled her windpipe shut.”

“Maybe.”

They stared a few minutes longer. Both spat again. Then they drove off. 

In the next month, the creek dried completely and wouldn’t flow again until the following spring. By Thanksgiving, the calf was bones still strapped together by sinews that’d been toughened in the sun the rest of the summer. Her ribs were filled with rocks of different sizes, some chunks the size of softballs and an uncountable number of pebbles, and silt and sand too. By Christmas, her skull was gone. Half-way through the first month of the new year, the older boy returned in the same ATV to the spot where the calf had lain. He stopped and turned off the ATV and got out and stood in the dry creek bed. His breath was like smoke, and he booted the gravel and stood for a long time with his hands in the pockets of his field coat. 

 “Sure ain’t nothing worth nothing,” he said, “He who says different’s got a sack full of horse shit where his brain ought to be.”

The boy stooped and picked up a flat stone and slung it across the creek bed into a hollowed-out hackberry tree. It hit with a thunk and the splinters and pieces of bark dove away and everything afterward was quiet and still. 

*   *   *

Paul Luikart is the author of the short story collections Animal Heart (Hyperborea Publishing, 2016), Brief Instructions (Ghostbird Press, 2017), Metropolia (Ghostbird Press, forthcoming in 2021) and The Museum of Heartache (Pski’s Porch Publishing, forthcoming in 2021.) He serves as an adjunct professor of fiction writing at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. He and his family live in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

A WOMAN WAS

by Peggy Landsman 

A woman was wandering lost in the desert. How she came to be there I do not know, but her food and water had run out, and she was afraid she would die. 

The woman was walking slowly, following one particular ripple in the sand, when she encountered a snake. The snake was large and rather fierce-looking, but it did not attack the woman. It spoke to her. “Open your mouth,” it said. 

The woman, who had been brought up in a modern first-world country, was accustomed to opening her mouth when doctors and dentists instructed her to do so. Now, remaining silent (the snake had not asked her to say “ah”), she opened her very dry mouth as wide as she could and leaned toward the snake to make sure it could get a good look. 

The snake’s spirit did not hesitate. It rushed into the woman’s mouth and straight down her throat. After that, the woman had no trouble surviving in the desert, but she cared about only what the snake cared about. And, no, she never saw or heard from the snake again. 

Day after day, the woman enjoyed practicing the art of desert survival. Although she had previously been a vegetarian, she now craved fresh meat and delighted in her newly acquired hunting skills. Every so often, she would imagine the pleasure of relating her exploits to another creature, but it would always be too late. The only other sentient being nearby would already be well on its way into the acid vat of her stomach. 

Night after night, the woman enjoyed curling up to sleep. Finding a safe place to sleep was never easy, and it was always with a sense of accomplishment that she finally took her rest. If the woman had been able to remember her former life, she might have compared this to finding a decent motel along one of the many highways she had sometimes traveled. 

One morning, some time later, the woman awoke feeling raw and irritated. She looked over her shoulder and saw something lying next to her that had not been there when she lay down the night before. It was not a threat. She was sure of that. And, no, it was definitely not a living creature. She stared at it and stared at it. Finally, she began to cry. The thing, lying near her in a wrinkled heap, was her very own skin! But the snake had taught her nothing about molting. 

                                          *   *   * 

Peggy Landsman is the author of the poetry chapbooks, To-wit To-woo (Foothills Publishing, 2008) and Our Words, Our Worlds, scheduled for publication by Kelsay Books in 2022. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in numerous literar anthologies and journals, including Rapunzel’s Daughters (Pink Narcissus Press), Breathe (C&R Press), Nasty Women Poets (Lost Horse Press), Mezzo Cammin, The Ekphrastic Review, and Scientific American. She lives in South Florida where she swims in the warm Atlantic Ocean every chance she gets. https://peggylandsman.wordpress.com/

Road Trip

A memoir by Joan Potter

“Grandpa, I just wanted to tell you I’m all right, I got a place to live and I’m doing okay.” The pale, exhausted-looking woman was on the phone behind the counter in a rambling, shabby Stuckey’s somewhere off Route 40 in Tennessee. It was about ten in the morning on New Year’s Day. I was the only customer.

Today I’m reading her words in the notes I made during a cross-country road trip my husband, Roy, and I took one summer in the early 1990s. It’s now almost thirty years later, and five years since Roy’s death. I’m at my desk in the silent apartment cleaning out some old papers from a file cabinet when I find the notes in a folder marked TRIP.

It was the second day of our journey from New York to Los Angeles, and I’d gone into Stuckey’s to pick up a mid-morning snack while Roy waited outside, poring over AAA maps. I emerged bearing two coffees and two orders of eggs and sausage on biscuits that we ate in the car, marveling at how delicious they were.

As Roy continued driving our Chevy Malibu westward, I jotted down my impressions of the Stuckey’s in a notebook resting on my lap. I described the Hank Williams and Elvis Presley souvenirs displayed on shelves, the salt and pepper shakers featuring black women wearing aprons and bandanas and black children holding slices of watermelon. And I kept thinking of the woman who made our biscuits, thinking about how far away she must have been from her home, and that she probably had fallen on hard times.

At my desk, I read through the rest of the notes, picking out highlights: in Carlisle, Arkansas, thirty miles east of Little Rock, a perfect lunch at Nick’s Bar-B-Que and Catfish; on the highway near El Reno, Oklahoma, a sign that read, “Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Inmates”; at a Holiday Inn in Elk City, Oklahoma, a dinner of chicken-fried steak and, later in the evening, warm chocolate chip cookies and cold milk delivered to our room.

I search Google to see if the places I wrote about are still there. The Stuckey’s on Route 40 is gone, but I find the website for Nick’s Bar-B-Que and Catfish, still in business. Just looking at pictures of the crunchy catfish sandwich with tartar sauce and French fries on the side makes me want one right now. 

I see that the comforting Holiday Inn in Elk City is now the Holiday Inn Express and Suites, and by the look of the fancy photos, I doubt cookies and milk are left at the door before bedtime. JB’s Restaurant, on Andy Devine Avenue in Kingman, Arizona, where we loved our fried chicken, still exists; a recent customer commented: “All the food was so bad we could have just cooked it at the house.” 

But it was discovering a site for Texas Quick Stop, a truck stop, convenience store, and fast food place in the Texas panhandle, that made me want to run into the next room and shout, “Roy! Remember that great barbecue we had at that truck stop in Vega, Texas? Now it’s called Kevin’s Texas Quick Stop. Kevin’s last name is Sidhu, and they’re serving Punjabi food.”

But Roy’s no longer sitting at his desk in the next room, reading or working on his computer. The desk is still there, and the computer, but he’s missing. Now, the only person to be excited that Texas barbecue has been replaced by Punjabi food is me.

                                           *   *   *

Joan Potter’s essays have appeared in anthologies and literary journals, including The Raven’s Perch, Iron Horse Literary Review, Adanna Literary Journal, Longridge Review, Stone Canoe, and others. She is the author or coauthor of several nonfiction books. The most recent is the collaborative memoir “Still Here Thinking of You: A Second Chance With Our Mothers.” She has led writing workshops for Adirondack women, New York suburbanites, prison inmates, and immigrant children  She lives in Mount Kisco, NY.

Volare

by Nancy Smith Harris

People called Patty and me twins, even though we were five years apart. Peas in a pod, they said, when they looked at us. Everybody got our names mixed up. 

When the Scarlattis came to town, Patty said look, they drive Cadillac Coup Devilles; they don’t fit in. 

They bought the only decent house around and up went iron fencing and security cameras.

What for? We asked ourselves. 

Marilyn Scarlatti swooped down gull-like, reclining at our kitchen table, thick dark lashes, carmine lips and nails, one leg draped over the other. She wore cashmere wraps and patent leather boots; her perfume was Chanel No. 5. Marilyn said her husband Bruno was in sales, but what kind of sales was never mentioned.

Marilyn was a goldmine. Mom cleaned her house and Patty looked after her poodles. I washed the dust of our shale-studded road from her hub caps and swept the pool patio. She took me along on errands and we’d fly down Route 39, the scent of her Chanel blending with that of the crème-colored custom leather, Dean Martin serenading us from the radio: Your love has given me wings. She always called me by my name and never Patty’s.

Once, she let me smoke a French cigarette outside the State Store while I waited in the caddy. 

I watched her come to me, clicking across the parking lot on pink stilettos, and thought of the fragile webbed feet of birds. Look at you, she marveled, hugging a handle of Smirnoff’s to her chest, as I exhaled through the tiny oh of my mouth, holding the cig as she did, sculpted hand in the air, ring and pinky fingers casually curved.

What’s that smell, Mom asked later.

Marilyn, I said, humming “Volare,” imagining her vivid red lips hugging the syllables along with mine.

Your love has given me wings…

One afternoon, Marilyn frowned into her coffee and asked for something stronger. 

Stronger? Mom was mystified.

She started carrying a bottle of Amaretto in her bag, trickling the liqueur into her coffee. Once, she talked Mom into having a little Amaretto with her. Mom ended up on the kitchen floor, her big varicose-veined legs splayed out, her eyes like a doll’s, glazed and dull. Evidently feeling muttish to Marilyn’s pure breeding, Mom swore off the booze.

The accident was on a Friday. Marilyn was driving Bruno home from the airport when she cruised right into the utility pole at the intersection of our road and Route 39.

When the police arrived, Bruno asked Mom to say he, not Marilyn, had been driving.

She just cleared a DUI, he explained.

But Mom was a church lady and church ladies do not lie. 

What’s a DUI? Mom asked later.

Patty chauffeured Marilyn around in a rental until she could get her coupe and license back. Bruno was out of town a lot and as soon as she could drive again, Marilyn resumed her shopping trips to New York, leaving Patty with the poodles. Patty got to spend the night and I lay awake, imagining her in Marilyn’s round bed with the white velvet spread and satin sheets, clicking through stations on the color tv embedded in rococo-inspired cabinetry that filled an entire wall. It must have been on one of those nights when Patty got bored and started rooting through boxes in Marilyn’s basement, finding the diamond tennis bracelet she slipped into her pocket.

Patty was sitting on the kitchen counter one afternoon, swinging her legs, telling us about a kid at school who drove an Italian sportscar, when Marilyn flew into the kitchen to show off her new Pierre Cardin mini skirt. My sister must have forgotten she was wearing the bracelet because she didn’t budge. 

Marilyn was chatty before she went silent. Without taking her eyes from Patty’s wrist, she said Madge, please ask your daughter to return my bracelet.

Patty struck a look of surprise so genuine I believed she would one day win an Oscar.

This, she said, holding her wrist in the air, is mine.

Patty’d obviously done some quick thinking. The counter was pretty far away from Marilyn, who had terrible vision. (She’d slip rhinestone-rimmed glasses over her cocoa brown eyes when signing checks or counting out bills from her wallet. Once she’d handed me a twenty instead of a five after I’d cleaned the hubcaps. I returned it.)

Mom’s head turned from Marilyn to Patty and back again. I held my breath. Marilyn rose, chin in the air.

I’ll be back with Bruno, she announced with a coolness I’d not heard before.

The next day, the week’s dirty laundry swamped the cellar floor unmoved, the dishes went undone, and the three of us drove all over the county until we found a cheap replica of Marilyn’s bracelet at a drugstore jewelry counter in Kutztown.

In my eleven-year-old imagination, I saw Marilyn following Bruno into the kitchen, Mom, Patty, and I trembling like little pink pigs. Perhaps he would be slapping the barrel of a revolver against his palm, speaking in a rough Jersey accent even though he was from Philly.

Turn over the goods or accept the consequences, he might say.

Marilyn didn’t flit in unannounced when she returned. She stood on the porch, knocking quietly, like a Jehovah’s Witness, and she was alone. Mom hollered downstairs for Patty to meet them on the porch with her bracelet. I hung back inside next to the open window.

Oh…I, Marilyn murmured, …must have been mistaken, her voice cold and sad.

Patty lasted three weeks on her promise to go to church every Sunday. The Scarlattis moved back to Philadelphia a couple of months later and some fat lawyers with a cross-eyed kid moved into the house. The day after Marilyn left our place for the last time, I asked Patty where the real bracelet was.

Like to have that, would you, she ventured, an unsettling gleam in her eye.

That’s when I knew we were different.

                                        *   *   *

A native of rural Pennsylvania, Nancy Smith Harris lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she writes short fiction. A few of her stories have appeared most recently in Passager Journal, Calliope, and Fleas On The Dog Magazine. 

 

 

 

Never Forget

by David Obuchowski

“Uh oh,” one of your coworkers says. He gives you a quick nod and a smile. “You’re in trouble now,” he laughs, but not in a cruel way. He’s one of your favorite people to share a shift with. You aren’t friends with him outside the store, which is something you’ll come to regret. In a few months, you’ll lose touch when he goes off to college. Five years after that, he’ll be one of thousands killed on September 11th, 2001. And then you’ll always make a point to find his name on those 9/11 memorial flags they have displayed in airports.

You walk out of the pit—the area with the cash registers enclosed by half-height counters—past the candy, past the kids section, past horror, past the comedies. You come to a door at the back, which interrupts the shelves that sport the new releases. You touch the metal door handle and it shocks you, which you knew it would. But, somehow, it surprises you anyway.

So does this meeting. You knew very well it would happen at some point. But now that it is, you’re all nerves. It’s a stupid job, but you like it. And, anyway, you’d rather be working than be at home.

You’d rather be anywhere than home.

You pull the door closed behind you, shutting out the far too bright fluorescent lights and low din of some PG-rated kids adventure film playing on the many televisions mounted to the acoustic-tiled ceiling. The light is dim in the hallway. The floor is unsealed concrete. It’s cold. You pass the stockroom on the right where the candy, soda, and popcorn is stored. You pass the stockroom on the left where VHS cases, damaged VHS cassettes, and new releases that await their release dates are kept. His office door is open, but only slightly, so you knock.

“Come in,” he says. He sounds pissed.

You push the door open and step into his tiny office, which is cluttered with stacks of calendars, magazines, and binders. There’s a broken printer on the floor next to the black garbage can, overflowing with crumpled up papers and empty plastic bottles of Coca-Cola. The office smells of him, which is to say it smells of sweat and whiskey.

“Shut the door,” he tells you, and you do.

“What’s up?” you ask, though you know damn-well what’s up. You’re one of the best, most hardworking employees they’ve got. This can only be about one thing.

“What do you think is up?” he asks, and he crosses his arms.

“No idea,” you answer innocently.

“You lied to me.”

“What about?” You’re not sure why you’re keeping up the act.

“You’re 16. Not 17. I told you I didn’t have an opening here, but you begged me for a job. I gave you a chance and you lied to me.”

There it is. You’d be relieved that the truth is finally out, but you’re too worried about losing the job, the money, the 32 hours per week you spend here instead of fending off fists at home. “I’m sorry,” you mutter.

“Corporate policy says minimum age is 17,” he slurs. “I could get into big trouble.”

“I know,” you say.

“I could fire you,” he says.

“I know,” you say.

“The company could reclaim compensation,” he says.

“I know,” you say, though you have no idea if that’s true or not. In fact, you doubt it is.

He stands up. “So what should I do? Fire you?”

“No,” you answer quickly.

“So what then?” He takes a step toward you. Unsteady. He’s been drinking. Not unusual.

“I don’t know,” you say. “I’ll be 17 in a few weeks and then it’s a moot point.”

“Still,” he stumbles closer, “you,” he points at you, “lied to me!”

“I’m sorry,” you say again, because what else is there to say?

He grabs at you, pulls you in by your blue button-down shirt, which is half of the required uniform. He presses his chinless, sweaty face into yours. He has a grape-sized growth along his nearly non-existent jawline, and you can feel it, along with the coarse hair of his close-cropped beard, rub against your own face, which you have only just started to shave. His hot breath smells like the Jim Beam in the pantry at home. You’ve skimmed so much from that in the last few months, you’ve had to add iced tea to the bottle to make up for it. 

He opens his mouth, closes his eyes, and this makes the third time today you’ve been surprised by something you knew was probably going to happen. Even your friends have known. They come into the store and see how he acts around you. Some nights after work, you meet up with them in the woods, drink Molsons, and they laugh about it. In a cruel way. Not out of care or concern. Rather, like it’s a comedy you rent on VHS for three nights.

“Don’t,” you say. You push him off. But you don’t shove him because you know that you could hurt him easily. “Don’t.”

He steps back, gives you a half-smile. “Whoa,” he chuckles like he just woke up from a strange dream.

“Don’t. Okay? Don’t,” you repeat.

He looks down at his ugly Reeboks. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m 36 and I live with my mother and I can’t tell her—” He can’t finish because, now, he’s sobbing too hard. 

And then you say something you’ll remember for the rest of your life, just like you’ll remember the kid waiting for you back in the pit: “It’s okay.”

You’ll regret it just like you’ll regret how you never became friends with that kid. But, hoping to keep your job in this garishly lit place that you lied to find work in, you say it again. You crouch down next to the sobbing man crumpled on the floor like so much discarded paper.

“Really,” you say, “it’s okay.” 

                                                     *   *   *

David Obuchowski is a prolific writer of fiction and long-form essays, whose work has appeared in The Baltimore Review, Salon, Fangoria, West Trade Review, and many others. David and artist Sarah Pedry will have their first children’s book published in 2023 by Minedition (Astra Publishing House). His in-depth documentary podcast, TEMPEST, is a critical and popular success and serves as the inspiration for an upcoming television series. David and his family live in Colorado.

A Son’s Last Hope

by Jeffrey Grimyser

My father let me in and sat hunched on the edge of the bed. His hotel room was littered with clothes on the floor and candy wrappers on the nightstand. The TV was on mute and the curtains were closed. He had flown in yesterday. I stood by the doorway. The first time I had ever seen him like that I was seven, after his father had died.

“Aren’t you coming?” I said.

“No,” he answered.

“Why not?”

“I just can’t, okay.”

“But Cass needs you there.” I remembered my wedding reception. I had a photo of every table, except my father’s because he’d already left.

“She’ll be fine,” he said.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“She doesn’t need me.” 

“It’s her wedding today.”

“Look, everyone else will have a good time, okay. But I’ve been sweating since midnight.”

“Don’t you think this is a mistake?”

“How dare you say that,” he bellowed.

He stomped into the bathroom and slammed the door but it didn’t fully close. Through the mirror I watched him open a bottle and take several pills, his hand shaking as he drank water. 

When he returned, he looked surprised I was still in his room. He shook his head. Then he laid down on the bed, crossed his arms and unmuted the TV.

“I’m trying to fix this,” I said. 

“What exactly is this?” he questioned.

“Cass wanted me to see how you were doing.”

“Did she care how I was doing at your wedding?”

“You only talked to strangers.”

“Who was I supposed to talk to?”

“Me,” I said.

“What would I have talked to you about?”

“Whatever the father of a groom should say.”

“As if I’m a good role model.”

“But people wanted to speak with you.”

“Who really sent you here?”

“Cass did,” I said.

“Well, she must have nothing to do then.”

“She planned the whole wedding herself. It’s you who aren’t doing anything.”

“I am not going. What else do you want me to say?”

“I don’t get what’s happening right now.”

“You barged into my room, that’s what.”

“Are things worse with you because it’s winter? Did something bad happen? You’ve never explained your condition to me.”

“So read a book about it.”

“You’ve already said that.”

“And you didn’t listen. People going through a tough time need space, not provoking.”

“What? I haven’t called or stopped by since you landed. This is my only option.”

“No. I won’t be put in that position again.”

I checked my phone but there was no help.

“One hour left,” I said.

“This is ridiculous.” He got up and put his suitcase on the bed. “I’m done.”

He packed only his suit, belt, tie and dress shoes while breathing heavily.

I saw too much of him in me, the petulant part that became irritable and demanding whenever I felt I had too much responsibility.

“Why don’t you answer my calls?” I asked.

“I told you,” he said. “Sometimes I need to be alone.”

“Can’t you pick up and tell me that?”

“My phone isn’t always by me.”

“It says you have a missed call.”

“C’mon. You act like we have these important conversations. All you ever talk about is football.”

“I’ve asked about your health.”

“Yeah, once or twice. But you were only checking to see if I was dead.” He pointed at his chest. He had a heart attack almost three years ago. I still hadn’t visited him.

“What about San Antonio?” I said. “Me and Cass went there for you but you only had one dinner with us.”

“Have you forgotten what the heat does to me?”

“Did you forget how you wouldn’t even hang out in our room?”

“Fine.” He opened a nightstand and took a pull from his marijuana one-hitter. “My doctor told me to avoid certain situations.”

“What situations?” I said.

“Anything that causes me anxiety.”

“We’re your children. We’re all you have left now.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Deanna.”

“Don’t you dare bring her up. She was no good for me. You got it?”

“At least she could get you to be social.”

“Please. These events are nothing but big jerkoffs for people to brag at. Look at your mother’s invitation.”

“It doesn’t matter what anyone else does,” I said while raising my voice. “You’re supposed to be here for Cass. You’re supposed to support family.”

“Oh, like you’ve been there for me.”

“How can you say that?” Tears welled up but I wiped them away. “You couldn’t even remember my wife’s name. You haven’t even met your grandson and he’s almost three.”

“Michael, when you were in school, I was there for every damn thing that mattered.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. I didn’t need a friend. I didn’t need a buddy to tell jokes and watch sports with. I needed a father, someone who showed me love and helped me when I needed it the most. So no, Dad, you weren’t.”

“Get out,” he said.

“I’m going,” I replied.

I left his room and paced in the hallway, ignoring every bell and hello by the elevators. I couldn’t let go. No matter how hard I tried to think of anything else I couldn’t. Normally I could set aside those thoughts. Nothing made me feel worse so what was the point? But I had forgotten my purpose in life. My son wouldn’t watch cartoons by himself. My son wouldn’t find his parents’ bedroom door closed during the day. My son wouldn’t throw a tennis ball against the garage because there was no one to play catch with. He wouldn’t see his father just for Wednesday fast-food dinners and monthly court-ordered visits. He could count on me. If a boy bullied or a teacher failed or a coach cut or a girl dumped him, he wouldn’t be alone. I would be the father I never had, the father I had needed. 

I stopped pacing. Cass was standing by an elevator in her wedding dress. 

“What’s the update?” she said.

“He’s not coming,” I replied.

“Big surprise.”

“Aren’t you upset?”

“Nah.” She waved me closer and used my shoulder to adjust her heel. “He’s barely part of my life. I’m shocked he even got this far.”

“But don’t you need him?”

“I never have,” she said and led me onto an elevator down to the ballroom.

That night I gave my speech and danced with my wife. My sister had a happy and uneventful wedding to always remember. But every moment I held my son, I missed my dad. He must have wanted to be there and, considering the airplane and hotel costs, thought he could do it. I had to believe that. It was my only hope.

                                                   *   *   *

Jeffrey Grimyser is a father, husband, attorney, and originally a “Sconnie” who now lives in rival Chicago. He has published articles in his college newspaper, a statewide sports magazine, and a law review journal. 

He loves to work out, play with his son, and snuggle with his French Bulldog.

A Cradle in the Trimming Shed

by Tom Walsh

The swirling wind throws sparks in every direction. 

“Albert!” Holly calls out wearily. “We’re about to lose the Trimming Shed.”

It’s been 20 years since the outbuilding has hosted pot trimmers, back when marijuana was still illegal in California, but the name stuck, is even carved above the front door.

An ember—riding the wind from the main fire—lands on the shed’s roof, smoldering a minute before igniting the weathered redwood shingles. Holly had split each one herself, hewing them from logs left in the creek bottom by old-time loggers. Albert had tied the shingles in bundles and hauled them up on the back of Melvin, the mule they often borrowed from a neighbor in the early years.   

“If that’s all we lose it’ll be a good day, my dear,” says Albert, his face tanned deep into its creases, his ponytail a contrast in white. “If this was 30 years ago the whole valley would get a buzz on if that old shed had burned down.”

Holly chuckles. Albert always makes her laugh—from his wry wit to his unexpected, arm-flailing dances at the solstice festivals.

***

Holly and Albert met in their early 20s at Yellowstone Park. It was 1968 and Albert, who grew up on a ranch nearby, wore the forest green uniform of a park ranger. Holly, a teacher from New York City, had taken a summer housekeeping job at The Lodge on a whim. They first laid eyes on each other at 3 a.m. on a July morning, in the empty grandstands at Old Faithful. 

“I love when there’s no tourists around,” Holly said, the night sky full of diamonds.

“If any of them come now, I’ll arrest them,” Albert said, slipping his hand into hers.

Holly couldn’t believe that Albert had never seen the ocean, and at summer’s end they drove his ’55 Chevy pickup to northern California. They camped at a black sand beach near Shelter Cove for two weeks, Albert a six-foot-four child swimming in the freezing water, building immense sand castles, barking at the sea lions. Holly discovered a skill with rocks and driftwood as she built a lean-to, a fire pit, and whimsical mobiles.

They never looked back. 

They planted trees side-by-side through rainy winters. In the summers, Holly waited tables, Albert was the short-order cook. When they saved enough to buy land, his only ask was that it have a glimpse of the ocean.

***

They bought a steep, 160-acre tract for a song, just before the marijuana boom, and married on it 48 years ago. Holly was pregnant at the time, and it would have been a nice place to raise kids, but it was not to be. 

They built the shed first, a small shelter they used while raising the main cabin with peaveys and a come-along, one log at a time. They cursed the poison oak, but learned to treat its sting with leaves from the manzanita bushes. 

The cabin itself sat on the only flat spot, leveled by Albert with a D-9 dozer he also used to carve out the dirt road and salvage redwood and Douglas fir from the creek. 

In their pot-farmer years, the shed held the bud-trimming operation. Holly recalled the procession of eager, young hippies who slept in tents, trimming tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Emerald Triangle homegrown in the shed every fall and winter.

She cooked stews and baked pies to appease their munchies, secretly looking on “the kids” as the brood she couldn’t have. Three of them—Ruth, Christy, and Wild Dave—came back five years in a row when their work as seasonal firefighters ended. 

(“Boy could we use them today!” Holly thinks.) 

*****

“Holly, I’m losing pressure here, can you go check the pump?” 

Albert stands on a ladder braced against an apple tree, hosing down the roof and watching for spot fires in the dry grass, madrone, and coyote brush. They cleared what they could over the past few days, before the sheriff told them to evacuate yesterday. They’d shared a quick look before Albert said: “Thanks, John, but don’t worry about us. We know what we need to do.”

Holly hikes down to the pump. The rock steps that she and Albert (mainly she) had pounded into place over the years wound two hundred yards downhill to the swimming hole they quarried from the cliff and the creek bed. 

Debris clogs the pump’s suction line—Big-Leaf Maple leaves, pine needles, twigs, and silt. Holly clears it and tops off the gas tank. She’s thankful for the spring upstream, one of the many blessings the land holds.

When she starts coughing, she realizes how thick the smoke has grown. The sky is more midnight than noon. She heads uphill, stopping to catch her breath beside a favorite patch of five-finger ferns and Douglas Irises. 

Back at the cabin, she sees fire engulfing the shed across the draw, flames peeping through windows shattered by the heat. 

“Albert, where did you put the cradle?” she asks, hopefully. “Did you move it to the cabin?”

Rarely at a loss for words, Albert can’t find his voice.

“Oh, Albert,” Holly sighs. She isn’t mad. She had been in the shed yesterday, should have moved it herself instead of asking Albert, who’d been clearing brush. She hand-carved the cradle years ago from a single redwood burl, back when she still had hope of raising a family here. She rarely looks at it any more, but can’t give it away, won’t sell it. 

The wind shifts again, briefly clearing the smoke and opening the view to the ocean. The fire leaps from the shed to a nearby pepperwood tree. 

“Here it comes, Albert. Let’s stay together now.”

*  *  *

Tom Walsh is a writer and editor living in northern California. He has been a newspaper reporter, editor, wildland firefighter, and more. His stories are in or soon to appear in Litro USA, Hobart Pulp, The Cabinet of Heed, Progenitor, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and elsewhere. His cat, born in the UK on the 4th of July, is named Independence. 

As Ye Sow

by Townsend Walker

The two couples, Celeste and Charles, Peggy and Paul, were close all their lives. They grew up downstate, went to colleges in Connecticut and Massachusetts, settled in Manhattan, raised children. And they were most understanding, each having been intimate with the other, before and after their marriages.

This is how they would have told their stories, were they available to do so.

Celeste’s Story

It was an accident, totally an accident. I’m not blaming anyone else for it. Though maybe I should. After all, why was I out in the woods in the first place? We were at our cabin in Vermont. The one we’d had since forever. After the long hike, after the hot tub, after the wine and crackers, after the shower, after the dinner of steak, potatoes, and wine, after Peggy accused me of sleeping with her son, Jason, and both men backed her up, I stormed out into the night. 

I crashed straight ahead, slapped branches out of my face, trampled bushes down. I finally stopped, out of breath, pulled out my Marlboros, lit up, and leaned back against a stump.

About Jason: he is a hunk, and young, and good in bed, on the beach, in the woods, on the kitchen counter, and that one time to Ravel’s Bolero, my God. But to have the three of them make it seem a crime. I mean, the boy is 18.

The wine, plus thinking about Jason kept me warm, made me dreamy. I must have dropped off. Much later, I startled awake. I was freezing. Stamped around to get the blood flowing before I went back. 

It crept up on me, the smoke. I turned around. Fire. Must have been that goddamn cigarette smoldering in the leaves. I found a large branch and frantically tried to rake dirt over the flames. Had them nearly covered when a gust of wind shot through the trees, sent an ember up and away. I chased it down, stomped it out. Then another ember flicked up and out, flew further. I charged ahead and squashed it. 

Behind me, something crackled in the brush. Animal sound, puma, bear? I turned around slowly, branch held high against a prowling creature. Not an animal, a blaze. I thrashed at the fire with the branch. 

Peggy’s Story

After Celeste ran outside, I asked Charles why he couldn’t control his wife.  He jabbed back, “Are you kidding?” 

He thrust his face in mine, “Why can’t you control your son?”

“Are you forgetting to stoke the home fires, Charles?” Paul cooed, eyebrows raised theatrically.

Charles’s snorted, “Two open heart surgeries, I need to rest now and again, you dumb fuck.”

I had to stifle a giggle. Because if Charles calls what we did on the beach this afternoon as rest, I’d recommend his doctor to anyone. Hopefully, Paul wasn’t looking my way. 

I called “bedtime” and trundled off to our room. Charles and Paul volunteered to clean up. I heard mumbling, grumbling, clanging pots, and some shouting as I washed my face, brushed my teeth, stripped my clothes off, and tumbled into bed, accompanied by what sounded like a thunderstorm. Hopefully, I’d be asleep by the time Paul got in. I was, but little good it did. He turned the light on and shook me awake. 

“Sweetheart,” he said, as he squeezed my shoulder much harder than necessary, “Do you want to tell me what you and Charles have been up to?”

Seemed like he knew something, either Charles blabbed, or he caught my giggle and put two and two together. Wasn’t sure how to play this. I tried obliviousness. “What are you talking about?”

“Are you really going to lie there and lie?”

“That was good, Paul.”

I didn’t see it coming. He slapped me. Hard. 

I scrambled to get out of bed. Got around the foot. He grabbed me from behind, big hands around my neck. Damn that hurt. Sharp pain in my windpipe, seized up, no air, not even to gasp. Saw myself in the mirror, tongue red, eyes black, bulging, then, oh my god, how disgusting, my wrinkled skin, after all the workouts and money I’d spent. 

Paul’s Story

After last night’s storm, the sun was out, I came down into the kitchen to find Charles at the stove, fumbling around, trying to scramble an egg. Two had already been scrambled on the floor.

“Where the hell are the women?” He shouted when he saw me. “They’re supposed to fix breakfast.” 

 “Well, I can only tell you about Peggy, she’s slowly dragging herself out of bed. Celeste is your wife. You’re supposed to keep track of her.”

“I haven’t seen her since she lit out last night.”

“So, what’s keeping Peggy?” Charles said.

“Morning ablutions, I suppose.”

“Well, I’m hungry.” Charles ran up the stairs to our room. “Hey, Peggy, rise and shine.”

“Don’t bother her,” I shouted.

“Fuck you, Paul.”

There was no movement or sound for what seemed like ten minutes. Then I heard a roar. I grabbed the pistol, 9mm, my souvenir from Desert Storm. It made the girls feel comfortable to have one in the kitchen drawer here in the woods. I tucked it behind my back and raced up the stairs. 

Charles had pulled the blanket down to Peggy’s waist. Pale body, topped by a blue-black necklace, crowned by bulging eyes.

“Dead, you mean. You didn’t want me to see her dead.”

He turned and ran toward me, hands out for my neck. “You strangled her. Why?”

I pushed him away. “Peggy and I had a fight, with too much to drink, she swallowed her tongue. I tried to help, I failed.” And I hung my head in my hands for effect. Took a deep ragged breath, raised my head, “Actually, it’s more your fault what happened, because of what you two got up to on the beach.”

Charles came at me again, “Oh no you don’t, I’m not taking the blame for this. You strangled her.” 

I pulled the gun from my waist band and knew immediately that I’d made a major mistake. I’d never fired it, even back then. Why did I grab it? To scare him, back him off any thoughts about implicating me in Peggy’s death. But he was not scared, he stood there, grinning, daring. Before I got the gun pointed, it was out of my hand, on the floor, in his hand, I grabbed his hand, the gun went off, cleaved me clean through.

Charles’s story

Of course, I made it look like murder/suicide. Give me credit. Paul and Peggy fought, he strangled her, and in remorse he shot himself. Later, they found Celeste’s remains in the charred clearing down in the valley. 

There were so many calls to be made, arrangements to be tended to. Jason, the spark of the evening’s inferno, was there to help with his parents. A remarkably collected young man. 

Fortunately, three concurrent deaths, if they can be labelled fortunate, happened in mid-summer, so there was sufficient time to arrange things and be back in front of my students at Columbia for the start of fall quarter. My quarter for teaching the English romantics. A wonderful lot of characters, whose personal lives tended, at times, to belie the sentiments they professed in their poems. And now, unfortunately, or fortunately, I was able to use both my recent losses and the feelings evoked by the poetry in my interaction with my students. Were they riper this quarter, or did they just seem so?

I took pride on being a model of discretion. No trysts in Morningside Heights or other student rendezvous in the city. I rented a somewhat modest one bedroom in Tribeca, convenient to the West St. Station. It was there that I suggested to Merry, yes, that was her name, and yes, she was, that a weekend at the cabin would be a lovely interlude for a student and her professor. We were cradled by the weather gods with temperatures and sun reminiscent of late August and warmed by the stanzas of Keats and Shelly.

It was Sunday afternoon, after rising late, doodling around the bed sheets, toast and coffee that I began to sprout a bit of Byron and in keeping with the tenor of my assumed youthful condition and appearance, proposed that I swim the four miles across the lake to Goat Island as Byron had the Hellespont, not as tremulous a waterway, but then he had 35 years on me. Merry protested, I insisted, she cautioned, citing our evening, night, and morning activities, I claimed ruddy good health and set out. About halfway across, I heard her behind me splashing clumsily in a rowboat, I redoubled my effort to stay ahead, prove my virility, then I had a heart attack, then my arms stopped moving, then my legs, then a cardiac arrest, then, actually there wasn’t another ‘then.’

                                           *    *    *

Townsend Walker draws inspiration from cemeteries, foreign places, violence, and strong women.  A short story collection, 3 Women, 4 Towns, 5 Bodies & other stories was published by Deeds Publishing in 2018. Winner of a Book Excellence Award, an Eyelands Award, a Silver Feathered Quill Award and a Pinnacle Award.

A novella, La Ronde was published by Truth Serum Press in 2015. 

Over one hundred short stories and poems have been published in literary journals and included in twelve anthologies. 

Short Story Awards: two nominations for the PEN/O.Henry Award, first place in the SLO NightWriters contest. Four stories were performed at the New Short Fiction Series in Hollywood. 

He reviews for the New York Journal of Books.

His website is http://www.townsendwalker.com