We sat together staring at a painting. The image was simple—a red balloon on a white canvas. Hardly art.
“This blue balloon really speaks to me,” he said.
I stay silent, the gears in my head turning.
He scoffed, “It’s blue.”
I looked quizzingly at him, his eyes still fixed on the painting.
“Honey, it’s red.” I laughed a little.
“No.” He turned, his eyes flashing. “It’s blue.”
“You can’t disregard what I’m seeing and tell me I’m wrong.”
I look down at his hands, clenched into knuckles on his thighs.
“It’s blue,” I whispered, looking away. He was giving me the gift of clarity.
* * *
Madison Randolph is attending University of Texas Permian Basin to earn her Master’s in English. Her works have appeared in Friday Flash Fiction, The Drabble, and The Chamber Magazine. She has also been published in 101 Words as Ryker Hayes. She can be found on Twitter @Madisonr1713 or Instagram madisonrandolph17
The 820 Red Line was always late.I stood waiting for the northbound train in vain.No sense in calling ahead because my boss knows I will be late.He rides the trains so he will also be late today.Everyone in the city will be late today.
I languish in despair.
Until I see her see me.
She is on her side of the tracks waiting for her southbound train to (ostensibly) take her to work.
She will be late.
But she will not languish.
I feel her despair at being without options.
So I offered her one.
I run down the tracks to the stairs which will cross the tracks taking me to her side.
I see two trains arriving, so I must be fast.
By the time I get to her side of the tracks, I cannot find her.Perhaps the last train was her train.Perhaps she gave up on me.But I never gave up on her.
In the confusion, I saw her on my platform, while I stood on hers.
This time, I saw her first, seeing me, seeing her.
It was the same look she offered walking down the aisle.
Wearing that gown.
Escorted by her father.
* * *
Andy Betz has tutored and taught in excess of 40 years.He lives in 1974 and has been married for 30 years.His works are found everywhere a search engine operates.
Before the loaf of sourdough can be sliced, slathered in butter, and shared, it’s this: a bog of bacteria, air, and time.It bubbles and rises in a recycled pickle jar I plucked from the bin as a perfect incubator.
Before friendship can start we must sift through the bog of our heart space. You decide to want more than to remain separate, warm, and safe. I make peace with the fact that my past hurt and doubt bubbles beside my present hunger and delight.
It takes time, but we both choose transformation and become something new together.
* * *
Anneli Matheson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from City University in Hong Kong.Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Barely South Review, The Other Journal, Hawaii Pacific Review, The Ilanot Review, and Sweet Literary, among others.She lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.Connect with her here: https://bio.site/amathesonwrites
It’s a town of trailer parks, shopping malls, and not much else. I exit the interstate, cross the overpass, and pull a U turn to get to the sushi bar. The staff speaks Korean, not Japanese, but the sushi’s not bad. I order a rainbow roll and something else with eel, fried shrimp, and a drizzle of mayo. The green tea tastes of spinach water and the rolls are wide as my wrist. With red tuna and green avocado, the rainbow roll wishes me a Merry Christmas in August. The tradition is my polite way to refuse Karen’s lunch invitation. My mother’s caretaker cooks filet mignon but mom suffered with C. diff for months and I don’t want a stubborn case of diarrhea. With her decades of nursing, Karen has a titanium intestinal tract. I don’t. During the year I worked in a cancer ward, I spent a quarter of my time with one case of crud after another.
After paying, I drive east toward jagged peaks of brown and tan, turn onto a back street, and park on a dirt driveway. The glass door slides open. Annie the dog rushes through the gap and runs barking in circles to announce my arrival. She’s knee high and has curly, blue-gray fur. After a belly rub, she runs inside.
“How was the drive?” Karen asks. She’s in her sixties, has a heart condition, and saved my mother from a nursing home. “Did you stop for sushi?”
“Yeah, I had the Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon roll.”
We pass through a living room that smells of cigarette smoke.
“Jon’s here! Jon’s here!” Annie barks in the back room where mom lies in a bed, she’s hasn’t left in three years.
The stroke left one side of her mouth downturned in a permanent frown. Gravy stains her bib and Concord-grape-colored bruises mottle the arms that stick out of her sack-like nightgown. Despite a valiant effort, the air conditioner struggles against the hundred-ten-degree heat. Honey the cat, perches atop the TV. Sometimes she’ll sit on my lap, her sharp claws puncturing the fabric of my slacks.
“Hi, mom. How’s it going?”
“Okay.” She struggles to get this word out.
“I brought a few stories by Lorrie Moore.” I sit by her bed and began to read.
I don’t know what else to do. Neither of us are nostalgic enough to relive the past so I read stories by my favorite writers – Kelly Link, Jim Shepherd, Aimee Bender, and Ron Carlson. After thirty pages my voice grows hoarse.
I toss a squeaky toy for Annie the dog. When she brings it back, we play tug of war even though Karen asked me to be careful of Annie’s hurt neck. The dog’s injury required laser treatments but even with a Ph.D. in physics I don’t understand how they’re supposed to work. Annie pulls at the toy with such enthusiasm that I don’t hold back. The dog loves it and it makes my mom laugh.
“Hey mom, want me to hire some male strippers for your birthday?”
“Oh, if you want to, Jon,” her voice quavers. My mother will be ninety-four in December. The last few years sucked but she’d lived on her own until age ninety-one.
After finishing another story, I say goodbye. The smell of alcohol fills the car as I dose my hands with sanitizer. I buy a latte at Starbucks, turn on Prairie Home Companion, and get on I-8 going west. Across from the RV park and the last public restroom for miles, dune buggies drive up and down sandy hills. Past irrigation canals that flow through fields of lettuce, miles of sand separated from the road by wire fence surround the highway. I see a cell phone tower wrapped with brown tape and topped with plastic to disguise it as a palm tree.
Past the Chevron station at Ocotillo, white windmills stand like monster robots as I-8 climbs into the hills. Boulders the size of freight cars surround the interstate as if thrown in a giant’s temper tantrum. The radio cuts out in the middle of Guy Noir and I tune to a Mexican station playing mariachi music. It’s either that, top 40, or some preacher’s diatribe. There’s a tower I never stopped at and a cistern of undrinkable water to cool overheated radiators. Across the road on the downgrade, a ramp provides escape for runaway trucks. I once stayed at a desert motel that had hot springs but won’t tonight.
Past Alpine, I-8 widens around El Cajon and fills up with city traffic. The radio is back so I turn to Swamy Sound System and listen to punk rock as I pass shopping centers, SDSU, and a deli I always wanted to try. I thread my way to the right lane to get on I-805 north. By the children’s hospital, I remember driving back from Pamela’s place in City Heights. My wrists were wrecked, I was out of a job, and doubted I’d ever work again. I merge onto I-5 and the last miles drag. Del Mar Heights, Villa del la Valle, Lomas Santa Fe. I take Manchester to the Coast Highway that parallels the Pacific. Even though I’ve lived here for twenty years, life is fickle and I won’t be able to view the best ocean forever. Spending a precious day of rest out of a full-time schedule of eleven-hour work days is tedious but I’m lucky. All I have to do is pay the bills and make like Jay Leno. I don’t know how other caretakers do it. When I reach my mother’s age, there will be no wife or even unworthy children to look after me. I take Tamarack to my apartment complex on Harding, park in space C, and trudge up the stairs, ready for a hot shower and several beers. I’ll never hire the male strippers.
* * *
Jon Wesick is a regional editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. He’s published hundreds of poems and stories in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, New Verse News, Paterson Literary Review, Pearl, Pirene’s Fountain, Slipstream, Space and Time, and Tales of the Talisman. His most recent books are The Shaman in the Library and The Prague Deception. http://jonwesick.com
I like to watch my daughter in the evenings with her finch…her 16th birthday present. I bought it for her last week, after one of our arguments. I wandered the lanes in Chandi Chowk, moving from one chirping store to the next. I asked the lady in one store what kinds of birds were best for indoor pets. She mentioned the names of several, but my attention perked up when she started to talk about the finch.
“What was that one again?” I said.
“The finch,” she said. “They are marvelous birds. They forage in flocks over the grasslands, but individually they are perfect indoors. Helpful for introverts. They speak a chirping sound, but not too loud. It’s like they’re talking with you.
I brought the bird home with a cage and all the accoutrements. I called my daughter down and showed her the bird, just making its home in the cage. My daughter marveled and immediately took the bird up to her room.
Later she came down and said, “Thanks, Ma.”
Sometimes after we argue I need to remind myself later what the issue was about. But I remember last night’s. It was about her friends.
Her world contains pressures, all beyond her making. She rides atop them like they are tectonic plates in her thoughts: I must be a certain way…I cannot be this way.
I tell her again for the 100th time that I don’t understand…that I wish I did. That she need not be so ripped apart by what Ashvi or Meera or Sira said to her. She runs through accusations and apologies and half-composed couplets…seething scorn for me and unrealized expectations for her, all within a few short breaths.
The lady at the store suggested covering the bird’s cage at night. She said it was for the bird’s nighttime sleeping patterns and for creating a general sense of calm. It was not cruel for the bird, she said. It was kind.
My daughter talks to the finch now at night. She closes her door, and they coo together in her room. It is not a whole solution. It is not even a bridge for the gap. But the bird is present and can be loved.
Zary Fekete has worked as a teacher in Hungary, Moldova, Romania, China, and Cambodia. He lives and works as a writer in Minnesota and has been featured in variations publications including Zoetic Press, Bag of Bones Press, and Mangoprism. Zary has a debut chapbook of short stories coming in March 2023 from Alien Buddha Press. He enjoys books, podcasts, and long, slow films. Twitter: @ZaryFekete
Kevin ripped open his shirt in the middle of our neighborhood bar and displaying a deep scar that ran along the entire length of his chest, he said, “You should see the other guy!” He did not tell us that the other guy was the board-certified Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at the local hospital where Kevin recently underwent his triple bypass surgery.
Kevin was in his fifties and conducted his life not just by saying a lot, but by leaving a lot unsaid. He pretended to be a tough guy, a successful businessman, a ladies man, an epitome of good health, a sportsman and a representative of all things brave and masculine. He was entertaining and well-liked but we often felt that there was something about him we could not put our finger on.Discussions about Kevin were rife with speculation and scandal, but usually ended up with no conclusions.
Kevin and I were part of a small circle of friends who grew up in the same town and have known each other since we were teenagers.He was divorced and was going through difficulties with his finances and his health, but he refused to admit it and said things that led one to believe the contrary.“I just got a perfect bill of health from my doctor,” he once declared, failing to clarify that he was talking about his podiatrist.He often told us, “My wife is the love of my life and we have a perfect romance,” neglecting to add that his sentiments were not reciprocated.“I’ve decided to change the pace a bit.Kick it up a notch.Try something different.I’m tired of doing the same old thing,” he said one evening as we were all having our customary drinks in our neighborhood bar.We found out a few days later that Kevin was laid off.
He came from a wealthy family and when we were growing up, we envied him for his expensive clothes, bicycles, sporting gear and cars.We were roommates in college, and although he did not have to, he worked as a cashier in the cafeteria.In those days, credit cards were processed using a swiping machine which created a carbon copy imprint of the card.He would take home those imprints and order things for himself using the credit card numbers and have them delivered to the neighbors.He would then intercept the shipments as soon as they were delivered by the mailman.With his family’s wealth, he could easily afford all the things he ordered.When I asked him why he was preying on poor college students, he justified it and said that the students are not held responsible for unauthorized purchases, and the credit card company would absorb these charges anyway.He ran a few other scams in college, the details of which I can no longer recall.After college, we went our separate ways, got married, started families, and finally ended up living in the town we grew up in.
I did not tell any of our friends about Kevin’s nefarious activities in college.I classified them as boyish pranks that one outgrew and I chose to ignore them.However, based on his proclamations and his tentative relationship with the truth, I often wondered if he had a secret life where he continued the scams of his youth to the present day.
Our group of friends met at the bar a few days a week for a quick drink and occasionally we stayed until closing time.For years, I noticed that Kevin always left precisely at 7 PM on Fridays and Saturdays saying he did not want to miss dinner with his family.He did this even when his family was out of town and after his divorce. I found this odd and it added to the nagging suspicions I had about Kevin.
One Friday, I had to go to the other side of town to pick up a part I needed to repair my car.The neighborhood was home to warehouses and small factories and was quite gritty.It was around eight in the evening and as I was driving past the homeless shelter, I saw Kevin’s car in the dimly lit parking lot, unmistakable in its two-tone red and white topcoat.This was a small shelter with a capacity of 20 beds.They opened at 7.30 PM and take in the first twenty residents for the night.A volunteer gives them dinner and does their laundry while they sleep and the next morning, the residents are given a warm breakfast and their clean laundry and are asked to leave when the shelter closes at 8 AM.The first thought I had was that Kevin was homeless and was staying at the shelter, and he did not tell any of us about the poor turn in his fortune.I pulled into the parking lot and walked towards the building.After a few steps, I stopped and wondered if I would embarrass Kevin by my visit. I turned around and started walking back towards my car.As I started the engine and prepared to leave, I decided that I should go in and talk to Kevin and tell him he could stay with me until he could afford a place of his own.I walked back towards the shelter.As I approached the door, I saw a hand-written sign that said:“Welcome.Your Volunteer Today: Mr. Kevin”.
I went back to my car, embarrassed and ashamed.After all these years, it suddenly dawned on me why Kevin left the bar religiously at 7 pm on Fridays and Saturdays.For a person who bragged about every aspect of his life and always painted himself in a very generous light, he never once mentioned his weekly acts of service.I cannot speculate why he kept this side of his life hidden from us. What Kevin left unsaid said a lot about him.
Chris Pais grew up in India and came to the United States to pursue graduate studies in engineering. His work appears in Poetry India, The International Journal of Heat and Mass Transfer, Wingless Dreamer, Wild Roof Journal, The Literary Bohemian, Defunct Magazine and elsewhere. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where he works on clean energy technologies and tinkers with bikes, guitars and recipes.
I was almost four years old. My big sister, Susie, was nine. Our mother walked us to the subway entrance. It was a workday for her but it was summer and Susie and I were out of school. She gave Susie a rolled-up bath towel and a bag with sandwiches wrapped in wax paper and a package of Hostess cupcakes. She put only two tokens in Susie’s hand, one for going there, one for coming home. I could slip under the turnstile.
At the Coney Island stop, the breeze tasted like salt and fish and little wafts of pee. As we reached the boardwalk, Susie held me by the wrist and pushed us through the crowd.
“The beach!” I yelled and broke free and ran into the sand, into the sea of umbrellas and people and towels and babies and beach balls and fallen hot dog buns and I was laughing.
And I ran and Susie chased me past men with cigarettes and hairy legs and boys digging sand and she screamed my name and I slipped between women who smelled like suntan lotion and girls pouring sea water out of pails. And Susie came after me and I scrambled around women in bathing suits with big breasts and sunglasses and families eating on chairs and swimmers returning, water dripping down their legs, and I was still running and laughing, “The beach! The beach!” and I couldn’t stop and radios were playing.
And when Susie caught up with me, she grabbed one of my thin arms and was mad and I cried. She walked us to a spot on the sand between teenagers and glass bottles, unrolled our towel, and we sat down.
And I was afraid of the monstrous, gray-blue ocean. But Susie lifted me and hugged me to her chest and walked us toward the cool waves. I screamed and hit her on the head as we got closer but she held on and walked in deeper and my legs tightened around her waist as the water rose.
And I shrieked, “No! No! I don’t want to!” and I tried to break free but she squeezed me tighter and stood in the water until the salty gray waves splashed up to my belly. And she ducked down without warning. And my head was drenched and for one gasping moment I thought we would die in that terrible place. And I hated the beach. And I could see through the dirty water and the salt tasted terrible and burned my eyes.
“See. It’s okay,” she said. And she dipped us down again and I was stunned and I sputtered and tried to twist away and I glared at the horrible lapping waves. But she stayed in the shallows and hugged me until I stopped crying. And she walked us back, both of us soaking wet, to the shore.
We returned to our towel and I sat in my own puddle of water, staring at the hideous gray-blue waves, my little feet caked with grains of sand. And we ate lunch and the sandwiches were hot and my cupcake fell and Susie broke off the dirty part and gave me the rest.
And later she took us to the bathroom where we showered across from two women in a room with no curtains and the cement floor was gritty and someone left a bathing suit on the floor in a pile of sand and everyone walked around it.
On the subway home, my bathing suit straps were hanging untied on my back. And by the end of the ride Susie’s eyes looked red and my face and neck and shoulders and the tops of my arms were burning. Susie pulled us through the crowd at the Delancey Street stop and we took the escalator up to the street.
All the windows were propped open and the table fan was spinning when we got back to our apartment. We could smell chicken and onions simmering on the stove. And my mother was taking a bath. We could hear her singing a wordless song through the open bathroom door.
And I shouted to my mother, “Susie took us swimming! Susie took us swimming at the beach!”
* * *
Sabena Stark writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. A daughter of immigrants, she is inspired by people who experience the world as outsiders. Her work appears in The Carolina Quarterly, Georgetown Review, Bridges Journal and other journals and anthologies. Her memoir in progress was awarded the Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship for Literary Nonfiction. She lives and writes in Eugene, Oregon.
She tells you to scooch higher on the table and glides the wand over your belly. With the other hand, her fingers tap the keyboard. Click click stop. Like a squirrel cracking nuts or a demented secret code. You ask if you’re allowed to talk, and she says: “No rule against it” but her expression indicates otherwise. You’re the last patient of the day and you can tell she wants to finish and go home. March, late afternoon. A grey windy day. Click click stop click stop click. She’s turned off the lights. Is this standard? You can’t tell. It was so long ago since you did this. The last time there was a baby inside you. You stare at the ceiling, a series of dots smeared onto asbestos tiles. She moves the wand lower, skates it over the surface of your skin. Warm and oily as jelly. When she leaves you look at the pictures she hasn’t bothered to erase. A large square and five smaller ones on the right. Colors burst from the blackness – vermillion, orange, lavender – shooting across the screen like the Northern lights. Cancer blooming before your eyes, cells aiming their gorgeous, silky tendrils at your heart.
* * *
Beth Sherman received an MFA in creative writing from Queens College, where she teaches in the English department. Her fiction has been published in numerous publications, including Portland Review, KYSO,Black Fox LiteraryMagazine, Sandy River Review, Blue Lyra Review, Gloom Cupboard and Panoplyzine. She has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net and has written five mystery novels.
Recently Hubs and I have been dealing with some heavy stuff. We’ve been moving appliances. He bought two-person shoulder dolly moving straps. They look like zip-line harnesses. You dunk your head inside, locate the loose end, and adjust. There is an extreme sports feel to the thing. But it’s just our deep freezer, on vacation in the living room. It’s just our kitchen stove, needing transport of twelve feet.
The reason our appliances were in the living room is because Hubs just finished replacing the vinyl flooring. The vinyl flooring had to be replaced because the previous vinyl was all torn up. The previous vinyl was all torn up because a pipe burst, ruining the subfloor, and the homeowners insurance sent a check, but the guys we hired were clowns (who else but a clown is going to drive all the way out here?) and did a terrible job, leaving a fat vinyl bubble by the sink. Step on the bubble and it went squeak!
Our new vinyl is thicker and made to look like hardwood. It thrills us. Borderline agoraphobes are easily thrilled. We have already been down on our knees admiring its gauge, color, sponginess. We have run our fingernails rat-a-tat against its imitation grain. We have admired its wood-like appearance. We have wondered if our hypothetical friends, on a hypothetical visit, might believe our floor is hardwood. They might, we tell each other. They really might.
Now all that’s left is the fridge. Hubby tilts it and I scoot the midline underneath. Then we strap in and adjust. He’s plastered to one side, I’m plastered to the other. We peek out. We have to start at a crouch. He counts down from three and we stand.
The shoulder dolly helps, but I feel my heart ka-lump. As soon as we reach vinyl he takes off the straps. “We can push it now,” he says. So we do.
But the thing is, the fridge needs to be turned. So we pivot, pushing together on one side, about three-quarters round, so it’s flush with the wall. I slip behind to connect the water line.
While I’m squatting back there Hubs yells “Fuck!”
It’s ripped. Two inches in diameter. From the pivot. Hubs presses down the wrinkled vinyl with his thumb but a crescent of subfloor remains. He curses again. Stands, squats, stands.
I hug him. It feels weird to press horizontally just after pressing vertically so hard. There’s nothing to say. I want to talk about the Japanese idea that perfection exists through imperfection. There’s a term for it, a term I’ve used. I like imperfect perfection. But I can’t think of the word. So we just stand there, hugging, my foot covering the hole in the floor, until everything doesn’t hurt as much.
* * *
Alice earned an MFA in English and then spent several years raising babies and not writing much, but now she’s back to the keyboard. Her short stories have been published in Oyster River Pages, South Dakota Review, Rock Salt Journal, and elsewhere.
Barry died. Yesterday, at the age of 43, from kidney failure. Susan called us into the office to deliver the news. She looked very sad.
She never had to work with him, I thought.
“How?” Abby asked incredulously.
“Kidney failure,” I replied. “Susan just said.”
“He was a good man,” Abby whispered. “He helped me move when my husband died.”
That started it. Informal tributes were passed between us like a baton of reminiscence. Until it was handed to me.
“Barry…,” I began, “hated me.”
The group chuckled because it was funny and because it was true.
“He wasn’t for everyone,” Sinclair admitted, which made Barry sound like cilantro. “I worked with him for seven years. He could be…prickly.”
Prickly. I recalled the shouting match Barry had with a vendor on the sales floor, his dark eyes bulging, spittle flying from his mouth. Which would have been unprofessional at the best of times but especially when the vendor was eight months pregnant.
“When’s the funeral?” Abby asked.
No one answered.
“He was a big man,” I said, trying to think of something–anything–positive. “Tall.” Tall enough to lean over me and tell me my hair was thinning. Tall enough to spot me on the other side of the store and sarcastically holler, “Killing it!”
“He had a big heart,” Abby said.
And two tiny, useless kidneys.
“He loved the Cowboys,” Sinclair offered.
That was true. Barry was one of those people who watch football religiously so that they can begin each week with an argument.
“And golf. He played a lot of golf,” Abby added.
“Was he any good?” I asked.
No one knew.
Abby stared at her phone. “Facebook is blowing up.”
R.I.P.s were flowing in from old workmates. Most of them women. Barry had the superficial charm of a psychopath when it came to women. Killing it.
“When’s the funeral?” Abby repeated.
“Has anyone told Lynn?” Susan asked. “Lynn was very fond of Barry.”
She was–until she wasn’t. Lynn had fired Barry for fudging his sales numbers.“Lynn is on vacation,” I reminded Susan.
“She’d want to know,” Abby simpered.
Sinclair was now scrolling on his phone as well. “Says here Barry was on the transplant list and scheduled for surgery,” he announced, “but the donor changed his mind.”
Probably met him.
“Was he still working in retail?” Susan asked.
“He was at the elementary school. Doing maintenance,” Abby explained.
We all nodded solemnly. Maintenance. A nicer way of saying janitorial work.
“So young,” Sinclair sighed. “Only forty-three.”
Which is a year older than I am. I don’t feel young at all. I feel so old.
“I’ll get a hold of Lynn,” Susan said, “but we should…you know…get back.”
It’s midweek, and sales are down. Commerce is not concerned with grief. Capitalism is predicated on unlimited growth; entropy and death are confined to our off-hours.
“Does anybody know when the funeral is?” Abby asked as we shuffled out of the office.
* * *
Born and raised in South Africa, K.P. Taylor came to the US at 29 to work at an amusement park for the summer and never left. His work has appeared in Identity Theory, Gargoyle, Mystery Tribune, Roanoke Review, and others. He currently lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, their son, and two rescued cats.