Island of Lost Boyfriends

A memoir by Claire Massey

It helps to compartmentalize. I like the word. Mentalize a compartment. Boyfriends of late teens, tender twenties, have been banished to an island in my head, an atoll of sand and coral rubble, arising from the jagged reefs, the dormant volcanoes that comprise the undersea of my neocortex. I’ve created an outcropping, like the archipelago where outcast eighteenth century Aussies were dumped, sentenced to isolation and hardscrabble living. 

Not all the boyfriends are shanghaied. Not Bernie, master of verbal repartee, gleeful when I boomeranged barbs. Not Arthur, WWII aficionado, enthralled with a steady who interviewed a WASP flygirl at the vintage air show, earned accolades from the journalism club. 

But Jack…strong-backed, marathon lover, vane of his Nordic nose, his mane of titian colored hair, he’s a different story. Always tossing his head like an ungelded thoroughbred, eyes cavorting, averting his ears from my needy recitation of Mom’s hospitalization or a pregnant cousin’s impending ruination. Always trolling the length of our favorite bar, sonar pinging off any available blond. He’s relocated to hindsight’s epicenter.

Jeff  too, a huge mistake, poster boy for steroid abuse, is consigned to my isle of the displaced. His MO was ambush at Godfather’s Pizza or Longhorn Steaks, his mantra Hey Ms. Liberated, you gotta job. I don’t. Pay up. When I summoned the nerve to ask why not ERA, he called me a Femi-Nazi. He examined my shapely legs, pert high-chested breasts, decided nice assets but not worth budding challenges to machohood.

Brad dwells on this geological uplift of mind, this topographical design of the thalamus. He rode Hondas while jonesing for Harleys, a short-fused guy out of patience with novices. Lacking the mettle to be a motorcycle mama, I leaned away from him in curves, leaned further when he urged an Ecstasy-fueled threesome. He kicked me to the curb at some country store, had to call my girlfriend for a lift home. 

My island isn’t lethal but time is relentlessly linear. These bad boys will age if not mature. I’ve left a cache of sunglasses so they won’t burn their retinas and bottles of Coppertone, albeit expired and not high numbers. I’ve thrown in books by Gertrude Stein and Virginia Wolf, tales of survival from Zora Neale Hurston. Mother Nature is by turn indifferent, or in a mood to discipline disrespectful sons. She calls forth Amazon ants from the walls of driftwood shelters, floods them with rot, blows them apart. Feast or famine is Mother Luna’s decision. Minuscule anchovies or egg-laden she-crabs. It’s all in the crest of her tides, the whim of her phases. 

Jack’s back will ache and his head will bald. He’ll stop seeking his reflection in after-storm puddles that crater quicksand. Jeff’s muscles will elongate, unbunch, as he shimmies up palms and runs the perimeter for washed up sushi. Deprived of red meat and artificial testosterone, he’ll crave coconut milk, contemplate fate like a fledgling monk. Brad has nothing to ride, no boat to drive beyond bone-crushing breakers. Still, he wants to get high, wonders if he should try a bite of lionfish or oleander. 

Prodigious talkers, these smooth operators will one up each other with conquest stories. They’ll never figure I’m the common denominator, put a name to the ex with the endless legs and overblown imagination. I was one of a legion of girls on the serpentine route to womanhood, rehearsing smiles till it hurt, swallowing uncomfortable words, questioning if Eve really did ruin the world. We combed Cosmo for conversation starters, nodded when the quarterback denied there were female pilots. Heads cocked at inquisitive angles, we longed for dialogue, settled for monologue. 

Should this trio appear in a dream I’ll forget before waking, ask for second chances, a seismic shift in my thinking, I’ll offer a test. Convince me you remember. Name the lost girlfriends who didn’t know they could stand on their own, legs gangly yet resilient as a colt’s. Name nine Greek muses, the feminine charkas, the seven sisters, Minerva’s domains, “harvest moon” in eight languages, the maternal ancestors who gave you birth. Do this seventy times seven times and maybe, I’ll revisit my seat of higher judgment, re-examine the molten heart of my own Vesuvius. 

                                      *    *    *

Claire Massey has published award winning poetry, memoir, flash fiction, and short stories in an array of literary journals including Wilderness House Literary Review, Persimmon Tree, Panoply, Snapdragon Journal of Art and Healing, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, and Flights 2020, among others. Her memoir, “In the Backyard of Childhood” placed in the National Keats Soul Making Literary Competition. She is Poet Laureate for the Pensacola, Florida branch of National Pen Women. A Selection Editor for The Emerald Coast Review in 2019, she is Prose Editor for the 2021 print edition of this publication.

The Divine Leper

by Lorette C. Luzajic

for Jose de la Cruz Mena (Nicaragua) 1874-1907

Mena, of Managua, and Leon, the old city falling to ruins at the mouth of Momotombo. Nicaragua’s volcano still sputters a century after the music died. Viva Mena! Long live Mena! his loyal audience shouted when his piano waltz took first prize at the Teatro Municipal. José de la Cruz Mena, the composer, was stranded outside the shutters as they played his Ruinas. All lepers were barred from the theatre. One small mercy from the Blessed Virgin: he had not been sent to the Aserradores island colony with the rest of the infected.  It was a favor from the General, on behalf of his genius. All the waltzes, the masses, the folk songs, the requiems, the carols, the funeral marches, but he could no longer play El Nacatamal on his baritone horn. His limbs were already dissolving and he had been blind since turning twenty. Some of his work has been saved, but much was burned.  They meant to purify the manuscripts of mycobacterium lepromatosis. For twelve years he could not play at his own conciertos, but how he labored at those scores: writing with fingers falling from his hands like dust, then tapping out the rhythm with the stubs that remained.  He whistled the notes for a faithful friend to transcribe on his behalf. The music was tectonic. It burned him from inside: he had to find a way.

                                      *    *    *

Lorette C. Luzajic is an artist and writer from Toronto, Canada. Her flash fiction and prose poetry has been widely published, nominated for several Pushcarts and Best of the Net awards, longlisted and winner of writing contests, and translated into Urdu. She is the editor of The Ekphrastic Review, a journal devoted to writing inspired by visual art.

Bobbling on the Ocean

by Melissa Juchniewicz

Arlene looked out her kitchen window and saw her brother Will sitting on the frayed lawn chair out back, his hair sticking up everywhere and his jeans black with motor oil. He was slumped down and staring off at nothing.

“Oh,” she said, then went back to buttering the toast for Joe.  She put the plate on the table with Joe’s coffee and poured his orange juice. “Shit,” she said.

“I told you to watch your language,” Joe said as he walked into the kitchen.  “I don’t want my kids to hear it.”

“They hear worse from you,” Arlene said.  

“Don’t start with me,” Joe said and sat down with his back to her.  “What are you cursing about, anyway,” he said.

“You’ll know in a sec,” said Arlene.

Joe threw his spoon down.  “Is he here again? I told you no more.  You want me to tell him? He’ll stay away for good if I tell him.”

“I’ll tell him,” said Arlene.  She looked out the window again. Will was still sitting, not moving.  The leaves were starting to come down and some were blowing around at his feet.  

“I’ll tell him when you leave.” 

Joe shoved himself out from the table.  “I’m leaving now,” he said, and grabbed his jacket from the hook.  “The war’s over,” he said.  “It’s 1975.  Tell him to get over it.” He went out the front.  The pick-up sprayed gravel when he took off.  

Arlene knocked on the kitchen window and Will turned around.  She pointed to the back door, and Will got up and went in.  “Hi sis,” he said, his big shoulders rounded.   He sat down in the chair Joe had just been in, drained the orange juice in three gulps and started on the toast.   His hands were filthy, and Arlene smelled motor oil and cigarettes as she picked up the juice glass.

“You want me to make you something?” Arlene asked.

“No, don’t.  I’m sorry, Leeny.  I know I said I wouldn’t do this anymore.”

“You always say that.”

“I’m sorry.  I’ve almost got it licked though.  I’m never touching another drop. I’m quitting.  That was it last night, I promise. I’m done,” he said.

Tina came into the kitchen in pink flannel pajamas and almost tripped on the bottoms that were too long.  Kitty and Jimmy were right behind her.  “Hi, Uncle Will,” Tina said and went to the cupboard.  She stood on her toes to get out three bowls.

“I didn’t wake you up, did I Angel?” Will said.  He smiled, and Tina stared at his yellow teeth as she put the bowls on the table.

“Never mind,” said Tina and poured Rice Crispies into the three bowls.  “Hurry up or we’ll miss the bus,” she said to Kitty and Jimmy. They always did what Tina said even though she was the youngest. They turned to her for many of the things they needed. 

The four of them sat silently eating at the table, Will finishing Joe’s toast.  Arlene sat on the stool at the counter and lit a cigarette.  When the clinking of spoons and bowls slowed down, Arlene said, “Go get dressed and ready.” They picked up their bowls and drank the rest of the milk.  

“Uncle Will you stink,” Jimmy said as he walked by, and they went back down the hall to their rooms.

“Let me throw your clothes in with the wash when they leave,” Arlene said. “Where’d you sleep, in the woods again?”  

Will didn’t say anything.

“If you behaved yourself before you could still be staying here,” Arlene said.

“I know,” Will said.

“He doesn’t even want you to come around,” Arlene said.

Will stood up. “I’ll go.”

“No, sit down.” Arlene pushed him back down in the chair. “What am I gonna do with you?” she said and smoothed his hair down. He put his arms around her and hugged his face to her belly.  “You’re the only one who cares, Leeny.”

She gave him a rough push.  “Don’t start with that ‘poor me’ stuff Will,” she said. “You’ve burned through everyone else.”

He lifted his eyes to the ceiling. “Go ahead, give it to me again.”

“I don’t have to tell you again.  Two brothers and three sisters.  They all tried.  You had it good at Stevie’s, that nice little house.  And you come back there at night yelling your head off that you took the beating when he did wrong.  It was a long time ago, Will.”

“You don’t even remember,” Will said.  “Dad never took the strap out with the girls.”

Arlene picked up the bowls and put them in the sink. “He was only home a couple of times a year,” she said. 

“And he let me have it to make up for time.  Ma didn’t help.  She’d tell him all the stuff we did when he was gone.”

“She was just trying to tell him she couldn’t do it alone, that she needed him home,” Arlene said.

“Well it didn’t work out that way,” Will said.

“It was a long time ago,” Arlene said and turned back to the sink.

“Leeny, has Joe got anything to drink here?” Will asked.

“Will for Christ sake,” Arlene said.  “That was the last straw for him, you drank every drop in the house.”

“I’m sorry,” said Will.

Arlene turned the water on in the sink.  She heard a little sound and turned to see Will’s shoulders shaking, his head in his hands.  She shut off the water and sat down next to him.  “Let me get you something to eat.  I’ll wash your clothes and we’ll figure something out,” she said.

“Like what,” Will said, his face still covered by his hands.

“The V.A. can –” she started.

Will slammed the table. “I’m not going back to that place!” he shouted.  Arlene flinched, then very slowly pushed her chair away from the table, watching him.

“I’m ok, Arlene, I won’t – I’m ok. But you don’t know what that place is like, it’s worse than jail.  The way those orderlies treat you. All those old guys doing the Thorazine shuffle down the hallways.  They smell.    I’m not gonna end up like them. I’d rather sleep in the woods.”

“Winter’s coming,” said Arlene.

“If Joe won’t let me stay here, I’ll go back to the shelters,” Will said.  “Or I’ll do some little crime and go back to jail.”

“That’s your plan,” Arlene said.

They sat for a minute.  Will wiped his nose with the back of his hand and Arlene handed him a paper napkin from the holder.

“It’s not fair,” Will said.

“I know,” Arlene said.

“I picked those guys up from the ocean,” Will said.  “I was the first one to spot the capsule and I got them onto the ship. Those three guys.” He looked out the window with a little smile.  “They have a funny look on their faces when they get back from the moon. They put the Rover on the moon, Leeny, the moon! And I hauled them out.”

“I know, Will,” she said.

“I look up at the sky when I’m in the woods at night and there it is.  The moon.  And they were there.  And then I spotted the capsule first and I got them onto the ship.”

“I know, Will,” she said.

“Nobody knows,” Will said.

“Will,” Arlene said and took his two hands. “You can’t stay here.”

“I know,” he said.

Arlene faced him.  “Will, when you’re out there tonight and you look at the moon,” she said, “think of the rocket.  Think of Apollo 15.  Put your anger on it.  Send it up to the sky and up to the moon.  Leave it there.”

He looked at her.  “Give it a ride on the Rover?” 

“That’s it. Give it a ride on the Rover.  Leave it there,” she said.

They sat for a minute.  “Could you get me something to eat?” Will asked.

“Sure,” said Arlene. “I’ll fix you something.”

                                                                   *   *   *

Melissa Juchniewicz writes short fiction, flash, and poetry and has been recognized with regional awards around New Hampshire. Her work has seen publication in Orca, Light, Poet’s Touchstone, and The Offering. She is on the faculty at UMass Lowell, and lives in Chester, New Hampshire.

 

Perfect Day

by Mileva Anastasiadou

The song hasn’t come up yet in his mind, the sun barely seen on the horizon, but he already knows, he knows the moment he opens up his eyes, he knows from the very beginning that music will play nonstop, he only hopes for a happy song. She wakes up beside him, rubs her eyes, her hair tangled, her eyes heavy, her mind caught up in a vague dream, her body stretching, touching his body, and when her hand rests in his hand, that’s when it starts, the song playing in the room, the lyrics pouring in his ears, the melody storming in his brain, he asks do you hear what I hear? and she turns on her side, looks at him, she keeps staring, does not answer back, like she didn’t hear him, he thinks, this sounded like a Christmas tune, so he doesn’t repeat it, it’s so out season it’d spoil the mood, perhaps he didn’t ask the question aloud in the first place, perhaps the music comes from his dream, or her dream. 

The song hasn’t stop playing, while he swims by her side, she dives into the waters, disappears, he gets scared, but she appears a few meters away, he is relieved, like playing peek-a-boo, one can never win, but the excitement is overwhelming every time they find each other. He forgets the world, when they meet friends for lunch, when they walk up and down the beach, hand in hand, it’s hot, she mumbles, she wipes the sweat from her forehead, it’s perfect, he says and he means it, he wants to stay here forever, forever beside her, the song still playing loud, only in his head, and he wonders, doubt is eating him from the inside, why, why on earth she doesn’t hear the music too. 

When it gets dark they’ll go home, they’ll make love, they won’t talk, that song will come up on the radio, and only then, when the melody sways in the room, only then will they feel complete, only then, when they turn side to side, eyes closed, his left hand will rest on her arm, and the little finger of her other hand will rise from under her cheek to touch the fingertip of his right hand under the pillow, a circle, he’ll think, we’re a circle, and she will nod, as if she can read his mind. 

The music will be over when he wakes up in the middle of the night, he’ll have some water, he’ll croon the tune, to make it last, like music before the end, the final scene, the circle already broken, soon they’ll be but parallel lines, lines that once crossed paths but then forgot about it, changed direction, lonely lines, not destined to meet, but all this will feel like a nice dream, and that day will seem perfect, yet not perfect enough to feel perfect until years later, a day they’ll both romanticize with time, the day when they were together, together, like almond trees blossoming in the midst of winter, by mistake, out of season, much too hopeful, much too soon. 

                                                              *   *   * 

Mileva Anastasiadou is a neurologist, from Athens, Greece. A Pushcart, Best of the Net, Best Microfiction and Best Small Fictions nominated writer, her work can be found in many journals, such as Litro, Jellyfish Review, HAD, Ruminate, Lost Balloon, X-R-AY, Chestnut Review and others. 

Sweet and Sour

A memoir by Suzanne Siteman

The lemon in my hand is light, but with an interior weight to it, as if the fruit and juice on the inside have a presence I can feel through my fingers, pushing against the skin, even before the flesh is broken. Lemon peel is in fact skin-like; pock-marked with visible pores that prick the surface and cluster and crowd closer as the rounded body narrows to a pointed, misshapen end. I can imagine finding it on the ground like a gumball in the spring, or an acorn in the fall, surrendered from its branch.

This one is small but abundant, plumped and taut like my stomach when my daughters ripened inside me, when I liked my body best. I close my eyes and feel where the fruit was plucked off its branch, where it hung overlayed by deep green leaves, one of many lemons on the tree; that place of separation sharp to my touch. It gives a bit when I palpate it in my hand and my fingers slip over the waxy rind. I like to shift it against my thumb and pointer finger like a stress ball. In much the same way, my hands were drawn to my pregnant belly; seven, eight, nine months in, grazing the smooth shelf of me—idling there.

We say that things are colored lemon-yellow but this lemon is really lemon-lime, like the Mountain Dew I was allowed to drink on Saturday nights as a child in my feetie pink pajamas with the rubber polka dot soles. Beneath the surface yellow, a pale green bleeds through, not a remnant of its infancy but an indication of where it grew on the tree and the constancy of sun under which it ripened. Lemons grow best in warmth and strong light, sheltered from the wind. 

 A lemon is contained. Rarely does one soften to the point of collapse. It holds its shape with a kind of dignity regardless of age in my refrigerator. Sometimes, when one lives there too long, fuzzy spots of white mold fleck the exterior like a pox. Still, I see its original beauty.

The scent of a lemon whole is a delicate union of farm, field and floral. Split open, it smells unadulterated; like laundry on the line, curtains shifting on a windowsill, a blue Iris. There is a sweet undernote. When I was pregnant, I kept bowls of lemons at home to lift and breathe in when random smells overwhelmed me. Lemons consoled my off-kilter senses. A baggie of lemon halves lived on the front seat of my car and their faint reminder clung for months after I gave birth. 

Cut across the broad middle I find a pinwheel lives inside, symmetrically segmented. The milky-yellow flesh is luminous, the seeds are buried in sight just under the translucent surface, and I am reminded of the trace of my daughters’ elbows and knees flashing across me like an internal projection—tiny bones briefly visible. I squeeze the lemon to release the juice and a sand dollar forms in the empty space left behind, framed by fragile white membrane. Vacant elegance. Seeds spill. On my tongue, the rich acidic taste flares and the glands under my jaw contract in salivatory response. The body is never indifferent to a lemon.

My youngest daughter Amy left for college this year while cases of  COVID-19 burst back across the country. She loves the bitter bite of lemons. She is wise to sweet and sour. She slices them into exacting wedges to squeeze into her glass, watching the water cloud as the juice sifts slow-motion to the bottom. She likes to notch one and hang it on the side, a restaurant-like gesture I find graceful and illustrative of her maturity, of my maturity; a woman of advanced maternal age I was labeled when I carried her at forty. 

I used to find Amy’s orphaned lemon remnants on the kitchen counter, the quarters she hadn’t claimed, sitting upright and stoic on my cutting board, leaking juice. I didn’t mind this small mess she left behind. I think of them now in my kitchen when I drop slices into my own glass and feel them land against my lips with every drink.

*   *   *

Suzanne Siteman is a nonfiction writer and new Coloradan. She has recently returned to writing with the launching of her last child. Her work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, Mothering Magazine, New Millennium Writings, The Larcom Review and elsewhere.

 

Half Baked Pot

by Nazia Kamali

The lazy Sunday afternoon stretched into a quiet evening. Laila kept away the book she was reading and peered out the window. The sun was setting. Traces of saffron had started to sprout on the clear blue sky.

She went to the small room adjoining the kitchen and sat cross-legged in front of the pottery wheel. A thick mound of mud waited in a dish kept on the side. She kneaded the dough diligently; making sure it was even, devoid of air bubbles, and soft. She then placed a handful of it on the wheel. Slowly, she began building – mud, water, sweat, concentration…

Her petite hands held the wobbly pot-in-making. A few strands of loose hair grazed her collar bones as she applied adequate pressure with her fingers to carve out the neck.

Once the pot was made, she placed it inside an oven.

Post dinner, she came back to the room, held the half baked pot in her hands, and inspected it with keen eyes.

Lifting it high up in the air, she smashed the pot into several pieces.

The satisfaction of being ‘in charge’ blossomed through her bosom as she went to lie on the bed.

                                                             *   *  *

Nazia is a reader, writer, and teacher who regularly volunteers with organizations that work for Women Empowerment. She has worked for local news journal Harbinger India for several years. Her work has been published online on Indus Women Writing, the Whorticulturalist as well as offline in anthologies by Cape Comorin Publishers, PCC Inscape, and Other Worldly women Press.

Last Smile

by Yash Seyedbagheri

When one glass of Merlot is depleted, reality gapes through the empty glass. There’s a sea of bills, empty apartments, ketchup-stained fridges, neighbors without faces and names, parties to which I’m not privy, childhood nicknames and sisterly I-love-yous thousands of miles away. All that on top of papers to grade, workshops to prepare for. But that’s all for next week anyway.

A second glass goes fast too. I try to take small swigs, but after weeks of Diet Coke, onions, TV dinners, and Triscuit rip-offs, sweetness rushes down my throat like a freight train. One swig, two swig, three swigs, big swig.

So I order two more glasses at the same time. A Merlot and a peachy Moscato, for the lightness. The Merlot’s great, but by the second glass, a certain bitterness has risen to the top. My sister Nan’s right. Darker wines do tend to be fucking depressing. She’d tease me about this, call me her little boozer and I almost want to cry.

The bartender, who wears a lavender button-down shirt and looks disturbingly like bearded-era Hemingway, offers a smile. It’s knowing, almost sad, but without words. His eyes hold the weight of observation and I can only imagine the stories he has heard, many far wilder. Dissolved marriages, fellow students even more stressed. Drunk parents. He pours the glasses with methodical precision, the glugging an almost soothing sound. Even pours them all the way to the top, bottle held with confidence, tipped, but never in danger of falling. Then he hands them to me with a flourish. No questions still. I smile and thank him with a little too much fervency.

I take the longest sips, lean back in the green booth, ripped at the seams in a few places. Let the sounds sink into me. With each crash of pool balls, each gale of laughter from adjacent booths, friends shoving and stumbling, even the TV over the counter showing The Big Lebowski, I feel a smile snaking out, crooked, but certainly a smile. I try to hold onto it, steal snatches of people’s stories. I snatch stories of the worst hangovers and tests they’re dreading and their favorite sativa strains, sex stories, stories about their favorite episodes of Barry or Succession. I smile, imagine bodies hunched over tables, the intimacy of it, the smells that rise, weed, sweat, cheesy colognes. My booth smells like the ghosts of Camels past and I almost picture another me in this booth, someone here alone on a Friday night. But I don’t want to think of all this now.

I’m tempted to text Nan, but it’s late. She’s got enough on her plate as a history teacher anyway. She’ll also worry if I text this late too, even if she disguises it as a joke. She knows me too well. I’ll text her tomorrow.

Girls in tight shorts and tank tops stream in. Guys in baggy sweatpants stake claims at the counter and move about the crowded floors with its hilarious purple and brown carpeting. I nod and smile, although most keep moving, footsteps a mixture of thump, thump, thumps and clickety-clacks. A few precise clack, clack, clacks. I do, however, get one or two nods, a murmured how-ya-doin’, a what’s up dude, and store them like gems. An indescribable energy rising, I even drum the table to the beat of the jukebox, playing The Eagles, Mary J. Blige, Salt-N-Pepa, The Beatles even. 

Of course, the night deepens, the moon disappears, and people start dispersing one by one, slinking out the doors into the cold air. Then they disperse in larger droves, seas of tank tops and colorful shirts enveloped by the night, walking to cars and cabs, to places unseen. The booths around me become elegant, empty, naked oak, stains and blemishes highlighted. The room takes on a largeness, emptied out, something a bit too heavy. 

I try to order one more glass. Consider playing something on the jukebox. But they’re starting to clean up and they wipe everything away with force, the glasses and smiles carted off. I rise, look for the smiles, try to speak, but they’re lost in the dimming lights, the steel glare of the stars, the seconds hand of the clock counting down, and the growing shadows, long and deep.

                                                               *   *   *

Yash Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA fiction program. His stories, “Soon,” “How To Be A Good Episcopalian,” and “Tales From A Communion Line,” were nominated for Pushcarts. Yash’s work has been published in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Write City Magazine, and Ariel Chart, among others.

The First Word

by Melissa Llanes Brownlee

The wrong dress, floral and pink, worn to a failed interview for a school she will never be able to enter, dumped in the Goodwill box. The torn song sheet from a missed audition, because her mother forgot to pick her up, burned and buried behind the house. The portable cd player, she’d bought with her own birthday money, stolen by her sister to use in her new car their parents bought because she was dating a quarterback and needed a car for cheerleading practice and a part time job. The broken-lock diary her brother ripped from her hands to tease her about her first crush, his cruel words burned red as the hearts she’d drawn, tossed in the trash after his fun. The fantasy books, she borrowed from the library, used to hold up the couch her dad insisted he would fix before they were due. The old typewriter, a gift from the aunt who lives too far away to know, resold to an antique shop before she could even type.

                                                                *    *   *

Melissa Llanes Brownlee (she/her), a native Hawaiian writer, living in Japan, has fiction in The Citron Review, Waxwing, Milk Candy Review, Claw & Blossom, Bending Genres, The Lumiere Review, Micro Podcast, (mac)ro(mic), 3Elements Literary Review and elsewhere. She was selected for Best Small Fictions 2021. She tweets @lumchanmfa and talks story at http://www.melissallanesbrownlee.com.

Nice Vampire Man

A Memoir by Michael Cannistraci

It could have been the fangs or the black cape that made the police suspicious. It was a nice cape, with a flame-red silk lining that complemented my gray eye shadow and black lipstick. 

It was October 1980.My girlfriend’s dad, Jim, owned three Arco gas stations spread out in the San Fernando valley. The one in North Hollywood was particularly sumptuous, the Saks Fifth Avenue of gas stations. Customers could buy wine and they sold gourmet crackers instead of Pringles. For Halloween, Jim asked me if I would dress up as Count Dracula and hand out candy to the kids and take pictures with their parents. This wasn’t the first time someone had said “Hey you’re an actor, can you dress up like a pony, or sing at my birthday?” Normally it annoyed me, but he was a nice guy, so I said sure. My girlfriend was happy, what could go wrong?

I drove to the gas station that night. The air was warm from the Santa Ana winds, blowing newspapers across the wide street, which was lined with strip malls and fast-food restaurants. I parked, walked in the garage and asked one of the mechanics where the office was. He smiled wordlessly and pointed. My girlfriend and her father were talking in the cramped office filled with auto parts boxes. He took out the vampire suit and even I was impressed. It was a dazzling tuxedo and cape—it looked like a movie costume. My girlfriend helped me whiten my face and put on the lipstick and eyeshadow. She and her dad wished me luck and left.  I walked out into the garage and both mechanics just stopped and stared. One said “Shit, bro, you like a real vampire.” It was showtime.

It mostly went according to plan. I handed out candy to the kids, took some pictures with the parents. I did a little sales pitch: come back for an oil change, replace your wipers.  Some of the kids wanted nothing to do with me. I looked too damn scary. One mother tried to get her terrified four-year-olds out of the car. “Please sweeties, stop screaming and take some candy from the nice vampire man.” I can’t blame them, being asked to take candy from a white-faced guy with blackened eyes, the Santa Ana winds lifting his cape in the dark night. If I were them, I wouldn’t take my Snickers bars either. 

I was talking to a middle-aged couple dressed as Prince Charming and Cinderella when all hell broke loose. I heard shouting and two guys wearing Jimmy Carter masks ran out of the garage. The mechanics chased after them, then one of the guys took out a pistol and shot the window. The mechanics scampered quickly back into the garage. Glass shattered, and the two robbers began firing in the air. Prince Charming and Cinderella both cursed and sped off in their car and there I was in the open with my cape flying. I crouched down under one of the gas pumps, which in retrospect was stupid. The robbers took off, tires squealing. They ran over a metal oil change sign, dragging it for about fifty feet, sparks whizzing, before it landed on the sidewalk. Then they were gone. 

The cops came quickly. Two uniformed policemen interviewed the mechanics. Two detectives were assigned to me, a tall horse-faced cop who looked like Herman Munster and a short sparkplug of a guy with a blond crew cut.

Herman Munster looked me over like I had just stepped on his cat. “So, who are you supposed to be?”

I was thinking, Is this guy kidding me? but I played nice. “I’m Count Dracula, the owner asked me to do it.” 

“Oh yeah? And why would he do a thing like that?” the short detective asked.

“Uhh, because it’s Halloween?”

They both looked at each other, as if I were trying to con them. Then they gave me the stink eye.

“It seems a little funny, you being here, dressed up in this outfit, and the station gets robbed.”

“Not really, It’s Halloween and the robbers treated themselves to some cash. Can I go

now? I need to get back in my coffin before sunrise.”

“Smart-ass, we got places we can take smart asses like you,” Herman Munster said.

Suddenly I was aware that these two clowns thought I was an accomplice. One of the uniformed cops came over.

“The owner just called; Dracula’s story checks out. He’s an actor or something.”

The two detectives looked crestfallen. 

“Alright, you can go, but don’t leave town. We may have more questions.”

“I was supposed to go Transylvania for a Bar Mitzvah.”

“Beat it, weirdo.”

  I got in my car and headed for the freeway. A friend had told me about a party in Santa Monica. It would be a shame to waste the costume.

  

                                                                *   *   *

Michael Cannistraci began his creative journey as an actor. Having graduated from UCLA, he worked for thirty years acting in theatre and television. In mid-life he answered a new calling and completed a Master’s degree at Hunter College School of Social Work. He currently works as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist. His essays have been published in Entropy Magazine, Literary Medical Messenger, The Evening Street Review, the Bangalore Review, The Dillydoun Review ,East by Northeast and Stonecrop magazine He lives with his wife  in New York City. (He/His/Him)

Frosted

by Chuck Teixeira

Just before dawn, Mark Morelli threw himself on a rudderless sled and hurtled down the snow-covered hill that fell from the dead end of his street.  As he approached the bottom, sometimes he rolled off the sled.  But on his final run, he let the sled jump the wall of snow the county plow had created and sailed above the cars buried in it.  Dragging the sled up the hill, Mark kept his balance despite slipping on patches of ice. But he lost all poise when he reached the top of the slope and saw his mother shoveling the sidewalk in her soiled waitress uniform. 

Rushing to her, Mark said, “I’m sorry I didn’t get back before your shift ended.”  

“It’s okay,” she said, “It ended early because of the storm.”

Mark tossed the sled over the front fence into a snow drift, then took the shovel from his mother’s gloveless hand.  Along the road, neighbors were clearing the walkways in front of their homes and the shoulders of the road where their cars were parked.   They had probably noticed his mother doing outside work from which any responsible son would have spared her, and likely were judging him, none more harshly than Randy Postula, the retired army officer who seemed sweet on Mark’s mother.  Then Mark observed with relief that Randy was just emerging from his house half-way up the hill at the other end of the street.  He probably had not seen Mark’s mother struggling in the snow. 

“You were with the Evanoski boy?” Mark’s mother asked. That’s how she referred to Jerry.  She looked younger with her face red from the cold.

“No,” Mark said then kissed her creased brow. “Go inside and rest.”  As soon as his mother was in the house, Mark rushed down the yard in long steps through the snow.  Under the narrow eave, he shook off as much as he could of the white stuff that clung to his boots, then opened the back door into the cellar.  He climbed onto the cover of the old washing machine, pushed the wringer aside, and searched the cupboard.  In the cobwebs and clutter he had let develop, he found the stubs of old candles.  He grabbed an ice pick from the wood shed then trudged back up to the sidewalk through the tracks he had already made and used the stubs to wax both sides of the shovel so the snow would slip off easily.  That was one lesson he remembered from all the wisdom his father had scolded into him. 

Almost invariably, Mark faltered when facing his mother’s apprehension about his friendship with Jerry.  Widowed for several years, she was reluctant to surrender the son who might help in her old age.  She had not welcomed Mark’s earlier talk about entering the seminary.  But exchanging the insecurity of a son’s religious vocation for the shame of his disappearing with a petty criminal twice his age was not the bargain she thought she had reached with God.  As Mark cleared the snow, he tried to gloss over her disapproval.  He focused, instead, on what to say to patch up the argument he had had with Jerry the previous night.  Mark had begged Jerry to take him to New York. Jerry refused and finally lost his temper when Mark continued to plead.   Mark would have one last chance to make his case if Jerry kept his promise about stopping by to say farewell and help with clearing the ice and snow from the new storms. 

Mark had cleared most of the walkway by the time he spotted Jerry at the far end of the field.  In his wet canvas shoes and thin cotton shirt, Jerry seemed more powerful than the elements.  “I couldn’t get here sooner,” Jerry said when he reached Mark, then grabbed the shovel and began to clear the snow piling around Mark’s mother’s car.  Meanwhile, Mark applied the ice pick to the glassy sheets between the sidewalk and the house. 

After a few minutes, Jerry looked up from his work and smiled, “We can lick this then figure what’s next.”

“Thanks, but you shouldn’t stay out much longer,” Mark gestured toward two strangers descending the hill above Randy Postula’s place.  They were barely visible in the snow sprayed by gusts of wind. And they seemed uncertain about continuing down the hill. Then the strangers spoke with Randy, who pointed them back up the hill away from Mark’s home.  Mark was sure that people he did not recognize were cops looking for Jerry.

“God bless you,” Mark whispered then turned toward Jerry. “We have a few minutes before they realize Randy may have mislead them.”

“Let’s not waste it,” Jerry said shielding his green eyes from the sun’s glare and the worried look on Mark’s face. “You’re not moving to New York with me. You’re lucky your mother’s still alive. I won’t be responsible for your abandoning her.”

“I’m not abandoning her,” Mark said, “I’ll send back money I earn.”

“Earn doing what?” Jerry asked. “Finishing high school? Being pimped out until you’re my age? No! I’m going back alone this afternoon.  If you want to waste this last visit retracing the argument we had last night, you can do it without me.  I don’t want to remember you nagging. Not a great memory after all you’ve done for me.”

Mark guessed Jerry was referring to the money he had borrowed from Mark but not yet repaid, enough for bus fare to Manhattan.  “You think abandoning me is a good outcome?”  Mark heard himself whine but couldn’t quit the subject, so he forced himself to work in silence until all the walkways were clear and there was almost no snow around the car.

“Enough for now,” Mark took the shovel from Jerry’s hands and planted it and the ice pick on the other side of the fence in the same snow drift with the sled. “Can you come inside,” Mark said. “My mom’s asleep for sure. You can take a hot bath and put on dry clothes.”

“My next visit, I promise,” Jerry winked, embraced Mark then walked away. He paused once, turned around, smiled and waved good-bye.

 Mark felt an urge to cry but noticed Randy Postula walking toward him with an open bag of rock salt. Randy was a strong man, despite his retiree paunch. And even Mark´s mother acknowledged that Randy might be handsome if he got rid of his beard and moustache. “I could never tolerate those bristles on my mouth or near my face,” she once said, shuddering as though Randy’s kiss would be like eating spiders.”

Face hair didn´t bother Mark, except at that moment, close up, he couldn´t tell whether the droplets on Randy´s moustache were snow or snot. “I’ve finished my place,” Randy said. “Anything left to do here?” 

“Not now,” Mark said, “but they’ll be plenty when the district plow comes through a second time and buries the car again.” 

“You crying?” Randy asked.

“No,” Mark shook his head and wiped his face with his gloves. “The cold makes my eyes water. Those guys talking to you before, who were they?”

“They had a hunch our road was a short cut back to the highway,” Randy said then barreled through the tableau in Mark’s heart, “Don´t get attached to that Evanoski kid. I served in Korea with one of his uncles. The guy borrowed fifty bucks from me and never paid it back – a lot of money at that time. He denies he ever borrowed it. The whole family is trash. Your guy hasn´t borrowed any money from you, has he?”

“No,” Mark said.

“Rumor is your having second thoughts about the seminary.”

“Yeah,” Mark said. “I’m not so sure anymore. I think I´m gay.”

“Gay?” Randy said, “As in fag?”

Mark took a breath and looked Randy in the eye. “It means I am likely to fall in love with another man.”

“Well, don´t disgrace your family over it,” Randy said.  “And for heavens’ sake, don´t fall in love with an Evanoski.” He pressed his hand down hard on Mark’s shoulder. “Don´t fall in love with me either.  Understand?  If your mom’s alone, I have reason to see more of her. And if she’s alone because you’ve become a priest, no one will dare say she didn’t raise you right.”

                                                                   *   *   *

Chuck Teixeira grew up amid the anthracite collieries of northeastern Pennsylvania. Early on, Chuck earned four university degrees, including an M.A. from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. For many years, Chuck worked as a tax attorney in San Francisco, California. Now he teaches English in Bogota, Colombia. Chuck identifies as gay, and his children and their mother have made peace with that. Chuck’s stories have appeared in Esquire, Permafrost, Portland Review, Two Thirds North and Jonathan. Collections of his published work are available at Amazon.com.