Theodora Ziolkowski

2016, Poetry

WIELICZKA
Kraków, Poland

In the salt cathedral below ground,
our guide tells us couples say their vows
before the salt virgin,
in view of the salt Pope John Paul II.

Above ground, I ate zapiekankas in the Rynek Główny,
thought I tasted ghosts in the raspberry syrup
the barman pumped in my beer.
My cousin Anna gave me an amber necklace,
stories her daughter Gosia translated
into English from her mother’s native tongue.

Crammed into the Wieliczka elevator
with the other tourists and their cameras,
souvenir salt lamps and maps,
I try not to look down
as we rattle to the surface:
the ground everywhere and nowhere,
arm to arm and waist to waist,
drawn by my ancestors’ hands —
vacationers peopling the bucket.

PERMISSION

I believe in the impression
              the moon left on my makeup,

              the narrow gap in October
              that makes my sister a Scorpio

              and me a Libra, but I do not
              believe in the cookie that said

              Time heals all wounds
              Keep your chin up

And to think I felt sorry the cookie
              was already cracked when the waitress

              left it, which is why I gave my husband
              the whole one and saved the broken one

              for myself. My husband and I differ
              in the following ritual: He believes

              we must finish the cookie before
              reading its contents, whereas I know

              we are not the first to accept what
              is freely offered — a worm can tap

              out the heart of a fruit — and so I will
              not indulge in what could be rotting within.

When I say it is only in photographs
              that a woman is able to measure

              her own transformation,
              I am speaking hypothetically.

              Because to behold a body at its breaking
              point is as comfortless as the fortune implying

              this woman has all the time in the world,
              when the woman in this story is not the woman

              in every story. Of what we offer this woman
              to destroy, may this presumption be among them.


DISORDERED

Excuseless, to repeatedly pass
through revolving glass doors,

the whoosh of my entrance
and exit magnificent. Call it

magic. I curate my shopping
to nude-colored clothing,

picture the witch’s legs
swallowed by a fallen house

when I flick off the fitting
room lights. I drive daily past

cemeteries. Put pressure
on the gas while holding

my breath, refusing to
exhale before I skirt past.

I am most aware
of how time flies in

the morning to the extent
it takes me to dress,

wait for my mirror to blow
me a kiss before I show it

my trick: Now watch me
pull a corpse from my hat.

_______________________

Theodora Ziolkowski’s poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Arts & Letters, Prairie Schooner, and Short FICTION (England), among other journals, anthologies, and exhibits. A chapbook of her prose, Mother Tongues, won The Cupboard’s 2015 contest (judged by Matt Bell); Finishing Line Press published a chapbook of her poems, A Place Made Red, also in 2015.

Nicole Homer

2016, Poetry

ME, 2009, 121 LBS IN JEANS AND A T-SHIRT;
ME 2015, 128 lbs, IN A BATHING SUIT, SMILING

There are two pictures in my wallet: not my dead father, not my dead grandmother, not even my wedding. Instead, two photographs of you. Standing alone, each deliberate line of your body an invitation. I am not supposed to miss you. My mother never liked angles of face. Never sat quietly by while your cheekbones swallowed me whole. She reminds me, over cake and soda, of your wrists: how untrustworthy each countable bone was. Her twenty-eight teeth look at me and say, “Eat. Let the sleeping and bony dogs of your past lay still.”  I lick my index finger and the slick of spit is  glue;  I press it into the lace of the tablecloth and swallow each errant crumb. When the man I love is fucking me, I am thinking of you. He can tell. It is in how my eyes searchlight the ceiling over his left shoulder. How I draw the blinds. Will only let him slip his tongue inside my shadow. I turn the heat down, use the Jersey winter as excuse to hide under at least two covers. I have to imagine that he is fucking you just so I can climax. When are you coming back? I still have all your things hanging in my closet: the old skin of failure. Ranging in size from 2 to 20. Every morning, I try on something else of yours that does not fit. I am not supposed to miss you like this. The feminists will say I have watched too much television, eaten too many glossy-faced magazines. But I am afraid I am going to crush my lover. Shame him in front of the collarbones of his co-workers. How do I come with that thought heavy in my belly? My mother will say she warned me about tricks the body will play on a woman; she will say this from within the frame diabetes has carved down to an eight. My husband will say he loves me just the way I am. Then he will give up red meat and alert me every time he goes to the gym so that I might join him. My wedding ring has begun biting into my finger. It is trying to escape. Because I do not deserve this – this man, his pelvis and well-polished shoes – but you do. I allow myself one pair of jeans. Will not buy more. Not when there is a closet full of your clothes and I should fit them. I do not deserve better or more or comfortable. But you do.

Oh I imagine how it will be when you finally get home: I will watch you try on all of my pants at least once. You will measure how far away from the concave of you we can pull the waistband and we will laugh and laugh. And laugh. When you get home, we will eat nothing but organic spinach and compliments. And I will be so small, so small. Like a tunnel shrinking behind you on the horizon. So small. Something you had to get through to get back home where you were missed.

__________________________

Nicole Homer is (a): Writer. Teacher. Nerd. Mother. Backyard deer watcher. Stovetop popcorn popper. Treehugger. Gardener. Curmudgeon. Part Roseanne Conner, part Sarah Connor. #Sockcurator of an immaculate collection. Collector of #cheesyworkoutshirts. She lives online at http://nicolehomer.com/

Katie Longofono

2016, Poetry

THE VIRUS GOES TO THE MILITARY BALL

   blacked out from champagne and dancing
I remember his hand on the back of my neck
all night     he asked me to take a taxi
home with him    but my friend was puking
in the bathroom     I followed him
out of the tent into the open air
around a corner    there was a hedge   we were drunk
and making out, poked by shrubbery
he tossed me over    scrambled after
   we were alone behind a wall of sticks    he lifted my dress
put his mouth on my panties    then under
are you hearing this?      he put a virus in me
with his mouth    planted a seed


THE VIRUS DISCOVERS BODY HAIR

Tyler licks my armpit and says next time
don’t wear deodorant      I can smell
the chemical burn on his tongue, he is hard
and rinsing his mouth with water
before twining a finger in my locks
I am shocked he wants my body
he puts less than an inch between us
opens to the abyss says a prayer on a leather
necklace something like shed your bliss
we shed all over each other we virus
we unzip. Have you ever locked DNA
– what a foolish plan     to shoot      to miss.


THE VIRUS LIES BY OMISSION

I.
Monday afternoon Will picks up
a six pack      it’s been four years
since college when we slept not touching  
I drank a mug of tea in his bed read Whitman
over his shoulder     we felt very large
and expansive the way a bearded
man often does    Monday afternoon
drinking beer in wet reminiscent gulps   we talk
about everything except
my mouth    he is looking
pretty hard I know what happens
if I lean the right way    I lean
right away     and I’m on my back—

II.
Will wants me    because he doesn’t know—
he takes off my panties unknowingly    pushes
against my rooted flower pelvic bone
pleased and warm in the garden    before
the apple    I let him finish   not knowing
why   I hold him in    I lied
I know why    I know    if he knew
he’d breathe that sigh   you know   the one
with the look I’m sorry and
goodbye   I know why     I let him—mouthfuls
of mealy fruit   he has eaten
from the tree    I wanted him
to know    my thighs.

____________________

Katie Longofono received her MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, where she directed the 2014 SLC Poetry Festival. She is the co-founder of Dead Rabbits Reading Series, a monthly literary salon that takes place in NYC. She also co-produced AmpLit Fest, in partnership with Lamprophonic and Summer on the Hudson. Her first chapbook, The Angel of Sex, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2013. Her chapbook Angeltits was published by Sundress Publications in 2016. Her work has appeared in Tinderbox Poetry Journal, glitterMOB, BOAAT, South Dakota Review, Juked, Midwestern Gothic, and more. She may or may not be on Twitter. She lives in Brooklyn.

 

Jennifer Whalen

2016, Poetry

ON RESERVE

When I move through night, I carry
a seashell in my pocket. It is good

to have a delicate thing to protect.
It is like dawn brushing night

away in bluish streaks but much lighter.
If you try to photograph it, the blue

looks pale & sickly & suddenly
it’s morning. There is some scheme bigger

than I’ll ever reach that decides if I dance
tonight. A spiraled whale’s bone

hangs from my neck on thick, black string;
it symbolizes infinity, but I won’t ask it

to stand for that. Our world is not a top,
yet I believe in its spins. Sometimes

I spin much faster than the world.
I wear billowy dresses so the world

can see. Unless the gifts you gifted
are smaller than an envelope,

I don’t have them. It’s a space I gave myself
with limits at a time when I needed

limits. Our city is sliced
with train tracks. We call downtown

the center, but it’s just a phrase
to feel cradled in canopies

of noisy lights. There are no archives
for people like us. If I meet you here,

I’ll have no method to separate you
from any given walker. I can’t tell you how

to get here—it would be
too risky—but you’ll get there.


IT’S SEVEN

So like the delicate setting
of a picnic blanket in the sun,
the bright dining room hushed

to a dim-lit corridor.
Patrons slid off their heels, smeared bare feet
against legs beneath tablecloths.

I don’t know why our sex breathes
in shadows. Yes, exceptions abound.
Somewhere there’s a meadow

where people love in the sun,
maybe. But that room had robbed time
of time—strange, I know,

but I needed the sunset-splayed
brawny yawn across day; the sun
sliding down, slow-down,

until it halos some hill. I tried
to pretend love waited in this—forking
an Alaskan fish, my eyes just shy

of refusing eye contact.
It is too much to have a body,
to monitor its functions

so on luck-lustered nights
it meets another body—a toast!
to pat fork against glass

while expanding my throat:
I had this grand feeling something
grand should happen, but

the waiter waltzed round
lighting candles as if silent ceremony
followed next. The evening kept on

flickering shoddy evening
when I imagined myself moving—
faint figure on a dense floor

drifting deeply to melody,
sweat-peppered skin; how glorious we can be
when only vague-fractions.

If I leave now, go
west away enough, it may still be dark
when I get there.
EVERENDING NIGHT

Hours trickled as our shoes spun circles
off the porch’s wooden beams. Still,
when the night sky fissured into pale light streaks
the way growth accumulates with no notice,
I was startled. And when it stayed this musty haze
for distances, we held our voices
in the bold tone of retirement; our bodies
sloping towards the deck’s exit.

And since we weren’t granted our usual rites
of leaving or being left—wrapping scarves
about our necks or blankets in our bed,
there was no need to recollect.
The sky wasn’t static like a photograph;
it replenished itself in sips: fresh grazes
on new rifts. This lingering became a lodging;
this lodging, a state of being. A time still near us,
petty parts slivered from me as we talked,
like clapping dry clay from hands: here,
it is clean again. But in the everending night,
these flakes find dwelling. Actions long memory,
to cabin somewhere cool & lasting
even if far flung from the self.

I didn’t realize then with layers of light
interrupting night, my hands
in my pockets, oh what time, the time,
but I may never love what lacks potential
for farewell. I couldn’t crumple inside a thing
the way the faithful do. Yet I trusted
that sky would break way to day.
Because I want to believe in rhythm,
because it’s rendered in the stars, because
I still haven’t found a fitting place to receive you.

_________________________________

Jennifer Whalen is Texas State University’s 2015-2016 writer-in-residence at the L.D. & LaVerne Harrell Clark House in Smithville, Texas. She served as the poetry editor for Front Porch Journal, and her poems can be found or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, New South, Fugue, & elsewhere. She currently teaches college English.

Trista Edwards

2016, Poetry

EQUINOX

The journey of history begins with hunger
and the reach for its end. The orchard’s
 
in vertigo. Leaves gather in halos
about their mothers. And when every apple,
 
every dappled blood-red orb, offers
a little world, a lysis, you take it.
 
Thoreau once said, the gun gives
you the body, not the bird. 
 
And so this orchard gives you winter,
not the apple. The molded, hewed world
 
of bodies in parallel formation, reaching out
to be reached for. Don’t we just want the body?

Just yesterday another boy took a girl
behind a dumpster and used her body

to reach his own end. This is not healing.
Her body reaching for flight, for day

to be greater than night. For the rot
to rot faster as the boy mauls her

like carrion. Thoreau was wrong.
There’s no body without the bird.

Can we handle this bird, this possibility
of flight? When we pull the trigger
 
and snap the ripest apple from branch,
come at it with teeth, are we not asking

for punishment? Not for the taunting
fowl of hunger but for ourselves—

something greater than or equal to
the darkest unforgiving appetite.


BELLOW

            After Ada Limón

Tell the hunter and all his hounds,
the rabbits they chase down the hill,

the blacksmith’s sooty iron hammer,
the sparkles that fly from his strike;

tell them all the myths are true.
I am rabbit. I am those tracks

they follow further into the wood
under growl and starlight and branch.

Tell my mother I’m bound in iron,
that I’m chained to stake and set

to burn. Tell all the women they can
inhale the smoke of my skin, hair,

heart—that it will root inside, deep
in the belly like a heavy daughter.

Tell them, I will squeal under the heat,
that the scorch won’t be silent, that Satan

didn’t blackened my soul so there would be
no blister. And they will tell their children

and their children’s children and books
to come, they never heard a scream

so devout it made them believe
they were the wicked ones. Tell them all

I was but a name. Scapegoat. A girl.
And for this I burn, for this I bellow.

________________________

Trista Edwards is a Doctoral Fellow in English at the University of North Texas. Her poems and reviews are published or forthcoming in The Journal, Mid-American Review, 32 Poems, American Literary Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, The Rumpus, Sou’wester, Moon City Review, and more. She also edited the anthology, Till The Tide: An Anthology of Mermaid Poetry (Sundress Publications, 2015). You can find more of Trista’s writing at Luna Luna Magazine and at her blog, Marvel + Moon.

Linda Boroff

2016, Fiction

MIGHTY

Despite their chronic financial turmoil, my parents always scraped together the money to send me to summer camp, innocently assuming that I looked forward to this two-week ordeal of rejection, bullying, and failure. Setting them straight loomed as a humiliating exposure that might earn me a shrinking, and so I played along every year, smiling through my dread.

By my thirteenth summer, though, all doors had suddenly opened; all hopes became possibilities, and I departed for camp in a rare state of optimism. Our dad, an obsessive entrepreneur, had concocted a waterproof cement paint that solved one of civilization’s peskiest if not profoundest challenges—the leaky basement. He named his breakthrough Mighty Mix. By sealing the pores in concrete, Mighty Mix could turn a dank and dripping subterranean dungeon into a dry and cozy haven.

So momentous was Mighty Mix that Dad was sure the giant Sherwin Williams paint company would quickly see its potential, buy the patent, and manufacture it by the industrial tubful. Success was so certain, so inevitable that we knew it had to become reality.

That summer, my sister Emily and I wandered through hardware stores, gazing at Sherwin Williams paint cans the way future movie stars gazed at theater marquees. The Sherwin Williams theme was “Cover the Earth.” The logo was a dollop of crimson paint, hurled down on the North Pole by a mighty Hand, with nation-sized drips falling off at the equator.

Backed by Sherwin Williams, Mighty Mix would soon take its place in the pantheon of American business legends beside Ford, Holiday Inns, Disneyland, and McDonald’s. We would pay off the mortgages on our house and keep the lights and phone on forever. In fact, all of our debts would instantly vanish, especially those to family, which caused the worst of the fighting.

Emily and I had always known that our dad was a genius. Had he not tamed a red squirrel that lived in his shirt pocket while he fought forest fires in the Civilian Conservation Corps? And had he not gone on to pilot a B-24 Liberator in the Pacific, bringing his crew safely through direct hits and feathered props and belly landings?

When I was nine years old, dad built us an eight-foot-tall kite and sent it soaring aloft before an audience of gawking kids, waving its majestic tail of Howdy Doody bedsheets. Out of sight, the mighty giant pulled ferociously, tethered by its hot, singing cord. The littlest among us were not even allowed to fly it lest they be carried off, or their skinny arms yanked from their sockets.

Hours later, wearing my father’s huge, fur-lined leather paws, I tugged the monster down from the stratosphere inch by inch. When it hove into view, the kids all screamed and applauded. The kite dove and plunged in its battle for freedom, before finally settling to the ground as gently and harmlessly as a maple leaf. This kite alone proved that my father could do anything.

So how was it that he could not make a living?

I can still see his characteristic jaunty stride, a pilot’s swagger that I spent hours trying to emulate. He was tall and handsome, with curly blond hair and a wicked sense of humor. Anyone who could begin a mission from which he might not return by bellowing “Good morning, Mister Sun!” from the cockpit had to be capable of miracles. In the war’s heady aftermath, he had married my mother, a curvy, mercurial partisan with the dark mane and carmine lips of a pinup.

On both sides, our family was a microcosm of America’s cheery desperation, its stampede toward prosperity and away from war, with its rationing and scrimping. Now, poverty was no longer the fault of the stock market or politics. Poverty was the fault of oneself.

The bill collectors used to call around dinnertime. My mother would rise to answer, swallowing her food quickly: he had just stepped out. A payment was on its way, or else lost in the mail. My father’s older brother Maurice, now a wealthy contractor, had tried to loan us $3,000 on the sneak, but Maurice’s wife, a legendary cheapskate, had throttled the truth out of him.

“Your aunt Adelyn went to the bank the minute it opened,” said my mother, her green eyes narrow with rage. “She told them that if they honored that check, she would close their whole business account. So they turned your father away.”

In the library, I discovered a copy of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. The book was fiendishly difficult, but I labored by the hour to decode it. Someone with Rousseau’s credentials should be able to explain why there was such injustice in the world; why undeserving arrogance earned praise and rewards, while my father, who was so smart and generous, could not even get by. And why he had recently taken to swallowing pills, lying on the sofa semiconscious night after night, buffeted by waves of canned laughter from the sitcoms.

My father had taught himself to play the harmonica and the ukulele. When we were small, he had serenaded us to sleep with achingly sad ballads of lonely cowpokes who fell in with evil companions, filled their romantic adversaries full of lead, and fell to a ranger’s gun amid mesquite and thick chaparral, whatever that was. And women were usually the cause of it all. My sister and I vowed never to join that perfidious sorority of barroom floozies. Honorary boys, we watched the Friday Night Fights, built a treehouse, raised reptiles.

The summer I turned thirteen, however, my boyish pose seemed to be ending in obvious and embarrassing ways. The path to womanhood lay through perilous terrain defined by Seventeen Magazine; it might as well have led through the nine levels of Dante’s Inferno for all the hope I felt.

I had known since preschool that I had the pick-on-me pheromone. Not only did I attract bullies the way Hollywood attracts starlets, I seemed to have the magical ability to transform even the most passive, churchy kid into a snide little sadist.

Apparently, this summer was to be no exception. Once at camp, I plummeted like a rock to the bottom of the social hierarchy. On the second day, my three new cabin mates collaborated to draw my portrait, entitled “Stinky,” on the bathroom mirror in my toothpaste. I didn’t make the Water Ballet Corps, but was dumped instead into the Dog Paddle Squad. While we rejects flailed away in the leech-laden muck close to shore, the little naiads of the Corps practiced their synchronized routines out in sparkling blue water above their heads, wearing shiny yellow bathing suits, twirling huge hoops and tasseled wands.

It didn’t matter, I told myself. This summer, I had two allies to defend and elevate me: Sherwin Williams, the most powerful paint company on earth; and Sullivan, my camp horse.

Sullivan was mine because nobody else wanted to ride him. He was a huge, irritable redhead, seventeen hands tall; a kindred problem child with whom I instantly bonded. He didn’t care that my teeth were crooked and my hair a shapeless mat the color and texture of rusty steel wool. Sullivan was a noble ally, commanding respect for his sheer bulk and power, his rich smells and snorts. Though appealingly needy, he could kill if he got mad enough. I liked that dichotomy a lot.

Every day, I would escape my cabin mates’ relentless bullying and hurry down a narrow path through baking, drooping evergreens to the camp stables. There, for two dollars, I could cling to Sullivan’s gleaming neck for a blessed hour. Anguish fled. I didn’t bother with a saddle or even a bridle; I didn’t care where I went or if I died. Sullivan followed the trail strictly by his choice. He was bred to lead, a broken-winded thoroughbred who could still leave those other nags in the dust.

When he ran, his flaming mane became mine. My nether half was no longer a crampy, bony pelvis with white legs sticking out of their ballooning bermuda shorts like soda straws. On Sullivan, I pounded the earth with steely hooves; reared magnificently, pawing the air. I bolted free and drank the wind, the clouds skimming above, the earth unreeling below.

One morning, while signing up for my ride I was summoned to the camp administrator’s office. “Your account is out of money,” she said. She had short graying hair and small angry eyes of no particular color. “So you can’t ride any more this session.” I stared. “Your parents put twenty dollars in your account, and you’ve gone through it in under a week.” She extended a pile of receipts.

“They’ll pay you when camp is over.”

“We can’t allow that. Didn’t your parents ever teach you how to budget?” I begged to call home, and she reminded me that the phone was for emergencies only.

“This is an emergency,” I pleaded. She rolled her eyes and granted me access with a dismissive wave. Minnesota was not known for its tender hearts in those days, least of all toward spendthrifts.

“That’s all we have,” said my mother. “We had to borrow the money for camp from my brother. You can live without candy bars.”

“But it’s for horseback riding.”

“Well, ask them if you can clean the stalls in exchange.” My silence must have felt like an accusation. “Brenda, you can’t just have everything you want. We’re going through very hard times.”

“Can’t Sherwin Williams give us some money in advance?”

“What’s the matter with you? Plenty of things are free. Go swimming.”

Despondent, I walked to the stables anyway, though they now seemed as inaccessible as Seventeen Magazine’s prom night fashion gala in New York. Campers plodded around the corral, oblivious to the seething brew of envy and contempt straddling the fence. Worst of all, Sullivan, my Sullivan was saddled and bridled, ridden by a doughy stranger who kicked him in the flanks and whined to the counselor, “He won’t go! He’s lazy.”

I tasted bile.

“Try squeezing him with your knees,” I shouted from my wicked perch. The girl obediently grimaced. Sullivan whinnied, charged and leaped the fence, and was gone in a staccato of hoofbeats worthy of Wild Bill Hickock. It took nearly half an hour to round him up. That nobody was hurt was “a miracle,” and I was thereafter barred from the stables. The camp was now going to marginalize and warehouse me, run out my time.

“Can’t I just exercise the horses?” I begged the riding counselor. She narrowed her leathery eyelids as if at a horse thief and shook her head.

“Can I clean the stalls? I’ll do it for free.”

“No,” she said and turned her hindquarters on me and walked away.

“How come?” I ran after her.

“S’ the rules.”

My nemesis. Rules existed to limit and torment a person; to make sure that dire consequences ensued any time you were unfortunate or defiant. Rules were why I dared not silence my demonic cabin mates, Anne, Jane and Kate.

“You’re bigger and stronger,” said one of my few sympathizers. “Don’t be afraid. Just beat ‘em up and they’ll leave you alone.” But it was not fear that immobilized me while they tied my sheets in wet knots and poured tadpoles into my water glass in the night. It was my certainty that if I ever did start hitting them, I would not be able to stop.

Days later, I watched the chosen few depart on the coveted horseback overnight, 24 splendid hours of uninterrupted equine companionship. Sullivan shuffled past me, a resigned drone. My tears turned him into a bobbing auburn blob against the fading sky, shingled with cirrus. Soon, night would close in, primal, loud and dark. Amid the croaking and chirping, Sullivan’s interloper rider would lie in her tent, sore between the legs with that good horse pain. My pain. My horse. And only money kept us apart; how I craved and hated it. Wide-eyed in my bunk, I pondered how lack of money ruined everything, even my love for Sullivan and my parents’ love for each other.

The day after the horseback overnight, I awakened to the realization that the session was nearing its end at last. A briskness and relief were in the air. The water show, “Splash Capades” was in final dress rehearsal; lunch arrangements were in full swing for arriving families. Our dog paddle squad, the Mud Puppies, had created a lame routine in which everyone could tell that we were really walking on the bottom instead of swimming. The camp was also putting together a newspaper, a cabin-by-cabin review of activities and insights.

“Brenda,” said our counselor, Trudy. “Why don’t you write about our cabin for the camp newspaper? Tell how we’ve gotten to know each other, the things we’ve done together, stuff like that.”

“Why do I have to do it?”

“Because nobody else wants to. Just drop it at the camp office when you’re done.”

When I arrived with my article, the crabby male-of-all-trades, Axel the Axe Murderer, was already assembling the newspapers.

“About time,” he said. “You’re the last, so you’ve got to type it yourself. And hurry up because I can’t wait around here all day.” Whatever intelligence Axel had did not manifest in literary interest. He grabbed my typed article, glued it unread to a larger sheet, and mimeographed it onto tabloid-sized paper. As each issue emerged, he folded and placed it atop a stack.

On the last day of camp, I returned from breakfast to find my cabin mates staring at me as if I were radioactive.

“Thanks a lot, Stinky,” said Jane.

“Thanks for making us look like a bunch of idiots,” said Ann.

“There’s nothing funny about Ann throwing up her s’mores,” said Kate.

“And I did not eat six of them,” said Ann.

“You did too,” I said.

“Well anyone who has nothing better to do than count s’mores is a loser.”

“You told where I found that wood tick on me,” said Jane. “You’re a pervert.”

“And we did not make you drink tadpoles,” said Kate.

“I didn’t drink them willingly.”

“We ought to beat you up,” said Kate.

“Try it.”

“You made Trudy cry,” said Ann. “I hope that makes you real, real happy.”

“Writing something funny that hurts a lot of people is mean,” said Jane, whose nickname for me was Jewpot.

“Just because we teased you a little,” said Kate, “you had to go and ruin all our memories.”

Trudy may have been crying, but the rest of the camp was roaring with laughter. That everybody found my article so funny they read it out loud to each other all through lunch was no comfort. I felt the worst that I had all session.

When I wandered out to the stables to say goodbye to Sullivan, the tyrannical gatekeeper of a riding counselor, as if released from a spell, came running out to greet me with a hug.

“You’re the only one who came to say goodbye to me,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “Makes you wonder sometimes, people just take and take.” We found Sullivan, and I held his heavy, nippy head close, inspecting the hairs of his muzzle, his whuffy velvet nose and horseteeth and eyelashes, sealing him in my memory.

“Why you’re even pickin’ the stuff out of his eye,” said the counselor. “Now there’s a girl really loves horses.” She grinned and mussed my hair.

After the Splash Capades show was over, I found my family. My sister ran ahead of my parents and drew me off to one side.

“Sherwin Williams fell through,” she said.

I looked up at the canopy of trees waving in a light, hot breeze and imagined something mortally wounded hurtling earthward, hitting branches on its way down and crashing dead at our feet.

What had to be, was not to be, after all. Around me, the wooden bungalows were unaltered; campers and their families strolled and chattered just as they had a moment before, but nevertheless, the world had changed. My dad, hurrying toward me with arms outstretched, looked the same too, but he was not, and he never again sent his dreams soaring like a giant kite.
What awaited us now was not prosperity and a place in the American canon of success, but something very different. As the years passed, Sherwin Williams continued to cover the earth, but Mighty Mix was destined to cover only our own porous and in the end, very permeable dreams.

______________________________________

Linda Boroff graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in English. Her writing has appeared in Gawker, McSweeney’s, The Guardian, Epoch, Prism International, Cimarron Review, Hobart, Word Riot, Blunderbuss, Fiction Attic Press, Able Muse, and others. Her novella, A Season of Turbulence, was published in The Conium Review.

Andrew Dally

2016, Poetry

ERROR: ‘HERON’ BEING HERONS

If a gray heron unzips her gray sky.

                        & &

A gaunt heron undresses time.

                        & &

A bare heron bisects the windshield
that flattens our round lives.

                        & &

Like a biplane banking
along American beaches, a heron
drags her emaciated legs across August
bannering
       two-for-ones,    
           ladies’ nights,
         nickel shots,
           the happiest wind-wrecked hours.

                         & &

Then it’s true: there is only one heron and she starves
herself in storm pipes along turnpikes.

It is true: there is only one heron and she withers
in the water feature between holes eleven and fifteen.

It is true: there is only one heron and she stalks
the frames of online videos, bobbing for prey.

                         & &

It is true: there is only one heron and I counted

each smallmouth that writhed in her taut jaws,
was a bulge descending the long letter
of her neck and absent as the only heron
arranged her body for disappearing and


NOT THE HERO WE NEED, BUT ETC. 

Patina of useless metadata hugging
the surface of the actual or else

the image resolving itself atop the river
of binaries on which it drifts.

Or a leafy beetle
ups and dies upon an open page

of a magazine forgotten in the grass.
He will be carried off-screen by the ants,

who in their swarming, rearrange and rewrite
a poem by Alice Notley. In some versions

they get it all wrong. In some versions
perfection is pheromonal and fleeting.

The ants are always set in Garamond.
They say an uncertain percentage of insects

will die of old age. We are over halfway through
the top ten reasons people are still writing

in couplets.

How can trends be emergent in a medium mostly dead?
Do we blame green-screened blockbusters

about speedy green algorithms or Roman fingers
combing the gold from their wavy wheat?

We might blame Baudrillard,
but then we might have to read Baudrillard.

We had too much time on our hands
and not enough time to do anything with it.

_________________________

Andrew Dally lives in Oxford, MS, where he writes software and poems. He recently had two poems in Blunderbuss Magazine. 

Leslie Marie Aguilar

2016, Poetry

SILENT ASTRONOMER

When I ask my sweetheart to fill my chest with light, he shifts his weight from one leg to the other & cups a bulb buried in the furthest lamp of our bedroom. His hands cradle the warmth like the way he tries to balance my head in his arms the night I am too much with the world & collapse on the bathroom floor—bursting the blood vessels beneath my eyes, howling at vaulted ceilings, calling out toward constellations with names I cannot remember. He coaxes me with imagined crowns made of gold & places the braided rings around my head, turning the worry in my mind to a seafoam green that splashes softer against my skull.
                                                                                                                        But about the light, he carries it slowly. Afraid to let any of the energy escape before it makes its way beneath my chest plate & into the space where a heart muscle is / should be / was / will be —. My sweetheart is a healer with delicate hands that gather silver threads from the air above our bed & weave them together to create a veil. It covers my eyes so that I can rest, can grieve, can be alone with the feeling that all the stars are slipping away, that the heart words are failing, that I am too much with & without, that my body aches. But my skull expands beyond these silver borders. Ready to carve new boundaries. Ready to draw new maps. Ready to find vibrant ways of shouting, I am angry / sad / lonely / grieving for a life made more terrifying by the ordinary.


TESTAMENT

I let out a laugh that played backwards might sound like a moan or the sound a fatherless child might make, but my father isn’t dead. So, I laugh as an insult to the god who wears aviator headphones & a distressed denim jacket. The god with a perfect man bun that lilts as he walks along pedestrian crossings & ignores all means of answering my calls. I’m beginning to wonder if praying is a bit like dating. If so, I’m out of practice. I imagine prayers as brass arrows shooting through the holes in my ears—reason enough for a man to ignore a woman. Fear of penetration. Fear of blood. If I’m listening correctly, god is a static signal that radiates from distant stars & is just as explosive. His love is like asking for a favor & getting a black hole in return.


RETROGRADE

I’m grieving for another past life left dancing in the street across from a parking garage, down the street from a dive bar, caddy-corner to a Farm-to-Table restaurant. I’m remembering the past few months in five hundred words or less. Afraid to wean off the wolf teat that feeds me in my dreams. I’m unsure of what I’m doing without a parade of four-legged animals leading me up flights of stairs. Toward shelves of books I haven’t read. The six extra pounds gathered around my ribs are making it harder to breath. I tell the whiskered silhouettes. But the weight looks like another body pressed against my abdomen, clawing its way out. The animals wait. They speak in a language like a whisper, offer me bits of honeycomb for my belly, & suggest I give birth to a mended self already.

________________________

Leslie Marie Aguilar originally hails from the heartland of Texas. She has served as the Poetry Editor of Indiana Review and received her MFA from Indiana University. Her work has been supported by the National Society of Arts and Letters and the Fine Arts Work Center. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Bellingham Review, Callaloo, Ninth Letter, Rattle, Sonora Review, and Southern Indiana Review among others. She is the author of Mesquite Manual (New Delta Review, 2015).

Anna Doogan

2016, NonFiction

HEART(LANDS)

Jen says, “Hearts aren’t even really shaped like this. They’re lumpier, with veins.”

We color valentines on the cream-colored carpet in my room. I glue red tinfoil hearts onto a doily, then wait for the glue to dry so that I can peel it off my fingertips. Twenty-six down and five to go. I add to the pile.

“And it’s not even in the middle,” she continues. She points to a valentine I’ve made. A person with a rainbow heart shining out of their chest. “It’s over on the side more.”

I just shrug and keep coloring, then fold my valentines into a brown paper bag to take to school.

My misshapen, mislaid hearts.

So I learned early on that the heart is deceptive.

 

On the playground with the girls at school, I chant my allegiance to seal friendships. We whisper the most solemn of promises.

Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.

We trace our fingertips across our small chests, invisible X’s over hearts.

I wonder why we mark loyalty with pain.

Maybe it’s because pain feels like the ultimate self-sacrifice.

 

In third grade, the woman who lives next door to us has wrinkled hands and bakes strawberry pies. She grows lilies in her side garden, and the veins bulging in her legs are thick and tangled. I can see her working in her backyard from my bedroom window.

“She’s a witch, you know,” my friend Karen says, flipping through a comic book on my bed.

“No she isn’t.” I don’t know for sure, but I don’t want to be scared.

Karen joins me at the window, our faces pressed closer to the glass.

“Well, I think she is.”

Goosebumps start prickling on my skin, and my chest pounds.

Karen smirks at me from the side of her mouth. “Maybe she eats children. Maybe she’ll cast a spell on you while you’re sleeping.”

But the woman’s just weeding her garden, on her knees in the summer dirt. I stare at her, imagining my skin in her teeth.

“She probably has a cauldron in there,” Karen whispers, her lips almost touching my ear now. “She probably has a big black stone in her chest instead of a heart.”

I don’t say anything more, but we watch until the woman finally goes back inside, a basket of potatoes slung over one arm.

A week later I see her in the garden again, her back to me this time. Three monarch butterflies hovering near her.

Monarch wings escaping from her chest.

Who’s to say what’s in someone else’s heart, anyway? Maybe cold black stones or butterflies.

 

When people say their heart breaks, I think of fractured lines and cracks. Not fleshy and muscular and pulsing with blood like a real heart, but something more fragile, like an egg.

In Kindergarten I took a porcelain egg to school for show and tell. I held it in my lap as we sat in the circle. Lavender and red and gold, flecks of light and magic. The kids passed it around, one at a time, until a boy dropped it and it shattered like glass. All bits of eggshell, splintered and smashed across the carpet, some of the pieces still in his hands.

My teacher swooped in, scooped up the broken pieces with her hands. She had a long dark braid, played guitar and sang us songs like “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.” She smelled of lavender and soap and earth.

“We’ll fix it.”

That day while the other kids napped, she sat with me as we glued the shattered pieces onto cardboard, into a mosaic that looked like a starburst. Transformed into a work of art. We hung it on the wall, and the parents murmured and nodded when they saw it hanging as they stuffed their children into jackets and boots at the end of the day.

I want a heart like a porcelain eggshell.

A heart that even when broken splinters into something more beautiful than what it was before.

 

Grad school in Southern California, and the sky is creamsicle orange when the sand starts to cool. I’m sitting against the sea wall, watching the moon glow over the ocean.

Tonight, red rose petals are sprinkled over the sand nearby. A man leads a blindfolded woman by the hands. He’s made a ring of candles on the beach, a picnic in a basket. He leads her to the middle of the ring of candles and the breeze blows a tiny tornado of rose petals against her skirt.

He takes the blindfold off and she bursts into tears.

“Why? Why would you do this? It’s over. I told you it was over.”

There’s silence between them, almost drowned out by the waves of the ocean. I press my back against the wall, wish for sunset to hide me in the shadows, embarrassed to be catching the echoes of their intimacy.

She walks away across the sand, leaves him standing there in the flames.

“Where’s your heart?” he shouts at her back. The hoarseness in his screaming lungs like skinned knees and it makes me cringe. “What happened to your fucking heart?!”

As if you can somehow just misplace it.

I imagine lost hearts spread all across the world suddenly, left accidentally on park benches and countertops, with keys and checks to deposit.

Where is that fucking heart?

We both watch her walk off into darkness, rose petals scattering across the sand. Breadcrumbs to remind him of her misplaced heart.

 

When my son was born, my chest stretched so that it could make room for my expanding heart. It tumbled there inside of ribs, thumped out a new territory of space to hold all of the love.

The week before my daughter was born, I held my round belly with my hands and called my mom on the phone. Late July, and three full baskets of ripe plums on the counter from the tree in the yard.

“I can’t imagine being more in love than this. Like, splitting my love between two,” I say.

My mom has four kids. I think of her just then holding a four leaf clover, slicing her heart into four equal quarters to pass around.

She laughs.

“You’ll see. You think your heart can’t reach anymore, but it does.”

Inside my belly, my daughter’s unborn heartbeat is wild, a galloping horse.

 

My mom had bleeding hearts in the garden when I was growing up. Tiger lilies, Black-Eyed Susans, roses in varying shades. The bleeding hearts were my favorite, the way they dripped from the stems like jewels. The way their name felt both magical and dangerous.

I plucked the buds and gently peeled them, turning the petals into two rabbits, then a pair of slippers, then earrings, the way a friend had taught me. There was a rhyming song that went along with peeling the blooms apart. I’ve long since forgotten.

A friend gave me a plant a few years ago as a gift.

“Dicentra for you,” she said. I realized as I took it in my hands that it was a bleeding heart, and I replanted it in the garden.

It made me happy to see it there, the dangling pink buds, the slope of the stem. Nostalgia from my mom’s garden. Forgotten rhymes and rabbits.

That plant came up year after year, even when other seeds didn’t make it. Always forcing its way up through the ground.

 

I search for information on superstitions of the heart. Swallow a chicken heart whole to bring true love. Pierce the heart of a pigeon to send a curse. Carry heart-shaped rocks in your pockets for luck.

Everybody has an answer for something.

My daughter comes to me at breakfast one morning.

“I made up a new rhyme for cross my heart,” she says. She has on a red tutu, a silver unicorn charm on a chain. “Better than the old one. You know, about—a needle in your eye.”

“Oh, right.” Playground promises. I sip my coffee. “Let’s hear it.”

She clears her throat.

“Cross my heart, hope to fly, smash a cupcake in my eye.”

I tilt my head and consider it. “Hmm.”

It’s still not particularly appealing, but better than jamming a needle into your eye. And the thought of flying is always nice.

I take another sip of coffee.

“Yours is definitely better.”

She nods and twirls off down the hallway to her room, little dancing feet.

 

A raised red scar winds down my grandmother’s chest, curving towards her breasts.
She called it a pig heart because it made us laugh. When we were older, she explained that one valve was replaced with a porcine valve.

“Grandma has a pig heart,” we’d tell everyone.

When my mom and I drove to visit her in the hospital after the surgery, I held the map while my mom navigated looping mountain roads lined with spruce and white pine.

My grandma and I still played Scrabble on Saturday afternoons after that, and when she bent forward over the board to place letters, my eyes always wandered to the raised scar on her chest, wondering what it felt like to be cut that way.

I wondered if her heart felt different.

What happens when part of your heart is just gone?

There’s an old framed photograph of my grandmother. Younger, standing on the beach in Atlantic City. Smiling in a swimsuit. I look at her smooth chest in the photo, wonder if she ever thought that a red scar would slash across her heart one day.

I look down at my body, my heart, wonder what scars I’m still waiting for.

_______________________________________

Anna Doogan is a writer, dancer, and mother of three. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hip Mama, MUTHA Magazine, The Literary Kitchen, Arcadia Magazine‘s Online Sundries, and Threadcount Magazine. Her short story “Fires” was the 1st Place winner of the Hip Mama/Unchaste Readers Writing Contest in 2015. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

 

Greg Marshall

2016, NonFiction

SPOOK ALLEY

The October after my mom’s final chemo, just when death seemed to no longer be pointing its bony finger in our direction, Grandpa Joe drunkenly missed a step in the basement and cracked a rib. No one was surprised to hear his crabby cries of goddamnit and son of a bitch. Grandma Rosie called Grandpa “Pep” because he was Pepe, a diminutive for José, and, more to the point, because he was peppy. Grandpa was always telling us to give ’em hell because that’s what he gave us.

If it had been up to Grandpa, all we would have known about him being a POW during World War II was that it meant he had yellow toenails and had to drive seven hours to the VA hospital in Boise to fill a prescription. Pep was a twenty-three-year-old summer construction worker for the Morrison-Knudsen Company when he and more than a thousand other American civilians were captured by invading Japanese forces on Wake Island and eventually evacuated to the mountains northeast of Shanghai, where, according to my mom, Grandpa Joe learned to chew on pieces of wood to save his teeth, work eighteen-hour days in the rice fields and identify his filthy friends by smell.

Because Grandpa was taciturn about his labor camp years, it fell to Mom to fill us in, playing the proverbial salty bard at the Veterans of Foreign Wars bar that was our kitchen counter. As she squirted 409 on the stove, we learned why Grandpa might cry over his white rice at Ocean City: his daily mess kit consisted of a single bowl of it. The only time he saw the Great Wall of China was when he was being marched past it, as a prisoner, and to keep his spirits up, this scrawny Basque man who would one day adopt my mom hid a rosary in a shallow hole near where he slept, digging it up some nights to pray.

Mom’s favorite war story was about my grandpa’s best friend, Bud, who lived to see Allied victory only to be crushed by a barrel of food being parachuted in at the end of the war.

“Killed instantly,” Mom would say, snapping her fingers.

I can’t speak to the veracity of these war stories, only that you couldn’t argue with them. Point out that it was weird Grandpa’s buddy was named Bud and Mom would bark, “Am I telling the story? Am I? Because if you want to tell it be my guest.” When none of us dared contradict her, she’d offer a satisfied, “Good. Then shut up.”

Usually at this point, if we hadn’t ruined the mood, Mom would theatrically open her nail-bitten hand to reveal the six beads and crucifix that remained of Grandpa’s rosary, maybe even let us hold it. “So the next time you want to tell Grandpa he smells like old candy canes, you think of him digging this up and praying to God he’d live to see you little shits.”

Pep had coached my mom through an experimental chemotherapy regimen so toxic it killed more patients than it saved. As she would say many times over the years, what Mom knew about hope and survival came from him. It was unfair that such a stalwart curmudgeon should be admitted to St. Mark’s for a stumble and even more unfair that a week later, with Mom and Grandma in the gift shop, he should Code Blue.

I’d just had a set of surgeries to limber up my tight right hamstrings and Achilles tendon and was home in a cast watching Ricki Lake. Only years later would I start to use the term cerebral palsy to explain why I walked on my toes, why my right heel almost never hit the ground, why I needed surgeries on my leg in the first place. If you’d asked me at the time, I would have said I had “tight tendons.”

When Grandma and Mom came through the garage door and told us Grandpa Joe was dead, I grabbed my crutches and very slowly retreated to my room, essentially convulsing as Dad rubbed my back and told me I was too upset to be alone. “I just wish he hadn’t had that drink,” I said. “Just that last little drink.” It sounded like the sort of thing you were supposed to say when you lost a grandparent. “Don’t say that, Greggo,” Dad said. “I don’t want you thinking that. It was just a few beers.”

At the viewing, Danny and I kept track of how many times we left the curtained-off grieving area to go see the body. Even if my brother exceeded me in terms of trips, one could only assume I won on adorability, clunking up to the casket in my neon-green cast and blue surgical sandal. The mortician had thought to put on Grandpa’s glasses, even clean the lenses, and I wondered if this stranger had also clipped his yellow toenails.

It would have been a somber scene except that Grandma Rosie had added a silly stocking stuffer to the casket: a Grandpa-like doll with a pom-pom cap and Fore!! T-shirt that looked like a cheerier version of Pep, a whispering, shoulder-top angel now headed for the greener pastures of retirement, which we found out the next day meant a rug of fake grass and backhoes rumbling just off site.

Twin Falls Cemetery was the final resting place of almost everyone Grandma knew and, in that sense, like a family reunion. In the warmer months, a drive-in movie theater played double features across the street and each grave was decorated like a hole in a miniature golf course with poinsettias, pinwheels and tiny American flags.

“This priest doesn’t know Pep through a hole in the wall,” Grandma kept telling me, a pink Kleenex wadded in her hand. Her cigarette-ripened voice was great for laughing, not so good at whispering during final send-offs.

I’d been through First Communion: white suit, pink bowtie, left hand over right, don’t chew the wafer. I probably assumed Grandma was talking about confession. There was the hole in front of us, the one they were going to lower Grandpa into as soon as we turned our backs, but the hole Grandma was talking about, the one in the wall, sounded like one of the Wacky Packages trading cards we collected at garage sales: Log Cave In Syrup, Durahell batteries, Casket: Automatically disposes of dishes.

It might have been at the reception afterward that Grandma and I first started talking about putting together a spook alley for my tenth birthday the following October. Certainly the mood would have been right. It sounded fun, slathering Vaseline on grapes to make them feel like eyeballs and blacking out your teeth with marker. Better still to pretend to saw your little sisters in half and make your friends watch.

I’ll break the suspense and tell you: the spook alley that first year was, to quote the song, a graveyard smash. We were so busy spreading cobwebs over ski boots and trying on stabbed-in-the-headbands we hardly noticed the first anniversary of Grandpa’s Code Blue.

Grandma didn’t pack many clothes for her basement stay, but she managed to find room for false thumbs, a pig nose, a pitchfork and some alien antenna. Before she had even taken her suitcase downstairs, she cracked open a beer (and not one of Mom’s O’Doul’s) and set about erecting cardboard tombstones near the trampoline, turning our three-car garage, with its commingling scent of dog food and carbon dioxide, into a den of horrors, sprucing up my dad’s tool bench with knick-knacks from a recent house fire: the crooked candles from her mantle and one of my mom’s baby dolls from the sixties. Thumbelina’s face was sooty, smoke damaged. Her christening gown, which had once sparkled, was ragged. When you pulled the string in back, her voice was wooly and fathomless, as if she required an exorcist.

“You boys call me if she starts doing any weird shit,” Mom said that summer when she dropped us off for our traditional Week at Grandma’s. “I can be up here in four hours.” It was a little late for warnings considering Danny and I had already unloaded the Suburban, filling Grandma’s yard with junk from our rooms for what Grandma was billing as an epic “g-sale.”

My leg had been out of a cast for a long time by then but it was still white and tremblingly weak, as if newly hatched. Being Danny’s younger brother and having tight tendons meant, in practical terms, that Grandma favored me big time. During volunteer shifts at the Visitor’s Center, as Danny played his Game Boy and worked the cash register, Grandma and I hawked potato clocks and told road trippers hopscotching outside the bathroom about how Evel Knievel had tried to shoot across Snake River Canyon in a rocket. Grandma ferreted out a cheap bowling trophy from a pile of junk at St. Vinnie’s and told me to tell Danny I’d won it. I was her little helper when it came to decorating Grandpa’s grave with snowballs from the riotous bush in her front yard. She let me wear her Mickey Mouse watch but not her neckerchiefs or fake turtlenecks.

If Danny got fed up and called me queer bait, more out of exasperation that anything else, Grandma would look him squarely in the face and say, “Never call your brother queer. That’s the worst thing you could ever call someone.” I didn’t know what queer bait was, not really, and I suspect Danny didn’t either. What I did know is that the next day I’d be on rollerblades I didn’t ask for, coming down a steep stretch of sidewalk at the junior college as Grandma took a picture to give to my mom. “Deb will be tickled pink.”

The waning hours went into waving a metal detector over the mulch of the park down the street. When we found no treasure, at least none that we could dig up, we super glued a quarter beneath a streetlight and waited for someone to come along and try to pry up it up.

“When I go,” Grandma said at last, “you can have my teeth.”

“Can I have a tooth or two?” Danny asked.

“No,” Grandma said. “Just Greg.”

I dug in my shoe for a wood chip. “Sorry Danny,” I said. “I have dibs.”

This wasn’t the first time the subject of Grandma’s precious crowns and bridges and fillings had come up. She had already promised them to me. “Just yank them out with a pair of pliers,” she said. Maybe it was Grandma’s earlier comment at the cemetery about her side of the family, the Sabalas, being short lived. For as eager as I was to inherit her mouth gold and become negligibly richer than Danny, I decided to play dumb. “Go?” I asked. “You mean on vacation?”

We both knew she didn’t mean on vacation.

Weird shit? Mom had asked. There was no weird shit going on. Everything was the same as always. Grandma bought us gum that turned our teeth blue, spray-painted her dead bushes green and tossed leftovers in the yard for the birds, evidently unaware that the next afternoon we’d have to Slip N Slide around smears of coleslaw and half-eaten drumsticks from KFC. It was cool with me if Grandma wanted to crash on the couch next to a basket of stale potato chips and who cared if her fridge was barren, its only contents an expired Ketchup bottle, packets of mild sauce from Taco Bell and a pack of grape Squeezits. Grandma fried chochos and frothed orange juice in the blender and let Danny and me stuff pillows under our shirts and sumo wrestle on top of a sticky foam mattress in the family room. “You better watch it, Danny,” Grandma said. “One day Greg is going to be big and strong and he’s going to beat you up.”

Grandma and Grandpa’s house on Filer Avenue carried the sweet scent of burning. A few years earlier, in 1990, their brand new electric blanket had sparked and caught fire while they were in bed. Evidently, prisoner of war camps and Basque boarding houses like the one Grandma had grown up in weren’t big on fire safety. While I mapped out contingency plans that accounted for every stuffed animal and asked for a rope ladder to fling from my window in the event of an emergency, Grandpa and Grandma didn’t even know to stop, drop and roll. They didn’t test knobs with wet rags or close doors behind them or crawl as to not suck in tar-black smoke.

Grandma Rosie dialed the fire department from the kitchen of her burning house and, after the flames had been doused, heated up a can of beans for Grandpa in the ash heap that used to be her kitchen as Grandpa kicked up his feet in his destroyed Barcalounger. “I had two hundred bucks on my dresser,” Grandpa Joe muttered, blubbering his lips. Grandpa Joe was a world-class lip blubberer. “Two crisp one-hundred dollar bills.”

Even though they replaced the carpets and repainted the walls, the house remained disfigured, discolored. Quite understandably, Grandma couldn’t part with any of her hand-painted furniture. Charred Basque children danced on every footstool and chair. Less understandable was her refusal to toss the rest of the stuff. You could taste the smoke in her amber drinking glasses and when she couldn’t restore her shepherd figurines to their pre-fire luster, she painted them brown and put them back on the shelf.

I think she saw the fire the same way I saw machines that flattened pennies. By destroying the house, the fire had made it infinitely more fascinating. You could put a nickel on the cast-iron palm of the black man on Grandpa’s TV tray and watch him eat it. You could turn the crank of a Do-Nothing on the coffee table or cup your ear to the receiver of a disconnected antique phone. The behemoth Philco TV sunk into the corner of the family room was encased in wood, like an old-time radio, and perfect for reruns of Quantum Leap. The melted, blackened mirror in the living room gave every body part an hourglass shape. The candlesticks that had made a cameo in the spook alley formed figure eights of melted wax on the mantle and the sewing room was full of melted toys. Play with anything for long—a Fisher Price Record Player, a pocket prayer book, a glow-in-the-dark rosary, a Mickey Mouse coin bank, the sorry remains of a Snoopy stuffed animal—and your hands would turn black.

I’m not sure how we came across the handgun. Grandma kept canisters of paint and art supplies in the storage closet in the garage. She could have uncovered the gun when she was fishing out butcher paper for one of my Pink Panther comics. It also could have been when she invited Danny and me under that swinging naked bulb to show us the inside of a Durahell battery, which she attempted to dissect with a butter knife. There is also a chance she’d intended to get rid of the gun for a long time, waiting for her grandsons to visit so she didn’t have to do it alone.

It was small and silver, in need of a good scrubbing. Grandma had hidden it after the fire, when Grandpa was so despondent she worried he might try to kill himself. I remember her soaking the gun for hours in warm, soapy water to get rid of the grime, but that can’t be right. She probably just went at it with a Brillo pad, probably while dyeing her hair, on the phone with one of her sisters.

What I know for sure is that she clicked on the safety and stuck the gun in her purse before Danny or I could hold it, and then transferred it to the glove compartment of her station wagon. I remember her circling addresses, Yellow Pages against the steering wheel, before we drove to a dealer and pawned the thing for eighty bucks. We were supposed to split the money down the middle, but Grandma let us keep it all. “Not bad,” she said on the drive home from Arctic Circle. She was visibly relieved to be rid of the thing. “I bet we can do the whole spook alley this year for less than that.”

In October, as promised, Grandma hitched a ride to Salt Lake in Uncle John’s Alfa Romeo. Uncle John was a lovable pink man of Italian extraction with a bristly white mustache. He had been keeping an eye on Grandma, especially after she hopped a curb and ran her station wagon into a light post near the high school. Together they took trips to Jackpot to play the nickel slots and attended a public memorial for the man who invented “The Hokey Pokey.” Uncle John had let Danny and me borrow his Johnny Carson box set that summer and educated us on the ways of The Tonight Show. My favorite sketch was Carnac the Magnificent. Since coming back from Idaho, I’d taken to turning my bath towel into a turban and blowing into envelopes to divine answers. Mom called Grandma and me two peas in a pod.

All Grandma brought with her from Twin Falls was a sad silver banner that said “Happy Halloween.” She looked wild-eyed, starved down to ninety pounds. It sounds strange to say, but her eyelids weren’t working right, no better than Thumbelina’s, like she had forgotten how to blink. We could barely get her off the couch to make a run to Jobbers Odd Lot and when we did she smelled. I came home from school one afternoon to find blood smeared all over the kitchen and Grandma crawling to the couch. The gash on her forehead was deep enough for stitches.

“Maybe we should go to a real haunted house this year,” Danny suggested as we sorted through the costume closet one fall afternoon. Mom’s old chemo wig, worn backwards with sunglasses, made him look like Cousin It. “You kids are brats,” Mom said, shaking her head in disbelief. A mustache-and-glasses disguise made her outrage hard to take seriously. She looked Basque, actually. “Spoiled, selfish brats. You know what you deserve for your birthday? A swat on the perdi.”

Because she’d grown up being humiliated by nuns—one punishment required her to pin a sign to her uniform that read, “My name is Debi. I am a baby”—Mom was what you’d call loosey goosey when it came to rules and chores. I was willing to carry my plate to the sink but ask me to put it in the dishwasher and I’d lurch around the kitchen counter and start in on the monologue from Little Princess. “Every girl’s a princess. You don’t have to be smart or pretty…”

The spook alley was, in my mom’s words, “All princesses on deck, even the ones with tight tendons.” When she shouted up the stairs for me to come help, I would put down my comic book and shakily pry clarinet parts from a rented velvet case, trying to assemble the slobbery instrument before my mom burst through the door to remind me, in case I had forgotten, that this was my damn spook alley.

While my sister Tiffany stuffed a scarecrow full of old newspapers and my dad carved jack-o’-lanterns, Grandma rolled around on the couch listening to Danny’s Adam Sandler album. At the last minute, just before kids started showing up, she pulled the bag out of the trash compactor and scattered a Wendy’s cup and a handful of wrappers onto the lawn. “It doesn’t look like much now,” she said when she came in, her words sloshing from the werewolf fangs she now wore over her gold teeth like dentures. “But just wait until dark. It’ll be really scary.”

“Scary or unsanitary?” Tiffany asked.

“It’s called a spook alley for a reason,” Grandma said. “Alleys are covered with trash.”

We watched as our obese golden retriever Moose picked up the Wendy’s cup and started tearing it apart, splashing left-over Coke all over his blond locks.

“In America we call that litter,” Tiff said.

“There are rapists in alleys, too,” Danny said. “Should we put some rapists in the spook alley?”

The party kicked off with a scavenger hunt, which was really just an excuse for packs of fifth graders to beat on the doors of our Mormon neighbors and ask if they had coffee filters. After I blew out the candles on my X-Men cake, Grandma pulled my arms roughly through a hand-me-down fishing vest: I was the tour guide. “Walk flat and no one will even recognize you,” she said. “Remember, heel-toe. Heel-toe.”

As the party progressed, Grandma kept lifting up her ghoul mask and picking at the stitches on her forehead, and though I didn’t see her take any nips of her beer, with half the kids still waiting to come through the garage she was staggering. She knocked into me a few times and then parked herself on the Igloo cooler on the back porch and shouted Basque words at my friends as we came through. “Culo! Chish! Kaka!” At my parents’ Halloween party later that week, Grandma fell down the steps to the gazebo. It was a worse fall than Grandpa Joe’s by far, but Grandma didn’t Code Blue. She went right on laughing, grabbing at her broken ribs.

Uncle John had a mild heart attack not long after my birthday party. His heart stopped for good more than a year later, on the thirteenth of January. A neighbor lady who was always complaining about Uncle John’s unkempt lawn was the one who finally called the cops about the smell. Even with the body removed, no more than a darkened stain on plush green carpet next to his bed, Uncle John’s house was the biggest pigsty I’d ever seen, worse than Tiff’s room, and she was a snowboarder. What I remember most wasn’t the clutter of pizza boxes and dirty dishes but this serene oil painting of my great aunt Mary smirking down on the mess from over the fireplace. She’d died of ovarian cancer twenty years earlier. “I tell you what,” Mom said, holding a trash bag with one gloved yellow hand. “That woman was not a nice person, leaving us to clean this up.”

The biggest mess of all was Grandma. She crapped her pants before we left for Uncle John’s funeral at St. Ed’s and then sat there on the couch in her warped living room, humming to herself as she wrestled her heel into her shoe. Mom pleaded with her to go change, but it was no use.

“Your mom and her writer’s imagination,” Grandma kept saying.

Looking back, it was my writer’s imagination—not my mom’s—Grandma should have worried about, as it turned her corns, acquired from years of wearing impractical shoes, into smears of fecal matter. It could have been the smell I was responding to, but if you’d asked me at the time, I would have told you she had a dribble of poop on her wrinkly heel. My brother and sisters and I were all just standing there in our nice clothes, like kids do, seeing what we shouldn’t. Knee turned inward, heel hovering an inch off the ground, one arm unconsciously folded against my chest, I was a boy with dirty blond hair and neon-yellow braces, trying not to tremble as I recoiled. It was Grandma sitting there all right—and it wasn’t.

Grandma had always had grand plans for her final days: Before she died she wanted to spend every penny of her life savings and max out her credit cards. The reality of kicking the bucket turned out to be a lot less fun. Figuring Grandma was acutely depressed, not to mention the victim of a series of ministrokes, Mom and the surviving Sabala sisters decided to have Grandma undergo a round of electro-shock therapy. They had her committed. When Grandma should have been on an end-of-life shopping spree, yanking out her gold teeth, she was instead at the University of Utah’s psych ward up near the zoo, getting sat on by her schizophrenic roommate Beverly.

Because Mom didn’t like to visit alone, she’d take me up there after dinner, when it was snowy and dark. It smelled like Lysol and the floors were buffed to a shine. After we paged her at the front desk, Grandma would wander out of her room in her cute sweats and hospital booties, rubbing the scar on her forehead like she’d just woken up.

We’d take the elevators down to the closed cafeteria and Mom would read the same boring letters from my great aunts day after day as if they were new. To Grandma they were new: the shock treatments wiped out her short-term memory. It was only a matter of time before she asked about Uncle John. Every visit Mom had to tell her he was dead. It wasn’t like you’d expect, fresh grief and tears, but more of a stunned recognition. Grandma said if she started crying she wouldn’t be able to stop. “Your socks are cute,” I’d try. I wanted to prove that I wasn’t scared of her. The fact that I loved her had to count for something.

Grandma never wanted to write back. She barely trusted herself to speak. I was twelve years old. I had acne and armpit hair and, I was pretty sure, a lisp. I was just beginning to not trust myself, either. I didn’t know if Grandma would like the person I was becoming, and it’s not like I could ask her one way or another. Her gentle brown eyes would glaze over as Mom read and I’d wonder if she was as bored sitting there as I was, if she wanted a drink. Had there been a microphone handy, I would have practiced my Oscar acceptance speech or told a few jokes about homework. With only those letters for entertainment, I had to call on my skills as a fortuneteller. Pressing my fingers to my temples like Carnac the Magnificent, I’d whisper something like driver’s license just as my mom got to the part about how this or that great aunt needed to take her car into the shop. Not my best work, but it was the kind of gag Grandma would have loved.


Greg Marshall is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers. His work has appeared in Electric Literature, Tampa Review, Barely South and elsewhere. His essay “Suck Ray Blue” was recently selected as a Notable Mention in Best American Essays 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @gregrmarshall.