Under Pressure: Dana Alsamsam

2019, Under Pressure

(in)habit, Dana Alsamsam

Dana Alsamsam is a first generation Syrian-American from Chicago and is currently based in Boston where she works in arts development. A Lambda Literary fellow, she received her MFA in Poetry from Emerson College where she was the Editor-in-Chief of Redivider and Senior Editorial Assistant at Ploughshares. She is the author of a chapbook, (in)habit (tenderness lit, 2018), and her poems are published or forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, North American Review, The Shallow Ends, The Offing, Tinderbox, Salamander, BOOTH, The Common and others. 


Bina Ruchi Perino: How long did (in)habit take to write from conception to publication?

Dana Alsamsam: This may be a political answer but (in)habit took my entire life to write. It’s a chapbook, not a full-length, but it still very much has the feeling of a first collection because I am working through a lot of childhood traumas and coming-of-age narratives. Technically, I would say, the collection is a summation of everything I wrote during undergrad that I was proud of, and was published about a year after I graduated. So, for a real answer, let’s say five years.

BRP: How do you feel about deadlines? Do you give them to yourself?

DA: I’m very type A and don’t have an issue with deadlines. I love a spreadsheet. 

BRP: Who are you currently crushing on arts-wise?

DA: I love this question! There are two poets who I’m seriously rooting for and following closely right now. Both of these poets not only write breathtaking, experimental, compassionate poetry, but they are also organizers, activists, and community builders that I stand behind. I’m grateful for their work in many ways. 

One of these poets is Porsha Olayiwola, poet laureate of Boston, who I had the great opportunity to be in workshop alongside while at Emerson.

The other is Kay Ulanday Barrett who I had the absolute pleasure of meeting at the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices in 2018.

Book them. Pay them. 

BRP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate or feel are important to your writing?

DA: I’m a very physical person and writing through and back into my body has always been generative, and essential, to my work. As a queer, Arab-American woman I often think about how the bodies of my people are codified and, if not deemed generally acceptable, marginalized. I also want to get rid of this idea that it’s cute to be purposely unhealthy, or to sacrifice your physical and mental well being to be a prolific artist. This is all to say, my daily rituals involve movement in many forms. I am a dancer and choreographer for a few dance companies in Boston, I walk everywhere, and I also train at the gym for strength and athleticism. My movement and writing practices are wonderfully intertwined. When we are able to gather physically again, collaborations along these lines will be in the front of my mind.

BRP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

DA: The day I met Ryka Aoki, the cohort leader at summer 2018’s Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices, she said something very close to this: “I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve spent a lot of time with your work. You have incredible discipline and musicality. In fact, you’re disciplined enough to be so much braver.” I’ll never forget that. 

Book her. Pay her.

BRP: What was the biggest struggle you endured while writing (in)habit?  

DA: (in)habit, similarly to most things I write, heavily features my family members. I constantly grappled with the conflict of being able to tell my story, express my hurt and pain, sort through intimate personal tragedies that built who I am, but that portray my family in a negative light. I had to get to a point of accepting that speaking my struggle, my emotional breakthroughs, my damage is not an attack on them. I have a right to this story. I write about it because it’s important. 

BRP: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

DA: I try to always have a journal with me. 

BRP: Would you consider yourself an editor or more of a curator?

DA: I am no longer in any editorial roles except for freelance poetry consulting (email me if you’re interested, dana.alsamsam@gmail.com). When I was Editor-in-Chief of Redivider, I thought of myself more so as a community leader, a thought leader, an energy leader. I did a lot of difficult work behind the scenes planning, fundraising, creating institutional materials, etc. but what my community saw is what I gave to them, and that was the most important part of the work for me. This super difficult “labor of love” industry needs compassion and authenticity, but that’s a thought for another day…or a very long essay…I work in arts fundraising now and often feel inspired or pushed forward by the imbalances I felt working in editorial.

BRP: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night?

DA: I haven’t written much at all since the global pandemic began. When I have the energy, I try to read and take inspiration from others while my own creative heart is tired. Typically, however, inspiration comes while walking. I don’t really have time in my days to sit down and write. I walk and take transit everywhere, so I try to use that built-in, rhythmic time for my body and mind to recalibrate with the present. I try not to distract myself with content during this time, instead taking the opportunity to be mindful of my physical and mental state. This simple, mindful curiosity is often followed by inspiration. Walking while digitally scribbling in my phone notes is a regular practice.

BRP: If you had to describe (in)habit in only three words, which would they be and why?

DA: Suburban. Grotesque. Intimate.

Order (in)habit here!

Pushcart Prize Nominees for 2019

2019, Announcements

We’re pleased to announce our Pushcart Prize Nominees for 2019


Threa Almontaser, “Ablution With Zem Zem Water” (Summer, 30)
Michelle Donahue, “Preservation” (Winter, 29)


Jackie Chhieng. “Sabrina Nguyen At The 7-Eleven On Lombard” (Summer, 30)
Sarah E. Ruhlen, “Open Water” Summer, 30)


Rowan Lucas, “Water of the Womb” Summer, 30)
Aram Mrjoian, “Animal Kingdom” (Winter, 29)


2019, Announcements


Three Encounters with No One” by Elisa Gonzalez

The Wounded Deer” by Krysten Hill

Elegy” by Michael Marberry

We Ran Rapturous” by Shannon Sankey

Clack” by Janelle Tan

Everything You’ve Been Told About [Being a Partner] Is a Lie” by Kevin West


Green Eternity” by Raina K. Puels

Two Stars, Burning Sun” by Claire Robbins


Animal Kingdom” by Aram Mrjoian

Blue Raspberry” by Robert James Russell

Rebecca Bornstein

2019, Poetry


I’ve busted ass to make it
most of my life, floated checks
and ate late fees on all the utilities,

in lean years spent hope, felt lucky
to find a few quarters I’d forgotten
or spotted in the street on a walk.

In the mornings, dry cereal.
In the winter, the dark.

But I always paid rent, the 5th
a cliff I was terrified of falling over.
I knew how thin the margin between

having a key to slip into a lock
or not was, worried always
about it growing thinner.

And of course, the clear winner:
the landlords, who happily

pocketed my check each month
and still came up thirsty, avoiding
my calls when the roof leaked,

refusing to snake the bathroom drain
one miserable winter
“on account of all your hair.”

Fuck being fair to them.
I’ve hardly owned anything, shoved it all

in my old hatchback, hurrying to move it
from one coast to another, hemorrhaging
every dollar I’ve earned to someone richer than me

for every apartment, tetrising boxes
in the back of the car unsuccessfully, always leaving
something precious on the curb.


listen: my belly was an oyster, endlessly polishing its pearl / the gears near my guts slowly turning / tiny elves inside beginning to build / they didn’t know that it was useless / my heart / a balloon left un-knotted / red rubber lump/ limp puddle on the floor / calendar with a bomb built into it / the days all ticking X’s / I didn’t eat / took nothing inside except ginger ale / no whiskey / I had stupidly stopped drinking / those nights / his arms hesitated / to touch my stomach / but did, anyway, and I’d rest / my head against his chest and hear / his heartbeat echoing / in the spiral of my ear / my heartbeat pumping down into—

Rebecca Bornstein is a poet and worker living in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA from North Carolina State University, and has held jobs as a barista, parking garage company receptionist, production cook, professional goat-sitter, and creative writing instructor. Her writing has appeared in the Raleigh Review, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, The Journal, The Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. Visit her website at rebeccabornstein.com

Jody Chan

2019, Poetry

self-portrait after panic attack

— for Kou

I visit you at Gibraltar Point on an August
Wednesday when the anvils in my brain have been

pounding extra hard & I am flattened with anxiety but
we feast on takeout Korean in a room filled with thriving

plants & new laughter & when we finally look up
from ourselves for the first time all evening the sunset

is dipped in a hue that steals our pulse so we race
outside to the beach & who knew the dusty rose

& tangerine of dusk filtered through an inbound
thunderstorm could make lavender we have never

will never see anything like this again so we bathe
in the satin light & comb the beach for gifts of sea

glass for your mosaics & this must be what heaven
feels like just a beauty we don’t know the how

or why of & even though the fire ants bite & cut
short our bounty I think I will be chasing pieces

of this palette in every sky forever because yes
my heart knows mostly the long haul of winter

in a house with the heat turned on low but you gather
a tea of nettle & raspberry & rosepetal for me & for now

my burnt tongue is a dancer sweet & dizzy on the after
taste of not being alone it is so lucky to choose

your own family it is so lucky to love
this lilac light as we slip back inside my pocket

blooms with porcelain from a shattered bowl a pink
snail’s shell the secondhand pieces of a life we want

to know but not inhabit we don’t long to lay claim
to the moon’s symbolic shine we don’t need

the distance to recognize home

Jody Chan is a writer and organizer based in Toronto. They are the poetry editor for Hematopoeisis and the author of haunt (Damaged Goods Press, 2018) and sick, winner of the 2018 St. Lawrence Book Award. Their work has been published in Third Coast, BOAAT, Yes Poetry, Nat. Brut, The Shade Journal, and elsewhere. They have received fellowships from VONA and Tin House. They can be found online at https://www.jodychan.com/ and offline in bookstores or dog parks.

Rachel Cruea

2019, Poetry


Deep in the purple of this room you smuggle enough lightbulbs to make it day,
except these days, a moment of shade would be welcome. In the other room,
you overhear a conversation. Pressing your ear to the door, you catch muffled
phrases like “unfairness of color” and “extension of thread.” Another ear is pressed
to the outside of the door listening to you listen. “What marvelous sound waves”
the other ear whispers. You leave your lightbulbs in a box next to a bed made from
metal feathers. The easiest exit is the window and you hoist yourself onto a row
of hedges cut into silhouettes of shadow. A woman is sunning herself in the front yard.
She’s beginning to burn it’s so bright out. “You might want to apply sunscreen,”
you suggest. She doesn’t look up. You move in front to get her attention
but in the reflection of her sunglasses you see another room. In the room
is another woman sitting at a table slicing the sun. She pops a ray into her mouth.

Rachel Cruea is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She’s originally from Findlay, Ohio. Along with serving as the managing editor of Timber magazine, she is the poetry editor for GASHER and a part-time instructor of creative writing. Her poems have been previously published in editions of The Adroit Journal, The Pinch, Jet Fuel Review, among others.

Jennifer Sperry Steinorth

2019, Poetry


Squirrel crossed the lawn just now
Where old oak used to be
Before our home’s expanding wings
Made wicker ware of tree.

No acorns now
Will fall to fill
The kits curled in his crib
But this…

With a little shredding
Will make nice bedding

Jennifer Sperry Steinorth is a poet, educator interdisciplinary artist, and licensed builder. Her poetry has appeared in Alaska Quarterly, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Colorado Review, The Journal, jubilat, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mid-American Review, Poetry Northwest, Sixth Finch, Quarterly West and elsewhere. She has received grants from the Sewanee Writers Conference, The Vermont Studio Center, and Warren Wilson College whence an MFA in poetry. Her poetry manuscript A Wake with Nine Shades, a finalist for the Hillary Gravendyke prize, Barrow Street Prize and the Press 53 open read is forthcoming from Texas Review Press in autumn of 2019. A hybrid text of visual poetry/erasure is forthcoming from TRP in the fall of 2020.

Claire Robbins

2019, NonFiction


I want to say that I have many bodies. I have arms that lift weights, legs that walk across town, a stomach that hungers and fills. My body feels emotion, is energy. My body can give and feel so much pleasure. My body looks great in jeans and boots, my body flows in a skirt. Even in my flaws, my body is powerful and alive.

My body can also be damaged by other bodies. I have been relatively safe in my life, but there have been times where I was close to being killed by another body. I also know that my body is capable of killing another body.

I’ve heard people say that they could never kill another person. I want to say to them that they have not been put into the right situation. I want to say that there are words and actions that will break anyone. I looked into the well of my emotions and I knew that I could kill. At that point I knew I had to stay away from the body that had caused me so much pain.

I sat on my ex-boyfriend’s lap in my backyard and I looked at my son’s aluminum baseball bat in the grass, and I knew that if I picked up the bat, my ex-boyfriend would be dead. I knew that I could look at his bloodied body as it stopped moving. And I felt a rush at that. I felt all the rage from all the times of not hitting him back. I felt the pain of cigarettes put out on my arm, the stink of his piss soaking my clothes, the pain of his fist; I heard every slur he had called me, heard him telling me how he would kill me; I felt the pain of the surprise that I got away alive, just to come back.

So, I would have been justified in killing him, but did not. This doesn’t make me any better that those who have killed or hurt their oppressors. Long live Cyntoia Brown; long live Ahed Tamimi; long live those who hit back, who kill. Long live those who get away and don’t get back.

I want to say that of all my bodies, they all belong to me. This should be obvious to the world but is not. The power, the pleasure seeking, the sore muscles, the taking up of public space, the black eyes, the anger. Every body I contain can bubble up to the surface. The boy, the victim, the loud, the body that wants to make love every day, the body that likes to look.

In public places and in relationships I am reminded that my body is not my own. I must constantly work to re-own my body. No body is re-owned dead. Some folks must work harder to re-own their public bodies. I am thinking about mass graves; I am thinking about the body of Freddie Gray; the bodies of murdered indigenous women. Those who have lost their bodies, their lives, as they struggled to own their bodies, or just to be a body. No one even chooses to exist this way, as a body.

There are small and large ways in which we learn our bodies are also public bodies: the murders of those who exist as we do; the hug that lasts too long; the being told to smile. Those moments that pull us out of our private existence and put us face to face with the desires, hates, prejudices of others.

I have begun work to re-own my body. I say no when my girlfriend asks me if I will wear lingerie, realizing that for others wearing lingerie is exactly how they re-own their bodies. I take up space, I don’t ever smile unless I feel happy. But this is hard work, constantly met with resistance. My girlfriend tells me I am overreacting when a man touches my back at a bar and I cry as I drive home. When I put my body in a bar, I put it there for many reasons, but I do not consent to being touched by strangers, ever. Even if it is just his way of saying, let me walk behind you. I want to practice punching strangers who touch me without my consent.

I never consented to my body being a public body. A body commented on and touched by men in passing. I’m not dead and so I will work to take my body back. I will work to find my voice and cuss you out when you interact with my body in ways I do not like. Ideally my body bridges public and private space. It is how I let in what I love, what feeds me. My body is how I communicate. But it also must be how I shut out that which can harm; it must be how I shut out that which I don’t like; it must be my barrier between the world and me. My body must be my first line of defense.

If you have ever seen a person put their body between an oppressor and the oppressed, you have witnessed magic.

My body has harmed other bodies in ways I am ashamed of. I seek to step away from harming those who have caused me no harm. In the same motion, I will step towards harming those who harm innocent bodies. I reject pacifism, because that pacifism has allowed so much past pain. I did not hit back and he kept hitting.

I begin noticing the ways some bodies interact in public space, and I cannot un-notice these bodies and the violence of their existence. These bodies controlling public spaces tend to be male, they tend to be white in America, they tend to expect privilege. They expect to be smiled at. They expect other bodies to step out of the way. If they speak to me, they expect an answer. If they touch my back, they do not expect to be punched.

Claire Robbins serves as the guest creative non-fiction editor for Third Coast Magazine, holds an MFA in fiction from Western Michigan University, teaches college writing, and has published work in Nimrod, Muse/A Journal, and American Short Fiction.

Katherine Fallon

2019, Fiction


I didn’t know whether to believe Tara when she told me that her grandmother’s house was haunted. My parents were practical to a fault and never entertained the idea of anything supernatural, including God, which later led people to believe that we were wicked. But Tara’s family was more superstitious, and more faithful, and while I lived in a new home with no history, her family scraped by as truck drivers, waitresses and tailors to keep their old, southern plantation in the family. So many people lived inside the house that I couldn’t keep track of their names, occupations, and relations to one another. There were a lot of children around our age, but none Tara liked and so we avoided them, which was easy enough on that much property and in a house that large.

The house was white, weather-beaten and with a large, leaf-swept porch supported by four equally-spaced, peeling columns. Pecan trees loomed over the house, branches casting a web of shadows like lace across its facade. Periodically, we’d be sent to collect the fallen fruits and Tara’s grandmother would sit in silence in the drawing room, year-round, with her holiday nutcracker, freeing their meat.

The drawing room also housed an impressive library, and Tara and I spent rainy days poring over the pages of a set of encyclopedias there. We learned about wars and plants and cities in Mexico, about heroes and criminals and the beasts of the African plains. Once, we discovered a deep sea fish that could light its own way along the darkness of the ocean floor: a single antenna hung as a lantern before its flat eyes. Its teeth were glass-sharp and nearly as translucent, all out of alignment so that I imagined its bite would leave a chorus of puncture wounds, as though many creatures were responsible for what was caused by one ugly bottom dweller. Gradually, that fish grew larger and larger, more and more monstrous in my mind.

There were smaller buildings along the property, most destroyed by years of neglect, some used as workshops or, as each generation of children in the house grew older, clandestine meeting spots, old towels strewn across the dirt floors as makeshift beds. One building in particular was forbidden to us, and Tara’s older brother, Kevin, claimed somewhat proudly that it had been the slave’s quarters. Peering through the tiny shed’s broken windows, we were initially disappointed by its emptiness, its lack of offering. There was no reason to go inside: no treasure to claim, no cabinets to explore.

Later, when I understood that the building was off-limits primarily because it was so near to collapsing, I felt uncomfortable thinking of its one barren room. I am often tempted to say that I grew up on that sprawling, dilapidated land, too, but it is this fact which stops me: at sixteen, Tara lost her virginity in the forbidden slave quarters, to a boy with a woman’s eyebrows. He managed the closest gas station and spoke with great authority about coffee, which he claimed to sell more of than fuel. By the time Tara told me about his bony hips and the pattern of hair on his belly, we were hardly friends and Kevin had been killed in active duty in the Middle East. Did it hurt, I asked her and she pursed her lips as though disgusted. No, she said. It didn’t hurt at all. I didn’t even bleed.

Inside the plantation home, the floors were varnished darkly and lamps fought hard to cast light through the high-ceilinged, wooden-walled rooms. Along the hallways, there were frosted sconces, which once held candles and were never retrofitted for electricity; on the stairs, which wound around the edge of the house and left an open well between stories, there were dusty hurricane lamps proudly displayed on each landing.

Family heirlooms produced their own undeniable hauntings throughout the house. The child who would have been Tara’s oldest uncle was stillborn, and his tiny posthumous footprints, cast in plaster, sat atop a piano no one ever played, in the dining room, where no one ever ate. The family—all of them—preferred the crowded kitchen with its windows and white walls. It always smelled of rendering fat or sugar boiled with fruit.

The kitchen drawers were lined with flowered paper. There was a collection of milk cups that generations had drunk from, and they were foisted upon us at each meal, too, though the milk always appeared too blue inside them. The spoons we ate from were the tiny, soft-rubber-coated spoons of children, and sported tooth marks from too many mouths.

I hated the sensations of eating there. My hand in the hand of someone whose name I couldn’t remember but who belonged, by blood, to my best friend. My mouth coated thickly with lard and saying a blessing I didn’t know, my tongue tripping through the words in a convincing imitation until, finally, I, too, knew the Lord’s Prayer, and my parents raised an eyebrow but kept driving and leaving me there. My teeth scraping against those enamel mugs of tepid milk. Each bite I took so small that I learned to shovel several spoonfuls into my mouth in rapid succession, without chewing, and so never tasted a thing for what it was.

But it wasn’t any of those familial artifacts that most interested Tara. It was the haunting. They named the ghost Jacob, which made him familiar and terrifying. Some of Tara’s relatives claimed to have seen him. Others told stories of sounds, or doors closing, or cold spots in corners. The most common story told was of Jacob’s distaste for Christmas, as he would repeatedly and invisibly sweep all of the carefully arranged holiday decorations from the drawing room mantel.

This sometimes happened when people were in the room, but at times, an aunt or cousin would wander into the room to find shattered ornaments and torn evergreen fronds strewn about the floor. Pinecones, crushed. There were plenty more where that came from, and I felt bad for Jacob, who could never change things despite his violence.

Tara’s grandmother, who wore the same flowered housecoat every day, called Jacob “petulant”—Tara and I looked it up later and mouthed it out to each other, faces close in the eerie green of the bookshelf’s shadow—and kept rearranging the decorations in spite of their increasingly shabby appearance. I love Christmas, her grandmother would say, drawing the I out as though creating several new vowels.I don’t care what Jacob wants. I was more afraid of Tara’s grandmother than I was of Jacob.

There were no bleeding walls. No one fell down stairs or felt pushed toward the licking flame of the stove. The stillborn’s footprints were never meddled with, though the piano was sometimes purported to play, and clumsily.

It wasn’t until Kevin claimed to have seen Jacob standing over him in his bed one night that I began to believe in his powers. According to Kevin, Jacob wore a Confederate soldier’s uniform and appeared to him as a photograph, two-dimensional and faded in color.

Tara, Kevin and I whispered over the kitchen’s plastic tablecloth while one of the aunts tended to rice on the stove. Her shoulders were small and pulled inward as though she were stretching. Her fanny was wide and flat. I watched the distinct line between her two halves waver like heat on pavement as she stirred, and asked Kevin if he knew, having seen him, how Jacob had died.

He had a huge hole in his heart, Kevin said with gravity, without fidgeting, holding my gaze. His eyes were moping and brown, like a hound dog’s, like Tara’s. It was the only feature they had in common.

Was he bleeding? Tara asked, and held my hand beneath the table. She and I could have been siblings more believably than she and Kevin. We were both so nervous and pale. Our hands were even veined similarly, though her fingers were smaller enough that I could not wear her rings, and often worried at her fragility. When we walked to the gas station in the summers, we pretended to be twins, which to us meant buying the same things, sipping out of our straws the same way.

Kevin shook his head. No blood. Just a hole. I could see straight through it to the wall behind.

Got dammit, Tara’s grandmother said as she pushed her way into the kitchen. Jacob’s gone and broken my favorite nutcracker.

Tara and I spent a lot of time in the shed her grandfather used as his car shop before he passed. There were old street signs and license plates stapled to the walls. Tools we didn’t understand and could barely lift lay abandoned on workbenches. The place smelled of cat piss.

Her grandfather had been a collector of old-fashioned oilcans, and we played robot the way that some young girls play dress-up. I stood in the chilly shade of the shed and swung my arm around and around in circles, letting a pathetic squeak issue from my lips.

Tara, whose blonde hair was always pulled back into a tight ponytail with a red ribbon, approached me with an oilcan in each hand. She cooed at me—sounds that weren’t quite words and weren’t quite sympathy—and pretended to lubricate my joints. There, there, she’d say, as I began to unwind from my tight stance and allow for fluidity.

She dipped the thin nozzles of the empty oil cans into each folded part of my skin, each crook between bones. I thrilled at it, making jerking motions to show her that she was right, and mattered. I came to life for her, and I couldn’t keep from giggling as I did.

Robots don’t laugh, she chided me. With no inflection. And I got so tight-lipped she then had to oil me there, too. The cans were dusty and sticky with age, and my lips parted just enough to take them in, place my tongue upon the sickly tang of their tips out of a desperate attempt to keep quiet, which I only knew how to do by keeping busy. Otherwise, I expelled sound like an untied balloon zipping through a silent room.

I mouthed the nozzle of the oilcan, nearly suckled. Tara drew it away quickly, wiped its tip on her white shirt, leaving a smear along its hem. All better, she said, and I worked my jaw like a true hinge, felt a popping as I opened, closed.

Tara never played the robot. On the day that I suggested it for the first and only time, it was close to Christmas, and as cold as southern winters get. Even beneath her coat and scarf, I saw her grow stiff in all the wrong ways. She suggested that we go inside the house to drink some hot chocolate instead.

But Jacob, I said, not even certain I believed in him.

We have to sleep there anyway, Tara snapped with startling authority. Don’t be scared, she said then, softening a little, and put the oilcan’s tip gently behind my newly-pierced ear, which was already throbbing with the heat of pain. I let my chin fall against the can, and swiveled my head back and forth as though dancing to our favorite song.

Tara’s second-floor bedroom was covered with the same paper as the insides of the kitchen drawers. The daybed had a trundle that required one of us to pull from a kneeling position, and once, my fingers were caught in its mechanics as we lifted it into position. My nails were black and blue and it took me weeks to make a fist. My penmanship never quite recovered.

Since then, I stood in the doorway while Tara yanked it out from beneath the lace bed skirt and Kevin hovered in the hallway, watching. He did this often along the days. I could feel him without looking; sometimes I whipped my head over my shoulder to be sure it was just Kevin, human and warm and familiar, and not Jacob.

With the bed, Tara was never careful enough, but I didn’t know how to talk about the pain, so she kept on being careless and I kept letting her. My teeth gritted and the sound mixed with that of the metal frame as it elevated, protesting, beside Tara’s mattress.

The night I asked Tara to be inhuman and she refused, I lay on the thin trundle mattress, feeling the offensive collapsing frame beneath my back, and listened to her untroubled breathing. I looked at the faint lines of the wallpaper in the dark, mere suggestions of geometry, and worried about Jacob. I thought of his open, bloodless heart. I thought of his flatness and blanched transparency. I thought of him as wallpaper and then I thought I saw him there, in the pattern.

I was silent and still, and held my breath. I said his name in my head and prayed, for the first time of my own volition. I asked God to let Jacob rest, and then, because he remained like a paper doll against the wall, I shook Tara’s bony shoulder to wake her. She did not stir. I shook her again and said her name, but nothing. Tara, I hissed at her, and pinched her thigh. Nothing.

My leg wound like a spring and struck out, landed in the small of her back with such direct aim that my heel hurt from the impact. She woke with a scream and before I knew it, the lights were on in our room. One of the aunts stood over us, mouth pursed at the inconvenience of being woken in the night.

What in the name of God? she said and placed her hands on her hips. Tara began to wail and thrash about in her white sheets. My bed rolled a bit away from hers, and I stayed quiet, pressing my lips together again. I told myself, make yourself a machine. I told myself, with no one to oil you into motion. I blinked my eyes in imitation of waking and mouthed, What? and was pleased by how hoarse the word sounded, erupting into the room of my indiscretion.

The next morning, the house was buzzing with news of Jacob’s first cruelty. The shades were drawn and the interior of the plantation was brighter than it ever had been, though it was still dark. Tara walked hunched, like an old woman, and rubbed her back periodically with her hand. Wounded. A survivor. She was fed pancakes by some aunt or another, and I felt guilty that I was, too. I kept each bite in my mouth too long, until it grew soggy and tasteless, and then swallowed dryly, reaching for the blue milk.

She could’ve really been hurt, I said to Kevin when Tara retreated for a nap. My knee throbbed, my heel felt dry.

Oh, she’s all right, he replied and placed a hand on my bare knee in consolation, his thumb moving across my skin like wiping it clean. She’s just—he paused. Dramatic.

I could have really been hurt, too, I heard myself saying before I could think it through. If she hadn’t woke up screaming—

Shhhh, Kevin, the big brother, put a thick finger to my lips, kept me quiet.

Later that day, I woke Tara from her nap with a tender hand upon the cheek. She blinked up at me and seemed relieved. Let’s go exploring, I said, and she sprang up, as though her back had never been hurt.

Where are we going? she asked.

Upstairs, I told her.

The top floor of the house was not a part of our domain. At least two of Tara’s aunts slept in rooms there, but we only knew about the rooms because we heard doors opening and closing. The railing at the top of the stairs had been broken years before and as with the slave shack, the adults were strict about keeping the children of the household safe by refusing them entry. That danger was enough to keep us moored on the lower floors for years, and the previous night’s assumed paranormal activity had driven nearly everyone outdoors for the day: there was shopping to be done; there were shifts to pick up; there were creeks to play in and less dangerous sheds to explore.

The whole point was the newness, the novelty of the third floor. Instead, when we got upstairs to the broken rail, we stood in the darkness on that open precipice, peering down at the place we’d just come from: the familiar foyer, the dull glow of lamps spilling out from hidden corners. That was the place I knew, and it was not. Up there with the bird’s eye view, I understood myself to be a tourist, looking out from the inside. It was here I caught the fear that traveled, clung to me like the stink of a campfire.

We started at the sound of a screen door slapping its wooden frame, hinges vibrating. Kevin’s shadow melted from wall to floor to wall; it was leaner than he was, and longer. He called Tara’s name, waited, called again. Just out of sight, his voice was a man’s voice, and without patience.

Tara stayed still beside me, her breath thick and heavy as someone sleeping. I felt an accordion wheeze in my knees. I wobbled toward the splintered banister, praying against a creak that, mercifully, did not come.

Peering down, I imagined each globe of fading light in the foyer as the lantern above the encyclopedic sea monster’s brow. I envisioned it lurking in every darkened doorway, listening for us, too. So ugly and quiet. So hungry. I hated that fish, but I felt sympathy for it, too: forever behind its own light, and never quite within it.

Katherine Fallon received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Meridian, Passages North, Permafrost, Colorado Review, and Foundry, among others. Her chapbook, The Toothmakers’ Daughters, is available through Finishing Line Press. She teaches in the Department of Writing & Linguistics at Georgia Southern University, and shares domestic square footage with two cats and her favorite human, who helps her zip her dresses. She and her favorite bread recipe can be found at katherinefallon.com, and she is reachable on Instagram @ghostelephants.

Sarah E. Ruhlen

2019, Fiction


The day was already 85° and muggy A.F. Later in the day it would be 107° and muggy A.F. but Maxine would be down at the beach, disporting herself in the waves like a dead fish. But that would be later, after Grandma Schneider got home from her walk around the high school track with her friend Betty Mosher. Right now Maxine was already sweating in a pink jumpsuit that Grandma Schneider said made her look “like a peach.” Because Maxine was round. Grandma said it was baby fat, but Maxine was 12 and the fat was still there. The jumpsuit rode up Maxine’s behind whenever she stooped to drag the skimmer across the surface of the pool. Her chore. That plus walking the stupid lapdog, and dusting Grandma’s knickknacks, were Maxine’s chores. And also helping Grandma and Grandpa facetime with Maxine’s mom.

Every Tuesday night was supposed to be facetime, with greater or lesser success depending on how late in the evening it was. The later it got, the more often Irene Price, née Schneider, said “hanh?” as if whatever was in her glass made her deaf. The reason Maxine had to stay with Grandma and Grandpa in Jacksonville every summer instead of with her mom in Indiana had something to do, she was told, with Irene’s job, and the school schedule, and Irene’s schedule, but Maxine’s friends all had single moms and they didn’t get shipped off to Jacksonville every summer.

Maxine shook the bugs and leaves out of the skimmer into the trashcan and then took the yardstick to the edge of the pool. Grandpa liked the water level to be exactly 6.5 inches below the pool ledge, a depth he had determined was optimal for the pool machinery. Rather than marring the tiles with a mark, he liked to have the pool measured every day, and for the measurement to be recorded in a little log book that he kept next to the skimmer, where he also recorded the ph and chlorine levels. Maxine sprawled on her belly next to the pool and held the yardstick against the side. 7.25 inches. Maxine did not immediately rise to record the insufficient water level in the log book but stirred the yard stick around in the pool.

“Your chlorine is low,” said a cigarette-and-whiskey voice.

Maxine, who had assumed she was alone and was lost in a daydream about a cute surfer, jumped and dropped the yardstick into the water. She rolled up to sit tailor-wise, a move which drove the pink wedgy even deeper. She lolled over like a pink balloon and straightened out the offending fabric, then sat with her legs straight out in front of her and peered over to the shallow end, where floated a mermaid.

“Huh?” said Maxine.

“Your chlorine. You better shock it or you’re gonna have trouble.” The mermaid took a drag off a Virginia Slim and hooked a finger under the strap of her sea-shell bra, pulling it to a more comfortable spot.

“I don’t do the chlorine,” said Maxine. The mermaid looked bored.

“Are you one of Grandma’s friends?”

“I doubt it. Who’s your grandma?”

“Debbie Schneider. Grandpa is Chuck Schneider?”

“Never heard of ‘em.”

“Well you’re in their pool.”

The mermaid finished her cigarette and flicked the butt into the water.

“Hey I just cleaned that!”

The mermaid rolled her eyes, flipped her tail, and shot through the water like a speed boat. She hove up before Maxine, who scootched back, fast.

“Here’s your butt. And your stick.” The mermaid laid both on the edge of the pool and rested her arms in the little tray that ran around the edge, just below the water level. Her skin sagged at the edges of her mouth and there were wrinkles between her breasts. Her hair, twined about with pearls and sea foam, was more salt than pepper.

“Name’s Trixie,” she rasped. “What’s yours, grandkid of Debbie and Chuck?”

“Maxine Price.” Maxine picked up the cigarette butt and put it into the pocket that pooched out over the already poochy stomach of her jumpsuit. “How come you’re not in the ocean?”

“Hitched a ride on an alligator. How come you’re not at the beach?”

“I can’t go until Grandma gets home.”

Trixie did a little flip and floated on her back. Her tummy was very muscular but it flabbed out at the edges. “Elevator papa, elevator papa, seems like you always wanna go down…” she sang. She did a back flip and zipped up in front of Maxine again, alarmingly.

“Can’t you swim?”

“A little.”

“Scared of sharks?”

“A little.”

The lap dog came yapping out from the kitchen. Grandma must be home. The creature tore up to Maxine, sighted Trixie, backed. Growled. Trixie fixed the dog with a long stare. “What is that?”

“It’s just DiDi. Are you hungry?”

“Yes. DiDi dee dee deeee deeeeee deeeeeeeeeeeee,” sang Trixie. Still staring at the dog. DiDi’s eyes lowered, sagged, closed. He fell over in a snooze.

“What’s it like?”


“Being a mermaid.”

“Can’t complain. Hours aren’t bad. Good commissions, all the rum you can drink. Why, you wanna be one?” Trixie’s seaweed eyes snapped from the somnolent DiDi to Maxine, with the same stare.

“Not really. Seems kind of soggy.”

Trixie’s face sagged back to normal. She unclipped a turquoise and silver case from her bikini strap, pulled out a Virginia Slim. From the messy, tendrilly pile of hair on top of her head she fished out a turquoise and silver lighter. “You’re not wrong,” she said. “Your grandma wants you.” She jabbed with the cigarette in the direction of the patio. Then, holding the cigarette in the air, she swam under water back to the shallow end.

Grandma came to the patio door and hollered, “Maxine? DiDi! Chuck! Lunch time!”

DiDi snapped awake and yapped back to the house. Maxine followed.

“There’s a mermaid in the pool.” Maxine tried to say this around a half-chewed wad of baloney and white bread and mayo.

“Don’t be silly. Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

Maxine made an effort and swallowed. “She says the chlorine is low and you should shock it.”

“She’s probably right,” said Grandpa behind his paper. He was allowed to be silly.

“Betty and Carl Mosher want us to look in tomorrow for dinner,” said Grandma. “Their granddaughter is down for a visit. She’s about your age, Maxine.”

“About your age Maxine” meant anything from six to 24 years old, so Maxine didn’t hold out much hope for tomorrow evening.

“That’ll be nice,” said Grandpa.

“Drink your soda and go get on your swimsuit, Maxine,” said Grandma.

Early next morning Maxine was at the pool but Trixie wasn’t there. There were, however, a couple of cigarette butts floating in the water, which Maxine scooped out before Grandpa saw them. Also, the water smelled kind of fishy, but that was Grandpa’s problem. Maxine lolled by the pool and sang “Elevator papa, elevator papa….” The sun filtered through the Florida haze, already sticky. Maxine did not retreat into the air conditioning, which Grandpa kept at 70° because that was comfortable for him. She lolled on a deck chair reading Treasure Island until Grandma called her in for breakfast.

“Go change into that nice sundress I bought you the other day.” Grandma didn’t like Maxine’s favorite outfit, which was cut-offs and a T-shirt, which made Maxine feel cool and grown-up. In her room, Maxine pulled on the sundress, which was printed all over in tropical flowers and made her look like Scooby-Doo’s mystery van. Her hair was hot on the back of her neck so she pulled it up to a messy, tendrilly pile on top of her head. It didn’t look bad. She draped some plastic bead necklaces around the curls and, in lieu of a lighter, stowed a Star Wars figure—Luke Skywalker, in fact—in the center of the mass.

“My, you do look pretty.”

“Do hush, Chuck. She looks like a gypsy. Honey that’s fine to wear for play but you’ll have to take all that out of your hair when we go out. You don’t want people thinking you’re a Mexican.”

Maxine poked around at her scrambled eggs. Grandma hated it when she looked like a Mexican.

DiDi went off like a car alarm at the patio door. Once DiDi got going he wouldn’t shut up until you paid attention, so Maxine got up from the table and scooped him up. Through the sliding door she could just see something green and scaly slipping into the corner of the pool. She put DiDi into his crate, where he continued yipping until she stared into his eyes and sang, “DiDi dee dee deeee deeeeee deeeeeeeeeeeee.” The dog rested his face on his paw, and sighed a surprisingly deep sigh for such an insignificant creature.

Maxine returned to the table and gobbled down the rest of her eggs. Grandpa folded up his paper. “Time to shock the pool.” He took a long pull of coffee.

Maxine whisked her plate to the sink and rinsed it off. “I better skim it first.” She hurried out to the pool.

Trixie was lounging in the shallow end, filing her nails on an augur shell of unusual length. “I had a little dog,” she sang, “his name was Jack. He got his little tail caught in a crack, all from shakin’ that thing…”

“You better make yourself scarce,” said Maxine, “Grandpa’s about to come dump in a bunch of chlorine.”

“It’s all right. He’ll be a while. Dishwasher hose sprung a leak.”

“How do you know?”

Trixie jerked her chin toward the patio.

Maxine went back to the sliding door and saw Grandma and Grandpa stooping sternly over the dishwasher. Grandma noticed Maxine through the glass and pointed at DiDi’s crate, so Maxine went in and let DiDi out onto the patio. “What’s wrong with the dishwasher?” she asked Grandma.

“Hose is leaking.”

Maxine hurried back out to the pool.

“That’ll hold him an hour or two,” said Trixie. “Nice do.” She pointed with her augur shell at Maxine’s hair.

“Grandma says it makes me look Mexican.”

“Maybe….You know what you look like. You look just like a sweet little Carib I used to know, brown as butter….”

“Are you hungry?”

“It’s ok. Some idiot dropped a container of shortbread at the docks last night and we’ve been stuffing ourselves silly.” She stowed the shell in her hair and yawned.

“We?” said Maxine.

“Oh, everyone. Manatees, shad, wahoo…everyone likes it when they slip up at the docks. Those longshoremen ain’t what they used to be though. All machinery these days. Used to be you could just flash your tits at ‘em and they’d drop their own mother. These days they can’t even see you through all that equipment. Might as well be in Kansas.”

“I mean, are there other mermaids around?”

“Not in my territory there better not be.” Trixie’s eyes fired up green and Maxine backed up a pace.

“How big is your territory?”

“Can’t complain. Plenty big accounts. Working on a big lead right now.” Trixie yawned and flipped her tail. “Better go, Gramps wants you.”

Carl and Betty Mosher’s granddaughter was 13, skinny, crooked teeth. She had some kind of sinus issue that made her snort constantly. She spent most of the evening on Snapchat with some equally miserable friends, but she let Maxine flip through her copies of Seventeen magazine, for which Betty Mosher, not realizing that girls don’t look at magazines anymore, had bought a subscription. Every once in a while Claudia would look over Maxine’s shoulder and say, “Ohhh, I love that shirt,” or “that makes her look like a prosssstitute.” Claudia’s mouth lingered over any unsavory word, such as prosssstitute, gonorrheeeeeea, mensssssstrual cramps, and penissssss. But she was someone to talk to. Not unfriendly. When Claudia suggested they try to talk their grandmas in to taking them shopping, Maxine agreed.

Thus, Monday found Maxine and Claudia boarding the Five Points trolley, leaving their grandmothers in the Avalon district and promising to be back precisely at 3pm.

“Look at that tan guy,” hissed Claudia, pointing out the trolley window at a man who had apparently last peeked into a fashion magazine in 1982. “I bet he’s a molessssssster.” Maxine looked carefully to see what a molester looked like.

“Have to be careful, Jacksonville is full of molesssssssters. I thought your Grandpa was a molessssssster at first but it was just because his socks were loose. Mr. Brummer? This biology teacher at my school? He’s the worst molessssssster in the world but no one will fire him because he’s got dirt on everyone on the school board. He molessssssted this girl, Amber Barnes, but she’s such a ssssslut no one will believe her. She’s got titsssss out to here and she wears these teeny tiny shorts with her assssss hanging out but she puts on leggings underneath so she’s not breaking the dress code….”

At Five Points, disgorged from the trolley, the girls played with rainsticks in a head shop. Then they laughed at the vintage vinyl covers in a used record store. Then they ordered complicated, sugary lattes at the coffee shop. Then they wandered into a bead store.

This enchanting enterprise absorbed them for quite a while. Even Claudia forgot to talk about molesssssters as she tried to decide between a long string of sparkly seed beads and a shorter option involving green and white, her school colors. Maxine designed a strand of black and red beads to give to Trixie. While she waited for the sales lady to affix the clasp she wandered over to Claudia, who was sifting through some carved beads of inordinate beauty and expense. Maxine rummaged through the trays.



“So pretty!” Maxine held up a tiny jade koi fish of breathtaking delicacy and beauty. She turned it in her fingers. The light glinted off its exquisite carved scales and fins.

“You should buy it.”

“Can’t. I already spent all my money.”

Maxine put the lovely thing down. Claudia picked it up. Maxine found she did not like to see Claudia’s clammy fingers on it.

The bell on the shop door rang behind them. Fast as a cat, Claudia shoved the koi bead into Maxine’s pocket.


“Shut up dumbass. If you say anything I’ll deny it.”


Maxine nearly wet her pants.

“Miss, your bracelet is ready.” The clerk held out the package. Maxine tried not to let her hands shake as she took it. “Have a nice day,” said the clerk.

“Thank—too—” Claudia hustled her toward the door. They brushed by a tallish woman, the person who had just entered, with hungry green eyes and a mass of salt and pepper hair piled on top of her head, with an augur shell of unusual length stuck in the middle. She winked at Maxine.

“C’mon retard. We’ll be late for the trolley.” Claudia shoved Maxine out the door. The bell jangled like a fire alarm.

All evening the little jade fish rolled around in Maxine’s pocket. She tried to feel guilty about it. Failed. Its mouth formed a perfect fish-kiss “O.”

In the night she got out of bed and snuck down the hall to Grandma’s sewing room. Rummaged until she found a strand of black ribbon. This she threaded through the jade koi and tied around her neck, so that the fish rested on her breastbone. Maxine noticed that her nipples appeared to be pooching out a bit. Tits. That’s all she needed.

“That Claudia sure is a poisonous little eel. Dumb, too. There was a security camera right on top of you two the whole time.” Trixie finished winding the black and red beads into her hair, dove down into the pool, and came up with an antique hand mirror of exactly the type one would expect a mermaid to have. She studied the effect of the beads. “Not bad. Kinda hotch-tcha-tcha, you know? But you,” she left off, dumping the mirror in the water and letting it sink, “you know it only takes one phone call to get you into juvvie. Do you realize the position you’re in?”

“But I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“You still got the hot fish, don’t you?”

Maxine touched the lump between her nubbins.

“You know they don’t switch those tapes until Wednesday,” said Trixie.

Sometimes Trixie was just as bad as Grandma.

“What’s wrong, don’t want to go to juvvie?” Trixie flipped onto her back and did a couple laps around the pool, singing “I had a little dog, his name was Jack….”

Maxine felt that she did not want to go to juvvie.

“Yeah you’ll never survive there. You’re too much of a girl scout. Too bad someone can’t do something about that….” Trixie lit a Virginia Slim. She made the frown that smokers make when they light up.

“How did you get there?”


“To the bead store?”

“Oh well you know, I can always make it work when I gotta friend who’s in trouble.”

“But how did you get legs?”

“You know I’m very generous when I have a true friend. I’ve gotten people off of worse raps than shoplifting. You know I could sense that you were in a spot yesterday…” Trixie shoved off the side of the pool and did some kind of twirl in the water, holding the cigarette out of the water the whole time. Maxine found that she couldn’t remember. Had Trixie entered the store before or after Claudia stuck the bead in her pocket? Again Trixie was in front of Maxine. Her algae eyes burning. “I can sense you’re in quite a spot today,” she hissed. “One phone call. From someone who knows. They get a phone call, they review the tape, and Maxine Price is on the hook for shoplifting.”

It was 92° in Jacksonville that morning, and muggy A.F. Maxine’s arms broke out in goosebumps.

“Why…” Maxine found her voice wasn’t working properly.

“I need a favor.”

“You…you hungry?”

“Yeah. I’m hungry. I need a favor.”

“What favor?”

“Let DiDi out of the house after dark.”

“Are you kidding? He’ll get et up by an alligator!”

“Possibly.” Trixie’s eyes half lidded. She rubbed her fingers across her lips. “He might possibly get et. He might get gobbled down like a sweet little suckling pig.”

Maxine backed away.

“Used to be a lot easier, you know. Every whaling ship and merchant clipper had a goat or some chickens but these days it’s all prepackaged, frozen patties and canned soup. You ever tried to eat canned soup when you’re swimming in open water? It’s a hungry life out there, krill krill and more krill, lucky if someone drops a saltine overboard…” Trixie was talking to herself by this point because Maxine had backed to the patio and was still backing. Just before Maxine backed around the corner to the sliding door, Trixie refocused her green gaze. “One phone call!” she growled. “You’re goddamn right I’m hungry. I’m hungry A.F.”

That night was Tuesday. Irene Price seemed more than usually hard of hearing. “Don’sha like it in Florda?” she kept saying. “Mebby like to shtay wishyer Gramma n Granpa?”

“You got a new boyfriend, Mom?”


“Why can’t I stay with Dad?”

“Maxine!” rebuked Grandma. In Grandma’s opinion, the only thing worse than looking Mexican was asking to stay with Maxine’s dad, whose ancestors had lived in Texas before the advent of the conquistadores. Maxine didn’t know him that well but he seemed nice enough. Better than old people with a mermaid in their pool.

“Mom what’s juvvie?”


“Who’s been talking to you about juvvie, child?” said Grandma.

“Um, Claudia.”

“Claudia would,” snorted Grandma “I don’t think that child is very nice.”

“Juffie?” said Irene. “It’s like jail for kids. You goin to juffie? Whadya do, try to sell some oregano?”



In the night Maxine snuck out of bed to the crate where DiDi slept. DiDi woke and snuffled at her, but Maxine sang “DiDi dee dee deeee deeeeee deeeeeeeeeeeee” and he shut up. He was a revolting little creature, smelly, loud, with a brain too little to do anything but vibrate. He trusted her.

Maxine made herself stop thinking about DiDi trusting her. She eased the crate open and went to the patio door. The moon shone on the sparkles in the concrete. Out of the corner of her eye she saw something that might be a splash at the corner of the pool. Maxine unbolted the patio door. Lifted up as she slid open the glass, to keep it from squeaking. DiDi stood at the screen door, silent. Not yapping at all. She opened the screen. Closed her eyes.

Sarah E. Ruhlen’s poetry has appeared in Slipstream, RHINO, I-70 Review, Coal City Review, Skidrow Penthouse, and the Kansas City Star, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her creative nonfiction recently appeared in Hobart and Essay Daily’s June 21, 2018 project. She lives and writes in Camillus, NY.