Megan Neville is a writer and educator based in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Rust Belt Love Song (Game Over Books, 2019), and her work has been published by or is forthcoming in The Academy of American Poets (Poets.org), Cherry Tree, Cream City Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Longleaf Review, Lunch Ticket, Jelly Bucket, and elsewhere. She is a poetry reader for Split Lip Magazine, and was a finalist in Write Bloody’s 2019 book contest. Find her on Twitter @MegNev.
John Manuel Arias
Roseanna Alice Boswell
Jose Hernandez Diaz
Kelly Grace Thomas
Stephanie Athena Valente
My work explores a universal analysis of human migration. When investigating the displacement of people, I look at the environmental and socio/political impact. I research the imagery that appears in American media and the negative influence that can derive from it. When addressing these issues, often these images contain an inherent bias such as dehumanizing immigrants and reinforcing stereotypes.
As a way to highlight these negative undertones, the process of drawing and painting become key. In my work I use vivid colors as mechanisms for examining cause/effect and to underscore the complexity of these topics.
Eliana Miranda is a native Texan who lives and makes paintings in Dallas. In 2010, she completed her BA from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Miranda’s BA thesis exhibition awarded her the J. Barney Moore Prize and the Emily and Alfred Bohn Prize in Studio Art. She obtained her MA in 2012 and an MFA in 2015 from the University of Dallas. Currently she is a resident at the Goldmark Cultural Center where she is an artist and a curator for the John H. Milde Gallery and the Norman Brown Gallery.
TRIPLE SONNET AND THREE CHEERS OF WHITE RUSSIANS
ordered a White Russian, and my date’s
waiting for me with his pitcher of beer,
and what was I thinking, ordering a drink
with cream in it, but at least it’s not milk,
when the wife asks me to recite a poem—
“Just a line,” she says. “I want to hear
your voice more,” as she calls her husband
to come over, and I forget about my date,
wondering if these people are looking to make
their celebrity fantasy come true, quenching
their desires for an Asian baby, only I’m not
a baby anymore, despite what some men
I behave myself way too much, and I wonder if
the three of us are actually starring in a play
of three acts: in Act I, my character meets them
at a bar, and the wife character says she wants
to adopt me, but the audience knows, and I know
what this woman and her husband really want
isn’t an adoption, but a three-way encounter, and
hello, that’s the beauty of theater: the truth always
comes out. And question: is it considered Oedipal
or Elektra if you bang someone who is playing
your parent? I’m asking for a friend, really, since
I can’t say I’d do it, because I’m not anyone’s
fetish, and look, I get it. I hate clothes, and I might
mini skirt, and I love the video of the drag queen
getting a bib in the mail, saying she’ll bedazzle it,
rhinestoning it all over, and that would solve
at least two of my problems, and I’m drinking
a cocktail with cream in it, but at least it’s not
milk, sitting atop a pool table, spreading my legs
just a little, but not too much, reminding me of
time the Russian architect offered to buy me bulk
candy if I watched a German film with him, and
no boy, no, don’t you dare try to buy me, and deep
down, I’m really such a good girl, and in this three-
act play, I end up leaving the couple at the bar, alone
with their fantasies, return to my date—chug his beer.
TRIPLE SONNET FOR CHARGING ADMISSION
because my dress keeps riding up during
a performance, and that’s what I call art.
That’s what I call power. That’s what I call
walking into the room in the nude, and Alexa,
play something that takes me to the pink section
of the nail salon, also known as Yena’s favorites,
also known as the pink pussy section—orgasm
on the cheeks in the greatest shade of all time,
and thanks to you and you, and of course, you,
and aren’t fingers the most delicate feature on
a woman, other than the collar bone, and I love it
when celebutantes are asked what their favorite
body part is, and they all point to their collar bone,
and brush on some highlighter there, ladies.
I love nuance, like a whiff of coconut milk cream,
also known as not giving it all away. But baby,
if you want to give it all away, I won’t blame you.
I won’t blame you if you want to march into the room,
skirt riding up, feeding ice cream to an audience
member, and save a little for me, why don’t you.
And I love nuance, or how in Art History 200,
we’re taught to study the way artists painted
the hands of their muses, or in the words
of a boyband, Do you want to hold her hand?
Does she come alive out of the canvas?
And I think of Raphael’s La Fornarina:
over her breasts, and oh, that smirk, and oh,
that look into the camera. My heart pounds
for her, and I think wow, she really knew what
was going on, didn’t she, Raphael’s name on fabric
over her arm, and I heard he was the dreamiest
Renaissance man, marking his paintings with
one look into the audience, because in the words
of today, having a camera around makes life
just a little more worth living, which is a wise
saying by a wise woman. And Rita says I need
to charge admission, because my dress
keeps riding up during a reading, and all
I have to say is buy a ticket. Baby, I own it. I own you.
TRIPLE SONNET FOR LOSING MY VIRGINITY AGAIN
in Singapore when I’m in a deep sleep
on a queen bed with fluffed pillows
and white sheets—Good night, Dorothy.
And sometimes in life, I feel like a virgin,
because my ears aren’t pierced, no tattoos—
aren’t I such a nice girl for you to take home
to Mommy? Let me bake cookies for her,
messing up in pigtails and a frilly apron
in the kitchen, while the intercom yells,
Baking is a science, or some other gibberish
I don’t care for—I’m such a nice, wholesome
girl licking the batter, and cookie dough’s
the best topping for brownies and ice cream,
exposing my butt cheeks, straight out of your
pornographic memory, straight out of a home
video—press play, lick my cake, press play,
lick my cake—go ahead and lick whipped cream
off my nipples, off my chest, and I dream
of losing my virginity again in deep sleep
in Singapore, but now I’m transported to
an office, sitting on an office chair, answering
office emails, and an office man opens the door,
and he’s got the same face as a man I knew
from college. I get up, stroke his hair, tell him
to sit down, and I want him to enter me, oh
so badly, and he enters me right then and there
aside, and I moan in pain, I moan in pleasure,
but isn’t that so cliché, reading like romance
novels, or remember in the early 2000s
modeling competitions when girls faced off
with looks serving Harlequin covers—look,
she’s a milkmaid and he’s a farmhand. Look,
she’s a poor girl and he’s from the upper crust,
and back in the office, I moan more, then wake
in Singapore on a white bed with fluffed pillows,
and I feel pain. I feel like I’m bleeding, only
there’s no blood. I think about my double loss
of stupidity and how no pain will ever top
the pain I feel right now as I’m awakened again.
Dorothy Chan is the author of Chinese Girl Strikes Back (Spork Press, forthcoming), Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, 2019), Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018), and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She was a 2020 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in Bisexual Poetry for Revenge of the Asian Woman, a 2019 recipient of the Philip Freund Prize in Creative Writing from Cornell University, and a 2014 finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. Her work has appeared in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Academy of American Poets, and elsewhere. Chan is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Poetry Editor of Hobart.
Today my gut is squashed-blackberry rotting on sidewalk.
I want to say purple or spilled but I keep swallowing Bruise.
And perhaps it is indigestion or constipated grief
But it has valleyed into sour harvest and, besides the hedging,
I am not doing a damn thing to clean up this rot.
Today I am reaping valor in futuring my own decay.
I like to believe that I am mothering it, this decay.
That I found it, abandoned, on some dingy sidewalk,
That I didn’t have the heart to leave it laying in the rot,
That I chose it, it chose me, and I brought it home, this bruise.
I am swaddling it and feeding it ripe cherries and hedging
A fence around its heart so it doesn’t fossilize to grief.
The OED marks obsolete all meanings of the word grief.
Suggesting: for lack of evidence the word is in decay.
To say that this very morning, as I found myself hedging
against the bile come up my throat directly onto sidewalk,
apologizing to strangers for spilling my invisible bruise,
Grief seemed to be the only way to language this rot?
It is known that radiation turns poisonous when it starts to rot.
Say when they first drop the bombs: it is grief,
When your children play in its snowfall: a bruise,
When you give birth to a grape or an octopus: decay.
I don’t know where to begin cleaning up: soiled sidewalk
in a body fissuring to waste beside immaculate hedging.
For this reason, I must begin with the hedge.
It stands so prepared, dressed so well, to witness my rot.
So confidently a part of and apart from this sidewalk.
Under it, too, lay vines smothered in grief.
Yet, it sits on its florid, nauseating throne of decay,
And I stutter apologies around my lacerated bruise.
I want to say purple or spilled and I keep swallowing bruise
Because I am trying to say it’s in the hedging:
In it soured the greed and apathy. It is decay
that they seed the poison, the bombs, the rot
then leave it all outside and abandon grief.
All you are left with is uninhabitable sidewalk.
So I am staying with decay and excavating the bruise,
I am hacking at both sidewalk and hedging,
And I am calling it rot but I mean: Grief. Grief. Grief.
LET’S SAY THAT UNKINDNESS, TOO,
Let’s say that unkindness, too,
can wear the look of care.
Say one in the hand, is
worth two in the bush.
In these cherry-stained grasslands,
sincerity makes heady promises.
In rage I lemon-ball your eye,
find: an emerald glacier in pre-melt rest.
Say, hospitality looks different house by house,
house by house, I lose my grounding.
In the yellow one, all the tables are too tall;
my elbows a little skinned after dinner.
In the blue one time passes so quickly
I am always at angles with the furniture.
This year, everything lays within measure.
The whole house rolled out foot by foot.
I enter the room, piles of folded clothes
line the floor. Say, this too is
An unkindness. On an August night,
with all the loves of my life
stoking a makeshift campfire,
I no longer thirst for gardenias.
I peel the floorboards, find marigolds
shrining a pilgrimage of ant-hills.
Despite basal tears over tonsured hair,
I now write of the Hawthorne
Docks in a baptismal way. Say, unkindness dissolves
into kindness in the image of Home.
House by house, I dander into couches and
fall to the skin of so many cabinets.
Nanya Jhingran is a poet, scholar & community organizer from Lucknow, India currently living in Seattle, WA. Her work has appeared in Cathexis Northwest Press and is forthcoming in The Crossing and TRACK//FOUR. She holds an MA in Literature from the University of Washington-Seattle where she is now working on her PhD. When not reading books or writing poems, she is found cooking large meals for friends and chasing her cat, Masala, around the house. Twitter: @nanya_biznes
alone like a cabin gutted by fire
until naught but black bones
stand scorched. Ribs of a roof
that used to shelter shed soot
like the antithesis of snow
when the wind blows through.
The kudzu that consumes so much
of the state wraps itself around
the rafters, crawls through
the empty sockets left in the wake
of windows broken by the kids
that explore sites like this as
a sort of rite. But this is not
a haunted place; rather, what’s left
after the ghosts go home. Imagine it
in an auburn hour in late autumn,
when the groundcover crackles
with each step through a litter
of rusted leaves and the air’s gone
dry as a husk. It’s a form of grief,
to stay upright in a state like this.
The want is for those invasive vines
to strangle you back into the earth,
to become corpse covered, in time,
by a small copse of black tupelo
surrounded by red oak. The want is
for all the leaves that died bright
but brittle in their burning to be
rattled loose by the fall winds.
Zackary Medlin is the winner of the Nancy D. Hargrove Editor’s Choice Prize, the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry, and a recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Award. He holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Utah. His recent work can be found in The Cincinnati Review, Jabberwock Review, Cutbank, and Colorado Review.
after Terrance Hayes
I come from a long line of code-switching enunciations
Gualmar, Cosco, Estánfor, & Piksa Hoot all in my neighborhood
& matter of fact everyone I know works there. I was once asked
to report anything “suspicious” as I drove by a kids toy motorcycle
straddling highway dividers that made me question illicit definitions.
I’m from “hijos de su chingada madre” straight out the
hocico of mi chingada madre. Phrases as sacred, aftermath not
calculated till A+’s in algebra & English teacher scolded parents
nuisance & unfocused & illiterate & diction deficient
“hijo qué dijo tu maestra” y “nada, no te preocupes” translating signs
from English to Spanish soon as I learned to breathe. CA my home
they say it’s empathy’s fault that causes these quakes. I took cover
when the 4.3 hit, sister shouting to stop shaking her bed. My ancestors
whispered in my ear to unfinish degrees advised otherwise, true to
blood that circulates through these frijolero veins. I’ve been asked:
What the 5 fingers say to the face? What the fajo say to the nalgas?
What the chubby boy say to esteem? Self-doubt express the only way
I know home. I’m from a technicality, youngest in my family
miscarried unmet sister would have beared a beautiful
first communion dress, instead it was me. My search history reeks
of fermented agave & missing employee names + obituary. South City
& Zapopan raised me. Dutch crunch sandwiches & tortas ahogadas
would test positive in my curly hair, if my culture was considered
a drug; a threat. Which it is. I come blessed like the
15 Virgen de Guadalupes found in my home. They say I never stay
put & yet laid me in a crib. When the morning came I was out
the door crawling, walking, running
& I haven’t stopped since.
Kevin Madrigal is a decolonizer of food, art, and health. He is a Chicano first-generation child of inmigrantes Mexicanos from Sur San Francisco. In 2016, he founded Farming Hope in San Francisco to provide employment opportunities in food for folks experiencing homelessness. Through his writing he hopes to honor his ancestors and work towards a better future within his community. He is working on a collection of poems about anxiety and promoting positive mental behaviors through acknowledging, identifying, and countering disruptive thoughts. In his free time, you can find him listening to hip-hop / rap and on the dance floor with friends.
FOR MY SON WHO ASKS WHY
Maybe we only get to be a mother once
and the rest is repetition I keep thinking
I’ll get another chance at the garden
to glow slick with some stamen to honey
and honey this womb Have you seen the
conifer twirled in winter this is the gentle
with which I would shimmer if I could
double and brew but puff puff pass out
is hardly a bedtime story even if the dragon
is delicate not gory even if the sirens
shed their sex dredged sweat and invite
you to tarry who is to say I deserve two
I never thought of semen as another kind
of dreaming but lately it has the same
oracle bright shade crystal balls emanate
and if I could just gather in its gloss
muck my ovaries and toss in its wake then
what then I could fan out: so many blades
Alexa Doran is the author of the chapbook Nightsink, Faucet Me a Lullaby (Bottlecap Press 2019), and is currently a PhD candidate at Florida State University. Her series of poems about the women of Dada, “The Octopus Breath on Her Neck,” was recently released as part of Oxidant/Engine’s BoxSet Series Vol 2. You can also look for work from Doran in recent or upcoming issues of Passages North, Salamander, Pithead Chapel and Harvard Review, among others.
BALIKBAYAN FOR MY STEP-SISTER FOR THE FIRST & ONLY TIME WE MET
Sorry I made you cry. I was crying, too, at
your door in your crying father’s arms. I
didn’t know you’d be there. I was yelling
when I hung up on pops last. A weaker conn-
ection. A crack in a golden Beamer’s wind-
shield. A hairline. Then all at once black &
yellow static slid into the astonished gap
between his lips. Not a word since. What else
have I been silent about? To whom? I have to
say: I love you. It’s almost impossible to be-
lieve. My son is your age; my youngest, your
sister’s. In my bed they still sleep, so some
nights when I rise, it’s from your dreams.
Dujie Tahat is a Filipino-Jordanian immigrant living in Washington state. He is the author of Here I Am O My God, selected by Fady Joudah for a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship, and SALAT, selected by Cornelius Eady as winner of the Tupelo Press Sunken Garden Chapbook Award. Their poems have been published or are forthcoming in POETRY, Sugar House Review, ZYZZVA, Southern Indiana Review, and elsewhere. Dujie has earned fellowships from Hugo House, Jack Straw Writing Program, and the Poetry Foundation, as well as a work-study scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. They cohost The Poet Salon podcast.
RESTRICTION IS THE NAME I GIVE THE MOUTH I
WANT TO OPEN
When we cannot sleep
it is as if the sky chokes
the room. Outside shifts.
The only place soft enough
to palm is a bombless field.
In the after, no after, no—
On the radio, static. Outside,
a photographer learning
what her hands might make.
Night tears itself like a cloud.
Daybreak: soft, forgettable,
the only hiding spot they’ll
never find, a room for
undress. Tragic, really:
the rehearsed pageant of day
in the city street, the hands,
what they forage. I get lost
in the squall. A bombless
field. The photographer
learning to form, to function:
the lie of a photograph
heavy in what it holds outside
its frame. When we cannot
sleep it is as if our
nightmouths shut, refusing
to open until light.
In this it resembles the old money:
America, some expired red
bank card, empty in its gold hoard.
I never signed the back. All the new
thinking is about money and how
to reach it and I read a study called
THE ORIGINS OF CREATIVITY
about successful artists who come
from wealth. To come from wealth:
like we are hatched from the dollar’s
crisp breast as children of this dark
machine. This argument is elegy
to what it signifies. I fight
with my friends over beers about
stipends and waivers so we can
survive in graduate school, in the
heat of professional development
and expert exploitation. We want
to be rich because plane rides
cost money. We are love animals
and distance is the unit that feeds us.
We talk like we know what’s coming
next, we recite blackberry blackberry—
On a Sunday in New Mexico,
I retrieve some old money
from a drawer to do laundry.
It is hot and dry. While I wait
for vacancy, I talk to J
on the phone about ethical
consumption and its impossibility
in this delirious state of buy.
We get naked like it’s our job.
I say to the street-side lamp, expose
me, like I would to a lover.
The washer is in use, cycles.
I keep an eye on my clothes
because my new neighbors have
a tendency to browse like magpies.
I tell J all relationships are
about loss and in this they resemble
the departing flight, the long goodbye.
It is always about loss prevention
while the machine hums like
a woodpecker in its rhythms.
Caroline Chavatel is the author of White Noises (GreenTower Press, 2019), which won The Laurel Review’s 2018 Midwest Chapbook Contest. Her work has appeared in Sixth Finch, AGNI, Poetry Northwest, Gulf Coast, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, and The Journal, among others. She is editor and co-founder of both Madhouse Press and The Shore and is currently a PhD student at Georgia State University.
BARBIE DEATH STAR
Sometimes Joan thinks she sees her daughter Shannon–just a flash of her as the light shifts through the sheer curtains. Sometimes the feeling almost seems to solidify beside her on the couch or behind her elbow, as she butters toast in the kitchen–just waiting to snatch one of the pieces from Joan’s plate. “Get your own!” Joan had snapped last week, and when she realized she was talking to the shadows from the clouds drifting over the skylight, she felt it all over again. It was a little like banging a toe into a sharp corner. She can’t get into the habit of being alone. Her body isn’t attuned to it yet.
Joan writes the addresses of promising sales in a neat column. Because she is left-handed, she crabs her fingers around her sentences, as if protecting her words. Sheltering them. She rinses her coffee mug and leaves it in the sink. Laces up Shannon’s Converse All Stars. They are white, and covered with lettering in blue inkpen. Also, there is a phone number scrawled across the tongue. “Buy tampons!” is written on the rubber strip by the toe. Joan wonders if Shannon really needed the tampons, or if it was a line of subversive feminist poetry.
She takes an empty storage tote from the stack in the garage, and puts it into the back of the minivan. One tote-full of Barbie dolls, packed well. Then her weekend mission will be complete. Barbies in any condition are fine. Any iteration of Barbie in any state of dress or undress. Bald or braided or stippled with the tiny pockmarks of cat teeth–it doesn’t matter. Sometimes, it takes her a day. Sometimes, all weekend and into the next week, making it necessary to scour eBay and place ads on the internet. Joan likes to get clever with the ads. “Desperately seeking Barbie . . .”
Barbie should be stacked like wood–face pressed against tiny pointed feet. Layer one–bosoms up. Layer two–bosoms down. And so on. It’s slow going. Spring cleaning is over. Summer vacation cash grab, over. Now, it’s people with pill habits. They’ve already picked the attics and basements clean of anything worthwhile. Then, the tool sheds and garages. Now, they’re desperate: Frayed sweaters, mismatched dishes, formula-stained baby clothes, Christian devotionals with handwritten supplications and dogged underlinings. By four o’clock, Joan has only two full rows, and barely more than half of the third.
She’s tired. A sad day without the gleeful texts from Shannon with pictures of her newly captured plunder. A sad day, with the cagey eyes of old women following her movements as she picks up vases and melamine bowls, and sets them back down. “I’m looking for Barbie,” she phrases her statement as a question, to which all but a few shake their heads. “No. No Barbie.” They’d had boys, or their girls had grown up years ago, or they didn’t believe in Barbie, as one woman told her. Didn’t believe in Barbie?
Back at home, Joan pulls the staircase down to Shannon’s workroom over the garage. It’s getting colder out. This is the time of year when the electric goes way up because of the space heater Shannon lavishly employs. Employed. The quick, sharp realization stabs at Joan, but she moves through it. Breathes through it. She hasn’t been up here since before. Her studio, she’d called it.
Joan sets the tote of Barbies at the top of the stairs and turns the worklight on. The old dining room table is pushed against the wall. There are apothecary jars full of barbie parts for easy access. One has hands. One has heads. Another is filled with tiny plastic high-heeled shoes. So delicate, Barbie’s forced arch. Joan dips her fingers into the jar of hands. They move around choppily, stabbing into her skin. “Deceptively strong,” Joan says to herself. She feels like Shannon is watching her. Approving of her comment.
She walks around the space in a slow circle. Shannon had been an art teacher at a small private school. She had an MFA from an expensive college. Her father had refused to pay for it, but she’d been able to get some sort of funding. Joan didn’t understand it. For her final project, she’d made a large, puffy chaise lounge in the shape of a vagina. She’d said it was her “shesis.” This same chaise lounge was set under the dormers and backlit by pink fairy lights. Joan switches them on. The chaise beckons to her.
She toes off Shannon’s Converse and sits on the chaise. She jumps a little as the soft flaps form themselves around her like a warm hug. There’s some kind of gel-like foam in it. It conforms to Joan. She settles her head back, but jerks it away as she realizes that the pillow is a plump, pink clitoris. Laughing, she snuggles down deep. The lights sparkle around her.
When she wakes, full dark has fallen. Joan thrashes about to escape the vagina and sets her feet against the cold floorboards. Rubbing her face, she slips the shoes back on. She delays the trip downstairs to eat her solitary supper. Walking around the room, she tries to see Shannon’s projects with a new perspective. Art. She had avoided calling it art before. It seemed like an insult to the paintings in museums–lifeless and static–placed against white walls, needing the silent breath and echoing footsteps of false reverence. Shannon’s art is quite different.
Joan is surprised at the religiosity of the pieces. Each one, made entirely from Barbie dolls. Joan sees a large crucifix, maybe six feet tall, made of tiny Barbie hands, as if supporting the tortured form of Christ. He is affixed to the apparatus with Barbie’s earrings, bright drops of nail polish blood spiral down his tortured form. His arms are made from Barbie arms, corded muscles are suggested by the mass of glued appendages. Some darker. Some lighter. Joan reaches out to touch him. His legs are made of legs. His feet are made of feet, overlapping like fish scales. He’s a stocky Jesus, not serpentine or elongated. He looks more peasantlike, this thick Jesus. He has a low center of gravity. His face, a distorted cubist sculpture. The smooth, plastic Barbie flesh is removed of its overt sexualization, and become something else. Joan doesn’t understand.
There is something blue in the corner. Joan snorts a little because she knows what it is. Last Christmas, someone had stolen the Mary figure from the light-up nativity set at the Nazarene church. Mary is big. Four and a half feet tall. Joan wonders how she missed her. There had been quite a scandal, and Joan can’t believe that she’s even surprised that it was Shannon who had taken her. Who else? Kids, the police had speculated, in the pages of the small weekly newspaper. Joan sighs. “I should have known,” she says softly. She thinks for a second that she can hear Shannon laughing.
Now Joan must go downstairs and illuminate the darkened, empty house. She has a freezer-full of casseroles from the funeral, but she is tired of starchy, heavy food. There is a broccoli salad in the fridge that she made this morning. She wants to watch the news while she eats it. The voices make her feel less alone.
Dragging Mary out of the corner, Joan notices a stack of her best Tupperware stacked under the eaves. She’d asked Shannon if she knew what had happened to that Tupperware, and Shannon had looked her right, straight in her face and told her she didn’t know. Everything with Shannon had to be a fight. She’d taken up so much energy, not caring that Joan worried relentlessly about her.
When Murphy came to the door that night, what was it? Two months ago? Already? He’d taken off his police hat, and was holding it in his large hands. She’d known it was Shannon.
“What is it, Murph,” she’d asked him.
He did not answer immediately, and she did not invite him inside although he was her friend and had been there many times. Instead of pressing him–instead of letting the urgency within her swarm around the both of them–she leaned against the doorframe and cherished that small sweet space between knowing and not knowing.
Meghan had promised Joan that she wasn’t going out to work on her guerrilla art installments, as she called them. She said she was only going out with friends that evening, but she’d fallen off the old stone railway bridge just south of town where she’d been suspending a creation made entirely of Barbie heads. They’d been attached to lengths of fishing line, an undulation of Barbie heads meant to sway in the wake of cars driving through the tunnel.
The installation had been successfully affixed to one end of the tunnel and fed through to be attached at the other end. Twelve feet by four. Joan had done the math. There were twelve hundred Barbie heads in the installation, their hair braided together in a tattered net. Shannon’s head had broken against the road when she fell, the blacktop perhaps still releasing exhausted waves of late August heat. All but one corner of the Barbie net was attached. A pertly macabre carpet of upturned Barbie faces witnessing the death of her only child.
Shannon would see it as romantic, dying for her art. Dying, perhaps, in a silly way. Yes, Shannon would have put her hands on her knees and dissolved into peals of giggles. She looked like an elf–lithe and little, her features often contorted with the dime-flash contrast of mirth and anger.
Joan goes downstairs, dragging Mary with her, the plastic from thunking emptily on each step. The Nazarenes had been so righteously outraged over the theft, but there wasn’t much to her anyway. A plastic, light-up Mary? Cheap and tacky. Joan’s fingers follow the placid, plastic contours of Mary’s face. She wishes Shannon had stolen a more substantial product, like maybe from the Catholics. They had a lovely nativity, hand-carved and painted in Italy.
Joan puts Mary in the corner of her bedroom, then she gets the broccoli salad from the fridge. The directions say to leave it overnight, to allow the bacon and onion flavors to meld together, but Joan will eat it now. She turns the news on. Someone has set fire to the odd concrete house on the outskirts of town. A giant fantastical concrete orb, constructed in the 70s and meant to withstand any number of natural disasters, yet it had succumbed to fire. The rubbish inside had collapsed and had likely fueled the fire until it fissured the concrete, causing it to crumble.
Nobody had ever lived in the house. It had sat there for generations; bait for horny teenagers and You-Tubers until one group or the other had likely tossed a still glowing cigarette into the sphere. There is footage before the collapse, flames leaping out of the windows. It was a gorgeous image. Shannon would have been delighted.
The orb had stood by the side of the highway for most of Joan’s life. She remembers when it was clean and new, and people expected that it would one day be finished. By the time Shannon was born, hopes of its completion had been long since given up. The owners had tried and failed to sell it many times. The windows had been broken, the doors smashed. Brush grew up around it, prickled and scraggly. Now Shannon is gone, and so is that damn house. It seems wrong to Joan, maybe because each–in their own unlikely way–should have been indestructible.
Joan turns off the television. She doesn’t mind as much, watching the current events that take place elsewhere. She feels insulated, if not by privilege, at least by geographic removal. But this, this house. This landmark. She can’t. So she takes the broccoli salad and goes back up to Shannon’s studio. She sits at the work table and forks the broccoli into her mouth while she turns the pages of Shannon’s sketchbook.
She sees the plans for the Barbie crucifix. Sees that it is meant to be suspended somewhere. But where? She sees a plan for a Last Supper diorama, made all of barbie parts. Blasphemous. Joan shakes her head. The crucifix doesn’t bother her like this does. Maybe it’s because she’s seen the crucifix. It’s real to her. She catches her breath. Here is the drawing of the heads attached to the fishing line.
Joan turns the page quickly. Takes another bite, and tries to swallow the bloom of grief rising up her neck. There is a drawing of a rounded scaffold of barbie limbs, interlocking in a chain design. It rises up and up like a spiral with appendages randomly jutting off of it. This one is in color. Shannon’s notes specify that melted crayons are to be dribbled over the structure. It is quite lovely. It reminds Joan of birds, drifting on air currents. Shannon’s attention to detail really was superb. She had talent, Joan acknowledges. She’d often wished Shannon would use it for something less creepy and weird. There are no heads in this design. Joan supposes that the heads had been used already in the installation that had killed Shannon. These were the leftover parts.
Joan opens one of the large totes under the table. Legs. In another one, she finds arms. Taking a generous handful of each, she begins to wire them together bending them into a gentle coil as the chain grows. She feels sloppy and awkward. The whole thing slips apart. She needs glue. She begins again. By the time she is done, she has one loop of Barbie limbs the size of a hula hoop. She imagines Shannon surveying her progress, hands on slim hips.
“You never even cared about my work before,” she says.
“I spent every weekend looking for these damn things for you,” answers Joan. “I still do.”
But Joan knows that invisible Shannon is right. She only went Barbie hunting to humor Shannon, and because it was a way to spend the weekend connected to her daughter, however tenuously.
“What’s with all the Catholic stuff?” Joan asks.
“Catholicism is like herpes,” Shannon grins. “You can’t get rid of it, and sometimes, it festers.”
Joan rolls her eyes. Even in her imagination, Shannon is a blasphemous smartass. But she does wonder about the religious nature of the work. She’d given her a biography of Dorothy Day shortly before she died, hoping that Day’s subversive, radical brand of Catholicism might bring Shannon back around. She remembers being flattered that Shannon had taken Joan as her confirmation name, but she’d told her mother that it was because Joan of Arc was a cross-dresser, and obviously gay.
Joan is somehow transformed by the work in Shannon’s studio. She stays in, day after day, gluing and wiring and bending. Talking to Shannon. She eats all the food in the house. The broccoli salad. The rest of the frozen funeral casseroles, starting to get frostbitten, but still hearty. She runs out of toilet paper and uses Kleenex. Runs out of Kleenex and uses paper napkins. She runs out of food and eats the rest of the Halloween candy from last year.
The project has begun to resemble the sketch in Shannon’s book.
“Not bad,” says Shannon. “Did you eat my candy?”
Joan’s hair is auburn, once vivid as autumn but now faded into pink, like milk stirred into tomato soup. It clumps against her head, unwashed. The seat of her sweatpants is saggy. She vacates the studio space only for her bed with the sheets gone sour, and the protection of her Mother Mary with her forty-watt circle of yellow light. After a month of this–or maybe longer–Murphy starts to knock on the door. Joan doesn’t answer. He leaves a bucket of chicken one day. She kneels on the tiled floor of the entry and eats it in large bites, pulling clean bones from her mouth with greasy fingers.
The third time Murphy comes, he doesn’t leave. He sits in the bentwood rocker on the covered front porch. Joan sees him through the sidelights of the front door. The rocker–which was intended to be ornamental–sags under his weight. His plaid shirt is fastened over the curve of his belly, the buttons almost straining apart, but not quite. Joan ignores him. He reaches into a shopping bag and pulls out a covered dish. Joan is hungry. The chicken was how long ago? Two days? A week?
Joan opens the door. Murphy sets the casserole on the entry table and takes Joan by the hand. He leads her into the master bathroom and kneels by the tub. Opens the taps and stirs the water with his arm. Then he takes one of the good towels off the bar. It is only for decoration. It is stiff with sizing and embroidered with glossy thread. He places the towel gently in Joan’s hands. He closes the door behind him, but Joan opens it. Now that he is here, she can’t be alone. He turns his back while she removes her clothes and steps into the tub. She tucks her knees under her chin and rests her head on them. Murphy washes her back. She cries.
After dressing, Joan eats. Murphy has brought shepherd’s pie, his own recipe in which every usual ingredient of shepherd’s pie has been replaced with something Murphy likes better. Instead of peas and carrots, there is buttered corn. Instead of mashed potatoes there is a layer of cheese-infused tater tots. He also has brought Miller Lite and after one, Joan’s head is buzzing. She hasn’t drank since the glass of wine she had that night, right before Murphy came to the door to tell her about Shannon. They don’t speak much.
“So, did Shannon take that Mary from the Nazarenes?”
“I like her. She helps me sleep,” says Joan. “I’m finishing her work.”
Murphy follows her up to the studio. He laughs when he sees the vagina couch. Joan tells him it’s comfortable and invites him to try it out.
“Did you see about the round house?” he asks her. “I always loved that thing.”
“Murphy,” Joan says. “Will you help me?”
Murphy has been a cop for twenty years, and still works the second shift. In the morning, he comes to Joan’s house and helps her. He brings donuts and bottles of Bailey’s and 64-ct. boxes of Crayola crayons, the kind with the sharpener built in.
“They have boxes now with 152 crayons,” says Murphy. “It’s excessive. I think that’s the problem with the millenials.”
“Their problem is they have too many crayons?” Joan says.
“No. It’s more that they have too many choices, but they don’t lead anywhere, maybe. I think it stresses them out. They worry too much if they’ll make the right one,” says Murphy. “I’d tell them not to worry so much, you know? If I had kids, I wouldn’t let them worry. It’s all so arbirtrary.”
“Yeah,” says Joan. “Hold this.” She hands him a butane culinary torch, and rips open a fresh pack of Crayolas.
“As far as I’m concerned, anything more than the 64-pack is just vulgar. How many colors can our eyes even see? This isn’t Heaven,” she says. “It’s like the grocery store. The last time I went, I tried to buy toothpaste but there were too many kinds. I couldn’t get any. Maybe it’s because it was the first new tube since Shannon.”
“Or shampoo,” said Murphy. “Why so many kinds?”
The floor of the studio is covered with wax dribbles in 64 colors.
“They brought in new colors and took some away,” Murphy says. “Why did they take out lemon yellow?
“That was so light, you couldn’t see it,” says Joan. “It was too thin as a color.” She surveys their progress. “It kind of reminds me of those wine bottle candles that hippies used to have. Remember? My mother had one. Wax dribbled all down it.”
“We can’t do the rest of it up here,” says Murphy. “We won’t be able to get it out.”
So they load up Joan’s van on Wednesday afternoon, because Wednesday is Murphy’s Saturday. They’d cleared out the totes with the arms and legs. They’d used the contents of the apothecary jars, and Joan’s good Tupperware. They’d melted thousands of crayons, making vivid confetti of the paper coverings. Murphy gets a ladder from the rafters and puts it in the van. Before they drive off, he gets a piece of paper from his truck.
“What’s that?” asks Joan.
“Temporary permit,” he says. “For a memorial service on city property.”
They drive to the round house grounds, the place where the concrete orb had burned. Heaps of rubble still remain, but there is nothing left that resembles the former structure. They lay the base of the installation, but the ladder isn’t tall enough for the rest of it, so Murphy calls in the city tree people, and from the plastic bucket of their truck, they finish it.
“Is this legal?” asks Joan.
“No,” says Murphy. “But I play poker with these guys.” Joan doesn’t question. Murphy is a simple man of few words, but a good one. Something about him just feels right. Comfortable.
The men in the truck turns the headlights on, and they stand and look at the thing. Joan doesn’t know what to call it. The installation? The art? She supposes it doesn’t matter.
“It looks like a mangled Death Star,” says Joan.
“I’d tell you not to quit your day job if you had one,” says Murphy. “We could put that giant Jesus cross in the middle if you want to.”
“No. I want that.” she says. “I feel like it needs something else. Do you think it needs something?”
“I don’t know. If you mess with it too much, you’ll ruin it. Just let it be done.”
Joan leans against Murphy. They wave to the tree men as they drive off, taking their light. The wax surface of the installation glimmers in the partial light of the moon. Joan feels Shannon beside her.
“It’s lopsided,” she says to her. “I’m sorry I fudged your last project.”
“No,” says Shannon. “It’s perfect.”
Anne Carney holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University. This is her first published story.