April 20, 2017| ISSUE no 214
crack the spine
Holly H. Jones
Cover Art by
Peter J. Stavros
No Bridge Home
short fiction by Michael Royce
Officer Patrick McCormick peered at the cardboard shack tucked under the overpass. He worked the day-shift beat in Old Town, and buzz on the street reported a bad smell stealing from this isolated hideaway. Skirting a small pile of junk, he crawled into the tight space. His nostrils pinched shut, and he dreaded what he now feared to find.
Boxes fashioned into a shelter with duct tape huddled against the concrete buttress of the bridge. He searched with his flashlight in the half-darkness for a stick to act as a lever under the bottom edge of the structure. The desolate home sank but didn’t open. August sun stalled in the sky as the thermometer pushed 100º; sweat ran down his back, and his shirt stuck to him. After another lift, a vertical rip split the cardboard.
Black flies escaped; death enveloped Patrick like tentacles of a dark vine. His Portland Police Academy training kicked in to prevent him from scrambling backward, but he covered his nose with a handkerchief and pried at the structure until it broke apart with a sigh. In the half-light, he saw the faint outline of a body.
With only six years on the force, Patrick was aware detectives would be assigned this case. The investigative team would spend five minutes to decide causation. The winding track of event leading to death was not important unless murder was involved. Exposure. Drug or booze overdose. Neglect. With these diagnoses, they would tag the body and shovel remains into a bag for disposal.
He poked around in the dirt, justifying his delay to call in his discovery as “good police work.” Beside the body, he found a bottle of oxicodone prescribed for a Maurice Skilton on July 10, 2010, a month earlier, and crumpled in a corner, a scrap of paper with “Two Paths” scrawled in block letters. With latex gloves, he placed the prescription and note in a plastic bag. Unable further to endure the odor, he held his breath while escaping from under the overpass into the light.
His shift wasn’t half-finished, but a body, even of a homeless man, constituted a priority greater than drunkenness or the occasional knife fight occurring on his beat. After calling in a preliminary report, he waited for the detectives. Lights blinking, they pulled up and walked to where he stood. Two were tall and one was short; they all carried masks and gloves. He summarized his findings and handed over the note and the bottle.
“Looks like suicide.” The sergeant spoke in a monotone.
“Yeah, likely the pills,” Patrick conceded. “But I’d like to know what caused him to end up here, now, like this.”
“Shit,” the smallest of the three detectives said. “Dead is dead. Don’t matter whether he loved his mother or not.”
Patrick’s head jerked. Everyone has a past which makes them who they are. When his mother died of heart failure early in his freshman year of high school, his father explained the best he could; but Patrick only understood that something misfired and his mother disappeared. From that day, fear of further abandonment remained his constant companion.
“We need some background in case there are relatives to contact.” The sergeant softened the sharp edge of his colleague. “Find out what you can about this guy from your contacts.”
As Patrick moved away, he remembered hitting long, slow lobs pitched by his father while his mother laughed a quiet, sweet sound. The feel of being held by her faded into a place he could not access, leaving a void filled with a dull ache. On occasions, beyond his ability to predict, this absence flared into a throbbing pain. He believed he could recover only if he discovered why she was gone. This reverie was interrupted by the snicker of the small detective, standing in a huddle with his two colleagues. Patrick flushed but continued walking.
At his mother’s funeral, he wrestled to understand his loss. Had he done anything wrong? Why did she die when others lived? The effort to find answers haunted him whenever he confronted death. If able to penetrate far enough within the mystery of the dead man’s life, he would follow the elusive trail.
With satisfaction, he recalled the sergeant did not take him off the case. Back at his desk, a Google search turned up Maurice Skilton, the owner of a small jewelry store on Broadway.
“Is Mr. Skilton in?” he enquired on the phone.
“That’s me,” a reedy voice answered.
“We’re investigating a situation.” He kept his voice impersonal. “Found an empty bottle of prescription drugs with your name on it.”
“Yeah,” said Skilton, “someone stole my briefcase and pills from my car last week. I was parked in front of the House of Louie catching dim sum for lunch.”
“Report the theft?” Patrick asked.
“Someone jacked down the passenger window and cleaned out anything of value. Hit pay dirt with the oxicodone prescribed after my hip surgery. I didn’t think the cops would be interested.”
“Always notify the police.” Patrick uttered this without conviction because he knew a free-floating street bazaar had absorbed the briefcase and all its belongings, including the painkillers, within half-hour of the theft.
“Probably some homeless guy. No big deal.”
Asshole, Patrick thought as he hung up the telephone.
The sergeant paused at Patrick’s desk near end of shift. “The docs confirmed the obvious—a drug overdose.” Almost to himself, he added, “Two paths? Wonder what other form of suicide he contemplated?”
“Or maybe a path to continue living.” Patrick wished he remained silent, but he reacted to the scaffolding everyone was determined to erect around the meaning of the dead man’s existence.
“Well,” the sergeant dragged out his words. “All we’re looking for now is his name. Also, if there are relatives. Don’t get distracted.” He moved on followed by his two associates.
The shrimp’s voice drifted back to Patrick. “Bums die in the most predictable ways.” He wanted to plant his foot deep within the little bastard’s rectum.
The next day, Officer McCormick worked the Princes of the Streets he patrolled, who knew what happened and sometimes why. They trusted him because he didn’t roust them unless heat from the local business community forced him to clean up for a day or two.
“Hey, Thomas, what’s happening?” He halted before an old man, or at least he appeared old, with deep furrowed wrinkles and a ruined nose. After describing the little he had on the dead man, where he was found and in what circumstances, Patrick asked, “You know him?”
“Sure, a loner.” Thomas lowered his fortified wine, cradled in a brown bag. “Called himself Tilson.”
“Any last name?”
“Nah.” Street people stuck to first names.
“Any more details?”
“Tilson started as a boozer like me but changed to meds.” He gestured to where drug deals went down. “Check out Antonio. They sometimes hung together.”
Patrick strolled in that direction, nodding at people he recognized. Only familiar with Antonio by sight, he observed him flinch at the uniform. “Hey, relax. Not here to hassle, just talk.”
Antonio eased back into a slouch, but kept his right hand in his pocket. Patrick imagined him touching a packet of pills wrapped in foil, a score costing about $40 and producing enough oblivion to forget most of what needed erasing—at least for a night. “So, what?” Antonio said.
“Got this body. Think he’s named Tilson. I’m trying to locate next of kin.” Straight talk worked better than the tricky foreplay taught at the Academy. He attempted deceit when he was a rookie, but hated the charade, opting instead to swim the crowded streets of Old Town not as a shark looking for prey but as a harmless fish not so different from those he encountered.
“Might know something. What’s in it for me?”
Direct question, thought Patrick. “What’s in it for you is I ignore what you’ve got hidden in your pocket and we both continue to have a nice day.” Antonio considered Patrick’s proposition and nodded. Patrick smiled inwardly. Lucky guess.
“Tilson and I used to panhandle opposite sides of Burnside.” Antonio crooked his head in a questioning way.
Patrick maintained a noncommittal stare.
“He stayed to himself but was real smart.”
“How could you tell?” Patrick asked.
“One afternoon, we were sharing a hit or two behind a dumpster. I felt pretty fine, but he kept blabbing about Brother Raven. How he possessed wisdom to distinguish right from wrong even when mists clouded the thinking of other animals.”
“An Indian dude?”
“Klamath. Wore two braids for awhile. Last time I seen him, about a month ago, he had cut them. Clean for two months, he claimed.”
“You believe him?”
“Maybe. Yeah, probably. No reason to lie. Wouldn’t impress me either way. He looked like when they take away your happy pills in detox, and all you got left to think about is how shitty life is.”
“He went on about his wife all the time. Weird.”
“Nothing strange about a guy talking about his wife?”
“Yeah, we all talk about exes—the ones who threw us out or whose hearts we broke; but he spoke like she was there, the only light still reaching him.”
“You’re a poet.” Patrick responded in a pleasant way; he didn’t mean any insult. In fact, he liked the way Antonio put it.
Patrick thought of how he met Katie in their sophomore year at the University of Oregon. Drinking too much and studying too little, he was a mess. She begged him to talk until she breached his loneliness; but he came no closer to understanding why his mother left him and held tight to Katie like a life jacket in a boat afloat on a perilous sea of memories.
He shook loose from the past and smiled at the street poet. “Give you a name for this wife.”
“Nope. Only what I told you.”
Back at the station, Patrick called the Klamath tribal administration in Chiloquin, north of Klamath Falls. He spent an hour shuffled to various people, who were none too friendly when he identified himself as a cop.
“All you can give me is that some Indian guy, you think named Tilson, died in Portland?” Finally, a clerk in the Health and Family Services Department, who was willing to talk, answered.
“Yeah, we need to locate relations, if any.” Patrick offered only the official reason for his investigation.
“Well,” the man said, “I’m not sure this is who you’re looking for and I kind of hope not because we played football in high school together, but if he’s the Tilson I’m thinking, he’s a Freeman.”
“Freeman is his family name.”
“Any relatives still in the area?”
“His parents are both dead, but an uncle called Little Jack lives outside the city.”
“Got a number for him?”He heard the shuffling of papers.
“He worked on the Klamath Falls police force in the late ‘90s….Ah, here it is.”
Patrick dialed. An ex-cop. Chances for obtaining information brightened.
A heavy rumble answered. “Little Jack.” After delivering his spiel about Tilson’s death, Patrick heard deep breathing but nothing more for a long pause.
“Tilson’s my nephew. I can’t believe he’s gone. A good boy. After his parents died, he lived with his Auntie. I couldn’t raise a young kid, but he spent a lot of time with me.”
“The Aunt, she still around?”
“No, she passed.”
Patrick feared this would be all he got. “Uh, can you tell me about him?”
The bass voice sputtered and gathered steam. “After high school, he busted out of this backwater and moved to Portland. Married a black gal named Sharlene. Things went well for him, then not so good once they broke up.”
“You ever visit him up here?”
“Yeah, once when I travelled the Pow Wow circuit.”
“How about after he and his wife separated?”
“Got a number for her?”
“I don’t have a new one, but she worked at Chase Bank.”
Sharlene Freeman was Accounts Manager at the downtown branch. Patrick walked over the next morning, and the guard pointed to a slender black woman speaking on the phone. He wondered if her voice reflected the animation of her face.
As he approached, she surveyed his uniform and said, “Business. Got to call back.” She nodded for him to sit down. “A new account?” Her skin shone, tight cornrows captured her hair, and her voice conveyed openness and warmth. Patrick experienced a sudden twinge about opening a wound the woman in front of him might rather leave untouched.
“No, no account.” He handed her his card. “This is official.”
She started, and her smile faded. “It’s Tilson, isn’t it?”
Patrick nodded and waited for what else she might offer up.
She stared into his eyes. “I’ve been worried.” Her eyes glistened.
“We found his body,” Patrick spoke slowly. “Suicide, I’m afraid. We’re collecting background information.”
Tears escaped Sharlene’s control and slid down her cheeks. “Can we talk about this somewhere else?”
“Of course.” Patrick watched her struggle to compose herself. When she rose, she stood tall and straight. He followed her with his eyes to a bigger desk where she talked to a plump, gray-headed guy slumped behind his computer. The older man smiled and waved her off as if indicating “sure, go out and play; take your time.”
“There is a quiet coffee house down the street,” she said when she returned.
After they ordered, she shifted to the front of her chair, holding herself rigid as if about to confess something part of her would rather deny. “Tilson called about a month ago and asked to meet in the park by the waterfront.” Patrick studied her as he listened. “I hoped we’d have an honest talk and move on with our lives.” She focused on a point somewhere between them. “He was thin.” After a pause, she finished in a low voice. “The conversation didn’t go well.”
“What happened to him?” She interrupted her narrative.
Patrick described Tilson’s days on the street. She flinched and bent away.
“Why’d he give up?” Her voice was soft.
He shrugged. “We’re trying to determine the answer.” This was not true, he confessed to himself, because they had a name, a cause of death, relatives notified, and nothing suspicious. For police purposes, the file could be closed…but not yet for him.
“I’ll tell you what I know.” She pushed back in her chair and talked without Patrick interrupting. They met at Portland Community College seven years earlier; he was 23 and she was 22. She pursued accounting, but he took courses in philosophy, sociology, anything to help him unravel why things in life turn out the way they do.
Patrick sniffed like a dog examining its own scent.
“None of the stuff he studied ever earned a dime,” Sharlene said, “but he couldn’t get enough.” After a course on ‘Hegel and Marx,’ he raved about the dialectic of history for months. “I admired his search for answers, but his obsession about the past grew into an open sore.” Her chin trembled.
Patrick interrupted. “Did he ever say anything about two paths?”
“Not exactly,” she appeared confused, adding after a moment of quiet, “that’s the kind of thing he talked about: why one thing happened not another.”
Returning to her narrative, Sharlene said: “We married and moved into an apartment on Mississippi Avenue. In May, 2005 when we graduated, it was time to grow up. I got a job at the bank. He started a food stall called Indigène with French-Indian cuisine.” Patrick interrupted. “I remember that cart. Loved the fry bread.”
“Yeah, customers asked him where he came from in India. He told them Kerala because that is where he wanted to go most in the world.” She laughed. “Fry bread on the menu should’ve given someone a clue.”
With each paycheck, they saved to build a business. “I fit like the right piece of sky in a puzzle when I leaned against him. All pieces are the same blue, but only two belong together.” Sharlene stopped to collect herself; she’d spoken for ten minutes.
In the silence, Patrick lingered with this image. He had floated alone, a solitary bit of blue, stuck in his past, before he found Katie. After his slice of the sky clicked with hers, he learned over time what he’d forgotten. You can love someone without constant fear they’ll leave you.
Sharlene resumed her story and events came faster. Tilson opened a second cart. “We’ll borrow as much money as we can and open a restaurant,” he crowed. “You’ll join me at La Indigène when we’re established.”
In the summer of 2007, money flowed. They were amazed when the bank advanced them $50,000. Tilson argued they got the loan because he found a peregrine falcon feather. She smiled. “He was always like that— magical.” A good year to secure a loan, 2007 was a bad time to accrue debt because the market was about to explode. A company near their restaurant where many of their customers worked went bankrupt; people relearned how to make their own lunches. By February 2009, the bank foreclosed. “We lost everything.” Sharlene slumped.
The structure holding Tilson together began to wither and he started drinking. For three months, he stayed home, reading and sucking down beer. “I can’t find a way forward,” he said. Sharlene could no longer bear to see his misery.
Patrick understood Tilson’s desperation. After he lost his own mother, he hid behind a happy face and marched to high school every day for four long years. His teachers told each other, “If all my pupils behaved like Patrick, I wouldn’t be drinking a third glass of wine at night.” They concentrated on the geniuses and the ADHD-types haunting their days and forgot him. Other students dubbed him “Mr. Mellow” when they bothered to notice him at all. For himself, he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other because he didn’t know what else to do.
“I got tired of no dreams and no partner.” Sharlene checked Patrick’s reaction before continuing. “This brother Ernie, personnel manager at the bank, was hitting on me. ‘You still with that brown-skin boy? Try a real man,’ he said.”
“I wanted nothing to do with his slick talk. ‘You speaking to a happily married woman,’ I told him.” Hesitation crept into her voice, and Patrick sensed she was about to describe the forbidden bite of the apple and expulsion from the garden. The glow of her skin faded and the timbre of her voice flattened.
At her annual company party, Tilson refused to come at the last minute and pulled the sheet over his head, half-drunk. “I’ll celebrate right here,” he said. She felt sorry for herself and drank too much. Mr. Hotshot offered her a ride after the event. She didn’t say no that time.
The skin around Patrick’s eyes tightened.
Sharlene stared at the floor. “I was 28 and couldn’t stand a constant diet of unhappiness.” She seemed unconvinced at her story. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted.”
“We do the best we can,” Patrick said. Her gaze seemed to search his eyes for hidden meaning.
When she arrived home, Tilson said, “You been with Ernie.” His hands clenched together so tight his knuckles turned white. “I don’t know how he guessed and wanted to lie; but I couldn’t.” A small tear rested on her eyelashes. The final beam linking him to their past collapsed.
That night Tilson slept on the couch without speaking. This continued for two days, until she came home determined to break into the silence in which he hid even if she had to swallow all the pain she had caused. She had already told Ernie he was a jerk, and she wanted nothing more to do with him.
There would be no happy ending, Patrick realized.
“Let’s build something new and beautiful again,” she pleaded, but Tilson stared without moving.
He stood and said, “I must go on a vision quest.” Over the next year and a half, he called Sharlene every couple of weeks at first, and later less often. Sometimes, he sent postcards, but he never suggested getting together…until a month earlier. By then, she and Adam had dated six months.
You do what you have to do, Patrick reasoned. Tilson remained trapped within the ruins of their Garden of Eden while she moved on.
Tilson arranged to meet Sharlene after work. He described his life but not in the detail related by Patrick. He recounted a recent dream where an eagle flew over him and pointed the way home. At first, she couldn’t find the courage to disclose her news.
Most of us, most of the time, lack the grit to speak hard truths. Patrick reflected as he listened. How do you say I’m sorry, but I found happiness...with someone else?
In the end, Sharlene told Tilson about her new relationship. “It’s too late for us.” She began to perspire. “Adam and I want to marry; I need a divorce.” She thought...maybe she wanted to believe… he might right himself when he accepted he could not reconstruct their past. Tilson nodded, and after a long silence, he walked off without uttering a word.
Patrick was unsure what her story meant, other than life can be capricious. “I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. Freeman.” He rose. “And for Tilson’s. Don’t let his death become your burden.” She rocked as if trying to find a place where she would feel right about herself again.
For the rest of the day, Patrick contemplated how Tilson may have understood his choices at the end. That night, he told Katie he needed to drive to Klamath Falls on his time off that weekend.
“It’s about the Indian guy whose body you found, isn’t it?” Katie said. Her tone contained no criticism, only sadness at her husband’s desperate need to probe. “If you don’t learn to let go, you’ll be sucked into the pit that swallows people in the streets you patrol.”
“Yeah,” acknowledged Patrick and brushed a kiss on her forehead. He knew she was right. “Still, I need to talk to his uncle to understand why Tilson decided to give up.”
On the drive down, the dry scent of ponderosa brought both comfort and sadness. He thought about what Katie had said, and the tension between the past and the present. A meadowlark welcomed him with a hopeful trill as he neared Klamath Falls.
At Moore Park off Upper Klamath Lake, Patrick searched the benches on the shoreline under aspens shimmering in the slight, summer breeze. A short but gigantic man took up one side of a picnic table. Little Jack. They discussed trivial things, the weather and the economy, until Patrick steered the conversation toward Tilson.
Tilson’s father Brian was Little Jack’s older brother and a finish carpenter. His mom was librarian at the high school. Both died when he was eleven—driving too fast one night and hit a pot-hole. Flipped three times and the car exploded. No sense to it.
Patrick’s heart thudded in recognition as the story unraveled.
After the crash, Tilson lived with his Aunt Rosie, who had two older boys and didn’t want another. “Better he stayed with me, even in my bachelor digs.” Little Jack’s voice soured. Tilson never discussed life at Rosie’s, but the night after graduation, he packed his personal things in the duffel his father brought back from the War. The only possession he cared about was his father’s tomahawk, a talisman passed to the eldest son in the family to reveal the one true way when you become confused.
Brian once told Little Jack, “I lost my footing in Nam.” After he returned, he swore off drugs and booze, but he still experienced long bouts of blackness. For days, he stayed in the house, tomahawk resting on his lap. A full year passed before he applied for community college using his GI bill. Five years later, he became a journeyman carpenter. He hadn’t forgotten, but he learned to release his grip on the memories of what happened to continue living.
Little Jack drew a photo, snapped four years ago, from his wallet. Patrick recognized the intensity in Tilson’s eyes as the same which had too long stared back at him from the mirror each morning, demanding an account of why life has turned out the way it has. Both men stayed silent for awhile. Little Jack extended his hand and swallowed Patrick’s in goodbye.
On the five-hour return trip, Patrick smelled sage through the half-open window. His mind cycled over what he had learned.
Patrick called Sharlene on Monday and arranged to meet at the coffee house where they talked before. He related what Little Jack had told him. “Do you know where the tomahawk is?” he asked when he was done.
Sharlene’s head drooped. “I knew he inherited it from his dad, but he never explained its magic.” She straightened. “About a week before I first met you, I discovered the tomahawk on my doorstep, wrapped and oiled.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Too painful. After I reject him, he leaves me his most valuable possession.”
“To guide you where he was no longer able to follow.” Patrick thought he had come to understand. Death has no rationale; the path forward alone makes sense.
“Why kill himself?” Anger cut through Sharlene’s sadness.
“Sometimes nothing remains to build a bridge to come home.”
Sharlene grew calm again and stared intently at him.
“He wished you to live free from the past.” This final idea escaped Patrick like a sigh, but he felt at peace.
In memory of Menachem and Chaya Berkowitz.
"At least it doesn't look like nothing happened," her brother said.
"I can't believe you did it,” her sister said. "People should remember what happened. You should remember."
“I mean, how can you just erase history?” her sister asked.
She didn't know what her siblings were complaining about, she couldn’t forget, couldn’t erase the past, even though she wanted to most of the time. She was forty-seven and she knew that until the day she died she would remember.
A lot of the time she found herself counting. She never made it that high. Other days the previous night's dreams played out in waking terrors. The light made them worse, made them real. She could smell the gas, hear the crackle of parched, stretched flesh burning.
She hadn't ever met her father, Harry, he had been lost to the woods before she was born, and her mother, Sue, had nothing to say about the tattoo removal. Sue was ever silent. Ruth couldn’t help but wonder if her mother heard her when she called out the numbers at night, a mantra to ward off memory.
Ruth wondered why she always felt her mother judging her, when Sue rarely commented. Ruth was just like her in that way—typically quiet, apologetic. Her siblings were vocal, always had been, and now this proved no exception. She didn’t know why she had brought it to their attention before she underwent the laser therapy. She was going to do it regardless of what they said. They continued to pester her about the removal long after it had taken place.
The ink had been fading for years. Ruth was tired of the weird looks she got in short sleeves, the whispered questions from little children on the bus. She had suffered enough; she didn't need any more guilt. She said none of this to Chaya or Manny, they clearly wouldn't understand and she was too tired to try to explain anyway. She hadn’t asked them to come with her to the dermatology appointment, they hadn’t offered. She sat there and reveled in the pain. This pain had been her choice.
The only person who would have understood was her mother. She remembered when the dusk-scented dye was first implanted into her forearm. Her mother waited behind her, crying silently. She had patted her on the head after her turn and made sure to say her daughter’s name, “Ruth. Your name is Ruth.” It was a simple enough name, but that also made it easy to forget.
In the coming months Ruth had to repeat it over and over. “My name is Ruth, daughter of Sue. Ruth, sister of Manny and Chaya. Ruth. Ruth. Ruth.”
Anytime her mother caught her repeating these lines she smiled. It wasn’t a happy grin, though it gave Ruth heart at first. Then the smiles stopped and the few words became none.
Chaya’s voice shook Ruth from her memory. “And what do you think Mom would say about this?”
“I think Mom would understand.”
“You do look more and more like her every day,” Manny said.
“She looked more like her before…” Chaya said, trailing off, leaving those words implicit. They wouldn’t change things now. Ruth couldn’t go get another tattoo.
Ruth slipped back into her silence. She remembered seeing her siblings again after she was liberated from the camp. They had been hidden with friends, passed as Christians. They were young enough still to be too frightened to speak, to give away their Jewish tongues. When Chaya and Manny saw her they yelled out “bubák! bubák!—ghost!” The lady with them, ostensibly their mother for the last few years, had to comfort them, as they would not approach their skeleton sister, raised from the dead.
Ruth thought about how painful her mother’s silence had been when it first blanketed her during the war. It, of course, was a metaphorical blanket, which explained how it ironically added coldness to Ruth’s life. Now, though, she saw the silence as a comfort. The acknowledgment of the failings of language made it appealing. She wished she could feel this silence once again, wrap herself in it. But her mother was dead, had been dead for years.
They had shot her in the head while Ruth stood there. Then they told Ruth to bury the body. Sue had looked so different at the end, some part of Ruth convinced herself that her mother had disappeared long before this moment. She didn’t cry when the first dirt hit the body, didn’t whimper when she left the grave unmarked. She never told her siblings what had happened, only that their mother was gone; they didn’t seem to miss her that much, they couldn’t remember her face. Now they only remembered Sue’s number, and that was because they had looked it up in the record books.
Ruth looked at her arm and could barely make out the light blue specks where her numbers had previously lived. She could see her mother’s face in the tiny blotches left behind. There was that smile of understanding again; laser had removed what metal wrought and the numbers began counting themselves. Ruth didn’t need a tattoo when she had family to remind her of the horrors she had endured. The only comfort she had was that soon her counting would be done, soon the numbers would reach zero.
flash fiction by Aaron Berkowitz
poetry by Lindsay Brand
Where the soft, thin branches
of the apple tree twist
around the trunk, spiraling
up to the tiny, tart
Where my toes sink
into the freshly-tilled oil
of the ancient garden
Where the broken bits of brown
pipe and shimmery shards
of dishes rise
after a downpour.
Where the sharp thistles
of the wild vines
rub the skin on my
calves as I check
Ripe, cracked red tomatoes
hang like baby
the green leaves dusted
with white powder
to turn away thieving insects
The oxidated, white gas cylinder
sizzles in the noonday
sun and we sit stride
it with our little limbs
far from the earth
while we pretend to ride
a snowy white dragon into war.
Childhood Home 5 of 11
creative non-fiction by Holly H. Jones
Working the Count
You’re meeting with clients or maybe colleagues. You’re wearing the clothes—whether it’s a suit, some smart business casual look, or hipster casual—that make you feel the most empowered and confident. You are dressed for success and seated at, not behind, the table. You are leaning in and ready. And then you notice. You can’t help but notice. How many more men than women are filing into the room.
I do the count in every meeting. While reviewing the notes I’ll have prepped beforehand, I scan the faces around me and do the math. Calculating ratios of 7 men to 3 women and then 9:1 and then, just recently, 22:2 used to make me feel nervous and, for a while, very self-conscious about my looks and, no matter how conservative my tastes, whether my clothes were too fitted or my skirt too short. I have never, in twenty years of meetings, client dinners, and conferences, lost the awareness of the gender gap. How can I when it widens the higher the titles and paychecks of the participants?
But if I haven’t shaken the awareness of the gap, I have learned to work the count in my favor. Numerous studies have shown that girl students are quieter than boy students and that the pattern doesn’t change much in adulthood. But those studies track majority behavior. If I’m at the table, in the meeting, I’ve already left the majority. These studies no longer apply. I can’t afford for them to apply, whether the objective is advancing my career, my client’s position, or my team’s goals. Neither can you.
There is no singular checklist of to-do’s I can offer. Each meeting has its own type of players and its own dynamic, and what works for some of the women I most admire does not work for me. But, as is so often the case in life, certain tools can help you—and me—navigate this challenge.
Situational awareness. Sometimes I find myself in a room filled with “build-upon-ers.” These are the colleagues who piggyback onto my point but give a nod to my idea with the phrase “If I can build upon that…” In other meetings people freely grab someone else’s point, reframe it slightly, and posture as if it was theirs and only theirs. And in others, one person—usually a client or senior manager—speaks the majority of the time. Three different dynamics, and woe be unto the woman who tries to stand out by poaching when others are trying to be collaborative. She will quickly be seen as a pushy bitch. And what happens if you use the “build-upon” approach when everyone else is poaching and grandstanding? Just slink out like the spineless corporate drone they’ll think you are. In every case having some original ideas and disruptive questions going in will best arm you to lend interesting thoughts to the discussion. But how you do it is all about reading the landscape.
Voice. In most cases it’s as much how you say it as what you say. No matter how brilliant your idea, without a clear sense of your voice, you risk being tuned out or, worse, considered extraneous to the conversation. The bad news: it takes practice. The good news: every interaction you have is an opportunity to practice. Take a scan of your thoughts before you speak. See if it’s registering with your audience. If it’s not, try again and, more importantly, try to determine why your words misfired. You have to know what you want to say and what you want the impact of your words to be for maximum effectiveness.
Humor. At the end of the day, no matter how crucial your words and the meeting’s outcome feel, this is almost certainly just a meeting. And these men are, consciously or subconsciously, just as aware of the shortage of women in the room. They may actually wish there was more estrogen and consensus-building female mojo in the room too. So make a humorous comment or call out the elephant in the room with a witty aside if you can. It’ll cut through the tension and, if well-delivered, earn you their respect. And if you feel making a joke would be inappropriate given your role in the meeting, say something funny to yourself. Yes, inside your head. Because you, more than anyone else, need to stay relaxed, and one of the best ways to relax is to laugh.
Doing the count can make you nervous, proud that you’ve “arrived,” or queasy with a sort of survivor’s guilt because other women haven’t made it as high as you have and may never. However it makes you feel, don’t just stop at the math. Work the count. That’s where the challenge lies. And where the advantage can be seized.
short fiction by Laurence Sullivan
Lighting tore through the sky; illuminating – in flashes – three hooded figures huddled together on the heath. They were just standing there, their hands tightly entwined, as though together they might somehow silence the storm.
“The weird sisters, hand in han– ” Marge suddenly stopped herself, before opening her eyes to glare intently at her sisters. “Why haven’t you two joined in yet?”
“I thought we were waiting for Macbeth and Banquo to get ‘ere first?”
“We can’t just launch into it once they get ‘ere, Maggie, it’s about creating a sense of atmosphere before they arrive.” Marge searched her sisters’ faces for any sign of comprehension, but like a couple of taxidermy creatures – both were devoid of any expression. “We have to make it look like we do this kind of thing on a daily basis, and that those gents just happen to have happened upon us in the middle of the act!”
“But we don’t do this every day…”
“Yes, Lizzie,” Marge began, “I know that, you know that, Maggie knows that, but Macbeth and Banquo haven’t a badger ‘bout it!”
“So…” Maggie hesitated as she picked like a crow inside her head for the right set of words. “We’re just saying this bit about land, sea and dancin’…even though they probably won’t hear any of it?”
Marge nodded patiently. “We’ve got to sell them the whole package if we’re ever gonna be convincing!”
“But,” Lizzie ventured, “do you think he really will become king?”
“I don’t have a monkeys, do I?!” Marge all but snorted. “But if he does, he better be bloody grateful to us!”
“You think there’s a reward in this, then, Marge?”
“Banking on it, Maggie.”
“Hang on, didn’t you say something similar to another wannabe ruler? You know the one…” Lizzie suddenly started to snap her fingers in a frantic, frustrated fashion. “Oh, it’ll come to me – with the nephews!”
“That boorish cripple?!” Marge guffawed. “In fairness, he did become king in the end!”
“For all of five minutes, Sis!” Lizzie jerked her hands up in the air like a demented puppet. “And he went out crying for his damn horse, what a way to go! You could have at least warned him to bring a spare…”
“That man never heeded his own dreams – and from the sounds of it, it’s hardly as though their meaning was bloody complex. I mean, ‘Despair and die’, really?” Marge let out a long sigh. “What hope was there he’d ever have listened to any more of my predications, eh?”
Growing impatient with both of her sisters, Maggie wrenched up the tattered folds of her robe and plodded through the mud towards Marge. “What have we got to show for you little predictions anyway?”
Both Maggie and Marge locked eyes as a thread of lightning landed a little way off in the distance. The pair remained unyielding, neither seemingly phased by the sudden explosion of light across their ghastly faces. Lizzie was left picking nervously at her filthy, bloodied fingernails – knowing she was unable to do anything once her siblings had go themselves into a duel of this kind. Just as Lizzie was beginning to feel completely hopeless, though, the sky roared with the threat of thunder and something of a smile started to spread across Marge’s sallow face.
“Actually, dear sister, I half expected the Dukedom of Gloucester for giving ol’ Dickie the confidence to become king!” Marge declared pompously, her left nostril rising into something of a sneer. “Not like he’d be using it now anyway…”
“You’d have been lucky with the Barony of Evesham, Marge!” Maggie clapped her hands together gleefully, savouring every sinister second of making her sister squirm. “You, a duchess?! Please!”
Sensing the growing hostility in the group, Lizzie took a stride forward before finding one of her feet slowly sinking into a hidden bog. “I guess telling fortunes and castin’ the odd curse don’t pay so well anymore…” she muttered absently as she wrestled to free her foot.
“True that, sister,” Marge mumbled back, “true that…Folks have just gotten less gullible, I remember back when even a humble, well-placed handkerchief could break up the most solid of marriages. Remember that moor?”
“Otello?” Maggie replied, the confidence lurking in her voice ebbing away almost as soon as she opened her mouth. “Something like that, anyway.”
“Oh, oh!” Lizzie raised herself onto her tiptoes, making the rain thump her matted hair into even more of an entangled mess. “What was the name of that Egyptian charmer who gifted that handkerchief in the first place – Cleopatra, was it?”
Marge rolled her eyes. “Fairly sure that was the Queen of Egypt, Lizzie!”
A whisper in time passed before Marge realised both her sisters were staring vacantly at her. Not wanting to lose a modicum of her inferred authority, Marge lightly brushed down her robes and nodded knowingly at her siblings.
“What are you two waitin’ for, then? Let’s give this another go!”
The three weird sisters, once more, moved wordlessly towards each other to begin their chant anew. As soon as their hands were joined, however, Marge glanced sideways at her youngest sibling.
“Lizzie, would you be a dear and light a fire, say, a little ways over there?” Marge motioned her head towards somewhere vaguely in the distance.
“A fire?” Lizzie’s bushy eyebrows began to furrow, making it look as though a living creature had suddenly taken up residence on her face.
“Yes, and send some of the smoke in our direction? It’ll lend us an extra bit of credibility, you know?”
“Like we’re the ones causing it?” Maggie chimed in.
“Yeah, like we’re the ones causing it…” Marge pondered for a moment. “With magic or some such.”
Obeying her sister’s command, Lizzie glanced around her immediate surroundings for anything even vaguely flammable. The small pockets of heather might have made passable tinder on a drier day, but with the maelstrom worsening by the minute – everything was utterly, unusably sodden.
Lizzie turned back to her siblings and went to open her mouth, but on seeing her eldest sister’s entirely impassive face, she quickly thought better of it. So, despite the rain attempting to pummel her into submission, Lizzie busied herself by gently pawing at the same two bushes of heather whilst trying desperately to avoid her sister’s gaze. For a while, at least, this seemed to be working well, until a sufficiently awkward amount of time had passed and still no fire had materialised.
“Are you quite finished caressing that shrubbery, Lizzie?” Marge scoffed, her one eyebrow raised into a look of utter contempt.
“I don’t think this is gonna to work, Marge…” Maggie breathed. “We can’t even start a fire like proper witches.”
“Not with that attitude!” Marge snapped as she whirled around and scuttled towards Maggie. “There are people out there who’d be envious of our powers!”
Lizzie cocked her head to one side like a bemused owl. “Like who?”
“Well…” Marge hesitated. “Some of the girls at witch school thought we were pretty powerful…”
Maggie shook her head. “No, people at witch school called us weird…”
“Yeah,” Lizzie added, “the weird sisters.”
“That was a compliment, you morons!” Marge said, throwing her hands up to the heavens in abject despair. “It means fate! They thought we were like the Grecian Fates! You know, because of my divination skills...”
No one said anything for a moment, but it was clear from the two youngest sisters’ faces that some serious contemplation was occurring. As though taking pity on the pathetic sight before it, the tempest seemed to subside a little, giving the witches time for some self-reflection.
"Didn’t you girls wonder why we were using that nickname in our opening chant?” Marge waited for the slightest hint of a response, but quickly moved on when one didn’t seem forthcoming. “Do you really think I would have got us to say it if it were offensive?”
Maggie and Lizzie shrugged, apparently unconvinced by their sister’s explanation and in their own latent magical abilities.
“Macbeth and Banquo will be ‘ere any minute now, girls!” Marge rubbed her hands together, initially as something of a nervous twitch, but not wanting to dishearten or alarm her sisters any further – she quickly tried to pass it off as a way of showing her excitement at their victims’ impending arrival.
“Oh, drop it, Marge,” Maggie sighed, “no one is gonna be convinced by anything we do…”
“Yeah,” Lizzie began, “you can’t even convince us that you really can see into the future – if you could, why don’t you know the exact time those two will get ‘ere?”
Marge quickly glanced between both of her sisters before fluttering her eyelids in a mysterious fashion and pressing two muddied fingers gently to her forehead. “They will be here in two minutes and thirty six – no thirty…thirty seconds!”
Maggie and Lizzie looked to their sister with a look of absolute awe and wonderment, before reaching out to hug her.
“Get off!” Marge flounced around as she tried desperately to worm her way away from her sisters’ embrace. “You silly ol’ hags!”
“Marge is right, Maggie,” Lizzie declared, “we can do this, we are witches! We’re not the con artists people think!”
“I guess we heard it so often,” Maggie sighed, “we started to believe it ourselves?”
Marge suddenly stepped away from her sisters and sauntered over to a grassy knoll – just beneath the most ominous cloud the storm had to offer.
“I can divine the future better than the soothsayer of Caesar’s Rome!” Marge shouted into the worsening storm.
Wordless for the briefest of moments, the other two weird sisters came to join their beloved sister.
“Proud Titania will blush when she sees how I’ll switch up the seasons – by moonlight or otherwise!” Lizzie cried at the gathering clouds.
“And I’ll make the oceans ebb and flow faster than Sycorax ever could!” Maggie bellowed into the unknowable darkness of the surrounding landscape.
“Speaking of, whatever happened to her anyway?” Lizzie’s gaze left the darkening clouds and came back to rest with her sisters. “I haven’t heard a peep from her since witch school?”
Marge waved a hand dismissively. “Stupid wench got exiled to some island somewhere, last I heard. Deserved what she got, always showing us up with her proper magical powers…”
Lizzie raised both of her hands into the air and began to flap them about like a penguin attempting tai chi. This bizarre act lasted only a brief spell, before Marge laid a sympathetic but firm hand on her sister’s arm.
“Lizzie, what is this?”
“If we’re really gonna be better than Sycorax then we’ve got to master the basics.”
“So you’re doing…what, exactly?”
“Trying to summon a fire.”
“You know what, leave the bloody fire. Screw the whole thing – Rome wasn’t built in a day. Just try to look as creepy as possible, warble your voices whenever you can, ad lib it a bit and let’s try this again!”
The three sisters immediately hunched themselves over and tottered back into a huddle. Somewhere in the distance, footsteps could be heard between the great crashes of thunder, causing Lizzie to get slightly carried away and let out a deranged cackle. Acting on an instinct hitherto unknown to them, her two sisters joined in until their three voices rose to challenge the very sky itself. As the footsteps drew ever closer, Marge raised her arms to the heavens before offering her open palms to her sisters, bringing them both further into the fold – as close together as the day they were born. Unwaveringly committed to their roles now, the sisters’ zeal shone like a beacon in the darkness – the three frozen like statues as the tempestuous storm raged around them.
Only once the foreign footsteps seemed practically on top of them, did the three sisters spring back to life and begin, for a final time, to chant in almost perfect unison: “The weird sisters, hand in hand…”
Waiting for Banquo
“On the dresser.” She spoke slowly.
“I’ve already looked there.”
She sipped at her cigarette, afraid to pull too deep. “Well, look again.”
“Where are my keys? I’m going, Tessa.”
“So go.” She raised her chin, blowing smoke toward the center of the room.
Buoyancy causes cigarette smoke to spread through the air in layers; non-zero velocity also plays a part. When a smoker exhales, the smoke rises because the temperature is higher than that of the air, but cools as it does so, decreasing the net force. The smoke appears stagnant, though it is still moving. It is the air that is stagnant.
“Enjoy your whore, Sam.” She ground her cigarette into the clamshell ashtray, one singular movement of strength. Tessa could keep creating ashes, and she could blow them all away with a single breath.
“I need my keys, Tessa.”
“I need my husband.” She wrapped her arms around herself and held on tight. “It’s been over twenty years. I’m your wife.”
“Fine. I’ll call a cab, then.”
She screamed. The neighbors downstairs slammed a door. Outside, a taxi honked. The city traffic was melodious in an orchestra of noise.
Pitch, frequency, intensity, speed -- words associated with sound. Variations in pressure cause sound waves to travel – an object vibrates, causing the air to vibrate, causing the eardrum to vibrate. The brain connects these vibrations as sound.
Sam lunged at her.
His hands were carrion, they consumed everything in their path. They had consumed Tessa long ago, annihilating any strength she once had.
The tangible fist stops when it connects to the face, but the energy keeps going. The movement must go somewhere. Momentum transfer. Figuring this out mathematically can cradle that energy, using the laws of physics to absorb a punch. Physical equations to decrease physical trauma.
“Just give me the keys. I’ll be back at some point.” He looked down at her with distaste. She went into the kitchen and opened a cabinet, handing him the keys along with her white flag. He left without another word.
Tessa began twisting the wedding ring on her finger. Back and forth, up and down. The scab underneath reopened.
There is an old adage that to see is to believe. Human blood is not blue. Light does not travel through skin without effort. It is absorbed and spit back out continuously. The human eye processes the reflecting light and provides an answer: blue. Light is able to trick the eye, coercing the brain into seeing something that doesn’t exist.
Sam came back Thursday morning, long after a greenish-blue flower had bloomed against Tessa’s cheekbone. He kissed her softly and handed her a rose.
She smiled and lit another cigarette.
flash fiction by Nikki Boss
Physics of Marriage
The Female Gaze
poetry by Joyce Miller
In the cinema of the sky he was closer to the dust and the old, lean bodies. It was cold up there where their eyes fell—on him, writhing under the pain of the pinpointed gaze. The women lined up, he behind them. One shook erratically like a jack in the box, her head rolling at the end of a coiled wire neck. She had a strange, set, clownish grin. Her wires caught on something and she fell against him. He shoved hard, mortified.
microfiction by Peter J. Stavros
They’ll tell you that everything happens for a reason, that life has a funny way of working out, that in a year none of this will matter, that …, that …, that …, and even that …. All of it, good advice, as you try to get over the girl. But it’s still like slapping a Band-Aid over a gaping belly wound, where something essential to your essence has been yanked out, your heart, your guts, just something, whatever, leaving you forever broken, as you realize, a gnawing, sinking, sobering remorse, that you will never truly get over the girl.
Aaron Berkowitz earned his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and is an educator for the CUNY Start Program at Bronx Community College. He is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Literary Journal.
Nikki Boss lives in New England with her husband, children, and too many animals. Her work can be found in Ginosko Literary Magazine, 200 ccs, Literally Fiction, and Paddleshots: A River Pretty Anthology Vol 2, among other places. Nikki has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, teaches middle school, and is basically awesome.
Lindsay Brand lives in Saint Charles, Missouri and teaches English at a local community college. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, eating mint chocolate chip ice cream, and secretly being an optimist. She has published previously in The Monarch Review, Mid Rivers Review and the Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.
Holly H. Jones
Holly H. Jones has been published in several print and online journals, has been nominated for a 2017 Pushcart Prize and has written two column series, “Dispatches from the Anacostia” and “Dispatches from the Capital,” for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Working closely with Dave Eggers, she co-founded Washington’s 826DC (initially known as Capitol Letters Writing Center) in 2008 and remains very close to the larger 826 National family and its network. She was awarded the TED Challenge Prize for her work to fulfill Dave’s TED Prize wish and is a long-standing member of that community as well. She holds an MBA from Stanford, an MFA from Vermont College, and is the only Chicago-based member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.
Joyce is a Pushcart Prize nominee for poetry. She is senior editorial assistant at The Cincinnati Review, and an adjunct instructor of Italian at the University of Cincinnati.
A Best Small Fictions 2015 Winner, Dave Petraglia’s writing and art has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, bohemianizm, Cheap Pop, Crack the Spine, Chicago Literati, Gambling the Aisle, Hayden’s Ferry, Medium, McSweeney’s, Necessary Fiction, New Pop Lit, North American Review, Per Contra, Pithead Chapel, Points in Case, Prick of the Spindle, Popular Science, Prairie Schooner, Razed, SmokeLong Quarterly and others. His blog is at www.davepetraglia.com
Michael is a graduate of Portland’s 2011 Attic Atheneum, a one-year alternative to a MFA program. His published fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Fringe, The MacGuffin, PANK, Prick of the Spindle, Prime Number, and other on-line and print journals and anthologies. His series collectively called “Mississippi Freedom Summer in Eight Vignettes” was published in the “Best of the Net 2011” by Sundress Publications.
Peter J. Stavros
Peter J. Stavros is a writer in Louisville, Kentucky. He earned a BA in English from Duke University, and studied creative writing on a graduate level at Emerson College and Harvard University. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Juked, and Literary Orphans, among others. More can be found at Peter’s website.
Runner-up in both the Wicked Young Writer Awards: Gregory Maguire Award 2016 and Penguin Random House‘s ‘Borders’ competition, Laurence Sullivan’s fiction has been published by such places as: Londonist, The List, Amelia’s Magazine, The Legendary and Drunk Monkeys. He became inspired to start writing during his university studies, after being saturated in all forms of literature from across the globe and enjoying every moment of it.
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