APRIL 2, 2019| ISSUE no 250
crack the spine
Jane Rosenberg LaForge
short fiction by Gregory Wolos
The outlines painted on the walls of Prisoner Costello’s cell mystified Eddie as much as they did the other guards and officials at the county lockup. Because he worked the day shift and the sketches materialized overnight, there was no way he could be held responsible, but Eddie worried anyway, like he did about a lot of things, even simple things like dropping his change in the slot when he got on the bus. To stay employed you had to keep on your toes, follow the checklist. His evaluations had gone well enough for the past two years, but he doubted his credentials. It had taken him three tries to pass the written exam, and though he was tall, his eyes were soft and his chin delicate, unlike the slit-eyed iron-jawed prison guards in movies.
Prisoner Costello never spoke. Eddie had never heard his voice. But the cousins and aunt Eddie lived with expected him to have inside information about the jail’s only celebrity.
“Get me a cell next to Costello,” cousin Guthrie said during pre-season Monday night football. “I’ll figure out what he’s up to. Probably something to do with a cult. He’s probably mutilating himself when nobody’s looking. I’ll bet he’s painting those pictures with his own blood. Do you ever see him doing anything that seems like he might be mutilating himself?”
Eddie thought for a second. The sound was low on the TV. Only when something exciting happened did the sportscaster’s voice draw the cousins’ attention. The color on the TV was tinted too green, and everything was sunk in a green sea— players, announcers, green people drinking green beer in the commercials.
“When I’m on duty, he doesn’t do much but sit,” Eddie said. “But we got nice cells waiting—take your pick.” Guthrie was Eddie’s age, older than cousin Tommy, and had never had a job. He collected a monthly check on account of the bad leg he was born with. He watched TV and stomped off to the bars one night a week. Tommy worked at the 7-11 Minimart, and was never home for Monday football. Aunt Cindy sat scrapbooking, up to her elbows in magazine cut outs and fabric swatches at the little formica-topped table set in the a few square feet of space between the kitchen and living room she referred to as the “dinette.”
Guthrie sloshed the inch of beer that always seemed to be left in his bottle. He kept a cigarette tucked behind his ear. Aunt Cindy didn’t allow smoking in the house.
Eddie knew more was expected from him about Prisoner Costello. “He’ll look at me when I walk by his cell, and sometimes I nod at him and he’ll blink. That’s about it, though.”
“You don’t need to make friends with him,” Aunt Cindy said without looking up. “He’s nobody you want to be familiar with. Be better when his trial comes and goes and he’s put in the penitentiary downstate.”
Sometimes Eddie did know one of the prisoners waiting for sentencing. Once it was a guy with a shaved head, tattoos on his neck, arms, and the backs of his hands, and mean silver eyes Eddie tried not to meet. But he noticed things from peeking, like little letters, one under each knuckle, that must have spelled a word when the prisoner made a fist. After three days the guy had called, “Hey, Eddie” in a high, friendly voice while the guard was tip-toeing by, and Eddie discovered that the Robert Gallagher in Cell 5 was Bobby, his best friend from elementary school. Bobby was gone a day later. He hadn’t asked for any favors and told Eddie to give his best to Aunt Cindy.
“I’ll bet Costello’s painting those pictures with his own blood,” Guthrie repeated. “Mutilating himself and painting one of his angels with blood.”
“But the pictures are black—” Eddie said. He’d seen a few of them, one that very morning: an angel with wings spreading six feet across hovering on the low ceiling of Costello’s cell. Maintenance had painted it over like the others, but, though the smell of fresh paint lingered on the block, Eddie thought he could still see the angel’s outline.
“—and sometimes there’s some blue in them.” This he hadn’t seen, but there’d been gossip about it.
“Blood can be black,” Guthrie persisted. “It goes black when it dries.”
“And you never heard of ‘blue-bloods?’ Maybe he’s a blue-blood,” Aunt Cindy said. “Costello’s not really a blue-blood name, though.”
Eddie knew nothing about blue-bloods, but the talk about Costello’s mysterious jail cell paintings thrilled him a little with the kind of excitement he’d felt on the bus ride home that evening, except the bus ride thrill was of a kind he couldn’t share.
On the bus Eddie had drawn his own angel with a black marker. He’d outlined the figure quickly on the triangle of green bench between his legs. It was his first graffito.
“What’s that, an eagle?” The voice came from the seat behind, and Eddie’s mind went blank. Then somebody was next to him: a compact female body leaned into him, her thigh, in dark pants, pressed against his. A head wrapped in a blue scarf bowed under his jaw. Eddie shut his legs.
“I—didn’t,” he stuttered. The young woman beside him smelled like sweat and spearmint gum.
“Oh, yes you did,” she said. “Right there between your legs. You’re hiding it!” She kept her voice down, but was on the edge of a giggle. Her accent made her words run together, like she was singing a single note. “It’s a bird—an eagle, right? Open up, show me.” She pointed at his knees, and he flinched, but didn’t move. She waved over his lap. Her fingers were short with stubby nails like a boy’s. “Open up or I’ll tell,” she whispered. The other passengers dozed or stared, entranced, at their ipods.
Eddie’s knees parted, and the young woman leaned over.
“It’s not an eagle,” Eddie said. He appraised his work. “It’s supposed to be an angel.”
“Ahhh—” The young woman sat so close her eyes pulled his gaze up the gentle curve of her nose. The blue scarf tied across her forehead draped over her shoulders and hid all of her hair. It had a name, that kind of scarf, but Eddie couldn’t think of it. “‘Angel’” she said. “—that’s almost my name—look!” She rolled up the sleeve of her blouse and thrust her forearm under his nose. Her arm hair was dark and abundant. Eddie felt an urge to smooth it in the direction it seemed to flow, but he was shy with women and followed Aunty Cindy’s advice to keep his hands to himself. On the underside of her forearm large capital letters spelled “ADELA.”
“Ah-DEE-lah,” she pronounced. “You showed me your picture, so I’m going to tell you a secret. I’m not supposed to desecrate myself with a tattoo. But maybe this one’s washable. You don’t know, right?” When she laughed, long lashes fluttered over her moist brown eyes. “But I like your angel. I can’t draw those. I mean, I could, but I’m not supposed to. Not just on a bus seat, but anywhere. But sometimes you can’t help certain things, right?” She shrugged, as if the gesture forgave all the wickedness in the world.
Those were things Eddie had never heard of, no tattoos and no angel drawings. He sat up straighter. He could have rested his chin on top of the young woman’s head. She was small and solid, like a wallet or cellphone he could put in his pocket. Her shirt had a “Toys ‘R Us” logo, and she wore a badge with the same name that was on her arm. ADELA. Would she have been impressed by the uniform he’d changed out of in the guards’ room at the lockup? Or had his hoody and jeans made him approachable?
“You work at ‘Toys ‘R Us,’” he said. Eddie liked that she had to look up at him, but now she closed her eyes, rocking her head back and forth in exasperation.
“‘Toys ‘R Us,’ ‘Toys ‘R Us!’ Don’t they know their grammar? It should be ‘Toys ‘R We.’ ‘Toys are We!’ How are kids supposed to learn? I get so mad about it.” Her face clenched like a fist. “It makes me hate toys.” Was she serious? How could it not be Toys ‘R Us?
“Good grammar is the truth,” she said. “The true way. My teacher in high school made us read Stunk and Write. The book told how to write, she said, and if we did it wrong, it stunk.” Eddie hadn’t heard of such a book. His teachers hadn’t used books like that in his classes.
“Promise me something—” Adela blinked at him. Her eyelids were the same slippery color as her lips. “Promise me that you’ll try to speak with good grammar.”
Eddie hesitated. “Good grammar is very important,” he said, picturing the words he spoke printed on an index card he could read aloud.
His stop came first. Adela shifted into the aisle, and when Eddie saw the impression his height made on her, he stood even taller. His angel drawing remained on the seat as if it had fallen out of his pocket. Adela sat on it, lifting a finger to her lips. “Do you come home this time tomorrow?” she asked.
Eddie nodded. “Yes. Yes, I do come home this time tomorrow,” he said, copying her inflection. “My name is Eddie.”
That night as Eddie lay in bed he imagined Adela’s hair, shaken loose from its scarf. It spread in silky waves over her shoulders, cool as he dipped his fingers into it; it poured like oil from his cupped palms.
He thought he heard one of his cousins snoring, unless it was Aunt Cindy all the way from upstairs. Then, as he tossed and turned, it was words he imagined, not snores—yelling in harsh whispers, and his bed felt unfamiliar. He couldn’t move, as if the darkness pressed him down. The yelling got louder, but the words were as unclear as they’d been the night twenty years past when his dad had thrown Eddie’s belongings into a pair of shopping bags and driven him here to Aunt Cindy’s. His cousins Tommy and Guthrie had eyed him curiously from the doorway of their shared bedroom as Eddie was whisked into this tiny space that back then had been used for storage. Boxes and magazine stacks were shoved off a cot. The acrid smell of the pillow and thin blanket made his eyes water, but the hollow feeling in his chest and stomach was worse. Eddie’s last image of his father was a crumpled mouth, and a half-memory of his mother disappeared every time he tried to visualize it, as if lost in the flash of a camera. The yelling long ago in his Aunt Cindy’s house stained the walls of the little room beyond cleaning. Prisoner Costello’s silence reminded Eddie of the yelling that night.
And Eddie thought of Prisoner Costello, alone in his cell in the dark. The little, middle-aged man who sat mute and motionless day after day in his jumpsuit didn’t fit Eddie’s idea of a terrorist. He’d been accused of intimidating his union enemies at his construction job by driving to their suburban homes in the dead of night and leaving paint-splashed threats and homemade explosive devices on their property. The bombs hadn’t detonated, but the scope of the offenses had somehow led to the terrorism charges. Prisoner Costello, considered a flight risk and held without bail, had been awaiting trial for months.
Then, miraculously, as Eddie teetered into dreams, the mystery of Prisoner Costello’s paintings lifted like a veil. Eddie saw the prisoner rise, as if carved from the night’s blackness, and glide toward the rear wall of his cell. There were motions, and the glowing outline of a wing appeared. Eddie was so excited by the revelation he wanted to tell Adela, but, suddenly, her liberated hair overwhelmed his dream, wound about the mystery of the paintings, and choked Eddie’s vision back to darkness. But Eddie knew he still held a secret inside.
Adela and Eddie met on the bus nearly every morning and evening. Their shifts coincided so perfectly it felt like fate. They texted one another during breaks, Eddie from a park across the street from the municipal lockup. His messages were brief and bounded by the few grammatical rules he knew; hers were a flurry of abbreviations Eddie half understood. But his heart hummed when a new message buzzed against his thigh.
The seven mile stretch they shared down Washington Avenue became their enchanted forest, and the bus was their palace. It was unthinkable that either would visit the other’s home. Adela, like Eddie, lived with relatives, her aunt and uncle and a houseful of cousins she would discuss by name as if Eddie knew them. Her parents lived in Afghanistan. They had come to the U.S. a few years after she was born, but had returned because jobs here were scarce. Adela had been left behind with her mother’s brother and had seen her parents only twice in a dozen years. Her aunt and uncle were liberal by Afghani standards, but would not have looked favorably on a relationship with a non-Islamic American.
Eddie knew little about Afghanistan and couldn’t have placed it on a map. When he thought about the Middle East he pictured a desert. He was pretty sure it was a country the U.S. was or had been fighting with. Terrorists came from there, he knew. Guthrie drank with men who had served in the Middle East, and they didn’t have much positive to say. Tommy’s boss at the 7-11 came from another foreign country with a familiar name, Pakistan, maybe, and, when Tommy was home watching TV on his off nights, he’d mock Mr. V’s accent and his odor. “I t’ink I have cooked myself into a tizzy,” he would say, lifting his arms and sniffing each pit with an exaggerated frown.
“Yes, very funny.” Aunt Cindy didn’t look up from her scraps. “And who owns the place? Who’s the boss, Tommy?” Tommy would shut up for a minute, then sing-song an observation about a commercial in his Mr. V voice, and Guthrie would snort a laugh into his beer. Eddie didn’t care to learn what his cousins, or even Aunt Cindy, might say if they met Adela.
But the number 55 Washington Avenue bus offered dozens of date destinations: McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, Subway, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell. They could exit the bus, eat and get back on. Both worked overtime often enough that late returns needed no explanation a their homes. On pleasant evenings they would choose a side street and walk and eat, each with a sandwich or a burrito or a wrap in one hand and a drink in the other, as dusk fell over the quiet neighborhoods,. When they finished their meals they would wipe themselves clean with the napkins and moist towelettes Adela carried in her shoulder bag. They dropped their trash in garbage cans left in front of the houses of porch sitters, who eyed them suspiciously, even after the couple thanked them with nods and smiles.
Eddie felt special on these walks. Adela’s chatter soothed him. She prattled on about how much she hated her job: her supervisors, her coworkers, the customers and their poorly behaved children, and the despicable merchandise she had to sell.
“It’s all junk,” she said, “things no one needs, things that break, a store full of junk. ‘Toys ‘R We’—bah!” Eddie mostly listened. Adela never asked about his job, and he worried about disappointing her with a clumsy phrase. He practiced conversation by repeating her comments, which she seemed to like. At home he had begun to speak differently. Once, as he rose from the couch, he asked his aunt and cousins, “Would anyone care for a sandwich?” and Tommy had imitated him in his Mr. V voice. Eddie took the mockery as a compliment: he was changing, his world was changing; it seemed as if he’d snuck a little bit of Adela home with him.
Occasionally, Eddie and Adela found themselves on the seat marked by the angel outline Eddie had marked the evening they met, and it felt like they should celebrate an anniversary. “You are my angel,” Eddie wanted to tell her, and her familiar face smiled up at him as if he’d actually spoken.
Indian summer gave way, daylight faded earlier each evening, and their walks lasted past sunset. Streetlights flickered on as a thicker darkness absorbed the shadows. On chilly nights they walked close enough for their sides to brush, and Eddie longed for Adela to nuzzle against him. He imagined his arm over her shoulder, and her hair, freed from its scarf, spread like a fan on the wind, gently swatting his eyes, strands catching on his lips. At the lockup he kept a pad in his pocket, and on it he drew angels, each of them with long, dark hair.
Prisoner Costello was long gone. He’d been convicted on most of the charges against him and sent to prison. The unexplainable figures no longer appeared on the walls of his cell. But Eddie felt drawn to it, Cell 7, and as he made his rounds he lingered in front of its barred door. With a few carefully phrased sentences he sometimes told its latest occupant the history of Prisoner Costello. He’d ask if the new inmate saw or felt anything unusual at night. One prisoner insisted on changing his cell and fussed until he was moved to Cell 3, after which Eddie’s supervisor told him not to discuss Prisoner Costello or the paintings with the inmates.
One evening Adela was unusually quiet on the bus, at the Subway, and on their walk. Eddie had chosen a new direction, an unfamiliar neighborhood, and she hurried ahead of him when he tried to match her speed, as if she didn’t want him beside her. Finally, she stood still. She dropped her sandwich wrapper on the sidewalk. “Oh, I hate ‘Toys ‘R Us’” she said tearfully. Eddie caught up, and, choosing not to correct her to their secret “Toys ‘R We,” stooped to pick up the wrapper. He crushed it into a ball and stuffed it into his pocket. Adela moved on, and Eddie followed. A few houses later, she stopped and brought her hands to her face. When she lowered them, she discovered a plastic tricycle in her path.
“Horrible, horrible toys!” she sobbed, and kicked the tricycle onto a neatly trimmed lawn. Eddie reached for her shoulder.
“What’s up?” he asked anxiously, but Adela jerked away.
“‘Wazzup?’” she mimicked. Her face was wet with tears. “‘Wazzup?’ What does that mean, ‘Wazzup?’”
Eddie felt dizzy. “I mean,” he stuttered, “what’s the matter with you? What is up?” It sounded awkward.
“‘What is up?’” She flung her arms over her head and gazed up at the darkening sky as if looking for a first star. A porch light blinked on. She lowered her head and arms, but didn’t meet Eddie’s eyes. “Learn how to speak English,” she hissed. “The bus will be coming soon.” Then she started back toward Washington Avenue, Eddie trailing her gravely.
Adela was not on the bus the next morning or evening, nor any morning or evening the rest of the week. She didn’t answer Eddie’s text messages or phone calls. Nothing went to voicemail. She had disappeared.
Eddie fretted over how little he knew about Adela. He couldn’t remember her last name, if he’d ever known it. He called Toys ‘R Us twice. The first time he became confused and asked about “Angel,” and was put through to Merchandise where he was asked over and over “what kind of doll are you looking for?” The second time he called he’d written out notes, a few key words, and clearly pronounced Adela’s name. He was told the store did not share information regarding personnel. With a drumming heart he told the voice at the other end that he worked at the county lockup. “So?” was the response. Finally, he took the bus to the toy store, where an impatient manager repeated that their policy didn’t permit them to give out information about former employees, which at least confirmed that Adela no longer worked there. As he exited he passed a worker on break, a girl with shaggy red hair and purple eye shadow who smoked a cigarette on a bench. He asked if she knew Adela. The girl made a face, and her nose ring wiggled.
“That’s the Arabian girl, right? She was rude. She hasn’t been around. Probably quit or got fired. Maybe they sent her back where she came from. What, did she take something of yours?”
At home, when Tommy put on Mr. V’s accent, Eddie closed his eyes and listened to the rhythm of his cousin’s speech, but got up and stalked out of the room when Guthrie snorted, “Fucking towelhead!” When Aunt Cindy called after him, Eddie didn’t answer. In bed he lay sleeplessly, inventing romantic moments: holding Adela’s hand; kissing her broad forehead; delighting in her beautiful, secret hair. He relived the times they had fleetingly touched. Her scent hung in his memory; he was consumed by regret that he may have crossed a line he never saw.
One night after two weeks had passed Eddie got off the bus at Adela’s stop. Her uncle’s house must have been close by, but on which side of Washington Avenue? The first evening he kept to the south. Side streets spread endlessly, some numbered— 2nd, 3rd, and 4th, others named for trees— Oak and Maple and Pine. These roads led to mazes of streets with meaningless names lined with single family bungalows and cottages, duplexes and a few apartment buildings. Night fell, and street and porch lights glowed like underwater stars. There weren’t many pedestrians, and automobile traffic dwindled. Eddie walked, but he’d lost the sense of searching. Something inside of him was hardening. At one corner he took his black marker from his pocket and drew an angel on a light pole. He drew five more angels that night: on another light pole; on a weathered “lost cat” sign taped to a telephone pole; on the back of one “NO PARKING” sign and on the front of another; on a dumpster in front of a gutted house. Beginning with the second angel, he drew them all with long hair floating back between their wings. The halo over each angel’s head looked like a wordless thought.
The following night he got off at the same stop and crossed to the north side of Washington Avenue. By the time he caught the last bus just before midnight, he had drawn twenty-six angels. The third night he picked a bus stop at random. Thirty-two angels. The fourth night he brought an Exacto knife and stopped counting. He sliced angels into the hoods of cars and pickup trucks. The fifth night he marked his first door— the main entrance of an apartment house, and the next night a host of identical angels appeared on the doors of an entire block.
“Overtime,” Eddie told his aunt when he returned home, night after night, in the middle of the Tonight Show.
“What’re you, saving up for a car?” she asked “Eddie’s going to have a car before you, Tommy, what do you think of that?”
“Where’s he going to park it? On the street?” Eddie left them on the couch and headed to his room.
Exactly when he’d stopped dreaming of Adela and thought only of angels, Eddie didn’t know or care. Maybe there’d been a time when he was trying to send her a message. Maybe a period when he was marking a loss. But soon it was all about his drawings. He saw himself as a kind of Johnny Appleseed, providing angels for the world instead of apples.
Each night he left the lockup wearing dark clothes. He carried a black ski cap in his jacket pocket. Along the streets he ducked away from the sweep of headlights, the shush of tires, or the hum of an engine. He roamed with head bowed, aimless but purposeful. He’d learned to sketch an angel with knife or marker in less time than it took to take a breath. No surface was exempt. Angels blossomed in his wake.
On an unusually warm evening in mid-November he found himself on a dead end street, facing a tall chain link fence that stretched into the darkness on both sides. Peering through the links, Eddie saw nothing—the world seemed to have stopped on his side of the fence. But soon he made out an expanse of rolling turf, then the trunks and branches of trees. He climbed over the fence and trotted across short grass that felt strange under his shoes. He nearly tripped into a shallow pit. It was a sand trap—he recognized it from seeing golf on TV, though he and his cousins had never watched more than a few minutes because the game was so slow and boring. Who knew that an actual golf course could be hidden like a secret country in a neighborhood so close to his home? Eddie stumbled up over the lip of the trap. After a few steps his tread became so light he felt weightless. The shaved grass of the putting green might have been the surface of a new planet. He looked up and, dazzled by the brilliance of more stars than he’d imagined could appear at once, he dropped to his knees. He patted the smooth, cool ground, and, on all fours, watched the frosty puffs of his breath. The last bus would be making its way down Washington Avenue soon, so he would have to work fast. Taking out his Exacto knife, he plunged its handle into the soft turf. Grunting with the effort of digging and crawling, he tore the arc of the first tremendous wing.
Eddie lingered near Cell 7, Prisoner Costello’s former home. “What the fuck you want, mother fucker?” the current resident demanded.
What the fuck do you want? Eddie corrected to himself, because the truth should always be spoken correctly. The inmate in Cell 7 held his tongue when he realized that he was invisible to the tall, young guard. Eddie’s attention was absorbed by the angels he saw on the walls and ceiling of Prisoner Costello’s cell, and he knew that a time would come when he’d have them all to himself.
On the side of the tank “Randy” is written in red glitter. Randy is an albino alligator, the tip of his snout and tail brushing against the edges of the tank. Whole milk colored skin and pink eyes — Randy has made his home at this roadside taco stand because he is too vulnerable to other predators in the wild. Kids had thrown spare change into the bottom of Randy’s tank, making ill-fated wishes.
“What change will you pick up from the sidewalk?”
“I’ll do pennies, but only if the face is up. No dimes or nickels.”
We’re sitting on the hood of Bosco’s car eating yesterday’s churros. He reaches into the car through the passenger window for a milk gallon jug filled with cherry Kool-Aid. All the powder has settled in the bottom and turns his teeth red. Bosco is tall and thin, ten pounds underweight with short shaggy hair and a tattoo of a python from shoulder to wrist.
He shrugs then walks the length of the car towards the aquarium, “Maybe. But only if they’re right in my path.” Reaching into Randy’s tank, Bosco grabs at a shiny penny near the bottom, but chickens out. The penny sways through the water back towards the bottom.
“Why only pennies then?”
“Could use the luck, I guess.” He taps the glass and tears a piece of churro, watching the dough melt into the water. Randy’s legs hang listless on the surface. “You think Randy feels luck?”
I wipe sugar and cinnamon onto my thighs, “Hope not.”
Bosco teaches me to drive stick shift in the empty parking lot — neutral, first, second, and back to first before we hit the curb. The engine stalls and neither of us moves.
“This’ll never work,” he says.
“Do you think I care?” I take my shoes off and prop my feet on the window ledge. Bosco has said this before.
He pokes at the freckles on my chest, the result of years of sunburns. “Do you think Randy will be ok?” he asks.
“I think we’re all gonna be fine.” I hold back a cough and blast Sleigh Bells until the speakers whine, loud enough that I can’t hear what he’s saying anymore. Sunlight cuts through the inside of the car.
Bosco can split me in two — one where we’re both faithfully on SSRIs and strangers, the other when we’ve skipped days and are too honest. And I think I’ll never be more in love than I am now. I pray to Bosco every night because I don’t know who I’m supposed to be. Eventually, I won’t remember how his body looks, feels.
At the end of the summer, I’ll move to Boston and all I’ll vaguely remember from dreams are his worn out shoes and crooked smile. And that we’d made a pineapple upside down cake with a box mix. I’ll forget him and he’ll forget me and these details aren’t enough for an entire person.
I’ll live in a house in Somerville with five roommates, all artists and bartenders with waning coke habits, but keep the kitchen fairly clean. I’ll write letters to myself on scraps of paper, smoking American Spirit and burning scented candles from the discount store to mask the smell.
Unimpressive and domineering men will take months of my twenties, all telling me the secrets to a very — happy, successful, carefree, original, easy, hangover-less, exciting, healthy, true, lucky — life. Promises, promises and I’ll trust every one of them.
In a bar a man will ask me to follow him into the bathroom to wipe his ass.
Outside North Station an evangelical will convince me to seek Christ at a retreat in San Antonio. The man will remind me of my mother, with a walk similar to a construction worker and prayers that seem to help no one, especially me. I’ll crave his acceptance and purpose. There I'll meet Teddy — the religion won't stick but the boy will. He’ll remember I like sunflowers and collects magnets from the places he's been; we’ll get married on a Tuesday. Most nights I'm wired, hearing people moving through the house. But I won't get up to investigate. We have some kids, I take Ambien to sleep at night.
Teddy gets fat and I'll insist that I have to sleep alone on the floor. Can you still believe you're in love, I'll ask.
In my forties, divorced, I’ll go back to school for speech pathology then take a job in Seattle where I’ll live alone in a studio apartment near the water in Belltown.
Bosco will quit school one year before completing his engineering degree, deciding to become a professional musician, getting paid in gift cards, tips, and CD sales. In his thirties he’ll grow his hair out and call himself Sampson, starting a string of failed business ideas: reflective backpacks, bend-proof playing cards, colored candle flames. He’ll never leave the state of Florida, something he’ll think about right before the end — not a regret, but wasted time.
On quiet nights, long after Bosco has shot himself in his grandfather’s basement, I’ll remember that in Florida, the sun shines constantly.
flash fiction by Jade Freeman
poetry by Jane Rosenberg LaForge
The desert would no longer be holy,
but proof of concept, theology in
the landscape, beyond golden doors
and stained glass windows. Sunday
School would be declared irrelevant.
No madrasas but the Buddhists would
still meditate on deluge and dryness.
We’d have fewer adherents, true,
because it takes money to chase water
down wells and around this orbit. Perhaps
it would make religion more honest.
The water would come when it chooses,
as a boy on a donkey forecasted to
rocks and washes. A boy like that
could become the pope, or the chief
of purification; religion could finally
offer uplift and be practical. The water
would drown loaves and render wine
silent, or non-commital. My sister,
dead since the last time, had a dream
about water: people grew gills
and translucent inner eyelids. Blood
became redundant, as our souls
were more directly nourished. Her bones
wouldn’t have melted. She’d be out
there now, swimming as though arrested
in her girlhood, but without the chlorine
and plastic, or the pressure holding back
her rigorous mind and muscle.
If Water Were Religion,
Some Doubts and a Reprisal
During the early morning, we eat Jersey treats like deep-fried Oreos, Zeppoles, and funnel cake as we stroll down the boardwalk.
By mid-day, we hold hands: our fingers, sweaty from the scorching heat rising from the parking lot asphalt, are intertwined.
In the evening, we light candles to La Virgen de la Altagracia thanking her for a blissful day and supplicating for the impossible miracle of your recovery.
At night, we drape blankets and hugs over you to keep you from shivering. We sob, noiselessly swallowing silent tears.
The next day, we kiss your forehead goodbye. We inhale the herb-like scent that permeates your nightgown, we stroke your hair gently, and we tell ourselves we have to let go.
micro fiction by Annell Lopez
A Day in the Life: Re-imagined
We had one weekend left to swim and then never again for the rest of our lives, so I switched to full dad-mode to get the girls excited. After I got off the phone with the hotel: “This is going to be the biggest trip we’ve ever taken. You two aren’t going to believe it.” Before I threatened to take their tablets away if they didn’t put their duffle bags in the car: “I used to go to these types of places when I was kid. I thought they’d all closed years ago.” As we drove down the interstate past cracked farm fields, empty rivers, and the muddy slop of former lakes: “You’ll never do anything like this again. I hope you’re ready.”
Carla recently joined her older sister Annette as a preteen, which meant that dad-mode had lost most of its power. Carla was our “girly” daughter, still comfortable in pink clothes and scraggily ponytails. Annette preferred shorter hair and more genderless attire, but the eye rolls they offered from the back seat looked almost identical. And that was the real reason we were taking this trip. Kids grow up fast; I’m not the first guy to notice. But the speed seemed to be increasing, so we needed a memorable family weekend, because there wouldn’t be many more.
Dad-mode had never really worked on my wife Bailey either, but I gave it a shot. “This will be the last time you ever go down a waterslide,” I said. “Ever.”
She took off her sunglasses and set her stack of work papers on her lap, reached across the car and rubbed the back of my head. “I love you, but I hate waterslides. You know that.”
I took my eyes off the road for a second and stared at her with exaggerated shock. “You told me you want to go on this trip.”
“I do. For you. You got so excited.”
A few hours later I tried to spark some enthusiasm again, as we were about to enter the Splash Valley waterpark at the Glitter Canyon Resort and Hotel. I grabbed the door handle, but didn’t open it. “Are you ready to be awash in fun? We’ll be swimming in it.”
“Seriously, dad?” asked Carla.
“Yes, seriously, the current of joy is going to carry you away.”
Bailey dropped her big canvas bag full of towels. “Are you done?”
“Almost,” I said. “Don’t be surprised if a wave of happiness crashes over us.”
Annette couldn’t take any more. She pulled my hand off the handle and pushed through the door, then pinched her nose. “What’s that smell?”
The humid chlorine air poured out around us and took me right back to all the water parks and hotel pools of my youth. The park wasn’t exactly like it used to be. Only one of the lazy rivers held water, while the other was an empty white ditch. Every second water slide sported a chain with a “Closed” sign strung over the stairway. They filled the big wave pool about three-quarters full, and the orange rust line of the former water level, back when there was enough for stupid stuff like waterparks, ringed the light blue walls.
But other than that, everything felt the same. The teenage lifeguards sat in their stands with expressions of intense boredom. Little kids and teenagers splashed and slid and carried big inner tubes, parents stood around (some attractive, most fat), plus the noise and heat and the sun filtered through the condensation on the big glass dome overhead.
“This is absolutely amazing,” I said.
“What are we supposed to do?” Annette asked.
I spread my arms wide. “Enjoy yourselves.”
Fifteen years since anyone watered a lawn or washed a car, ten years since municipal water systems started shutting down, eighteen months since folks in our part of the Midwest felt even a single drop of rain, I sat in an inner tube with a beer and floated down a manmade river of crystal-clear water with my wife and daughters. The big sign over the doors said, “Splash Valley’s Farewell Weekend – Thanks for the Memories!” and I should have felt guilty about wasting all those water resources but I couldn’t because the entire experience was totally fucking awesome.
Back in the hotel room that evening, our overworked arms could barely lift the pizza to our mouths. The girls wanted to watch a movie, and for the past twelve years every film in our lives had featured talking animals. This time they picked a romantic comedy with three full-on, barely PG-13 sex scenes. I kept looking at Bailey, using my eyebrows to ask, “Should they be watching this?” She rolled her eyes and shrugged.
“My skin feels funny,” said Carla. “I’m all itchy.”
“That’s the chlorine,” I said. “You need to take a shower.”
“The front desk said our section of the hotel gets water after 8:30. In twenty minutes you can.”
“Fine.” Carla returned to the movie, lying on the hotel bed next to her big sister.
I squeezed Bailey’s knee. “I’m going to take a quick walk.”
“Okay,” she said. “Don’t get in any trouble.”
The Splash Valley farewell party continued around the hotel, on the sidewalks and the hard dirt yards that bordered the parking lot. Guests with first floor rooms lugged all their chairs and couches outside. They threw Frisbees and footballs and cooked meat on travel grills. Toddlers up past their regular bedtimes wandered through the chaos. Everyone had a bottle of something. The noise sloshed between the buildings, which would be coming down within the week, and I walked down the line in awe until someone tugged on my sleeve and said, “Hey man, come here for a minute.”
He wore a bright white baseball cap and shirt, and he was short, even though he had to be seventeen or eighteen years old.
“Why?” I asked.
“We need a favor and no one else will help us out.” He laughed, fluid and natural. “If you have a second, we’d really appreciate it.”
I was curious, and charisma practically dripped off the kid, so I followed him towards the open patio door of his room. The floor was covered with clothes and backpacks and food wrappers, and on the beds sat his friends, two more guys and two girls, all in neon white, the newest status signifier now that washing clothes had become such a rare event.
“Oh yeah,” said the kid, “I’m Bert, by the way, nice to meet you.” He held out his hand for a shake like it was a dance move we would be doing together. “And these are my friends, Chris and Hawley, Lisa and Melody.”
They all waved and smiled like I had just been elected prom king.
“Isn’t it crazy they’re shutting this place down?” asked Bert. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime weekend, and we really want to celebrate, make it special, you know?”
“I know,” I said.
“Do you think you could help us get some alcohol? We’re all, like, twenty. We’re all adults. But my birthday is three weeks away. It’s super shitty timing.”
Of course. The “favor” they needed was something only me and my ID could provide. One of the girls, Melody, got off the bed, stood close, and touched my arm. “I promise we’re not going to get in any trouble. Would you be willing to help us out? Please?”
I could tell they weren’t all “like, twenty,” but this felt like a circle-of-life moment. I used to play this game with older coworkers, my brother’s friends, even a guy in a gas station parking lot during a trip with college roommates one summer. The kindness of strangers had gotten me hammered plenty of times, and now it was my turn to pay it forward. “You guys won’t be too obnoxious? You’ll be responsible?”
“Absolutely,” said Bert.
Melody took a step closer until our bodies almost touched. “For sure.”
“Alright,” I said. “I’ve got something for you. But only because this weekend is such a big deal. I’ll be right back.”
Bailey and the girls barely turned from the TV when I let myself back in our room. “Just have to grab something,” I said. From our suitcase I fished out the bottle of vodka I had secretly packed, just in case Bailey wanted to have some fun after the girls went to sleep. But honestly, that would never happen. Maybe when they were younger and slept harder, but not anymore. I held the bottle in front of me as I left so they couldn’t see it. “I’ll be back soon.”
I regretted giving the kids the liquor as soon as I handed it over. They acted thankful at first, and asked me to stay for a drink. I declined, but the other girl, Lisa, grabbed my arm and insisted, so I took a sip with them and as soon as the booze passed their lips their playacted maturity evaporated. One of the boys jumped on the bed, and the other grabbed Melody and started dancing. Bert said thanks again, and as I walked back to my room all of the potential consequences suddenly occurred to me, fines and lawsuits and all that, but I laughed it off. It would be fine. The whole place partied hard. They’d blend right in. I’d be fine.
We headed back to the waterpark the next morning at 10:00, right as they opened. The girls must have discovered the appeal of the place overnight. They woke ready to play in the water, so we dressed quietly and let their mother sleep.
I saw the underage drinkers again when Carla and I exited one of the big tube slides. They stood at the bottom like they were waiting for me. Without their shirts on the boys looked even skinnier than I would have guessed. Melody and Lisa wore the type of bikini I had forbid my own daughters from buying for the trip.
“Good to see you, man,” said Bert. “Thanks again.”
“No problem.” I tried to walk away, but he stepped in front of me.
“You should stop down again tonight.”
“Maybe.” I rested the double inner tube on the ground, and Carla stood next to me.
“Is this your daughter?” said Bert. “She’s delicious.”
Bert smiled, and Carla smiled, and I said, “Actually, I don’t think tonight’s going to work. We’ll see you around, okay?”
Bert didn’t look upset, but he stared at me with this smug sort of smirk, and I figured out he wasn’t like me, he wasn’t like I was seventeen years ago when I tried scamming liquor off of strangers. I had been a nice kid, but he was a punk. The white noise of the water pouring down the slides and sloshing against the sides of the pools, the shouts and laughs of the hundreds of kids, it all distracted me and pulled my attention in every direction except this hooligan’s face, but I focused on his narrow eyes until he slapped my arm and said, “Don’t worry, man. We’ll definitely see you around.”
Carla adjusted the strap of her pink swimsuit as Bert walked away. “Who’s that?”
“Someone I met on my walk last night.” I shook my head and waved him off. “It’s a long story. Not a big deal.”
Staying in all different types of hotels had been my most favorite part of growing up. Mom and Dad took us a few times a year. We ate out every meal, went to zoos or hiked around nature preserves or sat on beaches, and we all got on each other’s nerves and fought a ton, but I loved the idea of bunking with a few hundred other people. Dad complained about the crowds, Mom talked about how she could never sleep in a strange bed, but no more than five or six months went by before we headed somewhere new for the weekend. But since all those attractions dried up and so many of the hotels had closed, that’s not what people did anymore. It all felt foreign, like a weird old custom we had all agreed to abandon.
“Whatever,” Carla said. “Do you want to go again?”
After lunch the girls went back to the room to nap, but I stayed. I needed to float for every hour I could, so someday when I was old I wouldn’t look back and not remember what it felt like. The rain might never return. The ocean would always be too many miles away. So I found an inner tube and settled into the snake-like lazy river.
I made it about fifteen laps when I felt someone’s hand slip up the leg of my swimsuit. It had to be my wife feeling flirtatious, but when I stood up and turned I found the actual culprit hopping along with the current next to me. Melody, in her white top with plentiful cleavage, leaned close.
“Hey, you need to come back to our room tonight,” she said.
“No way,” I said. “Last night was a bad idea.”
“Listen.” She put her hand on my thigh, under the water. “I don’t want to tell your wife or your kids about what you did.”
“What did I do?”
“Supplied alcohol to minors. Came into a hotel room with a bunch of teenage girls.” She kneaded my leg, her hand drifting higher. “I saw you looking at me. Lisa did too. How would your daughters feel about that?”
“Are you serious?”
“This is ridiculous.” I hopped back into my tube. “I can’t believe you’re making such a big deal about frickin’ alcohol. Give me a break. Get a life.”
“I’ll see you tonight.”
She crossed to the stairs and climbed out of the river. I floated away.
We had dinner that night at the restaurant off the hotel lobby, burgers mostly made of filler, limp salads, skimpy drinks. They had fruit, though, amazingly, even some of the kinds that required too much water to grow, like peaches and pears. Back in the room Bailey turned the TV on and I offhandedly mentioned taking another walk. I expected disinterest, but got something else.
“We’re coming too,” said Annette.
“Why?” I asked.
“It sounds like fun. Everyone hangs out.”
“We met some people,” added Carla. “They said to find them.”
Panic churned in my stomach. “Who? Who did you meet?”
“Some other kids. I don’t remember their names.”
I didn’t know for sure, but I could guess which “kids” they were referring to. This had to be stopped. I thought fast, because more questions would have made them suspicious, and nothing would cement their desire to go with me like telling them no.
“Don’t you want to shower first?” I sifted through our open suitcase, looking for nothing, just to appear casual. “You both smell like a pool. I’ll come back to get you when you’re finished.”
They scrunched their noses and threw themselves on the bed. If the water came on at 8:30, and they each took ten minutes, I had about an hour to deal with the assholes downstairs. I waved and slid out the door. “I’ll be right back.”
Outside the party had grown larger than the night before. All the guests had figured out that staying in a building slated for demolition meant no one cared what they took or destroyed. The TVs they had wrenched off the walls sat propped against dressers they had dragged onto their patios. They stacked piles of framed art and hair dryers and coffee makers like a huge shopping trip, snatching up the deals before anyone else could. The air of vacation camaraderie melted into a picture of some dark and lawless future, even as the Frisbees and footballs still flew, the music still played, and the bottles of beer still glugged down people’s throats.
The punk kids sat in their room, waiting, and I started talking before they had a chance to.
“This bullshit is over,” I said.
“Slow down, man.” Bert’s arms swung like flippers, he bounced like a buoy at sea. “I told Melody to persuade you, but she took it way too far. She’s really sorry.”
“I don’t care.” A different sort of dad-mode, something much more aggressive and primal, came through my voice and posture. “And if you even think about doing anything to my daughters…”
“Calm the fuck down, man.” Bert’s hand flipped like he was doing a magic trick, poof, and all of a sudden he held a knife out in front of him. “We’re not asking you for much here. Take a deep breath, close the door, and let the girl apologize.”
You see people get knives pulled on them all the time on TV. It doesn’t feel like you think it would.
I closed the door. Bert nodded at Melody, who was sitting on the closest bed. She turned towards me and leaned back on her arms. “I apologize. I shouldn’t have felt you up. Let me show you how bad I feel.” She brought her hand to the lone button holding her white sweater closed, popped it open, and it fell back off her chest, revealing her breasts. The boys on the bed behind her starting clapping and hooting, the other girl jumped behind Melody and jiggled her chest and Bert took a picture with his phone and kept saying, “Oh no! I can’t believe this!” like he was delivering a line in a play, like they had planned this little skit before I arrived. “Now you’ll do whatever we ask,” said Bert, “because I got your daughters’ numbers right here. You think they’d like a copy of this picture?”
All of a sudden I could see my family packing up and leaving, and my name all over the internet, and losing my job, and the future became something terrifying and unimaginable. I had no idea what to do, except give them what they wanted.
I bought them alcohol. Lots of it. I had to visit two gas stations and a grocery store before I found any. The drying climate and the revelers at the Glitter Canyon Resort and Hotel had emptied the shelves. At each stop the attendant behind the cash register looked weary and afraid, like they didn’t know what would happen next. Neither did I, but at least I tried to smile at them.
We packed our bags before we headed back to the waterpark on Sunday. Part of me wanted to leave right away in the morning. The Bert incident had terrified me so much that I hadn’t slept. Plus, the girls’ eyes burned red with chlorine, and Bailey and I both had to work Monday. But we still had part of the day to swim, then never again. Maybe I was being dramatic. The rain might return, new technology might mean the resurgence of lawns and backyard pools and running through the sprinklers with my kids, laughing and splashing and trying to keep cool. Or maybe this was it. Six more hours.
We all felt groggy, so we hit the lazy river first. Bailey and I sat on opposite sides of a double tube, Annette and Carla each grabbed a single, and we formed a chain that bounced off the concrete walls of the stream. We pushed each other into the waterfalls and jets, and splashed each other until the pleas to stop started to sound serious. The girls asked about other places I visited as a kid, especially the ones that had gone away, the zoos and lakes and aquariums. They listened as I talked while Bailey squeezed my arm.
Next we hit the waterslides. We decided to go on every one that remained open, then each pick our favorite, and then go down those again. I liked the one with the double tubes and the big open bowl in the middle. Annette picked the straight-shot slide that dropped two stories, mostly to prove how old and fearless she was. Carla preferred the enclosed slide with the flashing lights, hidden curves, and blind drops. Bailey decided she liked mine best, so we went on it again and again, each time switching partners.
Afterwards she pulled me aside and smiled. “I’m really having fun,” she said. “This is a good trip.”
Then we returned to the wave pool. I dove into the bottom of some of the waves and tried to float on the tops of others. Bailey sat near the shore and let the water lap at her feet, and the girls ran back and forth between the two of us. My wife kept yelling, “Slow down!” I grabbed my kids’ hands and asked them if they wanted to jump with me.
As a round of waves ended and the girls wandered over to their mother, I stood, wiped the water from my face, and discovered I was surrounded. Bert and his whole gang tried to remain still and look tough, even though the moving water forced them to sway back and forth to keep their balance.
“Get the fuck away from me,” I said.
Bert held up his hands. “Whoa! I thought we were friends.”
“What else could you possibly want?” I looked each of them in the eyes. “Are you trying to mess with me now? Is this your idea of fun?”
Melody moved in close like she was going to give me a hug. Bert shook his head. “Relax, man,” he said. “We just wanted to say goodbye to Carla and Annette. That’s their names, right?” He scanned the people lingering in the shallows. “Maybe we can trade addresses and become pen pals or something.”
“Stop it.” I grabbed his arm and spun him around, and a whistle blew so I let go fast. But it wasn’t for me. Across the pool one of the lifeguards jumped out of his chair and tore off his shirt. He grabbed his big red rescue floater and dove into the pool.
In the water the people made a ring around a dark mass floating under the surface. The circle grew bigger as everyone backed away, and the realization of what was happening spread in a wave through the park. Heads turned and parents shushed their children. People stood next to their beach chairs and hopped out of their inner tubes in the lazy river, fighting the current to stay still and see the commotion in the pool. The water still flowed and churned and blasted, but the room felt quiet.
The lifeguard carried the limp boy out of the water and laid him on the sand-colored concrete, where other lifeguards joined him. Maybe he started mouth-to-mouth and chest compressions. Maybe the boy coughed and sputtered and sat up, just as his parents raced over to give hugs and thanks to the heroes who saved their son. Maybe five minutes later all the families returned to their wet and wild fun, making memories before everyone grew up and all the fun things we used to do as kids and with our kids went away. I don’t know. I didn’t see. I shoved past Bert and his gang and ran to my family.
“Is that boy going to be okay?” Annette asked.
“Hopefully,” I whispered. “We have to go. Now.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Please,” I said, and my family stood and we walked out, and I didn’t get to swim or slide or enjoy the water for those last three hours. On the ride home, and in the weeks and months that followed, I kept telling myself that it wasn’t a big deal, that I’d had enough, and maybe if I kept repeating those words they would finally come true.
The Last of the Water
short fiction by Eric Rasmussen
The Dirty Real
Four urgent throats held open, held up. Four orange beaks pointing sharply into air. Baby birds in a lopsided nest at the rickety peak of the woodpile. Five feet away a tortoiseshell cat is on the prowl. An assessing prowl close by the hinge-hanging remains of a door. Is the time right.....when will the time be right....? The jaws of the cat twitch in anticipation as it slinks on by.
These four littles, accepting without question a timeless security. They just are. It just is. The ground level three walled shed is Earth, is cosmos, is everything. Nothing can mar or intervene.
The mother bird flies straight towards them with a captured worm. The same way she always does. It's a tense thrill when they see her coming. The worm twists in the beak which holds it; wriggles, flings this way and that, desperate to be free. The baby birds have no thought about its fear and agony. Their beaks stretch wider than you'd think could happen as the mother plunges suppurating worm-flesh into the waiting throats. They quiver in the intensity of this moment, and wood dislodges; nest twigs shift. The cat sees each detail of this minutely but they do not.
Close on the pathway three troubled boy-teens twist strings together with which they plan to tie up a cat. They have matches with which to burn the paws of the tied cat when it can't escape. As it screams they will hang it from a nail on the wall of a building. Then they will flee. They see the tortoiseshell cat and it will do for torture as well as any other. The kids pull out a lure of fish-flake from one of their side pockets.
In the nearby town a driver with whiskey flooding through his gut is lurching sideways into his parked car. Soon he will reach the highroad and the scurrying boys. He will plough right into them too far gone to know if he's to blame for the mangled bodies and the blood. All he will take on board is the dire necessity to speed away from here.
The local papers will report yet another hit and run.
flash fiction by Jay Merill
The tulips I grow in pots
never do as well as the ones
spreading rampant in my backyard
bulbs swollen big as fists
sprays of flowers bursting like fireworks
from a single hidden point. Every time I try
to recreate the flamboyant show of color from out there
in here, I end up with
shrunken, mold-speckled bulbs bearing
withered, yellow-green stalks
twisted striped buds that
open sickly as sea anemones
in polluted tidepools
on some frigid coast.
poetry by Holly Day
My brother and I are both passionate home cooks. When friends discover this, they often assume we learned from our parents or grandparents. I think they imagine us standing on step stools in the kitchen as our mother teaches us that cracking an egg against the flat surface of the countertop is more effective than using the sharp edge of a mixing bowl. Sometimes I picture these false memories as well, but then I remember I learned that egg tip from a BuzzFeed article.
This is not a nice thing to say about the people who raised you, but my parents are truly terrible cooks. In fact, the primary lesson my brother Ben and I took from family mealtime was this: if we wanted to eat delicious food, we would need to learn how to cook it ourselves. I know what you’re imagining: mushy vegetables, flavorless meatloaf, casserole recipes cut from the labels of soup cans, but my parents’ home cooking deficiencies are not of the traditional sort. The meals they cook are so specific to them, their individual approaches to food so idiosyncratic, that they must be explained in some detail.
At a certain point, “harvest casserole” became code between Ben and me for any dish our mother made. This originated from the fact that, whenever my father asked what she was making for dinner, she would become indignant and invent a vague and utterly non-descriptive title on the spot. “Harvest casserole” was an enduring example. "I’ve never made it before! It’s not a recipe! It doesn’t have a name!” she would proclaim in a tone that implied his question was ridiculous at best and accusatory at worst. My father, of course, wasn’t expecting her to say “chicken marsala” or “French onion soup” or to name any other established dish. He knew she was making something original, using whatever ingredients she happened to have on hand, but he wanted to know what ingredients she was using and what cooking techniques she planned to employ. Was he going to eat roasted Brussel sprouts with couscous and pine nuts or boiled potatoes with garlic and dill? It was a simple question and one that, after more than 30 years of marriage, she still refuses to answer.
My mother has no interest in cooking the same thing twice and even less interest in following a recipe another person has created. While there is certainly precedent for improvisation in the kitchen, the best cooking is based on a foundation of technique. How hot and for how long should sweet potatoes be roasted to achieve a desired texture and flavor? What ratio of vinegar to oil makes for a good salad dressing? How long should you cook garlic to avoid turning it bitter? These are questions my mother has no intention of learning the answers to. At one point, later in life, she even began to believe that oil was not a necessary component of sautéing. My mother doesn’t just break rules, she refuses to acknowledge that she’s ever heard them. This is an excellent quality to have in certain contexts—but cooking is generally not one of them.
My father’s kitchen ineptitude is of a more traditional sort. As an anesthesiologist, he worked long, odd hours. Like many overworked fathers of his generation, he did not feel responsible for any domestic tasks. Still, he did have a few simple dishes he knew how to make, which he prepared over and over again, usually on weekends. Sunday night often meant Poppa’s barbecue chicken. Later in life, he expanded his small repertoire to include black-eyed peas with ham hocks, long-simmered marinara and from-scratch mole, all of which he prepares with success, but only on rare occasions.
Although my father understands the importance of trusted techniques and quality ingredients, he lacks anything resembling a discerning palette. This means that, when he makes a mistake in the kitchen, he usually serves the dish anyway. As the rest of us turn up our noses, he shrugs—his blue eyes sparkling with a kind of more-for-me excitement—and digs in. I have seen him eat very burned, very black food without raising an eyebrow. I have seen him eat, without complaint, homemade bread that failed to rise and was, therefore, the texture of a rubber eraser that had sat for a long time in the sun. He will gladly eat spoiled food, food that was accidentally over-salted when the top came off the shaker, and food that is scalding on the outside and frozen on the inside.
In recent years I’ve realized that his philosophy of food is simple: Large amounts of it are good. I drew this conclusion by taking note of the language he used to describe the food he liked. “The carrot cake at this place is truly epic,” I once heard him say, gleefully relating the details of his planned contribution to an upcoming Thanksgiving meal, "A piece is as big as your head.” On a trip to New York, he announced, “I’ve got to get a sandwich from this deli. I hear they really pile on the meat. I mean, you have leftovers for days.” An enthusiastic meat lover, he will order a 12-oz steak without apology, but I’ve also seen him perk up at the prospect of visiting my mother’s favorite vegan restaurant because they serve Vietnamese style fresh summer rolls that are roughly the shape and size of my forearm. Unlike the smaller, more traditional version my husband and I often enjoy before a steaming bowl of phở, the enormous vegan summer rolls are as bland as they are difficult to eat. It’s as if someone took an entire head of lettuce and a few carrot sticks and stuffed them into an extra-large condom. Plus, they don’t come with peanut sauce, so truly, what is the point? My father loves them, though. Possibly, growing up as one of eight children and forced to compete for food, he didn’t have the privilege to develop a nuanced sense of taste and texture, and developed instead the ability to swiftly assess how long any given meal would sustain him.
So, this was the food landscape Ben and I grew up in. We had cereal for breakfast, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, harvest casserole for dinner, and barbecue chicken on Sundays, all the while yearning to discover more about cooking and eating. We knew enough from reading books—our source for nearly all information—to know there was a world of flavor and tradition waiting for us to explore. When Ben and I were around twelve and nine years old, we submerged ourselves in cookbooks, using the same autodidactic skills we’d developed as homeschoolers to study history, math, and science. In this way, we learned recipes and techniques, and began to experiment. We wanted to eat good food, yes, but there was something more. I think we also sought a common history and sense of community that we found lacking in our young lives.
An ironic thing about my family is that the primary trait we share is independence. Even when Ben and I were young, the four of us lead relatively separate lives. Ben was a popular extrovert and spent his days playing basketball and video games with friends. I was a dreamer, and lived mostly inside my own head, inventing characters, stories, and even a secret language I shared with no one, like some kind of lone twin. My father worked constantly, and my mother spent her time pursuing hobbies like gardening and meditation and talking on the phone to her sister Lisa, who still lived back home in Texas, for several hours every day. My father’s career had sent us around the country, from medical school to his internship to his residency and beyond, never settling anywhere for longer than a few years. Ben and I weren’t close to any extended family. Aunt Lisa, the relative with the largest presence in our lives, existed primarily as the unheard voice whose silence punctuated our mother’s chatter in conversations that echoed through our house, a tuneless soundtrack to our daily lives.
As homeschoolers, Ben and I struggled to find friends and mentors after each relocation. Ben made connections easily, but his friendships lacked a depth of intimacy. I often felt pressured to make friends with some girl my age—the daughter of my mother’s friend, the sister of Ben’s friend—and I made an effort with each, but none of them felt indispensable. Soon, we would move again, and I would be amazed by how little I missed them, how little I missed anything about my old life. “Pulled up by the roots,” was the phrase my mother used for our relocations, as in, “I can’t be pulled up by the roots anymore.” But that expression never felt apt to my own experience. I always expected to move again, so I never put down roots to begin with. The place I had been born, Texas, the place that defined my family—after 20 years in Cincinnati, my parents still say, “We’re from Texas, but we live in Ohio now,”—is one I can’t remember. We left before I took my first steps. Texas was the old country, the place we went for funerals, for the births of Lisa’s children, and for Christmases and summers once Lisa had young kids and daily phone calls were no longer enough contact to appease my mother. Today, I feel at home in Cincinnati, the city where we settled when Ben and I were thirteen and ten, but, like my parents, I struggle to say I’m from Cincinnati when asked.
Perhaps the nomadic nature of those first ten years of my life shouldn’t count for so much, but, when it comes to developing a sense of oneself and one’s place in the world, the first ten are the ten that count. Also, moving from town to town was only one factor in the isolation that permeated my childhood. After settling in Cincinnati, Ben and I continued to be homeschooled, which prevented us from settling into a community of peers. We met other kids through a homeschool network, but there were so few potential friends to choose from, that it didn’t feel like a choice at all. Then there was the fact that we didn’t see our new friends every day like the kids I read about in books did, the ones who went to school. Strangely, I always related more to character in classic literature, like the sisters in Little Women. My daily life more accurately reflected the lives of girls living in a time before women had access to education. I knew how to embroider, churn butter, and ride a horse, but I was fuzzy on the purpose of things like lockers and homeroom.
Finally settling in Cincinnati also did nothing to change my family’s essential nature, our habit of sharing a roof and little more, like roommates, an arrangement of convenience. There’s a panel in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home in which she compares her childhood abode to an artists’ colony: “We ate together, but otherwise were absorbed in our separate pursuits.” When I came to this panel, I recognized my own family. In some ways, we were worse. We couldn’t even find a way to eat together. My mother, understandably, resented the expectation that she should prepare dinner every night for people who didn’t appreciate the food she made. And so, once Ben and I were old enough to prepare our own meals, she gave up, and the four of us stopped coming together for dinner entirely.
In rural Kentucky, where we had lived prior to Cincinnati, there were no bookstores or cable television. Once we moved to the city, access to these things, immediately accelerated Ben’s and my culinary educations. The rising tide of cooking shows, a genre that was exploding at the turn of the millennium, was also a major factor. Emeril Lagasse was a personal favorite of Ben’s. For me, it was all about Nigella Lawson.
This was at the height of my Anglophilia. Having been a fan of Shakespeare, Roald Dahl, and Charles Dickens since early childhood, I had recently discovered a particularly enthralling new series about a boy wizard. Also, BBC America came with our cable subscription, so I was spending a good deal of time working on my British accent and vocabulary. Although The Great British Bake Off had yet to air on either side of the pond, when I eventually saw it as an adult, I felt a surge of nostalgia. With its good-natured tone and idyllic pastoral imagery, it’s quite possible that the program is capable of spurring nostalgia in anyone, but I suspect it touches something deeper in me. There are few things that feel so authentically representative of my childhood as the image of a home cook in a British kitchen. Victoria sponge, Marmite soldiers, and trifle are among the foods that make me feel like a kid again. By the age of thirteen, I could tell you that coriander is cilantro, that treacle is molasses, and that pudding is a catchall term for dessert, but Yorkshire pudding is a savory side dish traditionally served with roast beef at Sunday lunch. Although I have never had a Big Mac and I loathe American cheese, I am personally offended when I hear someone scoff at British food. This nostalgia by proxy is a strange thing to feel, but it makes sense that, having grown up isolated and nomadic, my nostalgia would be similarly untethered, attaching itself to places and cultures that don’t really belong to me.
Nigella Lawson’s first TV show Nigella Bites started airing in 2000 when I was twelve. It shared its title with her second cookbook and was a sort of proto–reality show/cooking show hybrid. It centered around Nigella’s lovely London townhouse where she cooked impressive yet simple food in an enviable kitchen and spoke directly to the camera, lustfully describing food in loquacious tangles of words. She introduced her recipe for soft-boiled eggs with asparagus soldiers by saying that “the richness of the flowing, viscous yolk provides the best and simplest sauce for the bud-tipped grass.” Crème brûlée was “eggy cream waiting to ooze out on the spoon that breaks through the tortoiseshell disk on top.” Halloumi cheese was “squeaky, salty polystyrene-textured.” Nigella encouraged viewers to embrace laziness and indulge desire: “A lumpy batter makes the best muffins, so, in other words, you’re being ordered to be idle.” She said the word pleasure a lot. She licked the bowl, the spatula, her fingers. She was unapologetic, beautiful, and voluptuous; tall with thick brown hair that cascaded over her shoulders. One of her cookbooks was teasingly titled, How to Be a Domestic Goddess, and it didn’t always feel like a joke. No other term so perfectly described her. She was a feminine Dionysus—only British.
The cooking scenes in Nigella Bites were interspersed with montages of Nigella giving her small children baths, tucking them in at night, hosting intimate gatherings in her back garden, and dashing around stormy London in search of gourmet ingredients for her rainy-day hand-cut pasta with meatballs. To my memory, her children’s father was rarely seen or never directly acknowledged. I later learned that he passed away soon after the show began production, but the series never noted his death; his existence was eliminated from the narrative entirely.
Maybe others noticed this unexplained omission, but his absence never struck me as odd. My own father worked long hours, frequently barricaded himself in his study when he did come home, and often took locum positions out of town. His absence was so consistent that many of my friends assumed he and my mother were divorced. In fact, my family, which is to say, my mother, Ben, and I, only stayed in Cincinnati because my mother had hit her breaking point and refused to move again. That didn’t stop my father, who has changed jobs many times since the one that brought us to Cincinnati, sometimes taking positions as far as 250 miles away, where he lives in sad, sterile apartments, returning home a few weekends out of the month and spending several weeks each year vacationing with my mother. How their marriage has survived such an arrangement is not something I can explain, though you may rest assured that I share your bafflement. So, the rhythms of Nigella’s home life and the absence of her husband were familiar, even if her cooking was not.
My mother, still skeptical of cooking instruction of any sort, nonetheless often watched Nigella Bites with me, and appreciated Nigella’s attitude toward food. Although it should go without saying, she never followed any of Nigella’s recipes. Still, watching Nigella together gave us something food-related we could share. There are still Nigella quotes we hold between us in a shared vocabulary of inside jokes and pop-culture references. We will, for example, often use the British pronunciations of pasta and yogurt when speaking to each other.
Nigella Bites eventually went off the air and, while I continued to use her cookbooks, and buy the new ones that she published every few years, her voice became less familiar. I no longer heard it in my mind each time I stepped into the kitchen and put a pot of water on to boil or started chopping onions. A decade later, I found several episodes on YouTube and realized just how much my life in the kitchen had been influenced by Nigella. It was she who taught me that pasta water should be “as salty as the Mediterranean” and that some should be reserved to help the sauce cling to the noodles. Nigella was the first person who echoed my experience of cooking as a therapeutic ritual, recommending risotto as the most comforting dish of all. I still make risotto when I need to quiet my mind; the meditative practice of adding broth one ladleful at a time and stirring until the liquid is absorbed can be every bit as relaxing as any traditional Zen practice—and you get to eat a delicious meal when you’re done. Nigella’s cranberry sauce—itself inspired by traditional American Thanksgiving fare, which she loves—traveled back across the pond again to form the foundation of my cranberry sauce, an adaptation I developed over several years and have made every Thanksgiving for a decade. It holds a cult status in my family, especially in the mind of my sister-in-law, Jenn, who verbally confirms with me each and every November that I’ll be making it again this year, and that she will have exclusive rights to the leftovers.
Ben and I are now in our 30s. We are both married, and still live in Cincinnati, which feels more like home every year. Within our new nuclear families and through occasions like Thanksgiving, we eventually established something close to the family dinners that were missing from our childhood. As a cook, his specialty is meat, and he delights in spending all day smoking something large and wonderful for a group of hungry friends and family. At one such social gathering, my husband Ryan posed the question, “Which would you rather live without, meat or music?” Ben was the first person to answer, and the only one who valued meat above music. After Ben’s two kids were born, Ryan and I started having regular Sunday dinners with Ben, Jenn and their children. Ben always prepared the meal, and I often brought a pie or something similar for dessert.
Every year at Thanksgiving, Ben hosts our small extended family: his children, our parents, his wife Jenn’s parents (who drive a few hours from Louisville to Cincinnati), Ryan and me. He often prepares two turkeys, partly so there will be plenty of leftovers (which is quite comforting to my father, as you can imagine) and partly so that he can experiment with different cooking techniques. He revels in asking each family member (except my mother who has, in recent years, become a vegan) whether they prefer the rotisserie turkey or the smoked turkey, the roasted turkey or the fried turkey. Although a part of me wants to try my hand at cooking a turkey myself, I am mostly content to bring my usual contributions: cranberry sauce for Jenn, the pumpkin cream pie with gingersnap-crump crust that Ryan loves, a vegan apple tart my mother can enjoy.
For both Ben and me, cooking began as a way to fill a personal need and expanded into a tool for showing our love and making others comfortable. What started in isolated corners of bookstores and in the private mind-space where skills are practiced and honed, now lives in shared spaces, where our family of four has multiplied into a modest cluster of in-laws and young children who can’t all fit at one table anymore.
Recently, Ben and Jenn hit a rough patch. They decided to live apart and share custody of their two small children as part of a trial separation. When Ben first told me about their struggles, I found myself prematurely mourning the death of a tradition I’d come to depend on: Sunday dinners. Instinctively, I berated myself: How could I be thinking of something so trivial when his family was splintering apart? Later though, after Sunday dinners stopped, I realized the importance of regularly scheduled family time. Without a reoccurring event on the calendar, I saw my niece and nephew less, and I felt out of touch with Ben’s life at a time when I most wanted to know every detail. Part of this was simply a matter of giving him the space he needed. He called semi-regularly for emotional support, and I always answered, but I didn’t want to bother him if he wasn’t in the mood to talk.
Somehow, though, I knew it was more than that. The meals we shared had forged a new family unit made of four adults and two children, and if his marriage broke up, that unit would break up too. I hadn’t realized how much I’d come to depend on the stability of our new family. Obviously, I knew that his marriage, whether it survived this rough patch or not, was something I couldn’t claim or control, and that its dissolution could never hurt me as much as it would hurt him. I knew with certainty that I had no right to feel my own sense of loss, and at the same time, I felt sure that my loss was great and that it would insist on being felt.
Several months into their trial separation, Ben and Jenn invited Ryan and me to have dinner together again. In certain ways, it was unrecognizable. We gathered at his (temporary?) apartment, where his children shared a bunk bed and the table only sat four; we ate takeout Chinese food, so Ben wouldn’t have to cook; Jenn went home alone at the end of the night instead of heading upstairs with her husband. In other ways, it felt the same as always. Ryan chased Ben’s kids around and made them laugh; Jenn and I chatted about books and television; Ben made sure everyone had a comfortable place to sit and a beverage to drink. I could feel something glowing in the tiny, tucked away place inside my mind where I sometimes allow hope to bloom. I wouldn’t yet let myself believe that they’d work things out, that they’d stay married, but I began to consider that we might, all of us, find a way to stay family.
creative non-fiction by Celeste Fohl
Holly Day’s poetry has recently appeared in The Cape Rock, New Ohio Review, and Gargoyle. Her newest poetry collections are “A Perfect Day for Semaphore” (Finishing Line Press), “In This Place, She Is Her Own” (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press), “A Wall to Protect Your Eyes” (Pski’s Porch Publishing), “I’m in a Place Where Reason Went Missing” (Main Street Rag Publishing Co.), and “The Yellow Dot of a Daisy” (Alien Buddha Press). A Fairy Tale of the Great War.” More information: jane-rosenberg-laforge.com.
Célèste Fohl holds a BA in creative writing with a poetry focus from the University of Cincinnati and is pursuing her MFA in the nonfiction program at Lesley University. Her work has been published in Gravel, Short Vine, and several indie-press anthologies. Célèste lives with her husband and their cat in Cincinnati.
Jade recently graduated with her Master in Fine Arts from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in The Cortland Review, Cactus Heart, and Paragraphiti, among others, and is forthcoming in Badlands. Jade currently lives in Denver with her dogs.
Jane Rosenberg LaForge
Jane Rosenberg LaForge’s poem, “If Water Were Religion,” appeared in Crack the Spine Number 55 (Feb 2013), as well as the spring 2013 print anthology. It was nominated by the magazine for the Best of the Net anthology. Her most recent book of poems is “Daphne and Her Discontents” (Ravenna Press) and her novel is “The Hawkman:
Tucker Lieberman is the author of “Painting Dragons” and “Bad Fire.” His poems have appeared in Esthetic Apostle, The Conclusion, Déraciné, Neologism, Defenestration, and Snakeskin; his photography in Barren, Royal Rose, Dodging the Rain, Marias at Sampaguitas, and Paper Trains; his art in Burning House; and his fiction in Owl Canyon’s “No Bars and a Dead Battery” (2018) and Elly Blue’s “The Great Trans-Universal Bike Ride” (expected 2021). His essays have also been published widely. He lives in Bogotá, Colombia with his husband, the science fiction writer Arturo Serrano. www.tuckerlieberman.com
Annell Lopez is an emerging short fiction writer. Her work has been featured at the NYU Spring and Fall Literary Readings and has been selected by La Pluma y Tinta Reading series. She has participated in the Words & Music Writing Conference in New Orleans and is an alumna of the Cagibi Literary Hudson Valley Writing Retreat. Her non-fiction has been published by The Setonian and her fiction work is forthcoming in Abstract Magazine and WRBH Reading Radio.
Jay Merill lives in London UK and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing. Jay is runner up in the 2018 International Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize, a Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of the Salt short story Prize. She is the author of two short story collections (both Salt): God of the Pigeons and Astral Bodies and has fiction forthcoming in Occulum. Jay is published in 3 AM Magazine, A-Minor, Anomalous, CHEAP POP Lit, The Citron Review, Corium, Entropy, Epiphany, Eunoia Review, Foliate Oak, Ginosko, Gravel, Heavy Feather Review, Hobart, Jellyfish Review, Literary Orphans, Lunch Ticket, matchbook, Matter Magazine, Per Contra, Pithead Chapel, Prairie Schooner, SmokeLong Quarterly, Spork, Thrice Fiction, Toasted Cheese, upstreet Literary Journal, Wigleaf and other greats.
Eric Rasmussen has placed short fiction in Fugue, Sundog Lit, Gulf Stream, Black Fox Literary, and South Carolina Review, among others. He serves as editor of the regional literary journal Barstow & Grand, and fiction reader for Split Lip Magazine. He earned his MFA at Augsburg University in Minneapolis and currently resides in Eau Claire, WI.
Nearly eighty of Gregory’s short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as Glimmer Train, The Georgia Review, descant, The Florida Review, The Pinch, Post Road, Nashville Review, A-Minor Magazine, Yemassee, The Baltimore Review, The Los Angeles Review, PANK, Superstition Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Thrice Fiction. His stories have earned six Pushcart Prize nominations and have won awards sponsored by descant, Solstice, the Rubery Book Awards, Gulf Stream, New South,and Emrys Journal. His full length collection “Women of Consequence” will be released in 2019 by Regal House Publishing; also scheduled for publication in 2019 is a short collection, “Turnpike,” winner of the Gambling the Aisle Chapbook Prize. For full lists of publications and commendations, visit gregorywolos.com.
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Creative Non-Fiction Editor
Kerri Farrell Foley
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Preston Taylor Stone
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