by William Cass
Glen had mixed feelings about having his last phone appointment with Dr. Bey. On the one hand, he finally felt pretty much like himself again and strong enough to face whatever might lie ahead on his own. On the other, he’d been having those weekly counseling sessions for going on two years since shortly after his wife moved out without warning; she’d simply left her wedding and engagement rings on their bureau on top of a note that said: “I can’t do this anymore.” He was served divorce papers outside the elementary school where he was assistant principal a week later.
All Glen’s immediate phone messages, texts, and emails to her went unanswered. She quickly closed each of those accounts, and he had no idea where she’d gone, so any chance of communication with her quickly became impossible. In those early days, he just wandered around in a kind of numb fog, hardly sleeping, stumbling his way through work, a feeling ever-present like he was falling in a bottomless well. He often found himself gazing with disbelief at the framed photograph from their honeymoon, the one where their tanned faces smiled into the camera with a white-sand beach and blue waves behind them. When he hazarded glances in the mirror, hollowed eyes in a pale face stared back, and he found himself crying often and at odd moments. He finally realized he had to do something to regain some sort of functionality. He was too embarrassed, too proud he supposed, to seek face-to-face help, but found online counseling services that offered sessions by video, chat, or phone. Glen chose the phone option and Dr. Bey after scrolling through the counselors’ profiles on the site because it was the only one that didn’t include a personal photo, furthering the sense of anonymity he sought.
On that first counseling call, Glen was surprised to hear a woman answer.
“You’re Dr. Bey?” he asked after she’d already said so.
“That’s right.” She sounded about his age, fortyish, and there was a distinct accent to her voice.
“Are you British?”
“I was raised in Australia,” she said. “But I became an American citizen while I was still married.”
“You’re divorced then?”
She paused. “I am, yes.”
Glen squeezed his eyes shut. “Well, I’ll be going through that soon myself, so I hope you can help. I’m really struggling with things right now. Badly.”
“Why don’t you start at the beginning?” Her voice was calm, steady, reassuring. “Tell me what’s happened.”
So, he did. And, he continued to do so every Friday afternoon at five o’clock from that point forward. Over time, she did help him understand the roots that were likely at hand in his wife leaving and his own role in that, helped him separate and dissipate blame and anger, helped him navigate the divorce itself and its aftermath. In short, in her even-handed, honest, and gently direct way, she helped him slowly but gradually put the pieces of his life back together.
It was a journey that for the first six months at least Glen frankly never thought would be possible. And even though she’d now also helped him see that he’d arrived at a place where her assistance was no longer needed, he was hesitant to end it. Although their weekly discussions had for a while become more like conversations between friends about increasingly routine and mundane daily life topics, both his and ones they shared, he was sorry to see them stop. An intimacy of sorts had somehow developed, one that she also, it seemed to Glen, had come to appreciate and enjoy. It might have just been his hopeful imagination, but he thought he heard the tiniest bit of reluctance creep into her own voice when they agreed to make this session their last. Perhaps that’s why, in hindsight, there appeared to be insistence in it, too.
As the conclusion of that last hour together approached, Glen sighed and said, “So, I guess this is it, then. The end of the road for us.”
“You can always get in touch through the website and set up a new appointment if you need it.” She paused. “But I don’t think you will. You’re doing really well now.”
“Thanks to you.”
He waited and listened to the soft static on the line. “So, listen, since we’re signing off for the last time in a minute, can you tell me where you live?”
A moment passed before she said, “Here. The same city.”
He felt his eyes widen. “But your area code…”
“It’s a cell number I got a long time ago. Before I moved after my divorce.”
“Wow. All this time, I thought you were in another part of the country, but you’ve been right down the block.”
“So to speak.”
A longer moment of silence passed, then Glen said, “How about a first name, do you have one of those?”
“I do.” Another pause. “But I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to share it with you.”
He nodded, pinched the bridge of his nose, and watched the minute hand on the clock above his desk move into a new hour. He supposed she was looking at the same thing.
Glen could hear the slow, familiar breathing on the other end of the line. His own, he realized, had quickened. Finally, she said, “Well, then…”
“You take care.”
He heard a click on her end, and the line went silent. He lowered his phone onto the desk and stared at her number on it. The light in his study had fallen, the evening’s gloaming begun.
Glen waited a few days before doing an internet search for Dr. Bey along with their city’s name. He was surprised to only get one possible hit: just an address for a “Dr. R. Bey” with the word “Psychologist” after it. No website, images, reviews, or any other entries, which he found curious. That Friday, as five o’clock came and went, he found himself repeatedly fingering and checking his cell phone, a feeling of anxious emptiness enveloping him. He went for a run, turning up the music in his earbuds, but the feeling remained. And it persisted into the next week. He realized that Dr. Bey had become a talisman for him, a mooring. Glen felt untethered without her. He missed her voice. He missed their connection. He wondered if she felt similarly.
As time went on, the feeling only intensified, so two weeks later, he decided to bring flowers to her office to thank her personally for all she’d done for him. He chased away whatever other motives or hopes may have been involved in that decision. A simple expression of gratitude, he told himself. Nothing more.
Glen waited until that first Monday of his school district’s Spring Break to stop at a florist for a mixed bouquet and make the drive across town. He felt himself frowning as he pulled to the curb and turned off his car’s engine in front of the door that led to her office. It was in a rundown, multi-ethnic section of the city. Her nameplate was on the door of a smoke-stained brick building, and through the smudged glass above it, he could see a staircase leading to what appeared to be a small second floor apartment over an auto parts store. On the other side of the door, an old man of Middle Eastern decent sat on a stool in front of a newsstand, a burning cigarette between his lips. With the morning unseasonably warm, Glen’s windows were rolled down, and the acrid smoke from it drifted his way on the small breeze.
Glen moved the flowers from the passenger seat onto his lap, and the door leading to the staircase opened. A woman came through it onto the sidewalk, leaving it ajar behind her. She was also of Middle Eastern decent and wore a black hijab. The rest of her clothing was black, too, and she pushed up large oval-shaped glasses that had slid to the tip of her nose. More distinctive was her size: she was less than four feet tall with the short arms and torso associated with dwarfism. The old man on the stool looked at her and smiled as she came to his side, took a newspaper off the pile by his cash box, and handed him money. They began talking together about the fine weather, and at the sound of her first spoken words, Glen immediately recognized that she was Dr. Bey. Something inside of him dropped. He felt his eyebrows knit.
She and the old man exchanged pleasantries for another minute or so before Dr. Bey returned through the door with the newspaper, closed it behind her, and climbed the stairs. Glen watched the back of her until she’d disappeared. He felt frozen, unable to move. He found himself blinking and shaking his head. He remained motionless there until the old man had finished his cigarette and dropped it with a hiss in a coffee can at his feet. Glen blew out a long breath, got out of the car, crossed the sidewalk, and leaned the bouquet against the door leading to the staircase.
He turned when he heard the old man clear his throat. He was staring at Glen and said, “Are those for Rahima?”
“Well, you can bring them to her yourself. She’s just at the top of the stairs there.”
“I don’t think so, no.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Glen was overcome with shame and self-loathing. She’d guided him through the darkest part of his life. What did it matter who she turned out to be? But he just shook his head and walked back to his car.
As he was getting into it, the old man asked, “Who should I tell her the flowers are from?”
“Nobody special,” Glen told him. “Nobody she’d care to meet. Just an admirer.”
He slid into the seat, closed the door, and started the engine. He was aware of the old man’s eyes still on him. Glen met his even gaze a last time before putting the car in gear. As he pulled away, the old man raised his hand, and Glen returned the gesture. It was the closest thing to human decency he could muster. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t do better, but at that moment, he wasn’t capable of it.
William Cass has had a little over 190 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a couple of Pushcart nominations, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.
by Daniel Bishop
I am a minority now,
which is to say that once she was not
had not yet become
or what she had been has ceased to be
and the spirit of the past follows you
the spirit too
of where you are headed
but you do not know it
haunting you like
Georgia O'Keefe's voice on the radio
like cactus needles
sticking in your socks --
pale and thin as your grandfather
or his beard,
as the mess he left on the sink
after a shave
— pricking now at your toes
so slight and pale
so nearly translucent
you cannot find them all
or remove just enough
it seems a shame
to discard a decent pair of socks
a shame too
to bury them deep in your dresser
to be found
on some other October night
when the last thing you’ll want
is to remember.
Daniel Bishop is a writer of prose, poetry, and music. He is a member of the Albuquerque Writer’s Workshop. His work has been featured on NPR’s Songs We Love and in Prometheus Dreaming. He lives in Corrales, NM, where he gets his hands dirty working with semi-precious stones and silver.
by Eric Aldrich
Veronica and Mother are in Wal-Mart. Veronica is perusing the kitty food in the pet section while Mother stocks up on paper plates in a different aisle. Veronica fusses her way past Friskies and Whiskers and 9 Lives. At the end of the aisle, she confronts a daunting omen: a wall of fish tanks, each one an aquatic mortuary for goldfish, angel fish, and guppies. Belly up they hover, suspended in murky green water. Veronica makes the sign of the Cross, thanks God for the warning. She selects only chicken kitty food, avoids tuna or salmon.
When they go to Walmart, Veronica tries to keep away from Mother as much as possible until it’s time to check out. Much to her frustration, Veronica looks just like Mother, though she’s 34 and Mother is 55. Like Mother, her six-foot frame bears only 127 pounds of woman. Her anxious metabolism incinerates calories, but Mother would never stop pointing it out of Veronica gained weight, so she staves off hunger mostly with rice cakes. Today the women have worn nearly identical outfits – blue jeans and kitty-cat sweaters and white Keds. Mother’s sweater shows kitties and yarn; Veronica’s sweater depicts kitties in a basket. Both Veronica and Mother have waist-length hair. Mother’s hair is red; Veronica’s, auburn.
Laden with kitty food, Veronica must return to the cart. As she passes the McDonalds, the smell of burgers makes her mouth water. A small boy at a yellow plastic table dips Mcnuggets into bbq sauce, sips a soft drink. The scene is lit like a manger display. What does it mean? As a girl, she and Grandmother would go to the Micky-D’s drive-thru and Veronica would always order a double cheeseburger and a large Sprite. Veronica considers sneaking in and cramming down a double cheeseburger, but if Mother smells onions on her breath she will know and endlessly repeat the grams of trans fat and sodium. Grandmother diabetes cost her two toe amputations and Mother would harp on that. Mother will have Wheat Thins in the cart. Veronica will eat some of those. She abandons the uninterpreted omen.
Veronica checks the paperback aisle in case Mother is there. She spots a priest holding a romance novel. The cover depicts Fabio cradling a swooning southern belle, his bare chest bursting through a blue Union uniform. Mother loves Fabio novels. To see a priest holding one is a sign of judgement, but Veronica won’t warn Mother. Veronica hides her oracular literacy. She fears that if people knew, they would exploit her. In particular, she worries about Mother demanding foreknowledge of soap opera plots and upcoming sales.
Veronica comes upon Mother in the personal care department, peering over her glasses at a cornered employee. His nametag says Stan, he looks in his twenties and about 5’4.” Goatee hairs sprout sparsely on his chin. Stocky in his blue employee vest, he cowers in Mother’s lanky shadow as she interrogates him: “Do you have the big squirt bottles of oatmeal lotion? Healing amino oatmeal lotion? My heels get so dry…”
“They’re right next to you, ma’am,” he points to a lower shelf.
Veronica moves closer to the cart and bumps into Stan. He looks over his shoulder at her, then back to Mother, then back to Veronica. His pupils expand. He moves aside and stutters, “Can I help you?”
Veronica replies, “Yes.”She’s not really in need of assistance, but he helped Mother, so he must help Veronica also. She orders the young man, “Take these cans and put them in the cart.” Stan awkwardly plucks cans from her elbows and transfers them into the cart alongside country apple potpourri, prune juice, Diet Pepsi, Metamucil, and paper plates. Mother, crouching like a resting mosquito to examine lotions, notices. Veronica sees Mother move the lavender bottles behind the peach ones.
“Excuse me, young man. Do you have any more of the lavender oatmeal lotion?” Mother interrupts. Veronica shakes her head; the aisle reeks of lavender.
Mother lies. For example, every Tuesday two Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by and try to convert them. One week, Veronica came downstairs from watching Rachel Ray just in time to see them drive off. “They weren’t here very long,” Mother said. Veronica wanted to tell the Jehovah’s Witnesses to be extra cautious on their evangelizing rounds. Someone had turned two religious greeting cards upside down at CVS, inverting the golden crosses on their covers, which was a clear warning. Luckily, the pair were naturally careful people and they were OK, but she had been worried about them. On their next visit, when Mother lured the Jehovah’s Witness man into the kitchen with coffee, the lady asked if Veronica’s yeast infection was better. “What yeast infection?” Veronica had asked at the outset of an awkward silence.
“I see some lavender behind the peach bottles, ma’am,” Stan points to the disorganized flasks of lotion. “Oh, I’m going blind,” Mother overemphasizes her chuckle.
Veronica suspects what Mother might pull next. Mother’s greatest joy is when they’re mistaken for sisters. Conversely, this is Veronica’s profoundest misery. Mother will try to get checkout clerks, mechanics, dentists, or anyone else to make that mistake. Sure enough, she stands up holding a lavender lotion and playfully asks Stan, “How do you think we are related?”
Stan goes red. He replies, softly, “She’s your daughter?”
Veronica, grinning, points at Mother with her knot-jointed finger. Mother lets out a venomous hiss, followed by a guffaw. She stands to her full height, pushes her chest out. Veronica does the same. Standing toe to toe, they look like a kitty attacking her own image in a mirror.
“I…I’m…sorry…” Stan stammers and shakes his head. “Are you her aunt?”
“No!” Mother throws the lotion into the cart and snarls. “You’re right. I’m her mother.”
For a moment, triumph smells like lavender. Veronica could hug the employee, but he is backing away. If he could read omens, identical women would be an sign to him. He flees the aisle, but Veronica suspects he doesn’t comprehend what the universe was trying to tell him. What was the message to Stan?
As she hurries away from Mother to go get Lean Cuisines, Veronica considers following Stan, questioning him about what she and Mother signify. But when she gets to the frozen section and sees her gaunt image in the glass door, she realizes the warning wasn’t for him. Veronica is the soothsayer, so the omen of identical women is meant for her. It has been staring her in the face her whole life, warning her, directing her to action. She selects seven Lean Cuisines for Mother and buys herself seven Hungry Man Dinners. They’re a thousand calories a piece. Veronica will have hips where Mother has bones, she will have smooth fingers with proportionate knuckles, her breasts will fill out, her inner thighs will grow together, she will dye her hair blond, she will wear glasses instead of contact lenses. Maybe she will adopt a puppy. She closes the freezer door and sees her smile reflected. It’s the harbinger of a new Veronica.
Eric Aldrich lives in Tucson, Arizona where he teaches writing and literature at Pima Community College. You can find his most recent fiction in Manifest West, The Worcester Review, Weber: The Contemporary West, and Hobart. He reviews books for Heavy Feather Review, Full Stop, Terrain.org, and Rain Taxi Review of Books. Follow @ericjamesaldrich on Instagram for new stories, reviews, sunsets, and coyotes.
by Michael Chang
i put these secrets into skin fry them till they are golden brown
drizzle plum sauce on them sweet and savory
that is how they want me to write
instead i write about timothée chalamet
some days i wake up and think i am nat wolff or a little pig named wilbur
my governing principle is optimism possibility loud and clear
why are other people so dark so traumatic so sad their poems be like
abandoned trailer teeth claws death rape grease jet fuel blood gasoline walmart train tracks bodies animals coyotes ravaged etc
my poems be like
1990 dom perignon corn chowder lobster thermidor montauk dunes beach reads oliver peoples two hands coffee decaf is hell etc
if i have to read about your hoof again or how he let her flirt when you were right there
we will have a problem words will be exchanged i will hurt your feelings
after all i haven’t forgotten that time you read my work
and asked did amy tan write this
when you told me you were one of the deplorables i thought ugh it’s always the cute ones
and pushed your head down some more
MICHAEL CHANG hopes to win the New Jersey Blueberry Princess pageant one day. Michael strongly suspects that they were born in the wrong decade. A recovering vegan, their favorite ice cream flavor was almost renamed due to scandal.
by Michael L. Woodruff
I am a cemetery by the moon unblessed.
This is the moment when lights dim. A faint mummer, a creak in the aluminum and a light cry escape from an old section of the football bleacher at the edge of the cemetery located under a walnut tree. The ground is littered with small green balls. The bleacher is used for funerals. The sounds are a plea in a place that sleeps. It softens the morning. But it doesn't help.
You should have kept your mouth shut.
The grounds are immaculate, manicured, surrounded by low wrought iron fencing that goes on for seeming miles along highway 69. There are acres of gravestones, all precise and carefully etched. The grass is cut so clean you can have a Sunday picnic on it, and often, people do, spreading blankets atop the lime colored grass, complete with coolers and food baskets and folding chairs; they come to visit their deceased loved ones. Children run through the maze of gravestones like they do through the hallways of the houses they live in. The adults freshen up the final homes of lives that no longer care. American flags and plastic flowers dot the granite memorials. A wooden sign with listed rules exhort visitors to keep their endearments current by taking the old flowers away. Please do not leave anything over 30 days. Show community pride. The place looks more like a fourth of July festival than the home of the dead.
Her mother's right arm drapes across the body. The girl's clothes are wrinkled, awkwardly pulled back up her legs, her socks and shoes are off, inches from her feet. Her small tangled panties are rolled into the dirt, twisted when they were pulled off. Her cell phone is cracked and placed carefully on the bleachers, just above the girl’s head. Her mother scratches at her daughter's naked stomach. It's a soft scratching, intended to sooth. And for the first time, she sees how small and innocent her daughter really is. Her skin is vulnerable. She's a silent flower, weak and wilted. She tried to grow up too fast. The mother reaches for understanding in her head. Why? Things like this don’t happen in our town.Her daughter left the evening before with friends. She didn't ask who. It's a small town. Everyone knows each other. It shouldn't have mattered.
Mama, I'm sorry. It's the whisper of her last gasp. I should have been more careful.Her eyes close, sweet, like a baby's self-awareness and her escaping words are a final witness, creating a fiction her mother will never hear. Her hair smells like shampoo and dirt. She's a beaten animal.
This never had to happen. Her greatest sin was not cooperating.
A pick-up truck missing a wheel is propped up by a 2 by 6 wedge, the identified culprit--the diversion. It looks desperately abandoned. It's at the edge of the road to the back of the cemetery. It's out of place in this pristine landscape: guilt by misfortune. Out of place, like her mother with a dead girl's head in her lap, out of place like the mother's crying, out of place like her presence in the cemetery so early in the morning; the world is still asleep. Her mother didn’t make it in time. She doesn't have a car. She had to walk.
Ag City is a maze of silos and box shaped buildings and houses, business buildings, agricultural buildings. Everything about the town hinges around these businesses. And in Ag City, local business is a hobby, a purse that never empties. There's an endless well to draw from--the poor and the passer-bys along highway 69. And of course, exports. Businesses blend with the local houses. It's the shuffle of the deck. They are one. It gives the town its polished image: a pristine high school with cheerleaders, white like Sunday lilies--intellectually fragile. Old men in overalls, with thick wallets, ancient and bewildered, stagger into the cafes with walls lined with sport clippings. They sip weak coffee and talk proudly about the local football heroes who are without blemish. They stand confident in their knowledge of the past. They are the stewards of all things sacred. And the young boys: they are as strong as tree trunks, and they swim thoughtlessly through the town like unfettered bulls. The town’s main church, meek on Jesus, with the American flag flying high and dignified next to the Queen Anne structure, the only architecture of antiquity left in the community, is painted heaven white and is the center of anything new and appropriate, polished people with polished cars. Each member invites the minister to lunch once a year to remind him how wonderful they are.
New enameled tractors, Massey-Ferguson, reflecting the sun, line along highway 69 as unassuming as the fast food restaurants that garnish its banks. There’s a small shack with a sign: Guns and Tiresand a graveled parking lot filled with camouflage hunting blinds. Proud new buildings overtake the rusted tangle of the past, the powdered crumble of concrete walls with faded paint--Wonderbread and Pharmacy, along with other old buildings, sink, undetected, into the earth. They are replaced by galvanized and vinyl pre-fabbed structures. They are absent from the blemish and the stain of original sin. They gleam. Perfectly bound bales of hay sleep in fields along the Blackland prairies like huge nuggets of shredded wheat. They are sweet grass, the warm smell of summer, the hint of rural passion. Every parade and every town picnic is designed to showcase a community in bliss, the substance of the celebration, excess, reduced to paper cups and plates, trash, and left for cleaning the next day—it has a smidgen of charity, the reminder of a good time. It provides jobs to those with little money.
Wood planking lie on a flatbed trailer, unused, having sat there four years forgotten by the white trash who own it. They never learn. They leave their better intentions in splintered piles. They lose their drive and money. They are never quite able to bring a task to its conclusion. They take what is free with little inspiration concerning its use. They are blank slates. The town is a place where white propane tanks of the past still heat many of the houses, the broken houses that nest in the weaker lots like sad reminders. Cottonwood trees hang heavy, splayed out, over the concrete sidewalks, an umbrella over these same older houses.
Hedge posts skin the sides of highway 69 while yellow and light green brome, the grass not baled, fill the ditches and spike into the wind. Houses along the highway sport custom mailboxes supported by western plows and milk containers. This morning, the sky is different than it was in the days past; it's now a confused blanket of light blue, lacking mid-day clarity. The angels in the clouds have disappeared leaving feathered streams of white. There are holes in the air where the rays of light penetrate and the sun spots the landscape below.
The freshly painted water tower with solid legs wears the pride of the city-Class B champions 1962. It's the promise of future victories without consequence. These fast food restaurants, Taco Bell and Subway, the whole lot of them, have invaded the city long ago, one by one, forever cemeteries, numb of any personality. The poor you have with you always, a conflicting message at best. They populate our town like a plague. And as a result, there are needs for jobs. But, these poor are expendable. They are here for the convenience of others. They are eaten daily. These fast food restaurants are a concession without any real economic impact, the illusion of growth and success. Being a shift manager is still not going to cut it.
Her mother gets the call about 15 minutes before...there are noises from the phone falling, the girl's voice screaming,no, and then, mama, I'm at the cemetery. The phone call is abruptly ended, the drone of her ringtone. Her voice sounded like a plea for the mercy of god--a flawed redemption. It's in these times that the eyes of god are plucked from their sockets, his presence ineffectual. Absentes Vero. Prayer is always an act of desperation, a salvation poorly planned, and the early morning air is mute.
People drip out of their houses surrounding the cemetery. They hear a weak cry in the morning rime. And they start to gather, blinking out the morning dew. Their mouths drop and somehow in their minds they're thinking something about the girl's lifestyle, careless thoughts that make its way to a conclusion, what they think they know, what they imagine it to be, late night bars with wild music, dances; their perception is that she parties nightly, using a fake ID, people talk, it’s how news spreads in Ag City, and her reputation is somehow responsible for her death. And her mother---what does she know, she allowed it all to happen.
-What a tragedy. But if you play with fire expect to get burned. The community is already preparing its lie.
One of the young girl's breasts poke out of her threadbare blouse, and men, with pink faces, as guilty as candy-stealing children stare. Her mother pushes it as best as she can back into the blouse, but the blouse is torn and weak and her daughter isn't wearing a bra.
-We called the police, one of the men says flatly.
She just shakes her head; she's buried in her daughter's face. She’s going to miss work today at the convenience store, and it’s something she can’t afford. She has a mortgage on a house that disappears daily into the landscape. She can’t afford the repairs. Its roof is chaffed and the siding scraped to the naked wood, gray and cracked. The yard is full of abandoned junk. The inside of the house has the thick scent of unwashed blankets. There’s no air-conditioning.
-These people are used to this kind of thing, another man concedes. They suffer daily. Most of their children die in birth. All Okies, with weak values, it’s no wonder bad things happen to them. That’s life.
The others agree.
-Just white trash--very sad. We’ve never had this shit before. It’s a recent thing. It happened when those damned fast food places started coming to town, creating bad jobs for people to buy once perfectly good houses, letting them go to hell, property that will never be repaired. And tattoos: How do these people afford their tattoos? The town is disappearing into the Blackland plains. This used to be a good place to live.
The woman whips her hair behind her shoulder and looks in the direction of the men and glares.
-And I’m fat and stupid, too.
They back up with a steely guilt.
-Come on guys, let's go. The police are here.
The police cruiser pulls, quietly, up to the bleachers, the crunch of gravel under the wheels. The lights on the cruiser spin chaotically: red, white and blue. The siren is silent. There are beer cans, murdered birds, sprinkled around the bleachers.
She already knows what’s going to happen. She knows it's those boys, the rich ones with the cars that sparkle. They drive around town every night like vultures. They hunt, stalk and never go home until something is broken or destroyed, a victory over the night. She can't do anything about it. They own all the respectability in town. She warned her daughter: Hon, never try to be like them, they will hurt you. You are not like them. You are less in their eyes; you will always be less in their eyes. And here she is...below her arm. She’s pale and limp; the wave of her soft brown hair, thin like a small child, blows over her knees. Just dig a grave now, put her into the cold ground, we’re already here, there’s no reason to move her body, and why pretend there’s anything else important to do? She’s been abused enough. No one cares. All that’s left is the sprinkle of a little charity, the brown dirt of the earth.
In this small town she knows who she is--her place. And we keep her down on purpose. Her life is like this cemetery, absent the words involving conscience, forever void. Let my daughter down in her grave, softly, in peace, she whispers, please, let the earth comfort her;it’s a soft begging sound. These people can’t afford to bury their death. But her whisper accompanies the hundreds, the thousands of others, the community of the forgotten, among the big mausoleums filled with the immortals, forever in their place. There is a line drawn between worlds. It’s always there. But it’s more visible in Ag City. It's intended to insure order, maintain the stability of the community. It’s there to create a sense of place, identity, and each person is assured their measure of decorum. It's solidified in the paint and mortar, in the glass and the asphalt that criss-crosses the town. It’s visible in the homes people occupy, the degree of comfort; it tells the world who you are and some of the houses are very ornate. It’s displayed in their ignorance of architecture, in their hunger for all things practical. Our community is a museum for the culturally untrained.
We designed and built the house ourselves.
At this point, you have to understand our town to understand what happened, and to understand these desperate people who pack themselves in the unseen corners of our community—the convenience store and fast food restaurant workers. I know my picture is vague and mean. But something is slipping away. My eyes are no longer blind. Yes, I killed the girl. I watched and I imagined, as it all unfolded, moving branches as I spied her mother sitting on the bleachers with her dead daughter's head in her lap. I watched the neighbors mock. I guessed their thoughts. I assigned a reality to it. I know everything. And these white trash people who clutter up our community, whose intentions never slip past my thoughts, they think they are entitled to something that we have, things they will never get. The poor you have with you always. Again, Jesus was right. Pour the perfume on my feet where it belongs. Let its sweet fragrance save my day. The whole thing was set in history, long ago. Who can argue with that?
I'll find a way to clean up this mess. She's a small person in a larger world. The girl's life had imagined value, as unnoticed as the dirt I walk on. How dare she reject me: the little slut. I gave her things—trinkets—things that shine. She never turned them away. And her mother: she’s a confused woman. She's a couple months behind on her mortgage. I know. My father owns the bank. He's been patient, too patient, and I suspect she will soon disappear, moved to a different town, forgotten. The Mexican whose truck broke down at the edge of the cemetery has no idea what is about to happen to him when he comes back to claim his property. They, too, are starting to fill our town. Our town suffers scourge after scourge. The whole thing is planned out in my head. Yes, I had to kill the girl. It was necessary. She would have ruined everything. This is a good place to live, filled with good people and good families. I have many friends here. I plan to stay. This cemetery is filled with monuments to our past, of the people who truly belong here and have a promise of a future—our eternity. These gravestones are precious gems, lessons to the community on the value of our history, the cornerstone of our beliefs—the substance of our God. She wanted to put a stain on everything. I shook her to get her to understand. She swore she was going to tell everyone that I forced myself on her. I didn’t force anything. It was just sex; it was done before each of us even blinked. Why did it matter? But, no, she spit in my face and tried to tear herself away. She struggled. But my grip was a vise. She's not going to do it. She's not going to say a word. Not if I can help it. No, definitely not.
It's time for me to get to my car, drive around the block, come back, and pull into the cemetery disheveled and distraught. After all, I just lost my girlfriend and I’m deeply pained.
Michael L. Woodruff is a graduate of the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. While at the Workshop he received the Reikes Scholarship for Writing.
His stories have appeared in Summerset Review and the Main Street Rag.
His poems have appeared in Live Poets’ Society Vol. V 2018
He is a 2019 Nominee for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers.
He was born in Los Angeles, California, and currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In addition to writing and reading, he spends his time hiking the deserts of New Mexico.
by Antonina Rousskikh
I am an explorer
Relentlessly sailing my boisterous oceans,
Mapping the fascinating pockets of light
That draw my restless soul to the unknown.
I am an archaeologist
Digging up the relics I have buried,
The dire mistakes that mock me,
The ones that will teach me of my past.
I am a real estate agent
Selling a concocted image of myself to the world,
Assuring those who unwittingly crossed my path
That my ashen ruins are indeed recoverable.
I am a mathematician
Endlessly rearranging my equations,
Aiming to unveil the obnoxious “x”
That perplexes every bit of my being.
I am an architect
Carefully planning every meager fragment,
Desperately hoping that in construction
I won’t collapse like a heap of bricks.
I am an artist
Painting a vibrant Gauguin like portrait
Of who I should and could be,
With bright paints that conceal my grey.
I am everything and everyone
The world has gifted me all its knowledge,
Yet I am nothing and no one,
And I know absolutely nothing.
I exhaust every second trying to be someone
Trying to be something, simply trying to be.
I stumble and crumble under the crushing weight
Of my own thoughts that seem to plague me.
I never cease to ask myself the haunting question
The question that clouds my brain like dark smog
The one that I seemingly can yet cannot answer:
Who am I?
Antonina Rousskikh is a student from Canada, currently living in India. She is passionate about reading and writing. She is also passionate about reaching out and helping others struggling with their identities and themselves and she wishes to do this through her poetry.