Only an idiot would think that this counted as an apology.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.”
Brendan Remnant’s trembling hand pushed up at the sash window. He might not have been altogether certain how he had got this far, but he had done his research. Mostly via movies on YouTube, none of which had featured driving rain or insecure drainpipes. Nonetheless, he wasn’t far off the action hero look he’d had in mind at the start of the evening. If said action hero had let himself go a bit in the girth department. And if he was very, very afraid of heights.
“Move, damn you.”
Parcel clamped hard under his armpit, its contents almost certainly compromised by the heat and the sweat and the rain, Brendan again failed to avoid looking at the ground. Below him was a swaying expanse of broken-up concrete filled with bins, bikes and abandoned shopping trolleys. He wondered which of these would cause the most damage when he landed, as he most assuredly would, any moment soon.
He had fallen before, though, Brendan told himself. Maybe it hadn’t been quite as bad as the literal fall he was going to suffer if he couldn’t get the window open, but…
Who the hell was he kidding?
Come on, Brendan, forget the height, he told himself. You’ve had worse.
You’ve been threatened with worse, too.
If I catch the bloody idiot responsible for this, I’ll skin him alive.
Like those words, for example. The therapists had told him, when he had let them tell him anything at all, to stop thinking about Bev. They’d told him that he was hurting himself twice over by fixating on her words when he’d sent the flowers and the card. They’d told him about the “second arrow”; and how, by replaying her comments, he was effectively firing it straight at himself. But, then, they’d mistaken him for someone who didn’t understand what they were saying, as opposed to someone who no longer cared.
No, Brendan thought, as his gloved hands slid once again from the paintwork. He did care. He cared enough to know that, whatever happened here, he deserved it. He’d take their second arrow, alright. And a third, fourth, or fifth if it did something to quell the pseudo-intellectualising about his many failings. If it just made everything stop.
Brendan shoved again at the window. For a moment, he seemed certain to lose his balance, certain to fall to the concrete below, certain to find himself looking up at the blue lights approaching. Because they were never very far away.
The parcel slid from its already uncomfortable position. If he lost it, he would have to climb the drainpipe all over again. Only an idiot would try this the once, he knew that. Twice and he was going to have to add a new label to the collection of insults he’d been awarded over the years.
The window really ought to have moved by now. He could see that the catch at the top of the frame wasn’t across. All he had to do was get some purchase – any purchase – and he would be well away. Or, at least, well onto part two of tonight’s shouldn’t-even-be-doing-this-anyway enterprise.
A third shove. A proper shove. Out and up. Reaching further than before, and why not? If anyone round these parts knew about overreaching, it was Brendan Remnant.
Only an idiot would think that this counted as an apology. That’s what she’d said. When he’d last tried.
Well, let’s see about that, Brendan thought. Let’s see how much of an idiot he was if he got through this.
14 out-of-condition stone of not exactly muscle collided heavily with the brickwork. One hand was now wedged into a growing gap between window and frame. The other grasped the drainpipe tighter still as he shifted his weight further towards the window. Towards the sill that needed to accommodate him and his bulk if he could just get his knees that bit higher. If he could just force himself through the fear.
“Please, just give me this much, God, and I promise I’ll never trouble you again.”
And up the window went. Brendan was now flat now against the wall, legs hanging free, cheap over-size shoes as ever threatening to slip straight off, and – for a moment – he was as worried about losing them as he was about falling. But then he found that his right hand was as firm as it would ever be on the perilously wet sill, and then his left stopped its frantic flailing and finally came across to join its partner in actual crime. There was a chance here. He might make it.
The parcel slipped again. A good few inches this time. Any further and it would drop. Brendan thought that his jacket, done up tighter than his former bail conditions, might well hold it if it escaped his armpit entirely, but he didn’t want to bet on it. His luck didn’t work that way.
He knew that now, and maybe part of him was banking on it failing him once again. The part of him that, even now, wondered how it would be to just let himself Fall.
Still, the quicker he was in, the better. In, across the bedroom, down the stairs, into the front room, and away. It all sounded so easy put that way. In bullet points, perhaps. On a PowerPoint. The kind of environment that used to suit him, and that he knew he could never return to. Not after what he had done and what had brought him here, clutching his precious box of Milk Tray.
The cheap apology to a woman he had never met. On behalf of the man in the pub who couldn’t say sorry to her.
And trusted the man who would forever be sorry, but could never apologise for what he had done.
Because Bev had never told him.
And he had never been brave enough to ask.
Mike Hickman (@MikeHicWriter) is a writer from York, England. He has written for Off the Rock Productions (stage and audio), including 2018’s “Not So Funny Now” about Groucho Marx and Erin Fleming. He has recently been published in EllipsisZine, Dwelling Literary, Bandit Fiction, Nymphs, Flash Fiction Magazine, Brown Bag, and Safe and Sound Press. His co-written, completed six-part BBC radio sit com remains unproduced but available to interested producers!
Did you leave it for me to find? A trophy of your successful hunt through our bare pantry. Left for me to marvel at your ability to fend for yourself. Its jagged lid, torn away by the ancient ten cent can opener you bought at a garage sale trying to save money, propped up by a crooked sliver you decided wasn’t worth the manual labor to remove.
The spoon is where you left it too, the bowl half-buried in oil-soaked remains, the bent handle jutting out almost parallel to our marbled Formica counter, another cheap garage sale find. Why didn’t you finish it? I had made rice. Then again, I like tuna on hot rice. Not you.
You could have put the whole can in the fridge like you’ve done before. The smell permeating the shells of eggs, the sides of condiments, the carton of milk so much so that I had to clean the entire thing on the one night I was free, wishing I was on a beach back home with no worries or cares.
Now, the smell blankets our small kitchen with no windows to open as I dump what’s left into the over-filled trashcan you haven’t emptied yet. I wash it out, bending and straightening the lid to pop it off, as you knew I would, placing the split pieces on the counter to dry.
Melissa Llanes Brownlee is a native Hawaiian writer, living in Japan. She received her MFA from UNLV and has fiction published and forthcoming in The Citron Review, Waxwing, Milk Candy Review, Claw & Blossom, Bending Genres, The Lumiere Review, (mac)ro(mic), and elsewhere. She tweets @lumchanmfa and talks story at http://www.melissallanesbrownlee.com
Last night, I dreamt of rats, rats white and grey: some tiny, some as large as domestic cats. Locked in my home, frozen in candlelight, no sooner had one pair scurried off
than another entered – dropped down with its pregnant mate –
from gnawed-through ceiling plaster, narrowly missing my petrified head. Incisors flashed: sharp and ivory-white. Intelligent ‘we know you’ eyes stared me out, pierced my sanity.
I woke up sweat-soaked, heart pumping – flung open my bedroom casement, and bathed in ice-cold air.
Relieved, and strangely aroused, my hand soothed my body –
until I heard rodent feet scratching behind the skirting board, skirmishing in my attic.
Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon, [MA Creative Writing, Newcastle 2017] lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, and writes short stories and poetry. She has been widely published in web magazines and in print anthologies. She is a Pushcart (2019 & 2020) and Forward Prize (2019) nominee. She believes everyone’s voice counts.
The double glass sent back my first reflection; unrecognisable, a lack with eyes I’ve searched for answers on my mother’s breast, a Hera with her spurting milk creating chaos I’ve searched for meaning through shuttered words, anthologies and lexicons, but none of it was found I’ve searched for polis within myself, because the Alexandrian poet said so, but still, its iron gates were in-and-out locked down I’ve searched for sun rays in Bible texts, but darkness looms in doubtless quests, the candle light again, violently, put out I’ve searched for laughter on mountain peaks, the Muses and the Titans refused to laugh out loud I’ve searched for caves, the black abyss, I swam in oceans I could drown; “Behold!” the great philosopher commands, “Let’s start to go down!”
Elena Pitsilidou is based in Cyprus. Her poetry has won the 7th Undergraduate Poetry Competition 2020 of the University of Cyprus. Her writing has also appeared in print and online publications in the UK and the US, such as The Psychologist, Reader’s Digest, and We Said Go Travel.
Peter kept moving so he kept appearing, like he was a ghost that couldn’t quite make its mind up to come back. You’d hear a sound, a ruffle of paper, a shift in a chair, a gruff clear of the throat and Peter would appear. The main speaker was getting quite annoyed. It was the best thing about the morning.
“Folks, if we could, all microphone’s off when I am talking.”
Peter paid no heed, ruffle, shift, gruff and appear. Speaker talks and Peter would disappear and we’d all wait for it to happen again.
My microphone was off, permanently. That was precisely how I wanted it. Who works this way? Eugh! Work is bad enough without this and then the gift of Covid, Zoom. There’s that noise again. It fascinates me. The clouds are low so you can’t see them. Those magnificent men in their flying machines. I shift in my chair, the window is always to the left of me, the rumble of distant thunder, was how I’d describe it but it isn’t that. Nothing original in me. It is upon us before we know it. The rumble, such a rumble, you can actually feel it. I try to work out is it one, or two, today? Two, I believe, there is a rumble and another rumble, two rumbles together, like two hungry kids running, both fearing they’d be missing out on their dinner. It comes, the rumble, bigger, better, more real, above me, a tingle in the atmosphere, zoom, one, two, planes fly above me at some speed and they are gone. The crows take flight. The rumble moves on from here. I imagine it to be supersonic but it is probably nowhere near. They and the rumble are gone completely and it is back to the speaker, a drone droning on, talking at me, at all of us Peter, flashing on and off on my screen, Peter interrupting him with his ghosting.
F15’s I believe. Some guy at the newspaper always manages to get a picture. I don’t. I’ve tried. How does he? With the low cloud. I can not see how the guy who gets the picture gets the picture as I cannot see. Eugh! The speaker wants me. Well, not me specifically, nobody wants me specifically but he wants me and my colleagues to now pay particular attention. It is a good sign as it means we must be coming to the end of the training. The window is so lovely here, there are sheep in the fields and green grass hills to look out on to. The crows are returning, bitterly complaining, the rudeness of the mechanical beasts. They are settling again in the trees, buzzing among themselves in conversation, I imagine they are placing a hex upon the fighter jets, for causing such a disturbance to the peace.
The speaker had told us he is a helpline advisor specialist and he was here to help us, but he hasn’t helped so far. I can tell, everyone’s faces are bored out of their dog boxes, it is a form of mind control, everyone’s faces are stuck someplace else, everyone’s faces… are stupidly moronic, they fascinate me. Peter flashes onto the screen. I like his face the best. But Roger and Carl’s are good too. I imagine they are a couple. Roger is in Michigan and Carl is in Denver. It seems fitting that Carl is in Denver, why I don’t quite know. Their faces are the roundest faces today, ballooned, expanded, gaseous explosions waiting to happen. A pin could prick their rosy red cheeks, pop would go the weasel and they’d become over-expanded and explode. That would be lovely to see. There is Stanley. Why does nobody call a kid Stanley these days? His face? He is impoverished, I know for a fact, last year he didn’t earn his bonus and nor did he the year before that. Not all of us do. Peter appears fleetingly again, the speaker is still talking at me, it is like he and Peter are arguing over changing tv channels.
Wait, Ma’s shouting.
“No Ma, not finished yet, another fifteen minutes.”
She is making coffee and has bought donuts. She became a balloon herself after second Dad left and this is now our regular lunch. I prefer the sandwiches we used to have but she buys the donuts and claims she is treating me. Sugar and jam is not me, not really.
The speaker is speaking at me. I pick up my pen but he tells me I don’t need to as my manager is emailing me. Performance targets. They mean nothing to me as I never meet them. My uncle got me the job, after second Dad left. I am still saying thank you twelve years later. I still haven’t left the job that was always going to be temporary. It’s a great gig, you can work from home, the spare bedroom was turned into a study for me. That consisted of replacing the bed with a foldout settee so that when visitors came they had somewhere to sleep. We’ve not had any visitors in twelve years. And we bought second hand. this high architect’s desk that is too big for anywhere else, I sit on a stool and work upon. If it is too big for anywhere else then it is way too big for here and it takes up a whole wall side. The foldout settee on one side and the architects desk on the other, the window wall is between them. This room has everything I need.
“Who could ask for anything more?”
Ma singing in the kitchen. Most think of it as that song but really it is; “I Got Rhythm” the Gershwin brothers, one of Ma’s favourites. One of mine too, if I am honest. She sings along to the radio, her favourite station, they only play show tunes and songs from the musicals. She has the pot on the stove and I can hear her moving about, doing things in the kitchen, I’d say making lunch, but I have covered that already so it must be some over task she has found. Ma used to be in am dram, that was where she met both her husbands but not now, says she no longer has the voice, but she still sounds good to me. What do I know?
“I got starlight. .. I got sweet dreams…”
The speaker is speaking to Stanley. They play pop-up ping-pong on Zoom tv in front of me; Speaker speaks and is on the screen – Stanley speaks and is on the screen – Speaker – Stanley – Speaker and then Peter gruffs and puts in another unwelcome appearance – Speaker – Stanley – Speaker. Speaker tells him to mute. Apparently Stanley doesn’t deliver his performance expectations either but he likes to argue about it. He too will get an email and, I imagine a follow up call from his manager. That’s what you got if you questioned things. The pain in listening to her is unimaginable, so best not to imagine it, best not to, consequences and actions, best just to accept the performance intentions knowing you’ll never reach them and wait then for the manager to call you but, by then, she can do nothing about it. You can let her drone on and it can mean nothing to you. Stanley is old. At least fifty. Stanley looks impoverished. Stanley doesn’t learn. We’ve seen this from Stanley before. He is the longest standing employee, he got a bonus for that, his only one. Ever. I have five years to go to match him, although I will never catch him, time doesn’t work like that. Not here.
And we are done. Zoom closes. I have thirty minutes for coffee and donuts. Training session over, time for lunch and I can then get back to my job. Can’t wait. Just kidding. People can be very rude when they finally get to speak with me after being in a queue and being told every thirty seconds for forty minutes,
“Your call is in a queue, your call is important to us, we are experiencing a high volume of calls today, please bear with us.”
I have a script to read but it doesn’t inspire me. I read it dutifully.
“Calls are recorded for training purposes.”
They listen in sometimes and we all live in fear that they listen in to us and we get the call from the manager who is never happy with us. I stick to the script. It works better for me. Callers get very rude, try to beat humanity out of me. I stare out of the window, I won’t be beaten. Sometimes I let my headphones rest around my neck, I can hear them still talking at me so I know when they finish and I can pick the script back up. Their call isn’t very important to me and it isn’t very important to anyone, except them, them and their problems. Things go wrong, what can I tell you. But that isn’t in the script, I often think it should be. We once had a prize among ourselves, if you could get away with saying,
“Have you tried switching it on and off?”
But they sacked Matt for that so we all had to stop doing it.
Coffee and donuts with Ma are fine, I’d still have preferred sandwiches for a change. The radio plays Mack the Knife, now that is one of my favourites, the Billy Vaugh Singers whistling rendition, even better. Thankfully, this station never plays the Frank Sinatra take on it, like us, they think he murdered the song, but then he murdered most things. I blame his connections with the mafia, he wanted to kill things, I guess he thought it would impress them. Don’t start Ma on My Way by the way, best not to go there. I tell Ma, about Peter ghosting in and out of the screen and she laughs. She doesn’t know Peter but she can only imagine and it tickles her. I knew it would. Sometimes they play a whole soundtrack from start to finish, and this puts Ma in Heaven. Her and Tony, her second husband, not my dad, used to dance around the kitchen table to whole albums. Soon after they met at the am dram we came here to live with him. It is his house. Dad was bereft. Never got over how she just left. Tony left too, about three years later but she’d already married him and the judge gave the house to her for as long as I lived here. I live here still. I am thirty-two, I have a friend and he thinks it weird and if I am honest, I do too. Tony is still furious but too broke to go back to court. Dad is dead, he never had fury in him, just tonnes of self-pity. To be honest I could see why Ma left him. I left him too didn’t I, but I sometimes forget that.
We’d only just said, “Did you hear the planes?” When the iPad notification ping pinged. News alert. We always stop dead and wonder who is dead when it does that. Ma reads it out. I always hope it is the Queen of England. I don’t know why her particularly but that is what I always hope for. That would make the news.
“Reports coming in … Two military planes have crashed in Mistral Valley. Rescuers are on the scene.”
“Oh God!” Ma says.
“Yes, God.” I say and as it isn’t the Queen of England, I leave her to listen for more news, updates as they have them but that’s already the news for me, why do they labour it so? I put my headphones on, give it ten seconds, see whose name is next calling and say,
“Welcome to IT caller service, how may I help you today … Joleen? How are you today Joleen?”
They drone on and I listen, not to them, but for the sound, a rumble. I know though that now, it will be some days again before others come again. Wings touched, that will be the explanation, it happens every few years, training, bit more exciting than ours. So I listen, I wait, the rumble will come again, they can’t stay away.
Short story writer finished and now looking for a home for debut novel. Previous stories in The Honest Ulsterman, Here Comes Everyone and Nottingham City Short Story Competition, highly commended. Bit of poetry out there as well. Follow @mikeyboywriter
Jeff sat in his office reading a book: ‘On Ugliness’ by Umberto Eco.
In the office he had a phone, a desk, and a print of De Chirico’s ‘Gare Montparnasse’.
Sometimes he had a phone call from Tony.
“Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce Helpline. My name is Jeff. How may I help you?”
“Hello, Jeff. Tony here. Is it possible to use Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce as a sexual lubricant?”
“Hello, Tony. Yes, it is certainly possible but I would advise against it. The ingredients in Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce include chillies and these can cause irritation when applied to the sensitive parts of the body.”
“Thanks, Jeff. Good advice as ever. Goodnight.”
But most nights he sat and read a book, or sometimes he wrote poems to Jane, his girlfriend.
When he was thirsty he would go downstairs and get a Coke from the machine. When you got close to it, it sensed you coming and lit up in energetic red and white.
Jeff put down his book on ugliness and picked up his pen.
Jane you are not here
Nor in this book on ugliness
Hot sauce fills my nights
He liked Haiku. No frills, distilled thought. He wrote another.
Jethro’s sauce is hot
Not for use in sexual play
Sweet sticky fingers
He put his pen down and looked up at the picture on the wall. A dreamscape of sorts. A long inclined walkway with two tiny figures leading to a clock that said 1:28. A train arriving in the distance and, in the foreground, a large bunch of over-ripe bananas. The picture, with its multiple vanishing points, always disorientated him. The clock said 1:28 but the shadows were those of at least 5:30. Flags flew in tatters from the clock and from a pole in the distance. What did it all mean?
He ate his sandwiches—tuna and onion with Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce. It made him thirsty and brought him out in a sweat so he went downstairs..
At the far end of the corridor the machine was already lit up. Most unsatisfactory. He went back up to his office without getting a drink.
He had always thought that he was alone in the building at night, now somebody else was here. He knew that Oliver’s Olive Oil had a sales office somewhere in the building. He would find out who it was.
The phone rang.
“Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce Helpline. My name is Jeff. How may I help you?”
“Hello, Jeff. It’s Tony again. Tell me, would Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce, if packaged differently, make an effective anti-rape defence device for women or men out on their own?”
“Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce is intended as a condiment that can form part of a healthy, balanced diet. Unfortunately, the viscosity of the sauce in its packaged state would preclude its use as a self-defence tool.”
“If I diluted the sauce with some type of medium to lower its viscosity?”
“That would exceed the parameters of the sauce. Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce is a foodstuff and your statutory rights may be affected if you re-purpose the sauce in this way.”
“Okay. Thanks, Jeff. Goodnight.”
“Not at all, Tony. Goodnight.”
He switched the phone to auto-answer mode and left the office. The corridor stretched away to infinity in either direction. The lift was directly opposite. He went to the sixth floor and opened the door that corresponded to his own office directly below. The room was empty. It had a phone, a desk and a print of de Chirico’s ‘Gare Montparnasse’. On the desk lay an over-ripe banana, a can of Coke, and a pad of paper with some writing.
He read the writing.
To become truly immortal a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere.
Too true, he thought. Who wants art to be about common sense.
He went down to the fourth floor. Here, the office under his own was exactly the same but without the Coke, the sandwich, and the writing. Somebody had carved the words ‘Giorgio was here’ on the top of the wooden desk. The phone began to ring. It wasn’t his phone—he shouldn’t answer it. It was probably a call for Giorgio. He shut the door and went back upstairs to his own office. It was as he had left it.
He looked at his watch — 5:30. Nearly time to call it a night. My, time had flown by.
He turned off the auto-answer and the phone started ringing immediately.
“Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce Helpline. My name is Jeff. How may I help you?”
“Jeff, it’s Tony. Tell me… if someone wanted to kill themselves, would they be able to do it by overdosing on Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce?”
“Jethro’s Original Hot Chilli Sauce has been tested by The Department of Food and is certified fit for human consumption. No amount of ingested sauce will lead to the cessation of life in human beings, however, you may experience intestinal discomfort in the short term…
“Yeah, yeah, just asking. You know… you’ve always given it to me straight, Jeff. Can you give it to me straight just once more?”
“I hope so.”
“Is life worth living, Jeff?”
“I would say—to become truly immortal a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken it will enter the regions of childhood vision and dream.”
“Is life a work of art then, Jeff?”
“I don’t see how it can be anything else, Tony.”
“Good advice as ever. Speak to you soon.”
He wrote another Haiku.
Dawn draws near at last
Two vanishing points are seen
Somewhere a phone rings
David Powell was born in London and was a professional musician before moving to Italy in 2007. Twitter:@dspowell7
Okay, if I wanna talk to myself, I’ll talk to myself. Focus! Just don’t screw up the driving.
Show me a problem, and I’ll come up with a solution, or – often – lottsa different solutions. Okay, sometimes there ain’t a solution. An ant isn’t going to the moon, well not without help, it ain’t.
But this is not that time. This problem is nearly done being solved.
It’s not likely, but the cops could be looking for this car, and I’m not going to be in it when they find it. It’s a nice car too. Only the best for Jimmy. Pity if anything was to happen to it.
His face when nine inches of David went into him! He shoulda seen that coming, the way he’d been carrying on. This is going to be the end of David’s career; I’ll leave it behind. It’s my favourite knife too.
Nothing to worry about, I’m all set. Stopped for cigarettes and a lighter. A bit of light coughing. And again for the jerry can and petrol. Okay, who fuels their lawnmower at this time of night, but I didn’t appreciate that crack about my gardening clothes. I like black; shoes, suit, shirt, Covid mask. Just tell ’em a story, give ’em a picture – damps down the ol’ curiosity.
Okay, here’s the airport. Short term car park. Round and round the ramps. Not too many cars parked up here. No one about. Can’t see any cameras, but maybe they’re around. And no sprinklers. The joy of old buildings, yes indeed. Park near the stairs.
Keep head down all the time. They won’t get much from the top of my head. Keep the mask up.
Lower the windows. Outta the car, lean back in and empty most of the petrol over the seats. Christ, it stinks. Don’t want it on me. Open the boot. Baptise Jimmy with the rest. Leave the Bowie knife sticking up out of him. And, pièce de résistance, in goes the lighter. Whoo, that worked a treat. A baptism by fire for Hell’s newest black soul. Off I go, down the stairs.
“Hey! Do you have a phone on you? There’s a car burning up there. Can you call the fire brigade? That’s great. You might want to stay back down here on the stairs; it looked pretty bad.”
Now, walk slow, nothing strange about me, is there? Taxi, taxi, wherefore art thou?
“Yeah, city centre. The bus station. That’s it.”
And we’re off. Out of the airport, just one more taxi heading into town. Nothing to see here, folks.
“Eh, what? Yeah, it was just a quick day trip. No luggage means no holdups. A funeral. Actually, a cremation. A business partner. Just something I had to do, not personal.”
Bye, bye, taxi. Time to mix and mingle with the common folk. Let the cops try and find Waldo. Not a trace to be found. No fingerprints, no DNA, no Jimmy no more. And there you go, problem solved.
Gordon Pinckheard lives in County Kerry, Ireland. Retired from a working life spent writing computer programs and technical documents, now freed of constraints and encouraged by Thursday Night Writers (Tralee), he can write anything he likes to entertain himself and – hopefully – others.
in your mind Einstein’s walking with the attributes of thought in your heart Joyce’s talking existential tension taut
pencil broken paperwork sleepy Einstein’s bending time howling of an introvert brave Ulysses skipping rhyme
these two met where borders blend where hearts and minds still can meet pub pints quenched by older men words and numbers still compete
You can write a universe in an ordinary day, tell me how the moons traverse, or this tab you’ll surely pay.
Joyce responds with scolding brands – Make our universe sublime, do the math for holding-hands in my heart and in your mind.
Bill Fay has been published by Puget Sound Poetry Connection, Creative Colloquy, and the Virginia V Foundation, among others. Bill lives with his beautiful wife and their bodacious cats, Tucker and Annie, on Fox Island in Puget Sound, near Seattle. Favorite quote: “When the quill is sharp, the mind is never dull”.
“It was, then, in the imagination of Virgil, and of Virgil alone, that the concept of Arcady, as we know it, was born — that a bleak and chilly district of Greece came to be transfigured into an imaginary realm of perfect bliss. But no sooner had this new, Utopian Arcady come into being than a discrepancy was felt between the supernatural perfection of an imaginary environment and the natural limitations of human life as it is.” Erwin Panofsky “Et in Arcadia Ego”
“How are we going to get home?” Melissa asked, as we sat in the tiny café, the owner banging about behind us, “I don’t fancy getting even muddier.”
“There is bound to be a quicker way than back along the river.” I suggested hopefully, but perhaps less than convincingly.
“You and your impulses,” and her laugh tinkled like the sound of a small bell, and then fades away. That is the problem with ghosts; they disappear.
We had gone to bed early that Christmas night, our first as a married couple, to make love and to stay warm.
“Just think that a year ago I did not even know you existed” she said, beautiful and naked, and then she kissed me, a kiss that was at first affectionate and then swiftly became passionate.
We were awake by five.
“Shall we go to Chester?” I suggested, “I don’t think it is far”.
What with making love again and a long breakfast, it wasn’t until after nine we set off, but the roads were quiet, so that it did not take long to get there. After parking the car, we walked down to the River Dee.
“We should have brought sandwiches” she said, her hand on my arm, “I doubt anywhere is open.”
We crossed the bridge over the river and began to walk along the riverbank.
“Do you know where we are going?”
“Nope. It will be fun to find out though.”
It had rained a lot over the last few days, and the further we walked away from Chester the muddier the ground became, a few times one of us stumbled or slipped, but we held each other up laughing, so that anyone who saw us would have thought we were two drunkards returning home after a night of debauchery.
And then we pushed through some trees and came into a glade, and on our right, looking down upon us, was a villa; pink and white with a large garden sloping down towards us.
“That is my type of house” I told her, “close to the river, a good size and not far from Chester.”
I tried to walk up the slope towards it, but then I felt a pain in my left leg, and I realised that there was wire stretched out to stop intruders and the curious.
“That’s a pity,” Melissa said laughing.
“Oh well, if one of us becomes a millionaire then we can buy it and take down the fence.”
“Definitely.” And we kissed, pressed hard against each other, her breath smelt of chocolate and coffee. Perhaps we all have a tendency to romanticise the past, but I cannot remember ever being so happy.
I ring my daughter Esther.
“Happy Boxing Day” she says.
“Happy Boxing Day to you. How are my grandchildren?”
“Lisa has just been sick after eating all her selection box for breakfast this morning, whilst Dan is looking at the book you got him.”
And my son-in-law?”
“Still in bed, he had a bit to drink last night, well we both did, but the children woke me. How are you?”
“Okay. Off out for a walk in a moment.”
“Oh good, I hope Christmas wasn’t too dull.”
“No it was fine, I like it quiet. I watched a couple of films.”
“You could have stayed with us.”
“I know, I know.”
But their house is small, and I find the children hard work after a few minutes. I try to love them, but I much prefer the thought of them than the tiresome reality and my son-in-law Pete clearly makes my daughter happy but goodness he is dull, as only the well-meaning can be. I often wonder what Melissa would have made of him, I imagine our lying in bed together discussing him, Melissa urging me to be more patient with our daughter’s family.
“They are your grandchildren,” she says, “Esther could be difficult, don’t you remember?”
“But you were with me then.”
“I am sorry.”
“Where are you going for your walk?”
“I might go to Chester and walk along the river.”
“Oh well, have fun. Come and visit us before school re-opens.”
“Of course I will.”
I put the phone down and finish my coffee before getting into my car and driving through the Mersey Tunnel on my way to Chester.
The river was on our left, occasionally we could hear voices echoing from a distance, and then once we saw a boat go past us with a man and woman leisurely rowing, whilst at the front was a little girl shouting with glee. Melissa did not need to say anything, we kissed and I stroked her bottom through her jeans and for a moment we pressed tightly together before carrying on, the girl’s cries of delight gradually fading away. It was very muddy now and the path was becoming narrower and rising away from the river.
“We might have to go back soon” said Melissa, “we could end up slipping down into the Dee.”
“Don’t worry I will rescue you.”
“But would I be able to rescue you? I don’t like getting wet, and you have definitely put on a bit of weight over the holiday.”
And then we saw it, the back of a large stately home.
“Now that’s my kind of house” Melissa told me.
“I think it is Eaton Hall” I told her, “I am sure that it is somewhere near here, owned by the Grosvenor family, the richest family in England I believe.”
There was a fence to keep out the plebs, but Melissa was afraid of nobody in those days, and she hauled herself over it into the grounds, and so I followed her over, as I would follow her anywhere in those days.
“If we see anyone just run” I told her.
“Oh we can tell them we wandered in by accident.”
“With that fence?”
We squelched on the muddy grass, water bubbling over our boots.
The house was beautiful, symmetrical and with sandstone brick covered with ivy.
“I wonder if anyone is in?”
“Let us hope so, I could do with a cup of tea.”
Hand in hand we walk along one side of the house, peering into the windows, trying to see into the rooms behind their heavy curtains.
“I don’t think anybody is here.” Melissa said.
“Maybe there are servants upstairs. The family will be in London.”
“Who would want to be in London for Christmas?”
She ran ahead of me, she would be twenty-five next year, and probably would never be as healthy and fit again. I ran after her, and when she stopped suddenly, I caught her, my arm round her middle, and she pressed herself into me, and for a moment we wrestled, laughing.
There was an orchard at the side of the house, and we walked in through the gateway and admired the bare trees.
“Why don’t have apple trees?” She asked. “You could make us toothsome apple crumbles whenever we felt like it.”
“I don’t see why not. I will go to the garden centre and see what they have.”
“Couldn’t you steal a tree from here? I am sure that their apples would be delicious.”
In fact I never did get the apple tree, I always meant to, but a few days later Melissa told me that she was pregnant, apparently she had already suspected it that day, and then we had a house to prepare for our new arrival. Sometimes I look out at my pristine garden and wonder if I should get an apple tree, or maybe grow raspberries like my dad did; it would be easy to arrange and I have plenty of time, but I have never can be bothered, and who have I got to make apple crumbles for now?
In a shady corner close to the orchard, we came across a row of gravestones.
“To the dear memory of Katharine Caroline, 2nd wife of Hugh Lupus first Duke of Westminster and daughter of the 2nd Baron Chesham, born Dec. 3rd 1857, died Dec. 19th 1941” and underneath” Melissa read aloud, her voice losing her usual cockney tinge, and sounding proper and precise “her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.”
“Sounds a bit boring” she told me, “I bet her husband was more exciting.”
“She lived a long time.”
“And gentle and peaceable the whole time, how dull. I bet she wasn’t, not really, she was probably a horror, in her own set of rooms, making her children’s lives a misery, and then when they had died, their children.”
I laughed, slightly shocked at Melissa’s disrespect for the dead.
“They probably killed her in the end; banged her on the head with a spade when she was doing the gardening.”
“At least it was quick.”
“Not that quick”.
The fence is larger than when Melissa and I had visited almost thirty years ago, or perhaps I am older and less athletic, certainly there is no way that I can climb over it now, and there is a faint humming coming from it, suggesting it is electrified; perhaps our incursion all those years ago had caused them to bolster their security. I am wearing wellington boots, remembering how muddy it was on our last trip, but it is much drier this time, and come to think of it, it hasn’t rained much this holiday, and the paths had been improved with gravel added. With a shock I realise that I have not done this walk since that Boxing Day so many years ago, and yet that day seems so recent, as if I could touch it and be back with Melissa, the succeeding years disappearing into oblivion.
And now I am lost, I don’t remember that happening last time; it had been an easy walk; just following the river, until we reached Aldford, but now the path stops suddenly at a fence, with “Agricultural Land. Please Keep Out” written on it. A cow stops her grazing to stare at me curiously. I wonder what has happened and if the village is cut off from me, like Eden. Frustratedly I retrace my steps until I see another path leading away from the river, which I follow less than hopefully. The path becomes concrete and there are “Private” signs on my right, and a cottage, which seems familiar, and then there is the small, hump-backed bridge that I remember us walking over, which lead us onto more land owned by the Grosvenor family.
We were quiet as we followed the tree-lined path, slightly awed and not sure where we going, but then we were out in the open and for a moment the Winter sun dazzled us and we both shielded our eyes. There was a church ahead of us, outlined against the white sky, and we headed towards it and behind the church we discovered a village, which proved to be Aldford, a Victorian model village built by Sir Richard Grosvenor, 2nd Marquess of Westminster about a hundred years earlier.
We wandered around the church for awhile; admiring the stained-glass windows and the memorials (more Grosvenor family dead) and then, tiring of holiness, we explored the village itself, which consisted of large houses with extensive gardens, and then further out farms.
“Would you like to live here?” I asked her.
“Eaton Hall maybe, but I am not sure about this village. I imagine that it would get dull pretty quickly, although it does look lovely, and much quieter than Liverpool.”
Just as we were beginning to get tired and hungry, we came upon a small courtyard and there was a small café, which doubled up as a bakery. I ordered coffee and tea cakes.
“What a beautiful village” Melissa said to the old man who served us.
“We were just closing” he muttered.
“Well we won’t be long.”
It was already getting dark, and the air had the smell of Winter afternoons, which I have always loved so much.
“Perhaps we should ask him to make us some sandwiches?” suggested Melissa with a mischievous grin, “and maybe cake and another coffee?”
“Or even a hot meal?”
We sniggered over our coffee and then when we finished, we left him a generous trip, and walked away, hoping to find a quicker way back into Chester, we could hear him locking the door as we left the courtyard.
The café is now a small supermarket, which is closed, there are – incongruously – a couple of boutiques too, which are also closed. I wander about the village; it is smaller than I remember it; whichever way I walk, I am soon out of the village, and on roads without pavements, and I wish I hadn’t come, even a day spent with my grandchildren and son-in-law would have been better than this, and I am overcome with self-pity; “a poor old man, as full of grief as age.”
“Come on “she told me, “that sign says Chester” and so we followed a narrow, but busy road, cars swooping past us, a couple of them sound their horns as they do so, I let her walk ahead of me, so that if one of us would be hit, it would be me. Every so often she looked back at me with a mischievous grin, and I smiled back, and that is how I mostly remember her, an image as firmly fixed as if it had been a photograph.
And now I walk back the same way, and for a moment I see her ahead of me; her long black coat, which she had had ever since I had known her, and her straight red hair, reaching down to her waist, which I had watched her wash that morning, long ago. I try to catch her, I run until I am breathless, and for just a moment I am so close; I can feel the touch of her coat as I reach out to hold her, I can smell her shampoo and hear her laughter, and then I say her name and she is gone and the road is empty in front of me, and as I stand there, a car drives past me almost knocking me into the hedge.
I walk the rest of the way back to Chester, breathing in the cold air, and wondering if Melissa would recognise the rather old man, puffing along, that I have become. Once I have driven back home to Liverpool and made myself some cheese on toast, I ring my daughter again, and she tells me what they had done that day, and then we talk of previous Christmases and I tell her that I love her. She seems surprised by this announcement, and then says she loves me too but that she has to go and put the children to bed, and I stifle the urge to tell her to get Pete to do it. Before she hands up she says that she is looking forward to seeing me tomorrow, that the children will be excited to see me, and that after dinner Pete will take me to the pub to watch Everton play on their widescreen television, and I tell her that it will be fun, which it might be.
They might not be perfect and long before the day has ended, I will be desperate to come home, but at least they will be company for the day, and at my age that is important.
Now lying in bed I hear a cat miaow from my garden, and I go down to let it in from the cold, but when I open the back door there is a scrabble of claws, and the cat is gone into the night, so I get a drink of water and go back to bed. In the dark I can see the photograph of Melissa that has been there for a quarter of a century, and I give her a smile and she smiles back at me through the dark.
That first day of school, he realized aloud: “Each person is unique.” Mrs. Freytag smiled, incredulous—that was to be her lesson for October!
When ten, a week before Grandma passed, he realized one should not take life for granted. Soon after, he realized what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. At high school graduation, while everyone cheered, he realized life would never be so easy again.
Word got out. In college, he became famous, something he’d seen a mile away. An interviewer asked, “Do you know you can’t get everything you want?” The boy would have laughed, had he not long ago realized that pride preceded a fall.
Onwards, through those anxious, transitory twenties. So many ways he spared himself misery by understanding things in comfortable advance. He dodged drugs. Credit card debt loans. Ill-advised relationships due to pregnancy or sentimentality.
At his thirtieth birthday party, he was introduced to his future mate. Of course, he knew immediately she was The One, if only for the next phase of life.
At forty, he foresaw his child not remaining little forever.
At fifty, a concern: Had everything dawned on him?
“What’s wrong?” his wife asked, keeping distance as he knew she would.
He might have said, “Don’t know” if he’d not realized moments before the danger of complacency. Still, it was a close call. He took comfort in a long-established insight—tomorrow was a brand new day.
Years later, alone in his garden, he looked up from the book he was finishing, stunned to realize how sad it was to have known all beforehand. He massaged his throat. Studied the plump shrubs that lined his yard. God, those febrile cries, the thundering apocalypse of hooves. Nothing, he understood too late, could keep the enemy from thrashing through at every side.
Michael Cocchiarale is the author of the novel None of the Above (Unsolicited, 2019) and two story collections–Here Is Ware (Fomite, 2018) and Still Time (Fomite, 2012). His creative work appears online as well, in journals such as Fictive Dream, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, and The Wild Word.
I am walking in the forest to clear my mind. My “now” is elusive. Legs move me to the creek where I gain momentary focus crossing on a too narrow log. On the far side, I’m lost again, though my feet know the way.
I am barely aware of the presence of spruce trees and boggy ground. A bird call turns my head. I bend down to examine footprints on the trail, could it be a lynx? There’s some scat; yes, a lynx. As I move through the thick, twisty wood, my mind falls from these moments of clarity, back into its tumult of past and future, remembrance and planning. I try to bring it to heel – when I recall that I want to; it’s a wild beast, lost in its delusions. I look up, surprised that I’ve arrived at the big birch I like to sit under; I do not recall the walk. I sit, close my eyes, attempt to focus, then forget my purpose and slide back into chaos.
A ripple of vertigo as the dark forest to my left reveals itself to be a wall of fur and flesh. Moosezilla, seven feet tall at her shoulder, goddess of beasts manifest. We’ve met before. She’s a distinctive creature, the largest moose I’ve ever seen; and so I’ve named her, as I sometimes do with distinctive creatures. Now, she’s right beside me, and a shock of rational fear jolts me, but I’m rooted to the ground along with the tree I lean against.
Moosezilla calmly turns her head towards me. She looks down at me, way down. I can smell her. I can feel her damp exhale on my face. Our eyes lock – and the sky splits open, jagged hail pierces me, I am shredded out of existence.
* * *
I am walking serenely through this same forest on four knobby-kneed legs. I stop and reach up to grasp a birch twig with my mouth; my lips are as supple as fingers. I stand and chew, then move slowly on. I traverse the forest with no purpose but movement. I browse on twigs and leaves. I stop and gaze at my surroundings.
At day’s end, I climb a low ridge to select a sleeping place; it is sheltered, with views all around. Not that there is much here to be wary of, it’s just what one does. When I wake, I stand and pee on my bed of the night before. I chew and swallow bits of the surrounding shrubs, then move on. I eat, nap, eat again. Tranquility is my being, slow movement is my life.
Day follows day, all the same, all completely absorbing. The season turns and I move through deep snow. I’m cold, but that is just another way of being. Food is less abundant and less appetizing, but that is winter. Spring comes, the snow melts, and wonderful new food sprouts from the ground and the trees.
I am moose. I am the forest and the sky. I am the twigs and leaves that I eat; I nourish myself with myself. My existence is not separate. All around me, every object glows with significance. Infinity stands behind each leaf and moves through the air with each mosquito. I am boundless.
* * *
She turns away and I am myself, sitting against a birch tree, with my two legs stretched out in front of me. I am myself, and the tree is a tree, and Moosezilla is moving slowly away into the thick, dark wood.
Scott Miller is a writer and artist who lives in a yurt, in a fen, in end-of-the-road Alaska. When not working, he’s likely roaming the woods with his dog, Alice.
Loose shingles, gutter dust washed out like government issued grass seed. What now? The president, China, Tim Allen. Making lists as healthcare.
Remember when the wind said, “Hold Me” and it wasn’t a whisper? We both heard it, louder than a train whistle, clearer than the leaded glass of your father’s liquor cabinet. In broad daylight, we ran like dogs being pelted by steel bolts.
Around the fire now, the stalking glow of ember, as it was thousands of years ago when the first story was told—but it’s not the only light that can pull me away, a flash from the forest, an echo.
No comfort these days. Without you now. Still waiting for the day when the wind comes for me again.
John T. Leonard is an award-winning writer, English teacher, and poetry editor for Twyckenham Notes. He holds an M.A. in English from Indiana University. His previous works have appeared in Poetry Quarterly, december, Chiron Review, North Dakota Review, Roanoke Review, Punt Volat, High Shelf Press, Rappahannock Review, Jelly Bucket, Mud Season Review, The Blue Mountain Review, Genre: Urban Arts, Stonecoast Review, and Trailer Park Quarterly. He lives in Elkhart, Indiana with his wife, three cats, and two dogs. You can follow him on Twitter at @jotyleon and @TwyckenhamNotes.
The Brownsons were a family of achievers. Achilles, the father, was a medical doctor specializing in brain surgery. His wife, Eulalie, worked as a professor of linguistics. She focused on attempting to reconstruct the language of the ancient Etruscans.
Determined to create and rear children who were as proficient as their parents, or even more so, Achilles and Eulalie spent a great deal of money on their first child, Anemone, who eagerly lapped up learning as well as learning laps in the swimming pool behind their rather substantial house.
When Anemone was four, her brother Isadore joined the family of achievers. From the start, Isadore took to games and books and educational toys of various kinds. For a time his mother, the professional linguist, thought that Isadore was born speaking ancient Etruscan, but then she decided it was just precocious babble. Sometimes, in fact, Eulalie wondered whether she should continue studying Etruscan or move on to Hittite or perhaps to Baby Babble. In any case, she had few people to whom she could communicate her linguistic concerns.
Anemone and Isadore grew in height and in the depth and breadth of their learning. The Brownsons, according to their peers–who were few–were and had the perfect family. All was well, as Anemone studied Italian at the age of eight and Isadore worked on German when he was six. Then everything changed.
Eulalie discovered, to her surprise, that she was pregnant. Not to worry, she assured herself and her husband. The child, whether male or female, would no doubt be as accomplished as their first two. By the time this child was three or four, Number Three would no doubt have absorbed Italian from Anemone and German from Isadore and begun his or her own independent study of Latin and Greek.
Then the Brownsons had a surprise. Eulalie was pregnant with twins. This prediction was confirmed one winter night when a boy and a girl emerged. They were small and lively and healthy and not quite cute, but they would be in due time, their parents assured themselves.
For some reason, Eulalie insisted on calling the twins Jack and Jill.
“Why such ordinary names?” asked Isadore the brain surgeon.
“I don’t know. It just came to me that these two should be called Jack and Jill.”
Eulalie the linguist got her way. After all, she had gone through the trouble of giving birth to twins, so her husband thought she should have a say in naming them.
Anemone and Isadore often recited the nursery rhyme about Jack and his sister Jill to the twins. They used English on these occasions. On other occasions Anemone spoke to them in Italian, Isadore in German, and their mother in what she hoped was ancient Etruscan or a variant thereof.
The twins had a nanny, since the Brownsons were totally busy with their careers. The older children had a well-educated governess to oversee their studies until a suitable school could be found. Eulalie often lamented that a suitable school might never be found, but her husband assured her that Greta the Governess would guide their children through history and geography and mathematics and perhaps, eventually, the Swedish of her native land.
Then something odd happened. As Jack and Jill grew older and Nora the Nanny was no longer needed, Jack and Jill tended to ignore the educational efforts of their parents and the governess. The twins spoke only English. They stared at those who attempted to speak to them in Etruscan or German or Italian. Their father the brain surgeon attempted to teach them the names of the bones in the human body as well as the parts of the human brain. Jack and Jill just laughed at the funny names.
They showed only the slightest interest in books and puzzles and mathematical formulas. When no one else was watching, they played video games, because they did have access to smart phones and tablets and computers. “When no one else was watching” meant the middle of the night, after Greta had gone home and everyone else in the house had gone to sleep. These nighttime adventures online led to sleepiness in the morning, and Jack and Jill often dozed off during their lessons, which they found not only boring but useless in their world of fantasy and games.
Greta the Governess was afraid she would be blamed for the twins’ lack of erudition and what seemed to her to be their constant desire to take naps during lessons. Greta was afraid to suggest to Drs. Eulalie and Achilles that the young twins might have narcolepsy, a disorder the name of which she found after typing “sleepiness” into a search engine.
This situation continued for some time. Then one night Eulalie had insomnia. On her way to the kitchen to get some warm milk, she heard laughing coming from the twins’ bedroom. Slowly and quietly she opened the door and peeped inside.
There they were, her twins Jack and Jill, wide awake and playing video games.
“Jack! Jill! Why aren’t you asleep? You shouldn’t be playing video games in the middle of the night. You shouldn’t be playing video games at all! It’s not what we do in this family.”
Jill smiled at her mother. “Mom, it’s so much fun, and this is the only time we can play. No one will let us play games during the daytime.”
“Of course not. Those games are useless.”
Both twins started to cry.
Then Eulalie had an epiphany. As she gathered her twins into her arms, she began to wonder why she had insisted on giving them such ordinary names. Maybe that was why they liked video games. Hadn’t her own studies and research convinced her that people were different and needed to pursue their own interests?
“Tell you what. We will give you an hour each day to play your games, if you promise to sleep during the night. You need your sleep. You know that, don’t you?”
“Miss Greta thinks we have narcolepsy. Whatever that is.”
“Does she, Jack? Well, I will have to disabuse her of that notion.”
In the following weeks, during that precious one hour a day, Jack and Jill taught their favorite games to Anemone and Isadore while Greta read Swedish mysteries. And when they all grew up, the four Brownson offspring and their governess formed their own highly successful company, Brownson Games, Inc., featuring games in English, Italian, German, and Swedish. There was no need to produce any diversions in Etruscan.
Ever since I took up four-legged walking, I’ve seen the world in a whole new way. It started at the park when I approached a group of four-leggers and asked them why they did it.
“See for yourself,” said a middle-aged redhead, looking up from the dandelion she’d been sniffing.
So I threw down my purse and pressed my palms to the grass, felt a moist warmth cradle my fingers.
“Knees off the ground!” the lady said. “We don’t crawl like babies. This is sophisticated four-legged exploration.”
So I lifted my knees and began to walk. It was hard at first. My back ached a bit. But within a few minutes the appeal was clear. I was instantly immersed in a brand new world, the scent of summer earth awakening my nostrils, ants and beetles tickling my knuckles. To think my fingertips had so many nerve endings and I had never used them to explore the ground! With a new-found urgency, I dug my nails into the soil, slid my fingers along worms, rocks, roots I never knew were there.
Then the walking path caught my eye, shades of grey glittering, beckoning me over. For once I said yes to my burning desire, cared nothing for the side-eye of nosy two-leggers. I moved off the grass and onto the path, moaned with pleasure as bits of sharp gravel embedded in my palms. I had never felt so alive before.
Four-legged walking was an instant addiction, a love I couldn’t limit to the park alone. Soon I was four-legging at work and at home, at the grocery store with the basket balanced on my back.
My boss was displeased but sank into silence when I told him it was my right to walk the way I wanted. In fact, everyone at the office became silent when I passed, which was perfectly fine because it relieved me of small talk.
At home I explored heating vents, complex carpet fibres, the intricacies of dust bunnies I had never noticed. For a while my husband found it amusing, until last Tuesday when I decided to take my dinner on the dining room floor. I sucked up spaghetti noodles one by one, my palms pressed thankfully the floor. It just felt right. The way I should have eaten my entire life.
From the chair beside me I sensed a stillness, felt the burn of my husband’s critical stare.
He can’t take this from me, I thought, my nostrils flaring, the end of a noodle slapping sauce on my face.
Finally he stood, his legs confronting me.
“This has to stop,” said a voice somewhat quieter than the one I knew.
I felt a sudden pang. He was probably lonely up there. But what could I do? I no longer cared for an upright existence.
“I’m living the way I want to,” I told his shins. Would he remember all the times he told me the same thing, walking out the door at 9pm?
“I never see your face anymore,” he said, his voice slightly cracking.
I was staring at his kneecaps just below his shorts. I’d never noticed how square they were.
“You could always join me,” I heard my voice say, another hallow echo of his own favourite words.
He didn’t reply, just walked away, Achilles tendons flexing.
Andrea Lynn Koohi is a writer from Toronto, Canada. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming in Idle Ink, The Maine Review, Pithead Chapel, Streetlight Magazine, the winnow magazine and Emerge Literary Journal. Find her on Twitter @AndreaKoohi
She stood in the shower. She’d been in there too long and the water was getting cold. Still, she didn’t move. He was working on her, trying too hard to be sexy. Moaning, groaning, writhing. Slick soap-sudsed hands moving so quickly she could barely register their trajectory. Her body was a map, and he was certainly no cartographer. Nonetheless, she did have to admit that she admired his confidence and tenacity. Diving into valleys, hiking over mountains; he had no regard for what might be around the corner. He carried on, oblivious to any reality in which there were consequences or responsibilities.
She turned her face up to the water coming from the showerhead, noticing the grout between the tiles turning pink with neglect. Hadn’t she just cleaned? Hadn’t she just paid rent? Hadn’t she just gone grocery shopping? Why was time passing without her having any recollection of how she’d filled it all?
The bathroom tile was pink, which she’d thought was charming when she first moved in. Four years later, it just looked sickly; less reminiscent of the sweet stickiness of bubblegum and more like the inflammation that accompanies an eye infection. It was grotesque, really.
They’re arguing. He’s saying it’s fine to be friends with Republicans; she’s imagining a person holding up a sign with a photo of what could have been compared to what is. She continues to bicker while he turns wordless. He inserts two fingers and she accepts them with indifference. A hairline fracture in the tile runs from eye level upwards, disappearing into the conjunction between wall and ceiling.
Men think things like this are hot because they’re taught that makeup sex is hot. Really, makeup sex isn’t all that hot; isn’t hot at all, actually, the more she thinks about it. She looks down at herself, seeing the fingers moving in and out, barely registering the feeling of it all. She looks back up at him, his eyes glazed over, the corners of his lips turned up in a smile that feels as if its aim is to mock her. Suddenly he seems even more grotesque that the molded grout and eye-infection-walls.
What? he asks, fingers halfway in.
Get the fuck out. She’s livid, spitting in anger.
His face falls, which only angers her more. How dare he have the nerve to look confused. Get the fuck out! Get out of my house! She storms out of the shower to lock herself in her bedroom, but halfway between the two rooms, standing next to the oven, she realizes she’s sopping wet and doesn’t have a towel. She walks into the bedroom anyway, resigning herself to stay in there until she hears the sound of the front door closing. It takes a few minutes, but finally he does, and only then does she step out of the bedroom and lock the front door behind him.
She walks into the bathroom with a small bottle of bleach and a coarse-bristled brush. She starts to scrub at the tile, bleach getting under her fingernails, burning the hairs inside of her nose. The brush against the wall makes a grating sound, nails on a chalkboard, but the immediate gratification of the gleaming tiles makes it worth it. Bleach runs down her gloveless arms making her wonder if she could get even more fair-skinned than she already is. Any fairer and she might disappear into the white walls of the living room altogether.
She finishes with the bathroom, but she doesn’t feel done. No, she’s only getting started. Standing under the skylight in the living room, she takes survey of her 120 square foot kingdom. She starts with the couch – a sickly chartreuse in color, the pile of the faux-velvet on the back worn down to the toile by the cat, one of the cushions stained by a splash of cheap beaujolais – grabbing it by the right arm and dragging it down the steps and out the front door to the curb. She next lifted up the coffee table, a narrow, white rectangle made of cheap cork board that weighed almost nothing, and dragged that out too. The rocking chair in the corner – the broken one – followed. She took the paintings off the walls and sat them on the floor. They were both of her own making, both of the same design only in different color schemes. She was not much of a painter, and she often considered throwing them out, previously unable to let go of something that came of her own hands. She made them. Still she propped them up against the coffee table on the cracked cement outside. She walked over to the bookcase, gingerly taking the books out and taking them downstairs in piles of eight or ten. There was one book she considered keeping, the one about the color blue, but that, too, she let go of. Blue was a sad color, anyhow. The bookcase resumed its spot next to the couch, coffee table, and rocking chair: a living room for the outdoors. It was quite queer looking to see living room furniture sitting on the concrete like that, perfectly arranged as they had been indoors. It was almost enough to make her second-guess herself. Let them be taken by the garbage men, or the less fortunate, she willed.
Back upstairs, there was nothing left of the life she lived, no hint of the kind of person that lived there. The walls were a drab off-white, the color of rain clouds, or the haze of fog, or three-day-old snow. She grabbed her wallet and left for the store two short blocks and then two long blocks over. It was July, and July in Brooklyn was miserable. She was drenched in a layer of sweat in no time, could feel it sliding down the back of her neck, though all she was wearing were denim cutoffs with a one inch inseam along with a white ribbed tank top. At the store, she bought the following: one gallon of paint – which she figured would suffice, as the square footage of her apartment really wasn’t all that impressive – a paint roller, and a paint tray. One thing about her: she was never the type to use a plastic bag. She carried the roller and tray in her right hand, and the gallon of paint in her left hand, the stronger one.
Back at the apartment, she didn’t bother to lay a tarp down or to tape the crown molding or the spaces around the electrical outlets. She mixed the can of paint with a chopstick left over from a dinner ordered in long ago, poured it into the tray, admiring how it looked like custard, thick and sweet and creamy. She fought the overwhelming urge to spoon a bit of it into her mouth and she started rolling. She stood atop a small stool to reach the higher parts of the walls, and crouched like a feral cat, hurting her lower back, to get the spaces by the floors. She noted that it took much longer than she’d expected, shocked to find that four hours had passed in the time between when she’d started and the time it was now. The sun outside the one window in the room hung low in the sky, threatening to give out on her. She stepped back into the doorway between the living room and the kitchen to admire her work. On the left wall she had gone a little outside of the lines, getting some paint on the ceiling. On the back wall, there was an uneven patch, which she stepped forward to cover up. Near the right wall, on the floor, were some drips of paint from when she’d stopped being so careful about the process. What was the point in being precious about anything anymore?
The walls shown like the rising sun in the waning days of summer, an attempt to encapsulate a moment, or a feeling, in the hopes of using it as a balm. Just then, her intercom rang. On the screen, she could see him standing there with a bouquet of flowers: red roses from the bodega on the corner. She could tell based on the price sticker on the cellophane. Red roses struck her as tacky, and it dawned on her then that they were two completely different people who had nearly nothing in common. Struggling to remember even a single conversation that they’d had over the last two months, she stood there, watching him talk. The intercom had no sound, but she could see his lips moving. He was speaking so quickly, his mouth moving in so many different shapes. He looked ridiculous, she thought. Pathetic. She tried to keep up, thinking at one point she maybe saw him mouth the words “I’m sorry”, but just as he was no cartographer, she was no lip-reader. Shame, she thought, as she turned the intercom screen off.
Arielle McManus is a writer, learning as she goes and crafting one liners from a tiny, sunlit room in Brooklyn. Her writing has been published by a variety of literary publications including Passages North and Entropy Magazine. She is an assistant editor at Atlas & Alice. More of her work can be found on her site at ariellemcmanus.com
Flocks of seagull’s dive with mighty beaks Yawing open, tongues whipping. I run, only finding corridors of empty doors And faceless people With tears where eyes Should Be. I look down at the blood where if cascades Down my legs, With clots, chunks of liver. A baby is screaming in my arms Its mouth open But filled With Hot tar Melting its face away. Until the child is just molten wax Dripping down me, Hardening onto a sea of blood. I walk away with Daddy Longlegs. His taps singing, a knife on crystal. So, we toast the admiral In his tricorn Hat. Who looks at me like I’m nothing? I feel the sweat burn my brow And slip between my breasts. A bald man sucks my nipple I swat him away And keep Walking. Naked.
Jane Langan’s poems were published in the anthology, Footprints and Echoes, shortlisted in the Lockdown Haiku competition with Fish Publishing, and had a special mention from The Welsh Poetry Competition. She was longlisted in the Mairtin Crawford Awards. Jane just completed an MA in Creative Writing. Jane’s Blog: http://howilikemycoffee.blogspot.com/
Jake passes the three mile marker of his morning run and, as he does so, the calories he’s burnt are automatically added to the weekly total collected by his fitness app. He’s relieved to have made it halfway through. It’s his second of five runs that his app has set for this week. It strongly suggested (with hourly prompts) that he should complete an additional run every evening, even offering him double credits as an incentive.
Jake plods on, one foot after the other, increasing his totals and steadily eating into the distance, despite the painkillers he’d taken earlier doing nothing for the dull ache that pounds his lower back with each stride. Ahead of him, his route is projected onto the treadmill’s heads-up display, revealing that the mass of runners he’d started with have thinned to a stream of bobbing heads that stretch off into the distance.
“Message Brad,” Jake calls out. The treadmill screens updates to display the messaging app in the bottom-right of the screen, and beeps. “Are you ready to go, Buddy? Send Message,” Jake adds.”
Brad needed to leave for school in the next few minutes or he’d miss the bus.
A moment later, a beep rings out and Brad has replied with a ‘thumbs up’ emoji.
On the trackside, a virtual marshal shouts encouragement as Jake passes by. “Come on. Dig deep. Every mile counts. You’re doing great.” The level of enthusiasm is enough to make Jake want to punch him.
Maybe it would burn a few extra calories?
Distracted by the marshall, Jake’s stride falters and his foot clips the edge of the treadmill, sending him stumbling forward. His arms flail wildly as he fights to regain his balance and somehow, despite over stretching, he manages to keep himself upright and grabs hold of the treadmill frame for support. When his foot hits the treadmill belt on his next stride, a sharp pain slices through his left knee. Shit. He reaches down for the joint and rubs it, doing what he can to ease the pain as he continues to run.
He doesn’t stop running.
Jake’s neighbour, Lance, had introduced him to the running app a year ago. (No doubt making some credits from the referral in the process.) Like Lance, Jake opted for the ‘deluxe’ option which meant he received the latest home treadmill and a weekly supply of health supplements when signing up. In return, all he needed to do was view a handful of short advert pop-ups as he ran. It was a no-brainer to gain access to the latest fitness tech.
Things changed two months ago when the app surpassed two billion users and shareholders began pushing for a return on their investments
The original Terms and Conditions, which Jake had never read, even though he’d clicked to confirm he had, were updated. Now, runners were required to purchase their supplements instead of receiving them for free, and the cost of the equipment needed to be recouped. The currency to pay for these items was miles, or more specifically, the energy runners generated in covering those miles.
Treadmills stopped being powered by the national grid, and began to feed it.
It’s a freemium product, Lance explained to Jake, as if he were spelling it out to a child. “It’s a standard business model.” Lance rolled his eyes. “You do know that if you’re not paying for a product, then you are the product, don’t you?”
Jake winced. The pain in his knee was getting worse. He eased his pace. It would be better to jog the rest of course and clock up the miles, rather than trying to finish quickly and risk damaging his knee any further or not finishing at all.
A flash of fluorescent yellow shoots past him.
“Keep up, slow poke,” Lance calls out.
Lance is kitted out in the latest hi-tech running gear; tight, light-weight clothing and branded trainers. They set off together this morning, which meant Lance was now a lap ahead. Jake scowls after him as he barges off through the field at a ridiculous pace.
Jake’s heads-up display alerts him of an in-coming call from Brad.
“I’m leaving now, Dad. See you later.” There’s a pause before he adds, “do you think we could get some Pepsi this week?”
An advert starts to play across the bottom of Jake’s display; a family lounging on a beach, glugging from ice-cold bottles of Pepsi. None of them are running. The cost of each bottle is listed next to the logo.
“Err, I’m not…”
“Greg’s dad gives him a can with his lunch every day.”
Jake waits for the advert to finish before swiping it away. The credits he’s earned are added to his account with a chime. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thanks, Dad. Maybe I could get me a treadmill? I could buy my own Pepsi. And there’s this new game—”
“I don’t want you worrying about treadmills,” Jake cuts in. “I’ll take care of the Pepsi. Okay?” Jake sighs and then adds, “listen, you have a good day at school and I’ll see you when you get back.”
Jake ends the call and swipes through the heads-up display to his calendar. He confirms his attendance at a week of evening runs and his online basket chimes with pending credits.
He takes a deep breath. The pain in his back throbs, and his knee joint grinds, but with each stride, his fitness app counter flicks forward, increasing its totals. Ahead of him, among the crowd of other runners, Lance’s yellow vest becomes something to aim for.
Steve Campbell’s work can be found in places such as Spelk, Fictive Dream, MoonPark Review, Molotov Cocktail, The Cabinet of Heed and Flashback Fiction. You can follow him via twitter @standondog and his website, standondog.com.
It’s another early morning, 5.06. She walks down the stairs quietly, a slender silhouette in the pale blue of the early hours.
She flicks the switch on and the kitchen is bathed in orange light. She puts the kettle on, opens the cupboard on the right of the window and gets the big mug out. That’s the one she always uses. Similar gestures, day-in day out. Only the time varies. It depends on how little she sleeps. She’s been up early a lot lately. So many mornings in a row, creeping down the stairs, sometimes stopping midway to look outside the window. The view from that window is good, so few houses have windows halfway through their staircases. And then it’s the invariable routine; tea bag in, stir, tea bag out, sip whilst daydreaming, standing at the sink. And then she has eggs. Two fried eggs. Could this be bad for her? Eating fried eggs everyday isn’t healthy, she should stop it. Porridge is a better option.
She sits at the kitchen table and eats whilst going through the previous morning sketches. Hundreds and hundreds of sleepless mornings. Thousands and thousands of sketches. Then she reworks some, her head resting on her left hand, her body slightly curved, her face too close to the paper she draws on. Every so often she lifts the sheet of paper up, extends her arm away from her face, looks at it for a minute and puts it back down on the table. Occasionally, she crumples the paper and throws it on the kitchen floor. She has bad days. Everybody has bad days, days when nothing seems to work. One day she forgot about the eggs and the pan had caught on fire. This had been scary she could have really injured herself, or even die. She had grabbed the pan and hurled it in the sink, lifting her arms to protect her face from the splatter of burning oil and water. This is when he had come down, probably woken up by the smoke alarm he’d found her trying to turn off, standing up on a chair, her body stretched to the maximum in an attempt to reach the alarm’s reset button. He had pressed the button for her then hugged her tight, kissing the top of her head, his nose buried in the mane of untamed hair and had gone back upstairs, leaving her alone, still standing on her chair, still holding the tea towel she had used to get hold of the pan.
He’s never up early. He comes down at 7, invariably, makes a cup of coffee that he takes back upstairs with him. At weekends he sleeps late in the mornings, sometimes doesn’t make an appearance until midday. Then he turns up, his body stiff from so much sleep, his walk almost robotic, and sits, sipping at his coffee while she toasts some bread, puts the bacon in the oven. She’s too good to him. She deserves better. Someone to cherish her, be there for her all the time. Someone that never tires of her sight, someone that knows her inside out.
He always works so late, not getting home until 10 or 11. Sometimes, if he’s home early, they sit at the kitchen table and drink some beer and she shows him her drawings. She sticks them to the fridge with a magnet and comes behind him to explain what she’s been doing, she leans against him, her breast pressed against his back, her chin almost resting on his shoulder and her right hand pointing and gesticulating towards the drawing as she talks. And he nods, and nods. They don’t bother tidying on those nights, they just turn the lights off and walk up the stairs slowly, their bodies leaden by the late night and alcohol. She cleans the next day, tosses the empty cans in the recycling bin, wipes the table clean of pistachio shells and then she makes her tea, her eggs and goes back to her drawings.
They had a row the other day. One of those rows that makes you pace up and down whilst trying to make a point, one of those fights that make you gesticulate with frustration, arms flailing, hands gesturing, and tension, tension, emanating from every inch of your body. At one stage she had slammed the kitchen door behind her, using her whole upper body to draw it towards her with as much violence as possible. Then she had sat on a chair, her body so still suddenly. She had stayed there a long time, her arms around her knees, looking straight ahead until the darkness had surrounded her. He had reappeared later, held her tight in his arms, his lips on her head and they’d forgiven each other there and then on the kitchen table, forgetting to shut the blinds, oblivious of the world outside their window.
Another early morning, 5.32. She drinks her tea looking outside the window. She hasn’t had eggs in a couple of weeks. She makes toast instead, and eats big spoonfuls of blueberry jam straight from the jar while she waits by the toaster. Blueberry jam. She brought back two large pots the other day, they live on the windowsill, by the coffee pot and the cookie jar. This sudden change in her habits is unlike her.
The sudden realisation makes him step away from the window. Short of breath, he staggers backwards and slumps into a chair. At the window the telescope flops down, now pointing towards the mint in his herb garden, magnifying the bright green leaves, some of them chewed up by parasites, some of them just the frame of a leaf with nothing inside.
I noticed them gathering at the bottom of our lane, trundling back and forward, looking lonely somehow. That was it. Nothing more.
I was busy, chasing my tail or whatever I was doing, time passed as it does. Time always seems so certain. It knows where it’s going and heads off to the nearest pit-stop to clock in. Weeks and months pass, sometimes in a blur, quickly anyway.
I did not know he was sitting, well most of the time lying, in his bedroom with the window open, listening to the dog barking at anyone passing its gate, cars changing gear up the hill and all the other noises he knew intimately. There was no clock in his room and he had stopped wearing a watch. He did not see any point in knowing anything about time.
It was the hottest summer in years and everyone complained and trains were derailed, lines were buckled or whatever happened to them. Warmth glided through his open window and the sounds in the street changed. Children played and fought in their backyards and still he lay in bed. It was weeks before he had the idea. He was becoming weaker. He asked for a mirror. He saw himself and was shocked.
I was full of hell; somebody had pulled off my cars’ wing mirror, left it broken-necked. I had a rant, without saying a word about mindless people, stopping short of the death penalty, although stoning seemed a possibility.
My headache was worse, far worse. It was too hot. Most things were wrong, the television was playing vindictive games wanting me to watch programmes I had no interest in. Someone had read the evening paper before me. Everyone was more popular. Everything was a disaster. And those bloody red and blue plastic balls. I picked one up and squeezed it and did not lose any stress or pain. I was just mauling a plastic ball. That was it.
‘Time is what you measure life with’, I have said dozens of times without knowing how important it was to him. His mother went along with all his requests, not that he had many: A particular brand of lemonade, a magazine. His friends visited but he wasn’t interested in talking to them. He was drifting away.
That’s how the doctor had described it, as if her son and his death were somehow very natural, like leaves abandoning trees, floating away on a sudden breeze. He was only fourteen. Death is always sad but this was a tragedy.
The red and blue plastic balls were something else, his mother had bought them in bulk. An untidy plastic bag flopped in the corner of his room. Each morning he had his mother open the bedroom window as wide as possible so he could launch the balls onto the black slate roof, have them wing it down the back lane. They ran after each other, he imagined, like children running down a hill.
The boy and mother lived further up the bank, I did not know everyone in the street and I was really busy. My life was hurtling by. I did not know the boy with cancer who had lost all his hair and was so gaunt. He did not have the strength to move from his bed, yet he knew time was passing him by and desperately wanted to record it with all the million other things him and his mother could have told me.
I began to collect the plastic balls. Like trophies. They see-sawed across the back of my car seat and soon were happily marooned as the boy began to drift away until one day, while his mother sat by him on the bed, his fragile body stopped as if a run-down battery.
His mother threw another set of balls that made their way down the roof, spreading their wings for her son. She sobbed on his pillow and was relieved: his pain was at an end.
I knew nothing of this. It was months later when I met his mother. She told me the boy’s story, his love of the plastic balls and long slow death, quiet bravery, and belief the plastic balls meant something. And they did. They do.
A girl forgets she has a body she can feel, that she exists outside this bubble she’s created. Once she would choose escape, run away to a place with warm skies and salty air. Now she stays grounded or at least tries. She nods to the other runners she sees, fewer each day. No words are exchanged, a mute nod of encouragement, sometimes a wave. This world looks so different from what she imagined. She sometimes wishes to go back to when the anxiety that raced through her blood was due to the lover whose name she rarely breathed into existence. Now she stares out windows, the world trudging forward in a strangely silent way— like a movie without sound, her motions exaggerated. But if there’s no one to witness it does it matter if she cooks in her underwear? Does it matter if she dances to 80s hits at midnight? She bakes brownies, licks the spatula, pulls the pan out early so the brownies are so gooey she needs a spoon to eat them. She does this, cross-legged on the couch, her dog curled up beside her, the world slowly turning outside, death creeping a little closer each day.
Courtney LeBlanc is the author of Beautiful & Full of Monsters (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press), chapbooks All in the Family (Bottlecap Press) and The Violence Within (Flutter Press). She is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Riot in Your Throat, an independent poetry press. She has her MBA from University of Baltimore and her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. She loves nail polish, tattoos, and a soy latte each morning. Read her publications on her blog: http://www.wordperv.com. Follow her on twitter: @wordperv, and IG: @wordperv79.