The MFA in Creative Writing Program at Manhattanville College

July 21st, 2014

The Deserter, the Priest, and The Gun

The deserter and the priest sit in the church playing Russian roulette. The deserter’s face and hands are black with gunpowder and grime—only his eyes and teeth glow white in the dim candlelight. He gives the priest an exuberant smile and pulls back the hammer on the revolver. The cylinder spins with a reptilian hiss.

               The deserter and the priest sit in the church playing Russian roulette. The deserter’s face and hands are black with gunpowder and grime—only his eyes and teeth glow white in the dim candlelight. He gives the priest an exuberant smile and pulls back the hammer on the revolver. The cylinder spins with a reptilian hiss.
               “Perhaps if you told me what was troubling you,” the priest says tentatively. The game was not his idea. He had been hiding under the altar when the deserter climbed in through a breach in the wall. The war had been raging along outside for days and everyone but the priest had fled.
               “Nothing is troubling me,” the deserter says. He holds the gun to his temple and pulls the trigger. The hammer crashes, shockingly loud, on the empty cylinder and the sound echoes off the ruined walls of the church for a very long time. The deserter gives a dry little laugh and places the gun gently on the altar, his eyes on the priest. “I told you. I have come for a duel with God. If the bullet chooses me, God is stronger. If it’s you, well…” He shrugs, and his overcoat makes a strange rustling noise as it settles back around him. It is torn in many places, black and stiff with blood. “Your turn,” he says.
               The war had been sniffing around the town like a jackal for months, but it arrived in force ten days before, with the rebel army taking up positions in the surrounding hills. The priest had been instructed by his bishop to protect the church from looters, so when the metallic crackle of gunfire drew close, he bolted the tall oak doors shut.
               For over a week he heard the ebb and flow of the battle outside—small-arms fire, explosions, the despairing tramp of refugees, the cries of the wounded—tidal currents of violence and motion washing continually around him. The priest roamed the church in an agony of doubt. Was this truly what God wanted from him? That he should hide in this church, concealing himself from the struggles of the world? He imagined opening the doors, the oak spreading like angel wings before him, and striding bravely out into the inferno. But then he thought of his instructions, the stern warning that the purity, the sacred ground of the church depended entirely on him. Sometimes at night he would hear voices outside, women and children pleading for him to let them in. He would stand, his hands shaking on the latches. “I can no longer stand idly by,” he would tell himself. “Now, at long last, I will act.” Each time, however, he stepped back. He was so small, and the suffering outside so large. He would wander through the church, stroking the tapestries, running his hands along the inspirational inscriptions carved into the walls. But the saints of the stained glass windows cast their dark eyes heavenward, having already dispensed with the works of man.
               “I could shoot you. I could fire into the air,” the priest says.
               The deserter looks disappointed. “If there is a bullet in the chamber and you kill me, then God wins. Otherwise I suppose I will be forced to club you to death. It’s only fair.”
               After a week or so, the sounds of the battle began to ebb. It seemed that he had endured the worst, that the war would move on, leaving the church unscathed. With each new morning the priest felt faith swell inside himself with a hard brightness. The rising sun shone through the windows, the delicate panes still impossibly intact, and bathed him in the glorious light of God. The priest found himself filled with a brilliant feeling of joy. He had won. He had submitted himself to the will of God and, though he had endured a great trial, had emerged transfigured, humbled, and purified.
               Then, in the middle of a nearly silent afternoon, there was a deafening explosion. A single artillery shell had landed near the front of the church, shattering the stained glass windows and blowing a jagged black crevice in the stone wall facing the street. Smoke and dust filled the church, and fires caught and burned fitfully on the tapestries and some of the pews. The priest, his ears ringing, his breath coming in gasps, huddled behind the altar with a bottle of sacramental wine where, a few hours later, the deserter found him.
               “There are riches here,” the priest says. “Treasures. I can show you. You could be a wealthy man. You can take anything you want.”
               “This is what I want,” the deserter says. He looks at the gun, and then expectantly back at the priest. The priest doesn’t move.
               “You know, all of this,” the deserter waves his hand around airily, somehow including not just the ruined church but the whole town, the countryside, the world at large, “this was me. I did it.” He reaches over and grabs the priest’s bottle, draining it and throwing it down the nave where it crashes on the flagstone floor and shatters into bits, scattering among the sharp shards of stained glass, the remnants of God and the lives of the saints. “I was an artillery man, you see, before I settled on my new career as assassin of God. We sat up in the hills for days, tossing explosives down onto this town. We wrote prayers on the sides of our shells before we sent them off, our most heartfelt wishes, that your town be reduced to rubble, that everyone in it die a painful death. We would launch them heavenward, the embodiment of our desires, and God would bless them and offer them back to you.” He paused, craning his neck to look at the gash in the church. “I can’t be sure this was one of my rounds, but it’s very lovely nonetheless.” He gazed thoughtfully at the breach, and then looked back at the priest. “All good things must come to an end, of course, and the war moved on. But I had a powerful urge to see what God and I had done. So I slipped away from my company in the night, and came to visit.
               “I met such devout pilgrims on the road, father. You would have wept at their piety. I saw a young man, his chest shattered by a blast. With each breath I could hear the grate of his ribs against each other, and the burble of blood in his lungs. I found a woman in a ditch. I imagine that she was beautiful a few days ago, but her legs were bloated and useless and smelled of the putrefaction of the grave. I saw a baby. Someone loved that baby once, but when I met him he was alone, shivering and whimpering at his dead mother’s breast. His skin was wrinkled and gray, already ancient and tired of life. I gave them all the only gift I had, and they each met the bullet with joy, having had their fill of God’s presence in the world.” He paused and looked slowly around the church, at the vaulting ceiling, now torn open to the sky, the great gray walls painted with soot, the windows, their edges still jagged with bright fragments of glass. “When I had only one round left it occurred to me that I might be equally generous with myself, for I too had grown sad and weary with the burden of God’s love. Just then, I saw your church, and I thought that perhaps there was one sacrament I might yet perform—that God, selfish to the end, might want my final bullet for himself.”
               The moon, clear in the sky, beamed through the rent in the roof and the shattered walls of the church gleamed silver. The priest imagined a bullet tearing through his skull, admitting all of that light while a fine mist of blood and brains scattered onto the stone beyond. The revolver, silent and inscrutable on the altar, shone with such brilliance that he thought it must sear the flesh from his hand, but when he touched it, it felt bitterly cold. He picked it up and looked into the eyes of the deserter. A warm breeze sprang up, whispering through the walls, and he smelled gunpowder and smoke, the sweet odor of a new spring, rotting flesh, shit. Rats and carrion beasts shrieked and squabbled over corpses outside as birds, just beginning to stir, opened their throats in tentative song. The priest realized he was biting the inside of his cheek, and the taste of blood mixed with the scent of flowers in his mouth. He looked up at the sky and thought that the dawn, when it came, would be the loveliest thing anybody had seen.
 

*

 
John Haggerty’s work has appeared widely in magazines such as Confrontation, Nimrod, Salon, Santa Monica Review, and is the recipient of the 2013 Pinch Literary Prize. His novel Saline Springs, which he hopes to finish very soon, was a finalist for the 2013 James Jones First Novel Fellowship. He is enrolled in the MFA program at San Francisco State University.
 
 
What motivates him to create:
“My first thought was that I create out of envy and fear. Envy because, when I see a piece of great writing, I think, ‘Damn, I wish I had done that,’ which spurs me on to do something similar. Fear because the world is a scary place, and I use writing to try to make sense of it. But viewed in a more positive light, beautiful things, especially beautiful writing, makes me wish that there was more of that in the world, and inspires me to add my own pale contribution. And whether I am afraid of the world or not, art remains the best way for us to examine it in its entirety—its joys and sorrows, the terrible beauty of life.”

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July 2nd, 2014

Before and After

My bus swayed gently,
straddled across the railroad tracks.
I saw the back end of a train
stopped, out of place.
The windows opened
with spring muscling in.

It was a cool, blue, March morning,
the scent of grass light in the air.
We walked as a pair,
Two sisters;
One sixteen—
                passionate, poetic, full of promise.
                An exotic flower bursting into bloom.
One twelve—
                shy, soft-spoken, small.
                Not even a hint of a bud in sight.

We said goodbye,
a strawberry lip-glossed kiss
against my cheek.
She to her school bus,
I to mine.

My bus swayed gently,
straddled across the railroad tracks.
I saw the back end of a train
stopped, out of place.
The windows opened
with spring muscling in.

In the still of the early morning
two strangers had met;
A bus—with a driver too impatient to wait.
A freight train—with eighty-two cars in tow,
transforming a sleepy cornfield—
books, backpacks, bodies scattered,
sirens sounding,
the red ebb and flow of flashing lights.

And I,
cocooned in my yellow bus
thought twelve-year-old thoughts
for thirty minutes more.

 
*
 
Ann LiPuma Nieporent has dedicated her life to reading and writing. After graduating from Boston College in 1981 with a BA in English, she worked as an Assistant Editor at McCall’s Magazine, publishing several pieces of her own during her time there. After a long hiatus while raising children, she returned to her writing and it was like reconnecting with a dear old friend. She completed her MFA at Manhattanville College in 2013 and has spent the last few years working on her first young adult novel, The Sible Box. Before and After is from that work in progress.

What motivates her to create:
“I spend most days noticing ordinary things, like the color of a morning sky, and automatically search for just the right words to capture what I see, always striving to push past clichés. Taking those words and organizing them into meaningful sentences, paragraphs, pages that reach someone in an unexpected way, or make them feel something on a deeper level, is what keeps me connected to my laptop.”

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June 25th, 2014

Some Bluebird

Has given a single feather
To this bluegrass meadow

Has given the blue sky
A few more million miles

Has given a single feather
To this bluegrass meadow

Has given the blue sky
A few more million miles
Of immensity

Has given
The silence
Surrounding it
A new version of the blues

I saw the cat
Which ate the bird
This morning
And something like
The color blue

Crawled across its eyes

 

*

 

John McKernan grew up in Omaha Nebraska and is now a retired comma herder / Phonics Coach after teaching 41 years at Marshall University. He lives – mostly – in West Virginia where he edits ABZ Press. His most recent book is a selected poems Resurrection of the Dust. He has published poems in The Atlantic Monthly, The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Journal, Antioch Review, Guernica, Field and many other magazines.

What motivates him to create:
“Many different things.

Involuntary Memory is a powerful source of material which calls out to be made into a poem.

That curious mixture of longing-desire-wish-hope is another good cauldron with a poem or two bubbling in it.

Sometimes a poem will appear magically in a dream. Complete. There it is if I go and write it down.”

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June 4th, 2014

Evangelical Initiative

              The morning after his old man pressed charges and I bailed Roy out of jail, he asked me about cabbing. Roy’d been to my house a couple times, sometimes nursing a black eye his father had given him when Roy interrupted the fists falling on his mom. We’d talked about taxying before, but he’d said …

              The morning after his old man pressed charges and I bailed Roy out of jail, he asked me about cabbing. Roy’d been to my house a couple times, sometimes nursing a black eye his father had given him when Roy interrupted the fists falling on his mom. We’d talked about taxying before, but he’d said it sounded like slave labor.
              I explained about owning my own car and making my own hours and rules, and Roy started coming around. I flashed my wallet and said, “John Chisolm, independent businessman.”
              I didn’t tell him about how it’s scary sometimes to have people riding behind you or about the immigrants, the way they stink up your car, Somalis worse than Hmong. I didn’t tell him how they travel in packs or jaw on their cell phones, screeching so fast there’s no way anyone on the other end can understand.
              At the kitchen table, Roy used single words for questions cause of his cut and swollen lip. His voice sounded scratched. I gave him a couple of ice cubes to put in his coffee, so he could drink it. I ran my hand over my beard and watched him weigh his options. He was thinking of leaving the plant where his dad worked even though the money was decent. I offered him my couch for as long as he needed it, my place empty, Amber and her cheating long gone by then. By Sunday, he’d written a letter giving his two weeks’ notice, filled out an application for Cab College, and moved a few things from his parents’ house in Anoka to mine while his dad was out and his mom nursed her own split lip. Twin Cities Taxi’s not the best company to work for. They take a huge chunk of your fares, but it’s a place to start because they supply the cabs.
              Roy and I might have met having drinks at the bar, or maybe the track. Can’t remember. But I know when we met, he was the same age Buck was when he walked into bullets in Vietnam. Roy and I clicked, probably more than Buck and me ever did. Feels like Roy’s closer to my side of sixty than his side of twenty. He’s got that salt of the earth thing. I like to think that if Buck was around, he’d hang out with Roy and me on Fridays. He’d work the graveyard shift and come over for beers. We’d stop bitching about airport runs and shitty tips and sit by the garden and watch the sun rise over the rotting wooden fence. He’d a liked that.
              I don’t remember saying goodbye to Buck. Feels like something a person should remember. It gives me a little cramp in my side that I can’t see it. Now that Mom’s gone, I can’t ask her. Sure as hell can’t ask Dad since he took off long before that. Buck left on a bus, but I don’t remember being at the bus station. Maybe I was in school. Maybe I was sitting in Mrs. Sutton’s algebra class trying to look down Vanessa Beeker’s sweater while my brother boarded a bus, his first steps toward those bullets.
              Funny, if that’s true, that now I drive a cab. Kind of similar though hell if I’d be caught dead driving a bus. A cab’s just one step away from a limo. A bus is a slum on wheels. And no bus driver owns his own bus. He’s not an independent businessman.
 

#

 
Near the end of his first Friday night in the cab, I called Roy on my way home from dropping off my last fare. “You finished?” I asked.
              Roy showed up around four a.m., after taking his last bunch of yawping college kids from the bars downtown to the apartments near the U. His eyes shined, and he hardly sipped his beer for all the telling me about his customers. “Can’t believe how many of ‘em leave trash in the back, but it’s cool. Some kid left a Hustler.”
              I nodded. It reminded me of my own first day. My first passenger— downtown, briefcase, trench coat— to one of the hotels that’s not even there anymore. Polite guy, tipped okay, and luckily didn’t ask for change. I’d forgotten the cash on my dresser. A neat pile of ones and fives, back when ones meant something. Now the pile of fives is as soft and warm in my jeans pocket as the pocket itself. The woman that day, I remember her too. Black woman, dressed in heels and a suit, coming out of the hotel where I dropped the first guy off. Thin, not big like so many of them. “Hennepin and Second, please.” A short drive. Maybe came to five bucks back then. She tipped too.
              And it seemed everything would be right for a long, long time.
              I remember wiping my first Old Yeller down, using Pine Sol on her interior. On the stone driveway of my old apartment building, I scrubbed her and told her we would have a long time together. I’d spent good money on her, a ‘93 Crown Vic, an old squad car, so she knew a thing about loyalty and reliability. Used all my money for the down payment, and hoped she’d be good to me and bring in what I needed, so some day I could buy a house of my own for someone (not an Amber, even then I knew, not someone like Amber) and maybe some kids and a dog. Turns out I got Roy instead.
              Sundays and Mondays we always take off. It’s slower then, and we let rookies have the fares. In winter we play a lot of cards and meet at Scamp’s Bar. Summer’s better; we sit outside drinking beers, bullshitting. We talk about how it feels good to help the old people to their door. Roy always has questions. Little and big ones. He asks a lot about how to fix cars, but he wonders about other stuff too. Once he asked what my happiest memory was, and I had to think for a while. I almost said, “banging Amber,” but that wouldn’t have been true, so I told him about the garden. Being little, seven maybe, laying in the dry dirt, feeling just as light as clumps of soil. Dad weeding the vegetable garden and humming, Mom nipping suckers off tomato plants, so that each time she did, the peppery smell mixed with her cut flowers in the basket nearby. Buck and I snapped ends off beans, tossing the tips at each other, aiming for the small opening that gaped at the neck of our t-shirts. It was close to sunset and real nice.
              Roy shook his head. Slurred his words a little and said he couldn’t imagine having a memory like that.
              I can’t remember how it went from good in that old garden to bad. Dad, suddenly gone. Though, now older, I guess I can pick out the signs. His too sweet smell of whiskey, his whiskers grown so his hugs, less frequent, scratched instead of soothed. Gone a lot, then just gone. So Mom said Buck and me were the men of the house. And then three years later Buck got on the bus. The Chisolm men, gone except for me, just a boy.
 

#

 
After six months with Twin Cities Taxi, Roy had saved enough to get an apartment and buy his own cab. By then his mom had taken off, fleeing the bastard that beat them. Roy didn’t have anyone else. So when I saw an ad for the auction in March, Roy and I went together. I was real proud of Roy and I knew he had enough money saved, but I told him on the way over that I’d make the down payment. He didn’t say much, just reached over and grabbed my shoulder. He nodded at me as he pulled his hand away.
              The auction was jammed, but I knew right away which trooper would be best for Roy. “The ‘04. Can bang that dent right out,” I said, running my hand through my beard.
              Roy popped his knuckles. “You sure?”
              “Wouldn’t steer you wrong, brother.”
              When the car was painted to match Vivid Taxis’ specs, it looked damn close to mine. I smiled at the sight of the two of them sitting next to each other in the driveway. Roy worked on the car at my place because his apartment building didn’t have a hose. The way he was with it, hand washing and waxing, scrubbing the white walls, and polishing the interior brought back all the old pride I’d felt for my first Old Yeller. “What you gonna call her?” I asked.
              Roy continued buffing the wax he’d just applied. “Thought I might call her Buck, if it’s okay with you.”
              I kicked a pile of grey melting snow and rubbed my hand through my beard. “Shoot.” I walked over and gave Roy three quick slaps on the back. “Hell yeah that’d be okay with me.”
 

#

 
Initially, Roy struggled getting used to someone always sitting behind him. Someone he didn’t know. What with a Dad that beat the shit out of him, it would be tough to trust strangers. I told him to watch the rearview mirror, and after the first few months, he got comfortable. Close to his year anniversary with Buck, some white kid pretending to be black, wearing his pants all low and stupid, pulled a gun on Roy and refused to pay. When Roy told me about it, he shook and his voice cracked, and I wanted to kill the little punk bastard. Afterwards, I told Roy my own gun and knife stories, told him that never once had I been hurt. Just scared. We drank a lot of beer that night, skipped work the next day.
              During those first few years of Roy working as a cabby, I thought a lot about how his timing had been off. He didn’t have the same advantage as me, driving close to eight years before the Hmong and Somalis really started buying in. It used to be that I just had to pick them up. They reeked, didn’t tip much, and left garbage on the floor. But then I started counting the immigrant cabbies. More and more of them kept coming, and a bunch of them, sometimes a whole family, got together and bought a car, so they were always out. One of them would sleep, one would drive, and there was always another one waiting to start the moment the other was tired. Even the ones who don’t share, they’re not afraid of working twenty-four hour shifts. Or doing pickups in North Minneapolis at 2:30 in the morning. Can’t compete with that kind of shit. Nothing personal.
 

#

 
It was an accident the initiative ever started. The January cold had been keeping people home, and the weekend had been stale, so I went out on a Monday for the “tight ass shift,” Roy’s name for 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. because all the suits go to their meetings, cocktails, and dinners. Tips aren’t great, but a steady stream of cash passes through. That Hmong was the last one of them I picked up for a long time. Dressed in a suit, his back faced me because he hailed a cab coming from the other direction. The approaching cab was a Twin Cities Taxi, and I always loved screwing those guys out of a fare since they’d screwed Roy out of his due cash his first six months.
              When the Hmong got in my car, he said, “Immigration,” all quiet and tentative. I thought he’d be okay. They look as smart as the Japanese and Chinese.
              The traffic moved on 35, and I calculated the trip to be about forty bucks. A good lunchtime fare. If the guy tipped. When I pulled up on Metro Drive, gangs of Hmong, Somalis, and Mexicans stood around. Future cabdrivers of America. As if anyone can drive a cab as well as anyone else. From the back, the man said, “Wait. I be back.”
              I turned around to face him. “Whoa buddy. I don’t wait without cash. You pay now.” I held my hand and rubbed my thumb and two fingers together.
              He smiled and kind of bowed to me and got out of the car, taking his briefcase with him. I got out and met him on the curb. “You pay now.” I said it loud and crossed my arms in front of me. A group of immigrants nearby shut up and watched.
              “I be right back.” He tried to step past me.
              “You be paying right now.”
              He showed me the inside of his pockets, nothing. I grabbed at his briefcase, but he swung it away from me just in time. I lunged again. He swerved and the pack of immigrants laughed. I stepped toward him and swung my fist, but it only glanced off him as he turned and darted through the glass doors. A police officer stood just inside with his back to the door. I was pissed at the cop for not doing anything to help, but he had to keep immigrants in order all day long, so I let the Hmong go. He’d get what was due.
              At the curb, a Somali family stood at my cab. The man asked, “You give ride?”
              I’d already done my charity work for people who didn’t bother to learn English, so I shook my head, got in, and drove home. I put my window down and let icy air wash over me. I opened my phone and pushed speed dial number one.
              “Hey, bro,” Roy answered.
              “Coming over?” I asked.
              He had planned to work a couple more hours, but when I told him I was done for the day, he said he’d pick up beer on his way over after he dropped his last fare.
              Two hours went by before Roy showed. He looked the same way he did when I bailed him out of jail after his dad beat him. His left eye closed, bottom lip fat and eking blood. It was a Somali. Jacked Roy when he stopped for beer.
              After Roy told me about the asshole taking off with the cash, I got a bottle of aspirin and told him about the Hmong. We sipped beers and swore. I said, “Not taking them anymore. No matter what. Even if it’s slow. Sick of helping them- they don’t pay taxes, got better health care than we do, living off our hard work. Fuck ‘em.”
              Roy listened and messed with the pop top on his beer. I crushed my can and got us two more. As I passed Roy his, he said, “Like those fuckers at Twin Cities Taxi. Just cause the Hmongs own all the damn cabs doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make my cash.” He took a long pull off his beer. “Time to take the initiative. Enough letting them have everything easy.” On board without me ever asking him to be.
              “Initiative, I like it,” I said. In bed that night, I thought it over. A kind of pledge for brothers.
              Winter passed. We met a few women at Scamp’s. None of them interested me much, and I thought back to Amber and wondered if I should have tried harder to keep her around. Mostly Roy and I drove, late winter and early spring always the busiest. The snow and salt forced a car wash after every shift, and I was itching for some warm days.
              I brought out the seeds, grow light, and plastic trays the first week of March. The tomatoes and peppers could start now. I’d bite into the first tomato like it was an apple, let the juice run down my arm right there in the garden. But that was a long ways off yet.
              Roy brought beer over and watched as I filled each of the holes with a bit of dirt. He’d looked at me funny the first year he saw my seedlings, but he just watched now. He said, “I been thinking. About the initiative.”
              With my finger, I pressed a tomato seed into each plastic depression, sinking it into the dirt.
              Roy said, “The problem is, if we aren’t picking them up, and the others are, they’re the ones making money.”
              He had a point. It had occurred to me on occasion that I was giving up multiple fares a day cause of the promise I’d made to Roy. And coming into spring, we’d need the fares we could get as people who took a cab all the rest of the year, didn’t when the cold and snow let up. I asked, “Just pick them up like it doesn’t matter they’re taking our jobs?”
              Roy shook his head. “No, if we allow them in our cabs, we can teach them. Make things clear for them.”
              It was an interesting idea. Tired of watching me plant seeds, Roy flipped on playoff hockey. I’d stopped watching as soon as the Wild blew their chances at the Cup.
              I covered the seeds with pinches of good, black dirt and thought about Roy’s plan. A way of educating immigrants, letting them know what it takes to be an American, a way of making up for Buck.
              We talked through it. I added my own ideas, and by the time the trays of seeds had been watered and grow lights buzzed, we knew what we’d do.
              Only later, after I’d seen a news story about another group of men on a mission on the Texas border did I ask Roy about calling it the evangelical initiative. “Because we’re doing the work of angels. Angelic work.”
              “Sounds like a chick job,” said Roy.
              “It means publisher of glad tidings.”
              We laughed.
 

#

 
We piled the D class rocket engines into our cart at Wal-Mart and moved to the checkout line. The big black woman at the register smiled when she saw the engines and said, “My boys love these things. My husband pretends he hates it, but he loves those rockets. You all got kids?”
              I ran my credit card and listened to Roy mumble no. One late night last week after too many brews, he confessed he needed a woman, liked his new girl Becca, said he wanted to be a dad. Hurt me a little, but I remember feeling that way once. Caught myself wishing Buck was still around.
              I snatched the bag from the woman’s hand, and we went to my place to break open the engines.
 

#

 
The first teaching I did for the evangelical initiative was for a Somali family I picked up downtown. That morning I’d checked on my tomatoes. They’d grown strong under the false light in April, struggled through thin sunshine in May, even survived a heavy inch of wet snow that came the third week of the month. Now, yellow flowers produced their first fruit, golf ball to baseball size, and in another month they’d begin to blush red. I’d share the crop with Roy.
              The second the Somalis got in Old Yeller, I could smell them. They smelled the way they all do, thick and spicy, and I could feel their pores leaking onto Old Yeller’s seats. Only the lemon wipes I had in the trunk would help. I put my window down though the June morning felt cool and damp. The man said, “Immigration first, then the airport please.” I’d been back to immigration a few times since we discussed the initiative, but the timing was never right. But this one, this one I knew would work. I’d be glad to wait. I imagined Roy and I toasting beers, Becca nowhere to be seen.
              The operation was smooth. The Somali handed me twenty bucks over the fare he’d already run up, helped his wife and young boy out of the cab, and took his briefcase into immigration with him but left their suitcases in the trunk. “Wait right up there for you,” I said and pointed to a loading zone.
              He nodded, and I pulled a few car lengths ahead, put my hazards on, grabbed the plastic margarine container from under my seat, and went to the trunk. The Somalis two bags looked new, none of the zippers broken, and no rips in the black cloth. I checked behind and in front of me and peeled the lid off the margarine container. I shook some of the gun powder we’d collected out of the rocket engines onto the suitcase. Gently, I turned the bags over and sprinkled the other side too.
              The powder matched black most closely. When we first discussed the initiative, we started inspecting all luggage. After our shifts, I talked to Roy about what suitcases were best, some blues, some dark greens. I mentioned a U.S. army duffel some Hmong must have bought at the Army Navy store, but drab green looked risky. Blue was good, black best. I assumed Roy had had the same off luck I had until today—opportunities close but not quite right until now. We didn’t talk specifics—might bust the luck.
              I snapped the lid back on the margarine container. I got in the car and thought about calling Roy to tell him what was in the works but worried I would jinx myself. On the radio a caller from Blaine bitched about the Twins’ pitching. The meter ticked, already the Somalis were up to fifty-two dollars; by the time we got to the airport, it would be about eighty.
              I turned the radio down as they approached. Again the Somali helped his wife and child into the backseat, then slid in himself. I put the car in drive. We cruised on Crosstown. Sun and wind came through open windows. The airport was quiet, and before I could ask what airline, the Somali said, “Northwest.” I pulled up to the door, popped the trunk, and hustled to the suitcases. I sat them on the ground carefully so as not to shake much of the powder off. He gave me the rest of my cash, folded neatly. I watched him roll both suitcases and watched his wife take the boy’s hand, as they walked through the first set of double doors. I wished I could wait around to see the lesson. I closed the trunk and got back in the front seat. He gave me a total of ninety bucks for an eighty-two dollar cab ride. What I expected.
              I stayed in the same lane and inched ahead, but kept checking back through rows of glass doors. Soon I lost the Somalis, and by the time I turned my attention back to the road, I had merged into a cluster of cars and cabs. As I was about to reverse, some asshole in an SUV parked me in. I cranked around in my seat to see if I could get one more glimpse of the Somalis and their black luggage, but I couldn’t find them. As I waited, a pack of Hmongs spilled out of a Gopher State van. A man in a blue sport coat lifted two little boys out of the middle seat as two older girls helped a grandmother type out of the front. As the Hmong herded his family through the door to ticketing, the brothers laughed just loud enough so I could hear them over the radio. Some debate about local schools came on, and I turned it off. Finally the SUV pulled away.
              I pushed on the gas and flipped open my phone and speed dialed Roy. He didn’t answer. As I merged onto Crosstown, I called again. “I did it,” I said.
              “Did what?”
              “The initiative. Just leaving the airport.” I told him about the Somalis, immigration, the luggage.
              “You really did it?” Roy asked.
              “Hell yeah, I did.”
              Nothing came from Roy’s end, and I pulled my phone from my ear to see if I still had a signal. “You there?” I asked.
              “Yeah, yeah.” Then nothing.
              “Roy?”
              “You really did it? They’ll be arrested. They have a kid.”
              “Good way for him to learn, right?” Again nothing. Again I looked at my phone. “This connection sucks. You coming over?”
              “I don’t think so, bro. Seeing Becca,” Roy said.
              I snapped the phone closed and punched the gas to pass a minivan. Old Yeller’s engine droned.
              At home, I let the door slam, grabbed a beer, and gunned it in the garden. I thought of the black powder but didn’t want to waste it, didn’t want to burn my own shit. I stomped on the can and picked the biggest green tomato, careful at first, prodding it from the stem, but it wouldn’t come loose. I yanked on it and bruised the tight fruit, the spot under my thumb pulpy and slack. I studied the spot, saw a weeping insect hole nearby where some bug had bored, the edges black. The beer’s aftertaste bittered in my mouth. I pulled back my arm and slammed the tomato against the fence. Not even the thwack of it against the dry rotted boards satisfied.

 
*
 

Heather E. Goodman grew up in the woods of Pennsylvania where her family raised raccoons, opossums, kids, and dogs. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Hunger Mountain, The Crab Orchard Review, Minnesota Monthly, and the Chicago Tribune, where her story “His Dog” won the Nelson Algren Award. She lives in a log cabin along a creek in Pennsylvania with her husband Paul and pooch Zane.

What motivates her to create:
“Of course, creative motivation is everywhere: the wren’s scribble song, the magician’s skunk, the elk that got away. But broadly, there are two motivations I always come back to: one, to thank the people I love for the experiences they’ve given me, whether it’s butchering a deer or growing a hellebore. And two, to try to understand different perspectives. If I dismiss an unfamiliar point of view, I contribute to a problem. Through writing, through empathy, I try to riddle how a person might arrive at her belief system, try to figure out where that will lead her. I attempt to see how the world breaks a person and if there’s a way to unbreak her. If not, as in this story, I let her hang herself.”

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May 23rd, 2014

Spotlight: Manhattanville Writing Alumni Contest Winner

The Pull

Pot holes swallow
the left tire
of my new car. I grip
the wheel
to fight the natural
pull of the city—

 

The Pull

Pot holes swallow
the left tire
of my new car. I grip
the wheel
to fight the natural
pull of the city—
This place, always tries
To take people
where they don’t
want to go.
 

*

 

Editors
What are the three things you couldn’t live without?
 
Erika
Chapstick, water, love
 
Editors
What is the first thing you’d do if you won the lottery?
 
Erika
Say, “Is this legit???”
 
Editors
If you had to read one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?
 
Erika
The Bible
 
Editors
What’s your favorite word?
 
Erika
Jesus
 
Editors
Sky or deep water diving?
 
Erika
Deep water diving!
 
Editors
If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
 
Erika
Any english speaking island, in a beautiful beach house facing the ocean.
 
Editors
What was your process behind writing this piece?
 
Erika
I remember driving through Bridgeport in my new car. I felt frustration as I gripped my wheel down one of Bridgeport’s busiest roads. As I sat down, weeks later, to write this poem I started with what was actually happening in that moment, as I remembered it. Then, I asked myself a simple question: what does this have to do with Bridgeport? The rest of the poem is a response to that question.
 
Editors
Your submission to the contest was entitled “For the People to Drink.” Is this the title of a longer collection of poems? Can you tell us more about it?
 
Erika
Yes, For the People To Drink is a title of a longer collection. A year ago I strung a collection of poems and personal photographs about Bridgeport, CT, my home town, together into a thesis/manuscript. This collection is placed within the context of city life, and observes what is lost in cities and what I lost in the city I love so much. The photographs help create a visual context for people who are not from Bridgeport and the poems, I hope, speak to all of us who have lost something in a place we never thought we would: home.
 
Editors
What’s the strangest thing you’ve gotten inspiration from?
 
Erika
A coffee cake :-)
 
Editors
What motivates you to create?
 
Erika
I’m motivated to create by God. The first book of the Bible is Genesis and Genesis 1:1 says, “In the Beginning God created…” and there’s something in that simple sentence that has always motivated me, even as as a child. Creation is important to God and it is a function of His existence. Being made in His likeness means I have also been given the ability to create. This ability feels like a duty, an obligation, and an itch placed inside of me by God. I’m also motivated by empty spaces, broken things, cities, family and love relationships. I use stories or poems to fill empty and broken spaces that beg to answer the questions, “What used to be here?” or “Where is this person going?”
 
 

*

 
 
ErikaErika K. Stanley is a graduate of the Manhattanville College’s MFA program where she served as the former Poetry Editor of INKWELL and the former Editor of the Manhattanville Review. She is published with Cyclamens and Swords Publishing. Erika works as an education advocate hoping to become one of many who close the achievement gap in Bridgeport.

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May 15th, 2014

Near Gale

Wind Force 7: White foam streaks off breakers.
Whole trees moving, resistance felt walking against wind.

Between imagination & truth memory grew fingers
in my mother’s womb as she wrote
her final college paper

                   Wind Force 7:       White foam streaks off breakers.
                   Whole trees moving, resistance felt walking against wind
.

 
 
Between imagination & truth                   memory grew fingers
          in my mother’s womb  as she wrote
her final college paper:          The Ripples
of Surrender — Japanese Literature After World War II
.
 
                             Every cup of tea became ceremony.
 
Mother-writer              thinking over horizons
          of psyche             took sides with a people
her father was sent to kill.
She shared           their death-resistance
against the conquest                           of American men.
 
           Her first child was birthed under threat of the knife.
 
Asian Studies called                            from high bookshelves
                      over games of war & backyard adventure.
Tall enough to reach               I found Bushido              & mountains
          of recluse poems
                                scratched                on trees & temple walls.
 
               Strange prophesy — water-bound son,
reading haiku                            off the coast of Pakistan
            standing watch so his ship doesn’t          drag anchor
or loosen the grip of deterrence.                  I am the gray warship
                      between their children                         & the winded sea.
 
            I am insignificant.
                                                                I am writing to apologize.
 
 
*
 

Peter Vanderberg served in the US Navy from 1999 – 2003 and received a MFA from Queens College, CUNY.  His work has appeared in CURA, Ozone Park, Newtown Literary and in collaboration with his brother James’ paintings in their book, Weather-Eye.  He teaches at St. John’s Preparatory and Hofstra University.

What motivates him to create?
“I write poems to figure things out.  Whether it be a moment from my past, a natural phenomenon or a passage from scripture, writing helps me to find a personal truth.  At the least, writing helps me to think and live more deeply.”

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May 8th, 2014

YEAR ONE

Join us May 25 in NYC as we celebrate our first year building a home for writers, artists & creative minds! You’re coming, right? Let us know on Facebook!

Join us May 25 in NYC as we celebrate our first year building a home for writers, artists & creative minds!

You’re coming, right? Let us know on Facebook!

Mville Review Year One Postcard copy

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May 1st, 2014

Speculation

Fill one of your pockets with grass.

Make a nest out of it
or let some small creature do so—
a mouse or winter wren.

Fill one of your pockets with grass.

Make a nest out of it
or let some small creature do so—
a mouse or winter wren.

In the other, place small rocks,
the kind smoothed in a creek bed.

Add damp moss.
Put it all in a plastic bag
if you wish,
but keep the top loose
enough to breathe.

Turn over more creek stones
until you catch a salamander.
Slip it into the mix.

Walk carefully.

Is this what it’s like to be God?

 
*
 

J. Stephen Rhodes poetry has appeared in Shenandoah, Tar River Poetry, Theodate and in a number of journals overseas. His second poetry collection, What Might Not Be, will be brought out in the spring of 2014 by Wind Publications. Before taking up writing full-time, he was the co-director of the Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center in Berea, Kentucky, where he helped to prepare seminarians for ministry in the Appalachian region.

 

What motivates him to create:
“In part, I can’t help it. I’m not content to remain silent. In part, I like playing with words. I can’t draw worth a hoot, but I seem to be able to paint word pictures and sing word songs. In part, I’m trying to connect with other people. One person saying that my poem touches them means a lot to me. And, sometimes, by writing about my own ‘soul work,’ I might even be trying communicate shalom/salaam.”

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April 15th, 2014

Jasmine

LisaWilde_Jasmine

LisaWilde_Jasmine

 

About the Work:

“I teach at a second-chance high school in New York City. ‘Jasmine’ is part of a series inspired—in the sense of breathing in—by aspects of my students’ lives, which are often too difficult and too complex for people who are so young.”

 

*

 

Lisa Wilde is an artist and teacher. Her graphic novel, Yo, Miss – A Graphic Look at High School is available from Microcosm Publishing as a series of five zines, and will be released as a book in January 2015. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her family.
 

What motivates her to create:
“I create because I have to. It is tied to the core of who I am, and the act of creating makes me happy. It is a place that I find extremely interesting, even when things don’t go well. Creating involves trust, risk, and remaining open. This in turn can lead to profound breakthroughs, which is incredibly beautiful.”

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April 4th, 2014

Somber Fever

My plant is dying. There’s nothing I can do to change this fact. I’ve had her for three months. The first month her leaves were long and emerald, like painted fingernails. She shined with ebullience but mortality quickly seeped into her soil, turning her towards the rusty hue she has today. I’ve watered her. Trimmed and prayed. I’m not religious, but for her, I’ll fast until sunset. The praying hasn’t worked. Neither has the Miracle Grow. Soon, my plant will die, leaving me with an emptiness far too familiar.

1.

 
               My plant is dying. There’s nothing I can do to change this fact. I’ve had her for three months. The first month her leaves were long and emerald, like painted fingernails. She shined with ebullience but mortality quickly seeped into her soil, turning her towards the rusty hue she has today. I’ve watered her. Trimmed and prayed. I’m not religious, but for her, I’ll fast until sunset. The praying hasn’t worked. Neither has the Miracle Grow. Soon, my plant will die, leaving me with an emptiness far too familiar.

2.

 
Mom says, Talk to her, it helps to talk things out, not just with people but in life.
               So I tell my plant about my job as the receptionist at the insurance agency. I’ve memorized all the extensions in our mid-sized office and can dial them at a moment’s notice. Since I sit at the front desk, I welcome everyone who enters. The delivery boys drop off burgers and pizza for my coworkers. I smile at them. My coworkers scurry up to my desk to pick up the cheesesteaks they shouldn’t be eating. I smile at them too.
               I update her on the Middle East, so my plant can appreciate how easy her life is with me. We take walks around the apartment. This is the television—isn’t it big? That’s the bathtub where I take baths to relax. This is my bed where I sleep each night. Do you like the canopy? Isn’t the bedroom the most perfect fire orange? See how the couch is turquoise? Everything has color! Aren’t you glad you don’t live in Beirut or Tel Aviv?
               Don’t worry, I say to her, The Middle East is far away.
               She’s not worried. My plant never gets excited, weary, or cold. She just sits there, even when I mention the hang-ups at work, which I know are my ex, Johnny. He calls three times a day. Sometimes the calls occur in rapid succession, and the phone rings like thunder. Other times, he calls twice in the morning and I sit tense for the remainder of the day, because I know the third phone call’s coming, it just hasn’t happened yet. He never says anything when he calls but I can hear him breathing, steady and deep.
               Stop calling me! I sometimes scream. This is the reaction he desires, but I can’t help my hysterics. Johnny knows how to dig into me, down beneath the skin.
               I tell my plant all about Johnny and how at first he was scary in a way I liked, a way that excited me. I met him at the café where I worked. Writers and private tutors spent their days ordering coffee. Johnny walked in like a cowboy with a vendetta. His ink black hair, tan leather jacket, frayed jeans and fire orange boots rattled the café’s quiet, austere environment. He waltzed up to Sylvester, a tutor with a long frizzy ponytail, who was sitting at his regular table. The table had the best view of the park across the street.
               Are you almost done? Johnny asked.
               I’m waiting for my next student, Sylvester responded.
               Johnny pointed to Sylvester’s empty coffee cup, and said, It looks to me like you’re done. Johnny loomed over Sylvester, who sat too nervous to move. I was frozen myself—a coffee pot tilted in my hand, threatening to spill scalding Italian roast down my leg. If it had spilled, I wouldn’t have cared. The bubbling scar would have reminded me of that beautiful, angry man.
               When his student arrived, Sylvester escorted the boy to a table in the back. Johnny settled into his seat and snapped his fingers in my direction. I heard it like the crack of a whip and reflexively turned to look at Johnny. His eyes were tiny galaxies, resplendent and dying simultaneously. He pointed at an unused coffee mug, sitting on his table. I walked over and poured him some coffee.
               That wasn’t very nice, I said. My knees trembled. I feared he might take his hand and move it between my thighs. I hoped he would.
               I’m not always nice, he said and winked at me.
               The wink was affected. His smile was too. Everything about him—clothing, ragged fingernails, spiked hair, those boots—all affectations. The intensity of Johnny’s desire to appear damaged and destructive fascinated me. And for the next six months, I craved every part of him.
               I tell my plant how Johnny would lug home crates of records with melodies he thought I would like and would pore over thirty cookbooks to construct the perfect chicken Marsala recipe. Those were the moments when Johnny’s intensity endeared me. Other times, he checked the odometer in my car to see if the mileage was up more than the few miles it took to drive to my office or to my mother and Ronnie’s home. And if I threatened to break up with him, he’d graffiti his love for me across town so that I could see how destroyed he would be without me. Now that we don’t have to see Johnny anymore, I tell my plant how much better we are.
               After, I laugh into her leaves. I don’t want her to be sad and keep on dying, so I tell her jokes. The one about the peanut at the bar and the one with the elephant that had antlers. I flatter her; there are plants at work, even one that sits on my desk, but they aren’t nearly as pretty as she is. She sags her already drooping foliage, seemingly asking, Are you sure? You’re sure I look pretty?
               I say, You’re my plant and you’re gorgeous. My compliments don’t help. She keeps dying all the same.

3

 
My mom tells me to name her. She says, Give her individuality. Plants are like any life form; they require compassion.
               My mother has a vegetable garden that spawns produce every summer, so I trust her advice when it comes to plants.
               I decide to call my plant April. I got her in April. April is the month of my birthday, a month full of hope. But April is only a month long. So I name her Millennium instead. That way you’ll out live me, I explain. I call her Millie for short.

4

 
I don’t know how Johnny got the phone number at the insurance company where I work. The last time I saw him, I was still working at the plastic surgeon’s clinic. The week after I’d ended things with Johnny, a woman had checked in with a collapsed nose. She had asked the doctor if, when he reconstructed her nostrils, he could also remove the bump along the bridge. The surgery was successful. When she came to, the bump was gone. Her boyfriend and parents visited her in the recovery room, their smiles masking disappointment. She would forever look different from the woman they loved. I couldn’t imagine a sadder fate. After the patient was released, I put in my resignation.
               I remained unemployed for a month before I found the job at the insurance company. A week after I started, Johnny began calling the office. The first time he said, I miss you, then hung up. That was the only time he spoke. Now his deliberate breath fills the receiver. The sound is undeniably his.
               I’m not surprised that he found me. Johnny could find me if I was locked in the trunk of a car abandoned in the woods or if I was drowning at the bottom of the river. When I walk home alone, I pretend Johnny’s following me. That I have an infantry of one. But when he calls me at work, I remember that Johnny isn’t going to save me.

5

 
Mom tells me I need to relax. Plants come and go, she says. Maybe Millie can remind you how stable your life is.
               I work a job that bores me. I sit at a desk next to a plant that I hate, warding off an ex-boyfriend who won’t stop hanging up on me. If that’s what she means by stability, I want the rockiest life there is. Mom just shakes her head. That wasn’t what I meant, she says. She’s just a plant.
               No, she’s not. You should know that. You were the one who told me to name her. To feed her compassion! I can hear the desperation in my voice. I don’t care. Millie is dying; I am desperate. These are the stable elements of my life.
               Come on, mom says. If Millie dies we’ll buy you another plant. Don’t get exasperated over this. You’ve got a good job, a nice apartment. The rest comes with time.

6

 
Mom says, as a child, I took everything too seriously.
               It’s not good for a child to be so somber, she told me when I was seven. It sounded like a disease– somber fever– where your arms would fall off and your nose would turn blue. The thought terrified me; I pinched my nose all the time. Clamped my nostrils shut so my nose wouldn’t get too cold and turn blue. And I made a point of laughing often.
               What are you laughing at? My mom would ask.
               It’s none of your business, I’d say, then laugh harder. But my laugh lacked jolliness. The sort of hoho that one associates with politicians. I couldn’t laugh my way out of somber fever any more than I could skip my way free from chicken pox, something I had also attempted. Besides, forced laughter reminded me how far I was from being easygoing. So I stopped laughing and accepted my fate. Somber fever. I’d stand in front of the mirror and tuck my arms in my shirt, looking limbless.
               This is me when the fever sets in, I’d tell the girl in the mirror that I was destined to become.

7

 
I should have ended things with Johnny after he got me fired from the law firm. I was furious with him, but more so, relieved. I hated that job, and he knew it.
               The Sunday before I got fired, Johnny and I had a vicious fight. He’d torn one of the pillows on my couch. I showed up to work on Monday with puffy eyes and tattered hair. My boss muttered something about personal hygiene when she passed my desk.
               The first package arrived after lunch. Beneath layers of Styrofoam peanuts, it held a heart-shaped pillow, purple as an eggplant. I put the pillow next to my computer, knowing that, by day’s end, the sight would either infuriate or endear me. My boss glared at the pillow when she walked by. A few minutes later she called me into her office.
               If you can’t leave your personal life outside the office, she said, We are going to have serious problems. I nodded, telling her it wouldn’t happen again.
               An hour later I got a second delivery—stuffed crimson lips. Twenty minutes later another arrived. It continued all week. By Friday, hundreds pillows overtook the lobby. Each pillow apologized in its individual hue and shape. An aqua unicorn followed by a coral arrow. Johnny wouldn’t back down until I forgave him; I couldn’t help but be charmed by the force of his desire for my forgiveness.
               On Friday, my boss called me into her office again. This isn’t working, she said, pointing to the door. I grabbed as many pillows as I could carry and left to find Johnny.

8

 
I haven’t heard from Johnny in over two weeks. Did he forget about me? I ask Millie. Do you think, this time, he’s really disappeared?
               Millie’s leaves sag. She has no answer. But we’re better without Johnny. Without the phone calls. It’s just that he stopped calling so suddenly. Last Tuesday. When it was time to go home, I didn’t get up from my desk. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I walked outside without hearing from Johnny. Would the sidewalk collapse and trap me underground? Would I find Johnny standing outside my building with a can of canary yellow paint, ready to repaint my apartment and with it our relationship? Would there be a world outside my office walls if I left before hearing from Johnny?
               For three hours after the office closed, I sat, waiting for Johnny to call. The janitor vacuumed, dusted the lobby, and watered the plant on my desk. The night outside had fully darkened. I took the long way home, hoping a man might mug me and Johnny would busting out from behind a dumpster to give the guy a black eye.
               I arrived home unscathed. I had no messages. No flowers. No chocolates. No gallons of paint. Just my quiet apartment. And Mille. After watering Millie, we sat down on the couch. He’s gone, I said. He’s really gone. This should have made me happy.

9

 
The fact that Millie won’t stop dying makes me hopeless. How can I expect to control my life when I can’t even keep her alive?
               I don’t trim Millie too short or water her too much. These are common mistakes people make when they try to love their plants. I’ve joined chat rooms where Internet friends send me pictures of their plants. There’s Lila and her lily, Lily. I have a snapshot of Paul and his bonsai, Jean Claude Van Tree on my refrigerator. I send them pictures of me and Millie, snuggling on our couch and dining on our balcony.
               Lila says to hold the scissors at a forty-five degree angle when I cut Millie back. I send her a close-up of my scissors at forty-five degrees. Paul tells me to count to five as I water her, to ensure I’m giving her the same amount of water each time. I water her twice a week. I trim her once every ten days. They concur; I’m loving Millie just right.

10

 
My mom doesn’t understand why Mille is so important to me. I want to explain it to her, but she never liked Johnny and wouldn’t understand why I wanted to hold onto anything that connected me to him. But each day Millie continues to live is another declaration that I’m progressing to the next stage of my life. A stage without an explosive, irrational man. But I don’t tell my mom this. She’d comment on my somberness, the quality she locates as the root of all my problems.

11

 
Johnny bought Millie from a boy working at the county fair. The boy had the prettiest blond hair; I wanted to wrap a strand around my index finger and suck on it, tasting its golden perfection. Johnny watched me in the bumper car rink when I drove into the wall because I couldn’t stop looking at the boy’s luxurious locks. He noticed me stare at the boy while he had his fingers inside me on the Ferris wheel. I should have stopped looking, but I couldn’t. We exited the Ferris wheel, and I tried to hold Johnny’s hand. He pushed me away. Johnny’s face grew angular in the way that made him look like a tiger.
               What’s wrong? I asked.
               Nothing, he said, frowning. He brooded until his entire body fell stiff with rage. This wasn’t the mulling anger that made me want to pounce on him, but a jealousy deeper than any Johnny had previously displayed. Johnny circled the blond boy the way a cat encloses his prey. Don’t, I whispered. Don’t, I said loudly. Johnny didn’t flinch at the sound of my voice. He was so focused on the boy that I didn’t exist.
               Step right up, the boy shouted, oblivious to Johnny. Hit the bull’s-eye and win a prize. Hit it twice and win an even bigger prize.
               The prizes ranged from plants to stuffed animals to coupons for a free cotton candy at the stand next door.
               He repeated these sentences until someone came up, attempted to hit the bull’s-eye and failed. It looked easy, but it was a very small bull’s-eye.
               How about you? He called to Johnny. Want to try your hand at ar-till-er-y? He said artillery like he was a machine and I hoped that he was, that way he wouldn’t feel the pain Johnny was about to inflict upon him. Perhaps I should have gone over and dragged Johnny back to the car where I could kiss him until his anger subsided. But I didn’t. Although I didn’t realize it until later, I wanted to watch Johnny torture that beautiful blond creature; I needed to witness the entirety of his brutality.
               The boy held the rifle out, but Johnny reached out instead to take hold of his golden hair.
               How much for the plant? Johnny shouted, tugging at a fistful of the boy’s hair.
               It’s not for sale, the boy said, You have to win it.
               Johnny yanked harder. The boy screamed a high-pitched yelp like he might faint.
               Am I winning? Johnny asked.
               After a few tugs from Johnny’s strong mitt, he gave Johnny the plant for the price of two games. As Johnny walked towards me, looking like he’d just won a home-run derby, the boy collapsed to the ground, hyperventilating. His feeble expression made him even more beautiful. I wanted to spit on Johnny’s stupid orange boots for what he’d done.
               Johnny handed me the plant but I wouldn’t take it. That wasn’t nice, I said. Johnny forced the plant into my hand.
               I’m not always nice, he said and kissed me with his wide-open mouth.

12

 
Maybe I’m killing Millie not because of how I water or trim her but on account of my demeanor. I try to laugh into her. I do. But I’m either dragging my feet around our apartment; rushing to work in dress clothes that don’t fit me; or returning home too tired to do anything but watch television. On the weekends, I try to do fun things with Millie. We brunch on my balcony and read stories about countries we will never travel to.
               Millie enjoys the stories from abroad but pales when I show her pictures of the Eifle Tower or the Taj Mahal. Images of Stonehenge remind her that she’s never even seen the sidewalk beneath our apartment building, let alone the English countryside. So I walk her to the front of our building and point to a window on the second floor. That’s us, I tell Millie. Our building is no Versaille even though it’s called Le Chateau. The paint is chipped around the windows, and the front door creaks when opened.
               Don’t worry, Millie. We’ll move up and out of this.
               We walk towards downtown, and I show her the apartment building we’ll move into once I get a raise and the three-bedroom Victorian house we will buy when I’ve decided on a career that supports down-payments. When we reach the park, we sit on the bench that faces the coffee shop where I used to work. It’s bustling. Sylvester sits at his regular table, his ponytail flapping against his back as he nods at a student.
               See, I say to Millie. We’re already on our way.
               We sit in the park until the sun sets. Millie grows nervous on the walk back and, instead of telling her that Johnny will come to our rescue, I say, I’ll protect you Millie.
 
Millie’s leaves are cold by the time we get home. I breathe my hot breath over her until she’s warm. We settle on the couch to watch the evening news. Millie’s leaves look greener than I’ve seen them in months. They are no longer brown, but yellow. Images of Iraq fill the screen. The Middle East, I say. Millie’s leaves grow lime. She appreciates her life with me.

13

 
When we got back to my apartment after the fair, I told Johnny we didn’t fit.
               He held me tight against his chest. You seem to fit right here, he said.
               And I guess that was the problem; I did. My head fell snug into the hollow of his clavicle. I pushed him away from me. From a few feet, I had to strain my neck to look into his eyes. At that distance, we didn’t fit at all. No, I said. We don’t.
               I made him leave but he stayed outside my door the entire night, muttering to himself. A week earlier I would have opened the door, and we would have spent the night on the couch, holding each other like we never wanted to part. A week ago, that would have made me feel safe. But watching him bully the blond boy didn’t attract me; it didn’t make me feel safe. And it wasn’t because the incident was out of character for Johnny. It was just that, we all have our limits, and I realized that this was mine.
               In the morning before he left, Johnny kicked my door. The mark of his shoe is still etched into the paint. I tried to wash it away, but the imprint proves too deep. After that he was gone. I didn’t hear from him for a month. I quit my job at the cosmetic surgery firm and began anew. Until the phone calls at the insurance agency started, I couldn’t believe how fully he had disappeared.
               Millie, though that wasn’t her name yet, was sitting on my coffee table. There was a dark ring around the bottom of her pot. Her leaves sagged, and she needed water. She looked in worse shape than I did. I thought, I should throw you away. I didn’t want any connection to Johnny. But reminders of him were everywhere in my apartment. He had convinced me to paint my bedroom the same shade of orange as his boots and had given me a teapot with Love, Johnny stenciled on the handle. I wasn’t going to repaint my apartment—I liked the orange too much. And even if I did throw the teapot away, my new, unmarked teapot would be the one that replaced the pot Johnny had bought me. If I got rid of everything in my apartment, the vacant space would prove an even stronger reminder of him. I wouldn’t forget Johnny just by throwing Millie away.

14

 
When the first frost hits I tell Millie that we’re ready for a change. Johnny hasn’t called us in over two months. I carry her to the thrift shop and we buy a 1960’s wool pea coat with rabbit trim along the cuffs. The fur is white and soft. All afternoon, I wear the coat, rubbing the fur against Millie’s leaves until we realize that we’re comforting ourselves with the softness of an animal that was killed fifty years ago. We throw the coat in the trash. Instead, we go to the department store where there are racks of coats. They come short and long. Down, wool, and fur. Millie likes the camel wool pea coat but it’s too similar to the one we’ve just thrown away. I insist on down. It’s the warmest, other than fur, but Millie and I do not like fur. We agree. Millie steers me away from black.
               No more black, her greening leaves warn me.
               On the far rack, against the wall there is a coat so royal blue it makes me choke. Millie’s leaves perk as we approach. This is our coat.
               On the walk home, we pass a paint store and turn around to go inside. We choose two gallons of mint eggshell. Mint is more calming than orange. Our new down coat is ideal for winter. These are sensible choices. We’re working on being sensible.
 

*

 
Amy Meyerson is a writer living in Los Angeles. She teaches writing at the University of Southern California and is currently at work on her first novel.

What motivates her to create:
“As I get older, most of my motivation to create comes from those rare moments of complete connection with those around me. A great conversation inspires like nothing else.” 

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