The MFA in Creative Writing Program at Manhattanville College

April 29th, 2016

Winter Haven

The sun is coming up now, its first light a promise of warmth. It’s probably a lie, though. I’ve lived here long enough to know that the cold will fight off the day, that the snow won’t melt, that the icicles hanging from the gutters ain’t going anywhere.

The sun is coming up now, its first light a promise of warmth. It’s probably a lie, though. I’ve lived here long enough to know that the cold will fight off the day, that the snow won’t melt, that the icicles hanging from the gutters ain’t going anywhere.
Darla is still asleep. She won’t wake until I’m making lunch. Which is fine by me.
It’s cold in the bathroom. I lean one hand against the wall and hold myself with the other while I piss. It takes forever.
I want to crawl back into bed but I pull on my wool socks, my thermals and the cleanest pair of jeans I can find then make my way to the kitchen. There are still some embers in the wood stove so I shove a few logs in on top of the crumpled sports section. The paper catches and the flames march across it in a steady advance. I close the stove door, drop the latch and hold my hands over top of it.
It ain’t like this down there in Florida. In Florida they got palm trees. Here it’s just snow. Here it’s just two chairs at the eating table. I got half a mind to put the third one out, just to remember how things used to be. That wouldn’t change nothing though.
The birdfeeder out back is empty. Two sparrows with white stripes on their heads are scratching at the frozen ground below it. A cardinal lands on the perch, looks at the empty tray and flies away.
We keep the birdseed in the shed. We keep it there because it attracts mice and we can’t have that in the house. At least that’s what Darla says. I say bullshit. Put it in Tupperware on the top shelf of the pantry. But Darla’s not having none of that.
The cold stings. My breath freezes in my lungs as I walk along the path I’ve shoveled in the snow. The shed is locked. Seventeen, twelve, thirty-six. I pull down on the lock and it comes undone. It’s warmer in the shed. The wind is blocked but still the cold comes in through the building’s seams.
I turn on the electric heater. It hums. The coils glow. It’s old and very likely will burn down the shed one day. The lantern throws shadows against the walls. I pick up a wrench and hang it in its spot. Darla hates the shed. She says it smells. She says nothing’s in place. She says rodents nest in the walls. I love the shed. It smells. Nothing’s in place. Rodents nest in the walls.
I’ve come to get birdseed. I tell myself that but instead I lift up a floorboard and retrieve a shoebox and set it on the bench. My hands are shaking. It’s the cold. I crack the door. The house is quiet. There are no lights on.
I return to the shoebox. I breath in, the air now warmer, thanks to the heater. I grasp the lid. I close my eyes.
Darla won’t wake until I’m making lunch.
She’ll want me to make her bacon and eggs. I’ll say you know where they are you make them. She’ll yell at me and call me an ungrateful bastard. She’ll throw something. I’ll cave and make her eggs and bacon. I’ll remind her later, at night, when we’re both in bed, I’ll remind her what I did for her and ask her to repay the favor. Maybe she will. Probably she won’t. I’ll beg but it won’t matter.
The shoebox is held together by tape. The lid has lost two of its sides. I run my hand along the top. I look out the door again. The house is still dark. There are no birds under the feeder.
I should just put the shoebox back. Instead I lock the shed door from the inside. I open the box and pull out the pictures. It’s kind of silly, I know, because I’ve looked at them so much that if I were an artist I could paint them with my eyes shut. The wave of her hair, the dimple of her smile. The hand on her shoulder.
It’s all that’s in the shoebox. Three pictures. One held together with tape.
Outside there’s a noise and I drop the picture and run to the door, put my ear against it. The metal is cold. My breath hangs in the air. I hear nothing. Darla is still sleeping. She won’t wake till I’m making lunch.
I pace a couple times. My daddy used to do that same thing. The apple falls where it does. I pick up the picture that’s been taped all over. Tape nowadays don’t yellow like it use to. I run a finger along it. Sometimes I think when I do this she’ll come to life, just show up right there in my shed. I know it’s no good to think that but sometimes I think it anyway.
I push down on the floorboard that’s in front of the workbench. I pull out a different shoebox. Inside there’s an ad I’ve ripped out of one of those magazines Darla used to subscribe to. It’s a woman in a bra. She’s not a supermodel or anything. She’s just a damn fine looking woman. I think, when I first saw her this is what I thought, that she looks like the kind of woman I would have married if I hadn’t married Darla so I ripped it out and stuck it in my shoebox. It’s an old picture, but I don’t care. I’m old now too.
I set it aside and pick up the other ads I’ve ripped out of magazines. They’re paper clipped together. I take the paper clip off and set it on the bench. I walk over to the door and open it a few inches. This spooks some snowbirds and they fly off into the shrubs I planted with Amanda. The house is still dark. Darla won’t wake till I’m making lunch. I shut the door again and slide the deadbolt into place.
The ad on the top of the pile has a girl wearing one of those skimpy bikinis. She’s on a beach in Tahiti. The sun is shining. The sand is white. The water is light blue. There ain’t snow everywhere. The next couple of pages are a paid advertisement section I ripped out of a magazine I stole from the doctor’s office. It’s one of them infomercials but printed and not on the tv. It’s all about Polk County Florida. They got a place called Winter Haven there. A fellow could buy himself a trailer and live there and never have to light a stove first thing after he waked and pissed. There’s a phone number for a real estate person. I know it by heart. One day I’ll call it. Twenty-five hundred dollars could start me out just fine down there, in a trailer in Polk County.
I feel guilty thinking this and I look back at the taped together picture. This is the picture I had under my mattress. She’s eight years old, looking up like she’s looking at angels. Darla found it one day and ripped it up and beat on me. The doc said he thought my ribs were broken but I said that they probably was just cracked. That was the only time I ever hit her back. Punched her in the eye. Knocked her down. I hadn’t never hit anyone before. It didn’t feel good.
Darla said if the good Lord were going to take our little Amanda away she weren’t going have reminders of her all over the place. Not in her house. So after that there weren’t any pictures of her anywhere. Except for the three I kept.
I put the lids on both of the boxes and set them to the side. It’s starting to get warm in the shed but the stove in the house probably needs another log so I go back to the house. The sun is higher now. It reflects on the ice that coats the porch railing. I throw in a few more logs and then peek into the bedroom. Darla’s sleeping on her back. Her mouth is wide open. She won’t wake until later, when I’m making lunch.
I go back to the shed and lock the door and slide back the third floorboard. This is where I keep the moneybox. I got it from KMarts back when they was Walmart. Darla gives me twenty dollars every week to spend. It’s all inside this box.
I set the box on the bench and unlock it. I go back over to the deadbolt and give it another shove to make sure. I put this week’s twenty in the box then unfold the piece of paper I keep inside the box. I do the math. It’s easy. Two thousand, three hundred and eighty. I erase the old number and write the new one. I’m so close. I can feel the Florida sun on my face. It’s bright and it’s warm. I look directly into it. I close my eyes. It’s still bright. But there’s a black spot to the side. It’s always there.
I pick up a worn newspaper clipping. Johnstone’s Memorials. I cut it out of the Courier the day after Amanda passed. My company gave me ten thousand dollars to help pay for the service and what not. The headstone would have only cost two thousand five hundred. We had enough left over. We had plenty but damn her to hell, Darla wouldn’t have none of it. She weren’t going to waste good money on a headstone. God knew what He’d done. We didn’t need to make no monument for it.
But damn her to hell. Amanda deserves better. The snow covers her plaque. She looks so lonely. And I almost got enough to buy a proper headstone. I don’t give no care to Darla what she would think about it. It’s my money. She ever actually get out to the graveyard she might have some words for me. Maybe even give some bruises. But damn her to hell, Darla Jeannette Jones.
In six weeks my moneybox will have twenty-five hundred dollars inside of it.
I set all the boxes in their spots. I put the floorboards back. I pull the deadbolt and slide the door open. Long shadows cross my path. I walk out into the snow and hold my arms up. I’m in Winter Haven. There’s no aches in my joints. There’s no snow to be shoveled. There’s a girl in a bikini. I’m no fool, I know she ain’t looking at me, old coot that I am. But still, she’s there. The world spins around me. Palm trees go by but then I’m at Amanda’s grave. She needs dignity. Ain’t nobody should be treated like a dog, being buried without no proper headstone. Sometimes I imagine she’d say Go to Florida, Poppy. Spend that money on a trailer. I don’t need no proper headstone. Do what makes you happy. But no eight-year old girl ever talked like that.
I go inside. I pull the bedroom door shut. I stand by the stove. I put a pot on the burner. I go to the parlor and look at the third chair. I pick it up. It’s rickety. I put it down and go back to the kitchen without it. Soon I’ll make some porridge and eat the last of the donuts I’ve been hiding from Darla. She won’t know no different. She won’t get up till I’m making lunch.

*

John Bartell is an East Coast transplant who has resided in Fort Worth, Texas for the past fifteen years. Though he still hasn’t broken down and got himself a cowboy hat or a big old pickup truck, he has taken a fancy to Shiner Bock and the Austin music scene. He’s a winner of the Weatherford College Canis Latran Writing Contest and has short stories published in Sanitarium Magazine and in A. Lee Martinez’s Strange Afterlives Anthology. He has served two years as the president of the DFW Writer’s Workshop and is currently working on his second novel in between earning his keep as a microbiologist, which is probably the most glamorous job a person could have.

What motivates him to create:
He’s inspired to write because he has an unquenchable drive to express the beauty and the pain that defines our world, but also, and probably pretty much closer to the truth, it’s mainly to get the girl, which has worked out pretty well so far.

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April 22nd, 2016

Bees

It was blazing hot the morning of Great-grandma’s funeral. I was eight years old.

It was blazing hot the morning of Great-grandma’s funeral. I was eight years old. Bees tap-tapped into the screen door of Grandma and Grandpa’s old house. Visitors squinted and shielded their eyes from the sun. Cars shimmered in the dazzling light. Stiff-haired ladies in black dresses, slathered with tons of makeup and doused with perfume you could smell a block away, and men in wrinkly dark suits paraded slowly up the walk and into the house. I kept an eye on the bees.

My mother dusted off two big fans my father had lugged up from the cellar. She and Aunt Ellen bustled about, serving coffee from Grandma’s silver pot and slices of cake with no frosting, washing and drying dishes, showing where the bathroom was. Some ladies held hands. Some cried. People spoke softly, as if apologizing. Bouquets of bright, sweet-smelling flowers shivered in the wind from the fans.

When my grandfather strode into the living room and announced that it was time to go, the guests rose, set down their half-empty cups and half-eaten cake, and filed past me out the door. Ladies sniffled and buffed runny streaks of makeup on their faces into gleaming patches. The men wrapped their arms around the ladies’ shoulders and eased them forward protectively. My grandmother, who hadn’t come out of her bedroom all morning, came out now, supported between my mother and aunt. A black veil covered her face. She swayed back and forth, weeping, struggling every few seconds to catch her breath. Grandpa hugged her to himself and guided her to the door. I jumped in front of her and peered up into the black veil, but Grandma didn’t see me.

My mother rocked my shoulder. “Come on, Jimmy,” she said. “We have to go.” Fine creases lined her eyes. She adjusted the black band on her bare upper arm. All the adults in my family were wearing black armbands. Bedsheets covered all the mirrors in the house.

“Anna, are you ready?” Aunt Ellen called to my six-year-old cousin. Anna skipped into the living room and held still long enough for Aunt Ellen to straighten her barrette and smooth down her white, flowered dress. My aunt scooted her along to my Uncle Henry, who stood by the doorway, almost as tall as the doorway, with his hands folded in front of him. He took Anna’s hand and led her outside. She smirked at me as she flitted by.

“Jimmy, you go with Uncle Henry and Cousin Anna, okay, honey?” my mother said. “And Auntie Ellen will go with Daddy and me.”

“I don’t want to go with them,” I said, but she was already busy with something else.

I took a deep breath, checked under the eaves, and pushed against the screen door. I held back a moment, then bounded away from the cloud of bees swirling around the stoop.

“Ma, don’t let the bees in!” I shouted. She ushered the last few people out, and the screen door swung shut and clicked into place.

At the temple, Uncle Henry stayed outside with Anna and me. He hung his jacket on the little hook inside the back door of his car, rolled up his sleeves, and leaned against the fender, smoking cigarettes while Anna and I played on the swings. My hands were sweaty and my back was hot. Little black curls of dirt collected in the crooks of my elbows.

“Can I take my shirt off?” I asked Uncle Henry.

He said yes.

“How come boys get to take their shirts off?” Anna asked.

Uncle Henry smiled.

As people began to emerge from the entrance, six men at a side door struggled to load a long wooden box into a big black station wagon with curtains and dark windows. Anna and I stared.

Uncle Henry crushed his cigarette with his shoe. “Let’s go, kids,” he said.

Anna scampered down to greet Aunt Ellen and threw her arms around her neck. “Mommy, are we going back to Grandma’s now?” she asked.

Aunt Ellen kissed her forehead. “No, honey, not yet.”

Anna leaned forward on tip-toes and asked Aunt Ellen, “Will you ride with us this time?”

Aunt Ellen looked towards my mother.

“Go ahead, Ellen,” my mother said. “We’ll see you there.”

Anna clapped her hands. “Oh, goodie!” she exclaimed.

“Jimmy, get your shirt on!” my mother hollered.

I slipped an arm back inside my shirt as I ran towards my parents. I wanted to ask about the box.

“How about if you stay with your aunt and uncle?” my mother said to me.

“Again?”

“Now, Jimmy,” she said. “Be a good boy. You and Anna can play together on the way.”

“But I don’t want to play with her,” I said.

“I don’t want to play with you,” Anna answered.

“No one’s talking to you!”

Cars were starting up as I stood there with my shirt half on and half off.

“What do you say, Jim?” Uncle Henry asked.

They were all staring at me like zombies. I wanted to scream.

“All right,” I grumbled.

Uncle Henry patted my back.

My parents hurried off, my father trying to hold onto my mother’s elbow as she tried to run in her high heels.

Anna stuck her tongue out at me.

“Cut it out,” I said, and gave her a shove.

“Hey, hey, none of that,” Uncle Henry warned.

“Be nice,” said Aunt Ellen.

Anna climbed into the back seat and I followed. For just a second, I thought of running out back behind the temple so they’d have to come looking for me. But what if they didn’t come?

My father’s car slid in front of us, behind the black station wagon with the box in it and a limousine carrying my grandma and grandpa. The other cars lined up behind us.

Anna shook Uncle Henry’s shoulder. “Look, Daddy, all the cars have their lights on.”

Uncle Henry just nodded.

“Are your lights on?” she asked.

I nudged her aside. “Great-grandma’s in that box, right?” I said.

Aunt Ellen frowned.

“Hey, I was talking,” Anna said as she tried to elbow me away.

Uncle Henry glanced at me in the rearview mirror. “That’s right, Jimmy,” he said. Aunt Ellen started to brush something off her lap, but there was nothing there.

Anna looked at me, then at Uncle Henry. “How can Great-grandma be in that box?” she asked.

“`Cause she’s dead,” I said.

Aunt Ellen groaned, as if someone had punched her in the stomach.

“Well, I know that,” Anna said.

“Well, that’s what happens to you when you die,” I said.

Aunt Ellen cleared her throat.

“Aren’t I right?” I asked.

“Enough, okay kids?” she mumbled.

“How did she get in the box?” Anna asked.

“Look, can we please change the subject?” Aunt Ellen said, more loudly.

“Daddy, how did Great-grandma get in the box?”

“Anna, please,” said Aunt Ellen.

“Huh, Dad?”

“Anna, honey,” Uncle Henry said softly.

“What? I just want to know how she got in the box. Why won’t anyone tell me?”

Aunt Ellen slammed her hand against the dashboard. “Because I’ve asked you to stop talking about it!”

We all hushed. Aunt Ellen made a soft little noise and hid her face. Then she was crying, her shoulders rising up and down, up and down. Uncle Henry gently rubbed the back of her neck.

Anna turned back around and gazed out at the line of cars with their lights on. I didn’t say a word. Finally we started moving and all the cars wound around the temple parking lot and edged out into the road.

After a while, Uncle Henry lifted his hand from the back of Aunt Ellen’s neck with a little squeeze. He steered with his right hand and stuck his left hand out the window so he could tap the roof with his fingers.

“Boy, it’s a hot one,” he said. “Roll down your windows, kids.” Anna and I raced to see who could roll down whose window first. She said she won; I said I did.

“I wish we had air conditioning,” she said.

The wind made a noise like sheets on a clothesline. My hair blew across my face and stung my eyes. Thick strands of Anna’s long brown hair came undone and flew all over the place; in her eyes and in her mouth. She giggled. Aunt Ellen’s window was still up.

Anna bounced on the seat. “Where are we going anyway?” she asked.

“To the cemetery,” Uncle Henry answered.

“Ce-me-te-ry,” Anna chanted as she bounced. “What for?”

Aunt Ellen looked at Uncle Henry.

“We have to bury Great-grandma,” he said.

“Bury her?” Anna made a face and stopped bouncing.

“Yeah, like when you bury something in the sand at the beach,” I said. I imagined Great-grandma’s toes sticking up out of the sand.

We stopped at a red light. Anna pushed her hair away from her mouth. “What’s Great-grandma’s name?” she asked.

“Ida,” Aunt Ellen answered wearily, her head leaning against the window. She was slowly tearing at a soggy, crumpled tissue in her hands.

“That’s a pretty name,” said Anna. Aunt Ellen looked back at her through puffy eyes and smiled.

We slowed down as we drove into the cemetery. The wind stopped. The tires squeezed small rocks out from underneath the car. Uncle Henry pulled next to my father into a little circle surrounded by trees and bushes and bright yellow and white flowers.

“Daisies!” cried Anna.

Thin clouds of dust rose as cars rolled in. Brakelights flashed. Doors creaked open and slammed shut. Aunt Ellen stepped out.

My mother stuck her head in my window. “We won’t be long,” she said. “I want you kids to stay here.”

“I knew it,” I muttered.

“Can’t we come?” Anna asked.

“No,” my mother said. Aunt Ellen shook her head and stared at the ground.

“Jimmy, you take care of Anna, now,” my father chimed in. Anna was looking out her window, running her finger up and down the inside of the door and humming.

“Please don’t make me stay with her,” I said. “I’m old enough. Why can’t I come?”

“We’ll only be gone a little while,” my mother said. “You’d just be bored anyway.” She patted my arm. My father smiled.

“I don’t care,” I said. “I want to come.”

They shook their heads.

“It’s not fair!” I shouted. I was almost crying. I jerked my head around so no one would see.

There was Uncle Henry, looking right at me, his arm swung over the seat.

“Don’t worry, Jim,” he said. “You’ll be fine. Put the radio on if you want. Just leave the windows down, or it’ll be like an oven in here. Okay?”

I nodded.

He turned to Anna. “Give Daddy a kiss,” he said, and Anna scrambled into the front seat and hugged and kissed him.

“We’ll be okay, Daddy,” she said, and he laughed.

He pulled his jacket off the hook and eased himself out of the car. “See you soon,” he said. Aunt Ellen waved with her tissue and blew us a kiss. My father put his arm around my mother and the four of them tramped away. I slumped down in my seat. I heard their shoes crunching gravel and kicking pebbles and then the sound died out. Anna stayed at the window, her arms resting on the door, her chin resting on her hands. She rocked her head slowly back and forth and hummed. Then she started to sing, first one stupid song, then another. She was driving me crazy.

“Stop singing!” I shouted.

She whirled around. “No! Who’s gonna make me?”

“If you weren’t such a little baby, I wouldn’t have to stay here with you.”

“You’re the one who acts like a baby,” she said.

I was ready to smack her when I noticed a bee outside, hopping from one daisy to another. Then I saw a second one, a yellowjacket, flying around angrily, hurtling wildly from flower to flower.

Suddenly the radio blared. My heart jumped. Anna’s hand rested on the knob.

“Lower it!” I yelled.

She glared at me before turning it down. Then she pressed all the buttons again and again and finally shut the radio off.

“Know any games?” she asked.

“No.”

She scowled at me and grabbed the door handle. “I’m going outside,” she said.

I reached for her arm. “Oh no you’re not. We have to stay here.”

“Don’t touch me,” she said.

“Then don’t go outside.”

Anna rolled her eyes but let go of the door. She sat back and played with the steering wheel and made engine sounds. She crawled over and rolled down the window Aunt Ellen had left closed. She sprawled across the front seat with her knees raised, dropping one knee sideways to the seat, then swinging it up again. Each time her leg fell, I could see her panties.

“What are you looking at?” she snarled. Her leg stopped swinging.

My face grew hot. “Nothing.”

She pulled the hem of her dress down against her knees. I looked out the window.

A bee buzzed past my face and I toppled back inside.

Anna poked her head over the seat. Her eyes narrowed. “What’s the matter with you?” she asked.

“There was a bee out there.”

“So?”

“So, bees can sting, you know.” I pulled myself up. “Some people die from bee stings.”

“No way,” she said.

I folded my arms. “If you’re allergic, you can die.”

Anna leaned over the seat and looked outside with me. Her legs kicked behind her. She tugged at my arm and pointed. “Look, there’s the bee!”

“That isn’t the same one.”

“Wow, look at that one!” she gasped as a fat black bumblebee zoomed up into the sky and plunged back down. “Can you really die?”

“Yup.”

A bee landed on the hood. We stared at it through the windshield. It spun around crazily a couple of times, then whizzed past the window.

Anna turned to me suddenly. “What if one gets in?”

“Maybe we should roll up the windows,” I suggested.

“Won’t we be too hot?”

I was already sticky with sweat. “Well, what else can we do?”

She thought for a moment. “How about if we close the back windows, but leave the front windows open halfway?”

“But a bee could still get in,” I said.

“Then you think of something.”

I couldn’t. We tried her idea, but even with the front windows half open, trying to breathe the still, heavy air was like having your face inside a plastic bag.

There were bees everywhere. They tore off into the bushes and shot up into the air. They flew straight at the windshield, then at the last second curved up and over the roof and out of sight.

“I’m sweating,” Anna said. “When are they coming back?”

“How should I know?”

A black and yellow bee tapped against the right front window. It danced and skittered up the glass, climbing closer and closer to the opening.

“Jimmy!” Anna could barely speak. She slapped at my arm. We held our breaths and backed against the doors. The bee flew in.

Anna shrieked and I grabbed my door handle, ready to spring the door open and run. “Go away!” she cried at the bee. The buzzing sounded like high tension wires. My arm hairs bristled. The bee hovered and dipped, then darted back out.

“Close that window!” I screamed. Anna leaped across and rolled it up. I reached over to get the other one.

“I’ll do it!” she yelled, and she bumped past me and closed it up tight.

Silence. My heart pounded. Anna shuddered, wide-eyed and panting, balancing herself between the seat and the dashboard. I checked and rechecked all the windows, then lowered my head against the seat. I blew on my arms to try to cool down but it didn’t help. Nothing helped.

I heard Anna fidgeting so I looked up.

“I’m hot,” she said. Her hair was wet in front and her forehead was all red. “Can I open a window?”

“What about the bees?”

She sank down onto the front seat. I sat back. My hair was wet, too. I felt like I could hardly breathe.

“When are they coming back?” Anna moaned, and then she started to cry. Soon, I was crying, too. I wiped my eyes with my sleeve but I couldn’t stop. Tears dripped off my chin onto my collar. I huddled in the back seat and closed my eyes.

The sun was hot on my face. Anna sobbed quietly in front. I leaned over on my side and fiddled with the metal ashtray on the armrest. It felt cool against my fingertips. I could see bright red light through my eyelids, as if the whole world outside were on fire. I wished I could watch them bury Great-grandma. I wished I could see what she looked like. I thought of everyone outside in the hot sun, and her inside the box, under the ground, lying there alone in the dark.

The dashboard clock ticked. My hand dropped to the seat. Bees struck the windows, sounding almost like raindrops. Hundreds and hundreds of bees…

*

A car door banged shut. I opened my eyes and gazed dreamily up at the sky. There were noises outside. I pushed myself up and looked around. People were coming back to their cars.

Anna was sleeping. A rectangle of sunlight shone on her face. Her mouth was open and sweat had dried in her hair, straggly across her cheek and forehead. One knee was up, resting against the back of the seat.

A rap on the window made me jump. It was Uncle Henry. He knocked again and I rolled down the window. His voice filled the car:

“Why are all the windows up?”

Anna stirred in front.

Uncle Henry shook his head. “You two must be dying in there.”

Anna sat up and yawned and said with her eyes closed, “There were bees, Daddy.”

“Bees?” Uncle Henry said. “Why, the bees won’t hurt you.” He stood back and lit a cigarette. “Besides,” he said, looking at me, “Jimmy was here to protect you.”

*

Since completing Naropa University’s Creative Writing Program in Prague, CZ in 2005, Laurence Levey has had short stories published in Cezanne’s Carrot, Art Times, Versal, Ellipsis, and the Barcelona Review, book reviews published in Drunken Boat and Word Riot, and poetry accepted for publication in Fulcrum. He was a semi-finalist in the Summer Literary Seminars-2010 Unified Literary Contest and he writes for The Review Review.

What motivates him to create:
The desire to communicate and to express myself, both of which I often do better in writing than by speaking. The desire to tell the truth, or at least a version of it. The desire to fuse work and play. The desire, mostly unrequited, to make a little cash. The desire to please. The desire to be thought well of. The desire to contribute something of value.

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April 15th, 2016

I’ve Known

All night stars burn themselves out, spending
energy in Dionysian dance. I have felt the moon
pull my blood in giddy tidal surge, as night wheeled
along its course and dawn seeped red and purple
across the sky.

the joy of water carving canyons
through rock, long, slow joy of rain, of rivers

slowly mingling waters with the sea. I’ve known
the wild spill of gulls glancing off sparkling waves.

All night stars burn themselves out, spending
energy in Dionysian dance. I have felt the moon

pull my blood in giddy tidal surge, as night wheeled
along its course and dawn seeped red and purple

across the sky. Winter whispered in my ear and
turned my breath to mist. In Africa I felt big cats

stir as night fell. A bull elephant in must charged
past so close I could have touched his leathery hide,

which shivered in the lust of gigantic loins. Once
I watched a hundred frogs climb from a muddy

lake to serenade the pines. My canoe slipped
past a Northern as it floated near the surface, black

and spotted with gold. Alone but not alone, I breathed,
arms aching with the joy of effort in quickly fading day.

*

Steve Klepetar’s work has appeared in ten countries, in such journals as Boston Literary Magazine, Deep Water, Expound, Red River Review, Snakeskin, Ygdrasil, and many others. Several of his poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Recent collections include Speaking to the Field Mice (Sweatshoppe Publications, 2013), My Son Writes a Report on the Warsaw Ghetto (Flutter Press, 2013) and Return of the Bride of Frankenstein (Kind of a Hurricane Press).

What motivates him to create:
It may be that the act of creation is a basic human need, or at least a common desire. When I was a child, I wanted badly to be able to draw, mostly scenes from my imagination. It turned out that I had no talent in that direction, but I found I could do something with words. It’s become an almost daily pleasure to create using language, its sense and sounds, as a medium.

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April 9th, 2016

Beauty and Blue

Don’t bring me flowers; better bring me fruit.
Not roses but raspberries, not gladiolas

but apricots.

Beauty and Blue
Chagall, Bella in Mourillon

Don’t bring me flowers; better bring me fruit.
Not roses but raspberries, not gladiolas

but apricots. I can focus well next to a plate
of plums, or maybe eat them while I’m reading,

but dahlias unravel me, unlike Chagall’s Bella
in Mourillon, who is working next to a vase

of flowers that light up her face like a lamp.
Shadows slide, allude to a white rhythm

of home and dream. Green lines separate
petals from blue, connect shapes and longing.

The table opens and closes a universe
of yearning and yielding. Hypnosis of pistils,

trance of perfume. She concentrates despite
beauty and blue, enchantment of purple.

*

Lucia Cherciu was born in Romania and came to the United States in 1995. She teaches English at Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, NY and her latest book of poetry, Edible Flowers (Main Street Rag, 2015), was a finalist for the Eugene Paul Nassar Poetry Prize. Her other books of poetry are Lepădarea de Limbă (The Abandonment of Language), Editura Vinea 2009, and Altoiul Râsului (Grafted Laughter), Editura Brumar 2010. Her poetry has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and for Best of the Net. Her web page is luciacherciu.webs.com.

What motivates her to create:
I have a three-year old daughter who loves words and books. Now that she is fluent in Romanian as a second language, we are learning Spanish together and every new word is cause for celebration, the way it happened when she was a baby. Similarly, writing poems keeps me connected to my inner child, makes me see the world with new eyes every day.

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March 30th, 2016

The Projectionist

The reel spun futilely. The end of the film flapped repeatedly against the empty film gate. Below, a steady beam of light shone out onto the screen, featuring nothing more than dust particles flashing by, and through the keyhole from the theater seats in the grand old auditorium, came the grumbling sounds of patrons. “Roll …

The reel spun futilely. The end of the film flapped repeatedly against the empty film gate. Below, a steady beam of light shone out onto the screen, featuring nothing more than dust particles flashing by, and through the keyhole from the theater seats in the grand old auditorium, came the grumbling sounds of patrons.

“Roll the film, damn it!” one cried out.

“Come’on for God’s sake, start the movie!” yelled another.

But the old man did not awake. He lay still, breathing heavily, his head resting on his arm which lay on the table. In his mind was a vision of Greta Garbo in full Mata Hari headdress, dancing seductively before a mesmerized crowd. His ears were full of the sultry sounds of middle-eastern music and he could see smoke rising from the incense burners in the nightclub’s elegant showroom. Dancing like a drunken elation in his head, Garbo approached the multi-armed deity, a statue of Shiva, and her hips began moving feverishly and the coin-laden scarf around her waist chattered with great intensity. The audience, consisting of bartenders, politicians, tourists, and military attachés, went silent with anticipation. Then she came right up against the statue, took her top off, and pressed her body into it. For a moment it was as though she was going to make love to it. Everyone was breathless. Then the room darkened and a cloaked woman dashed by, coving Garbo from view.

“She’s not a spy,” the old man mumbled. “She is not the great enemy of France like everyone thinks! She is not!”

A loud bang awoke him. And when he lifted his head he saw the projection booth door slammed opened against the front wall. Through it came René, the theater manager, rushing past him like a madman.

“You imbecile!” he yelled.

René bolted for the second projector and clicked the ‘switch over’ button. Instantly the film began to roll and angled beams of light shone once again through the keyhole, bringing back to life the oscillating images of characters and the sound of their dialogue.

“Bravo!” somebody yelled from theater seats.

René came back to the first machine, turned it off, and pressed his palm against the lamp canister, but it was so hot he had to withdraw his hand quickly.

“Where is your brain?” he cried. He pushed at the old man’s chest; his eyes were burning. “What is it with you?”

In truth, the old man knew, he had taken too many naps, too often at the wrong times, and with greater frequency in the past weeks. It was a problem he could not cure.

“If you cannot do the job,” René cried. “I will find someone who can.”

The old man only looked up at René with sorry, puppy-dog eyes.

René looked around. The projection booth was in a typical state of disarray. There were film canisters lying on the floor, some with their lids off, candy wrappers shattered about, and a half-eaten sandwich dried and crusty from the day before, lying on the table. The trashcan near the door was full and overflowing.

“You can’t leave this place like this,” he said. “You can’t leave these cans lying around.” He gathered them up, put their lids back on, and stacked them in a neat pile against the wall. “You have to clean this place up! It’s part of your job! It’s your last chance. If you want to sleep, go home and sleep!”

The old man wisely remained silent.

After a few more minutes of huffing, René stood silently with his hands on his hips. He glanced up at the big wall clock. “It is the last showing. Can you handle it?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t forget to cap the film canisters!”

“I know.”

“And the lamps! Remember to shut off the lamps!”

He was referring to the time the old man had forgotten to shut off a projection lamp and burnt out an expensive bulb.

“Yes.”

“And lock up properly.”

“Of course.”

René took another glance around the projection booth. “Only three more months!” he said, shaking his head.

When he turned to exit, the old man mumbled something, inaudible.

“What?” René asked.

“Nothing.”

René hesitated at the door, but then left, closing it securely behind him.

Spencer Tracy would have never stood for that, the old man thought. Not for a second. He wouldn’t have.

When the film finished, the audience slowly cleared the auditorium and departed out the front lobby doors. The old man watched them through the key hole until the last patron was gone. Then he canned the two film reels and set the canisters on top of the neat pile René had stacked against the wall. He tidied up the projection booth, swept it clean with a broom, hiding the small pile of trash in a corner, and he made sure the lamps were off. Then he exited, locking the projection booth door twice around with the key before descending the narrow staircase to the foyer. He swept up the popcorn and garbage scattered throughout the theater auditorium, dumped a garbage pail into the dumpster out back, and fixed the large theater curtain so no screen was showing. Finally he returned to the lobby, opened a wall panel and pulled down the switch that doused the large marquee light out front.

A lonely walk down a lonely street brought the old man to his dreary, one-room apartment. There were no windows inside; only a bed, a little table, a sink, a small closet, and a separate closet for the toilet. It was a place to lay his head and close his eyes, and he could imagine himself in another world; a cinematic world of swashbuckling swordsmen and adventurous sea captains, but in truth, it offered little in the way of sustenance or comfort.

He lay down on his shaggy old mattress to the sound of squeaky springs, and unable to sleep, he stared up at the dark, opaque ceiling.

“You are the beauty,” he said, speaking aloud to Garbo.

Not everyone could to communicate with movie stars of the past. It was some kind of cosmic, telepathic thing that only he possessed, and he prided himself on this ability.

“I understand every word you speak,” he said. “I understand every move of your dance. It is you, yes? It is you who will save the world from itself? And not for country, but for love itself. Am I correct in my thinking? Of course I am.”

He pictured her clearly, as if she was standing there in the room beside him; her image as vivid and beautiful as she had ever been on the silver screen.

“If you want, I’ll help you. I’ll be your secret accomplice, your attaché fidèle. I know where to go, how to end it. I have seen how it ends, and we will end it differently. Together we will overcome the French military and German spies. Okay?”

He waited for her reply, but there was none. It didn’t always work, he knew. But this night, he was really hoping for some two-way dialogue.

Then he thought of René’s words and became even more depressed.

‘Only three more months!’

As horrific as it sounded, it was true. The era of film projection at the Arlington was coming to end. When he first heard the news, he didn’t believe it or accept it. It was not possible, he thought. How could an art form requiring such skill and finesse be replaced by a computerized robot? But it was going to happen. He had even read about it in the papers. A new, digitized projector was to be delivered in the coming months and his skills of threading film and swapping reels was to become obsolete. As the silent era gave way to sound, the film era would go down to light; the light of new technology.

He looked over to his small table. There was the bottle of gin waiting for him. He could see it in the darkness. For over five years now had been there. It had been that long since he’d been away from the stuff. And if he returned to the sharp-tasting liquid now, he knew he would return to it for good – until the end. It was the great morphine, he thought. It was the anesthesia for life’s tragedies; the sweetest of all escapes. And it was not unusual. All the stars had one in one form or another. For Ray Milland it was whiskey on his long Lost Weekend. For Richard Burton it was vodka and soda water, which he liked as much in life as he did in his on-screen rants with Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And as for Sinatra, well, of course, he preferred a well-mixed cocktail with the merest hint of dry vermouth, although heroin was his fix in The Man with the Golden Arm.

But it was gin that Spencer Tracy liked best. Gin was his favorite, his one and only; the drink he used to kill the real-life pain of the ordinary man.

The old man closed his eyes and tried to sleep. And though he finally drifted off, his sleep was restless. On through the night he awoke often, and when he did he looked over at the table and saw the bottle of gin still there waiting.

The morning was usual, nothing different; a poached egg at the corner café, some time to browse the newsstands, and a long walk along the river. He kept occupied until it was time for work. That was his routine, anything to keep him from his dreary apartment. When the afternoon came, he made his way to the old downtown district. A long sidewalk led him to the vertical, art deco marquee of the Arlington Theater. The overhead billboard displayed the films ‘Now Playing;’ Beat the Devil and The African Queen.

“Ah, it will be Bogie night,” the old man mumbled.

He unlocked the front door, went into the lobby, and looked around. Everything was as he had left it the night before. He climbed the narrow staircase to the projection booth, slipped the key into the door lock, and opened it.

As always, the projection booth greeted him like the arms of a beautiful woman. Stepping inside always gave him a warm feeling, like a welcoming home. He smiled broadly. That is, until he saw the note René had left on the clipboard along with the daily features. It read: “Don’t fall asleep! And don’t forget to turn off the lamps!”

The old man tore the note off the clipboard, crumbled it up, and tossed it in the corner.

“He knows nothing of film projection! He is the boss of no one!”

He searched though the pile of film canisters, and when he could not find the scheduled films, he glanced around the room and located them on top of the projection table. Evidently René had placed the films there to make it easier for the old man.

“So now he thinks I’m not capable of finding the proper film cans?”

There were only four reels, which was good, he thought, only requiring two changeovers per film. Not like the old days when you had to do three or four reel changeovers for one movie.

He opened the ‘Beat the Devil’ canister; the one marked ‘one of two,’ and took out the reel. He flipped opened the cover on the first projector, placed the reel on the sprocket, pulled out an arm’s length of film, and held it to the light. Once he found where the numeric countdown begun, he threaded the film through the gate, running the machine just long enough for it to catch, then looped the end of it onto the empty reel and advanced the film to the opening credits. He repeated the process on the second projector, loading the second reel and advancing it to the switch-over cue.

“Life is an illusion,” he mumbled. “It is best to live it as such. Sometimes you win, sometimes you loose.”

He sat at the table and ate a sandwich. After forty minutes, he looked down through the keyhole and saw only one person seated in the theater auditorium. When he looked down a second time, the audience had grown by three. At a quarter to four, he pressed the mechanical button which opened the theater curtains. And when it was exactly four o’clock, he started the film, framing it first, sharpening the focus, and synchronizing the sound. When all was set and done, he sat at the table and listened, to what, for him, was a most beautiful melody – the sound of film clicking through a gate at twenty-four frames a second. It was a six-thousand foot reel, which meant he’d have an hour before he would need to switch over to the second projector.

Through the keyhole came the sound of Humphrey Bogart’s voice. Though he could not see the film from his seated position, he knew every scene, every film angle, and every word of dialogue, verbatim. He had seen the film a hundred times, maybe two hundred.

“What’s our wide-eyed Irish leprechaun doing outside my door?” Bogart’s voice asked.[1]

“Just wanted to have a little talk,” the voice of Peter Lorre replied.

“Okay, but make it fast,” said the old man quickly, stealing the line before Bogart could speak it.

“Okay, but make it fast,” Bogart then repeated on the big screen.

The old man chuckled.

After fifty minutes, he turned on the lamp on the second machine, giving it time to warm up. After another five minutes he began watching for the cue mark; a small circular flash in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, and when he saw it, he clicked on the motor of the second projector. And when it flashed a second time, he pressed the changeover button. Then he heard the splice go through the machine and the images from the second projector immediately took over, flicking out the black and white celluloid, without interruption, exactly where the first reel had finished off.

“Now that’s the way to do it!” he said. “None of this three, two, one,” referring to the numerical countdown seen onscreen if the cue mark was missed.

The old man chuckled, thinking back to a time when René had mistimed a changeover. He had been left to manage the projection booth for only a minute and still

couldn’t get it right! And there was that awful gap of white screen between the reels, and the painful groans of all the theater patrons.

The old man clicked off the motor on the first machine and began watching the film through the keyhole. On screen now were Jennifer Jones and Humphrey Bogart, standing on the Terrace of Infinity, high above the Amalfi Coast. The cinemascope image

provided a panoramic view of sea and mountains that stretched from one side of the screen to the other. It seemed to be filmed from the height of an airplane, which gave a real appreciation for the beauty of this place. And the dialog was the quick and clever, bringing a smile to the old man’s face.

“There are two good reasons for falling in love,” Jennifer Jones said. “One is that the object of your affection is unlike anyone else, a rare spirit. The other is that he’s like everyone else, only superior, the very best of a type.”[2]

“Well if you must know, I’m a very typical rare spirit,” the old man said before Bogart echoed the same line onscreen.

“How long have you lived here?” asked Jennifer Jones.

“The longest I’ve lived anywhere,” the old man recited, again beating Bogart to the punch.

“Didn’t you ever have a mother and a father and a house?”

“No I was an orphan,” the old man said loudly. “Then a rich and beautiful woman adopted me.”

The old man smiled as Bogart repeated the lines; “No I was an orphan. Then a rich and beautiful woman adopted me.”

Like Sunday mass, the old man thought, easier than reciting lines from the good book. And as the movie progressed, the old man lost himself, as he often did, in the romantic action and intriguing storyline. The images on the screen danced in his head as if they were real.

Now a trio of characters, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, and Bogart, found

themselves shipwrecked and washed ashore on a deserted beach. A hoard of horse-

backed nomads stormed down a hillside firing shots at them. Everyone was frightened, except Bogart, and the old man, who stood fearless in the projection booth.

The old man raised his hands and said bravely, “Better get down everyone!”[3] He made his voice sound tough and cynical.

Seconds later, Bogart raised his hands and repeated the line on the big screen.

“Africa,” the old man then said aloud as if he were speaking directly to the nomad chieftain. “It’s not a bad place to land. No customs forms to fill out.”

When Bogart repeated the lines, the old man chuckled.

The film finished, and during the intermission the old man replaced the reels with the second feature, The African Queen. He waited the customary twenty minutes for everyone to return from the concessions and then rolled the film. Once he heard the projector running smoothly, he sat down at the projection table and listened to its melodic sound.

“You are a good machine,” he said, patting it on its side. “You bring life to the ordinary. You create magic from nothing.” Then he sighed. “But like me, you are old and replaceable!”

He stretched his arm out comfortably on the table and laid his head upon it, and in his mind he watched the movie, following along as if it were playing in his head. He knew every scene, every word; all the facial expressions. The smooth clicking sound of film rushing through the gate, coupled with his cerebral reenactment, brought him to the place he loved best, his nirvana.

But he did not watch Bogart and Hepburn. He was with them in the boat, going down the Ubangi River. And he recited Bogart’s lines as if they were his own. And he

watched Katherine Hepburn’s transformation from one who despised an aging old drunk, to one who loved. And now that she’d become smitten with this rugged old man, unkempt and capable as he, he accepted her expressions of adornment as if they were meant for him.

In his head, the reels spun forward at lightening speed. Before he knew it, Bogart stood with a noose around his neck being interrogated by a nasty German sea-captain; accused of being a spy for which death was the only penalty.

But it was not Bogart; it was the old man.

“Don’t give in!” the old man mumbled. He felt the ship rocking beneath him as if he were really afloat. “Be brave Rosie! Be strong! It is for love and country!”

As the large German vessel, the Louisa, drifted closer to the African Queen, the makeshift torpedoes pointing from the Queen’s bow closed in on theLouisa’shull.

“Take cover Rosie!” the old man shouted, bracing himself for the explosion. “I’ll be with you shortly!”

Though the celluloid images danced vividly in his head, they had barely finished the first reel on the projector beside him. On the screen, the first cue marked flashed by, then the second, then the end of the film looped through the gate, and suddenly, nothing but a white stream of light shone out from the projector. And the groaning and booing from the audience was almost instantaneous.

“Roll the damned film!”

“Hey! Wakeup up there!” another screamed from the front of the house.

But the old man’s head remained down on the table, resting on his out-stretched arm; his eyes closed and his expression intense. Even if he wanted to, he could not move. He had a noose around his neck, and the rope was pulling tightly.

“Be brave, Rosie!” he mumbled again.

Then the projection room door swung open with a bang, slamming against the forward wall, and in stormed René, as livid as he could possibly be.

“This’s it!” he screamed. “You are through!”

The old man lifted his head as René rushed past him and lunged for the changeover button on the second projector. He pressed the button, and instantly the images returned to the screen below.

“Thank you!” someone yelled from the auditorium.

“About time!” another screamed out.

“You are finished!” René shouted to the old man. “Get your things and leave!”

“What?” the old man asked.

“You’re fired!”

It took a moment for the old man to gather himself. He had barely stepped off the deck of the Louisa.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Get your things and leave! Now! I’ll mail you your check.”

“But I thought I had three more months?”

“Not no more. You are through, now!”

René grabbed the old man’s collar, lifted him from the chair, and using his grip, escorted him to his bag, which was against the wall. The old man picked up the bag and then René pushed him to the door.

There was nothing the old man could do. He was too dazed and confused to resist, and when he was heaved through the door, pushed out like a rag doll, he nearly tumbled down the stairs. He dropped several steps before he could stop his momentum and regain his balance. Then he straightened himself, turned back, and looked up at René, who stood with both hands on his hips.

“Get out!” René yelled, pointing toward the front door of the lobby.

The old man continued down the steps, made his way through the foyer, and pushed his way out the front doors.

“He is a man without honor,” he mumbled to himself. “He is a man with no loyalty.”

As he walked down the street in darkness to his apartment, he thought of Garbo; her persona as Mata Hari, strong and defiance against all odds and in the face of certain death. Her image danced in his head, feverously; the coins of her hip-scarf chattering like wind chimes in a hurricane. Every movement of her body showed him her strength and will to overcome. She is the bold and daring one, he thought; the one never to give in to the misalignments and abuses of power.

Then, in his mind, he saw the bottle of gin awaiting him, there on his table in his dreary apartment, and the image of Garbo faded to black.

The End

[1] [2] [3] Dialogue from the public domain movie Beat the Devil, screenplay by John Huston and Truman Capote.

*

Pushcart Prize nominee Frank Scozzari resides in Nipomo, a small town on the California central coast. His award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines including The Worcester Review, War Literature & the ArtsThe Tampa Review, Pacific Review, Eleven Eleven, The Emerson Review, South Dakota Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Minetta Review, Reed Magazine,Berkeley Fiction Review, Ellipsis Magazine, The Nassau Review, and The MacGuffin, and have been featured in literary theater. His novel “From Afar” was featured in USA Today and received a 5-star book rating at Readers’ Favorite

What motivates him to create:
Someone once said ‘if I didn’t write I would die.’ Perhaps that’s a bit drastic, but it is my sentiment in many ways. Writing and creating are my passions and I would be unhappy without them. Once I have an image or story in my head I feel obligated to make it real. If someone likes it, that’s great, but if not, I’d create nonetheless.

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March 23rd, 2016

A Mystery

with the memory of flesh
on the tip of their brains
they eat and drink
like nothing happened
caught up in another day

“the young wives who have been pregnant for thirty hours”
from “Gentlemen Without Company,” Pablo Neruda

with the memory of flesh
on the tip of their brains
they eat and drink
like nothing happened
caught up in another day

the world moves slowly away
from their childhood dreams
and blooms inside of them
one cell into five, five into a hundred
a thousand more by sunset

they smile
at a cardinal with a blue feather in its beak
and have no idea
why

*

David James third book, My Torn Dance Card, was published in 2015 by FCNI Press. His second book, She Dances Like Mussolini, won the 2010 Next Generation Indie book award for poetry. More than thirty of his one-act plays have been produced from New York City to California.

What motivates him to create:
I write primarily to reflect, question, understand, wonder, and make sense of what is  happening around me.  Most poems have some personal thread or link in them, but others wander a bit into unknown territory; this is where the questioning and imagining happen in poetry. What does it feel like to die?  I can’t know that yet, but I can try to imagine and write about it. Poetry is always expanding my views, my perceptions, my ideas and, hence, my world. In the ideal situation, I want to create poems that muck around in the personal and then slip away quietly, effortlessly into the unknown, taking me (and the reader) into places I never thought I could go.

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March 16th, 2016

Closed Doors

George walked out of the garage, a ten-pound sack of kitty litter draped over his right shoulder. Long silver tufts of hair pushed their way out of his cap tickled his ears. He tugged the cap down with his free hand, creating a lopsided mess of blue and red knit. He sighed, and his hot …

George walked out of the garage, a ten-pound sack of kitty litter draped over his right shoulder. Long silver tufts of hair pushed their way out of his cap tickled his ears. He tugged the cap down with his free hand, creating a lopsided mess of blue and red knit. He sighed, and his hot breath shot a brief smoke signal into the cold air.

Just before he reached the two-thirds of the driveway that was iced over, George let the sack of litter fall from his shoulders, grabbing it by the top quarter before he plopped it down onto the wet driveway. He slid his hand into the deep left pocket of his robe and pulled out an antique silver letter opener. As he moved the opener toward the top corner of the sack of litter, he noticed the reflection of the rising sun framed by smaller, colorful halos glowing in the middle of the silver. He took a moment then in the twilight to admire the distant sun and fading glow of the neighborhood Christmas lights. To the right, greens and yellows and reds and blues were all strung together along metal porch rails, competing with the white glow of the strands that lined gutters, all of them fighting the sunrise and the beads of condensation covering their bulbs, attempting to mask their glow.

George felt something brush his pajama pants leg, and was startled back from his trance. He dropped the letter opener between his boots. Sandy, a scrawny, pale orange cat that belonged to the neighbors, darted off and shouted a meow that matched the clang of the silver hitting the concrete. George picked up the letter opener and stabbed the top corner of the bag of litter. He took off a rough slice, placed it in his robe pocket, and picked the bag up. He tilted the bag and formed a small mound of kitty litter beside him on the wet driveway. He rubbed his snow boots against the concrete to wet the soles, and then with both feet, stepped into the mound of litter. He stomped a few times into the mound to ensure even coverage. Bending at the knees, George brought both of his shoes, one at a time, to the front of his body to inspect his stomping job. Satisfied, he grabbed the sack of litter and carefully covering the sliced-off corner, heaved it back over his right shoulder.

Just as he began to turn toward the front walkway, through the clouds of his own breath, George noticed a figure coming toward him from behind the garage. He squinted and made out a tall, skinny young man. Conner, a boy his daughter’s age, and the son of the new hired help that stayed in the guest house behind the garage, was signaling something and flailing his arms about as he hurried in George’s direction. Confused, George stood motionless, waiting for the boy’s approach. Panting, and with a dripping nose, Conner expelled with hot breath into George’s face, “Mr. Hardell, please, let me help you with that.” The young man wiped his nose, and with glistening, mucus covered fingers, moved to pull the sack of litter off of George’s shoulder.

“That’s ok, Conner. I’ve got it, really.”

“But Mr. Hardell, You shouldn’t be out here so early and with it being so cold and all.” Conner continued to reach for the sack as George stepped back slowly with each attempt.

“Conner. I’m fine. I appreciate you trying to help, but you see, I’ve already covered my boots and you are in slippers for christsake.” Conner looked down at his feet, confused, as if he had no idea that he had anything covering them at all.

“Mr. Hardell, please, my mother saw you through the window and insisted that I come out here and cover the walkway for you. If I come back having done nothing, she’ll kill me.” He twisted up his face in concern with downcast eyes on a tilted head, a look children often give adults that makes them give-in to just about anything. Avoiding the expression on Conner’s face, George looked past him to the guest house. There in the window, Conner’s mother, still dressed in her house robe with her long hair unpinned, was smiling while she pushed up a gently waving hand to George.

“Fine. That’s fine. Tell your mother I said thank you but that it isn’t necessary that you help around the house with everything. And Conner, make sure you cover everything well. I don’t need to be calling an ambulance this Christmas evening when my sister and her children fall down and break their necks on an icy walkway.”

“I understand Mr. Hardell. I’ll cover everything completely.”

“Very well. And oh, by the way, you and your mother are welcome to join us at dinner this evening. I’m not sure if my wife has already spoken to you or your mother about this, but I’m sure it would be fine.”

“Thank you sir, but we’ll be having dinner together in the guest house after we’re done preparing for you. Thank you though, sir.”

“It’s the least I can do.”

“Thank you sir. Thank you.”

“Uh huh…we’ll be seeing you later Conner.”

George turned back into the garage, stomping his feet onto the concrete once more, this time ridding his soles of the sheet of litter that he had just so fervently created. Inside the garage he tried to steady himself as he untied his boots and watched as the young man fumbled about beneath the heavy sack of litter. He shook his head as he watched Conner slip and slide over the icy driveway, spilling litter everywhere as he made his way to the front of the house.

The sun had finally pushed itself above the horizon and painted the sides of the houses on George’s street. The Christmas lights disappeared into the sun’s orange glow, so now every house had only empty wires wrapped around their light posts and porch rails, had only strange dull strands lining their gutters, outshone by the shimmering shingles above and insulted by the plastic Santas and reindeer blanketed with snow. Admiring the wash of sunlight on the brick siding of the house, George squinted and noticed his daughter’s face in the window above the garage. Her light skin glowed tan in the sunlight and her dark hair glimmered with red strands. George lifted a hand, waving to his daughter in the window. Waiting for a response, still squinting behind streams of his hot breath, he suddenly noticed a smile spreading out across his daughter’s lips. He followed her gaze down the length of the driveway only to see Conner bent over the walkway, awkwardly dumping litter all along the front porch steps. When he looked back up into the window, Sara and the wash of peach sunlight were gone. Just before he disappeared into the garage, George heard Conner shout from the front of the house, “Covering everything Mr. Hardell, don’t worry.” In his last puffs in the icy air, George exhaled softly, “I’m not.”

***

George’s sister and her two daughters arrived at four. Frances billowed through the front door and past her brother like a gust of wind. Marcie, her youngest daughter, hung on for dear life, gripping her mother’s arm as she stumbled through the door behind her. Jenny, who was just about to leave for college in the spring, sauntered in slowly behind the two, her knees so close together that they made a knocking sound as she walked. Her mother was already in the living room gossiping with George’s wife, her high-pitched squeals and thick laughter echoing down the hallway as George offered to take Jenny’s coat.

“That’s ok Uncle George, I’d rather keep it on.”

“Jenny, you’ll burn to death in here, you know how Karen turns the place into a sauna during the winter.”

“I don’t care, I’d just like to keep it on.” The girl flung her eyes down to her black-heeled shoes and her cheeks swelled with a deep peach flush.

“Jenny, what the hell’s going on?” She shot her gaze back up at George and looked as if she were about to cry. She untied the belt on her thick wool coat and pushed it off of her shoulders onto the floor, revealing a thick pillow stuffed with beanbags tied around her waist with a belt. “What the…” George fought himself trying to hold off the chuckles rising from the deep of his belly.

“It’s not funny! Mom is making me wear it. She thinks I’m going to go off to college and get…you know…pregnant.”

Now bent over in laughter, snorting with each breath, George reached out toward Jenny and untied the belt, letting the simulated pregnant belly hit the wooden floor. The bean bag stuffing made a brief swishing noise like a wave washing ashore a beach as George kicked it to the side of the entryway. Sighing behind closed-mouth laughter, George said, “Jen, this time she’s gone too far.”

“Tell me about it.”

The two laughed, then walked together, sans the fake baby-belly, down the hallway into the living room; George’s sister’s laugh was like a homing siren guiding them in the right direction. Frances made quite the fuss when she first saw Jenny without the pillow-fashioned belly, but George spoke to her slowly and convinced her to at least let Jenny go without the belly for the day. After making drinks for himself and his wife, George made a third, for Frances, in hopes it would calm her down enough so that he could bare her visit for the evening. She had been taking Valium for the past two months, since her husband left her for his swimming coach at the gym, but it never seemed like enough to bring her down from the circling whirlwind in her head. Her emotions had nowhere to go but overboard.

George was exhausted already from his sister’s non-stop rambling, but felt sorry for her, felt guilty for dreading her visit. Before he snuck out of the living room, he downed the little bit of whiskey left in his glass and glanced at his wife who was sitting quietly on the chair in front of the couch where Frances spewed. She had her slender fingers atop one of her knees, making tiny circles with her index finger as she smiled and stared just past Frances’s face into the distance, out the window at the snow-covered lawns. He reached out to place a hand on her shoulder, or the base of her neck, or her sweater-covered arm, but pulled back just before his fingers would have made contact. Karen had been cheating on him for several months now with the baker from the local grocery store. One day during the summer, George came home from a football game in which Sara was cheering to check on Karen, who declined to go to the game citing sickness. He came through the kitchen door around the back of the house and saw his wife, spread-eagle on the hallway floor beneath a brawny carving of flesh, his cinnamon bun baking hands pushing up his wife’s breasts, his buttered fingers twisting her nipples. George closed the door. After the football game, George took Sara out for ice cream, just to make sure. He didn’t say anything to Karen that night. His rage consumed any words he thought he might say. He didn’t say anything to Karen the next night either, or the next, or the next. He didn’t say anything because of Frances. Her heart would break and so would she. He didn’t say anything because he hadn’t loved his wife for over ten years, but was that the point? He didn’t love her anymore but he still cared. He didn’t say anything because of Sara. She was gone more anyway, about to graduate high school, dating, growing up. He didn’t say anything because he wasn’t going to be that guy in that town whose wife was cheating on him, whose family fell apart for the world to see. He didn’t say anything because he didn’t know what to say. Over time George’s rage melted into quiet disappointment, so that for the last several months he became accustomed to almost touches, almost kisses, and empty-eyed stares from his wife of twenty years. He became accustomed to the deep breaths he took before opening doors, every single door.

Before George could escape unnoticed from the living room, Frances shot up off the couch cushion and demanded that George go out to their car and get Marcie’s cello. She had been taking lessons for a few months and wanted to show off her new talent. George looked at Marcie who sat in the corner of the room with a box of Sara’s old dolls. She frowned when she heard her mother’s declaration and threw a naked, tangle-haired Barbie against the carpet. With folded arms she pouted at George who sent her a sympathetic smile as he hurried out of the living room.

Just across and down the hallway, Conner’s mother, the new maid that Karen hired last month was cooking Christmas dinner. Since the dawn of her affair, Karen stopped cooking, stopped cleaning, and stopped doing laundry. She was gone most of the day, and spent her nights in bed with a romance novel. Unable to handle all the chores himself, George asked around town and found a maid. Cecilia was a poor woman of unfortunate circumstance who George found instantly beautiful, charming, and useful. Her husband died unexpectedly in a fire, and she and Conner were left to fend for themselves. George set them up in the guest house where Karen’s parents lived before they passed away the year before. So far Cecilia had proven apt for the extra money George had to dish out each week for her services, and her son, Conner, hadn’t been a problem as of yet. Both kept mostly to themselves.

George inhaled deeply and pushed the kitchen door open just a crack. He smelled clove and garlic and onion. He tilted his head back and let the scents creep into his wide-open nostrils, the scents of rosemary, of thyme, of basil, the scent of stuffing baking inside a turkey, the scent of the bird’s fat dripping down and melting into its flesh, seasoning every centimeter of it’s once-puckered skin. With another deep breath, he pushed the door open even further and watched Cecilia sway around the kitchen, turkey-baster in hand, as she began to hum a song George had never heard. Her blue apron was dotted all over with clouds of flour, and her light skin shined with slick red smears of cherry pie filling. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail that swung in unison with her wide, heavy hips. The hem of her skirt fell just above her chubby calves, those too dotted with starch white baking flour. Before she could turn around and catch George’s gaze, George let the door close gently against the palm of his hand. Once he heard the handle’s click, assuring the sturdiness of the door’s barrier, he leaned back onto the heavy wood and let his chin fall into his chest. He thought of what it would be like to have a woman like Cecilia, how it would feel to have her chubby legs wrapped around him as he made love to her and to hear what her moans of pleasure sounded like, or how it would feel to come home to her smiling face and warm kisses just before they would sit down for a freshly-made dinner.

Darkness comes early in the winter, and George began to notice the deep purples and blues of the evening sky as he looked out the windows. He hadn’t seen Sara since this morning. Every other holiday she was usually downstairs socializing, playing with Marcie or flipping through fashion magazines with Jenny, or entertaining Karen’s sister’s baby boys when they came down every other year for the holiday. Sara enjoyed the Christmas holiday, as George could never understand. He trekked up the front stairs; the prickly plastic garland that Cecilia had wrapped around the railings poked him as he accidentally placed his palm down to help himself up the steps. He went to her room and tapped on her door before opening it slowly. The light beside her bed glowed softly in the corner, but when George asked, “Sara?” no one responded. He shut the door and continued down the hallway to the guest bedroom. It was also empty. Confused, George came back down the stairs and passed into the living room to ask if anyone had seen Sara. Frances had definitely not seen her but wanted to tell her something and something else. Jenny hadn’t seen her. Marcie sounded as if she was mauling small animals as she tried to tune her cello, and Karen was slouched over in the chair with her head to the side and a faint smile on her face as if she were daydreaming. Now frustrated, George yanked his coat off the hook in the entryway, pulling the wreath off the back of the front door as the bottom hem of his coat swung behind him. He opened the garage door, pulled on his boots, and without tying them, headed back into the house. Pushing open the kitchen door, George burst in and startled Cecilia so that she dropped the baster into the pool of bubbling fat in the bottom of the roasting pan. “Have you seen Sara? I can’t find her anywhere.” Trying to fish out the dripping-covered baster with bare fingers, Cecilia said,

“I haven’t seen her since breakfast Mr. Hardell. Maybe she just went to a friend’s house. Is everything ok?”

“She didn’t go to a friend’s house. She would have told me or her mother.” George retorted as if he were debating the most important issue of all time. Cecilia tilted her head, looking concerned, and watched George fumble with the doorknob. Sighing and flinging open the back door leading from the kitchen to the outside, George hurried into the now pitch-black night toward the guest house. He headed there with an instinct he could not explain, but he remembered Sara’s smiles in the window, her smiles for the clumsy, skinny boy who was strewing cat litter all over the ground with every step he took. Like a magnet pulling him against his will, George made his way through the streams of his breath in the freezing night to the guest house where he could now see a single light shining in the upper-level corner room. He crunched over pieces of kitty litter that peppered the driveway and cursed beneath his breath. Just in front of the main door to the guest house George inhaled deeply before he grabbed the doorknob and twisted it violently. Before he was about to stomp up the stairs to that room with the single shining light, the room that he knew, without knowing how he knew, his daughter was in, with some strange new son of the voluptuous woman cooking Christmas dinner in his kitchen, George took another deep breath. The heated air in the guest house traveled through him as he inhaled and calmed him. He stepped up the stairs gently, trying not to make a sound.

He noticed pictures hung on the walls of each side of the stairway: a younger, leaner, but still beautiful Cecilia, Conner as a baby, and a man in a firefighter’s suit. The pictures made his stomach ache; he did not know why. George saw a thin strip of light glowing beneath one of the doors upstairs. Making his way slowly in front of it he stopped when he heard voices. Sara’s sweet, soft laugh parted a deeper, trembling chuckle, like a bird and a lion trying to carry on a conversation, each making the only sounds they know how. George gently fingered the doorknob and twisted it silently. Through the inch he parted, George made out bare skin, slowly gliding on top of bare skin. He saw Conner’s hairy legs on top of Sara’s downy-haired limbs. Just as quickly as he had opened the door, and just as silently, George pulled the door shut. He shook his head and bent his neck back so that all he could see was the pale white ceiling above him. George closed his eyes and wondered if this was what his life had turned into: a series of opening and closing doors, never knowing if he wished to see what lay behind them, deadening his initial rage because he couldn’t find the right words when words were the only thing he needed, because guilt was too powerful, because he was a coward. He descended the stairs and went back out the front door.

George puffed deeply in the outside air. Beneath the moon he let his breath cloud around him and wrap him in a disguising fog. He pulled his coat tighter around him and then sat down on the driveway. He put his hands down onto the ground and crystals of kitty litter crushed under his bare palms. The cold wetness, what hadn’t turned back into ice for the night, seeped through his jeans and began to numb his manhood. He cried. He let hot tears drip down his cheeks. He didn’t bother to wipe them away. He watched the twinkling Christmas lights flash in the night, all the greens and reds and blues and oranges finally had their time. Through his tears, the lights made a sort of halo around every house, little beacons among the deep darkness overhead. The sound of footsteps scurrying off sounded behind George, somewhere at the end of the driveway. The crunch of litter, and ice just beginning to form warned of someone’s approach. As George pushed the tears off of his cheeks, a lion’s voice sounded off behind him asking, “Are you ok Mr. Hardell?”

“Conner. Yes, yes I’m fine.”

“What…what are you doing out here?”

“Just looking at the Christmas lights, they really are something, aren’t they?”

“I guess so, they’re alright. Say um, doesn’t my mom have dinner ready for you guys now?”

“She probably does.”

“Well, I was going to go in and help her set the table, you should probably come in now.”

“I’ll be in in just a moment, thank you Conner.”

“Should I leave the door open for you then Mr. Hardell?”

“What?”

“Um…the door….should I just leave it open?”

“Oh, yeah. Yes. That’d be great. I’ll be right behind you.”

George pushed himself off the wet concrete and dusted the litter off of his hands. Just behind Conner he wiped his boots on the mat below the back kitchen door. As he took his wet boots off and set them just beside the bottom row of cabinets that met the edge of the inside door sill in the kitchen, George looked around the kitchen. In the warm golden glow he looked at his wife who still in her daydreaming daze was carrying the cherry pie to the dining room; he looked at Frances eager to help, to be given something to carry to the dinner table, who was following Cecilia around like a hummingbird searching for sugar water. Conner and Sara were smiling at each other and blushing as they let their hands brush against each other as they each grabbed a handful of silverware and napkins. George noticed Jenny in the corner, hunched over beside Marcie, both of them looking as if their mother had been replaced by some strange disease there was not yet a cure for. George sighed as he watched everyone, except Cecilia, file out of the kitchen toward the dining room. He noticed she hadn’t taken the turkey yet. It was still shining among its crown of root vegetables, which were neatly arranged where the bird’s neck used to be. Just as Cecilia wrapped her hands around the edges of the serving dish on which the turkey rested, George placed his hands just over hers. Her warmth surprised him, but he couldn’t move. Cecilia looked into George’s eyes and smiled. Like a reflex, the corners of George’s mouth pushed themselves up into his cheeks. He lifted the dish from her hands, and with matching flushed faces, Cecilia and George made their way to Christmas dinner.

*

Amanda Allison is a native southerner who lives and works in Atlanta, Georgia. She received her B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing from Georgia State University in 2009.

What motivates her to create:
Writing is the only way I know how to make sense of the world. Feelings come in, words come out.

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March 9th, 2016

Apparition

You don’t exist, but I guess if I thought
hard enough, I could conjure you up.
You’d be too young for me, unchanged
since you wore Levis in a fancy hotel
or hailed a Checker on Tenth Avenue.

You don’t exist, but I guess if I thought
hard enough, I could conjure you up.
You’d be too young for me, unchanged
since you wore Levis in a fancy hotel
or hailed a Checker on Tenth Avenue.
Or I might see you in a stranger’s face,
some dude with a lustrous black beard.
Beards are in style again; we are not.
I’m not making this up. You still live
in the gait of a boy descending a theater aisle,
a distance runner trapped in air conditioning.
And when we cohabit in the instant
lit only by white titles on a black screen
your electric arm snakes around somebody else.

*

Geer Austin is the author of Cloverleaf, a poetry chapbook from Poets Wear Prada Press. His poetry and fiction has appeared in anthologies, print and online journals including Big Bridge, Colere, This Literary Magazine, Potomac Review, and BlazeVOX. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was the editor of NYB, a New York/Berlin arts magazine. He leads writing workshops for underserved populations through New York Writers Coalition. He lives in New York City.

What motivates him to create:
What started me writing was the desire to write well, like the authors of books I loved reading. What makes me continue might be a compulsion. Is there a Creative Personality Disorder? I find inspiration everywhere and try to distill experience on the page.

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March 2nd, 2016

Legs

I’ve done three tourniquets.
But that’s over sixteen years.
One lost his leg.

I’ve done three tourniquets.
                                                       But that’s over sixteen years.
One lost his leg. 
                                                                   Not “lost,” because we found it.
It was in the swamp, 
                                                                               my partner searching with a flashlight,
worried as all hell 
                                                                                          about the alligators.
You have to bring the body part 
                                                                               with you, in the back of the ambulance.
Doctors these days do miracles. 
                                                                   They also do sins.
They do drugs and nurses 
                                                         and sometimes nothing.
The other two, 
                                        their legs were saved.
I imagine Jesus 

                         coming down,

standing over their disconnected
              body, waving his hand,   

and then I appear,
fat, smoke-breathed.
*
Ron Riekki’s books include U.P., The Way North (2014 Michigan Notable Book), and Here (May 2015, MSU Press).

What motivates him to create:
Simply, I think I often desperately want to connect with people.

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February 25th, 2016

Maximo the Magnificent

As I sit down now to write, informed by my eyes of the old, sandy knuckles that lay suspended over the keys before me, sober in my aspirations and not in the least taken by any delusions of eminence (for I am not formally trained in the object of writing), I am reminded of a …

As I sit down now to write, informed by my eyes of the old, sandy knuckles that lay
suspended over the keys before me, sober in my aspirations and not in the least taken by any delusions of eminence (for I am not formally trained in the object of writing), I am reminded of a certain inauguration set forth by Thomas Mann in a lesser-known novel – his last – and it causes me to assemble in my mind a crushing sense of futility anent a project I have only just begun with all the keen eagerness of an owl with a shrew in its clutches. I admit of a certain defeat in advance, if you will, reflecting certainly that I have been sufficiently disciplined in the uses and misuses of the symbols before you, but also that I lack a certain element of being, an aspect of nature, a thing qualified in part by a mysterious attribute undeniably manifest and yet illusory as the seven heads of a siren drowned at birth and never witnessed by the likes of mankind. It is with such anxieties that I set out presently to begin the fragmented history of my affairs, to impart to the reader who will happen upon me the story of my early life, so as not to let it die in the dark alcoves of my once unwounded heart. Flaubert once said – but perhaps it is not necessary to lend such gravitas to my work. I admit, there is a temptation to quoting from Flaubert when living in France.

In the little street beneath my modest flat on the Rue Brueys, I observe the shiny reflection of recent rain atop the wooden table where Madam Rayand peddles her wares on Saturdays to the tourists. The tourists just adore Aix. Like the tabletop, the stones below me too are glimmering. Not so much as a foot has tread upon them since the clouds opened in the middle of the night. It is a very early hour – not even the bakers are bestirred. And here I am at the window, my little portico of daydreams and castle-building, smoking the first cigarette of the day and giving the keys on this electric machine a patter patter under the soft light of the lamp.

In my youth I was most certainly the most harassed creature on earth. Father beat me dreadfully while mother kept me alive with miserable food and discolored water from the well in the color of seal brown. Father was greatly taxed at his job at the factory – when he arrived home he would puff himself up out of all cognizable dimensions with his rum habit and lay into me. The boys in the slums beat me even worse than my father. They used to laugh ignominiously as they stuck the little tips of their knives into me, decrying me as a homosexual at the tender age of ten and two years. Maximo el maricon, they called me. My older brother was among them. How they stabbed me and got away with it! All father could do was hit me in the face and advise that I would do better than to fall on other people’s knives. And he adopted the appellation the boys had so generously gifted to me. I was el maricon under my father’s roof – may he rest with his worms eternally spiteful.

I was born to the nation-state of Spain, and accepted all the gloomy and wretched sufferings the commonwealth insists on delivering to her people by right of birth. It is a tragic country, far more tragic than the worst of the Balkans, for in Spain there is hope, a devastating hope. Spain – she is an abject whore, a house of centuries built on fire and torture. What does the world expect but that her people would deliver unto others the worst crimes and sins? When the rest of the world was singing, she was ushering in the auto-da-fe with gilded hands. A whole country of rogues and criminals. The people are anything but simple. Some of them make iron, some harvest, some of them even paint, but they are all prepared at a moment’s notice to slit the throats of the passersby, and especially if they share the same tongue. In Spain the devil is always escaping the mouths of the people. While other countries wage wars without, Spain kills off her progeny, leaving in her wake a history of gunpowder and blood-red crosses.

In Spain, it is said that the people get the government they deserve, and they most certainly deserved Franco, the blackguard. It was 1936 when I was twelve years of age and taking my stabbings. And it was the year His Excellency the Caudillo was masturbating himself white as a sheet in the mirror. The camps were already underway. It is a naughty feature of the human condition that we are always finding ways of putting ourselves into camps. It can’t happen in Spain today, they say. And they might be right. After Franco, Spain set up a nice little constitution for itself. If only there had been a fine piece of paper to stop Franco! He was at his liberty to dispatch anyone who happened to befall the misfortune of being on his mind.

It was not long before my moniker – el maricon – made its way to official ears, first at the local level and then up through some mischievous department. Thence went up the hue and cry. At seventeen, I was presented with the choice of fleeing or dying in camp. To lie with a man in Spain meant a death sentence. And they weren’t handing out jury trials before the fall of the axe. I would have fled for France, but the Nazis were putting the knife to everyone not boasting the pearliest skin, and I am swarthy by virtue of a Moroccan lineage. Being a tawny homosexual anti-Franco Jewish émigré, I could not place all of my hopes in befriending a sweetheart like Hitler. So it was the sea for me. I snuck aboard a cargo ship bound for god knows where and wound up at a dock jutting out from the rocks at Malta, where I was discovered, beaten ridiculously, and thrown from a pier. During the ocean passage, I held out hope that the French would resume control of their republic. They seemed awfully better at managing their affairs than having their affairs managed for them by that little mustachioed brat with the grand ideas and the second-rate autobiography. I spent four years in Malta – wandering about Valetta mostly. I read some books and waited for the war to end. To make my bread, I did pantomime in the street. It was the only work available given my circumstances. I made a couple of friends who shared the craft – Raabia, a juggler from Cairo, and Adam, a native Maltese with a gift for sham levitating. Adam was murdered in an alley for a sack of figs on the day the Germans surrendered. I would never go back to Spain.

In 1945, I made a successful passage to Marseille aboard the steamship Kidney Star. There, I opened the bag of ashes I’d been carrying around with me since Adam’s death. I was the only family he’d ever known, poor soul. I sprinkled his cinders at the old port and the wind took him and blessed him and sent him into the hair of a woman on a bicycle. The food and wine in Marseille were of the best on earth. So I was told. I hadn’t the means for any of it, and was happy to find a piece of baguette or crepe not yet playing host to flies. Water and water closets were the hardest to come by, but not having one, I had no need for the other. For a country that drinks so much wine, there is very little space to make pee-pee with dignity. They’ll sell you the best wines and hang you for your daring in asking after the WC. A Frenchman is very possessive of his toilette. It’s right up there with the Seine in terms of national pride.

I was able to rest my head at night in the alleyways and dead ends of that twinkling city on the sea. My landlords, the rats, being jealous of their pride, found it convenient to walk right over me and to check my pockets for fare. This they taxed from me along with a centime or two – the rats in Marseille are as crafty as gangsters and twice as savage. They would scratch and tease me to no end if I came home to our shared space with a pocket empty of vittles. It was not long before they did me the kindness of bleeding my face in the night.

That I could not stand for. My face was everything to me. My ambitions as a pantomime would not allow me to inherit a set of cheeks and nose and lips splintered to bits. When they first attempted to make a supper of my snout, I vowed to secure more agreeable quarters away from those bastard rats. So vowing, it was obvious that I should require a means of paying for my lodging, and I went at my acts in the street with fervor. I was able to dress myself in a torn infantry jacket that I dyed black and bespeckled with strips of gauze I found abandoned in a trash heap left by the American Red Cross. I went hatless, with only a fistful of powder in my hair that I would shake out at times to make the little children laugh. My face I painted in accordance with the custom – some white and some red with bold lines that exaggerated the face my parents never loved.

Harlequins and misfits were saturating Marseille. All kinds and types of street beggars and faux burlesques were popping up everywhere. And everyone knows that too many cooks spoil the broth. I was able to carve out a little niche in Cours Julien by playing the roles of male and female scorned lovers in the time-tested sex-swapping pastiche. I perfected a certain juggling routine carried out at the beginning and end with a set of wooden boules that a stranger lent to me when he wasn’t looking. Fortune favors the bold. I repainted the balls in the hues of the Tricolour. It was not long before I had a small retinue of daily patronage. I had a little sign done up in gilt-colored lettering – Maximo the Magnificent it said, only in the French, and the reader will agree it was an epithet preferable to the one employed against me in the nasty slums of Madrid. There was one fine day when an English lady was passing through and stopped to see me. She was dressed in a blue livery and surrounded by a corps of boys in broad hats and knee socks who were all smiling ridiculously. Into the torn silk of my upturned bowler she tossed a 100 franc note.

One hundred francs! I thanked her in Spanish and wept at her feet. I immediately closed up shop for the day and went straightaway to a bistro, where I ordered lamb’s feet, a steak, a ten-year-old Bordeaux and a tin of Calissons d’Aix in broken French – the kind of shabby French that causes waiters to put on airs. After dinner, I bought a pocket’s worth of cigars and had a smoke or two at the foot of a hill leading up to a shiny statue on top of a building where the Germans had once been hiding. I do not mean to dwell on the war. But it had an impact on more than a handful of people. To wrap up my thoughts on it: I saw first-hand how little men made big problems. Unlike the rest of the world, Europe is particularly interested in watching sausage being made.

In my circumstances, it was impossible to find a lover. I might have tried with more diligence, but looking around, I could not expect to fall into romance. I spoke French as well as the all the carved stone in Marseille. And besides that, I was struck by a sudden malady that put me out of sorts and caused me to thank stars for the charity of the Englishwoman, whose generosity sustained me in those languishing days in bed, which I should mention I had taken to in haste. A fever overwhelmed me, as did the cockroaches. Those vile pests showed their faces from the woodwork at the precise moment when I could not move to chase them. I groaned for many days. After a time the doctor was called, and it was decided that my right foot should be removed from above the ankle. The doctor assured me he had the finest training at the Université de la Santé in Paris. Regarding the foot, I was informed only that it was “infecté” and my suspicion to this day is that the doctor sawed it off, not because it was necessary, but merely because he got a kick out of it. And it’s not as though he stood on ceremony about things. He went to work cruelly, though he did do me the kindness of sharing his whisky, which he gulped during the truncation of my sorry limb. That rascal, he dunned me for the cost of the liquor in the weeks that followed.

There wasn’t such a thing as paid leave from my vocation. In no time at all I was in desperate need of capital in order to keep a roof over my head. My fever had subsided and I had strength enough to smash the occasional cockroach with a broom handle when those bugs came within the dominion of my reach. It was all in vain. They were capable of breeding behind the walls at treble rates. But in all I was on the mend, and soon mended entirely, save for the foot I’d lost to the doctor’s fancy. Walking was difficult, but my landlady gifted me a cane from a dead uncle and I learned to hobble about my room with some assurances of staying upright. At all events, I enjoyed a mobility greater than if the doctor had kept two of my feet in place of the one. But walking had its disadvantages too. I would fall at times, certain that I had broken my head. And there was the night I scared a pigeon resting on the open sill, and it bit into my neck ruthlessly. But I do not mean to dwell on these circumstances. I was restored in time.

My return to pantomime was not effortless. Being not easy of foot, the exaggerated antics basic to the craft were nigh impossible in my condition. But the loss of my foot I did not lament. With my Spanish backbone and a little bit of luck, I regained my ground. A wooden leg cut from a half-burnt chaise served as a peg at the bottom of my leg. Not so many as me were as fortunate to have such a dazzling prosthesis – a stained and polished piece of walnut in the Queen Anne style and a ball and claw for a foot. The thing increased rather than decreased my celebrity in the little lane where I made shop. Juggling the boules was a touch more challenging, but I was thankful, in the end, that the doctor had not taken a hand, or I should not have juggled again all the years in my life.

On the topic of years, I should say that they came and they went. I did not acquire any great wealth but I did succeed at earning my keep. The letters on my sign – Maximo the Magnificent – were never wanting in fresh paint. And the leather of my shoes, though cracked, held together well enough. My career was what it was, to put it best. I grew a nice little paunch above my belt that was perfect for resting my hands on in times of leisure. I knew the name of the grocer and every now and then he’d hand me an orange, gratis. Even my landlady was friendly toward me on all of those days when I paid my rent. Friendships were hard to come by in that city, though I did cultivate friendly terms with some familiar faces in my quarter. I also had a high time some nights in the cafés, where I would occasionally put myself into a good humor on wines, while ignoring the lack of scruple over my purse. There was one night I met a gentleman by the name of Nicolas – a bricklayer on an unannounced caper from his wife , so he told me. He had visited Spain, thought fondly of it, even. He was fond of Spain’s “aloofness” –I think he stole that from a book. But at any rate we got to chuckling and chewing the fat and drinking the little bit of apple whiskey set before us on top of the wine. He was a friendly fellow. A fine fellow. He ended up putting an amount of schnapps into his body that would give a whale a bellyache. And he seemed to have a fondness for me and the simple way that I listened to his stories with bright eyes. I could not understand his fast and fluent French, so it was natural of me to make loving faces. By the end of the night he was deep in liquor. To get him to stand on his feet was a challenge on par with rolling a heavy stone up a never-ending hill.

At my little flat, he pulled a flask from his vest pocket and continued to drink. I crawled into my bed and gave out the occasional murmur to convince him I was intent on listening, before falling fast asleep. Though the memory is vague, I recall him crawling into the bed, to which I did not object. When he awoke in the late morning his arm was around me. He had shifted in the night and I had not protested. Indeed, I was snuggled in, pleased as punch at the warm embrace. But upon learning of his present condition he flew into a rage and knocked my lights out right there in the bed. I awoke from the daze with a sore face and a tooth in the back of my throat, which I then lost to my stomach. Nicolas was gone, as was the only money I had to my name. The men in Marseille could be so barbarous! But that is not to say the females were better. A drunken woman – the bricklayer’s wife – put out my eye with a rock on the same day I celebrated 24 years since birth. Amazingly, the same doctor who had taken my foot left the eye in its place, though it never worked again. When I arrived home on that most terrible of birthdays, I received a telegram explaining how my only companion ever, Arturo, was slayed in a camp at Miranda del Ebro. The news had travelled slow. It was then I left Marseille.

But not in search of Spain. I had no ambitions of sneaking back into a country only to thank a dictator for killing my one and only love. And Franco was busy. He wouldn’t have any time for me, unless it was to fill me with shot. So I headed north and slightly east in quest of Aix. I have italicized the word because that is how everyone pronounces it. I decided on Aix because it was the home of those delicious candies I had savored after the English Lady in the livery gave me 100 francs. And I had seen some pretty pictures by a man they called Cézanne. When I left Marseille I had a smile on my face. And I was able to keep it, at least for the nonce.

I traveled by motorbus. My valise contained only a small wardrobe and my cherished sign, for I intended to continue my line of work at Aix. On the bus I had a bad seat and the air was oppressive. A broken spring in the seat was enough to give me instant lumbago. And a fleshy woman next to me had obviously had a bad run at breakfast. I say “obviously” because the gasses escaping her, though silent in their discharge, were of the foulest redolence – a bad egg perfume that invaded the crammed and stifling cabin. The other passengers fingered me for it, through their dirty looks, for a lady could not possibly be the author of such loathsome stink. Not a few gentlemen kept clearing their throats on account of it. Always blame the one-eyed man – people have known that for centuries. I was like Celine on his voyage to Africa. And all because of that fat woman’s guts! At our destination an old man in a brown waistcoat boxed my ears. I’ll never forget that bastard.

It was a bright, sunny day. A honey bee stung me behind the ear as I stepped off the bus. My Queen Anne foot skated across the smooth stones and I fell to the earth, surrounded by an uproar of laughter. It was then I learned of my allergy to bees. I blew up to the size of a giant peach and almost died in the street. Thus did I make my introduction to the people of Aix.

With the money I’d saved, I found a little place above a butcher’s shop on the Rue
Goyrand. There were two rooms – one to sleep in and one to do everything else in. The smell of the meats below was irresistible. The butcher, a native of Aix by the name of Gilbert, was also my landlord. We got along famously from the start. He made me a gift of the best meats every Saturday for the first four weeks. At the close of the month, he sent up his apprentice with a bill that would have broke the bank at Monte Carlo. I could not believe the man’s insolence in running up a bill against me under a veil of charity. I had no choice but to boycott the payment by fleeing from the apartment, which I did that very night under the color of darkness. In a matter of weeks a sign went up around that part for my arrest. I only went out of doors with my face done up. Sure, the Queen Anne foot was a giveaway, but I somehow avoided capture.

I secured a tenancy in a one-room flat on the Rue du Bon Pasteur. A sign had advertised a garden room to let, and it was the kind of no-questions-asked situation I found necessary at that moment. The rent was cheap and the mould was free. The other boarders in the place kept the strangest hours and passed very little time in conversation. I soon learned the place was thick with thieves. But they did not carry out their deeds where they rested their heads – my meager belongings were safe. In all it was a quiet building. In the whole of the year I lived there only eight people were stabbed to death.

In 1950 I moved into a neighboring building. There were fewer stabbings, but more screams in the night, and most of them sensuous. The floor above me operated mostly as a brothel but also as a kind of clinic. A little man with a hunch and a red mustache would come in from time to time to perform abortions on the more careless prostitutes. To tend to my sanity, I worked. Aix was a beautiful and lively place. No war could stop or slow her. She treated me well and I thanked her handsomely. France has always been penetrated up to its neck with tourists. It is why her people are so hostile to everything that breathes. As the years passed, people on holiday flocked to Aix. English, Italian, Spanish, American – even the Germans came back. And it was incredible that they never begged pardon for shooting and bombing everyone. I did my pantomime routine with spirit and gusto. A franc here, two francs there, I made my way.

Despite the liaison of cupid that is France, I never did find love. I blamed the Queen Anne foot and the hideous eye for scaring off all potential suitors. On top of things, I’ve been told my breath is among the worst. When my back went out at the age of forty, I was a sad scene, treading the flags with a scrape and a wobble – in brief, a pitiful gait. I continued my enterprise, but I was certain people were paying to see a freak, not an acrobat. My little sign grew into perfect satire. The boules were ungovernable in my hands. I gave them away in the same way I came by them – one day they disappeared from under my nose. Twenty and then thirty years went by. It’s something that happens to those who miss the opportunity to die off early by accident or germs. I learned in the papers that on October 30, 1975, Franco wished everyone well and crawled into a coma. It was awfully nice of him. He died on the same day as Tolstoy – he must have had posterity in mind. He sleeps peacefully in a big basilica on a hill. People to this day toss flowers at his grave. I’ve heard there is even a Hollywood actor who writes cheap prose under his name. History is a bastard wrapped up in bandages. But we have to keep track of time some way or other. Despite the flockings of bombs and bastards, my little Aix has remained largely untouched. She is resistant to time. There is a spirit in this city that endures. It is a world class place – every night you can find an American student vomiting in the avenues around the Rotonde.

*

Adam Todd Johnson is an attorney living in St. Paul, Minnesota. His use of his middle name is not affectation: he had to begin using it once another Adam Johnson went off and won a Pulitzer and went nova with celebrity. His short stories have appeared in Carte Blanche, Euphony Journal, Cerise Press, Hobo Pancakes, Glasschord Magazine and elsewhere.

What inspires him to write:
Every reason for which Bukowski said “don’t do it”.

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