Bear by Shayne Terry

You think it could never happen to you, and then it does. You are attacked by a bear.

It happens on vacation. You decide, what the heck, you’ve been talking about Yosemite all these years. You pack your sleeping bag, your work boots. They’ll do on a hike. You load up the wagon and make the drive. It’s long and the AC craps out, but you’re seeing a goddamn national park. People lived in the heat for so long. People lived!

The price to camp in the park is extortion. You pull into the Jolly Kone in Bridgeport and order a malt. Tomorrow, you’ll leave the wagon and walk. Tonight, you’ll sleep in the backseat. You’ve slept in your car before. So little in this world comes free.

At dusk, you have to piss, so you cross a field in the dim pink almost-night to get to a gas station. The whole world smells like rock and diesel.

An old man loiters at the nearest pump. You are an old man. An older man, a man with a chicken gizzard. You aren’t afraid of old men.

The bathroom is locked.

“Need a key,” the old man calls. He puts a hand on his invisible truck.

You are gearing up to go inside when you feel a shadow from behind like a plane overhead and you find yourself in the grip of a bear.

It begins as a bear hug, but he gets you on the ground quick. His fur is wet and thick like a pelt of moss. He has been rolling in sweet grass.

You expect a beating, to be paddled around. But the bear drapes himself across you and lies there, heaving into your ear. Your right cheek flat against the gravel, you spot the Velcro sneakers of the old man.

“Help,” you call. You would scream, but your ribcage is compressed by the bear. “Help me.” You haven’t heard your own voice in months and it sounds weak, even considering the circumstances. You always hoped you’d be able to muster strength in a dire situation.

A pair of snakeskin sandals emerges from the gas station.

“Would you look at that,” a woman says.

“Tell me about it,” the old man says.

“He’s playing nice,” the woman says. Then she calls, “Good bear! Good boy! Good bear!”

Upon hearing these encouraging words, the bear nuzzles into you. His weight chokes your breath. “Help,” you try to say again, but nothing comes out.

It seems the bear wants to bore a hole in your back with his chest. He rolls across you and moans, plants his snout in your hair and sniffs. You have been driving all day in the heat. You don’t smell pretty, but the bear seems to like it. Maybe your pheromones speak bear. Maybe somewhere way back in your ancestry there is a bear enchantress.

With your one unpinned arm you wave at the sneakers and the sandals. You mean to express that you are frantic, but they interpret your wave as fun and games.

“Yes, hello,” the woman says. “You’ve met our friend. He looks smitten.”

“He doesn’t encounter too many strangers.”

“Sure doesn’t.”

The bear places his paw over your hand. You are submerged, swimming in his musk. The pad of his palm is soft like old, loved leather.

You think of Virginia, who always wanted to see the West, but never made it past the Mississippi. It never seemed like a good time to pick up and go. Still isn’t, apparently. Here you are trapped under a bear. Better than other kinds of being trapped, she might say. At least you can feel the life in this thing, feel it when the bear breathes in, a temporary release of the crush of your spine. Feel it when the bear breathes out, a heaviness that threatens to sink you into the ground.

You try to match your breathing to the bear’s, but he has astounding lung capacity. You shouldn’t have smoked all those years.

A pair of boots arrives, kicking up the gravel.

“Sheriff.”

“Sir. Ma’am.”

“Sheriff.”

“What do we have here?” The boots circle you and the bear, exiting and reentering your line of sight. “Looks like he’s nodding off.”

And indeed the bear grows heavier. He lets his cheek rest on the side of your face. A fly that formerly buzzed around his ear takes up residence on your brow as your temple is pressed into a rock like a crushed flower. You blink the fly away. The pink of the sunset gives way to the yellow light of the gas station and the dark beyond. You will not be saved.

“Good bear,” says the Sheriff. And then to the sneakers and the sandals: “I’ve been trying to teach him to be gentler.”

The bear stirs briefly on the brink of sleep, then relaxes his full weight into you. You try to live on a little less air.

The boots approach you under the slumbering bear, stop a few feet short of your face. They are scuffed with a silver heel.

The Sheriff crouches and peers at you. His face is lined like yours. He has had to make hard choices like you have. He has half-trained a bear.

“Passing through?”

You blink twice.

“You know, you’re pretty close to Yosemite. You make it there yet?”

You blink once.

“Too bad,” the Sheriff says. “It’s beautiful out there.”

 

Shayne Terry is a Midwestern transplant living and writing in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in American Chordata, (b)OINK, and Wigleaf and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She was a contributor at the 2016 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and is the recipient of a 2018 residency from the Vermont Studio Center. Shayne is a member of the Rumble Ponies Writing Collective.

Delayed Lightning by Benjamin Niespodziany

My parents bought me a ladder after I suggested a canoe. Offered to hold the legs as I climbed up their roof. The ceiling caved in last spring, a mean tornado, and they were proud of it, kept it open, wanted me to take a family portrait from up above. Something without me to frame on the wall. Grandkids and all smiling in the rubble, looking up through the wreckage of an Oklahoma cyclone. My brother-in-law said, “If you do this for us, I’ll pay for your guitar lessons.” I shook my head. All I wanted was a lawn chair or a burlap hammock, anything to make the treeless summers less frantic. “I’ll do it for free, don’t sign me up for anything.”

* * *

Following my second guitar lesson, I tripped the pilled out musician when he invited me to the largest bar made out of chicken wire. “They call it The Phoenix,” he said, rising to his feet and wiping off his knees. After a few joints, he told me how his braids talked to him in swift whispers. “I can’t sleep.” I never saw him take a sip but he always described the size of his hangovers, told me one was bigger than a school bus engine, another “larger than a muffler.” During one of his lengthy bathroom breaks, I took his guitar case and filled it with used combs and bad poems. “I’m allergic to my car ride home,” he confessed after he swallowed gallons of water, spilled most of it on his chest. He resembled a shipwreck and I tattooed the word ‘Driftwood’ onto his lower back, apologizing to him for everything by cannonballing on his couch, a pounce that opened the floor where the rats surfaced, took over.

* * *

I’m a changed man now. More bow ties. More cheesecake. Saved and bought a kayak. I hold a telescope made out of jealous bones and shuffle cards at senior centers. Three cities over, I juggle four snoring jobs. To craft a happy ending is to sing on a green hill with a box of tissues. I twirl forgiveness, turn into sawdust, and healpatch the wounds of my enemies. It takes a typhoon to befriend a meadow sneeze. Once asleep, I examine the scabs of every oil tycoon through used microscopes stolen from a lab in Galveston. My arms are overgrown with vines and leaves but no one speaks on it. When my parents call, they say how the wind makes their skyholes scream. Sweet humid trees, I mail them palms and say to layer the roof when it rains. “Humid Trees,” my postcard scribbles again, “it’s what we’ll call the band.” That or Thunder Parade. Turn left right here. I know a camel that can show us the rest of the way.

 

Benjamin Niespodziany is a night librarian at the University of Chicago and is really bad at kayaking and playing the guitar. He runs the multimedia art blog [neonpajamas] and has had work published in Ghost City Press, Occulum, formercactus, Five2One, and a batch of others.

Lottie’s Husband, Out of His Skin by Nick Black

I was tossed twenty, thirty feet into the air, without, I noticed, my body coming with me. My mortal remains, below, stood a second or two, then dropped like a pile of kicked-over books.

Mourners rushed over, no trace of decorum, blocking my view from above…

…where I hang suspended, high above the plot where, moments ago, I’d been officiating the funeral of Saul Rubinstein.

Now I’ve never felt entirely comfortable around Rubinstein – Rubinstein whose shadow only darkened my shul on High Holidays, and only then to pass his business card around, not that this is so rare, Rubinstein who’d shoot me looks that could slice salmon if I even glanced at his wife (his second, a convert half his age, if that) in passing on the street, Rubinstein who shuffled like a thief in his oversized shoes whenever I went with Lottie to buy a nice dress in his shop – but I’d thought burying him at least would be easy.

It had started fine: in the prayer hall, tears, wailing, everything good. Things done the way they’re always done. It’s not the best part of being a rabbi but I’m told I give a good funeral. “They’re queuing up to be buried by you,” Lottie would tease. “Because you sound like Paul Robeson. If he came from Manchester. Or even…,” and she’d bump her eyebrows up toward the ceiling, once, twice, until I poked her to be more reverent.

After the service, we went out to the graveside, the less steady attendees catching a ride on the back of the groundsman’s buggy. It rattled off between the gravestones, passengers clutching each other, risking death and mutilation. Nevertheless, a beautiful day, rows of wet marble sparkling in the sunshine. There must have been rain in the night.

A few minutes to get to the plot, then wait for the stragglers. This place is always expanding but people won’t stop dying. “I’m glad we didn’t get lost,” I said to the widow. “It wouldn’t have been the first time.” She smiled at me, and wouldn’t look away, and I didn’t want to be rude, so there we were, staring at each other, until finally she said, “You want to carry a sat nav around widya,” in her Irish accent and laughed. It’s actually not such a bad idea.

Everyone finally gathered, I was just about to say some words, my head dipped, the crumbling mouth of the grave in the corner of my vision, when suddenly I heard five loud raps against wood.

And that’s when I seemingly leapt out of my skin.

* * *

I don’t like this.

“I don’t like this!” I cry, no Paul Robeson now. Nobody looks up. Can they not hear me? Or see me? (I’m not a small man.) Is a six foot three rabbi hovering in the air a thing to ignore?

I flap, I flail, to no avail.

Looking down at the mourners crowded around my body, I wonder can they not hear Saul’s banging either? Who knows what sort of mood he must be in, almost choking to death on a fish supper, then waking up to find he’s being buried alive?

And I think I’m having a bad day.

* * *

My mind, as it’s wont to do, begins to fret.

My late wife, Lottie, may her memory be a blessing, I drove crazy from the first day we met with my thoughts and doubts. “What if we’ve been wrong all these centuries?,” I’d ask, four in the morning. “You think Jesus will forgive us?”

“I know,” another time, “The Lord gave us Free Will so we must actively choose the right path, but couldn’t He have at least given us a nicer nature with it?” For four hours in this vein. That one got me banned from drinking coffee after 7 pm.

Our daughter Simone was even worse, all big black eyes and bad nerves from birth. Her night terrors would have her paw the paper off the bedroom wall, that when we could wean her out of our bed and into her own. We’d talk to her, “What are you so frightened of, darling? You’re such a good girl, we love you ‘til our hearts burst” – not a good thing to say, it turns out.

I’d watch “The E.T.” with her, over and over, she loved that one, we must’ve worn the video tape thin, and Lottie would radiate with amusement to see how it wet my face, every time.

Lottie said Simone had an overactive imagination, something she’d outgrow. (“Don’t you worry,” she’d whisper, stroking hair off Simone’s forehead. “Don’t you worry about her,” she’d whisper, doing the same with me, hours later.) Now Simone lives in Tel Aviv, and takes medication against “panic attacks.” She should know the morning Saul and I are having, she thinks she has anything to panic about! Of course, she should never know such a thing. My little girl.

Her husband Yoshi Muginstein is a giant. Even I, at six three, have my face pressed into a wall of chest when he insists on embracing. “Let him be,” Lottie would say when I’d complain. “He’s a warm man, and he makes her feel safe.” Reading my mind: “Most the time.”

I wish he were here now, the giant Yoshi, to reach up and pluck me from the sky.

I wish Lottie were, even more so.

A handsome young man, seeing the waving-around arms and poor Mrs. Rubinstein, the young widow, is sprinting from his service to ours, leaping over headstones, skullcap clutched to his head with his right hand so it doesn’t fly off. The huddle around my body breaks to let him in. I hope he’s a doctor and not just nosey.

* * *

I’m still here.

Turning somersaults.

Though I think I’m managing to slow now, thank HaShem. I was only trying to reach down, wave for attention… The spinning’s made me dizzy. Like a hamster wheel, round and round! Oy gevalt, I hope it stops entirely soon…

This reminds me of the night Lottie and I tried to help Simone with her P.E. phobia. Ha! Never a small-boned creature, she’d come home from primary school sobbing, drained, her face like putty, “Please write me a note that I never have to do P.E. again!” So Lottie and I, and we weren’t young parents, Simone was a late and unexpected blessing, like with Abraham and Sarah, we dragged all the furniture in the living room to one side and we were all three of us practicing forward rolls on the carpet, my legs and feet crashing into the side tables, Lottie toppling sideways, bottom over head. Oh, we ached and hurt afterwards, but for the laughter, it was worth every bruise. What the congregation would have thought to see us, rolling about. We could probably have sold tickets.

* * *

The young grave-hurdler is performing CPR on me. Some of the mourners are getting restless. They see enough medical drama on television. Stray members begin to drift off.
My gaze falls upon a girl in her forties on the edge of the party. Lottie always complained that I had an eye for the ladies, and I cannot, floating above holy ground, deny this girl’s a beauty, her eyes, under her hat, huge and dark like prunes soaking in water. A healthy figure, too, but I’m not dwelling on that, Lottie. I’m noticing that, hand raised against the sun, she’s got her back to everyone else, and is looking around.

Can she see me? Did she spot a foot, dangling down, black polished shoes shining in the sun?

Someone calls, and she turns. She’s walking towards an older couple and the three of them are striding away, to the car park. So maybe not.

Then suddenly she stops and turns again, touches the older woman’s arm… What’s she pointing at?

Quieter from up here but tap, tap, tap…

He’s behind you!, I want to shout. Could I sound more like a pantomime?

Tap, tap, a couple more.

I turn…

And in the far trees see a tiny woodpecker.

I’m floating in the air, a blimp, because of a farshtinkener woodpecker.

If I wasn’t probably already dead, I’d die of shame.

* * *

A short time later, and Mrs. Rubinstein’s hugging the young man. Men are hugging him. They’re queuing up now to hug him, to pat his shoulders, bank notes are being stuffed in his top pocket to his protests.

All the while, I’m drifting down, slow as tree fluff airborne on a hot summer’s day. My face is a few feet below me, the eyes still closed but there’s colour in my cheeks, egg yolk in my beard. Why didn’t I notice that before leaving home? The least of my problems.

Not too decrepit looking, from a certain distance. Would you still take a dance with me, Lottie?

Before I even get there, my old dry lips start to part in a smile.

 

Nick Black manages two small public libraries in North London. His writing has been published in lit mags including FlashBack Fiction, Entropy, Jellyfish Review, (b)OINKzine, the Lonely Crowd, Open Pen, Train Lit Mag, and Funhouse, He tweets about things he likes as @fuzzynick.

 

Eryx and Hypatius by Ray Ball

Before the stoning
before the council
condemning those who claimed
there was a time when He was not
as heretics, Hypatius
charmed a snake.
The serpent coiled in the emperor’s treasury
like a dragon guarding the royal gold.
The bishop of Gangra arrived,
wielding his staff as a weapon. Perhaps,
as the legends say,
he beat the snake, striking its mouth repeatedly, until wearied,
the giant reptile surrendered its free will
and slunk after the saint to be sacrificed at the pyre.
But perhaps,
that is only
a story we tell
ourselves
about good and evil patterned too simply to tell
wisdom from venom. The shape of the staff
matters when a holy man
comes to hook a snake, when the snake sheds
its skin in the marketplace
and winds on as if resurrected,
when something nearly extinct,
like the sand boa,
reappears.

 

Ray Ball grew up in Oklahoma and Texas and received her PhD in History from Ohio State. She is currently a history professor based in Anchorage, Alaska. When not in the classroom or the archives, she enjoys running marathons and drinking bitter beverages. She is the author of two history books and her creative work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Breadcrumbs Mag, L’Éphémère Review, and The Cabinet of Heed. She tweets @ProfessorBall.

A Nearly Beautiful Thing by Cathy Ulrich

There’s a ballerina your husband’s been fucking. While you’re at home, he meets her in hotels. She soaks her feet in oatmeal baths. Her feet are battered, torn. It would make you sorry to see them. Afterward, she wraps them in gauze. Your husband lolls on the hotel bed, watching Animal Planet.

While you’re at home, this is what your husband is doing. Lolling on the hotel bed, watching a special on bear attacks. He sees reenactments of a bear dragging a 10-year-old boy from a tent, a bear breaking through the window of a 91-year-old woman’s kitchen. He hears the word mauling, he hears encroachment, he hears territory. In the bathroom, the ballerina dries her feet with a hand towel, drains the bathtub. Bits of oatmeal cling to the base. The maids will hate that when they clean in the morning. The ballerina thinks, briefly, of wiping up the oatmeal with one of the towels.

The ballerina isn’t a bad girl. She is very young, a corps de ballet dancer. She’ll never be the prima ballerina, never dance Odette. She has an audition for a featured part tomorrow. She has practiced for months. Your husband tells her good luck when she mentions it to him hesitantly. The ballerina dips her head, nearly smiles. The ballerina is very beautiful when she nearly smiles. She wiggles her ugly toes before she wraps them in gauze.

While you are at home, the ballerina nearly smiles and becomes beautiful. Your husband kisses her chin, which she doesn’t like, kisses her throat, which she does. The ballerina sighs. The ballerina rises up on her wretched feet, falls back onto the hotel bed.

She doesn’t think of you, or, when she does, it is as an abstraction, the frigid wife. Your husband didn’t say frigid, but the ballerina thinks of wives as being cold things, thinks of ice and unyielding bodies.

You are at home. Your husband leaves the television on while the ballerina pulls her top over her head, while he kisses her navel, while they fuck. The television is the hum of park ranger chatter, statistics, bear growl.

The ballerina arches beneath your husband’s body, thinks of Prince Siegfried, thinks of swans, says yes, more. She knows your husband likes it when she says that. You know it, and all of his old girlfriends too, yes, more, such a simple little phrase. Such a nothing little phrase.

While you’re at home, the ballerina says yes, more, arches her body, and you trace your finger along the stem of a wine glass.

The ballerina rewraps the gauze around her feet after she and your husband are done, shy of him seeing her feet. She sips a glass of water, wonders how clean the cup could be, even with the sanitary seal over it.

Your husband kisses the ballerina’s wet mouth. Your husband says the usual things, makes the usual promises. The ballerina nods, says of course, of course. The ballerina isn’t holding her breath. The ballerina is familiar with the things men say.

She thinks of her aching feet. She thinks of her audition tomorrow, the shine of spotlight, the scuff of stage.

She says: I should go.

She says: I have a big day tomorrow, shoves her gauzed feet into some oversized sneakers, kisses your husband on the temple. He’s watching Animal Planet again, habitat, attack, bear, bear, bear.

Good night, says the ballerina.

Good night, says your husband, closes his eyes, listens to the delicate sound of her steps, the click of the door, the growl of a bear.

You are at home, tip over empty wine glass, watch it roll across the table, and wait for it to fall to the floor, and shatter.

 

Cathy Ulrich saves newspaper briefs on bear attacks because there is something really, really wrong with her. Her work has been published in various journals, including Little Fiction, Former Cactus, and Pithead Chapel.

No One Holds a Grudge Like a Crow by Marisa Crane

You wake up to the cawcawcaw of the crows outside. They still hold a grudge against you for that one month Lynx made you foster a cattle dog mix. He barked at the crows every time he took a shit, and they haven’t forgotten. Crows can remember individual faces. They pass this information down from generation to generation. In many ways, they are smarter than your own family that can’t even manage to call once a year. Somethingsomethingsomething about the June bug coffins lining your windowsill. They freak people out. Even over the phone. They can hear the June bug ghosts wailing.

Cawcawcaw, only louder this time. You muse over who you might be to the crows. “That imbecile with the evil dog” or perhaps, “That super cool guy we simply cannot pardon for his wrongdoings. No matter how rad his Saved By the Bell crewneck is. Yes, we mean it. No matter how rad.” You roll over and grab the notebook you keep on your nightstand for moments such as this and add the latter to your long list of crow speculations. You consider how the president may wind up pardoning himself before the crows pardon you.

You tried to make the crows forget. You started wearing a beanie whenever you left the house. They went crazier than ever as if to alert one another. A few even dive-bombed you and stole your beanie. It was a nice beanie too. Lynx had crocheted it for you. A pretty baby blue hue that calmed your tap-dancing neurons. After the crows stole your beanie, you started painting your face. First like a June bug, because why not? They didn’t like that. They took large dumps on your Welcome mat. Swirled like soft serve and impossible to fully clean up.

When you painted your face like the pink Power Ranger they cooed and fluttered their feathers. Yeah, they liked that shit. You thought you’d finally won and then what you think happened is one of the elders slammed down his gavel and said, “No, he is guilty regardless of his beauty.” Then one of the crows jimmied your bedroom window and broke in and stole the photo of Lynx that you kept on your nightstand.

Your last reminder of her.

The crows remember when you finally broke it off with Lynx. They remember it as well as you do.

You recall quite clearly covering her body in stamps. She just lied there and let you. Like it was the most natural thing in the world. Like love is only love if you drive that person away. The crows gathered at the windows and pecked the glass with their black beaks.

It was a Sunday so you set her on the counter by the door where you wouldn’t forget her, but on Monday it was raining and on Tuesday you were late for work. On Wednesday your horoscope warned against taking chances and on Thursday you got into a fight with the sky. On Friday you worked from home and drank whiskey far too early. On Saturday you scribbled the return address on her chest, in hopes that she’d be sent back to you, but it’s been more than three years now and the mailman got a new job so he wouldn’t have to continue disappointing you.

You climb out of bed and put your robe on, wrapping it tightly around you. You examine the June bugs, take roll call. Sylvester, Frangelica, Bryant, Nuchi, Manuel, Zane, Eva, Bo, Jian, Arnold. Everyone is present and accounted for, their exoskeletons perfectly intact. You are envious of their armor.

You take a deep breath, pull your hood over your head, then walk out the front door. The elder crow alerts the others of your presence. Cawcawcaw cawcawcaw, a new urgency in their calls. You shadow-box the air, daring the crows to challenge you. One by one, they begin to surround you. Left, right, uppercut, right, right, you dance around your yard like a more agile, less sad version of yourself.

The crows fly in circles around you, so fast that you can’t see the individual birds. Just the dark blur of their hostility, like a tornado.

Over the years you grow old and fragile inside that tornado. Your punches turn to gentle waves, your feet become cement blocks. The crows lose their voices and the only thing you can hear is Lynx telling you that the stamps were expired. That she’s here and everywhere.

 

Marisa Crane is a lesbian writer and editor. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Pigeon Pages, Pidgeonholes, and Drunk Monkeys, among others. She currently lives in San Diego with her fiancée. You can read more of her work at www.marisacrane.org. Her twitter handle is @marisabcrane.

with an empathy so fatal #44 by Darren C. Demaree

the children want to be
aggressive

with their empathy
they want to hold

the rooster of each day
so they can show you

the rooster of each day
they’ve already asked

for tattoos of that rooster
on their chests

i told them if empathy
is an alarm if you think

empathy should be
an alarm then i find

no fault in you making
that permanent

the minute you’re eighteen
until then i’ll keep

buying orange to red
markers for your early

morning routine

 

Darren C. Demaree is the author of eight poetry collections, most recently “Two Towns Over,” which was selected as the winner of the Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press.  He is the recipient of a 2018 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and the Nancy Dew Taylor Award from Emrys Journal.  He is the Managing Editor of the Best of the Net Anthology and Ovenbird Poetry.  He currently lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife and children.

Agonal Respiration by Caleb Michael Sarvis

Spencer and Josie are hosting a house warming party. I bring Dakari, because Megan’s left him and we arrive close to the end. I meant to arrive on time, but we saw a fox when we stepped out of our Uber and followed it briefly into the woods. It watched us from behind a fallen tree and we passed the boxed wine back and forth, content to wait for its return. I would have offered my meatball of a heart had it meant one caress of that fox’s tail.

It never did, and now we’re shirt-stained and late.

Spencer and Josie bought their place in Bartram, a newly-developed area of town surrounded by forest awaiting more destruction. It’s an end-unit townhouse, succulents planted underneath expensive rocks. When we step inside, familiar teeth play cards around the dining table. Spencer asks us to take our shoes off, Josie recommends a glass of Garfield’s sangria, who I recognize to be the husband of the woman I love. In the coming weeks, I’m supposed to raise their newborn baby because neither wants to be a parent. He and I’ve never met, and I don’t think he knows who I am. She and I decided the adoption over pizza.

I realize Garfield looks exactly like me, only beardless, with different eyes. His eyes are all white, no pupil, and I’m not sure where he’s looking.

Josie’s plastic wings shake as she deals the cards. I avoid the Sangria, though Dakari’s finished off our box, and my thirst is only worsening. For a while I was sober, but I can’t remember the value in that.

The three other friends leave, they’ve been there for hours. Dakari deals and Spencer asks me how I’ve been. I tell him my new job has a lot of free snacks, plenty of dead time, and I can swear as much as I want. Spencer nods, he was a copywriter long before I was, is part of the reason I fell into it. I’m supposed to have edited this novel we’re going to publish through our small press, which I haven’t, and he’s avoiding asking me about it.

“How do I get a job like that?” Garfield asks.

“You have to be an artist,” I say. Dakari snickers at this and throws me a thumbs-up, shoves grapes in his mouth.

“You could be an artist, Garfield. Just have to become a little less practical,” Josie says. The wings she’s sewn into her shoulder blades look weathered and torn. She needs to replace them, just as I do my windshield wipers, but I imagine the process is plenty more difficult. Josie believes she is a fairy – has chosen to be a fairy – and doesn’t want any children of her own. Spencer waves it off, thinks her youth currently speaks for her, and like her youth, this mindset will fade.

Garfield pulls a pill from a zip-lock bag. He washes it down with some of his sangria. There isn’t much about him I dislike, I guess, other than he’s married to the woman I love. He shuts his eyes, smiles, and returns to the conversation. Creases slowly fade from his brow.

“Everything will be fine soon enough. Just a waiting game now,” he says and collects his cards.

“Game isn’t over,” I say.

“Evidently, you’re mistaken.”

I’m worried the baby will have his blank eyes, his smug stillness. How will I ever trust it? Dakari is out of his seat, dancing without music. Josie laughs and takes the hand he offers, teeth marked purple. Garfield pulls cigars from his shirt pocket, motions them towards Spencer and me. We join him on the porch.

The smoke is chalky and stale. I’ve never been good at this.

“How does the world look to you?” I say.

Spencer peers over his shoulder, watches Dakari and Josie.

“Different than you, I imagine,” Garfield says. He can puff rings, tiny and large. When he relaxes, smokes normally, it scoots from his lips like a seahorse. “How does the world look to you?”

“Hard to explain.” But it’s not. The world is a finely-painted aluminum ball. We’re the afterthought of someone else’s lunch. I spend most of my day wondering how to peel it all open. I won’t say this aloud. Instead, I say something stupid, like, “Babies are an art.”

“Hmm.” Garfield’s eyes appear to be made of the same smoke he spews into the night.

Spencer laughs at this, cheeks fat with drink. “My intuition only works in hindsight. I think I’m broken.” He sucks on his cigar, blows a large cloud to the sky, “She had me cut slots in the back of all her shirts.”

We sit in silence, listening to the minute crackle of our burning cigars. Smoke leaks from my mouth, a foggy sort of drool. I don’t believe in souls, but I imagine mine to be a little droopy, heavy with nonsense. I forwent efficiency in exchange for meditation long ago. No turning back now. A fox, perhaps the same as before, trots around the man-made lake behind their townhouse. It appears present, immediate, hungry.

Dakari knocks on the sliding glass door. We turn and see his face, eyes in bloom, face sagged. In his hands, he holds Josie’s wings.

Spencer opens the door, takes the wings from Dakari, then runs up the stairs. “Josie!” he says.

Dakari grabs three beers from the fridge, joins us on the porch.

“What happened?” Garfield says.

“She went to get comfortable. Her dress got caught, so she pulled harder.”

The fox returns, begins its second lap. I feel for it, the chase. Perpetual.

We drink our beers, content to watch the lake and overstay our welcome. Garfield’s voice grows soft. He tells us he doesn’t want to go home, that it doesn’t make a difference, either way.

Spencer’s returned downstairs. He has blood on his hands, his shirt, no concern for us. He’s flushed, hair slicked back. He washes his hands in the kitchen sink, returns upstairs. He leaves the water running.

Dakari finishes his beer, orders an Uber. “Beach bars?” he says. I think he might be asleep.

Garfield walks backwards, away from us, towards the lake, leaves his cigar and beer behind. When I think he’s looking at me, his eyes are lunar. “Make sure you do it right,” he says. The fox approaches lap three, fearless. When it passes, Garfield takes off after it, a pacing sort of trot, and my chest swells like the Hindenburg.

 

Caleb Michael Sarvis is a writer from Jacksonville, Florida. He is the author of Dead Aquarium or (i don’t have the stamina for that kind of faith) (Mastodon Publishing 2019). He is the fiction editor for Bridge Eight Press and co-host of the Drunken Book Review Podcast. His work has been featured in or is forthcoming from Hobart, Split Lip Magazine, Saw Palm, Fjords Review, Eyeshot, and others. You can read his column on FX’s Atlanta at barrelhouse.com.

Ashes than Dust by Iris Jamahl Dunkle

“Let go said the
What.
Let go said everything.”

–Brenda Hillman, “Split Tractate”

 

A fox sprinted across the dark driveway:
orange spark that trailed through the headlight’s spot.

You register this sighting as a totem. Then,
drive on into the life you’d written one way,
then revised due to characters disappearing.

In the nightmare. No, in the dream. (never
sure when it’s called a dream or a nightmare.

My son says it’s only a nightmare if
you wake up screaming
) there’s a dead body

being consumed by a writhing nest of
black and white snakes. They are re-writing what was lost.

When you wake you decide you would rather
be ashes than dust. You’d rather blaze out
like the fox, like a fur of sparks in the night,
than be left to rot, be untold.

By now, you thought time would have righted the swerve.
Thought your tires would have found tread. Instead,

you live in an echo chamber where owls
call and call, asking for forgiveness.

 

Iris Jamahl Dunkle was the 2017-2018 Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, CA. Interrupted Geographies is her third collection of poetry. It was featured as the Rumpus Poetry Book Club selection for July 2017. Her debut poetry collection, Gold Passage, was selected by Ross Gay to win the 2012 Trio Award. Her second collection, There’s a Ghost in this Machine of Air, was published in 2015. Her work has been published in publications including San Francisco Chronicle, Fence, Calyx, Catamaran, Poet’s Market 2013, Women’s Studies, and Chicago Quarterly Review. Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College and is the Poetry Director of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.