Diagnostic Procedures by Taylor Kirby

I say I metastasize when asked about my body
image. I do not think
of the inverted cliff

of my FUPA or how a knife
held to my neck could excise
the soft biological shape

of my family. My body
is antiseptic.
I want to contour my face

with iodine’s thirsty glow.
That three-month ache
above my hips—

must be cancer chewing
vertebrae, my back a honeycomb
of bone sweet with sick marrow.

I do not fear germs or hereditary
betrayal, that double helix calculus
of past and present: bipolar,

Alzheimer’s, post-traumatic
evangelism. I don’t mind—really—
that my 90% of my body’s 100

trillion cells are not me.
I am a density of virus, bacteria, microorganism,
and self. It is my self, not my body,

& that is at risk of calamity. I fear
being told my diagnosis
is “It’s time to fight,” because

my image of the body is not one
of trenches. It’s the way air
hollows out between car alarm cycles

& the night and I hold our breaths
waiting for something to start or to stop,
whichever comes first.

 

Taylor Kirby is a writer from Denver, Colorado. She is the managing editor of Porter House Review, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Cream City Review, Longleaf Review, Jellyfish Review, Pithead Chapel, Atticus Review, and more. Most recently, she was a finalist for the 2019 Indiana Review Creative Nonfiction Prize.

Half the Joy by Ruth Joffre

After we agreed to a divorce, Ray and I continued to live together for weeks until she found her own place in town. Our apartment was a narrow one-bedroom barely bigger than a studio, with no room for a decent couch or a fold-out, so she and I continued to share the bed. At night, in those quiet hours between when we said goodnight and succumbed to sleep, I listened to her breathe and wondered how we ever made the mistake of believing we should be lovers rather than friends. One night, I confessed, “I always had a crush on Joyelle,” laying this information delicately beside her, like a blouse hung to dry on the back of a chair. Her head shifted on the pillow, just enough for her to trace my outline in the dark if she wanted.

“I knew that.” She turned again to the ceiling. “You didn’t hide it well.”

“Half of the joy of a crush is it being an open secret. Attempting to hide a blush. Knowing your friends can see through you. I wanted people to know,” I said, slipping momentarily into that old infatuated skin, indulging in the flush of my cheeks, the tingle of my lips, the sweetest ache in my tender chest. How many hours had I spent in high school surrendering to exactly this sensation? “I used to fantasize about what it would be like to press my lips right between her shoulder blades.” I lifted both hands, as if to frame the precise spot where the skin rippled with strength. “You know, because of all those tennis tournaments.”

Ray restrained herself from laughing. “She was like a foot taller than you.”

“That was part of the appeal! Didn’t you ever want someone who was so unlike you?”

“All the time,” she said, rolling onto her side, her back to me, though neither of us slept for hours. I pressed my hand into hers, remembering the night in senior year of high school when she dressed up as the lead singer of her favorite band for a Halloween party hosted by her neighbor, a theatre kid who attended a performing arts private school and didn’t know anyone from our class—how simultaneously delighted and petrified Ray was as she got dressed, donning a red wig, tucking for the first time. When Ray whipped her head around and lip-synced, “Come on, baby, be my bad boyfriend,” I was lounging on a bean bag chair, masquerading as a leather-clad bass player: aloof, indifferent, goateed. All night, I postured, practicing my guitar solos, encouraging Ray to sing, not realizing until we snuck back into her room and collapsed in a heap that this would be the night.

“You know how I told you I untucked because I had to use the bathroom? Well, that wasn’t the whole story,” she said, recounting how her neighbor, the budding thespian dressed as Elphaba from Wicked, waited on the other side of the bathroom door while Ray was untucking, then slid in when Ray opened the door and shut them inside together. “His cloak swept over the floor in an arc when he got down on his knees. He clearly knew what he was doing. I had to hide the green smears on my thighs from you the next morning.”

I hummed at the thought of a witch buried that deeply between my legs, willfully ignoring the fact that I was not the first person to feel Ray’s palm curve to the back of their head. Instead, I whispered, “I’ve always wanted to have sex in a theatre. Something about that velvet curtain.”

Ray understood this. “For me, it’s aquariums. Being surrounded by all that water.”

“And sea creatures,” I said, thinking of a turtle touching its flipper to the glass to say hello. What joy was in store for Ray when she at last fulfilled her dream. Every night after, we shared all our most carefully guarded fantasies, inventing lovers and alter egos that were braver, sweeter, and more limber than our true selves. In one of my alternate lives, I managed to charm a French pastry chef into setting aside her whisk, unbuttoning her jacket, and allowing me to pipe a line of bourbon whipped cream from her navel to her lips. In another, I accidentally got locked in a bookstore with a man on only our third or fourth date, and we spent hours reading our favorite poems to each other with a single flickering booklight before making love on one of the display tables.

“Which one?”

“Hardcover nonfiction.”

“That’s risky. You might end up fucking on a picture of the pope.”

“I’ll take that chance,” I laughed, because that was the future that lay in store for us: taking every chance for happiness, allowing ourselves to be pressed between two female bodybuilders or ravished underneath a giant redwood by a humble forest guide who knew exactly how to maneuver our bodies so we lay cradled by the ancient roots. We would plant gardens full of summer squash, beefsteak tomatoes, and nasturtiums. We would sip whiskey by the fire while working on an idyllic puzzle of ice skaters gliding through winter. We would do all these things and many more, and we would never feel betrayed or regret our wasted years, because now we were free, freer than we had ever been. This was our parting gift to each other.

 

Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast, which was longlisted for The Story Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon ReviewLightspeedGulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, The Masters Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She lives in Seattle, where she serves as the Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House and co-organizes the Fight for Our Lives performance series.

dreambody by Casey Smith

My dreambody’s first incarnation could have killed me and itself,
an irony too clever for fiction: dreambody as fail-deadly,

and to think I did all that for skinny thighs and clear piss,
but no one warned me when I let my dreambody go

that it’d leave a vacuum, and now I want to aspire to be something again.
My dreambody could be anything now: could be fifty feet tall

and made of shatterproof glass.
Hey, are you awake? Be honest: if I woke up fifty feet tall, would you dump me?

I would sew a dress from sheets of kudzu,
and use red clay for cheek rouge,

and the national guard gets called in,
but all their bullets do is crackle my surface. Just by standing in the sun,

I make the city disco ball glimmer,
and people wander onto their balconies to feel the flashing heat of me.

The hitch: I would miss peach fuzz and being held and hangnails
and everything else that hiccups life’s rhythm.

I’m making a point to remember: all I have to do is stay alive,
and I could grow old enough to feel an entire thunderstorm in my kneecaps,

and that’s my dreambody now:
I want my hair to tinge silver and grow past my ass like a cape.

I want to get so brilliant, even my skin starts to look like a brain,
and I want my voice to thin and then begin to tear,

straining under the weight of everything I know now:
the best way to astral project, the best way to kiss,

and in the dream, everyone’s leaning in to listen.

 

Casey Smith is a poet from South Carolina. She is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. Her work is published or forthcoming in Passages NorthSICK MagazineBoothperhappened mag, and others. 

I’ll Allow It Maybe Just This Once by Jeff Chon

Brett Lamonica had long feathered hair like Bon Jovi. He was three years older than me and his black denim jacket smelled like baby powder and Lucky Strikes. I used to see him smoking with the other metal kids off school grounds, spitting brown tobacco flakes off his tongue.

He wasn’t the first person to call me a Chink and far from the last, but he was definitely the only one who’d made it matter. It might have been the way he smiled, like he wanted me to think he was joking, even though he wasn’t. He’d put his arm around me when he said it, pulling me into a headlock, or he’d slap me on the back like it was supposed to be good-natured. But he wasn’t fooling anyone—not even himself. I’d once asked him to stop, and then he asked me what I was going to do about it, and that was the last time I asked him to stop.

I used to see him after school, bent over the boy’s room sink, making sure all the eyeliner was gone before he went home. He’d clench his eyes shut and scrub pink powdered soap into his eyelids. It looked so painful, the way he’d squint at the mirror, his bangs sticking to his cheeks.

* * * *

He once came over with his dad so he could apologize for squeezing a ketchup bottle down my shirt. He said he was sorry and then went home, and his dad and my dad smoked on the porch. I don’t know what they talked about, but I do remember getting hassled for making another boy’s father feel sorry for me. A couple days later, I was enrolled in Taekwondo, where a stocky, middle-aged man yelled at me in Korean and told my dad how sensitive I was. Other than that, nothing much changed. Brett kept hooking his arm around my shoulder, and the little fourth-graders never tired of snickering at my pathetic front kicks.

* * * *

Brett was the lead singer of Vendetta, a hair metal band he’d formed with these guys who were always telling him to lay off of me. I’d once heard them perform “When the Children Cry” in his garage. It was one of two times I’d ever thought about fighting back, about rising from the bicycle seat and pumping the pedals harder and harder as I barreled toward his bewildered bandmates, about leaping off the bike, crashing into him as my ten-speed crashed into one of the amps. But instead, we locked eyes as he held the mic against his lips and sang about a world healed by tears, and I rode away.

Looking back, Vendetta was a pretty good name for a band.

The only other time I thought about fighting back was when he crimped his hair. The only reason I didn’t was because he’d changed it back to normal the next day—at least that’s what I told myself. He also had a fat lip, which at the time looked really funny. I remember laughing at how dumb he looked, his eyes bloodshot from the pink soap, the water sliding off his overhanging bottom lip like some kind of drooling idiot.

* * * *

Sometimes, you realize your hands aren’t clean and you tell yourself it makes you sick, but that thing you’re feeling isn’t anything like sickness. It’s something else you can’t name, even though not naming it means you’re either stupid or cruel. And then you shrug and tell yourself there’s nothing else to really say about it, but you know that’s a lie.

* * * *

Brett graduated and I didn’t see him again until my senior year, a couple months after he’d been kicked out of the Navy. He asked if my parents were home, and I told him they weren’t. Then he told me he was here to fix the sink, and I told him I knew that.

So you’re working for your dad now? I asked. He didn’t say anything.

We walked into the kitchen so I could show him what needed work. You look different, he said. I told him I’d been working out, and he gave me a weird look because how else do you respond to that? He crawled under the kitchen sink and I went back to the living room to unpause Road Rash 2.

He finished up and I gave him the money my mom had left. I stood on the porch and watched him walk to the van.

Remember when you crimped your hair? I said.

He stopped, and chuckled, asked why the hell I’d bring that up, so I told him he looked like a fag. He took a breath and shook his head.

Yeah man, he smiled. My dad said the same thing.

He slammed the door and turned the ignition. Guns N’ Roses was in the tape deck. We locked eyes as he backed out of the driveway, and I wanted him to call me a Chink again, just one last time, like maybe he’d be the only person I’d make an exception for.

 

Jeff Chon’s most recent work has appeared in Juked, The North American Review, and The Portland Review. His novel, Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun, is forthcoming from Sagging Meniscus Press. 

Hush by Nicholas Holt

Look outside, it’s noon and the trees have hands
        and someday they’ll have bikes & knee caps
        but for now we enjoy their hard oak fingernails
        and the way they can palm the truck tire that swings

from its branch and how they shoot three pointers
        through the hoop of the yellow house across the street,
        the one where we hear the fighting, and I don’t mean
        bowls-and-plates-being-shot-by-shotguns-fighting, it’s softer,

like ducklings following a blue body across a foggy
        lake, like a gentle brook of I-can’t-take-it-anymores,
        like human blood, sloshing around in a yellow fly’s
        stomach, like shooting off a signal flare during

a fireworks show. Look outside. Their leaves are so
        shaggy and they’re playing with the squirrel curled up
        in their belly button. Hug them, this scene is so
        quiet. They’re looking right at you. Look outside.

 

Nicholas Holt has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Florida State University. He is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award. His work has been featured in or is forthcoming from The Kudzu Review, The Shore, and Peatsmoke.

Stones My Mother Carved from the Mountain by Noa Covo

As children, we would speak to the giants through the pipe that snaked up the mountain and blossomed into an ear trumpet miles above us. We never really had anything to say, so we resorted to niceties. How’s the weather up there? Seen any good birds recently? The blueberries are lovely this year.

I could never understand why we bothered doing it, why we leaned our heads into the massive, rusty pipe at the foot of the mountain and hollered sentences, just to hear them echo against the craggy peaks above. Our mother told us we did it because it was good manners. She’d take us by the scruffs of our necks as little ones and yell up into the pipe. She’d yell her baking tips, and her thoughts about chickens, and her opinions of our neighbors. Then she’d make us say something too, about nice rocks we found, about something we learned, about ourselves. We’d rest our little heads in the waiting crescent of the sun-warmed pipe, years later, we still had silver scars ringing the bottom of our chins.

The giants never replied, or at least, not in words we’d understand. My mother said they replied in other ways, in storms, in avalanches, in blessings. When her stomach billowed for a fourth time, she said it was thanks to the giants. When it collapsed back in on itself, she didn’t say anything at all. I stopped listening to what she told the giants after that. I told myself I was too old for pretending, but truth was, I was angry with the giants, and I was angry with my mother for forgiving them after what they did to her.

Our mother died on the longest day of the year, and sent the three of us back to the foot of the mountain to a grieving father and an open grave. The mountain had never left us. The three of us had tried to plant ourselves in willing soil, convincing ourselves we were just saplings waiting to grow. We would never grow, I thought, running dust through my palms, because we had never been alive, just stones our mother carved from the mountain. Our breath was nothing more than the heat of day slowly surrendering itself to the dark sky.

We buried our mother in the shade of the mountain. My siblings left the next day, claiming they had things waiting in places where the sky spread unchallenged. I stayed. I stayed and sat in the yard between the chickens, loss ballooning in my chest and pressing against my ribcage. My father came out to the yard as well. He had no hand in making us, I realized, and he did not know what to do with our shards. He looked to the top of the mountain, to the pipe snaking its way through the side. Someone, he said, raising his eyebrows, has got to tell the giants.

I went alone the next morning. I walked up to the waiting pipe, and then I continued, taking the winding trail that followed the pipe up the mountain. I walked until the sun was low in the sky, and only when it began to set did I reach the part where the pipe curled into a rusty flower. I looked around the mountaintop. It was empty, just like I knew it would be. There were no giants here, nobody to inform of my terrible loss. I tiptoed towards the ear trumpet. Looking down, our house seemed years away, not hours. I leaned against the ear trumpet and closed my eyes. On a mountaintop devoid of giants I heard the wind whistling in the pipe. I imagined it was my mother’s words crawling out of her mouth, slithering up the rocks, not for the giants but for her stone children, the ones she knew would day climb up the mountain that overlooked their childhood and try to remember all they had once ignored.

 

Noa Covo is a teenage writer. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Jellyfish Review, Waxwing, XRAY, and trampset. Her micro chapbook, Bouquet of Fears, was published by Nightingale and Sparrow Press in July 2020. She can be found on Twitter @covo_noa.

Making It by Cate McGowan

The stilts were necessary. If I’m being honest about it. Sure, in most settings, they were goofy, but Liz, they made me taller than you and your bully friends. The summer after Dad died, I begged our next-door-neighbor, Mr. Hansen, to fashion them. The old man took pity on me, and I lurked outside his garage workshop, listened to his circular saw whine as it chewed through two thin railroad planks he then painted sea-foam green, the color of lunchrooms from the 80s.

For days, I used all my free time learning how to walk on those stilts. I gripped the splintery handles, planted my heels on the wedge footholds, hoisted myself up. My first attempts were a disaster. I’d invariably lose my balance and tumble ass over teakettle onto our driveway, raspberrying my knees and elbows. But I persisted. Soon, I rose nimbly in one swoop, and my new appendages became extensions of my stubby legs. That season of slanting shadows, folks in the neighborhood stood in their front lawns and cheered me as I scuttled up and down the street. Sometimes, I even moonwalked or braved a herkie jump. Wow, would you look at that!

But when it got cold, I abandoned my precious stilts down by the creek. Kids are like that, I guess, leaving important things behind, moving on to master something new. Anyway, no matter how many jokes I made, no matter how many tricks I learned or how tall I was on those stilts, Liz, all the adults liked you, not me. They were stupid.

Years of ballet and tap followed at the Fleetwood School of Dance. But Mom loathed the other stage mothers and stopped paying for my lessons. My dreams of sugarplum fairies were dashed, so I aimed my sights on the school talent show instead. I made do with what I had. For my costume, I dusted off the old stilts I pulled from the basement. Then, I blacked out a tooth with a crayon, plopped on a hat like some Minnie Pearl hick. Donned a red gingham shirt. Overalls.

I was the last to take the stage. The velvet curtain parted, and the first notes of “Mr. Bojangles” crackled through the speakers, and from center-left, I romped to the song’s banjos, the spotlight following me. All the Sacred Heart of Mary School kids, first to eighth grades, egged me on. Go, Annie! Go, Annie! GO!  They clapped at the chorus, and I transitioned from boring shuffle-ball-changes to wild antics, slapstick, strategic slips. A herkie jump. A moonwalk. Go, Annie! Go, Annie! GO!  On the front row, Ryan Richards, perfect like a comet in that dark auditorium, laughed. He thought I was funny. They all thought I was funny.

Later, after college, I didn’t move home. You got Mom’s adoration; I got stand-up and bus tours and TV appearances. Last year, after your funeral, my manager, Mike, and I went to clean out your house, and I ventured out back behind the porch. Under the eaves, I found my old stilts tucked in a veil of cobwebs. With the clouds speeding above me, I hopped on, the plunkety-plunk of wood on the walk. I sang and danced to “Mr. Bojangles,” hamming it up, and Mike hooted—You’re a carnival freak, Miss Thang! We laughed and laughed, though there’s nothing funny about me.

 

Cate McGowan is the author of the short story collection True Places Never Are (2015), which won the 2014 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her debut novel These Lowly Objects is forthcoming from Gold Wake Press, and her writing has appeared in Flash Fiction InternationalGlimmer TrainCrab Orchard ReviewTahoma Literary Review, and numerous other outlets. Find out more about her at www.catemcgowan.com.

Learned Pig Writes a Poem by Ray Ball

For John Brooke and Ishmael Hope

The traveling circus
makes its way through the woods
where fallen leaves muffle
footsteps and the rattling of wheels,
and black flies swarm
swine and horse and man alike.

The learned pig
grunts twice and slips away
into forested freedom.
He roams alone
as much as his dad had.
His mama had once
eaten a newspaper
while she was pregnant.

Now there are no Italian fireworks
to light his way. No acrobats to leap.
No more audiences to astonish
and amaze. The sound of applause
rings in his ears then fades away.

He snuffles acorns and truffles.
He feasts in forested freedom
for an untold number of days,
but after a while he hungers
for more. He noses some twigs
into formation:

I have been
an abecedarian, fledgling
and elemental. In another life,
I might have been
Francis or Roger Bacon.

 

Ray Ball grew up in a house full of snakes. She is a history professor, a Best of the Net and Pushcart-nominated poet, and poetry editor at Coffin Bell. Her chapbook Tithe of Salt came out with Louisiana Literature Press in the spring of 2019, and she has recent publications in descant, Glass, and SWWIM Every Day. You can find her in the classroom, in the archives, or on Twitter @ProfessorBall.