Meeting Octavio Paz on the Planet Jupiter by Jose Hernandez Diaz

I met Octavio Paz on the planet Jupiter last fall. He said he’d been living there since his death. Myself, I was on vacation with my family. When I first saw Paz, I paused and asked myself, “Should I go up to him, he’s won the Nobel Prize?” I did. I introduced myself as a comic book writer and illustrator and that it was a pleasure to meet him. We shook hands. I didn’t want to talk about writing with him, so I asked his favorite soccer team. “Pumas,” he said. Later, he asked me what was the name of my most famous comic book so he could get a copy. “The Magician,” I told him. It was getting cold on Jupiter, so we called it a night after that. I never forgot his calmness, though, his class and elegance.

 

Jose Hernandez Diaz is a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow. He is the author of The Fire Eater (Texas Review Press, 2020). He has been a finalist for the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize, the Colorado Poetry Prize, and the National Poetry Series. He lives in Los Angeles County where he is an educator and editor.

Bill Murray Terraforms Mars by Robbie Maakestad

When Bill Murray sets foot on Mars, he sets to work terraforming straightaway. That’s not to say he doesn’t first look up at the stars, bright spots of light arranged afresh within the celestial void, radiating down upon Martian meadows. After that briefest of glances up, Bill will deploy his terraform training—memorized and practiced these many years—but right now he’s still glancing up and thinking ever so briefly about how he wouldn’t have aced his terraform test, sped into space, and stepped out upon the red planet had it not been for his grandmother, Mary Agnes, who instilled industry and economy through the assignment of daily chores. If young Bill ever so much as protested his allotted workload, Grandma-Murray lobbed this axiom at his ears: “All play and no work makes Billy-boy a jerk.” And so young Bill had set about sweeping the front sidewalk, dusting between the banister rail-posts, and gathering trash from the bins about the house. On Mars, as Bill first hefts his terraformer while looking up at the stars—but before he flicks the “Grass” switch—Bill will think back to his grandmother’s finest qualities: her patience, her exactitude, her laser focus on the most banal of labors. Before he begins his terraforming, Bill will remember how her nimble fingers slipped the tiniest of colored beads upon her needle, how that silver barb dipped and rose, coursing with exactitude, and how she’d done her best to teach him to do the same. “Here,” she’d say, handing Billy a single bead of the bluest hue. “Look through the center hole and the world opens up on the other side. Stick the needle in one motion, and pull tight. Repeat, repeat, repeat. One motion, Billy. Creation requires the precision of minutiae.” And Billy had tried to be precise, really he had, but he’d always ended up with a Band-Aid on his index finger, a spot of blood blooming up beneath the gauzy pad, swirling outward, when pressed, like the arms of a galaxy. That single bead had stuck in Bill’s mind, though, for as he looks up from where he stands on Mars, before sweeping his terraformer, before turning arid regolith into fertile loam, before sprouting green grass from red rock, Bill’s eyes will affix upon Earth—that tiniest of blue beads stitched up within the patterned heavens—and only then will he understand his grandmother’s lesson.

 

Robbie Maakestad is a Senior Features Editor for The Rumpus and an Assistant Professor of Writing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. He is writing a biography of place about Jerusalem’s City of David archaeological site. He has been published or has forthcoming work in Boulevard, The Normal School, Essay Daily, and The San Diego Union-Tribune, among others. Follow him @RobbieMaakestad.

My Last Summer with Narcissus by Jozie Konczal

Saw us wither beneath the brazen
haze. Listen: I tried
to keep him
from starving. He carried
pocketsfull
of water just for himself, never-
mind the thirst I acquired. When
the pool dried up he took dips
into my bed, beneath
the doting willow, which
too shriveled as summer
turned up her notch
on cruelty. I kept
the mirrors covered. Perhaps
he misplaced
his beauty in me—

I bristled beneath
the gazes of strangers but
turned languid
when gifted his glances.
Enchantment can
be shared. He held
my shoulders as though
they could wilt
beneath his hands. My window
let in enough moonspill
for him to find reflection in
the pale hollow of
my neck, the water
of my irises. I had only
a sliver of clouds to
drink from. Finally, they
grew swollen and broke
into rainfall. I followed
him back to water, he waded
waist deep
and I couldn’t harvest
the voice to beg him back.

 
Jozie Konczal is a freelance writer and poet with an MFA from the Jackson Center for Creative Writing at Hollins University. Her poems have been featured in Right Hand Pointing, Concho River Review, and Northern Virginia Review. She is also on the poetry staff of Cleaver Magazine, and is a contributing writer for EQ, a lifestyle magazine. 

The Cake You Bake Your Father is Not a Cake at All by Sara Torres-Albert

Writer’s tip: Panic-bake this story on your oven’s highest setting the afternoon after your dad’s birthday for best results.

INGREDIENTS:

Whatever dregs of groceries are left from last week’s haul. You have no time to shop.

PREPARATION:

Step 1: Bring your batter to a boil

Complete this step while beating stiff peaks into cream cheese like the froth of rabid waves. The kind that pitched your father’s stomach on the days he’d shell out a hundred bucks for two spots on a fluke boat and you’d dredge up nothing but barking sea robins as he floundered about the cabin, slipping the crewman a fifty to hook a fish on your line. The frosting will basically be meringue, and the toothpick you run through the yellow cake you pull from the oven will tell you it’s still soupy in the middle. The top will begin to burn. 

Notice your garbage bin eying your not-cake wantingly. Hurl your creation inside.

Tell yourself cookies mail better anyway. Cookies send a better message, too. Cookies say, See? I didn’t forget your 60th, and I totally didn’t blank on what to get you. Cookies are an act of love.

Step 2: Cream the butter until your heart aches

Settle on your go-to chocolate chip and leave three sticks of butter out to sit. Remember your mother won’t eat the cookies you send—not with her recent health kick. Notice the butter in its wax sleeve like a plaque-caked artery. If you know anything about your father it’s that his cholesterol has stunned three doctors and he’s compensated with fish oil and Alex Jones miracle pills ever since. Grate your teeth against the thought that maybe cookies don’t say I love you at all. Maybe if you really loved your father you would buy him an exercise bike or a juicer, an Apple Watch. At least you’d cut the sugar down by half. 

Step 3: Whip your flaxseed until it achieves egg-like consistency

The juicer you find on Amazon will be on backorder. Relent. Swap the butter for a vegan recipe by a mommy blogger with four and a half stars. Blend the wet ingredients first—the coconut oil and brown sugar, the vanilla extract. Check the yield and wonder what kind of lunatic writes a recipe that makes eleven cookies anyway. Mutter, The same kind of lunatic who puts flaxseed in dessert, under your breath. 

Tell yourself you’ve got to stop talking to yourself. Your father talks to himself and it’s always given you that fluke boat angry ocean churn, the same one you got on road trips when you’d finished telling a story and his twitching silence told you he was somewhere else, that he’d been somewhere else for some time. Stir over where it is he goes, where it is he’d rather be so badly he can’t help but beam up out of his skin without you. Your cookies will be a homing beacon—Earth to dad. Come in, dad. You’ve left someone behind.

Step 4: Mound your dough into generous golf balls

Admit you’ve felt weird toward your father since long before the abductions started, since half of every sentence your mother speaks to you became a dig at him after you asked if they were still in love at the movie theater when you were eight and she chewed the straw of her root beer through the previews and exhaled no. Swallow the fact that sometimes you’d like to tell her to shut up about him but you never summon the bile. So instead you let them wage their silent war tied up in birthday Apple Pays and holiday deposits, each extra twenty dollars that detonates in your bank account a declaration of who loves you more.

Think how fucked up it would be to send your father cash. More fucked up when you consider he just mailed your Christmas check. The money you’d send your father is a cash back guarantee. Plus twenty dollars? Plus fifty? Realize you don’t know how much you’d give him but you don’t know how to fucking bake either. Test your cookies to find that they are mineral oil and beeswax—food grade, sure, but better as table varnish than birthday treat. 

Say, Vegan cookies aren’t cookies anyway, talking to yourself again. Toss them out with the cake.

Step 5: No Guinness? PBR is fine

The post office closes in two hours, so find a nice beer bread recipe, done in forty minutes with prep. Recognize that your bread is a cheek gnawed with regret that your father’s not the type of dad you can grab a beer with. Fold in the protest—it’s not like you want him to start drinking. Just that maybe you’d have more to talk about if he did.

Step 6: If you can’t make your own salt, store-bought is fine

As you mix your ingredients, realize you haven’t spoken to your father in months. Guilt is the marrow that will weigh your bones before you remember he’s got your number too and you never know what to say to him anyway. Still, try him hands free and listen as the line cuts short. There will be no recording on his voicemail, the affectless beep alone. Your call will smack of the split lip you earned catching your face on the dining room table when you were five. Wonder if your father cries over you the way you’re crying now, whisking your salt into the batter. Wonder if he’ll recognize its tang.

Step 7: Season garbage with bread to taste

After twenty minutes in the oven, remove your bread to find the boule too sticky, your kitchen flourless. Feed your un-bread to the mass grave and buy an Amazon gift card for twenty bucks more than your father last gave you. Type, Happy belated, into the obligatory note space. I hope you buy yourself something nice.

Maybe he’ll get the juicer after all.

 

Sara Torres-Albert is a communication consultant by day, associate editor for the non-partisan youth vote initiative VoteThatJawn.com by night, and a fiction writer in the minutes in between. She lives in Philadelphia with her boyfriend and two cats.

Family Heirloom by Lilyanne Kane

On    

    pulpy  

        grass ‘neath

            the willow tree,  

                onyx snakes

            surface / thrash

       as water sweeps

    out of flooded

soil. Silver-fisted

    Grandaddy snatches

        one serpent. Gripping oil

            cord of sentient muscles

                at the base of its skull

            he slides the slippery

        beast into fledgling

    eggshell hands that

I    crack   open.  

    Zeppelins dripping

        along the vast sky

            within me. My thumb

                crosses sleet scales. Its

            tail thrashes. The

        creature constricts

    its tail around my

plump wrist and

    my viscid grip slips.

       Twin scarlet droplets

            sprout as fangs snap

                then vanish into the

                crick. I swallow salt

                and anger. The water

         runs clear of leechlike shadows.

      Still, I stalk through the reeds, rage-

        scorched, ‘til sunset as if I could        

             unsteal         his          bite,

                    exchange venom      

                         for naiveté.

                                 )

                                 (

                                 )

 

Lilyanne Kane is a non-binary butch lesbian poet and educator. They hold an MFA from the Mississippi University for Women. Their work can be found most recently in Passengers Journal, SOFTBLOW, and Open Minds Quarterly. They are on Twitter @CrumbPrince and on IG @PrinceOfCrumbs. 

Meat Bag by Hannah Gregory

Meat Bag goes to work. Meat Bag goes home. Meat Bag sleeps in her quiet, queen bed that she bought on the internet, that arrived in a narrow cardboard box with a common word for a company name with a non-essential letter missing (a silent e perhaps), that attacked her like a can of snakes when she opened the package, that off-gassed petroleum for a week. She bought a bedframe recommended by a Trusted Review Website because it was sturdy and reasonably priced; it only squeaks a little.

Meat Bag goes back to work in the morning. Her ceiling drips water on top of her head. Her boss accuses her of poking holes in the ceiling. Meat Bag wants to say that she would rather work on the first floor so she can be the first to drown when it floods, but the water dripping on her head is a good start. She wants to say this, but says she will try to fix the hole. She will be a good worker who loves her job as much as she loves her health insurance, so she can get her hormones and surgeries paid for, so she can be a Female Meat Bag, rather than a Meat Bag (culturally Meat Bags are assumed male, but the term can be used interchangeably for all Meat Bag genders; it is not a good system and Meat Bags hate it the most, especially when there are three gender options on surveys: Male, Female, Meat Bag). Meat Bag opens her lunchbox—another recommendation from the Trusted Review Website—and eats her lunch meats and cheese squares on artisanal crackers with imported olives and peak season strawberries on the side.

Meat Bag is stuck in traffic for several hours on her way home. She learns later that the driver just vanished in the middle of driving, causing a fifty-car pileup. Meat Bag also learns that the driver was another Meat Bag like her—the only fatality in the accident—but they reported her death using her old name and wrong pronouns. Meat Bag cries because that is what meat does when meat sits outside for too long. Meat Bag does not sleep well that night because there is a lump in her mattress that is not her dog. She is already past the 60-Night Sleep Trial Period so she cannot send her mattress to a homeless shelter as part of their 60-Night Sleep Trial Period Guarantee. Meat Bag tries to move to a different part of the bed, but Meat Dog takes up too much room.

Everyone gets their performance reviews at work the next day. Meat Bag has lots of Needs Improvements. Her boss tells Meat Bag that her best quality is how she shows up to work on-time. Meat Bag does not feel great about her job after her performance review. She sometimes hates being a Meat Bag. She wonders why she is part of this company, why she has to make incremental improvements in her life so she can have her health insurance and eat her estradiol too.

A co-worker comes up to Meat Bag and asks, “Hey, Meat Bag. You ever feel like a big ol’ bag of meat sometimes?”

Meat Bag looks at them and sighs. “All the damn time.” She tries to force a smile that shows them that they are in this together.

The co-worker looks annoyed and disgusted. “Why are you so weird?”

Meat Bag looks at her phone during her lunch break. She looks at reviews on the Trusted Review Website, because she wants a new non-lumpy mattress, but is disappointed that their top recommendation is the lumpy mattress she already owns. On the Feed, she sees an article about another vanishing Meat Bag, also misgendered, also deadnamed. Meat Bag wants to cry, cry. These vanishings are happening every day. She wants to know why this is not national news, why no one seems to pay attention except for a few people on the Feed. Everyone only seems to care about creating a separate Meat Bag Olympics and separate Meat Bag bathrooms so all Meat Bags can cram into a single stall and pee their Meat Pants while waiting in line because Meat Bags are apparently so numerous and pervasive that they are a threat to the integrity of national bathrooms and the Olympics. The ceiling drips with greater frequency on Meat Bag, so she moves her body and puts her garbage can under the drips.

That night, Meat Bag locks her dog out of the room and masturbates to videos of other Meat Bags like her. Seeing variations of her body eroticized turns her on, although her therapist tells her that this is a bad sign, that no one will give her hormones or surgeries if her idea of being a Female Meat Bag is because she is turned on by the idea of becoming a Female Meat Bag. She thinks this is old-fashioned as she wipes up the mess on her Meat Bag body. When she lets her dog back into the room, Meat Dog jumps on Meat Bag, licks her face, and jumps in the bed. The lump has gotten bigger in the mattress and Meat Bag cannot fall asleep that night. She thinks about all the other Meat Bags who have vanished. Raptured but not in a good way. She loves them and is sad about all the passion they left behind in this world.

At work the next day, Meat Bag’s boss tells her that everyone in the office hates her and that while meat is socially acceptable, it is inhumane. After her boss leaves, Meat Bag feels the water dripping on her head, turning into a thin stream, then a deluge. Her body becomes wet. Wetter than wet. She feels dissolved. She hopes that this is the flood that will take her away. She hopes that this is her turn to vanish.

 

Hannah Gregory is a trans, queer writer from Western Massachusetts. She lives with her wife and dog. More of her work is forthcoming in Passages North and X-R-A-Y. Find her on Twitter @hannah_birds.

The Night After the Procedure by Kara Knickerbocker

            I wake up, slick in the red darkness
not knowing my body as well anymore
but knowing enough something isn’t right,
worry that I’ve already baptized the bed
& try to right myself, make it slowly
to the bathroom, fumbling for light,
text you I can’t stop bleeding
& change through pad after pad
& finally give up, sit on the toilet‘s edge
as clotted globes, these other worlds
pour out of the open door of me
that I want to run out of but I can’t
even walk, my god I can’t do anything
but empty & stare in shock at the flood,
ask Google if I should go to the hospital
or if that’s money I don’t need to hemorrhage
& start to wonder if this is how I die
a woman drowned in herself, alone—
but at last the river runs dry just as the sky
begins to burn morning across the horizon
& it’s a strange thing to say, once spotless,
but I know so much is inside of us that
we never see & I watch the bright crimson
tint the water in the porcelain bowl, & I study
the scarlet stains seeping into my underwear
that I will later let soak & scrub, but for a moment,
I wear the rubies of my body like the precious thing it is,
so in awe of the bright red of a woman, who can love
& bleed from the most delicate part of her—
& think yes, this is fire that’s born from my very being

 

Kara Knickerbocker is the author of the chapbooks The Shedding Before the Swell (dancing girl press, 2018) and Next to Everything That is Breakable (Finishing Line Press, 2017). Her poetry and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from: Poet Lore, Hobart, Levee Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Pennsylvania and writes with the Madwomen in the Attic at Carlow University. Find her online: www.karaknickerbocker.com

Silver Rings by Aimee Parkison

An illusionist, Lillian could disappear inside silver rings. Shimming through silver rings, Lillian melted on stages to reappear inside me. Moving through my body, pressing against my organs, she was like a mother to me until I gave birth to her and she became like my child. Night after night in her rickety trailer with papered walls, cuddling like children, she coaxed me inside her silver rings where we joined a caravan of wheeled houses for magicians and traveling dancers.

Her makeshift bedroom would fall apart, maps sticking to my skin. When traveling with her, I would find Austria or France in the palms of my dusty hands. Once, I had to scratch Italy off my elbow in the dark, using a little scotch and pond water to whisk the boot tip away into the murk of gunpowder, soup crackers, and motor oil. After buying rough sponges to scrub Antarctica off my hip, even the thought of the poles made my skin break out in hives. Calmly, I told her the maps needed to come down from the bedroom walls. She refused.

“The maps are the walls,” Lillian whispered, polishing her silver rings. She used to whisper to me in Latin, but I grew tired of never knowing what she meant. I was weary of how estranged I felt when close enough to smell the chestnut scent of her long, tangled hair.

“What’s that sound?” I asked.

I was just a boy when I realized the whistling in the dark was wind whipping through creases of delicate paper. Her maps really were the walls. How long, I wondered, would her bedroom hold us, especially if we moved against each other with such force? She wounded me delicately, intimately, on an almost hourly basis. Our prolonged passion threatened to unravel the jumbled world of cities and villages mapped out on delicate paper.

Scarred and sacred, Lillian had been everywhere, or so she claimed. Criminals shuttled her around the world and traveled with her in scuttling ships and later in ramshackle caravans across dark country roads through entire summers of rain and locusts. She was born to the wrong people, the child of children who had no homeland, vagabonds or nomads or worse, some said. One of those men who traveled with her was supposedly her father, who died at the hand of a beautiful thief who had been a classically trained dancer. Lillian was an illegitimate child with a bastard’s knowing eyes illuminated by the loss of romantic notions. That was another life: the women her wayward father touched without remembering their names, stolen jewels more precious than spilled blood.

“She was glad,” Lillian said, speaking of her mother, who evaporated inside the silver rings to hide inside Lillian and never reappeared until Lillian’s father died. “Later that night, she was dancing. Never shed a tear. He wouldn’t have wanted her to. He would have wanted me to dance with her over his grave, so I did. That was our way, always dancing toward death, never looking back. There was no changing it, no making it right. There were only the silver rings.”

After dissolving inside the silver rings, Lillian wouldn’t let me touch her skin or her hair. I could merely caress her long fingernails or the jagged edges of her bright white teeth chiseled to shark points. Most of the time, I was afraid to touch her teeth, afraid she might bite me, although she never did. Maybe that’s why I was always stroking the maps with my sweaty hands, leaning against deep blue oceans in the night.

“Who do you think I am?” she whispered, crushing a cigarette in the ashtray.

“You remember,” I said, “who I was. Don’t you? You’re the one who found me inside the silver rings. Aren’t you?”

I discovered Japan twisted into a ribbon on my right knee and Canada encrusted on my inner thigh along with various fragments of nondescript ocean. Washing England off my arms in the shower, I found another greener England on my belly and realized there were many worlds in her bedroom, so many collections of repeated and overlapping continents and countries and oceans and rivers and islands that it was impossible to know where one old map began and another ended.

The maps were like my life, all those stories of who I was, who I could have been. Stories of me disintegrated like old maps on Lillian’s walls. In every story, my father was the exquisite thief who had stolen my childhood.

Maps of various colors and sizes, expanding or shrinking frames, repeated across Lillian’s tattered walls to reveal patterns and variations of time, temperature, elevation, rainfall, death rates, population, imports, and exports.

In the shower, washing all these wondrous places off my pale body, I sloshed and cried, realizing we went nowhere. She and I were staying in one place in her bedroom while studying maps. Only inside silver rings did I ever really go to all the places I wanted to go by exploring the complex territory of our bodies and the flat scales of her maps’ fading shores.

When she refused to look at me, she refused to say my name. She was preparing the silver rings for places she whispered like prayers. Some nights she communicated with me by saying the names of cities and countries and oceans I assumed she had traveled or longed to escape.  

She was always refusing something or someone, usually me. Everyone around her shaking her down for one favor or another, she was too giving, too generous with her vanishing until refusal became breathing. If she didn’t refuse, she would cease to exist, disappearing into her silver rings, as she had many times before an audience.

There were men who would suck the flesh off her bones if she would allow. There were women who would steal her name.

Fading, she would give herself to the silver rings that swallowed her.

Depending on which earrings she wore, she wanted to hide. The earrings were a clue to her state of mind. There were jewels inside her just as there were jewels scattered in dark corners of the trailer.  Silver rings swallowed unexpectedly rare jewels.

If I went down to the river, I could sometimes find the place where her life turned on the people we left behind. Despite all the faces she had touched as a child, there was always one face she was afraid of—the face of her father.

She walked the rickety bridge with a gun in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other. As the silver rings moved over me without touching me, she gazed at me as if I were a boy. Then, she shot the vodka to keep me from drinking it.

Inside the silver rings, we traveled across this country and many others. Especially in rural areas braced by the old religions, there were those willing to pay to see us disappear. In her trailer where we reappeared, she ate and slept and barked orders and bathed and brushed her hair, always in the nude. The rings demanded such starkness, along with a certain abandon allowing her to suffer no shame. Life was the indignity she had to overcome daily, the comparable wealth of our poverty allowing her such freedom compared to other women, most of whom couldn’t approach us because of their fathers’ and husbands’ prejudices.

She used to call me inside the silver rings.

I ran to her brassy voice, despite my unwillingness to obey her without question. I owed so much to her because of the way she had found me and all she had done to allow me to live with her inside the silver rings, the deep warmth of her body enough to shelter me for the eternity of moonless nights we traveled. Under the clouded sky’s coming storms, mountains of distant tree hills became indecipherable walls of mist.

 

Aimee Parkison is the author of Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman, winner of the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize.  Parkison has been published in numerous literary journals and teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma State University. Her historical feminist horror novel, Sister Séance, is forthcoming from KERNPUNKT.  More information is available at www.aimeeparkison.com.

Teratoma* by Keshe Chow

we were heartbeats together
                                              we share the blood
we whispered sweet words through webbed skin
                                               on our hands;
i bided my time, watched you outgrow your caul
                                                but i’m frozen,
my cells divide, hazard lights–
                                                suspended in time.
you surround, stifle, axphyxiate me
                                                i slowly dissolve,
like i’m drowning, and then i disappear,
                                                i won’t secede to
the agonal trappings of
                                                your fleshy prison.
this blighted half-life; won’t you just
                                                pull my hair
curl ‘round your finger, ‘cause i like it
                                                just like that.
what would happen if i burst out?
                                                i would just
strip off your mantle and take it,
                                                shred your skin.
you see, dear sister, you already forget–
                                                I have teeth    

* This piece can be read as two separate poems, or as one whole.

 

Keshe Chow is a Malaysian-born Chinese Australian veterinarian living in Melbourne with three humans and two cats. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Analogies and Allegories Literary Magazine, Maudlin House, Cross & Crow Keys, and Wrongdoing Magazine. In 2020 she won the Perito Prize and her short story was featured in their anthology.