You Don’t Have a Place Here by Anna Vangala Jones

I have a scheduled meeting with Caroline, our team’s HR rep, today and I’m glad you’ll be coming with me, so I don’t have to be alone with her. There’s something cold about her I don’t like. She’s nice, sure. Just feels like the air conditioning is cranked up too high when she’s around.

Caroline isn’t the small talk type so I’m not worried by her brusque “Let’s get started, shall we?” as soon as I’m seated across from her. Not too sure what this could be about, but I’m a decent employee, so can’t be anything serious.

“Starting sounds good to me.” I smile but she’s not looking at me.

I’m surprised when she tells me that it’s you she wants to talk about, not me. The issue is you’re not supposed to be here, it sounds like.

She says you make people around the office feel uneasy.

“How so?” I want to know, but ask polite as can be. I’m offended of course but best not to get defensive.

The first time I sensed you were still nearby and not as gone as we’d all assumed was on the Wednesday after the funeral. One of the cherry tomatoes I was about to mix into my salad rolled itself right off the counter and I didn’t realize in time to miss stepping on it and splattering emerald green juice and seeds everywhere. You were forever dropping grapes and cherry tomatoes, you remember. Your grip on everything was tenuous, your touch too light and gentle. It made me wonder. I was relieved the more I felt you around, the more sure I became. Our apartment would be too big and much messier without you in it. I never wanted to live in the city without my roommate.

So many people whispered into my hair and left my neck damp and gritty with the salt of their tears in the chaotic hours after you were first found. A body, the police officer called you.

“She didn’t even like you that much,” I said to one of your acquaintances who cried the loudest, but it’s probably for the best she didn’t hear me. She will only miss you until she doesn’t anymore anyway.

I’m pretty sure you stay because I want you to. What I mean is you don’t hang around to punish me or anything. Best friends since I asked to borrow your neon pink glitter pen in fourth grade. I don’t feel afraid or even sad that you’re still here. I’d be both those things if you left. I think you know that, too. I feel bad I was your burden before and you’re still not free of carrying me around on your shoulders now.

Caroline is answering me, so I try to pay better attention. “I mean, you walk around here making it uncomfortably clear to all of us that the specter is there beside you. Following you around. For everything. Everywhere you go.” She stares like my face will change to indicate that I agree with what she’s telling me, but she’s going to be waiting a long time if she thinks that will happen. Since I don’t pipe up with what’s expected of me, she shuffles the stack of pages in her lap, expertly like a dealer with a deck of cards. “It’s strange,” she says. “To put it mildly.”

“The mild version is hot enough.” I follow this up with a too loud awkward laugh that I can still hear even after my mouth is closed again.

She doesn’t smile. “The specter cannot join us here at work anymore, I’m afraid.” Her voice is smooth and kind enough. Word choice delicate. But she is firm. “You’ll just have to leave that kind of personal baggage at home. It doesn’t have a place here.”

“Specter, is that a word people even use anymore?” I say, my cheerful tone not doing enough to mask the hurt straining to burst free and roam wild around the office. Peeking into people’s cubicles, demanding to know who has complained about you to HR, about us. Because you’re such a part of me, that you and I know it’s both of us they must have a problem with, not one or the other. We’re too intertwined now for that to even work.

She looks up and nods. “That’s the word they use here in the paperwork. Would you like to see?”

“No. I trust you.”

When I get back to my desk, one of my coworkers whose name is Joy with a personality to match is there, sitting on it. I try to pretend she isn’t and drop into my chair and swivel it away from her to face my computer.

“Caroline told you, huh?”

“About your formal complaint?” I say, willing the bright screen of my computer to shatter and rain glass shards all over Joy and everyone else, too. I picture it wedge and burrow its way deep into their skin—eyes electrified by the shock of pain—and for a second, I’m happy again, like before the meeting.

“Well, it wasn’t just me,” Joy says, hopping off my desk. She doesn’t leave though. “I’m sorry it hurts your feelings,” she adds and I can tell she means it. I am grateful for her checking in with me, but I’d much rather be alone with you right now. “That’s why it’s taken so long for anyone to even say anything to Caroline. We understand how hard this has been for you. No one’s wanted to rush your—you know—process. However long you need to move on.”

Now I’m okay with letting her know I’m a little annoyed. “Move on. That’s rude. You don’t get it. She didn’t leave. So I don’t have to move on.” My air quotes are a bit exaggerated and my words vibrate with too much sarcasm and irritation for her to ignore.

“I shouldn’t have said that then. Unfair for me to presume. You’re right. Sorry.”

Joy doesn’t seem to bother you as much as she does me. But you are the mellow, generous one out of us two. The roommate who does all the dishes if I’ve left mine to soak and throws my laundry in with yours without so much as a passive aggressive grunt or eye roll. You haven’t changed much since the fourth grade in that way. I’ve grown a little. Stopped taking advantage of your kindness as much by our late teens. The leaning on you though, letting your love prop me up—I still haven’t shaken those habits yet.

Joy’s been talking but I’m pretty confident I haven’t missed anything important. I catch the end. “I’ve talked to my therapist about your situation—how you bring her to work with you every day—and he says it’s probably you trying to cope with your surv—”

“No. It’s not that.” I cut her off. She doesn’t need to finish. We don’t need to hear the rest. You and I have both heard of survivor’s guilt before. We’re not idiots.

Sometimes we reenact that night together. We go through the steps, you and me, like parts we’ve memorized in a too familiar play that stars only us two. It always starts the same way. At the bar. I want to get going. You’re having fun.

“When you want to stay out longer and I want to go home, I don’t leave you,” you tell me. Your fingers on my arm are too timid. Perhaps you should grip me harder so I won’t leave you. What you say is true, but it doesn’t matter. I’m tired and anxious and I don’t want to be here anymore. In my mind I’ve already left. We both order rides home two hours apart on the same app. But mine drops me off at our apartment. Yours never does.

“What was she like?” Joy asks now.

“What’s she like?” I shake my head and gesture at you.

Joy doesn’t say anything. Just waits. Patient, quiet, unruffled. She reminds me of you but only for a moment.

“She’s really nice.” I stare at you instead of her and that’s how I can say it without dissolving right there in the middle of this stupid office. This lonely place full of people who don’t want you here. Who don’t understand it means they don’t want me here either. Not sure why it bothers me when I don’t even want to be here.

“I bet. Want to go down the street to the deli? Eat lunch there today maybe?” Joy half smiles. “I won’t talk. If you’d prefer.”

“Yeah okay.” My purse is already in my hands even though I can’t tell you how it got there. Maybe you should tell me. I motion for you to come with us and I dare Joy to report me to HR. Wish she would, I tell you. You don’t seem to be listening though. I’m not sure you hear me.

 

Anna Vangala Jones serves as Fiction Editor at Lunch Ticket and is an Editorial Assistant on the Fiction Team at Split Lip Magazine. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of The Net Anthology, and selected for inclusion in Longform Fiction’s Best of 2018 list. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Berkeley Fiction Review, Little Fiction, Hobart, Necessary Fiction, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and Jellyfish Review, among others. Find her on Twitter at @anniejo_17 and online at www.annavangalajones.wordpress.com.

Being the Murdered Girlfriend by Cathy Ulrich

The thing about being the murdered girlfriend is you set the plot in motion.

Your boyfriend will say: I was just playing around.

He’ll say: I didn’t mean to.

He’ll say: The gun just went off.

His mother will wait outside when the police arrive. His mother will smoke a cigarette on the back step, look up at the sky, try not to think of your body on the floor of the family room, try not to think of the stain on the carpet. She’ll say to her husband later let’s just pull it all up, God, let’s burn it, I don’t care, I just want it gone. She’ll smoke one cigarette, two, three. Her hands will shake.

She’ll say to her son when the police say he has to come with them: It will be all right. Everything will be all right.

After you are buried, she’ll tell her friends: I never cared for that girl. I knew she was trouble.

Her friends will nod. Her friends will all have sons too. Her friends will think of their sons as precious boys, tucked them in as children with forehead kisses and blanket-smoothing hands: Sleep well, my precious boy.

They will know, like mothers of sons before them, about girls like you, girls who bring good boys to ruin.

They’ll see your photo in the newspaper — it will run once, the day after, clipped from the school yearbook — whisper over your heavy eye makeup, your twitch of a smile, the black shirt you wore, low-cut, they’ll say to each other, too low-cut.

Watch out for girls like this, they’ll tell their sons. Girls like this are trouble.

Your boyfriend’s mother will hire a lawyer. The lawyer will wear nice suits, cheap ties, speak over the top of people, carry a briefcase with a combination lock.

It was an accident, the lawyer will say. A tragic accident.

He’ll get your boyfriend sent home. Your boyfriend’s mother will pick him up at the courthouse, take him out for hamburgers, buy him a chocolate milkshake. She’ll think of how she did the same thing when he was young, after baseball games, do you remember, and your boyfriend will say I do, kind of.

He will sleep in his own bed, he will ignore the torn-up carpet, the reek of bleach. He will grow used to the scent, the way his mother and father will too, something that never quite goes, that scent, something like a ghost. When his friends come by, they’ll say what’s that smell?

Your boyfriend will say: I don’t smell anything.

He’ll say, when they ask, when anybody asks: It was an accident.

He’ll say: I never wanted to hurt her.

His mother will nod, lips pressed firm. Of course not. My son isn’t that kind of boy.

His mother will stand behind him at the sentencing, hand clutched firm on his shoulder. Later, he will show her she has left marks. In time they will fade, little fingerprint bruises disappearing and disappearing away.

She will only release her grip when the judge pronounces negligent homicide, community service.

She’ll say: Oh, thank you. Oh, God, thank you.

She’ll wait outside the courthouse for her son and the lawyer, smoke a cigarette while she waits, loose one in the bottom of her purse. She’ll think, idly, of quitting. She’ll hear the courthouse doors come open, turn to see her son come out, her precious boy, drop the half-smoked cigarette to the ground, grind it out with her heel, my precious boy, and your boyfriend will smile: Mom, let’s go home.

And she won’t know, and no one will, how you rode beside him in his pickup one night, how he took you backroading the dirt trails behind his house, said to you, when you hit this rise just right, sometimes it feels like you’re flying.

And you rode in the cab beside him, flew beside him, looked out the window and thought how far away and small everything seemed, how it didn’t seem like there was a city anymore at all, how it was you and him, alone in all the world. All you could hear was engine roar, low hum of the country station fade in and out. You looked forward and there was something there, something small, cat, maybe, or rabbit, prairie dog. And you said oh, felt the truck go over the top of it, didn’t cry, weren’t the kind of girl who would cry over a small thing like that, over a small thing that had been alive and wasn’t alive anymore, but you said oh again, looked over at your boyfriend and saw, in the moonlight, the brilliance of his smile.

 

Cathy Ulrich once stopped her car for a caterpillar that was crossing the road. Her eyesight was better then. Her work has been published in various journals, including Sundog Lit, Heavy Feather Review, and Passages North. She is the author of the story collection Ghosts of You, published by Okay Donkey Press (2019).

Thermoregulation by Amie Souza Reilly

On the evening news a droning man described another atrocity, and the banality of his delivery aroused a fury in her. Didn’t he see that the world outside was crumbling? But when she looked out the window expecting to see fissures in the ozone layer they weren’t there. Everything appeared the same, though she knew it wasn’t. She opened the front door to test the acidity of the rain and inhaled to see if disillusionment had a scent. The smell was acrid and somehow cold, like a dead battery, and when it opened her just wide enough, the broken world throbbed in.

It entered her body with the chill of a thousand knives and untied the knot in the fibrous chord of her neck. Her skull and its contents fell slack. She yelled at her husband.

You need to help more around the house.

This made more sense than saying, I think I have swallowed the pain of the world and now my insides are breaking, because she knew that if she told him the truth his eyes would pry down her throat and probe the insides of her ears trying to determine whether or not she was being metaphorical. That was not what she wanted. What she wanted was for him to press his ear against the tattoo on her back and tell her if he could hear the wind change. As she shook her heavy head, tiny shards like shattered glass clinked down her spine and landed in a glimmering heap in the bowl of her pelvis.

The cacophony of splintering and tinkling stirred a gang of homunculi. Their movements ground grooves into her bones and left u-shaped indents on her organs. She felt each one separately: from beneath her uterus, a sad-faced woman with bags under her eyes and fear in her jaw rose to pull out the shards that had wedged in the cracks of her pubis bone. Above her, a bearded ex-husband stopped swinging from the ball joint of her hip to smoke a Parliament Light. He flicked his ashes into the pile of glistening splinters. Further down, a beautiful dead wife sat on her kneecap, while up around her heart a sick mother clung tighter to a rib beneath her left breast. And in the hollow of her shoulder, a man-shaped shadow with an afro sat on his motorcycle, whistling through blades of grass he’d stuck between his thumbs. When he revved the engine, the skin stretched across her clavicle quivered.

Instead of responding to her outburst, her husband put his drink down on the table and rubbed the stubble on his chin. His silence panged her breastbone like a mallet against a gong, so she told him a story. Sometimes the past makes sense of the present. The story she told was about the hurricane that blew toward their split level when she was six. Where beneath a sky striped with yellow and grey she drew chalk kittens on the concrete patio and everything was damp even though the rain still hung above the trees. She told him about the fat spider that skidded across one of her drawings, straight toward where her mother was stacking plastic chairs and how, without a word, her mother stomped on it, releasing a million tiny babies from her body, scattering like fireworks.

Beneath her skin, the world raged and her tiny beings worked between the smoothness of her organs and the softness that protected her from falls. Their movements felt like sobbing. Perhaps she could have pressed her hands across the top of her belly, smoothed the ripples of her thighs, quieted them all with the warmth of her palms and the sound of her blood, but she was tired. Instead she leaned into her husband, still upright on the couch, placed his hand on her flesh and whispered, Can you feel them? But he was already asleep.

She lay awake next to him and waited. When the cold air of the angry world warmed to match her body temperature, a hornet buzzed in her ear. Perhaps the only way to carry the fury of the world inside is to inhale the peace of night. With her steady breath, the darkness knitted together a lullaby that sounded like whales and mothers and scythes cutting through wheat. The tiny woman beneath her uterus and the dead wife came together and shook hands, then began to build a tower out of the broken glass. The mother on her rib whispered words of encouragement from above. Inside the tower, the ex-husband and the man-shaped shadow rode the motorcycle in circles. The night formed a crust that encircled the warming anger of earth like layers of shale, hard but fragile. Her grandparents had lived on a lake that held a monster in its depths so she’d learned to swim through thick waves without being afraid.

The grey of a new day retightened the knot in her neck so her head perched between her shoulders once again. When it did, the taste of honey appeared at the back of her throat. Inside her rippled warmth, and the dead wife and the tiny woman admired their shining tower. They wiped their hands on their thighs, kissed each other goodbye, and the fearful woman, whose hair had turned grey, went back to resting under her womb, and the dead wife slid back beneath her kneecap. Still high above, the sick mother relaxed her grip, slept in the curve of her rib. And the grass-whistling ghost and the bearded ex-husband were quiet as they climbed out from the twinkling tower and moved back to the load-bearing places of scapula and hip bone, while the angry earth reduced itself to a quiver in her bowels.

The woman watched the worm-like twitches of her husband’s sleeping eyelids. She put her face near his and smelled the musk of tenderness, licked the salty corners of his lips. Pulling his earlobe gently, she widened the tunnel of his hearing and whispered to him a story about the time she lived next door to a woman whose daughter had died and left behind a fat-fingered infant with the kind of smile that only curls up at the edges. She told him that her neighbor raised the boy as her own, let vines of wisteria grow into the windows and a family of raccoons make a home of her attic. Standing on her porch, holding a brown mug of brown coffee, the neighbor pointed to the patinaed drainpipe the raccoons were using as both a slide and a ladder, then to the hole that was only half hidden under the eaves. She yelled across the lawn to anyone who might listen, Do you see them? Ever? Do hear them at night? but she wasn’t disgusted or angry or afraid. She was protective of them, even proud.

 

Amie Souza Reilly is the Feminist Fridays blogger for The Adroit Journal. Her work can be found in SmokeLong Quarterly, Pidgeonholes, and Gravel, or at www.amiesouzareilly.com. Follow her on Twitter @Smidgeon227.

Bears by Tom Jenks

The bears grow bolder, crossing the main road, hanging around the petrol station. Yesterday, we watched one cram his giant paw into a disposable plastic glove whilst the others looked on. When our stipend arrives, we will buy yellow cream, for the storks, and apples, for the bears. Cooking apples are best, good and heavy, thudding on the forest floor.

 

Tom Jenks’ latest book is A Long and Hard Night Troubled by Visions (if p then q, 2018). Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, Ambit, and Flash. He edits the small press zimZalla, specialising in literary objects, and lives in Manchester, UK.

Trees Like a Way Out by Jennifer Fliss

All right, so I needed gas and rolled into the Sunoco practically on fumes and next to me was Bob Ross. And I’m like, hey, hey man, Bob? Bob Ross? He nodded. Look at those trees, I said. Tell me about those trees, and Bob Ross was like I’m just filling my gas, friend.

He was filling up with Premium. Must be something, to live like Bob Ross. I ran into the food mart quickly, keeping my eye on Bob through the window. I slapped down a ten on the counter. Pump three please. Under the harsh lights and amidst the aroma of slowly churning hot dogs I realized maybe I was dead and this was a kind of waystation to heaven and Elvis and Jesus would pull in any moment. Gran always said she saw Jesus in things: toast, tea, Target.

I ran back out and selected the cheapest gas. Bob Ross was at the pump next to mine and his car was a 1985 Plymouth Voyager. You know that minivan? The one with the wood paneling along the side. It was just like Gran’s living room – minus the crystal bowls of Werthers and Precious Moments dolls. But the wood paneling. Sometimes it felt like those panels were prison bars. She eventually had the paneling taken down and after that I’d push my cheek up against the cold plaster of the wall and feel free and soothed, but like something was missing. Gran raised me after my parents left, together. I spent hours watching PBS while my grandmother knit in the corner. She made scarves that never ended. She didn’t say much except to say the following things: Are you capable of anything? What do you want to be when you grow up? Why don’t you apply yourself in school? But then, once she gave me some paints and a book of fancy paper just because. She’d run her fingers along the paint when it dried and pulled her lips into a line and said she liked my use of textures

One of my first paintings was of a great big tree with a nest of robins in a high branch. Robins don’t nest that high up, Gran said, but she hung it on the fridge anyway, where it still was, nearly twenty years later, hidden beneath coupons, childhood school photos of my mom, and reminders of doctors’ appointments long passed.

I said, hey Bob Ross. Your car reminds me of my Gran and he was all offended and I was like no, no, in a good way. You know those Precious Moments dolls? I said. With their eyelashes and cow eyes?, he asked. Yeah, I said. Those. I didn’t mean it like that but I didn’t think Bob Ross wanted to hear what I really meant.

Bob Ross was quiet for a moment and then was like, yeah. They were cute.

I loved watching your show when I was a kid, I said, toeing my shoe along some old gum, suddenly shy.

Thanks, he said and began to clean his windshield. Small rivers of dirt water fell off the ends as he completed one line then the next. Even finer strips of dirt were left on the windshield. It went dirt, clean window, dirt, clean window, so that when Bob was satisfied, he replaced the brush into the murky water bucket by the pumps. I looked at the not entirely straight lines in his windshield and thought, this was an artist.

He didn’t say anything else and I felt compelled to fill the space of silence. The trees, you know. The little trees, you made it seem so easy.

Yeah? He paced by his pump, his dollars ticking away behind him on the screen.

Yeah, in the end, just those little marks made everything so beautiful. That’s art.

And I paused for a moment, heard the click of my own gas pump. Yeah, it is, he said.

Back in my car I realized: I just saw Bob Ross. I picked up my cell to take a photo but the Voyager was gone. But I did notice a shiny rainbow puddle where the van had been and believed it was beautiful, in its way, the way all toxic things are. I snapped a quick photo. Maybe I’d share it on social media. My Gran just got a smartphone, so I zipped the image off to her and hoped she’d be able see it.

 

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based writer whose writing has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, and will be in the 2019 Best Small Fictions anthology. She is the 2018/2019 Pen Parentis Fellow and a 2019 recipient of a Grant for Artist Project award from Artist’s Trust. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com.

Signature by Nicholas Grider

Jack arrived with a metallic blue Sharpie and wrote his name on me as if adding his signature, signing a receipt. Underneath it he wrote my name too (spelled wrong and crossed out and spelled correctly with a smiley face) so whenever we were half-dressed in the half-dark together and I could trust it was just him touching me and no one else, none of his friends alone or in a group, and I could trust where his dry fingers would fall like the soft rubber of an old pencil’s stained eraser, and I could trust when, and could trust that I could follow his instructions and he would answer my questions, or at least the important ones, and I could trust we belonged to each other, that I was capable of belonging to someone. While we waited for the gleaming ink to dry before I let him lay me on my bed and press me into romance we sat half-dressed, kissing and being kissed, and I thought of how when I was young and slid under another surface I’d trail the other kids as we wrote stylized tags on telephone poles and neglected walls––we’d seen it on T.V. and that kind of ownership felt rebellious––and I kept in mind how Jack told me “they say silence is golden because is beautiful,” reminding me that being quiet added to my appeal, that mystery meant value and naming meant knowing, and it was only later that I asked him why he’d named us on my lower back close to my waist and a small constellation of moles, he told me that from now on, in our future of shadowy bedrooms, neither of us would need to worry about forgetting who either of us were, and that this was a sign of his love. Love, he said before his fingers caressed my lips to erase my reply, was a good kind of stain, and not as painful as a name.

 

Nicholas Grider is the author of the story collection Misadventure (A Strange Object, 2014) and the chapbook Forest of Borders (Malarkey Books, 2019). Their work has recently appeared in X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, Five:2:One, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and elsewhere. They can be found apologizing for lots of things on Twitter at @ngrdr and, as of September 2019, at www.nicholasgrider.com.

The Right Light by Janelle Bassett

I eat my lunch in the park, because a televised doctor told me to. I should experience the outdoors for at least twenty minutes a day, so my eyes can take in a non-screen light source. He said this letting-in-of-the-right-light will help me sleep more soundly, make better choices at the vending machine, and defecate in shapes that seem to please Mother Nature herself, based on the recurrence of such shapes on land and underwater.

The park near my office has a lone picnic table near the playground and a pavilion housing six more picnic tables. I choose the uncovered table, so I get max sun and don’t have to worry about looking unlovable, as a single soul under a roof for forty tends to look.

I always bring the same food—a bag of tortilla chips, a cheese stick, and a banana that I slice as I eat, so it lasts more than three bites. I chew one chip at a time and peel the cheese into strings. I eat slowly, so it’s clear I’m here to eat which I prove true by spending the entire time eating. If I gobbled, here I’d sit, unlovable with my wrappers and my peel.

As I make my food last, I watch the playground children fall and cry and hide and seek, and I think about the nature of nature. A skinned knee gets you a patted back. A “tag you’re it” gets you some respect and personal space, which you give away as soon as possible. A kick in the head from the patent leather shoe of a swinging girl gets you a glossy lesson in who deserves what.

I squint at all of it, because sunglasses would only diminish the very light I’m seeking. If I gave in to sunglasses, I’d have to make up for the lost exposure by drinking my coffee on my front porch in that first-light sun. I prefer to spend my mornings cooking dinner, so when I come home from work I have more time to watch television in the dark. When I am tempted to shield my eyes with coated plastic during lunchtime, I think of my precious after-work hours—meal warmed, blinds drawn, bra thrown, feet tucked, laugh track, auto-play, no one. It’s perfect, those hours spent with people who cannot see me. Undoubtedly worth the time squint.

Today there were only two playground children: brothers who came to the park to find new, non-sibling playmates – ones whose breakfast bowls levels they didn’t have to eye to ensure equal filling, ones who didn’t make triumphant faces when they got a hug from mother. When no one else was at the park, the brothers went directly underneath the rope bridge and began slapping at the bare skin across from them. Their mother said, “Well, we can do this at home” and loaded them back into the car.

I squint at their car leaving and wonder which of the brothers she secretly sides with during their quarrels. Half of the slaps smart her own arms, while half the slaps sting her own palms.

I cut myself a big hunk of banana. Why make it last when there’s no one here? Plus, doing a lunch-based one-woman-show for no one would make me appear unlovable to the sunshine and the trees. I’m chewing the gummy hunk when I see a woman walking through the grass, past the pavilion, and toward the park’s monument. The monument is an old military cannon that must have some local historical significance. The cannon was shot by or shot at someone who once lived around here and now we must consider this past projectile while we picnic and kite-fly and monkey-bar.

The woman has a duffle bag. I slow down my chewing to accommodate her presence. She sets her duffle down on the monument’s wordy plaque, slides off her sandals, and puts them in the bag. The fabric she wears seems smooth and light. It looks like one long piece has been cut into a tank top and shorts, seamless. The woman looks like a chic monk. I squint at her haircut, blunt.

She touches the cannon right where the hurt comes out. I don’t know the term—its trunk. She keeps her hand over it, blocking any emissions. Or taking the brunt of them. Then she takes her hand away and starts walking. She’s circling the canon. I realize I’ve stopped eating.

The woman has done two laps and is still going around. Now she’s walking with her arms up. Is this tai chi? Now she’s pumping her raised arms. Is this a protest? She is keeping a steady pace. Is she counting? Is this a meltdown? I’ll keep watch.

She goes around so many times I stop feeling surprised. Instead, I feel increasingly upset. This is not how we behave. We walk with purpose, one-way, arms down, toward what we want. And if we must pace, we do it at home while talking on the phone about the steps we are taking to get out of the funks we’re in.

Her face is neutral, which makes sense because she has nothing to look forward to. She’s headed to a spot she has just been—doesn’t even have a tail to chase.

The wind blows her silky top and the two flags above the monument. She walks against the wind and then with the wind, over and over, and I feel all wound up. Is she condemning me somehow? Are her movements calling me a sit-stiller and a know-nothing? Can she tell that no one loves me? Is that why she circles the monument instead of circling me?

I break my focus, look away from her rotations and back at my rations. They were planned and she was not. I hold a tortilla chip and make it go around and around what’s left of my cheese stick. This is calming. I choose it. I say when.

I look back at the chic monk lady and I choose her as an experience to have. You. You don’t stop. That’s something to opt into. I try to instruct her, telepathically, to switch directions and walk counterclockwise. She doesn’t vary, but I am with her now in spirit. Watching her is not that different than watching my nightly TV. The chic monk, the sitcom characters—none of them turn to look at me while I watch them not stop.

The more circles I see her complete, the more I need to see her circling continue. I’m pulled in. I’ll defend her to anyone. If she were making money somehow this display of hers wouldn’t seem odd. If she were wearing a MATTRESS BLOWOUT sign no one would stare. I eat a fistful of chips. She raises her arms straight up and spreads her fingers, but she doesn’t look up to see the sky through the spaces she’s made. Her gaze is soft, front-facing. If I could look into her eyes, I feel like I could see the laps she’s done and the laps she’ll still do and see that they are all one lap.

I am lulled into considering that this woman is engaging time instead of fighting it. She’s inhabiting time. Look, she’s become part of the breeze. Her movements remind me of the squirrels who run across my roof, zipping for the sake of it—because there’s empty space and because they have the legs to fill it.

I wonder why we aren’t all pacing.

I look at my phone. I have about twelve minutes of my lunch break left. I bet you really know a minute when you spend it pacing, when you’re in lockstep with the seconds. Twelve minutes of trying not to look as unlovable as you feel goes by in a snap. This whole past decade of my life feels like two Mays, one three-day-weekend spent in the car, a month inside a bathroom stall, and six back-to-back Christmas dinners.

The TV doctor who talks about the right light also says, “How you do something is how you do everything.” I hadn’t understood what he meant. I thought he was talking about posture—if you stoop in the office, then you stoop often. But now I get his meaning: This is it, buddy. The present is at hand constantly and what are you going to do with it? How you wait in line at the post office is the whole shebang. The way you behave at the buffet counter is a full indictment of your entire being, so scoop your baked ziti accordingly. So how I spend my remaining twelve minutes is how I live my life. I let the word now make the rounds inside me. Maybe the word now even pumps its arms.

I stand and stuff the rest of my food back into my lunch box. I take one step and then another until I’ve gone completely around the picnic table. Yes. I keep going. It’s such a tight track, I’m always turning. The walking and the turning become a trance. To move without the burden of progress. Going nowhere while being here. My throat feels looser. The ground feels harder. I keep my focus hazy, but I can sense her movements while I complete my own. We feel like the same speed and the same animal, and I understand moments for the first time—now, now, now, this here. I choose it all and the moment swirls around me. I am the axis. She is the axis. We keep going. And the light I’m taking in no longer feels prescribed. The light is being received.

 

Janelle Bassett’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Slice Magazine, Longleaf Review, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. She’s on Instagram @jbknows.

The Ghosts Inside by Erik Fuhrer

There is a ghost living under your tongue. Every time you open your mouth, smoke trembles on your teeth.

My ghost lives in my eyelids, so all I see is fog. Everything looks like the opening pages of Bleak House. The cat in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Portland.

When people pass me, I wonder where their ghosts live. Sometimes the ghosts are so buried in the body that they are invisible to the eye. Ribcage ghosts. Lung Ghosts. Even ghosts that wrap themselves lovingly around spleens.

These ghosts mean no harm. They are just looking for warmth. A different perspective. Word is there is even a ghost living in the legs of a cockroach somewhere, scuttling across kitchen floors with bliss.

 

Erik Fuhrer is the author of not human enough for the census, forthcoming from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press. His work has been published in Cleaver, BlazeVox, Softblow, and various other venues.

Dead? Yes, Dead by Amy Stuber

Ellen grew up in a Colorado town where her mother cleaned people’s vacation homes, where Ellen and her brother spent off-season afternoons breaking in and drinking the beer of strangers, while snow piled up on decks and driveways. She didn’t do much better as a college student at a weird little high plains school. She sang in a band, but was bad at it. She regretted all her tattoos. She almost never talked to her mother. She dropped out and moved in with a man in Boulder who built lutes (productive), but also did meth (not). Her brother took a job in Bangkok. When he called it was noisy and disjointed, and she hung up feeling worse and looking out at the mountain that pushed up to the sky. Was she depressed? Sure, usually. Did that make her special? No, not at all.

So in the summer of 2018, Ellen left her life completely. She was 23, unbeholden to anyone, tired of the people she knew, the servers, the skaters, the punks, the trust funders, the post-grad-schoolers, the drum circle assholes, all of them, and maybe herself most of all. Her hair was a faded Manic Panic turquoise, and she shaved it in a gas station bathroom halfway between home and somewhere else. In the rippled mirror, she looked altogether new.

Ending up in Newport, Rhode Island was a fluke. Her high school English teacher once told the class, “Newport is the most East Egg place in contemporary America,” while he fanned himself with a copy of The Great Gatsby. Not all of Newport, Ellen learned. Not the narrow streets where tourists wore lobster bibs and dripped butter. Not the harbor where junk boats were bogged down by seagulls. But, yes, the cliff walk that divided the mansions from the ocean, where on her second day she found a dead bird on the path, not just a bird but a duck, not just a duck but a hooded merganser. Her grandfather hunted. She’d gone with him on weekends wearing the gear and sitting hidden until he would startle her with a series of shots, and then there would be a dead animal on the yellow hillside.

The dead duck fit into her backpack. She’d drained and plucked birds before, so handling a dead animal wasn’t new to her. But there was a delicacy to taxidermy that differed from preparing an animal to be food. In the room she rented from a single mother and atop a shower curtain liner she’d stolen from the shared bathroom, she spent hours on the duck, partially mangling it and then filling it with cotton batting she pulled out of a novelty pillow she found in the closet (“You got this, girl,” needlepointed onto the pillow face).

The woman’s son, Theo, a strange nine-year-old with inexplicable bruises on his forearms who upon first meeting Ellen announced that he had two loves, Robert Caro’s LBJ books and astrophysics, showed up at Ellen’s door with random objects that he put right into her hand. On that night, it was silver sequins Ellen sewed into some of the duck’s feathers, so the bird, when held aloft, actually shone.

She found a dead pigeon by the trash at the back of the house a few days later, cleaned it, stuffed it, and implanted a series of tiny screws in its neck. They almost blended into the feathers, but not completely. Collar, ill-placed stigmata, she didn’t know.

Within a week, she accumulated ten birds. It was surprising how you could find dead birds when you were looking. When Ellen finished, each bird was messy, but had its own small shock: the sequins, one hawk talon affixed to the spindle leg of a chimney swift, the red plastic tips of push pins just surfacing from the eyes of a starling.

She mounted each to dumpster plywood onto which she transcribed full chapters from The Great Gatsby. On the wood below the starling’s dangling feet, she wrote the final line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” which was pretty melodramatic if you thought about it. But for once Ellen wasn’t beating against any stupid current. Her life to this point had been a series of nothings and ridiculous internal monologues. Should I masturbate while my roommate is out? No, I’m too tired. Maybe I shouldn’t eat any more Oreos? Never mind, I’m eating them. But in these Newport weeks, she didn’t overthink. She just did.

She borrowed Theo’s mother’s ancient Fiat and rolled around town with Theo and a drill and affixed the already rotting birds to light poles, or the sides of buildings. She liked imagining the shock of people coming upon them. She and her brother had once watched a documentary about outsider art, and her brother had scoffed when experts raved about its primitive qualities. “The fucking condescension,” her brother had said. But Ellen delighted in her clumsiness. She loved that there was no polish or practice to her work.

As they hung the last bird, the boy, Theo, lectured her about the multiverse: “I mean, obviously, there’s not just one universe. How presumptuous would it be to think that?” At night, they lay on the concrete patio and looked at the stars. For once, she was maybe content.

There were several ways this could end:

A) Rich people want the birds for their walls. Out of nowhere, Ellen’s an artist. They don’t want just one bird. They want a collection, a flock, a show, because apparently only amassed in a grouping is artistry significant. The street in front of the gallery is beautiful. A trombone player plays “We Will Rock You.” A homeless man sells newspapers for a dollar, and for once everyone buys them.

B) Ellen holds Theo at the edge of the cliff. She wears giant wings she’s made from mop handles, sticks, cardboard, and actual bird feathers. Maybe the mansions are in the background, and maybe they stand at the edge wearing the wings and step forward. It should be beautiful. Flying and future.

C) Ellen puts Theo in the front seat of the Fiat, and they drive west where she once saw a cadre of turkey vultures balanced on a water tower and waiting for the dead. Ellen and Theo drive until no one in Rhode Island can see them, until his bruises fade, until they are air, they are afterthoughts, they are gone.

 

Amy Stuber’s fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, Hobart, Wigleaf, Joyland, New England Review, Triquarterly, and elsewhere. She’s an Assistant Flash Editor for Split Lip Magazine. She’s on Twitter @amy_stuber_ and online at www.amystuber.com.

Misunderstanding and Misinformation in the Recorded History of Identity Storytelling by Pat Foran

Like It Is

At a funeral, a man is spinning yarns about the many funerals he’s attended. There’s the one about the helicopter, the FAA, and a misinformed truant officer. The night the organist went rogue. That time a gun moll with a book deal made a mess of things.

Now, the man’s telling the one about the three women — sisters, the man believes — who approached the widow of this guy they were having a service for.

The three sisters asked the widow if they, the three of them, could go up to the casket — “it’s open, mind you,” the man says — and sing to the deceased.

“That’s sing to him as in sing right into the coffin,” the man says, sliding into the characters’ voices.

“What song?” the widow asks.

“‘Had You Told It Like It Was It Wouldn’t Be Like It Is, Oh No — Not Like It Is’ by The Rationals,” the sisters say.

“Okay,” the widow says.

 

Like a Bird

I’m in Monterrey, Mexico, to write a story about a company that’s in the process of “reimagining” itself. A young woman is driving me to my next interview.

She tells me she’s being groomed to be the first woman engineer in this company’s history. She keeps her eyes on the road, driving into the silver-gray day in this steel-belted-radial city.

She turns on the radio. A Nelly Furtado song is playing and the engineer-to-be hums along.

The sun peeks out from behind the silver-gray and the engineer-to-be starts to sing, softly, stopping when Furtado reaches the chorus:

I’m like a bird, I’ll only fly away
I don’t know where my soul is 
I don’t know where my home is

“Almost there,” she says, her eyes on the road.

 

Ghost Town

At dusk, a bunch of us went to the local ghost town. We packed up our things and took the dirt road as far as we could take it.

When we got there, we saw broken houses with broken windows. A broken car on the side of the road. A broken weather vane. Broken glass broken flowers broken sky. We saw a man who was broken, too.

“Is this the ghost town?” we asked.

“This is the sundown town,” the man said, frowning at a broken dog. “The ghost town’s south of here, a couple towns over.”

We took our things and headed south.

 

A Tapered Thread

I had long hair, the longest in school, and my Mom took me to the barber for what I thought would be a trim.

Want it tapered? the barber asked. I didn’t know what “tapered” meant and I wasn’t good at talking to people and I panicked — Okay? I said — and he started tapering. Soon, my hair in the back was tapered, razored, gone.

I slid down from the chair and zombied over to where Mom was waiting. That looks … nice. You okay?

I put on my Oakland A’s cap, pulled it down as far as it would go, ran to the car and skidded into the front passenger seat.

On the way home, I tried to focus on the guard rails and the mile markers and the red-wing blackbirds, but I saw a reflection of my face, no longer framed with a longer-than-a-mop-top mop of hair, in the window: This is me? I touched the razor tingle on the back of my neck.

 

The Certainty Promise

I opened an email. It was a press release. Something about a company rolling out a new brand identity.

“We now deliver integrated solutions that ensure certainty of outcome,” the company’s executives said in the prepared statement.

The executives said they were excited about the new direction and the new opportunities on the new horizon, adding they were proud of the new position the company would hold in the firmament of new brand identities.

“We know who we are, and we are prepared to deliver on the certainty promise,” the executives said. “We’ve never been more filled with wonder and never been more certain that there’s a crying, desperate, yip-yip-yipping need for all we provide for our clients, who conduct themselves honorably, invariably and with a sense of style across four continents, 17 countries, nine military outposts, six unincorporated townships, three dead-letter offices and one polar ice cap. They toil in an array of market sectors, including search engine optimization services, off-the-power-grid energy consulting and innovative bowling alley solutions for this brave new world.”

 

If We Were Okay

I answered the phone. It was my Grandmother. Arthur? Arthur? she said, no she didn’t say it she screamed it. Arthur is my Dad. I gave the phone to my Dad.

Something had happened to my Grandfather. My Dad left in a hurry to go to my grandparents’ apartment.

Everybody said my Dad took after my Grandfather. Everybody said I took after my Dad. I didn’t think my Dad took after my Grandfather, but I wasn’t sure.

A couple hours later, the phone rang. Mom answered. Dad told her my Grandfather had died.

That night, my Dad poked his head into the bedroom I shared with my younger brother. He said he’d been worried about us. He asked if we were okay. We’re okay, I said.

I didn’t ask him if he was okay and I didn’t know if I took after my Dad. I thought about why I didn’t ask him and I thought about other things.

 

Hurricane in a Pimp Glass

The man had chained himself to a beam in the nearly torn down Isaac Hayes Night Club & Restaurant in Memphis.

“This man won’t leave,” the building inspector said.

“This man has to leave,” the wrecking crew foreman said.

“This man is going to leave and he’s going to leave now,” the policewoman said.

The man had done a good job chaining himself to that beam.

“Care to explain this?” the policewoman asked.

The man said he’d had a first date here, the first with his future fiancé. Here, they sampled Isaac’s herb-roasted chicken, tasted the sweet potato pudding, and shared a hurricane cocktail in a Pimp Glass.

“We used the same straw,” the man said. “It was the happiest night of my life.”

“For your wife, too?” the policewoman asked.

“The two never married,” the man said.

“Gladys despises me — ‘Fuck you and everybody who looks like you’ is what she tells me every chance she gets,” the man said. “But for a moment there, a moment here… ”

 

Probably Possibly Maybe

I started to write a letter I was sure I’d probably possibly send to you. Probably possibly maybe.

I started the letter this way: I don’t know how to love you but I do. As in: I do love you, but I don’t know how to love you.

I’m aware I was confusing the lyrics of two songs: “I Don’t Know Why I Love You, But I Do” by Clarence Frogman Henry and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” the version Yvonne Elliman sings. Not unlike if I were mixing metaphors. Which I do, I know I do that. I know I do it a lot.

And, yes, I took the “why” out of one of the titles and put in “how,” even though that really doesn’t work, either. But it’s absolutely not about why it’s never been about why it’s never ever about why. Yes, I could give you a list or something, but that wouldn’t tell you why.

Why and how and probably and possibly and maybe and I don’t know. I never thought I’d come to this. That we would. That it would. “What’s it all about?” Sing it, Yvonne. Sing it pretty.

 

Mistakes Made Interesting

A musician talks about a mistake she’d made.

“One time during a session, I played the wrong chord,” she says. “This other musician played some notes that somehow corrected my mistake. She made things right. To her, my mistake was interesting.”

“As long as the chord resolved,” one of the musician’s students says.

“As long as it was interesting,” another student says.

 

If It Could

We named our city If It Could and we talked about it on Effin’ Twitter.

We said: Our city is high enough to make fun of the Damn Yankees’ song “High Enough” without us worrying about hurting anybody’s feelings. It’s wide enough to preclude ogling. Deep enough to welcome neo-Panamax ships.

We said: We’re a city of prayers. We pray for things. Sometimes we see ourselves praying for things in a booth at the Pizza Hut down by the cove. Or in a glass bottom boat in a sea of green. Or at the bottom of the sea.

We said: We try to do things in If It Could, we really do try, and sometimes we can’t get them done. Maybe it’s because we can’t make sense of things. Not always and not right away. Not in this city. But we believe we can.

 

Pat Foran is a writer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States. His work has appeared in Milk Candy Review, Little Fiction, WhiskeyPaper, Anti-Heroin Chic, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter at @pdforan.