Experts by David Byron Queen

Terry Rawlings knew nothing about gymnastics when he bought an abandoned aircraft hangar out by the interstate, and needed something to do with it. He hired his hunting pal, Murph, a foreman for a local construction firm, to gut the place. He replaced the dirt with padded Tight-Lock rubber flooring and lined the walls with polyfoam stunt mats. He bought a pommel horse, a balance beam, a few vault boards, some tension bars, uneven bars, parallel bars, a half-dozen chalk holders, and a set of still rings to hang from the rafters, above a thick landing mat.

Terry hired a team of coaches and assistants, then went to a local engraver and ordered a display case’s worth of trophies with our names and made-up achievements. Nobody ever questioned it—why would they? Rawlings Gymnastics wasn’t a place where champions were made; it was a place where parents could leave their kids for a few hours after school, and buy some much-needed time to themselves. If any students did show promise, Terry passed them along to the many more legitimate gyms in Missoula, or Helena. Talent was an unwanted burden; it distracted and drew attention to the place—something he worked hard to prevent.

The staff, of course, knew all this. A Google search had revealed that he hadn’t come in 2nd Overall in the 1973 Big Sky Gymnastics Competition (it wasn’t founded until 1981). But Terry was nice enough, and he paid us well enough. At sixty-four and retired, he was looking for a source of income to supplement what he had already, and (maybe) a place to hide it.

Terry seemed tough when you’d meet him. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and had these rough, knotty hands. He’d made good money at a power plant in New Jersey, before heading out west on a bow-hunting trip and falling for the place and making a down payment on a twenty-acre piece of land in the Bitterroot Valley, a few miles outside of Florence.

Truth is, we inflated our own knowledge and experience knowing Terry wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Sure, we’d done some high school athletics. I had run track at Hellgate, and gone through basic, but my fitness had dropped off by then. One of us, Claire, had gone to state on floor and still had a tremendous stag leap, but for the rest of us it was a stretch.

Everything would have been fine, if Terry hadn’t attempted to relocate. Murph’s crew came in once again, breaking down the entire gymnastics center with the goal of moving it, piece by piece, up a nearby hill he’d also bought about a half mile away.

Why? It’s hard to say. He’d lost a son later in his life, and most of us figured this project was his way of working through it. They’d found the man’s car in a lake in Canada somewhere. A note had been left in marker on the windshield. He was buckled in his seat inside.

As long as Terry was paying us, we’d hang out around the worksite, watching the backhoes move dirt into piles. He’d arrive each day in a truck that had a severed elk head in the bed of it, blood spread out under in a black-red circle. We could smell it up the road, coming our way, adding new life to the smells of the worksite—the stacks of saw-ripped two-by-fours, the torched steel, the power-shoveled earth—as the sun beamed through the ceiling truss on the hill, throwing shadows across the lawn that at certain parts of the day looked like the skeleton of a whale. Terry would approach us sitting there. He’d say how nice the new center was going to look, and how thankful he was for our patience during this “transition.” Some days, we’d see Terry lying on the crash mat for hours, staring up at the sky, watching the gliding clouds.

We did our best with what we had. We set up the pommel horse and some of the mats and, while the weather was tolerable, we’d instruct the kids right there, under the big open sky. We’d talk them through tumbles, handstand walks, hollow body holds, and the steady rings Murph would sometimes hang from his team’s mobile crane when it wasn’t in use.

By winter, everything stalled. The snow and cold prevented us from continuing our instruction outdoors, and Terry had burned through a considerable amount of money. When our paychecks started coming in more irregularly, most of us went our separate ways.

I stayed on longer than most. Less out of a sense of commitment to Terry—though we got along fine, he and I—and more because I couldn’t find a new job.

I had no real plan back then. I applied all over. From the juice stand at the mall, to a place called The Gun Barn, that always had a man dressed as an Ambush 300 dancing by the road. I applied to teach at an elementary school, but failed my trial when I gave one child in the class permission to use the bathroom; seeing my weakness, more kids asked to use the bathroom and didn’t return. Finally, most of the class was gone and my supervisor, Leah, had to leave in the middle of my lesson and track them all down.

One night, I must have written her an email. Leah wrote back to say she didn’t like my tone and a few months down the line we’d be living together and when things were good some nights we’d sit on our patio, looking at the mountains. She’d tell me wild things like you could put your hand theoretically right through a solid table if its atoms were arranged a little differently. And I’d watch her and fall in and out of love. But that’s a different story.

To help cover the rent on our apartment after Leah left, I asked Terry if he’d be OK with me taking on a few of his students. He allowed me to take whatever equipment I could load into my truck and set up in my living room. The equipment had sat out all winter and was rusted and banged to hell with these coiled metal springs reaching through in places, and I had to be careful. I wrapped the balance beam and pommel horse with duct tape and it worked fine for a while until one day this boy was up on the beam and his foot slipped off the duct tape and he hit his head on the coffee table. I got the boy and all the others in my truck and hustled them over to the hospital where he had stitches put in. Out in the parking lot, the boy’s parents said I was lucky I wasn’t well off enough to sue. I’d never considered myself lucky before.

I brought the equipment back to Terry, who was living in the worksite trailer since he’d had to sell his house to pay off his debts. The hill was more or less blasted away, by then replaced by a deep ugly crater in the earth. I said to Terry he should say it was caused by some kind of alien meteor or something, and have people pay to come look at it, you know, bored families driving cross country, but he didn’t seem charged on the idea. “I’d have to get it verified,” he said. “And I’d have to find a meteor to blame it on.” He said he had something for me. A trophy. He’d had them made for the staff right around the time we’d all started leaving, and now they were sitting in a box in his office. He said I could have it, and told me if I saw any of them around, to give them their trophies. I put the box in my truck and forgot about it.

Then later that week I was pulled over after leaving the bar. I saw this red and blue and white swirling light in my rearview. This was out by the airport, from what I recall.

The officer asked me if I’d been drinking. I told him, yes, I had. He had me get out and kiss the little metal beak of his breathalyzer. Of course, I didn’t pass—there’s that. But I think he thought there was more to the situation than there was. So he asked to search my truck. I said OK, and at the time it felt strategic, like I had a bunch more ideas down the line, and each idea was informing and building on the next, when I don’t think I really did.

He shined a light on the box of trophies in the truck bed. “You must be pretty good.”

“An expert,” I said, and sprinted off into the night.

 

David Byron Queen grew up in Ohio. His work has appeared in The Rumpus, VICE, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Hobart, McSweeney’s, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. He has an MFA from the University of Montana, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. Currently he lives in Brooklyn, New York and runs the indie publishing company word west. Find him on Twitter @byron_queen.

Jumping the Shark by Jennifer Wortman

We’d come to the point in our marriage where I’d forgotten my husband’s name and I barely remembered mine. He was husband. I was wife. I’d been reading spiritual teachings that lauded the virtues of boredom, and when my husband and I stared dead-eyed at each other across the dinner table, I took deep breaths and tried to connect to my vibrant essence. “How was your day?” my husband would ask. “Oh, you know…,” I’d answer. He did know! He could have easily summarized my day for me: I had two or three possible days I cycled through and he knew them all. This familiarity made us strangers. “How was your day?” I’d ask him. He’d say exactly what I knew he would say, and we’d gape at each other.

One night, after once more failing to connect to my vibrant essence, I said, “I want a divorce.” The words just sprang out, like a scroll from one of those joke guns. In the early days of our marriage, we used to demand a divorce as a running gag: You don’t like black olives? I want a divorce! It was funny because it wasn’t true. This time it was true, or not patently false, but my husband laughed anyway. I joined in the laughter and convinced myself I’d spun comic gold.

A few days later, he came home straddling a motorcycle. “How the hell did you pay for that?” I asked.

“It’s a Triumph,” he said, as if that were an answer. “Like Fonzie rode.” He knew of my childhood love of Fonzie, the chaste fantasies I’d concoct to help me sleep, where I’d hoop my arms around Fonzie’s leathered trunk as he zoomed us through the sexy Milwaukee streets. Oh, to be whisked away from my fighting parents! Their every word, gesture, action had significance, was some sort of act of war. Or every so often, a call for peace. But nothing was neutral.

“You looked up Fonzie’s motorcycle?” I asked.

He nodded shyly. “Want to go for a ride?” How could I not? I climbed on.

We drove through the unsexy but not unpleasant streets of our nondescript lower-middle-class residential neighborhood. My husband showed surprising facility with the bike, and I enjoyed the deep leans of our turns, the brief surrender to gravity only to flout it. We returned home exhilarated and holding hands. I let the grim matter of money drop. If feeling alive meant more debt, so be it.

The next day, when my husband came home in a black leather jacket and beckoned me with a flick of his head, I skittered right over and followed him outside. He’d done something different to his hair: a slick substance molded it back, lending his trim Anglo features Mediterranean oomph. I leapt onto the bike, donned my helmet like a pro, and off we rode.

My husband had an obnoxious habit of leaving lights on, but that night, not only did he turn off lights upon exiting rooms but he did so by punching the wall with the side of his fist. Within days, our sex life exponentially improved. It was like back when we first met and each touch a was a new weather, flouting forecast.

I continued with my self-paced spiritual studies and practices. Long ago, someone had told me that marriage was like meditation: the key was, come what may, to hold your seat. So each evening, I’d plop down on my meditation cushion and observe my breath, the rise and fall of my chest, the cool wind entering my nose and the warm air that emerged.

One night, I experienced a sensation of rising from the floor. I chalked it up to spiritual wooziness. But the sensation increased: the beige carpet dropped down beneath me. I’d never aspired to levitation, but now it was just happening: had I achieved a true magic, a transcendence beyond the Fonz?

I sensed something behind me and turned. My husband held his thumbs up, pointing outward, the classic Fonzie stance.

“Put me down,” I snapped. But he was so enamored of his own powers he didn’t hear me, or didn’t listen. “Put me down!” I repeated.

“But it’s amazing. A miracle.”

I’d thought those same words once, about us. Our love had been the Fonz: it was cool and fiery; it fixed broken things; it walked in a room and people cheered. Maybe not: but it felt like that, that together we were enchanted and enchanting. As my husband lowered me, I felt the letdown of our lives.

“Didn’t you like it?” he asked. I did. In fact, the second my hips touched the floor I felt a loss I couldn’t measure. But it was just another trick, and, worse, a trick played on me instead of by me.

“No,” I said.

“But I did it for you. I thought you liked magic men.”

“You’re not magic,” I said, channeling my parents’ habitual antagonism. “And I don’t like you.” All these years I’d kept it down. Most of the time. But being miraculously lifted and lowered shook it out of me.

I locked the door to our bedroom and tried to recreate the levitation on my own. I knew trying wasn’t the answer, but neither was trying not to try. I had to accept the trying without trying to try or trying not to try. This required a lot of failing, which I also had to accept. These conundrums humbled me, and I felt ready to apologize to my husband without making things worse.

I found my him hovering high in the living room, his denimed legs tucked in a full lotus, a position I could never achieve. His half-closed eyes saw nothing but his own bliss.

I wanted him to teach me. We could do this together. I’d rack up debt with my own bike and leather gear. We’d sit on air side by side.

“Hey,” I said. “I’m really sorry about before.”

Nothing. He was lost in the ether, I thought, but then his face, as if painstakingly adjusting itself to lower realms, registered my presence. “I want a divorce,” he said, his legs uncrossing as he drifted to the floor.

I spat out a laugh, but the croak that emerged only punctuated my foolishness. He didn’t crack a smile. My husband, who, if I was honest, had always looked a tad ridiculous as The Fonz, suddenly looked 100 percent not ridiculous. He’d become the Fonziest Fonz there ever was, his white tee a beacon of everyone’s dreams, his jacket a sheath for the blade of his greatness, his coif a plush arrow to heaven.

“Please,” I said. For what can you say to a god in desperate times but “please, please, please”?

He shook his head, and I knew all was lost. I ran outside, and there was the motorcycle poised at a fetching little tilt. I jumped on and rode through our little streets, waiting for a sign from a different god: one that hadn’t failed me; one I hadn’t failed. I should have been meditating, but I was done not trying. I needed a higher power, not an earth-bound cushion. And there, in a corner backyard, was a homemade skateboard ramp, a shallow “U” that if entered right would harness my horsepower and shove me aloft. Though I was barely controlling the bike as it was, I somehow ascended the skate ramp beautifully, launching over tangled backyard grass, a yellow whiffle-ball bat, an abandoned rake, and for a moment—let’s call it a very short eternity—before the humiliating crash, before the endless convalescence, before my husband sold the wrecked bike for parts and lost the leather and became my same old husband again, I soared.

 

Jennifer Wortman is a National Endowment for the Arts fellow and the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love. She lives with her family in Colorado.

Pot Roast by Alyson Mosquera Dutemple

My son rubs the lamp and a fairy godmother comes out. It’s not supposed to happen like this. My husband is mad. The genie’s been misplaced again, and he hates that fairy godmother. He fumes at my son. Put that lamp back down where you found it. Stop messing about! Behind my son’s head, the fairy godmother sheds a little glitter. I go for the vacuum cleaner, but by the time I lug it out of the closet, my son has applied sparkles to his eyelids and my husband is muttering his way out the door.

Why do you put up with that? the fairy godmother asks me, peering through the kitchen curtains as my husband paces the yard. She’s getting bored waiting for my son to figure out his heart’s desires. It’s always like this. She’s supposed to offer him input, sage advice, but she rolls her eyes when he takes out a pen and starts another list. I lean over his shoulder to whisper my own two cents. It seems so obvious, infinite wishes, but he waves me off with a small hand before I can even suggest it.

Seriously, though, the fairy godmother gripes. What choice do I have? I scream over the pressure cooker. A thick meat cloud wafts through the kitchen. Ooh, is that pot roast? the fairy godmother wants to know. She grabs the handles, tries to pry the machine open. I think about warning her to be patient or else she’ll blow us all to bits, but just then my son shoots out of his chair, eyes ablaze. Eureka! he says, and I hope that means he’s got it. That this time, he’s figured it out. A way to capitalize on the small handful of wishes this life would offer. 

Just outside the window, my husband’s footsteps grow louder, loafers crunching up the drive. Mealtime in our house is serious business, meat and potatoes and clockwork, but tonight my son is climbing the table instead of setting it, waving that tiny list high, as if inching all his future happinesses closer to the clouds. I squint up at that knot of jumbled letters there, try to make sense of what he’s written. But it is a tangle I cannot unravel, and, for a moment, I can only marvel at the maze of his heart.

In the doorway, my husband’s shadow looms. The pressure cooker sings. The godmother blows the hair out from her eyes. Here goes nothing. She flexes her biceps, gives a final yank on the handles and pow. Pot roast like ticker tape, gristle like rain.

Through the shimmer of debris, I think I can see my son leaping from the table, think I can catch a glimpse of his trail as he wends his way through the kitchen. A pair of shoes skidders past, and I sit right down on the filthening floor. I watch as my boy goes skipping contentedly on his way. And when I can no longer see him, while everything else is still falling, falling, I close my eyes. I cross my fingers. I hope he doesn’t stop forever and ever and

 

Alyson Mosquera Dutemple is a writer from New Jersey with an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and Best Microfictions. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Wigleaf, Atticus Review, Pithead Chapel, Pigeon Pages, Empty House Press, and The Middle of a Sentence, The Common Breath’s short prose anthology. She is an Editorial Consultant for CRAFT Literary. Find her at www.alysondutemple.com and on Twitter @swellspoken.

Tchaikovsky by Peter Krumbach

It was when I scrubbed that hideous yellow rug that I found him under the bed. Surprisingly odorless, considering he had to have lied there for all those years. He was so small. Maybe a shade over five feet, a teal cravat still tied under his chin. Pyotr Ilyich? I said, wishing he’d open his eyes and exhale some Saint Petersburg haze. But he just lied there with his brown shoes and hands tucked into his waistcoat. I picked him up and carried him to the kitchen. Why was he so light? Had the bulk of death long been sucked out? I sat him in the chair and tapped on his chest. The tip of his tongue slipped through the beard. I ran to the bathroom to fetch a brush. I wanted to comb his hair before taking him to the station. But when I returned, he was under the table, face down in a puddle of milk. Still no pulse. I mopped, then remembered the thick roll of butcher paper and twine in the pantry. Wrapping the head first, I swaddled him down all the way to his feet. We got on the trolley at Prudhomme and Main. The conductor charged me extra for the swordfish under my arm. By the time we got to the station, he’d become heavier. I leaned him against the wall outside the restroom. It felt good to splash cold water on my neck, then on the mirror, study my warped reflection in the droplets gliding slowly toward the center of the Earth. I listened for their music, but only heard the soft ringing in my ears. When I stepped out, he was gone. I circled the hall for a while, lighting a cigarette, peeking under benches, then bought two tickets to Trenton and headed for the Lost-and-Found. The clerk dipped beneath the counter and produced an umbrella, a set of dentures, and four unclaimed hats. I could hear the train pulling into the station. The announcer coughed over the loudspeakers and as I ran, it felt as though the deceased and the unborn were watching me from afar. I could almost see them, in black and white, the distance taking away their faces. Out on the platform, the cars stood quiet, sooted, the windows redirecting light. I thought about the restroom mirror, how it was wide enough to leap through, if I were that kind of a man.

 

Peter Krumbach has work in or coming from Beloit Poetry Journal, The Citron Review, Copper Nickel, jubilat, The Massachusetts Review, New Ohio Review, Quarter After Eight, Salamander, Wigleaf, and others. He lives in California.

There’s a Trick with a Knife by Meghan Phillips

The knife thrower picks her volunteers based on how they’ll look with their backs against her fake wall, their wrists restrained in little Velcro loops. How the man in the striped t-shirt will look with an apple on his head. How the girl in the sundress will look with a balloon in either hand. Their lips softened to a surprised “o.” A perfect little gasp when the apple slices, when the balloon pops.

She picks her volunteers based on how they’ll look tumbled in her floral sheets. How they’ll fill up her trailer at the night end of the midway. Mouths wrapped in a surprised “o” as she drags a tooth down their neck, drags a nail down their thigh. A perfect little gasp as she thinks: what if I slip just this once.

 

Meghan Phillips is a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her flash fiction chapbook Abstinence Only is forthcoming from Barrelhouse Books. You can find her writing at meghan-phillips.com and her tweets at @mcarphil.

 

Satellite of a Satellite of a Satellite by Avra Margariti

It’s been fourteen days since my wife made good on her threat to launch herself into space. Locked in accidental lunar orbit, she spins around the moon and her own axis. Meanwhile, I’m getting tired of the stillness in our house. The silence.

I dial the moon base number I now know by heart. Ask the operator, “What’s taking the rescue team so long?”

Luna’s lone operator recites some excuse or other—construction accident in the asteroid belt, freighter lost in space, giant squid invasion. I picture the operator behind an old secretary desk, filing her nails in-between managing the call center.

“Put me through to my wife, please.”

The operator sighs. “She doesn’t want to speak to you.”

Her and her pride. I picture my wife going round and round, acting like she could come down any time she wanted.

“Will you give her a message?”

The operator hums her assent.

“Will you tell her I miss her?”

The call disconnects before I can ask the operator if my wife misses me, too.

I wheel my old telescope onto the balcony and watch my wife orbiting Earth’s satellite the way she used to orbit me. Her luminous skin reflects all the stars and spilled dust of outer space. The unknowable black holes of her eyes seem to swallow the matter around her. I’ve heard it’s cold, up there, and she freezes so easily, toes chilly at night, fingers twitching with minute shivers.

I call the operator again to say, “She likes soup. Can you send her some French onion soup?”

The operator exhales. Drawn-out. Long-suffering. I hear her clicking buttons.

“You want any croutons with that?”

The operator is perpetually exasperated with me. It makes a girl wonder. Is she lonely up there? Does she enjoy the solitude my wife and I have disrupted with our melodrama? All these days—wax and wane—and my telescope has never once caught her leaving her Luna-based station.

I realize the line is still connected, but quiet. Static-y with the sound of our syncopated breathing. That is, until the operator asks, “What was the fight about?”

“What?”

“When she left you. What did you two fight about?”

She didn’t leave me, I want to shout loud enough I’ll be heard in space. All I say is, “I can’t remember anymore.”

Hum. Click. Soothing, strangely.

As I wheel the telescope back inside, clutching the phone tight between my chin and shoulder, I am reminded of my mother. How she once told me adulthood means losing people more than you get to keep them. Later, I can’t help taking another peek through the lens of my telescope, the view obscured by the smudged window. The cream glob drifting toward my wife could be her favorite French onion soup. The bright glint on her face could be a smile. But meant for me, or for the operator?

“Do you talk to her?” I ask the operator some rotations after that. Her voice is all buttered toast and golden sunlight, at least when callers like me don’t irritate her. A good voice to hear in the cold and dark, I suppose.

“Of course. Days feel long on Luna.”

Days are long here, too. Such is the interconnectedness of satellite systems.

The landline’s cord around my fingers cuts off my blood circulation. “Do you talk about me?”

Silence. I hate her silences. The operator isn’t exactly friendly, but hers is the only voice I’ve heard in so long, sometimes it slinks and settles into my bones through the distance between us.

I go to bed—my wife’s side—and picture her and the operator chatting through their headsets while my phone remains silent. My wife explains how to pair wine with soup, then laughs as she and the operator ponder how aeration works in space. She admits, all soft and confidential, that launching herself into space, then being pulled into accidental orbit, was worth it.

Why? the operator asks. And my wife says, Because I got to meet you.

My dreams that night orbit them both.

 

Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, The Forge Literary, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and other venues.

Oxygenation by Gabrielle Trúc Cohen

Heat
(Fermentation)

Strawberries nestled between lumps of brown sugar-coated oatmeal for breakfast. Juicy, grainy, sticky.

Birds sing between the branches of jacaranda trees to the tune of something that sounds like honey spread on leaves, butter on bread. Snippets of summer radio remind us to stay hydrated while the cars whistle by, slowly. There’s nowhere to go. August will come.

South Los Angeles is just thirty minutes from the ocean. But most days, the only body of water we touch comes from the one we create. Sweat and joy. Pain and sadness. Cool to the touch.

Our heads submerged, coming up for air only when it is time to shower.

After breakfast, there’s always a can of Altoids. Inside, flakes of brown and green leaves. I watch you roll and lick, then pass. No mint, just grass. An early flame. We sit on your porch in plastic green beach chairs and smoke for hours. Through the morning, through the afternoon heatwaves, and wonder.

* * * *

We didn’t have any money. We were always driving around in old cars. Cars that belonged to someone’s sister or roommate, cars that someone’s something or other said we could borrow while they did their backpacking trip through Europe, a graduation present to themselves. We celebrated your graduation with beers, upgrading from Keystone Light to Corona. As if that was a rite of passage. No lime, still cold.

I celebrated your graduation by graduating from my parents. Nineteen and just happy to be loved by you.

Who needs parents who don’t know how to parent themselves?

This is how I remember us that summer.


Fruit-forward
(Rich, Lush)

Dinner always begins with the crack-and-pop of Trader Joe’s two-buck-chuck wine bottles. Moist cork. Glass pressed to your nose. Blackberry and aged grape. And the most important flavor: oxygen. Breath of life. Just enough, not too much.

Kitchen knives placed perfectly, Netflix ready on your computer. One day, we’ll afford a television.

Boiling water for pasta and fresh-cut cilantro, the crunch of black pepper, rosemary-crusted lamb roast. Fingertips pressed on the oven. Electric heat burning my face.

There I am, nineteen and already looking like my mother. Her waiting and all.

“I want to go everywhere with you and I want to go nowhere without you,” I say drunkenly, pulling you on top of me, undressing you with my wine-stained lips. And nowhere we go. We lay and smoke and watch ourselves become black skies. The place where stickiness feels like vast seas.

We knock down glass after glass with exhilaration, a forgetting. Like to be drunk is a climax, like to no longer be sober is to remember. Inhaling enough of each other to be high, cutting ourselves off just before comatose.

Multiple universes exist, I know that and only that for sure. But I still want to ask: where do the stars go after they die, where do meteors crash on Earth, where do you and I fall when we finally decide to wake up?

This is how I remember staying.

* * * *

I often wonder. If I could go back, would I tell myself the truth? That most of the time, my eyes were closed, like I was just bracing myself, hoping that I could make it through all the horrible parts of my life and somehow still come out alive?

Will you save me?

I never asked directly.


Structured
(Intense, Full-bodied)

I remember my parents talking about one day. One day, you will meet someone who you will share your life with. One day, you will be loved.

One day, they said, as if they were ever happy.

You kill cockroaches and yell at landlords while I pop two pills of Effexor, watching from the window. Peering through the blinds, I can feel you sighing as soon as you reach your car, the parking ticket flying like a kite underneath the windshield wiper. The auto shop across the street would always win the street-parking-war. Right next to an auto shop, you said. The perfect apartment.

Always preparing for the worst, you and I. Ready for a break-down. You never did go to that auto shop.

Has the lamb finished cooking, baby?

It’s done.

* * * *

Do you remember wheeling our baskets to the laundromat around the corner, our entire evening blocked off just to separate colors? Do you remember the church chorus serenading us while we soaped clothes? Do you remember the smell of street-grilled carnitas and piping hot tortillas? How we always stopped at the taqueria on the way home, how I would ask for all three types of salsa. Drenching my tacos until they bled.

Too much detergent, baby.

I’m sorry. I’m always too much.


Acidic
(Sharp, Spicy)

You can tell that wine has oxidized, if not by your nose, by your mouth. Tornado spinning on your lips, spiraling inward towards itself. Stringent enough to rub the insides of your cheeks dry. Wine goes down best when you close your eyes.

I could never handle my alcohol the way you could. Stinging. Sour. Full-bodied, all tannin. Jagged, dry burn in the throat like sandpaper rubbing the roof of your mouth. Nausea to make your head spin. Heartburn in the chest. Prepared to erupt.

A pause, then deep sigh, from the hollow part of your belly. The place where it hurts so bad that no one can ever visit, not even me, the supposed love of your life. I know this place because I have this place, too, and I promise: for all you think you have seen of me, you have never traveled here.

You, on one side of the bathroom door, and me on the other. Me on my knees.

What’s wrong what’s wrong what’s WRONG.

Is it your voice or mine? I cannot be sure.

When I finally unlock the door, you glance over at the unflushed toilet. You don’t know what to say after, and I can’t blame you.

We will always remain silent about these nights.


Oxidation
(Bitter finish)

Here’s a question I have been dying to ask you: when (if) you remember me,

Do you remember the summer, the girl on her knees, or both?

I tried to leave once before I really left.

Maybe, it was only in that space, the distance between us, and between that locked door, that we finally heard each other.

You remember, don’t you?

It was you who told me to go.

My bags packed. Suitcase at the door.

We never talk about that night. How you opened me up and left me exposed like the cork, the tree pulled from its roots.

I asked you to ask me to stay, and yes, I know I should have just said I’m sorry. But I was nineteen and still playing games. Pretending to be an adult when I was a child. Pretending to be your confidante when I still was a stranger to myself.

Our values are just different. Not just opposites-attract-different but irreconcilably different. Maybe it’s a good thing.

Your words melted like ice on my tongue, slid down my throat. I took the words with me when I left, when I found myself awake the next morning somewhere other than your bed. I told you I was a child.

But I came back, you remember that part, right? The knocking down of it all, the truth peering in like light through the window, the opportunity for us to set it straight. There was a chance for us to stop annihilating each other with our own demons.

When I returned, it was you on your knees this time. Please, never again. I love you. Whatever you need. The first and only time I have ever seen you cry.

You can give someone everything and it’s still not enough, baby. It’s never enough when they don’t love themselves.

This is how I broke.


Vinegar
(Enough)

I wonder what it would be like to work on a vineyard, to pull grapes and press them into something beautiful, to watch liquified fruit swim through machines and bottles, and eventually end up in the hands of two people, like you and me. To give someone something beautiful.

To give someone something that they want to remember.

* * * *

Why do people stay together when they are so different?

We learned to give each other space. So much air, we stopped breathing altogether. Squeezed every ounce of sweetness out, wringing the towel, licking the glass clean. Until there was nothing left but the pungent, sour, suffocating, sharp-like smell of acid.

Aeration is good for wine until it is not. Until it rots.

You never asked me, but I know it was always on the tip: Why are you like this?

I think you should have trusted yourself. But maybe that is why people stay together when they are different. Because of the things they refuse to admit, to each other, and to themselves. After all, here I am.

Years later, still letting the wine swirl, tasting you turn on my tongue.

 

Gabrielle Trúc Cohen (she/her) is moved by narratives that interrogate space. The spaces we take up, the spaces we leave behind, and the spaces where we live in-between. She has previously published an essay about this in diaCritics, a journal of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian diaspora arts and culture. This is her first published work of fiction. She is a multiracial, Vietnamese-American writer from California who currently lives in Saigon.

And Then She is a Witch by Ellen Rhudy

Clarice wakes on blankets wet with her own secretions, damp with sour milk. “You know how you find a witch?” Sam asks as he strips their bed, Clarice watching from the corner. “You light a fire beneath her feet, and if she laughs instead of screaming, then she is a witch.” In the shower she presses liquid from the bee stung lump on her stomach, until the water cools and then shocks. But still there’s more to come, her body an endless fount of milk, and when she returns to the bedroom she can find the damp outlines of her body beneath the fresh sheets.

“They would have drowned you, once, for having that,” Sam says after scheduling her dermatologist appointment. That night he lowers his face to her stomach and suckles until he is stretched full of her. Once, Clarice thinks, she would have woken to a cat or a dog, a bat, latched to her; now, there’s only this man who holds her hand as the dermatologist explains it’s a supernumerary nipple, nothing odd, Ryan Reynolds has one, he usually wouldn’t remove them but since it bothers her—he numbs Clarice’s skin, and slices the nipple free with a blade flexed between thumb and forefinger.

“You know how you find a witch?” Sam asks the next morning as he changes Clarice’s pinkened, rusty gauze. “You dunk her in the water, and if she drips free with a smile instead of drowning, then she is a witch.” Clarice looks at a smudge, a potential cobweb, near the ceiling, because she cannot look at her stomach. She feels there is a thread latched to her wound, and if Sam finds that thread he will tug all of her out, inch by inch, until she is a heaped coil on the floor. He pats her thigh when the fresh gauze is taped. “Maybe tomorrow you can shower.”

In her dreams, her body remains complete. A child milks from her, grows larger and larger until she looks so much like Clarice herself that when she grips the girl’s arm Clarice is startled by the lack of her ghostly hand’s pressure on her own skin. Her wound will not heal, it weeps continuously and begins to smell rank, to smell like a dead thing. Sam drives her back to the dermatologist, who refers them to a plastic surgeon. “Maybe there’s a reason,” the doctor says, “I don’t normally remove these.” Clarice holds a hand on her stomach at all times and strangers, who do not realize she is trying to contain her body in itself, ask when she is due.

The plastic surgeon offers discounted supplementals—“while I’m in there anyway,” he says. A tummy tuck, a breast lift. “No thank you,” says Clarice, still waking fearful that her entire body will be encased in gauze, that she will have been made a thing unknown to herself. But there is only Sam, a clean bandage on her stomach. “Did you know,” Sam says, “that if you force a woman apart from her faithful black cat, and if she is rent with emotion rather than going to the barn to find another, then she is a witch.”

“When did you stop speaking like a person?” Clarice asks, but she still holds his hand. She does not wake him that night when a frog comes to her and pads down her thigh, or the next night when a black cat kneads at her heel. Clarice is in and outside her body in one moment, she feels every part of her self but cannot locate her presence in physical space—as if she is everywhere, and nowhere, at once. The plastic surgeon is pleased with her healing, her stomach swells, she feels Sam watching her closer and closer, she closes her eyes when he lays his hands on her. One day she is searching for a pebble in her shoe and finds instead a familiar damp soaking her sock. A slight, sour release when she presses the lump nestling into her arch.

Their daughter is born that July, a girl who looks so much like Clarice as a baby that she might have borne herself. At night she cries until Clarice relents and carries her back to bed, where Sam pretends to sleep and no more toads pay their silent visits.

“You know how you find a witch?” Sam asks. “You watch her at night, for who comes to her and lays close to her body—and depending on what you find, she is a witch.” Clarice wonders who he might have been in a different age—this man with his pocked cheeks and scratching beard, always inspecting their sheets. “So,” he says, “what do you say?” Their daughter suckling at her sole, Clarice reads Sam’s eyes on her and waits for him to speak her name.

 

Ellen Rhudy lives in Philadelphia, where she works as an instructional designer. Her fiction has recently appeared in Split Lip and Gigantic Sequins, and is forthcoming in Story, Cream City Review, and Pithead Chapel. Her story “A Writer’s Guide to Fairy Tales” will be included in The Best Small Fictions 2020. She joined Ohio State’s MFA program in the fall, and you can find her at ellenrhudy.com, or on twitter @EllenRhudy. 

Fireflies by Ron Burch

At night when she exhales, fireflies burst forth, yellow fireworks against the nighted sky. She covers her mouth, surprised, terrified, a tear and trip of emotions, as one more flits forward, hovering in front of her eyes until it sweeps away.

From the house, her husband calls her name. She doesn’t want to answer. Things haven’t been easy. They have nothing, jobs, a breath gone, him, a trigger of frustration and loss.

At first, she was afraid of them. Of what they were, of where they came, of what they might mean. She didn’t know why it was happening, didn’t want to waste money on a doctor who might not be able to tell her anything at all. Even worse, might want to run more expensive tests. Like her friend Diane who got cancer and lost her house. There’s no mercy in this world. Online, she’d read about weird stuff like this. She searches the internet while he naps on the green couch, across the large-screen tv a black and white line of monstrous bugs crawls through the desert. She finds nothing.

During the day, when she breathes, it’s normal although, after it had first begun, she feared every exhale. She took measured breaths in an attempt to control them; it changed nothing. When it gets dark, the fireflies leave from her, staggered times, sometimes one, sometimes many, often none at all. She sits in the dark of the back yard, her husband inside, months of staring lifelessly at the tv. They have no children. She feels it and opens her mouth, a yellow flash shooting out. He bellows. She shrinks back, ignoring it. Later, she tells him she’d fallen asleep in the moonlight.

She begins to anticipate it, impatient for the night, the day a wall to climb. While she sits in the backyard, the moon a curved stick, a pale remnant, she waits, away from a weak yellow bulb burning a hole in the space around the back deck, thinking of them, begging them to fly. One by one they flutter out, brushing the night.

When she creeps late into the house, the tv a commercial, her husband, a snore. She goes to bed and sleeps dreamless sleep and wakes up, already anticipating that evening. Her husband doesn’t pay attention, his face obscured behind his dirtied coffee cup, lost in his own bad dreams.  Never does he ask about the burgeoning nights that she doesn’t return.

The crickets swell in the full light of the moon while she hides in the back of the yard, lost in the trees at the edge. Her fireflies sail through the sky, twinkling like steampunk ships. Tonight, she can’t seem to stop them: a consistent flow that fills their back yard. She hears something clank and sits up, unsure of what it is, probably their widower neighbor tinkering in his garage. She leans back and another firefly appears. Her husband walks up behind her, both of them watching the firefly linger on her lips before it joins its companions.

This is her gift. Hers alone. She doesn’t want to share it with anyone. She never wants it taken away.

“I saw the yard,” he says, “it’s lit up like at summer. Like when we were kids.”

She nods and another firefly slips its head from between her lips, leaping into the air. She watches her husband as he watches it. He sinks down beside her, into the grass, the blades wetting his legs.

He looks at her and she smiles. He places his head on her knee, gazing up. His face, younger in the dark, like when they’d met almost ten years ago, a kid again watching the stars. The fireflies burst forth, a sparkler so bright they both have to close their eyes.

 

Ron Burch’s fiction has been published in numerous literary journals including South Dakota Review, Fiction International, and Mississippi Review, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His novel, Bliss Inc., was published by BlazeVOX Books. He lives in Los Angeles. 

Whale Watch by Gabrielle Griffis

Theo didn’t want to be baptized. First, the baptistry was gross. Second, the pastor made her feel creepy. Third, she didn’t believe in Jesus.

Her parents sent her to boarding school after her Sunday school teacher found her making out with Gina in the church library. Theo regretted the loss of their love notes, which included a lot of suggestive stick drawings.

From there, it was a downward spiral. First, the school was boring. Second, everyone was noticeably miserable. Third, she set her agenda on fire in the school bathroom. Citing her potentially violent tendencies, they revoked her dissection privileges, which was fine by her, because she wasn’t interested in cutting up dead squids anyway.

Her earth science teacher tried to get her excited about whales, by inviting her on a whale watch.

Theo’s parents wanted her to become some kind of missionary evangelist, spreading the gospel to less-fortunate nations. Theo read about colonialism that included pictures of forced labor and threw up in her hand. She didn’t want to be a missionary. She was prone to vomiting and didn’t know why.

On the day of the whale watch Theo listened to a CD Gina gave her. On the bus, she drew a picture of herself as a monster. In the drawing, she had thick tusks, big eyes, a lot of teeth, and drool. She figured it’s what her parents thought she looked like.

She got sunburnt on the boat.

One layer of sunscreen wasn’t enough for a couple hours on the open ocean. One of Theo’s classmates with hair down to her butt stood at the front of the bow. Her hair whipped into Theo’s face when she tried to get a better look at a humpback breaching in the distance. Theo tried to enjoy the experience, but it was hard with an odd chick’s ponytail in her mouth.

The whale spewed hot air and mucus from its blowhole. Her teacher said whales were like humans because their respiratory system’s had a larynx, pharynx, trachea, and lungs.

A pod of mottled dolphins swam beneath the surface.

That night, Theo lay alone in her dorm room. The bed rocked like a boat. Theo enjoyed the sensation. It was the most pleasant thing she’d felt in a while. It made her think magic was possible.

Spring air blew through her window screen. She could hear peepers and insects being electrocuted by floodlights.

Theo kept thinking about that baptistry. She wondered how they cleaned it. The grimy white tiles and dust. It was weirdly large, like a mini-swimming pool behind the choir. People probably contracted meningitis from giving themselves to the Lord.

At church, Theo mouthed the words to a hymn. Her voice seemed to have choked at some point, but she didn’t know where or when. On some level, she didn’t really care.

On Friday, her earth science teacher asked her to stay after class.

“I have a surprise for you”, he said, lifting the cover off a dead squid. Theo frowned.

“I thought you’d like to dissect your own,” he offered.

“Yeah, I really don’t,” Theo replied, repressing the urge to vomit. “Where do you even get these?” She asked.

“Mostly the wild,” he shrugged.

“Well that’s awful,” Theo replied. She was afraid of the wild. She was afraid of blood, and needles, and feelings. Her emotions hid in church libraries, folded notes, and dark corners.

She felt obligated, and sat at the lab table, donning an apron and latex gloves. A fishy pickled odor emanated from the body. The squid’s tentacles and suckers looked incredibly sad lying limp on the metal tray.

Her hands shook as she pressed the knife into the squid’s soft gelatinous body. She apologized to the squid for its life being wasted on her education.

The squid jiggled beneath the knife as she moved its sallow pink skin aside. Theo held her breath as she cut. She referred to the dissection diagram. Siphon. Ink sac. Ctenidium. The lab room was very quiet.

“How do you feel?” Her science teacher asked, smiling as she looked up from the dissection tray.

He looked genuinely eager to know. She felt genuinely eager to leave. She felt anxious, but she always felt anxious. Sad. Lost. Empty.

Now she was filled with this. This squid-guts experience, and the bizarre part was it was sanctioned as perfectly normal.

“Great,” Theo said, flashing a fake smile.

She went to the school library and checked out an art book. She drew herself as a pagan wearing a floral crown. She thought about the baptistry, how steam rises off wet fields in the morning. She missed Gina. It started raining outside. Fat silver raindrops burst on the rooftop. She put her headphones on to drown out the hymns in her head. She preferred not to be filled with the holy spirit. The only thing her parents focused on was God, so she didn’t know how to focus. Her feelings were pink ephemeral clouds. They dissipated and died. She was outer space. Cold.

 

Gabrielle Griffis is a mutli-media artist, writer, and musician. She studied creative writing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she has also worked for the Juniper Writing Institute. Her fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from XRAY Literary Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Gone Lawn, Cease, Cows, decomP, Bending Genres, and elsewhere. She works as a librarian on Cape Cod. You can visit her website at www.gabriellegriffis.com.