If you ask someone who works there, someone who knows the machines, they’ll say the steam turbines sound like a storm on the ocean. If you ask any of the sixth graders who take the field trip through the power plant each February, they’ll say it sounds like the static when the cable goes out, only louder. Like the cable is going to be out forever. But none of these kids have been to the ocean. This is a town that people sneak out of or escape. They don’t take vacations.
After the turbine room, the kids are shown an illustration detailing how the electricity, once created, is sent to the power stations, and from the power stations it shoots out in every direction over deteriorating powerlines. The lines split at every street, then again for each side of the street. And every time they split they get weaker.
They split one more time to terminate at their destination.
At our house, the line terminates outside of Hanson’s room.
Hanson isn’t here now. He’s at one of his appointments talking about why he gets so upset. The doctor says he’s too young to understand his own disappointment and anger. They are developing a coping strategy for him. Jenn and I have strategies of our own. They fail us but we won’t let them go. We would rather blame each other. We stand in Hanson’s room talking about what to do next.
I look at the line draping over our front yard. If I were outside, I could jump up and grab it. I imagine a lightning strike. Sparks shooting out of the outlets. I imagine finding the words to explain that love doesn’t matter anymore. The lights would get bright and then go dark. Every bulb would need to be replaced.
I open my mouth and what comes out sounds like a storm on the ocean. At one time that would have been enough. Hanson is in fifth grade. We can still figure this out.
Nathan Willis lives in Ohio. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in a variety of journals including Passages North, Outlook Springs, Cotton Xenomorph, and Jellyfish Review. He can be found online at nathan-willis.com and on Twitter @Nathan1280.
When a riptide comes, mother says to swim crosswise against it. But I am already thinking of the whales. Of all the heavy millennia before they went back to the sea—a dwindle of limb, a lengthening of spine and fingerbone steering them out, deeper and deeper, into such softness and hush, it would carry their voices for miles.
(I never heard your voice, only heartbeat, twinned with mine. The sound of you lost now, save for the lullaby mother sang beside the crib, how she tucked my name against yours, certain I would forget).
I cannot sing like a whale, but I spout like one now, salt and spume whooshing from my lungs as mother lifts me up, up, up. She knows what any whale mother knows, to nudge her young towards air. But whales breathe twice the oxygen any land mammal ever could, store it deep down in the muscle, like growing a third lung.
(I want to know which world would you have chosen, if you could. Which one would have let you breathe).
Mother puts me on her back and arcs above the waves, breaching. Once, I thought the same word meant three things: to rise, to rupture, to be born the way a whale is born in water, tail first so as not to drown. But on land, the opposite. The way some words change the moment they touch water:
(If the world were only liquid, would you feel any weight at all? Or would the sea carry what you couldn’t, would it swell to fill any lack?)
My first home was water, long before I can remember, the way whales must forget what it once felt like to walk. Still, mother knows the feel of my floating. She rocks us in the surf, limbs slick and glittered with sand, shaking from the water’s pull. Heart to heart on the tideline, we breathe, till within and without there is only the sound of currents, of rush and break, rush and break. Till neither of us knows which parts of us are earth, and which ocean. Till all of it becomes a kind of singing.
Erin Calabria grew up on the edge of a field in rural Western Massachusetts and currently lives in Magdeburg, Germany. She is a co-founding editor at Empty House Press, which publishes writing about home, place, and memory. You can read more of her work in Little Fiction, Milk Candy Review, Longleaf Review, Pithead Chapel, and other places.
It’s not a crime to be boring, Stephanie reminds herself. Underneath the van, the house, the job, the three kids, the two dogs, the cat, the hamster, the goldfish, the golf, and the penchant for buying rare Star Wars Lego kits off of eBay, Joe must be a vibrant and interesting man. She wouldn’t have married him otherwise.
But Stephanie is so bored and irritated she’s considering opening the door of the van and just leaping onto the highway. Shoving Joe out would work, too.
The anniversary trip out east is supposed to be a pilgrimage back to where they met. Stephanie had wanted to spend a night or two in a hotel, just the two of them. “But the kids!” Joe had protested. They can’t afford plane tickets for all five of them, so they are driving and camping and miserable.
It’s supposed to rain for the whole ten days of the trip. Stephanie follows a fat drop of water down the van window with her fingertip. “I need to pee,” she says.
The kids are asking for snacks and candy before they’ve pulled off the highway.
“We have a cooler full of food,” Stephanie tells them, but of course they respond with “We want good food.”
Stephanie runs towards the rest stop so she won’t end up stuffing the snacks she’d carefully prepared at 4am down the throats of her ungrateful children.
In the bathroom, she remembers (as she often does in the moments when she resents her children most) how it felt to want a baby. Once, her eyes had snagged on a tiny pair of socks in the infant section at Walmart, and she’d stood with them in her hand, tears streaming down her face. When she got home, she found them in her pocket, with no memory of how they got there.
Stephanie washes her hands. She’d straightened her hair that morning, but it is frizzing from the rain.
Why does she bother straightening her hair? Why had she gotten up so early to pack snacks no one wanted to eat? Why had she insisted the kids would not have tablets in the car, so she is now forced to entertain them constantly or listen to them bicker and moan? Why is she on a vacation that is not going to be a vacation at all, it is just going to be her regular life without her Vitamix or Posturepedic mattress or the internet? Why had she had a third baby she wasn’t even sure she wanted?
The worst part of aching to be a mother is missing someone you haven’t even met yet. It’s knowing that you’re going to have to suck them from the marrow of your bones. She’d been so sick her first pregnancy, had hated every second of it, but forgot how awful it had been the instant she held her baby in her arms. Each subsequent pregnancy had been easier, but she’d wanted each baby less. Questioning why she does the things she does feels like fiddling with a loose thread. Pull too hard and her whole life will unravel. Best just to leave things alone.
In the store she finds her children with arms full of chips, Joe arguing with the youngest over a package of black licorice she’s insisting she wants but they both know she won’t eat.
He looks up at her. “Are you ok?”
She can see her wavy, distorted reflection in the mirrored wall of the shop behind him. Her hair is huge and puffy. Her mascara has run.
“This is my real hair, Joe. This is my actual face.”
She asks him for the keys, but he’s taken off across the store, repelled by her sudden outburst.
“No gum in the car,” he calls to the children.
Stephanie’s family doesn’t notice when she leaves. Outside, she puts her hand in her pocket and pulls out the key fob she’d slid from Joe’s cargo shorts while he put packages of gum back on the shelf. It felt good to wrap her hands around the keys and take what she wanted.
She climbs behind the wheel of the van and turns the heat on.
She slides the seat forward. Puts her feet on the pedals.
She intends to pull up and wait for her family at the rest stop exit so they don’t have to get wet in the rain, but instead she drives out of the parking lot and onto the highway.
In the hotel room she books with the credit card she and Joe have for emergencies, she takes a long, hot shower. She uses all of the tiny, fancy toiletries. When she gets out, she stares at herself in the mirror. The lines beside her mouth. The crow’s feet. The chin starting to double. Her eye lashes are almost invisible without mascara. Her hair is enormous. She smiles, but it makes her look unhinged so she stops.
Stephanie orders room service. Steak. A salad. A molten chocolate cake. A half liter of wine. It gets wheeled into the room on a trolley covered with a white table cloth, a red rose in a bud vase on top. She stands in the white hotel robe, barefoot and big haired, and tips the bellhop too much money for not flinching at the sight of her.
Her steak is rare, just how she likes it and can never have it, because it makes her middle child gag to see the blood on the plate.
She knows she should miss them. Soon, she’ll feel the same horror about this that she did when she first found those tiny socks, that same feeling of being uncertain about the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants. At some point, Stephanie will pull this memory out of her pocket and will barely recognize herself at all.
MegMax is a writer and mother living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. She is the founder of Writers in Bloom. Her work has been published in The Feathertale. You can read more of her first draft work at www.megmaxwriter.com.
A year in and we were still feeling our way, marriage a loose string around our fingers, the tugs no harder than making the bed first thing and wiping toast crumbs off the sticky Orange Blossom jar and not going on too much about our day at work. We’d end the week roaming a mall with bad heating and reclusive clerks, touching the power drills at Sears and valances at Ames, the broken coin-op horses and C-battery puppies, the closeout pianos by the dry fountain. You’d laugh at shoppes on the directory, the ye olde spelling, pronouncing it shoppies the way you called lollipops taffies and tomato sauce gravy and said I’m wishing for instead of I want, a South Jersey thing you said you never minded me teasing you for, though I was doubtful.
It was a Friday night in December when I said it to you, not long after Black Monday, after Baby Jessica trapped in a well for fifty-six hours, after little Lisa Steinberg lay battered on the bathroom floor of a Greenwich Village apartment while her fake adoptive father took off to smoke crack with other lawyers, after a local bank teller my age was snatched during her lunch break and found stabbed to death near the water treatment plant we could see from our duplex. We ordered limp pretzels and egg drop soup from the only food court shingle still hanging, racing nobody to the one table not covered with upturned chairs, and it slid out of me—So I’ve been thinking I might not want to have kids—while you bent deeper, meeting your plastic spoon like how a boy eats cereal or how I pictured you in fifty years, little grip left to steady the teeter of cutlery, the heavy lifting of everything. It’s not so much the money, I said when you reminded me that you’d moved expired cans of Manwich with you so many times they had pet names, that for two years I’d eaten ToastChee packages and green peppers for dinner, no problem, so we could be frugal, right? We were simple people, agreed, so then what was it? Why? I looked around the field of chair legs for an answer, the soup gone cold, the pretzels hard, my heart squeezing like Baby Jessica’s in the well, Baby Jessica with her cheek against the weeping walls, singing “Winnie-the-Pooh” to make eternity go faster, that silly Pooh Bear with his head in the hunny pot. Stuck like little Lisa, waiting for someone to lift her from the cracked honeycomb tiles. Blinded like the teller bleeding out alone in the plant’s shadow, her last awareness of taste the diamond of baklava she’d had with lunch. Confused like I was by what I’d said, trying to forget the tumble and the hand strike and the knife, but knowing I never would, and so I said what I always did near closing, but this time in your way: I’m wishing for treats. And you nodded like always but without looking at me.
We got to the bulk barrel place with fifteen minutes left, following our 1:1 healthy-to-junk rule, me filling baggies with yogurt-covered raisins and animal crackers, you with sesame snacks and Bit-o-Honeys, and damn, was the register lady pissed at you for putting the scoopers back in the wrong cradles, making a mess of the cords. We left at the third Please make your final choices, as the gate was half-drawn, and when they turned off the overheads I thought of your way of saying the same thing, passed down and for passing down still—Shut the lights—like the sound of a world that’s safe, a darkening and a quieting both, a child’s last want and wish before sleep, all echo, taffy still on her breath.
Eileen Frankel Tomarchio works as a librarian in a small NJ suburb. Her writing appears in Longleaf Review,Pigeon Pages, Barrelhouse Online, X-R-A-Y, and Pithead Chapel. She holds an MFA from NYU Film. She’s on Twitter at @eileentomarchio.
A Prologue to Firefighters Find Curling Thank You Note in the Rubble of Burnt Bungalow
There once was a woman who traveled 10,409 kilometers only to land in the U.S. and be told in the long customs line that she should contour herself into a Thank You note. Later, when she had washed her clothes in the hotel sink and dried them across the curtain rod, she found the business center where she stripped and squeezed into a laser printer, and once she was perfectly flat, she folded herself into a white 4×6 envelope and hoped no one would hear how she essed the th in thank you.
She waited patiently in a dusty drawer until someone used her, scribbled all over her & licked the envelope, spittle dripping on the word You—she thought this was enough. When she was mailed and read and recycled, she shapeshifted into her dream trailer: A Keystone Cougar Half-Ton RV with her windshield sloped at just the right angle (or so she thought).
Visible even though she had not yet earned visibility, stark against gray highways & washed-out strip malls, cars honked their frustration at how much space she took up and how slow she moved. She instinctively knew that the airplane passengers had been wrong. This country wanted pain, a currency she was familiar with since she had been born.
Shrunk again, she drifted into a tiny bungalow in need of smaller objects & every year she transformed in search for the perfect fit—
(x) toddler rocking chair
When she voiced her slightest discomfort, the landlords scolded her & threatened to banish her to the Salvation Army where items squished on shelves waiting to be bought. She had never seen a Salvation Army, but she knew that any place that claimed to save you was a place to avoid. Upon seeing her distress, an ice cube who had been safe while frozen made a simple suggestion before he dissolved: “Think of your deepest fear. That might be enough.”
She fought a memory from back home but within a day she lay diligently on the stove, stared hard at the ceiling & let them cook on her. The hiss of scalding oil drowned out her cries until she had finally endured enough grease that invisibility was no longer an option.
Sally Badawi is an Egyptian-American writer and teacher. Her most recent poems are published or forthcoming in Neologism Poetry Journal, Pink Panther Magazine, Orange Blossom Review, Second Chance Lit, among others. She is currently an associate poetry editor at Typehouse Literary Magazine.
After Sally left work at Spearwood Dental she took the chicken dinners from IGA’s deli counter across town to the sheet metal plant where her boyfriend worked swing shift. Unlike Sally, her boyfriend grew up in Spearwood—so did his wife—so we’ll call him Lucky. Lucky smoked by the fence while he waited, rocking from his heels and catching himself on his toes. Sally parked in the stall farthest from the plant door and let him in the passenger side. She always gave him her chicken skins and a blow job. Some of us changed dentists because of Sally: she would not be sliding strands of floss between our husbands’ teeth, thank you very much. Others made unnecessary appointments, waiting for the chance to spit in front of her, to laugh, laugh on the inside at least. Once, at The Shay Bar and Restaurant, Sally told the hostess someone else would be coming and the hostess laughed out loud. After someone left a bottle of mouthwash in her glovebox Sally started locking her blue Elantra, something Spearwood prides itself on making unnecessary. We noticed the color had left her complexion. She put on more makeup to cover herself, but that made us look closer, close enough to count the grooves in her lips. Sally gained weight—we wonder if she’s been eating her own chicken skins. She hasn’t been back to the parking lot in weeks. Lucky still smokes during his break, rocking back and forth in that boyish way of his, probably waiting for the next stranger. Sally goes straight home from the dentist’s office. She lives in Pine Manor, Unit C, Apartment 220. Her bedroom window’s on the corner, farthest from the orange streetlight, the one with the new blackout curtains.
John Carr Walker’s story collection Repairable Men was published by Sunnyoutside in 2014. Lately, his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gimmick Press, Shantih, Hippocampus, Gravel, Five:2: One, The Toasted Cheese, Inlandia, Split Lip, The Collagist, and Pithead Chapel. A native of California’s San Joaquin Valley , he now lives in northwest Oregon.
Lately I have been the energy of the kitefin shark, enormous-eyed, fatty-livered slow cruiser of the mesopelagic depths, hunting the sweet edge of daylight and everdark, belly glowing secret blue. Given this bit of encouragement, though, I’m considering attracting a new kind of energy: the energy of a petrified tree sixty feet tall and twenty million years old, the one paleobotanists just uncovered and lovingly extricated from highway dirt on Lesbos. Yes, I am now the energy of this tree that fell, whole, all its tree organs still attached, this tree making the best of a volcanic eruption. I am the energy of slow hardening, of lying in wait for the right eyes. That Miocene kind of patience.
Carolyn Oliver’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review,Tin House Online,Indiana Review,Cincinnati Review, 32 Poems, SmokeLong Quarterly, Terrain.org, The South Carolina Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. A nominee for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net in both fiction and poetry, Carolyn is the winner of the Goldstein Prize from Michigan Quarterly Review, the Writer’s Block Prize in Poetry, and the Frank O’Hara Prize from The Worcester Review, where she now serves as co-editor. Carolyn lives in Massachusetts with her family. Learn more about her work at carolynoliver.net.
zhito / I never knew what it was made of / this wheat berries dish / boiled / ground down & mixed with nuts / sugar & packed into a crystal bowl / for special occasions like holy days & in mourning on the morning of Nana’s funeral / Baba hands me a box of raisins / gold & dark ones stacked together to draw on top of the zhito / a cross & I feel as if the task is too holy for me / this placing of pieces in place of piecing us back together / “Ona je otišla” / She is gone / Baba tells me / the orchestrator of grief / with her hands on the neckline of my black dress / I pinch it an inch higher / in church light pours in like fire / stained glass stamps a kaleidoscope of color / I am having a very hard time putting a hand on Nana’s hand but Baba collapses into her casket / she calls out to her / with a name too holy to write on this page & I cannot look away from this wholesome embrace / Baba a slanted black silhouette / bun flattened at the base of her head & I feel bad that it was so hard for me to put a hand on her hand & that the only coat I had was purple & not black but I never knew what grief was made of / in English — she is gone is state of being / a happening to you / in Serbian — “ona je otišla” is agent she went / left / departed / when I cross the sweet zhito with raisins / the pieces are coming together / Baba tells me to pluck away the dark ones for her departure / only the gold ones for / Nana
Michele Popadich is an MFA student in creative nonfiction at Northwestern University. Her essays have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Talking Writing, and Driftless. Her poems have appeared in Heavy Feather Review and LOCUS. You can also hear her tell stories in various live lit venues around Chicago. Follow Michele on Twitter @miche1ewith1L and check out her past work on michele with one l (www.miche1e.com).
Richard comes over after my sister’s bedtime, and the first thing he says when he walks into our apartment is “What a lovely home.” I snort, because we’re slobs. What does he like more, the dirty plates on the floor or the toast crumbs all over the counter? I didn’t clean because when my mom got home from work she’d know I’d been up to something. If she thought I had a boy over, she’d kill me.
“Sit down,” I say. I mean to sound like a gracious host, but it comes out like a demand.
Richard sits on the couch and I join him. He looks like his mom combed his hair in a side part for picture day. I follow the advice I read on a stupid website about being a good date and say, “So, tell me about you.”
“I live on Maple Avenue.”
“My dad owns the carpet store.”
“I don’t care about that stuff!” I say. I can’t help myself. He’s wearing a blazer. I’m wearing the same sweater I had on all day.
“I’m sorry,” he says, so nice it cracks my heart. “You like books, right? What’s your favorite?”
“A Feast of Snakes,” I tell him. After my dad moved out, I snatched it from the shelf so my mom couldn’t give it away. I knew how much my dad loved Harry Crews and figured he was trying to tell me something by leaving the book behind. My mom would never let me read it. So far, I’ve read it twice.
“I don’t know it,” says Richard. I sneak past my sleeping sister and grab the book, with Crews’ perfect messed-up face on the front, from its hiding place in our room.
“Here,” I say to Richard. “Read it to me.”
After a big Adam’s-apple-bobbing gulp, he says, “She felt the snake between her breasts, felt him there, and loved him there, the deep tumescent S held rigid, ready to strike.” He’s blushing but the words lull him and soon the blushing fades. When he gets to the part where Hard Candy arches her back and thrusts her pelvis while winking at Joe Lon, he slows down, his head nodding like each word’s a drug. Then he stops reading. His eyes are the lightest blue: I can see them so much better when he’s not smiling them thin. Their beauty makes me shy and I turn away, until a wind blasts my face.
“What was that?”
“I was blowing in your ear.”
“You missed. Want to try again?” I tilt my neck and pull back my hair. He bends close and blows, his breath now soft and arrowed just right.
“Should I do it to you?” I ask.
He jams his mouth against mine. His lips are chompy stones. I push him away.
“You kiss wrong,” I say. I mean, how would I know? Except, I know. I’ve read about it and thought about it and seen it on TV. I imagined a deep, sweet ache, but not upper gum pain.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’ll do better next time.”
He comes in for me gently. Our mouths move slow and fast at the same time, and I feel the sweet ache.
Then I feel an unsweet ache of Richard’s hand tangled in my bra strap.
“What are you doing?”
He turns redder than his hair. “I was just admiring your sweater,” he says. “It’s very nice.”
“That’s not what you were doing!” If he says what he’s doing, I’ll take off my sweater. I’ll take off my bra and let him lick me.
“You like chess?” he says.
I used to play chess with my dad, even though I don’t like it: too many rules. But I liked the careful way he spoke when he taught me, like he wasn’t just talking about chess but about life.
He left without saying. He’d put on his coat that morning like it was just another day.
“I love chess,” I say. I find our crappy plastic chess set tucked high in our closet and we spend the rest of the night with a table between us.
The next day, when school gets out, my friend Sharla grabs my arm. “Did you have sex with Richard Carrigan?” she asks. “Everyone’s saying shit.”
I start to say “No,” but something stops me, a feeling wiggling through my chest. I hold the feeling there. I shrug and make my eyes look like they hold a sexy secret.
“Really?” she says. “No way!” She’s smiling like I gave her the best gift, exactly what she wanted but not what she expected.
I nod, matching her grin to the millimeter. I let her think what she wants. And I let myself think what I want and what I think is that sometimes lying’s the truest thing you can do.
I wonder if I’ll ever find true love, which Harry Crews defines in A Feast of Snakes as “putting it in your ass then putting it in your mouth.” Could I love the worst parts of Richard, swallow them? If my mom had loved the worst parts of my dad, maybe he wouldn’t have left.
I head for the bus. Along comes Richard, panting to catch up. “I’m so sorry,”
he says. “The guys, they made assumptions, and I let them. I’ll make it right.” I don’t know how a tall blue-eyed redhead can look like a puppy, but that’s what he looks like now.
“Don’t bother. What do I care what people think?” I feel it then, how I might live without caring. Maybe my dad left because he knew I could take it; he was training me to be fierce, like Big Joe trained his dogs in Feast of Snakes.
I press my lips to Richard’s, plunge my tongue in, make it slither. “See you later,” I say. And just like my daddy, I walk away.
Jennifer Wortman is a National Endowment for the Arts fellow and the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love (Split/Lip Press, 2019). She lives with her family in Colorado, where she serves as associate fiction editor for Colorado Review and teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Find more at jenniferwortman.com.
My mom thought Samantha meant strong: The female Samson, destroyer of limits and all variations of “no.” But it means listener instead, and I listened to her lest I take half a step outside of the route she mapped. I strained so hard to hear that when I finally did become strong, it surprised her. I tore up the tracks with my own bare hands and told her no—no, thank you. Now I listen for signs in the sound of autumn leaves, for something that falls in my fingers and melts like a snowflake.
In Paris, I thought of Marie, but we’d never been that close. She belonged to nearly every girl in school—the ones who didn’t get diamonds, at least. My sister was given Francesca. So unique! said the other Something-Maries. I didn’t expect to love Paris, the city that slumbered in every heart like Marie stuck in so many names. But something in me understood the gardens right away, the river and the islands and the stone. I have only ever lived near water, after all.
The confirmation teacher told us all to pick new names, and I don’t think he ever said why. We took classes but lacked understanding, said prayers because we should. I looked it up. A new name stood for change and maturation, like an oak. It meant we were standing on roots. I knew who I wanted to be right away. For me, it had always been Lucy: a name that meant light in the darkness of winter, a flicker of faith buried deep and begging for air. There is no Santa Esperanza, but one day, I’ll name a daughter after hope.
Once upon a time there were five Costanzo brothers, all rascals who snuck into golf courses at night and slid down sloping greens on blocks of ice they stole from their jobs at Foster’s Freeze. Then one of them said the wrong thing, and one of them threatened a war, and that was the end of them all for so long, I forgot I was also Italian. I was cien por ciento Cubana instead, no hyphen-American there—just Cuban like Granmamá Lily, who always dropped the S’s at the end of Spanish words. Well, maybe 95 percent. I have always been my father’s daughter, after all. We feel too much and think too much and yet, we still believe the world is mostly good.
I worried, at first, if I was committing treason, and then, I didn’t care. I chose the season and colors and cake. I wrote a check for the photographer with money I made myself, and handing it to her felt like taking one last look at where I’d been. I chose the man and the life and three names, performed the surgical procedure to remove and rearrange them and then stitch them in a line. I wanted to mark the transition with more than a dress and a party. I wanted it to show like tattooed ink. I’m sorry, Marie (just a little). But love is a decision.
Samantha Costanzo Carleton is a writer from Boston. Her work has been published in The Cabinet of Heed and Full House Literary Magazine. She really wants to know your middle name.