Pastime by Suzanne McWhorter

The game of baseball is inimitable among its sports companions in that the frequency of physicality varies, the experience unique to each player, each game. While instances of hard contact do occur, much of the physical interaction between players is light and in passing. It is, in fact, entirely possible that a single player could play through an entire game without ever being touched by another person.

In the morning, you turn your body sideways to pass between me and the counter on your way to the coffee pot. The burst of air created by the motion highlights the space between our skin, my arms erupting in goosebumps, each follicle of hair desperate for contact.

At dinner you bring a plate of lasagna to me in the living room while I watch the ballgame from the couch. I reach to take it from your hand, but you quickly, deftly turn away to set it on the coffee table. Instead of looking at the screen, you ask me the score and what inning it is. We briefly talk about how our pitching has been dominant, but we are still struggling. After another at-bat, I turn to ask about your day, but you are already in the other room.

In bed, I stay awake for an hour or so, listening to you fall into a deep sleep. In the silence, I reach out and press the tips of my fingers against your back; your skin quivers under my touch.

There is an inherent defensive nature to baseball. Other sports often place the priority, and indeed much of the glory, on offense. And in a sense, this is true for baseball as well, as the home run is still king among plays, and the great sluggers are often those most notably immortalized. However, where other sports exhibit equality on the field—an equal number of players on either side—baseball presents a defensive front against a lone batter, who must analyze the alignment of the fielders, the arm angle of the pitcher, and the speed and direction of the ball. Alone he must face this onslaught, the collective held-breath of the crowd an expectation that outweighs the 26.2% chance he has of success.

Before I even push back the covers to get up, you are already explaining to me why you have not done things I have not yet asked you to do. You lay out your work schedule, the friend you’ve agreed to help move, how tired you’ll be at the end of the day. You are already frustrated about the anger that is still hours away.

You arrive home as I am heading out the front door. You are an hour early, and I was supposed to be gone twenty minutes ago. I hold up one hand to keep you from blocking me in the drive and your face twists in question. Your window is down and I yell that there are leftovers in the fridge, that I’m sure I told you I wouldn’t be home tonight, that I’m running late and need to go. You put the car in reverse, slowly backing out while I watch your mind racing forward, full speed.

You do not say a word as I slide into bed, but I see that your eyes are open. On your inhale, I decide not to let you ask me where I’ve been. I remind you that I rarely go out, that I miss my friends, that they need me. When you start to reply, I shift the conversation slightly, not so far that it no longer connects to the previous, but just enough that whatever your comment may have been, it is no longer relevant.

The roaring outbursts of the crowd in a baseball stadium are all the more startling when compared to the long stretches of silence. During an at-bat, a fan in the last row of the upper deck can hear clearly the sound of the umpire calling balls and strikes. The crack of the bat against a ninety miles-per-hour fastball often comes so suddenly and violently, that even in this excitement, there is often a delay in vocal reaction, the voice of the crowd near atrophied in the moment it is needed most.

In the morning your hands are shaky from the restless sleep the old chair in the den provided you. I want to ask you why you did not come to bed, but the stillness in the room is broken instead by the sound of your coffee cup hitting the ground. Though the splash of hot liquid against my bare legs is painful, my voice has already forgotten how to cry out.

In the afternoon, I work from home, and the steady sound of the keyboard is a comforting metronome. I am in the middle of a sentence when my phone rings. You are calling me, which is unusual, and the shrillness of the generic ringtone freezes me in place. By the time I gather myself to answer, you have given up. I turn the phone to silent and resume typing.

In bed I lay alone, with eyes closed and ears straining to find any signs of life in the universe. I try to remember the rhythm and volume of your breath, the sound of your skin against cheap sheets. I wait for the creak of the third step from the top, or the turn of a key in the front door lock. But the only sound is that of a timid breeze outside the open window, and even it stops short of coming through the screen, afraid to enter for the sake of its own survival.


 

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Suzanne McWhorter is a graduate of the NEOMFA in Cleveland, Ohio. She is currently teaching English at various universities in the Cleveland area while continuing to write. Her work has appeared in Jenny Magazine, the Pea River Journal, and Embodied Effigies.

Palliative Care by Lauren Hummel

It was called a mille-feuille, the last cake she made for me. The layered cake of sugar and cocoa and almonds, the one she made for my fourteenth birthday, tasted like air, like nothing, as she withered into her own dust of a skeleton, cells relentlessly dividing from the inside, lumping together into masses on her knuckles, her knees, and her hips. The growths poked out like ganglions and she winced with every step taken, every fist made. She sat on the reclined La-ZBoy chair, her papery eyelids closed, the lashes had already fallen out. Her breath made a wheezing noise, like when I blew hard into a kazoo for my eleventh birthday.

Six months after my thirteenth birthday, when the drops of blood appeared in the lining of my underwear and when the blood appeared in the sink of her vanity, her face changed. The whites of her eyes, like beautiful porcelain, were now red and brown, burst capillaries spoiling the good china. It began with a radiating heat, from the crown of her head to the inside of her ear canal, the lymph nodes swollen. Cluster headaches paralyzed the right half, and pain emanated from within her brain to the back of her pooled eyes.

She told me, but I already knew. Dad was out for a drive. It was evening. The sun was setting. Lavender smeared across the blush sky, pink and purple swirled into beautiful, custard clouds. Wisps floated away, like specters moving off to distant lands. She was at the threshold of my room. I was doing yoga on my worn mat, inhaling to reach, exhaling to expand, stretching upwards vertebrae by vertebrae. She spoke the word “cancer,” which I traced on my forearm in loops and lines. She collapsed as the sun made its final descent.

A whisper descended onto the house, a perpetual hour extended into hushes. Dad sighed as he left rooms, a short intake of oxygen and a long breath out. It was the same breath she used to growl out when she shifted from down dog to forward fold, knees bent forgivingly, shoulders pulled away from her pink ears. She bowed and pressed her hands, praying back the health. Yoga didn’t help; neither did the aromatherapy nor the acupuncture nor the chemo nor the surgery. For a while it was sedatives, so her nights could stretch out. She woke up screaming, forgetting she was riddled with tumours. Then nothing kept her eyes closed through the pain. Dad snored on the couch downstairs.

So I massaged her.

I knelt beside the chair and pressed gently into her hands, kneading them like she kneaded the bread dough when she was well. I knew where the pressure points were, which knuckle was the most sensitive. I worked around them, rubbing my beds of my fingers into the hardened shells of the tumours in her hands. First the index, then the middle finger, then the ring finger, and finally, the pinky finger. The thumb I couldn’t touch. It remained in a crooked stance, frozen bent, flexing for a fist or something more. If I kneaded her hands, transference of my life to hers could be made. Maybe my love could cure these hardened abnormalities.

A spell fell over the air, a magic held. On the legs was where I could relax my pressure. I pushed my weight into the wasted muscles. I rubbed in circles and squares and triangles. She fell into a light sleep, her breathing slowed to the point where I brought my ear to her chest to make sure the lungs were inflating. I returned to her legs. Connect the dots–joints to femurs back to hips. I wrote words on her skin in cursive and coils–my name, her name, I love you, don’t die, please stay, one more cake please, tell me about my birth again, tell me how you named me, don’t die, not yet. I chanted a poem and traces lines of the runes. Their shapes and lines imbued with power to bring back the dying. I carved and coloured, so she will walk and talk. Writing those words into her body as a message, a plea, a prayer of grace to make her better. To flush the skin to its reddish hue, to place the varicose veins back into the circulatory system. I collected the words and carried them to her, but they were jumbled with other words invading in. I mixed them up with words like pain management, radiation, chemotherapy, handkerchief, wig, hospice, palliative. I chanted others like sugar, kiss, spoon, rose, caring, breakfast, daughter, mother, love, love, love.

I laid my head on her lap, a soft blanket laid across, as I migrated from knee to ankle, ankle to toe. The big toe was out of bounds territory, the worst of them all, worse than the thumbs. I detected the borders of the tumour, its bumpy skin visible through the invisible husk of a person. The tendons that fanned out from the spoke of her joint to the cusps of her toes were draped in the thinnest skin of all. The atlas of her veins was rubbery as I rubbed my fingertips over the vessels and nerves. I felt the sludge of the blood pulsing through.

She startled awake and moaned as I poured like milk flowed from a dirty cup to a clean glass. The muscles of her cheeks twitched as she tried to smile. I asked if she wanted me to make her anything to eat, I’d bake for her, her favourite, a honey cake with strawberries, but she shook her head. Three bent fingers combed through my hair and she weaved my hair into a braid, into layers like the cake she made for me, like strands of cocoa, like the glazing on top of a silken head, into a lasting act of love before she turned and made the final passing into the creamy clouds.


 

Lauren_Hummel_HeadshotLauren Hummel is an emerging writer with an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Toronto. She earned a Masters of Arts degree with distinction in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Gloucestershire. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Evansville Review, Heritage: New Writing VIII anthology and For Women Who Roar magazine. She lives in Toronto, Canada.

The Armadillo by Joaquin Fernandez

I still don’t know if I want the story to be true.

At eight years old, my asthma was at its worst. I remember staring at the ceiling the day after I got out of the hospital, sweating through my t-shirt, anxious and breathless and anxious about being breathless. I can’t remember if it was April or June or September, some indistinguishable month in the endless Florida summer of my childhood, but I remember the heat as if it were still pressing down on me. I was propped up on couch cushions in my twin bed, watching the brown thumb of my chubby body contract and expand, contract and expand, never finding quite enough air to clear the rasp from my wheezing.

Just like me.

My mother spoke to me, as always, in a clear, enunciated spanish, the secret ever-present language of my youth. It would be decades before I realized that she spoke a version that read as rich and educated, almost off-putting in its formality. Growing up poor, it was easy to forget that she had once been wealthy.

She put a damp cloth on my forehead, as if I had a fever. In South Florida, the fever was everywhere, I just felt it more, like a broken bellows pulling only heat with my every struggling breath. She frowned at me in a way that made me want to feel better. She hated that I hated the part that came next. I knew where she was going when she left the room.

She came back holding a big covered pot with a tight fitting lid, pluming a trail of smoke behind her as she entered. She had done this every night for a month, following the bruja across the street’s instructions to the letter. Eucalyptus leaf and Vaporub boiled for twenty minutes. Lid off, under the bed, let the steam rise through me.

Te digo un cuento?
Can I tell you a story?

She held my hand while the world went hazy. My glasses fogged. My eyes watered. My lungs burned, bright and sharp with every cautious breath. The smell was an assault. When I inhaled I could feel the parts of myself that didn’t work. I coughed. Every night, I coughed, exhilarated with relief. I could feel the steam razing the asthma out of me with every painful inhalation.

Can I tell you a story about my asthma? In Colombia?

My mother squeezed my hand and I could see her there in the house she grew up in. It was a house I’d never been in, in a country I’ve never been to. I could see her as my grandfather led her down the stairs into the basement.

Some days my breathing was worse than yours is now. But in Colombia, do you know what the cure was?

I could see the cigarette dangling from my grandfathers lips, a man I’d never meet, living forever mid-laugh in page after page of black and white photo albums.

What’s the word for armadillo in english? Is it armadillo?

When she tells me the story, I can see it, hanging from a beam by leftover clothesline. Was it even struggling? She tells me it wasn’t. She tells me it didn’t look real until her father cut its throat with a kitchen knife. She tells me about how calm he was holding the armadillo still with one hand, his other hand maneuvering to catch the spraying drip of something fully trapped still trying to run. She tells me that’s when it struggled. She tells me that it screamed until it didn’t. She never tells me why she didn’t run. When her father turns and offers her the glass, she makes sure to tell me she didn’t hesitate. She makes sure to tell me she drank it all at once, like medicine.

Do you know what it tasted like? Fresh milk.

After the story, she kisses me on the forehead and I can feel it linger for a long time after she leaves. After the story, she turns out the light and I pretend not to hear the back door click closed when she steps out to smoke her secret cigarettes. After the story, I can see her, staring at the glass in her father’s hand while it fills with blood. I can see her growing more and more certain of what will come next. I can see the little girl that would grow into my mother step forward and take the glass and know what she had to, had to, had to do.

I’ve told that story a hundred times, told it to everyone who’s ever met my mother. When I tell that story while she’s in the room, she always laughs at the end. I don’t know if she’s laughing at us for believing her. I don’t know if she’s laughing out of nervousness, like whistling past a graveyard. I don’t know if she’s laughing about a lifetime of locked up secrets or a million more impossible everyday stories from the parallel universe of her youth in a different time, a world away. I still don’t know why she never hesitated. I still don’t know why she didn’t run.

I still don’t know if I want the story to be true.


 

FernandezJoaquin Fernandez is a recovering filmmaker and South Florida native perpetually tinkering with his first novel. His work has appeared in Okay Donkey, Cotton Xenomorph, Cheap Pop, and Pidgeonholes among others. He’s guest edited special issues for Kissing Dynamite and X-R-A-Y Magazine in addition to editing for the Radix Media anthology AFTERMATH. He can be found on Twitter @Joaqertxranger and on his website joaquinfernandezwrites.com.

Horsemouth and Aquariumhead by Elizabeth Turner

The woman with the horse mouth sighs; she tries delicately, but with that mouth, whatever comes out is a snort. Her gait is rather equine—her head posts up and down as she strides. She is waiting for the man with the aquarium head—no further instructions other than ​you’ll know him when you see him​, and if he’s been given any instructions about her, they’d be the same. She doesn’t know what an aquarium head will look like—rectangular with attachments? Like the treasure chest at the bottom of many tanks? But when he finally arrives, she knows. His head is green tinted glass, like something found on the beach, and beautiful. He’s filled with water weeds, wavy grasses, fish darting about, and behind all that was a pair of moony human eyes. She whinnies, trying to portray a sense of recognition and excitement, but she knows that all he probably sees are her yellowing teeth. He takes her hand and leads her away. ​I am walking down the street with a man with an aquarium head!​ she thinks, and then wonders how he breathes. When he turns his head to look for cars, she sees the gills pinkly flapping behind his ears. She blushes above her horsey snout and shoves a sugar cube in her mouth. She wonders how he eats, and where they are going. The man with the aquarium head takes them up a hill and down another to a bench overlooking the city; smog curls around the middles of buildings like tutus. She is sweating a little and bends to drink from a hose placed to fill a communal dog bowl. Then he hands her a book–​Spells to Counteract​. He pats the seat next to him. On a small pad of paper he writes, ​how did it happen to you? ​and pushes it towards her. The woman with the horsemouth ruffles the pages, sighs again, and dollops them with greenish spit. ​Work. Jealousy, ​she writes. ​I dated the boss. I didn’t know there were witches there.​ The man with the aquarium head nods and writes again, ​Everyone was a witch? No,​ she scrawls. ​Just two. A man and a woman. We had a company performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.​ Bubbles pop at the top of his head as he starts to laugh. The woman with the horse mouth begins to laugh, too; she whinnies and snorts. ​They didn’t even get the right animal! ​The man with the aquarium head reaches into a pocket and pulls out a canister. He shakes it at his new friend. Standing up, she unlatches the top of his head, and the greenish glass sparkles in the sun. She sprinkles in flakes of food. The bench is in the shade and the city fuzzes in the late afternoon. She knows just when to stop.


 

Turner_ElizabethElizabeth Horner Turner’s poems can be found or are forthcoming in Cutbank, Fairy Tale Review, Gulf Coast, Nightjar Review, and semicolon literary journal, among others. She’s been awarded a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to attend the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and was selected as a Poetry Scholar for the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. Her chapbook, The Tales of Flaxie Char, was published through dancing girl press. She lives in San Francisco. She tweets (sometimes) at: @LHornerT

December by Evan Nicholls

In \  my dream \

He rented a double-windowed farmhouse on the other side of Rokeby–– a flat road between two fields, our road–– and one time I saw him go out and walk his cat after a rainstorm, when the gravel was chalky and white. The cat was on a leash. December was a silent old man. I only learned about him through reading his lips, and reading lips makes understanding a person tedious, though you could say all understanding is tedium.

I watched him \  from the seat of my grandmother’s window  \ flannel curtain \ pulled up to my chest \

This was when I was a child. I was waiting for December to open the front of the farmhouse–– he would walk his cat up the road because he would always have it shit on up the road at the cul-de-sac. And then I was there behind his clapboard legs. I watched while the black cat put its bum in the sky and lowered its mouth to some chalk white water in a pothole puddle, lapping, lap, lap. Then December lowered his catmouth to the water, too. Lapping.

I have told you \ something special here \

For my life, I will never know what the old man got out of the road. But these are facts. December lost his wife young in some violence, before he had lived across from us on Rokeby. He died nine years ago–– I remembered after waking up. The black cat was named Jet Lee. And I am twenty one years old. December’s house caught fire during another rainstorm, when he had an episode of the heart loading the wood stove. Our house got torn down for rot. My grandmother is dead.

I do not know \ what it means \


 

Evan w_ Farm Hat, LibraryEvan Nicholls is from the peach, fox, horse and wine country of Fauquier County, Virginia. He has work appearing or forthcoming in DIAGRAM, Third Coast, Passages North, Mud Season Review, and The Shallow Ends, among others. He tweets at @nicholls_evan. Find more of his work at evannichollswrites.wordpress.com.

She Says by M.J. Iuppa

The recipe for lime Jello with canned peaches and shredded carrots is a family secret. She says this with a slight smile on her face as her pin-straight, mousy brown hair falls over her eyes. No one knows if it’s side salad or dessert, so it stays on the kitchen table weeping a bit in its green Pyrex bowl. She says this recipe is her growing up in the heartland. Still, she just couldn’t wait to leave her family; and now, they have left her, one by one, without a proper so long. This too is hard to swallow.


 

MJM.J. Iuppa’s fourth poetry collection is This Thirst (Kelsay Books, 2017). For the past thirty years, she has lived on a small farm near the shores of Lake Ontario. Check out her blog: mjiuppa.blogspot.com for her musings on writing, sustainability & life’s stew.

My Mama Wanted a Zebra by Francine Witte

But all she got was a stupid cow.

So there she stands in the backyard, paintbrush in hand. Gotta make the best of things, she is muttering.

She stripes white paint on the side of the cow. The sirloin side. The part of a cow I have eaten hamburgers from.

The cow turns its still-cow head to her as if to say, paint me all you want, I’m still gonna moo and give milk.

Mama hears this cow thought loud and clear. She puts down the paintbrush and walks around to face the cow head-on. “Look,” she says out loud to the cow. “I could tell you stories of how pretty I was born. You can’t see it anymore.”

And then she says, “there was music in my fingers, that also got leaked out.”

Mama gives up and goes back to painting. You gotta give some things time, she is muttering. She decides if all else fails, she will have to take off her dress and show the cow the stripes that are painted on her own side.


 

FWitte

Francine Witte’s full length book of flash fiction, Dressed All Wrong for This, has just been published by Blue Light Press, where it was the first place winner for the Blue Light Press Award. Her novella-in-flash, The Way of the Wind, is forthcoming from Ad Hoc Fiction. Her second full length collection of poetry, The Theory of Flesh, was recently published by Kelsay books. She lives in NYC.