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.
There are two bald eagles, sitting on a log. One is looking over his shoulder; the other has completely lost his head. I’m eight months pregnant. I want to stick my fingers through the chain-link, soothe down the feathers of the headless bird, “it’s ok sweetheart,” I’ll sing, “Do you remember where you last saw your head?” Tony is clicking behind me, “Is that how they sleep?” he asks out loud to himself, snapping photo after photo of all the raptors in the center. He’s not talking to me, he’s pondering, and he’s practicing with his new camera, practicing taking pictures of wildlife because there’s no telling what kind of creature I’m carrying. Tony’s thinking she’ll be hairy and bouncing, just like him. “Fly birds. Fly!” he calls out, because he needs to be versed in capturing motion. What can I say? There was a limited choice in mates that season. Of course I hope she’ll be more like me. I turn around. I want to see the vultures. I step down hard on a branch crack, crack, cracking it. The headless eagle’s neck feathers ruffle, “It’s ok sweetheart,” I say, “Just the sound of the house settling.”
Two year later a red-tailed hawk hops around the clinic parking lot. Cocks its head in my direction. It’s a beautiful bird. I’m safe. I’m in a car. I’m ok right now. I’m ok enough right now to be handling heavy machinery. But the bird, the hawk, is so big, is so heavy. It should be in the sky. I can’t handle it hopping on the top of a bench, and eyeing the opening of a trash can, like how can it get inside? The doctor said…and later, after dinner, when I’m giving Dani a bath, piling bubbles on her head, she farts into the water and cries. “It’s ok sweetheart,” I say, “Better out than in.” She’ll talk when she’s ready, when she has something to say. “Hey baby, I want to show you something,” but as I’m taking off my sweater, a rubber ducky unicorn catches me in the jaw. Dani laughs, loses her grip, hits her head on the back of the tub and slips into the water. I pick her up, towel her off tuck her in, tuck in her father on the couch again, snoring, remote in his hand, and I pick up all the half naked dolls, all the ground up Cheerios, fix the toilet that keeps running, and then in the kitchen, scrubbing off the dishes, night air swirls over my hands. In between mice, the barred owl asks, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?” so loud I have to slam the window shut, my wings itching and itching beneath my bra strap.
Caroljean Gavin’s work is forthcoming in Best Small Fictions 2021 and Milk Candy Review, and has appeared in places such as Barrelhouse, Bending Genres, and Pithead Chapel. She’s the editor of What I Thought of Ain’t Funny, an anthology of short fiction based on the jokes of Mitch Hedberg, published by Malarkey Books. She’s on Twitter @caroljeangavin.
We’re in a meeting, a long, tedious, thorough meeting, the sort with breakout groups that never break out, and whoever isn’t paying attention gets the look. You text me a note, “We should be in a band,” and while making it look like I’m paying so much attention I’m actually taking notes, what I’m really doing is typing furiously, over and over, “Oh yeah oh hell yeah!”
I tell you about this guy I know who was terrified of success. Every time one of his bands started to click, he’d panic. The practices would get longer, and then he’d bring in more musicians, singers, dancers, light show dudes, etc. We eventually broke up when he tried to add this fifteen-year-old he met at some rave to play tambourine. “I’m not like that guy,” I say. “What sort of instrument do you play and please let it be drums.”
We practice and practice, recording everything and jamming until we’re able to do the same thing at the same time and then repeat that over and over. We take turns singing. We don’t give our band a name, we’re not ready for that part yet, and our songs aren’t really songs, just repeatable jams, half-spoken ideas, the musical equivalent of first dates that happen to go really well but nobody is saying love just yet.
You say, “There’s something I want to show you, I think you’re going to really like this,” and you take me to the arroyo. The riverbed is still damp, with a solid wet clay smell, and we fill several buckets full of earth, lugging them back to your truck one at a time. In your garage you turn on the heat lamps, but it’s still freezing.
“You still want to do this?” you ask.
When we’re done, after we’re both covered in mud and done shivering by the heat lamps just to dry, and we’re no longer ourselves, we come up with a song, about some dogs jumping through the fog, and how beautiful it is to watch the fog dancing around the dogs, and how the dogs can smell all of this, and their owners can’t, the dogs yipping in the fog, which is so much more than fog, that’s the bridge of our song, we’re still figuring it out. It might take a long time to figure it out, but we’re figuring it out.
The dirt smell underneath us, all around us; it’s durational, it’s so incredibly real, it’s a single note I’m hoping never stops, that it will keep going for days, slowly getting quieter, feeling that way. But when you make the song turn I’m there with you, I have ideas of my own, and somehow it brightens, forming chords. We disappear, our owners left wondering where we are.
This is a song about happiness.
Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s prose can be found in Tiny Molecules, X-R-A-Y, Joyland,Jellyfish Review, Atticus Review, and PANK. His short story “Taylor Swift” won the 2015 Barthelme Prize from Gulf Coast, and his story “Goodwill” was picked as one of the Wigleaf Top Fifty Very Short Fictions of 2018. A collection of prose poems and microfiction, Animal Children, was published by Nomadic Press in January, 2020. He teaches writing and literature at California College of the Arts.
It was all over so quickly. The mumbled vows, the best man’s drunken toast, the broken glass, her princess dress tight around her ribs, her maid-of-honor caught in a bathroom stall with the Rabbi’s son. Her husband smooshed a slice of wedding cake into her mouth, the cake tasting of cloying buttercream. Husband, both a noun and a verb, to use sparingly. He shed his shiny rented tux jacket and danced, arms flung over the shoulders of his groomsmen, sweat stains under his arms and in a semi-circle on his back. Her mother told her friends, He’s a great catch, while the women danced circles around each other. When the groomsmen lifted her up on a straightback chair, she was scared she’d fall, gripped one corner of a yellow-stained handkerchief (the something old) while he held the other. At the Seaside Motel, the clerk leered, This way to paradise. The pushing and pulling, the absurdity of her legs in the air, her something blue painted toenails caught in the strafing headlights of passing cars, his moaning. A rectangle of sunlight from the gap between the heavy curtains creeping over him, clad in only a white shirt and socks, the skin on the back of his thighs goose-pimpling. The mauve polyester bedspread spilled onto the carpet. In middle school, she’d written in sparkling purple pen a new signature on the paper bag cover of her American history book: Mrs. Harry Styles. The hot shameful joy when Mr. Mori saw it and crooned “You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful.” Now, her eyes sticky from sleeping in the mascara she’d applied so carefully the day before.
Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California. Her short fiction has been published in Smokelong Quarterly, Tin House Flash Fridays, New Orleans Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her stories have been chosen for the Wigleaf Top 50, the Best Small Fictions 2018 and 2019 anthologies, and Best Microfiction 2021.
4:34 A.M. Feinberg Hospital. Room 2524. The room is too hot to sleep. The ice has melted in the cup the nurse brought in a few hours before. I unwrap one of the sponge lollipops they gave me and dip it in the lukewarm cup. I pick up the TV remote with my free hand and flip through channels while I swab the inside of my mouth. I search for something to distract me, so I don’t just down the cup of water, disregarding the doctor’s orders and losing even the small relief the sponge lollipop brings me.
I land on Animal Planet. There’s a show about an aquarium. I’ve been there once. Years ago. I remember standing in a glass cave and watching whale sharks swim above me. I felt so small. My best friend stood next to me. Pregnant with her first. Glowing. Two more babies and some years later, I haven’t been back.
I watch the aquarium staff herd two female stingrays into an elevator tank so they can be taken up for their monthly exam. Wild stingrays mate constantly, holding their eggs inside their mermaid’s purse until the young hatch and burst out into the world to try out the tricky business of survival. As soon as they are gone, mother stingray begins again. Captive stingrays develop ovarian cysts without their constant stream of progeny.
I press my hand to my abdomen, oh so gently. Feel the staples beneath my fingers. Underneath the staples and the skin and the fat rolls is a distinct absence, pulsing, reminding me that my last ovary is gone. There will be no more eggs for me. Nothing to hatch in my mermaid’s purse. I’ll never stand under a whale shark and glow with a new life blooming within me. My cyst was the size of a mango. If it had been a baby, it would have been about 16 weeks along. But it wasn’t.
My mango cyst didn’t want to go. My body, so desperate to keep my reproductive tools, allowed it to reach out with long seaweed fronds, reaching and wrapping, grabbing whatever it could reach. My uterus. My intestines. My abdominal wall. It spent a year tying and knotting itself firmly inside of me. They cut it out of me and then cut me open again to take more. “Whoo, boy, that was a tricky one,” the surgeon told me when the anesthesia faded and the pain crescendoed.
A bloodsucker comes in to stick me for my morning draw. Her name tag says Tisa. I ask her if she knew about the stingrays, about how the lack of babies causes them a life of pain. Tisa says she didn’t. I close my eyes, wait for the pinch. I imagine myself gliding free and cool through the ocean.
Diane D. Gillette’s work has appeared in many literary venues including the Saturday Evening Post, Blackbird, and Middle House Review. Her work is a Best Small Fictions nominee. She lives in Chicago and is a founding member of the Chicago Literary Writers. You can find more of her work at http://www.digillette.com.
The psychic across from the dollar pizza joint on East 6th Street told Rohan he’d die at the age
His cousin Navya smiled terrifically in the corner of the room, having just been told she would be unfazed by the negative energy from the men in her life and have a hallmark year. Rohan had known Navya her whole life, since they were babies, and had met her boyfriend. Layla the psychic was, so far, one for one.
An oversized ruffled curtain hid the back of the room, which was clearly Layla’s residence. The smell of cheese puffs and jasmine incense hung in the air.
Layla said Rohan’s chakra was the color yellow outlined in purple. According to the universe, it meant he had lied more than usual that week and felt good about it. She opened the session up for questions. Rohan asked, “How will I die?”
“You will not have a single worry your whole life. Then, at the end, you will be in serious pain, and die as quickly as you existed.”
“But eighty-five years is a pretty long time to exist.”
“Not for a tardigrade or a Greenland shark. Have you ever heard of an Aldabra giant tortoise? The honey mushroom is 8,650 years old. Gran Abuelo. Methuselah. Baobab and sequoia trees. I could go on, but you’re entering twenty-five dollar territory. Eighty-five years is a micro existence. A peanut, kid.”
“I’m not a peanut, and I’m not a tree.”
She sucked on her cigarette. The tar end glowed orange like an ancient Sun, “Tree, you are not. More like tree food.”
Rohan paid Layla twenty dollars before she milked more cosmic currency (the only accepted form of payment the purple pyramid sign listed) out of him, and left the shop. His cousin went to get a late-night seven-dollar burrito.
It was a thirty-two degree winter night. Rohan got a slice of pizza from across the street. He didn’t believe in clairvoyants. He hardly trusted the news to get today right. He called his dad to tell him the age of his predicted death.
“Rohan, why did you do that?”
“Psychic. There is no such thing.”
“It’s just for fun, dad.”
“Now you will die at eighty-five. Maybe sooner.” Rohan’s mother yelled in Hinglish in the background.
He took a bite of crust.
“You will be consumed with thoughts of death. Beta, you will not be able to live.”
“No, I am telling you. They say your great-great-grandfather, dada’s dada, went to a psychic in Mumbai. She said the same thing. He would die at age eighty-five.”
“That was a long life back then. So what?” Chewing, “It’s a long life now.”
“No, no. But then he could not stop thinking about it. He became aimless. The very same day he tripped on a rock and tumbled down the side of a hill into the Mithi River flooded by the monsoons. He couldn’t swim and drowned. It is not the psychic. It is your mind, raja.”
“I think I’ll be fine. You can’t really trip into the Hudson.”
“Do not go swimming anywhere.”
“Where am I going to swim?”
“I am just saying. Do not go to a pool.”
“Okay dad,” hanging up.
Navya appeared with a burrito in hand, wrapped in aluminum foil. They walked home. It snowed.
It rained. The sun shone and the seasons changed. A year passed and Rohan walked back to the psychic on the corner of East 6th Street, but Layla was gone. The storefront had been turned into another pizza shop. He called his dad, recounting the story of the psychic. Again, his dad told him about his great-great-grandfather and how he had drowned, warning him to stay away from pools, rivers, lakes, streams, the ocean. His dad even cautioned him about New York City puddles. But Rohan knew he could not avoid the ocean forever. Someday, he would have to go for a swim. Someday, he would feed the trees, but today a dollar slice of pizza on his walk home would have to do.
S.S. Mandani is a writer, runner, and coffee person from New York City. His work is featured or forthcoming in New World Writing, X-R-A-Y, No Contact, and others. Equal parts Murakami and Calvino, his novel in progress explores Sufi mysticism to tell the story of how a climate world war brings together a dysfunctional family of jinns spanning a hundred years. It envisions a murky, yet hopeful future. He radios @SuhailMandani.