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.


 

D1843C95-9D86-452F-9251-F96E402ED856

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.

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

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.

Commute by Andrea Rinard

At the stoplight, I think about turning left instead of right and going who-knows-where but definitely not to my office. Then it turns green, and I move along my path just like every weekday morning. Once I merge onto the highway, the idea of turning the steering wheel ever so slightly and letting the car wander into the other lane occurs to me again. I don’t want to die; maybe just a couple of broken bones and a black eye or something. A coma would be nice as long as there are no brain injuries. I side-eye the car next to me and it’s a woman with a toddler in the back seat, and she’s smiling and the little boy is smiling and I’m not a monster so I keep going.

Last night Dan said, “Let’s go out!” as if getting all the stuff in the diaper bag and making sure there’s something uploaded on the iPad and getting two kids in the car before we’re starving and grouchy is so easy. I told him I wasn’t hungry and waved at them all from the doorway. “I’m going to get the house cleaned up,” I’d said, and Dan smiled too big and said too quickly that the house could definitely use a good cleaning, so not long after they left, I was standing in the backyard with two hamsters in my hands. “Be free,” I whispered before setting them down gently on the side of the fence that the realtor called a conservation area but we know is really a wet patch of wildness. I walked back to the house, not thinking about owls and snakes, planning on blaming the disappearance on my daughter who cried and cried and cried when I told her gently, “You must have left the cage open.”

My exit is coming up, and I put on my blinker, but my gaze lifts to the sign above the endless line of red eyes staring back at me. I could head south and keep going. By four o’clock I could be in Key West where no one would care if I never wore a bra again. But I keep going the way I always go. My sensible car is like that ride at Disney World, the one with the cars that go round and round on the track to nowhere while kids grip their little steering wheels as if they truly believe they could drive right to the castle if they wanted to.

I ride down the ramp to the gridlock of downtown toward the parking garage, hoping that my spot on the third floor next to the breezeway isn’t taken again today. My life narrows to a pinpoint in front of me, and I squeeze myself into it for one more day, wishing there was someone to put me on the other side of my fence.


AR_head

Andrea Rinard is a Florida native, long-time high school English teacher, and emerging writer. She enjoys the luxury of being in the graduate certificate program in creative writing at the University of South Florida and is also an alumnus of the Yale Writer’s Workshop. Her work can be found in The Jellyfish Review, Prometheus Dreaming, Crack the Spine, and Spelk. You can read more of Andrea’s work at writerinard.com and follow her on Twitter @aprinard.

I Wouldn’t Give Up by Kyra Kondis

The new girl at school is the missing girl, the one from the back of the milk cartons we get with lunch. My friends don’t believe me but I’m sure of it. How do you know? they ask. How can that be true? I show them the milk carton and they say, Don’t be stupid, Ann. That looks nothing like her.

The girl is quiet. Her arms and legs and body are thin like she’s been running a lot, and I wonder if she left on purpose or if someone took her. Maybe if they took her, she isn’t allowed to tell anyone. I imagine her family on the opposite coast, lighting candles every night and crying and waiting for her to come back. She thinks about them and is too sad to speak. I wish I could say to her, hey, I know what’s going on. You can talk to me.

The girl has soft brown hair and brown eyes. The photo on the milk carton is in black and white, but if it were in color, I’m sure it would capture that softness and brownness, maybe not perfectly, but as well as it could. I wonder how come our principal hasn’t recognized her, why he hasn’t called the police. I wonder if it’s a negotiation thing, like he has to pretend not to realize so he can make a deal with the captor. I wonder who else is in on it.

The girl is surprisingly good at kickball, and I think this is self-defense, like she’s preparing to bust herself out. When it’s my turn to be pitcher in gym class, I always give her curveballs, so she can get better at being ready for anything. If she misses or hits it out of bounds, she stamps her foot in frustration, and I smile my most encouraging smile, so she knows that I get it. I understand.

The girl is never picked up in a car. She always takes the bus, or if the weather’s good, she walks, stopping to buy Hot Cheetos from the corner store that the cooler sixth graders say they shoplift from. I wonder if it hurts, that fleeting bit of freedom before she goes home, if it can even be called home. I walk behind her for a little while, to make sure she doesn’t go missing again, even though I live in the other direction. If she ever noticed me, I’d have to pretend not to see her, because saying nothing is better than saying something dumb, especially to a girl who’s missing.

And then, she isn’t on the milk cartons anymore. Instead, it’s a little boy with an overgrown bowl cut, a rat tail slung over his shoulder. It’s sad, how people gave up like that—the police, the milk carton makers, the FBI.

There, my friends say, you can stop obsessing now, it was obviously someone else. I nod and blush and eat my cafeteria pizza, but look for her out of the corner of my eye. I wouldn’t give up on you, I think, as if we’re telepathically linked.


KKondis

Kyra Kondis is an MFA candidate in fiction at George Mason University. She is also the proud owner of three (3) small cacti and is the Assistant Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak Journal. Some of her work can be found in Matchbook, Pithead Chapel, and Wigleaf, and at her website, kyrakondis.com.